Alan Morrison

Into the Whistling Shade from a Punishing Cynical Sun

Case study: Whistling Shade Literary Journal, Summer 2008 (Free) ISSN: 1537-1859
Special Issue – Myths and Legends (Minneapolis – St. Paul, Minnesota, USA)
www.whistlingshade.com

'Routine is a beast to be slain' - Vachel Lindsay

In the UK journal and magazine scene of today, in spite of the plethora of titles on display in your average newsagent and the ever ubiquitous Borders bookshop-cum-coffee-bars, I find it increasingly difficult to find much of any true substance in circulation. On the literary front, the mainstreaming of contemporary journals has seen a breathtaking homogenisation of style and standards: while legions of titles strive endlessly to outdo each other in design terms – Ambit, Aesthetica, Magma et al – very few, if any, innovate to any significant degree in actual contents (aforementioned journals chief in this). This is in spite of the current vogue for multi-cultural ‘specials’, in which the new team at The London Magazine, among other titles, are presently specialising. This ostensibly catholic approach, worthwhile in itself, does not however seem to be reflected in the national literary arena, where the majority of titles on the racks offer a far from representative selection of British writing. In short, the work of authors and poets from more disadvantaged social and educational backgrounds is still only very scantily acknowledged, if hardly at all. This still seems to be the remit of the fringe journals and more ‘radical’ small presses, as well as the charity and disability-based titles, to which what is perhaps perceived to be a ‘less cultivated’ oeuvre of as-yet unrecognised talents seem to be ghettoised.

This two tier literary culture is most transparently apparent in the breathlessly predictable broadsheets – The TLS, London Review of Books et al need hardly even require mentioning here - and in particular in the likes of the Independent, and the Guardian and its accompanying Review, which, in poetry terms, might be better re-titled Establishment Review, since rarely, if ever, does one come across any significant notice of poetry volumes published by houses other than Faber, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, Chatto & Windus or Picador – and as many of us know, there are literally hundreds of other presses in operation, many of whom are every bit as artistically significant as the aforementioned. (I will concede however that in prose terms, Guardian Review is a little more catholic and representative with small sections being allocated to publications from lesser known publishing houses; but there needs to be more of this, especially regarding poetry).

Much in the way that we are currently witnessing a highly belated ‘preaching to the converted’ on the evils of unbridled capitalism at the present Labour Party conference, in the wake of city speculators near-ruining our economy – to which we are more than entitled to shout back to Mr. Brown, ‘We told you so a long long time ago’ – I happened to be greeted by a column by one Nick Laird in the Guardian Review of 21st September 2008, waxing austerely on poetry’s unbridled freedom from dancing to the tune of such tyrannies as literary agents and commercial publishers, rendering it uniquely placed to act as a pure, unsullied and uncompromising artistic force in a literary culture riddled with advance-chasing opportunists and unbelievably dumbed-down television. Well I go to the bottom of my stairs! I’d never have looked at it like that had Mr Laird not pointed this out (excuse sarcasm). But what quite took my breath away – as with Ed Milliband and Gordon Brown suddenly, after 11 years of eroding the very soul of their own party through shamefully compromised policies, spouting pre-Blairite sentiments as if new Labour had just been a bad dream – was that Mr Laird, as far as I (and many critics) can ascertain, has as yet no more demonstrated in his own published output so far any real sense of such artistic absolutism than most other of his contemporaries. Critically speaking, his oeuvre to date has been described in the main as a pale shadow of such mainstream doyens as Seamus Heaney, so hardly breaking the artistic barriers. (And are we seriously supposed to rally to such anti-commercial convictions from the author of Utterly Monkey, about a 'permanently stoned' Northern Ireland-born London solicitor (mmm, wonder who that could be based on?), which opportunistically incorporates his romantic match with Zadie Smith, or, rather, with a young black authoress (whose real life identity is transparently underlined by an actual intra-narrative reference to White Teeth)?). I think Mr Laird, like the Labour Government, must think we're all witless Cro Magnons who'll swallow any old cant. Once again then, we hit on that old chestnut: empty rhetoric.

When one peruses the established ‘pseudo-intellectual’ titles of mainstream journalism and comment, things seem equally dismal. While the once fairly convincing and incisive New Statesman has, for some time now, paled the more it has glossed-up – one can see from the very use of the term ‘tabloid’ that a publication’s physical size and shape actually has some sort of symbiotic influence on its actual style of content, as seen with the post-Berlinner Guardian – in some apparent populist putsch (incorporating, for my liking, far too many second-rate celebrity and Tory columnists), a swathe of similarly ‘left-of-centre with a small l and large C’ titles – The Liberal, The New Humanist et al – has unfortunately done little if anything to address the polemical imbalance, only providing simply more anaemic wine-tippling middle-class guilt on the masses, without any real agenda or obvious conviction. So, the usual story: more choice, less variety – more choice of the same old thing. And in the meantime, skulking somewhere in the tattered shadows of magazine racks simply bursting with sameness – just under different titles – and variations on a same vague theme, their more dowdy, down-at-heel cousins – The Socialist Review, Tribune, the Morning Star et al – manage just about to provide a more convincing rear-guard of under-funded hope.

