Literary Constellations: visualising the opening sentences of famous books

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From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Time Machine, data art meets literature through Nick Rougeaux’s Literary Constellations project.

When Kurt Vonnegut proposed for his Ph.D thesis statement that “stories have a shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”, it was rejected as by his university. According to Vonnegut, the reason for this rejection was that “it looked like too much fun”.

The idea that it is possible to visualise the way stories are structured may not be entirely new; yet it is always fascinating to see how Vonnegut’s thesis has progressed.

In a new project, the data artist Nick Rougeaux aims to do just this. In Literary Constellations he posits: “words can be transformed into constellation-like diagrams. The first words of a story—and even every chapter—are unique in that they set the stage for what’s to come.”

The project contains a series of astronomy-inspired diagrams of the opening sentences of beloved books and short stories in the public domain, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Time Machine.

Rougeaux explains:

Constellations were created from words of first sentences of each chapter in classic short stories to draw a path based on word length and part of speech. The directions of lines were based on part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and length is based on the length of the word. Star sizes are also based on word length. Constellations were hand-arranged in a loose clockwise pattern starting at the top with a faint highlight connecting each in the order chapters appeared in the story representing the cloud of the galaxy usually shown in vintage star charts.”

Given that the first sentence of a story is often seen as the most important – Julian Barnes once noted that an opening sentence of a short story or novel “should contain the entire plot in nuce” – it is fascinating for both aspiring and established writers to explore the patterns contained within the first sentence of famous novels; to better visualise the way these critically important first words set in motion the rest of the story.

Take a look at some of Rougeaux’s excellent posters below. All of these are available for purchase starting at US$27.80 for 24×36

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Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech

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In October 1954, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. And, although he chose not to attend the ceremony (being as he was still recovering from two consecutive plane crashes that had almost killed him), we can still hear him reading lines from his speech, as he recorded it in his own voice at a later date following the ceremony.

You can listen to an excerpt of the speech here, and read the transcript of the complete work below:

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

Writing vs self-doubt

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For writers, artists and creative spirits alike, the issue of confidence – or lack thereof is as important as it is complicated. The way in which creatives align their relationship with their own work, and whether they feel confident in it or doubting, can be said in many ways to define any successful creative endeavor.

Reflecting on his poem, friendly advice to a lot of young men, Charles Bukowski explains the issue adroitly:

“The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime. The feeling at these readings is murderous, airless, anti-life. When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leads to a deeper and more, abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act.”

In a way, then, self-doubt offers an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art. And this is perhaps a good thing, too, since self-doubt is likely a familiar state to many who attempt to create artistic representations of their inner lives into the outside world.

Of course, to be aware of the propensity to feel doubting in ones work is relatively healthy, as it requires a level of self-awareness and consciousness necessary to keep oneself grounded in that unique space between reality and creativity. Though of course, to be too keenly aware of it, or feel too great a sense of self-doubt, can paralyse any artistic work, as the late, great, David Foster Wallace explains:

“There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.”

The inherent problems with self-doubt means it isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we often run from it; we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. This is to be avoided: “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules for writing.

Few people have captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt better than Virgina Woolf. In Orlando: A Biography, Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process:

“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

How many of us have similarly spent entire nights awake at keyboards or notebooks, frantically writing word after word in what seems such an intense creative burst that everything that is put to the page must be worth something, only to look at it once the ink has dried, and we have slept a touch, to find ourselves left cold by the words on the page, and feeling a strange sense of disappointment that even in the most intense creative moments we create something that feels lacking in substance or truth?

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We doubt ourselves because it is natural to do so; yet while awareness of an artist’s tendency to doubt themselves is healthy, it must always be balanced with a dose of self-esteem.

This is not to encourage over confidence in one’s ability, or to suggest it valuable to ignore feelings of self-doubt in one’s work. Nobody should seek to become one of the boring, over confident writers reading to each other in lonely bookstores as Bukowski warned. Yet Self-esteem for creative people is important because it helps you organise yourself and others around an idea, so that you can take it from just that – an ephemeral thought – into something real and actualised. Human beings have more ideas than we often know what to do with; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is the foundation from which this persistent application, this driving force, can emerge.

