Category: Writing

Haunting the margins: an essay in Gorse

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I’m very pleased to see a new essay of mine in the latest edition of Gorse journal. For those who don’t know it, this is a new Irish literary journal edited by Susan Tomaselli that comes out three times a year and is now up to issue 7. I had a story in Issue 2 (Festschrift, later anthologised in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015) and and am made up to be back between their covers – quite exquisitely designed, as ever, by Niall McCormack.

Other writers featured in #7 include Scott Esposito, CD Rose and the White Review Short Story prize-winning Owen Booth. Other writers you might have heard of in previous issues include Darren Anderson, Louise Bennett, Kevin Breathnach, Claire-Brian Dillon, Rob Doyle, Lauren Elkin, Andrew Gallix, Niven Govinden, David Hayden, David Rose, Joanna Walsh and David Winters, and there are interviews with Geoff Dyer, Deborah Levy, Alan Moore, Lee Rourke.

My essay, ‘Marginalia’ grew out of a response to Ben Lerner’s essay ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ and explores traditional and contemporary uses of book margins and footers by writers such as Lerner, Maggie Nelson, Alasdair Gray, David Foster Wallace, Rebecca Solnit and Douglas Coupland.

A song lyric: End the Beguine

It’s been a long, hard Winter
And a short, sharp Spring
And you stand at the window (winder)
Like a character out of Pinter
And you don’t say a thing.

Oh, darling…

What’s the point in trying?
And where’s the use in sin?
The way that things are tending
Are we here to begin the ending
Or are we only ending the Beguine?

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
We’ve been through thick
And now by god you’re looking thin
You’re looking at the wrong end of the Beguine

Well I’m sick and tired of fighting
And frightened that I always win
The positions you’re defending
And the messages you’ve been sending
Are telling me we’re ending the Beguine

End the Beguine, end the Beguine
We go out where we came in
It’s just a trip upon
A ship that is sinking
And the band plays on till the end of the Beguine…

****

This lyric has been hanging around in my head for years. I could sing it to you, but try as I might, when I sit at the piano, I can’t find notes that fit it. Suffice it to say, it’s in a Noël Coward kind of vein.

Echo and appropriation: Damien Hirst / Gordon Burn / Randall

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A week ago I was travelling to the University of Sussex to give a conference paper on Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist when I got a message I didn’t understand from Mark Blacklock, author of I’m Jack (which I haven’t read), talking about ekphrasis and artists’ jokes. I replied with one of those odd, polite Twitter queries that have you worrying that someone, either you or them, is going to end up looking silly in (sort of) public. He replied:

I’m thinking here of Randall’s shit smear paintings and Damo goofing off about that idea in Sex and Violence

Me: ah – but (shit!) does Hirst preempt me, the bastard – where in Sex & Violence? (I have it but haven’t read it – too scared to)

Mark: I’ll dig it out when I get home – I had assumed an ingenious ekphrastic extrapolation – even better if it’s coincidental!

Then, later:

Hi Jonathan: so the line is p.327. discussing his film Hanging Around. Burn asks: “So how autobiographical is it? ‘It’s only  autobiographical,’ he says, ‘in the way that wiping your bottom is a self-portrait.'” As I say, I assumed this was a seed of an idea. Coincidence only makes it better.

If this means nothing to you, then Mark was talking about my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, which is a sort of alternative history of the YBAs. The titular artist takes the lead, Hirst-like role, and has his first success with a series of large, colourful Warhol-esque screenprints based on his and his friends’ shit-smeared toilet paper squares – works he styles as ‘portraits’, and which then grows into a cultural phenomenon: everyone wants a Randall…

Nevertheless Randall insisted that everyone – all the great and good and rich and famous that queued up to ‘have a Randall done’ – produce a ‘holograph’, as he called it, in situ, in the studio. You wanted a Randall portrait, you had to sit for it.

Now, in writing this book, I took great pride in the idea that I had ‘invented’ all the artworks myself – it was part of my sell to myself of the novel that, Randall aside, this wasn’t a roman a clef. So it was a shock to realise that Damien Hirst had, in fact, pre-empted me. Or was it more than this? Had I stolen from him?

