Outside of academic postmodernism, around the edges of genre fiction, and beyond the purview of the mainstream literary novel, is a culture of experimental British fiction which has been of increasing significance between the 1980s and the present: the alternative, the cult and the underground. The politics of these fictions are always radical and their defining aesthetics are characterised by excess and resistance to dominant culture, I will be addressing this milieu through two significant aesthetic tendencies: a decadent surrealist tendency and a pop-culture avant-gardism. I view these tendencies as critical visions of the relationship between national identity politics and dominant cultural politics within the culture of postmodernity. As described by Hardt and Negri in Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, the dominant culture of postmodernity is the culture of globalisation; the alternative fictions I will address are formulating a critical relationship with the culture of globalisation in resistance to dominant national culture.
How can we resist globalisation's impact outside of dominant national cultures? [Image by Matt Wakeman under a CC-By-NC-ND license]
These intellectual and literary currents chart a particular spectrum of politicised representation within alternative publishing in Britain; these are texts which confront the connections between literature and culture in combative terms. All parts of this spectrum draw on mid- to late-twentieth century avant-garde art theory; I identify two approaches in particular which seem to function as common organising principles: on the one hand a set of techniques which fuse Decadent and Surrealist impulses, and on the other a set of techniques which combine the DIY aesthetic borrowed explicitly from both Punk and the sample-cultures of Hip Hop and Drum n Bass, with militant left radicalism. Both sides of this aesthetic polarisation draw on popular music forms not only for inspiration, cultural frames of reference, and, of course, intertextuality, but also as methodological principles and models of praxis. To the alternative fictioneers, experimental literature operates as inevitable extensions of other cultural realms. Because of these overlapping fields I do not intend to suggest that the aesthetic poles I am identifying form two distinct movements battling for recognition, but rather they emerge in respect to one another within the shared field of contemporary British underground fiction; they are contingent points of reference which stand in opposition to dominant cultures of ‘Britishness’ and ‘English Literature’.
The major writers I am concerned with range from avant-gardists such as Stewart Home to music producers and artists such as Bill Drummond and Billy Childish, to writers better known for their graphic novels and comic books such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Similar aesthetic tendencies also run within the self-conscious ‘street fictions’ and ‘club novels’ such as Deadmeat (1991-1997) by Q [Kwabena Manso] and Junglist (1997) by Two Fingers [Andrew Green] and James T. Kirk [Eddie Otchere], and Come by Mark Waugh (Pulp Books, 1997)—all of which offer resistances to categorisation by form and employ linguistic borrowings taken direct from popular music forms. Texts such as these form the other side of the balance. Where writers such as Drummond, Morrison and Moore are self-consciously non-London-centric, writers like Waugh, Q and Two Fingers represent marginality within the central literary culture they form.
Alan Moore: pioneer of British underground and alternative fanzines [Image by abrinksy under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]
Alongside these more recognisable names I argue that there are wider groups of writers whose work undertakes directly analogous projects of essentially modernist renewal dealing with working-class and subcultural perspectives through either Decadent Surrealist or Pop-Cultural Avant-Gardist lenses. This part of the spectrum includes the controversial decadent work of Savoy Books, such as David Britton’s Lord Horror and Meng & Ecker fictions and their revision by Lucy Swan in The Adventures of Little Lou. While the Pop-Cultural Avant-Gardist dimension extends into the ‘avant-pulp’ fictions of Jeff Noon, and Steven Wells’ appropriation of the term for his Attack! Books imprint.
The innovations of theme and technique launched by these writers have produced subsequent innovations. Steven Wells’ Attack! Books, published as an imprint of Creation Books, is emulated and extended in Radolph Carter’s Neo-Attack Books of eleven linked novels by ‘Johnny Pulp’ published simultaneously in 2005. Equally, the writers whose work stimulated innovation in the 1980s and 1990s have continued to seek out further experiments. The Semina series edited by Stewart Home and Gavin Everall (2008-2010) is a highly significant development on Home’s earlier work and the principles of his literary praxis. Home and Everall’s series includes the texts The Dark Object by Katrina Palmer, Index by Bridget Penney, One Break, A Thousand Blows by Maxi Kim, Bubble Entendre by Mark Waugh and HOE#999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis by Jarett Kobek and was published by the art-book publisher Book Works. These are the texts I aim to survey in part three of these articles for Alluvium.
I am making two arguments: first, I argue that the various bodies of subversive work I am addressing make significant and distinctive contributions to debates on the function of English Literature in contemporary Britain. It is an attempt to capture a sense of the structures of feeling which unite and make distinctive a series of texts published between the early eighties and the present by small presses such as Savoy Books, Creation Press, AK Distribution, Headpress, Spare Change Books, CodeX and Pulp Faction. I will be analysing some intriguing links and proposing a way of considering some unusual texts in a collective way without, I hope, being reductive towards them as individual works, or towards the writers and artists concerned as individual workers.
Time to rethink the literary canon? [Image by Ronnie Pitman under a CC-BY-NC license]
Secondly, I am arguing that by their eccentric and combative character, these texts offer a critique of national literary traditions which makes their work particularly useful for offering critical insights into the material presence of globalisation within trans-national cultural fields because they represent a development of the avant-garde as a contemporary reformulation of modernism. They are marketed in international contexts as ‘cult’ or ‘underground’ literature, a status which gives them specific license to challenge accepted norms. At the same time, they also challenge their own marketing and marketability as such, through aesthetic techniques designed to upset the expectations of any potential audience. These are texts which take a critical gamble with their own readership which is analogous to the central problems of using literature, or any other aesthetic form, to critique the dominant culture of postmodernity: can an aesthetic form offer critical engagement with the market that sells it?
