Sitting Comfortably Round the Virtual Campfire?

Welcome to Year Zero Writers. 

I’m Dan. I’m the one who blogs all over the place about the future of publishing like the long lost love child of Wittgenstein, Cassandra and the authors formerly known as Homer. Bear with me. The medication takes time to work.


Just so you know, all my posts here are Creative Commons. You can reproduce them and do what the hell you like with them except make money and forget to tell people I wrote them. If you want me to come over and take part in any debates on your blog, just holler. I’m listening most of the time. Or maybe that’s just the voices.


When I started writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, one of my favourite authors, Patti DeLois, told me what I was doing was like creating a virtual campfire. I liked the phrase. And I’ve been thinking about what it means ever since. This ramble about What.Year.Zero.Means.To.Me. is a result of those musings.


Two years ago I spent a week in Marrakech. It’s not only a magical place in its own right. It’s hugely important in the world of storytelling. At the heart of the city is the Djemma el Fnaa, a giant square leading into the labyrinthine souks where you can sample everything from sheep’s head to snake charming. But at the heart of its heart, as the sun crawls down the sky and the fires light to warm against the cold desert nights, are the storytellers. True, most of what they rehash are third hand versions of popular legends, but this place is significant because it’s the only place in the world recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for something intangible – its oral storytelling.


So whilst global groups campaign to save the whale, the tiger, the ozone layer, or the rainforest, we have allowed one of the most important aspects of human life to come within an ace of extinction.


How? Because, in part, of the book. And the industry built on its fragile spine. When words were put on the page, and then set in type, and bound between covers, something happened to the story. It got “fixed” – like a pastel drawing, or a photograph. And as more and more stories got fixed, and faithfully reproduced in edition on edition, our attitude towards them changed. We saw “books” as precious. We saw the form of words they contained as sacrosanct. We forgot that a book, that words themselves, are no more or less than vehicles for stories – the most basic means communities have of sharing amongst themselves, of thinking about and deciding upon their values, of expressing themselves, of uniting, of understanding and combating their fears.


Don’t get me wrong. I love books. But I love books because I love stories. I love stories because they speak to me. But many of the stories I find in books don’t speak to me. They’re written by people unlike me about situations unlike mine. And when I have a question, they refuse to answer.


Year Zero Writers produce books. But we are, first and foremost, storytellers. This site is the square at the entrance to the labyrinthine souks of our weird subconsciouses. For me, a story isn’t fixed on the page. It breathes, as the person who wrote it, and the person who reads it, breathe. I DO believe there are storytellers, and people who listen and question. Culture isn’t a free-for-all. It’s a conversation. And the stories that emerge are the product of that conversation – articulations of answers to questions, attempts to convey the choices people face and the decisions they might make, efforts to deepen understanding, to ward off fear, to overcome prejudice, to reflect the reader back, but in a way that’s somehow transformed and that offers not new knowledge but greater self-knowledge.


Pick up your plateful of dinner. Imagine the sun setting over the sand, and pull your clothes tight around you. Let your face feel the gentle heat of the fire. Come with your questions, sense the security of the hands of others holding yours, and enter the cold desert night with us. It WILL be morning. The sun WILL rise, and you WILL leave. Different from how you came. You can cry. You can scream. You can reach down into yourself, take out your heart and lay it bare. It’s OK. It’s dark here, and no one can see your face save in the deep, cavernous shadows cast by the fire. Whatever you left outside can’t get in. You’re safe. You could be a fuck-up or a freakshow, we don’t care. As long as you’re here you’re one of us.


Now that you’re sitting comfortably, shall we begin?

~ by yearzerowriters on October 11, 2009.

54 Responses to “Sitting Comfortably Round the Virtual Campfire?”

  1. Well said! And may I add something? Stories should answer, convey, deepen, ward off, overcome, reflect, and transform. They should also entertain. I always loved when our family would get together after dinner with neighbors and each would take turns telling a story about something or other in their lives.

    We would embellish…a bit … but we made each other laugh with them, whenever possible. Of course, sometimes we cried.

    So even if the stories told, or the stories read, depict details that may be different for each of us, it’s all about the emotional connection that is made.

    Which is what you already have said her. Though better 😉

    Congratulations on your virtual campfire.

