A few months back I ran into someone on a bus in Glasgow I’d known long before, Duncan MacGillivray. Duncan is an artist, a real one. He has a degree in ceramics from a university in Dundee, but has since got keen on printmaking, specifically lithography. He etches steel plates and then hand-colours them to produce mostly one-off prints. They are pretty good, I reckon, so if you ever happen to be in Glasgow – or indeed happen to be in Glasgow right now – you can stop by the Glasgow Print Studio near the Trongate and ask to see some of his stuff, which is kept in the collection and is for sale.
The thing that most fascinated me with Duncan’s approach is that he is using a technology designed to produce many copies of something, but usually he makes just one. When he concedes a point to the technology, he might make five or six of a basic image, but each is a one-off nonetheless.
To me, that’s counter-intuitive – doing something not only not the norm, but implicitly critical of it – contradicting the obvious, or as an online dictionary I just checked says, common sense.
Going against the grain in this way can lead to path-breaking art and to commercial success. Duncan’s unique and interesting voice hits the high notes for me, and I hope he makes it. It would be nice to see.
Looking at Duncan’s prints sent me scurrying to the net to find a copy of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, Work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin was one the most creative members of the Frankfurt School of Marxist philosophy, a refugee from the Nazis who fled to Paris and after the fall of France tried to escape to Spain. Halted at the border, he committed suicide.
Work of art is easily Benjamin’s best-known work, but I was surprised at how bad it was/is, bursting with an arrogance it never justified. Arrogance is all very well when it comes from people who have earned it, but it is hard to see now what the excitement was when Benjamin was alive. His essay is mainly about photography and film, and he pours scorn on other thinkers about these new art forms, without really having much to say that is very interesting himself.
Benjamin made a great deal of the fact that film-making is typically a kind of pastiche*, in which scenes are filmed out of sequence and put together later as they are to be screened. It is true this is a form of assembly line production, but while the assembly line was taken to be a hallmark of the industrial age, this division of labour has been known about intellectually for a long time – see Adam Smith – and practised even longer. In art, renaissance studios produced paintings using many hands – Leonardo first came to prominence painting the backdrops in the studio where he was an apprentice. What film-making involves is an extension of approaches already long practised. What is different is the huge audience technology allows, and on that, Benjamin is tedious.
Benjamin aside, the role of technology in art is important. What Duncan does, undermining the premise of infinitely reproducible technology by producing unique prints, is just one counter-intuitive approach. As a writer, I’ve used the internet and online publishing to skirt around the former gatekeepers of literature, who are now definitely up against it and in doing that have saved a few trees from the ignominy of pulp for fiction. The net, the PC and the many programmes enabling its use, and more have quickly transformed literature in more ways than we might know or indeed desire.
When I first published on the net, like many other writers** I was confident that it wouldn’t be long before my reputation grew, that by some magic I would go from being a legend in if not just my own lunch hour, the lunch hour of my friends, acquaintances and personal enemies, to something wider and more exalted.
The way this was going to happen was on a pebble in a pond basis, aka the ripple effect. One person would read, tell another, who would read and tell another…and shazam! if not fame or notoriety or something like that, a greater readership than, in fact, I actually have several years later.
This is all my fellow e-authors’ fault, just as their lack of success is partly my doing. The internet has democratised writing – anyone who can string a few words together can be a “published author” willy-nilly, and not just thousands but it seems millions of people have done just that.
That’s terrific in itself. But whereas in the past the gatekeepers of literature lived in publishing houses, the gatekeeper today is the thicket of titles crowding the net. Any writer writes – or at least should write – to be read, but getting read when there are millions of others jostling for attention is definitely a problem.
Even when I put the first novels onto the net getting on to four years ago – four, including early ones and what was then the most recent, Demented – the crowd was already doing what crowds do best: crowding out. And to counter this, writers and their friends have tried any number of wrinkles well beyond the ripple effect.
That’s not all. The crowd has created opportunities for people who promise to help, for a fee. “Vanity” publishers will edit, publish, and promote any writer’s work, and there are marketers and editors and formatters and who knows what all occupying niches in the vast netscape, all designed in one way or another to give a writer a purchase into prominence. There is a vast and indeed burgeoning industry out there.
But beyond that is self-help, what the impecunious writers has for a resource: her or his own efforts. There are how to guides that are both free and cost to help do this, and the various strategies and tactics for jumping out from the crowd to be viewed and hopefully read include a blog such as this one.
I have tried a few of these apart from this blog, holding my nose as I’ve done it. It’s not that I look down on the people who are professional marketers, but that I have an instinctive dislike at having to do it as an amateur. As to the blog, as a marketing tool it doesn’t seem to work – there are plenty of readers but they don’t pop along to my books. I keep writing it because people seem to get something from it, and it is fun, writing about writing.
So I am not at all sure of the usefulness of the many things people are urged to do to get their work recognised and read. It may be that it’s just the way it is. If there are millions of wannabe best-selling writers, there are probably hundreds of thousands trying the things suggested. Yet so far as I know only one, Fifty shades of grey, has “gone viral” and been published in hard cover by an established publisher.
And more! Fifty shades earned its spurs from its content, not a marketing ploy, or that is how I see it.
So I’m back to my original premise – the micro-pebbles thrown into the vast e-universe, into space where there is no ether wind, and no ripples, so far anyway. Seizing the opportunities new technology offers has not revealed the praxis, as Antonio Gramsci used to say, to overcome the barriers the opportunities have created.
Duncan’s approach seems to use a technology to undermine it. My counter-intuitive tactic so far seems no more than a reflection of a curmudgeonly nature. But it’s the only one I know today. I write and hope. That’s it.
* Yet Luis Bunuel, one of the greats of cinema who made the surrealist Andalusian dog with Salvador Dali, made his films sequentially, starting from the first scene and working through to the end, and what was in the can was what was screened more or less. But he was the exception to prove the rule.
** Norman Mailer wrote that when he was drafted into the Army in WWII, the big question in his mind was whether the classic novel of that war would be about the European or Pacific theatre.