The Unread and the Unreadable

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” — as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age — the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.

That Something Itself

Samuel Beckett,”Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce,” 1929

[Apropos of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake] Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself. [More.]

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 July 2012:

Whatever Happened to 3:AM Magazine?

When the 3:AM website suddenly vanished last week, the might of social media helped track down the person who could switch the server back on. But what are the implications for online magazines?

[Turn it on again … server outages were undeniably on the rise, but this time there was no website to check. Photograph: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images]

I concluded my last contribution to this site with a quotation from Maurice Blanchot: “Literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Little did I know that 3:AM Magazine — the literary webzine I had edited with a group of friends for more than a decade — would shortly after vanish suddenly into cyberspace. Whether it was going toward its essence is a moot point, which falls outside of our present remit.

When I am not running late, I often check the website, along with my email, before setting off for work. The last time I performed this routine, I sat, for what seemed like ages, staring, bleary-eyed, at an empty page that obstinately refused to load. Blogger’s block, as I like to call it, is a less heroic, technological version of l’angoisse de la page blanche: the agony experienced by writers in front of a blank page. The only sign of activity came from the little dotted line going round and round in vicious circles like Sisyphus‘s boulder or — rather fittingly in this instance — nobody’s business. With hindsight, I realise it should have put me in mind of the proverbial dotted line on which dodgy contracts are carelessly signed. At this juncture, however, I wasn’t unduly worried — or at least I wasn’t yet aware that my relative (and frankly uncharacteristic) nonchalance may have been (was) inappropriate. After all, this sort of thing had been happening — not happening — on and off for several months, and each time normal service had resumed of its own accord, as if by magic.

Although rare, server outages were undeniably on the rise, and downtime had gone from a couple of hours to a couple of days. This, of course, should have prompted a reassessment of my non-interventionist attitude, but there was little I could do, short of moving the entire website to a new company and server, which is precisely the kind of drastic measure I was eager to postpone for as long as possible. Attempting to make contact with our host — whether by phone, email, carrier pigeon or Ouija board — was a fruitless exercise I had long given up in favour of more fulfilling pursuits such as staring at empty web pages failing to load. Besides, these outages afforded me a few guilty pleasures, not least a little breathing space from the frenzy of online activity: they reminded me of the carnivalesque atmosphere brought about, in my childhood household, by the power cuts of the 1970s. And there was the frisson of flirting with disaster without going all the way — until that fated morning when I tried to check the website only to discover that there was no website to check. There was still no website when I came home from work that evening, nor the following day, nor the day after that. When the expected resurrection had failed, Godot-like, to materialise for almost a week, we were forced to contemplate the nightmare scenario of having lost 12 years’ worth of archives.

The web is a Library of Babel that could go the way of the Library of Alexandria. It is the last word in the quest for a book in which everything would be said — a tradition that extends from epic poetry to Joyce’s Ulysses through the Bible, the Summa Theologica, Coleridge‘s omnium-gatherum and the great encyclopedias, as well as Mallarmé‘s “Grand Oeuvre”. It is the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk — “the catalog of catalogs”, the “total” library conjured up by Borges — but it also marks the triumph of the ephemeral.

In order to mimic the instant gratification provided by the web, Argentinian publisher Eterna Cadencia recently published an anthology of short stories using disappearing ink. Once you open the volume, the ink begins to fade in contact with light and air, vanishing completely within two months. In recent years, I have received a growing number of requests from early contributors to 3:AM Magazine, asking me to delete a poem or story of theirs. These people are usually applying for a new job, and find themselves haunted online by youthful incarnations of themselves that may jeopardise their futures. Yet it only took an instant for someone to switch off 3:AM‘s server and solve this problem. The past does not pass on the web; it lingers or resurfaces — unless, of course, it is wiped away. In our case, most of the material was retrievable via the Internet Archive, but as Sam Jordison pointed out in a recent email, how can we be sure that this site, or a similar one, will always be around? At least, in the old days of dead trees, you could safeguard copies of your journal in libraries or universities. When 3:AM was launched, I used to print out every new article we posted, but stopped when the site started running to thousands of pages. I had never imagined that the company I was paying to host, and indeed back up, our webzine would vanish without a word of warning, like disappearing ink.

3:AM‘s servers (located in Dallas, Texas) were owned by a company (based in Saint Joseph, Missouri) whose website was down. Emails bounced back and the phone had been disconnected. We naturally assumed that the owner — whose main claim to fame was his contribution to the penis-enlargement business — had done a runner. But as soon as the word was out, we were inundated with heart-warming messages of support and offers of help via social media, and within a few hours, Twitter had located the owner’s whereabouts. 3:AM readers informed us that he was now the landlord of — or an employee in (there were conflicting reports) — a tattoo parlour. Someone even kindly mailed me an overexposed picture of the aforementioned establishment.

American novelist Steve Himmer spotted that he and the alleged fugitive had a friend in common on Facebook, who was able to send a direct message. London-based author Susana Medina friended him and striked up a conversation. His mobile phone number and personal email addresses were soon unearthed and passed on by amateur sleuths. Blogger Edward Champion conducted a phone interview with the errant entrepreneur in which the latter claimed that he had wound up his web hosting business in 2008 and had no idea that he was still hosting us. He mentioned a “server admin in Bucharest” — name of Florin — who had been handling the company’s “lingering details”. If this is all true, and it could well be, 3:AM had been running on some unattended phantom server. I also wonder whom I have been paying all these years.

Thanks to our readers’ support, and to Champion’s fine detective work, the server has been switched back on (possibly by Florin) … until we migrate elsewhere.