In the constant battle between writing – and re-writing (which requires an ability to revisit work you may find lacking and empty) – the crucial antidote, then, is determination. Just as the long-distance runner must repeat the same process of exercise again and again, we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

The writer and artist Anna Deavere Smith captures the importance of determination exquisitely in a section of her fantastic Letters to a Young Artist – a compendium of counsel addressed to all of us seeking to engage with the world through art and creativity. On the subject of creative endeavour vs self-doubt, and the importance of determination built on solid foundations of self-esteem, she writes:

“Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.

Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.”

 

 

 

Rich person’s kid gets book deal with major publishing house

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The talentless child of a rich person has today received their first book deal with a major publishing house.

The book, titled ‘Dificult [sic] being born rich but wanting to write and take photographs too, maybe’ is expected to hit shelves across the world this weekend, with many expecting sales figures to be numbers.

In a statement, the publishing house confirmed they would not be investing in any new or talented writers, so that they could pump all their resources into ensuring the new book was definitely a collection of words and possibly also photographs printed on paper and bound up together.

“The plot follows the story of a rich boy who takes terrible photographs and writes really poorly trying to get his book published. At first he’s worried that he won’t be able to get his book published, because it is so obviously lacking in talent. But then he remembers that his father is incredibly rich, and everything works out for him,” a spokesperson for the publishing house explained.

“I really think there’s a lot of depth and nuance going on here. Don’t just take our word for it, though – a Rupert Murdoch newspaper said it was a ‘tale for our times’, and I couldn’t agree more.”

Rife with continuity errors, narrative flaws, grammar and spelling mistakes and multiple logical and character-based inconsistencies, the book has quickly formed a cult following among members of the public.

“I actually happen to think its very meta,” a hipster in Shoreditch said without being asked for his opinion. “And I should know, since I regularly refer to myself in the third person.”

Ted Hughes on the ideal place for writing

 

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James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat – and composed Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. Conrad Aiken worked at a refectory table in the dining room; Robert Graves wrote in a room furnished only with objects made by hand. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up; D. H. Lawrence under a tree. Nathalie Sarraute chose to write in a neighborhood café, at the same time, and same table, every morning. “It is a neutral place,” she said, “and no one disturbs me – there is no telephone.”

The variety of spaces within which writers choose to practice their art is as infinite as the different styles they write in and plots they pen. Some writers prefer company and background noise, while others need isolation – even seeking out loneliness to better enhance their work. Some need the magical monotony of sameness, and others the inspiration of variety.

But are there any qualities that these ‘creative safe spaces’ have in common, beyond the superficial differences of location or appearance?

Just as certain spaces seem to lend themselves to the art of reading, providing a near perfect sanctuary for doing so, so too, perhaps, do some places seem ideally suited to the act of writing. Or, at least, perhaps there are shared characteristics of places that provide necessary elements conducive to the act of writing and creative expression.

This is the subject of a fascinating hypothesis from Ted Hughes, one of the true giants of 20th century British poetry, which he discusses during an interview with the Paris Review.

Asked whether he has a favourite place to write, Hughes embarks on a wonderfully enlightening and thoughtful off-the-cuff verbal essay on writing spaces, and whether it is possible for writers to write anywhere, or if there are certain elements that are required to make a place suitable to practice one’s chosen art. He says:

“Hotel rooms are good. Railway compartments are good. I’ve had several huts of one sort or another. Ever since I began to write with a purpose I’ve been looking for the ideal place. I think most writers go through it. I’ve known several who liked to treat it as a job—writing in some office well away from home, going there regular hours. Sylvia had a friend, a novelist, who used to leave her grand house and go into downtown Boston to a tiny room with a table and chair where she wrote facing a blank wall. Didn’t Somerset Maugham also write facing a blank wall?

Subtle distraction is the enemy—a big beautiful view, the tide going in and out. Of course, you think it oughtn’t to matter, and sometimes it doesn’t. Several of my favourite pieces in my book Crow I wrote travelling up and down Germany with a woman and small child—I just went on writing wherever we were.”

