My wife keeps rats. Well, I absolutely adore them but they live in her study to keep them out of harm’s way of our 5 cats. When we were first looking around and doing our research, we went into a pet shop and there was a label on the massive rat cage saying “we like to live in groups.” I was sitting babysitting our two boys this morning whilst my wife cleaned out their cage, and thinking how this site is feeling more and more like a homely community, and how I have a rather long (as I’ll explain but not at length, don’t worry) history of writers’ groups , and how the very most exciting work seems to come from movements not individuals locked away in their turrets – Bloomsbury, The Chelsea Hotel, Arts and Crafts, 90s Seattle, Fin de Siècle Paris, Dada, YBA, the list goes on. So I thought I’d ask, with some personal anecdotes – is it good for writers to live in groups?
As I said last time, I live to perform live. And nothing makes such a good show as a group (just don’t mention Priestley, OK – think more the vampire theatres of Anne Rice’s books). This year I’ve put together a show called The New Libertines, with twelve or fifteen writers and two or three bands. We’re touring festivals, fringes, bookstores and cafes all year. And it’s amazing fun. We all do different things, but we are pulled together by an ethos, a very simple manifesto – that art is about portraying life in its glorious, complex fullness.
It, and this wonderful place, is the last in a long line of writing “groups” I’ve been part of. They’ve encompassed online critique sites Youwriteon and Authonomy, the collective Year Zero Writers, and the literary project eight cuts gallery.
Last week I wrote on my blog about the personal issues I've faced working with others. This is more about the general issues.
It started, as it does for lots pf writers, with online critique groups. It was 2006 when I first decided I wanted to write for other people. By the end of 2007 I had finished – and discarded – one book, and had something I thought was ready to take to The Next Stage. Which, after seeing a note in the back of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, turned out to be the critique site Youwriteon. 9 months later I joined Harper Collins’ Authonomy. Both sites have attracted both love and criticism in equal measure. All I can really say is that my initial hopes of getting a publisher were wildly unrealistic. That’s not what these sites do. But within afew months I was no longer interested in attracting a publisher. I wanted to set out on my own with like-minded individuals and do “Something.” And both sites were absolutely perfect for meeting people like me.
“Something” turned out to be Year Zero Writers. Which started with a long, angry myspace manifesto on January 1st 2009 and soon morphed into a Facebook secret strategy group, and then into a collective of writers putting out articles and short fiction and poetry on a daily basis. We were all sick of the lack of mainstream space for our literary fiction, had no interest in changing the focus of what we wrote, and through three anthologies, a live tour, some A-bomb level fights, write-ups in the likes of Writers’ Digest and style bible Nylon, suicide attempts, and more than two years pushed each other to levels we would never have reached on our own. At times our themes seemed to converge and the conversations between the pieces we wrote got so intense it felt like we were in some heady 21st Century virtual Chelsea Hotel. And what started as 22 writers from 8 countries who’d never met anywhere but online has spawned some of the closest “real life” friendships I have.
Collectives have their weak points as well, and are most definitely not for everyone. And I’d most certainly not recommend anyone *only* be part of a single collective. Aside from the inevitable personal squabbles in a group that size and that close (the closer you are the more and more bitter the fights, because you really care), the need for consensus is very alien to most if not all writers and can feel incredibly stifling (that was the reason I started eight cuts gallery, a place where I was in creative control), and once you hit a certain size and age it’s inevitable you’ll have differences over the existential biggie – Where You’re Going. That’s what happened with Year Zero. We’d reached a stage where we were getting 300-500 hits a day on the site, some of the bigger literary ezines were talking about and writing to us, and some people only naturally wanted to use that following as a way of selling books. Others of us didn’t. I have a feeling that will always be the biggest source of tension amongst indie-minded writers. The commercial success of many indie Kindle authors in recent months only emphasises more clearly that indie means different things to different people. To some it’s about the punk spirit, to others it’s about entrepreneurial freedom, and there’s a whole spectrum between. My strongest advice if you’re joining, or starting, a collective, especially a creative rather than a marketing one, is make clear exactly where everyone stands on that spectrum.
(l-r me, Lucy Ayrton, Sophia Satchell-Baeza and Anna Hobson at a New Libertines event last month)
eight cuts gallery is a different kind of joint venture. I established a very clear general manifesto about “overgrounding” – at its most basic taking the most incredible underground art, literature, music, ideas and presenting them as unapologetically mainstream, making the “mainstream” justify its place and practice whilst we took ours for granted) and artistic manifesto (life is complicated, messy, and glorious and it is the duty of the artist to reflect every facet of that with unflinching honesty), and built one-off collaborative projects around them. The one-offness of each project (be it a live tour like The New Libertines or our hyper-linked online exhibitions like Once Upon a Time in a Gallery) allow, rather like working on an anthology, everyone to maintain the focus and intensity and energy of the collective whilst keeping a horizon that makes it easier to accept differences.
Even so there are difficulties. And as always they increase the longer you’re around and the more you get known. People want to work with you. Often they’re people you really admire, whose work you love – but it’s just not quite a fit for what you’re doing. Venues are keen to host you. Sometimes they say lovely things like “what you’re doing is really exciting” and you say “great let’s do a show” and then they say “fantastic, can you just keep it suitable for our audience.” And you’re stuck in that “if I do it, it’s great publicity but the bit they want us to leave out is actually the bit that makes us exciting and if we don’t do it we’ll just be another literary evening” dilemma. I find myself consciously repositioning our work back towards its roots at least once every two months.
(Katelan and I with two of the guys we'd met during the afternoon's photoshoot for Lilith Burning)