Archives for posts with tag: literary theory

From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

(Terribly hungover. Zozo is a monster! Why do I always let him convince me to carry on drinking? Well, but he is the most charming among us, it must be said. I love him, whether it is sun or moon.)

So: unwritten books, and unfinished books. These are books it must be said to have a rather precarious life. They are trembling things, insects just this moment left the egg, not yet even shaken out their wings to dry. But they exist in some way, tenuous in their latency.

Next in my catalogue of books, we come to the most grim and gruesome of them all: unpublished books.

O, by all the saints of TanZo, is there a class of book more heart-breaking, more soul-consuming, more spirit-flogging, than an unpublished book?

I, by the grace of my ancestors’ Karo, have only had one or two early works rejected by publishers. (Publishers are only greedy merchants, when all is said and done, and have no ultimate attachment to art, for all their snobbery and airs and graces, their love is for quints and ekels and zarels, as is proper in any case for those of mercantile preponderance, only when they fluff about and zephyr their good taste to the public gaze, it does rather annoy me. You are only interested in money? Well, and very good! Then your books are no different, in the end, to barrels of dried fish or pots of pepper. They are products, no more, no less. Don’t pretend you care for art, my dear. Baku, for example, is such a snob, you’d think he’d written Kayza’s words for him. But this is digression.)

I have seen people crushed by their own books. At least one poor soul — Sima, the poet from Libar — I am convinced was led to suicide by the failure of his novel to find a publisher. That boy had an awful Karo, it is true, and hadn’t learned the coldness of spirit you need in this game, and one sensed something haunting him from the very first, but still, it was the rejection broke him, I am sure. And much the same might be said for poor old Maira — she was so highly strung, everyone said it, and she had debts, and Gairo treated her abominably, but she was so convinced by the quality of that last book of hers, when she couldn’t get it out, it was the disappointment took her to hang herself in the garden that night, most undeniably. (Gairo is a demon, I was told he joked about it when he heard, making a pun on her being “highly strung”. I have never liked Gairo, he has a touch of the devil E-Tzhi about him, too much ice in the heart, no one who looks that good in a mirror should really be a writer, in my opinion…)

Well, this is a most digressive entry, all digression and no argument. What I meant to insist upon is this: that the unpublished book is the one which, in general, inflicts the most suffering on writers.

I have lost count of the number of would-be writers I have met over my prestigious career. It sometimes seems that everyone is a writer of some sort or other. Why they all fight and flounder so much to give themselves the honour of this title — “writer” — is quite beyond me. All the writers I know, say that writing is a kind of gilded drudgery. The purer the writer, the greater the drudgery. The best writer I know, Dumo, is an utter slave, a donkey pulling a water wheel: she is the quietest thing imaginable, a shadow has more noise in it than she has, all she does is work, and she is the most boring company (in a wonderful way, though — she has a kind spirit, that woman). But I would take her works above those of any other writer living.

For the rest of us, though, it is a world of vanity and niggle. You struggle to make a reputation, and then you struggle to maintain that reputation. How? By continuing to write good books, of course — in the main, at least. And there it is at once: drudgery. As soon as one book is finished, you must set out on the next. Will it be as good? Is it too derivative? Should you change your style? What do the wretched critics want, who only know the limits of their own discretion, who slum through literature, stealing houses? And the public, forever chasing after the new thing? The latest thing? Well, the public want what the critics tell them, mostly, or what Baku puts on his boards or in the news-sheets. The public has no idea of quality, it is quite terrifying, the amount of vision they waste, reading fashionable vapour, convinced by Baku’s adverts that the work is “magisterial to the peak of judgement”, or “without equivalent in current days” or some such tosh. Ah, what a world, where everyone agrees a work to masterdom, but none know why! Kayza, for instance, is a prime example of this… Well! I had better not think too much of Kayza, it will only give me boils and an even more brutal headache…

Months, years, decades, even, spent on a book, writing it into life. And then, at last, it is finished. Off to the publishers it goes. No: rejection. No word of explanation: no sign they have understood your genius. More fool them! On to the next publisher. What!? No?! Another rejection. And still no sign of recognition.

