You are on page 1of 47

Re-­Thinking  Gadabout

Gadabout  Press
December  ed.,  2013

Front cover, Jenni Sidey

Editor’s note, p. 2.

(1) Lizzi Mills, p.3; response Ollie Evans, p.6

(2) Ryan Annett, p.7; response Ali Graham, p.8

(3) Nikki Moss, p.9; response Ian Burrows, p.11

(4) Jaspreet Singh Boparai, p.16; response Becky Varley-Winter, p.23

(5) Ian Burrows, p.27; response James Smoker, p.33

(6) Ollie Evans, p.35; response Ryan Annett, p.36

(7) James Smoker, p.37; response Jaspreet Singh Boparai, p.38

(8) Ali Graham, p.39; response Nikki Moss, p.41

(9) Becky Varley-Winter, p.42; response Lizzi Mills, p.44

Editor’s Note – Scott Annett

I think for the most part this edition speaks for itself, at least insofar as the
confusions, inconsistencies, acts of poor taste, insults, gestures of friendship and
attempts to communicate can be taken as a singular.

In this edition a range of contributors, each of whom have offered a contribution in a

previous edition, suggest a question, respond to a question, and then in turn reply
to the response to their original question. My editorial policy, wherever possible,
has been to remain as democratic as possible. Put simply, the contributors have been
allowed to speak in their own words, in their own ways, with no direction from me
beyond attending to basic practical constraints (and even then …). If this seems
inadequate, my response is that it is a starting point, a beginning to a conversation
in which even that decision is itself contestable.

Many thanks to the contributors for participating and many thanks to everyone out
there who might take the time to read. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching these
conversations develop in all of their seriousness and silliness. I would love to hear
any thoughts, or feedback, and I know that the Gadabout experiment will continue
to require new participants, so please, get drawing, reading, writing, strumming,
and tapping …

With much co-conspiratorial love, and Happy New Year,

(p.s. don’t miss the hyperlinks on page 37!)

q. What forms of love exist between contributor and respondent? Is love even

My experience of reading the most recent issue of Gadabout was an interesting one.
For the first time so far, none of the contributors was known to me. In previous
issues I have been able to detect familiar voices, familiar concerns; in spite of
editors’ efforts to tuck authorial attributions away in the darkest corners of the last
page, I have, by and large, known whose work I am reading, and have thus inferred
from my real-life knowledge of these contributors the relationships which might
pertain between particular pieces. The latest edition was a very different reading
experience, and it’s partly as a result of that fact, and the conditions of named-
anonymity which will obtain more and more as the Gadabout community grows,
that - if I had been quicker off the mark - I would have submitted the above
question, or something like it, to the present issue. I was too slow, and so I’m stuck
with answering it instead, which is a bit harder.

The October 2013 Gadabout raises the question of the kind of relationship which
exists between contributors, then, and not only to a reader unfamiliar with their
names. The careful insouciance of the editor’s opening remarks betray an anxiety:

Needless to say (but worth saying anyway), all responses are constructive
responses, and are not intended to be taken as in any way malicious or derisive
(with the possible--probable--exception of Jaspreet’s).

Not ‘needless to say’ at all, in fact, for this issue was differently combative, bringing
something new to the journal’s commitment to ‘conversation’ in its very structure,
with original contributors responding directly and discursively - defensively? - to
critical responses to their work. This is about Jaspreet, then, since I can’t be the only
person who cringed with delighted awkwardness at his fiery response to ‘A Reverie
upon Translation’.

Let me be clear. I do not believe that my mother’s dictum--if you can’t say anything
nice, don’t say anything at all--should apply here. We are not all sensitive artistic
souls whose egos need massaging --or at least, if we are, we ought to cultivate a
thicker skin before we venture into critical conversation. I am always gratified to see
uncritical acceptance of commonplaces challenged, and bullshit exposed. I laughed
aloud at several points in Jaspreet’s first piece, but there was a point at which my
laughter became uncomfortable, and then stopped. And I recognise that, in trying to
determine where that line was crossed, I invoke questions of taste, judgement and
sensitivity which are highly personal. And yet, and yet.

When this writer talks about ‘sensitive readers’ he likely means monoglots who
didn’t do well in their foreign-language A-levels, if they sat any. A split infinitive
suggests a lack of Latin, too.

If he telescopes any further up his own arsehole he’s liable to damage his tonsils.

It’s much easier, and fairer, to make accurate insinuations about the respondent’s
education, and ability to read.

Come now, children. Above all, let us not demean ourselves by reverting to that
covert freshers’-week assessment of who went to what kind of school.

There is no need to engage closely with the two concluding paragraphs of this piece.
It is discourteous to ignore them, but the writer has shown such ignorance of
translation, such ineptitude at literary-critical theorising and such absurd contempt
for the reader that bad manners are pardonable here [...].

I disagree.

The worst fate for a piece of writing is that it be ignored. As Holocaust survivor and
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said in 1986 - an idea borrowed recently by the
Lumineers for their lovely ‘Stubborn Love’ - ‘the opposite of love is not hate: it’s
indifference’. Good, rigorous, stimulating debate is what Gadabout is here for. But
let’s have proper conversation. Jaspreet’s critique of John’s prose might be acute,
erudite, articulate and witty, but does he ever engage with the questions about
translation which John raised? It’s actually rather easy to dismiss and ridicule,
especially if you don’t mind drawing cheap conclusions about the original writer’s
educational opportunities; it’s rather harder to register your objection to a particular
approach, a particular style, and yet take seriously the intellectual struggles it

The question really is: what is Gadabout for? If we believe in this journal as a kind
of community, then we ought to aim for the sort of relationships between
contributors and respondents which recognises that, as in any community, we’re all
at different stages. I am not suggesting a moratorium on incisive, combative
response, on honesty, on witty and rebarbative comment. But I am afraid that the
overall implication of Jaspreet’s contributions to the October issue is that until
everybody is as multilingually literate and culturally clued-up as he is, they’d really
be better off keeping schtum.

The editor introduced us to Jaspreet’s name in his introduction to a journal where

names are generally removed from work, recognising, in this decision, that
Jaspreet’s contributions bring a new and perhaps dangerous note to Gadabout.
While the growing list of contributors to the online journal is certainly a cause for
celebration, if we are to generate and sustain genuine conversation then the ‘real-
life’ relationships also need to be maintained, and the humanness of contributors,
respondents and readers affirmed. Will John want to buy Jaspreet a drink at the next
Gadabout live event, or will he stay at home, having had his hard work thoroughly
and publicly ridiculed? Or is it Jaspreet who will be left to prop up the bar alone,
having established for himself a reputation for an intellect which is formidable,
biting, uncompromising (intellectually snobbish? actually rather ugly and unkind?)?
Of course, these two contributors might be great friends. My sensitivity on John’s
behalf might seem misplaced, mawkish, inappropriate to anybody who is an
‘insider’ to this particular edition--though I would resist the narrow sense of
community implied by that suggestion. If we aspire to real conversation then I think
we ought to aim for some kind of ‘love’ between contributor, respondent, reader.
Where such warmth is demonstrably absent, the result is alienating.

My favourite thing in the most recent Gadabout was Meena Qureshi’s beautiful and
disconcerting ‘Station Saudade,’ a response to Liam Mills’s ‘Tears of Saudade.’ And
my favourite edition has been April 2013’s Responsorial Farm, which privileged
creative responses over critical essays. The creative/critical dichotomy is of course
confounded in different ways by every issue of Gadabout. But there is something

more obviously loving about a response which gives its full attention to a piece of
work and then matures into something interestingly related but freestanding. A
creative response is more likely to pick up on a single element or characteristic of
the ‘original’ which prompts it, and thus perhaps less liable to seem to be making
any claims to authoritativeness or comprehensiveness.

Of course it’s valid--necessary--to assess the adequacy of a critical response, but

each response must be considered as one of many possible responses, and the words
that make it into the published version recognised as just a proportion of the
thoughts and ideas prompted by the reading. Jaspreet might have been less quick to
point out the astonishing erudition of his ‘Guided Tour of Rome’ in his ‘Response to
a response’ if he had had more faith that Gadabout’s readers were able to draw their
own conclusions about the poem and the critical response to it. They would have
drawn such conclusions - possibly ones more favourable than the ones they drew
after reading the defence. But their conclusions would not have been based on how
many languages the poet, or the critic, can speak.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have
become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. [...] Love suffers long and is kind; love
does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely,
does not seek its own [...]; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things. Love never fails.

I’d quite like it if this went to Jaspreet for his response. I would be grateful if he
could resist the temptation to denigrate my prose and engage with my thoughts--
especially if he disagrees with them.

(Lizzi Mills)

(Response: Ollie Evans)

q: Why is it so hard to read, and be motivated to read, works that we have no prior
knowledge about?

People tend to enjoy reading things in the same genre because they know it is safe
and this can lead to them only ever reading the same type of book. Obviously there
are exceptions, but most people wouldn't like the idea of finishing Sir Alex
Ferguson's autobiography and then picking up a fantasy novel set on the planet
Zargon (although there may be some similarities). This may come down to not
liking the style but it also comes from not knowing what to expect. This is an issue
that affects creative writers a lot. Everyone has their own style but unfortunately, if
you aren't famous then there is no way for a potential reader to know whether they
will like your style, characters or plot. Reading work of which you have no prior
knowledge is, in a way, a leap of faith. You are reading something that has the
potential to be terrible or awesome and for most people, it is hard to get enthused
about the risk. They don't have enough time to read work that could potentially
bore them senseless so they stick to reading things that they know they are much
more likely to enjoy.

Personally, I don't mind reading works I don’t know about, whether its proof
reading my friends creative writing or discovering the work of a famous writer that
I don't know (due to my own ignorance). One of the reasons I actually enjoy doing
this is because you don't know what to expect. You go into the reading experience
without any autobiographical knowledge or predetermined opinions that might
shape you into forming someone else's response. For example, reading Sylvia Plath's
poetry might be more enlightening if you are unaware of her history and the context
in which she wrote. I'm not saying that the autobiographical details aren't
important, of course they are, but sometimes they can lead to the reader trying to fit
squares into triangles. In the case of Plath, this can lead to overusing her history,
reading her poetry and relating every moment to mental illness or suicide etc, when
actually she could be writing about fluffy bunnies and rainbows. Imagine for
yourself a fresh piece of paper before you read something new. You have no marks
or smudges, no scholar's handwritten calligraphy that might shape your response
before you have even started. Then read and form your own marks on the page,
whether that is a charcoal smear or an inky essay, and once you have finished, see if
anyone else has a similar mark on their page.

