Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Self Publishing for the Famous?

Marillion fans are a unique bunch. The 80s progressive band briefly hit the mainstream with the "Misplaced Childhood" album, but after singer Fish left, so did their presence in the mainstream. Yet, year on year, Marillion continued, with a new singer and - I gather - much less of the progressive stylings. The only people looking forward to a new Marillion album are, I'd guess, other Marillion fans and since 2001 they've been getting pre-orders for their albums in, in order to finance their new records.

It's an old story then - ten years old at least - and online sites such as Kickstarter have acted as similar "angel" sites for new ideas. Whereas in the past you may have gone round your friends to find the money to finance a "start up", in this age of "online friends" why not go to the web.

Anyway, the idea has now reached publishing. This week at the Hay Festival, a new startup, "Unbound", was launched with much fanfare. The idea is simple: bringing authors and books together. For £10 for pre-ordering of an e-book to £250 for lunch with the author, there are a range of sponsorship levels - each of which gives you access to the author's workings in progress. A book of short stories by legendary Monty Python member Terry Jones? A new novel from missing-in-action This Life creator Amy Jenkins? These are just two of the initial projects being offered. With some kind of audience, and some kind of presence, these are exactly the sort of people that you would imagine traditional publishing was always giving advances to for their next project - but just as freelancers in the digital industries have decided they'd rather go it alone, these writers have decided to give "Unbound" a go.

"If you’re a novelist, historian, philosopher, economist, biographer, scientist, journalist, comedian, filmmaker, gardener, cook, academic, traveller or have lived an interesting life or done extraordinary things, we’d love to hear from you.Each proposal has the potential to become the book you really want to write, pitched to the people who really matter: your potential readers", says the website.

It will be fascinating to see if this is a success - or where it works and where it doesn't. There have been quite a few publishers recently who have released expensive deluxe editions knowing there will be a "subscriber" market for these - but here we have the equivalent of the famous person's self publishing venture. It will be interesting to see how it compares with the music industry's similar ventures. Author loyalty is there for big names, but does it extend beyond genre? Did Grisham fans buy his non-crime novel with gritted teeth? Did he accept a lesser royalty? Did Mark Haddon's "Curious Incident" audience mop up his following book, a book of poetry?

One wonders about the levels of incentive, of course, given that the modern writer is expected to sign everything, be on tour constantly, and probably go out for dinner with his or her fans (its the only way they'll get a square meal on those royalties!) It would be interesting to see some more interesting incentives - perhaps, Terry Jones' personalised ringtones or Tibor Fischer sharing his unprintable reminiscences about Martin Amis for instance. One boggles a bit about the math - Tibor Fischer's already written stories require 1,477 subscribers (which at £10 a pop, gives a not unreasonable budget of £14,770)- but one appreciates the idea.

I guess I'll keep an eye on Unbound, and hope that it signs up, say, Jeff Noon to write a new novel or for the Cocteau Twin's Liz Fraser to write an autobiography.


Not unrelatedly, I'm giving a workshop this week to a writing course, and quickly put together a document of "social media" resources, hints and tips for writers. As it might have wider use I've put it online here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Last Poet

To call Gil Scott-Heron a poet, just as to call him anything else, was to overvalue one part of this unique artist above and beyond another. Gil, who passed away overnight, aged 62, is unequivocally deserving of the term "legend" but I'd also say he's one of those few unique artists who is "sui generis", and his passing means we will not see his like again.

His first writings and music were published and released at the start of the 1970s - he was a young man, 21 as the decade opened - and in the fervent of that decade, the rare talents he showed, as a writer (he was a novelist before he was a musician), singer, poet and performer were eminently necessary. Scott-Heron's place in American culture is hard to quantify from this distance, but what is fascinating is how his stock has always been so high in Britain. I must have first encountered him via his funk classic "The Bottle", but also, in the carcrash of the Reagan administration political rap-funk tracks like "Re-Ron" got played on UK radio. His music was hard to find, yet when he came over to play a tour with his jazz-inflected Amnesia Express, around 1990, myself and a friend headed to Leeds Irish centre to hear a fantastic two and a half hour set, with lengthy improvisations of "Angel Dust", "Winter in July" and others. I saw him several other times, in small venues in Manchester, and each time the set was staggering. In those days, where smoking was allowed indoors, what people was smoking was partly herbal, and you saw the great man through a cloud of it; his languid, but always wonderfully courteous onstage persona, providing a contrast with the tight band and fantastic wordplay.