    • That’s exactly it. One of the things I’d like to see more of is storytelling within families and neighbourhoods (I’ve come across some wonderful community projects this year). The reality for many people – especially in their teens, 20s and 30s, is that the Internet is our new family and neighbourhood. It needs places to come and listen to stories and ask questions in that neighbourhood

  2. Dan, without being rarified about it, what place for ‘story’ in consumerist, disposable societies in the West like our own? Societies largely cut off from their founding myths under the welter of shifting market landscapes. What stories we may have are likely to be far more fractured narratives. Fleeting, impressionistic, before the ground dissolves from under our feet in the relentless movement for movement sakes.

    We still retain language, possibly disconnected from telling stories (and well worth investigating for all that). But have we moved beyond language trying to reconnect us to the story narrative?

    What function does the story have for jaded, possibly cynical mental palates here in the West, where everything is concerned with surface and presentation, rather than slow build and depth.

  3. Sulci, I don’t think we’ve moved beyond language at all. I caused a lot of bruhaha when I blogged that teh reason celeb bios are so popular is taht they’re about the only books written by people who started life as normal, working class types. People thought I was saying long live celeb bios, which I wasn’t. I was making the point that one reason people don’t read books is that no one publishes books by members of vast swathes of society – and that maybe the publishing industry had some soul-searching to do. I think stories are as popular and important as ever – I just think we don’t find them in the same old places.

    MY vision for Year Zero (general disclaimer – all our opinions are ours, not the group’s) is to be a light for the moths and goths and geeks and freaks to gather round, a hidden space to bring our stories into the open. A place to share and scare, and care, and lay our fucked-up lives bear.

  4. We swap language every day. We have conversations etc. We do swap anecdotes too of course, what happened to us at work, who we bumped into on the train etc.

    But I guess I’m asking can you offer up language (in literature) that isn’t also offering up story as such? It’s offering up instead a voice, one that seduces the reader into wanting to get to know them. Without necessarily relating a story. Akin more to holding a conversation with the reader, even if it isn’t talking about the everyday what happened at work, who you saw on the train. A seductive voice that is more like an impressionistic painting than say a portrait or landscape painting?

  5. Yes. 100% yes. In fact, if you turn to the back of your pristine copy of Songs, you’ll find a paper I gave that has a section on just that – in the contextof modernism, a subject dear to your heart.

  6. Can I throw a few oddly shaped potatoes on the fire?

    1) It seems to me classic story telling is as popular as ever. Hollywood reworks classic myths of the hero’s journey, and good winning out over evil again and again. And we haven’t stopped telling each other stories on TV, in songs in the pub. And, of course, online.

    2) In fact now, more than ever, it seems that there is a need for classically structured stories. A few decades ago there seemed to be much more acceptance/demand for fractured narratives, anti-narratives and anti-heroes. Maybe you push a story too far and it ceases to be a story. (Parallels, of course, or melody in music and representation in fine art)

    3)There seems to be an assumption that traditional story-telling is always something positive. It could be argued that many classic tales are inherently conservative, designed to encourage harmony and quell dissent in fractured societies.

    4)Nor do I accept the implicit notion that story telling has become less democratic. Myths were once about gods, then kings and queens, then the upper classes. Now we readily make stories about junkies and down and outs. Historically there have always been professional story tellers – most of us have sat and listened or repeated the tales heard before.

    • 3 is a very good point, Roland. That sounds rude, as though 1,2, and 4 aren’t but I really liek 3. There’s a tipping point, I think, with narratives. Stories and founding myths can be a ralying point for revolution, but they can almost in an instant turn into instruments of oppression from being tools of liberation. My hunch is that this happens when they stop being talked about and debated and become accepted,and then promulgated.

      On 1 and 2. I tell classically structured stories (although I wish I didn’t most of the time as you know). So does Larry. Oli and Marc tell, well, goodness knows what other than it’s brilliant. I think – and this is where I like what Marc does – I’m really interested in HOW we tell stories. Because I think that’s the key to keeping them fresh. Repetition is dangerous, unless it’s subversive (like mcQueen’s Deadpan film). Repetition dulls our minds. Discussion keeps them agile (I think that goes with the first para)

      4. Agree kind of. I think people tell stories in all kinds of ways and places. What concerns me is hoe those stories are heard. You all know my mantra “the books we publish are the voice with which we choose to speak to history” – it worries me that the books given a mainstream voice come from a limited number of places. I don’t have any chips on my shoulder about publishing (I’d have long since eaten them). I just want to create somewhere we can tell OUR stories, and see if peopel want to gather round the fire, because I don’t think there’s aplace in the mainstream for all of us to tell those stories in the way we want to. Whcih is very different form teh very real political issues I have with the global social exclusion I perceiev in the culture industry. I’ll post plenty on that when I know people will know it’s my opinion, not that of the whole collective.

