Category Archives: English Literature

Wetting the Baby’s Head

A Review of the BALLAD TALES launch showcase, Fri 9 June, Open House, Stroud

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What is the usual format and purpose of a book launch? The author talks a little bit about her latest work, they read a sample extract, maybe answer a few questions, then sits behind a desk to sign purchased copies and exchange a few niceties with the book-buying public and, perhaps if they’re enjoying some success, fans. So far, so banal. The culmination of a couple (or more) years of effort and the collaborative ‘ecosystem’ of writer/s, commissioning editor, copyeditor, designer, illustrator, indexer, etc, is worth celebrating (and valuing – as those who casually ask for freebies should bear in mind).  And yet the book launch should be about more than just merely ‘pushing ink’. Yes, it’s nice to start generating sales, but those who organize such an event with just that in mind are often disappointed. It’s more about wetting the baby’s head – blessing the new endeavour with good vibes – and giving all those involved a collective pat on the back. If this can be made enjoyable to the general public, then they get something out of it as well – otherwise it’s just a mutual ego massage. And the meaning is definitely not the massage! It is about conjuring up some of the ambience of the book, some of the spirit in which it was born – remember that initial flash of inspiration? The excitement as you scribbled down that idea? The adrenalin rush of getting the proposal accepted and seeing it start to come together?

What all that in mind I put together a launch showcase (one of many I’ve done over the years) for Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, published by The History Press. On Friday 9th June I gathered with a dozen of my fellow contributors in what used to be called the ‘British School’, Open House’s hall-for-hire, tucked away behind the arts cafe, Star Anise, the very sanctum sanctorum of Stroudiness. My partner and I, Chantelle Smith, started setting up and were soon joined by other willing hands. The secret of these events is to make it a team effort, to ask for volunteers and not to try and carry it all by yourself. One wants to be able to enjoy the evening after all, and it’s hard to do that if running from pillar to post, sweating buckets, and doing an impression of Roadrunner-meets-Inspector Gadget. Clipboarditis is best avoided. Do your bit and trust everyone else is doing theirs. Try to stop and chat to people, exchange a joke, perhaps have a drink or just simply take a few breaths  – relax and enjoy yourself and others will to.

So, the doors were open and folk started to drift in – in typical tardy Stroud style. Fortunately the room started to fill up, and around half an hour in I began the evening with my introduction. This included the usual housekeeping, which, for some reason, folk found amusing. In such situations I open my mouth and it’s like a trapdoor to my subconscious – all kinds of stuff comes out. I had a ‘plan’ of what I wanted to say (mainly the ‘thank yous’ and toast) but it’s good to be spontaneous and add a bit of levity to the proceedings. The serious stuff is in my written introduction to the anthology for those who want to read it (and maybe they’ll just skip to the stories). Anyway, my intro served to warm the crowd up, and then I went into full MC mode, introducing each of the respective acts as they took their turn.

The showcase got off to a powerful start with Candia and Tony McKormack of Inkubus Sukkubus performing their song ‘Corn King’ from their Heartbeat of the Earth album. Their latest (Belas Knapp, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder volume 2) is out 24 June, continuing their evocative exploration of ‘Gloucestershire horror folk’. I had invited Candia to write the foreword for the collection after listening to their Barrow Wake album last year. Next up we had Horsley-based storyteller, Fiona Eadie, performing an extract from her iconic version of ‘Tam Lin’. Travelling further north, we then had Chantelle Smith read some of ‘The Storm’s Heart’ followed by her version of ‘The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry’. Then fellow Fire Spring David Metcalfe performed ‘The Three Ravens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’ back-to-back, which was fascinating, as the latter seemed to be a satire of the former. Nimue Brown (of Hopeless, Maine fame) offered an impressive blend of story, song and exegesis on her ballad choice ‘Scarborough Fair’ and her prose retelling ‘Shirt for a Shroud’. And Kirsty Hartsiotis (Fire Spring spotting – gotta catch ‘em all) finished the first half with flair, with her spirited 20s retelling of ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’, ‘There ain’t no sweet man’. She dressed in Flapper style for the occasion.

After the break, Laura Kinnear continued on the style front, in vintage fashion, as she read out her retelling of ‘The Bristol Bridegroom/The Ship’s Carpenters Love to a Merchant’s Daughter’, ‘The Shop Girl and the Carpenter’, which is set wittily in homefront World War Two.  Then we had Karola Renard’s powerful reimagining of ‘Sovay’, ‘A Testament of Love’ (with the ballad sung magnificently by Chantelle); followed by her husband’s version of ‘Barbaran Allen’, ‘The Grand Gateway’ (with Mark on vocal duties for that).  The final story of the evening was from Anthony Nanson (Fire Spring #5!), who performed an oral version of his ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’, which felt incredibly resonant after that day’s general election results. Indeed each of the stories had impact, felt engaged with the world and the issues that face us (while avoiding any heavy-handed didacticism or proselytizing). As the evening drew to a close I performed a lively duet of ‘The Twa Magicians/The Coal Black Smith’ (one of the two ballads I adapted for the book) with Nimue – the audience spontaneously joining in the chorus. Then I invited Candia and Tony back on stage for one of their powerful pagan anthems to round things off. The evening had been a great success, and I got all the balladeers up on stage for a final photo opportunity – a lovely souvenir of a splendid gathering of talented folk.

One can usually tell if an evening has gone well by the atmosphere in the room afterwards – there was a lovely buzz as folk lingered to chat and make connections. I heard one person say that it was the best book launch they had been too. This confirmed to me that our creative, collective, bardic approach, paid off.

Let the awen flow and good things will result.

BALLAD TALES NEW COVER

The next Ballad Tales event (hosted by David Metcalfe) will be on Monday 19 June – Bath Storytelling Circle, upstairs at The Raven, Bath, from 8pm. All welcome.

http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/ballad-tales/9780750970556/

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Story

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Ballad Tales contributors perform at the Launch Showcase, Stroud, 9 June, 2017

The well-known African saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ can be applied — as an extended metaphor — to almost any creative project, for it is through the cross-fertilisation of ideas and grassroots collaboration (rather than neo-liberal competitiveness) that often the most sustainable art is born: art that is not the manifestation of a solitary artist/writer/musician ‘making it’ (picture a tall, spindly and ultimately unstable structure that so often collapses), but the flowering of an ecosystem, with healthy roots and branches that enrich and empower all who are involved. The whole forest benefits.