I found this quite a hard question to respond to because I disagreed with the
presumption that "we" find it difficult to read new writing. I immediately formed a
picture in my head of a scholar who only reads leather bound books- the classics, of
course- because they look down on any genre of writing that isn't strictly literary. I
have tried to understand the question by thinking about the reasons people might
not read new writing and the first paragraph is the closest I could get. Other than
that, I fear that there may be an element of snobbishness that prevents people from
reading some books because they would be afraid to be seen reading them. An
obvious example of this would be with the "Twilight" book series where there was a
mass movement towards reading the books and then an opposite movement which
looked down on the books because they were written badly or had terrible
characters. So bad that the books sold millions of copies. If you have this opinion
after reading them, that is fine, but I suppose the issue I have is actually prompted
by the question above: the fact that people will judge a book, not just by its cover,
but also by its author or its followers.
(Ryan Annett)

(Response: Ali Graham)

Many thanks for your response. You saw many different sides in my question that I
hadn’t even intended myself. This has made me think even more about my own
question and what it says about the presumptions I have made about a typical
Gadabout reader.

For those who read for hedonistic purposes, where one would want to maximize the
enjoyment they get from books in the precious allotment of time that they have, I
can fully understand your point of view. There is not really a reason to stray from
what you know and love, as doing so could be a monumental waste of time. One
reason that would persuade me to do so would be if a text were to be recommended
to me by someone who knows me well. This is a fairly safe bet as the person
presumably found the book to be enjoyable or worthwhile and also knows my own
characteristics and what I enjoy. This would enable me to read something that I
would not normally have read whilst having a high likelihood that I would enjoy it.

Knowledge about the text, or author of the text, was what I had in mind in my
question. You seemed to find the relationship between the experiences of the author
to the text itself significant and that the lack of this knowledge would be a freedom
to the reader. In the case of the Gadabout Journal, one often knows the author very
well through a friendship or work relation, or not at all. The Gadabout ‘catchment’
is far reaching around the globe and then in dense networks in specific places. This
means that in the same Journal editions, one would go from reading something with
many aspects of the author in mind, smudges and marks covering the work, to a
sudden halt as a completely new text with a completely new author presents itself. I
find this transition quite enjoyable, as you don’t often experience reading such a
wide variety of texts by a several different people, including friends, in the one go.
This also helps me to read works by the familiar authors in a new light.

Normally, taking a risk is something that is enjoyable, or do we just call the things
that change our hormones and central circulatory system in such a way to give us
an ‘enjoyable high’, risky. In the case of a roller coaster, the thing you have to gain is
a feeling of elation, and the thing you have to lose is you life (if it goes wrong). In
the case of a book, the thing you have to gain may also be elation, and the thing you
have to lose is your life (a bit of it anyway). The problem is, that health and safety
demands that everything will go well on a roller coaster but there are no such
regulators in the book world. An editor makes judgment calls, but this role is not
designed to suit a specific reader, rather it is more like a good friend recommending
a book to a reading group.

An issue that I feel is important for the journal is that our readers appear not to read
every journal edition and it is unclear what motivates them to read it when they do.
With access to the online information, I can see that many people may intend to read
the journal, but spend their time on other things. So, whilst we may put it down to
genre, authors or risk taking, something is stopping most Gadaboutist from taking
the time to read each other’s work. This is an unanswered question, even for myself,
but I hope that by asking the question we find the time to read the works we set out
to read.

q. What is the worst thing about Gadabout?

Having to read it on a screen. I, though young in body, am secretly possessed of a

small, worry-filled Luddite, who would much prefer to be able to hold the journal in
his hands (on printed not kindled paper) than open up a webpage. That same little
Luddite is often bashed about the head by thoughts of the environment, the
difficulties of circulation, the impracticality of paper copies. They push his face
against the wall and shout in his little Luddite ears. The thing is, he knows, he totally
gets why it’s online, it’s just something he struggles with.

He worries about the implications of the shift from paper page to screen, seeing this
move as a terrifying fraction of the great technological advancement that is
sweeping through the world (he views this advancement with a sense of great
foreboding) and he also feels nostalgic for the act of reading as it was when he was
growing up.

Beyond the general concern that some of the magic of writing is lost when it is no
longer tangible, I, he, (we?) also have a habit of having several tabs open at any one
time, (at this exact moment they number at 17). More often than not the new
Gadabout Journal is one that gets opened in a click of good intention, and then
abandoned in favour of any number of other things to be looked at.

The Luddite and I are easily distracted. This is more of a problem when trying to
read something on a computer than it is with something in book form.

Once we get to Gadabout (battle one, won), we know that what needs to happen
next is, fairly simply, just to


But what actually happens is this:

What was that thing, from before?
(Here it is.)
Look at THIS!
(And that too)
I haven’t heard this song before.
What is it?
Oh man that whole album’s up on youtube
Someone you know might like that
Link them
Hi facebook.
That looks interesting.
(So does that)
(And this)
Jennifer Lawrence threatened who with a bow and arrow?
What a hero.
Oh, I was reading
Something else
For a bit
But I’ll come back later
Open link in
New tab
New tab
New tab

No matter how riveting the content of the journal is, we always leave. And when we
return, if we return, it’s always having lost some of the thread of
where we were. (Nikki Moss)

(Response: Ian Burrows)

Falling, falling! Los fell & fell

Sunk precipitant, heavy, down, down,
Times on times, night on night, day on day.
Truth has bounds, Error none: falling falling:
Years on years, and ages on ages,
Still he fell thro’ the void, still a void
Found for falling day & night without end.
For tho’ day or night was not; their spaces
Were measured by his
incessant whirls
In the horrid vacuity


such good intentions

such good intentions

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of

Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell,
is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party
without knowing it.


Where art thou Faustus? What hast thou done?

such good intentions such good intentions such good
intentions such good intentions such good intentions
such good intentions such good intentions such good

eli eli lama sabacthani

q. To what extent is your writing self-centred? Does your writing serve a purpose
beyond solipsism, and if so, how?

My dear Scott,

I thought it best to respond to your question in the form of a personal letter, not
least because I have no idea who else will actually read this, other than Ben
Mortimer and Ben Mortimer, Jr. (sc. Callum Wayne). Also, maybe the very fact that
I'm writing a letter to you (OK, an e-mail) has certain implications with respect to
my views of writing, as far as my own work is concerned. As you've long since
figured out, I have difficulty conceiving of serious work from my pen as anything
but a communication, and I usually have (or try to have) a good idea of whom I'm
communicating to, even if I rarely bother so much about what exactly I'm
communicating, let alone why. [NB: 'serious work': anything that requires more
than one draft, and was not initially drafted on a keyboard, because I can't type and
so can't really think at a computer even when the internet is disabled.] Tact,
courtesy and other such proprieties that I violate over the course of most private
conversations probably have some influence over what I write and why I do it.

To give you a short answer: I don't think my writing is any more self-centred
than my conversation. I'm self-indulgent to the point of being horribly spoilt, spend
a fair bit of time on my own, am rather fond of my own company and have a very
high opinion of myself, as you'd expect from the youngest child in an extended
family that included five children (though only until I hit puberty, at which the
household dramatically shrank to a mere nuclear family of my parents, my older
brother and me -- but by then the damage had long since been done and I'd already
spent a dozen or so years as a loud, angry fat youngest child -- a sort of Punjabi
version of Cartman from 'South Park'). Thus personally I can't help but be horribly
self-centred, and this no doubt shows in what I write as well as in my conversation;
yet I think I can make the distinction between being a self-centred writer as a person
and being a self-centred writer qua writer -- actually no I can't. The separation is
probably stupid and I'll tie myself in knots trying to explain and justify it. Instead of
separating the writer from the person from the writing why don't I just separate the
writing from the writer, then say that the writer's pretty much the person, whatever
that means. Now -- for the first time in my life perhaps -- I wish I knew something
about literary theory because this is all a very old conversation that I don't know
how to have, and anybody with an English degree could easily make mincemeat of
this feeble attempt at literary philosophising. I don't mind turning a little muddy
here because although I said I was going to give you a short answer a few sentences
ago we both know that you weren't going to get one. Except I'm about to enter a
deep philosophical quagmire here that neither training nor temperament can
extricate me from so let's try to keep clean and clear, and say that I'm self-centred
but my writing likely isn't. What do I mean by that? I THINK I try not to write
exclusively about myself, or my immediate concerns; but self-centredness in writing
goes beyond mere subject matter, surely. Am I confusing self-centredness with
narcissism here? Your questions together imply a relationship between self-
centredness (in writing) with solipsism on the part of the writer.... When I mention
narcissism I might be conflating terms unhelpfully. Let's pretend I didn't mention it;
anyway the connection between a solipsistic writer and self-centred writing is to my
mind unobjectionable. At least as I'm currently conceiving your second question,
which I sort of started answering first. Does my writing serve a purpose beyond
solipsism? I hope so. How? That's even harder to answer, but maybe if I start to

ramble even further we might arrive at something like a reasonable answer.