  7. This is the magic of a work in progress! Ah, the crazy drafts and myriad versions of one character and scene. We should stop finishing our work, or pull a D.H. Lawrence and publish each draft of the novel.

  8. Dan, that’s a beautiful post (and, as an aside, I’ve long hankered after a trip to Marrakech… the picture you paint makes that longing even greater!).

    Congrats for all you’re doing – it’s a noble movement. Though I have no idea how you find time to actually write fiction and can only assume you have uncovered the secrets of time travel and are keeping them to yourself.

    Re oral storytelling – it’s fascinating how into this children are… all of them… I’ve never met a kid yet who didn’t like to sit and listen to a real person tell a story without reading it out. It’s in us all, I suspect, as adults too and yet our modern life isn’t set up to accommodate it… time, relaxation… we’re always on the go. Perhaps that’s what we reach for with television but it’s a poor substitute for the camp fire scenario.

    Maybe we need a Campfire Movement – dedicated solely to bringing back the art of sitting in groups and listening to an animated tale told by one who remembers, rather than has to read from the page..??

    • Sandie, Marrakech is extraordinary – the sheer weight of people, and noise, and smell and sound – and then you drive for 2 minutes into the desert…

      I think you’re right. Somewhere during our childhood we learn that listening is uncool. But it’s never really knocked out of us. It’s always there. I wonder if lots of people are afraid to read aloud to their peers, and that’s why people stop listening.

      I love reading aloud – it’s why I’m so keen on making my booksignings mostly readings and music (and wine – after all, the book’s set on a vineyard). I love the sound of campfire groups – the place you DO see it is at festivals – late at night people huddle round and listen. And poetry slams, or raps – there’s a whole host of peripheral areas it happens infact. I think the book-buying and writing public just can’t see a whole lot of what’s happening – I think that’s part of what I meant with my Autho post about learning from dogging – we need to start embracing what’s on the margins, and claiming that territory for ourselves. I’d like to DO something about this suggestion.

    • I second Dan’s recommendation of Marrakech, Sandie – and also the town of Taroudant, to the south, in the foothills of the Atlas. Great hotel there, if you’re ever touring in Morocco – a former Pasha’s palace built into the city wall. Palais Salam Hotel. Discover the secret of time travel by going there.

      • Hi! Who’s that? 🙂

        We drove through Taroudant on the way to Ouarzazate – once you start getting to the Atlas foothills it’s utterly breathtaking.

  9. Dan, the voices never go away when you’re a writer.:-)They whisper to you even in your sleep. Tonight I was watching ‘House’ and this phrase came into my head. I had to reach for a pencil to write it down because it wouldn’t go away until it was recorded somewhere.

    Campfires are great. I’m glad you started one. I shall go shopping for some marshmallows to roast by the fire.
    Hang on…

    • “They whisper to you even in your sleep”. They certainly do. Maybe the title of your story in Brief Objects is no accident.

      Looking forward to the marshmallows. They’ll make a prefect afters for Roland’s potatoes.

  10. I’m sure you’re familiar with the rather wonderful Joe Strummer movie The Future Is Unwritten. Sitting round the campfire (literally) was his thing. And I’m sure people are doing it now, somewhere, in his memory.

    Dan you said “it worries me that the books given a mainstream voice come from a limited number of places… I don’t think there’s a place in the mainstream for all of us to tell those stories in the way we want to’. I agree, but I would say getting published (in conventional terms) is not more difficult now than it used to be (quite the opposite), it’s just that many more of us now want to do it. And as for the ‘mainstream’ , well fuck the mainstream. Unless you’ve got something that’s got that something that will touch a wide audience (no value judgement there – we probably all enjoy a healthy mix of the widely popular and seriously obscure). Maybe the novel isn’t my form anyway – and if it isn’t, there’s plenty of other ways to let the voices out.

  11. I don’t think it;’s harder now than ever, no. Like you I think there is a perception but I don’t think it IS. My point about the voices that get published is, as I say, not directly connected to what we’re doing here. It’s connected to the points I made in my Aggie blog (from pitch to perpetuation of privilege) about theinstitutional barriers that mainstream publishing has because of what it looks for and, as much as anything, the processes it uses. I argued there that teh pitch letter, for example, is the equivalent of teh university entrance exam in that it SEEMS egalitarian, but there’s a hidden bias against those who have no way of accessing help polishing a pitch letter or even knowing what one is.