Musing on the idea that solitude is crucial for writing, Hughes considers whether loneliness is something writers are drawn to, or if this is something writers can con themselves into thinking:

“Goethe couldn’t write a line if there was another person anywhere in the same house, or so he said at some point. I’ve tried to test it on myself, and my feeling is that your sense of being concentrated can deceive you. Writing in what seems to be a happy concentrated way, in a room in your own house with books and everything necessary to your life around you, produces something noticeably different, I think, from writing in some empty silent place far away from all that. Because however we concentrate, we remain aware at some level of everything around us. Fast asleep, we keep track of the time to the second. The person conversing at one end of a long table quite unconsciously uses the same unusual words, within a second or two, as the person conversing with somebody else at the other end—though they’re amazed to learn they’ve done it.”

Intriguingly, Hughes suggests that the content we are writing, and the form and style in which we write, may be intrinsically linked to the location base ourselves when we come to begin writing. Different places provide for different atmospheres, which lend themselves to different feelings and different levels of concentration. He says:

“Different kinds of writing need different kinds of concentration. Goethe, picking up a transmission from the other side of his mind, from beyond his usual mind, needs different tuning than Enoch Powell when he writes a speech. Brain rhythms would show us what’s going on, I expect. But for me successful writing has usually been a case of having found good conditions for real, effortless concentration. When I was living in Boston, in my late twenties, I was so conscious of this that at one point I covered the windows with brown paper to blank out any view and wore earplugs—simply to isolate myself from distraction. That’s how I worked for a year. When I came back to England, I think the best place I found in that first year or two was a tiny cubicle at the top of the stairs that was no bigger than a table really. But it was a wonderful place to write. I mean, I can see now, by what I wrote there, that it was a good place. At the time it just seemed like a convenient place.”

Of course, finding a suitable creative space to write is only part of the struggle. Indeed, the challenges facing writers today mean that, to a very real extent, all books are written against impossible odds. Yet it seems undeniable that certain writers need certain spaces in which to write. So, what spaces do you require? Do you  choose coffee shops and public spaces, or secluded spaces and secrecy? Can you write wherever you feel relaxed, or do you need specific conditions, with everything adjusted just so – following the style of Virginia Woolf, for instance, who spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar?

In short: where do you write, and why do you write there? Share your ideas for the ideal places for writing in the comments below!

Raymond Chandler on what people really want to read

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Throughout his career as a writer (following his stint as an oil company executive), Raymond Chandler almost single-handedly crafted the pulp fiction genre with novels such as The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and The Lady In The Lake as well as numerous screenplays. His most famous creation, picaresque private detective Philip Marlowe, has been portrayed on screen by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould.

The author’s career as a pulp writer began in the Thirties, when he realised he could make money from it. He taught himself to write pulp fiction by studying the Perry Mason stories of Erle Stanley Gardner. Chandler’s first professional work, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”, was published in Black Mask magazine in 1933. 

In 1950, Chandler described in a letter to his English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, why he began reading pulp magazines and later wrote for them:

Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast in an automobile I began to read pulp magazines, because they were cheap enough to throw away. This was in the great days of the Black Mask (if I may call them great days) and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000 word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward.

From the moment he started writing pulp, he planned from the first to smuggle something like literature into the stories he penned.

Most of the magazines publishing this type of fiction at the time hooked their readers with a mixture of sex and violence – “they have juxtaposed the steely automatic and the frilly panty and found that it pays off”, wrote SJ Perelman. But Chandler wanted to do more than titillate: he had designs on his audience’s subconscious. He planned to sneak into his stories a quality which readers “would not shy off from, perhaps not even know was there … but which would somehow distil through their minds and leave an afterglow”.

His reasoning for this was that readers actually wanted to read this type of writing; even if the publishers didn’t think they did. In another letter to his editor, Chandler explained this in his characteristically simple and insightful way:

“A long time ago when I was writing for pulps, I put into a story a line like ‘he got out of the car and walked across the sun drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.’ They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: it just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.”

For more thoughts on writing and reading, check out our writing tips for writers, and creatives in profile interview series!

12 of the worst book titles

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We are told not to judge books by their cover. But should we judge them by their titles? Arguably, when the cover of a book has a title like “Images you should not masturbate to”, it is a tough task not to begin to form assumptions and opinions. From “Reusing old graves” to “Games you can play with your pussy”, here are some of our favourite terrible (intentionally or otherwise) book titles that we have come across.

  1. The manly art of knitting, by Dave Fougner

51pOBUSENnL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_What the Amazon reviewers said:

Joanofarcanada says, “Much manly. Very knitting. Wow.”

