The Air Spoke

The Air Spoke

She places her cigarette on the edge of the desk and watches it smoulder. The sunlight catches the smoke in its hands and makes it gleam and it seems to fill the room around her. Last night’s wine still lies where it had been spilled, now a stain on the sheets of paper that cover the cheap, old wood of the table. One hand is warm on her thigh, but the other beats out a restless tattoo in the air. She stares into the mirror on the other side of the room, just a few steps from her. It is a beautiful thing, with a gilded edge only slightly marked by years of movement around the halls of this cheap hotel – the glass looks fractured, with several large frames running through it that remind her of her grandfather in the hospital bed.

She tries to piece together the fragments of the night before; tries to reorder the images like the glass.


A hundred thousand lights of a hundred, hundred colours, flickering out their mad neon desires into the darkness. She remembers beautiful Asian women, half-naked, weaving in the doorways of sand-blasted buildings. She can still feel the heat of it all, like the very air was filled with sweat.

“It used to be like a drug,” she tells the mirror, “every breath I took was pleasure. The air told me I needed to be here.”

There was a smoke-filled room; there always was. There was a gritty kind of half-light that fought with the bitter workings of the incandescence, that curled up against the jukebox like a lover, that spat and snarled at the one-arm bandit on the bar. There were men, men in shirts and men covered in mud and men with their hair slicked back like car salesmen – men who licked their lips and tried to order cobra whiskey but couldn’t get their words right and were jeered out of the bar by the owner. There were women too; old women in the corner and quiet women sat huddled together and the owner’s daughter who kept making these flashing eyes at her and biting her lower lip every time she ordered another glass of wine.

When there were more than four empty glasses on her table, and her lipstick graced a pair of cigarettes arranged in the central ashtray, one of the men came over. He tried to speak in English, then Mandarin, then Spanish, but she ignored him. He went away after she lit another cigarette, telling her that she was the most beautiful women he had ever seen.

She took out her camera and caught a picture of the table, with its wine and cigarettes and old stains and scars. She noticed that the owner’s daughter had perched herself on the bar, and that her legs were dangling in the background of the shot –  two long streaks in the haze; like bullets that had been fired underwater.

The air still speaks of lust, and hope, and potential – she doesn’t believe it anymore. Her bedclothes move; a long leg pushes through them slowly, deliberately, toes curled in on themselves until the whole thing looks pointed. It accuses her, accuses her of a thousand things; accuses her of wasted night and labyrinthine days; accuses her of pride, and rage, and lust; accuses her of decadence and desire. She stands, slowly, and feels the foreign sun on her naked skin. She casts a long shadow in the small room.

She hears the village come alive outside her window. The bicycles rattle across the uneven dirt and the wasted footsteps stagger to work. She doesn’t listen to the birdsong anymore; it’s all about the living. The bed moans. The old wood whimpers. She steps to the fragmented mirror. Half a dozen pieces of her look back, her thighs glitter darkly at her against the light and tell her she is alive. Her stomach, catching the curve of the sun like the crescent of dawn over the moon, tells her she is alive. Her breasts crackle with a thin web and she remembers the hints of them in a polaroid hidden in an old friend’s attic; they tell her she is alive. Her face tells her she is tired, broken, spread across the room like pages torn from her notebook.Hotel Room lit with blue light

Te ves como una diosa.”

She can’t tell if it comes from the bed or the mirror or the paper or the spilled wine or the smouldering cigarette. For a few heartbeats, she wishes it was the air, that the wet breeze cut through the building in such a way that it remembered her and loved her and knew that she existed, that her heart beat.

She feels warmth, and sees a smooth hand appear on her shoulder. It trails down, along her arm and to cover her breast and it splits in the mirror. A pair of lips touch her shoulder blade and the body pushes against her. The hands are hungry, and damaged and they break with her body when they cross the frames.

Another thing I wrote years ago. It might have been a part of the old experiments, where I’d stay up all night and try ot have something completely finished in the morning. It was something different than I’d be working on before. If I remember, I enjoyed writing this, enjoyed just letting the words play out on the page without caring about any narrative development really. It’s what I love about poetry now; that I can just let my fingers play, follow the words, and try to find beauty.

Anyway, enough artistic shit. If you want to read any other prose, there’s always Like Ravaged Porcelain or you can check out some of the novellas I’ve written over the years, like Mychandra or The Burden, all completely free.

