Article 11: Music Please

Here’s another one of my old articles. You can see it’s old because I was still having to do other work to support myself. As I recollect this caused much annoyance in certain circles…
Music Please. I have a friend who is in the music business just as I am in the writing business i.e. we’re contenders, but we both have to work for a living. In the winter we work together and much of our time is spent discussing our respective arts while sipping coffee and staring out of a truck window at the rain. When we each manage an ego bybass we agree that our pursuits and our attitudes are similar in many respects. Perhaps it is that Essex boy approach to the art world in that when you can bank it, it’s worth something. My friend likes music that is clean, distinct, and not amenable to obfuscation. I listened to him play A Whiter Shade of Pale on the alto sax and understood what he meant. He does not like bad jazz. Many musicians claim to play jazz because it gives them ‘freedom of expression, man’. The truth is that they play it because it gives them freedom from discipline; from the necessity of getting it right. And thus, by a round about route, we come to the plotless writing that you often find under the slipstream label. This writing is easy to spot. The protagonist usually spends most of his time wandering round an urban landscape pursuing a dysfunctional sex life while some vaguely weird things happen, just, happen. The piece you will read – I shall not call it a story – starts, runs for a few pages, then stops. There is no real beginning, middle, or end. It is authorial masturbation that leaves the reader thinking, ‘Well, what about me?’. Raymond Chandler said that when he felt a story was flagging he’d walk in a man with a gun. In slipstream the man remains on the other side of the door, nothing is resolved, and the reader wonders if there ever was anything to resolve. I get a lump of frustration developing in my stomach when I find myself reading one of these pieces and it slowly dawning on me that it is not going to have an ending, that the characters will not have changed and their squalid existence will just … continue. Why, then, is this stuff published? If you listen to a piece of badly played modern jazz you will, if you have any sensibilities, wonder where the melody is. You’ll wonder why you’re listening to this disjointed annoying racket when the guy on the stool next to you will say, “Wow, … scale!” and you’ll nod your head knowingly and reply, “Yeah … man.” We all hate to appear ignorant. It is this hatred of ignorance that allows such idiocies as a soiled bed in the Tate gallery. It is the very same that allows the above described rubbish to appear under the slipstream label. People will remain silent about it because they are frightened of admitting that they haven’t got the point. There is no point. And those guilty of perpetrating it, writers and publishers, are very often those who get a bit too arty for their own good, and are cringing at the prospect of being accused of something so demeaning as science fiction. My goodness. You are a story teller are you? If such you are then put yourself in front of an audience and tell your story. If, when you have finished, your story requires justification then it was not a story. A story completes. What you read was very likely slipstream. I am not saying you should not write this stuff. It is one of the better methods of beating the block and freeing up the creative faculties. Sometimes you’ll end up with a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph, that you can use in a real story. Ends.

4 thoughts on “Article 11: Music Please

  1. That's an interesting perspective on slipstream. I'd always rationalised it as the stuff publishers and booksellers didn't quite know how to pigeonhole; I never thought anyone actually set out to write it.

    I've always found your attitude to writing interesting. You seem to regard it as a job, the way you've regarded all your other jobs, rather than as a calling, and you have little time for poncey arty-fartyness like writer's block. There's a refreshing straightforwardness about that that I like, which I guess is one of the reasons I stopped here long enough to start pestering you in the first place. That and the global warming.

    Having said that, your description of stories which don't have `endings' could describe about seventy percent of my stuff. Personally, I think there's room for both approaches. Although the comparison to modern jazz, which I really don't like, has given me pause. It's a good analogy. It hasn't given me a Road to Damascus moment, but it's made me stop and think.

  2. I guess it all comes back to my view that yeah, maybe someone can produce wonderful prose, be dangerous and political, critically acclaimed, whatever, but in the end 'story' is most important. This is backed up by publisher attitudes and sales. Story tellers sell; arty-fartists might sell once or twice due to literarty acclaim until general readers see through the bullshit. Then they seem to shuffle off in haze of bitterness because the publisher isn't advertising them enough, people don't understand and booksellers are all bastards. It's pathetic.

  3. how does the genius of Anthony Braxton and the complications of Ornette Coleman compositions fit into this simplified box you've built for jazz? jazz is like a conversation, when a group is listening to each other it's great. when they have a plan like Braxton and Coleman knock out it's amazing. when one person is just jamming on their own it can be good or shit. like a writer. you're good or you're not, to your audience or yourself. set the mirror on stage when the last customer walks out.

    thus, one step later, a drum teacher who plays with John Zorn a lot turned me onto this:

    note the Cage look a like.

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