Archive for June, 2013

Optimism, Qualified

June 26, 2013

Novelist Mark Edwards takes to the Guardian books pages this week to announce that ‘This is the best time ever to be an author’. The reason for his optimism? The growth of self publishing.

As someone who has done very well from self-publishing, it’s pretty much all positive for me. I think the biggest positive is that it gives authors who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to get a deal with a publisher the chance to find readers. The Kindle chart is almost a level playing field where your book can nestle alongside the latest from Peter James and Dan Brown… The great thing is that we have options now. Ten years ago, if a book didn’t find a publisher, that was it – the book was dead. Now things are very different. This is the best time ever to be an author.

I agree with Edwards’s main grand claim, but for different reasons – there is so much more interesting stuff to write about these days. The boom of self publishing and the rise of new indies leaves me ambivalent, because these forms just don’t have the capacity that commercial publishing does. I remember Ian Daley, the main guy at Route (a great publisher, by the way) telling a conference that ‘If you’re a writer, and you want recognition, sales, big distribution – well, we can’t give you that. I’m sorry.’ But aspiring writers are not always so aware of the limitations of the new school independents. You need to ask: can an indie publish my books well, with a decent cover and pages that don’t fall off the spine? Can my indie distribute my books, and get them reviewed? If the worst happens, can I trust my publisher not to load what’s left of his business into the back of a van and disappear with my royalties?

And there’s not a great deal of traffic between self publishing and the second wave of indies, and the Big Six and Independent Alliance. Technology does not guarantee readership. Just because you put something on the internet doesn’t mean people will read it. Try to name a self-publishing author you have heard of without mentioning Fifty Shades.

My fear is that we will end up with a two-tier system of publishing. The higher tier will be composed of the commercial and established literary publishers, which will churn out UEA-lite literary fiction from upper middle class people who have been to the right universities, completed the right postgrad courses and made the right connections. Their novels will sell exactly 116 copies per edition, but these authors will be widely reviewed and get the good teaching jobs (and influence the next generation of UEA-lite aspiring novelists).

In the lower tier will be everyone else, people outside the golden loop, who will have to hustle and struggle to get their work out via new-school independents, self publishing and the internet. Much of their stuff, as Profile’s Andrew Franklin says, will be ‘terrible – unutterable rubbish’ – but also, and inevitably, great material will be lost.

I am not blaming the ‘gatekeepers’. Everyone I have met in publishing loves books and is open to new talent. I am talking about the many talented unknowns I meet who see self publishing or something like it as the first, not the last, resort, because they automatically assume the first tier will reject them.

Life is about expectation. Don’t lower your expectations, I tell friends. Don’t let anyone else set your expectations for you. I quote Jane Smith’s line that ‘It’s better not to be published at all than be published badly.’ I am a real bore about it. ‘Don’t lower your expectations,’ I shout at passing cars. People back away with palms raised. I am a real pain on the subject. I’m right though.

Fall On Slough: The Office

June 23, 2013

Here’s the scene. Office workers in varying degrees of sullen intoxication stumble out of a Slough nightclub. It is one or two o’clock in the morning. It is a Wednesday night and work is a bare few hours away. A woman walks out with a bottle in her hand; a bouncer stops her and takes the drink. A couple who have pulled kiss on the steps: others, less successful, disappear alone into the night. A voice cuts in. It belongs to office manager David Brent, and he’s reading, and critiquing, John Betjeman’s ‘Slough’:

‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, it isn’t fit for humans now’ – right, I don’t think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place, he’s embarrassed himself there. Next. ‘In labour saving homes with care, their wives frizz out peroxide hair, and dry it in synthetic air, and paint their nails -‘ They want to look nice, what’s the matter, doesn’t he like girls? ‘And talks of sports and makes of cars in various bogus Tudor bars, and daren’t look up and see the stars, but belch instead.’ What’s he on about, what, he’s never burped? ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, to get it ready for the plough. The cabbages are coming now. The earth exhales.’ He’s the only cabbage round here.