I’m going to a poetry/prose reading tomorrow night, hosted by the amazing up and coming writers at the Salford Writer’s Journal. If you can, head over and check out some of the poetry and prose that they’re posting.

A Very Gentle Suicide

A Very Gentle Suicide

She was smoking by the Irwell when she decided to kill herself and I couldn’t stop her.
She decided to buy a house in Marsh Green – in that part near the factory where the locals say they’re from Orrell and not Kitt Green, and take their dogs on long, noose-like walks along the Bell.
She decided to keep 10% of her wages in a different bank account so it could accrue interest.
She decided to cut down on smoking and drinking – she said it wasn’t doing her any good, and she wasn’t feeling electric anymore, just tired all the time.
She chose to find someone who’d marry her, and I told her I wasn’t marriage material and she laughed and said she didn’t love me anyway.
She said my chest hair made her feel sick, and the way my stomach vanished under my ribs didn’t look right.
She said I’d grown a beard to cover how weak my chin was.

Her cigarette smouldered in her hands, hanging over the water.
She said she was going to fall in love so hard, and then let it gently simmer until it wasn’t passionate, but a friendship with someone who wouldn’t want to have sex too often.
She said she didn’t want to pretend not to want a wedding day anymore, and wear a long white dress in some church somewhere – I said the one in Pemberton had a good reputation; down by that pub we never went in.
She said she wasn’t going to take my advice anymore.

She listened to me smile.

I asked her if she’d thought about having kids, and she said yeah.
She said she wanted two girls and a boy; the two girls could share a room, so they’d only need a three bed.
When she was old, and tired, they could look after her and her husband and it’d all be worth it just to look up from the hospital bed and see them looking down at her with such sorrow in their eyes.
She said she’d know that she was loved then.

I told her if she jumped I’d be sad.
She said that didn’t count because I was sad all the time.
She said if I wanted my misery to have an impact on her, I should try smiling once in a while.
I couldn’t help but smile at that.
She said she didn’t want dogs either; she wanted cats; two or three of them.

She threw the cigarette, still burning, off the bridge.
I watched it curve. It fell quicker than I expected. So fast that the moment was gone, instantly, and I never had the chance to catch it.
When it hit the water, and fizzled, she was gone, and there was a stranger in her skin.

I’ve started to wonder just how much of our creativity is dependent on us. Is it our role to simply take what we view and turn that into poetry or prose? Is there, then, no innate creativity? I’ve started to question how many of the poems I’ve written are simply down to the odd spare phrase thrown by women in conversation – how many pieces of prose can be traced down to an odd feeling? Maybe I just need to get over it. Stop asking questions and just write, write without consideration. Write without thought. Just let the fingers play.

5 Books I’m Glad I Read Before I Turned 23

5 Books I’m Glad I Read Before I Turned 23

So, in a very short period of time I’ll be 23. 23. 23 years old. Jesus Christ; even the idea of being that old makes me feel tired. Anyway, as I’m now a man of a certain age, it’s time for me to stop looking forward to the next five or six years I’ve got left on this earth and, instead, start to look back at my formative years.

It’s also time when I stop trying to be creative and potentially experimental and, instead, really knuckle down and create these kind of vacuous lists that tend to perform so well online.

I read; I read a lot – admittedly, not as much as I used to but that’s not the point. Over these past few years, I’ve read hundreds of books. Most of them have been crap, some have been okay, but some have stood a head and shoulders above the rest. So, without further ado, here are:

5 Books I’m Glad I Read Before I Turned 23!

Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer

I can’t remember what first attracted me to Henry Miller. Maybe it all came down to the fact that, for a time, his writing was banned in the United States. I’ve learned to use US controversial writing as a marker for quality. Tropic Of Cancer Book Cover

Written over the course of 4 years – between 1930 and 34 – Miller used his bohemian, mad life in Paris as the backdrop for this novel, blending autobiography and fiction to the point that I’ve no idea what really happened and what didn’t.

Aside from all the sex, madness and degradation that occurs within the novel, it is fairly simple to see that many of the characters are highly caricatured versions of real people. Occassionally talking directly to me, the reader, Miller’s writing really left an impact on me – especially as I read it alongside his companion novel, Tropic Of Capricorn.

My Favourite Line:To sing, you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This, then, is a song. I am singing.”

