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London Books Interview by Francesca Baker

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Back in the mid 1990s, support for Chelsea FC, a suburban upbringing, and a love of writing brought John King and Martin Knight together. A long-standing admiration for the work of Alan Sillitoe and his vivid portrayal of working class life cemented their friendship, and it was the lamenting of the loss of similar books from London authors that they remembered from their youth that resulted in a vow that would start a publishing company to resurrect the work of these apparently forgotten creators. ‘Eventually we got off our arses and it. London Books was born.’ Knight, editor and co-founder tells me. Although Sillitoe was, and continues to be, one of his favourite writers, he challenges the belief that the 1950s really was the period in which a portrayal of the working class in ‘kitchen sink literature,’ as literary criticism has titled it, broke through. ‘Some of the writers we have published were blazing this trail before the Second World War!’

These writers include Simon Blumenfeld, author of Jew Boy, Gerald Kersh, wrestler, soldier and author of the 1930s, as well as later works like that of cult novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Robert Westerby, the prolific Ian Sinclair, as well as John King himself, author of The Football Factory. Era is not a criteria for production by the independent publisher, but content is, and they believe that both old and new fiction can co-exist in its subject matter, style and social concerns, being just as relevant today as ever. Classic works sits by that of emerging novelists, and the reason for this is a belief in the consistency of human nature. When I ask Knight how London Books can have as one of its central tenets the credence that the books they publish are as relevant today as they were when originally written when London is one of the most quickly changing cities in the world he tells me that ‘People don’t really change, even if fashions, architecture and everything else might. There will be always be newly arrived immigrants trying to find their way, low-life, criminals, prostitutes and pimps, and the socially submerged.’

There seems to be a focus on the scraps and sordid side of London, not due to any pessimistic outlook, but that this is a neglected reality of a metropolis that can appear to be gleaming. It is this veneer that mainstream publishers can perhaps work with more easily, whereas the work on London Books is often representative of the more outrageous, the challenging, and the defiant. The gritty exploits, the mundane reality, the daily grind, and the murky dust of everyday life are often forgotten by the literary world, but so richly appeals to Knight.

It’s exactly this reason that one of his favourite works is one of the first to be published on their London Classics series, Night and the City by Gerald Kirsch. Originally published in 1938 his passion for the novel is a result of this seedy sketch, and characters ‘so richly drawn they hang around your brain for years after.’ Knight evidently has a way with words himself, making his descriptions and passion for literature even more inspiring, infiltrating as it does his speech and communication.  Even lifelong London residents can be startled and surprised by the moving recreation of atmospheres and situations by authors on the imprint, and for those who have always lived in the city, he recommends latest release There Ain’t No Justice by James Curtis. The 1938 novel tells of a life long forgotten, namely the ‘street life in Notting Hill before the jet set arrived.’ Sounding as though he is writing the blurb itself, Knight suggests that ‘it will not only entertain but grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you around the mean streets of West London before gentrification.’ Whilst some writing can soothe, some charm, the kind of writing that London Books publishes is very much that ‘scruff of the neck’ kind, and this one of the reasons that I believe they will survive in the age of the big publisher and the small e-book – they offer something different.

Both a pleasure to read and with a distinct perspective, the fiction loved by London Books is that which some of the larger corporate houses cannot touch due to fear – by definition their future work is dictated by the success of that which has gone before. Knight is optimistic about the future and the ability of writers to be published, whether this be in physical or electronic form, although certainly has a preference for the former. ‘I like to look, touch and smell my books’ he says, adding, deadpan: ‘like I do my humans.’

Having said that, as someone evidently well-versed in Fahrenheit 451 does fear the ‘risk [of] them disappearing into the ether or being withdrawn from me by some future censor or government.’

The costs of self-publishing may have fallen, but this of course means that more work exists in this space, and thus recognition becomes a nigh on impossible battle. As the characters in so many of the books on the imprint know, opportunities are found and lost, and life often is not fair. Frustrations will occur, and travails will wear people down. But these characters and their wordsmiths have left a legacy that has been hit upon.

‘It’s a lie to say quality will out. It might not and frequently does not.’ says Knight. ‘However most people who write do so because they love it. Have to get it out. They should and will carry on.’ With quality publishers like London Books out there, there is hope yet.

Is Social Media Killing Literature? By Francesca Baker

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Social media is the root cause of all evil. You would be forgiven for thinking so at least. It has been blamed for breaking up relationships, destroying careers, disintegrating family connections, reducing attention spans, driving obesity rates, causing violence, and proliferating unemployment. That’s quite a CV.

Let’s not start on its effect upon literature. Critics state that people are turning away from reading, preferring to can see an image or play within it, rather than imagine one from carefully crafted words. A diet of abbreviated words and short sentences render them incapable of reading and writing, stunted from employing language to its full capability, and unable to use vocabulary and grammar correctly. Few bother reading or writing a book when they can transmit the same message in only a few lines. We ‘like’ and ‘favourite’ our way through the day – does this mean we can no longer like literature?

