Of an orange pig, a wolf, and using literary clips to rescue literature from hyperinflated praise

'Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori' photograph by MIL22

‘Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori’
photograph by MIL22

When the currency of literary praise has been so debased as to be all but worthless, returning to a form of barter is long overdue.

What are we saying?

Before some wily genius invented money – which too often earns its reputation as the root of all evil — people traded in actual things other people wanted, not in symbolic representations of the value of those things. So many of us are fed up of being misled by book jacket hyperbole and dishonest reviews dressing up mediocre or shoddy work as ‘brilliant,’ ‘masterly,’ ‘luminous,’ and ‘stunning’ that it is time to melt down the defunct adjectival coinage, shelve it, and return to the actual substance of literature. We mean that we would love to see a trend for favouring clips of the writer’s own arrangements of words, in drawing attention to works of literature — over the encomiums of word-floggers and other tricksters.

Still making our slow – savouring — way through Storm DamageJohn A. A. Logan’s collection of short stories mentioned on this blog in January — we came across one accorded the rare distinction, in our reading over the years, of being read more than twice by us.

Like our photograph in honour of early spring – a gift of the eyes of generous MIL22 – this story, ‘The Orange Pig,’ is the work of an artist interested in satisfying nothing but exacting, deeply interior aesthetic standards. And if that sounds too serious – well, this is a tale that had us shaking with amusement as often as it left us rapt from the recognition of wisdom dextrously confected as a soufflé.

Without further ado we leave you, dear reader, to consider these extracts chosen to avoid giving away too much – and to let you marvel at a publishing revolution that makes it possible to acquire the thoughts that link them together on your e-reader almost instantaneously. All for no more than what it would take to put a frothing coffee into your hands.

‘I only want to walk to the top of the hill,’ said the orange pig.

‘No-one is stopping you,’ said the wolf. ‘But surely you can see that we can’t let incidents like these go unexamined or unreported. I assume you are from the farm.’

‘Where I am from is my own business.’

‘I understand,’ said the wolf, ‘but …’

The wolf waved a paw in the direction of the dead bird.

‘In circumstances like this,’ said the wolf, ‘we all must account for ourselves, our actions, our motives. It may be in the next world we will all be free to move where we wish like phantoms in the mist, but you are from a farm. You know the meaning of a fence, or a gate, a sty or a barn, a wall or a door. Do not pretend to be naïve. I find you here, and then I find this. What am I to think?’

‘The only time is now,’ said the wolf.

‘It is very late.’

‘Not so very,’ said the wolf.

They walked past the dogs like ghosted whispers and soon they were beyond the limits of the farm, their legs working hard against the steep hill’s power.

‘Under the moon there is no market day,’ said a deep, bass voice from further to the orange pig’s left than his thick neck could twist to let him see. ‘No lorry to take us away, no slaughterhouse, no scheduled death.’

‘For scheduled death is dishonour,’ said the black wolf.

‘Amen,’ said all the wolves in a clear chorus.

Somehow, though, the orange pig’s personality had not attracted fame, only a non-profitable cache of oddity. Good enough to bring a few of the farmer’s friends around the orange pig’s sty to stare at him awhile, but nothing solid to build a business on. The newspapers had come once, and taken photographs, but interest had not been ignited in the public.

‘To hell with farms and farmers,’ said a bitter voice the pig had not heard before.

Amen,’ said the wolves.

‘It is here in the moonlight things are shown truly,’ said a quiet voice from among the sea of silver heads. ‘With the sun in the morning comes all the illusions and divisions. Here in the silver shining, we are our truest selves, is it not so my brothers?’

‘Amen,’ said a strong chorus.

‘No farm could ever be thought of or established in the moonlight. It is an idea of the day, born of heat and dazzle.’

‘I told this pig I would take him another night to wash in the salt of the sea,’ said the long wolf.

‘The waters of the sea are great, its waves caress and cool us,’ said the quiet voice.

‘That pig’s legs are too short to run with you to the sea,’ said a voice.

‘We will all go,’ said the black wolf. ‘We will go to the sea another night and we will go at his pace. There are thoughts that come when we stand in the sea and feel the waves lap at our legs that can come in no other way. It is time we did go to the sea again.’

[ … continues …]

Note at a publishing crossroads: is it time for Ian Rankin to move over and let younger Scots writers take his place?

postgutenberg@gmail.com

They’d said it would take me 105 days to get to Mars in Unicorn One. I’d only been going for eight days. The window was facing away from the sun but a glint of refracted light must have found its way through the thick quartz glass. I saw my image reflected amongst the stars. My hair looked terrible.

Now, who on earth could that be?

Ah, … the main character in a delectable short story, ‘Unicorn One’, in a collection titled Storm Damage. Any reader who tests works of fiction by sampling random paragraphs is immediately compelled by this e-work to scroll back a few pages to learn that

 … within ten years of standing on that hill with Tommy, I would be selected as Scotland’s first astronaut. Not the first Scot to go into space, of course, but the first one to be chosen for Scotland’s Independent Space Program. The world’s media had regarded our endeavour as a joke. Too long had we been seen as England’s or America’s poodle. The German press had shown photographs of our most dilapidated, forsaken housing estate ghettoes and asked what kind of people would begin a Space Program with this kind of poverty rampant in their back yard.

