Sunday 13 March 2016

Will Eaves and The New Serious

I'm reading - slowly, and with unalloyed pleasure - The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves. It's a beguiling mixture of poetry and prose, a sort of commonplace book of thoughts and reflections, but very uncommonplace as all the entries are by the one protean author. Eaves can pack into a short paragraph enough ideas to sustain three-day conference. 

Somebody called Professor Wu has written a terrific online review of The Inevitable Gift Shop which I commend to your attention. I'd like to quote the very first sentence of the Wu review here, because it links to my current thinking on contemporary culture, and writing in particular::

An artistic movement is forming. One that is open to spontaneity, artistic risk, emotional urgency and one which flies against traditional models.

Professor Wu sees Eaves as part of that movement, and so do I. In About a Girl - published on March 17th - I call it The New Serious (you read it here first), an emerging cohort of writers and artists who deplore the commodification of art as an alternative economy for the rich and have a high-minded (though not elitist) awareness of the modernist tradition on which they are building. They are daring, engaged, virtuosic,  emotionally intense and cerebral. Here's an extract:

Writing in the New Statesman (15 September 2014) the novelist Will Self described a showdown in an LA cafeteria in which he asked the proprietor to turn down the overwhelming music. The proprietor refused so Self had to eat his breakfast waffles to the sound of trip-hop. This annoyed him and when one of his sons shouted something sympathetic over the racket Self said: “Really, it’s OK. After all, it’s my generation that’s to blame for this bullshit culture.”

I feel for him, I really do - spoilt waffles in Los Angeles must be hell. But the incident, hardly serious in itself, prompted the author into choleric reflections on his generation, 'the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads' and their complicity in the commodification of counter culture. Getting into his stride he berated the 'twats' who insisted that there was nothing to choose between high and popular culture, who embraced a doctrine of relativism that placed advertising and fine art on the same level, and finally described cultural criticism of the kind he and his peers as - and I'm sorry for this - 'jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes'.

Will Self's rant seems to me a watershed moment in recent literary discourse, marking the belated realisation by a leading writer of his (and my) infantilised fifty-something generation that the game is up, and that said game wasn't worth the candle. 

I'm no more a representative of my generation than he is, although I think I'm closer in thought and feeling to those who happen to lack the piercings, tattoos, neurotic addictions and clogged lexicon of Will Self. My tastes are resolutely unhip and tend more to V. S. Pritchett than Ballard and Burroughs. I am irredeemably square, by Self's standards.

Just as Self belatedly wakes up to the vain and hateful pointlessness of the crappy 'cultural criticism' perpetrated with sullen ferocity for decades by the likes of Will Self, just as he realises that 'the skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads' of which he is the Self-elected incarnation have produced nothing, absolutely nothing of value or permanence or even passing interest over the past three decades apart from trashing the thoughtful  hierarchies of taste and judgement that made literature navigable and worthwhile, just as he and his sneering coevals dwindle before our  gaze shrilly squealing like the liquidated Wicked Witch of Oz, just as he comes to realise that all the prolix redundancy of his threadbare psychobabble amounts to nothing more than a pretext for whining about his spoilt breakfast waffles in a weekly magazine . . . I punch the air with a loud whoop and say: YES!  Now where were we . . .?

Where were we? I remember reading Self's bilious New Statesman piece and thinking: this really is a watershed moment, the point at which a leading writer of my generation throws in the towel. But beneath the usual ostentatious verbiage (and Self, more than any big name writer I can think of, has never figured out the difference between eloquence and loquacity) there's a sense of - well what? Desperation? Exhaustion?

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