I'd like to think that I write AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM -- for the greater
glory of God. Certainly, when I'm proud of something and elated to have finished it
the first thing I do before getting trashed to celebrate is to write AMDG on the last
page of my MS. Yet I know that I don't write for the greater glory of God most of
the time. Not even Saints Augustine and Thomas did all the time, I'm sure, and not
being a Doctor of the Church, or a Saint, I'm likely to fall very far short of their
exemplary standards. But I'm starting on a line of thought that will end in making
me seem too much like GM Hopkins, and to do that when you lack the intellect,
learning, faith, character and genius of Hopkins is to be a complete prick. Since I
don't teach Creative Writing I have more elegant ways to be smug. Let's run down
a list of things I write:

1. ACADEMIC WORK: I write this for coldly professional reasons. I hate it, and
don't take my academic work very seriously, except as a more dignified form of
writing training than a Creative Writing course. A PhD is after all really just a half-
assed PGCE to help you earn a crap living teaching in universities or the better
public schools so that in theory you have the time to write all those things that you
feel compelled to write, for reasons that you can't fully explain, and usually don't
want to, for reasons arguably not unlike those why you can't explain in public, or
even to a lover sometimes, what your favourite genres of porn are. [Not that I have
any -- I'm too Catholic....] The compulsion to write ought to be channelled towards
something honourable, dignified, within your capabilities, suited to your talents --
whatever -- but the compulsion is, at least in my case, roughly as controllable and
easily channelled as one's sex drive. Which is to say that it makes me do absurdly
stupid things, not least two Master's degrees and a PhD. I don't understand writer's
block, except where my academic work is concerned, because I bitterly resent
having to do it, recognising how pointless the whole exercise is of a postgraduate
degree. I don't even know whom I'm writing for, and maybe this has something to
do with why I resist the whole thing -- because I have no reason to give a shit,
except for the coldest professional self-interest -- and life is too short for cold
professional self-interest, unless you have the misfortune to be a sociopath (in which
case the fun and pleasure to be had in murdering enemies etc. doesn't exist --
because you're a sociopath and can't feel real joy). My academic work isn't self-
centred -- though maybe it indirectly reflects aspects of my temperament and
personality that I'm not conscious of (not to mention there must be traces
everywhere of my enraged unwillingness to do it). Does my academic work serve a
purpose beyond solipsism? Well, it's grudgingly completed out of a sort of self-
interest. But we all know how my PhD dissertation will do no good for anybody,
especially if not even I care.... Let's stop discussing this shit.

2. E-MAILS, LETTERS, POSTCARDS, TEXTS: these are as important to me as

phone calls, and indeed more so -- most of my friends despair at the length of my e-
mails, because really I try to write them as though they were proper personal letters
(which I still send, naturally). Postcards are, like Christmas cards, meant to remind
people that you remember them, remind them of your existence, show off to them
that you're somewhere nicer than they are, etc. Yet these are important if the
relationship with the addressé is an important one. Ditto text messages: I don't
conceive of this as a literary genre, certainly; though etiquette and protocols demand
that they be in intelligible, correct English (or French or Italian -- or even Latin with
certain friends, but only when we're all drunk). I try to write them, not in a private

language, but as I would speak to the person receiving them, so in-jokes, private
references and even the odd obscure private code are inescapable when the receiver
is someone with whom I have any sort of rapport. E-mails and letters are
sometimes the only way you can discuss something with a friend, and distance or
diary misalliances/misalignments aren't the only reason for this. Sometimes you
want to refine and develop a thought, and then pass it along to a friend in a form
that he can consider at leisure for some time before you both go and get drunk --
because you'll end up talking above and around it, and then move on to gossip, bad
jokes or worse. Or else you'll have some conversations that happen exclusively in
correspondence and others that you only have in person. Sometimes letters are
actually a more intimate form of communication too. I don't generally counsel
breaking up by letter, unless she's particularly frightful or unbalanced (or you're a
serious dick) -- there are always circumstances though -- and after a break-up, a
detailed, honest letter is often a good idea, especially when a great deal has
remained unsaid. In this sense it's still a sort of love letter -- and love letters are
important because you don't always, in a relationship, have a chance to articulate
yourself honestly at great length -- especially when both of you are talkers. Another
use for letters: saying the unspeakable. I've told you a few times that my brother
and I have a difficult relationship -- we're not easy in each other's company, and
certainly can't call each other friends. We don't confide in each other, don't talk to
each other much (except when he has nobody else to vent to) and, if I'm being
honest, don't really trust one another for the most part. Yet ever since he started
seeing his now-wife he's tried to keep up the illusion in her eyes that we're in fact
very close, mainly because she was (until recently) very, very close with her own
brother, whom he long thought to be superficially similar to me (proof that he
doesn't know me very well). One of my brother's more regrettable habits is the
filibuster. I'm hardly uncommunicative, as you know; but by the standards of my
brother and father I'm one of those coolly silent Clint Eastwood characters -- it's
actually stressful to endure, the way they both fill the air with a miasmal fog of
ambient white noise -- monologues that allow for no interjection -- one can't help
but give into them sometimes and do as they repetitively say, purely in the hope
that the pointless talking will one day stop. This is where letters come in handy. In
difficult family situations, etc., where I know my brother's not going to lift a finger
except in his own immediate interests, I can always rely on a detailed, honest,
unguarded letter to get my view across -- provided of course that I send his wife a
copy too. She'll always read it far more carefully than he will, and in fact I'm
usually writing secretly to her -- he won't listen to me, but she will, and years of lies
about friendship with his little brother have trapped him into paying attention, as
long as his wife is paying attention too.... So sometimes you need letters, when
conversation isn't going to work, or you don't have a forum for genuine, serious
dialogue. Why have I gone on at such length about my private correspondence,
when it's none of your business? Because the discussion likely tells you at least
something about the way I deal with artistic/literary communications. Self-centred?
Not always. Self-interested? Often/usually. I take my private correspondence
seriously enough that I'm willing to call it 'writing' (though not 'literature') even
though I don't usually want more than a few people to read my letters/e-
mails/texts/cards. The purposes are varied enough that I'm not sure solipsism is
particularly relevant here....


COMMENTS: Private messages are basically e-mails; let's not discuss
them. Facebook birthday messages are lazy postcards. Ditto posts on the walls of

invitations and suchlike. What's interesting is the sort of half-public conversation
possible on Facebook. I don't take Facebook seriously enough to consider any of my
posts 'writing', let alone literature; yet my status updates are notoriously
long. Usually I post in the morning, after breakfast but before 'work' begins in
earnest, to talk off the top of my head about art, literature, religion, a film or play
I've seen, or an item on the Today Program, or simply some article I've read. Or else
I've come across a stupid yet funny link. Sometimes I rant about politics -- or rather
about my own deep pessimism about a political system which has been poisoned by
managerial culture, by philistine training institutions like the ENA in Paris and the
Oxford PPE degree, etc. etc. -- well, you know the range of material that I post. I
don't as a rule post more than once a day, and tend to do so at very high speed so
that I'll almost never read what I've written a second time. It's a sort of public
notebook -- and yet I don't post about things unless it seems likely to me that a
reasonable number of my friends will be interested. Most of the time the result is
rarely a genuine conversation. Still, I almost feel a certain duty to post things that
might be of interest or amusement (things that I've liked or, as is more frequent, that
I've hated) because a majority of my friends work demanding jobs such that they
scarcely have the time even to read the newspapers except on the weekends; and the
real world is not one where music or poetry are regularly discussed. Friends not
infrequently remind me of this at parties, especially when I've neglected posting for
a few days -- really very few other people seem to treat Facebook as a sort of private
cultural journal for friends, purely because they don't have the time -- jobs instead of
PhDs get in the way, of course. If I have a personal reason for doing all this, it's
perhaps related to my nostalgia for Oxford -- with a small number of exceptions, the
Cambridge students I've encountered don't really give a shit about these
things. The ones who read have got career goals in mind, and the fun ones
generally are frightened of being thought of as pretentious or else simply don't read,
go to the theatre, etc. As for postgraduates -- well, as you know, forget it. Dull,
dreary lost souls, most of whom don't go to exhibitions, or read literary journals, or
get pissed anywhere nice, or bother about grooming. Maybe all this Facebook
journalism is my way of holding onto that not-quite-lost world of dandies,
dilettantes and intellectual snobs amongst whom I'm most comfortable -- this will
have to do until I finish the damn PhD and can move back to the Capital full-time
where all the interesting people are. SO: I don't post about myself directly -- not
self-centred. Solipsistic? Probably not (though there's inevitably an element of
masturbatory self-regard in the very fact that I think I'm doing old friends a service
by wittily drawing attention to myself...). But what's the purpose here? Thinking
aloud? Having conversations without talking? I haven't even started to talk about
Facebook 'comments' because I'm not sure I've formed a speakable opinion about
this form of graffiti....

4. TRANSLATIONS: this is an art I take seriously, because it's an important means

of training myself to write. Learning how to express oneself, as it were. It's not self-
centred, but the purpose is definitely self-interested, and don't believe me if you
ever hear me saying that I undertake translations in order to make work available to
anybody else. I'm at best trying to understand a writer's thoughts/expression/style
for myself.... OK, maybe I DO want to share sometimes. The impulse to share
things that give one pleasure or stimulation (ignore incipient doubles-entendres
there) might not be a genuinely generous one so I shan't dismiss solipsism out of
hand here as a purpose/motivation.

5. PLAYS: I've written a fair few, and your questions have thrown me here. Are

there really subjects that I want to discuss that can best be explored via this medium,
or do I write plays simply out of desire for attention and applause? Because my
plays tend to be [------] HILARIOUS. That said they're also frequently provocative,
and my favourite works have often shocked and upset viewers at what I thought
were the funniest moments. My desire to entertain and my love of provocation and
shock are not likely altruistic in motivation. I wonder how far I, as a guilty Catholic
(genuinely so, except when I forget) try to overcome the selfish pleasures inherent in
writing for the stage. I suppose I'd like to entertain much of the audience for the
same reason that I'm fond of seduction -- and making people laugh isn't perhaps
unrelated in a great many ways.... But what about those in the audience I'd like to
provoke? Because I can't wake them up or make them see light most of the time -- I
once thought I could, but time spent as a university lecturer and college tutor has
taught me how impossible most teaching is. Is this just aggressive tickling, then? If
so, it's a rather rapey form of seduction.... Let's talk about this again in a few
months, when I finish writing the play I've been contemplating. For the
moment: my preferred form is the farce, just because farces give me great pleasure
as a spectator; also I do like constructing intricate plot structures and
situations. Perhaps more importantly, it permits the provocation of thought
without the need for ready conclusions. Or indeed the possibility -- farce moves too
fast. Yet I wonder whether the real reason farce appeals to me is the inherent
cynicism, pessimism and general low view of human nature that the form usually
demands -- it's as though farce were designed to remind us of Original Sin....

