Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction

November 3, 2009 by · 7 Comments 

It isn’t the readers’ or the writers’ fault that publishing has fallen on its own sword and allowed book shop chains and short-term thinking to eat its heart away. It isn’t our fault that the Net Book Agreement disappeared (although we should have fought harder to keep it). But we are the ones who’ll lose out, who don’t get the variety of books, who don’t find the unlooked-for pleasures or get to share the new dreams. The appetite for them is still out there. With each generation of poor schooling it’ll be diminished – we’ll be less and less able to understand what we don’t have – but, for now, the part of my job which is consistently inspiring involves seeing and feeling the energy of readers, meeting that immense enthusiasm for wonders – in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations – Ilkley, Ely, Toronto … it doesn’t seem to matter where. If that energy and intelligence steps up to the next level of organisation, there could be hope for us. And I need never go on another TV or radio show and find that, however the discussion was described beforehand, what we’re really meant to talk about is how poetry is dead, or the novel is rubbish, or the short story is irrelevant. Fuck that, quite frankly. Really. Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction. It truly leaves me more than annoyed.

– A.L. Kennedy in the Guardian

Comments

7 Responses to “Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction”
  1. Andrew S says:

    The answer to the whole dilemma is in that post: “It is possible that published writers will no longer ever leave whatever other employment they use to subsidise themselves.”

    So you keep your day job and you just do the best work you can, and it finds whatever audience it’s going to find. Seems fair to me.

  2. Well that does make quite the title for a post!

  3. Finn Harvor says:

    ” But we are the ones who’ll lose out, who don’t get the variety of books, who don’t find the unlooked-for pleasures or get to share the new dreams. The appetite for them is still out there. With each generation of poor schooling it’ll be diminished – we’ll be less and less able to understand what we don’t have – but, for now, the part of my job which is consistently inspiring involves seeing and feeling the energy of readers, meeting that immense enthusiasm for wonders – in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations – Ilkley, Ely, Toronto … it doesn’t seem to matter where. If that energy and intelligence steps up to the next level of organisation, there could be hope for us. ”

    This isn’t merely good, it’s so good it should either be carved in stone somewhere or (perhaps better yet) stenciled on durable plastic plaques and distributed to the libraries, coffee shops, agency offices, publishing hq’s, and book stores of the world.

    And yet … and yet … will it have an effect? The key sentence in it, it seems to me, is the last one. Will that organization materialize? The answer in the English-speaking world is maybe. The answer in English Canada is a depressing, muffled no.

    What’s to be done? What would effective organization of the New, the Vital, look like? How could it be brought into being in a perpetually punch-drunk culture like English Canada’s?

    Steven, I asked you a while back to name novels that were stand-outs in the last decade or so, and you were kind enough to respond with a list of examples. But your response was conspicuously wavering (you ended each example with a question mark (FWIW, I probably would have done the same)). In other words, there haven’t been any towering novels that have been published recently.

    As they say on the beaches where the surf runs high, this is gnarly, dude. Fuck that with vigour, indeed. And if fuck’d vigour is the problem, the solution lies to a significant degree in unfuck’n it.

    Open those doors. Read those slushy manuscripts. Look out for new work, and don’t just reject it out of hand because it doesn’t fit the template of what might get shortlisted for a Booker or Giller. I realize there is a titanic core of poo at the very centre of the slushpile, and I want to emphasize how much sympathy I have for the first readers who have to contend with it. But as I’ve said before and will keep saying over and over again till the broken record of my soul finally meets its master’s voice, good work is being rejected.

    Fix the selection system and make it democratic. Insist major houses re-open their doors to unsolicited work. Insist agents stop performing triage on submissions by rejecting mss. at the cover letter stage. Pay attention to the creative (not just critical) work happening online.

    Do all this and, maybe, just maybe, as Kennedy suggests, there will be hope.

    [Oh, and a p.s. to Steven: also, accept my challenge.]

  4. Andrew S says:

    “Steven, I asked you a while back to name novels that were stand-outs in the last decade or so, and … you ended each example with a question mark….”

    That’s just because you asked him to say something nice about a book, and he’s just not used to it. His brash self-confidence goes all gooey.

  5. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Fair comment, Andrew. I’m still getting used to the idea of dispensing praise. It sits uneasy on my shoulders.

    But, Finn, what I was actually talking about were novels that IMMEDIATELY announce themselves as towering achievements (i.e. before time and nasty, bitter critics have had a chance to do their corrosive work). It seems to me that anyone approaching Gravity’s Rainbow, Midnight’s Children, or American Pastoral when they were first published would recognize them as towering achievements. Although I don’t know for sure, since I wasn’t cognizant of such things when the first two of those novels were published, so I can’t testify to what the critical reaction was. I seem to remember people saying good things about the Roth, and it did go on to win a minor little award, so I suspect people thought it worthy at the time, although I didn’t go back to verify what the precise critical reaction was. Thus the question marks.

