Small presses in trying times

Manchester Review of Books has an agenda to try to help smaller publishers with coverage. It isn’t our entire remit, but it is a concern.

With this in mind, we decided to ask some indies about their struggles. It was an article we had planned before the COVID-19 crisis hit. In the middle of the crisis, we asked again; ‘what are the challenges you face?’

The answer; nearly everything. From cashflow, to sales and distribution. The crisis only served to emphasise the precarious position of small presses in both the old and the new normal.

One editor of a well-regarded publisher – with strong links to a university – explained the stresses well. This was in the middle of lockdown, and I think the tone reflects that:

‘We’re not as precarious as some but it has been pretty stressful having to redraw years of planning over a few weeks and with no real clarity yet on when things might return to some degree of ‘normal’ that won’t just mean having to redraft everything again in six months – meanwhile haemorrhaging salary costs and losing sales because of the blocked distribution chain, and simultaneously having to balance that against the confusion around rushed central funding freezes instigated by the larger institution in which we are partially – though also luckily, protectively – berthed…’

Across everyone we spoke to, precarious funding that needed to be balanced was an issue. ‘The books’ always came out as the top priority. A lot of this was tricky even before coronavirus, as Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose told us. I asked him ‘what were the struggles you faced before?’ ‘The tedious answer’ he replied ‘is cash flow’.

Nathan Hamilton at Boiler House Press said much the same:

‘Mostly the challenges are cash flow management, as resources are more scarce. Generally, the larger your budget, the easier your job is. When you’re managing small cash flows, it is more challenging, and also many smaller publishers might be less competent in that regard, or forced against disposition to have to be more competent than they would like, or than their larger house commissioning editors might have to be… so they feel the strain and responsibility far more readily and keenly than, for example, permanently salaried academics, or privately wealthy individuals, or others less precarious in the space, while simultaneously carrying greater responsibility.’

Perhaps the second most crucial aspect, as Kim Kremer from Notting Hill Editions (NHE) highlighted, was the importance of physical product in actual commercial space:

‘As a small publishing house, it’s always a challenge to get our books into the hands of readers in such a competitive market. It helps that reviews of our titles have almost always been immensely positive, but the majority of our books reach readers in the traditional way – through the personal recommendation of an impassioned bookseller or by simply seeing an NHE book on the shop table.’

Notting Hill Editions have a particular need for this aspect of trade. It is in fact part of their unique angle as a publisher:

‘Our linenbound books are tactile, they tempt the impulse buyer. The attraction of our books doesn’t convey well through online sellers where they cannot be picked up and handled. We’ve never tried to compete on price. We don’t strive to offer the cheapest book, but rather to publish meaningful books that are passed on hand to hand. For all these reasons, the closure of bookstores during lockdown hit us hard.’

Lest we forget – as they re-open – the chilled ambience of the bookshop vanished overnight. Without these calming spaces of ‘browsing and contemplation’ – part of the psyche of the serious reader – many small publishers were ‘rendered virtually invisible.’ Bluemoose also felt the impact:

‘One of the main issues is incredibly high discounts demanded by the main high street booksellers, so getting your books on tables and in front of browsers is very difficult and as everyone knows visibility is the key.’

When this is gone, publishers are suddenly put into a different game: ‘The closure of bookshops meant we were immediately thrown into survival mode’ Kevin Duffy explained, ‘90% of our sales suddenly fell off a cliff.’

But it’s easy to forget that presses have both internally and externally facing pressures too. I was reminded of this when a publisher added that throughout the crisis ‘editors and authors come to you for answers you can’t give’, because ‘no-one can… because even national governments have no idea what they’re doing.’ In a zone of confusion, people often look to others for ‘the answer’, when in fact, sometimes there isn’t one…

But what also came across, particularly from the people we spoke to as lockdown eased, was the creative journey many publishers have been through. Where there is no answer, you have to invent one. This is a very practical definition of ‘utopia’. The positives are there, as Kim from NHE outlined:

‘During the crisis we provided free content online with a different essay or short read each week. Our monthly newsletter became a weekly event for distributing content and promoting our books which fundamentally kept us solvent. I was overwhelmed by the loyalty of our readers who chose to order direct in greater numbers than before.’

However, Kim was packing and posting alone in an office. The scale of operations came over strongly through all the conversations we had:

‘We offered a discount which is difficult for us to do on such tight margins for anyone in quarantine or simply in need of a good read for relief from the news, yet virtually no-one chose to use it. A surprise hit was A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed by James Fenton. As the lockdown sprouted so many green fingers, we sold more of this title in three months than we had in the past three years. Going to reprint on any title during the crisis was unexpected.’

Bluemoose have also felt the upside of the challenges:

‘One of the great things about indie publishers is the cooperation and collaboration. I asked Ben Myers, our bestselling and multi-award winning author – he’s now published by Bloomsbury – if he would help us by writing a short story, which he did. So, together with Little Toller, a publisher of nature books based in Dorset, we published his short story as an eBook and it is available on their web site. Within 7 days it was launched and we sold 600 copies on the first day. The response was brilliant and the traffic driven to our own website was unbelievable. We had the best direct sales from our website ever, which basically saved us.’

Bluemoose are now ‘looking at books for 2023’, so, ‘despite the pandemic’ are ‘still committed to bringing the reader great new writers from working class and diverse backgrounds.’

Manchester Review of Books say bless our small presses and all who sail therein.

– Steve Hanson & Joe Darlington

A River is a Rite

Ian Seed – Operations of Water (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2020)

“Fluid” is one of those useful little words that we, the reviewers, can always return to. It helps us to say something quite banal while also sounding profound.

What is fluid poetry, after all? Something that we found easy to read? Not too many polysyllables, nor too many consonants all bundles together. The image is of language, liquid-like, flowing onwards without obstacles.

