Popular Culture at its Most Mental
By Richard Marshall (first published 2001).
The right-wing tabloid agenda of The Sun thrills millions of young working-class readers every day. Steven Wells’s Attack! Book stable of new fiction is aimed at the young readers hooked on this agenda; his aim is to subvert it with a counter-splenetic left-wing perspective which will corrupt its scaffolding template.
This template involves the fetishisation of Royalty, which reached an apotheosis with the death of Lady Di, of Mrs Thatcher and of the Tories. It involves the valorisation of traditional family values coupled with vivid hetero-sado/sex, glamour, sport and violence familiars alongside a comedic but deadly serious demonisation of Europe and anything smacking of socialism. It is these that make up the spine of Rupert Murdoch’s efficient hegemonic tabloid machine and it is these that are all subjected to a brutal inversion of meanings in Wells’s own Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty novel.
Written in the style of an insane tabloid genius running riot with the trade tools of alliterative hyperbolic headliners, Wells is cranking up a seriously influential political agenda into a surrealist, disruptively libidinous energy without the checks of moderation, civility or deference. After all, moderation, civility and deference have been the external parameters within which the Murdoch agenda’s Burkean extremist fantasies have been controlled. By removing these external constraints, Wells has been able to redirect the agenda.
Perhaps it is Burke who is the historical figure best able to help us understand the current crisis and conflict of ideas about the English novel. His brilliantly written but right wing Reflections On The Revolution In France of 1790 wasn’t a novel but worked itself up into such a state of passion and vivid imagining that it read like one at times and was used to provide conservative novelists with grist for their mills!
Claudia L. Johnson in her excellent Jane Austen: Women, Politics And The Novel writes that “ … Burke’s writing about the French revolution were among other things , embryonic political novels in and of themselves, and not simply a discursive political commentary…. In exposing the revolutionaries’ agenda, Burke describes a plot — lifted from Rousseau’s La nouvelle Heloise — which would be rewritten, elaborated, confirmed or refuted in countless novels to come…”
The famous Gothic drama of the morning of the 6th of October 1789 when Marie Antoinette nearly gets raped by an invading mob sees Burke working the high-tabloid style (“A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with an hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and through ways unknown to the murderers had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment”) and ensures that we get the sex and violence thrill of the anarchic moment alongside its refutation and censure. The values of time-honoured conservative values — the patriarchal ideal, chastity of wives and daughters and so on — are maintained at the same time as they are challenged. This is familiar.
Tabloids have mastered the prurient moment; they do nothing better than relate the lurid details of the murder or rape case in order to put across their wobbly moralism that murder and rape are terrible and not entertaining. (Of course its not just tabloids that do this!) The hypocrisy of using sex and violence as entertainment whilst simultaneously attacking such a use is part of the rhetorical capital of this sort of impassioned and judgemental right-wing prose. Only by understanding this phantasmagoric world where the political is presented as sexual is it possible to understand what it is that the Wells novel is attempting to challenge.
To read the blurb (written by Wells) on the back of the book is to confront the anti-Burkean tropes and figures of his fiction: “…Princess Diana repeatedly resurrected and then ritually slaughtered to satisfy the angst-lust of the drug-addled British public, with the government kidnapped by revenge-crazed Yorkshire miners and with an increasingly insane God gearing for Armageddon, the scene is set for Justine Justice and her top terrorist chums to persecute their insane jihad against the SAS, vegetarians, road protesters, serious novelists, rave music and the cabal of evil dog-molesting Tory vampires who secretly rule the world.” Without understanding The Sun and its agenda none of this would make sense but to the initiated, and who is there now not able to recognise just what is being parodied in this torrential freakshow, the Gothic insanity is focused and incisive. It represents an ingenious way of undermining the right-wing position. It uses apparently conservative material in order to question rather than affirm the conservativism. It attempts to establish an alternative tradition by working within an existing one but in a different way and to a different end.
This is what Jane Austen did in her day. Of course, she targeted a rather different readership. Whereas Wells identifies The Sun-reading young male as his target and so mimics the tabloid Gothic style in a gloriously brutalising, cranked-up extreme inversion of that style, Jane Austen identified as her readership the women readers of stuff like Jane West, a Burkean conservative novelist who would write earnestly about the excellence of the patriarchal family.