The novelist Scarlett Thomas, in her creative writing textbook Monkeys with Typewriters, discusses Brent’s critique:

David Brent is clearly wrong about the poem on many levels, and of course it has far more depth than he realises. But there is great humour in his strange analysis, and the way in which he positions himself as more of an ‘expert’ on Slough than Betjeman. Humour, like irony, relies on reversals. Here, David Brent thinks he’s being funnier than the poem, but the poem is both funnier and more profound than he will ever be. And when he is funny, it’s unintentional… More humour, and in fact sadness, comes from David Brent’s unawareness that the poem may be addressed to him, and may therefore be asking him to dare to ‘look up and see the stars’.

Narrative comedy comes out of a gap in perception – the conflict between the way we see things, and the way things actually are. It resonates with us because we all carry narratives in our heads about the way our lives are meant to go, and these narratives do not always accord with reality. For Brent the perception gap is a chasm. As Thomas says: ‘He has no idea that the world is not the way he says it is.’ Brent sees himself as an inspirational figure, a great comedian and a leader adored by his staff: in fact, he is pompous, incompetent, sleazy and awkward – whenever Brent enters a room, conversation stalls.

No one grows up dreaming of working in a Slough paper merchant’s. Brent’s staff aren’t all content with sports and cars and Tudor bars. Several have fantasy alternate careers. College dropout Tim wants to go back to university and become a psychiatrist. The receptionist Dawn sees herself as a children’s illustrator. Laconic accountant Keith is an electronica DJ in his spare time. Brent himself has written poetry, and enjoyed some success in his guitar band, at one point being supported by future international rock stars Texas. Those days are long gone but Brent, with little else to occupy him, still plots for celebrity status. Brent thinks of himself as someone with things to say. He’s waiting to be discovered.

In the last century this would have been comic material enough for a Walter Mitty style sitcom. There is added pathos in the fact that many people have big dreams, most are never realised and reconciling yourself to that is a part of growing up. But The Office screened in the early 2000s when celebrity appeared to be democratised to some extent. Ben Walters, in his excellent study of the series, charts the first age of reality television. Airport workers and driving instructors were becoming national names. Big Brother still seemed like an original and interesting idea. When a BBC documentary crew approach David Brent, asking to film a reality programme in his office, the manager sees his big chance.

The documentary is supposed to be a basic fly on the wall show, but Brent attempts to turn it into a vehicle for his particular brand of comic styling. This doesn’t work as well as he anticipates because Brent’s style of humour relies so heavily on what Walters calls a ‘confusion of reference with wit.’ He repeats catchphrases and dialogue from well known sitcoms and sketches, often immediately afterwards identifying the show in question, just in case we haven’t got it. His welcome-aboard speech is a confused mashup of Fawlty Towers and Harry Enfield catchphrases. He hangs puppets of Flat Eric and the Johnny Vegas monkey on the office hatstand, and points them out to guests with obvious delight. David Brent is a man who believes that the apex of hilarity is an electronic singing fish.

The Office is mainstream postmodernist, a show not just about comedy but about how comedy is used. Laughter is never just about laughter. Comedy is about competition. It also acts as a shared reference point, a moment of contact with others, something that brings us together. How many times have you sat in a pub with friends, quoting stuff from Green Wing or Stewart Lee and making yourself sick with helpless laughter? How many mornings did you walk into the school form room quoting the previous night’s Alan Partridge episode? As Walters shows, Tim and Dawn, who are in love but can’t be together, develop their relationship through play and practical jokes – often at the expense of hapless jobsworth Gareth Keenan. Play is important.

For Brent himself comedy is a means to an end, it’s a way of bonding with others, receiving affection, being loved. As Gervais says, David Brent wants what the rest of us want: ‘he wants to be loved, he wants to be hugged.’ This is where the sadness comes in. Take Brent’s relationship with the fly by night travelling rep, Chris Finch. There is a two-episode build up to this character, during which Brent praises Finch to the skies, repeats his jokes, and proclaims them a double act. In reality, Chris Finch is a vicious bully, with no respect or love for Brent or anyone else. He treats Brent as an acolyte, and Brent accedes in a doomed attempt to inherit some of Finchy’s alpha-male success. Finch is Betjeman’s ‘man with double chin/Who’ll always cheat and always win/Who washes his repulsive skin/In women’s tears.’

