Literature for change: vital reading for the left-wing optimist

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We live in difficult and uncertain times and the world around us seems increasingly full of fear and terror: it is easy to lose hold of hope and grow cynical and weary. But this is the sort of attitude that suits only those who would seek to exploit these feelings to push agendas that nobody wants.

The newly announced general election in the UK is a prime example here. Brexit is not the sole issue facing the country and a general election should not be used as a battleground on which to debate it; least of all because in the debating of it the government will be able to hide the fact it has no clue or plan or strategy. Yet unless we demand and fight for a more positive world and put other issues on the table; we will hear of nothing else over the coming weeks. There will be no talk about the fact that wages for the majority have stagnated or fallen every year the conservatives have been in power; there will be no talk about the fact that we are working longer and harder for no reward, as our physical and mental health and wellbeing deteriorates; there will be no talk of the rising levels of misogyny or hate crime; of the crises in our public services created by privatisation; or of the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our world.

We have the power to change this; to stand up to the politics of hatred and division. Optimism is a strategy for building a better world – if you believe human beings have an instinct for truth and justice and equality; and you believe there are opportunities to change things so we build our society around these pillars – rather than those of fear – then there’s a chance you can contribute to making a better world. “Don’t mourn – organise!”

To help you do just this, we’ve picked out some of our favourite left-wing books. We’ve tried to avoid the obvious tomes of Marx, Lenin and Kropotkin – and instead gone for alternative inspirational, informative, interesting and accessible texts. Check them out!

1. Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay, by John Lanchester

We have been living with the fallout from the 2008 banking crisis, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Fortunately, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, as – without any irony – the publishing industry reacted to the near total failure of modern capitalism by successfully pushing out to the market books that tried to explain the crisis and the myriad political consequences of it. Few of these books, however, are as pleasurable to read as John Lanchester’s “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.”

The snidest villains and the greediest buffoons in the narrative are the bankers and other financial wizards who began recklessly playing with new, risky, little-understood tools to get richer faster — tools that ostensibly hedge against risk but also dramatically increase it. If you don’t know how derivatives or credit default swaps work, or what securitization is, or why futures are riskier than options, this is a book for you

2. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

A painfully well-researched, addictive romp through Friedmanite economic terrorism by one of the best journalists working in English. Read this book and you’ll understand how and why world governments are capitalising on the economic crisis to impose austerity on ordinary people.

3. Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? By Mark Fisher

The late, great, Mark Fisher identified the paradox of modern capitalism: that the more it fails, the deeper it becomes entrenched. The more people rail against it, the more powerful it appears to become. Yet while Fisher does not identify a single tool or solution to help us achieve the radical social change necessary to displace capitalism, he does however, hint at what any theoretical tool or idea must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

4. The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

A powerful explanation of the nature of violent uprising and the psychology of oppression.  Almost every page contains quotes that one wants on a poster or revolutionary t-shirt (after all, in the words of Billy Bragg “the revolution is just a t-shirt away”).

5. Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s tome is an inspiration for three centuries of subsequent human rights thinking. She identifies natural rights as being just that – rights; and not to be denied to any group in society by another.

6. The intelligent woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, sovietism and fascism, by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s 1928 work is a brilliant debunking of the myriad excuses for inequality. He argues that women of all classes must free themselves from economic dependence on men, and points to traditional family structures and familial roles as being at the heart of patriarchy. Capitalism is the villain of the piece (as well it should be), as Shaw argues for a humanity driven by forces of love and compassion, rather than self-interest. Intriguingly, he also posits that men will never be truly free or able to reach their full potential until women are free and released from bondage.

7. Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood

An evocative portrayal of life in depression-era Britain, the fact that Greenwood’s Love on the Dole remains in print stands as a testament to a lost industrial culture, and also as a story that speaks its essential truths loudly whenever times get hard.

“I have tried to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole,” Greenwood reflected, “the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth.” As austerity policies continue to deprive millions of men, women and children in the UK and elsewhere of essential decent living standards  and newspaper columns bulge with warnings of yet another generation laid waste by unemployment, it’s a mission statement that we would do well to take up.

