Apologies for the length of this piece. It is one of those morning after the night before reflections. In this case, the night before was a really rather wonderful gig in Manchester where I had the pleasure of a first meeting with fellow electric author and lovely guy Jan.
This is where it began. Caffe Nero outside Piccadilly Station in Manchester. That was over four years ago now and I was the veteran of one novel and a couple of short stories. And I was angry. Angry that I was being told I had to write a certain way. About certain things. So I set out to write the most difficult novel I possibly could. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. Songs from the Other Side of the Wall has a single narrative, a conventional arc, characters who do things and feel things.
But the anger is still there. The further I go into the literary world the more I see that the darkest fringes and the deepest underbellies all have rules, all have “people you must do it like”, all have “values you must share”, and most of all, the smaller, edgier, more apparently open the group, the greater the accretion around individuals.
Inevitable? Of course. But I am convinced after four years of achieving way more than someone with my limited ability should, after four years of attempts to assimilate me into this mainstream or that set of conventions, that these preconceptions and conventions, personalities and rules remain something we should batter our keyboards against wherever we find them – even if we know we can never succeed in ridding ourselves of them (Kant, as I keep on saying, was wrong. Ought does not imply can).
Reflecting (it is a time of reflection – yesterday I started one of those sporadic health drives; this year has been a year of deaths, breakdowns, finances stretched almost to the point of collapse, family relations overhauled, creative goals both achieved and thwarted), I am sure that what I have achieved with my limited talent I have done so not because I have followed any rules, but because I have wilfully ignored, and often fought against, them. Where I have made the mistake of seeking popularity or acceptance in literary terms – a certain kind of book “for the readers” or at the other end shock for shock’s sake, a certain kind of setting for my events where I didn’t have creative control, throwing events open for the sake of not offending friends (who often in turn don’t – probably very wisely so – reciprocate). At those times I have been less successful by any measure that matters.
The thing I have is not talent. I’m not being falsely modest. I know I’m a good writer. At times I’m a very good writer, verging on excellent. But so are many many others. I’m not exceptional, great, one of a generation. No, the thing I have is questions. It is a negative – a refusal to accept. And it is a positive. A desire to make literature something more than it can ever be in its current state. A hunger to create a poetics of hope. To rip language from the power structures that hold its pawns in place and to help instead to put in pace a language that liberates from those structures, that makes voices heard, that improves lives, that brings joy to despair, that articulates and aids aspiration, that spreads beauty, that enables a moment by moment appreciation of the sheer perceptual joy of life and a celebration of those moments in words that transcends concept and mainlines itself into the consciousness of others so that every precious moment of every precious person is cherished and repeated and sown as seed for inspiration of (not, as our current stories, constitution of) a million moments more, not as ossification or nostalgia but as the adrenalised oxygen of life – a poetics, in other words, that is by definition inimical to every acceptance of convention.
At times when I’ve expressed sentiments like these I’ve been accused of arrogance and/or banality. Arrogance because who am I to say I can do what millions of others can’t, or even to say that millions of those who have been doing this writing thing longer and better than me can’t. No one, is the simple answer, of course. But what kind of answer is that? More to the point, what kind of question is that? When did we ever make progress by not striving, by not seeking to do that which people believed impossible, by accepting the status quo? It seems to me that when someone in the sciences, in medicine, in politics or public life stands up and says “I will not accept the status quo, I want better and I will move heaven and earth to achieve it and tear down every barrier of will and of means in my way” they are heralded for their vision, held up as an example, praised in turn by parents, schools, universities, governments, research councils, media and public alike. When someone in the arts says the same they are a difficult, arrogant anarchist (tags appended with the usual – and almost always inaccurate – pat addendum that they lack technique, understanding, a sense of history and their place in it) to be kept out of decent conversations in which they have no place – with admonition (manifesting itself these days as forum moderation) in extreme cases but in general by carrying on as though they weren’t there (which, it seems to me, is the main reason why those ignored and admonished often resort to pushing the more obvious buttons in aid of their cause that end in the publicity of censorship and bring them into public consciousness but then risk defining their place in that public awareness by the exaggerated position and not the underlying one).