Of course, the entire book is packed with fantastic lines that kind of sear themselves onto your forebrain; in a way, Miller has a fairly poetic form of writing in these novels, and a kind of weary, miserable cynicism that is reflective of the novel as a whole.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Kaddish And Other Poems

Sticking with the theme of American literature that caused a stir, we can’t help but turn to my favourite poet (and probably one of the most well known internationally) Ginsberg. Of course, before I’d read this, I’d heard of Howl, I’d heard of America (the poem, not the nation) and I knew that Ginsberg used to hand around with Bob Dylan. Immediately, that got me interested. Ginsberg Poetry Book Cover

After surviving obscenity trials in 1957, that many have suggested made the poem much more widely known than it would otherwise have been, Howl itself has gone on to become one of the most incredible poetic achievements from the last few hundred years. There was even a film made about the poem, starring James Franco as a younger Allen Ginsberg.

This collection features a range of other poems, including the equally fantastic Kaddish, Death To Van Gogh’s Ear (one of my personal favourites) and America.

My Favourite Line (From The Poem Howl, Of Course):They broke they backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!

Taking a single line from Howl seems almost like cheating, but if you are interested, and you haven’t read or heard it before, I’d definitely recommend it! Ginsberg is probably the poet who, more than anyone else, showed me that poetry can be beautiful, can be artistic and isn’t simply a waste of time for rich people with nothing better to do.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s In The Labyrinth

In The Labyrinth is a masterclass on disconcerting and confusing the reader, often to the point where I really had to reread several pages over again just to make sure I’d kept hold of what was going on. Some scenes are so incredibly similar that I genuinely thought I must have accidently lost a few pages and gone back to where I was before. Book Cover Of In The Labyrinth By Grillet

This entire novel seems to have been written with an almost general dislike of the reader. At times, it can be a hugely torturous process getting through it, but it has definitely been one of the books I’d most enjoyed reading over the past couple of years.

Even fairly simple techniques, like introducing the character as The Solider and then on the next page saying that A Soldier is leaning against a lamppost is surprisingly disconcerting. You’re constantly bombarded with this sense of tension, to the point that I’m sure I started to feel stressed out when I was reading it.

My Favourite Line:Below the engraving, in the white border, a caption is inscribed in an Italian hand; The Defeat At Reichenfels

Picking any one line from this novel is hugely difficult when it seems like ever paragraph has been written like any other author would create a single line. However, this line, written about a particular picture, sums up the entire character of the novel for me – the solider is looking at a picture of a scene he is actually looking at, engraved with a caption that he is currently living. If that isn’t confusing, then I really can’t think what is.

Albert Camus’ The Fall

Any long time readers will know I’m a big fan of Camus; pretty much his entire body of work has passed through my hands at some point. The Fall, in my eyes, stands out simply because of the strange polemic style it adopts. Albert Camus' The Fall Book Cover

The entire novel is a one-sided conversation, a confession, if you will. It features a loss of innocence and self-loathing – two things which I happen to understand perfectly well. Seriously, if you’re looking for a unique read, then The Fall is a great option for you.

My Favourite Line:So, tell me, please, what happened to you one evenings on the banks of the Seine and how you never managed to risk your life. Say the words that for years have not ceased to echo through my nights and that I shall finally speak through your mouth: ‘Young woman! Throw yourself into the water again that I might have once more the opportunity to save us both!’ A second time – huh! That would be rash! Just imagine, dear colleague, if someone were to take us at our word. You’d have to do it. Brrr… The water’s so cold! But don’t worry. It’s too late now, it will always be too late. Thank goodness!”

Okay, so it’s a little long, and it needs some context, but the last paragraph has always stuck with me. It says so much, about regret and about the folly of regret and the joy that a character can feel as they regret. I could open this book at any page, and you would be able to see incredibly imagery and fantastic writing, along with sentences that hint at deeper meanings and promised of things that never came.

Perhaps, The Fall has had more of an effect on me than I’ve given it credit for. Still; it remains one of my favourite books, and one that I read every few months.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Okay, so this might be a bit of a controversial one! I know why people dislike Ayn Rand, not just for her politics, but for her dense and often unforgiving writing style. Still, sitting down over a few days to read Atlas Shrugged was one of the best decisions I ever made. It made me question a lot of vaguely socialist (not really), extremely liberal beliefs that I kind of took for granted. Atlas Shrugged Book Cover

Plus, there really are some fantastic examples of writing in this novel. Aside from the badass sounding quote about Atlas balancing the world on his shoulders, there are pages and pages dedicated to John Galt’s speech over the radio towards the end of the novel.
Wherever you lie on the political spectrum, you cannot afford not to read Atlas Shrugged, if only to learn what you are fighting against.