8. The Cultural Roots of British Devolution, by Michael Gardiner

For citizens of the UK and Europe, the very real possibility of a break up of the United Kingdom demands proper study and research. Scottish devolution and independence takes precedence in Gardiner’s tour de force of a book; yet within it we can also pick out the same recurrent features of “British” culture and politics that have created the climate for Brexit and the push for greater powers for Wales and Northern Ireland.  Gardiner makes, for instance, concrete and extraordinary connections between, for example, English rave and a new unBritish, pro-democratic Englishness. Its scope makes it sightly wandery at times; but this is part of its appeal: unlike anything else in the subject you’ve read.

9. The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

One of the first books to give a voice to marginalised and ‘otherised’ groups in post-war British society, this is not only a novel about race and survival; it is also a novel about the city. Selvon’s descriptions of post-war London are so powerful and evocative that one fancies oneself alive and present on these same streets. He brings to life the grubby, working-class backstreets of the Harrow Road and Notting Hill, and the seemingly unbreachable divide between them and the rich neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Hampstead. He shows how London is not one city, but a compendium of many little cities: there is no such thing as one London or, indeed, one Britain.

The message of The Lonely Londoners, then, is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common – our humanity. As the novel says: “Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.

10. The Coming Insurrection, by The Tarnac 9/The Invisible Committee

This short book, written in 2005 by an anonymous French collective known only as The Tarnac 9 (also sometimes known as the Invisible Committee) has become a core text for radicals and revolutionaries across Europe and the Middle East. The slender text is part antimaterialist manifesto and part manual for revolution. The writers expound at length on what they see as a diseased and dehumanizing civilization that cannot be reformed but must, they contend, be torn apart and replaced. To that end the authors direct their readers to sabotage authority, form self-sufficient communes and learn how to “support a conspiracy against commodity society.”

 

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list and we’d ask anyone and everyone reading to respond in the comments with their own essential articles, books and texts for organising and mobilising as a progressive force against the disastrous forces of capitalism.

Now, here’s a video of Charlie Chaplain. Because reasons.

 

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Book Review: ‘Three Craws’ by James Yorkston

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Recent political events have sharply thrown into focus the disintegrating nature of the UK’s national identity; and yet, in mainstream publishing at least, there are few books that provide much focus on the myriad different cultures and voices that make up this (non-) United Kingdom. It is for this reason that James Yorkston’s debut novel Three Craws stands out as an important piece of writing.

In 1748, Adam Smith’s Lectures of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres began what can be seen as a near colonial, conscious effort to standardize the English Language and cultivate the “most imperfect” dialects found in regions of Britain. And this standardisation has arguably led to the obliteration of entire cultures and communities: with thousands of “non-standard” voices pushed to the margins as inherently other.

If you take away an individual’s language, you take away their ability to speak, to communicate with those around them. In doing so, you take away their heritage, their culture, their syntax and meaning. Without these things, they cannot have a voice, a self, and their freedom to express themselves is restricted.

Yorkston’s Three Craws acts as a subversion of this this controlling language, this “Standard English”. The changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique and the frequent use of expletives such as “fuck”, act as a retort to the conception that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to speak or that one group of people’s words have more right to appear on the page or in the media than those of others.

Stunning vernacular monologues litter this potent novel that, at times, feels somewhat of a cross between Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man and Welsh’s Trainspotting. Yet while there are similarities with both; this novel also very much feels like its own work.

Indeed, the sense of place is what is perhaps most interesting in this book, which articulates the paradoxical nature of so many small-town rural upbringings: of wanting to flee the boredom and nothing-ever-happens-around-here feel while never quite being able to escape the inevitable draw of ‘home’ (whatever that term may mean).

This stock is set out early on in the novel, as Fife-raised Johnny can’t resist one last drink in his local London pub before returning north of the border, and there meets an ex-pat Scot who tells him: “Folk will be happy to see ye crawling hame. Thing is Johnny – just the getting away, that’s success. Staying up there and rotting – that’s the failure. And that’s why they’ll’ve wanted you to’ve failed. So they feel better.”

And yet, there are moments – fleeting memories – where the nostalgia for this rural childhood emerges in ways that precisely articulate what the countryside has to offer that no city can. In ‘Chups’, Johnny remembers “building castles in the hay […] the beautiful damp smell of the hay bales […] jimmying our way into other farmers’ lofts, exploring ancient old desks, sniffing at the necks of many, many discarded wine bottles…” – and in that moment, for any reader who’s childhood was filled more with the rhythms of the farmyards than the urban heartbeat, it is as though Yorkston has plucked something extremely close and incredibly personal from your own heart and laid it out, exposed on the page.

