Archives for category: ambient literature

I’d like to discuss my own experience in creating a fantasy world in the novel, Dustless.

I think there are different degrees of fantasy. Perhaps there should be a measure, like proof for alcohol, or Celsius for temperature, for the ‘fantastic’?

How fantastic is Dustless? Is it mildly fantastic? Does it possess medium fantasy? Is it soft or hard?

Fantasy writers often inscribe strongly realist constraints into their work. By this, I simply mean that in order for the imagined world to be internally consistent and convincing, it needs to be governed by rules, which involve a kind of realism, even though the world itself may be organised by conventions that diverge strongly from those organising our own world.

In the case of Dustless, although philosophically it is a strongly fantastic work, I was very keen to embed my characters in a credible environment. I mentioned in another post, on ambient literature, my desire to

slow the narrative tempo down, to pay attention to details, to honour the materiality of ordinary life.

This aspect of Dustless, strongly related to the philosophy of TanZo (the ‘simple or pure Way’), is very important to me. I tried to imagine a world in which the beauty of the mundane, the rhythms of routine, the imposing existence of the ‘humdrum’, the recalcitrance and resistance of the natural terrain, are borne in on the reader. I wanted to give the main characters’ journey across the Land of O an existential weight and conviction. In slowing the narrative down, in paying attention to the passing of hours, moments, instants, I wished to give the reader a sense of struggle and of duration – so that, hopefully, at moments of release or climax in the story, the reader would feel, along with the characters, a genuine sense of achievement, and feel a real shift in their spirits.

In many ways, for large parts of the novel, I only wanted to ‘tweak’ reality. My characters are, in the main, flesh and blood human beings – they are drawn along the lines of what I consider to be psychologically realist patterns. They’re flawed, they are battered and eroded, and heightened, by the circumstances in which they find themselves. They aren’t endowed with ‘super-powers’, they can’t make magical escapes from the dilemmas they face, but must compromise and bodge, as we all do.

Dustless exhibits what I hope is an interesting inter-weaving of fantastic and realist narrative threads. The world of the novel grew, slowly, from certain intense imaginary nodes or cores. A lighter and more fantastic novel would have perhaps passed over much of the material and cultural complexity of Dustless, and concentrated less on the natural than the supernatural elements. As I wrote, however – and in this, I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t an element of ‘mission creep’ – and the world came more and more into view, became more immersive and extensive, I found that I wanted convincing reasons for the state of the landscape, the organisation of the communities, the evolution of the various interest groups, and a credible historical narrative behind the profoundly hierarchical and formalised society we find unfolded throughout the novel.1

Perhaps there is a curious jeopardy in the act of creating fantasy worlds? Even as one has the pleasure of bringing into being a world that has never existed before, one may experience a sense of melancholy at the futility of ever providing a proper account of this new domain. Detail begets detail: one character implies others. The constraints of time and mortality ensure that we can never fully investigate any phenomenon. Different forms permit different creations: with poetry, one can construct a convincing literary entity in a matter of seconds, but for the fantasy writer, it is quite possible to imagine years and years being absorbed in the creation of the literary world. Is there a danger – both technical (a matter of style, perhaps?) and psychological (in the urge to linger too long in a world of one’s own devising) – in building imaginative kingdoms in this way?

And if this is true for an imagined world – that we can never exhaustively account for any phenomenon – is there another world for which it is also true?

1It strikes me now that the creation of the novel became in a way a kind of hermeneutical progress. In trying to create a credible world in which the notion of TanZo is strongly rooted, it was necessary to try and pay attention to the different parts of the society – both ‘horizontally’, across the present, and ‘vertically’, through time. For the writer, certainly, there is a danger that a form of hermeneutic circle can develop, in which, as the world is created, and more elements of it come to be revealed, so more elements are required in order to complete the world satisfactorily – a process to which, in one way, there is no logical end. It’s possible to imagine, for example, a writer for whom it becomes necessary to account for every cell and molecule and atom in their world. “God is in the details”. And who’s to say that such a writer is wrong, or crazy? Perhaps, when they turn over an obscure atom in an indifferent part of spacetime, they might uncover the greatest secret in the universe of their book?

ambient literature* and ambient music
Many people when they consider the term ‘ambient’ in relation to works of art will think not so much of literature but of music. ‘Ambient’ is the name of a genre, or suite of genres, developed by contemporary musicians. Among these musicians, Brian Eno is generally accepted as being of crucial importance in the evolution of the form. Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, 1978, was a result of the composer’s desire to create music for public spaces, for specific social environments. In his liner notes for the American release of the album, he wrote:

To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music.

An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.

Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.