West’s fiction was a thinly disguised conduct book for mothers and daughters. “…[F]ilial and conjugal ties are no remnants of feudal barbarisms, but happy institutions , calculated to promote domestic peace,” she writes in “Tale Of the Time.” Other women anti-Jacobin writers of the time — More, King, Mary Anne Hanway plus male writers like Issac Disraeli, Charles Lucas, Robert Bisset and George Walker were all writing to ensure that the rights of parents over daughters, husbands over wives and the prejudices of established conduct over rational innovation were secured and supported.
Women who tried to write against this sort of sexist and conservative rubbish were roundly abused. Mary Wollstonecraft was one such hero. In an index to the Anti-Jacobin review of 1798 she was listed under the title “Prostitute”. This was a time of revolution and war — and the novel reflected this in an urgent battle for supremacy. So Jane Austen wrote her stuff in a context of crisis by using the rhetorical devices and themes of the Jane West style of conservativism to challenge them but without announcing the fact that this was what she was up to.
She wrote subtle anti-Burkean novels, banalising the hysterical fantasies that were being peddled as the alternative to the old values of English patriarchal ways and debunking the extremism of the Burkean deranged sex / violence Goth conservative imagination. She is a subtle proponent of rationalism, of the education of women, an anti-Romantic dissenter.
Claudia Johnson gives as an example Sense And Sensibility as the Austen novel “… most attuned to social criticism…the characters here are exceptionally conscious of how ideology, that only apparently natural system of priorities, practices, and attitudes, delimits all our social behaviour, and the novel as a whole assails the dominant ideology of its time for privileging the greedy, mean-spirited, and pedestrian.” Rather than being read as a conduct book for young women and wives “favouring female prudence over female impetuosity, as if these qualities could be discussed apart from the larger world of politics,” it is to be read as a problematisation of those codes and the communities that use them.
Of course, it has been argued that Romanticism is Jacobin, anti-conservative, anti-Burkean but this doesn’t seem to be as unchallengeable a view now as it was. Professor Marilyn Butler argued this and so sees Austen as a superior version of Jane West but it seems to me that the rationality of Austen, her demand that women “use their heads not just their hearts” is as Jacobin a project as any. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that many of the Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge ended up as Tory supporting reactionaries.
Recent works on the anti-Burkean dissenter critic William Hazlitt by, respectively, Tom Paulin and A.C. Grayling and Andrew Motion’s Keats have refocused ideas about the dissenting imagination and culture so that it has a much more rational and much less Romantic spin these days. So Austen’s novels are a new kind of literature. Targeting the Jane West readership, she subtly brought about a new kind of agenda for the novel, one which insisted upon the politicising of women through education, a feminist agenda that was deeply disruptive of the patriarchal hegemony of her day. Austen in these terms is a dissenter!
Thus, like Austen, Wells has seen the need for a new kind of literature, a new kind of English novel. His target, those spunk-smelly, yob/youff, Viz/Sun scanning, ‘Page 3’ drooling, Eminem/Puff Daddy imitating, Robot War/Match of the Day obsessing, mental Play station game playing young men — form a constituency that has been neglected or wilfully left out of the remit of the English novel. What novels are available for this group?
Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty was published two years ago with a cartoon cover illustration depicting a gun toting Lara Croftish sex babe on its vivid green,black and red cover. It carries an endorsement quoted from Trainspotting best seller drug/clubbing Scots author Irvine Welsh in stacked up upper case letters: “Fucking brilliant”.
Its iconclastic, eye catching title and cover is equalled by a cranked-up prose of cartoon violence and sex that would please anyone looking for a paperback thrill. It is using the very devices that make The Sun such a spectacularly successful organ of propaganda for the right but using them to very different, radical, dissenting ends.
If the tabloid journalism of the political right is the context out of which Wells has written as well as being a target for his splenetic satire — both as a novelist as well as in his other activities as a star journalist for the New Musical Express and script writer for numerous tv shows — it is the failure of the so-called quality British novel to address the young male reader and the right-wing agenda that also draws his fire.
Running through the mission statements for Attack! Books and the Wells novel itself is a sustained scorn for the New Parnassian style of top English writer Martin Amiss. Amiss by name and nature, this writer represents all that is amiss in the world of English novel writing for Wells. Martinamiss is the generic name which heads up chapter 14 of the Wells novel. The high art cred of Martinamiss and all would-be Martinamiss writing is called into question because it fails to engage with what in the end seems to be a very class-driven issue.
