Creatives in profile: interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books

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It increasingly appears as though we live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas.

With the largest corporations influencing so much of the culture we consume, this has the potential to limit us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels we read are copies of novels that are themselves copies of commercially successful novels. This risk-averse and profit-focussed approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

Yet there are reasons to hope. Across the world, new creative ideas are being put to seed – supported by groups of energetic and enthusiastic individuals.

We caught up with the team behind one such creative endeavour: the Brixton Review of Books, a new literary quarterly magazine – published by a team of creative volunteers who help ensure the magazine remains completely free to readers (though you can also have four copies delivered straight to your door for a tenner).

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books. Caines also works at the Times Literary Supplement, and is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century and a founder member of the Liars League.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

CAINES

I’m an editor on the Times Literary Supplement by day and a layabout by night. I write the odd review, and the odder poem as a private distraction, and have made limited forays into academia, such as writing a book about Shakespeare and the eighteenth century, and editing some plays by female dramatists of the same period. Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys are among my more recherché hobbyhorses, although I’d argue, of course, with the tedious fervor of the true acolyte, that both should be more widely known that they are at present.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

CAINES

Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys. Jane Austen. William Makepeace Thackeray. Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Vernon Lee. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Ronald Firbank. Italo Calvino. Alberto Moravia. Christine Brooke-Rose. The Oulipians. Marguerite Youcenar. Penelope Fitzgerald. Michael Haslam. Lorrie Moore. Peter Reading. Weldon Kees. Elizabeth Bowen. Elizabeth Bishop. Henry Green. Nicholas Mosley. Stewart Home. It’s an incoherent set of influences, I grant you. Yes, they are, some of them, names off the top of my head. There are others who will come to me later. More seriously, there are others who are mainly TLS editors, of infernally greater mental powers than me – damn their eyes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Brixton Review of Books – how was it borne into existence?

CAINES

It’s an experiment, you might say:  people take all kinds of free newspapers and magazines at tube stations around London, but might some of them take a free literary paper made up of long reads rather than short ones? There are some obvious and quite brilliant models – such as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the TLS itself – to which I suppose the BRB pays the impudent homage of imitation, while paradoxically trying to do its own thing at the same time. I hope for some readers the BRB will serve merely as a suggestion of what’s to come if they aren’t already readers of one of those other, infinitely more prestigious publications. This particular literary newspaper is free, though, and available to all who pass a tube station at the right time, or spots it in a café, bar, bookshop, library, gallery, waiting room etc (the kind of places to which we’re also distributing it).

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The Brixton Review of Books – look out for a copy at tube stations around London.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent literary magazine into existence. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Brixton Review of Books?

CAINES

Well, for the most part, I put together the first issue by myself, and I enjoyed that a great deal. But it’s a relief to have a small team working on the paper from here on.

Then there’s the money. This “experiment” wouldn’t be happening at all if it weren’t for the generosity of the Literature Matters awards established by the Royal Society of Literature. They gave the BRB the funds and the endorsement to get things going.

Thirdly, there’s usually some agony with the administrative side of these things, such as subscriber copies going astray in the post.

And I also worried for a time that the first issue would be universally despised and scorned and laughed out of existence. That hasn’t happened . . . yet . . . that I know of.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent writers and artists within the publishing sector?

CAINES

I suppose there’s a sense in which all writers and artists are (or ought to be) independent, assuming that all trade on some inalienable, intrinsic idiosyncratic approach to their work. Some are just more obviously amenable to the established trade publishers than others, perhaps, and therefore able to cut some kind of a deal. It depends on what a writer or artist truly wants. Publication can mean many things – this airport novel or that pentagonal limited edition with unique perfumes embedded in every leaf – but maybe there’s a mode of publication to suit all tastes. So I suppose the opportunity is out there, and the challenge is finding the right one.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital content and e-zines, as well as ‘fake news’ and social media; what role do printed publications like Brixton Review of Books have to play?

CAINES

I’m one of those people – it’s not just me, I hope – who stare at screens for a large portion of the working day but love print. I think I even mean that I can love the material book as a work of art, and reading online, necessary though it often is, forms an instructive contrast to that art. But, er, in less hilfalutin terms, I hope that reading the BRB, or any newspaper or printed work on paper, is simply a change from reading on a screen, and being continuously poked in the eye by electric light.