It is through such moments that Three Craws really comes into its own. A raggedly intense use of language makes the writing feel acutely lyrical, and ensures the work demands total engagement.

To purchase ‘Three Craws’ visit Freight Books https://www.freightbooks.co.uk/product/three-craws/ 

Creatives in profile: interview with Laura Waddell

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Laura Waddell writes reviews of fiction, a book column, articles, and short fiction and poetry. She has been in the Guardian, Independent, Sunday Mail, Gutter, Glasgow Review of Books, 3AM magazine, Review 31, and others, while working extensively in literary and translation publishing before joining HarpterCollins as Publishing Manager of Children’s Reference.

Shortlisted as Emerging Publisher of the Year by the Saltire Society in 2016, she is also quite the social media guru – creating a number of innovative literary initiatives such as #ScotEbookDay and #ETeaParty, which was featured as a book marketing success in the book Blogging for Writers.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

WADDELL

I work in publishing, and am a writer, and I live in Glasgow. As for background/lifestyle, where to begin? I grew up in Coatbridge, a post-industrial town outside of Glasgow, and far enough away from it to glamorise living in the city. I studied up to an MLitt in Modernities (essentially modernism and postmodenism), with a focus on William Carlos Williams. I have A LOT of personal projects on the go in my spare time, and write a lot. I’m drawn to writing with observations about the everyday, and to finding the small, subtle, interesting notes in everyday life. As a result I pick up a lot of bits of paper I find on the ground incase anything interesting is written on them. There are some weird shopping lists out there. I find a lot of trash on the street aesthetically pleasing. I like to people watch. I’ve always been better able to connect with writing that focuses on the modern, the grubby, and all that is accessible about cities – I think because classics, or references to flora, weren’t really part of my education. I’m interested in experimentation with form, of making the most with a little, or utilising material in unusual ways. This can often be seen in my poetry newsletter, Lunchtime Poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

WADDELL

Writing is absolutely my first love. Before I could write, I would dictate stories to adults around me who’d write them down. I found a little red notebook containing some of these, and there was one about an octopus tap dancing on a table. In recent years I’ve written articles (politics, opinion), short fiction, and book review, and built up a portfolio of published pieces (the Independent, Sunday Mail, 3am magazine, Review 31, Glasgow Review of Books, The List, a couple of book contributions coming this year such as Nasty Women (404 Ink), others). I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been utterly consumed by the need to write, and times when I’ve felt too dispirited to pick up a pen – like most writers, and people in other disciplines, I imagine. By extension, I’m very invested in reading and the business of publishing, and finding new ways to find and communicate what’s out there.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

WADDELL

Writer-wise, I love William Carlos Williams as mentioned, for finding joy and meaning in the ways that I like, and Eimear McBride for the transcendent feeling of reading her use of language, connecting with her books in a rare and deep way, because the words in their broken-down fragmentary form go right in whole. I’m inspired by writers who have depicted places and people I’m familiar with and who are also masters of style and story, like James Kelman and Janice Galloway. I think Lara Williams is one of the most talented and exciting young writers around today and can’t wait to follow her work as it progresses. I like bell hooks and Rebecca Solnit. There are a lot of women leaders in business, politics, arts and media I look up to, as well as women who are just beginning their careers and taking on, tenatiously, areas that are still unbalanced playing fields in terms of gender. I’m also very inspired by the energy of friends who are also writers, publishers, or artists from other disciplines such as music, performance and theatre.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

WADDELL

I had a teacher in primary school called Mrs Shields, who taught our small class to always look up when walking around a city, for that’s where surprises and beauty in architecture can be found. I had a history teacher in high school called Mr Jenkins, who encouraged my love of learning and told us fascinating stories. As an only child (until I was 11) I spent a lot of time with adults.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve worked extensively in the literary and publishing industry – what do you think are some of the key challenges facing the industry at this point in time?