The quote comes from Sex & Violence, Death & Silence, the posthumous collection of Gordon Burn’s writing on art. It’s on my shelf. I bought it, but didn’t read it, a few years ago, and most definitely long after I came up with the idea of Randall’s Sunshines paintings.

I had read Burn’s book of interviews with Hirst, On The Way to Work, and it’s not in there; I have just now reread the 1996 interview to be sure. I didn’t read Sex & Violence because I was scared – scared that I might find stuff so good I’d want to rip it off; scared I’d find stuff I’d already invented, or thought I’d invented; scared of the amount of stuff Burn knew about all this art, all these artists, when I actually knew very little, and was relying on the quality of my imaginative invention to stand for the quantity of work and opinion the YBAs produced.

I was scared, basically, of Burn’s insight and facility as a writer. I knew that, if he’d written a novel about the YBAs, he’d have made mine look like a piece of flimsy trash. Continue reading

News: ‘Randall’ longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize

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I awoke this morning to the thrilling news that my novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, which goes to the best debut novel of the year. Ten books, which will be whittled down to three, and then to one. As always, it’s interesting to see how the list divides up – into male and female writers; into publishing big hitters and indie outsiders (including Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, from the crowdfunding imprint Unbound); into those that have already appeared on other shortlists and those that haven’t; into those I’ve read and those I haven’t. Elliott himself was a literary agent – “an elfin agent of genius” – who made his way in publishing by getting an interview at Macmillian aged 16, getting himself fired from all the best houses, then going on, as an agent, to discover Jilly Cooper. A profile on the prize website describes him as “waspish, witty, an uncanny mimic and a sometimes outrageous raconteur”. Edith Sitwell called him “a most impertinent person”, while to Leo (wife of Jilly) Cooper he was “a consummate showman”. D’you know what? I think Elliott would have loved Randall. He would have made him laugh. You can read more about Randall on my website here, and then why not head over to the Galley Beggars website where they are celebrating the longlisting by selling the book at the excellent price of £7.50! And if you’re a bookshop, or a book group, or a festival, or a street corner, and you fancy a reading from Randall – laughter, cleverness, art theory and toilet humour all guaranteed – then please get in touch!

* The shortlist for the Desmond Elliott Prize was announced on 15 May, with the three books to make it through Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley, Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing.

Why do you write? The impulse inwards and the impulse outwards

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Today I took a Creative Writing workshop at the LSE Space For Thought Literary Festival, which I’d titled Why Do You Write? And Can Knowing That Even Help? It will soon be available as a podcast. It was good fun to run – and I tried out a couple of new writing exercises, but one thing I did that is quite standard fare is I asked the students to jot down, for themselves, their personal reasons for writing.

Now, if you’re a writer, and you feel like exploring this question, perhaps you’d take two minutes to jot down a few possible answers before reading on. That’s what I asked students to do in the workshop, and I think it’s worth doing blind, as it were, for reasons that will become clear.

So, before reading on, grab a pen and jot down six reasons why you write.

Or, you know, ignore that, roll your eyes, and read on.

One thing I’d noticed, in making my own personal list in preparation for the session, was the reasons divided reasonably easily into two categories: inward-oriented impulses, and those that turned outwards.

So, when I asked students to share their reasons with the room at large, and I wrote them up on the whiteboard, I divided them into two columns as I went. Here’s what they came up with – some of it compressed and paraphrased by me, for which I apologise.

  • Because I can
  • Communicate
  • Create
  • Entertain
Enjoyment
  • Reciprocate  – give back something for all the reading pleasure I’ve had
  • To make sense of things
  • Share
  • To keep my head from exploding
  • Protest
  • Compulsion
  • Reach an audience
  • Reflect on things
  • Money!
  • Explore myself and my self-identity
  • Make people laugh and cry
  • Explore my imagination
  • Capture moments
  • Overcome the fear of writing
  • Therapeutic reasons

 

And this was the list I then showed, that I’d come up with. (Some of it tongue-in-cheek)

