The best literary stocking fillers for Christmas

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Every year, shoppers in the UK and USA rush to gather as much “stuff” as they can to help fill Christmas stockings of all shapes and sizes. Even as we write this, we can almost hear the sound of frantic parents tearing up retail stores searching for Star Wars lightsaber BBQ tongs; “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frames; bizarre, whirling contraptions of plastic and electronic parts that last of all 30 seconds and then are thrown out as non-degradable landfill.

“But it’s Christmas!” We hear you cry. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a Christmas stocking; it wouldn’t be Christmas without stocking fillers!”

On this, we are prepared to concede the point. It is, indeed, Christmas. And while the religious festival of mass consumerism seems to get longer every year, stockings – and stocking fillers – are inevitably a part of it. Rather than argue about this from our liberal ivory tower made of granola and quinoa – and, honestly, who wants to be a Scrooge about Christmas, really? – we’ve done our homework and put together a list of literary stocking fillers that are guaranteed not only to raise a smile on the faces of those you love; but will also not end up as landfill before the turkey (or watermelon ham, for our vegan friends) is even cold.

Check out our suggestions below:

1. December Stories

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Few books capture the myriad intertwined feelings of joy, anxiety and sometimes sweet melancholy or nostalgia than Ian Samson’s December Stories 1, the second book offering of Belfast-based independent publishers No Alibis Press.

Comprised of brilliant short stories, vignettes, axioms, the odd recipe (emphasis on ‘odd’), art criticism, meditations and literary curiosities relating to all things festive – there’s something for every day of the titular month.

The perfect antidote to the festive season.

2. Penguin little black classics

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127 little books to choose from (one more than last year, now they’ve added the United States Constitution to the list). Each around 60 pages long, these delightful paperbacks give you a wealth of options to explore. These extracts of wider classical literary works are sure to offer choices to meet all literary tastes. Authors include Karl Marx, Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, Caligula, Keats, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens. What’s not to love?

3. Future Library – buying a gift for the future generations

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The Future Library is a 100-year artwork. From 2014 until 2114, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished for up to 100 years. Each writer has the same remit: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Margaret Atwood, David Mitchel, Elif Shafak and other world renown authors have already pledged manuscripts to the project. And, while your loved ones won’t be able to read them just yet, you can get a present that passes beyond the generations – a certificate that entitles the bearer to a copy of each of the books when they are finally published. It’s not cheap (at US$1000); but it’s certainly a stocking filler unlike any other – and one that won’t just be thrown away 30 seconds after opening.

4. Groundbreaking new fiction from Will Eaves

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Get your loved ones some cracking, daring new literature with one of three (or, indeed, all three) of these superb books from the author Will Eaves.

The Absent Therapist (TAT) saw Eaves shortlisted for the prestigious Goldsmith Prize, and you can see why. Technically described as a novel, this delightful little book will fit any stocking – but would also be a great find under the Christmas tree. A collection of mini-narratives, each with a precise tone and occasional touches of poetry, feature stories of artificial intelligence and musings on philosophy, of travel and adventure, and of course, family feuds – without which it simply wouldn’t be Christmas.

Cousin to TAT, The Inevitable Gift Shop, is similarly groundbreaking and unique (as we’ve noted before). Described as ‘a memoir by other means’, it’s not at all plot driven. Rather, this work of collage brings together bits and pieces of memoir, fictional prose, poetry, essay and non-fiction. Interactive, funny, insightful and thought provoking in equal turns, it’s a perfect book to revisit time and time again.

Meanwhile,  Eaves’s new novel, Murmur,  is a rare achievement in its own right. Formally audacious, daring in its intellectual inquiry and unwaveringly humane, it’s little surprise that the book once again saw Eaves nominated for the Goldsmith Prize. The opening section of Murmur was also shortlisted for the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award.

5. A subscription to an independent literary magazine

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There’s a lot of talk these days of buying the ones you love subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix or Spotify. But this year, why not support some independent creatives instead of lining the pockets of huge media corporations, while also bringing some literary delights to the doors of those you care about for the next year?

Purchasing a subscription (or three, or thirty) to a literary magazine (like The Brixton Review of Books, Litro, Tin House, The Emma Press,  the TSS or Oxford American, to name but a few) help readers around the world discover new writing. Not only are they a great way of getting cheap (sometimes almost free) reading material on the regular, you also get added cool-person points for supporting some right-on creatives.

6. This is the place to be

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Nominated for the Gordon Burn Prize, as well as the PEN Ackerley and the Bread & Roses awards, This is the place to be, by Lara Pawson, is one hell of a good read. Small enough to fit in your stocking, it still packs a massive punch in the proverbial “feels” as it moves with a delicate precision through personal anecdotes of the author, taking us from the market at Walthomstow to the harrowing experiences of war in Angola. There’s an immense honesty within this book that carries us through from start to finish – with each vignette or mini-story contained within it perfect for sharing together around a Christmas fire or over a large bottle of brandy.

(You can take our word for it, too – check out our review here)

7. We do Christmas

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From the minds of the creatives who brought you the supremely funny ‘We go to the gallery’ – which kick started an entire range of literary stocking fillers itself – comes the latest in their line of excellent ‘adult children’s books’; semi-funny spoof versions of the books we grew up reading as children.