It could be said that texts are portable environments, and that they produce an ambience – a mood, an atmosphere. We can imagine a person passing through an airport, with Eno’s music playing in the background. The person is carrying a novel, which they started reading at home. They read more of the novel in the departure lounge, then during the flight, in their hotel room, on the beach or beside the pool. In each of these various locations, the novel provides a stable, imaginative continuum. While the world turns around the text – the temperatures vary, the time zones alter, the travellers find themselves in different situations – the text retains a kind of stasis, an integrity. The novel maintains its own environment.

We might explore different ideas of literary ambience. These ideas could be related to scale. A shorter text – a haiku, for example – could be said to generate a micro-ambience. Longer texts could be described as producing a meso-ambience. Very long texts, like Dustless, create a macro-ambience.

ambience as a function of scale
Eno selected the word ‘ambient’ to describe the type of music he wished to produce: ‘ambient’ is based on the Latin term ‘ambire’, ‘to surround’. It’s in this aspect in particular – that of a work of art which ‘surrounds’ the reader, providing them with an immersive experience – that I believe Dustless might be described as ambient literature.

From my own point of view (of the creator, rather than the reader) the act of writing Dustless over a number of years became one of immersion. I ‘lived in’ the novel. It surrounded me. It wasn’t like composing a poem, or a short story. It demanded a different approach – effectively, a different way of being.

At a certain point, I realised that Dustless wasn’t going to be a ‘straightforward’ trilogy or quartet. It began to overwhelm the boundaries of a conventional fictional form. Frankly, I started to wonder if I would ever get to the end of it.

Dustless began to take on curious properties. It was no longer simply a ‘book’. It was like a magical forest which, the further you walked into it, the greater it seemed to become – with the added complication that the forest was generated by the person who moved through it. The limits and boundaries of the novel weren’t established: they were like the horizon line, which moves as you move.

As the years passed, and I seemed to get no closer to finishing the work, my friends despaired. I consider myself to be an instinctive writer, who allows his work to be guided by intuition. It perhaps sounds like an abrogation of authorial discipline and responsibility when I say that I felt that Dustless itself was finding its own level and shape, but that was how it did feel. While I was aware that in traditional terms, Dustless had blurred the borders of ‘normal’ literary form, it didn’t feel ‘wrong’ to me. By and large, the composition felt sound, the narrative proceeded in a fairly logical, organic way, the text grew. At times, it was true, the psychological duress of living with an unfinished and unproven text of this scale made me panic, and wish to rush to a conclusion, but by this point, Dustless had generated its own momentum, and wouldn’t permit me to dash to the end, even if I’d wanted to. It wouldn’t be hurried. It belonged with glaciers and the evolution of weather systems, the gradual formation of rocks. It possessed a kind of geological grandeur.

ambience as a function of pace
When I set out to write Dustless, I had a number of things in mind. One important aim was to write a book that would produce the type of experience that I had enjoyed when reading as a child or adolescent. I wasn’t interested in a ‘literary’ style, or in playing formal or meta-fictional games: I wanted a story of a fairly traditional kind. I still think of Dustless, in fact, as a form of gigantic fairytale.

I also wanted to write something that was against “the times”, as I understood them. By this, I mean a tendency in culture towards an intensification in the number and brevity of stimuli – a tendency I associate, in part at least, with capitalism and the desire to sell you products. I wanted to write a work that resisted the temptation to provide a rapid series of climaxes – the sort of work that is all crescendo. Instead, I aimed with Dustless to slow the narrative tempo down, to pay attention to details, to honour the materiality of ordinary life.

The philosophy that forms such an important part of the world of DustlessTanZo, ‘the pure Way’ – urges its followers to pursue the quality and virtue of ‘vigilance’. Vigilance is a way of looking carefully at the world around us, and valuing the things in front of us. It’s a form of respect for the environment and for artefacts, and – above all – for other human beings. In very broad terms, it seemed to me that our culture was failing to provide any kind of space for people to reflect upon or contemplate the direction their lives were taking, and that we were committing ourselves to a very negligent way of life. This was a way of life founded on consumption – I consume, therefore I am – and was inherently short-termist. The key issue of the day – the degradation of the environment – required long-term thinking, and a movement away from a life founded on consuming things.

I wanted Dustless to embody some of the virtues of ‘vigilance’. This meant creating a work with an unusually slow narrative tempo. This is particularly true of the earlier parts of the novel. At times, the writing is very ‘spacious’, reflecting the landscape through which the protagonists are moving.

