Sunday, 31 July 2011
As you know, I run a small press, whcih publishes three amazing books. Its fans did a simply amazing job showing your love for Penny Goring's The Zoom Zoom and getting it called in by the judges for the Guardian's First Book Award (we now have to wait to see what they make of it). Now, if you love one of our other amazing books, Cody James' The Dead Beat and Stuart Estell's Verruca Music, you can help them go all the way in the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize.
YOU CAN START ACTING NOW - HERE'S WHAT TO DO
In order to vote, you need to post a 150 word review of the book (you can do this now), and then link back to that review from your vote WHEN THE VOTING OPENS IN A FORTNIGHT. The Guardian has some problems coping with our ISBN-free books so you will not be able to post on their review site. Nonetheless, they have very kindly agreed that you may POST YOUR REVIEWS ON THE COMMENTS AT EIGHT CUTS (CLICK HERE FOR LINK), and link back to it WHEN VOTING OPENS.
NOTE: Please use the same e-mail when posting your comment as you used/will use to set up your Guardian account. That way, if required, I can take a screenshot from the backroom to verify the review comes from the same address as the vote - please note, therefore: posting a review here, you consent to my taking such a screenshot (only for the purposes, if requested, of sending it - in strictest confidence - to the Guardian judges) I will not give your e-mail addies to anyone else or make them public and will only pass them on on the condition that the Guardian agrees to the same.
Remember, voting will open on Wedneday 3rd August, but to make it as successful and easy as possible, please post your reviews now. Many of you have posted reviews on Amazon or Goodreads already. I think it's perfectly fine to paste those over if that's the case.
And most important - THANK YOU
If you don't yet know our two eligible books, here they are:
The books with the most votes from the next round will go through to the shortlist where they will be read and discussed and reviewed in this widely-read forum. Let's make it three out of three and show the world the amazingness our writers have to offer!
(Go here to see and buy all our books!)
Sunday, 24 July 2011
But it’s a very particular (and inevitable) kind of self-publishing. And whilst I welcome it, it also makes me sort of hang my head in despair (the bittersweet ironic smile kind of despair I feel at the honour of being supported by Blackwell’s for my thriller two years after self-publishing my debut, the literary coming of age novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, that got stonking reviews wherever it *was* read but didn’t even make half a column inch in the local paper).
The warning signs were there a while back. Self-publishers are a marmite-y kind of bunch. Half of us are belligerent “dead tree books are screwed and legacy publishing’s dead” types. The other half are desperate to show we’re just as good as regular-published books (and half of those say it because they want a regular contract, whilst the other half want to control the process but compete for the same market).
But what almost all seem to have in common is an insistence that their books are just as good as regular-published books. And just as good almost always means edited to the same standard (most aren’t, of course, but their authors are buying into the game that they should be). And they have a point. 99% of books are better if they’re edited professionally. Because 99% of self-published books would like to be like regular books.
Now when it comes to self-publishing statistics matter. Every media essay I’ve seen on the subject of self-publishing has been about a number – copies sold, Kindle chart position, size of advance when the author went mainstream. I’ve yet to see one that talks intelligently and critically about the quality of a self-published book (oh, wait, there was a particularly dumbass piece somewhere sniping at John Locke’s books). But in the world of dumb-ass number crunching (I may need a bigger thesaurus because when it comes to the media’s treatment of self-publishing I find myself wanting to say dumbass a LOT), ignoring that 1% takes the dumbass-ness biscuit.
Because that 1% of books is what self-publishing was made for, and what will, ultimately, once Amazon has squeezed the regular “indie” authors back into the New Model Mainstream, be the ultimate reputation-saver for self-publishing.
Editing is the making of a commercial product and the breaking of art
That’s the simple thesis, and I’m not getting into a “what is art” debate.
Now editing in art can be a whole spectrum of things. At one end you have the watercolour painter who goes into the field behind their home and paints them, then sells or hangs the pictures as is. At the other end you have Phil Spector producing records with the unmistakable wall of sound signature stamp. Editing falls somewhere in the middle. On the one hand there’s copy-editing that’s rather like hiring a studio complete with sound guy so your download sounds polished (I hope even that simple analogy will show the flaw in the assumption that editing is always good – the “in your front room” acoustic or “on a dodgy amp in a grotty pub” plugged-in sound is different from studio production and *some*times people prefer it – depends what they’re looking for). On the other hand a great editor working on your book with you can be like having Mark Ronson produce your record.
The thing about spectrums is that for any given genus, there are usually species at each point on it. And that’s what I want to say about writing. There are works that are right at the watercolour end. Writers who are so distinctive and original that editing their work is like giving it lithium – you knock off all the troughs, but you take away the peaks with them, and it’s impossible to do one without the other.