6. POEMS: I don't write enough verse to be able to talk about this form at great
length; though such lyric as I write is almost always conceived of in virtually the
same way as my private correspondence: sc. as a communication to a single person
-- almost always with whom I'm intimate. And yet a poem can't be like a private
letter, even when it's a Horatian epistle, because other people are going to read it, as
you the poet well know. Maybe it's best to think of my verse in the same way I do
those e-mails to my brother -- only the readership goes well beyond his wife. Epic
or narrative verse: I've only written one poem like this, and thought of it as a
performance piece for an audience of a dozen or so intimate friends. But not fully
because I was trying to do more than entertain. I can't fully articulate what I was
trying to do, in fact, because it's not a process that I've ever seriously interrogated
for any length of time. Maybe there's something profoundly self-centred in my
process of composition: I try to use a pre-existing narrative, a conventional
structure, and literary tradition as I understand it (a very classical one) in order to
give voice to things that I can't or won't otherwise directly express -- not that I'm
terribly certain what they might be. That's what I did in my 'Heer and Ranjha'
anyway. Or so Ben Mortimer said when we were both very drunk (and he's usually
right, even/especially when trashed). Thus there's likely something to your
'solipsism' suggestion in some sense. And yet, in my attempt honestly to let out
something that I can't/won't otherwise try to articulate, maybe this is closer to the
praise and worship of God than is comfortable to say. Thankfully only you, Ben
and Callum are going to read this letter, because what a cringe, embarrassing thing
to say.... But did I say that because it's the truth or because I'd like to write AMDG
more than I really do?

7. PROSE FICTION: I always try to write for a single reader, though that person
sometimes changes within a single work. I shan't name my ideal reader for the
moment -- there is one, whom you might meet one day.... This is different from a
Muse, who's only an inspiration, and might not actually read a word you write. I

used to have one and she barely bothered.... The first long fiction I ever wrote was
far too offensive for more than private circulation, and was mainly meant to make
friends laugh. I learnt how to write more serious prose fiction in a curious
way. After finishing a Master's at the Warburg Institute I decided to go into exile in
Canada to write what eventually became my novel 'Love In The Unfashionable
Suburbs' -- which I finished in longhand during the second year of my PhD. I
figured I'd be out of the country for 6 months, then would return to London a
conquering hero. Not quite. I had three months of research -- 'field work' and in the
London Library -- then left the country at Christmas and had six months of solid
note-taking. Six months in, I was nowhere near the point of even starting to write. I
panicked and decided to write 8 short stories in eight weeks. In the end it took ten
weeks. Meanwhile I randomly was offered a teaching post in the middle of
nowhere. As I had PhD applications to write, and a reputation to maintain, I
decided to take up the post lest I look too hopeless ('writing a novel' is always an
embarrassing thing to admit you're doing, especially when there's the possibility of
failure and that possibility was very close to a reality for a long time). But teaching
eats up time and energy, as do application forms. Despair does too (this was a very
bleak middle of nowhere even by middle of nowhere standards). It wasn't until the
Christmas holiday that I found the time to type up the stories, and at that point I
realised that they were all shit. Still, I circulated them via e-mail to a great number
of friends. [NB: I'd never show them to anybody now -- not only are they not
entertaining or particularly well-constructed/written, but there's an uncomfortable
degree of angst, bitterness and depression in them that makes them feel less like art
and more like the most tedious sort of therapy.] The friends who responded rapidly
and diligently with comments turned out in every case to be my closest and most
trustworthy friends; most recipients didn't bother to read a word of course (because
who otherwise has the time, or will make it?). That exercise taught me, not whom I
write for, but whom I should be writing for, because nobody else matters as much
(you don't matter as much to anybody else). Those simple shows of loyalty had
their lessons: if I was writing for those particular readers, if they were (and are) my
most loyal audience, then that has implications, because from now on I know that I
have to write in order to please them before anybody else. The lesson took a while
to sink in, of course: 'Love In The Unfashionable Suburbs' existed only as a detailed
outline pretty much until the end of that teaching year, and as I say I didn't have
time to finish the first draft fully until the middle of my second PhD year. But I'd
started on the planning too early, before I realised whom I really ought to be writing
for. Or whom I really must direct my work at -- those who care the most. It was too
late to redo all that work, I thought. The writing I work hardest at isn't self-centred,
then, and God help me I'm about to say something so cringe I ought to become a
yoga instructor for the sheer shame of it all, but that which I write that I consider to
be art is an act of friendship -- indeed, an act of love, because it's something I have to
do for those who've demonstrated that they love me. Now if you'll excuse me I
need to throw up. What sentimental claptrap, and all the more offensive for being
true. So no, not solipsistic....

8. REVIEWS, ESSAYS: these are like academic work, with the difference that I want
to write them. Thinking aloud, in public, as a way of starting to work out things
that might be important to me, or at least will be relevant to my art. Maybe these
should be understood as closer to my Facebook posts than anything else -- but if
you write an essay you can't control the audience. I'd like to think that my essays
were written for a range of my Facebook friends but this isn't always true in the real
world, alas. Also, there's sometimes a cold professional purpose behind the

contemplation of one of these, whether or not I like to admit that literature has a
professional as well as a vocational element if you take it seriously....

9. DIARIES/JOURNALS/MEMOIRS/NOTES: this is all just planning. I do this for

myself (when I actually do it), because I don't trust my memory -- yet I'm not a
regular diary-keeper. For the first three months of this year I kept an almost-daily
journal for my fellowship in Rome, though part of this was to get previous Rome
memories on paper before they vanished -- this was almost as important as the
almost-daily notes. I took frightful notes on the art I saw -- but then the only good
notes I ever took were on a few rooms in the Louvre -- the Poussins and
Riccios. Self-centred? Definitely. Solipsistic? Yes -- because these are for no other
eyes and I'd prefer that they be destroyed once I have no further use for them. But
let's not talk about all this, because it's a part of my writing -- not my writing
itself. Anyway I've talked/written enough.

This shit's too long so I'm not going to read it over. Hope it's relatively coherent and
not too inconsistent. I'm going to bed now so ask somebody else to draw together
the necessary conclusions from all this rambling. Maybe that person will find
proper answers to your questions for both of us (so don't ask Callum to do it --
though his friend Femi is a very wise man and well worth consulting -- even if he'll
just ask Callum to do it for him in the end).
(Jaspreet Singh Boparai)

(Response: Becky Varley-Winter)

Dear Jasp,

I am not Scott Annett, Ben Mortimer, or Callum Wayne. I did, however, enjoy
reading all 4540 words of your letter. I’m going to respond by writing about what it
made me think about, which is relationships between gender, noise and silence. This
may have been in my mind already due to watching this video of a slam poet called
Lily Myers (despite the hectoring of Upworthy headlines, daring me to be
uninspired). The caption defines power as having a voice, and her poem brings out
the ways in which silence is passively self-punishing, self-censorship becoming part
of the marginalisation of female voices. However her performance also draws my
attention to the ways in which silence gathers a peculiar force. She speaks of
scrutinising the knots in her mother’s forehead with such intensity that she ‘reads’
them, and stands quietly on the stage, taking several breaths, before she begins; an
action which focusses the viewer’s attention, as well as her own. As another
example of silence made vocal, listen to ‘Silence’ by PJ Harvey, or think of Cordelia
refusing to speak in King Lear.
Growing up, I invested at least as much energy in intently watching my
mum’s silences as I did listening to my dad speak (my dad’s silences never felt as
compelling; the guidance I got from him was vocal). I’m not trying to enforce a
gender binary in responding to your response: there are plenty of noisy women and
quiet men in the world, and my mother is no oppressed violet; she is articulate and
expressive. However, your letter made me think about female silence and male
noise for several reasons: you say you like to think about who you are
communicating to when you write, and all the names you list as potential readers of
this letter are male, while your ‘ideal reader’ for some of your other writing, for
verse especially, comes across as female. As a female reader of this letter, I feel like
an eavesdropper. It is comically self-deprecating but garrulously long, written in
vast blocks of text, and the poem you wrote for the last issue of Gadabout was about
a man patronising a female listener as he guides her around Rome.
This makes me feel that gender is part of what you think about in your
writing, overtly or otherwise. You write of being from a family of male ‘talkers’,
making noise to an extent that you find oppressive:

I'm hardly uncommunicative, as you know; but by the standards of my

brother and father I'm one of those coolly silent Clint Eastwood

characters -- it's actually stressful to endure, the way they both fill the air
with a miasmal fog of ambient white noise -- monologues that allow for
no interjection -- one can't help but give into them sometimes and do as
they repetitively say, purely in the hope that the pointless talking will one
day stop. This is where letters come in handy. In difficult family
situations, etc., where I know my brother's not going to lift a finger except
in his own immediate interests, I can always rely on a detailed, honest,
unguarded letter to get my view across -- provided of course that I send
his wife a copy too. She'll always read it far more carefully than he will,
and in fact I'm usually writing secretly to her -- he won't listen to me, but
she will

In describing this ‘miasmal fog of white noise’ I felt your letter agreed, in a
roundabout way, with Lily Myers’ poem, describing the peculiar intensity of feeling
‘silenced’, and taking to letters as a way of making yourself heard. What I found
amusing was the way in which your letter also mimicked this nonstop way of talking,
although it contains generous gestures to the people you love and who love you.
As a way of listening and responding, I want to experiment with taking parts
of your letter and interspersing them with blank space, visual ‘silences’. My first
impression, as I start to do this, is that it’s a violent thing to do. To selectively silence
someone is aggressive, and I do not want to paint this cut-and-paste version as
truthful; it may in fact be a gross misrepresentation. I hope you enjoy the result.

Best wishes,

I violate most private conversations

I'm self-indulgent
horribly spoilt
a loud, angry fat youngest child
for the greater glory of God
a complete prick.

I have more elegant ways to be smug.

You can't explain in public,
or even to a lover sometimes,
what your favourite genres of porn are.
[Not that I have any -- I'm too Catholic....]
The compulsion to write
roughly as controllable
and easily channelled
as one's sex drive.
it makes me do absurdly stupid things

I have no reason to give a shit
life is too short
proper personal letters
the odd obscure private code
remained unsaid
love letters at great length
saying the unspeakable.

my brother and I
don't confide in each other
I'm usually writing secretly to her
sometimes you need letters,
genuine, serious dialogue.