Now to define the aesthetic terms: in responding to the underlying questions already raised in a literary work there are a number of possibilities derived from historical avant-garde praxis; the presses and texts I am discussing take two broad aesthetic approaches. I term the first Decadent Surrealism because it employs eclectic, deliberately anachronistic forms which borrow from historical underground ‘movements’ of the 1960s, accompanied by illustrations twinning stylistic borrowings from the 1890s with those of the 1920s; it draws on the ‘New Wave’ of science fiction. I call the second Pop-cultural Avant-Gardism because it is a demotic, DIY approach to textual experiment, which draws its sensibility from popular musical modes such as Punk, Hip Hop and Drum n Bass. Its theoretical dimension from post-1960s avant-gardes, primarily the Situationist International—in the writers I’m talking about this has been called variously ‘avant-bard’ (Stewart Home), ‘avant-pulp’ (Jeff Noon and then Steven Wells) and ‘avant-pop’ (Grant Morrison). Both approaches employ appropriation and aspects of collage but the significant separation between them is based on the politics of representation: Decadent Surrealism refers to an essentially aristocratic basis in the idea of exceptional individual art works; Post-Punk Experiment refers to a militantly democratic basis in a mass culture of disposability.
J. G. Ballard memorial: New Wave science fiction informs Decadent Surrealism [Image by Thierry Ehrmann under a CC-BY license]
It is important to view these polarities in respect to their relationship with magazine culture, ranging from well-known magazines to much smaller circulation publications. This context includes the internationally respected science fiction magazine Interzone (1982-present), begun by David Pringle, Colin Greenland, Roz Kaveney, Graham James and Simon Ounsley; The Third Alternative (1994-2005), relaunched as Black Static (2007-present), concerned with publishing science fiction, horror and slipstream fiction which provide a rigorous framework of critical peer oversight which nevertheless embraces alternative writing. On the more explicitly postmodernist side, this spectrum also includes alternative magazines such as The Idler (1993-present) edited by Tom Hodgkinson, literary editor Tony White, featuring regular contributions from Mark Manning and Stewart Home dealing with the facets of culture, and The Edge Magazine which, included, for example, work from Stewart Home and Michael Moorcock, extracts from work by Bridget Penney and Steve Beard, reviews of obscure prose fictions by Grant Morrison and David Conway, and comic strips by David Britton and Kris Guidio of Savoy Books. All these publications engage in writerly analysis, review and discussion of fringe and alternative genre fiction, forums through which ‘alternative’ fiction could be published and reviewed, and, most importantly, which were being read by those who followed these aesthetic and intellectual strands.
These writers have, predominantly, been considered in terms of their individual relationships with postmodernism and genre (where they have been considered at all), and not really in terms of their shared frames of reference. This is because the points of contact which unite them are largely confined to quite small circles of ‘cult’ publications and ‘alternative’ subgenre forms, but the implications of their aesthetic developments have proved to have far wider implications than this, as the growing interest in terms such as ‘New Weird’ and ‘Bizarro’ fiction demonstrates. In the wake of financial crisis, riots and mass protest, and more recent reactions against the austerity universally prescribed by neo-liberalism, the political orientation of UK alternative fiction centred around working-class experience, and inflected along gendered, racial, and nationally and regionally specific lines, is a pressing concern for literary analysis and theorisation. On the basis that these spheres necessarily overlap and intersect critically, I argue that the dominant aesthetic tendencies of ‘street fictions’ and ‘club novels’ demonstrate the same underlying principles at work within different sub-cultures, and that the ‘avant-pulp’ work of Jeff Noon and ‘Bizarro’ fictions of Steve Beard must be viewed as expressions of these same aesthetics, dealing with the same socio-political impulses.
The division into Decadent Surrealist and Pop-Cultural Avant-Gardist can only ever be contingent and solidarity between presses, writers and artists may also bridge or perforate this division. Because both approaches are frequently anarchic in their use of, or attacks on, different cultural registers their anti-authoritarianism means they have a common basis in shared opposition to dominant culture—please note, I am trying to avoid referring to ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture at this point because although this distinction has specific national cultural connotations, it is an irrelevant distinction to the dominant (trans-national) culture of postmodernity.
Resistant writing: drawing inspiration from the margins of transnational postmodernity [Image by Fernando Mafra under a CC-BY-SA license]
In terms of aesthetic approaches, the key distinction I am drawing in the spectrum of resistant writing is between radically individualist works which wish to emphasise the production of Art as an activity of individual expression which goes on to create affects in others as groups and individuals, and radically collectivist works which wish to undermine Art as a separate sphere of human activity and re-emphasise the nurturing of the individual within a community. Both sides are concerned with marginal culture, with the worlds of the ‘outsider’ and those ‘excluded’ from national cultural access. These are nuances on the relationship of the individual subject to their social milieu.
So far I have sketched the territory and its most significant highlights. What I intend to demonstrate is that these polarised approaches to aesthetic representation are indicative of serious attempts to create new modernisms by bringing together the theories of previous avant-gardes with contemporary working class cultures in Britain.
CITATION: Mark P. Williams, "Alternative Fictioneers," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 June 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.1.02.
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