Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Editors Converse - Reading Lists (4/4)


I didn’t know about the Tin House neglecterino list, no, but it sounds like a useful resource. It’s not a publication I’ve turned my attention to enough, so this might be a good time to start. Yes, you’re right about the inclusion of Lessing being a little odd - I don’t think Nobel laureates need to be rescued from the ash-heap of public forgetfulness, do they? - but Green (H.) makes a lot more sense: outside of the UK, I don’t know how popularly read he is (he may even be a primarily academic pursuit, even here: a writer’s writer, right?), and Dodie Smith falls into that category of a writer who’s known for one popular work but whose other output tends to get left by the wayside, a little unfairly.

(Speaking of the ‘Joycean moment’ Rochelle and I are about to do the most middle class thing in the world: no, not ‘vote Labour’, ha ha!, but do a joint reading of Ulysses, the results of which, if they have concrete form, may be coming to a blog near you, if you don’t behave yourself.)

Your list I like, and I’m sure there’s a whole host of work I could add to it, though most of it would fall in the bracket of work by authors who themselves are wildly non-neglected, but some of whose writing gets overshadowed massively by their celebrated output: so, Kerouac’s Doctor Sax and Old Angel Midnight come to mind straight off the bat - dense, post-Joycean engagements with language and landscape that come as a hell of a shock to the system for any reader who’s only encountered On the Road and The Dharma Bums before (and, again, like many of your examples, not perfect, but certainly interesting, and with flashes of brilliance: the flood of the Merrimac in Doctor Sax is among the best things Kerouac wrote). I could probably trawl my brains for more esoteric examples, but that’d be silly, and distracting. Just keep reading.

I think you may have mentioned Motorman before, and it was suitably intriguing then, although I’ve fallen away to a certain extent from that kind of genre / post-genre writing, at least for the time being (although, if you’ve not read it, I can recommend John Crowley’s Engine Summer, which, although narratively more conventional from the sounds of things, contains some genuinely astonishing writing, and moves at a pace which, at times, can be described as glacial: it’s the kind of post-apocalyptic novel to which only, say, Studio Ghibli could do justice in adaptation).

Otherwise, I’m just ploughing through old-school poetry proper: none of this dabbling in cross-genre intertextuality. Get hence, I tell thee, get hence! New stuff and old: there’s so much, in fact, hiding on my shelf I’ve not given proper due to that I don’t really need to engage in anything new for some months (not that that’ll happen, by the way). I’ve been re-engaging with Alan Baker’s Variations on Painting a Room, his chunky ‘collected pamphlets’ from 2010, which is great: it’s really interesting watching him move from a broadly realist, Objectivist-tinged mode to more open, collagist forms that deploy repetition and fugue structures. His newer work’s really good, too: a KFS pamphlet came today, comprising two short sequences which have an antic, Peter Hughes-y vibe to them, but still very much Alan’s own voice (slightly more melancholic and caffeine-fuelled than PH, definitely). Revisiting O’Hara, too, because frankly - ha! - I’ve only really scratched the surface of that particular treasure-hoard. I guess it’s easy to take the greats for granted, but that’s a silly excuse, as why take for granted something that’s still more vital and exuberant than 90% of everything else on the shelf, even half a century after he died?


The whole depth/breadth thing has always bothered me. I know it’s a gross generalisation, but you like that kind of thing, so here goes: writers often get known for books, which, while worthy for their day, begin to lump together in a mass of familiar prose and plot arcs and aspirations.

I finally finished the Mueller novel I’ve been stalling over for months, The Appointment. Elsewhere I think you made a point about the ‘worthiness’ of a certain kind of writing in ‘Nobel’ terms; problems of history, accountability and guilt, how to deal with war, genocide and recovery. As if there’s only the binary of WW2 and post-WW2 for laureates to fit into. Yes, there’s a type there, and the same feels true of the kind of work that breaks through in other terms.

Do you remember we once had an argument about compassion fatigue? You (belligerent bastard that you are) accused me of a failure of empathy for arguing how Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood, had given me greater emotional access to the Nazi genocide than reading Eli Wiesel’s Night. And yet both books stand in my memory as powerful and vital accounts of a history I can never have direct access to.

Ultimately, there’s no real breadth of vicarious experience from that kind of writing. If you read every contemporary prize winner, every year, it’d be like reading the same novel over and over, with the names changed. This isn’t an argument in favour of Booker’s Basic Plots (BBPs), but an attack on the inability of most writers to make a reader feel like there are other possibilities in the world, other structures or habits. What I feel we’re talking about is finding the kind of books whereby you can’t just squint and feel like you’re staring at another vanilla-magnolia pastiche.

For now I’m continuing with breadth. There’s too much out there for me to dive into oeuvres right now; I’m trying to rebuild my love of/faith in books, writing, the ambitious wildness of the world’s libraries. Trying to find titles which don’t fit comfortably into BBPs; I guess I’m looking for a literature of anomalies. Engine Summer’s on the list.

I’ve three titles with me at the moment. Just finished Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, which is so mischievous and brilliant and falls apart into rushed chaos at the end, but without dissipating its energy. Currently on Burroughs’ Junky, which is awful and weird. As Ballard recourses to physical disability, cars and erotica, so Burroughs, even in this early book, repeatedly associates to insects, centipedes. After that, I’ve Aldiss’ Galaxies likes Grains of Sand, for which I have a relatively blank slate of expectations.

So, a closing salvo: books with introductions by other authors, such a roulette wheel. Ali Smith’s intro to Carrington drips with hyperbole and adjectival juice-bites for the jacket. Allen Ginsberg’s introduction to Junky is gripping and wonderful, but also stylish. I liked the prose. The Aldiss edition has some kind of hybrid fronting the book: a next-level geekery extemporising about Aldiss’ career, which swings into a fairly brutal take-down of publishers’ fears of fake-publishing short story collections as novels-in-parts.

Anyway, I figured it’s better to open more worm cans at the end of these dialogues than pretend they should be cleanly and clearly rounded off. It’s a living conversation, non? Maybe we should just start posting it up, one letter per day, and just let it grow. We’ve already got a sub-conversation going on email.


This ought to be the last part of this conversation, but maybe we lied. Maybe there'll be a part 5/4 tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow already happened and you're reading this in another version of time. We don't actually have any answers. We're only the Editors. You, dear Reader, curate the world yourself.

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