Ian Seed’s new collection, Operations of Water, reminds us that, in the real world, liquids rarely move unimpeded. Rivers twist and turn, bashed by rocks and swirling in torrents and eddies. Seas can be cruel, holding deep, black unknowns. Rains fall heavy and we humans drink them, making ourselves water and turning water into ourselves.

The collection is held together by water imagery, but it contains a lot of variations. There are many changing tides.

The first section, “Ziggurat”, places Seed among the leading proponents of neononsense verse active today – think Jeremy Over or Matthew Welton – with a piled-up stack of imagery down which our eyes pour gently. Occasionally our interest pools on a nice phrase, at other times it rolls on over seemingly disconnected clauses held together only by sound.

The final section, “Operations of Water”, returns to this mode of poetics, albeit in a new form. There is no downhill slope to this writing. Instead, I find it best to let your interest swirl around, reading up-down, forward-back. A whirlpool of imagery.

Things solidify in sections two and three. Like islands in an estuary, the poems in these sections offer us people and places.

The second section reminds me of the French nouveau roman. We have speakers caught in moments of transition, vividly aware of their surroundings, detached from humanity and humanity’s feelings. A preference for surfaces. Objects touched sensitively, as if by light rain or a thin but tingling mist.

“Danger in the Water” and “Milestone” are high points. Then, from the third section, poem 6 of “Absences”. That one is, to my mind, one of the best short poems I’ve read in years.

The third section is where the collection finds its most solid ground. Water operates symbolically here, placing us into scenes, often highly charged with emotion, each of which gives a promise (or perhaps a threat) of deep, often terrible meaning beneath the black and silver surfaces of our liquid subject.

Unlike this review, Seed uses his water imagery sparingly. He knows when to dam up his loquaciousness and when to unleash a torrent. His writing (here it comes) is fluid, and his poems are (dare I say it?) deep.

Out now with Knives, Forks and Spoons Press; Operations of Water is not a collection to take a raincheck on.

– Joe Darlington

Tigers and Seraphim

Jim Clarke – Of Human Interest (Scáthath Books, 2020) 

In his letter to the people of Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI recognised the great trauma inflicted on that country by the actions of its clergy. The actions of individual abusers were abhorrent enough, but it was the Church’s role in shielding those men that caused irreparable harm to the spiritual wellbeing of that country.

If one cannot trust one’s priest, there is no trust left in the world.

It was for this reason that the Pope declared a policy of transparency: “the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before God and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children,” he wrote.

Whether the Church has lived up to this noble aim is yet to be seen. We may be God-facing, but we are human, and so we are flawed. In our absence, the secularisation of Ireland has moved on apace. Even if it were possible for us to win people back to Church, these will not be the same people who left us in disgust.

They will be wary and cynical; their hearts will be hardened. And it is only too understandable as to why.

Why am I making these comments in an English literary magazine? Well, I have been asked to review an excellent book – Jim Clarke’s Of Human Interest – and these were the sad thoughts that accompanied my reading.

Clarke was a journalist in Ireland for over twenty years. A critical time, encompassing both the fall of the Church and the rise of the Celtic Tiger. His experiences feed into the book.

His journalists are brutal people. By necessity, they have hardened themselves. In this way, they are the quintessence of new Ireland. They celebrate their lost innocence, believing it has given them wisdom.

Clarke compares them to the seraphim. Angels that have been historically depicted as eyes with wings. Like a divine CCTV, they capture and record the many sins and struggles of God’s people here on Earth.

One might also think of the beast in Revelations, who is “all eyes, before and behind”.

But where God’s messengers merely record the sins of men, Clarke’s journalists also serve as arbiters. I admit, this made for uncomfortable reading, especially at the start. Clarke paints such a convincing picture of the hard-boiled, Machiavellian journalist that I would recommend this novel as a set text on journalism courses.

I would also hope that it dissuades as many people as it encourages!

It is only once major crimes are uncovered that these unsavoury characters find their path to redemption. Their sneaky double-talk, doorstepping and bin-diving are turned from acts of public nuisance into invaluable skill for detecting wrongdoing.

I am reminded of Christ’s words, and the way he cares more for intention than action. Here we have borderline criminal activity being performed by journalists which, on a typical day, would certainly be a sin. But when it comes to hunting a violent mobster or a paedophile within the Church, these are acts of righteousness.

The anger that people feel over the actions of the Church in Ireland is justified. Any organisation or group that closes itself off from the public eye will inevitably fall into sin. This is especially true of religious organisations. It is necessary to let in the seraphim, the cold and heartless eyes of outsiders, if we are to stand once again open and honest before the world.

Clarke’s book is currently available on Amazon, and all of the proceeds from its sale are going to charity. It is an excellent book. Action-packed, pacey, clear in its prose, and enlightening in its depiction of real-life journalists at work. It also leaves us much to think about.

– Demetrios Kanapka

The Return

Returning To Reims – Didier Eribon (Penguin, 2019)

The French theorist Didier Eribon returns to Reims following his father being moved to a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. He had left many years ago, his father a violent man, and unforgiving about Eribon’s homosexuality.

Born in 1953, Eribon’s parents had married young and had moved over time from a tiny flat to municipal housing whilst remaining steadfastly within the class they had born. Their lives, reconstructed here following long conversations with his mother, were circumscribed form the start, yet hard work and the passing of time had hardly changed their situation, though the abject poverty of his childhood had changed over time.

Whereas Eribon’s brothers would remain in the area and firmly within their class, Eribon was an outlier – his intelligence taking him first to high school and then to university – though as he makes clear, at each stage, the traps that society puts in the way of clever working class children act as stoppers on them making the right choices. He talks about his escape as being somehow miraculous.

