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Low cost, big aims: An interview with Dostoyevsky Wannabe

In recent years the UK has seen a revolution in publishing, with independent presses bringing in much needed energy and daring to the sector. It would be misleading to suggest there weren’t indies in the country before this day and age, but thanks to technological advances in communications and the way books are produced, distributed and consumed, this scene is now thriving and having a stronger impact on publishing as a whole. One of these indies is the prolific Dostoyevsky Wannabe. Based in Manchester, and the child of Victoria Brown and Richard Brammer (“two confused people from the last years of Generation X,” as they self-identity), DW has released 51 books in four years. This interview was conducted over email in Spring 2018.
— Fernando Sdrigotti

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3:AM Magazine: There’s no money, there’s no glory, there’s no fame, so why start a press?

Dostoyevsky Wannabe: Hmm, low self-esteem? For something to do? I think maybe we like making things on the side of day-jobs. Dostoyevsky Wannabe is something that we make effectively in collaboration with a lot of people. We like making things and we like learning things but we’re shit at making money out of these things.

3:AM: How did you get started with this?

DW: Before we did this, we did a few video-art type things and Vikki painted (this on the side of real-life and jobs in the NHS and in the civil service, respectively). We did alright with it and were involved in those communal Time Out First Thursday things back when there were a few galleries in Bethnal Green. The one that we were involved with was for Nettie Horn who I don’t think are in Bethnal Green now. There were problems for us to be able to work creatively in those areas though. One: it was too expensive in terms of money (video work is cheap to make now but paint and canvas is expensive); two: space – a room to paint – when we moved to Manchester we lost a few rooms: Dostoyevsky Wannabe HQ is a very small flat in Manchester; three: mobility – if you have a day-job you need something you can do on the move, something you can do on a commute and something that you can easily have at hand. For a while, the solution to this, for me at first, was to write. Writing is famously portable and I could do it back and forth from work and, believe it or not, you can process batches of 48 cervical smear test slides and also write a few lines in your head if you’re talking about writing things that don’t go to the end of the line. But I mostly wrote on the move, I wrote flarfy kind of poetry stuff at first.

3:AM: Poetry? Really? I didn’t see that one coming…

DW: Yeah, I was going through some kind of awful time in my head when I started writing – these were the euthanasia years before we moved to Manchester, some kind of pre-midlife crisis – euthanasia debates on Radio 4 and iambic pentameter are very similar, I think. During these years, I bought and used those pointlessly expensive ‘literary’ paper notebooks and published some stuff with some more typical, traditional capital ‘P’ poetry magazines but thankfully that didn’t last and I switched off Radio 4, started writing into the Simplenote app on my phone, went back to listening to Beat Happening and got my head together. I think poetry gets a bad reputation sometimes, and often it is its own fault, I actually think that it’s quite a plastic medium, it doesn’t all have to be about partridges coming home to roost in Cumbria or whatever. It can be more like making video, more of a collage process or like writing experimental prose.

Anyway, I’m digressing, by the time I’d written my first two books, Vikki had switched from painting and had written Cherry Bomb and we wondered what to do with what we’d written and, since we’ve always been DIY types, we decided to put them out ourselves and we were reading a lot of stuff from writers who were less than mainstream in a variety of ways and we thought why not see if they want work putting out too. Five minutes later and we were learning how to typeset and Vikki was putting painting and design skills into the book covers and we were both coding up our website. All of those things came together and started to interest us as much as the writing.

3:AM: Sounds like a chaotic journey… Did you find what you were looking for, to misquote the deplorable Irishman with an onomatopoeic name? Did you find that running a press allowed you to find an output for your work, when you very likely now spend looking at the work of others? I ask because this is how I feel about running a magazine myself…

DW: I’m not sure I’d characterise it as a journey in that a journey sometimes implies some point of departure and arrival and maybe some kind of conclusion and I don’t really think we’re into conclusions. I don’t think I see much difference between running Dostoyevsky Wannabe and writing poetry or prose or making videos really, and perhaps that comes out in how we do things overall. Chaotic? Definitely. What was it Harold Pinter said once, “haphazard, pretty obsessive, not at all systematic”? Yeah – all that.