Whereas for Wells writing a novel today is a relevant and serious critical project, where the aim of any author should be to do to literature what punk did to rock , what Dirty Harry did to cop cinema and Judge Dredd did to Dan Dare — that is, test it out to a state of completion that looks and feels like destruction — the Martinamiss writers have withdrawn from the battle.
They look down with anguish and disgust at the rest of us from elegant, posh, privately-educated, Oxbridge Ivory Towers. In a strange language they produce novels about elegant, posh, privately-educated, Oxbridge sensibilities anguished by the terrible state of the world or their own febrile, tremulous lives. When they do reach out to the rest of us they do it just to show how clever they are — real experience and politics are used as materials upon which they can work their spells and nothing more. It is an utterly trivial, politically conservative and deeply unworthy approach to a genre that in the past has coughed up Defoe, Swift and Jane Austen.
As an example of the High Triviality of this New Parnassianism, we can note how all Martin Amiss seemed to be doing in his book Time’s Arrow was to utilise a little bit of reading about the Nazi holocaust and some popular science to cook up a minor exercise of astonishingly ugly taste. The hopeless moral failure of the book was that it was about investigating the nature of the Martinamiss style rather than investigating the nature of the nazi crimes. It’s this sort of precious, solipsistic and disengaged writing that Wells hates.
Wells’s hard alliterative rhythm of his bomb-lobbing prose comes from his Bradford Old and Middle English speech but his assault is more than merely a style thing. Or if it is a style thing, it’s because style is not just about style. After all, Amiss himself doesn’t footle around with mere Gielgudian Smooth. He doesn’t touch the elocutionary velvet tone of drained-out lifeless prose; his bag has ever been the invention of low-life demotic, a “Conradian urgency”, to quote Jason Cowley’s recent description, that closes in on the atmospherics and pyrotechnics of laddish banter, laddish cool.
For Wells, it’s this “invention” of a working-class vernacular hipness that stuffs Amiss. There is a mediocrity that comes from the banality of its target because in the end all Martinamiss wants to do is have us admire the mannerisms, the flash surfaces, the mastery and ownership of the game. It avoids the crackling bite, the violence of thinking and engagement, the eroticism of taking a point of prejudice for a long and bracing walk, which is what a novel can do. By not caring a fuck, it cannot fuck, is what Wells might argue.
Martinamiss adopts voices in his novels like a rich posh guy imitating and ridiculing the lower classes he despises, fears and envies. “I don’t want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,” the real Martin Amiss is quoted as having once said. Fair enough you might say. Nothing wrong with ambition. We all want to be winners. But for what end? What purpose? Which readers?
These are the real questions that Wells addresses. His novel has sentences no one else could have written, but they have a focus that goes beyond the delivery. They have a reachy slap that smacks into the complacent cheeks of the Martinamiss writers and enlarges the space for eloquence, discursiveness and the imagination.
In an essay on Saul Bellow from his collection of critical essays The Moronic Inferno Amiss writes of what he calls The High Style: “To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the twentieth century has been the self-imposed challenge of his [Bellows’] work. The High Style attempts to speak for the whole of mankind, to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten.” It has also been Amiss’s self-imposed challenge.
That nostalgic elegiac tick, looking back to times past when things were done better – “… to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten …” — is the mark of the true conservative. No wonder he has become the name given to all that the dissenting Wells attacks. He sounds like the dull old Tory Wordsworth rather than the youthful enlightened radical one.
For Wells all Amiss and his type have done is produce boring and self-regarding empty prose whilst at the same time making sure they remain aloof of the arguments of the hack, the journalist, the pulp and genre writers who have managed to keep up with the century. Amiss is in that line of writing which Wells sees as emerging out of Bloomsbury’s Virginia Woolf school of novelists where the self absorbed angst of well-off middle-class people are written about at length in forbidding and boring prose to the exclusion of anything else and to the exclusion of anyone else except other middle-class members of this Club Ennui. For Wells this is intolerable and a disaster.
When one of Wells’s characters says that “…the Modern English Novel is so boring, dull, self-referential and wonderfully utterly up its own arse that very few people want to read it and instead turn in their unwashed, stinking, non Oxbridge and non-public school educated millions to the flash, glamorous, fast, moronic and typhonically titillating trashy joys of American ‘genre’ fiction…” we hear Wells’s own position expounded in the wild comic routine of the performance poet he once was.