Have a sneak peek inside their new book, ‘We Do Christmas’, below (and then buy it, of course).

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8. Tequila Mockingbird – cocktails with a literary twist

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Looking for something for the book lover and cocktail enthusiast in your life? This small (perfect stocking filler size, in fact) is an ideal companion to any literary party. Tequila Mockingbird is a witty collection of 65 different recipes includes classics like Love in the Time Of Kalhua, Vermouth the Bell Tolls and A Rum of One’s Own. Recipes are paired with wry (rye?) commentary, bar bite suggestions and drinking games.

9. Something special from the Folio Society

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Looking to hide a real genuine treat at the bottom of someone’s stocking? Then why not check out these extraordinarily beautiful books from The Folio Society’s Christmas selection, including this limited edition of Sherlock Holmes.

10. Literary gift sets

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Why just get someone a book, when you can also get them an entire Christmas gift set inspired by a classic literary novel? Why not check out the wonderful gifts from the Literary Emporium.

11. Who could forget the Christmas socks?

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It wouldn’t really be Christmas without some socks to open on Christmas morning. Add a literary twist to this year’s Christmas socks with these Fahrenheit 451 inspired designs from the Literary Gift Co.

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James Frey scoops Bad Sex in Fiction award

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US author James Frey has been named the winner of the 2018 Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his novel Katerina.

The judges at the Literary Review said they had been swayed by several sex scenes in the novel, which include encounters in a car park and in the back of a taxi, but were especially convinced by an extended scene in a Paris bathroom between Jay and Katerina that features eight references to ejaculate.

We both move toward each other kissing deeply slowly heavily, lips and tongues, her hands are immediately in my pants, I lift her off the ground set her on the sink tear off her thong. She says now I ask her if she has a condom she says now, Jay, now. I step between her legs.

Move inside her.

She’s tight and wet, leans back against the mirror.

Forward.

Deeper inside her.

Forward.

Tight and wet.

She moans pulls my face to hers kisses me. I start moving inside her, slow hard and deep, her hands gripping the sides of the sink, my hands on her shoulders, we’re looking into each other’s eyes pale green and light brown like cocoa. Do you like my pussy, Jay?

[…]

I’m hard and deep inside her fucking her on the bathroom sink her tight little black dress still on her thong on the floor my pants at my knees our eyes locked, our hearts and souls and bodies locked.

Cum inside me.

Cum inside me.

Cum inside me.

Blinding breathless shaking overwhelming exploding white God I cum inside her my cock throbbing we’re both moaning eyes hearts souls bodies one.

One.

White.

God.

Cum.

Cum.

Cum.

I close my eyes let out my breath.

Cum.

Frey won the literary world’s most notorious booby prize after fighting off stiff (or should that be, swollen?) competition from an all-male shortlist, which also featured acclaimed author Haruki Murakami.

You can read extracts from the 2018 shortlist right here on Nothing in the Rulebook.

Responding to his win, the author said: “I am deeply honoured and humbled to receive this prestigious award. Kudos to all my distinguished fellow finalists – you have all provided me with many hours of enjoyable reading over the last year.”

In the past, other winners of the award have reacted with disdain for the Literary Review’s award. Some previous winners have even described receiving the dubious honour as “a repulsive horror”.

Organisers say the purpose of the prize is “to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction”.

Read extracts of all the winning authors of the Bad Sex in Fiction award since 1993

Recent winners include Morrissey’s debut novel List of the Lost, which has become infamous for its use of the phrase “bulbous salutation”. Last year the award went to American writer Christopher Bollen for his novel The Destroyers.

Literary titan Haruki Murakami among all-male shortlist for 2018 Bad Sex in Fiction award

Nominations are in as the Literary Review prepares to announce the winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ prize, which aims to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.

Big-name authors James Frey and Haruki Murakami have made this year’s all male shortlist, which also includes Irish novelist Julian Gough for a passage in his novel Connect, spoof autobiography Scoundrels by “Major Victor Cornwall and Major Arthur St John Trevelyan”, Kismet by Luke Tredget, Grace’s Day by William Wall and The Paper Lovers by Gerard Woodward.

Murakami is usually found among the contenders for the Nobel prize in Literature and other prestigious literary accolades; yet in many ways, perhaps his nomination for the Bad Sex in Fiction award is his finest achievement.

Murakami was nominated for an extract of his novel Killing Commendatore, which reads:

“My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky. There was nothing I could do to make it stop. If it continued, I worried, I would be completely emptied out. Yuzu slept deeply through it all without making a sound, her breathing even. Her sex, though, had contracted around mine, and would not let go. As if it had an unshakeable will of its own and was determined to wring every last drop from my body.”

Read extracts of all the passages that earned this year’s nominated authors a place on the Bad Sex Award shortlist here

The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature. The winner of this year’s award will join a long line of illustrious authors – or not so illustrious, in the case of 2015’s winner, Morrissey – to have picked up the booby prize (pun intended, of course), which stretches back to 1993.

American author Christopher Bollen scooped the 2017 prize for his novel The Destroyers

You can read extracts from all the Bad Sex in Fiction Award-winning books in our connoisseur’s compendium.

For more information about the award, visit the Literary Review website.

Nothing in the Rulebook will continue to monitor all updates relating to the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards with (possibly too much) interest.