The question of starting something to find an output for your own creativity and then spending all your time dealing with the work of others is an interesting one. We don’t do a lot of editing of other people’s work with Dostoyevsky Wannabe so I’m not sure that reading other people’s work impacts upon us as much as it would in a more conventional literary editing process and we’re honest about what we can and can’t do for people from day one. In that way we are giving our time to writers but we’re also not giving all of it. If there are writers out there who desire a kind of paternal or maternal relationship with us as a publisher, someone to act the surrogate responsible parent to their wayward artistic genius, then they’re out of luck. Also, it’s a question of perspective inasmuch as Dostoyevsky Wannabe kind of is the outlet for our own creative work too. I just think maybe we don’t want to settle down into one area and it’s the translation between mediums or modes of communication (writing prose, design, posters, digital design, product design, writing poetry) that seems to be of most interest to us.

3:AM: There’s a lot happening in terms of independent publishing in the UK right now. This is the case not only in London but in many other parts of the UK, particularly up North. Where do you position yourselves in this scene?

DW: There is, yeah. I’m not sure where I think we’d position ourselves other than to the side of a lot of it and hopefully in direct or tangential relation to other parts of it. We definitely tend towards doing things how we want to do them and however we are able to do them and that often means we’re outsiders to lots of it which is fine. That’s not to say that we don’t like to find other writers and presses and magazines who we can share affinity with. We’re really into the collaborative side of things. By dint of the fact that I used to write reviews for HTMLGIANT, I think we were more well-known in America to begin with and we had more contact with American independent writers, magazines and publishers in the beginning and they definitely operate with a slightly different mindset to British publishers, who are often heavily based in funding structures via the Arts Council.

3:AM: Outsiders or not you were nominated for the Republic of Consciousness Prize…

DW: Yeah that’s true. Getting shortlisted for prizes is perhaps a good barometer of where we do and do not fit. It was really cool at the beginning of the year for us to get down to the final six in the country for the prize and not least because the book that was involved, Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble, was really worthy of the attention – and, in our opinion, deserved to win – but also because it was interesting to see how these things work.

3:AM: How did that go?

DW: Occasionally, there was a suggestion from certain people, not really people involved with the other presses, but with some of the commentary around it, or from conversations we had with people who we spoke to at the various events associated with it, that we were fairly new and therefore a kind of junior/apprentice publishing business, some kind of developing entity and some of that was a little bit amusingly patronising. I mean, we definitely see ourselves as inchoate and developing but we don’t feel like some fledgling press who will develop into a fully-fledged and more normative independent publisher one day. Neil Griffiths, who ran the prize, wrote a bit somewhere, the Guardian or maybe the TLS, I think, where he termed us “the uncompromising Dostoyevsky Wannabe” and maybe that’s true to some extent, at least in terms of how we don’t really see a need to buckle down and learn how to be a “proper” independent press. Otherwise, we’re lovely people, y’know. Propriety is just learning how to use the right knife or fork isn’t it? We don’t know how. We could probably learn but would we agree with the tradition in the end even if we did?

3:AM: Eating with the hands is fine. But in any line of work, or any creative space, there are conventions…

DW: Yes. Conventions are sometimes useful and we work with some of them with no problem at all, certain conventions of typesetting for instance, they work just fine and have done for hundreds of years but it’s also true to say that conventions don’t need to be restrictive. From what we can tell, they often become restrictive due to vested interests and so we don’t feel like we have to comply with them all of the time (or even that much of the time).

3:AM: You claim not to be “a proper publisher”. What does this entail exactly? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of this strategy?

DW: To first return to the question of needless convention, and convention that also happens to be very restrictive, we definitely feel there to be too much of this in the publishing world and we’d include some independent publishing in this. Maybe it’s the mania for preserving literature that breeds this kind of attitude, the idea of books as sacred, etc. This is not an idea that we’d go against of course but maybe this same attitude pervades areas beyond the literature itself and amounts to an over-protection of the conventional mechanisms that are in place to decide how books could and should get into the world: how they are produced, how they are sold, who gets to be published and who doesn’t. We’d definitely argue that this is an area where questions should be asked.

It’s funny really, there was some faint reaction to Penguin Random House’s stated decision to publish authors from more diverse backgrounds that went on in my peripheral vision recently. I often can’t be bothered to read and comment or involve myself much in these debates but I was amused to still hear people bang on about how they were worried that a stated decision to publish this or that type of demographic might lead to a dilution of “great” and “worthy” literature.

