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Literature in a Distracted Era

There are two categories in the literary system I’d like to celebrate at high speed: the lonely writer, and the magazine. And before we celebrate one writer in particular, I want to perform a mini pause and consider that second category, the magazine, the category of which The White Review forms such an elegant example. I guess I think that the fact that such a magazine exists is one proof that literature might still be possible in this distracted era. For the lonely writer needs the magazine, very much – the magazine and its lonely editors.

Because, speaking as one such melancholy novelist, it has to be admitted that, given the amount of pre-existing stories and myths and objects and products in this world, it’s basically crazy to want to add to this giant heap. The wish to do so is a small conundrum of vanity. And one possible instrument for the solving of this conundrum is an editor. Laziness, after all, is natural. Moral murkiness, stylistic self-satisfaction, lack of sense of humour: these are the usual modes of the writer alone with her computer screen. To avoid such things it’s therefore useful and dispiriting, usefully dispiriting, to have in your head the presence of an acerbic and disappointed editor, as a totem of that other absent presence, the disappointed reader.

 

But while it’s true that if I think of a quick list of magazines I love from the last century or so – beginning with The White Review’s ghost, La Revue Blanche, then moving on through T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, Georges Bataille’s Documents, Marguerite Caetani’s Botteghe Oscure, Cahiers du cinéma, Phyllis Johnson’s Aspen, The Paris Review – they’re sometimes associated with particular editors, just as also they might be associated with a specific group, and even a specific manifesto, I’m not sure in the end if editors or groups or manifestoes are precisely why magazines are so important. The real machinery of a magazine is how it converts the solitary act of writing into something social. It gathers writers together, as in some allegorical apartment block. It makes visible works and connections between works that might otherwise have been invisible. It transforms solitude into tropical atmosphere, and ambiance.

 

Now, sure, one usefulness of this kind of social experiment is also commercial. A magazine is like a kind of peddler, pressing their samples on the public. (I mean peddler as a term of praise. I come way back when from a family of peddlers in Lithuania. Peddling is an honourable occupation.) And, especially in this distracted era, that kind of commercial attention to detail on behalf of literature can only be welcomed.

 

But I’m wondering if the specifics of this distracted era make a magazine even more important. One thing that might make a novelist feel even more lonely than usual is to pass by some queue for hipster burgers, or a pop-up shop selling doughnuts. The melancholy novelist might have to consider that the era of people queuing at a pop-up store for metafiction exists only in some sci-fi distant future. Let’s remember one of the best aphorisms of one of the best editors, Georges Bataille, who once observed: ‘I defy any collector whatever to love a painting as much as a fetishist loves a shoe.’ But still, I wonder if the magazine is one method literature has for making readers more fetishistic than they might have been – more willing, in other words, to queue.

 

I can maybe best explain this idea with an example from another magazine, specifically AnOther Magazine, edited by Jefferson Hack. In a recent issue, there was a transcript of a conversation between the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and the artist Tino Sehgal. We are living, Sehgal observed, in an era where attention is very limited. And in such an ‘attention economy’ – ‘where time is a bigger factor than space’, his ideal art form ‘has to be something in a medium that actually deals with sociality and time.’ He meant it as a mischievous way of dismissing visual art. But I wonder if the same kind of mischief might be useful for a new kind of writing.

 

It seems to me that this attention to time, by which I mean an attention to the reader, is the place where a future literature might need to put most pressure, with all the usual conventions collapsed or askew. And if so, a magazine might be one form among many of investigating this possibility. Because a magazine is an event. Its basic principle is collage – and the elements of that collage can be much more outlandish and wild and savage than the average single book, since a magazine can deal in varied forms. It can deal in varied lengths, as well. It can use the celebrated to reflect on the less celebrated, and vice versa. Basically a magazine is a kind of fun palace which the reader can set up anywhere, and take wherever she wants. A magazine is a show – something to be wandered through over time. It’s a place, I just mean, designed by its editors, where the unique and solitary objects that are fictions and works of art are arranged in careful ways, and that arrangement makes them even more available and desirable to the passing literary fetishist – all part of an increasingly tropical and febrile atmosphere: or at least, that’s one way I like to think of The White Review, and of this prize of theirs as well.

 

This is an edited version of the speech given by Adam Thirlwell on 30 April at the Horse Hospital, London, as part of the prize-giving ceremony for The White Review Short Story Prize 2014.

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is the author of two novels, Politics (2003) and The Escape (2009), and has twice been named as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. His experimental book Kapow! was published by Visual Editions in 2012, and has since been included in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.


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