WADDELL

It’s not always an easy industry, and nobody joins it to make a fortune, but the upside of that is that it’s often a workforce of people who are very passionate about what they do. I’m glad to hear more talk about diversity in publishing, not only in terms of gender but in race, and I think it’s a problem that stems from the makeup of the publishing workforce itself, which may not always be able to imagine why anyone would find writing interesting when it comes from a background that is not white and middle class or upper class. A lot of stories have never been told, and I want to read them, and I believe there’s an appetite for them. Other than that, when it comes to trade, there are all kinds of issues around discounting – when authors make little money (and this is decreasing), it’s rarely because publishers are rolling in money themselves (although contacts should always be as fair as possible), but because of squeeze at the other end. I hear a lot about the FUTURE and TECH and whilst it’s essential to find new ways of publishing in an era where the media landscape is rapidly changing and digitising, there’s an awful lot of vague noise full of internet-related words that sounds like change for the sake of change instead of looking at better ways to simply publish what people will want to read and make them aware it exists.

INTERVIEWER

What power do you think writing, literature – and art in general – has in supporting and encouraging aspiring artists from marginalised communities?

WADDELL

For me, as a working class kid in an area of poor resources and endangered libraries, what literature I could get my hands on was very special to me. Access to art, both creating and consuming, broadens options in life, as well as empathy and self-expression, and it shouldn’t be the preserve of the rich. Art is about communicating, and what is communicated forms the landscape we live in – what we can expect or demand from our politics, the perspectives we read, the stories that are told and on the record throughout history. Scottish PEN are working on a project now called Many Voices, which sees writers hold writing workshops with groups of people whose stories often aren’t told in their own words – young offenders, refugees, and others. I’m suspicious of any politician who says working class people (or other groups) need only simple things in life. No, I want more. And I’m suspicious of anyone within these groups who says the same thing. Both are ways to control and restrict, to peg people into small, stereotypical boxes. And as a reader, I want writing that is the most innovative and beautiful, I want more of it, and I don’t believe that comes from any one demographic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as a writer?

WADDELL

Not in a way that is separate from the ethical responsibilities I feel as a human being. When I write articles, occasionally I want to highlight a cause or examine a prejudice. When I write fiction, I write whatever comes out, but it will naturally reflect my beliefs, and I am very interested in class and gender. 8. Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write? Not particularly. Perhaps myself, a little younger.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career in the publishing industry?

WADDELL

I was very fortunate to get a paid internship assisting a writer (Sara Sheridan) facilitated by the wonderful Adopt an Intern. I stayed on, and it was a wonderful and generous experience, where I learned a lot about marketing and PR, the media, the needs of a writer and how to work with them. I’m now a Publishing Manager with my own list of titles. Paid internships are important. They make it easier for a wider range of people to enter the industry. As I believe diversification of the industry is an important part of diversifying the books we publish, and that is key for staying relevant and commercially viable in the present day, publishing as an industry should be paying people for the work that they do at this early stage, for their own good.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway? To anyone who is interested in getting into publishing, I strongly urge you to: A) read as widely as possible. Having an understanding of the terrain is important.

B) Stay aware of industry news, such as the free bookseller.com newsletter digest.

C) Network, network, network. Opportunities arise this way. Twitter is a fantastic way to follow people who work in publishing and see what they’re up to. Go to book launches.

D) Be kind to everyone. I’ve always remembered who was welcoming to me when I was young and shy and feeling out of place at the very beginning of my career. Publishing generally is a supportive and jolly industry, and we’re mostly all in it together for the love of books.

E) Develop hard skills. Nobody is impressed that you’ve used social media – talk about copywriting skills, data analysis, project management. Learn Excel!

F) Look after yourself. Life/work balance is hard when you love what you do, but you need rest and time to let your mind wander.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, makes a “good” book?

WADDELL

I don’t think there’s one good answer to this. Some books I like are very different from each other. I think a good book is one a reader loves, and readers have very different desires. I review books, and when I review I am looking for some basic requirements – depth, structure, eloquence. But the books I’ve loved the most almost always split between 1 and 5 star reviews on commercial sites.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

WADDELL

I really don’t think I could do that in brief, here, sorry! Here’s just one I found directly instructive – Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. I snuck it into a book cover once.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

WADDELL

I’ve been really thrilled to see the success of 404 Ink, publishers of Nasty Women, an anthology of writing by women that has captured the zeitgeist of women-led protest and initiatives to raise each other up. I’m honoured to be a contributing writer. The crowdfunder was 369% funded and backed by Margaret Atwood. Another example of small indie publishers going out to publish what they really believe in are Own It!. Both these publishers have talked of publishing what they’ve heard other people dismiss, but they’ve known there is a commercial and cultural appetite for, and that often means diversity. As I’ve said above, I think diversification is the key to publishing’s continuing relevance and success.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