  • Replicate the joy and intensity of reading
  • Get rich and famous
  • Understand something about yourself
  • Express or share something about yourself
  • Understand something about the world
  • Express or share something about the world
  • Emulate your favourite writer
  • Impose your ideas on others
  • The sheer thrill of creation
  • Contribute to the culture, or the conversation, as you see it
  • Entertain yourself
  • Impress others / make yourself seem more interesting / get laid

As you can see, many of the terms and reasons pop up in both lists, in some form or other. I’d pretty much decided on giving an equal balance between the two impulses, once I’d decided on that perhaps overly simplistic division, but I was interested to see that the students’ list was significantly longer than the outward one, while mine, if anything, erred towards the outward or external.

I say ‘simplistic’, but I do think there is a fundamental split here. We all of us write both for ourselves and for others, to some extent, but if you made a personal list perhaps you’d look at it now and ask yourself: which column do most of your reasons sit in? Are you a ‘for yourself’ writer, or a ‘for others’?

Someone whose answers sat squarely in the right hand column might be at risk of producing meretricious, programmatic, target-oriented, basically uninteresting writing, because they’re so fixated on the effect of their writing that they are blind to the workings of their own writing personality. But someone whose answers stick to the left-hand column might be producing work which doesn’t take that crucial step of reaching out and engaging with the world, which lacks the ambition and ego needed to make writing truly crucial to the reader.

Today’s sermon: Sex and death – an excavated fragment

Sex and death. Death and sex. Firstly, let us pick as our guide through this collection someone who has experienced both things. Who would ask a virgin about sex? So why ask anyone but a corpse about death? And no one too recently departed, either. The less familiar with the works considered, the more intriguing their commentary is likely to be. We live in a world where sex is a commonplace, death a social faux pas. Let us go back, back, to when death was public, and sex a more private affair.

I found this fragment on my computer, in the storage folder where I keep my book reviews and associated writing. I was searching for something else, and it popped up. The file is titled ‘Sex and death’. It is dated 13 October 2003. I’ve got no idea what it was intended for. What ‘collection’? A prose anthology? Poetry? Patricia Duncker’s story collection Seven Tales of Sex and Death was published in that year, but I don’t think I had read that then. And in any case the reference to ‘works considered’ implies it’s something other than this.

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

‘Randall’: Randall, Randall, Randall…

Well, it’s been launched, and now it’s in the shops. Here’s what Foyles say, and you couldn’t ask for a better sell that than, could you?

foyles

Also up today is Q&A I did with Female First website. And I wrote a guest post for The Literary Sofa on setting my book in the art world.

And reviews are starting to appear: this one from the profane and anonymous BookCunt (so I’ll never get to thank her!) and another, with a pleasingly thorough unpacking of the art world aspects of the book, at The Literateur.

Its first print review came in The Sunday Telegraph, where Toby Lictig called it “both absurd and eerily believable… Gibbs’s novel is more than mischief: as with all the best lampoons, it dissects things that really matter and have gone awry.” (read full review)

 

‘Randall’: Launch and treasure hunt

In a wonderful and utterly meaningless synchronicity, I hit my 100th post on this blog just as I launch my debut novel, Randall, published by the indie darlings of the UK literary scene, Galley Beggar Press.

Photo by Kit Caless, Influx Press

Photo by Kit Caless, Influx Press

We launched the book on the Tamesis Dock, a delightful boat-pub on the Albert Embankment. The book’s not officially published until 19 June, but there was the small matter of a World Cup to avoid.

The evening was a blast – thank you to everyone who came – and I had a good opportunity to realise that it’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve seriously given my signature some serious practice.

I occupied myself during the day by laying a treasure trail of sorts around London, leaving specially inscribed copies of the book at auspicious spots, as in offering to the departed ghosts of the YBAs. Here they are: Continue reading

‘Randall’ hits the streets…

randall arrivesSo, I’m nearly there. Having been held up by the Royal Cornwall Show, copies of Randall are now sitting in the offices of my publisher, Galley Beggar. See how they throb with the frustration of the unread! Tomorrow, my darlings, tomrrow you shall be read, some of you, or held at least… Continue reading