On the Guardian Books Blog this week, John Self started a fascinating debate that went so viral it spawned a popular twitter hashtag #famousforthewrongbook. The piece, which asked for examples where an author was famous for a piece of work that actually wasn’t their best, confirmed what I’ve been saying for a long while, and what’s very pertinent here: when you get a game-changer of a writer, their best work tends to come later in their career, but their “great” work comes at the start. The numbers of diaries and letters included in the 600+ comments on the post further gets the underlying message across. Editing polishes what’s there, makes it “sing”. But the actual step-change, what *is* there to start with that a person spends their whole life perfecting, that is most visible when the editorial hand is most distant.
And this is where self-publishing can do what regular publishing can’t. Regular publishing is a business and can’t be run other than as a business (don’t even get me started on Arts Council grants for small publishers). It’s not just inevitable that it will dole out large doses of cultural lithium to pull things towards accepted norms, that’s its job. Self-publishing doesn’t have to. It doesn’t have to make money, and can do pretty much what it wants on a zero budget.
So not only is it not obligatory for self-publishers to edit “to professional standards”, I would say we should positively embrace not-editing, and where we find great art in the self-published ranks that’s full of flaws and fragility, rather than seeing what could be done if it was given a good polish (I’ll tell you what will happen – you will discover that inside every great book there’s a very good one waiting to get out), we should celebrate it as it is.
And I can’t help but finishing with a note to the cultural media. I understand why you talk about the numbers with self-publishing. That’s not dumbass. Talking *only* about the numbers *is* dumbass.
And here’s what’s really dumbass. The cultural media portrays itself as wanting to make the distinction between commercial art and art that has no commercial reference. And yet it will only review books from regular publishers. Discussions of merit will range as far as obscure and forgotten *regular published* works and no further. That’s all fine and I’ve heard the arguments about how you *have* to talk about “event” books (I don’t buy the argument for a minute but I hear it and I’ll run with it) – just don’t pretend you’re talking about the fullness of art if you’re going to run that way.
An addendum. I’m going to do something that will shock and disturb. I’m going to say congratulations to the Guardian for opening up the First Book Awards to *all* books, however published. Fantastic. I really hope they follow through by offering reviews of the merits of the books readers suggested.
So please, stop judging self-published books on how well-edited they are, and start judging them on how good they are. The two are not always the same. And in rare instances they can be opposites.
Wednesday, 20 July 2011
And there’s the real reason – I don’t really know what to say. Well, that’s not true. I would like to go off on a rant about the ridiculous perception that having mental health issues is glamorous. Or that bipolar people are predisposed to be creative. But I’d just get too angry, and I’ve done it before. Many times.
So I’m not going to hobbyhorse you. Well, I am but not in a down your throat and make you gag kind of way. Hardest and most counterintuitive, I’m not going to talk about me, me, ME. I’m going to talk briefly about three remarkable artists and how mental health relates to their art. Then when I’ve got that out of the way I’ll talk about me! No, really, I won’t.
Cody James, author of The Dead Beat and Babylon, is the best novelist of her generation. She also has schizophrenia. She is also and has been also many many things – meth addict, Satanist, punk, opening act for Marilyn Manson, consumer of ludicrous quantities of noodles, zinester, photographer, my best friend. And just about the funniest person I’ve ever met. She’s taught me two things about mental health and writing. Well, the first is more about writing in general. Back at the start of last year, she made a brilliant video advertising our first big live show, at Rough Trade Records. In it, she read a passage from Babylon in which the central character, Daniel, tries to kill himself, something Cody has done 4 times. The video was deleted from Facebook after being reported and a massive debate followed. Cody’s contribution crystallised everything I feel about writing. She explained how an English teacher told her once she should try and make the world a better place. Her take – “maybe there is no way to leave the world a better place, and all we can do is tell the truth.” Simple, and all-encompassing. The truth doesn’t mean facts or autobiography. Telling the truth in your writing means peeling your skin off and poking down through the layers to reach the innermost part of yourself, then smearing it all over the page.
Which leads to the second thing – life, the truth, everything to do with this glorious and messed-up world, is complex (and mental health is only one very small part of it). It has more than one side. There is always hope in despair and despair in hope, humour in depravity and depravity in humour.
In a wonderful interview she did for me Cody said:
“What upsets me more than anything in novels and movies in this genre (Selby Jr. I’m looking at you) is that they seem hell bent on portraying only the moments of shock and depravity – they rob the reader and the viewer of the full experience. Yes, we were really fucked up and yes, we did bad things, but we were still trying. I still spent some Sunday mornings eating cereal and watching cartoons with a 7ft tranny. And, even though you’re all jacked up and your apartment has no furniture, you still try. Even though the person cooking the turkey has been up for three days and can’t remember how to work a stove, and your guests keep going to the bathroom to shoot up and then keep falling asleep in the mashed potatoes, you’re still there celebrating Thanksgiving. There are still moments of utter joy and there is still so much laughter. If, as an artist, you don’t portray that, you’re nothing but a cheap hack.”