As Brent pursues his goal of a TV career, he loses grip of Wernham Hogg. During the first series Brent appears to be the unchallenged king of Slough, his position assured, only losing out on promotion because of high blood pressure. Then, a new UK manager is drafted in – the crisp corporate man Neil Godwin – who quickly picks up on the fact that Brent doesn’t actually do any work. At one point Neil walks into Brent’s office to find that instead of the business report Brent has been tasked with, the Slough boss has written a proposal for a game show:

Neil: You know how important I consider this report to be. I come in today to find that this is the fruit of your labour. Read the first sentence for Jennifer [Taylor-Clarke, partner].

David (stalling) Well, you know, but –

Neil: Seriously. Read the first sentence for Jennifer.


David: Imagine a cross between Telly’s Addicts and Noel’s House Party. You’ve just imagined Upstairs Downstairs, a new quiz show devised and hosted by David Brent.

Neil: David, I don’t understand.

David: Well, the contestants run upstairs and they get a clue –

Neil (exploding): No, not the game show! I don’t understand why you didn’t do the report you said you’d do, I don’t understand your consistent negligence and failure to do what is asked of you!

The disconnect between Brent’s job and his ambitions has become unsustainable. For Brent the perception gap has widened into an almost total disengagement from reality, at one point comparing himself to Jesus Christ. He is quietly fired from the company, an event Brent rapidly reframes as his opportunity for national renown. By now the BBC documentary has screened and Brent is genuinely a household name. But the chilled-out entertainer finds out the hard way that life is better lived off screen. At the entry level, being on TV isn’t a solution to your problems. In fact it’s often just the beginning of your problems. The money runs out, the invitations stop coming and, if you’ve got Big Brother on your record, it can be difficult to get back into regular employment. Brent finds that women won’t date him because of his on screen persona and his celebrity work is limited to personal appearances at provincial beer barns.

It’s in the HBO-length Christmas specials that The Office really shows its depth as the characters finally confront the mess they have made of their lives. Senior sales clerk Tim, the show’s most sympathetic character, who really is popular and funny, has more or less given up: he’s blown his hand on national television and the rejection has sent him into a dark hole. Dawn is about to marry a man who is decent enough but doesn’t have Tim’s spark. Brent has been challenged by Neil Godwin to produce a date for the office Christmas party, forcing him to face the emptiness of his life. It seems like the show will end in the usual disillusionment and awkwardness. And then – somehow – everything comes right. There’s hope, there’s love, there’s camaraderie, and you get the feeling that Brent really was stitched up by the documentary crew: perhaps he wasn’t such a bad boss after all.

Comedy relies on repetition. What was original about The Office is that Gervais and Merchant allowed their characters to change. Lucy Davis says on the extras that Tim and Dawn will probably never pursue their dreams – in ten years’ time they will both probably still be working at Wernham Hogg, but happier. Contrast this with Tim’s message to Dawn – NEVER GIVE UP – which makes her mind up for good, and you have a bittersweet story that explores the worst, and celebrates the best, of provincial life. Dares us to look up and see the stars. And gives us that rare thing in comedy. A happy ending.


Classic Books: Microserfs

June 12, 2013

A little way into Douglas Coupland’s 1995 Silicon Valley novel, his protagonist Dan Underwood theorises that ‘what if machines do have a subconscious of their own? What if machines right now are like human babies, which have brains but no way of expressing themselves except screaming (crashing)? What would a machine’s subconscious look like? How does it feed off what we give it? If machines could talk to us, what would they say?’ To develop this Dan begins to write random thoughts and phrases into his journal each day, which he saves in a subfile named ‘Subconscious’. The results are scattershot but can be interesting, profound, and sometimes unbearably moving.

Coupland’s image is apposite. 1995 was the infantile stage of an interactive technology that would accelerate almost beyond understanding in the twenty-first century. Like the best novels, Microserfs is dated and like the best writers, Coupland knows it. The narrative abounds with references to now obsolete systems and process, that seem bewildering in retrospect. His characters applaud the latest plodding IT discovery with an enthusiasm that seems laughable from a modern standpoint. There’s a moment where Dan, with a condescending pity, reflects that for people of his mother’s generation Pong was their only video game experience. Readers his age today might feel the same for Dan and his 1990s geek friends. Wow, they didn’t even have Facebook back then?

