Genre and the Edges

‘In the evening, I’d pour myself a glass of very strong rum on the rocks, and I’d write hardboiled poems…’

Pedro Juan Gutierrez

243762388_bfbd725b28_mI’ve spent my writing life on the periphery. It’s not only a matter of success, or lack of, although that certainly plays its part. You stand watching the dance floor with your back against the wall, doubting you can match the moves. Yet still you feel the beat…

During my teenage years, in small market town in the Midlands, I learned that a bookshop could be a departure lounge, and library card could be a passport. I would head to a second-hand bookshop on the way home from school. Run by two, rather haughty, middle-aged men, who favoured cravats and half-moon glasses, it stocked a large range of science fiction books from the sixties and seventies, yellowed pulps smelling of dried out paper. Something about the clutter of a secondhand bookshop blurs the taxonomy of your sense of literary history. You hop between the classics and erotics, the fine and the fantastic. You choose your own canon. Influences are usually misfiled.

Later, the taste for science fiction looped back to me when I visited the, now sadly defunct, Fantasy Centre bookshop on Holloway road. I was in my mid-twenties, getting by on dead end jobs, living in a small basement flat off Blackstock road, but I’d hit a pocket of stability (or boredom) and felt that I could put my feet under a desk and write. I read John Sladek ‘s The Muller-mf1Fokker Effect, Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, Robert Sheckley’s The Same to You Doubled, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls, Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. The Fantasy Centre also did a neat line in crime fiction. I read Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Jerome Charyn, Marc Behm, and Derek Raymond. Some of these writers came to me through the excellent book reviews by Chris Petit in The Guardian. Some came from the Internet. Some came through the writing of James Sallis, who I began to see as some tutelary guide through the distinctions of poetry and fiction, genre and the canon.

If this seems like a bad schooling for a British writer in the early twenty-first century, then it all seemed quite plausible at the time. (Both A.L. Kennedy and Michel Faber, for example, have hailed the influence of Sheckley on their fiction). And while I may not have written science fiction, beyond one or two blurred attempts, the genres of crime and science fiction certainly influenced my approach to the realistic novel. Maybe that accounted for the novel slipping through the gaps. Not long after its release, I watched two copies of All the Dogs gather dust in the crime section of a bookshop around the corner from where I worked. Up until that point, I’d had no idea that I’d written a crime novel.

19thepolymathIn Samuel Delany’s essay ‘Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ – or the Conscience of the King’ (which I would recommend to anyone interested in these distinctions) he argues that realist novels are a distinct ‘discourse’ of writing, one which he prefers to categorise as ‘mundane literature’. In effect, literature is only another genre, with recurring tropes, attitudes, stories. Delany argues: ‘Science fiction’s origins in the pulps and its persistence as a generally popular writing category simply mitigate against the sort of stylistic unity that literature privileges both in the productions of single writers and, certainly, the production of the whole field.’ In effect, the discourse of science fiction works against the whole idea of an ordered, Leavis-ite canon, or the grand cultural wrestling matches of Harold Bloom. Delany goes on to say, ‘I believe reading science fiction as if it were literature is a waste of time. I suspect that reading literature as if it were ‘literature’ is also pretty much a waste of time…. It is possible [however] that, on the level of values, reading literature as if it were science fiction may be the only hope for literature.’

I’m still at the edge of the dance floor. Probably, I always will be. I spend most of my writing time on poetry these days, albeit while keeping up with a daily quota of words towards a detective novel. I don’t see a contradiction between working across these two forms. Poetry and crime fiction both function at a formal level, an intensified exchange of rules and codes, like Chinese boxes of purpose and, yes, tradition. And, under Delany’s terms above, the discourse of contemporary poetry seems to me to have more in common with science fiction than it does with the literary. The stylistic unity has run wild. The centre is over-rated, anyway. Best work from the edges.

‘Edge’ literatures such as science fiction and mystery typically plunge right into mankind’s grandest questions, unabashedly attempting to place some kind of frame around man’s life in the universe’.

James Sallis.

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Work

‘The same people who are murdered slowly in the mechanized slaughterhouses of work are also arguing, singing, drinking, dancing, making love, taking to the streets, picking up weapons and inventing a new poetry.’

 Raoul Vaneigem

16649Over the past few years, during the months of late summer, I walk through the campus of a London university, on the way to work. Students gather around stalls from multinational firms- KPMG, Goldman Sachs, Glaxo-Smith Kline- snaring carrier bags of logo-ed mouse mats, coffee cups, and promotional material, accepting the skin bargain.