Bad Sex in Fiction: extracts from the 2018 shortlist

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What’s that sound you hear, drifting through the air? Could it be the sound of spasming muscles, grunts and groans, salacious sighs? You’re almost there – that’s right; its one of the greatest times of the literary year – the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award, which has just released its shortlist of nominated entries.

If you’re a fan of the often surreal world of bad sex in fiction – a landscape of low-cal genetics, bulbous salutations and general limb-flying raunchy madness, then you’re in for a treat.

All eyes are now on the judges at The Literary Review, which founded the award, to see who will be crowned this year’s winner – and whose name will be added to our long-running connoisseur’s compendium.

We’ve listed the full set of shortlisted authors below, along with their literary extracts. Enjoy!

“Overwhelming exploding white god” – Katerina by James Frey

We both move toward each other kissing deeply slowly heavily, lips and tongues, her hands are immediately in my pants, I lift her off the ground set her on the sink tear off her thong. She says now I ask her if she has a condom she says now, Jay, now. I step between her legs.

Move inside her.

She’s tight and wet, leans back against the mirror.

Forward.

Deeper inside her.

Forward.

Tight and wet.

She moans pulls my face to hers kisses me. I start moving inside her, slow hard and deep, her hands gripping the sides of the sink, my hands on her shoulders, we’re looking into each other’s eyes pale green and light brown like cocoa. Do you like my pussy, Jay?

[…]

I’m hard and deep inside her fucking her on the bathroom sink her tight little black dress still on her thong on the floor my pants at my knees our eyes locked, our hearts and souls and bodies locked.

Cum inside me.

Cum inside me.

Cum inside me.

Blinding breathless shaking overwhelming exploding white God I cum inside her my cock throbbing we’re both moaning eyes hearts souls bodies one.

One.

White.

God.

Cum.

Cum.

Cum.

I close my eyes let out my breath.

Cum.

“Nipples as hard as cherry pits” – Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Quietly, so as not to wake Yuzu, I descended from the ceiling to stand at the foot of the bed. I was sexually aroused, powerfully so. I hadn’t made love to her for ages. Bit by bit, I peeled back the quilt covering her. She was fast asleep (had she taken a sleeping pill before retiring?) and showed no signs of waking up, even when I removed the quilt. She never even twitched. This made me more daring. Taking my time, I slipped off her pajama bottoms, then her panties. Her pajamas were a pale blue, her tiny cotton panties pure white. Still she did not wake. There was no resistance, no sound.

I gently parted her legs and caressed her vagina with my finger. It was warm and wet, and opened to my touch. As if it had been waiting for me. I couldn’t stand it any longer – I slipped my erect penis inside. Or, from another angle, that part of her actively swallowed my penis, immersing it in what felt like warm butter. Yuzu did not open her eyes, but she sighed and let out a small moan. As if she had been impatient for this to happen. Her nipples were as hard as cherry pits when I touched them.

[…]

My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky. There was nothing I could do to make it stop. If it continued, I worried, I would be completely emptied out. Yuzu slept deeply through it all without making a sound, her breathing even. Her sex, though, had contracted around mine, and would not let go. As if it had an unshakeable will of its own and was determined to wring every last drop from my body.

“Penile penitentiary” – Scoundrels: The Hunt for Hansclapp by Major Victor Cornwall and Major Arthur St John Trevelyan

There was no other woman like Fang. The urge was too great to withstand any longer. So we yielded. Two atoms smashing together in a thermonuclear embrace. As she unshackled my angry, straining shaft, desperate to be free from its penile penitentiary, it felt as if the very fabric of the universe was being torn asunder.

[…]

“Empty my tanks,” I’d begged breathlessly, as once more she began drawing me deep inside her pleasure cave. Her vaginal ratchet moved in concertina-like waves, slowly chugging my organ as a boa constrictor swallows its prey. Soon I was locked in, balls deep, ready to be ground down by the enamelled pepper mill within her.

‘The stiffening shaft” – Connect by Julian Gough

They remove each other’s remaining clothes, solemnly, with tremendous attention to each other’s responses, like a ritual of incredible power and importance. When his jeans get caught, bunched, on an ankle, he laughs with nervous tension, mixed with pleasure, that they are really doing this. She smiles back.

They will protect each other.

He closes his eyes and they roll over sideways on the bed, and they kiss for a long, long time.

And then Colt moves lower, and explores Sasha with his fingers, with his lips and tongue. He moves his face over the hill of a breast; descends, kissing, across the warm curved dune of her belly, which tightens, trembles at each kiss, little earthquakes.

Down, now, between her legs, into that complicated valley, everything vivid, astonishing, new.

Yes, it’s like orbiting another planet, landing, exploring…

Wow, wow, wow… no, it’s like a rosebud…

She helps him explore.

Oh man, it opens like a rose…

After a long, long time, she pulls him back up, and he wipes his mouth on the sheet, and they kiss again.

She licks her hand, and reaches down. His penis leaps at her touch as she wets its head, and slides her warm, wet palm up and down the stiffening shaft.

[…]

As she helps guide him inside her, he feels both the specific local sensation of his penis sliding inside her vagina, and also the overwhelming sensation throughout his whole body that some barrier surrounding him, isolating him all his life, has finally been removed and he is, for the first time, coming into contact with everything outside himself.

He holds her tight, and Sasha holds him, and he can no longer feel where he ends, and she begins.