Chickadee says, “not much that I can add to the manly art of knitting – the man on the horse with the knitting needles pretty much says it all”

Cherryl Walker says, “Knit a hammock using shovel handles or pool cues? A saddle blanket for your horse using a piece of garden hose? Therein is your challenge! Very practical and forthright, a most excellent instruction manual.”

  1. Everything I know about women I learned from by tractor, by Roger Welsch

51I9BaVtQPL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_What the Amazon reviewers said:

Randy170 says, “Had less tractor anecdotes than I expected.”

TomatoLady says, “If you are looking for another collection of Roger’s wonderful tractor stories, you will be disappointed. BUT, that’s OK.”

 

  1. Images you should not masturbate to, by Graham Johnson

41zam5-DcwL._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_What the Amazon reviewers said:

AmazonCustomer007 says, “Don’t tell me how to live my life.”

Rachel A Schuetz says, “This is just a collection of semi random photos. I could find a better collection on imgur. Not worth 10 bucks.”

Rodnvaldr says, “The title is completely subjective, so don’t let that stop you! You masturbate to whatever you want to masturbate to! This book did contain many images that I would not ever want to masturbate to, so I gave it 4 stars. I suppose I probably “should not” masturbate to any of these images if I wanted to consider myself a “normie” like Graham Johnson obviously is, sitting in an ivory tower somewhere, only masturbating to the “right kind” of images. No thank you! I’ll masturbate to whatever I want! Which was maybe only 3 or 4 images in this book. What?! you can’t tell me what to do! I’m 21 and I’ll do what I want!”

  1. A passion for donkeys, by Elisabeth D Svendson

worst-book-covers-titles-38What the Amazon reviewers said:

Hunter Greeno says, “For a the true Donkey enthusiast. This is not just surface level appreciation…this is heart and soul appreciation for donkeys. Anything you ever wanted to learn about Donkeys can be found in this book.”

Cindy Eriksen says, “Even more than what I expected to learn about donkeys.”

    5. Does God ever speak through cats? By David Evans

worst-book-covers-titles-56What the Amazon reviewers said:

Woodrow Vankirk says, “Being as i had just self published my own book, “Me, My Cats, and God” I ordered this book. What a great book. While it has parallels to my book this is an entirely different story with a different objective. I breathed a sigh of relief as I did not want anyone thinking I “borrowed” from someone elses work. So, cat or animal lovers see how a pet can influence a person’s outlook, behaviour, and faith. and make them all better and stronger. Read this book.”

Ryan H says, “My neighbor’s cat once looked me dead in the eye and began to telepathically dictate a lost chapter of the Book of Revelations to me. He explained that he was the angel Gabriel (in cat form), and God had chosen me as his prophet. I tried to write it down, but couldn’t figure out how to use a pencil at the time (I’d had a lot of acid earlier that day. Also some Vicodin, opium, and a handful large orange pills).

Obviously, some of my unusual experiences that day could have been related to the drugs, but the cat part was definitely from God.”

       6. Scouts in bondage, by Michael Bell

worst-book-covers-titles-15What the Amazon reviewers said:

SamuelDavidAdams says: “Not the real thing huge waste of money.”

ThreeStars says: “I had hoped for more salacious content of a homosexual nature.”

 

      7. Who cares about old people? By Pam Adams

worst-book-covers-titles-20What the Amazon reviewers said:

KristalinMiami says, “It’s moments like these I pray I have a massive heart attack in my 50’s, so I don’t have to be elderly.”

 

 

      8. The beginner’s guide to sex in the afterlife, by David Staume

worst-book-covers-titles-23What the Amazon reviewers said:

Obi Wan says, “A long long time ago I was sliced in half and my body instantly vaporized. Fortunately, my love making package remained intact in the afterlife. Much to my dismay, I discovered that…things…worked a little different. Have you ever tried making love with a body completely composed of ecto-plasm? I’m afraid the endeavor is quite difficult. Plus, she-ghosts are anything but easy to woo.

This book really changed all of that for me. Ever since then, my nether sex life has been greatly improved. Sex in the afterlife is the shizz. This book comes highly recommended.”

Irina Filatova says, “There is nothing about sex in the afterlife in this book. The name is deceptive. It deals with energies and planes and spiritual matters, and may be interesting for a student of metaphysics, however if you are trying to get an answer to the question “is there sex in the afterlife and if yes – can we get some descriptions?” you will be dissapointed!”