This is how I conceived ‘Ballad Tales’ — a book that is a showcase that is a community. Ostensibly, it is ‘an anthology of British Ballads retold’, published by The History Press and available from all good bookshops. But in truth it is so much more. Conceived in a flash whilst walking the West Highland Way back in the summer of 2015, the vision that came to me on my solo trek culminated in a book featuring 20 talented artists, writers, storytellers and musicians.  Many more could be involved in future iterations. We celebrated our mutual achievement with a fabulous launch showcase featuring a ‘bardic dozen’ of the contributors (see above) — Tony McKormack, who accompanied Candia, made it up to 13 and their fabulous songs began and ended the evening with a bang.

I believe it is important to celebrate creative labour, to wet the baby’s head, and this we did with a superb revue evening that was so much more than a mere book-signing (‘The best book launch I’ve been to’, said an audience member). The buzz of this — the warm response of a good audience — can help reciprocate a little of the effort involved — and the ‘feelgood factor’ it generates ripples out into the community, inspiring future projects and cultivating a sense of living in a place ennobled and enchanted by artistic activity.

Whether a book, a story (or collection of stories), an album, or an exhibition, art produced with the love of shared endeavour continues to be ‘raised up’ by its village — whether that is a physical community or community of intent — by those who view, buy, read, listen to, discuss, and contribute to its artosphere, for, truly, the story never ends with the last syllable or the song with the last note.

Read next: Nimue Brown’s account of the launch showcase on the Awen Publications blog: awenpublications.wordpress.com

Next Event: Bath Storytelling Circle Ballad Tales special, Monday 19 June, The Raven upstairs, Quiet St, Bath, 8pm, free.

Buy the book: http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/ballad-tales/9780750970556/

Ballad Tales final cover

A BALLAD is a poem or a song that tells a popular story and many traditional British ballads contain fascinating stories – tales of love and jealousy, murder and mystery, the supernatural and the historical. This anthology brings together nineteen original retellings in short story form, written by some of the country’s most accomplished storytellers, singers and wordsmiths. Here you will find tales of cross-dressing heroines, lusty pirates, vengeful fairy queens, mobsters and monsters, mermaids and starmen – stories that dance with the form and flavour of these narrative folk songs in daring and delightful ways. Richly illustrated, these enchanting tales will appeal to lovers of folk music, storytelling and rattling good yarns.

ISBN: 9780750970556

192pp, £9.99

Published by The History Press

 

 

Walking Between Worlds

Practice-based research in writing Fantasy Fiction

 (presented at Performing Fantastika, 28 April 2017)

 

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‘Roots in two worlds’, Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring 2014

 

Firstly, to qualify the validity of practice-based research as a core methodology in my discipline, creative writing:

‘original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’  (‘Creative Writing & Research, 4.6 QAA Benchmark Statement, 2015)

‘Research in or through creative practice can provide a way to bridge these two worlds: to result in an output that undeniably adds knowledge, while also producing a satisfying work of literature.’ (Webb, 2015: 20)

My creative practice extends beyond the page but feeds back into it …

Creative Practice

As a storyteller, performance poet, host of spoken word events and fledgling folk-singer, I have used my creative practice to inform my prose fiction, field-testing material to live audiences.  In 2002 I co-created and performed in a commissioned storytelling show for the Bath Literature Festival called ‘Voices of the Past’. In that I performed a monologue as Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister’ of Aberfoyle. Little did I know then I was to undertake a PhD with him as a major focus, or that this kind of method-writing was to become a central practice of mine.

An Otter’s Eye View

In his 2005 article on nature writing, ‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane describes the approach of Henry Williamson:

 ‘Williamson’s research was obsessive-compulsive – writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka’s story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter’s-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches’ height: water bubbles “as large as apples”, the spines of “blackened thistles”, reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas – in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet.’

‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane, 2005

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33

As a keen walker, my experiential research seeks to experience the equivalent of Williamsons’ ‘otter’s-eye view’: to immerse myself in a landscape, to fully experience it in an embodied way that inhabits me and informs my writing and reveals countless telling details in the process.

As part of my ‘way into’ the world of my novel I have walked long-distance footpaths: Hadrian’s Wall (2014), West Highland Way (2015), Offa’s Dyke (2016), Southern Uplands Way (2017) …  walks exploring borders and debatable lands, And I have discovered my enjoyment of singing in the process … While walking WHW solo I started to pick a song each day to keep me going. For the Offa’s Dyke I created a deliberate songbook. These walks gave me an embodied sense of geography, of psychogeography, and plenty of time to think about Borders. Outcomes include a poetry collection, Lost Border; a performance at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, ‘Across the Lost Border’; a ballad and tale show; and of course, the novel itself.

Spoken/Written

In particular the two worlds of the ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ forms have cross-fertilized most of all in my creative practice and published works (a selection of which are seen here). Since I first started to write poetry, back in 1991, I have straddled these worlds – discovering that the performance of my words (initially at ‘open mic’ nights) was just as important as the writing of them, as a way of ‘getting them out there’, connecting with an audience, gleaning a response, starting a discussion. I soon realized that do so successfully required practise and sometimes a tailoring of the text for performance, focusing on its orality/aurality and factoring in mnemonic devices. I have made a study of these aspects and techniques (and the traditions that inform them) ever since. I collected my field-tested research in The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, published by Gothic Image 2006. In my folk tales collections for The History Press I rendered into prose fiction a mixture of folklore, folktale and ballad – culminating in the anthology I’ve edited, Ballad Tales. These, in turn, have been restored to orality in subsequent launch events – through either straight reading, extempore performance or song. In storytelling, the ‘performative text’ – not a verbatim transcript but the cluster of phrases, gestures, plot points and tropes the performer holds in their memory (Honko, 2002) can result in a different telling each time. There are many paths through the forest of the narrative, modulated by the feedback loop of performance, audience, performance space, regionality and topicality (‘The Gate’, Manwaring; Gersie, 2012).