Ah, dismal, dismal condition. You deliver the manuscript again. No, I’m sorry, Mr Baku is too busy to see you in person. You wait. Nothing. You hope. You wait. Still nothing. You hope. But, your belief is waning. You hope less. And when the rejection comes, it is less unexpected. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Rejection. I think I took my second novel (The Orchard With No Trees) to a whole fifteen publishers — that is to say, every house in Sahil, and by all fifteen, I was rejected. (Actually, I think Misuzomas mislaid the manuscript, rather than legitimately rejecting it, but by then, I had entirely lost heart, and I took the world’s hint — but, oh, what tantrums in my spirit! What ulcers of bitterness blown, what plots of revenge I dwelt upon! When I was successful, when my alpine genius was undenied, when people viewed me from all around, admiring me, envying me, how I would despise them down, those snobbish oafs who had dismissed my work, and so distempered me)…

Even now, years later, I can feel the burn of those rejections, when I think of them. Of course, as you get older, you realise, it is nothing personal, they just don’t think your work is any good, or will bring them in their quints and ekels. They don’t sit around, laughing at you (unless your work is truly awful, I suppose)…

Well, it is a brutal mill, literature, that grinds us all down. Even Kayza, who is a permanent sensation at the moment, is secretly ground down: those who really understand art laugh at him behind his back, mock his prose, watch the empty bubble of his achievement floating past; we know he is not so good, his style is an elegant mirage, we think it funny he seems to take himself at the multitude’s estimate, when the multitude has no real care for literature (why should they?) but only form long queues to feel themselves significant, and will swallow any trifle if it has the age’s taste to it, ignorant of what it is they consume, unable, in the end, to take a book seriously

So, perhaps they are right, after all?

Old, old complaints, I know…

Yes, a gilded drudgery. Whores, fools, slaves, thinking we are kings and queens, and perhaps even sometimes that we might share the parameters of a god. But gold is wrong. It is not gold, at the heart of it. Better than gold. Like air, but air very slightly changed. Taken from us, given back to us, slightly changed. Yes, I do think it so — this literature. Not the lions, not the hurricanes or wars, or poisons, or seductions, but a slight change to the air.

I should sleep. This morning does not agree with me.


Re-posted | Original post June 2013

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From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

So: there are the unwritten books. I’m sure there must be a philosophical category for such, for unrealised notions, but I don’t know it offhand, and I certainly can’t be bothered to look it up. (A writer who depends on other people’s definitions is hardly a real writer, in my opinion. And research is too pedestrian an activity, like moving goods from shelf to shelf in a shop, to be considered suitable work for a truly creative artist.)

We must grant that an unwritten book certainly possesses some life, even if it is only that of the most ephemeral inkling.

Next in my catalogue of futility come the unfinished books. Ah, a sad, sad species, one with which I am all too well acquainted: regrettably, there are a handful of such creatures lying around in my own study — too many, really, to bear thinking about.

Another vast library could be dedicated to unfinished books. And for each book, a story might be written, detailing the reasons for the failure of the creator to finish their work. The Catalogue of Interruptions — that might be its title.

Let us deal promptly with what I will call “victorious failures”. These, I suppose, are the sorts of failures Kayza has. I heard him with my own ears say, in Kasamono’s the other evening (where he was holding court in the most shameless fashion), “I got about half way through, and I thought

Aha — this won’t do at all!

But I saw straightaway what was to be done about it, and I started again, on a much stronger book”.

Typical Kayza! Why do people swallow such pompous stuff? Really, the number of toads around him, licking up his spittle, bathing in his artificial radiance! Absurd…

Well, in any case, that’s what I mean by “victorious failure” — a book that is unfinished because the writer is strong, and can see their way opened to a better book.

It’s admirable, I suppose, if irritating, the conviction of such as Kayza. A weaker writer won’t let go of a bad book so easily: it’s like a raft they cling to, even if they know (deep inside) the raft is slowly sinking. A writer’s life is generally a kind of permanent shipwreck. Mine is, anyway, and most of the writers I know are floundering about in one fashion or another, young or old, it’s the same, debts, collapsed marriages, spats, rivalries, scandal, hopeless crew, the lot of us… But their book, their precious book — well, that’s the one thing that keeps them afloat in all the turmoil, the roll and the spume. And the weak writer — young, maybe, no confidence, poor technique, loss of nerve, whatever — is much, much less likely to let go of a bad book, on which so much appears to depend, than a strong writer (or a “successful” writer, like Kayza, who are so stolid with fame and flattery and flannel and flappery, they don’t know what it means to be a real writer, anymore, I quite insist).

