By Michael Bracewell.
Tirelessly enquiring and determinedly eclectic, the 3:AM literary magazine has always pioneered a reading of contemporary international fiction which confounds any single mission statement. In this 3:AM has become a literary and cultural venue which defies both fashionability and market forces – no mean achievement during an era which is often seen to be enslaved to precisely those demands.
In many ways, much of the work which has been published or discussed by 3:AM has been produced from a position which is either oppositional, separatist, or, dare one say it, a postmodern reclamation of the counterculture. (As one might, for instance, wonder what the counterculture might comprise in the opening years of the twenty first century.) And as such, it is maybe a worthwhile, not too strenuous exercise, to take a glance at the culture out of which or against many of the writers who have contributed to 3:AM have taken their bearings.
Back in the 1980s, the sudden commercial success of the so-called ‘Brat Pack’ of American literary fiction – notably, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz – altered the funky end of publishing to the idea that there might be a vast new readership for a new kind of fiction.
McInerney et al were writing about a specific evolutionary phase of white, bourgeois American dysfunctionalism. Indeed, McInerney’s novel Story of My Life, published in the UK by Bloomsbury in 1988, began (if I remember rightly) with the dinner party-stopping line: “Like, like I don’t need this shit…” The territory being covered was that of the drug-sodden, prematurely aged, shopped-to-death society of over-privileged, over-indulged young Americans— a world, in fact, already planted with the reasonably imperial and immoveable flags of Andy Warhol and Tom Wolfe.
But the books were filled with visceral energy and tack-spitting irony; they sold well, and their authors comprised a distinctly media-friendly cast of Armani besuited subjects. They came to represent a postmodern update of the Fitzgeraldian view of a privileged younger generation engaged on a perilous, vertiginous, morally compromising spree – with the jazz and cocktails of Fitzgerald’s graduates and bobbed-haired popular daughters being replaced with the grunge and cocaine of wealthy trustafarians and whacked-out suburban libertines.
The success of the Brat Pack coincided, however, with an equally forceful conflation of other cultural directives. In the UK, earlier in the 1980s, the arrival from New York of Kathy Acker – off the back of her commercially successful collection for Picador, Blood and Guts In High School + Two – had introduced younger British writers (and publishers) to the idea that there could possibly be a connection between the people who bought interesting records (this was still a largely pre-CD era, amazingly) and the people who bought interesting books. Acker presented herself as part rebel bohemian avant-gardiste, part NYC downtown punk, and part venerable literary grande dame. Stylistically and thematically her work – clever, infuriating, aggressive, neurotic, at times poetic, determinedly confrontational – was the direct opposite to that of the Brat-packers.
But Acker – unlike, for instance, a profoundly literary contemporary such as her fellow avant-gardiste New Yorker Lynne Tillman – was both of the literary world and outside it. She fitted and she didn’t, for the very reason that she wanted to risk taking her writing, its style of subject, to places which might well be perceived to lack academic or literary respectability. All of which she did with a kind of reckless give-a-shit determination to be contrary – even when the celebrity and applause with which her work had first been greeted had long since died down.
It was in the identification of a position between literature and the weird, vexed, culturally elastic legacy of post-punk music and ‘style’ culture which would make Acker, in many ways, a precursing figure to the literary and cultural territory which 3:AM magazine would subsequently come to explore. The identification of a post-modern literature which could be every bit as nihilistic and ironic as the world described by the Brat Packers, but which also recognized, as if by reflex, that there had to be a world, many worlds even, beyond irony and nihilism.
The second literary phenomenon to occur towards the end of the 1980s would be the sudden emergence of a largely apolitical school of social realism – its subject matter, whether hard-cased in mischief-making postmodern cleverness or not, being very much the new urban underground (if an underground could still exist) of the so-called chemical generation. In the UK, the success of the new generation of Celtic writers (their works in many ways linked to the vision and writings of James Kelman) would foreground a literature which was deeply vernacular, phonetic, at times bleak and at times game-playing. Above all, it raised questions relating to cultural and artistic authenticity – what might comprise a literature made during a time of rampant cultural materialism, and the postmodern condition in which quotation appeared to have replaced authorship?
And these, too, would be some of the issues that 3:AM – never taking itself too seriously, however – might aim to address. They bring to mind the challenge laid down by Ezra Pound, towards the end of his epic Cantos – “I have brought the great ball of crystal; Who can lift it?” Which is a good question to roll around the mind, on days like these.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Bracewell is the author of six novels and two works of non-fiction. He has written catalogue essays for many contemporary artists, and is a regular contributor to Frieze magazine.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 22nd, 2006.