“Smeared with wet paint” – Kismet by Luke Tredget

She shuffles her head closer to his cock, close enough to smell her own residue, and then takes it in her mouth, with the vague idea of cleaning it. Geoff mirrors this gesture by burying his head between her legs, and gradually she can feel his cock pumping up with blood, one pulse at a time, until it is long and hard and filling her wide-open mouth. They stay in this position for a long time, Anna sucking and slurping with the same lazy persistence you’d use on a gobstopper or a stick of rock. Eventually she loses her sense of the context altogether – of what she is doing or who she is with or where they are – and becomes an empty vessel for what feels like disembodied consciousness. She looks at the window and wonders how the glass feels encased within its wooden frame, what the shaggy clouds feel like being blown across the sky, what the walls felt like being splattered and smeared with wet paint.

[…]

Amazingly, having floated as separate as planets for twenty or thirty minutes, they come at exactly the same time.

“Small and sticky and amusing” – Grace’s Day by William Wall

He’s almost weightless. When he enters me it hurts and my pain belongs to the subterranean world, primitive as the clay. His body is slacker than I expected, a small paunch begins at his waist and settles in a downward parabola to his groin. His pubic hair is red. His erect penis is a surprise although I had imagined what they would feel like, read about them, seen them represented on toilet walls and magazines. I didn’t see it before he entered me, but afterwards it is small and sticky and amusing. I want to touch it but I don’t dare. I don’t know the etiquette. He is twenty or more years older than me. This is sex.

[…]

I lie there with my legs spread, my shirt pulled down awkwardly. The old bag of tools is beside my head. I can almost sense the numinous reality of the ammonite. I’m sore but not as much as I had imagined. I’ve been learning things from magazines, though they haven’t prepared me for the fullness, the experience of being ridden, of his final explosive stop. The terror is pleasure. There isn’t enough of it. I want it again.

“Miraculously he found himself rigid again” – The Paper Lovers by Gerard Woodward

He was aware that she was making a mewling sound as he put his lips to her tightened nipple and sucked. Her mouth was at his ear, her tongue travelling along its grooves, voice filling it. His mouth tugged at her, extended her, she snapped back, there was a taste of something on his tongue. In his mind he pictured her neck, her long neck, her swan’s neck, her Alice in Wonderland neck coiling like a serpent, like a serpent, coiling down on him. She had found a way through his clothing and her fingers had lightly touched his cock, then slowly began to take a firmer hold. He wanted to cry like a baby. He felt helpless, as though his body had come undone and she was fastening it. He felt as though he was bleeding somewhere. Then he felt powerful, gigantic. He would have kicked a door down.

[…]

Vera rose above him, naked now, but for the necklace, she straddled him, though he was soft and helpless, indeed he was in a certain amount of mild pain. Her breasts moved in front of his face and he felt the befuddled sense of being stared at by them, they were still shiny from where he’d sucked. She knocked them playfully against his nose, one after the other. Beneath them her wetness met his own wetness, and they stirred against each other, she pestled him slowly, until miraculously he found himself rigid again, as though he had risen out of his own pain, fresh and ready.

Open for submissions – where to submit your writing

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You there, writers! Wordsmiths and expression explorers! We can see you, hunched over your laptops, feverishly searching the annals of the internet for places to submit your work. You’ve done the hard part; you’ve spilled your soul on the page, edited and re-edited, torn apart, rejigged, stitched back together, you’ve gone round the houses entreating on friends and relatives and bemused bystanders to please have a quick look at the story you’ve written and – finally! – it’s finished. All you need now is a home for your writing that isn’t your cluttered desktop.

First, the good news: there are literally thousands upon thousands of places where you can submit your work.

Now, the not so good news: there are literally thousands upon thousands of places where you can submit your work. How do you know which one’s for you? And how can you possibly have time to go through them all?

Back to some good news: We have gone through the myriad of different writing websites and magazines and collated together a not-exhaustive-but-still-actually-pretty-extensive list of places that are open for submissions (and the even better news is that these places don’t have deadlines for you to worry about missing).

So, in addition to our writing competitions lists, and our list of places to submit flash fiction, we are thoroughly chuffed to bring you this valuable writing resource you can use to get your writing into the right places.

The list*

After the pause: A small independent press and experimental journal of poetry, flash fiction, and art; always accepting submissions. Max 1000 words.

Blanket Sea: Take poetry, art, and creative fiction and fiction up to 2000 words from writers and artists living with chronic illness and disability, and also take previously published pieces.

Brixton Review of Books: Fantastic literary magazine based in South London, styled after other great titles including the Paris Review and London Review of Books. Email direct to find out more information about contributing.

Cabinet of Heed: The Cabinet is hungry for submissions of fiction no longer than 4000 words. You can prevent a terrifying furniture-based rampage by feeding it quirky, off-centre fiction or poetry that might astound and inspire! Please note: All well-crafted work will be considered, quirky or not.

Cotton Xenomorph: Flash fiction up to 1500 words and 2 pages of poetry. Into inspiring language. No creeps allowed.

Ellipsis zine: Flash fiction up to 1000 words. Want to publish stories that make us forget where we are, stories that introduce us to people, places and things we’ve never seen before and stories that stick with us long after we leave them.