Who can blame them, these desperate fellows, bleeding their ink away into a useless book? That manuscript, it’s their raft. Are there any other rafts in the vicinity? No, they can’t see any. And they took so long, expended so much effort and ingenuity, such love, such dream of reputation, and it isn’t really a bad raft — is it? — so why should they abandon it? The saints of all TanZo know that everything else in their life is chaos! But at least they can stay afloat, have some hope that the next morning will bring progress, some sight of land…

Well, and so it goes on (rather like this raft metaphor), and the weak writer sticks with the bad book, revising, crossing out, re-starting, changing a name here, adding a chapter there, and generally puts such a bother of tweak and splice and hesitation into the work that it becomes merely a lamentable trail of doubt and botch and second-thoughtery, until finally they end up with a disaster that is so obvious, they are forced to give up, and accept that, for the time being at least, paid employment as a government clerk or tutor to the inane offspring of some local lordling will have to do for now, and that their masterpiece will remain unfinished for a year or so…

What writer of substance hasn’t experienced such a mess? I know I have, several times — even a writer with my polished reputation, I can freely admit, has bodged a story or two…

Another thing I overheard Kayza say was

Genius is certainty

(I’m almost entirely sure that isn’t his own invention, but something he’s borrowed from Yala Dona, but he passes it off as his own wit, and of course his entourage of poodles and creeps will hardly challenge him, or even care about so small a thing as genuine originality)…

Yes, certainty…

And he also said:

Genius is play

(he seems to have so many definitions of genius, he may as well say “genius is three pebbles one stacked on top of another”, or “genius is mud”, but of course, he is the great genius, so who will argue with him? Not I, in any manner: it is beneath me to twiddle categories with Kayza, and he knows it, too)…

Anyway, back to the core of my subject: unfinished books! They must be accepted as possessing still more life than an unwritten book. And yet, in some ways, are they not also more dead? Do they not die more completely? Their death more lingering, more terrible, more deathly? For a totally unwritten book could still, in some abstract notion, be a great book. But a failed book — I am talking about failures, here, among the unfinished — how can that be said to be great? The writer gave up on it, and left it to die. A horrible situation, really, not one I’d wish on anyone, not even “the Master of the Clouds” (wretched title! but I know Kayza likes to be called it. Really, who thinks these things up?)…

No, the more I have thought of it, the more I am certain, that an unwritten book is preferable to one half written. I know, of course, there are so many more reasons a book is never completed — from the prosaic heart attack, or being hit by a carriage, that sort of inconvenient end, to war, losing the manuscript (awful!), fire, and so on — but those books with which we fail, they die a most grisly death, in my opinion.

In fact, as I consider these things now, I grow more and more convinced that the only books that are really safe from death are unwritten ones! All the other categories of book are fated to die.

It is late, I will interrupt myself here: I am expected at the Gryso Theatre, to see the re-working of Kayda’s The Zarens. I don’t have much hope of it, it is terrible rough work, Kayda, he was a brute with all his swords and murders, probably another wasted evening, but it is a fine summer evening, and, as the poet says

to waste one hour of a summer’s night | shows the heart negligence and is a slight | upon the very spirit of a living chance…


Re-posted | Original post June 2013

From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

Certain books die. This much is clear.

Certain books – many – perhaps even most? – can hardly be said to live at all. These are the books that are unwritten – the glimmers, the amusing sketches (to be worked up at a later date), the foibles of dilettantes, notes jotted down on napkins, quarter thoughts from people half awake and half asleep, ideas that seem urgent, requiring prose.

Ah, the unwritten books! Surely, the vast numbers of books published through the ages, gathered together in a mountainous heap, must still be just a flash, a quibble, a fraction, compared to the books that were never written?

What a stupendous library it would be, the one holding all the unwritten books of our world!

What a ghostly babble, those pages will contain… Such a crowd, a roar, the rustle of a thousand weak intentions, the riffling plod of a hundred million half-hearted notions…

I have run out memory, the number of people who, on finding that I am the Amza Iyaa, have told me: “Ah, I have the idea for a most splendid story!”, or “I wish I could write a book. I have often thought of writing one…”

Yes, yes

I say, moving away from them as quickly as I can

I’m sure you have it in you

although, of course, in my mind, I think: Ah, but if wishing were doing, then doing, and life in general, would be far less interesting…

— something of that kind, in any case.

Yet, who can say these unwritten books never lived at all? Certainly, they were never given the cool reality of ink; certainly, they remained stumps and visions, they were never granted articulation, their plots were never worked out, their characters were mere phantasms, schoolboy crushes, lumpy exaggerations… but, still, there they were, for those moments or days, or even years, those unwritten books, they certainly existed, didn’t they?

Isn’t it possible, that somewhere in that library of unwritten books, languishes by far the greatest masterpiece ever created?