I can’t really add to that.
Katelan Foisy is the author of Blood and Pudding. It’s the book that has influenced my writing and performing more than any other. It tells the story of her bipolar, heroin-addicted best friend Holly. Specifically it is a transcript of tapes Katelan made when one Xanax-fuelled teenage day the pair of them decided to get in a car and see where they ended up (another lesson from Katelan – record everything. You never know when you’ll want it). The transcriptions, full of idealism and energy, form the book’s bones, which Katelan has fleshed out with stories from the years between that trip and Holly’s death from an overdose just a few years later. I have never read such an uplifting celebration of a life. Or of Life. Holly’s was a life cut short, a life shadowed and tarred and tarnished, but it was a Life. Damn, it was a life. Blood and Pudding opens with the wonderful words “Wherever we end up, we end up,” and urges the reader to “go out and live. And live. And go on living, because you never know when it’ll stop.” There are two things to say about that. Mental illness is not a death sentence. Don’t treat it as such. In yourself, or in others. And make sure your writing contributes to Living. Because anything else is as good as being dead.
Dave Griffiths is the former frontman of the band Witches. He’s the writer and musician behind the fabulous Grey Children project. He’s using the project, which combines his considerable musical talents with his equally considerable literary ones, to raise awareness for Pure-O, the form of OCD he has. In a recent interview I did with him one of the things we discussed most was the role music plays in managing his symptoms. Music provides a total immersion that draws his mind away from everything else. I realised how similar what he was saying was to the role writing plays in my life (and listening to music), to the experience of so many people I know with various mental health problems. Sadly, sometimes the things we use to engulf our minds, to drown out the noises in our heads, are things that do us as much harm as the illness itself, if not more – drink, self-harm, drugs. But art is something that can improve both our mental health and our wider lives. Maybe even the lives of others.
There we have it. Three amazing writers. Three amazing people. Three ways mental health and writing intersect. And a single strand running through the whole thing. Life. And the importance of living it. Without apology and without restriction.
Thursday, 14 July 2011
The Dead Beat is £6.40
The Zoom Zoom is £6.40
Verruca Music is £6.40
and if you're interested, my books are also on offer :)
The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes for £4.80
Songs from the Other Side of the Wall for £6.40
(life:) razorblades included for£4
The Company of Fellows for £8
So what am I doing, and where?
Well, it's a right old mix of topics so I hope there'll be somethingf or everyone. Two pieces are already up, which is why I'm posting now, so you can join in whilst the debate's still young.
Over at Nicola Morgan's fabulous Help I Need a Publisher, I get to rant about whether looks matter for new writers in a piece called "You say fat ugly bloke I say channelling Ginsberg" It's a soap box column and as might be exected there's a real bruhaha brewing, and it's led to a fabulous follow-up piece from Catdownunder, reminiscing on meeting Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti.
Today I am guesting at India Drummond's site, talking about how and why I made the switch from experimental fiction to YA paranormal romance with my latest book, Black Heart High.
JUST POSTED! On Friday I am interviewed about life and art at Hannah Warren's Place. It's the most detailed and candid interview I've given.
And stll to come:
On Saturday it's the 16th, which means it's my day at Kindle UK Authors, where I'll be talking about the advantages and disadvantages of writers' critique groups, collectives and collaborations in a companion piece to the post I made here.
And on Sunday, in Crossing the Line, I'll be making my contribution to a month-long series of pieces on the subject "the relevance of sex in literature" over at Suzanne Burke's fab Soooz Says Stuff. I'll be opening many worm cans with a frank discussion of transgressive fiction, whether there are any lines left to cross with sex, and my own personal battles with writing transgressive material that's nothing to do with sex.
So come and join one or more lively debate!
Monday, 11 July 2011
So head over to the fabulous Sooz Says Stuff blog where there's a whole month of debate on the subject of the relevance of sex in literature with guest posts on all and every aspect of the topic from writers of every stripe who do, or don't, write sex in their work. And that includes me - on July 17th.
There's a full schedule here.
Oh, OK. Feel free to talk about it here. Let me start with a simple question. Is there a difference between sensationalism and important questioning of stereotypes? In what does it lie? The content? The intent of the author? The perception of the reader?
If you want something get your thoughts started take a look around the Sensation exhibition from 1997, and google some of the discussion around it.
Saturday, 9 July 2011
I’ve made no secret of my recent problems with the recurrence of my bipolar. It’s probably been clear that these issues with the chemical screwed-upness of my head have fed into some serious creative issues for me, which regular readers of mine will know is nothing new . Self doubt is like an old sparring partner, the perpetual Holmes to my Moriarty.