  1. Fancy coffins to make yourself, by Dale Power

worst-book-covers-titles-14What the Amazon reviewers said:

Edison says, “yeah, coffins!”

Gould says: “Everything about the book is unprofessional. If you’re an amateur it will not help and if you’re a craftsman you’ll be appalled.

You could do better with your own imagination. If you need dimensions, call a local Funeral Home, they’ll be glad to help.

Amazon should pull this title from their inventory.”

     10. Games you can play with your pussy, by Ira Alterman

worst-book-covers-titles-7What the Amazon reviewers said:

Johny says, “Gave it to my girlfriend for her birthday and now she won’t come out of the bedroom”

Sramazon says, “I was concerned that the pussy had grown tired of me, but this book has given me so many more tricks to play on pussy.”

  1. Reusing old graves, by Douglas Davies

41qgJOwmdBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What the Amazon reviewers said:

RW Haven says, “I really dug this book.”

Butler says, “I bought this book as several elder members of our family are nearing the age to need a grave. I thought this book would show me how to save money by reusing old graves that people don’t need (long decomposed, etc). Well this book had no advice at all to offer. I feel like I wasted money that I could have spent on purchasing new graves.”

     12. Still stripping after 25 years, by Eleanor Burns

worst-book-covers-titles-16What the Amazon reviewers said:

Deb Phillips says, “All pages are intact and readable.”

A Sullivan says, “This hardbound book is filled with great pictures of many of her best ideas- “simplify the process, be brave, and enjoy your own creativity.” Quilt top piecing becomes a breeze because her directions are explicit, logical and easy to follow even if you are a novice. Warning, if you ever listen to her on t.v. her voice and demeanor may drive you a bit bonkers. None the less, Eleanor is a quilting expert worth her weight in gold. Her methods always make patterns that look difficult, easier for big chickens like me!”

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you have stumbled across a book with a title so bad you think it deserves to be included here, then let us know in the comments below! 

For UK writers and artists, the only choice at this election is Labour

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On Thursday 8th June, UK citizens will go to the polling booths for the third time in three years to vote in an election they did not ask for, called by a Government that has systematically eroded public services, damaged the country’s creative and artistic industries, caused the stagnation of wages for all but the top 5% of earners, and ground the national economy to a standstill through an economically illiterate policy of austerity and a complete overreliance on an unsustainable housing bubble to artificially inflate GDP.

Nothing in the Rulebook has made no apology for positing that the greatest support for creatives – be they writers, artists, photographers, comedians, film makers or sculptors – comes from, and has always come from, political parties on the progressive ‘left’. At this critical juncture, this is a message that bears repeating: another five years of conservative rule would be disastrous for the UK’s creatives (be they aspiring writers and artists or established professionals).

The evidence for this is clear. If you compare and contrast the manifestos for the Conservative and Labour parties, on the subject of arts and culture, there is only one party striving to support and protect such a vital industry.

As this guide demonstrates, while Labour promises investment in arts funding, support for students, protection of UK heritage, culture and media institutions, the Conservatives on the other hand offer only further cuts to arts budgets already slashed to breaking point.

Labour vs Conservatives art funding

That the Conservatives should seek to attack the UK’s creative sector is perhaps unsurprising. Such parties rely on suppressing individual thought and creative expression for their existence, as for these parties, the ignorance of the population is the source of their strength. Free thinking, enlightened individuals are much harder to control.

Few examples illustrate how badly the Conservatives seek to suppress the artistic inclinations of the UK population than their cynical attacks on British libraries. In the name of austerity, UK libraries have closed at a dramatic rate, even as the relatively small costs of running these great institutions (and perfect sanctuary’s for human knowledge) goes solely to fund tax breaks for billionaires.

The reason for these attacks is simple: reading is one of the most usefully mischievous, secretly rebellious acts that there is. Libraries are often said to be fusty and staid — it might be true of the buildings, but it’s not true of the books that await teenagers there. Indeed, as Neil Armstrong once said, the knowledge contained within library books “is fundamental to all human achievement and progress”.

The ideas contained within these books – these works of literature available to every man, woman and child, entirely free of charge – thus have the potential to be revolutionary. In this way, library books are dangerous; and perhaps more dangerous are the librarians that dare to give books out to children too poor and uncultured to know not to take them seriously. Libraries make people powerful — people who shouldn’t be powerful — and we are weaker in untold ways without them.

