Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Being Ilya Gridneff

It's just under 4 years since I met Ilya Gridneff in an East End pub by Victoria Park. The pub was aggressively organic; two large blackboards above the bar carried chalked disclaimers.


Had the game been factory-farmed the Crown could have testified to its diet of tofu and bean sprouts; since the animals had been living in the wild, the Crown could not lay hand on heart and swear that they had not been nipping into the nearest KFC. This was the gist. Only in Britain.

I was about to go to New York as a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. I gave Ilya my e-mail address on a receipt. A couple of weeks later I got an e-mail, or rather a copy of an e-mail he had sent to a friend in Canada, something he'd written in 22 minutes at 3am, the most exciting piece of writing I'd seen in years. Should have written back, but things were not going well in New York.

I write, delete, write, delete, write, delete a long wearisome account of all the things that went wrong. Long story short, I ended up in Berlin where more things went wrong. More crazy movie people. Yet another book in ruins. I kept reading the e-mail from IG, still in my inbox, sure the old e-mail address was dead.

The Internet has thrown up a strange fetishism of writing as commodity. As we hear all too often, anyone can post anything online -- it's not edited, there's no filter, no quality control. A published book goes through a selection process, the lucky few are then edited to perfection and sold to the discriminating public. Anyone can write a blog. Hence the striking gap between The Da Vinci Code and the sort of mindless drivel on offer in the pp sidebar. And anyone can write an e-mail.

There's something odd about this.

Byron's letters were not written for publication. Kilvert's diary was not written for publication. The text published as Naked Lunch was originally a series of letters from Burroughs to Ginsberg. Tom Wolfe's Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was not the piece of journalism he had been commissioned to write for Esquire, a properly-crafted report on the cult of customized cars. He missed one deadline after another, unable to fit the material to the form; his editor told him to write everything down and send it in, Wolfe wrote Dear Byron followed by an outpouring written at a single sitting followed by Tom, the editor removed Dear Byron and Tom and sent it to print and that, oh Best Beloved, was how Journalism got New. Hunter S. Thompson said he did his best work when he just sat down and wrote, and it was Thompson's pharmaceutically-enhanced failure to report on the Mint that gave us Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

All of these texts have been published, but all were not written for publication. There is, in fact, no hard and fast line separating the public and private. Molly Bloom's soliloquy draws extensively on Nora's letters to James Joyce -- letters whose style entranced one of the greatest languagemakers the world has ever known. There's really something odd going on, then: we now have a convention, it seems, such that the letters of a dead poet can be published, but all sorts of other texts in unapproved forms must be hauled into publishable legitimacy by appropriation into journalism or the novel.

I don't especially want to label IG as a Thompson or a Burroughs, because his style is his own, but the e-mail in my Inbox was like those mythical texts -- the difference being that I had not picked it up in a bookstore under the auspices of Faber or Picador or Serpent's Tail, it had just turned up out of the ether. I wrote him an e-mail, and an e-mail came back: he had been travelling around the Middle East, was now on the border of Kurdistan, was thinking of coming to Berlin. 2 years ago now. Long time ago.

When I was 9 I was given The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for Christmas. I think I read it 100 times. I didn't know there were others in the series. I discovered the rest when we moved to Rio; the school library had the rest of the series, but they would not lend them to children under 12. I still remember the disbelief, the joy, on discovering there were more; the misery on being refused permission to read them; the long wait. This was like that. Getting a second e-mail to add to the one I'd had for so long, and then a third, and then a fourth -- but it was not really like that, because books are in the public domain. Years later I read a collection of Hunter S. Thompson's letters, including his letters to his agent Lynne Nesbit: the rest of us, of course, could always buy Fear and Loathing, but here were people who had writing no one else could see. So this was like that.

I think Mithridates hates new historicism, but I thought there was something interesting about this. IG has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology Sydney; in London he covered deaths at the Coroner's Court for an agency, got shifts with various papers, got contacts who would pay for celebrity stories. So there were stories he had trained to write and stories that could be sold. The stories that could be sold were what made it possible to travel around the Middle East and dodge bullets in Baghdad. If we think of the work of Burroughs or Wolfe or Thompson, the fact that we can read these texts tells us nothing about what it is possible to publish: each time there is a story behind the appearance in print.

I sent copies of three e-mails to my former editor, who used the phrase 'crackling with energy' and begged to see more -- but the idea of publishing a collection of e-mails was too alien. I then had an idea that looked very clever: IG and I could collaborate on a novel, incorporate some of these texts, the public would see them in a context that is generally recognized as a literary form.

This looked like a good idea because it drew on some films that we both liked. La Dolce Vita, that's obvious. Fellini's 8 1/2 and Kaufman's Adaptation both tackle the dilemma of the artist trying to live up to an earlier work, solving the problem by an exercise in narcissism. Being John Malkovich, Kaufman's first film, was edgy, manipulative, why not have a work of fiction that used a real person as an ostentatiously manipulated character the way Kaufman had used JM? And so on.