Sometimes I rant about politics

a sort of private cultural journal
my nostalgia for Oxford

Cambridge students
don't give a shit
career goals in mind
frightened of being thought of as pretentious
or else don't read

As for postgraduates –
Dull, dreary lost souls,
don't go to exhibitions,
read literary journals,
or get pissed anywhere nice,

that not-quite-lost world

of dandies, dilettantes and intellectual snobs
amongst whom I'm most comfortable
move back to the Capital full-time

how impossible most teaching is.
Is this just aggressive tickling, then?
a rapey form of seduction....
my preferred form is the farce,
without the need for ready conclusions.
farce moves too fast. Original Sin....

Ben Mortimer said

when we were both very drunk
(he's usually right, even/especially when trashed)
this is closer to the praise and worship of God
than is comfortable to say.

Thankfully only you, Ben and Callum

are going to read this letter
I shan’t name my ideal reader

there is one, you might meet one day....

The friends who responded rapidly

I have to write to please them
I ought to become a yoga instructor
an act of friendship
an act of love
something I have to do
for those who've demonstrated
that they love me.

This shit's too long

ask somebody else to draw

the necessary conclusions.


Let us talk with monsters, then, let us bicker a little with scuttlebuts and bugbears
and scapegoats; let us talk of the unabashed monkeys of Beckett; let us talk of the
moonlighting peacocks too, who have strutted and capered and squawked
altogether alone and altogether blinkered and blind and backsided to the capers all
around them, the squawking all around them, the strutting in rings around them.
Let us talk of bad writing, and where better to begin than with my own.

As a small-time petty revolutionary of fourteen years I had published in a local

magazine an article which dared to envisage a North Dorset ready for wind-farms,
which were back then the next big thing. Grandstanding some I made bold to
declare that the time was right to let drop our obsequies to Thomas Hardy, the
patron saint of all that is bleak and boring, and to think of what North Dorset might
forge in its future. Wind-farms, by golly! The world coughed in outrage. Letters of
complaint were posted, and published. I wrote, in response, a letter of apology,
utterly craven, and another, incidentally, signed in the name of one Sarah Horne of
Hinton St. Mary. (Sarah’s letter approved thoroughly of the original article and
wondered as to the following: the full extent of the author’s rakish wit; the full
extent of his already commendable knowledge of the wind-farming industry; the
likelihood of his being amenable to going out to dinner with her were she ten years
younger [and real].) Finally, in response to both of these, a letter appeared that
stated with cold fervour that Ian Burrows would never be so fine a writer as Thomas
Hardy, and that said small-time petty revolutionary should be ashamed to have
shown such wanton disrespect to his better. The editor in italics panicked intoned
THIS CORRESPONDENCE IS CLOSED - but already just so many faces had been melted
off by all that had escaped from it, and the then bad feeling that capillaried
throughout the pages of Community.Com in those unhappy issues purpled
accounts of fun runs, charity calendars and jumble sales. Thomas Hardy, above it
all, said nothing.

A year ago in an effort to edit my own community magazine, an issue, of sorts, of

Gadabout, I sent a blank piece of paper and several addressed envelopes in yet
another envelope to various would-be non-consenting ‘collaborators’. That piece of

paper lost to postage, and with a gap in the issue, I recorded in a last-minute
editorial preface instead some of the responses to it, including the aphorism ‘some
of us have jobs, you fat fucking cunt’. Here to those readers offended the first time
round (if they are still here) I can apologise for instantiating those unpleasant words
again, but here, at least, I can promise the discussion of them that perhaps I owed
you then. Thomas Hardy, many of you will doubtless have noted, still says nothing.

There is no moral to either of these tales quite yet. Let’s talk on top of one more
conversation, for now. Keep these in mind, though, and we’ll come back to them.

As a one-time small-time petty revolutionary I was looking for something

worthwhile to do the other day when I found the following grumble seething like
eyes in the dark down, down far below an article on the Daily Mail website. A Mr3

Rolf Kitching, of Hampshire, was lamenting into the void at the prospect of poems
being published in ‘text-speak’, a prospect the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has

professed great enthusiasm for in the glare of the light of the main article. (Thomas
Hardy, incidentally, never – never – published poems in text-speak). Kitching said

most modern so called poetry not only does not rhyme it

does not read or scan fluently either […] Allowing text
speak, which is basically a made up language, to be used
legitimately in poetry is really a step too far.

I scoffed at him aloud, allowed myself a few complacent half-turns on my office-

chair, and copied and pasted his words ready to vomit up into the chirruping maws
of my English literature students. Tomorrow we would dance the liberal dance of
boundless acceptance at Rolf Kitching: anything is literature if you can talk about it,
we would conclude together. Text speak? - yes, why not? Why should we not talk of
text speak, as we might of free verse, of rap, of cereal boxes or Tarantino or Harry
Potter or Dan Brown? If it is capable of conversation, it is worthy of conversation.
Example by example, each more outlandish than the last, we would all together
heave ourselves up to the shore of our inexorable conclusion:

There is no such thing as bad writing.

And yet.

“You will go down slow, sir, I suppose?” she said with

attempted unconcern.
D’Urberville looked round upon her, nipped his cigar with the
tips of his large white centre-teeth, and allowed his lips to
smile slowly of themselves.
“Why - Tess,” he answered, after another whiff or two; “it isn’t
a brave bouncing girl like you who asks that? Why, I always
go down at a full gallop. There’s nothing like it for raising your
spirits.” 4

This is rubbish. Or: I think it’s rubbish. Whichever you prefer. You don’t, I think,
need to read the book to agree with me - if you want to - that nipping a cigar with
only the tips of your teeth but not the other parts of them is absurdly difficult.
Perhaps you might think I’m being wilfully obtuse - go ahead and nip something
without moving the middle parts of your teeth - but I’d contend too that I struggle
to nip something by using my whole mouth or by sinking my teeth right into it, so if
the action described isn’t absurd it is at least an action described in an obstructively
and overly pedantic way. I’m not sure the largeness of Alec D’Urberville’s centre-
teeth is all that relevant - to anything, really - or particularly interesting, but if you
can get an interesting response out of Alec D’Urberville’s teeth then all power to
you and curses upon my own lack of imagination. Permit me too to linger a little on
his “whiff or two”. Did I miss something? Has the cigar been lit somewhere in the
DVD extras? Or are they entirely indiscriminate whiffs? Does Hardy measure time
passing in smells? - smells so uninteresting they do not warrant any specificity of
description, or indeed proper counting (“a whiff or two”)? I’ll willingly allow that
the utter inanity of the phrase “brave bouncing girl” can be assigned to something
that we might call ‘character’, or ‘arseholeish behaviour’, which I’ll consider to be
D’Urberville’s own, but I’m straining to do the same with the action of looking


“round upon” someone. Looking round at? Looking upon? One is a precise physical
description, the other - it seems to me - to be endowed with a superciliousness at
work, a quality of looking rather than just the act itself. Both together like this?
Rubbish. Or: rubbish, I think.

He “allowed his lips to smile slowly of themselves”? I mean: come on.

Typing at this keyboard with my fingers I look round upon my notes and I think
for roughly the duration of two or three whiffs about what I might mean by
drawing these together, these - what? (Whiff) Examples? (Whiff, whiff) Anecdotes?
(Whiff) Grievances?

I want to say that everything that is capable of conversation is worthy of

conversation, and I want to believe it, but I worry that professing to hold such a
view is disingenuous because I’m afraid I don’t have the patience required to do
anything much more than waft Hardy or Kitching away without especial comment,
and it’s because I consider their writing so bad. One point here is that conversation
need not be the same as approval (good point). Another is that the badness of a
thing might very well be a very large constituent of any discussion about it (again,
very good). My understanding of literary criticism, and I suppose, without much to
back it up beyond examples anecdotes grievances whiffs, I suppose it is not so much
an understanding as a kind of urge, that urge affirms that the mere possibility of
conversation is key to what we call literature. The Gadabout project, such as it is,
has seemed so far to me to chase after that possibility of conversation as its priority.
So my first conclusion in response to that question was: well, Gadabout includes
bad writing because it contributes to conversation, and conversation is a Good

We’re not done yet, though, because the profession of such smugly boundless
acceptance rests upon a recognition of ‘bad writing’ – by some criterion or other – in
order to make some performance of ignoring that recognition. So I wonder what
that criterion is.

Readers complained to the editorship when I used ‘bad’ words in the 2 issue of

Gadabout. Such a complaint is an important reminder that the formula isn’t so

simple as I made out to myself:

good = conversation = x

I’ll admit myself to have been quite content, for the most part, to find the value of x
to reside in anything that added up to conversation. I’d say I remain so, broadly
speaking. Particular kinds of badness, though, seem to defy that impulse to
conversation. As a very small test case, and I cite it as an example mainly because of
its brevity and its acuteness, the word ‘cunt’ when it appeared in that previous issue
did not lead to a formal response in or around the journal, though correspondence
suggested strongly that people didn’t like it. There’s no reason why it should have
resulted in a formal response, of course, but if it’s a self-indulgence to bandy the
word around again on this occasion it’s to wonder what it was about its badness that
led to negative reaction but not (particularly) conversation.