A wonderful, wonderful book?


Re-posted | Original post June 2013

For your delight
and illumination…

Dustless | Volume 1

From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

(Terribly hungover. Zozo is a monster! Why do I always let him convince me to carry on drinking? Well, but he is the most charming among us, it must be said. I love him, whether it is sun or moon.)

So: unwritten books, and unfinished books. These are books it must be said to have a rather precarious life. They are trembling things, insects just this moment left the egg, not yet even shaken out their wings to dry. But they exist in some way, tenuous in their latency.

Next in my catalogue of books, we come to the most grim and gruesome of them all: unpublished books.

O, by all the saints of TanZo, is there a class of book more heart-breaking, more soul-consuming, more spirit-flogging, than an unpublished book?

I, by the grace of my ancestors’ Karo, have only had one or two early works rejected by publishers. (Publishers are only greedy merchants, when all is said and done, and have no ultimate attachment to art, for all their snobbery and airs and graces, their love is for quints and ekels and zarels, as is proper in any case for those of mercantile preponderance, only when they fluff about and zephyr their good taste to the public gaze, it does rather annoy me. You are only interested in money? Well, and very good! Then your books are no different, in the end, to barrels of dried fish or pots of pepper. They are products, no more, no less. Don’t pretend you care for art, my dear. Baku, for example, is such a snob, you’d think he’d written Kayza’s words for him. But this is digression.)

I have seen people crushed by their own books. At least one poor soul — Sima, the poet from Libar — I am convinced was led to suicide by the failure of his novel to find a publisher. That boy had an awful Karo, it is true, and hadn’t learned the coldness of spirit you need in this game, and one sensed something haunting him from the very first, but still, it was the rejection broke him, I am sure. And much the same might be said for poor old Maira — she was so highly strung, everyone said it, and she had debts, and Gairo treated her abominably, but she was so convinced by the quality of that last book of hers, when she couldn’t get it out, it was the disappointment took her to hang herself in the garden that night, most undeniably. (Gairo is a demon, I was told he joked about it when he heard, making a pun on her being “highly strung”. I have never liked Gairo, he has a touch of the devil E-Tzhi about him, too much ice in the heart, no one who looks that good in a mirror should really be a writer, in my opinion…)

Well, this is a most digressive entry, all digression and no argument. What I meant to insist upon is this: that the unpublished book is the one which, in general, inflicts the most suffering on writers.

I have lost count of the number of would-be writers I have met over my prestigious career. It sometimes seems that everyone is a writer of some sort or other. Why they all fight and flounder so much to give themselves the honour of this title — “writer” — is quite beyond me. All the writers I know, say that writing is a kind of gilded drudgery. The purer the writer, the greater the drudgery. The best writer I know, Dumo, is an utter slave, a donkey pulling a water wheel: she is the quietest thing imaginable, a shadow has more noise in it than she has, all she does is work, and she is the most boring company (in a wonderful way, though — she has a kind spirit, that woman). But I would take her works above those of any other writer living.

For the rest of us, though, it is a world of vanity and niggle. You struggle to make a reputation, and then you struggle to maintain that reputation. How? By continuing to write good books, of course — in the main, at least. And there it is at once: drudgery. As soon as one book is finished, you must set out on the next. Will it be as good? Is it too derivative? Should you change your style? What do the wretched critics want, who only know the limits of their own discretion, who slum through literature, stealing houses? And the public, forever chasing after the new thing? The latest thing? Well, the public want what the critics tell them, mostly, or what Baku puts on his boards or in the news-sheets. The public has no idea of quality, it is quite terrifying, the amount of vision they waste, reading fashionable vapour, convinced by Baku’s adverts that the work is “magisterial to the peak of judgement”, or “without equivalent in current days” or some such tosh. Ah, what a world, where everyone agrees a work to masterdom, but none know why! Kayza, for instance, is a prime example of this… Well! I had better not think too much of Kayza, it will only give me boils and an even more brutal headache…

Months, years, decades, even, spent on a book, writing it into life. And then, at last, it is finished. Off to the publishers it goes. No: rejection. No word of explanation: no sign they have understood your genius. More fool them! On to the next publisher. What!? No?! Another rejection. And still no sign of recognition.