Microserfs is a story of personal liberation. Dan lives in a geek houseshare in a dreary Washington byblow. He works at Microsoft, so does everyone he knows. Life revolves around work. ‘My life is lived day to day,’ Dan tells us, ‘one line of bug-free code at a time.’ The housemates worship Bill Gates and have thrown themselves into their jobs. While there is camaraderie and pride in achievement (Dan’s housemate Susan throws a party when her stock matures, and Dan displays his Ship-It trophy – EVERY TIME A PRODUCT SHIPS, IT TAKES US CLOSER TO THE VISION – with obvious pride) the work-life balance is seriously skewed, to the detriment of other important things. As Dan says: ‘You wake up one day and you’re thirty and you haven’t had sex for eight years.’ And: ‘I know a few Microsoft employees who try to fake having a life – many a Redmond garage contains a never-used kayak collecting dust. You ask these people what they do in their spare time and they say ‘Uhhh – kayaking. That’s right. I kayak in my spare time.’ You can tell they’re faking it.’

Escape comes early on when one housemate, the eccentric loner Michael, proposes that they leave Microsoft and create a start up in Silicon Valley, based on his idea for a sticklebrick-centred video game called ‘Oop’. All but one take the risk and hightail it to Palo Alto. During the course of the story, Coupland resolves each housemates’ neuroses, one by one: he’s like Dickens in his generosity, patiently leading every one of his dysfunctional and unhappy characters to a happy ending. For Dan, it’s his relationship with Karla that saves him and that provides some of the most affecting scenes in the novel. A common critique of Coupland is that his characters are interchangeable – they are identified mainly by cultural reference points and come off in the reader’s imagination like hipster Lego men – but he can write happiness, and he can also do engaging dialogue between loving couples, which is a hard thing to pull off.

Coupland isn’t immune to the wide-eyed, slack-jawed futurism common to tech culture. When Dan’s mother has a stroke, she learns to communicate through a hooked-up PC; her first words on the screen reduce his father to tears. Michael, who’s been alone throughout the story, meets the love of his life through a chatroom. When the woman, Amy, finally insists on meeting, the shy Michael has Dan meet her at the airport. Dan shows Amy a group shot and asks her to guess which one is Michael. She identifies him without prompting.

The poignancy of these scenes makes the naivety less apparent. Coupland has some hilarious riffs when a character converts to Marxism-Leninism (‘But Todd – the Wall came down in 1989.’ ‘That doesn’t matter’) but then a few pages later he has Michael say that humanity is now at the stage where ‘the amount of memory that exists in books and databases (to name but a few sources) now exceeds the amount of memory contained within our collective biological bodies.’ He goes on to say that: ‘Memory has replaced history – and this is not bad news. On the contrary, it’s excellent news because we’re no longer doomed to repeat our mistakes; we can edit ourselves as we go along’. Fascinating stuff, and hopeful: I agree that ‘the prospect of cyclical wars and dark ages and golden ages has never really appealed to me.’ Still… the end of history. Haven’t we heard that song before?

Microserfs is about people in their mid twenties to early thirties and the book has that happy messy feel of living in a houseshare with a group of friends and few responsibilities. Coupland’s Palo Alto is a fun creative hinterland where no one takes anything too seriously, and there’s little foreboding of tech culture’s dark side which would become all too apparent in the 2010s. Oh, Coupland points to tech’s skewed gender ratio which leads to some sleazy moments at industry parties. (‘It’s a very homogenous environment,’ software engineer Victor Hernandez told the Observer’s Rory Carroll. ‘No one is macho, but they can be sexist.’ Dan’s housemate Susan responds to this male dominated business culture with a lively feminist coding group called ‘Chyx’). And there is a revealing scene where Dan’s mother asks the housemates to explain the difference between the terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’. After some rumination, the housemates say that nerd just sounds like some everyday oddball, whereas geek implies power.