We can try and venture that a priori ‘cunt’ is a bad word, but we don’t get to
venture much further than that before observing that its badness seems to hang

upon the economy in which it participates. The Oxford English Dictionary cautions
us in these terms:

Its currency is restricted in the manner of other taboo-words

It also cites examples of its use from such canonically endorsed writers as Saul
Bellow, Samuel Beckett, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and John Wilmot the Earl of
Rochester. Indeed Geoffrey Chaucer was getting in on the act in the 1380s,
describing in The Miller’s Tale how a lodger commands the attention of his
landlord’s wife in these blunt terms: “prively he caught hire by the queynte”. This is
a list that’s by-the-by – I’m not pretending that extreme swearing corresponds to
literary talent – and it is not offered as an excuse. ‘If they use it it can’t be that bad.’
No no. Silly argument. The list is interesting, I find, because it begins to measure up
one kind of badness (inherent to it simply being a ‘taboo word’) with another kind
of badness, that of it being used in a way that caused its badness. Indeed the
complaints that I was aware of in relation to my quoting of it in that second issue of
Gadabout lighted on a perception of its use as gratuitous, immature, for its own
sake, merely to shock. That these writers listed above, all variously more or less
endorsed by and included in something like THE ENGLISH LITERARY CANON can all
be cited as writers who published one of the more tasty of ‘taboo-words’ in the
English language, well, it doesn’t prove anything but it gives us some pause for
thought. You as a reader, me as a reader, we don’t have to tolerate the judgements
pronounced by the various self-appointed spokespeople of the CANON, of course,
and we can if we like shrug and say that Saul Bellow deserves as much censure as
anybody else if he plucks C U N and T out of his typewriter. Very very generally
speaking, though, these are writers who have stood up to an extraordinary level of
conversation; very very generally speaking they are writers who tend to have a
certain level of deliberation assumed at work behind their words; very very
generally speaking the effects that are noted of them saying what they say and how
they say it are held to be note-worthy. Their use of the word ‘cunt’ begs some
questions, then: is it possible to take a word which derives so much of its value from
being gratuitous and use it within a literary currency – as being more deliberate
than gratuitous, say, or as offering more effects than just one, that of being offended
and not wanting to talk about it? Our categories of bad writing and good writing
look like they’re not easily fixed, then, not simply a priori, and the relationship
between those two categories looks like it’s a volatile one.

My brood of English literature students pecked away at Rochester’s poem ‘The

Imperfect Enjoyment’ some weeks ago. Consider this from it in particular, where the
speaker-lover describes his own premature ejaculation:

But whilst her busy hand would guide that part

Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o'er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done't:
Her hand, her foot, her very look's a cunt. 5

The enthusiasts present reeled off their reasons as to why this was tremendously
interesting. This challenges conventional love poetry, they said, it was very funny;


look at that excruciatingly contrived rhyme between ‘done’t’ and ‘cunt’, they said,
he knows what he’s doing. Conceptually, another enthusiast pointed out, finding one
body-part a metaphorical vehicle for other, interchangeable body-parts, that, again,
that’s very interesting – her eyes aren’t sapphires or rubies or whatever here, oh no.
This is a kind of anti-poetry. It’s interesting. And that’s good.

Then though one of the quiet ones cleared a throat and said ‘I’m sorry, no’, and
clears throat again, ‘he’s clearly a dickhead.’ Now the fray begins in earnest! And
the argument thrashes backwards and forwards. The enthusiasts affirm that he the
lover-speaker is sending himself up, talking out his own failure with such obvious
bravado, they say (one of them uses the word ‘banter’: cripes), and by so doing, they
say, he prostrates himself at the woman’s feet. The rejoinders fly at that argument,
pointing out that this lover isn’t prostrating himself anywhere – he’s enjoying
turning the woman he describes and does not talk to into a series of synecdoches.
One set of readers construe from the words before them a speaker who collapses
cleverly and modestly out of poetry, and another set of readers construe from the
same words a speaker who makes a piecemeal puppet out of a not-quite-
interlocutor woman.

These two views on the poem, and, if we narrow it in a little, these two views on
the word ‘cunt’ and the way it’s used in this poem in particular, come to be
reconciled on a very simple point: those that say Rochester is being playful and
undermining poetry and doing so so cleverly agree with those who think his poem
is literarily worthless, for both sets of readers agree that the writer knows ‘cunt’ is
supposed to be a bad word and has used it anyway, and it is from this point of
complete agreement that each camp has extruded their very different, very opposed
responses. I didn’t say so at the time – I’d like to say it’s because I didn’t like to
obstruct the conversation they were having but in truth I simply didn’t think of it
until I was writing this – but it’s striking that all the readers in the room that day
squeamishly, prudishly edited themselves out of the intercourse considered before
us. Interlocutors all of us we were considering a relationship between Rochester’s
speaker-lover, the mostly nameless woman (‘Corinna’ in the final line), and
ourselves, but nobody present explicitly based their acclaim or their censure on
what they considered Rochester to be doing with them personally, or to them
personally. A writer who compares some eyes to sapphires takes me with them in a
particular way, I’d say; a way that the writer who compares eyes to a cunt - any cunt
- simply doesn’t. While we quibbled about the power dynamic explored in the story
of Rochester’s speaker-lover and his ‘Corinna’, the conversation was curiously
uninflected by any consideration of the power dynamics exerted by Rochester in
relation to us, each of us a reader, each of us a not-quite-interlocutor.

When I say that there is potentially something of this bad word in each and every
submission to Gadabout I will do everything I can to promise I don’t mean to
denigrate or to reduce or to offend by saying so. When I say that, I hope to explain
that this is not some few thousand other words messing around with a ‘taboo-word’
for the sake of it. When I say that, I hope to argue that every submission to
Gadabout elicits the same questions as the word ‘cunt’ does, and that those
questions differ only, perhaps, in their intensity or urgency: what is that doing
there? Where I really struggle with the question I’m trying to answer – viz. ‘WHAT IS
THE FUNCTION OF THE INCLUSION OF BAD WRITING?’ – is in the double movement
between our editorial acts of including writing and the self-exclusion that seems

attendant to the kind of writing we (or I, certainly) label as ‘bad’. Conversation
might still happen, I think, but it happens about bad-writing, and not with it.

How I tell where one process ends and the other begins I find too difficult for now,
I’m sorry.

Perhaps at end I have been mistaken in figuring the literary game as being akin to
a conversation. Perhaps it does something with conversation, or to it, but stops short
of participating in it; perhaps it alludes to conversation but in so doing bullies it
somewhat, and makes a parody of it. So much of what happens in Gadabout is
exhorted to participate in ‘the conversation’ between pieces, but each new piece
asserts itself as separate and does so with a reference to its hypothetical neighbours,
readers, predecessors and followers (interlocutors all) by presuming to know what
they will say to it. I here a writer presume to know what your response, there a
reader, will be to my words (and the gaps and the marks between them, if you like).
Your response, there, presumes to know what my intentions are, were or might be. I
do not know, quite, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to force a reading one
way or another there, though for what it’s worth I quite like that not quite knowing.
So when I say the following, ringed about by your reading, my writing until now,
your writing still to come, my writing still to come, then it might be that you and I
are thinking different things of these words, or, possibly, we may be thinking the
same thing, and I don’t know whether you’ve made me think that and you don’t
know whether I’ve made you think that. So (I’m afraid without your permission)
with all that in mind, I say now that I think Thomas Hardy is a boring old codger.

But what do I mean?


(Response: James Smoker)

I very much enjoyed reading Mr Burrows (for it is he) dismantle that piece of
Hardy. I'm not a fan myself, but even if I were, having foibles, habits and tics
pointed out is a always a joy. Well, it makes me feel better. It makes me feel like my
own foibles, habits and tics, which obviously loom large in my psyche, are more
justifiable, because even something presented as finished, polished and worthwhile
can have flaws. That's not to say I routinely descend to the depths of cynicism for
the sake of it – I really love Disney films, and It's A Wonderful Life – but
occasionally having badness paraded is soothing.
Or, incendiary. I also very much enjoy shouting at the television when X-Factor is
on. I've progressed from watching it and moaning about how mediocrity is dressed
up with bright lights and choreographed standing ovations, to making a point of
not watching it in order that I can moan about the people who still do and who
themselves moan as I did, the unenlightened fools.
Again, though, I hope what I'm indulging in is something more than “loving to
hate”. I think the episode of Black Mirror when they all had to cycle for chits in their
perma-advertisement dystopia and the girl got herself on the nightmarish porn-
factor show – that one – was doing an expert job of what I do amateurishly, namely,
finding interesting comment about our society through its circuses. The unique
money-making genius of this particular mass distraction is sort of glorious.
Anyway, Gadabout is not glorious. It does, however, provide me with pleasures.
The first is reading stuff that I like that's new – don't think I need to go over that
self-justifying remark. The second is reading stuff that's awful. And again, hopefully
this is not just loving to hate, so-bad-it's-good territory. I THINK (and here in
particular I'm in agreement with Mr Burrows) it offers me an insight into my own
creative struggles via my peers'/co-contributors'.
Presumably, everyone thinks what they're submitting is alright, or else, like
Rochester's cunt, they're hoping to elicit a reaction from its badness. In either case,
the interest lies in the response - like Mr Burrows said, the conversation about rather
than the conversation with. I was more interested in Mr Burrows' students than the
snatch of earl. The beauty of forcing a response is that it forces engagement and
elicits, from the kinder responders, a search for something positive. It can prompt
further creation and connections (and as I said in my response, working out how a
responder has made a connection different from mine is fun to see too). It can help
us work out what we do like and why. It can give some encouragement and indirect
feedback on one's work. And, like the X-Factor, it can offer a prism through which
to ask what the hell we're all doing.
I saw some shitty collage on a student's toilet wall on Thursday including a
graffito proclaiming “There is no such thing as bad art, for every mistake is a new
creation” (someone has already gallerised a turd, haven't they?). And, you know,
Kant said some things about taste and how you couldn't really argue with opinions,
but that there were other criteria for judging art. He came up with some that I
disagree with (I'm not in an “Art is worthwhile” phase at the moment). But in any
case, volition (even misplaced volition) and someone's time are worth wondering at,
even if most of the time we'd rather engage with stuff we like. So Gadabout is a
risky place to come if you just like what you like, but if you're interested in your
own prejudices, tastes, capacity for seeing the best in something, generosity to
fellow writers, and ability to self-criticise, and if you are curious about the act of
response and how others do it, Gadabout's your thang.

As for “Your response, there, presumes to know what my intentions are, were or
might be” - er, have you actually READ any Barthes? You still labour under the
illusion of communication? Sweet, really.