3:AM: Yes, the funniest part of all this Shrivergate is the pretence that mainstream publishing right now acts like some kind of benchmark for literary quality… Or that it ever did…

DW: That was it, that was the one. What such people seem to forget is that there has never really been any verifiable authority that can name just what “great” literature is. Publishing houses like Penguin or Faber or HarperCollins (or whoever) are and were just businesses at the end of the day. They’ve always been businesses from day one as far as I can see. It fascinates me how a business who makes a choice to pay the printing bill for a book and then tries to sell that book to turn some kind of profit can also be said to be the ultimate arbiters of what is and isn’t to be classed as “great” or “quality” literature and yet that is the myth that continues to persist. I have a definite problem with publishing as gatekeeping in the same way that I wouldn’t expect a record company boss to intrinsically know that a band or a musical artist had made a piece of classic, “stand the test of time” music, etc. It’s just not likely is it and yet the myth is embedded. Of course, publishers do employ literary editors and people who base their professional lives on having a deep and sympathetic understanding of literature but they too are fallible and, along with the many other related power structures that otherwise inform who does and doesn’t get published, I’d conclude that there is no such verifiable thing as “great” literature that isn’t marred by a variety of conflicts of interest.

3:AM: So this is you not being a “proper publisher”?

DW: Yes. We choose to label ourselves “publishers” but only in scare quotes for that reason and for other multiple reasons. First, we don’t want to set ourselves up as gatekeepers (see above). Whilst we take a certain amount of pride in developing our expertise and putting out books that are of as good a quality as we can muster with our model of production (our books are pretty much standard bookselling quality), we don’t wish to further add to structures in publishing that serve to replicate the status quo and which tend towards conservatism. Second, it’s a message to anybody who chooses to submit to us. Any first time writer who fully believes in the status quo and who has read the big book of ‘How to get published 2018’ is perhaps warned not to bother with us. It’s not that they shouldn’t submit, it’s just to condition their expectations a bit with regard to who we are and what we do. Three: It serves as a way for us to be fairly straightforward and clear and honest in our aims. Four, and perhaps paradoxically in relation to number three but in no less of a valid manner, it allows us an amount of unintelligibility that we find healthy.

Dostoyevsky Wannabe

3:AM: At least from the somehow peripheral place I occupy it looks to me as if the “literary scene” in the UK were mainly a middle-class club — the same could be argued about any lit scene anywhere, to be fair. And I am aware that there have been attempts to change this, however minimally (I’m thinking here of collections such as Know Your Place or Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers). And this is something we have discussed privately at length before, but I want to know your experience as working class people trying to exist in this very middle class space.

DW: Dostoyevsky Wannabe makes no money and usually doing something to make no money is the province of the rich person, the rich person’s plaything, and that can’t be any kind of description of us because we have no money to begin with (and we’re not talking no money in a more middle-class way either, but we’re talking periodically eat cheaper food for a week or so until day-job payday). So yeah the vast percentage of any “literary scene” looks to me to be a middle-class club as you suggest. I’ve probably already touched on it, in fairly oblique ways, in the answers above. Of course, inequality of opportunity doesn’t just work across class division but works across multiple divisions involving gender, race, sexuality and the differently able-bodied. Literary scenes, both traditionally and to this day, fail to welcome much in the way of diversity and this is endemic across most areas of society as we know.

3:AM: Is there any hope this might change? Aren’t the examples I mentioned above beacons that indicate things are changing?

DW: Maybe it is very gradually starting to change I think but it is SO slow (although apparently too fast for the people who don’t want it to change). In my own experience, I can potentially feel the difficulties from two perspectives: one as a working class person and, secondly, as a person who, if the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is to be believed, lives with a few of the impairments listed therein. In both cases, and this is perhaps just who I am and what I’ve been used to and how I’ve traditionally handled such differences, but it doesn’t necessarily trouble me that I might have difficulty gaining access to this very middle-class club. Of course, it does affect my possibilities in this life even if it is very difficult to say exactly how I have personally missed out due to being denied such access, or how anyone misses out specifically, but I can tell you one thing for sure and that is that both myself and many, if not all, of the writers who we work with at Dostoyevsky Wannabe produce work every bit as good as the work which does make money and work which does lead to better job opportunities in the arts – lecturing, residencies, etc., etc. and yet many of us, myself and Vikki included, NEVER receive those kinds of opportunities. From an extremely simple political economy perspective if I own a house already or have had one passed down to me then my literary career automatically has a different trajectory but I don’t and my situation is somewhat precarious as a result. There are people far more disadvantaged than myself or Vikki too though, like I say, it’s complex and multidimensional.