To position social media and literature in opposition to one another, with some kind of Manichean unsurpassable divide between them, is to misunderstand the use of literature. In itself it is media, a tool for messaging, communication, and art, and more often than not is social, reliant upon an interaction with at least one other human being (let’s focus upon shared and published literature rather than that confined to writers’ notebooks for eternity – and even that most would share were it not for feelings of inadequacy or concern as to its reception.) Casey Brienza, sociologist and Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media at City University London, says ‘All media are platforms of human communication and expression, and in this sense, all media, including literature, is social.’

Novelist and editor Goldstein Love spoke at the first Twitter fiction festival at the New York Public Library, saying that ‘People say that Twitter is ruining people’s attention span — but what if we harnessed that through serialized fiction?’ The first festival was held in March 2014, and invited users to create their own stories in 140-character instalments. It was an effort to revive literature and explore the social media site’s capabilities to facilitate dialogue between writers and their audience. Audiences were creative – the Greek myths were told in 100 tweets, one author wrote epitaphs for existing gravestones with the help of reader input, Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw was reimagined in in today’s White House, and some tweeted bits inspired by Italo Calvino’s ‘Italian folktales.’ It’s one thing to create new literature in this fashion, by reducing Shakespeare to a tweet or Austen to a Youtube video we may be reducing their work to a fraction of its intended worth. But, with libraries closing and art budgets decreasing, perhaps this the best way to get more people engaging with the arts. After all, ‘Books are social. We share them, we discuss and debate them, we cite them, and we gather in places like libraries and bookstores that collect them.’ (Brienza)

Voices of protest tend to come from the Western world – those attuned to a certain canon and rules as to what makes ‘real literature.’ The December 2013 Taj Literary Festival explored the influence of social media, and technology as a whole upon the perception of literature, and its democratisation of the medium. Literature does not have to be classic, and the ability to self publish means that days of ‘stifled creative expression’ have given way to an age when ‘each person can now be his own editor, writer and publisher,’ according to Piyush Pandey. This may be a little rose tinted, and publication in a ‘proper’ form is harder than ever – but everyone does have the ability to speak their messages and give them an opportunity to be heard, albeit in a new form. We use social media to disseminate public health messages and advertising, why not creative messages and expression?

It’s not just about reaching more people – there are vast benefits for writers. There are now a number of collaborative writing sites that enable people to work together, such as We Are Smarter Than Me, a community book writing project or Watt Pad, a cooperative platform. Social writing enabled by new technology if you will. One Twitter user, known as JunkDNA has been writing fiction on Twitter, and working up an audience by disseminating his work on other social platforms. He said, ‘I reach out to one guy, he reaches out to his buddies, they reach out to theirs… that’s how it’s worked for me’. Word of mouth is the most ‘classic’ form of media of all. Miranda Dickinson used Twitter to get suggestions from her followers on everything plot developments to character names in her latest best seller Take A Look At Me Now. Jennifer Egan’s story ‘Black Box’ appeared as a series of tweets before being published in The New Yorker.

Affordable technology such as micro blogging platforms enable people to publish snippets and get instant feedback. This is exactly what serialized publications allowed our classic authors to do. Dickens wrote his most famous novels in instalments, with Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Bleak House going through several plot changes according to the responses in Bentley’s Miscellany, and Phiz respectively. According to Graham Law in his book Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press (2000) ‘serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution.’ These are all trends being seen in today’s society.

The brevity of social media messages, and the lack of formalised grammatical structure could well be considered to be proof that it cannot be a form of literature. Haikus are famously succinct, most fitting within a tweet due to their minimalist use of words. Concrete poetry completely breaks away from standard form, and you only need to consider the work of E. E. Cummings, or even James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to recognise that lack of perfect structure does not mean no literary worth. The fact is that most people do have busy lives and an expectation of short form and immediate entertainment rather than length and depth. It’s also a fact that novelists tend to reflect, in both style and subject, the society in which they and their readers live in and engage with. We muse and mumble about the sanctity of language, but this is how people talk and think – the modern day stream of consciousness. Or as Scott Hutchins who used photographs to tell his San Francisco noir thriller at the aforementioned Twitter fiction festival, said: ‘Useless verbs fall away on Twitter.’ Everyone loathes a useless verb.

Social media may not be ‘proper’ literature. But it does offer innovative and attractive possibilities for people in terms of expression, creativity, collaboration and participation. Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider our use of language and expression, what media and creativity is, and our definition of ‘proper literature,’ in 2014 rather than that of a nostalgic and sentimentalized canon of the past.


