Alternative Voices: the Literary Avant Garde

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What's happened to the literary avant garde? It's not dead, not at all... It just needs your help.

When Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, no one had ever read a fully realist novel yet; her writing was avant garde. Of course, now it is regarded as one of the most influential classics of all time. If you were alive in the early Nineteenth Century, would you have read the story of Elizabeth Bennet? Things have changed, you may say and in many ways they have; the publishing world has seen a revolution in the last decade, and I have been through this revolution myself (well, sort of, as I first published in the ‘old world’ then took a break, not knowing that I would be in for a shock when I came back to it), and I would like to tell the story, to explain the situation that avant garde writers find themselves in today. What is more, I would like to ask readers to give us a hand.

There are now millions of books available to readers, which is a good thing; in a way, publishing a book now is a million times easier than it was just ten years ago. However, it also means that writers now have to promote, or, to use a word I totally despise, market their books. When I published my first book, in 2005, the difficulty was finding a publisher; once the book hit the shelves, you could just step away and move on to writing the next. Nowadays, getting your book out there is easy, but it’s only the beginning… Personally, I am more than happy to talk with readers; that’s the nice part of the job; it’s the continuous promotion on social media that I just cannot stomach, but I have to do it, and I think I can speak for most of us. Instead of doing what I love to do, which is writing and pushing the boundaries of Literature, I spend lots of my time doing a job which is not mine… I’ve never been good at selling and I will never be. It’s not me.

Maybe avant garde writers are worse than other writers at it; this is only an intuitive point, but I suppose people who are trying to change the system, or have chosen to live outside the norm – an alternative lifestyle often matches alternative writing, in the end, where is the line that divides Art and life? – may find it just incongruent with their personality and very being to play a game imposed by the very system we are trying to break free from. Just an idea.

However, things are certainly worse for us because we do not have a clearly defined readership. Anyone who knows about marketing is aware that the ‘target audience’ (I hate the word target, I am not not shooting anybody and certainly do not have the aim of William Tell) is nicely divided into boxes; tick the right box and you will sell your book. But how about if you are trying to smash these boxes? And isn’t this what avant garde is all about, breaking boundaries? We don’t have a ‘target’ audience!

To give you my personal experience, when I published my first novel, I didn’t even know which genre she (she’s a lady) was… I still don’t know. So how can I ‘target’ people who read, for example, romance, or dystopia, or psychological fiction?

Avant garde Art has always had a smaller appeal than mainstream Art. But it is within today’s avant garde that we can find the books of tomorrow’s mainstream. Another problem we avant garde writers face is that we do not have a ‘meeting place’ where we can share our ideas with other writers and artists and with the readers. The cradle of the Impressionist Movement was Montmartre and its cafés; it’s hard to imagine what paintings we would be admiring nowadays if Degas, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso had not all met in the alleys by the Sacre Coeur. But in a wider, fragmented and digital world, can anyone mention where online is the modern day Montmartre? I have not found it. Nor have all the other avant garde writers I know. While there are plenty of virtual cafés for writers of all genres, we are out in the cold.

I have now found that a friend of mine, an avant garde writer in a mission to revolutionise the meaning of narrative, Marc Nash, is on Scriggler too, and he is running a club Experimental Writing. That’s a café, and guess how many members it has?  Twenty-four. Similarly, while some Goodreads forums for  mainstream books have memberships that run in the tens of thousands, with lots of active readers who post comments and discuss books, the very few for alternative texts have a few hundred members, mainly writers, and readers are often quite quiet. In a way, Goodreads is not devised for the alternative; few people care about the fringe in the corporate world, even if they should. So should readers; in the end, if we do not keep experimenting, where will the new forms of Art come from? Where will you find the new Pride and Prejudice? Do you see the problem? Human consciousness evolves and develops, and it does so with the Arts; I don’t believe for a second in the materialist view that when the socio-economic structure changes so do what it sees as one of its ‘products’; the Arts do not come from the material world, but from the metaphysical realm, where consciousness itself resides. Don’t get me started on the horrific tenets of materialism and the real agenda behind them…