My Favourite Line:I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle

Literature Has Helped Me Turn Into The Person I Am Today

It might sound corny, but I wouldn’t be who I am without the literature I’ve read – that might not necessarily be a good thing, but it is certainly true. Anyway, now that my 23rd’s approaching, I’m on the lookout for even more great literature to consume, so that I can look back in a year’s time and wonder how the hell I got this far without having read (insert title here) by (insert name here).

If you’ve got any suggestions for novels or poets I should try out next, I’d love to hear them! I am, it has to be said, undergoing something of a dry spell in terms of literature.

By the way, if you look on over to the left, you’ll notice a load of links to longer things that I’ve written – if you’re a little strapped for something to read, why not give them a try? After all, free eBooks aren’t to be sniffed at!

Interactive Fiction; The Literature Of The Future?

Interactive Fiction; The Literature Of The Future?

So, I was recently writing about the Human, and the onset of the Post-Human – an idea I intend to write some more on once I’ve properly got my head around it – and it got me thinking about the future of entertainment and literature. It’s obvious that these new, inter-connected creatures will demand something more engaging than traditional novels and books of poetry.

Traditional literature – you can’t kill what won’t die!

Personally, I don’t think that traditional literature, as we know it, is ever really going to die out. Not only is it a really practical way of experiencing narrative, as well as giving the creator almost unrivalled options in the form and style with which they present it, but it has earned a kind of mysticism over the past few thousand years. A paperback is almost a holy thing, to many people, and they have a charm that can’t be beaten by eReaders or audiobooks.

Still, we’ve already seen the first forays of genuine literature into other mediums; perhaps most effectively qualified by the subversion of other genres, similar to the way that many writers have chosen to subvert and push the capabilities of the written word.

Interactive Fiction – The Future Of Literature?

Now, when I say interactive fiction, I’m not talking about “Choose Your Own Adventure!” books, but narratives that technology allows us to experience. If we feel that our decisions are truly making an impact on the narrative that we are experiencing, then we feel more engaged in the world we’re presented with.

Iain Pears’ Arcadia … And The App That Goes With It!

Now, before I get on to hailing video games as one of the next stages in literary development, I’d like to point out an extremely interesting novel by Iain Pears – Arcadia. Pears, said that he began working on the novel in 2010, just when the ideas of digital narrative were starting to take off in the public eye.Interactive Fiction App Arcadia, Iain Pears

Pears has a reputation for complex narratives; in the past, he has required that his readers remember miniature facts from hundreds of pages previously simply to make sense of a narrative point – similarly, he has forced his reader to jump entire centuries within the space of a few pages.

Anyway, his work isn’t really the kind of thing I would normally gravitate towards, but the fact that it is using technology to make his fairly complex, inter-woven strands of narrative, is extremely interesting, and is a great way to simplify a novel for a reader and ensure that they get a more satisfying a rewarding experience – well, if you’re in to that kind of thing.

Video Games: The Interactive Fiction

Actual Sunlight

One of the biggest problems that I face is that I sometimes have trouble defining things; I’ve previously said that one of my favourite “games” is Actual Sunlight, but is it really a game when:

  • You don’t have any choice as to the outcome;
  • The game itself has no challenge associated with it;
  • There’s no sense of triumph when you complete it;
  • Can’t 360 no-scope some n00bs from across the map;

I’d taken to calling it an experience, rather than a game; but who defines what a video game actually is? Anyway, that’s probably an argument for another day, but I firmly believe that more and more literature will make the most of digital mediums to tell their narrative.Actual Sunlight Cover

Actual Sunlight is essentially literary fiction for the modern era, the kind of fiction that Patrick Hamilton might have written. It deals with issues like depression, society and the miserable joy associated with being human (possibly even in a post-human world).