Eribon’s fascination is with the fallout of Jean-Marie Le Pen coming second in the first round for the French Presidency in 2002. The community that he came from, and to which his family remain, had been resolutely Communist growing up, and yet now, over 30 years on from Paris ’68, were voting for the far right. Eribon had frequently written about one side of his identity, his homosexuality, but this other truth, that his background was working class was one that he concealed and often denied.

This return is both a personal one, to understand the decisions he made himself to estrange himself from his family and upbringing, but also a political one, to try and understand the change that has happened in France, so that the working class have become enamoured of the racist right. His father’s identity might well have once belonged to the far left, but his vote now belongs, however reluctantly, to the far right. In this world, language provides a constant reminder of difference, whether it’s the racial epithets that his family constantly use, or the homophobic slurs he grew up with.

The book deftly weaves biographical detail with his observations on returning, and surrounds it with a rich patina of reference. Eribon’s life in Paris led him to become friends with Foucault (whose biography he would write) and Bourdieu whom he would interview. Bourdieu and his concept of “habitus” is never far from the surface of Returning to Reims, but you don’t need to be a sociologist to appreciate Eribon’s insights.

Published in 2009, beautifully translated by Michael Lucey into English in 2018, and now out in paperback, it seems remarkably apposite in post-Brexit Britain. Turned into a piece of political theatre, I saw this at the 2017 Manchester International Festival, at HOME, with Nina Hoss on a radio show performing Eribon’s text and in dialogue with the left wing producer of the broadcast; it remains one of the most compelling and original pieces I’ve seen in recent years.

Eribon is unsentimental about his upbringing, yet is not afraid to question his own motivations and betrayals – the impact his departure had on his younger brothers for instance, or on his mother; and he is surprised to discover, they having seen him on TV, that his family were proud of his achievement. More damning for him, of course, was what they had given up, his mother especially, in working to enable his education and after that, his escape.

A Trotskyite from his late teen years, in the aftermath of 1968 Eribon immersed himself in the politics of the left, only distancing himself from Marxist thought – and its discomfort with personal politics – in the early seventies. He is damning about how the class from where he came has been betrayed, leading to their manipulation by and acceptance of the far right. Despite its wide ranging subject matter, it is also a personal memoir, and as an out gay man, he also goes into detail about how he became the man he is today, and developed an identity far from that of his upbringing.

“….a commitment to culture – a “vector” of distinction which is to say a manner for differentiating yourself from others….can serve as a way of building a world, of constructing an ethos that is different from the one (a working class gay man) inherits from his social circumstances.”

The nuance of the writing, and the wide reading and understanding that underpins Eribon’s memoir, transcends the specificity of the circumstance, and interrogates the society that we have constructed, and how, even when its architects are purportedly on the side of “the people”, it has failed to dismantle the imbalances of class and upbringing that are embedded within its design.

– Adrian Slatcher

Journalist of the plague year

Debora Mackenzie – COVID-19 (The Bridge Street Press)

As I type, people crowd beaches in the south-east during a heatwave, and the UK government threatens to close them.

This is a ‘crash book’, written in haste about a still-unfolding event. But Debora Mackenzie spent 36 years writing for New Scientist, and a lot of that on infectious diseases.

Because of this, she is very well-placed to put that crash book together. She does so with clarity and rigour. In fact it is much more than a rushed book to meet a need, particularly in the later chapters, as the historical reflections settle and solidify.

Mackenzie disabuses us of the idea that the coronavirus is completely ‘novel’, ‘nova’, ‘new’, it is not. Coronaviruses have been on a watch list for a long time. Mike Davis and others have been at this topic as critics, too.

The bat virus that is very likely to be the source of COVID-19 was found in Chinese and American labs in 2013. One lab called it ‘a threat for future emergence in human populations’, a ‘global threat’. Nothing was done.

COVID-19 really does sound like a brand new code word for a disaster, but it is simply Co for Corona, Vi for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year in which it first appeared in humans. A strength of this book is that it demystifies as it refuses to shy away from complexity or controversy.

Also in 2013, Mackenzie wrote for New Scientist on the bird flu threat. The ‘body counts will mount’ she predicted, ‘governments will be told that their demands for vaccines and drugs cannot be met’, they ‘will issue declarations and briefings’ they will ‘organise research’, tell people ‘to wash their hands and stay home.’

Sound familiar? ‘Mostly though’, she concluded back then, ‘they will just watch helplessly.’ And so it goes on.

Mackenzie watched the Programme for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, essentially a list mail, as a professional journalist. She sensed that something was coming early this year. Mackenzie names Jan 27th 2020 as the moment at which everyone connected knew what do, and some did, but many did not.

In China, hospital staff were told not to wear protective clothing because the authorities did not want to cause alarm. They were flipping between naming the virus as transferable from human-to-human and not. Some outspoken staff were told to write self-correcting, self-critical essays, ‘lines’, effectively. Ai Fen warned us, then died of COVID-19. Apparently interviews with Dr Ai still vanish from Chinese websites.

Hard lockdown followed, and China peaked mid-February 2020. China had experienced SARS already and the bird-flu threat. South Korea and Singapore had also been faced with deadly viruses and so responded excellently.

Those countries, Mackenzie reminds us ‘also had experience with a similar disease.’ In 2015, ‘South Korea had an outbreak of MERS, which they got under control using hospital infection control and quarantine.’ Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan ‘were all hit hard by SARS’, they ‘knew the need for speed.’

Others, though, did not. Sweden is only now receiving waves of internal dissent over its hands-off philosophy. The UK government were about to switch us into herd immunity. Mackenzie describes the narratives, for instance the ‘scoffing’ that ‘more people die falling downstairs’, forgetting that ‘unlike infections, stair accidents don’t then multiply exponentially.’ Yet ‘people made such objections in the early days of COVID-19.’