This tendency of Dustless towards stasis – one aspect of a very long work is that in both reading and writing it, the ‘end’ becomes so distant that it ceases to possess the same general value as in a conventional novel – is another aspect of its ambient nature. It isn’t the race to the end, to the climax, that is important in Dustless. It isn’t the destination, but the journey itself, that becomes the subject of the book – or, to put it another way, it is the experience of reading the book that becomes the meaning of the book.

ambience as the consequence of a rejection of the novel as task, trophy or totality
It will be clear by now that Dustless is, in some ways, a demanding work. However, its quality of ambience – as I am trying to explore and develop here – is only problematic if we approach reading a novel with a particular mind-set.

As Dustless grew and grew, my friends would roll their eyes, and shake their heads. People wouldn’t be prepared to spend their time reading such a vast work – that was my friends’ fear. Although in some ways I quite understood where they were coming from, another part of me remained faintly puzzled. If a text is good, and rewarding – if reading it is a pleasure – then what does it matter if it is very long? In fact, doesn’t the fact that there is more of it actually increase the chance of the reader taking pleasure in the act of reading?

It seems to me that there is an attitude towards reading that reflects the short-term, consumptive culture in which we find ourselves. Reading a novel becomes a kind of task. This in turn converts the work from a pleasure in itself to the acquisition of a trophy. One reads a novel to get to the end, to possess the novel.

I happened to be on a train one day, and I overheard a group of people talking. They were clearly keen travellers. One of them described a possible itinerary for a journey through Africa. And at a certain point, the person said something like “Oh, we’ll do Zambia”.

That phrase really distressed me. It was so off-hand, and seemed to include in it so many assumptions about what it means to travel and to experience the world. The idea of “doing” a country is really quite disturbing, I feel. To “do” Zambia – the expression has undertones of sex and violence. The sense of entitlement, of control and mastery, sheathed within that phrase, seem to me to be a part of the acquisitive and consumptive attitude to life that is inculcated by our current system.

That same attitude can be extended to cultural artefacts and events. Like beautiful waterfalls, or tours of diamond mines, novels can be crossed off a list of things to do. Life – the reading experience – becomes a form of itinerary. One location leads to another. It forms a part of a chain. Reading becomes a means to an end, and as a result, the experience of reading in itself may become diluted or lost.

It seems to me that literary ambience resists this process of consumption and acquisition. When the scale of a work is so great, it begins to problematise the notion of ‘totality’. You can never get ‘outside’ of an ambient work – if you walk around the perimeter, as it were, you can’t see into the heart of the forest; and if you are walking through the forest, you can’t see the forest’s edge. Some people might find this threatening or unpleasant. However, in one way, it brings you back to the purpose of your exploration. If you can’t get to the ‘end’ of the journey, if you can’t achieve an overview of the work, then what does this mean for the act of journeying, of reading?

In Pocket Rimbaud, a poem from my 2003 book, a.m., there is the line:

But the journey forgets its maker.

I think all works of literature resist intellectual appropriation – in other words, it’s impossible for any one person to gain a total understanding of a work of art. You don’t “do” them – or, if you do, you really don’t. Works of art inevitably change as different people read them, and as cultures evolve through time. This is as true of a haiku as it is of À la recherche du temps perdu. However, the scale and duration of a very long text may make the literary journey one of a kind less obviously disposable than one undertaken when reading a shorter work. A very long text may reinforce the power of the act of reading, of the sensation of an intelligence in the process of constructing meaning.

Logically, of course, there can be no journey without a maker – (can there?). But what I tried to build with Dustless – or, ended up trying to build – was a work that was both for the long term and of the long term. Again, looking at Dustless very partially and subjectively, from the creator’s side, during composition I did find at times that my ‘role’ in the making of the book seemed to become smaller and smaller. Dustless was always there, in the morning, in the evening, before sleep, after sleep… At times, I felt my own life dwindle away when set against the book. This was perhaps an experience of engrossment or absorption so profound it might also be said to be an experience of detachment or even of annihilation. In this sense, it might even be possible to glimpse such a thing as a journey without a maker…

ambience as a function of duration
I mentioned earlier in the post the notion of micro-ambience. If we follow Brian Eno’s definition of ambience as ‘an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint’, then it could be said that any work of art will produce ambience1. When a reader encounters a haiku, for a short period of time, if the reader is engaged with the poem, then that arrangement of 17 syllables will ‘surround’ the reader. The reader’s attention will be absorbed by the poem, and the haiku will generate its subtle influence on the reader, tinting their thoughts. Of course, Eno was outlining a very specific definition for ‘Ambient Music’, whereas what I am trying to describe is a more general, a more loosely defined cluster of ideas around notions of ambience and immersive works of art.

We build up relationships with different works of art. Obviously, many are not to our taste, and we discard them early in our acquaintance. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have a profound influence on us: we can be affected more strongly by works we dislike than those we like.) In the case of a haiku, our relationship might appear to be only a matter of instants: we read the poem and forget it. However, we may come to love that particular poem, and read it over and over again, or memorise it, so that it grows with us, and forms a part of the atmosphere of our intelligence.