The Novel

In my novel I have attempted to dramatize the creative process of cross-fertilization that occurs when song- and tale-cultures are taken to new lands, and sometimes back again: ‘diasporic translocation’. The focus of my research at the University of Leicester, (p/t since September 2014) has been: Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. After extensive time in key research libraries, the Scottish Borders and North Carolina, I have created the following story: Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American musician descended from a long line of gifted but troubled women. She lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave, until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century minister obsessed with Fairy Lore. Assailed by supernatural forces, she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lay to rest the ghost of Kirk and to accept the double-edged gift she has inherited, the gift of Second Sight: the Knowing. Janey, as my performer-protagonist, is the ideal vehicle for exploring notions of world-walking. She is of mixed heritage, being half-Scottish, half-Cherokee – a Meti hybrid, the blood of the Old and New Worlds run in her veins. She is a semi-pro rock musician who becomes, as a result of reconciling herself to her inheritance, a professional folk musician. Her down-to-earth sassiness counterbalances the otherworldly elements she encounters. She is kick-ass but also fallible, gifted but self-sabotaging. A hedonist who needs to learn to reconcile herself to a supernatural reality. Within her she contains the dialectical discourse of my narrative, though if you told her that she’d punch you on the nose.

Digital Performance

Through digital formats, my PhD project explores ways in which the reader ‘performs the text’ in their interaction with hypertextuality. The heteroglossia of my narrative (the voices of Janey’s ancestors, the supporting characters, the antagonist) suggested to me a different way of navigating the text could be more effective than a conventional linear one, and so in creating the ebook version of The Knowing, I tackled the various technical challenges of creating an interactive multi-linear narrative. This involved learning new software and grappling with coding. I created a series of motifs symbolizing the different characters. As metonymic representation was intrinsic to the narrative (the 9 McEttrick Women are connected to through their respective heirloom). Epitomizing the characters with motifs seemed satisfyingly apt and something as an artist I enjoy doing. Embedding these within the text, the reader clicks on the motif if they wish to discover the ‘hidden voice’. Rather than disrupt the flow of the main narrative with these subplots – either through inserted sections, chapters, or footnotes – a small hyperlinked motif enables the reader to choose, thus bestowing upon them the same agency as my protagonists who are all driven by their desire to know in some way. This chimes with the conceptual underpinning of my novel as an epistemological enquiry: what do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge valued above other kinds? Can we ever know another, or even ourselves, fully? Can any knowledge be ‘solid state’ in certainty, or does objective truth disappear into contradictory details the closer it is examined? In a ‘Post-Truth’ age of Trumpian fake news, such questions seem timely (although I suspect they are perennial – such questions have been haunting critical thinkers for a long time). But to return to the notion of reader-performer: any readers ‘performs their text’, in reading of a line, the turning of a page, and the transforming of marks into meaningful narrative, but in an ebook with multiple pathways that performance seems more explicit (though paradoxically less physical). I liked the idea that each of my links is a kind of portal (a digital wardrobe to Narnia or a rabbit hole to Wonderland) taking the reader to another paradigm. The ebook makes the reading experience an acting out of the classic ‘Portal Quest’ Fantasy (Mendelhson 1999), although in truth any book can provide a trapdoor in reality. Recent works such as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (2016) augment those portals with apps and websites, but any reader with sufficient imagination can provide their own – whether through daydreaming, drawing, fan fiction, cos-play, gaming and so on. Initial Reader-Reception of the ebook has so far been encouraging:

 ‘this novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.’ Everyboy’s Reviewing [accessed 25.04.17]

‘Like the Fey and the plot, the e-book itself is full of cunning entanglements.’ Amazon.com review [accessed 25.04.2017]

‘The use of links within the ebook text to jump between narratives gives a real sense of the narratives being separate and ongoing outside what is written, while not detracting from the flow of the novel itself. It’s an interesting use of the technology that works really well in what it sets out to do: to give the reader the choice of reading the initially hidden narratives or to allow them to read the main narrative and then the related narratives afterwards. I feel the choice of the reader mirrors Janey’s choice to read Kirk’s Journal or not; it gives the reader a little taste of what Janey herself faces when she receives her ancestor’s contraband form of communication.’ Good Reads review [accessed 25.04.2017]L

Live Lit

One byproduct of my PhD research has been the ‘ballad and tale’ show called ‘The Bonnie Road’, a one-hour blend of storytelling, song, and poetry co-created with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, which draws directly upon the supernatural Border Ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and my research into Scottish folk traditions. This illustrates how it is possible to turn elements of a novel into a ‘live lit’ experience, one that is co-created with the audience in a slightly different form every single time due to the extempore style of delivery. It has been performed at festivals, small theatres, pubs and gatherings. Bringing alive the characters in the two ballads: (Thomas the Rhymer; Tam Lin; Janet; The Queen of Elfland) in some cases acting them, was an effective way of getting under their skin and finding a ‘way in’. Embodied insights which deepen my understanding of them, nuancing my depiction of them in fiction. This was augmented by a workshop I ran called The Wheel of Transformation in the US and UK in which participants role-played those 4, sometimes swapping roles and genders.

Feeding Back into the Novel

All this ‘research through practice’ has enriched my visualisation of the novel and deepened understanding of the characters. The response from the audience, discussion generated and comments garnered have helped create a fertile feedback loop. Furthermore, my archival research has discovered fascinating details (marginalia in the notebooks; poems; diary entries) which have been directly fed back into the novel – in characterisation and plot, which you can read about on my Bardic Academic blog [eg ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’].

Pushing the Boundaries

The Knowing has attempted to push the boundaries of both form and content – finding fertile ground in the creative tension between the Actual and Imaginary, as Nathaniel Hawthorne terms it (‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter). I argue that true Fantastika lies within the negative space of these apparent extremes. I certainly choose to pitch my flag in this liminal zone where the magical and the mundane rub shoulders, finding neither straight realism (so-called mimetic fiction) or high fantasy to my taste. I have dramatized this transitional space as ‘The Rift’ within my novel, a place between the Iron World of humans and the Silver World of the fey – ever-widening after the cataclysm of the Sundering, when the Borders were sealed. Yet in my novel there are irruptions on both sides: characters and contraband slip through; and in the Trickster figure of Sideways Brannelly, a 19th Century Ulster-American who has become a ‘Wayfarer’ – a trader between the worlds – I have someone who acts out the synaptic cross-fire between these hemispheres. He smuggles the lost journal of Robert Kirk out from Elfhame, metaphorically mimicking the production of the actual text itself – the result of my own walking between the worlds. And in my career as a writer-academic I continually straddle the apparent ‘creative-critical’ divide, finding it a place of intense creative generation – a mid-Atlantic ridge for the black fumers of my mind!