Can you hear the Boris bluffster in this? Do you remember people going around saying ‘it’s just like mild ‘flu.’ Do you remember the moments, during lockdown, when you suddenly realised that the young and fit were not completely immune? That some of them were dying of COVID-19? At the start, we all thought the old were exclusively at risk.

This book is a crucial object of public record in that sense, it contains a useful timeline of responses and disastrous delays. The U.K. definition of ‘contact’ as two metres for more than 15 minutes is written into the account. The US Food and Drug Administration insisted trials were done on U.S.-made tests before they were used on the public, ‘adding to an already disastrous delay in testing.’ In China, a ‘preference for secrecy and stability won out over the scientists’:

‘Zeng Guang, the chief epidemiologist at China CDC, is quoted as telling the Communist Party paper Global Times that local governments “only partially” based their decisions on what the scientists told them, instead favouring “social stability”, the economy and whether people could happily enjoy Lunar New Year.’ 

One terrifying aspect of this book is the hard assertion that COVID-19 isn’t the worst we could have had. The SARS kill rate is 40 percent. COVID-19 is a breeze compared to it. SARS is not as transmissible, but nothing stops a similarly devastating virus becoming as contagious as ‘flu. The author doesn’t think this scenario is merely possible, but inevitable. Judging from past pandemics, the author says, most will turn gladly to amnesia, and the crowded beaches in today’s news give an empirical side to that.

But public activism can make a difference, it ‘drove the development of HIV drugs and made them affordable’ Mackenzie notes, it ‘drove the introduction of sanitation’, the ‘massive success of vaccination’ and ‘the beginning of the end of smoking.’

Actually, the historical aspects of this book are fascinating, and it is to Mackenzie’s credit that she explores them while putting together a ‘crash text’. The cordon sanitaire was invented for cities with plague. Very interesting is the timeline from 1972 (which happens to be my birth year) in which Nobel prize winning scientist Macfarlane Burnet – who predicted acquired immune tolerance – said the future of infectious diseases would be boring, as he though he had them all licked.

His mistake, Mackenzie explains, was to assume that the past 50 years – in which no new diseases appeared – was a guide to the coming 50. In the subsequent 50 years we have seen Legionnaires’ disease, AIDS, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Bird flu, Dengue, Chikungunya, Zika, ‘Gonorrhea that resists all antibiotics’ and ‘Mad Cow Disease, in both cows and people.’ Mackenzie wonders ‘what Burnet would have made of’ COVID-19, it is anything but boring.

The reflections on AIDS, leaping from chimps to humans in the 1920s, then booming in the Belgian Congo – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – are insightful. Can we make correlations that talk about Wuhan and industrial China as similarly pressured environments? Certainly with Ebola, the bats carrying the virus had been displaced into human territory by deforestation to make coffee plantations. Mackenzie lists the looming threats for the future, the top virii most-likely-to.

There’s Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, part of the ‘Bunyavirus’ family. Apparently there is an old Soviet vaccine for this, partly made out of mouse brains. Its efficacy is sketchy. Then we have Rift Valley fever, Lassa fever, Zika, Nipah, Ebola.

The virus Nipah has a kill rate of up to 75 percent, it doesn’t spread well at the moment but may mutate. It is terrifying.

Some of these are carried by ticks and mosquitoes that are spreading outside their usual habitats due to global warming. There is a whole chapter asking us not to blame the bats, as many of these viruses are incubated in them.

Mackenzie is cautious not to assume COVID-19 came from the eating of a bat from a ‘wet market’ but concedes bats are eaten in China and Africa. It’s a colossal coincidence that the bat has been the source of magical conjecture, villainised, and is continuing that way. Bats are consumed for their supposed properties as remedies and feared as supernatural signifiers. But the bat world is still one to watch.

Bats have a kind of internal ‘fire extinguisher’ system that allows them to live longer. They operate at a higher temperature. This may mean COVID thrives in an already feverish, hot sufferer. This is all conjecture, but Mackenzie is careful to point out the role of bats in healthy ecosystems too.

The bat cave is only one site of concern. HN51 – ‘bird flu’ – is still around and may mutate. Virologist Ab Osterhaus once described it as potentially ‘civilisation ending’ stuff.

Here the book steps off, into larger refections on the human position in a universe that is, after all, just a vast explosion. The Things Fall Apart chapter explores how complex systems become prone to collapse. The Roman Empire, for instance, urban, carved up into divisions of labour, grain producers and taxation. Hit by a pandemic, it is prone to invasions that would ordinarily be easily repelled.

The parallel is us, the virus causes a recession, the recession causes cuts, the cuts cause a reduced capacity to fight further pandemics and other health issues. Upward spiral, downward spiral. Suddenly our plane flights and just-in-time ordering all seems so primitive.

How can such a chilling book be so rich? Essential reading.

– Steve Hanson

What Grows in Dead Soil

Andrew Michael Hurley – Starve Acre (Dead Ink Books, 2019)

There are dark and terrible things up there on the moors. Northern magiks. Devils walking about in the shape of men.

Andrew Michael Hurley is more than familiar with them. His first novel, The Loney, captured the spirit of Northern Gothic and set it loose upon a wide audience. From a humble first edition of only 300 copies, it rose to the status of bestseller, no doubt with a little help from Old Nick.

Now he returns with a leaner, trimmer, faster-moving and more hard-hitting novel; Starve Acre. A tale of a troubled family recovering from the loss of their son. They are beset by spectres from the past, both their own and those of the Acre itself.

Nothing ever grows at Starve Acre. It was the site, we learn, of the local gallows tree. It was the scene of many hangings and, most infamously, a triple execution of three boys. These boys committed unspeakable acts, goaded on by the demonic Jack Grey.