In the case of a work of macro-ambience – as Dustless would seem to be – our relationship to the work will almost certainly extend over a period of years. Whereas a haiku can be read in its ‘entirety’ in moments, a very long text absorbs time. In this other sense, I think the book could be considered as ambient literature. It becomes part of the rhythm of your life. It isn’t an incidental read – you don’t finish it in a week, and then move on – but you keep reading it. Very long texts possess this quality of extended duration. The events of your life change – you might move house, for example, or start a new job, enter a new relationship – but, if you continue to read the ambient text, then that text will form a kind of background to your life. In this way – as it is extended over long periods of time, with breaks and events in the ‘foreground’ of your life – a very long text can provide a spiritual or cerebral ambience through which you live.

*The term ‘ambient literature’ appears to be been first used by Paul Roquet in his article, Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction, published in 2008 in the Journal of Japanese Studies. Dr Roquet uses the term to refer to a specific strand of literature produced in Japan in the wake of events of literal and social upheaval – the Kobe earthquake and the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Underground system. Dr Roquet’s paper is particularly concerned with a genre of literature which supplies “an artistic response to the demand for transposable calm“.

James Burt [] explores the term ‘ambient literature’ in his useful and interesting article, Facebook and the End of Literature.

1Eno and other artists working in the ‘ambient’ field self-consciously set out to produce ambient effects. Most artists probably aren’t conscious of producing an ‘ambience’ as such – but will look to produce or explore ‘moods’ (melancholy, for example, or excitement). They will look to stimulate their audience in a particular way. While they aren’t intending to regulate moods in quite the specialised fashion in which Eno was doing, they will usually seek to regulate moods in a more general way – a work that seeks to incite rebellion, for example, won’t aim to induce a state of calm, but will seek to agitate and motivate the audience.

I began writing Dustless in October 2001. It was intended to be a ‘commercial’ fantasy novel, part of a longer series, Metallic.

I was earning my living as a freelance, and when my main client elected to close down the department in which I worked, making several of the employees redundant and depriving me of a considerable part of my income, I suddenly had some time on my hands. Up until 2001, my literary output had all been poetry – not a particularly lucrative field of literature, or at least not for me. I decided that it would be good to be able to earn some money from my writing, and Dustless was what I decided to write.

Nine years later, in July 2010, I came to write the final words of the first draft of Dustless. The novel was about 8,500 pp. Needless to say, it hadn’t quite turned out how I’d intended.

From the writer’s side of the book, as it were, it was an extraordinary moment when I came to ‘complete’ the work. I had sometimes wondered if I would ever write that final sentence. (I’d known for a long time, a matter of years, what the last words would be.) You have to bear in mind that I wasn’t publishing the books as I went along: I had to get to the end of the whole thing before I could see what it was. So, for nine years, I lived more or less alone with this material, with no real idea of its quality, worth or viability*.

During the composition of Dustless, when talking to friends, I began to compare myself to those World War II Japanese soldiers who were ‘lost’ – who remained in the field, long after peace had been declared, and who continued to live as soldiers, loyal to the Emperor, in remote jungle locations. The world of Dustless became my ‘jungle’ – and the time of the novel, the rhythm of the composition, formed a significant part of my reality. There were certainly periods when, involved in prolonged sessions of composition, it could be said that I lived far more within the imaginative world of Dustless than I did in the ‘actual’ world.

Recently, in preparing to publish Dustless electronically, I began to look at the work, and to try and understand it, to come to terms with it. What exactly is Dustless? It seemed to me that the work resists conventional categorisation. In this post, I have called it a ‘book’ and a ‘novel’, but at 8,500 pp., it seems, in some ways, to transcend or evade those terms. The sheer scale of it renders Dustless difficult to manipulate generically. It isn’t a saga. It isn’t really a series of novels. And other terms – ‘epic’, or ‘roman-fleuve’ – similarly wouldn’t quite stick as convincing descriptions. Eventually, in seeking to arrive at some sort of overview, I remembered the years of composition, of being lost in the ‘jungle’ of the work, and I began to entertain ideas of ‘ambient literature’.

I’d like to explore these ideas in more detail in subsequent posts.

*In fact, in 2005, a friend, Simon Fenwick, heroically agreed to start reading the novel and to draw up a map of the world of Dustless for me, and to make a timeline of the novel’s events. Simon’s involvement had a crucial influence on the way the novel developed, and I think it’s probably true to say that without his help, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the book. I owe him an immense debt of gratitude. I’d like to discuss Simon’s involvement, and the interaction between the map and the book, in subsequent posts.