Full Circle

My practice-based research continues to inform my writing. And in author events such as book launches (eg Steampunk Market, Chepstow, 22nd April) the ‘performance’ aspect comes full circle, as I sometimes ‘role-play’ characters from my novels (in this case, my Edwardian aviator Isambard Kerne from The Windsmith Elegy) to bring alive the storyworld for the casual browser, enticing future readers to ‘walk between the worlds’.

Notes:

  • Gersie, Alida, et al, Storytelling for a Greener World, Stroud: Hawthorn, 2012
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
  • Honko, Lauri (ed.) The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, 2002
  • Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Only Connect’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33 [accessed 25.04.17]
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Bardic Handbook, Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 2006
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2017
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Knowing – A Fantasy, Stroud: Goldendark, 2017
  • Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press, 2008
  • Pears, Iain, Arcadia, London: Faber, 2016
  • QAA Benchmark Statement (draft) 2015
  • Webb, Jen, Researching Creative Writing, Newmarket: Frontinus, 2015

The Illustrated Novelist

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Illustrations based upon Robert Kirk’s 17th Century notebooks by Kevan Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

 

I have long been an appreciator of illustrated text. Being a writer coming from a Fine Art background, this is perhaps not surprising, as I enjoying doing both – playing with words and images in my stories and drawings – revelling in the incredible freight and flexibility of letters and the infinite potential of the line, the mark.

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Motif for ‘Bethany’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

From Palaeolithic cave art onwards we have illustrated our lives, representing symbolically our fears and dreams, our gods and demons, or simply the miracle of our existence: the handprint that says I am here, I exist, I belong. We have used art to express what is significant to us. For a long time art was used to express the Divine, but also to make sacred narratives relatable: in exquisite illuminated manuscripts, in beautiful Books of Hours, in the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals, in the illustrations of canonical texts. Of course art was also used to convey power and status, in the iconography of heraldry, coats of arms, portraits of the wealthy and what they owned: landscapes were as much about who owned them as what they contained. The frame did not simply delineate the edge of the picture, it implied ownership, the border of privilege, the ha-ha divide between the haves and have-nots.

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Motif for ‘Molly’, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

With the printing press came a new democracy that allowed, ultimately, art and text to be read, shared and owned by all sections of society.  The first illustrated books were still the luxuries of the elite, but as printing presses became more efficient and economical handbills, chapbooks and broadside ballads started to be disseminated from street-corners, often with crude, but thrilling illustrations recycled for different contexts – a new song, the latest scandal, a bloody execution. Penny Dreadfuls and illustrated newspapers fed the public’s appetite for text and image. The comic strip, commonly a syndicated three-panel trick, was born. It developed into the comic book and the so-called graphic novel, now glossy full-colour affairs – largely the flagships of lucrative franchises (with shining exceptions from the smaller presses and up-and-coming artists) – but when I started  reading them, they were black and white weeklies, printed on newsprint quality paper, costing a few pennies and often seen as ‘throw-away’. Fortunately I realised their worth and avidly collected them, building up my own personal library.

FBI AGENT

FBI motif, K. Manwaring, The Knowing, 2017

My obsession with comics lasted for a couple of decades, and for a while I had ambitions to become a writer or illustrator of them, but I developed a taste for more sophisticated texts, while not losing my enjoyment of illustration. My own idiosyncratic exploration of this form has led to personal favourites: the luminous ‘songs’ of William Blake; Aubrey Beardsley’s La More D’Arthur; Gustav Doré’s Paradise Lost, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Don Quixote; illustrated Fairy Tales, especially the work of Arthur Rackham; John Tenniel’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the magnificent editions produced by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press; and later, the Hogarth Press – John Stanton Ward’s Cider with Rosie. The simple charm of Antoine de St-Exupery’s The Little Prince; Mervyn Peake’s fabulously grotesque Gormenghast trilogy; Tolkien’s self-illustrated The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Then, as my tastes developed I fell in love with the watercolours of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (Paper Tiger); the nightmarish art of Dave McKean (who as well as providing the cover art for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, also collaborated with Iain Sinclair of tomes such as Slow Chocolate Autopsy); Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would not be the cult classic it is without the wild art of Ralph Steadman; Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls for me will always be the defined by the art of Jim Kay; Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, by the intricate motifs which emulate those of Lyra’s golden compass, the Alethiometer. When I read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, it was Charles Vess’ illustrations which enchanted me as much as the story. It created a certain aesthetic, evocative of Victorian classics, as did Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, a homage to the adventure novels of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle. Visual ‘furniture’ has been deployed in fiction since experiments in the novel form began – it is there in Laurence Sterne’s 1759 Tristram Shandy with its blacked out pages, in Daniel Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), and can be found in books as recent as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (which uses an app with visual representations of narrative pathways) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (both 2016). I knew I would always revel in these paratextual elements.

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Motif of ‘Clarence & Constance’, The Knowing 2017

And so it is small wonder that I decided to incorporate them into my PhD novel project, The Knowing – A Fantasy. This decision was influenced by not only my lifelong ‘guilty pleasure’ but by archival research. Upon examining the primary source material of Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister of Aberfoyle’, I discovered within his notebooks remarkable illustrations (see my blog on ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’). Kirk also owned an exquisitely illustrated Book of Hours. Discovering the fact that the young Kirk was prone to doodling not only ‘humanised’ him, it also revealed the workings of his subconscious – a gift to a novelist attempting to bring him alive. He became more than just a formidable minister of the Presbytery, he became flesh and blood. By copying his artwork, mark by mark, I felt as though I was slipping into his skin.

