Post-Gutenberg literary dilemmas: trick or treat?

Photograph by Mark Barron

Halloween is not part of our tradition at post-Gutenberg. Never mind, we feel uniquely privileged, posting this text and image sent to us as unsought bounty – yes, a surprise, in each case.

What are the most interesting arguments about literature’s transition to the post-print world? The extract from Sean McNulty’s Twentieth Century Transmissions – the novel he has just completed — came in email with shades of one debate for a preface:

I’ve attached the opening pages but FYI have taken out of copyright works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others and remixed them into my own story, pretty much as China Miéville was talking about here just as I was finishing the novel:

The language of Sean’s text struck our inner ear as exceptionally fine — suggesting that the pessimism in our last post might not be entirely warranted. We found his manuscript original in the best way, as well as acutely disturbing. As a Halloween offering, it is the equivalent of the original Grimm’s fairy tales – galaxies removed from the sanitised, saccharine revisions commissioned to protect the tender psyches of 20th– and 21st-century children.

Before we leave you to read it, we have a message for regular readers here who have admired our clip, two posts ago, from The AdorataThat was by Sean Murray, a pen name Sean McNulty says he was forced to use when he wrote that first novel – to avoid upsetting his employer at the time. As we have never met either Sean in person, we can only take him at his word.

Perhaps Halloween will in the future be celebrated as commemorating not just ghosts but the remembrance of indecipherable pseudonyms past.

Twentieth Century Transmissions

A novel based on works by

Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others.

Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad.

Jorge Luis Borges

We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

Samuel Beckett

Bad Friday

Lenny’s Austin followed the Moray Cycling Club, the same half mile behind it had kept all morning. He watched through the windscreen’s muck as the Great Comet rose pale blue over the mountains, half earthly, half heavenly banners with slits of blued snow in the peaks. It felt almost supernatural, this world about to end.

The Club’s fanatics were allowing themselves one last ride before the Comet hit. A blonde woman brought up their rear, ringing her bell and grinning till she caught her reflection in a farmhouse window. She’d glimpsed fine enough features there but they were also red with lack of breath and gaudier than they ever were, the features that had shed those masks – Maglemosian, Egyptian, Greek, Spanish, all the way down to this last reality, the final mortal mask of the thing now called Maggie Guthrie.

Well, nothing endures, does it? Without this Comet Pessaria business, without big Lenny to kill her off and send her on to pastures new, she doubted she could have faced more masking on this Earth and not felt sick to the pit. Once it had been wearying to think of yet more years of masks of skin and bone keeping hidden her essentials, but now with the Great Collision here at last she wasn’t sick or sorry, not sad at all, just too much time to think as she pumped away at these pedals.

With the sun the Comet went on rising through the sky, one going southward from the east, the other northward from the southwest trailing its colossal tail. And now Maggie’s bike slowed as she caught her breath and took in the sights around her. Roadside birds swerved up when they heard gunfire in the direction of Kingussie, then swooped back down and sat silent on the trees and fence-posts, highly conscious of one thing or another. For some it was wild flowers or stalks of grass casting double-shadows, their sun-shadow and their Comet-shadow. For others it was dewdrops with the entire sun or Comet trapped inside.

Other birds sang in the warming sunshine. They sang on the twigs of bushes and perched in trees’ upper branches, letting the chirps and whistles burst out of them. Their eyes bulged and their claws gripped twigs and they sang to the Comet as though releasing all the pressures of its long Approach.

When the cyclists got off for a break Lenny’s exhausted head began to revolve slowly, rhythmically, and to hum at his bruised temples. As he parked the car something moved into his line of sight. In her sweat-soaked vest and shorts Maggie’s figure was the glamorous thing that attracted all the morning light, casting curving shadows left and right. She walked her bike into a wood. He left the car and followed.

His head blazed as he plodded between the trees. He saw her wipe mud from her bike and legs, leaves’ double-shadows dancing on her hair and skin, woodchips littered beneath her like splashed light. A pulse passed through his bruises and he ran toward her.

She let her bike fall and backed away. Her foot caught on a root, then she went down backward and her spine thudded against a stump.

He got his knees on her chest, pressed her chin back over the stump’s edge and with the base of his palm shoved it hard. She wheezed out, ‘Nothing endures.’

As he kept on kneeling there and shoving, everything blurred for a moment and became a painted film-set, the blue Comet and golden sun its glaring spotlights. Memories came of Maggie with his father, Maggie desecrating his dead mother, Maggie sneering as he came. He wondered how his contorting face might look on camera.

Though the base of his palm pressing at that upturned chin, that woman wheezing there and gurgling – that wasn’t acting. He heard a little cluck and crunch and his head turned to vapour as convulsions shook her body. The limbs twitched and sprawled and blood brimmed from the nostrils, hesitated and ran back into her dead eyes. That was fine. That was as it should be.

He found himself brushing leaves off the body as it lay with a strip of Comet light along the chest. He sat beside it, surprised that the leaves were glittering and the woodchips reflected blue. In the glare he imagined he saw the glowing hair of his murdered wife.

He looked around and tried to remember where he was. Not a film-set. He got on Maggie’s bike and rode it along the nearest path. A doe, a moving bit of reflected light, went running through the shade. Lenny, transfixed by it, went crashing into a tree and fell.