In AS, you are simply following a few days, over the span of a few years, of the main character’s life; from his menial office job, to his unrequited, unspoken love for his co-worker, to his video game obsession and the nights where his insomnia drives him crazy – if, indeed, he does actually go crazy. It’s emotional, and you really feel with the protagonist, and the creator as well – via the notes he leaves around the game.

It is certainly one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played, or experienced and, like a good book, I’m probably going to download it again tonight so I can experience it all over again.

Kentucky Route Zero Americana Video Game Cover

Another of my favourite games, Kentucky Route Zero is pure Americana; from the distinct artistic style and visuals to the haunting music, strange narrative that each character approaches as normal and the hints of American mythology, KRZ is a perfect example of what I can see a great deal of literature developing into.

Released episodically, it really does feel like a graphic novel series, but far more interactive, far more emotionally appealing and far more engaging.

Stanley_parable_coverThe Stanley Parable

Of course, this might not necessarily be applicable here – and far be it from me to place this weight on the creators’ shoulder – but The Stanley Parable was the first game that really started to make me think that video games could really be an art form – something other than just dry entertainment. It approached video game narrative from the side and tore it apart and really made me feel for the disembodied narrator.

TSP is funny, horrifying, clever, joyous and has been met with fantastic reactions from all over the world. If you’re looking for a starting point to get into these so-called “walking simulators” then you need to start here.

The Beginner’s Guide Video Game Art

The Beginner’s Guide was created by Davey Wreden, one of the minds behind The Stanley Parable and, again, it turns off into something completely different than I expected. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but if The Stanley Parable breaks down what a video game is, and how it all relies on the player’s interactivity, then The Beginner’s Guide breaks down what a human being is, what art could be, and what obsession and friendship can do to teat people apart.

The Future Of Literature?

Of course, these are just a few mentions of some of my favourite forms of narrative, “artsy” games, and there are certainly dozens more, but none of them have had the lasting effect on me that these have. I’m not saying that all literature must immediately become interactive or face extinction, and I still like the idea that “this is what I present, take it as you will” without a certain level of interactivity beyond the turning of the page.

Anyway, what do you think? Are there any examples of interactive fiction that have really stuck in your mind? Or do you think it’s just a fad, and that literature will always remain the written word and nothing more?

What Role Do “Good Books” Have To Play In Modern Life?

What Role Do “Good Books” Have To Play In Modern Life?

I recently sat down to write the obligatory “The Future of Literature” post that everyone seems to be rolling out now that we’ve crashed into the new year with reborn opinions and increased senses of self-worth and optimism. However, as I was doing so, this one phrase kept cropping up again and again; even when I realised it, and actively tried to avoid it, I still found it heavy in my thoughts with my fingertips desperately looking for synonyms in order to maintain my sentence structure.

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d take a little break from my other writing and try to nail down my own ideas of what this phrase really means, if it has any kind of objective meaning at all.

What Is A “Good Book”?

You see, it may seem like a simple question, but I really had trouble defining it to myself. What, after all, are the actual qualities of a “good book”; does it have any? If it doesn’t, then are these novels, so often described in this manner, really anything more than an illusion or, at the least, an ideal that we constantly strive towards – not as writers but, instead, as readers?

The obvious idea is that a creative work described as good is down to personal opinion – “curling up with a good book” just basically means that someone is going to read a book that they think is enjoyable, right?

But there are thousands of other factors to be taken into consideration when describing a book, including; the narrative, the tone, the style, the setting, the characters and their development, any political, philosophical or sociological thought behind the premise; what kind of an impact the book has on the reader, on the world, how other people react to the book, its value for money, what’s going on in your life at the time you come to read it, or any one of numberless other features can go into the experience of reading.

Logically then, the definition is entirely subjective; but does subjectivity really mean anything?

The “Good Book” As A Patronising Term?

To me, even the phrase itself sounds extremely patronising. “Good” doesn’t indicate any kind of growth, meaning, change, literary evolution; to me, a good book doesn’t have any value aside from the enjoyment to be gained during the read. Good work isn’t a work of art, it doesn’t have any redeeming quality, it won’t last forever, it won’t be held as a standard of fantastic literature to inspire people for a thousand years or more.

Cup of tea and Levi
I don’t think I’m designed to make my life look amazing and artistic. I need to invest in some filters.

When I think of a good book, I think of trashy literature – the kind of stuff that we could throw away and it wouldn’t matter. For all the effect that good books have on our personal enjoyment, I can’t really imagine someone leaning back after finishing the novel and resolving to change their life; resolving to commit to some new ideal, resolving to be a better human being.