For Books Sake: Accept stories between 2000-6000 from self-identifying women for their weekend read.

Jellyfish Review: Take flash and creative non fiction up to 1000 words, and essays up to 2000. Team behind this awesome project also get back to you very quickly (and their non-acceptances are extremely helpful, too).

Laurel Magazine: Take poetry, flash fiction, art, photos and short stories up to 6000 words.

Ghost parachute: Submissions of flash fiction up to 1000 words. Seeks to publish writing that is unapologetically bold.

Mojave Heart: Online literary/arts journal based in the Mojave Desert: poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, art, photography. Up to 3000 words.

Monkey Bicycle: Submissions up to 2000 words. They are open to all genres, as long as there is a strong story and a great narrative. If you have experimental work you’d like to send, they’ll consider that as well.

Moonchild Magazine: Various word limits depending on genre and style. MM is an experiential online journal that publishes dreamy visual art, poetry, translations of poetry, flash fiction, mixtapes, collaborations between writers and artists, and more.

Moonpark Review: Quarterly journal of short prose (750 words max).

Long long journal: Submission guidelines vary. Generally publish poetry and fiction.

The Nasiona: Nonfiction literary magazine, publishing narrative-led work that explores the human condition. Max length 6000 words.

Nothing in the Rulebook: We couldn’t very well not include ourselves here now, could we? We strive to support and publish all new and creative ideas across genres and forms. We’d publish a 10,000 word treatise on the artistic merit of ankle socks if it’s written well and with passion and truth and wit. Also publish non-fiction, short stories, poetry, photography, illustration, cartoons, interviews, book reviews. Get involved!

Open Pen: London magazine seeking fiction between 50-4000 words. After short fiction with something to say.

Pendora Mag: Cool magazine. Takes flash up to 500 words, poetry, short fiction, essays and non-fiction.

Pigeonholes: Seeks your literary, speculative, experimental, or absurdly unclassifiable, just make it bold and beautiful. Word limit for fiction is 1000 words.

Porridge: Max word limit is 4000. Keen interest in academic essays, alongside photography, poetry, flash fiction, short stories, excerpts from novels, original artwork, and other visual media.

Platypus Press: An indie publisher of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Short stories between 5000 – 25,000 words.

Rabid Oak: Online journal of poetry and flash fiction & nonfiction, max 1000 words.

Riggwelter Press: Riggwelter is open to submissions of poetry, short fiction, visual art (of any kind – photography, collage, traditional art etc.) experimental/mixed media, essays and reviews.

The Selkie: These fine folk aim to support and nurture voices from marginalised backgrounds by welcoming submissions and promoting the work of underrepresented writers and artists. Flash fiction and short stories. Up to 4000 words.

StorgyOnline Arts & Entertainment Magazine for those who love short stories, books and movies. Looking for literary short fiction, particularly short stories which challenge literary conventions and experiment with genre, style, form and content. Also looking for essays, reviews and articles. Max words – 5000.

 

*Want to see your magazine, journal or website here? Get in touch and let us know!

Creatives in profile – interview with Laura Potts

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Follow Laura Potts on Twitter @thelauratheory_ 

Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of The Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Agenda, Aesthetica and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, she was nominated for The Pushcart Prize and became one of the BBC’s New Voices last year. Laura’s first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas, and she received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018.

In the following interview, we talk with Laura about creativity and inspiration, writing style and poetry, West Yorkshire, Donald Trump, Joan Crawford and hats.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

Laura, 22. Writes much; reads more. Lives in a city that has been largely lost ever since last century coughed and dropped a war (or two). Born in Yorkshire. Bred on books which always took me further. Fond of rain and winter, the solitary nights and the comfort of the dark. Alone but never lonely and content to be that way. Poet and writer of radio plays. Terminal wearer of hats.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

I have always looked at living like this: life is one great passion, too vast to reduce to the four short lines I just wrote above. My life is many loves. I have never set out to chase just one of them. That would be to exist and not to live. The darkest days and the longest nights; the quiet of a sleeping house; the kindness of another; the seasons, always leaving; anger and its blackness; fire and its warmth; the world unfurling in the hands of ministers and mobs, and all before me. These are just a few of my loves and poetry is their legacy. It has never been art for art’s sake; never poetry for poetry. It is always in the service of my own private chaos that a poem, as the very best medium, comes to be.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

POTTS

Assuming we’re talking poetry, then quite a few haunt me. There’s Dylan Thomas, whose music is truer to ancient verse than winds are to winter; Leonard Cohen, with all the darkness of his heart; John Foggin for landscapes amorphous and Saxon; Clare Pollard for the humour of youth; Peter Riley for Hushings; Ian Parks for desire; Jade Cuttle for what she gives us back; the grace of Phoebe Stuckes; and Sasha Dugdale to the last, whose Joy has stayed with me.

And if we’re not talking poetry, then Joan Crawford. I like her class and taste in hats.

INTERVIEWER

As a Yorkshire-born poet, do you feel that there’s an element of your place of birth and home town in the poems you write? Or do you seek to separate your personal writing from your personal geography? (Is that even possible?)