It's hard to collaborate with someone on a book. Perhaps there was too much going on in Your Name Here. My editor was not the only reader to be dazzled by the IG correspondence. Some readers said they were dazzled by YNH, but if everyone wasn't it must have been doing something wrong. I now have a stash of a few hundred e-mails from IG, which is sort of like having my own personal stash of letters of Byron or Thompson -- it's good for me, yes, but the possessor of this voice should have cashed in on it by now, and all I've managed to do is drag him into the publishing machine.

So this is not such a good anniversary, no, but it does make all the arguments about Webworld and the quality control of publication look very strange. People tell me: The way to find an agent is to think of writers you like and find out who represents them. I think: Yes, but I read the most interesting writer I know in a couple of hundred e-mails on my hard drive. There are writers who are certified organic, I know, I know, but show me your Whopper-fed venison, I want wild deer that's been scarfing Chicken McNuggets on the sly.


Lee said...

The why not step out of the box altogether?

Ithaca said...

There are very good, perhaps compelling reasons to do so; I do spend a lot of time thinking about other ways to make a living. It might be better to teach English in Taiwan, for instance, or learn to train dogs, or do a degree in computer science -- there are all kinds of things that might be a better bet. The arguments against walking away are, first, that the world is a more interesting place if books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas get published, second that if such works are published and do well it opens the way for other writers with similar gifts to make money from their talent.

Mithridates said...

Quickly (at work, hawkish boss galumphed out to gargle fourth mocochocolattewhatever, abot to galumph back): loved the post, don't hate NH buuuuut rather, like anything else, substandard lazy tedious railing thought-executing NH-ers, people who DON't actually like reading literature (witness the decline of poetry, more difficult to historicize than novels and less interesting when it is; I once got the comment on an eval that I loved the Literary and Literature and that this might make me seem old fashioned; hmm)--this I a no likey. NH has provided very useful tools, some beautiful books, buuuuut--I like it when A.) there's some balance, id est the primary work doesn't get completely clusterfucked by history, and B.) there's real solid expertise, real historical knowledge, and a sense of a theory of history, a sense that history isn't this unconstructed unmediated gooey magamatic blob of What Happens (like say for instance shit, which, OK OK, does tend to just happen and often), oh and C.) when it doesn't boil down smug obvious statements about politics, things like And this is why Suchandsuch culture was really awful, and we know better, Ho ho ho. History isn't the best framework; it's ONE framework, and a good one, obviously, but there are others and the academies should remain open to them. And it should also learn to play a subordinate role to its subject matter, ie what writers actually write, what artists actually say, do, show, etc. I know that lit isn't made in a vacuum. But I DO have a problem with the rather facile way in which the alleged politics of an author are sometimes "found" in the works (have I said this already?--I'm writing fast fast no time to revise). And I think NH runs into problems when the contexts start to multiply - there's always another context, always another cookie cutter - because then the aporias do too: that is, the arguments can often miss or ignore how different contexts can give each other some serious problems. But other than that.....

Lee said...

I don't mean walking away. There are other options. Starting your own publishing company like Susan Hill is one. POD is another. And here's another:

And then there's the American tradition of people like Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives, who were both business executives and influential artists.

Many writers who make money from their talent - or at least make their entire living from it - have only a modest talent to begin with.
Their real talent is probably for making money - not necessarily to be despised, but an entirely different thing.

And if IG writes such fascinating emails, why doesn't he at least blog? I for one would love to read him!

Lee said...

Mith, do you mean the decline of poetry or the decline of American poetry?

Ithaca said...

Lee -- There are people who can compartmentalise the mind, one way or another, so that they can put the writing part of the mind in a box and self-publish, hold a job, all sorts of things, and then take it out of the box. I can't do that.

Mith -- I think I was thinking of NH as a way of thinking of possible worlds. There is a possible world in which I met the editor who eventually published TLS when we were both at Oxford in the early 80s. There is a possible world in which my first agent sent him the book in 1996, when he had a senior job at a London publishing house. There is a possible world in which David went into publishing instead of selfishly choosing a career as a Latinist. Those are worlds in which a book called The Seventh Samurai was published in 1997 without interference from dim copy-editors, worlds in which that book is followed by a series of books of comparable ambition. In the world we inhabit, with the history it happens to have, books came into existence in response to the apparent impossibility of getting that book published. Of course, one can always look at any text as it stands and analyse it on its own terms, but the fact that the author wrote this book rather than another may be incomprehensible without a mental picture of where this world stands in relation to other possible worlds.

cynthia said...