That said, I’m not sure where the answer to any of this ultimately lies in terms of workable reality but with Dostoyevsky Wannabe, and in the tiny area of publishing and literature, and from the tiny perspective of an independent press, we do ask a few questions of some of this via the model that we have originated. I doubt we make all that much difference but we do what we do with the means available to us.

3:AM: One objection I have seen a few times raised about your model of publishing is that you use CreateSpace and that CreateSpace is an Amazon venture. There is an obvious answer to these objections, in that it’s highly unlikely those raising them have done it from ethically produced laptops or iPhones, from a communist commune in the Free World, wherever that is. So my objective here goes beyond that and aims to invite you to think about the effects of late capitalism in the production of literature. So far you are using the system to get books at cost price. But do you think this is a model that will be allowed to continue? What are the dangers of “flirting with the enemy”? 

DW: This whole issue was pissing us off for a while and it is most succinctly put down by our friend Lara Alonso Corona who said on Twitter that complaining about us using Amazon is like saying “Richard Kern can’t be No Wave because he uses Kodak film in his cameras”.

This question of how this speaks to the production of literature in late-capitalist times is more interesting than those criticisms though. Terry Craven from Desperate Literature bookshop in Madrid wrote a piece about this in The Bookseller following a conversation that we had with him. Out of interest, what is your take on this question?

3:AM: I personally only read books that have been typed manually by the writers, using sustainable paper, with typewriters ethically produced… Seriously, I can’t see how to escape the problem that is Amazon, unless governments start putting limits toon their increasingly monopolistic gig. Asking people to be responsible consumers is some weird liberal utopia…

DW: I mean people do have valid ethical problems with Amazon and that’s a problem that myself and Vikki share in a kind of wider global geopolitical way but it isn’t a problem that anyone can really restrict to Amazon and it would in fact have to be extended to Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Tesco, Coca Cola, Penguin Random House, Samsung, Sony and to any current plutocratic state of affairs.

But I guess the book world has a special problem with Amazon because of Amazon’s origins as an online bookseller. In a UK context, publishing lost its ability to price fix in its own interests due to fact that the Net Book Agreement collapsed and was rendered illegal largely due to the lobbying power of companies (Waterstones, Borders, Dillons, mainstream supermarkets, etc). Not that long after that, Waterstones almost went bust, Borders is no more and that was as a result of Amazon killing off their business model in the same way that they themselves had previously killed off the Net Book Agreement. Maybe if it was Google who had made the first in-road into books then perhaps they’d be the literary world’s main corporate ogre and not Amazon, who knows.

As you say, this idea that the responsibility might fall to consumers to consume everything in as ethical a manner as possible and to do it as a kind of check and balance against massive monopolistic power seems to be no more than tinkering around the edges to little effect. At least that’s the way it seems to us. We do come across well-meaning readers who try to pursue such ethical consumption in their own small ways via controlling how and what they purchase and often they, quite reasonably, if, in my opinion ineffectively, seek to purchase direct from an independent publisher in a bid to support that independent publisher and they have personal principles that state that they cannot ever buy anything from Amazon and that’s fine and is probably a good idea from the point of view of lots of independent publishers and it makes sense, if they’re going to do it, to do it in that context. As far as Dostoyevsky Wannabe is concerned, you can only really buy our books from Amazon because they are printed by Createspace and Createspace is owned by Amazon so unfortunately our model seeks to cheat that type of reader out of their ethical principle and there’s not much we can do about that.

Dostoyevsky Wannabe

3:AM: So what’s the workaround? If there’s any…

DW: I guess we have to resign ourselves to losing that reader. We only hope that they are as assiduous in never buying anything from a major corporation at all and thus we look up to them and ask them how they manage to live such an ethical life. I suppose a pertinent question is: How much does it cost to purchase everything ethically and the answer is that it costs a lot and so it already says something about such a consumer but that is only to ask questions of that kind of ethical consumption rather than to negate it, it seems that its heart is in the right place and there are many independent businesses who would be very pleased with such a consumer, so, y’know… cool.