He stayed there on the ground with his temples throbbing, his mind busy with delirium. His mouth was dry and hard and blood was darting in his head. There was something knocking. Trees and other greenery, streaks of weird light across the ground, something knocking. He saw something creep up a treetrunk, a whistling bird that rapped on the trunk and then ran out of the shadow, its head bobbing and its white legs twinkling. Its build was neat, compact. Well, that’s birdlife for you, Lenny thought.

So I have done it, he thought. I have murdered Maggie Guthrie.

A kind of wonder came on him, followed by low animal exultation at that cluck and crunch and those sprawling, twitching convulsions. A little grief came too, but it was all right, he told himself, it wasn’t really Maggie. That dead husk with blood pooled in its eyes wasn’t Maggie and never had been. Whatever dark spark constituted Maggie Guthrie, it wasn’t that. And he wasn’t really Lenny Uath either. Wasn’t that what she always told him?

Something scuffled and he sat up and watched a squirrel run in bounds over the ground. It flew at another squirrel and they chased each other until he had a coughing fit and sent them up a tree. One peered round at him halfway up a trunk, clinging to the bark.

Darkness fell like a shutter. He had killed Maggie as she said he would and the Comet was here at last. He was arriving on the real dark bottom but it was all fine, fine.

He thought he saw lightning flutter around the rippling, shimmering Comet and visions came of tonight’s Collision and the last few minutes he’d now have to face, priests and ministers gazing upward and wailing psalms, some tearing off their clothes and sending up curses or hallelujahs, some scourging their backs bloody and collapsing on the ground in fits, prostitutes flicking tongues and blowing the Comet kisses, tramps gossiping about last-minute escape rockets and rescues by Archangels. The delirium went on and on, his mind flickering like the lightning.

Then a hunt for water, and surges of now pointless hate for Maggie. Then moments of calm and ease and his father’s voice somewhere, approving of her murder: ‘Fine, boy, fine.’

His brain was flaming with thirst. There the Cairngorm mountains ranged across the pale edge of the sky, double-shadowed and solid with blue snowy markings. He was twisting in a paroxysm on the grass.

His thoughts had split from him. There was also the clog of his body, another splitting thing. He was dividing. There was maybe some connection between the different parts, or maybe not. Either way all the shapes were going. Pale blue rays were drilling through their bonds.

The year was 1943. So was the Comet real? Was Maggie real?

These are not simple questions. Others who’ll tell this story may answer them conclusively, but for now we’ll just say this. Certain events, entities, things, lack what might be called precision. They’re too large to be contained by the world of facts, and occur partly to find out if that world can bear them. Think of those strange gaps in the history of your own world, those Marie Celestes and Tunguskas that manifested and then quickly faded.

Normal events are strung along time like carriages on a railtrack. They have their causes and their effects, pushing and pulling one another forward and forming all our stories. But what about events too large for that railtrack, that maybe need a different gauge? Well, time has many parallel tracks, my friend, and the fact is that down certain secret tracks these larger events await us all. And in this sense they are real.

We must come to terms with the Great Comet. We must come to terms with Maggie Guthrie. We must not let their reality embarrass us into silence.

Och for God’s sake, let’s shut up and get started.

The Broadcast  


The Reverend Don Uath’s next ministry after the Western Front was in the Shaugh, the village of his birth. His family made the flit from Tomintoul in carts. Lenny was two years old.

The going was wild the night they set out, and several times they skidded badly in drifts of sleet before the horses brought them to the hills. Don watched his wife Willa in her nook in the leading cart with Lenny at the breast, her skin cold and blueing and strands of her red-gold hair draped into the light of the swinging lantern. When the horses skidded again she held off Lenny with milk dripping creamily from his lips.

Don called out to her, ‘We’d better get beds at the next village and not try the hills in this weather.’

But Willa called out at that, ‘Beds? Think we’re made of money?’

‘No,’ Don answered, ‘but maybe we’ll skid again and all die this night.’

A bellow arose where old horse Mo had halted, tail to the wind and refusing to pull his cart any further into the hills and sleet. Willa laid Lenny on his back and climbed down and went past the head of Mo, and there she uncoiled the length of hide she used as a whip. It crackled through the sleet and made the hair rise across Mo’s back, and he began to neigh and fall into a trot, the younger horse Tod following after, slipping and sprawling on his hooves.

So, creaking and bending beneath their loads, the carts plodded into motion again, full of gear and furnishings for the manse the family would occupy in the Shaugh. Head down to the wind went the horses in the moonlight, in this mile and that Don calling, ‘Fine, you two, fine. Come on then, boys.’

The road kept winding up and sometimes he sat huddled in his nook as the sleet went past in the darkness, and sometimes he climbed down and walked beside Tod and watched the lights across the moors where folk lay dry and warm. Then the road would swerve and the wind would be at him again and he’d climb back on the cart with freezing feet and hands, urging Tod on to their new home.

In a few hours the carts had cleared the hills and through the sleet Don saw the Shaugh’s scattered points of light. Willa stood on her cart holding Lenny and took in the nearby lochs, where night fishermen in cockleshell boats were braving the weather and casting out their nets. On the banks others carried baskets full of flapping catch and looked up at the northern sky.

Tiny smears swirled and floated up there among the sleet, an enormous flock of swallows. The scene looked like some old fresco, full of birds not intended for the Moray sky in the depth of winter, criss-crossing it in graceful climbs and swoops.

A few hundred roofs stood out clear below them, and yews around a steepled church and manse set round with gravestones and grass in tufts that a fox slunk through shedding sleet.

Maggie Guthrie watched the same scene from the standing stones, then rode down toward it on her bike.


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

‘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 …