His return to the recording studio and critical acclaim with last year's "I'm New Here", was again prompted by his British fan-base, and he was always welcomed ecstatically in the UK, particularly those times when he'd had issues with immigration in getting into the country. Its hard to offer a critical summary of an artist who, at times, seemed to be the only radical voice in American music, but whose message was equally inclusive and universal, and whose songs will only grow in stature in the years to come. Everything's he's ever recorded is worth seeking out, even if his back catalogue has only been patchily available over the years; pick up the individual albums if you can, as the compilations available have often downplayed his more political work.

The sign of an artist who has gone beyond his fanbase is when their words get spoken out of context. "The revolution will not be televised," he sang early on, and the phrase has been used and misused ever since, as this most remarkable of writers found the words to describe our contemporary condition even as we looked on it with ignorance and indifference. He will be missed.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Every Day is Literary

Literature fans are spoilt for choice this week. You could have gone and seen Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange on Monday; or last night gone to an Ambit magazine launch at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. Tonight, there's Bad Language at the Castle, and tomorrow a choice - or a double header - August Kleinzhaler at Burgess, and as part fo the Chorlton Arts Festival, a Flash fiction event at Dulcimer. I missed the exciting sounding Station Stories last weekend, as had other things on, but heard Nick Royle's story, "The Royal Fusilier", a pitch perfect piece of gritty northern sentiment, at the Ambit launch.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Noble Roth

News that Philip Roth had been awarded the Man Booker International Prize should have been the moment when the prize came of age. After all, the Nobel Prize has been continually and consistently reluctant in awarding its laureate to Americans. Rather than being a nice counterpoint to the Americanisation of the world, this has sometimes seems absurd: particularly when it comes to rewarding the novel, rather than other literary forms. The American novel is one of the wonders of the 20th century, and Philip Roth has been one of its finest proponents. Its rare to find, on reading his 90s masterpiece "American Pastoral", that you are reading an instant classic, a defining piece of work at the moment it comes out and, moreover, recognising it as such.

This new Booker prize, by rewarding Roth, was, one would have thought, being as uncontroversial as one could be - that was until one of the judges, Carmen Callil, disassociated herself from the award. That would have been fine - though surely an achievement award like this could have found one of its 13 writers that all the judges could agree on - but she went on to say "I don't rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn't have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there."

Callil's opinions are her own, and all judging panels are going to have differences of them, but as Jonathan Jones pointed out, you can dislike his work, but you can't discount it, and by doing so, Callil comes across as silly. Stuart Evers has written an excellent blogpost on why Roth matters.

Defending herself, Callil writes that "to give this prize to yet another North American writer, when we had such great writers to choose from (the previous winner was the truly great Canadian writer, Alice Munro) suggests a limited vision, to say the least." Its an absurd argument, made the more so by her next line "this is not a matter of nationality." The rest of her argument, about the judging process, is perfectly valid, but her issue has been with Roth as a writer, and that is where any damage is done.

The domestic Booker has loved its spats, but the international award was surely trying to be Golden Globe to the Nobel's Oscars. Roth's chances of winning that are probably neither impaired or improved by this result, so mysterious are the workings of the Nobel committee - but as quixotic as the Nobel's choice has occasionally been, the Omerta of the judging committee might be something that Man Booker could learn from.

My brief thoughts on Roth and other links are here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Shadow Line

Its been a while since there's been a real "event television" outside of the live shenanigans of the X-Factor and the like. But having caught the first two episodes of "The Shadow Line" I'm pleased that I've come to a new series as it goes out for the first time, rather than later down the line. Our much-loved HBO imports come second-hand (at least for the first series), so its great to see the BBC not only commissioning a serious multipart drama, but promoting it with some fanfare.

Christopher Ecclestone and Stephen Rea would be hooks to watch any new show of course, but "The Shadow Line" does seem a genuinely risky proposition. Its clearly not a show developed by committee, but with a vision from the writer (Hugo Blick) that has, in the first 2 episodes found its way onto the screen. Like "Internal Affairs" or "The Wire" the simple expedient of putting us in both camps - the good guys and the bad guys - works well; we are more than just voyeurs, we have a multi-dimensional view of a story that two episodes in is muddy as hell. More than that, the bad guy (Ecclestone) cares for his wife who has early onset Alzheimers, whilst the police are leaking information for money and the lead cop, (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor)has his own series-full of secrets.

The wonderfully haunting theme tune, Pause by Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo, has been following me round from the last episode but I'm also impressed by some of the staging in the show. The brilliant scenes at the end of episode 2 which saw bad guys, good guys, and a 3rd person who could be either, all trying to get hold of a witness to the murder, was psychologically thrilling. Whether or not the show is one great big shaggy dog chase, I hardly care at the moment - and look forward to the next five weeks as the story unravels in unexpected ways.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Everything Future

We live in an age of competing realities. Our individual "villages" are colliding, in a way that SF has long prefigured. The dual cities in China Mieville's noir future detective "The City and The City", the video game un/reality of David Cronenberg's ExistenZ, even the melting walls of psychological space and memory in Lessing's "Memoirs of a Survivor" are in some way our recognisable realities.

