What is a book?
I was listening to Howard Jacobson discussing his new book Zoo Time on BBC's Newsnight yesterday evening. He was considering, as many have before, the current state of literature and the crisis in publishing. But what kind of crisis are we in when, as Jacobson observed, these days more people are writing than reading?
Twatter and Facebook included (for those who take pleasure in the banal), is
it such a bad thing that agents and publishers are becoming irrelevant to
getting the printed word out into the public space? And should we worry who
will police and regulate literature? If it's true that book groups dictate what
is being published, then we have already witnessed the death of the novel
anyway. The publishing world these days is a commercial space that responds to
what it feels the reading public want: plot, character and progressive
narrative; no matter that the writing is loaded with the clichéd and the
sentimental. Poetry in language has largely disappeared, and poetry for
its own sake is self-conscious and formulaic. If Kafka, Joyce or Beckett were
to submit a manuscript today, they would be dismissed as experimental or sent
off to enrol on one of thousands of creative writing courses to learn the RULES
of writing. Then there is the current obsession with categorisation of written
works, where to place them on the shelves: fiction, non-fiction, autobiography,
poetry, prose, travel, adventure, etc., etc. God help the poor writer who
defies genre, unless, of course, you are already a celebrity, in which case you
can publish any old drivel.
Why is it that what we revere in classical works would never make it past the agent or publisher today? The construction of the modern novel with its forced and artificial 'storytelling' bears no resemblance to the fragmented world in which most of us live and communicate, it is fast food for the head rather than sustenance for the soul. As Jacobson (one of the exeptions to the prize winning author) said in his Newsnight interview, he hates the idea of page turners—people who say, 'I couldn't put the novel down.' Put it down, he says, get angry and upset with it, go for a walk. Why should the author or publisher fear that the reader might feel uncomfortable with a book, put some work into the act of reading rather than passively consume page turners?
The short 'essays' of Virginia Woolf, or those of Michel de Montaigne 350 years earlier, even epistolary texts of the ancient Greeks, are much closer in form and substance to many of the better posts we read today on blogs than the dissapointingly forgettable put forward by the large publishing houses for literary prizes, desparately pumped up with marketing hype. Perhaps what we are witnessing today with the revival of self-publishing, is a rejection of the commercial pulp (including the prize winning novel) produced and controlled by the publishing world, and a return to more meaningful forms of writing. After all, is there not a grand tradition of self-publishing, including works by William Blake, Jane Austin, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Alexander Dumas, Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and Laurence Stern.
Whilst listening to Jacobson, I recalled my first meeting with Yiannis Gabriel, at the time editor of the journal that accepted my first ever essay on cynicism. I was to ask Gabriel if he would consider supervising me to write a PhD dissertation on the Cynics as a prelude to publishing a book on cynicism. His advice was, if you want to write a book, write a book. The constraints of writing a PhD will only get in the way of your project. What do you need a PhD for anyway? Well, he did not use those exact words but that was the sense of it. Sound advice which I followed. Later Gabriel wrote the foreword for the book when it was accepted for publication.
Now in an earlier post I discuss wanting to write a book about tramps. I have also started to feel of late that my website is becoming pedestrian, when all I really want to do is write the book. But I do like the form, freedom and spontaneity of the web. Reflecting on both Jacobson and Gabriel's advice (why write a PhD?), it occurred to me, why write a book? Why not just publish the book in progress on this site. I've heard of 'blooks': book versions of blogs, so why not write a book on a blog? I don't particularly need the money, I'm not looking for celebrity, I don't need to publish to further my career having decided to no longer work in the formal sense. Neither am I hung up about copyright or plagiarism. As the arch plagiarist and fictioneer Raymond Federman wrote in Critifiction:
'... imagination does not invent the SOMETHING-NEW we too often attribute to it, but instead … merely imitates, copies, repeats, echos, proliferates—plagiarizes in other words—what has always been there. ... We listen to others only for the pleasure of repeating what they have said.' (1993: 52)
So any fears about writing a book as a blog, unprotected by copyright, are unfounded—the pleasure, in any case, is in the act of writing itself. Given current technology and the way we increasingly communicate with one another, publishing hard copies with all the attendant difficulties and frustrations this brings does seem strangely outmoded. There is a long tradition of literary works that were serialised in magazines or newspapers (Dickens, Melville, Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky). So why not on the blog? Certainly an advantage of blogging is that you can go back and change stuff after you've published it. No waiting around for ten years hoping that if the publisher does a re-print of your book you can get rid of the typos, or even add a section or chapter to update it. Not even self publishing on Kindle allows for that. And of course there is also the advantage of adding hypertext into the work. Neither is there any worry about the work going out of print. But perhaps the principle reason I am inclined to forgoe modern literary forms and conventions in writing this work, is the subject itself. The tramp (at least the variety of tramp that is the focus of my writing) is a self imposed exile from the civilising and domesticating forces in society. So why not complement the philosophy of tramping in my approach to the writing itself.
Yes, I will start to write a blook, or blok or some such work in perpetual progress. My next post might well be an introduction to the book, or maybe not. It depends on how the fancy takes me. And if I do get the impulse to write a post unrelated to tramping in the meantime well, I'll do that too.