The Willoughby family move to Starve Acre and find their son acts strangely. The father, Richard, takes an interest in local history and starts digging up his garden in search of the hanging tree.

Now, as a wise man of the moors might say, if summat’s buried, there’s normally a good reason for’t. And there’s no higher crime in the North than sticking your nose in where it don’t belong.

The scene is set for an unsettling tale. Hurley is a master of Gothic pacing, with a menacing dread lingering over the whole tale, punctuated by bursts of violence and sudden shocks. It builds to a very satisfying conclusion, but avoid spoilers while you can; it is definitely worth reading this one blind.

We don’t cover much horror here at the MRB, mostly because it’s very difficult to write about without spoiling all the endings. If, however, you enjoy that emerging genre we have taken to calling “Powerhouse Gothic” – the horror of the Northern Powerhouse – then Starve Acre will dazzle and haunt, in equal parts.

The paperback is due within the next couple of months. It’s recommended for stormy nights with crows at the window, or, alternatively, for a morning commute on public transport, which these days is just as scary.

– Joe Darlington

Open up and say aaaaaaaa

Free Reading No. 1: a series of bulletins. 

This one is for literary types. Academics. Nerds. Academic-nerds. Obsessive readers. All of the literarily in-too-deep.

Those who get Manchester Review of Books on paper will already know that we run a column on secondhand books. LRB don’t. Having a paper dedicated only to shiny things coming out of the big production machine tells us something. Secondhand books are a big part of the real life of readers. The essential things are the dog-eared, the worn, the written-in.

The ‘free read’ is also a big part of the life of the serious reader. Of course there are unpaywalled quality websites, some newspapers, high quality blogs. There is also the directory of open access journals, DOAJ.

But for a couple of decades there was another, secret layer. Recently, access to it has been difficult.

For instance there was Aarg. I will call it ‘Aarg’, although it had, in its time, a fluctuating and sometimes absurd number of a’s. Aaaaaaaaarg. As sites had to close and be re-hosted, the name was both changed and not changed by using extra a’s.

Because Aarg was a site which allowed humanities scholars to upload research, books and papers, in fact whole collections of papers by important intellectuals. They would download, indexed in neat zip files. A dream.

Of course, Aarg was dodging the capitalist players of the information industry for a heroically long time and was eventually closed. Aarg allowed users to cross reference and update the files with better copies, or with text-scanned versions. And it was not a Wiki.

Those who knew, those like me who had become addicted, we met in back rooms before the lockdown to console each other over Aarg’s death. Aarg was beautiful. It stood for Artists, Architects, and Activists Reading Group. It was created by Sean Dockray around 2000.

Aarg was a lifeline of a sort, especially for those outside academic tenure, with no access to a university library. Its closure hit hard. And even with full university access, Aarg threw up things you would never get in the library.

Before I knew what the acronym stood for, I thought that ‘aarg’ was the frustrated cry for that one last thing you haven’t access to, the one thing you need right now to finish a piece of writing:

‘Aaarg! I just need that weird article by Benjamin, but I don’t have that book!’

And onto Aarg you would go, to find it, at your peril, because to go into that place was to go into a beautifully designed wormhole. Just looking at the stream of latest uploads was like walking into the lost Library of Alexandria in spectral form. Grey and white lists of arcana scrolled into infinity through the glowing mist of Aarg’s clean white background.

I was so in love with Aarg. After it was closed, like a delusional widow, I kept a URL file in a folder to periodically go back and check that it was really dead. There was that possibly dodgy, possibly Russian site, to get some things from, but it wasn’t the same any more.

Today I clicked my Aarg ‘widowlink’ to find that it now redirects you to https://textz.com/

Textz.com has an enigmatic subtitle in ‘we’re still the & in copy & paste’. A series of Courier font headings roll down the page like a poem:

Same image, next day
G comme gauche
Le despotisme occidental
A Sick Planet
The Three Ecologies
Plastic Island Revisited

AirBnB Go Fuck Yourself
I Want a Dyke for President
The War Is Coming
Postscript
Nos humanités
Sans soleil
Actual Air

But each line is a link to a text document. For instance ‘G com Gauche’ takes us to a discussion between Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet. Something is happening. At the foot of the page are links to pirate.care, ubuweb, monoskop, libgen, scihub, archive.org, oml and pad.ma

Ubuweb is the creation of Kenneth Goldsmith and others. An institution now, but an important cultural storehouse. Monoskop is well-known and I find rather tame. At Pad.ma I watched Godard talking on Instagram. Libgen has the feel of Aarg, its design is very classy.

Pirate Care has Memory of the World Library tagged on as its ‘syllabus’. This is an older site, running back when Aarg did. I don’t think it is adding new material. Sci-hub promises free research, but is asking for a Google Chrome extension to be installed.

Here is a huge and necessary disclaimer: I don’t know if downloading that extension is an OK thing to do, or if it is inviting Spyware. Someone would have to advise me.

I am, however, using Libgen. You can hit a ‘random’ button and get a curveball from the archives. Now that, for the surrealist in me, is fun.

Please keep Manchester Review of Books updated on this topic.

– Steve Hanson

Free-Range Frenzy

Deb Olin Unsferth – Barn 8 (And Other Stories, 2020) 

Chickens! Mighty ancestor of the T-rex. Think of them. The vicious cockerel, master of the farmyard, totem of the fighting Gauls. The wise hen, symbol of motherhood and jealous care, subject of folk tales from the Urals to Timbuktu.

The chicken is the most populous bird on the planet, but not for the right reasons.

Factory farming has exponentially increased humanity’s global food supply. The old Malthusian fear that overpopulation will lead to starvation has been categorically laid to rest. And yet it is our noble poultry friends who have shouldered much of this burden.