Once upon a time, readers who wanted to try something different would go to a bookshop or a library and ask; now, would you know where to find them? You can google “literary avant garde” and you will find lots of articles about the times of old; in fact, it would almost appear that it does not exist anymore according to the Internet; the first result gives me an Australian society that runs lectures, not a site where people can discuss and share new concepts in Literature; it soon moves to sites from China, Russia etc. all discussing the topic, but no café; in fact, if you go by the internet, you may well assume that the avant garde is dead. Or you can try “alternative book” and, again, apart from a list, a few other societies, a courageous publishing company, a few articles and the search will soon give you a list of books on alternative medicine etc. How many searches will you need to find a forum before you give up, assuming that there is one?

In a system that pretends to be democratic and open to all things new, the Arts, all of them, have seen the avant garde, the very engine of innovation, being obscured from public view. Raise your hand if in the last ten years  you have heard a song on mainstream radio that might not as well have been written in the 1980s; the last decade will go down in History as the only decade without a music movement; in the 90s, we had grunge, drum and base, funky house, the list goes on. Now? EDM? Watered down club music? That is hardly an alternative, that is club music become mainstream.  It’s happening across the board. Go on Soundcloud and try to find the sound of the next generation if you can among the millions of tracks… Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that it allows everybody to upload their music, but the system is not conducive to presenting new sounds, new writing styles and new movements in the Visual Arts.

So, I was saying, we are left to fend for ourselves; we are left isolated; we spend more time trying to do a job that goes against our own nature, ‘marketing’ than other writers (this said lots of writers, including mainstream ones find it frustrating; I know many who have given up).

Yet, if it is true that the new world has a beautiful aspect that it did not have before, it is that now you can talk directly to authors, and this is why I am writing to you, readers. We need your help.

I don’t divide people by age, interest and demographic data; I am now asking you to look at your attitude, in the most positive sense of the word, towards ‘different’ books. Maybe you have been looking for them, and you have had a hard time finding them. Maybe you would quite willingly read some, but of course they have not come your way. Or you may be one of those who are wary about reading something totally different. Or are you one of those readers who stick to the same genre until they get totally bored with it? Whichever kind of reader you are, it’s fine by me. But I have a request for all of you.

Whenever you find an alternative book, please don’t discard it by principle; you never know, it may be the best read of your life. Even if you only read books within the same genre, why not try something different every now and then? We do it with food, we do it with clothes, we do it with virtually everything in our lives; so why not with books?

If you are wary of alternative books, I understand you. You want to think about it before you buy one; that’s fine. Buy what will make you decide that in the end you will or will not go for it? Reviews? Recommendations by other readers? Excellent. The problem for us avant garde writers is that we find it very hard to get reviews; there are dozens of review sites dedicated to specific mainstream genres. I’ve never found one specifically looking for alternative books. Similarly, as nowadays recommendations come in forums, we go back to the problem I mentioned before… So what can you do? Well, my plea to you is that if you have read a book that was different and you liked it, is that you pass the word on; whether it is word of mouth (in a way this is better for the avant garde) or in a forum, or a little review on Amazon or wherever, please, please, please do.

If you have been looking for alternative books and you don’t know where to find them, why don’t you join forums? There are really only a few, but as I said, we need readers to be more active in them. Post your comments, ask authors to send you a free copy of the book, and write a bit about it, a review, comments etc. Talk to your friends about these budding new writers who are trying to break moulds and boundaries. We all know who Ian McEwan is; I love him, but he does not need your publicity. We do! If you are by nature an ‘alternative sort of person’ then you are very likely to have friends who are similar; please, please, please, by all means talk about how Enduring Love makes solipsism into a narrative structure, but also mention the new ones, the lesser known ones, the ones who are part of the new avant garde. I know, we know, it is harder to talk about books that are totally unusual than books that follow a familiar structure; it’s the same for everything new; describe a new flavour, a new music sound… This is a problem we face too; if we can’t find exact words to describe our own work, we certainly don’t expect readers to, but a word, even if a bit ‘off focus’ is all it takes to break the silence.

The avant garde needs you; the Arts need the avant garde; please, please, please, help the Arts by helping the avant garde.

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