While waiting at Stockholm airport recently for a flight that was two hours late back to Blighty, I decided to wile away the time on a little reading, and, fortunately for me in retrospect, the only titles on offer in English were both American, namely TIME and News Week. While the former proved a mildly informative and unpretentious read, the latter was more of a revelation: in the space of just a few pages I’d already learnt a great deal about the in-depth political and spiritual convictions of Barak Obama, as well as a genuinely enlightening insight into the uncanny parallels between Abraham Lincoln’s and Charles Darwin’s contributions to human development – and the latter article, as with many others in the issue, was not ‘topically hooked’ as practically all features in British journalism apparently have to be in order to get beyond their initial pitch to taciturn editors. The emphasis in especially News Week - in this case, a somewhat misleading and self-underrating title – seemed to me more towards genuine didacticism and intellectual challenge, rather than topicality
and celebrity.

I admit that I haven’t as yet read much of the UK’s The Week and The Spectator, both, I’m reliably informed, of the more intellectual end of our market; but I anticipate neither title would do much to dispel my conviction of the sneering cynicism of the current British mind-set, which, even when in socio-polemical mode, still manages to come across more as sarcastic and sardonic than as in any way idealistic or truth-seeking. (But then maybe I’m just being cynical). I’m the first to argue that a pessimist is just a disillusioned optimist, that a cynic is underneath a frustrated idealist; but even so, modern British cynicism to me seems far more self-indulgent, revelling and endemic to be merely a symptom of a repressed idealism. It has, I think, become something of a thing in itself, an actual art-form in the eyes – and hands – of, ironically (or perhaps, not) the more ‘left-of-centre’ titles, particularly the Guardian. Indeed, if the latter really was as principled as it sometimes purports to be – and as it actually probably was in its original incarnation as the Manchester Guardian – then why insist still on covering the same mediocrity and culturally-damaging ground as its more ‘right-of-centre’ and red-top peers? Competition for sales is of course a self-defeating argument, even if such papers as the Guardian go to great lengths to slate the celebrity culture it often stoops to cover – but my point is, why cover it at all then? Why not innovate? Why not do the job you were created to do? I could also of course level the same questions at the (in name only) Labour Government. But am I too falling into that same onanistic cynicism in my inability to any more believe in the possibility of Trojan Horses? If so, it’s probably because my conception of a Trojan Horse is of it being hollowed out to actually house something of transformative purpose.

I am gradually finding the North American literary journal scene far more catholic, inclusive and engaging than my own native one. In the rapidly expanding webzine arena – one which is seemingly more democratic, and certainly more radical, than the printed scene, and every bit, if not more so, artistically challenging – a large portion of the most open-minded sites hail from the US and Canada – Fickle Muses, Softblow, Glass, Autumn Leaves et al. In terms of print, this trend is also very much apparent and alive, and by way of one of the best examples of this truly catholic and – in the best, most unpretentious sense of the word – literary vein, is the Minneapolis-based Whistling Shade. I base this case study on the Summer Special Issue which I received through the post recently.

Whistling Shade is a beautifully produced journal, printed on thin supplement-style paper with broad columns of prose in elegant font, interspersed with boxed poems and well illustrated throughout. But production aspects aside, it’s the sheer un-cynical, approachable and didactic style of the articles which struck me, making for genuinely informative reading, on a variety of literary-related subjects, blissfully free of that consciously ‘ironic’ style of commentary that sadly informs much of UK journals. The reviews section, too, does its job fluidly and constructively, and is also unhindered by the egocentricity and crabbiness manifest in most British critics. Particularly of note are the highly engaging retrospective ‘On Reading Henry James’, which brilliantly tackles the author’s famously tortuous prose style by way of actual intra-narrative pastiche; and the informative and intriguing article on eccentric spiritualist poet Vachel Lindsay, who literally earned his bread by poetry, often offering an evening’s recital in return to shelter and food that same evening to sporadic farmsteads he encountered on his itinerant travails (hence the literal and not metaphorical title of his first self-published volume, Rhymes to be Traded for Bread: The Gospel of Beauty). It’s exactly this kind of article I want to come across in a literary journal, one which informs me of lesser known posthumous others, whom otherwise I might not have learned about, and particularly the more up-rooted and nomadic among them – the Vachel Lindsays, WH Davieses, Dino Campanas, there must be many more we have yet to hear of. My only gripe with Whistling Shade, and it’s not a big one, is in the sometimes slightly misplaced black humour of the subbing: I’d much prefer this illuminating article on Vachel Lindsay sans the header, ‘Cool Dead People’. But all in all, Whistling Shade is another little revelation for me from the highly varied auspices of the North American literary circuit, and one which, distributed Free in community joints throughout Minesota, comes as a genuine bargain to boot. And what an excellently poetic name for a journal! I’m seriously thinking of subscribing to both it and News Week, in spite of my own meagre means – that’s how good these titles are.

It seems to me much of the most urgent polemical and literary dialogue is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, and is one which is surprisingly more radical and ‘left-of-centre’ than we cynical ‘Brits’ might think.

Alan Morrison © 2008