There are two types of chickens used by Big Ag: broilers and layers. (“Broiling”, in case our English readers are wondering, is the American term for roasting). Although the broilers have their own, hormone-induced sufferings, it is the layers, the hens, whose plight is worst.

Their clipped beaks, shit-burned plumage and cramped conditions are the stuff of animal rights placards. Barn 8, a new novel by Deb Olin Unferth, is about them.

Unferth brings us into the world of the big ag worker through two characters; the aspergic auditor Cleveland, and her new assistant Janey. Their job is to inspect factory farms across Iowa and write reports on their findings. The reports are then ignored.

Cleveland, frustrated with the lack of corrective action, takes to photographing and filming the conditions inside the farms. Iowa’s infamous “ag gag” law makes such filming illegal. Having crossed the boundary of illegality already, she takes to stealing chickens.

She dumps these chickens on a local vegan activist’s doorstep. The gift is not appreciated.

From here, the narrative is all set to play out. Auditors clash with activists, the conditions in the farms finally bringing them together, and One Big Job is planned; an action of such immense scale that it will leave generations of farmers scratching their heads, wondering what happened and quietly worrying that it will soon happen to them too.

By setting her novel in the warehouses of Iowa, Unferth brings us factory farming at its most industrialised and heartless. This is a smart move, as it’s difficult even for carnivores like me to sympathise with operations on this scale.

The novel carries a lot of vegan messages, although it’s not until later that Unferth lays them on thick. By this point we’re sold on the action, and so the fervency only adds to the drama.

The final delivery is great fun. The balance between family drama, political infighting, documentary reportage, action and japes makes for a perfect summer read. It never gets too heavy. You could recommend it to your mum.

Putting my academic hat on for a second, I would say that the success of this novel as a work of fun and untroubling fiction can be found in a subtle inversion of the terrorist novel form: a form I wrote a whole book about (British Terrorist Novels of the 1970s, 2018).

The standard terrorist novel follows five steps. The third of these is the “turning point”; the nadir in which an innocent activist is beaten, robbed, or otherwise treated unfairly by an authority figure. This unfair action serves to justify the protagonist’s turn to violence, and so the typical terrorist novel grows darker and more disturbing from this point in.

Unferth includes no turning point in Barn 8. The auditors are not beaten up by a redneck mob. They are not thrown in the cells for a crime they didn’t commit. Instead, we are led through their reasoning and shown the conditions inside the megabarns.

As a result, the actions of the auditors are proportional to the injustice they are bringing to light. The results are not as explosive (there are no explosions), but I can’t help thinking that, in trading cathartic violence for an uplifting final image, Unferth has discovered a far more productive route down which to take this form of political novel writing.

Taking off my academic hat and putting on my Stetson and cowboy boots, I can’t recommend Barn 8 highly enough. Read it on holiday. Read it in the sun. Just don’t read it with an omelette, as it might put you off your dinner.

– Joe Darlington

Subject and abject

Stigma, The Machinery of Inequality – Imogen Tyler (Zed)

Revolting Subjects, essentially Tyler’s first book on poverty and shame, seemed like such a definitive full stop when it came out. I couldn’t imagine a successor being required. But even I wasn’t expecting another half-decade or so of dirty, ground-in class war, enacted by the usual pact between capital and the state.

Call me naive, I will not complain.

I think it is poetic rather than inconvenient that Stigma, The Machinery of Inequality arrives right at the moment when the world has just been turned upside-down by Covid-19. When we can suddenly see who does the real work and who is a sleazy lothario, creaming off rhetoric and manipulation.

I don’t particularly like him, but here, surely, is Burroughs’ ‘frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’

This book gives you the end of each fork and clearly explains how each item got on the end of it. The starvation rations and roast dinners are produced by networks of exploitation, which produce and are produced by subjugated psychologies. The poor don’t just put up with the exploitation, they mark themselves – as we see literally – with shame.

‘Stigma’ has a history and a famous exponent in Erving Goffman. But Goffman has always been curiously unhooked from power and politics. The political rationale couldn’t be clearer. Tyler lays it out explicitly: Stigma is a governmental technology aimed at shattering the ties of community and solidarity. It also shortens lives.

Anyone who has tried to produce a book on this topic will know that this clarity of voice is inevitably the product of toil and deep preparation. Tyler takes it seriously and has put in the work.

To deal with Goffman’s particular fear of power-politics, Tyler reads him through black sociology. Tyler’s methods display themselves, therefore this book is as much good pedagogy as it is politically powerful. To ‘brush history against the grain’, from one of the most abstract pieces of Benjamin’s writing – and that’s saying something – is to bring together two surfaces that hitherto have not met. See how you might start to do that yourself?

This second chapter hits the nail so squarely into place it will be tempting to think, in the future, that it was written in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of May-June 2020. It wasn’t. In this chapter, Tyler demonstrates how the classical tradition of stigma sociology falls well short of finishing its task and shows how it might move forwards. It adds resources from black radicalism that others might pick up on. (I will add to this our review of the new Huey Newton Reader, click on our April 2020 archives, that book is a very good primer).

Crucially, Tyler’s book crosses borders. It doesn’t stay in Britain, although it is written by a British academic. It goes to India. It takes us across the colour line from north to south in America in the 1960s. Tyler wishes to ‘dislodge stigma from the settled meanings it has acquired within the twentieth-century social sciences’. To unhook it from its colonial framework and deploy its terms in a specific political setting.

Stigma describes the new slave mentality and what produces it with devastating clarity. One sub-heading is ‘a vigorous and relentless assault upon human dignity‘. That is how ‘Universal Credit’ should be renamed.

The book’s opening quote, from a letter Karl Marx wrote to Arnold Ruge, describes shame as anger turned inward, which if turned outwards might become an unstoppable motive force. But Tyler begins with those who have turned perilously inwards. She looks to the testimonies of individuals who have struggled to survive during the period of austerity, and it is to these examples we need to cling.