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Battle of Ideas by Francesca Baker

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At this year’s Battle of Ideas the opening debate concerning literature was entitled To Read or Not To Read – The Canon and the 21st Century. Basically, is there a need for a literary canon in the 21st century? And if there is, should it be full of dead white European men, as Tim Black, deputy editor at Spiked summarized it.

Of course many shades of sexism, cultural imperialism and overt discrimination exist in the canon, if we take it to mean the Harold Bloom’s 26 authors including Shakespeare, Dickens, Dante and Chaucher. But within the canon, there is also huge variety of ideas, styles and experience. Put Virginia Woolf, Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, John Milton and Tolstoy in the pub together and it is fair to say that whilst the conversation would be fascinating and stimulating, there would be few shared cultural points and that between them they would not agree on much. The variety that exists within the canon is exhilarating. The roots for a reflective and radical group is there, if we just add newer and non European writers.

But the main criticism of the literary canon is of authority and the creation of elitst snobbery. Why should politicians and powerhouses of the past continue to rule in a society where it has been long accepted that there are different genders, races, ideas and ages all with things to say and the ability to say them? It is a construct, and so essentially becomes the influence of one person’s tastes upon another; just like The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels and the like.

There is a reason that books become prized, but the reasoning behind it can be dubious, based upon outdated ideals and conceit. By canonizing some books they become elevated not just because of their literary worth, but from a social standpoint. As Gupreet Kaur Bhatti said ‘are you a better person for having read certain things?’ The worth and value held by cultural commentators and those devising the canon gets transferred to the book and then to the readers. The main effect of canonizing literature is not on the book, but the person reading it. Maybe people who read Joyce or Dante are better people – but is this because they have read a tough must read piece of literature, or because they have engaged with the moral and artistic questions that the works pose. Taking books from their natural artistic and social environment and into an elite arena removes them from the constant cultural conversation that they should be part of. A literary canon in flux is not a problem. Like the philosopher John Searle said the canon is, or should be ‘a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality…subject to revision.’

These worthy books that become so elevated important as an essential tickbox to becoming a real adult therefore make it onto school curriculums, where the problem is heightened both by the way in which literature is consumed in schools at the vulnerable age group consuming it, and it became a hot topic at the talk, especially with Joe Friggieri, professor of philosophy at University of Malta, Dr Margaret Kean, Fellow in English at St Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford and David Herd professor of modern literature, University of Kent on the panel. This is where the focus really became one of engagement.

Many students don’t engage, they absorb. There is a fear that without really reading into and around texts and interpreting them students, indeed all readers, will become subsumed into the viewpoints of the book and take them as their own. Herd discussed the importance of reading ‘creatively’ and said that there ‘must be an active engagement to get any value from literature.’ Maybe that is fine for those studying and challenging, but not everyone does that. Should they therefore be told to what to read, and if so, should the books they read be carefully selected to shape their ideas and thoughts, as there can be no doubt however that we are shaped by our reading experiences, consciously or not.

The value of literature, as well as entertainment and escapism is to illuminate the richness and varieties of human experience. If the canon is limited to only novels by dead white men, are those varieties being communicated? Major writings are often so socially exclusive as to be irrelevant in the present day, a point made by Herd, but he rightly pointed out that a blanket criticism of books that are set in a time and place alien to most of us underestimates the intelligence of the reader. However, the experience of reading the work by them and the benefits gained are not the preserve of any one race, gender, or generation. There is a lot of value in engaging with idea outside of our own cultural framework, and it can be said that the loss of the historical perspective gained by reading the classics is detrimental not only an arts education but a cultural engagement. When UK education secretary Michael Gove noted that fewer than one in 100 GCSE students answered exam questions on novels published before 1900 maybe he had a point – that our students are suffering from some kind of cultural tunnel vision blindness.

A list of books doesn’t have to be something of oppression, and in an age where so many books are published, it can be helpful to have guidance. If a canon should exist, it should be diverse, including dead white men as well as young multicultural females. I doubt defenders of the canon are promoters of an elite hegemonic society of tory boys, but take a certain pride in good literature. What they need is to open their eyes to new and diverse work, and what we all need is to appreciate the value of good literature regardless of who it was written by. As Black said, by removing any of the currently canonized books worth becomes based on meeting diversity criteria – it’s identity politics. An author’s work transcends their biography and we shouldn’t reduce a work to the author’s sex and class and age. Sometimes dead white men have something to say. And as modern liberated people, we should be open to that.

http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2013/session_detail/7885

Poems on the Underground

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If for some reason you ever find yourself playing ‘Tube Bingo’ there a few things that you are guaranteed to be able to cross off. Non functioning escalators. Officious officials. Discarded debris revealing which brand was offering samples this morning. And poems. Proper poetry, not graffitti (that’s a discussion for another time). It’s a welcome and recognisable mainstay of the underground system. Launched in 1986 by Judith Chernaik, the scheme has grown in size, and today Poems are displayed on posters in 3,000 advertising spaces in train carriages across London, selected by Chernaik, together with poets Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson, and the scheme is supported by bastions TfL, Arts Council England and The British Council.