At this year's FutureEverything conference, a yearly collision of art, digital ideas and music, the 2-days of debate is a shifting dialogue. Strangely enough, the conference eschews the unconference format for more formal keynotes, panels, and presentations. Yet one of the defining mediums of our current age is the keynote talk, exemplified by the online archive of TED videos. There's something nicely ironic about FutureEverything's format, where people who spend most of their lives online, go offline for a couple of days, share coffee and pastries, and put up their powerpoint presentations just like the regional sales rep conference that you see satirised in TV comedy. Knowledge transfer - one person speaking to a roomful of people - is a hard thing to reinvent.

The debate then, this year, was one that didn't start, lead or end in a linear place. Across three rooms, there were different cross-currents, as ever. Taking place in a central Manchester venue, this year's conference brought the art onsite, was near Piccadilly station, and made it alot easier for serendipitous jump cuts through the city. Not that many people will have had the stamina for four days AND four nights. By Friday afternoon's coda, given by an ebullient caffeine fuelled Bill Thompson, the debate was beginning to take form; and Thompson captured it, then, with his own inimitable magic made it fly. Thompson theorised that we are no longer offline beings, but the online is part of us. That switching it down is a deliberate act of mental sabotage, as our brain synapses are being made to rewire to include these new external limbs. Like Neo in the Matrix we are part of the machine. For Thompson, this is not just a liberation, but a victory in a war. The geeks (or, at the very least, the information workers) have won the war, and the losers, though they should not be ignored or treated unfairly, are as disenfranchised as the Anglo-Saxon farmers who were stripped of their lands by the Norman Earls.

We, "the digital", are no longer the future; this is no longer a bet that could have gone either way (like Betamax v. VHS), but are inheritors of the present. What we do with it is the wider subtext. There's a moment for pleasure, of course, as all victories taste better than defeat, but also a sense that now is the time to accept this reality, and make sure it works better for us.

The day before, a provocative presentation from James Bridle, spoke of our new urban space, that is being designed, not for people, but for machines. Machine-logic, whether in the placing of goods in Amazon's mega warehouses, or the windowless bunkers of server farms, is increasingly the design principle, just as the 19th century pithead was less designed for its human workers, than the buckets and trollies that brought the coal to the surface.

Where are we in all this? Thompson is older than me, from an analogue generation that dreamed of (and dreamed up) this digital future. For those who are younger, it is no longer negotiable, or even a question - social networks, always-on devices, dual-screen activities (watching, tweeting) are embedded in them every bit as much as those cyber-pioneers who are experimenting with chips under their skin. The 20th century organisational structures that Bill, and many of us, work in (or work with) are potentially in collapse, yet as the furore over public sector cuts has made clear, the human cost of this (for workers, for users of services) is what makes us angry. The robots that control our lives are currently primarily data modellers - the decision making software behind online loan applications; the sensors that order new stock for the shelves as soon as they detect an absence as our supply chains become ever more "just in time" (and, it has to be said, ever more vulnerable to disruptions such as the winter snowfall).

In his Lancelot Andrewes' quoting poem "Journey of the Magi", the Anglican-convert, T.S. Eliot, characterises the Magi as exhausted followers of an debunked religion, "no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,with an alien people clutching their gods", able to see the future world that they had long hoped for, but too old to be part of it; the ties of family and homeland too great. It is interesting that Eliot used the word "alien", for its otherworldly meaning (not the one he'd have meant) seems entirely appropriate.

Perhaps those of us who are able to turn a trick through our engagement with this "digital culture" can leap ahead by bridging the analogue and digital cultures; though surely the logic of this is that the bridge won't be there for long? Thompson told us that we were now all playing "the game" which only ends when we've forgotten that we're playing the game. In other words, how can we remember or recall what we've forgotten? The statue of Ozymandias in the desert; the great pyramids of Egypt with their secrets as immortally entombed as their pharoahs; the language of Jesus himself, spoken today in only a few small Syrian hill villages; even the key to "reading" redudant computer languages and technologies. The speed at which technology is changing may only be matched by the speed at which we are forgetting.

At a conference like this their are few naysayers, few Andrew Keen's wondering whether this makes us more stupid, few fearmongers seeing technology as the enemy. Instead we are asked to embrace the "robot", make him our friend. A nice coincidence that this week's Dr. Who should see one of our favourite cultural machines, the TARDIS, "humanised" in the Neil Gaiman-penned episode "The Doctor's Wife".

