Saturday, 13 October 2012

Everyone Gets Bupkiss

0.1 So I was visiting my folks and a good friend of the family dropped by, got given a copy of Holophin by my mum, admired the book and said, ‘So how much money did you have to pay to get that done then?’ I could have been (and would have been if I didn’t love this guy) mildly insulted at the implication that I had self-published a work through a vanity press, like an old man with his war memoir in the early 90s who loses his savings on the endeavor and has to keep 6,000 unedited, unsellable copies in his attic like a literalisation of unprocessed trauma in, oh, for goodness’ sake drop the extended metaphor. But: I’m a hypocrite who wants recognition from everyone but who doesn’t go on and on about his achievements absolutely all the time, more’s the pity as if I did  people would have a more accurate idea of what I am. Fact is, if you’re shifting a few hundred to a couple of thousand poetry books why would you expect a lovely friend of your family to be aware of your prior literary endeavours? You wouldn’t, is what. Now, I could also have felt hurt by the implication that I’d somehow magicked a private income which lasted beyond paying rent, bills and groceries to afford to have my own books printed to such a high standard as PitM achieves, thus making me a killer cocktail of delusional, entitled and privileged. But what can I say? I’m magnanimous enough only to whinge on a blog about it.

0.2 So I mumbled about how it was a London-based indie press (I may have said small, in italics) and that I didn’t have to pay anything. I could have gone on to say that the London-based press had also organised and paid for a launch event which was by far the most well-run, thoughtful, thoroughly promoted and advertised lit event I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with. And that, no, I didn’t pay for it out of my imaginary trust fund. PitM paid for it because they’re a business and they’re very good at what they do. Instead I muttered something further about acknowledging my mother as a distributor.

1.0 But it got me thinking about the implications of our current models of cultural distribution again, the fact that there are a whole lot of good writers, with small and large presses, and also plenty who are self-producing work of real quality but where, nevertheless, supply outstrips demand by several orders of magnitude. Ways of not being assholes to one another, is I guess what I’m interested in.

1.1. The very worst present you could ever give to anyone is a copy of your own book. I think I’ve even done this on two occasions in the last 15 years and would hereby like to offer the people I did this to a replacement present of some wine or a record they might like.

1.2 C.f. paragraph 2, that I mean to say I didn’t have to pay anything unless you count occasionally buying copies of the book myself to sell at readings, aside from the stack of complimentary copies PitM give to their authors. But I’m pretty sure even Maya Angelou has to buy copies of her own book if she wants to give a bunch of them away to friends and family. I’m assuming when she reads in public there’s a bookseller on hand to provide books to the audience because this even happens to me sometimes, including at the aforementioned launch. (NOTE: Sub, please check with Maya Angelou).  But the former is really just another way of getting the book out there, circumnavigating the internet. Once you’ve bought ten, you sell ten and then use the money to buy ten more and, perhaps, some beer and a pie. I guess one upshot of the wonderful increase in small-print-run technology is that there are plenty of publishing models which rely solely on the author buying their own books and foisting them on friends and family or some imaginary “community”. We can call this the Utopian Bullshit model of publishing [See 1.8].

1.3 That there is a kind of low-level “artist shaming” which even genuinely nice people like to indulge in, and that it has to do with pre-emptively keeping anyone who thinks of themselves as an artist or writer’s “feet on the ground” just in case they were going to swan around the place thinking they’re special.

1.4 Is “artist shaming” a peculiarly British thing? At least under Stalin you got to swan around thinking you were special for a year or two before they reinterpreted your work and called in the firing squad.

1.5 That I feel so uncomfortable with the whole thing that I even cringed to write “artist” (in inverted commas) in 1.3 as it feels like I’m making grandiose claims for myself. Which is my attempt to pre-emptively strike (via self-deprecation, in this case internal) against the well-meaning poltroon in 1.3. Why would you want to shame me? I already think I’m a charlatan! [lies on back to expose belly and whimpers.]