Ah, dismal, dismal condition. You deliver the manuscript again. No, I’m sorry, Mr Baku is too busy to see you in person. You wait. Nothing. You hope. You wait. Still nothing. You hope. But, your belief is waning. You hope less. And when the rejection comes, it is less unexpected. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Rejection. I think I took my second novel (The Orchard With No Trees) to a whole fifteen publishers — that is to say, every house in Sahil, and by all fifteen, I was rejected. (Actually, I think Misuzomas mislaid the manuscript, rather than legitimately rejecting it, but by then, I had entirely lost heart, and I took the world’s hint — but, oh, what tantrums in my spirit! What ulcers of bitterness blown, what plots of revenge I dwelt upon! When I was successful, when my alpine genius was undenied, when people viewed me from all around, admiring me, envying me, how I would despise them down, those snobbish oafs who had dismissed my work, and so distempered me)…

Even now, years later, I can feel the burn of those rejections, when I think of them. Of course, as you get older, you realise, it is nothing personal, they just don’t think your work is any good, or will bring them in their quints and ekels. They don’t sit around, laughing at you (unless your work is awful, I suppose)…

Well, it is a brutal mill, literature, that grinds us all down. Even Kayza, who is a permanent sensation at the moment, is secretly ground down: those who really understand art laugh at him behind his back, mock his prose, watch the empty bubble of his achievement floating past; we know he is not so good, his style is an elegant mirage, we think it funny he seems to take himself at the multitude’s estimate, when the multitude has no real care for literature (why should they?) but only form long queues to feel themselves significant, and will swallow any trifle if it has the age’s taste to it, ignorant of what it is they consume, unable, in the end, to take a book seriously

So, perhaps they are right, after all?

Old, old complaints, I know…

Yes, a gilded drudgery. Whores, fools, slaves, thinking we are kings and queens, and perhaps even sometimes that we might share the parameters of a god. But gold is wrong. It is not gold, at the heart of it. Better than gold. Like air, but air very slightly changed. Taken from us, given back to us, slightly changed. Yes, I do think it so — this literature. Not the lions, not the hurricanes or wars, or poisons, or seductions, but a slight change to the air.

I should sleep. This morning does not agree with me.

From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

So: there are the unwritten books. I’m sure there must be a philosophical category for such, but I don’t know it offhand, and I certainly can’t be bothered to look it up. (A writer who depends on other people’s definitions is hardly a real writer, in my opinion. And research is too pedestrian an activity, like moving goods from shelf to shelf in a shop, to be considered suitable work for a truly creative artist.)

We must grant that an unwritten book certainly possesses some life, even if it is only that of the most ephemeral inkling.

Next in my catalogue of futility come the unfinished books. Ah, a sad, sad species, one with which I am all too well acquainted: there are a handful of such creatures lying around in my own study — too many, really.

Another vast library could be dedicated to unfinished books. And for each book, a story might be written, detailing the reasons for the failure of the writer to finish their work. The Catalogue of Interruptions — that might be its title.

Let us deal promptly with what I will call “victorious failures”. These, I suppose, are the sorts of failures Kayza has. I heard him with my own ears say, in Kasamono’s the other evening (where he was holding court in the most shameless fashion), “I got about half way through, and I thought

Aha — this won’t do at all!

But I saw straightaway what was to be done about it, and I started again, on a much stronger book”.

Typical Kayza! Why do people swallow such pompous stuff? Really, the number of toads around him, licking up his radiance! Absurd…

Well, in any case, that’s what I mean by “victorious failure” — a book that is unfinished because the writer is strong, and can see their way opened to a better book.

It’s admirable, I suppose, if irritating. A weaker writer won’t let go of a bad book so easily: it’s like a raft they cling to, even if they know (deep inside) the raft is slowly sinking. A writer’s life is generally a kind of permanent shipwreck. Mine is, anyway, and most of the writers I know are floundering about in one sort or another, young or old, it’s the same, debts, collapsed marriages, scandal, hopeless crew, the lot of us… But their book, their precious book — well, that’s the one thing that keeps them afloat in all the turmoil, the roll and the spume. And the weak writer — young, maybe, no confidence, poor technique, loss of nerve, whatever — is much, much less likely to let go of a bad book, on which so much appears to depend, than a strong writer (or a “successful” writer, like Kayza, who are so stolid with fame and flattery and flannel and flappery, they don’t know what it means to be a real writer, anymore, I quite insist).