And the accusation of banality? Well, it’s the passive-aggressive weapon of choice. It runs “that’s what we’re all trying to do”, or worse still “are you saying what you are doing is more valuable than what I am doing?” Often this degenerates into a discussion of the relative merits of certain kinds of writing. An interesting and always useful discussion, but a complete derailment of the matter at hand. The qualifications of the initial “that’s what we’re all trying to do”, whether they be “but to do that you need readers” or “but to do that you need time and that requires you write to earn money” or “we all have a duty to present our work in the best way we can” or “we can’t just ignore…” are all very sensible and important points. And utterly irrelevant. There is nothing less valuable (well, at least it is irrelevant here whether or not there is, so let’s accept it) about wanting to give readers some joy for the hours they are with your book than there is about wanting to undermine the structures of language. But they are not the same thing.
I want here to say something about subject matter. It’s something we see a lot on the culture pages – the debate about the magnitude of the lens. About the microscopic lens zoomed in on the quotidian, the specific, as against the grand picaresque, the cinemascope sweep that takes in all of life, gulping on it like the baleen of some giant whale (reference not accidental). Most frequently this is portrayed as a gendered debate. That is somewhat reductionist, a harkening back to Kant and the reifying and gendering of Time and Space. True, the coverage of such matters by the media is gendered – there is a lionisation of the machismo frontiersman novelist planting his flagpole into any and all virgin territory. And there is a kitchenisation of women’s portrayal of the day to day, a boxing in, a limiting of the scope of discussion. But aside from the sweepingness of assumptions about subject matter (pit, for example, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty against Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai), there are much deeper questions society needs to answer about its championing of the universal over the particular.
Aspiring to a heightened enjoyment of the everyday is not a limited but an expanded horizon. Our barriers surround us on all sides, and in every direction the potential of the human soul to soar is equal and equally to be cherished. As writers we add equally to the sum of human happiness by raising a single moment of our everyday lives to the level of the transcendent as by seeking to wipe misery from the face of the earth. Why it appears different is that we greatly underestimate the impenetrability of those barriers constituted as they are by the structure of language itself, a structure that situates the specific in opposition to a universal of which, in fact, it is the sole constituent.
Beyond art, the same applies – the lens inwards is as deep, and as essential, as that outwards. And pursuing the inner journey to its limit does not negate the outward journey, does not render us in some banal sense “less serious” or “less caring” as individuals. Rather, it is at the very limit of that journey that the two lenses converge. Which is definitively not advocating either an artistic solipsism or an economic individualism, but rather a solidarity and collectivism that is truly robust and absolute, the only kind of solidarity that can move beyond the superficial (an expression of the desire to do something) and the downright false (“you, the other, are exactly like me in all important respects”). Such a solidarity lies in a absolute understanding of the value of the moment, of the priority of percept over concept, of the infinitesimal over the infinite, which understanding is the essential starting point from which all structures inimical to percept (economic, social, pragmatic and discursive) can most fruitfully be attacked (not that this undermines projects to attack more “obvious” structural wrongs and barriers, just that in doing so we need to keep asking the question how “obvious” or “definite” they are. Importantly, we should never set principle over people).
It is not for this discussion, which has already gone on far too long, but here as elsewhere in my ever-Pollyannaish world view we come back to an anthropology and economy the basic direction of which is overflowing (generosity, altruism). The assumption is that the moment of inner fulfilment, self-discovery will burst forth in creativity and a desire born not of lack but of an outpouring instinct that seeks to make that singularity a node of infinite mass that will spread outward in a domino of overflowing specificities.
And so we come back to art, to literature, to unravelling the linguistic barriers that stand in the way of first appreciating, and then perpetuating and replicating (in a relational, non-static, non-nostalgic way), the moment. And we find that we have put flesh on the bones of what we mean by a poetics of hope. We have given content to that hope.
And I find that my ongoing task is fourfold. It is negative. A full frontal assault on the stifling mechanisms of language wherever they are found, an assault that consists in first unearthing, making public, the naming and shaming of discourse, something often best done by showing and not telling as it were – hence the essential role of the transgressive, of making clear the unacceptability of discourse by presenting it in absurdum. It is positive. An attempt to articulate and celebrate “the moment” in a dynamic and useful way. It is a constant act of iterating and reposing these questions so as to ensured that, in a way, they are never “answered” (maybe Kant is more than just wrong, maybe he has expressed a truth in its absolute antithesis, and maybe ought actually implies cannot), that they remain processes, relations, acts of constant giving, acts of constant, restless (yet restless not as a movement but as a continual series of moments) giving. And it is a constant turning outward, encouraging, inspiring, and enabling others in the arts to keep asking the awkward questions.
So yes, I'm still angry, and I very much hope I will be when I sit in Caffe Nero in Manchester four years from now!
So yes, I'm still angry, and I very much hope I will be when I sit in Caffe Nero in Manchester four years from now!