    Moreover, I’m not sure the solution is simply to open the floodgates to material that comes in “over the transom.” I’ve read slush pile manuscripts before, and can testify to the fact that on a qualitative level, most of them resemble the kind of stuff that gets vomited up on Internet fan-fiction sites. True, Rawi Hage’s manuscript for De Niro’s Game was pulled out of the slush pile, but that doesn’t happen often. And anyway, most fiction published by small houses is unagented and unsolicited already. (I know you were referring to the majors, but indulge me.) The small presses that still have the ability to take a chance on an unknown author are where the vast majority of interesting new voices emerge. (It’s where Ondaatje and Atwood were first published, back in the early days of Anansi.) The smaller houses have always been the point people when it comes to scouting new talent and taking risks on untried authors and unfamiliar material.

    Regardless, one of the biggest problems with exposing new, unique talent is that these days so much responsibility for publishing decisions (at least at the major houses) rests not with the editorial department but with marketing. Marketers get in on discussions early, and if there’s not enough confidence that they can sell a particular title, chances are it won’t get published. And what marketers are confident they can sell, by and large, is what has sold in the past. Why do you think we see so many multigenerational, lyrical works of historical fiction in this country? It’s because marketers know how to sell those in their sleep. They’re the safe bets. And publishing is nothing if not risk averse.

  6. Andrew S says:

    1. Towering achievements are pretty rare anywhere, so it’s fair to suggest that we haven’t seen one in Canada since … I’d like to credit Alice Munro with something, but what, specifically?

    2. We tend to forget that all kinds of good stuff is done in Canada by people who are for one reason or another off the Giller radar. I laughed all through Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy, for example, disqualified from Giller contention by failing to be Serious and Weighty. And My White Planet, for another. “Fables of the Deconstruction?”

    3. Canadian agents can’t afford to take on unknowns for grim economic reasons — the market here is simply too small to take a dive on someone new, who will earn back approximately the price of two cases of beer. You can’t blame them, even though they are evil.

    4. The combination of large houses, agents, and MFA instructors referring star students to said agents is a looming evil in Canadian publishing. It’s not inconceivable that large houses could become closed to anyone not rising through the MFA pyramid scheme, Rawi Hage notwithstanding.

    5. The Giller Prize is evil incarnate. The way in which the Globe & Mail has promoted the Giller as the be-all prize for Canada (at the expense of the GG) is disgraceful given the conflict of interest that arises from CTV having broadcast rights to the thing. It has become a behemoth prize that promotes one novel at the expense of all others. The monster must be hunted and killed, or at least shamed into behaving itself. I hope the fact that even Leah McLaren now remarks on this will produce that effect.

    6. Small presses are our salvation. Our hope lies in the proles.

    7. I have no idea why I am numbering my paragraphs, but once started, it is difficult to stop.

    8. That is all.

  7. Finn Harvor says:

    1.
    ” The smaller houses have always been the point people when it comes to scouting new talent and taking risks on untried authors and unfamiliar material.”

    This has become such a staple of Canadian literary discourse in its institutional/analytic mode that it begs the question of why the smaller houses receive so little attention from major media outlets. The Globe, Star, CBC and TVO all gave lion’s share attention to work coming from the majors when I was still living in Canada, and I doubt the situation has much changed. This had ramifications for the smaller houses, which also “branded” themselves. Ergo, the smaller houses, too, were forced into a dynamic of narrowing their choices. Ergo, a Canadian contemporary canon which excluded much of certain forms of work — very little metafiction, for example, less sexually charged fiction (tho’ that’s changing), less “ugliness”, less philosophizing about desire, less work with a political aspect, less work tackling the very significant geopolitical events that defined the 20th Century (and are now defining the 21st).

    2.
    Other cultural industries allow a slush pile: the music industry scouts (actively) new talent; expresses interest in “self-published” bands that record their own music, etc. The movie industry allows indie (i.e., self-published) films to enter festivals, where, if they do well, they are offered distribution.

    3.
    The counterargument from the pub industry is that the novel, being a “long-form” narrative, demands a triage-like process. This begs the question of why short stories — single, solitary short stories sans a collection — aren’t taken more seriously within the context of North American letters. They used to be. They are outside North America.

    4.
    The role of MFA programs needs to be more closely examined. Some of them are appallingly run — so much so that they represent forms of corruption. I have witnessed this in an up-close-and-personal sort of way.

    5.
    Steven, your argument, as usual, is intelligent and very well expressed. But in the midst of so much subtlety of thought and elegance of expression, it hasn’t escaped my notice you’re still not responding to my challenge.

    6.
    Andrew, numbering paragraphs is not only okay … it’s cool.