EVENT: Benjamin Markovits, Anakana Schofield and Joanna Kavenna will be in conversation with Theo Tait on Wednesday 31 August, to celebrate the publication of Alchemy (Notting Hill Editions). Book tickets here.
Iain Sinclair's introduction talks about 'how molecular reactions fizz between [the essays in Alchemy] to stitch a single hydra-headed, argumentative entity'. What role does dialogue and conversation - with yourself, with other writers - play in the writing process (either for this essay, or more generally)?
Dialogue and conversation with other writers and reading widely play an enormous role for me. In practical terms, I have something of an itchy brain so when a question or point of inquiry or the mist of daily befuddlement strikes me I have to bounce whatever it is off my unfortunate literary confidents. Or more frequently when I become worked up about something, which happens hourly, then I have to deluge them on the finer points of it. It’s as vital as breathing. I am in constant conversation with individual writers and thinkers on books I’ve read, what they are reading, what I should look at, where I might expand or find something engaging related to what I am writing toward. I need departures. I find my departures in reading and thinking and exchange.
'When one is actively involved in a work it acts like a magnet to metal filings – all sorts of surprising things suddenly enter its orbit,' Gabriel Josipovici writes. What was the most surprising thing to enter the orbit of your essay?
My essay? Well the least surprising thing was it was agony to write, which conveniently is the topic of it. It was powered by my usual pointless neurotic anxiety that pummels all I write. It also pummels walking to the kitchen and turning on the kettle. It will probably shorten my life. I hope I manage to make it to the end of these questions without falling off the chair and blanking out on the planet here.
I write in such a ridiculous way (see essay), with such a bizarre random puddling approach; that anything ever arrives on the page is something of a miracle or metaphysical mystery. It’s clear all the other writers in this anthology are a great deal more informed in their approach and process, so probably best to let them answer this question, since the most surprising thing for me was that it ended.
'When we start writing fiction there’s this gap we have to bridge between the uneventfulness of our experience and the drama that we think is supposed to take place on the page' (Benjamin Markovits). If one of the reasons that readers read is to find themselves reflected back, why is it that the 'quiet' novel is such a hard sell? Why do we put such a high value on drama and conflict?
Writers lives are very uneventful, unless they are war reporters. At least mine is. You are basically indoors and the most dramatic thing likely to happen to you is a vitamin D deficiency and repeated popped ribs.
I think my essay answers this question because I bemoan readers looking for themselves in fiction. I think it’s ridiculous that the 'quiet novel' is a hard sell but market forces, unambitious publishers' middle-brow appetites and risk aversion shape our reading and have determined what’s a hard sell. I think mediocrity is the order of the day and people have been conditioned to respond and purchase it.
We vastly underestimate readers and need to be proactive in debunking this mad notion they have a tennis sweatband wrapping their brains, soggy with cushioning and necessary to protect their neurons from any challenge or literary ambition.
Your essay engages (amongst many other things) with the question of 'the chronic conflation of fiction & life', something that's been a hot topic in recent years, with Karl Ove Knausgaard widely feted for his own conflations, but (mostly female, mostly online) essayists vilified for 'confessional journalism'. Do you think we've gone too far in our hunger for the autobiographical? As a literary audience, have we lost our basic respect for the majesty of making stuff up?
I think my essay engages with the devaluation of the imagination and over emphasis on verification and authentication, but then I wrote it and Blanchot would maintain I am likely blind to its contents and merely its first reader, so God knows what is actually in it. I haven’t really noted that much vilification for confessional journalism, but this maybe because I spend my time fixated on bird flu and infectious diseases rather than spouty-man op-eds that just give me a pain in my hole because I never seem to agree with anyone on anything. I have noticed the uptick in confessional journalism. There’s that dreadful Open Letter to the Cat who licked my toast feature in the Guardian, who are drowning in tedious lifestyle and dating blatheration. I think the issue is styleless confessional journalism and I think disproportionately women supply confessional journalism, as the means to sell their books, because the media and publishing remain very sexist and women are too obliging.
It appears if you do not offer your own kidney on a washing line for public examination that your book/novel that has a machine washable kidney in it cannot find a route through the nephrotoxic media canal lock. The matter that your readers have a kidney and don’t need this pointed out to them is no longer sufficient. How does this relate to our readers? What is it about your kidney that will tell us something more about the kidney you invented in Chapter 4? GIVE US YOUR KIDNEY ON A PLATE is the thrust of modern book marketing. Kidney up!
Since capitalism drives everything, it’s also notable that much of this content is unpaid, much of this content is only online, and thus it’s unpaid, online content in newspapers and media companies, who are allergic to the idea that they need to budget for online content. Because now they do not need to, now there is a planet full of writers who’ve been conditioned to supply it. The ah well sure its exposure approach and the pressure not to appear disobliging condition us. You’ll require disobliging DNA and an appetite for perpetual obscurity not to cave into it.
That said there are many who wish to write and read it and most of the world is not with me on this. Some people probably wish we would stop making things up because life is now so absurd, it’s more alarming than making things up and perhaps if we stopped then Donald Trump would disappear. We also might wish some aspects of daily life were in fact made up so we could escape them. Case in point: I wish I could make up that my new glasses fit perfectly rather than trekking off again today for the third adjustment on them because of having a very crooked face. To quote that essay in question/in the question 'Nobody cares mammy, nobody cares.'
Book tickets online for Alchemy: Joanna Kavenna, Benjamin Markovits, Anakana Schofield with Theo Tait on Wednesday 31 August.