the m john harrison blog

Category: writing

every haunt

Every shop on a stock brick corner seen from a bus in south London. You think: I’ve been here, haven’t I? At some time in the past, you think, you’ve been there. Well maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, because all those stock brick corners look the same. Every train running across the grain of shallow wooded valleys, trailing its brand new landscape through the old cuttings. Grass like astroturf, stiff model trees in a fringe where the view opens on to a motorway but you never seem to see a house. The land drops away on the left. That narrow ride cuts off at an angle through the woods; at night the distances are always hung with lights. Every quarry, every cliff. Every forestry track in deep Snowdonia exhaling mist, every junction between the seafront and a steep little lapboard terrace in every seaside town: every green lane anywhere in the rain. Maybe you’ve been there, maybe you haven’t.

Maybe you were here. Maybe you weren’t.

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yes I am talking about fiction

A paragraph is a unit of meaning, with links fore & aft to the argument of the piece. (The piece does not, in this sense, “contain” any given paragraph: because it emerges as a consequence of all of them.) A paragraph is a piece of meaning, with its own argument, its private internal flow and logic and perhaps even grammars. It should have unity in that way. A paragraph is about one thing, but there’s this: once you’ve learned to write a paragraph, you can begin to syncopate, so that though the meanings contained by the paragraphs still roll through, assembling the meaning of the piece as they go, they now come in waves and counterwaves, out of step, leaking from paragraph to paragraph. New connections form. Everything is alive then and rhythmic and deeply funk.

good breast bad breast

Elements of an audience reject the majority of the work, then, on the basis of a wilful misreading of something written half a century ago, publicly rebuild its author into the symbol they prefer. This move is acceptable, perhaps, in the case of a single reader & a single book. A book is published: an act which opens it to the traditional combination of ideological cherry-picking and emotional misprision that encourages appropriation. Some readers quite literally make a book their own, treating it as part of their deep psychic contents as if every page has originated there prior to reading. Their reading seems to them to precede their reading. Authors are used to that. Harder to come to terms with is the very strong romantic who–able to manage neither their demon nor their own boundaries, and determined not to feel in hock to the wrong writer, now a haunting dimly but irritatingly perceived behind every turn of the appropriated text–is forced to reinvent not just the book but the author. In this supernatural scenario, the author becomes a figure of moral failure: someone who went wrong; someone who wrote one correct book but subsequently–perhaps in search of adventure, more probably out of weakness–took a wrong turn, made a fatal error, and spoiled all the rest. As a result, unforgiveably, the reader’s career in appropriative revision was equally spoilt, so that they are now forced to make a powerful corrective in the form of an internet review.

voodoo larry’s lead sled

Ben Myers’ grainy, uncompromising, wildly exciting The Gallows Pole, from tiny Northern publisher BlueMoose, wins the Walter Scott Award, 2018. A fortnight or so later, Crudo, Olivia Laing’s “experimental novel about Kathy Acker” becomes a bestseller a week after publication. These are only the most snapshot examples, the most visible evidence. Things are broadening out. A little catch-up is going to have to be played. No one’s claiming the 1980s are finally on their way out; but we have as much right to dream about that as we do about reaching the semifinals of Global Sportsball. So, for all you aspirational writers out there: a big round of the chorus from Eddy & the Hot Rods’ greatest hit again, I think. And, kids, always remember: you are not writing a book. You are in the basement with Tom. You are building your version of Voodoo Larry’s Lead Sled. You need to be able to explain without embarrassment, “I Frenched the headlights.” Understand Voodoo Larry Grobe, you understand The Work, this is a metaphor ok it is what we do.

Incidentally, apropos of nothing, here’s that history of recent changes in the bread market again.

fleamarket ontologies

Found material is a private experience. If I use it I try not to draw narrative conclusions from it. It’s not there to provide “story”. The reader doesn’t need my idea of what happened; I don’t need the reader’s. It would be a crude intrusion into someone else’s fantasies. But there’s more. We both know how interpretations spin away from found material, but we also recognise that choosing one of them breaks “history” out of its quantum state and turns it into a lurching caricature, a bad guess, a sentimentalised drawing of an event in someone else’s life. Found material might be “evidence” –might even be a direct, indexical sign of a thing that happened–but the thing that happened, the life that contained it, can’t be reassembled, or back-engineered into existence. It’s only what it is now: if you try to glue the fragments together with the sentiments “evoked” in you, all you will have is a golem. All you’ve done is bully the mud into a shape that satisfies your needs. But avoid interpretation as determinedly as you can, and you have a metaphor for the way we encounter not just the past but the present. Lives as the most tentative assemblages; interactions in your own life as partially interpretable fragments, fading images, achieving the condition of conversations overheard on the tops of buses, postcards from the past even as they happen.

You Should Come With Me Now

this book

The only working rule on this book just now is, “Trust yourself.” That’s not entirely true. The other two rules are, “Always flatten it off,” which doesn’t mean it will come out flat, only that it won’t be winning any trophies at the Crufts of the imagination; and, “Don’t say too much.” With regard to the latter, an editor once told me, over lunch in a not very good restaurant (predictably an act of language in itself), “There’s a perfectly good plot behind your novel, it’s just that the author has taken most of it out.” I thought that astonishingly perceptive until I realised that it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment. That was before I moved on to the stage of not putting most of it in.

support your local baker

Lots of really good writing on the Saboteur Awards short & long lists, including The Night Visitors, Jenn Ashworth & Richard Hirst; Zombies Ate My Library, Tony White; An Unreliable Guide to London, Influx Press; Attrib & Other Stories, Eley Williams (also Influx). Eley Williams is having an excellent response to her short stories; and Influx are crowdfunding the next phase of their operation–you should support them if you can, along with all the other UK small presses. In the absence of mainstream publishing–which has been having a holiday from its responsibilities in this direction since the 80s–these heroes have taken on the risk- and work-laden task of finding and developing the new and the out-of-the-way, the smart, well-written, interesting stuff.

I couldn’t wait to get away

Debilitatingly superficial content massively over-invested with meaning by the acting & direction; grinding earnestness about issues that make you shrug, or which can exist solely in the manufactured situations of the text; the utter, controlling pseudo-martyrdom of the central character. Constant reference to story and story-telling which makes you think one minute it’s a parody of @GuyInYourMFA and the next that it is actually being piped into your head direct from a combined group therapy session & writing workshop. I’ve never watched anything working so hard to position the narcissistic viewer along with the narcissistic writer at the heart of the text; or been so relieved to see anything end.

what I’m after here

Something the reader can only navigate with a kind of emotional sonar. I mean, a space distancing enough to be reverberant, remote-feeling enough to be on the astral plane. (You have to imagine those last two words as intoned by Jonathan Richman in the eponymous song.) So the landscape of the book wants to be a big empty yet resonant emotional space in which the characters don’t even know they’ve lost their orientation. There’s some kind of alien invasion or hauntological action going on in there, but even that’s at one remove or maybe two. The space is loaded but as the reader you don’t know how to complete it. You don’t know what your side of the bargain is. It would be easier if you thought the characters knew the right kinds of things about themselves, but they so very clearly don’t. Meanwhile, the pings come back from emotional structures–Big Dumb Objects–so very far away you can’t tell them from lightweight passing concerns.