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Motif of ‘Margaret’, Robert Kirk’s 2nd wife, K. Manwaring, The Knowing 2017

And so, inspired by this, and by creative decisions around how to best present a multi-linear narrative, I decided to create a series of motifs to represent the different ‘voices’ within the text. These will provide signposts for the reader, to help them navigate around it. In the e-book version, by clicking on the embedded motif you can be taken to the ‘side-text’ (if you wish); then, when you’re done, you can return to the main text by clicking on the plectrum (which represents my main character, the musician Janey McEttrick). On our computers and phones we are used to using similar icons in the form of apps and tiles on our desktop. An unobtrusive motif can adorn a block of text like an illuminated capital in a manuscript, and it is up to the reader whether to explore or not. This feels like a more elegant solution than footnotes (which threatened to overwhelm the otherwise marvellous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel), and I liked the idea of hypertext links being akin to faerie portals, taking the reader-traveller to a different reality. In the end I created about 20 motifs for The Knowing, enjoying the process of selecting a suitable motif to epitomize each key character. This chimed deeply with a central plot device I deploy (a series of heirlooms which allow my protagonist to connect vicariously to her ancestors). I also created a frontispiece and an ‘eye’ motif, based upon one of Kirk’s drawings. The latter also adorns the cover and sums up the insight and illumination of those with the ‘knowing’ of the title – Second Sight.

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Kirk’s eye of illumination, based upon an original in his 17th C. notebooks, by K. Manwaring 2017

So, with the book complete, I can add The Knowing to a list of my books I have illustrated: Spring Fall (1998); Green Fire (2004); The Bardic Handbook (2006); Oxfordshire Folk Tales (2012); Northamptonshire Folk Tales (2014) and Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (2017), as well as a continuing series of literary walks for the Cotswold Life magazine. My love affair with text and image looks likely to continue as I continue to discover new and wonderful examples and practitioners, and I hope in the future to collaborate with other artists and writers.

kirk grave detail

Detail from the grave of Robert Kirk, by K. Manwaring 2017

Kevan Manwaring Copyright ©2017

 

The Characters are in Charge

cute-girl-guitar-music-play-sing-favim-com-67443_large

One day a tall red-head with striking eyes and a steel string guitar walked into my head. Her name was Janey McEttrick and she demanded to have her story told. She lived in an airstream trailer in the backcountry near Asheville, North Carolina. She was of Scottish descent (on her mother’s side) and had inherited more than just the red hair from her Celtic ancestors. The gleam in her eye suggested she knew more than her hedonistic ‘trailer-trash’ lifestyle suggested – far more.

When a character barges into your imagination like this you know you have no choice but to listen, to take notes, to do what you’re told. They are a gift. If a character is rebellious, subverting your carefully structured plot and all the nice plans you’ve laid out for them, then you know they have a pulse. It has been said that a novel is a war between characters versus plot. In that tension the narrative is forged. Too much of either and you’ll either end up with a rambling, indulgent mess – a series of character studies in search of a story;  or a soul-less checklist of plot-points populated with flat characters.

But I have often found that characters appear first and generate story. If they have a strong line of desire, hampered by doubts, fears and other attendant demons, then you can pretty much set them off and see where they take you. The parameters of your story world are usually limited by what you’re interested in, can be bothered to research, to ‘fill in’. The further away from that locus of interest, the hazier it becomes. The edges of that world are often unconvincingly blurry. Your writer’s imagination is unable to render it in sufficient detail. The character runs into a blank wall.

So, your protagonist – the one that gatecrashed your head (it’s normally them I find who are the culprits, rather than the minor characters) needs to meet other characters, to come alive, to be challenged, tempted, tormented, helped and harried. If you have a ‘mouthpiece’ characters that represents your world-view, then you need others who diametrically oppose and challenge that paradigm; you need foils; you need allies and enemies. Your protagonist needs friends, perhaps a lover or companion, and some kind of family. Suddenly your novel is starting to look crowded. Your lovely writer’s mansion has been squatted by a colourful rabble , who throw parties at all hours, graffiti the walls, and do unspeakable things with your objet d’art and upholstery. At some point you will have to put your foot down and put your house in order. The ‘creative’ mess will need tidying up, but it’s often only from that fecund chaos that the good stuff emerges. Too much control too soon can be fatal. Writers who impose martial law on their imagination – making characters toe the line – will create arid scenes empty of organic warmth. A little bit of anarchy is good for a story, if you want it to surprise and delight you. And if it doesn’t surprise and delight you, it’s unlikely to do that for the reader.

Where these characters come from is often a mysterious process – some kind of alchemy perhaps between people you know, people you wish you knew or had known, parts of yourself, the wunderkammer of your memories, your subconscious, your higher self, shadow, ancestors – even ones you’re not aware of… smushed with books, movies, music, art, places, people-watching, day-dreams and fantasies. Unless you’re doing a Creative Writing course of some kind, you normally don’t have to do an autopsy. All that matters is they live and breathe, that they speak and act, feel and think in accordance with their character – that’s the prime directive for any novelist. Yes, you can play God – but once you’ve created your world, don’t be a Jehovah. Let your characters get on with their lives. You have to let them make mistakes, fuck up, get themselves up the spout or bumped off. They need to learn in the school of hard knocks you’ve created for them – even if at times you wish you could give them a message, a helpful hint. But even if you do, most would ignore it or notice it. It is enough of a miracle that they exist at all. And we pass by signs and wonders every day.

 

The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an e-book on 20th March. If you would like to reserve a copy or review it, please get in touch.

Houdinis of Bewilderland

Creative Escapology in the Age of Austerity

by Kevan Manwaring

This article was written as a commission for the Doggerland journal –  to make it more web-friendly, I will serialize it here in digestible extracts. It’s initial title was ‘Prepping for the Art-apocalypse: creative survival in the Age of Austerity’ but I decided that just fed into the current Neoliberalist, survival-of-the-fittest, paradigm and its predilection for ‘disaster-porn’. I want to offer a more  positive approach, although the question I started it with still stands:

In an era of philistine-funding cuts in the arts, corporate-controlled channels of consumerism, and a fear-fuelled conservatism in commissioning and programming, what strategies are available to us to foster artistic survival?

houdini_photo_20

Part One

Welcome to the Smeuse-House

The whole is made up of holes. We stitch together our rags and tatters and make something out of nothing. Slowly the picture emerges. Metonymically, to the arrhythmia of the new fin de siècle. Fragments are offered. And we make of them what we will, piecing together a narrative of (all)sorts. The future archivist looks back and sees the crumb-trail, the pioneering projects, the unseen visionaries, the coteries and communities, the salvage-culture sculptors, apocalypso bands, escape artists of an imploding neoliberalism. Those who have found the gap in the hedge and wriggled through. Houdinis of Bewilderland, the artists and poets who wander amongst the ruins of the failed project of civilisation and etch broken songs onto singed codices.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2016