These are just some of the myriad number of contemporary reasons UK creatives should cast their votes against the Conservative Party and in favour of Labour at the 2017 General Election.

Yet, it is also important here to remember the historical actions of the Conservative Party. While their election campaign strategy has focused a great deal on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s role in facilitating the peace process in Northern Ireland, almost no comment has been passed on the Conservative Party’s support for pro-apartheid regimes in South Africa and Angola; or for their unrelenting support of fascist dictators and regimes in South America. They call Jeremy Corbyn a terrorist sympathiser for attempting to broker peace with the IRA; yet they also called Nelson Mandela a terrorist – and called for him to be hanged. In the 20th Century alone, the Conservatives have done nothing but damage the UK, its citizens, and its economy. From Winston Churchill’s disastrous decision to return the country to the Gold Standard, through the laissez-faire policies of Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin, and onto the imposition of neoliberal economics by Margaret Thatcher (which laid the foundations for the global economic crash in 2007), the party has pursued with unrelenting vigour policies that favour only the richest and most powerful, and help strangle the money available for creatives and artists – cultivating a culture in which artistic work is increasingly difficult to pursue; preventing people from less-wealthy backgrounds from becoming artists in their own right, and thereby reducing the number of new and unique voices operating within the creative sphere – leading to the homogenisation of UK culture.

Theresa May’s Conservative party will be no different. The weak and wobbly Prime Minister has put no thought into ways to make the UK a better place for the country’s writers and artists – let alone the ordinary citizen – beyond promising to bring back fox hunting and steadfastly continue the failed policies of the past. Her zeal for attacking our European allies and her penchant for u-turns mean Brexit negotiations with EU leaders will likely turn into a farce of epic proportions. Should the UK leave Europe with no deal, not only will the economy suffer, so too will universities, students, artists and creatives who rely on strong relationships with partners across the continent.

On the other hand, under Jeremy Corbyn the UK Labour Party has become a genuine party of hope and change. Firmly on the right side of history for decades – like his counterpart Bernie Sanders in the US – Corbyn has transformed Labour from a conservative-lite neoliberal party under Tony Blair into an organisation focused intently on making the UK a better place for all citizens. That he and his party have caught the attention and support of so many, particularly young people, despite the almost consistently negative coverage of his performance in a media controlled by 8 tax dodging billionaires speaks of the resonance of his message. As the rapper, artist, Shakespearean producer and intellectual Akala notes: “For the first time in my adult life someone I consider to be fundamentally decent has a chance of being elected.”

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Photo credit: PA

The opportunity to vote for an honest and decent human being, and for a political party that truly seeks to support the many, rather than the few, while championing the arts and creative industries does not come along often in politics. And it is for this reason – more so than the terrible record of the Conservatives – that voters should mark their ballot papers in favour of the Labour Party at this year’s General Election.

Of course this endorsement comes with caveats. The inherent problems with the First Past the Post system means in certain seats, hard decisions must be made to ensure progressive candidates return to Parliament at the expense of Conservative MPs. Voters in Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat, for instance, should cast their ballots for one of the genuine leading lights in British politics and long-standing supporter of the arts. Meanwhile, on the Isle of White, constituents have the opportunity to elect the Green Party’s Vix Lowthon – who has championed calls for investment in the islands creative sector – at the expense of the Conservatives.

These minor intricacies of democracy aside, it is hard not to feel that the 2017 General Election carries with it a sense of importance. For the first time since the 1980s, people have the opportunity to vote for a genuinely progressive mainstream political party that has broken with the broken neoliberal consensus that has led so many of the world economies to ruin, and has also placed the arts and creative industries at the heart of their manifesto – along with policies that will provide the support UK citizens need to be able to pursue their dreams, unhindered by low wages and mountains of debt. The odds are – and always have been – stacked against those on the progressive left; yet there is now real cause for optimism among UK creatives. Writers and artists so often love creating works based on such underdog stories; but now we have the chance to participate in a true example of one ourselves.

On Thursday 8th June, vote with hope; vote for hope. Vote Labour.