POTTS

It was Matthew Arnold back in the nineteenth century who famously wrote that the best work comes from the disinterested mind – that is, from those who actively separate themselves from the bright world around them – and I’ve always believed that that ethos should stay firmly in the Victorian era. I disagree with the social ignorance it promotes, nor do I think it is even possible. Such a person would surely be devoid of language and its histories; of human contact and sexual impulse; of feeling altogether? Each poem, whether consciously or not, is the code of my history; each word is the product of past and present. I’ve never thought art can exist in a vacuum. Only a cypher could make that.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry series Sweet the Mourning Dew for BBC Radio 3 focuses on the experiences of those individuals who have lost loved ones to war. What drew you to this topic?

POTTS

My grandfather, mainly. He was an old war veteran and fiercely proud of the fact. He mimed the memory of war each day in a rigid routine; in a noble walk; even in his Brylcreem slicks and the same old comb from 1940 before the morning mirror. Most of all, he wanted to write his memoirs before the cancer came. In that alone he knew defeat. Sweet The Mourning Dew was my testament to a man who was proud of himself, and who wanted the lost to live on from the page past his own small place in time. It was never a passive claim on the tales that others have to tell. It was simply fulfilling a promise.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view the connection between poetry as performance and poetry as a solitary, personal act of reading poems upon a page?

POTTS

I have always believed that a poem can have many lives. Its life on the page is different to its life on the stage, but both are integral to its existence. It is true to the ancient roots of verse that it should be read and shared aloud; that its metre and music should be known to the ear as well as the eye. I am, however, distrustful of poetry as performativity: is emotion so scripted, so fabricated, so brief? And I am nervous of those who shout too loudly: in the most literal sense, in the beginning is the word and no end of spitting or swearing on stage will ever beat that. That is just a sad failure of the imagination.

INTERVIEWER

As a young ‘Gen Z’ poet who has come of age during years marked by the Iraq war; the global financial crisis and recently years of Brexit and Donald Trump, what is your take on the world around you? How can you use poetry to connect with the world as is?

POTTS

Quite frankly, I think the world is creeping dangerously close to repeating those centuries of war and hatred it said it would leave behind. It makes a mockery of those who died for the sake of democracy; for gender and racial equality; for decency; for rights. It laughs in the face of all those who tried and believed in peace. And all for a headline in the New York Times come morning or, better, a few more followers online. I’ve always thought poets are the quiet scribes of history. Like confessional voices to the past, they can speak with a passion which the history page never will.

INTERVIEWER

What has your personal experience been of trying to break onto the ‘poetry scene’?

POTTS

Well, I never tried to ‘break onto’ it as such. I read and wrote and wrote and read, and found the joy in that alone. I never had a formal plan to stand on stage and tell the world that I, self-titled, am ‘a poet’. It was never as scripted as that. But talent alone will always out, or that is what I’m content to think. And it is mainly due to the kindness of friends – of fellow writers, fellow thinkers – who listened and spoke well of me that others hear my voice today.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

POTTS

Most of all, I’d say that time should be forgotten. Little will come from a hurried mind, and what does is often stillborn. It’s a gift to hold a finished verse but only when it’s right: more joy comes from a well-worked line than a whole verse with no life. Or that’s my belief at least. I can easily spend a week or more just looking at one line. It’s really a very kind process for the mind to let time alone be the catalyst: the thoughts may be intense, yes; but I give them all the open space to grow and romp and play for months, if they need it. It’s a crucial part of my writing style to let the words live with me for hours, or days, or even weeks. If they haven’t settled in by then, I know they’re not to be.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

POTTS

Yes. Excepting the times when I write for commission and must fulfil criteria, I am the audience I write for. The joy has always been in seeing myself reflected back from the page, and never for the approval of anyone else. If there is a time when that should change, I will put down my pen for good.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

POTTS

An expressive quality by which the mind can translate imagination into reality.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘poet’ mean to you?

POTTS

That’s a much-contended one! I’ve always tried to reserve that title for a rather select group: that is, for those to whom writing is the defining constant of their lives. Perhaps it is their living; perhaps they’ve been well-published; perhaps they did a whole lot more than stand behind a microphone that one time in the pub. Otherwise, I’ll just go chop myself some wood and call myself a craftsman. No, that will never be enough. I think of it like this alone: if you want to align yourself with those who could, with confidence, call themselves ‘the poets’ in the epic annals of Literature, you have to do much more than that. You must be worthy of the name before you make the claim.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley penned the Masque of Anarchy, poetry has been used by writers and artists as a means of revolt against the status quo and to champion causes, giving voices to those who perhaps would not otherwise be heard. What are your thoughts on poetry as protest?

POTTS

I have always believed there is something intrinsically restless to poetry: in its formlessness, its shapelessness and its lack of formal laws, there is a freedom unfound in prose. Unlike most other areas of our lives, rules do not exist. And so the union between poetry and politics is a natural one in which the chaos of the latter can find its freedom. And, of course, it always helps that rhyme makes particularly memorable music.

INTERVIEWER

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

POTTS

Really, I’m happy enough just to write when I wish and read to widen my mind. But the next natural step is the first collection for which I have a manuscript; for which the time must be right and I must be ready. Other than that, I’m in the early stage of a full-length play for BBC Radio 4 and I’d like to write for the stage someday. But the plan is to be how I’ve always been and just write for the love alone. So we’ll see. When not writing I am reading, and that will be enough.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 tips for writers?

