This post was sparked by a stimulating and taxing interview Philippa Rees conducted with the writer Vivienne Tuffnell The interview attempts to re-define the gulf between writers and readers in the way commercial algorithms define values for readers, blanking out the appearance of new green shoots.
This disrupted my sleep, in addition to lots of other stuff going on, so I tried stepping back for a wider perspective. No answers, only a few muddled reflections …
My generation, whose early years were without TV, needed to adjust to rapid periods of change, particularly the change from analogue to digital recording, – two entirely different metaphors. The true significance of this shift has not yet been absorbed by the general public. In a dissertation during a sabbatical film degree as a mature student in the mid-nineties, I quoted Jean Baudrillard who saw the forced silence of the masses no longer as sign of passivity or alienation, but as ironic and antagonistic. He commented on the strategy of the masses:
‘… refusal of meaning and refusal of speech; or of the hyper-conformist simulation of the very mechanism of the system, which is another form of refusal by over-acceptance. It is the actual strategy of the masses … it is the winning one today, because it is the most adapted to the present phase of the system.’
I recognised this as the Zeitgeist gradually reaching across the globe. My continuous studies, driven by curiosity and endless questions, prepared me, but I still find it difficult to accept a reality where, for many otherwise intelligent people, the beautiful term ‘soul’ has lost its impact. I place the word carefully in my work and in my writing to avoid bias. Marion Woodman uses it powerfully … ‘Our very survival depends on spirit embracing soul.’
The quote becomes poignant through experience, not theory.
Don Cupitt – a philosopher of religion who rejects authoritarianism, once said … ‘The soul, the self, has died. The self in an animal with cultural inscriptions on its surface.’ Sobering, and true, depending of course from which plane of experience one perceives.
In our present culture the commercial speed train whistles through every zone of life. Publishers are among many enterprises struggling to survive amidst overproduction. The ‘Road Closed Pending Repairs’ signs Philippa refers to in her interview grow like mushrooms. Small businesses, for example, vanish at an alarming rate, at least in my little town. Be it a supermarket or a bookshop, I’m bombarded with buy-one-get-one-free or two for three offers. Plenty of people I know look beyond the more-is-better and cheaper hype, but their numbers won’t topple the algorithm-driven logic of mass-cargo firms like Amazon (click for latest newsletter.) Their long term strategy is to please the consumer, which, now, increasingly, includes writers who self-publish … To make profit in an oversaturated market requires ever-new smart inventions.
Works not created from templates, but from inside out, which, sigh, includes my novels, will struggle to find a position on consumer maps. Traditional meanings are collapsing. New genres for books are proposed. The box marked cross-genre sounds like a stir fry of left overs. How, as a writer, does one shoulder the marketing speech for novels not fitting into boxes? Crime? No! Romance? No! Religious? No! Paranormal? No! Sci Fi? No! Fantasy? No!
The distillation of a life’s experience, a work of creative imagination? What’s that?
Authors of such ilk have the formidable and possibly worthwhile task of writing their own obituary. Are any of the thoughts a writer expresses original? I don’t think so. Thoughts happen to us. What’s original is their processing and linking based on personal experience, which may offer a new window of reference. I look at my bookshelves and ponder what I would have missed had the authors whose works snuggle up to each other had lost faith in their work. Few commercially produced genre books leave impressions that live on. They’ll drown in ISBN databanks. Our shelves at home hold unique books that surprised and inspired us over the years, and until we become cyborgs and can, with a mere thought, make book pages fall open on any surface of our choice, this will not change soon.
I admire self-published writers. Vivian published several novels herself, as did Philippa, which speaks for their tenacity and belief in their work. And I admire Philippa’s poignant questions, and how Vivienne exposes herself to them …
… the very uniqueness you want to write about? Could you define why that is so difficult? Is it simply too much surrounding noise? Or something else?
‘… is writing the way in which we confront out existential loneliness, and are readers who ‘get’ and share that now the substitutes for lovers?’
Such questions and similar ones are worth their salt, and expose our vulnerability … do writers, any artists, want to be truly seen? Is one person’s interpretation of truth going to be interesting to others? Will the public feel preached to? Such questions haunt many of the most inspired artists, poets and writers who weave works from layers and layers of their psyche. To expect an instant resonance from crowds will bring deep disappointment.
And yet, the most deeply personal experiences, combined with some magic ingredient of presentation, can, over time, have universal appeal. Stan Brakhage, an experimental filmmaker, put it this way … ‘I had the concept of everything radiating out of me, and that the more personal and egocentric I would become the deeper I would reach and the more I would touch those universal concerns which would involve all men.’
If I’m positive about the future it comes from an understanding in tune with Walter Benjamin … ‘Technology, instead of liberating us from myth, confronts us as a force of a second nature just as overpowering as the forces of a more elementary nature in archaic times.’
To me, this means learning and unlearning accelerates in condensed time. Think how we make ourselves visible by blogging. How brave and scary to step in front of a public mirror … Virtual or not, the psychological process of engaging with virtual friends and foes is totally real. Sherry Turkle expressed this … ‘I believe that our experience with virtual reality, with artificial life are serious play; our need for a practical philosophy of self-knowledge has never been greater.’ My self-understanding is now aided by the relationship with people I have not met face to face – I never shook hands with or exchanged a hug with Vivienne, but I emphasise with her loss of joy, and her frustration with the ironic and antagonistic attitudes of people who belittle deeper strands of truth for fear of looking inside, and the sense of being a square peg that doesn’t fit the neat round hole of genres and algorithms.
Many writers will recognise these obstacles, including Philippa, and myself. How do we attract and persuade people to sample the green growth in our plot? At the same time, I’m convinced we are co-creating artists of our continuous self-invention. Mourning a not-yet existing frame for our work might hinder this process, which moves and dances naturally through each breath. And I’m heartened by how writers and poets influence us over time.
A poet and mystic from over 800 years back examplifies this phenomenon …
‘The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind I was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.’ – Rumi