INTERVIEWER

As editors, do you feel any ethical responsibility for the content you publish?

CAINES

Absolutely – although I tend to mistake ethical responsibility, in this context, for aesthetic responsibility. The two are so easily confused, don’t you think?

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent magazines have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and essayists whose writing may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

CAINES

Perhaps, unfortunately, the indie economy as a whole doesn’t have much say in the matter. But either way, I guess that there are plenty of writers temperamentally too rich for the mainstream, and who flourish in indie magazines and in the literary communities to which those magazines belong. But it depends on the magazine’s character. There seem to be some indies that seem to embrace underground-ness, and others that nurture more commercially lofty ambitions. There’s room in the world for both, I hope.

Regarding an aversion to risk: beyond the world of books, some big companies run (what I think they call) “accelerators”, designed to promote and invest in innovation, because innovation is precisely what big companies, for the most part, don’t do well. It’s interesting that so many big publishers, for their part, now run nimble, pseudo-indie imprints, which are arguably meant to play a similar role. The real indies, meanwhile, don’t necessarily receive the recognition and remuneration they deserve – but that inability to er realize an investment may be a further mark of their indie-ness.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

CAINES

I’m no industry guru. So rather than second-guess the future, may I instead offer you a naïve wish-list?

1) That the books business gets over its daft dependency on the insipid drug that is literary prize culture.

2) That the indie scene flourishes in perpetuity.

4) (3 was unprintable, even online, and was basically a curse on reviewers who think their duty is to their pals in the business rather than their readers.) That somebody in television works out how to make a show about books again.

5) That Amazon mends its ways.

(Well, I did say “naïve” . . . .)

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

CAINES

A terrible problem we all have to deal with, but some of us are more successful at banishing it than others, poor souls, who have to slog out their guts over “novels” and “villanelles” and the like. Pity them in their enslavement to the myth of art!

Sorry, what was the question again?

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your editorial and submissions process? How can aspiring writers get involved?

CAINES

For the most part, we’re commissioning reviews, and trying to come up with an eclectic mixture of voices: younger writers and worn-hoarse-by-time-but-very-much-still-worth-hearing, from different backgrounds, with varying interests. We have three months between issues, and it’s the middle month when things start to get serious – when deadlines becoming more deadly serious/merely deadening etc. I hope we’ll be trying out new writers (writers new to us at least) in every issue, albeit probably not as many as we’d like. The budget isn’t limitless, and dependent to an extent on advertising. Aspiring writers are welcome to get their moneybags mates to take out full-page ads in every issue.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to BRoB – or other publications?

CAINES

We’re only publishing four issues a year, and most of those issues will be full of reviews. We’re planning to run poetry in every issue, and maybe some fiction from time to time. So with expectations suitably lowered, I hope, I suggest that anybody who’s still interested check out our website, then drop us a line and declare some area of especial expertise or even enthusiasm.

I’m not so interested in “pitches” for particular books, incidentally. I’m not ruling them out altogether, but pitches can sometimes seem a little intellectually suspect: it’s not that I sense outright cronyism in every e-mail; rather that I wonder if the would-be reviewer has already made up their mind about the book, whether they’ve read it yet or not. So the result may be fine, terrific even, but can also feel shop-bought and stale rather than nattily bespoke.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Brixton Review of Books? What should we look out for?

CAINES

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll do the decent thing and expand the website to look proper n all. We’re hoping to put on a few bookish events around town. (Go on, guess which part of town. Go on!) And there are going to be some good things in the paper itself later in the year. I’m very much hoping, for example, that a few writers with Brixton connections are going to give us little stories about their personal experiences here. That’d be an acceptably educational digression from reviewing books, I hope.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

CAINES

Joan arrived, kicked ass – and left.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

CAINES

I’m still aspiring myself, and must stock up on gnomic tips for these occasions. Revise until it looks like you haven’t. Remember style is the ultimate expression of substance. Read New Grub Street. Um. Don’t automatically “um” in the presence of uncertainty? And I’ll get back to you when I’ve thought of a fifth. . . .

 

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