WADDELL

I’m currently guest editing an issue of The Drouth magazine and enjoying commissioning writers for it. Other than Nasty Women, I have an essay in another book coming out in 2017 about literary criticism in the digital era, and a piece in the first issue of brand new magazine Marbles, which has a focus on mental health. I’m continuing to write fiction, articles, and review. I want to see more writing from Scotland translated, more international relationships developed between Scottish artists and artists of other countries, and more investment in smart, commercially sustainable publishing – but that’s a very long term goal!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

WADDELL

Varieties of female moths lack wings.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

WADDELL

To young writers, keep going. Try not to lose or flatten your early or original style (I’ve never written as easily as I did when I was a kid), but take criticism on board. Do not be dissuaded by rejections – everyone gets loads. I was rejected by a magazine I later went on to be an assisting editor on. Build a portfolio. Pitch. Put yourself out there. But be respectful and follow guidelines when submitting. Read the worst reviews of writers you adore, and bear them in mind when you read reviews of your own work. Find what’s at your core that you have to express.

New Welsh Writing Awards 2017 longlist dominated by women

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New Welsh Review, in association with Aberystwyth University and AmeriCymru, has announced the longlists for the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017: Aberystwyth University Prize for Memoir and AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella.

Now in its third year, the Awards were set up to champion the best short-form writing in English and has previously run non-fiction categories with the WWF Cymru Prize for Writing on Nature, won by Eluned Gramich in 2015 and the University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing, won by Mandy Sutter in 2016. The Awards 2017 opened up entries from the US and Canada for the first time in the Novella category.

Both new and established writers based in Wales, England and the US are in the running for the top prize, including a joint memoir by a husband and wife. The longlist is dominated by women with 8 out of 9 women contending for the Memoir Prize and 6 out of 9 women in the running for the Novella Prize.

The memoir list includes true stories of a Canadian hobo; anorexia; a daughter’s American road-trip made to help reconcile her father and grandmother; an all-boys care-home in South Africa whose residents include a baboon; being the daughter of a Rhyl beauty competition judge, and backpacking behind the iron curtain.

Among the novellas, sexual abuse or the threat of it are among the themes; as well as homosexuality in a Welsh monastery; the meanings and mystery of treasures old and new; escaping the shadow of a father figure, and the enduring healing and destructive powers of archetypes and idylls.

Aberystwyth University Prize for Memoir Longlist

Maria Apichella (Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk)                                    The Red Circle

Caroline Greville (Eythorne, Nr. Dover, Kent)                                    Badger Contact

Catherine Haines (Charing, Kent)                                                            My Oxford

Liz Jones (Aberystwyth, Wales)                                                              On Shifting Sands

Sarah Leavesley (Droitwich, Worcestershire)                                  The Myopic of Me

Mary Oliver (Newlyn, Cornwall)                                                             The Case

Amanda and Robert Oosthuizen (Eastleigh, Hampshire)             Boystown S.A.

Lynne Parry-Griffiths (Wrexham)                                                         Painting the Beauty                                                                                                                                      Queens Orange

Adam Somerset (Aberaeron, Wales)                                                     People, Places, Things: A                                                                                                                                Life with the Cold War

 

AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella Longlist

 

Cath Barton (Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales)                    The Plankton Collector

Rebecca Casson (Holywell, Flintshire, Wales)                                   Infirmarian

Barbara de la Cuesta (Seaside Heights, New Jersey, US)                Exiles

Nicola Daly (Chester, Cheshire)                                                            The Night Where                                                                                                                                                      you no Longer Live

Olivia Gwyne (Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland)            The Seal

Atar Hadari (Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire)                                  Burning Poets

Joao Morais (Cardiff, Wales)                                                                     Smugglers’ Tunnel

Veronica Popp (Chicago, US)                                                                    Sick

Mike Tuohy (Jefferson, Georgia, US)                                                     Double Nickel Jackpot

 

Commended

Amanda Oosthuizen (Eastleigh, Hampshire)                                     Carving Strangers

For further information about the award and the longlisted writers, visit www.newwelshwritingawards.com