Tyler’s respondent Stephanie was called a ‘fraud’, a ‘cheat’, a ‘scrounger’ and ‘scum’ and so began to write it on her own body: ‘failure’, ‘freak’ and ‘waste of space’. Stephanie describes self-harm using the metaphor of a washing machine on spin cycle. It feels as though it is going dangerously fast and the only way to stop it is to ‘pull the plug’, to write on the body. The relief only lasts for seconds, followed by more shame.

Stephanie lost paid work through cycles of unpaid labour. The corresponding cycles of depression and self harm began. This is how the washing machine metaphor is appropriate. No wonder it is a machine for cleaning stains associated with domestic work. All of that Freudo-Marxist theory lurks under this story, and again it is a testimony to this book that it remains very accessible throughout.

Under all of this of course is gender. But also under this is the fact that capitalism rips up community at the same time as it testifies to it in extremely disingenuous ways. The advertising which deploys home, family and friendship, sold back to you in a feverish, distorted form. Your team at work replaces your ties outside the workplace, or you risk being put out of that workplace. Here is how Thatcher’s credo works outside of the rhetoric. Here, in Stephanie’s story, is ‘no such thing as society’ in concrete form. The world needs to be turned upside-down again, and permanently, so that society is the floor of things and the crass networks of self-interest are treated with disdain. Bad winds to blow away.

But to write like that is to write like E.P. Thompson in the 1980s. Which is not to say there is anything wrong with Thompson’s writing in the 1980s, far from it. It’s just that a great many people see the world the other way up. Self-interest, drip-fed through Americanised culture over decades, has flooded our brains. Brexit will attempt to make that flood of self-interest a solid concrete floor in Britain. We can refuse it. But to refuse it we need to be armed with information and this book contains that. It is avowedly historical in its research.

In 2008 George Osborne gave a speech to his party titled ‘There Is A Dependency Culture’, right in the middle of the banking crisis. The sheer hypocrisy of this cannot be dealt with in review here. It probably can’t be dealt with in short form without reverting to raw expletives. In 2010, Osborne became the austerity chancellor and transformed the welfare system into a nightmarish, punitive, laughing skeleton.

This system turned into one which rewarded welfare staff with ‘brownie points for cruelty’ and treated Stephanie with inhuman indifference and outright abuse. As this was happening to her, the media was full of stories about ‘scroungers’. She began to self-harm. She became suicidal, ‘stockpiling pills for the right moment’. Her account of turning up to sign on, bleeding from self harm, having left her car in the middle of the road, makes I, Daniel Blake seem like a sit-com.

As Tyler points out, one OED entry of ‘stigma’ uses a quote by William Howard to describe the marks of punishment beatings on the skins of runaway slaves, observed during the American Civil War. The term gains a markedly psychological dimension in the twentieth century, but it is rooted in conceptions of sin, punishment and bondage.

We can move this word out of the relatively abstract at any point in history. The seventeenth century slave trade, Tyler points out, is a good place to begin. An example is given of a notice advertising a reward for a runaway slave marked with two letters on the breast and shoulder. Slaves were units of currency. Out of these histories we all come. Tyler quotes Marx who describes ‘the coining of blood into capital’.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century slave owners were promoted to positions of power in provincial British cities and towns, including in Lancaster where Tyler lives. This history is all around us, but we need to see how its abusive power still shapes our lives.

How different is it, if we return to Stephanie, having cut stigmatic marks into her own skin, outside the Job Centre, as she tries to sign on, bleeding all over the paper?

The new networks of power have a marked Foucauldian skew to them, but ‘biopower’ was always about the power to wither and destroy life as much as to provide it. Leftwing pomo-phobic readings of Foucault often tend to forget this. Now ‘the conquistadors’ are ‘the officers of the World Bank’ and IMF.

How poetic that the Colston statue in Britain was pulled down as this book came out. This is how history needs to move, but connecting up the longer historical examples to our dangerously live, contemporary power circuits. Tyler cites Sociologist Robert Pinker on how stigma is a most subtle and devastating form of power, precisely because it leaves no trace. You only have to think of those workplace examples, the bullying line manager who somehow terrorises his charges within an inch of their sanity. But when you stop to think about it, or when it’s all over – because you have left that job – you would be hard pressed to describe how he did it. Of course if he punched you in the face the power relationship would dramatically shift.

Tyler’s broader ambition, then, is to make it ‘impossible to think of stigma separately from power’. Stigma, she says, is ‘a more productive form of power than that currently understood in the contemporary social scientific literature.’ I agree.

It is laudable that Tyler refuses the CBT-style calls to overcome barriers to seeking help without understanding the vicious power circuits that produce stigma. At the start of her powerful conclusion she disassembles the Royal campaign ‘Heads Together’, which is aimed at evaporating stigma as a barrier to seeking help. Tyler argues the opposite, that stigma should be raised out of the circuits in which it operates, in order to make it solid and examine how it does its nasty, literally murderous work. Mental health is most often explained away in biogenetic terms, rather than social.

It is interesting that CBT partly emerges from stoic philosophy, the main proponents of which today are awful figures such as Jordan Peterson. The other side to his schtick is the exponential rise of conspiracy theories as a way of explaining our experiences in the world, discourses which further uproot any potential solidarity before it is able to grow.

Tyler quotes Mona Lynch who describes the US situation of transforming people ‘from social and psychologically rich human beings into a kind of untouchable human waste that need only be securely contained until its final disposal.’ This is a global shift, and stigma is a key part of its evil success. But thousands of people have just been shifted onto ‘the dole’ and therefore into the stigma circuits. Will this mean a cold bath shock into recognition or just more harm? I cannot say. But all of that makes this book more relevant, not less.

