Friday, October 22, 2010

The beginning of something

To celebrate its fifteenth year, Spike Magazine has created a 600-page PDF book sampling its online output. You can download it for free from the website. Unfortunately, there are many contributions from me.

Reading Chris Mitchell's introduction, I was reminded of a work-related car journey to Luton in which we discussed possible names for the proposed ezine. "Spike" was not mentioned as I would have surely objected to its lack of gravitas. This was symptomatic because, despite my presence, I was always an outsider to the project of "picking the brains of popular culture", Spike's subsequent tagline. Unpopular culture is more my scene and raising the profile of an alternative book culture was always the aim.

In the mid-Nineties, Chris says, "there was very little about books or literature on the web" and so "it seemed like a chance to get in at the beginning of something". Looking back, we can see how online publication mimicked newspapers – reviews, features, interviews – and could only be in their shadow. My first contribution was a review of two Beckett biographies. I had not written like this before but the medium was public only in name; who was going to read it? Chris offered me freedom to write anything, so I bashed out essays on EM Cioran and Thomas Bernhard, both of which give me nightmares now but, at the time, gave a direction to writing it had previously lacked. The beginning had begun, so what came next?

In 2000, Chris set up Splinters (now offline), the Spike blog, and the newspaper model changed. The space allowed short, daily posts with comment, links and, above all, action. It drew visitors to the vaults of material and dressed the site in verbal art direction. My first post was on November 2nd of that year and soon my voice began to dominate. (Was I the first to mention WH Auden's poem on that unspeakable day in 2001?). I'm glad the blog has not featured in the PDF. However, its absence points to the lack of confidence in what had begun.

If blogging was next, it may also have been a step back. The aura of reviews and features glowed brighter as blogging came to depend on flippant humour, political and cultural ephemera, and bland bookchat. In 2003, I began writing for the collaborative blog In Writing that sought to combine the contingency of blogs with the weight of reviews and essays. In the twelve months of its existence, we published 140,000 words. Various factors in late 2004 caused it to fracture into two new blogs: This Space and Spurious. The former you're reading and the latter is soon to metamorphose into a novel. Not a great deal has changed since then, so can there be another step for online writing?

Dan Green, author of a singular literary blog, had high hopes that online criticism would become a "vehicle for serious writing" but has recently expressed dissatisfaction with its direction: "Literary blogs", he says, "have become not an alternative to the established critical order but part and parcel of it".
Mostly devoted to superficial appraisals of potboilers and best-sellers, these blogs actively seek to be conduits of publishing propaganda (in the guise of "promoting" books). They have apparently become the most popular type of "literary" blog, and if "book blog" eventually becomes the name applied mostly to such weblogs, the future of literary criticism online is bleak indeed. But even those still self-identifying as "literary blogs" have settled in to an overly cozy relationship with both publishers and the print reviewing media. (Many of the bloggers have themselves sought out reviewing opportunities in the print media, as if the ultimate purpose of creating a literary blog was after all to attract enough attention to catch on as a newspaper reviewer).
This is borne out by an article in The Bookseller magazine proclaiming "Indie Literary Sites Start Coming of Age" and also the establishment-friendly reviews one sees now at supposedly radical literary websites like 3AM. This is precisely why they have become "the most popular" and why the newspapers are now mimicking their potatohead musings. Critical writing is still to find its way into the mainstream.

I have to admit that for years I was mystified why my blog writings have gone apparently unnoticed, at least in terms of page views. While the most popular blogs were getting thousands a day, I was lucky if This Space gathered 300. I thought, isn't my review of Littell's The Kindly Ones better than almost all the others, and didn't my post on a road traffic accident say more about life's relation to literature than any journalist's exposé of an author's life? Perhaps, however, these explain why it is relatively unpopular. Anyway, I have a difficult relationship with praise and criticism, with self-effacement vying for dominance with aggressive resentment. It is probably best to write, as in those early days of Spike, as if nobody is watching. After having published a dozen or so reviews in print media, I'm nowadays genuinely happier to work for weeks on long reviews or essays and have them disappear into a gaping void. Finding a way to talk about the reading experience is, I've realised, the greatest pleasure of writing; where it ends is of no importance. Still, over the last fourteen years of online work, I've seen the names of my key writers – Thomas Bernhard, Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici – become familiar whereas before they were marginalised. If I have had only a minor role in this, it has made the effort worthwhile.

