Thursday, February 26, 2009


I've been thinking alot about originality - not just of the "voice" or the "style" of a writer, but of the subject matter. I'm seeing, it seems a tendency for literature to be 3rd or 4th generation. We kind of expect films to be made from books, whether good or bad, but when the books themselves aren't the original idea, but a fictionalising of something else, something that already exists, I'm wondering whether the writer has become a mere middleman (or woman) in our cultural supply chain.

What am I talking about? Well, if "Slumdog Millionaire" takes a novel as its source material, "Q&A", all well good, but "Q&A", of course, takes a TV quiz show, "Who wants to be a millionaire?" as ITS source material. Now, I guess that show is itself not a first-generation format. But its not the only one. Look at these other cultural supply chains... Charlie Brooker's "Dead Set", a recent C4 TV success had two archetypes, Big Brother and Romero's Zombie movies. "Big Brother" of course, takes its name if not its concept from "1984." Orwell's novel, a satire, I know, has, I believe the virtue of originality, one of the reasons it has remained so current, so useful. But Orwell created Room 101 (another TV show)and Big Brother, created and named them. I wonder what happens to a world where all our cultural artefacts are made up of existing ones. Its long been a problem in the art world, even when obviously ironic, like Jeff Koons "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" or Fiona Banner's "Hunt for Red October", and film takes its inspirations wherever it can find them, whether childrens toy ("Transformers") comic book ("The Dark Knight") or fairground ride ("Pirates of the Caribbean.")

Any round up of contemporary literature would find room for a few comic books, if only because in the work of Alan Moore and others, there's a startling originality, even if like all the best storytellers they nod in the direction of other works. What's more worrying is that between the fictionalisations of real life and history that still dominate the fiction lists, and easy-to-sell versions of contemporary life, literature, not pop, has begun to eat itself.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why the Old Ones are the Best Ones

I am a great fan of Salt Publishing's lovely slim hardbacks, so I'm very tempted by their new range of pocket classics, starting with slim little collections from Emily Bronte, Christina Rossetti and John Keats, three of my favourite poets. Although you can easily get a cheap selected or collected, a nice edition is, well...nice. Far better in many ways than those "thrift" editions that sit uncomfortably on my poetry shelves. There's also something to be said for a wise guide through a poet's work; Faber did a similar thing a few years back with memorably results, particularly when extracting from a difficult poet like Pound, or a prolific one like Auden. I get lost in my authoritative Whitman, overwhelmed by my complete Dickinson, and despair at ever finding a decent selected Tennyson or Wordsworth. Not that Bronte, Rossetti or Keats were ever the most prolific - but still, there's a lot to be said for a careful filleting of even their work. Chris Hamilton-Emery who chose the selections finds room for La Belle Dame Sans Merci in the Keats selection, as well as On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, so no complaints from this corner on the selection. It will be interesting to see how wide the selection grows. A lovely Donne, or a careful Herbert perhaps, a pointed Shelley or a brilliant Byron.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Manchester Again

I've been both busy and unwell so don't feel I've done much that's creative at all in the last few weeks. I kickstarted the year very positively, but a few little bad things since then, seem to have taken the wind out of my sails a bit, and a couple of creative rejections, nothing out of the ordinary, have made me question myself more than usual about writing, and literature. There's a surfeit of magazines around these days - the online ones such as the Manchester Review and print ones like Succour and new one Bewilderbliss. Both Succour and Bewilderbliss have a theme (respectively "Fantasies" and "The Guilty") whilst the Manchester Review gives no clues to what it wants. I kind of think that the best road is somewhere in the middle. New magazines, of course, work best when they find their theme - I remembered "Metropolitan" for instance for a certain grittiness, laced with a little of the fantastic, but I'm sure this developed over the issues. The best of my recent stories wouldn't count as a fantasy - though it could pass muster as "the guilty" I guess.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Two Skins for the Contemporary Novel

I have just read "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill, and so I guess, having previously read Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" I'm now fully qualified to respond to Zadie Smith's New York Review of Books article that compares and contrasts the two. There is much of interest in Smith's article, though it requires quite a bit of unpicking, and I wonder to what extent it has to do with the two books in hand, or whether either of them really has the necessary "heft" to deserve this close analysis. To my mind, they are not so much two paths for the contemporary novel, but rather, different "skins" for the novelist looking to write about contemporary experience. For in both books, there's a sense of early 21st century ennui brought to an absolute pitch. It may well be that the main literary trope of this first decade will turn out to be this ennui, or, perhaps more correctly, a sense of powerlessness. Our characters - whether O'Neill's Dutch commodity analyst, or McCarthy's recipient of an accident payout, are the accidental rich, that could as easily be reality show winners, or winners of the Richard & Judy/Oprah Winfrey bookclub lotteries in other words. It seems that the main distinctions between the two novels aren't as polarised as Smith would have in mind, other than those of nationality and style. For "Netherland" is very much an American novel, in a style that, puffed full of decorative lived-in prose, is almost unfashionable; whilst "Remainder" has the unfussy style that has dominated English writing for half-a-century. Smith mentions Ballard, and there is the same unblinking, unemotional sentences in McCarthy as you'll find in the great dystopianists work.