Transport Coupland’s good-hearted characters to the San Francisco of 2013 and they would find it unrecognisable, and not in a good way. There have been two excellent in depth reports on the city recently, from George Packer in the NYT, and the Observer’s Rory Carroll. They paint a grim picture of a divided city where Microsoft and Apple execs are chauffeured to luxurious tech compounds in fleets of immaculate white buses, while ordinary San Franciscans struggle with rocketing rents, pothole-pitted roads and overcrowded public schools. From Packer’s piece:

San Francisco is becoming a city without a middle class. Pockets of intense poverty, in districts like the Fillmore and the Tenderloin, are increasingly isolated within the general rise of exorbitantly priced housing. The black population has dwindled from more than ten per cent of the electorate, in 1970, to less than four per cent today—that’s not enough people to fill the forty thousand seats at A.T.&T. Park, where the Giants play. The number of Latinos is increasing much more slowly than elsewhere in California. Rent control and other features of the city’s traditional liberalism still hold in check a mass exodus of all San Franciscans who don’t work in tech, but it’s common to hear stories of working families pushed south, into Bayview or Daly City, or across the bridge, into the East Bay.

When Twitter threatened to relocate from San Francisco in 2011, politicians across the spectrum threw themselves around the company’s ankles and offered a multitude of tax breaks. But a city dependent on a single industry can find itself held to ransom. Victor Hernandez commented on the widespread disconnect of tech professionals to the city that serves them: his friends ‘would grumble about the state of roads and schools but make no link to the low taxes paid by major tech companies.’ To Carroll, IT professionals in their Wi-Fi play complexes seemed completely detached from the city. Meanwhile the major players indulge in ostentatious displays of wealth and power that would make Asma al-Assad shake her head sadly. Carroll: ‘Facebook billionaire Sean Parker is preparing a reported $10m Game of Thrones-themed wedding, replete with fake ruins and waterfalls.’

Tech culture has also given us the NSA/Prism revelations, the Foxconn Appleserf sweatshop scandal, the Google China firewall, the swaggering paranoia of Julian Assange, and countless online forums that have become dominated by hate merchants and conspiracy theorists. It turns out that the revenge of the nerds is not sweet for long. I’m not expecting the 1995 version of Douglas Coupland to have seen all this coming in his MacBook 1.0. But tools can be swung both ways.

That there is an iron separation between the digital world and life itself is a fallacy of our age and Coupland was one of the first to recognise it. In their questing youth his characters explores the ways that computers and technology can complement our natural existence. As Dan says in the book: ‘Sometimes we all forget that the world itself is paradise, and there has been much of late to encourage that amnesia’. Optimism and curiosity in the face of a world filled with suffering is Coupland’s great strength. It’s what makes this novel a contemporary classic as well as a fine portrait of a time almost new.

(Image: zooeyherself)

Iain Banks, 1954-2013. Hail Discordia, The World Grows Dark

June 10, 2013

When a great writer dies, the world darkens for a moment.

The first Banks novel I read was The Crow Road, his best book and the one that will probably outlive him for longest. As a kid, I used to wander round the Scottish highlands and Prentice McHoan’s tale of unrequited love, requited love, estrangements and secrets had an impact on me that even now is still difficult to put into words. The most enduring scenes in the book are where Prentice’s dad Kenneth, local teacher and aspiring author, takes the McHoan children on rambles through the countryside and tells them stories. In a sense, readers of my generation are McHoan’s children still.

Banks will be read and reread also because of the structural ferocity of his imagination. Both in the ‘mainstream’ (remember, kids, literary is just another genre) and the science fiction novels, he invented processes and concepts of which literally no other contemporary novelist was capable. The names of the Culture spaceships (Youthful Indiscretion, A Series Of Unlikely Explanations, Dramatic Exit, Or, Thank You And Goodnight) are not the half of it.

He was a lover of nature and rugged landscapes, but Banks knew that manmade structures can also be beautiful, and not necessary a stain or pollution on the green world – in fact the opposite, he knew that the things created by humans and what was already there before we came can complement each other, transcend the sum of their parts, and form gorgeous details and vistas.

Okay, his politics were screwy, and his books took a tired and didactic turn towards the end as the real-ale bore side of Banks’s personality made its presence felt over age and time. But then there’s The Bridge, Complicity, The Wasp Factory, Consider Phlebas. How many writers can go to their grave and leave such classics behind?

For all his faults the man had a vision of truth and beauty that was entirely his own. And every time I see a windfarm in the distance, wings tilting on a field of grass, I think of Iain Banks.

Also: Neil Gaiman remembers.

The Crow Road, Lennoxtown

‘We continue in our children, and in our works and in the memories of others; we continue in our dust and ash.’ (Image: geograph)