All revolutions have consequences though: I began to see again not the "virtual" but the "physical" representation of the internet. An earlier speaker had played the scene from the IT Crowd where the geeks hand a small box to their boss, and tell her "This, Jen, is the internet." We want the virtual to have a physical presence, just as much as those deep in faith built their churches, prized their relics, and made sure that Knock in Ireland has its own airport. The physicality of all those virtual financial transmissions is now played out in the worthless housing estates in Ireland and Spain; the "just in time" network that feeds the Western world is mapped through millions of containers, each one individually tagged, its contents unknown and unknowable until someone opens it up, like the "can of dead girls" that opens Series Two of the Wire.

In our digital victory, we have to take care not to be like the bourgeoisie who handed over the revolution of 1789 to the very bloody terror of the Robespierrists... I begin to wonder if as we speed forward, our very frailties, and our loss of understandings, and our beginning to forget the analogue world to the extent that our "bridges" to it fall away, leaves us vulnerable to the machinations of the technocracy that can (and does) make money from this new world.

The "digiterati"'s love of the new needs to be used for revelation, rather than revolution, and it was reassuring that the conference ended with the award of the FutureEverything prize, not to a technology, but to an "idea", the "Macon money" bonds that created a new "social currency" that could only be redeemed through collaboration, networking and human interaction.

In the whirlpools of ideas that FutureEverything brings to Manchester every year it is these still lilies in the centre or at the side of the pool that provide sufficient contrast; articulates a human side to what can often seem to be disconnected and specialised concerns. It was there in the Macon Money prize, it was there in Bill Thompson's "victory" speech, it was there in Kimchi and chips LITTree artwork, and there in bearhugs that US hardcore band Fucked Up gave their audience at Islngton Mill on Thursday night.

Find out more:
FutureEverything Festival Portal (social media links etc.)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Ebony Tower by John Fowles

"Is this your first book?" Tom Maschler recalls asking John Fowles on reading "The Collector." "Good God, no," Fowles replied, telling Maschler he'd written 9 full novels before his "debut", two of which, Maschler disovered later, were "totally rewritten as The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman." I'd been coming back to Fowles for a while, following a couple of conversations with writer friends, and reading this anecdote in Maschler's gossipy autobiography, "Publisher". Fowles has always struck me as a polarising writer, but what is it that polarises? One of the few English writers of the sixties and seventies whose work stands up to renewed scrutiny, the polarisation appears to be betwen those earlier books, and those later less successful ones. Though there might be things to admire in his odd piece of Victoriana "A Maggot" or the misanthropic "Daniel Martin", it is those earlier books on which his reputation depends.

The novella "The Ebony Tower", thankfully belongs in the earlier camp. A young abstract painter, who also writes art criticism, has an opportunity to visit an older master in isolation in the Brittany countryside. Arriving, fortuitously, without his wife; David Williams finds that Henry Breasley is not quite alone - but attended to by 2 young nymphs, "the mouse" and "the freak," frequently found naked, and with an ambiguous relationship with Breasley, his art and his bed. The scene is set for an elegantly staged psychodrama, but the subtext is "what is art?" Breasley never forgets a painting, but is in articulate, and rude and boorish when drunk. Williams is exactly the sort of painter that Breasley has no time for. Yet Breasley represents for Williams the losing side of an argument - however great his work might have been.

In this strange menage, Williams is stripped of his pretensions, the young girl - "the mouse" - who had brought him here, (though he hardly knew that at first), leaving him with an indelible impression. Here, it seems, is life, whereas his work has abstracted itself from it. Is this the ebony tower? The contrast with the "ivory tower" ruminations of critics and intellectuals is clear. Breasley, in life, is inarticulate, but watching him paint - and Fowles provides brilliant depictions of the artist at work - all pretense falls away. Its as if the old man has escaped from the irrelevance of being "judged" according to the contemporary mores of the day and has become part of his own history - and of the history of art itself. Williams, in contrast, is as uncomplex as his everyman name, with limited talent, not just in his work, but in his life. The story is both short enough to maintain the intensity of this brief encounter, and long enough to be a psychological character study. The older Breton couple who are Breasley's housekeeper and gardener hover in the background; whilst Williams absent wife, and his life back in London becomes increasingly dreamlike as the story progresses.

Here in a small nugget of his fiction, are all Fowles strengths - his layering of meaning; his beautifully descriptive prose; his characterisation of larger-than-life, but highly believable gargoyles; and his psychological probing. Published in 1974, it was made into a film in the 80s with Lawrence Olivier, inevitably, in the Breasley role.