Good books, you could say, do not really encourage resolution in the real world because they intrinsically feature their own resolution; the beginning and the end of a thing. How could they inspire change, when you lean back, happy and satisfied – perhaps a little sad that the experience is over?

The “Good Book”, Personal Marketing and Social Media

It seems to me, that the major role of these novels in modern society is something for people to be seen reading, or something that they can claim to read. It’s absolutely ideal for social media, for example, simply because it is an ideal. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the others are absolutely fantastic when it comes to perpetuating ideals like these, when it comes to sharing moments that you control in order to present such a perfect existence.

We’ve all seen the pictures that people pose, with a coffee or a glass of wine sat next to candles and expensive chocolate and a quasi-romantic novel, normally with a cartoonified image of the protagonist on the front cover. These same images are often represented through some nostalgic looking filter, as though to suggest that the simple act of sitting down and reading is something noble and honest in a world of digital fakery.

Good books, then, could be considered a form of advertising; content for a personal marketing strategy to suggest a particular identity – a brand, as it were. Of course, this is a technique which actually works as well, simply because people live within their own crazy, ragged lives and they want to believe that a better life is possible.

Who Reads “Good Books”?

Now, this is extremely sexist, but I tend to think of “good books” and a certain type of woman. I am hugely aware that I am straying into dangerous, offensive territory here, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male post a filtered picture on social media with the phrase “good book” attached – I don’t think I’ve ever heard it said by a man either.

Perhaps this is because these kinds of novels tend to be fictional romances, and there is something hovering in the back of the reader’s mind which suggests that the thing they are reading isn’t a “good” piece of writing at all, but something enjoyable to read that passes the time, allows them to relax, and encourages them to escape from the day-to-day existence they find themselves in.

Would you describe the books you read as “good books”, or is there an alternative definition that you prefer?

Good books often go hand-in-hand with peace and quiet, and perhaps it is simply part of the pressure that modern digital communication places on gender. Just like men are pressured by the demands of the digital age to show off their masculinity, perhaps women are encouraged to show off their femininity.

I’ve started to see the “good book” as something as a plague on the possibility of many readers, simply because something is saying that this is what the person should be reading. But, then, maybe these readers are just looking for something positive in their life, as an alternative to mainstream network television in which every problem needs to be resolved in an hour or so.

Honestly, I can’t be angry at those who choose to read these books that I would not really feel guilty in calling pointless – not simply because I have no right to, but because they are reading; they are connecting with another human being’s narrative through the written word; and I love that.

The Writers of “Good Books”?

I tend to think that no writer starts out with the idea of writing a “good book” – I mean, no writer worth a damn anyway. Any novel, poetry, non-fiction, script, whatever; if it starts out with the definition of being good then what’s the point? Anyone can walk into any book store in the world, and find a dozen “good books”, normally on some kind of BOGOF offer as well.

Personally, I’ve never really been concerned with writing something that is, simply, good. I mean, I’ve still got years left to try and create something good, if I ever become so desperate, but should creating something that the reader will enjoy be our primary concern?

If you’re a writer, and you want to create a “good book” that people will enjoy, is that enough? I’m hugely interested in the different motivations which turns people into writers, and I really think that the motivation behind the creative act is often just as important as the creation itself.

Anyway; what do you think? Do you have a working definition of a “good book”? Do you think that they have a part to play in the history of literature (if we believe that literature in of itself has some redeeming quality) or are they for personal enjoyment and nothing else? But then again, is personal enjoyment enough to qualify as great literature?

What Is Literary Merit?

What Is Literary Merit?

I’ve been thinking, recently, about the idea of literary fiction and its merit. I think most writers come up against the idea of their work having merit at some point in their careers/lives. It has been, for the most part, one of the most divisive aspects of modern literature, and for many is what sets the more popular types of ‘classic’ literature apart from the modern dross – yeah, I’m talking about teenage wizards and sparkling vampires and things with Sheikhs and sassy-female lawyers in.

What Is Literary Merit, And How Do We Define It?

