Adrian Slatcher writes poetry, fiction and criticism, and lives in Manchester.
In 2002 I applied for a creative writing lectureship at the University of Luton. I was interviewed and had to provide a piece on my “research interests.” At the time I was primarily writing creative fiction, so in truth, had no “research interests”, but one of the things that was interesting me was the transition to digital, the role of the writer as an artistic “middle man”, packaging up contemporary culture into a palatable (narrative-based) package for exploitation by TV or film or theatre. I also saw that there were risks in this, that the writer becomes not an originator of original characters but can only get published when there is a clear “market” or “model” for their work. Anyway, I got through to the 2nd round, but didn’t get the job. The essay I wrote then, “The Writer at the Multiplex” has remained in my thoughts lately, as I read about theoretical discussions around “metamodernism”, the appropriation and remix culture propagated by Ken Goldsmith and the idea of “flarf” poetry, and the pre-ponderance of post-9/11 narratives fictionalising contemporary history. I publish it here as was written at the time
The writer has moved out of the garret and arrived at the multiplex. There are many possible directions: poetry, novels, short fiction – but also work that connects with other arts – film, photography, the internet.
My own work has already included elements of all of these and when I sit down to analyse what I have done to date and what my plans are for the future I realise that my writing has always been informed by its wider cultural context.
At university in the mid eighties there was a tension between what I was reading out of my own volition – writers like Burroughs, Acker, Kundera – and those books on my English syllabus – Lodge, Murdoch. This comes, I think, from having always had interests outside fiction that inform my reading and my writing. I have always been naturally drawn to an avant garde that has little respect for boundaries. Therefore I came to William Burroughs through my interest in David Bowie, and the Velvet Underground led me to Andy Warhol. Thought thinking about it, it may well have been the other way round, for I had seen – and internalised – the famous Warhol cover of their first album along time before I had heard their music. This contextualisation and cross-fertilisation between adjacent arts makes sense to me, and is not without precedent. Consider Gertrude and Leo Stein’s hanging of their Picassos; or John Ashbery’s interest in abstract expressionism whilst working for Art News.
Inspiration in form as well as content can be lifted from anywhere. This is not, I think, a form of cultural dilettantism, but a recognition where similarities in the creative process lie. As we start the 21st century, the sheer volume of knowledge that a well informed individual – and the writer, one hopes, is well informed – need have to hand is quite daunting. No wonder many academics and creatives find a certain comfort in the role of the ultra-specialist. Consider the list of defined singular tasks that fill the credits of any movie, from key grip to best boy – or the delineation of roles in a new media operation: where once there was just a web designer – now there is a team of programmers, several designers, a content editor, a site manager, an advertising sales team.
How does the informed writer skirt around this potential abyss of ignorance? I think he or she can do so through a necessarily reflective approach to the act of writing and through both a probing and a prodding of their work within its cultural context. Of course, much of this will be either subconscious or unacknowledged, but isn’t the act of acknowledging in itself a part of the creative process?
Any potential writer therefore need to not only know the nuts and bolts of character, setting, narrative and dialogue but also to develop a method or perhaps even a methodology that can help shape and inform their approach to the work.
Importantly, that very method can allow the multiplex writer to enter any of the screens that are on offer. It is clear that recent books of history, biography or even the extended journalism evident in books like “The Perfect Storm” or “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls” are written with the knowing use of the full arsenal of the imaginative writer. They are not fiction but they use fiction’s toolkit.
Therefore, when I was making unconscious connections between, say, alternative music and avant garde literature, I was in effect constructing a viable method for the creative writer faced with the complexities of contemporary cultural life.
A few examples will help explain more realistically what this means.
I’ve always been intrigued by how history tends to select particular narrative strands to compartmentalise the past and this is particularly true of cultural history. I’m currently writing a critical history of alternative music beginning with the Velvet Underground and exploring their influence and legacy. Whereas a record collection can easily encompass the Doors, Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground side-by-side ‘rock history’ has been compartmentalised to tell a particular, specific narrative. The ‘official version’ of the sixties has concentrated on the ‘summer of love’, the hippy movement and Woodstock, yet at the very same time that all of this was happening, the more culturally connected Velvet Underground were writing “Heroin” – hardly the hippy drug of choice – and dedicating songs to Delmore Schwarz and William Burroughs. (“European Son,” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill.”)
Philip Larkin offered his own take on this, sardonically reckoning that sexual intercourse began around the time of the Beatles first LP. So 1963 becomes a watershed, helpfully drawing a line between the fifties – repression – and the sixties – revolution. Clearly, this has only most tenuous connection to any actual truth.
It intrigues me that Sylvia Plath, a poet who we have always contemporarised – seeing her life, death and poetry as being essentially modern, a commentator on our contemporary experience – almost certainly never heard a single song that the Beatles recorded. She lived in a world where not only did they not yet exist but where they could not even be imagined. Yet, despite this, her poetry becomes part of ‘our time’ just as does their music.
If this seems a peculiar reading between the lines, then another example may help. One gets a frisson of the anachronistic when reading Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” and finding that the boy in the story is amusing himself by kicking a football around. Yet it shouldn’t surprise us. Henry James, both an Anglophile, and so psychologically “a modern”, was also of the reality of his time – the football league and the F.A. cup were already in existence, and popular; later he would even live in Highbury, associated nowadays with Arsenal football club, but previously an outlying village of London familiar to Jane Austen. Our shock at finding anything as “new” as association football in Henry James is at least partly because in the classical portraiture of the Penguin editions we are seeing a perpetuation of a certain kind of historical narrowing, that chooses bodices over ball-games.
Clearly, traditional scholarship is not something that we would want to dismiss, and the detailed study of classic texts or authors remains worthy, even if it is only as literary archaeology – but how relevant or useful is it for works that are still ;of our time?’ Reading the popularity of PhDs on say, Jeanette Winterson or Angela Carter shows there is a real problem with the specialist approach, and how it is valued within universities. For a start, it is unlikely that with a living author – or even with one long dead, such as T.S. Eliot, his legacy carefully, even jealously protected by his estate – that all of the papers are to hand. So, given this, there is both a problem and an opportunity: the problem is how to tell a complete story when the information is incomplete (imagine a life of Ted Hughes pre-Birthday Letters, for instance), the opportunity is that the most appropriate approach requires a multi-disciplinary context. Briefly, does one read Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” in the context of Alasdair Gray or James Kelman, or his own ongoing work (with a ‘follow up’ due) – in fact, is this even possible anymore? For “Trainspotting” the book is linked with “Trainspotting” the film – the marketing campaign – the soundtrack album – the phenomenon. Which “version” is now the primary text and at what point in the future will it be possible to rescue one from the others?
How this affects myself as a creative artist can be judged with a recent example. A film maker friend wanted to use a few lines of a poem by Edmund Blunden at the end of a short film he was making, but was concerned that they were still in copyright. I suggested that I write a poem ‘in the style of.’ I subsequently did so – and he then used my poem to rewrite the script for his short movie, and in turn he rewrote certain parts of the poem in order to fit in with the visual needs of the film. It is a true collaboration. My ‘contribution’ is enhanced by his involvement, but I cannot claim sole authorship, even of the original poem. The little girl in the movie is walking through the woods looking for fairies. She is dressed in a bright red anorak and we are never quite sure whether this is a reference to Little Red Riding Hood, to Nic Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” to both of these archetypes or to neither.