(Ollie Evans)



No# longer# being# much# of# an# enthusiast# for# the# young# person’s# Old# English,# the# journal#
unfolds#thumbprints# over# perspectives.#As#you#may# know# each#contributor,# I#figured#that#
the# work# of# others# can#open#out#on#many# roads#signifying#nothing,# a# hub#in#which#silent#
technical# wizards# submit# nonClinguistic# offerings,# shaping# critical# surfaces# with# a# set# of#
strictures,#an#invitation#to#play#a#private#language#after#each#slow# revolution.#A#number#of#

But# we# apologise# for# having# to# unfold# critical# perspectives,# engage# in# conversation# and#
relate#to#the# familiar.#We# hope#the#creative#practice# of#each#individual# reader# will#become#
a# practical# concern# for# several# people# who# anticipate# the# next# contributor.# The# editors#
truly# ask# for# points# of# exchange,# means# of# communicating# sense# and# meaning,# and#

The#tenants#of#language#living#through#the#tyrannous#reign#of#words#are#puzzling#over# the#
references.# A# community# in# space.# Make# up# their# own# mind.# Our# future# manifesto# of#
translation# in# response# to# willingness# was# intended# to# be# inhibitive.# Fleeting#

These#fresh#ventures#are#prompts#to#fleeting#conversations.#We#are# a#community#of#idiots#
responses# are#malicious#and#casual,#paying#the#reader#to#submit?#All#who#are#involved#are#
living# through# a# semblance# of# order,# a# web# of# signifiers# communicating# the# least#

The# inCjoke# shared,# face# to#face,# is# only# partially# a# waste# of#time.# Since# we# actually# work#
for# a# criterion# of# judgement,# an# invitation# to# play# with# fleeting# acquaintances,# idiots# by#
ourselves,# a# community# of# alien# eyes,# we# risk# becoming# a# collection.# The# editors# of#
Gadabout#Press#are# not#prompts#for# slow#revolution.#We# may#meet#on#one#side#as#well#as#

(Response: Ryan Annett)

After reading this response I am not entirely convinced that my question has been
answered, but I think I understand why it hasn’t answered the question directly.
The response, in the style of a Found Poem, has made me think that gadabout
wouldn’t necessarily benefit from simply, more readers or more writers, but would
benefit from a more active Gadabout community. The editors are portrayed in the
act of herding cats, and yet the cats have the capability and understanding to make
the editors jobs easier. Personally, I know that I have acted catish so far and feel
guilt for making other peoples jobs harder.
Another thing that I hadn’t considered before reading this response was the effect of
the gadabout community on potential joiners. Does our intimate knowledge of most
of the other members prevent new people from joining? Perhaps we are a tribe
among ourselves and some potential members do not speak our language or know
our customs. Perhaps it is our responsibility as Gadabout members to be pro-active
in welcoming others to our community, to teach them how to dance our dance. But
does our intimate knowledge of other members not only affect potential joiners but
also the active members? Do we use this medium as an opportunity to look down
our noses at other people, to get one over on an old friend, or are we simply too
polite to be honest in our feedback, too gentle to be critical when they need it most?
I think I may fit into the last category because I am afraid of hurting someone’s
feelings. But maybe the reader’s experience isn’t about the feedback itself. Maybe it
is about the act of giving feedback and learning to analyse and question everything
and then come up with our own conclusions. There is no wrong answer, only moves
and countermoves and yet we owe it to the writers to respond, and for their sake the
focus of our response shouldn’t be on how someone looks at something, but what
they are looking at. “Thumbprints over perspectives”.

(James Smoker)

q. What is the focus of this journal and where are its boundaries?

focus of this
journal is response.
It brings together otherwise
disparate writers and unites them
in a community which forces the appraisal
of and engagement with others in the same boat –
HMS Pissing In The Wind – creating readership where
there was none. I've found that the spirit of contribution reflects
the spirit of response, and this affects the focus: bestow, and no one will
care; publish, and you will be as much read as you read; share, and you will generate
nuggets of curiosity that radiate. This affects WHAT IS THE how focussed the journal is: a sharp image
with a small sphere, a double FOCUS OF THIS JOURNAL AND WHAT ARE feature that initiates dialogue
or a blurred cloud that overlaps and prompts ITS BOUNDARIES? and teases. I like fuzziness best, because
it establishes no boundaries, and permits the fullest imaginative response. It frees the
responder to take flights of fancy, make connections, and reflect upon the
act of response. Gadabouters form a union: their focus is the journal's
focus, their boundaries its boundaries. Its editors are prompters
rather than filters; the agendaless allow play, and the
agendaful amplify contributors who strain against
constraints. This is a journal not about writers
writing, but about watching watchers watch,
reading readers read, and the infinite loop
of self-reflexivity which knows no
bounds but is contained
in a single

Have fun.

(Response: Jaspreet Singh Boparai)

My dear Scott,

This response to my question is so rich and subtle that my only publishable

reaction is to exhort all readers to spend at least an hour with it, and then spend
another hour or two in silence meditating upon it, before getting wasted with
somebody else who's done the same. I am satisfied with this answer, for now....

Yours ever,

When you write for Gadabout, is it of any concern that some of the people
reading your work might be Very Clever?

In truth- yes. It bothers me both that ‘Very Clever’ people are reading my work, and
that ‘Very Clever’ people are submitting work that will be presented next to mine.

When things are of concern it is usually because they are not familiar, rather than
being a true issue for concern, however this creates an issue in and of itself. In this
case, part of the problem relates to not having a good understanding of what
Gadabout Press is and whom it is for. The other issue is that we know some of our
readership and who they are influences what we write.

In other communities that we are used to, such as in schools, universities, sporting
teams and businesses, people are asked to do work that is compared to their equals.
Usually, people know who performs better at various tasks and those who are listed
in a lower grade, team, etc are not expected to perform at the same level as those
above them. These levels are sometimes specific to age and it is assumed that by a
certain age one should be able to do certain basic skills such as crawling and then
walking or numeracy and literacy skills. There is of course always a degree of
mixing and people who out perform their level are praised and those below it are
guided to develop their skills. This framework makes people feel comfortable and
when people say ‘push the boundaries’ or ‘strive for the highest’, they really mean
to aim for the next level up, not to try and be as good as the teacher by next lesson.
The comfort comes from the fact that by putting in a concerted effort into a
particular task the outcome will never be far from the others who have been asked
to do the same thing. By being either amazingly good or terribly bad at something
one becomes an outlier, and the fear of this can be daunting.

A mixed environment that many of our Gadaboutists will be familiar with is a

subject specific conference. In this case, people of all ages and levels of expertise
present work side-by-side, unlike the scenarios mentioned above. As a young
scientist myself, I have presented work when ‘really clever’ people were in the
audience and these ‘really clever’ people also presented after me. But in this
situation there was a community to explain why our works had to be juxtaposed
and why the clever people were listening. Despite the content of my presentation
being of lesser significance, my work did form an important link in the chain and
even the very clever people needed to hear what I had to say. The other scientists in
the same field presented in the same session as well so that overall it formed was a
coherent collection of works. I was also aware that my ‘very clever’ audience would
not ask a question that was outside my expertise, as this would not benefit anyone.
By presenting more often in this environment one becomes accustomed to how a
conference is run and what the expectations are. One also finds out just how ‘clever’
the audience really is. All of this familiarity with the framework and the community
helps to minimise the ‘clever people’ fear.

The Gadabout Community is filled with a variety of ages (20 – 92) and definitely a
wide range of expertise. Some of our Gadaboutists will probably say that they do
not have a field of expertise or that their relative age means that they are ‘too
inexperienced’ to participate. The problem here is that everyone can look to the
Gadabout Community and rightly say that there is a ‘big fish’ in every field they can
think of. This is a very positive thing as we have a talented and intelligent

readership, however in terms of someone wanting to submit a work it can be
terrifying. Gadaboutists are not grouped into classes or age groups, rather each
month for ‘Out of the Box’ or quarterly for the Journal people are invited to ‘step up’
in whatever way they wish to and contribute.

By asking people to submit to Gadabout we are asking for them to know that their
work would benefit those who read it. If one submits a poem because they liked it,
they can assume that others might like it too. The same goes for interest in an article,
passion for art or fascination in science. There is an implicit want from all the
Gadabout readers to have a variety of unique and stimulating submissions (I
assume that is why everyone signed up). But people do not ask specifically for your
work and it is not like in kindergarten where all work will be praised and put on the
fridge. It is also not easy to know how to express oneself when another Gadaboutist
who will read the work could probably present either the form or the content in a
more eloquent way. This mixing of age and talent has unfortunately deterred many
people from submitting, however it is also what makes the journal unique. The
journal is not about having a few ‘clever Gadaboutists’ to write for the masses. The
Gadaboutits are already the few, and the expectation is that everyone contributes.
By looking over the submissions that have been sent in over the last year, no one is
at the top or at the bottom. The works truly are brilliant. This idea of total inclusion
is comforting in a similar way to having class groups, but it is still very different
from usual social situations as there is not a group lower that you to make you feel
like your work is impressive.

To compare the Journal to a conference again, the conference network is much

stronger and is worked on during the year outside of the conference time. Everyone
will be in-touch with updates on progress in small groups before coming together in
a larger more significant forum. This means that there is a degree of familiarity with
the standard at which others are performing. Apart from reading the Journal, there
is a limited interaction between those who submit for Gadabout. This leads to
speculation over how clever the readership is, and what their expectations might be.
The Gadabout Performance Night was a great success in this regard as it allowed
people to see and understand what others were working on. It allowed people to
realize that most works were just works in progress or ideas worth discussing, and
that these ideas should be expressed more forwardly in the Journal. Whilst there is
obviously a certain standard that the Journal has maintained, this standard is not
there to rule out works that seem hard to polish-off or ideas that are still being
thought over.

After thinking about how ‘the clever people’ have affected my own (not sent)
contributions to Gadabout, I have come up with some points that might help our
fellow Gadaboutist to be more willing to submit next time they put pen to paper.

• Should people just overcome their fears and submit?

• Would it change anything if some submissions were only up for a day and
then taken down again: similar to SnapChat? This would allow for good
ideas that people were not willing to ‘publish’.
• What if everyone who is bothered by the ‘very smart’ people could benefit by
their readership? What if the ‘response’ to the work was face-to-face so you
could have an actual meaningful discussion about the work with people you
(Ali Graham)

(Response: Nikki Moss)

• Should people just overcome their fears and submit?