Like much literature, or any genre, a name and category can not encompass everything.
Poetry seems to occupy two positions, each at an opposite end of the metaphorical pole. Often viewed as an elite interest, it has been a hobby of the educated and the wealthy, and who hasn’t heard poetry described as ‘posh.’ It has also seen huge swathes of influence as part of an underground movement, subversive and often cynical, an agent of the counterculture. In London we see poetry literally underground, on posters and billboards across the tube system. Sometimes a stimulating read, often thought provoking, and at the very least always a welcome distraction, but do we ever ask why?

Let’s start with the cynical theory. Is it an example of institutions trying to impose their tastes upon harried workers? Whether it was hip hop rhymes in Tahir Square or gentle dissemination of ideas in the Enlightenment period, poetry has long been a tool or agent for social change. Of course, we’ve  moved beyond that, and the institutions that rule our country would no longer be trying to influence how we think – would they?

In the week surrounding the 2013 National Poetry Day Transport For London commissioned a number of poets to write and perform pieces encouraging people to behave on the tube – ‘poetiquette.’ Strategically placed around stations, the idea was that people would hear the words and think twice about dropping litter, obstructing doors and other anti-social behaviour that contributes to travel delays on the tube. Financed by marketing, this is a perfect example of poetry being used to change a mindset. Similarly, what is an advertising slogan if not a succint and snappy piece of poetry. It’s ok when we know what TFL are trying to get us to do (not leave our newspapers) or what the advert wants us to do (buy the product) – but the poetry…what message are they hoping to infiltrate into us there? What do they want from us?

If not an example of polemics and propaganda is it an example of the dumbing down of literature? I like seeing the poems. But then I quite like literature. It warms me and excites me to see people gazing at the words on the train, reading everything from William Wordsworth to Ayikwei Parkes, on subjects as diverse as daffodils and council estates. I’m the kind of girl who laments the loss of libraries however, and most people clearly don’t, or they wouldn’t be being lost. Is this in itself a slightly pretentious outlook to have, being pleased that the great masses are still reading. If people want to be absorbed on their phones or the metro, who are TfL or any of the other funders to dictate otherwise.

People in London are busy. Despite it being one of, if not the most, culturally stimulating and scintillating cities in the world, full of new and old theatre, performances, galleries and architecture, the culture quota can be difficult to achieve. Sometimes gazing at the poetry that lines the commute is simply the only way that we have time to engage with such work in our busy lives. As well as being an uplifting and stimulating sight (which is surely what art is for, to provoke an emotion) it can be a gateway, to bigger, better, harder poetry.

Often the first exposure to a poet or their work, the fact that people read those words on their commute and then go and look it up is testament to the power of the medium. Even this is  reflection of changing society and the way in which whilst the content of the poetry may not change, the mode  in which it is presented and delivered must be. We don’t (usually) hear of a poem via a friend and then go and read a book of their works by the hearth. We see a sentence on the tube and google it, or pick up one of the little pamphlet collections occasionally produced – and on a far higher print run than most poetry publications. Being in this environment, these emotions and resonances have the ability to capture people off guard. Invite them to a poetry evening and their ‘anti poetry’ barriers will shoot up. But tired and weary on the tube, they scan for something to absorb, and find it. Tourists and visitors are opened to rich literary and cultural heritage, which is not always London centric.  Poetry has an elite and ephemeral representation and reputation, whereas actually it can be very accessible and real. Times change, but the power of poetry as an educating and emotive art form doesn’t.

Maybe this is the real reason for the project, or if not the driving reason a huge benefit. Literature enhances our lives. Sure, we need food and water more, at least phsyically, but keep going up Maslow’s hierarchy and you will find poetry (taking self actualisation as a proxy). There are huge personal and social advantages to these words lining our train carriages and tube tunnels. Not only are they inspiring and provocative, they make what is an unthrilling environment if not always enlightening, at least a little more tolerable. Art shouldn’t be aloof, and in a world where libraries and cultural centres are closing, the London Underground and its constant audience is a good space to engage to engage with literature. Chernaik describes it as ‘democratic, central to every society as folk myth, fable, a serious craft, natural to every child. It sits very well in a public place, open to all. Most interesting to me is the relation of the everyday to myth, ever since Wordsworth  insisted on common language and common experience as the ground of his vision.’

A vision of poetry interspersed with visions of adverts and visions of the blue and red roundel seems to be a good reflection of the combination of the practical and the profound, the everyday and the entrancing, literature and life. Keep the focus on the words, the value is self evident and significant.

by Francesca Baker

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