First the ups. I can’t imagine not collaborating having tasted what it can do. Some of the most extraordinary experiences of my life have come through collaborations with those head and shoulders more talented than me – and they have opened creative doors and pushed ideas around in my head that just couldn’t have happened on my own. From spending the day working intensely with Katelan Foisy on Lilith Burning to producing Penny Goring’s The Zoom Zoom, talking typography with Marc Nash, and performing a candlelit duet with Cody James, working with my betters has raised my awareness of what is possible to places no one has a right to expect.
But there are also downs. They can never cancel the ups, but they can be immensely damaging. To say this year they nearly killed off my creativity is an understatement though, to be fair, the utter dank skull-scraping greyness I’ve felt at times has been more the cause than the effect of creative doubts, however it may have felt at the time.
There’s a quantitative and a qualitative component to it. First there’s the sheer sense of drowning. I know it’s selfish, and that compounds the sense of worthlessness in my head even more – how dare I want the time to write when there are so many people who need my time more? I know that having the time to create is a luxury, and wanting it when I could be working to promote the million projects more valuable than anything I could produce is just plain wrong. But I do want creative time. I haven’t sat down with a straight head (without guilt at not answering the 10-20 important e-mails from wonderful creative people I get a day, or the feeling I should be doing more for everyone at Year Zero, for my writers at eight cuts) to work on one of my projects for over two years now, and I want to so much. But even having those thoughts makes me want to cut them – physically, literally – from the inside of my stupid head.
But worse is knowing you are second best if that. Art isn’t a competition. I know that. But there *is* art that changes people’s lives, and I work daily with people who produce it. That’s a privilege no one has the right to expect and I am ridiculously grateful. But every day it shows me the gaps. It shows me what I know I can never produce. I tell people jokingly that I feel most of the time like Ferlinghetti, only it’s not really a joke. Ferlinghetti was a really good poet. Exceptional even. But who really thinks about his poems when they hear his name? Ferlinghetti will always be the man who published Howl. And quite right too. I know that I am in a uniquely privileged position to work with people every bit as talented as Ginsberg. And one day maybe just maybe people will hear my name and think “yeah, he was the one who published Penny Goring’s first work” or “wasn’t he the ringleader of that group Cody James used to write with.” And that’s more than I have the right to ask for.
That brings me to the last cause of self-loathing: arrogance. I didn’t start writing to be a Ferlinghetti. I wanted to be a Ginsberg. I still want to be a Ginsberg. It’s something 99.9% of writers must face on a daily basis – how to keep going in the knowledge that you will never be a game changer. Now of course I love writing most of the time – as hobbies go it’s a pretty great one. And it’s taken me to places and introduced me to people who have changed my life infinitely for the better. But still, that dark place remains. That crowded room where you find yourself alone with yourself and the inescapable truth – this is a hobby, at wildest-dream best a career. And yet for the people you work with every day it may well be so much more.
Most of the time it’s a place I can deal with, or at least ignore. But when my brain has decided to swallow a few wappy pills it’s a burning desert of a testing ground, the sun of self-worthlessness roasting me alive, and the realisation of the sheer arrogance, selfishness and stupidity even to consider it a problem provides the extra fat to baste me.
I was going to leave it there, but thankfully just writing it down has helped me to move a little beyond self-pity to trying to get some understanding. A week or so back a friend of mine, the concert pianist James Rhodes, wrote a great article about the 0.2 second rule. It's about how in many areas of endeavour, someone will spend the majority of their career trying to make the almost imperceptibly small progression that takes you from being very very good to being superlative. Is writing the same? I've already said it's not competitive - but then neither's being a concert pianist. I'd always thought that in the creative arts a great work would come right at the start of someone's career, before they had the edge edited off. But if writing is like sport, like being a pianist, maybe that's not so. Maybe greatness waits at the end of the journey not the beginning. But that raises further questions. The time and focus needed to hone your work that extra amount - how do you live with yourself being that selfish? Especially if it may come to nothing? At what stage do you accept that you will only be good at something at which you were desperate to be great? How do you cope with that realisation?
I hope you'll join in the questions at the end, maybe share your experiences of extreme self-doubt, maybe just tell me I'm a dick, but do share. And accept my thanks for allowing me to be so self-indulgent.
Friday, 1 July 2011
Well now here it is in all its glory. The special edition paperback of Verruca Music, just £8 here. The first 30 copies come complete with the score of the wonderful accompanying soundtrack, composed by the remarkable Stuart Estell. AND bundled in is the ebook for free.
Verruca Music is absurdist comedy of the very blackest kind, informed by a love of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Peter Cook and The Goon Show. Featuring the Fibonacci sequence, floors that open up without warning, a powerful laxative, and a duvet that periodically changes colour, Verruca Music charts the narrator’s emergence from a state of fearful near-immobility assisted only by entertainments of his own devising.