He continues though by explaining why the Martinamiss school are happy about this exclusive state of affairs, “ …a state of affairs to be warmly applauded because the last thing that we literary types want is for our books to be read by an audience of stinking prole scum who aren’t dead from the neck downwards no-nob stiffs sunk in the 19th Century.” The class basis of the literary argument is clarified with rude satirical abruptness.
The Attack! Book project in its essential thrust ventriloquises in maniac tongues the organising idea of John Carey’s book The Intellectuals and the Masses. The idea in Carey’s book is that modern literature, as opposed to other types of writing such as pulp and genre fiction, is a strategic response to mass literacy by an intellectual elite wanting to keep out the great unwashed and thus maintain what Bourdieu would call their cultural capital.
Stylistic failure is a moral failure for Wells; no amount of stylistic felicity and cleverness can excuse the Martinamiss writers from taking an essentially exclusive and mandarin class perspective on language and writing. Those journalists, hacks, genre and pulp writers mentioned above are heroes because they have the qualities of real engagement, the ‘to the moment’ feel of actual argument with and about the world that Martinamiss‘s approach refuses.
So Wells, a journalist himself, gives it large to Amiss because of the self regard of the writing coupled, crucially, with its lack of moral resonance. It is disengaged stuff, working Arnoldian disinterestedness rather than Hazlitt’s. This is a rooted aristocratic pose for the New Parnassians. Where Arnold believed that the critic should not take sides but look on neutrally like an old-style Civil Servant, Hazlitt in using the term “disinterested” was saying that the critic should respect her opponent but of course have a perspective.
The Attack! Book project is therefore an attempt to throw into relief the massive failings of the Martinamiss school of literature as well as redirect the tabloid journalism of The Sun. His own book, Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty is its massy, foundational core, a hot stew of messages, possibilities, gags, rants and splenetic knock-about that is the opposite of the Martinamiss cool and controlling audit of the language as High Art literature routine. The five other books out on the Attack! Book imprint follow up and develop the agenda with iconoclastic fervour reflecting the dissenting comic genius of their rancorous general editor.
Against Martinamiss’s New Parnassus Wells launches a tanked-up anti-literature that belches, farts and roars itself into a demented lunacy of extremist, secularist hywl, a word that describes the kind of impassioned almost supra-linguistic delivery usually found in raving mighty Welsh Evangelical preachers. Again and again the dissenting author creates a moment where language breaks down into nothing more (nothing less) than a roar of possessing anger, a monumental crash of barmy noise that signifies, like Lucky’s speech in Godot signifies, the monstrousness of traditional power , its language and conditions.
There is no neutral ground. And it is humour, the cocky stand-up routine humour of the club/rock live act that surfaces, the vernacular pulse of lived in, throat sore speech language rather than the miserabilist prose of the tight-arsed attic ghosts of the Martinamiss school boys and girls. When Wells connects his writing to Joyce – “… a book that makes James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake look like Janet and John dumbed down for dyslexics. On Crack. OFFICIAL!” — he is seriously reminding us of that republican, dissenting and cosmopolitan tradition that will not equivocate or dissemble even as he does this to get a laugh.
So there you have it; what he’s up to is writing brilliant prose just like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice!!! But whereas Austen, as noted earlier, did not announce her dissenting project — being as she was the ever decorous, divinely so, Jane!- Wells has no such qualms. He’s Jane Austen popping out of the bodice of that decorum. Jane Austen with her tits out! On Crack. OFFICIAL!
Steven Wells, Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty (Attack! Books, 1999)
Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women , Politics, and the Novel (University of Chicago Press, 1988)
Burke quoted in Johnson, op cit p 5
Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen And The War Of Ideas (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975) and Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (Oxford University Press, 1982)
Tom Paulin, The Day Star Of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style (Faber and Faber, 1998)
AC Grayling, The Quarrel Of The Age: The Life And Times Of William Hazlitt (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000)
Andrew Motion, Keats (Faber and Faber, 1998)
Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow: Or The Nature Of The Offence
Jason Cowley, book review in The Observer Sunday 8th April 2001
Martin Amis, The Moronic Inferno
John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (Faber, 1992)
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique Of The Judgement Of Taste (Les Editions de Minuit, 1979)
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 28th, 2007.