[…]

Even within the Space Program, I had not been a popular choice for first astronaut. They had turned down pilots and scientists, Marines and arctic explorers, mountaineers and deep sea divers, only to choose me, a hairdresser from a remote Scottish town.

‘It’s necessary nowadays,’ they had told me, ‘to find people the public can relate to …

When we reached that sentence, at post-Gutenberg, we were not simply shaken out of a mood best described as chiaroscuro-verging-on-dark. Soon, we were reading all the way back from the beginning – an opening that we would have found just as irresistible, had we started where most people do:

There was a beautiful bird on the branch, singing. It was small with brown wings and perfect white chest feathers. Its tone was too shrill and its eyes darted. Its whole manner was erratic. The sunlight was salmon-pink among the trees and I knew something was wrong, something was going to happen. I didn’t hear a sound, except the bird singing, until the shot went off and chips of wood sprang towards my cheek from the tree I was standing near …

To think that in the old days of traditional print publishing, we might never have had the luck of reading John A. A. Logan — a marvellous writer happily undaunted by chronic cold-shouldering by literary gatekeepers. His success in e-publishing turned him into a lodestar for anyone publishing unmediated e-books as independently as Virginia Woolf once released her own experimental novels in print.

When we wrote about him and other young literary Lochinvars a few weeks ago, we did not mention that we had been thinking of how wonderful it would be if Ian Rankin could only award John his latest monster advance from his publisher in recognition of the e-book writer’s infinitely fresher perspective and fizzing imagination. The once-unique Rankin creation, the boozy, crusty and jaded police detective, John Rebus, has suffered, in recent years, from his inventor’s all too-obvious irritation and boredom with being forced to spin yet another tired yarn about him.

In November, this trend earned poor Ian Rankin the gimlet-eyed attention of a contributor to Private Eye’s books section (issue no: 1328) reviewing his latest novel – described as

full of reliable Scots wisecracking and people saying ‘Back in the day’, and … clearly written at one hell of a lick. Like many a previous Rebus outing, its final effect is to call the whole basis of Ian Rankin’s career into serious question.

Ouch. The Eye did not mince its words, fingering the culprit for this apparently lazy and self-indulgent offering by a writer who has by now grown accustomed to having an overstuffed piggy bank:

Brought to a waiting world amid a flourish of publishers’ trumpets, attended by wall-to-wall publicity … Standing in Another Man’s Grave can be marked down as a triumph for the old-style trade-book model …

Of course old-fashioned publishers are still capable of surprising and thrilling us with new discoveries, but at today’s publishing crossroads, you would have to be a fool to look only in their direction for the best new work.

Testimonial to the curious state of commercial publishing: literary young Lochinvars locked out despite high praise from gatekeepers

John A. A. Logan poised to evoke the touch of evil in The Survival of Thomas Ford – and below, less alarmingly, with his mother, Agnes Logan
Photographs by Alasdair Allen (above) and northern-times.co.uk

‘We sly women are the world’s only hope,’ said Jan, ‘And not just any old sly women either. You can forget about yer Jews and Protestants for starters. And of course any woman who dabbles in atheism.’

‘You get them, man,’ said Bathsheba. ‘It happens.’

[…]

‘Still in deep denial about the Counter-Reformation, yer Prods.’ Bathsheba beeped the horn again. ‘The most comically perplexed souls of all time, poor things.’ Beebeep. ‘The ne plus ultra of human… Of human whit? Thingummibob. Whit’s the word? Cartoonishness? Am I toasty warm? Get us the thesaurus.’

Jan found it in the glove compartment and gave it over.

The Adorata, Sean Murray

What is the point of thrillers – the noir kind, especially?

Er, … entertainment, do you suppose? you suggest drily, stifling a sardonic ‘D’oh!

To which post-Gutenberg’s answer would be, but what is the point of this sub-genre of entertainment?

Yes, yes … we know, an absurdly ambitious question for a funny little blog.

But this hardly rules out suggesting a line of enquiry for an answer: might the point of blood-and-gore electrified by crackling suspense be to fight horror with horror? That is, neutralise real-life horror, shock and sadness, with the imagined and invented kind? Nothing supplies temporary relief for the agony of witnessing the suffering of someone beloved in extremis – helpless to do much to relieve it – as well as a story so powerful that it takes control of your brain and entire nervous system, whether read in snatches or all the way through.

Events of recent weeks have shown us that a well-written thriller violent and gripping in direct proportion to the unbearable, in actual life, works better than any other literary form – particularly for a reader who loathes violent films and literature, and often resents the manipulations of narrative suspense.