  12. Sure, Dan. There is little that is egalitarian about our society and you and I aren’t going to do much to change that. I don’t think the publishing industry (and let’s not forget it is an industry, like it or not) is worse in that respect than others. If you have a product to sell you have to market it to whoever is going to sell it, and they will only sell it if they think they can make money out of it – and if you and I were agents and publishers, unless we had private incomes or subsidy, we would think in the same way. No it’s not ‘fair’ – but what is in our society? YouTube?

    So I think we all have a choice – we chose to engage in the industry, or we chose to be artists. Unlike other art forms there is no the equivalent of a gallery system for those who consider writing-as-art and very little subsidy (why? I don’t know. Perhaps historically writing has been considered very cheap – all you need is a paper and a pen! – so not worthy of subsidy!). If you think of yourself primarily as an artist, I don’t think you can blame the industry for not finding you a commercial proposition.

    Of course most of us try to find a niche between those two poles. And maybe now those niches are more possible than ever. Sure, there are lots of books that were published 20 years ago which wouldn’t get published today, but also in those days publishers hardly bothered to promote much of their catalogue, so you might get published but sell many less copies than you would today doing itself via Lulu.

    Interestingly enough, the public funding that does go into literature does concentrate on giving access to voices that otherwise would not be heard. And so it should!

  13. I agree on public funding – that IS good in where it’s directed. I think – and this isn’t aimed at you or anyone in particular – writers sometimes think I’m talking about the UK publishing industry, or maybe the “wetsern” publishing industry because that’s their horizon. And I AM to the extent that there is exclusion of great big groups in the inner cities, in the rural communities etc – and I think it’s bad business to boot – as I said I think the market seems not to be there because it currently has no mainstream published voices with which to connect.

    But what I really want is for people to start addressing global questions. We happily talk about the internet without realising just what that means, and how big a something we are part of the moment we hit upload. The ins and outs really are another thread (coming soon, don’t worry), and I accept individuals can do little – but not nothing. Separately we can do little about anything yet we still all have causes we support – this happens to be mine.I sound alarmist when I say I think we’re on te verge of another wave of cultural rape similar to the trade and resoucrce rape of colonialism, and I know no one in the industry takes me seriously (though, interestingly, I have been contacted by a couple of economists who think it’s not far off the mark).

    but think about this. Internet access is becoming global. Access to banking is not. For people creating content in that growing grey sector, what do people think that means? What will happen to them? What would you, as a “wetsern” entrepreneur with no scruples do if you took a look at the situation?

  14. Wittgenstein used to beat small children because they couldn’t learn math quickly enough for him. Just so you know.

  15. I’ve been giving some more thought to the concept of stories around the camp fire. These stories originated in oral cultures. With the emphasis on lyricism and internal rhythms in order to facilitate the learning, the retelling and the audience’s ability to decipher what they are hearing. All wonderful qualities I for one look to invest in/wrest from the word. Literature can sing, even when read silently by the reader, the words can still set off resonances inside their mind and this is simply down to the language the writer employs.

    But some of this lyricism was lost when the oral arts were sacrificed to the codified written/printed form, of finite alphabets to represent every phonetic sound. Grammar and sentence structure were standardised. Now our print stories are largely unfurled to an audience of one – the reader – in solitude. We can chat about books, but the experience of actually reading one is not a shared activity (except perhaps with your children). Where is the camp fire now? What is the qualitative difference between stories for a gathered audience, such as film or stage play and that delivered to just one person in isolation?

    My personal take on this and please this is just my approach, is I’m not really after telling a story directly. I’m all about the relationship to my reader. I want to seduce them. Whisper in their ear. Maybe pour poison into it, depending on the nature of my protagonist. I want to hold conversations and catechisms with them. They say every person has a story inside of them. If I do my job well and establish a realistic, emotionally intelligent VOICE that the reader wants to engage with, then that fictional character’s ‘story’ will emerge naturally, not through any pre-prescribed plot design on my part. The driving force remains the language, the words she chooses to employ in her seduction. In that respect I feel a close affinity to the original story tellers, the lyrical poets of rhythm and assonance.

    For me, it’s about voice, which means language, which means the WORD. Written words with an oral kick to them.

  16. Who goes there!

    Note to all. We’re still getting the hang of this. We are not actually cracking up, but are two genuinely different people. I’m Dan right now.