When most people think of literary merit, it ends up being characterized as little more than a piece of writing which has some kind of subjective importance; a lot of people, nowadays, will publicly view this kind of importance as little more than a term used by high-brow readers, who mostly consider themselves scholars of literature.Literary Merit - Howl Obscenity Trial Quote

In 1957, at the obscenity trial for Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (which is, I think, one of the best poems ever written), the author Walter Van Tilburg Clark, said that “the only final test, it seems to me, of literary merit, is the power to endure”. Now, a large part of me agrees with this practical, working definition, but then it seems to me that creating a work of literary merit, or with the intention of the piece receiving literary merit, is impossible.

How then, do we explain those many thousands of writers looking to create the next Great American Novel? Surely every creator is striving for literary merit? Who, then, decides if a novel, a play or a poem receives this merit? I thought this might lead me down some interesting trail of thought – until I found out that Tilburg Clark had expanded on his point and I’d just never heard the rest of his testimony. He went on to say that “I think the test of literary merit must be, to my mind, first, the sincerity of the writer. I would be willing, I think, even to add the seriousness of purpose of the writer.”

So, yeah, there we are; the three test of literary merit are, potentially:

  • The Durability of a Text – Obviously, this relies on the text being read by people long after its publication.
  • The Sincerity of a Text – How honest is the text in question, and honest in what ways?
  • The Seriousness of the Purpose – Even if the text has humour within it, how serious or important is the writer’s intention, or topic of their writing.

The Problems With These Definitions Of Worth In Writing

(I know, that H2 could have been worded a lot better, right?) Here’s the thing; if a piece of writing is to have literary worth, then it must pass all three of these tests and, whilst I kind of agree, there are still a few problems that I have with this idea.


This test relies on the text being widely accessible to a range of people, easily read to ensure that it can survive generations of different people and address issues which are likely to remain prevalent in the future. That means that most pieces of writing, in the history of the world, have absolutely no literary merit – someone could pour their heart out into a piece of prose that will only ever be read by half a dozen people, whilst the autobiography of Katie Price or the personal letters of Bukowski might be read by a million, million people over the years. The potential for most literature to actually survive the years is extremely small, and in this world of oversaturation, even the very best writing could be passed on by.


Of course, I am of the opinion that writing must be sincere; it must come from somewhere inside the writer and represent something – it must be honest to emotion, in my opinions, above pretty much everything else. Of course, this can be easy in poetry, but impossible to represent in a play or stage production, when the emotion is reliant on actors, directors, costume and makeup artists, et cetera.


Again, I approve of the seriousness of the purpose, but what of those things which are written with, apparently, no purpose? The major part of these texts would all be political/religious/societal texts, from 1984 to Cwmardy; but are we possibly saying that these texts are worth more simply because they are created to represent a point of view? Of course, they are great pieces of literature, but are they truly great pieces of writing?

What If These Three Tests Clash?

And, of course, there is always the possibility that these tests will be forced out in favour of another. If a text is incredibly well written, sincerely and seriously, are we to say that it has no worth, simply because it is not picked up by a large audience? Or what if it is popular, and addresses a serious issue, without the writer themselves having any real first-hand experience of the issue it addresses?

The idea of testing a piece of writing for literary merit does, in a way, repulse me. But then again, I always tease people I know for reading books which are just terrible – Mills&Boon, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, for example.

The Question Of Literary Fiction And Form

Form is one thing that is often associated with literary worth, particularly in regards to poetry. In fact, one of the major criticisms levelled at Howl was that it did not necessarily follow any rhyming pattern; instead it was a mad, hurried scramble of expression – literally, a howl. How well a text adheres to a certain form, such as the graphic-based calligrams, is also another symbol that many people use as an indicator of worth.

The issue with this is, simply, that there is really no definitive value with regards to literary worth and/or merit; just because something approaches a serious topic doesn’t make it necessarily worthwhile; just because something is popular doesn’t make it good; just because something is beautifully written doesn’t make it mean something; just because something is written from the soul doesn’t make it important to a culture.

What Do I Think Literary Merit Means?

Personally, I don’t really care about the idea of literary merit. To a lot of people in my life, it might seem like I do. My bookshelves are littered with things which, ostensibly, have literary worth, but they are also scattered with fantasy writers and graphic novels which may, or may not, have worth applied to them on a critical level.