The book is set aside, and the reader feels inexplicably stronger and ready to face down the monsters again. Some process less akin to catharsis than to Freud’s idea of displacement is surely at work – which, in a Wikipedia definition,

operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety …

The book – or rather, e-book — that worked this strange magic for us is The Survival of Thomas Ford, about which we learnt from a Twitter link by its author, John A. A. Logan, to a detailed history of the manuscript’s long string of rejections that we would call staggeringly unbelievable and absurd if we did not know it to be an impeccably accurate record of the state of conventional publishing in 2012. We began to watch John’s tweet stream after we found ourselves on the same side in an online debate about copyright in the age of the net; among the not-terribly-popular lobbyists for paying artists and writers for work in the age of e-pirating.

Soon, we were reading arresting sentences and sequences like these:

 Jimmy sipped Coke and watched Robert out of an eye’s sly edge.

 Robert believed that it was sometimes possible for the universe to overlook certain misdeeds, even serious ones. He had believed from an early age that the universe made errors, usually errors of omission. He believed, in fact, that Jimmy’s very existence was evidence of such an error.

  If Jimmy was a vacuum, then Robert had been sucked in.

We registered something indefinably Scottish in the observations, the styles of expression, and marvelled at the absence of the too-familiar props in mass-market thriller-writing – glamourising brand names and settings – and clichéd ‘middle-class’ attitudes to people on less fortunate social rungs, or the reverse. A hospital cleaner, finding herself for the first time in an urban garden thinks,

This garden was like a machine for escaping the city.

After weeks of reading in tiny sips, for a lack of time, we reached a scene in which a father punishes his adult son for mistreating immigrant Polish bricklayers by flinging him into the mud with a feral twist that all but breaks his neck. Soon, there are characters bleeding from kitchen knives stuck in their sides and … For fear of the spoiler effect, we’ll stop there and say that we usually go to extremes to avoid sustained violence in any form, and were able to endure no more than a half-hour of The Silence of the Lambs. But we could not stop reading Survival.

John Logan is certainly not trying to be Muriel Spark, the grand priestess of modern Scottish literature, but as real life trouble intensified and spun out of control for us, we grew increasingly impatient with audio recordings of still gritty but tired recent books by Ian Rankin to which we had turned – because they were sitting on our library re-shelving cart – to make sure that we stayed fully alert on long driving expeditions on featureless roads. We longed to listen instead to the fresher writing voice and inspiration of the next chapter of the Logan thriller with its endlessly surprising perspectives and frequently excellent prose.

That last attribute is something John’s work has in common with other young Scots writers, too many of them unpublished, or self-published and unnoticed because of hair-raisingly nonsensical sagas of rejection – like his. The extract from a modernist — Barthian, Bellowish, (William) Burroughsian – novel by Sean Murray in the epigraph for this post came from a discussion of misogyny in the work of male novelists on Donkeyshott and Xuitlacoche, the domain of a blogger, Philip Hall, who has a head crammed with stimulating, cosmopolitan ideas. The guest-post on his blog spotlighting the Adorata remarked, ‘If your life depended on it, could you imagine Mailer creating a female character with a thesaurus stored in her car?’

In disembodied cyberspace, post-Gutenberg has had more than one encounter with these Scottish scribes — whose energy and dauntlessness recall ‘O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west/Through all the wide Border his steed was the best …’. We have been honoured by bracing and uplifting encouragement from them – which might make our motives for writing this post suspect. Fear not. We have … ahem … credibility to protect, as obscure as we are, in this patch of the net.

Before we leave you to read a clip from John’s account of his well-deserved — but hard-won — success with publishing Survival as an e-book, we have a question. Can we — those of us who care about the absurdity of neither John nor Sean Murray finding a conventional publisher with conventional marketing muscle — do something to finance the efforts of writers suffering from the disappearance of editors capable of nurturing unpublished writers? Or sustaining the efforts of those who already have stellar publishing credits, but have run afoul of the salespeople promoted to über-gatekeepers at some of the most famous literary imprints?

We have made suggestions before, about how this might be done – using micropayments, something better than Kickstarter and a new way of organising publishing as a massively inclusive, subscriber-based ‘co-owned’ medium.

That post-Gutenberg — thousands of miles from Scotland, with no real-life acquaintance with any of these scarcely-known Scottish scribblers — should care so much about helping them find support surely means that something can be done, and soon.

Over, now, to John himself – although you will want to read his entire record of the death of common sense. The last page of Survival says that John has been published by Picador, Vintage and Chapman – all in the loftiest tier of the serious end of the book business.

… In December 2010, the literary agent phoned me for 90 minutes, to tell me he was sure a major publishing house’s editors had wanted to take my book, but then at the meeting with the sales dept the sales folk for this publishing house had said that I “reminded them of someone they had had high hopes for two years earlier but then had lost money on”. And that ended that house’s interest in the book.

A little later, the senior commissioning editor at another major UK publishing house wrote to say “I think John Logan is a hugely talented writer. I love books like this that have the pace and excitement of a thriller but the voice and emotional depth of a literary novel”. But again when it came right down to it, no sale!

Then my agent passed the book to a film consultant who worked with him. She told him my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was the best book she had read in that literary agency in the last 4 years. This was taken very seriously, as this film consultant had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript and was responsible for it getting developed into a film …