    I think I’d be tempted to put books in a similar vein to film; with gathered readings at the other end – and plays somewhere in between, and for the differentiation to be the degree of personal engagement. That said, stories DO use words as the primary form of engagement (or rather sounds – I like your point about rhythm) – but not the only one. When we tell stories we use our whole bodies to express ourselves

  17. Sorry Dan, that oral tradition post was me Marc.

    I’m interested in how you think a prose author uses their whole body to express themself? I rather think of all the word-based forms, we are centralised in our heads (imagination). We have no actors to enflesh our words. No inflection, no accentuating gestures…

    • The emphasis on words gave it away 🙂 Though the whspers made me think of Anne

      I’m thinking more of the storytellers in the Djemma – it’s not so much conveying the story that they do with their body as relating to the audience.

      On the other hand, when I met Sabina, she really does talk with her whole body. Partly as an extension of sign language because she’s deaf, but hardlt because words seem too small, as though there’s some kind of residue of meaning (to use a phrase people were always saying at uni) that spills over into action – sorry I was talking about storytelling ni the real rather than on the page.

      I don’t know if you know MCM (@1889ca on twitter) but he’s just written a real-time novel in 3 days on a real-time writing software thing (like I wish had been around for the start of Aggie’s shoes). He sees the movements and deletions of the keystrokes as part of the performance. There’s an interesting post at

  18. (Marc again), the author is always absent while the reader is reading, yet a communication still takes place. But in our absence, our bodies cannot really talk across the divide.

    Yeah, aware of MCM. Of course there is always potential for crossover between prose/spoken word/ film/ art installation.

  19. Marc:
    “in our absence, our bodies cannot really talk across the divide”

    You do realise I will see that as a challenge, don’t you?

    In fact, there are certainly schools of thought on “writing the body” – but the challenge for me is a performative one.

    Stimulating stuff,

  20. I think there is a real danger of romanticisation of the past here. We don’t know what those stories were when they sat around the fire. It could have been the celebrity gossip of the time or some on going saga not so dissimilar to East Enders. I bet there were hack, boring storytellers as well as the magical ones, who probably held the most power and got given the best dinners. I have been to Djemma el Fnaa. It’s a fantastic place, but I don’t speak Arabic. Of course on the great attractions of foreign places where you don’t speak the language is that it appears so exotic. You can imagine everyone having fascinating conversations but I suspect they are not much different from the conversations we hear on the 38 bus (which, of course, can be fascinating too).

    And I really don’t accept the notion that storytelling is on the verge of extinction. It’s what we do in the pub. It’s what we do when literally sit round a campfire at a music festival. It’s what we do at performance events. It’s what we do when we tell jokes. It’s what we are doing here.

  21. This is fantastic!

    My Monsters will be happy 🙂 as they live at the gates to your tunnels by the sounds of things 🙂

    I personally think of myself as a communicator not a writer – I communicate, ideas, information and emotions but this is probably just cos I can’t spell 🙂

    Looking forward to seeing more on here


    • Lovely to see you here. We’ve got a right royal mix of bloggy things. Anne will be our resident financial guru, whilst Oli will post magnificent surreal satire, Marc an dPenny and Jenn – well, heaven forfend I may have to close my eyes and hopethe authorities don’t call. And I’ll be running a series of flash fiction called, for better or worse, Skin Book

      Do help yourself to all our free anthologies and novels in the free download section 🙂

  22. Funny you should mention that, Roland – I was involved in a discussion of nostalgia yesterday at novelR and made the same warning – in rather stronger terms (reminding people that romanticising the past was the sentiment at the heart of Fascism, or some equally balanced point, I believe).

    You’re right that we still tell stories – I think that the written word culture has led us to see those extemporised stories and those conversations we hear on the bus; the anecdotes and the gossip as somehow qualitatively less important than books. And I’m not sure they are – my point isn’t about quality – it’s about whether culture is living and breathing or whetehr it’s ossified,

  23. Roland, I wasn’t aware people here were predicting death of story. Just merely that my (Marc’s) approach isn’t really driven by a need to tell a story.

    My concern with all the new media for presenting future literature, those that crossover with audio (podcasts) and filmic (vooks, vids etc), break down the intense imaginative focus of a reader by injecting auditory and visual steams of communicating data. A reader obviously uses their eyes to read a text, but the process is far more automatic and stilled (leaving free rein for the imagination to commune directly with the text) than when we watch moving frames/recongealing pixels.

    There is a different dynamic again of the performance/ public reading and as you say this is more akin to the camp fire fabulists. But for most print writers this is an adjunct of the process (to promote books, connect in the flesh with their readership), not the primary function of them as a writer. Which is the technologically updated chiseling into marble.