For me, literary merit shouldn’t matter; it’s all about personal experience. I am a firm believer that some literature is (if you’ll excuse the phrase) “worth” more than other writing, but not as a result of its popularity or its age. I lean more towards the emotions behind it; I loved the bleak view behind Sketch Of A Last Day; I liked the fact that Brave New World made me feel physically sick in parts; the last line of 1984 is one I repeat on an almost weekly basis at some new advance in creepy, meta-human technology and I often recite as much T.S. Elliot or Ginsberg or Hughes as I can remember, just because I can’t get them out of my head.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your opinions on worth and merit, especially if you think you have a working definition! Do you think it relies on the work being original, adhering to a specific formula, obtaining a wide readership or anything else?

Got Wrong (Dream 16)

Got Wrong (Dream 16)

St. Christopher’s driving a 4by4 down the rattling madness of a mud-baked highway stone sweating pathway and Cain holds him up with Excalibur in one hand and a burlap sack with his brother in the other. Chris and a kid who looks like Jesus help him dump the body in the backseat and they go flying off down the East Lancs road with American optimism in their hearts. Crossing over time and asphalt grass-painted lines and stones and alleyways and shiver sweat their way past police officers with black tits on their heads. Over river city cement waves and between smashed in faces of glass caves tricklin’ over fleshless scalps meeting with jagged ragged stones sagging with grey matter. Tree branch bones hangs overhears cast shadows on unmarked roadkill graves and Excalibur prays lets bury the fucker right here, you can use me as a shovel and Jesus spouts some homily before Chrissie slaps him from the front seat for speaking too loud and pushing his religion on other people and Jesus starts crying like he’d been stabbed in the right hand side of his stomach. A red race range leaf comes in the passenger window and worms into the burlap sack and wakes up Abel, who sits up boasting syphilitic insanity and Jesus cuts his head off with the flat of his hand, cos’ Jesus hates communists and Jesus invented capitalism, don’t you know that? Jesus hates dead people not staying dead. He tries to tell the wolf pack about Lazarus, but Johnny Cash is playing on the radio so they shout for him to shut the Hell up and his white robe says it’s Hades, cos’ we aren’t pagans so Cash shoves a middle finger through the radio and says shut the Hades up and Jesus shuts the Hel up. They find a clearing with a fireplace and light it up with the lashing pattering bloody-minded rain that happens when Romeo kills whoever the Hades Romeo kills in that teenage drama and Cain says more people would’ve followed Jesus if he looked like Leonardo DiCaprio did in that Shakespeare film, you know, Shakespeare presents Trainspotting. There’s a creeping warm/old air in a second-hand atmosphere and Cain throws ten years in an open-necked shirt onto the fire, cos’ he likes his poetry quiet and slow, but he won’t stop reciting the advert for chips – Cain’s proud to say that he likes Motorhead and it turns out he’s wearing a t-shirt from the first waves of Judas Priest’s Epitaph tour and he’s complaining that that was three or four years ago and they’re still touring and do they think they’re fucking Bob Dylan? They bury Abel’s body with his feet pointing north and build a church over his chest and Jesus calls it the stone, the family planning centre the stone on which he’d build his church. Cain’s crying cos’ he can’t find is brother’s head and he thinks he’s too pretty to go to prison and what’s so really wrong with filicide anyway? St. Chrissie drives him all the way back to Wigan, and the lead singer of Merry Hell’s having a Guinness with Abel’s head balanced on a shovel and he keeps calling him Delia and planting kisses on his eyelids like copper coins. Meanwhile, Chrissie sells Jesus to some bloke called Peter for a tank of diesel which costs twice what petrol costs/even though its made from fag ends and scraps of diaries from Greece/and a coca cola life and a pint glass full of salt and vinegar crisps. Chrissie’s on the A85 when he realises the crisps are cheese and onion and he pulls a U-turn when he gets hit by Noah and the mystery Machine coming the other way. So Jesus levitates himself outta the hole and goes for a piss in the long grass like some black-skinned pygmy and comes out covered in ticks like a Parson’s terrier in a tartan necktie and Peter chases him around with a stolen Legionnaire’s spear and don’t you know he used to be a fisherman of men so catching a bearded dwarf shouldn’t be too much of a hassle and there’s a low-speed chase happening in the jungles north of England. Chrissie and Cain? They wrote a few songs and sold them to these four likely lads from Liverpool and told them to ditch the leathers and the quarry attitudes and the drummer and maybe try something a little smarter, like black suits and white shirts and, hey, cut your hair around bowls why don’t you?