POTTS

  • Always have an accessible medium. Notebook, diary, tablet, phone. The back of your hand will do. Just make sure your mind never meets a barricade.
  • The best writers are the best readers. You’ll find your voice by listening to others and gauging your own place in the annals of literature.
  • Read your work aloud. At its ancient roots, poetry was an oral art form often set to music. By reading aloud you’ll remember its heritage and notice its flaws. A poem has a different life on the page to its life in the mouth, and it’s easy to know when a writer does not read aloud: their rhythm could be markedly better.
  • Be kind to yourself. Writer’s block is a terrible friend but one we must endure. Take your time. Sometimes the mind works best when at rest.
  • The only regrets you’ll have are for the times you didn’t try. So why not send that submission today?

Shallow Creek and the crowdfunding paddle

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The literary creatives behind STORGY, who publish and promote new literature across genres and classifications, are crowdfunding an anthology of speculative and horror fiction dedicated to all things that go bump in the night.

Shallow Creek is an anthology of new horror stories, strange and speculative fiction with a sting in its barbed tail, edited by Tomek Dzido. It collects together 18 brand new unsettling stories from new and emerging writers that draw upon the ethereal landscape of quiet towns just short of the outskirts of infinity for inspiration. Some of the stories within this tome explore the realms of the supernatural, whilst others are firmly rooted in gritty realism, but they all engage the reader with terror in abundance.

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Tales of the macabre

A spokesperson for STORGY explained what makes this literary creation unique among horror anthologies:

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“Think The Twilight ZoneTales of The Unexpected, Castle Rock and Creepshow all rolled into one. What makes Shallow Creek unique? Authors were all summoned to the town via our short story competition and given a character, location and item to create tenebrous and twisted tale to disturb your thoughts and tickle your ankles from underneath the duvet at night. You will most probably when reading the anthology find stories where certain characters in one story may pop up in others, which was our original aim when creating the competition, to construct an interwoven tale told by many authors – you may also read a yarn that will shake the very core of your being…

The quiet town of Shallow Creek has a long history of ghost stories and tales of the macabre. Every few generations this strangeness crawls out from the dark places of the quaint settlement’s imagination, seeping into our own reality. We are living through uncertain times now. Let the Creek lure you quietly to the safe place…”

Kickstarting a new anthology 

STORGY are looking for £3,500 to help cover the cost of printing the book. They are offering backers a number of Kickstarter exclusives, including T-shirts, bespoke-made bookmarks from illustrator Amie Dearlove and a chance to have your name in the book as part of the amazing community that supports indie publishing – whilst also the opportunity to have a location on our town map named after yourself.

Nothing in the Rulebook’s Professor Wu said of the project:

“As a (generally) cold-blooded amphibian without eyelids, I’m a fan of anything that includes a touch of cold-blooded murder and makes you sleep with at least one eye open.

This latest endeavour from STORGY once again strives to give a voice to new and emerging writing talent – something that cannot happen enough.

We exist at a time when the mainstream publishing industry seems to insist only on publishing novels of novels that are copies of commercially successful novels. This model not only denies opportunities to aspiring creatives; but also denies readers with the opportunity to discover new literary voices. I’d strongly encourage all of our readers to get involved in the crowdfunding campaign and support the project – either by purchasing a perk bundle or spreading the word to those you know.”

Get involved 

You can contribute to the Shallow Creek Kickstarter online –  while aspiring writers can also submit their work to STORGY directly, too. 

The crowdfunding trend

Authors, publishers and literary journals are all finding new ways of connecting directly to their readers – and their wallets – on online platforms such as Kickstarter. Think The 8th Emotion, a unique speculative fiction project by Josh Spiller (read our interview with Josh about the project here on NITRB). Why not check out this excellent article by writer and editor Dan Coxon, who examines how the social financing model can bring new book ideas to life.

 

 

 

British phone box libraries

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Books and bookshelves in a famous red British telephone box. Photo credit: Steve Muir via Flickr.

Across the UK, people are turning famous British red telephone boxes into micro libraries – casual book exchanges where there is no registration, and no fines. Anyone is free to take home a book, provided they bring it back or replace it with another.

It’s a novel, if simple idea, and one that has sprung up in response to a sustained threat facing the UK’s public libraries. The first such telephone box library was set up in Westbury-Sub-Mendip in Somerset was founded in 2009 after the local council cut funding for the area’s mobile library.

The parish council purchased the box, a Giles Gilbert Scott K6 design, for £1, and residents in the Somerset village of Westbury-sub-Mendip put up wooden shelves inside and donated their own books.

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The phone box now houses titles from cooking books to the classics and blockbusters to children’s books

A similar story can be found in South London, where a local man named Seb Handley purchased a run-down telephone box from BT for £1, then used his own money and handyman skills to renovate the box and turn it into one of London’s smallest libraries.

“It’s definitely given people an excuse to stand around chatting,” Seb told Londonist magazine, “and in that sense, I suppose it’s really failed as a library.”

The micro-library exchanges operate on a system of trust. In local villages across England, where everybody knows everybody, this seems to have been a relatively simple sell. In some larger cities, however, the micro-libraries have on occasion had to rely on the local community to step in when the libraries have been vandalised.

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This is a concept familiar to library curators across the globe. As Anne Beate Hovind, curator of the world famous ‘Future Library’ project, told us in an interview: “It’s all about trust […]I have no choice other than believing in the project. And there’s also trust the other way – because the coming generations have to trust us that we do these kinds of thing for them. They have to trust that we will do things that take care of the planet – that we create work of arts for them.”