  24. Damn this is moving fast! To quote from above “I think that the written word culture has led us to see those extemporised stories and those conversations we hear on the bus; the anecdotes and the gossip as somehow qualitatively less important than books.”
    I would say rather than stories, since eavesdropping on a bus only gives you snatches of conversation/story, what we actually have is their VOICES and this is what I am interested in writing more than story. Therefore there is no qualitative difference to my mind. Encapsulate their voices authentically and the rest will follow, because the reader will want to eavesdrop on them as well…

  25. “I think that the written word culture has led us to see those extemporised stories and those conversations we hear on the bus; the anecdotes and the gossip as somehow qualitatively less important than books. And I’m not sure they are – my point isn’t about quality – it’s about whether culture is living and breathing or whetehr it’s ossified”
    Well, Dan (is that Dan or another face of the multi-headed Year Zero beast?) one thing you can’t say about contemporary culture is that it’s ossified (but you might say that about legends in traditional societies). Are ‘anecdotes and gossip qualitatively less important than a book’ ? Yes. To put it another way – do you really think all discourse is of equal value? Is the Hello magazine as valuable a read as Joyce or Murikami? Most conversations and gossip are mind-numbingly repetitive and trivial (my point about how overheard conversations in languages you don’t understand always seem interesting). The role of the storyteller and the author is to create stories, to give form to the endless shapeless flow of experience. Stories have always been constructed, probably by individuals rather than groups (yes, somebody wrote. or at least made up, those legends. They didn’t just rise up out of the ground).

  26. That’s me – next two are Marc.

    This conversation reminds me of reading Terry Eagleton as a student talking about “what is literature?”

    I agree that as storytellers we shape and form and reflect and question. I think I’d put it that we make visible the questions and conversations of our communities.

    As to what has greatest value – Murakami or Mr & Mrs Sowerbutts on the number 73. I know which I’d RATHER spend time with, but I somewhat think they’re two different questions – and (and this is just me, personally) I think of my job as at least in part making visible what’s there whether it’s aesthetic or not – and, in my non-fiction hat, and more importantly, giving others a platform/more supportive environment to be heard.

  27. I’m really entranced by what Marc said here — about voice. I strive to do something similar.

  28. Fascinating conversations here – just chiming in on storytelling itself and the idea of value – I think all of it, from the ad magazines to novels to labels on soup cans has value. They have value because they inform and they can transform – by this I mean ‘we’ are changed by their invention and we are influenced by their message – whether you find it meaningful or not is another matter, pop artists might have something to say there – but they become part of our landscape and history and all history is is storytelling.

    As far as art and aesthetics go, it is the crawling and clawing under the surface of these things, making metaphors of detritus that may give it a higher value. Or the undulating modulation of written language itself – do you have to read Chinese calligraphy to appreciate its beauty? We know a story is being told, we need interpretation, and so layers and layers of meaning start to build up, from the original idea to the interpreter’s version to the one we hear in our heads.

    No one can really tell you what it is or isn’t – generations from now may look back on our ‘storytelling’ – from advertisements to picture catalogs – and without an interpreter, may find it poetic somehow. It will be their history, so, for them, it is all a story.

  29. Wow, DJ, thank you. I love the clarity of the distinctio you’ve made between value and aesthetic resonance – and I also love the way you’ve relativised the aesthetic in time – which IS a way that something static can be made new that I’d missed out of my argument.

    It’s interesting that we can draw more that’s fresh and exciting from something very ancient, to which there is no palpable continuous link, than we can to something that’s merely “dated” – as though a “thing” dies, and stays dead, and is then brought back to life in different form. Really like this. As always, you make us thik in the right way.

  30. Reading these exchanges I find myself thinking back through my own history, when I was involved in experimental film and the whole notion of narrative was seen as abhorrent, reactionary, inauthentic, ‘a lie’… as melody might have been avante-garde music. Narrative was something to fight against, to undermine, to expose, a bewichtment to exorcise.

    That now seems so far away, but maybe there is element of those ideas remaining in my head. The romanticisation of past ‘authentic’ cultures worries me, as does the idea that storytelling and the re-telling of myths of our identity is always a positive thing.
    And when we talk of value, we also have to ask who it is of value to.

    And when, DJ, you ask ‘do you have to read Chinese calligraphy to appreciate its beauty?’ I’d say ‘hell, yes.’ That might be the Emperor’s death order you have framed on your wall there. The Third Reich had some neat graphics too…

    (OK, I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but someone has got to keep throwing potatoes on the fire or we are going to get fat and lazy from too many marshmallows).