Who can blame them, these desperate fellows, bleeding their ink away into a useless book? That manuscript, it’s their raft. Are there any other rafts in the vicinity? No, they can’t see any. And they took so long, expended so much effort and ingenuity, such love, such dream of reputation, and it isn’t really a bad raft — is it? — so why should they abandon it? The saints of all TanZo know that everything else in their life is chaos! But at least they can stay afloat, have some hope that the next morning will bring progress, some sight of land… Well, and so it goes on (rather like this raft metaphor), and the weak writer sticks with the bad book, revising, crossing out, re-starting, changing a name, and generally puts such a bother of tweak and splice and hesitation into the work that it becomes merely a lamentable trail of doubt and botch and second-thoughtery, until finally they end up with a disaster that is so obvious, they are forced to give up, and possibly accept that, for the time being at least, paid employment as a government clerk or tutor to the inane offspring of some local lordling will have to do for now, and that their masterpiece will remain unfinished for a year or so…

What writer of substance hasn’t experienced such a mess? I know I have, several times — even a writer with my polished reputation, I can freely admit, has bodged a story or two…

Another thing I overheard Kayza say was

Genius is certainty

(I’m almost entirely sure that isn’t his own saying, but something he’s borrowed from Yala Dona, but he passes it off as his own wit, and of course his entourage of poodles and creeps will hardly challenge him, or even care about so small a thing as genuine originality)…

Yes, certainty…

And he also said:

Genius is play

(he seems to have so many definitions of genius, he may as well say “genius is three pebbles one stacked on top of another”, or “genius is mud”, but of course, he is the great genius, so who will argue with him? Not I, in any manner: it is beneath me to twiddle categories with Kayza, and he knows it, too)…

Anyway, back to the core of my subject: unfinished books! They must be accepted as possessing still more life than an unwritten book. And yet, in some ways, are they not also more dead? Do they not die more completely? Their death more lingering, more terrible, more deathly? For a totally unwritten book could still, in some abstract notion, be a great book. But a failed book — I am talking about failures, here, among the unfinished — how can that be said to be great? The writer gave up on it, and left it to die. A horrible situation, really, not one I’d wish on anyone, not even “the Master of the Clouds” (wretched title! but I know Kayza likes to be called it. Really, who thinks these things up?)…

No, the more I have thought of it, the more I am certain, that an unwritten book is preferable to one half written. I know, of course, there are so many more reasons a book is never completed — from the prosaic heart attack, or being hit by a carriage, that sort of inconvenient end, to war, losing the manuscript (awful!), fire, and so on — but those books with which we fail, they die a most grisly death, in my opinion.

In fact, as I consider these things now, I grow more and more convinced that the only books that are really safe from death are unwritten ones! All the other categories of book are fated to die.

It is late, I will interrupt myself here: I am expected at the Gryso Theatre, to see the re-working of Kayda’s The Zarens. I don’t have much hope of it, it is terrible rough work, Kayda, he was a brute with all his swords and murders, probably another wasted evening, but it is a fine summer evening, and, as the poet says

to waste an hour of a summer’s night | shows the heart negligence and is a slight | upon the very spirit of a living chance…

From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

Certain books die. This much is clear.

Certain books – many – perhaps even most? – can hardly be said to live at all. These are the books that are unwritten – the glimmers, the amusing sketches (to be worked up at a later date) of dilettantes, notes jotted down on napkins, half-thoughts from people half awake and half asleep, thoughts that seem urgent, requiring prose.

Ah, the unwritten books! Surely, the vast numbers of books published through the ages, gathered together in a mountainous heap, must still be just a flash, a quibble, a fraction, compared to the books that were never written?

What a stupendous library it would be, the one that held all the unwritten books of our world!

What a ghostly babble, those pages will contain… Such a crowd, a roar, the rustle of a thousand weak intentions, the riffling plod of a hundred million half-hearted notions…

I have run out memory, the number of people who, on finding that I am the Amza Iyaa, have told me: “Ah, I have the idea for a most splendid story!”, or “I wish I could write a book. I have often thought of writing one…”

Yes, yes

I say, moving away from them as quickly as I can

I’m sure you have it in you

although, of course, in my mind, I think: Ah, but if wishing were doing, then doing, and life in general, would be far less interesting…

— something of that kind, in any case.

Yet, who can say these unwritten books never lived at all? Certainly, they were never given the cool reality of ink; certainly, they remained stumps and visions, they were never granted articulation, their plots were never worked out, their characters were mere phantasms, schoolboy crushes, lumpy exaggerations… but, still, there they were, for those moments or days, or even years, those unwritten books, they certainly existed, didn’t they?

Isn’t it possible, that somewhere in that library of unwritten books, by far the greatest masterpiece ever created languishes?

A wonderful, wonderful 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 [www.orbific.com] 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.