I'm wondering if what she's identifying here is a clash of styles rather than substances - and one's reminded of her own aborted take on the flashier end of contemporary American fiction, in the first half of the unloved "The Autograph Man." I'd go as far to say that it is the setting that creates the prose; for, reading the first half of "Netherland", I couldn't understand how this masterful writing had been dropped from the Booker longlist - unless, it was just too American. Perhaps that was the case, for in London, O'Neill's prose turns prosaic, no longer elegiac-romantic. It's like, in "Netherland", he's taken a deep breath on New York, and inhaled all its flavours.

I've written a little about "Remainder" before, and though its been an interesting think-piece, Smith's yoking of the two novels, it does seem a little artificial; both in their different ways are novels that are a little attention-seeking, whilst remaining some way from being revolutionary. What I found interesting about "Netherland" was both its centre of influence - it would be a prime suspect in any "all New York novels are indebted to Gatsby" investigation - and its intent. At its heart, its not about Gatsby - here, the vital but vapid Chuck Ramkissoon, but about Carraway - the less interesting narrator, Dutch oil analyst Hans van den Broek; or rather its about both of them, but comes to life through Ramkissoon's exoticism - even if, at its heart, Ramkissoon is just a foil to play opposite Hans, and boy, Hans is a cold fish. His life decisions are baldly existential - or, worse, complacent. Left alone in the New York that he followed his wife Rachel to, after she decides to go home following 9/11, we're given a marriage from a distance - actually, and in time - that it's very hard to care much about. These two rich, but vacant characters deserve each other. There's a self-absorbtion in Hans that is almost Jamesian; and by the end of the novel, it is James, not Fitzgerald who keeps coming to mind, not just the distance of a Strether in "The Ambassadors", but the struggle to give such a character anything of a passion. Though the Twin Towers is touched on with a ferocious delicacy, the homelessness of our modern knowledge workers - the rich, as well as the poor - comes home strongly throughout the novel. Home counties Rachel, and Dutch Hans, at sea in New York, a telling example of the shock to the system that 9/11 presumably still means to inhabitants of that city. I remember being in Manchester during the 1996 bomb, and how close I'd been to be walking in town that morning - over the next six months I shrank away from a city that was half-closed down anyway, and shortly moved to London.

The problem with a novel that's also about a failing marriage is that you have to care about that marriage to make it work. Neither Rachel or Hans seems to, so it makes it difficult for us to. But these problematic sides to "Netherland" shouldn't obscure its power - which is sometimes more painterly, more abstract, even more existential, than a non-realist novel like "Remainder" or Magnus Mills' work. It's evocation of the strangest of subject matters - the immigrant New York cricket scene is not the choice of a writer playing to the gallery - but an immersion in something the writer deeply cares about. Hans, in his time in New York is no longer a Carraway, but that other most rational of Fitzgerald heroes, Dick Diver from "Tender is the Night". Living in the neverland of the Chelsea Hotel, and with nothing other than his work, cricket becomes a therapy, a chance to live without thinking too much about one's own problems. Like in A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" or McInerney's "The Good Life", (the latter, also set in New York after 9/11), "Netherland" is an attempt to give meaning to a character whose life is too comfortable to actually require it.

I'm struck by echoes of my own work, in that a man falling apart when left alone (by a wife who goes to New York for a week) was the theme of my recent novella, and that my 1999 novel "High Wire", ends, as does "Netherland" with a scene of reconciliation on London's South Bank. That novel's faults were surely also of language, of finding a language that could effect the lyricism that O'Neill pinches more easily from the New York Streets, and planting it in the humdrum of modern life.

More than ever, as I said earlier, I feel that a sense of powerlessness, or ennui, is the decades defining literary characteristic.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Last night at the Social Media Cafe

I gave a small presentation last night at the Manchester Social Media Cafe, and really enjoyed it. My talk was a little more philosophical than others so was always likely to be a minority interest, but I sat with half a dozen interesting people in the "boudoir."

I could put all my notes here, but think its better to articulate the positions I took, without, necessarily having a conclusion or solution.

Position 1.

The internet is essentially a text-based medium and therefore remains beholden to the book.