We often say that we essentially use Createspace as a gigantic photocopier to produce our books and that is essentially what we do and we put those books out at pretty much their cost price. That our books might sometimes sell to readers due their low cover price is something that we hope for but there’s no evidence it makes that much difference to sales.

3:AM: Was this low cost ethos something that was there at the start?

DW: Yes, it was there from day one. We came to the idea of an inexpensive cover price both because we could do that but also because we were kind of subconsciously inspired by lots of inexpensive Penguin and Pelican paperbacks that were left over from the Sixties and Seventies and which permeated our childhood memories in the early eighties and maybe also by the relatively low-cost of a pop record in that same post-war time period in Britain. We like the idea that Pelican books in particular produced their fair share of eccentric autodidact readers over the time of their existence. Plus they were collectible, we like that idea for DW too.

3:AM: In terms of the books you release, there seems to be a lot of variety and difference between them. What is the overarching criterion if there is one?

DW: What we publish has to be very good, very bad in a good way, or very cool — and that stands as our criteria. I suppose it’s similar to the “publishing” in inverted commas thing. A way not only of not setting ourselves up as appointed gatekeepers but also of not offering wholly fabricated standards to writers that nobody could live up to because they don’t genuinely exist.

3:AM: Are there plans to grow the project from “not a proper publisher” to a “proper” one?

DW: No.

3:AM: Can you tell us about some of the projects you are working on right now?

DW: Yeah, we’re working on too many books across our various imprints and we’re also working on our newer Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities thing. The first Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities event happened at Rough Trade in Bristol in April (guest-edited by Paul Hawkins) and there are a few scheduled to happen this year and next year and beyond in Manchester (guest-edited by Thom Cuell of Dodo Ink and Minor Literature[s]), Norwich (guest-edited by Sophie Essex, Salo Press), Brooklyn (guest-edited by Mary Boo Anderson and Bill Lessard), Madrid (hopefully a bilingual edition guest-edited by the people behind Desperate Literature bookshop), Glasgow (guest-edited by Laura Waddell), Nottingham (Miggy Angel) , Sheffield (Emma Bolland). Other ones not wholly confirmed off the top of my head: Cambridge (Rosie Snajdr) and Paris (Andrew Hodgson).

3:AM: How did this cities “thing” come to be? What does it entail?

DW: The DW Cities thing came about initially because Bill Lessard got in touch with us about doing a Brooklyn one and also because some of the writers who we worked with started to do some really cool events as launches for their books with us – I’m thinking Nadia de Vries who did a launch at the Cinema of the Damn’d in Amsterdam, Isabel Waidner who shared a launch with Richard Dodwell’s Queer Book of Joy and Queer Book of Loneliness when she launched her books Gaudy Bauble and Liberating the Canon (the anthology that she launched with us) at both the Horse Hospital and the ICA in London respectively. These launches gave us the idea.

The DW Cities idea is to get people to arrange events in their areas and we’ll produce small anthologies of writers in that local area, a kind of snapshot of writing activity in that geographical area at any one time, so kind of like a franchise but one that makes no money for us or for anybody else (our speciality). It’ll be amusing to see if anyone turns up at our Manchester event on Sat July 27th this year because we’re so busy doing all of the cover design and typesetting and spending our times coding our website like a couple of shut-in style geeks that we’re hardly out setting Manchester’s literary scene alight. It’s basically Thom Cuell’s sole responsibility to have a lot of friends in Manchester and to bring them all to the event.

London, like New York (hence Brooklyn), is too big so we’re splitting it up and we’re hoping to get you to do a Hackney one at some point. Or Hackney and Buenos Aires if you’re up for it? What else? Beyond books from individual authors, there are anthologies aplenty coming up this year or next from Partisan Hotel magazine, two on the same day from Queen Mob’s Teahouse and Berfrois and one from Minor Literature[s].

Other that we just keep hacking away and continuing to do whatever we can do.

 

Fernando Sdrigotti

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Fernando Sdrigotti writes and edits Minor Literature[s]. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males. His novella Shitstorm is forthcoming with Open Pen, in November 2018. His second collection of short stories, Departure Lounge Music, is out with LCG Editores, December 2018. @f_sd

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 10th, 2018.