  31. I hope you’re pronging them spuds with a fork, Roland or the wate’ll turn to stea and they’ll explode.

    Not quite sure where teh comment is aimed, but I’ll wade in as is my wont – keeping half an eye on fetish on #litchat – I’m saying exactly the same as you about romanticising – my point is that stories need to be retold in the sense of being told afresh if they are to retain validity, not just rote repeated. It’s that – the valuing of the story itself, rather than what it can do in our context, taht leads todangerous nostalgia.

    I’m with DJ on the separation of the pretty and the moral though – maybe one would want “aesthetic” to serve as a deeper category, though, somewhere between?

  32. Well, I don’t think the comment was aimed at anywhere in particular – once the fire gets going the sparks fly in all directions…

    I just wanted to pick up on the idea of ‘value’. Value is not an absolute – it always exists within a context. What has value to one individual, or one sector of society may not have value to another. As you say, Dan, it’s not the story itself, it’s what the story does.

    And it’s the point of meeting of reader/audience and author/storyteller which is the exciting part, because that is where meaning is created.

  33. “And it’s the point of meeting of reader/audience and author/storyteller which is the exciting part, because that is where meaning is created.”

    Absolutely. A similar discussion going on over here:

    A question – are you on twitter? I only ask because #litchat sessions are fascinating at the moment – you’d enjoy them immensely

  34. To Roland’s point about identification of these myths or narratives – the death order or even the love letter may wind up having the exact same historical value if, for example in a few future generations, there is no way to determine exactly what the original message was. We don’t look at early cave drawings as being good or evil, we don’t put such judgments on them even though the message may have been to slaughter all the first born sons of the next village – it is the appreciation of the evolution of culture and cultural idioms. I would never hold with Nazi symbols, but I’m also aware that the swastika is not an original Nazi symbol, but one that was used in various faiths (Indian I believe) even though it was perverted to us to mean something evil.

    Take the five-point pentacle – a common symbol of ‘witchcraft’ yet it is not, historically, even associated with witches, but of feminine deities. There are language and symbols from the world’s past that we use today for reasons that have nothing to do with their original creation. Sometimes they are symbols of what a culture believes to be ‘good,’ sometimes not.

    Romanticizing history, creating narratives and such is part and parcel of storytelling – we all have a point of view and depending upon who is doing the writing that point of view may come with a certain tainted sensibility (the emperor’s astrologer composing his epithet). It is our ever-evolving ability to wade through this and find what truth we can or make the best guess as it were and take from it what we like. We are a scavenger race.

    I can appreciate the loveliness of a line even if the line leads to something horrific – a trail of dead bodies, say – but it is because of that finality, that hidden-to-be-revealed truth that makes it that much more meaningful for me. There is pain and horror in it and I can be humbled by it. It is significant for its own reasons. But I do not have to subscribe to the ideology behind it.

    If I gave in to that kind of thinking, I would be limited only to listening and reading and looking at works that simply fit my idea of ‘good’ and never understand anyone else’s – or what it can lead to. I would never listen to Wagner or Frank Sinatra or read Lewis Carroll or Marcus Aurelius.

    I am no fan of the commercialization and homogenization of art – it is a worry that so many are raised without the ability to see through it, they just become part of it – so it must be in some part our social responsibility, or responsibility to future historians to give a dissenting point of view. I really don’t think we can do much better than that, but the reality is – we’ll never know.

    I might be looking at it a little skewed, but I think that is what this Year Zero idea is about.

  35. Um if I could just point out the irony of venerating traditions by a Collective who take their name consciously or not, from the root and branch overthrow of all that has gone before as practised by the Khmer Rouge who themselves were echoing the Jacobin Revolutionary Terror of France.

  36. DJ – Of course there is nothing inherently evil in a swastika, but nor can we strip it of its ideological meaning if it is part of piece of Nazi propaganda. It’s like the debate that’s going on in the media about the use of term ‘Paki’ – apologists for the alleged racist remark claim it’s simply an abbreviation of ‘Pakistani’, but we all know it IS a racist slur because of how that term has been used in our culture.

    Nor would I ever suggest it is ‘wrong’ to listen to Wagner or study Wittgenstein (to pick up on an earlier point – and I declare now, without shame, that I spent 3 years studying the guy), but I would say to fully understand them you really do need to know about their cultural context as well. Looking at Chinese calligraphy without having a sense of what those lines are ‘saying’ would be, to me, only getting half of the story. I am not suggesting making moral judgements so much as wanting to understand the context in which these works operate. You can look at say, a television commercial or an advertising shot, purely aesthetically but you are not going to make much sense of it that way. If you don’t understand that it has been made to sell you something, then you are leaving a whole lot out. Similarly I am certainly not suggesting we look at cave drawings as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but nor do I think it is very useful to look at them merely as portraits of animals or as patterns. To appreciate them we really need to know why they were made, who was looking at them, how they were used.