1.6 Treatment for a movie in which a war is fought using pre-emptive self-deprecation as the weapon.

1.7. There is no right of reply, a review is a review and you take it on the chin, even if you have kind of a weak chin, but there was a fairly trouncing review of Migraine Hotel in one of the major poetry reviews by a reasonably well-known poet a couple of years ago which has stuck with me. The reviewer quoted at length from my About the Author page. It was a silly About the Author page, which had actually been cribbed (in, I swear, a proofing error) from my first collection, the 2004 version of The Solex Brothers, without my realising it. It was a mistake: I hadn’t provided a new AtA, an old one was put in as a place-holder and we forgot to change it. Meaning that it was 5 years out of date in terms of content as well as register; in fact it didn’t even mention my previous collection being shortlisted for the Forward Prize, which, all dissembling aside, was clearly the foundation of my career, an accolade I was very fortunate to receive, and not something I’m falsely modest about. I’m not going to reprint it here because the whole thing is too irritating to me to this day; I’ll leave it at stating the AtA in the first run of Migraine Hotel was excessively self-deprecating and overly wordy in a manner I thought to be funny (a register I have come to call “fucking dickhead”). It’s hard to explain why I thought this was okay, especially if you’re younger than me and you’ve grown up in a country and a culture where literally everybody, from the fake Big Issue seller with his “last copy” to the local radio DJ, to your mum, to the member of parliament, to the meter reader, to the teacher, to the singer songwriter thinks they’re an edgy stand-up comedian. Post- Innocent Smoothies, jocular product descriptions and About the Author sections are the orthodoxy, are ubiquitous and are about as funny as a root canal. So it’s rare to open a book without finding:

Benjamin Something pokes honey badgers with spoons and when he is not doing this he can be found oscillating gently in a blanket of crepuscular mouthfaces. Prendergast! Prendergast! He works as a Cornetto for eleven burly Manchurians and is married to the fucking sea. Lick his knee and taste a whirlwind!

off the top of my head, but I want you to think back to 2004, when I was in my early twenties and there was no Twitter or Facebook and none of us had realised how mindlessly unfunny we were. Jocular About the Author sections, especially in the dangerously unselfconscious field of poetry, still seemed kind of edgy. (They weren’t, of course; I’m just asking you to accept that they seemed that way to me). So the critic quoted at length from my AtA and came to the conclusion that I was an evasive hypocrite who wanted admiration for my accolades which I didn’t even have the guts to mention at the same time as posing as someone who is above that kind of thing. Not content with spending 200 words of a 300 word review talking about the front papers, the critic also went in for a little am-psych: “Kennard clearly cares very deeply about his achievements [the AtA did mention the Eric Gregory Award and some other stuff], as well he might, but read between the lines: He wants us to think he doesn’t care about it.” (paraphrase – it’s not to hand), inviting the reader to come to their own conclusions about what an intolerable wanker I must be. Which, well, fair enough, but to this day, to this hour, my feeling is still: well, perhaps I do feel genuinely conflicted about the whole thing. Don’t you? Perhaps anyone halfway CROSSOUTnarcisisitc personality disorderCROSSOUT thoughtful would and ought to feel conflicted about it. And maybe what you’re responding to is your own disproportionate esteem for awards, etc.

1.8 Oh, yeah, so on the Utopian Bullshit model and why I’m being dismissive of it… What it is, see, is that it’s presented to us as  the ultimate democratisation of culture. Suddenly all of us can publish, and the books can look either equally lovely (courtesy of aforementioned small print-run tech) or equally neutral/crap (courtesy of eBooks). I want to argue the exact opposite for a couple of paragraphs, i.e. that the “studio” model we’re supposed to be celebrating the dissolution of in the name of egalitarianism, where a big publisher gives you some money and gets behind your book in terms of production, promotion and distribution, is actually a buttload more egalitarian. (Granted, this involves accepting that 75% of embittered whinging about trad publishing being a closed circle is what I just described it as, which it is.) And it is more equal. Because, showman or agoraphobic, you’d benefit from the same robust system of distribution and promotion. The really small-press model, you could argue, has its own negative equality – everyone gets bupkiss – but let’s return to our false dichotomy: two poets who don’t exist publish a collection with the same small press.

Subject A is a well-connected garrulous millionaire who lives in London; he buys 100,000 copies of his book and organises a tour in a hundred provincial theatres where he not only gives copies of the  book away for free, but gives people free booze too. National treasures write blurbs.

Subject B is a low-income socially awkward malcontent who lives in rural Wales miles from the nearest train station. He isn’t Welsh, which only adds to his problems. He can barely afford to buy a couple of copies of his own book, has no connections to organise readings or launches and/so although his work is exceptionally powerful and beautiful and formally interesting, nobody ever gets to hear about it.

I’m not even sure what I’m arguing here. Just that it would be nice if Subject B was able to exist as a writer too, and I’m not sure he is under the Utopian Bullshit model.

1.9 Oh, and please don’t contact me to discuss this: I’m absolutely not trying to start a dialogue and I genuinely have no interest whatsoever in your opinion.

2.0 Please buy my new collection of poetry A Lost Expression from Salt, available this week.