Style, wit and narrative drive – not falling, but crawling

Research in the newspaper archives for a short story that I’m writing for publication next year to accompany exhibitions by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson is turning up some very rich material, including interesting ephemera, such as a launch ad from 1986 for ‘Paladin Fiction’ (see detail below), a new paperback list from one of the then Grafton Books paperback imprints (all long ago subsumed into the modern Harper Collins).

The 1986 Paladin launch list of four titles included books by Jonathan Meades, Thomas M. Disch and Don Bloch, and the ad promised that new Paladin Fiction titles would be published monthly.

The most exciting book on the list by far, though, is Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote. The figure (right) who appears at the foot of the ad is not Joan of Arc, but a female Quixote, extracted in fact from the front cover illustration.

I’d been thinking about Kathy Acker, because a week or two ago Ubuweb tweeted a link to the fantastic Kathy Acker audio archive that they host. This is really well worth exploring: I can’t recommend it highly enough. Among the gems on offer are audio files of her collaboration with The Mekons on Pussy, King of the Pirates, which was recorded in Leeds and Chicago in 1995. Mekon co-founder (and former Three John) Jon Langford, describes Pussy… as being,

like a short story version of the book put to music — very interesting for us, musically. It was one of the best things we’d done in a long time. But it was dismissed [by the rock press] as a knocked-off thing — because people couldn’t handle it. A lot of male rock journalists could not deal with Kathy Acker.

One thing that is striking about this mid-’80s book advertisement is that a Kathy Acker novel is being marketed at all, let alone that — called ‘exciting’ — it is being published on a literary list by a mainstream, mass-market publisher, and that she is being described as a writer ‘with style, wit and narrative drive.’ All of which is absolutely true, amongst other things, but even if Paladin were still an extant paperback imprint, it is almost impossible to imagine the same thing happening today in a mainstream that often seems obsessed rather with ubiquitous celebrity and/or proximity to power.

Perhaps it is just as well that a host, or (to quote Charles Boyle in the progamme of the recent Free Verse poetry fair in Exmouth Market), ‘a disarray’ of small publishers is emerging, who may be better equipped to survive than were many of the small and independent publishers active when I first started finding readers for my fiction in the mid-late-1990s.

The Free Verse fair was put together by Charles Boyle of the excellent CB editions (or CBe for short). Charles is a poet and novelist, and a former in-house editor at Faber and Faber where in fact he brilliantly copy-edited my novel Foxy-T. He writes a very entertaining and informative blog about the contemporary challenges of being a small publisher: ‘We can work around rather than within the system […] I never set out to be a dissident, but it seems it comes with the job.’

Back when CB editions were launched, Guardian paperback reviewer Nicholas Lezard wrote an influential review of  Boyle’s pseudonymously-published first novel, the charming and intelligent 24 for 3 by ‘Jenny Walker’. CBe, he suggested, had been set up to support, ‘works which might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers.’

I recently blogged Hugo Glendinning’s great photo of contributors to my Britpulp! anthology of 1999. Writing about the collection in an unpublished note, a speculative cover quote, Iain Sinclair (who himself edited the Paladin Poetry list for a while) said:

britpulp! is urban, nervy, agressive. Fast-twitch prose that fizzes and spits.  Narrative with a kick. Jump-cuts that hurt like a knuckle in the eye. Here are the improper (and therefore reliable) tales of the city. Here are stars who glory in their anonymity. Here too, in Michael Moorcock, Ted Lewis and Jack Trevor Story, are the best of the reforgotten (they’ve never gone away, although it has taken someone with Tony White’s sharp eye for history to acknowledge a proper debt). Pulp has always been a secret. Read by millions, remembered by few. There is no room for prima donnas in a world where gaudy-covered shockers have the lifespan of a fruitfly. There is only one rule: keep the pages turning. Get your retaliation in early, and often. Let this book read you.

With hindsight, I think Sinclair got something wrong here: it was no longer titles that had ‘the lifespan of a fruitfly,’ nor the writers who were ‘reforgotten,’ but the publishers, who were struggling at best to get coverage in the broadsheet review sections, hard-pressed to get books in to the bigger shops and unable to survive the closure of destination independents like Compendium in Camden Town. Small publishers such as Pulp Books, Low Life, Codex and Attack, to name only a few — just the ones that published me — are all long gone; ancient history, like Paladin.

In an interview I did recently with Matt Locke for Arts Council England, he stressed the importance of networks and, ‘relationships with audiences that are more than just the accidental monopoly of a big distribution infrastructure.’ Matt was talking about challenges facing arts venues, museums and galleries, and the kinds of ‘call and response’ relationships and the spaces and opportunities for emotional engagement that have been created by things like Twitter — issues that apply just as much, of course, to publishers and to the book trade.

Among Boyle’s contemporary ‘disarray’ of small publishers emerging in this past year — in precisely those ‘cracks between the big publishers’ — it has been interesting to see former-Idler colleague Dan Kieran and friends’ Unbound, which uses social networks and crowd-funding to pre-fund new titles by writers including — funnily enough, a quarter of a century later — Jonathan Meades, again. Of course it is not just small independent publishers using such strategies to create a connection with their readers, but an interesting aspect of something like Twitter is its leveling function (which I first noticed when I was writer in residence at the Science Museum two or three years ago, when a blog like the Londonist was tweeting London news and cultural stories with more authority and a clearer London-based identity than the Evening Standard), and that larger organisations have been slower to use it effectively, often mistaking Twitter, in Matt Locke’s words, ‘for a broadcast medium’ rather than a conversation among effective equals.

Meanwhile, And Other Stories have developed their own stylishly subversive and boutique variation of the subscription model. Depending how you look at it, And Other Stories‘ offer of four books a year for thirty-odd-quid may represent slightly better value for the reader than Unbound’s scale of support. Like Unbound it offers subscribers a printed thank you in the pages of the books they support, but while And Other… subscribers can participate in acquisition and other meetings, the ultimate editorial say-so is wielded, the website says, by the publisher, rather than a per-title subscriber threshold being reached.

But whither Paladin’s 1986 promise of style and wit? I recently went along to the Large Glass Gallery in London, for And Other Stories’ launch of Swimming Home, the immensely, yes, stylish and witty new novel by Deborah Levy, which opens with a very narrative drive — too fast on a mountain road in the South of France at midnight.

Maybe we can turn to Kathy Acker again for a preemptive answer to Nicholas Lezard’s anxiety about works falling through the cracks, or one that turns it slightly on its head. Maybe the cracks are the place to be. Not falling through them, but crawling! In a good way. ‘The whole rotten world come down and break,’ as Kathy Acker puts it, in the brilliantly scatological and anthemic, ‘Ange’s Song After She Crawled Through London’, track two of the musical version of Pussy, King of the Pirates. If you don’t know ‘Ange’s Song…’ I would urge you to listen to it here, but be warned, it is also a gloriously revolutionary and obscene earworm, a song that I guarantee you’ll be singing for days.

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