Little free libraries

The entire ethos behind these libraries bring to mind the global phenomenon of the ‘little free libraries’, set up by a Wisconsin man named Todd Boll, who sadly passed away in October this year.

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As a tribute to his mother, Boll made a small wooden house, just large enough for 20 books, and put it on a post at the end of his drive. Above it he wrote: “Free Books”. Before long, his idea became a book-sharing movement across the US and now little libraries appear all over the world.

While BT have said they will not be selling any more of their famous red telephone boxes for the foreseeable future, people looking to do something similar and set up their own mini-libraries can look to Boll’s legacy and create their own little free libraries. There’s even handy instructions on how to create your own library box on the Guardian.

Happy reading, comrades!

 

 

The duty of writers

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Our world faces catastrophic climate breakdown. True facts are now described as ‘fake news’, and biased media reported hailed by pseudo-Nazis as gospel truth. Political turmoil is growing as inequalities deepen across so many dividing lines in society. In such times, a challenge facing us all as artists, creatives and writers – but also simply as human beings – is to examine what role we ourselves have to play.

We have previously written about the need for writers to tackle the subject of climate change in their poetry and novels and non-fiction accounts – while we have also paid tribute to Ursula Le Guin’s rallying cry for all writers to imagine new alternatives to our capitalist system.

But what exactly is our duty, in these times, as writers and creatives? What stories do we need to tell?

What is the story of the world?

Fortunately for us, guidance on this question can be found from the minds of great writers – living and dead – who have pondered this precise topic. In East of Eden, for instance, Steinbeck opens the book’s 34th chapter with a mediation on the most fundamental foundation that sits beneath this essential question: if we have a duty to describe the stories of the world that matter, what exactly is the story of the world? Steinbeck writes:

“A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”

Understanding human beings

In an earlier journal entry, Steinbeck even suggests that tackling the injustices in the world is not even possible if the writer first doesn’t understand the human beings who exist within it. He opines:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

In a similar vein, the novelist Zadie Smith argues that to believe anything can bring about fundamental change is in fact naïve – and to honestly understand what drives the world forward (and how to subtly shift perceptions) you have to first appreciate the motivations of humankind. In a speech given in Germany in 2016 after receiving a literary award, she says:

“People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

Yet within this, Smith sees no reason not to use art – and writing in particular – to reshape narratives, to influence others, and ultimately keep striving for that which we are all searching for, especially in these sometimes dark times: human progress, and illuminating the path ahead on which we can strive to make a better world. She says:

“History is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

On the protection of democracy

Smith’s line of argument calls upon all of us to continually work to reimagine and challenge existing political and social structures. This calls to mind the thoroughly excellent arguments of that legendary titan of literature, Walt Whitman, who, in his collection Specimen Days, calls on all free-thinking people to continually challenge and probe the status quo. Whitman writes:

“I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

What it interesting here is how Whitman lived through times that do not sound dissimilar to our own. He saved lives through the Civil War, witnessed the “miserably-waged populations”, the corrosion of idealism and collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency. Yet the great American poet faces this dispiriting landscape with a defiant optimism, arguing that this is in a way the most countercultural act of courage available to us:

“Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.”

Ultimately, Whitman notes that the only way to preserve democracy in America is also to preserve nature (to hark back to our call to tackle the catastrophic breakdown of our climate for a moment here). And, as current US President Trump and his collection of lunatic criminals in the Republican party continue to show flagrant disregard for the planet and its natural environments, this is a thought that is well worth revisiting. Whitman writes:

“American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.”

Truth above all

Of course, it is easy to present arguments in favour of protecting the world and become downhearted when these are dismissed by the despots around the world – from Trump in the US through May in the UK, Putin in Russia to the incompetent National Liberal coalition in Australia – and ignored as being part of some fabrication or over-exaggeration of ‘progressives’ (as though we would feel foolish if we were to accidentally be fooled into creating a better world for nothing). ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, as we are all told. Here, it feels fitting to draw upon inspiration from legendary journalist Rebecca Solnit, who presses upon us our need to continue to stick to accuracy and truth when writing stories. In her collection of essays, Call them by their names, she writes:

“Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record.”

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, where language is increasingly used for malicious purposes, Solnit strives to persuade us of the importance of calling things as they are:

“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”

More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:

“There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.”

Breaking the narrative

Ultimately, Solnit calls on writers to continue to strive towards that goal of truth – for exposing the truth, using language that is accurate, that lays bare the reality of situations. Through truth, she argues, we can break and reshape narratives and stories that have been spun by the powerful against the powerless – and hopefully move toward a world where the only thing that is fake is Trump’s hair. She writes:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

[…]

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.

So please, break the story.”

You heard it here first, comrades. So, what are you waiting for? Get breaking!

If youd like to contribute to our site – and show off how good you are at breaking narratives – please contact us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is BoJack Horseman so popular? Simple: it’s real

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If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.

That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:

“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”

Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.

The power of the image

Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.

Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.

In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.

Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.

Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.

Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: 

“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”

The problem with materialism

BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.

An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.

The irrationality of society

For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.

There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.

In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?

Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.

Beyond the fiction of reality

This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.

Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.

And that’s why we need it.