Next: Rhizomes with a View

This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions.  Check it out. Available from:  http://www.doggerland.info/doggershop

Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.

http://www.doggerland.info/

 

 

Defining Goldendark

Extract of a paper ‘From Grimdark to Goldendark: approaching a new aesthetics of Fantasy’, presented at the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture, Cardiff University, 23 May, 2016

As a recusant Fantasy author, I am often disappointed by what is labelled as such – certainly in most bookstores and libraries. I often have to go further afield – across genre – to find work of true imagination, vision and literary merit. In my current creative writing PhD project, a contemporary fantasy novel, I am seeking to redress this modern impoverishment of a long and fine literary tradition. This paper is an attempt to define my own aesthetic as much as anything and, as such, is a work-in-progress. It is not meant to be prescriptive, but speculative. The beginning of a conversation. Pull a chair by the fire. Tankards are optional, but please – no foaming.

 

It’s Grim Up North of the Wall

Grim Dark’ is a term first used in association with the Warhammer 40,000 RPG as a marketing tag (refer to screen shot: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’). It has now come to denote a certain tone of imaginative fiction, and is sometimes called ‘dark fantasy’. It is characterised by markedly dystopian or amoral scenarios, with particularly violent or grittily realistic elements. Emerging initially as a subgenre through fan fiction, some of which has proven popular amongst its own demographic, it has come to be an identifying characteristic of 21st Century fantasy writers such as Adam Roberts, Genevieve Valentine, Joe Abercrombie, and George RR Martin (GRRM!), who, more than any single author, epitomizes this style with his anti-Tolkienian epic fantasy. However reactive and iconoclastic Grimdark might have initially been in deconstructing the tropes and cosy medieval tone of earlier fantasy, it has become depressingly pervasive (pumped out not only by authors, but by films, TV, computer games, pop videos, etc.) along with the prevailing paradigm which it pretends to mirror: the present day with all its geopolitical conflict and complexity. With its emphasis on gratuitous violence, misogynistic warrior-culture, mercenary and rapacious economies, casual cruelty and villainous victories it hammers home that ‘there is only war’. It has become, for its fans, another kind of consoling fiction.

 

From Prog-Rock to Punk Fantasy

It has to be acknowledged that,  as with any tradition of longevity, Fantasy had become bloated and complacent – the worst examples of the genre rehashed the hand-me-down tropes of the innovative visionaries, a formulaic schtick – and in many ways deserved to be beheaded. After the excesses and indulgences of the ‘prog-rock’ phase of fantasy (the psychedelic excesses and embarrassing ‘concept albums’ of endless series), the ‘punk’ phase had to happen.

It was time to kick against the pricks.

Joe Abercrombie (aka ‘Lord Grimdark’) argues in a provocative, but insightful way in ‘The Value of Grit’, for Grimdark as a healthy response to the tired conventions of genre, and to the moral complexity and infinite cruelty of the world. He defines it as follows:

  1. Tight focus on character
  2. Moral ambiguity
  3. Honesty
  4. Sometimes life really is that shit
  5. Modernity
  6. Shock value
  7. Range

‘So, yeah, shitty gritty books are no better than shitty shiny books.  But I proudly and unapologetically assert that there’s a great deal more to grit than a capacity to shock and titillate.  Although I must equally proudly and unapologetically assert that I do sometimes quite enjoy being shocked and titillated.’ (Abercrombie, The Value of Grit).

Yet Liz Bourke considered grimdark’s defining characteristic to be “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action (…) as either impossible or futile”. This, according to her, has the effect of absolving the protagonists as well as the reader from moral responsibility.  (from Strange Horizons review, The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan)

…But the phlegm and snot and attitude only takes you so far (as we can see with Punk, 40 years on: it didn’t change anything, just sold records). Anger is a monotone and imaginatively impotent response.

Much of Grimdark could be seen as merely pissing in the Brandywine – shiteing on the Shire. As an adolescent reaction against the status quo – sticking it to the Man (‘Up yours, JRR!’) – Grimdark would be pretty harmless by itself.

Except for one critical caveat…

 

Grimdark – a Neoliberalist Rhetoric?

I would argue that Grimdark (its rhetoric as a subgenre, not necessarily individual authors) is just another expression of a Neoliberal consensus reality (‘The Zombie Doctrine’, George Monbiot, Guardian, 16 April 2016), a pervasive influence so permeated into modern life it has become virtually invisible, like a 21st Century Sauron. As Monbiot observes: ‘What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?’

Well, the demon has been named:

Neoliberalism: ‘Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.’ (Monbiot).

The lazy acceptance of this as the ‘new normal’, as every survival-of-the-fittest novel, film, TV show and computer game underpins (‘it’s tough out there, so lets fight off the zombie masses and hoard our resources for ourselves, the one per cent against the many’) helps to perpetuate the ethos, an ethos which, ironically, closes libraries. It has to be named, shamed, and met with a strong, well-crafted rebuttal.

‘A coherent alternative has to be proposed…’ (Monbiot)

The conscious writer, reader or consumer should seek to break free of the cycle of Grimdark schlock. Consider alternatives, and if none are available, create them.

That is where Goldendark comes in.

Cometh the Hour

In Goldendark there is acknowledgment of the ‘lateness of the hour’ (i.e. the ‘grim reality of things’) but also a gleam of hope – the best analogy for it is a sunset on an overcast day, when suddenly in a gap in the clouds low on the horizon, the sun gleams through. It is the sunrise of the winter solstice – the rebirth of light in the dead of winter. It is seen in the final battle of Camlann in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1982)

The Final Battle, Excalibur, John Boorman (1982)

when King Arthur confronts the fruit of his incestuous union with his half-sister Morgana Le Fay, Mordred, on the battle field. All around his finest knights lay slaughtered. The dream of the Round Table has been shattered by the human frailty of Camelot. Mordred hunts down his father in the mist, spear in hand – like the centurion about to impale Christ on the Cross. Then Lancelot appears, Arthur’s greatest knight. Old wrongs are forgiven, as side-by-side, the brothers-in-arms fight til the bloody end. Against a blood red sun glaring like an angry god over the apocalyptic battlefield, the end of an age, the end of an empire, father and son embrace with sword and spear. There is death and destruction, but there is also a sense of transcendence or redemption. It hasn’t all been a waste – as in many Grimdark scenarios where the good characters get killed with predictable relentlessness and you’re left feeling: What was the point? Why care for any of them if they’re all going to die? And: well, what exactly has that bloodfest left me with? There is a sense of something greater trying to break through. An immanence. If it does, if becomes too literal, the numinous is lost. We become beholden to one person’s belief system – eg CS Lewis’s cringeworthy Christianity – rather than experiencing our own sense of ineffable mystery. The closest anyone has come to it is Tolkien in his concept of ‘eucatastrophe’:

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).”