Creatives in Profile: Interview with Andrew McMillan

McMillan photo credit Urszula Soltys

Andrew McMillan. Photography by Urszula Soltys

Few writers have exploded onto the literary scene with quite as much acclaim as Andrew McMillan. The South Yorkshire-born poet’s debut collection, ‘Physical‘, was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize,  a Somerset Maugham Award (2016), an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ award (2014). It was shortlisted the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Costa Poetry Award,  The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2016, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Roehampton Poetry Prize and the Polari First Book Prize. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015. He currently lectures in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University and lives in Manchester.

It is a true honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

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

MCMILLAN

I just bought a house in Manchester with my boyfriend, so for the first time I feel I can say I permanently live somewhere. I was born in Barnsley in 1988 and lived there until I went away to university, and then a couple more times after university as well- I moved to Liverpool when I first started working at LJMU,  and now I’m moving on to MMU in September which I’m really excited about. I like decorative bowls, which I guess is a lifestyle choice, and I got drunk the other week and told Ben we could get a dog, so that’s going to be a new thing as well.

INTERVIEWER

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

MCMILLAN

It was always writing. From being very young, I used to write little horror stories and then moved on to writing poems; there was a magazine called Young Writer, which I don’t think is around anymore, that would publish work and run competitions and send you a proper contract to sign and things like that so it felt like something special. Then I ran away from it for a long time in my teens, I wanted to be an actor, and then a politician, but really what I liked was standing up in front of people and talking to them, and using words in an eloquent way and so when I started reading 20th Century poetry again at college, and I found Larkin and Gunn, then I started writing poetry again.   I’m passionate about all different art forms, I think all artists always wish they were proficient at something else, but I have no other skills, I can only write (and most days I can barely do that); I’m very interested in fashion, in clothing as another form of communication. If I had the right skills I might have liked to have been a fashion designer.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MCMILLAN

Too many poets to mention by name, but I’m a writer because first and foremost I’m a reader, I read as much as I can, of contemporary poetry; you can be inspired by what you don’t enjoy too, you can frame yourself in active opposition to a thought or an idea as well as taking inspiration from others’ work in a positive sense.

Jon McGregor, and his novels, are the reason that I write poetry the way that I do.

Tom Spanbauer, another novelist, and in particular The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, changed my life.

It’s a terrible cliche but I’m inspired much more by urban dilapidation than I am by beauty, a wreck rather than a masterpiece (that’ll probably be my epitaph too)

My parents, their lives, their warmth, their support, is a constant inspiration. And I’ve only ever wanted to make them proud.

INTERVIEWER

Your debut poetry collection, ‘Physical’ was released by Jonathan Cape in 2015. Its themes of and focus on masculinity seem particularly appropriate for our society right now – much has been made, for instance, of the ‘crisis of masculinity’. What do you think it means to be a man in the 21st Century?

MCMILLAN

Any discussion of masculinity has to really start from an acknowledgement that men still occupy a very privileged place within society; but for young men, particularly young working class men, things are really bad. It’s no one cause, but a confluence of things, such as a stigma around mental health for young men, an economic earthquake in the latter half of the 20th Century that ripped away traditional manual jobs and didn’t replace them with anything,  so what you have is a generation of young men who feel they shouldn’t talk about their emotions or hurt, who can’t see themselves in the role their fathers or their grandfathers might have had, which was to exchange their strength for money in the workplace, and so they feel they don’t have a place, or they feel they don’t know how to be a man, and so that lack has been replaced by, in some cases, getting bigger and bigger at the gym, or getting a ‘status’ dog- a loss of identity or position is being replaced by caricatures of masculinity because these young disenfranchised lads don’t see how else to assert the fact that they exist.

What has been really interesting, as I’ve grown up, is to see the change in fashion in what men are being told they should look like. So a pressure women have felt since the dawn of time, is now being focussed on men. And its often a male gaze on other men – so you know see heterosexual men posting topless pictures on Instagram, not to try to find sex; but so other heterosexual men will comment on how good they look; they need validation, and they’re not getting it from outside, so they’ve got it from each other, in a competitive way I’m not convinced is entirely healthy. As with everything, its also economic; so the idea of the ‘new man’, which came around in the 1990s, was intrinsically tied to wealth and middle-class status, so for young working class men, they’ve had to create a hyperbolised identity in order to survive.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in poetry, what are your thoughts and feelings on the ‘poetry industry’. If we can define it thus. And how would you advise aspiring poets to break out onto the ‘poetry scene’?