Re the elms, re fire and light, re carniverousness/vegandom, re 'shoot him'/'literary theft!', re the garden of gethsemane, re fallen into future/past and not...

i don't see the behavioral contradictions; to my mind, one is only by way of its also being two...

Mithridates said...

Lee: Sorry--I wrote very fast yesterday. I meant the decline in the STUDY of poetry. And not that the study of it is getting worse, just that there seem to be fewer people doing it than 30 years ago, 40, 50, years ago. I don't long for the days of the New Critics, but I would like to see more people taking poetry seriously. I didn't mean to be as crusty as I sounded in that comment. All I meant to say was that there are less people studying poetry and writing about poetry in academia. I talk with many very bright people who say they "don't do poetry," that they are "afraid" of poetry. Maybe this fear comes from the fact that they're not introduced to it until very late (college). The novel has taken over almost completely at the grade school and high school levels.

Ith: I see. Sorry for going a bit off-topic in my response. And for my R-rated diction. What's interesting is that much of the history a particular book happens to have is concealed: as I think you've said before, you can't write about all of the ways in which the publishing industry has tried to murder your book in its cradle (or at least give it very invasive plastic surgery). It's a shame that readers don't get a truthful account of what happens to a book. There's no such thing as the well of English undefiled in part because there are so many polluters--but in order to continue getting published what you can get published, I imagine you would have to keep silent about many of your experiences with the polluters.

cynthia said...

No polluters, really... only flowers. Each of us a flower, a flower before flowers (and never before)... and every moment another opportunity to know it

Which is perhaps why the Prince in the Idiot thinks that he can live more intelligently than 'others'-- he can know himself for Ippolit (himself; the small child with whom Christ sits, the flower, reality), by putting a hand on Ippolit's brow, retelling him in touch and in word that he is lovely, lovely...


He can know the reality of Ippolit, not the image of Ippolit, not:

I have no illusions, however. My judges will regard all this as a piece of mummery on the part of a madman with a gross liking for the fruit vert. Au fond, ca m'est bien egal. All I know is that while the Haze woman and I went down the steps into the breathless garden, my knees were like reflections of knees in rippling water, and my lips were like sand, and--
"That was my Lo," she said, "and these are my lilies."
"Yes," I said, "yes. They are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!"


blahblah, snore

cynthia said...

sorry so didactic, snore snore

Jenny Davidson said...

There is a world in which I can magically exert my will and MAKE the right publisher put out Helen's next novels in just the right way--this is not that world--but in this world, I am going to do everything I can to help this happen, or some acceptable approximation thereof at any rate: H., I am fully at your disposal, let us consult more on this once I am done with my book next week!

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

ok, just while reading this email I had a blip of an idea- if the reason you can't sell YNH online in pdf is due to the copyright issues witht he images (it is, right?) mayyybe you could simply provide readers (err- downloaders) with the list of links where they must first go to download, print-out, cut, paste and insert the images themselves before readig the book. Like a scavenger hunt, and would circumvent the copyright issues, oder?

regarding animals and junkfood- there was a particular park in seattle where I have I have witnessed crowes -on several occasions- dive down and then swoop off carrying:
-a can of pringles
-a box of cheez-its
-a chunk of a burger king hamburger in its paper wrapper.

Ithaca said...

mith. I LOVED your comments on NH. As readers of an earlier post on Philosophers and Psychologists will know, however, Philosophers say I disagree with you utterly, totally, absolutely, you have completely missed the point, and then go on to restate the original point with minor alterations, while Psychologists say I am in complete agreement with X, X has captured the essence of the problem, I simply want to enhance what X has said -- and then proceed to say something that contradicts the original speaker in every particular.

Cynthia. I used to read Kirk, Raven and Schofield on the Fragments of the Pre-Socratics and admire the ingenuity with which they interpreted enigmatic texts. These comments are interesting, but I think only a Kirk, a Raven or a Schofield can do them justice.

TAR ART RAT. This is a BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT idea. I may quote your comment in attempting to persuade the reading public that the scheme is not a complete swizz.

Ithaca said...

Jenny -- this is terribly kind of you.

Nathaniel said...

The whole idea that you present of emails being of literary value isn't too surprising. Many emails I've both sent and received have had a novelesque nature to the point where I've ended plenty of emails with the aside that my email was "becoming a novel." I've sent many emails that I wish I had saved so as to preserve something interesting that I think I said that I would like to refer back to not necessarily for publication but for my own personal reference and enjoyment, and of course, the same with emails from friends.

Emails are the modern form of correspondence between friends, lovers, and even enemies; some kind of literary value in them isn't surprising. I love how you put into words something hidden deep in my own mind that had never occured to me to verbalize but once read am in immediate agreement with. I think verbalization is the key to keeping thoughts from dying. I have to write everything down now for fear of losing the thought. There are so many things I've thought and said that I wish I had written down. This is why I started auto-saving my emails a few years ago.