Yet I still like to imagine an ideal literary website in which the design, the writing and, most of all, the editorial vision offers a unique and dynamic approach to literature and culture in general, countering the banalities of commercial literary sites. So what might it look like? I have an idea but it requires an exceptional amount of work by people who have to earn a living elsewhere. Perhaps such a website is only ever the green ray as the sun sets on one's hopes. Such a feeling is nothing new and we may learn something from previous attempts in strikingly similar times.

Exactly fifty years ago, a letter was sent by Maurice Blanchot addressed to "My dear Sartre" concerning plans for a new print review. This was in the immediate wake of the Manifesto of the 121, a declaration on "the Right to Insubordination in the War in Algeria". "You reminded me" he tells Sartre "of what I must have said at times and what I have always thought privately: that the Declaration would find its true meaning only if it were the beginning of something."

He expresses doubt that the established reviews can effect the rupture he seeks: "What will we end up with? Finally, seen from the outside, a more literary Temps Modernes, a more political Lettres Nouvelles". Old habits died hard, he says, so, instead: "I believe that if we want to represent the change that we are all sensing, as we should unequivocally, if we want to make it more real and to deepen it, in its moving presence, in its new truth, we can do so only by means of a new instrument."
I do not really believe it is of the greatest interest to have a review in which one finds beautiful literary stories, beautiful poems, political commentaries, social or ethnological investigations etc.; this mixture always risks being ambiguous, without truth or necessity. I believe, rather, in a review of total critique, critique where literature would be understood in its own meaning [...], where scientific discoveries, often poorly explained, would be put to the test of holistic critique, where all the structures of our world, all the forms of existence of this world, would enter into the same movement of examination, scrutiny, and contestation, a review where the word critique would once again find its meaning, which is to be global. [Translated in Political Writings by Zakir Paul]
The journal failed.


  1. Simply: I'm glad you keep blogging - and glad to know about the Gaping Void. If there were no alternatives to the machinery of the book marketing/publicity business, sometimes called literary blogging, many of us out here would die of irritation and boredom.

  2. I agree that the way in which literary bloggers are besieged by publishers, publicists etc is a real issue. They should stay independent and outside all that biz. But I have no problem with blogs being funny, witty, miscellaneous, diverting. There is room for High Seriousness and for Low Humour. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

  3. "Yet I still like to imagine an ideal literary website in which the design, the writing and, most of all, the editorial vision offers a unique and dynamic approach to literature and culture in general, countering the banalities of commercial literary sites. So what might it look like?"

    I might want to steal this line & put it up on my masthead.

    I'd like to hear more about the "exceptional amount of work" thing. What are you looking toward?

    The idea behind Spurious, which I've seen on occasion, has some attraction. Maybe I should set up another blog and run my novel serially...

    Jim H.

  4. Jim, the work I'm referring to is *merely* the design of the site, its bespoke coding and art direction, and then the writing and editing necessary to maintain it. One only has to look at the major literary websites (those that are more than just blogs) to see that they demand prolonged attention and how easily they can become moribund.

  5. I too have a difficult relationship with both praise and criticism - one of the main reasons I prefer to write as if no one were watching. Few are: how very liberating!

  6. Stephen - I did not encounter Blanchot or Bernhard via your writing, but you did lead me to Josipovici, which is more than enough to thank you for. In the meantime, I'm writing through Bachmann and Celan, but none of that is online...



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