MCMILLAN

Poetry is in a really good place now and I look around at my peers and think I’m lucky to be part of a really exciting generation. I think the key thing for anyone to remember is that they only write because they like reading, so keep reading, keep involved, go to invents; BUY as much as you can afford to- if everyone who writes poetry bought poetry we’d all be millionaires. It might seem daunting on the outside, but poetry is a very small, very friendly world and people help each other out, and remember each other too, so showing your face at events or holding the doors open for writers at a literature festival (as I did in Lancaster for three years) is always going to help you out in the community. I would say as well that I think whilst its good to set up your own nights, to read poetry in front of your friends etc, its also important to seek out an audience and criticism from outside people you might already know.

INTERVIEWER

When looking to submit poetry, what are the steps and key aspects to consider before doing so?

MCMILLAN

If its to a poetry magazine/journal- have you read the magazine before, do you know if they take that kind of work, what’s the poetry editor’s name, have you read their guidelines etc- all those basic things that will get you in the good books before an editor even gets to the poems. Also get ready for rejections, you’ll get a lot. Tons of them. Some will say encouraging things, some will just be a little slip of paper saying ‘Thanks but no thanks’. It isn’t a criticism of you as a person, or even that the poem is bad, it just meant it wasn’t the right fit for that editor for that particular magazine. So perseverance too, if you believe in the work, keep at it. Most of the poems in physical got rejected from nearly every magazine you could name, and the book still did alright 😉

INTERVIEWER

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

MCMILLAN

Not to end the poem too soon, and not to have any sense of where the poem might end, you have to surprise yourself, if its predictable or too simple a journey for the reader to make, they won’t want to make it again.

INTERVIEWER

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

MCMILLAN

I always like to steal an answer of Thom Gunn’s when I answer this, in response to a fan letter he said something along the lines of:

‘If I had an ideal reader, I think it would be myself, when I was younger, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and to say to them, its OK really’

I think that’s probably true of me; but I also don’t just want a gay audience, or a male audience – I’m really just writing poems about the body, so they’re for everyone.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

MCMILLAN

Any act which seeks to make an interruption to the crushing and terrifying monotony of being alive.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘poet’ mean to you?

MCMILLAN

Someone who wants to put on some spandex and power slam words into the page

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – we live in a culture of ‘fake news’. Many have argued that poetry has an element of truth to it that reality sometimes does not. What role do you think poetry has in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

MCMILLAN

Again, I’ll quote someone else much more articulate, Rita Ann Higgins ‘To get to the poetic truth, it is not always necessary to tell the what-actually-happened truth, these times I lie.  Poetry has to have a truth in it, it has to be driving towards some universal truth, otherwise there’s no heart in it, but around that, it can make things up. Poetry shows us the real truth in something, and to do that it might often have to make things up.

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?

MCMILLAN

Maybe the very act of writing a poem is a protest, its always a peaceful political act in many ways I think, however angry the poem. Poetry shouldn’t just be polemic or rant though, it has to be more nuanced than that I think. But in an age of Trump or ‘strong and stable’ or Twitter or 24hour news, the very act of slowing down, of going to a page with a pen, and saying what can I do with this ancient language that is new, how can I compress and distill, that feels like a protest against something, perhaps.

INTERVIEWER

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

MCMILLAN

I’m just finishing up a second collection of poetry which I’m excited about, so hopefully I’ll be able to talk more about that soon.

INTERVIEWER

Aristotle said that poetry was “finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular”. Do you believe in a universal language – or any sense of universal human thought?

MCMILLAN

I don’t think I do, really; I think there are brief moments of connection with another human being, but they’re very often transitory.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MCMILLAN

I got drunk: We bought dog.

INTERVIEWER

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

MCMILLAN

  • Read
  • Read everything
  • Read stuff you hate
  • Read stuff you love
  • Read novels
  • Read poetry
  • go to art exhibitions, watch strange films, talk to strangers
  • put yourself out in the world in a way which allows things to happen to you
  • never get drunk and promise to buy your boyfriend a dog

 

You can keep an eye out for updates on Andrew’s projects and upcoming shows through his website, and purchase copies of his debut collection ‘Physical’ online

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.