― JRR Tolkien, Letter 89

Stripping away the Christian (specifically Catholic in Tolkien’s case) contextualising, and you have something very close to Goldendark, but rather than being the ‘sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’ (a wonderful thing in itself), Goldendark evokes a certain mood which ‘gilds’ the dark with some sense of hope or beauty, without necessarily resulting in a happy ending. Tonally it is less like a fairy tale and more like a myth or legend – in which sex and death occurs, but everything is imbued with a sense of magic, of significance. Unlike in Grimdark, which is essentially a Nihilistic genre, Goldendark articulates a paradigm where there is some meaning to life, where the plot means something and leads somewhere, where virtue has value and not all good deeds come to naught. Where truth and beauty – however tenuous – can exist. As indeed it can even in this messed up world. The media would have us believe that it is all bad everywhere, that every stranger is a terrorist, that every neighbour is a murderer. But we know that it is not true. Their job is to sell their rags and bones – so they use thrilling narrative to do so. Like so many Ratatosks, the worst of journalists love to spread dissent. The talk shows are rigged for contention. Conflict sells. Peace reads white. We can be aware of the countless tragedies, the geopolitical nightmare of the present, but still cherish simple things, value the sanctity of life and nature, community and imagination. Goldendark, in this respect, is more radical than the moral and intellectual laziness of Grimdark. It requires more effort. More imagination. More vision. If it is Romantic, so be it. Grimdark is nothing more than the new Gothic (Fantasy’s pale-faced sibling). The two meet in the idea of the Sublime, but whileas Grimdark dwells in the ‘shock’ of horror, Goldendark revels in the ‘awe’ of terror. There is an important difference. In the former, the mask slips and the ugly truth is revealed (usually brain matter), in the latter, the mask remains intact, and we are forced to use our imagination. It is a more sophisticated rhetoric and aesthetic. It is the Venice carnival with the sinister and exquisite masks, or Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. The darkness is acknowledged, death is danced with, but critically, it is transcended or at least transformed into art.

I propose a reimagining of possibilities within the spectrum of imaginative/non-mimetic fiction, one that does not merely mirror the ‘state of the world’, but instead boldly seeks to transform. This new approach I term ‘Goldendark’, an aesthetic which daringly engages with the ethical without descending into didacticism. While acknowledging the bleak reality of things it seeks to offer a glimmer of hope – a last gleam of the sun before it sets. This ‘gleam’ could be manifest in the arresting quality of the prose, the originality of the imagery, the freshness of the characterisation, or in redemptive plots.

 What Goldendark is not

Just for optimists, idealists or Romantics. Blatantly & blandly Christian/Pagan/New Age fiction. Inspirational fiction. Thinly-veiled self-help books. Naïve consoling fictions with no sense of the challenges facing us in the modern age (eg Climate Chaos; resource wars, etc). A sparkly counterspell to Grimdark. Puppy-food, sad or rabid.

Goldendark – suggested criteria.

  • Chiaroscuro.
  • An interrogative sense of realism.
  • Transformation of reality.
  • Ambiguity.
  • A healthy cross-section of morality.
  • A heightened awareness of the power and magical qualities of language.
  • Redemptive plot … possibly.
  • A lingering sense of hope or life-affirmation.

(K. Manwaring, 2016)

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is an Italian painting term referring to the dramatic effect of tonal contrast (it literally means ‘light-dark’), a technique mastered by Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio. Both artists were aware of the emotional impact of this light-in-darkness. In Goldendark, tonal contrast is essential. It is not all dark, dark, dark. But it’s not all sweetness and light either. One sets off the other creating a bittersweet atonality, a ying-yangness to the writing. The magical is seen in the mundane, the mundane in the magical. Hope is found in the bleakest of circumstances, and every happy moment has a fly in the ointment. The effect was captured brilliantly in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014), in which a group of four scientists explore a perilously ‘rewilded’ Area X:

‘The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.’

If Goldendark was to be summed up in three words it would be: ‘beauty in desolation.’

An interrogative sense of realism.

Goldendark seeks to not merely mirror ‘reality’, either with apparent authenticity as in mimetic fiction; or with a gratuitous exaggeration of its worst aspects, as in Grimdark. Through its plots, depiction of character and subtext it seeks to question consensual realities and perceptions of what is real. It seeks to undermine both genre expectations and lazy assumptions about ‘the way things are’. The texture of reality is manifest through close attention to detail, and yet there is a sense that the tectonic plates of the world could shudder and crack at any point.

Transformation of reality.

Goldendark seeks to be not just a mirror of reality, but a window through which other worlds, other ways of being can be glimpsed. It seeks to take the lead of reality and transform it into gold – through the alchemy of the imagination. This act takes greater courage, greater vision than a mere regurgitation of ‘what is’. The world is Goldendark has a metaphoric quality – yet it is not ‘just’ an allegory. Critically, it is within the qualia of its actuality that the potent charge exists for metamorphosis – as though by looking at something hard enough it will, at any moment, break its shell and become ‘other’.

Immanence.

Goldendark escapes the entropy of a clockwork universe by conjuring a tone of immanence, where it feels as though something could break through at any moment from a spiritual plane. Although not denying a monotheistic paradigm, GD could be just as easily a pantheistic one. The manifest universe is sacred and is revealed through the numinous world. The prose is a prism through which the one light splits into the spectrum, or is reunited. There is something almost animistic about the Goldendark novel – life is charged with a luminescence, even a sentience. The natural world is not necessarily benign, but it is aware. The walls of reality can crumble at any point, but critically, a definitive exegesis is deferred…

Ambiguity.