Position 2.

That given this text-based bias, the internet looked to books for inspiration. If I say an "unreliable but reassuring source of information" am I talking about Wikipedia or The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?

Position 3.

Our 18th century novelist wouldn't find the internet so strange. After all, what is Gulliver's Travels other than a platform game? Isn't Gulliver himself Jonathan Swift's avatar?

Position 4.

Modernism is the dominant literary form of the 20th century and is a form that denies the linearity of the Victorian novelist/poet - and therefore is a model for what writing should be on the internet.

Position 5.

Late 20th century fiction tried new forms because the writers were transgressive and felt that the existing forms were too patriarchal, heterocentric, class-based or empire-worshipping.

Position 6.

Writers need to be adaptive, and counter-intuitive, and not accept the norms of the day. In our use of Google or Youtube we are "peasant agriculturalists entering the cities of the future en masse looking for work/fulfilment/life/future and finding only the mass-factories of the industrialists."

All that in 40 minutes, and here is my reading list... vaguely touched on, but worth repeating, nonetheless.

F1. Fantastic Literature

Arabian Nights - trad.
Gullivers Travels - Jonathan Swift
News from Nowhere - William Morris
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court Mark Twain
Alice Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
Rime of the Ancient Mariner - S. T. Coleridge
Flatland - Edwin A. Abbott
Goblin Market - Christina Rossetti
First Men in the Moon - H. G. Wells
The Time Machine - H. G. Wells

2. SF

Super-Toys Last All Summer Long - Brian Aldiss
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
How’s the nightlife on Cissalda? - Harlan Ellison
Other Days, Other Eyes - Bob Shaw
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick
Minority Report - Philip K. Dick
Neuromancer - William Gibson
Count Zero - William Gibson
The Jerry Cornelius Books - Micheal Moorcock

3. Modernism

An Imagist Anthology - Ezra Pound et al
Tender Buttons - Gertrude Stein
The Making of Americans - Gertrude Stein
Ulysses - James Joyce
6 characters in search of an author - Luigi Pirandello

4. Experimental & Transgressive Writing

Dream Songs - John Berryman
The Tennis Court Oath - John Ashbery
Dream of a Common Language - Adrienne Rich
Memoirs of a Survivor - Doris Lessing
The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter
Locos - Felipe Alfau
Cities of the Red Night Trilogy - William Burroughs
The Penguin Book of the Beats - Kerouac et al
Labyrinths - Jorge Luis Borges
OuLiPo Compendium - Harry Matthews et al
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino
Boy Wonder - James Robert Baker

5. Contemporary Writing

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Specimen Days - Micheal Cunningham
The Age of Wire and String - Ben Marcus
Contraflow on the Superhighway - Richard Price et al
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
Solibo Magnificent - Patrick Chamoiseau
Rings of Saturn - W.G. Sebald
Microserfs - Douglas Coupland
Red Riding Quartet - David Peace
A Crack Up at the Race Riots - Harmony Korine
Whatever - Michel Houellebecq
The Swank Bisexual Bar of Modernity - H.P. Tinker

6. Miscellaneous

The Arcades Project - Walter Benjamin
Pandora’s Handbag - Elizabeth Young
n+1 Symposium: For a Practical Avant Garde- Various
And the Band Played On - Randy Shilts

twitter: @adrianslatcher

Sunday, February 01, 2009

From yahoos to Yahoo - from Ulysses to UGC

"From yahoos to Yahoo - from Ulysses to UGC - how experimental and innovative literature offers lessons and pointers to the social media future" is the title of the session I'm leading on Tuesday night at Manchester's latest Social media cafe. It's a think-piece rather than an essay, a lecture or a presentation - since I'm positing a number of ideas, and seeing whether they have any validity; ideas 2.0 in other words. Where has the web come from? Yes, we know the internet began as a futureproof military comms network, but the web, and the services that have been built upon it, have been developed by technologists, for use by all, but with the inspiration of a range of archetypes. Is the web based more in the visions of science fiction writers and other fabulists than we think? Our rich literary history provides us with plenty of archetypes that have been and could be applied to the information age. Yahoo! took its name from "Gulliver's Travels" and fantastical literatures such as this are surely archetypes for every type of platform game or virtual environment. Even more appropriately, the 20th century saw the linear narrative exploded in every direction - and can the word games of Borges, Joyce, Stein and the OuLiPo offer us a key to developing the new media of the next few years? In turn... in a richly complex non-linear digital world, will literature respond to the social media and networking aspects of the web? And how do writers change in an information age, writing direct to screen in a text box... creating the live and changeable multi-author narrative of a Twitter stream...