    But I think we are never going to agree on this…

  37. “it must be in some part our social responsibility, or responsibility to future historians to give a dissenting point of view”

    I have to say, I am old fashioned, and idealistic enough to agree with you, DJ – that was the thrust of my Pitch to Perp blog where I conlcluded tritely “the books we publish are the voice with which we choose to speak to the future” – i suggested the publishing industry might want to consider the point. They don’t. Rather they considered it and didn’t get there was a point. So I DO think we have a responsibility to dissent – if I don’t like x, how is the future to know there is any debate at all about x, unless I constantly make the flaws visible?

    I agree with the rest of what you say – the loss of context is one reason why I support the Endagered Languages Fund – when a language dies and its stories live on only in translation, you lose a lot more than simply one of a number of versions of the same tale.

    @ Anonymous Zero (Marc?) – irony is never lost on us 🙂


  38. Roland, I wonder what Wittgenstein himself would have said about studying him in his cultural context – which would surely be as much of a meaning-void as his own words. Which kind of thougt is why one should warn all schoolchildren not to do philosophy at university.


  39. “Roland, I wonder what Wittgenstein himself would have said about studying him in his cultural context –”

    What we can not speak of, we must pass over in silence.

  40. “What we can not speak of, we must pass over in silence.”

    I see this is the 50th comment. Nice to know we were listening to him, then :p

  41. Roland – I’m not sure there is a disagreement here: I totally agree with your point of view that – when we can – we should try to understand the context of things, but there will be times when we cannot and no matter how hard we puzzle it out, there will always be a missing piece, a missing angle and there will be those who appreciate something purely for how it ‘looks’ or what it says to them, not what it ‘means’ historically and out of its original context.

    There is also, of course that other faction that simply doesn’t care – take what you can and use it however you like – the purpose being to distort, re-arrange or completely obliterate the original intention. I think of an interview Terry Gilliam gave once where he took apart a painting by Da Vinci (I believe), keeping only a small piece that contained a foot – no way of knowing what it was from anymore, only that was the bit he liked (and the destruction was satisfying – in his own words).

    And Dan – is it old-fashioned or idealistic? I hope not!

    • This particular camp fire seems to be dying down. The embers are blinking their dying light. And still we are unresolved as to the origins of poesis, that initial forging of creativity. Socrates, who taught his pupils about the virtues necessary to live a good life through his dialogues, opposed the introduction of written Greek, since he believed his students would lose out on the arts of rhetoric and memorising the requisite long texts, if they could just go look things up. Of course he could not stem the cultural tide and writing caught alight and we had the great Greek tragedies accordingly.

      Now as we stand on a technological threshold that threatens to render print obsolete, I feel like Socrates trying to stick my finger in the dyke to hold back a flood. (Who said anachronism?) Children are taught to read at school, but to what purpose if they are to have vooks, podcasts and videos to ‘read’ to them? Early on in their flying solo reading career, the child focused and wrapped up in a book is making all sorts of connections from the book to their own tenderfoot experiences of life. In short, their own thought processes take wing and spread through reading. School expands their conceptual abilities even further, still dominated by the text book or set texts. In our desire for instant data, for scanning information, we risk changing our whole evolutionary future by sidelining the deep thought brought about through books. When you read, your visual brain has to connect up with your linguistic brain to decipher what is being said by the book. As soon as you put other inundations on the visual brain, such as with vooks and video, as soon as you introduce an audio aspect with podcasts and vocalised reading, the linguistic centres of the brain is no longer the sole focus and some of the layering of the words will inevitably get missed. The new media cannot mimic the depths of the lithe word set down on a page.

      So I for one am determined to poke the fire with a gnarled branch called prose, to try and stir the torpid embers and see if I can revive the flames of silent communion, between writer and reader. Yeah public readings are fun but nothing quite beats the one to one word seduction between writer and reader.

  42. Before I curl up in my sleeping bag beneath the stars of the global campsite, one final thought –
    there is an irony here; for all the mourning of the death of reading, the one thing that Internet has delivered to us, far and above anything else, is words on a page. Like these.
    Bless ’em.

  43. Absolutely Roland and more people are setting down their thoughts through txting, making us all touch-typists but not authors…

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