The people who are genuinely afraid of submitting to Gadabout, because of this specific
concern, are possibly not the kind of people who would be able to overcome their fears
without some kind of enabling catalyst, one that assuages the feelings of apprehension just
enough for them to submit something. [Or one that replaces the fear of submitting with an
even greater fear that arises from not submitting, which is perhaps less in keeping with the
general Gadabout ethos.] That said, your response to the question of the
CleverPeoplePanicBonanza might be the catalyst needed for that to happen, both in its
logical exploration of the issue, and in the fact that the issue is being discussed at all.
• Would it change anything if some submissions were only up for a day and
then taken down again: similar to SnapChat? This would allow for good
ideas that people were not willing to ‘publish’.

Yes, it would change things but I don’t know whether those changes would make things
easier or harder for people. It would probably be better suited for some and worse for others.
Try it?
• What if everyone who is bothered by the ‘very smart’ people could benefit by
their readership? What if the ‘response’ to the work was face-to-face so you
could have an actual meaningful discussion about the work with people you

If a person submits a piece of work that is then read by a host of people, some of whom might
be better informed on whatever has been written about, or who are just extremely intelligent,
the writer, not knowing who is reading their work, remains unaffected after it has been
published, unless the readers choose to respond in some way. So I suppose the benefit for
anyone bothered by the very smart people would depend on those people actively engaging in
the response. Having said that, I do feel that a positive knock on effect can occur in the
writing stage, where the prospect of the people who might read your work influences the
quality of what you write, hopefully you will write to a higher standard because you are, in
some way, being challenged, even if it’s only by an imagined collective of looming
VeryClevers. Though this can work the opposite way, and the collective, real or imaginary,
can stop you writing, or submitting, at all.
The VeryClevers might well be imagined, and if they are this might be a problem, in that
perhaps we are worrying about people reading our work who do not exist. Not because they
are not extremely intelligent, but because we forget that this intelligence is accompanied by a
desire to share knowledge, a kindness, openness, and a willingness to engage with others.
I would like this to be true. I don’t think it always is. I do think that the VeryClevers people
imagine are probably worse than they really are, and that the extent of this depends on
whether they are VeryClevers we greatly respect, or VeryClevers that we are afraid of, and
the latter are a very particular kind of demon.

As to a face to face response, again I think the appeal of this hugely depends on the person.
For me the prospect is unwelcome, for someone else it might be a relief. Thinking of
Gadabout as a whole, however, a face to face response excludes the rest of the readership from
being able to observe and engage with the response, though with some thought this could
probably be remedied, perhaps by taking minutes, or filming, or the incorporation of one way

(Becky Varley-Winter)

What place does the personal pronoun have in critical responses to work in

“You use the word I too much”. It was the first year of my English degree; I was
being too personal in my essays. I said something like: well, this essay is about what
I think, not what ‘one’ or ‘we’ or ‘the reader’ thinks. Isn’t ‘I’ more honest?
“It’s a bit Alice-in-Wonderland”, my supervisor said.
Alice, wandering through wonderland, never seems vulnerable to the many strange
and unfamiliar things that are happening to her, because her point of view is so
prim and unflappable and self-enclosed; she stays basically self-assured through the
whole adventure, even when her body is swelling and shrinking. She might get
indignant or confused, but she never loses herself. The author Elizabeth Bowen
wrote that in Alice In Wonderland, nothing can ever really happen to Alice.
Responses to the work of others are always to some extent personal. But my
supervisor wasn’t wrong; to write in a critical way it seems necessary to pretend this
isn’t the case, to stop using ‘I’ so much. I tried switching to a more artificially-
inclusive ‘we’, which didn’t really resolve the awkwardness, but seemed better than
a stilted ‘one’ or ‘the reader’. Criticism should try to go beyond ‘I’, even if it can’t
fully succeed.
However (I think), critics who pretend their responses are absolute, the only
response, universal rather than personal, go against the whole spirit of reading (or
listening, or looking) and critiquing. It’s all about you, but also it’s really not. You’re
looking at something that someone else has made. Conversely, if you write anything
creatively, your readers will see more in it – and sometimes less – than you meant to
say. The work might speak to you in ways you didn’t anticipate. Launch something
into the dark and hope it makes an impact somewhere.
Malcolm Bowie acknowledges the disconnect between critical language and
the personal in Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult:

If we begin our critical explorations with the chaste assumption that

works of art are ‘well-wrought urns’, that they are self-bounded worlds
in which all tensions are internally resolved and all pains internally
soothed and that the personality of their creator (if he has a personality)
is irrelevant to them, we shall of course find exactly these things to be the
case. But our experience as readers, spectators or listeners may be
completely different; we may be moved by works of art in ways that our
official critical procedures make no allowance for: we may be haunted by
a single chromaticism in a Mozart quartet, […] This is the sort of thing
that analysis can do little to preserve or to imitate, but that has too
intimate a place in these works to be left unspoken in criticism.

Recognising the extent to which our responses to a piece of work are shaped by ‘I’ –
and possibly limited by it – is part of recognising the work’s qualities in a more
complete way. You might see or read something and think, viscerally, “I hate this.”
Why? Can you see anything in it beyond your hatred of it? Could you look at it
more than one way? You might still hate it, but you will have thought about it more
For example, this piece by Sarah Miller on hating poetry (but kind of loving
it, too). As an English student, she felt outcast by her dislike of poetry. Her
responses to the poems she had to read were completely personal: ‘I don’t care how

good it is, I didn’t like it.’ In her visceral likes and dislikes, and her confusion about
what it was all for, she was responding to poetry more honestly than a student who
pretends to understand all of it, instantly. But she was also limited, at first, by only
identifying in this very personal way. The first poet she really liked was Sylvia
Plath, ‘because I knew about her life and you never had to wonder what was going
on: you read and said to yourself, these are all about a person who wants to die.’
Well yes, maybe, but Sylvia Plath’s poems might be about more than that. I read
Virginia Woolf for the first time knowing only that she suffered from depression,
and was surprised by how much happiness there is in her books. I had expected her
illness to define everything about her work. It didn’t.
However, I’m struck by the value of the personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’, of
speaking very personally, in (spoiler alert) this review of the film Gravity. It suggests
that to connect with the film you have to have had a very particular, very personal
experience. Some works appear written to speak to some people more than others,
almost behind the rest of the audience’s backs. Loss, especially, cries out for
personal recognition: “you don’t understand, it was this person who died, this
particular person, this is my grief”. Works that deal with death might then be seized
on as comforting, even if they don’t fully reflect your experience.
Personal pronouns (I, you, he, she) inevitably have a place in all kinds of
response, even if they aren’t openly voiced; it is only in recognising the boundary
between I and you, he, she, that we start to respond to anything very well, as Iris
Murdoch wrote about love (‘love is the extremely difficult realisation that
something other than oneself is real’). I have gone back to using ‘I’, sometimes, in
critical writing. But I try to use it more carefully.

(Response: Lizzi Mills) Going ‘beyond “I”’

I think that this is a lovely, thoughtful response to a question which - as the writer
intimates - was partially about Gadabout and partially about literary critical activity
more generally.

The suggestion that the success of a reading depends in part upon the reader’s
ability to recognise the boundaries between self and other seems to me to be helpful.
The writer appears--as I also find myself--torn between what they know is valued in
academic writing, and a sense that there is a problem with the logic of the academy:
‘To write in a critical way it seems necessary to pretend [it] isn’t the case [...that]
responses to the work of others are always to some extent personal.’ ‘Criticism
should try to go beyond “I”, even if it can’t fully succeed’. I recognise the
compulsion to sound grown-up, like a ‘real’ critic or academic, though getting rid of
the personal pronouns doesn’t necessarily contribute a sense of maturity to a piece
of writing. Then there’s the fact that, in an effort to construct a powerful argument,
it is tempting to claim to speak not as an individual but as some kind of universal,
ideal-everywoman-reader--which is where that clumsily coercive ‘we’ comes in, so
characteristic of much undergraduate and graduate writing. On top of those
considerations, as the original writer points out, supervisors want us to ‘go beyond
“I”’. But I’m not convinced that either I or they would be able to determine precisely
why they feel the need to make such a demand. ‘“It’s a bit Alice-in-Wonderland”’
seems like an extremely dubious cop-out, notwithstanding the very good sense the
writer here manages to make of it. As Malcolm Bowie puts it in the respondent’s
highly pertinent quotation, ‘our official critical procedures make no allowance for’
our more personal experiences of art, though these experiences have ‘too intimate a
place’ in the works of art themselves ‘to be left unspoken in criticism’.

I’m afraid that I think that the only way in which the original writer’s supervisor
‘wasn’t wrong’ to demand a less ‘personal’ approach to undergraduate essay
writing is that that is the convention of the industry into which an English degree
might be supposed to be initiating the student. I’ve just checked and the word “I”
(apart from where it appears in quotations) makes up just five of the nearly 20,000
words in my MA thesis; without exception these are ‘summary’ sentences
establishing or drawing together my argument. So it seems that while I agree that
personal pronouns have a place (is that the same as saying they are present?) in
every piece of critical work, ‘even if they aren’t openly voiced’, I appear to be pretty
adept at suppressing them. But Gadabout is not a graduate essay, and perhaps this is
what my question was hinting at. The rather special thing about Gadabout is that, by
making us flex our critical muscles on each other’s writing, it works to expose the
dishonest practices of ‘ordinary’ academic criticism--especially the tendency to hide
behind a fallacious ‘universal’ reader. The pieces and responses which I like best are
those which contribute to a sense that Gadabout is a genuine community, as well as
an online journal. Making it personal, refusing to succumb to the faux-objectivity of
a critical voice, enables us to acknowledge the extent to which, unlike Alice,
something really does happen to us when we read, and that our responses are
shaped, and limited, by our own perspectives--something we are unlikely to
recognise in a more formal academic context.

It’s probably wishful thinking to imagine that somehow, someday, this might
encourage a little more honesty in the critical habits and procedures of the academic
world--that career-progressing journal articles might more often also feel like

authentic responses to literary artefacts. That tantalising thought aside, though, I
think it’s worth pausing to reflect on and to celebrate the opportunities that
Gadabout affords to resist those ‘official critical procedures’ and to be human in our
responses to art.


You might also like