My first job after finishing university was packing radiator covers in a factory on the outskirts of Telford. While the other workers played football during their lunch breaks, I stayed by a desk in the corner and read The Alexandria Quartet, making notes in the red diary I carried around with me at that time. From then on, I was stuck in the pattern of minor jobs. A bookshop (of course). Kitchen work in restaurants. Selling bathrooms by telephone (I lasted one afternoon at that one). Potting plants in a nursery. Working as a hospital porter, a wine-merchant, for a small charity. Deleting a whole library of books, which I satirized in a short story, which gave rise to the name of this blog. Temporary contracts across London. And inevitably into office work: a desk, a phone, a computer. The way we work now.

Yes, I teach the odd creative class, but I’m mainly entrenched in what anarchists call ‘bullshit jobs’. To quote David Graeber, ‘Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.’ I’ve had a soft spot for anarchists ever since reading Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, and enjoying its sense of utopian confrontation. It occurred to me at the time, that a form of anarchism (think of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Stewart Home) should be a true writer’s default political position. Obviously, it only works if you have no contact with other anarchists.

It’s arguable that any work which doesn’t save lives is bullshit. The anarchists have a point. But as much as these jobs defeat us, they give us something to work against. Mesitu-percussionistsaningless work, the hypnotism of routine, the vacuity of the grind: it at least conditions you to the essential uselessness of writing. If you’re going to choose to spend your life in this way, it’s best to consider the void. Once upon a time, I was the kind of person you might imagine blithely name-checking Rimbaud or Kerouac. These days, I cling to the examples of Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka, (or when times are really bad, Emily Dickinson). It’s probably a healthy sign to imagine wanting to meet your younger self and punch him swiftly in the face. Clearly, I’d be lying if I said that work hasn’t been like a toad squatting on my life. If you don’t benefit from the market, and you don’t have a university lectureship, you have to write with one eye on either of those two choices to save you from the ugly fact of work. And yet… Something about writing around a job appeals to me. Maybe this is because I’ve always thought of good writing as operating between the market and the academy, a third, no doubt illusory place beyond sales and research. Probably, I’m a fantasist. But the idea of the professional writer is a comparatively late, (and brief) development, and rather than being the dalliances of the occasional hobbyist, it occurs to me that writing should be part of a double identity. I’ve always been suspicious of the public writer, anyway. There’s something perpetually interesting about the ideal of quiet obscurity.

attachmentAlan Warner once wrote that nothing gives you better material for writing than working in shit jobs. Henry Green became managing director of his family firm in Birmingham, until losing himself to drink and the Ottoman Empire. R. F. Langley worked as a teacher, Iain Sinclair as a gardener, Roberto Bolano as a nightwatchman. American writing has (or once had) more of a tradition of working writers. Sinclair Lewis wrote on his daily train. Charles Bukowski worked for over ten years in the post office, and did it without going on a killing spree. James Sallis worked in hospitals. Like Henry Green, the poet William Bronk turned his back on academia and went to work for the family firm. Lorine Niedecker scrubbed floors and became a librarian. Inevitably, we will have to consider Raymond Carver. I always felt that a certain degree of prodigality was essential to any writer, or, at least, any writer with a decent story to tell. And what better measure of prodigality is there than to waste time in the day job?

When I lived in Brixton in the late nineties, a friend of mine had a flat off Coldharbour Lane. The first time I visited, he showed me the view from his back window. It looked over the garden of the downstairs flat, little more than a paved-over space, occupied by a single deck chair. I asked him about his neighbour. ‘I don’t know. Magnus… He’s written a novel, or something.’ He lived above Magnus Mills. Famously, Mills worked as a bus driver while writing his first novel The Restraint of Beasts, a book about cB_Bukowskyasual work. I heard recently that Mills had returned to driving buses after giving it up to pursue the writing career. I see this less an admission of defeat about the writing life, and more about what moves some writers to start in the first place. Those days when I was free to write, I hardly committed to anything worthwhile. Something about fitting the writing around a job which doesn’t quite suit, honouring the larger vocation, scraping together material, reading, drifting, letting things go: all of that turned me into a writer, for better or worse. Only when I worked, did I realise what I’d lost. My writing became charged with that purest, if hopeless, objective: to claw back all the lost time.

  ‘Let’s play Ask for a job.
What can you do?
         I can hammer and saw
         and feed a dog.
You’ll do! Take this slip
to the department of song.’

Lorine Niedecker