Tyler describes ‘state-led’ and culturally produced stigma. The very obvious examples are in Faragism and red top tabloid fear-mongering. A further strength of this book is its ability to show us how stigma operates at all levels of the social body. There is no ‘outside’, it is never a case of simply buying a different newspaper.

Tyler identifies ‘stigmatainments’ that call upon the public to disclaim against fellow citizens. It seems a little bit House Un-American Activities Committee, a little bit Roman Games. What is Big Brother but the ability to buy your freedom in an arena? The nasty injection this form of television has had in recent years is that of class stigma.

These ‘degradation ceremonies’ have a direct role in what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’. They limit class dissent and clear the ground for capital to move in. It is revanchist territorial expansion in the internal empire of capital. When stigma devalues whole swathes of people it lionises others.

This is why I stay with Hegel, Marx and dialectics. When an ‘underclass’ is slammed, it is a particular, constructed conception of it, but it also validates an equally particular form of middle class. This epistemological war is not a phoney war either. It then plays out on the ground in cultural politics and of course in polling booths across the island.

This is how that quote of Marx from 1843 is so relevant in 2020. That tendency to turn inwards and hurt ourselves needs to be turned outwards. We need to move from singular private struggles to a big public issue. It needs to translate into historical dissent of the most militant kind. Because as you can see from the slap-dash, clown arrogance of Boris and Co the message the government is getting back from the people (I refuse to say ‘its people’) is ‘you can do anything you like to us.’ Britain is Loveless Island, an unreality show of punishment-reward relationships. It might go on for decades longer. It will not stop unless very large numbers of people refuse it, both at the polls and outside those brief moments when we have some real power.

This book is another contribution to a rich long-term project by one of the world’s greatest sociologists. Looking back at Revolting Subjects, the examples have changed, but the theory and politics have remained. A steely core that is being strengthened in order to gird us to resist the sharp rightward turn.

Between the two books are collections on migrant protest and politics. This project couldn’t be less inward-looking, at the same time as it speaks truth to the sick power of a British Isles now in a very dangerous place. That this book is published by Zed and not a university press speaks volumes about the author’s commitment.

This is a book you need to buy, but not only that, it is one you need to act on.

– Steve Hanson

Shanghai Pearls

Jin Li and Dai Congrong (eds) – The Book of Shanghai (Comma Press, 2020) 

China has been in the news a lot recently. The mass incarceration of the Uighurs. Establishing a police state in Hong Kong. Its nightmarish social credit system. And, of course, releasing and then trying to cover up a nasty little influenza that, in order to avoid a hate speech charge, we won’t be calling China Virus.

At times like this, when a country’s tyrannical government is running out of control, it is good for us to remember the people of that country. We only have to read about their government’s shenanigans after all; they have to live with them.

Comma Press’ “Cities” series is a perfect medium through which to do just that. They source the best in short story writers from cities around the world and have their tales, both realist and fantastical, translated into English for our reading pleasure.

The books of Tehran, Khartoum, and Cairo have all been excellent. They were light-touch collections that bring you straight into the heart of these cities. The Book of Shanghai, in this reader’s opinion, surpasses all of them.

Edited by Jin Li and Dai Congrong, the Book brings together ten stories of life in China’s second city. These range from closely observed works of realism, like Teng Xiaolan’s “Woman Dancing Under Stars”, to surrealist shaggy dog stories like Cai Jun’s “Suzhou River”.

I was halfway through Wang Zhanhei’s “The Story of Ah-Ming” when I realised I was reading one of the best short story collections I have ever read. This tale of a penurious grandma who starts out rummaging bins for recyclables only to end up going feral is so strange and yet believable that it could be a lost work of Dostoyevsky’s.

The stories are rich in character and elegantly varied in tone. We meet a lot of lonely people; individuals left behind by China’s modernisation and the break-up of multigenerational households. But we meet dreamers too, and chancers.

“The Novelist in the Attic” by Shen Dacheng is a surprising story of a writer permitted to live in a publisher’s attic, only to experience a severe identity crisis. As publishing modernises all around him, becoming ruthless and commercial, he moves backwards to the age of the suffering, penniless and low-productivity writer-artist.

Such things, as we know, can’t last long.

Here and there we get touches specific to China. Xia Shang’s comic tale of a family feud between zookeepers – “Bengal Tiger” – makes reference to the often outrageous sums Chinese courts can grant in compensation cases. “Woman Dancing Under Stars” revolves around collective dance classes and tearooms.

The beauty and the ugliness of a culture unlike our own confronts us, as it does in that first day in any foreign city when we haven’t quite got our bearings. The world is strange yet similar.

But these stories are also universal. Chen Danyan’s “Snow” is a sad little slice of life about a lonely woman who wanders the city looking for places to sit and read her book. She reads a French novel about the suffering of the Jews during the holocaust. She feels such sympathy for them, and yet we feel sympathy for her. Her suffering is our modern, undramatic, utterly mundane suffering. It is beautifully done.

For those looking for politics, it does creep in… just about. There is a nice balance to the book. Where the introduction repeats disingenuous Party narratives about the cultural revolution and mandatory socialist realism (painting them as trends rather than incitements to mass death), the final story – Chen Quifan’s “State of Trance” – has a biting dissident edge.

Chinese communists, it seems, are much like Soviet communists in their surprisingly lax attitude to dissidence in sci-fi. That sci-fi is only a fantasy perhaps allows for plausible deniability. Chen’s eerie story of young renegades dodging an all-consuming, mind-destroying collective is hard to interpret in any other way, however. The brain police are coming!

Overall, I cannot praise this collection highly enough. If you have any interest in the short story, get it. Even if you don’t, this might change your mind. A near-perfect collection.

– Joe Darlington