In the Goldendark novel a ‘final reading’ of events is impossible, or at least open to the reader’s interpretation. Uncanny or supernatural events are framed in such a way as to make psychological readings possible. The magical or mystical is never taken as a ‘given’ but just as one possible reading of reality. Scenarios are left to ‘speak for themselves’. Endings are open. And characters’ actions are seldom straightforward – sometimes motives are unclear even to themselves. We know what we are, but not what we may be.

A healthy cross-section of morality.

Goldendark presents a more balanced cross-section of morality than the skewed world of Grimdark, with its emphasis on the darker side of human behaviour. There is an acknowledgement of the depths to which humankind is capable, and an often unflinching gaze when it comes to the unspeakable horrors and tragedies which occur, but this is balanced by positive actions and acts of kindness, tenderness and trust. Human nature isn’t as unrelentingly bleak as the daily news might wish us to believe. Good exists. Virtue is occasionally rewarded. Simple goodness and pleasure is celebrated for its own sake.

A heightened awareness of the power and magical qualities of language.

Goldendark begins its project in the very fabric of the prose. It treats language with the same respect it does the natural world and humankind. There is an effort to create works of beauty – not in an overt lyricism but in the use of imagery, the crafting of each sentence and paragraph, the skilful attention to names, to dialogue, to the multifarious possibilities of language and the delights of the printed word. It takes seriously the responsibility of the storyteller and the duty of care they have to their audience – what they choose to focus on and bring into the world.

Redemptive plot … possibly.

Goldendark moves beyond the hopeful Christian discourse of Eucatastrophe (a sudden joyous turn) or its antithesis in Grimdark’s dyscatastrophe (sorrow or failure) into a liminal state of quantum possibility. The redemption it offers is in its breaking free of such dualism, or smug moral defaults. Further, Goldendark novels might refuse the comforts of closure. Robert Holdstock is the prime purveyor of this refusal of completion – things cannot be put in their box, the lives of the protagonists will be changed utterly – yet even the master of no return provided a sense of healing circularity in his last novel, Avilion, though it took us 25 years to get there. In Goldendark there is a sense that no matter how bad things get, there will be at some point an upturn towards something more positive. This is to do with a moral responsibility to the reader. We do not wish to leave them in despair, but inspired, motivated, moved and enthused with a renewed sense of life’s importance. This will, ideally, lead to …

A lingering sense of hope or life-affirmation.

When a reader puts down a Goldendark novel, they are left, ideally, with a renewed hope – not only for the possibilities of the human condition but the possibilities of language, the power of the imagination to inspire positive change in the world. The moral causality of our actions has been restored. We have agency, and what we do in this world, how we act, and interact with others, means something. In the gathering gloom we notice the last gleam of light more – we cherish its evanescence even as we let it go. Goldendark seeks to realign us to the natural cycle of things – day and night; spring, summer, autumn, winter; life and death. Through it we make peace with the universe and our place within it. The gold and the dark reminds us that every moment is laced with such qualities. We see the world in a new light.

 

‘Dark they were and golden-eyed’ 

 Goldendark Authors

  • Angela Carter
  • Lindsay Clarke
  • Philip Pullman
  • Elizabeth Hand
  • Robert Holdstock
  • Margaret Elphinstone
  • Graham Joyce
  • Ben Okri
  • Kevan Manwaring
  • Anthony Nanson
  • Lindsay Clarke
  • Christopher Priest
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Jeff VanderMeer

(this list is by no means comprehensive – it will continue to grow, and could include artists, musicians, storytellers, poets…see below for additions…)

  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen

Niggles and Quibbles

Is Goldendark a valid category?

  • I discern Goldendark qualities in the writers I have cited as examplars, but I acknowledge that no obvious subgenre exists at present. It is a deliberate Atterbery-esque ‘fuzzy set’, or what Mendlesohn might term ‘The Irregulars’. Their defining characteristic might be their lack of one, like the utterly alien word-crawler in Annihilation, oozing strange and beautiful words in the dark of its negative light-house. Word-spores that ‘Gleam… darkly golden.’ And, infesting us, transform our perception. Annihilation, p65

How does it differ from pre-Grimdark fantasy?

  • We cannot go back to a pre-9/11 world. To write in the style or morality of a mid-20th century fantasy authors would be redundant even if it were possible. So, was Grimdark necessary in some way? (Darwinian, even?) Gal Cohen describes Grimdark as: ‘an ‘Evolution of the fantasy genre.’ And yet Grimdark is just as formulaic and escapist in its own way. Goldendark differs from Tolkienian fantasy in the ways I have listed. There is an absence or deconstruction of Grand Narrative, a refusal of simplistic dualism, an engagement with the world and its complexity, an embracing of ambiguity and an attempt at psychological realism. Female characters are strong, and a meaningful diversity offered. Representations of the ‘other’ are handled sensitively.

Do we need Goldendark?

  • I would argue that Goldendark is a necessary correlative to the Neoliberalist rhetoric of Grimdark. As George Monbiot wrote in The Zombie Doctrine: ‘A coherent alternative has to be proposed.’ Although he was imagining an economic paradigm-shift, I’m imagining an aesthetic one. For this is a war won in the hearts and minds of people with the power of story. We have a choice: the buy into the consensus reality – the schlock factory of Grimdark – or create alternatives. It is shamelessly interventionist, not by being didactic and proselytising, but by being better written than anything else out there. By standing head and shoulders above the rest, it offers a positive choice. You are what you read. One can read the equivalent of junk food, or one can read well.

Is Goldendark diametrically opposed to Grimdark?

  • No. There is room for all on the bookshelves. The very act of reading a book is a redemptive one in itself (see my AHRC Essay, The (Re)Imagined Book), so the more, the merrier. I believe, to repurpose the Zapatista slogan: ‘El mundo que queremos es uno donde quepan mucho mundos’, the world I want is one where many worlds fit. It is only the pervasiveness of Neoliberalism (which Grimdark is but one iteration of) in real life, as the ‘new normal’, that is problematic. If we are only fed grim schlock then that is all we’ll see or expect. We have become habituated to it. And at the risk of being the heretic, the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes, I suggest a perceptual shift is required. It takes  a significant mental effort to see beyond what they want you to see: to ‘pierce-the-veil’, as Perceval/Parsifal achieved. The Grail awaits for those who do.

In his recent acceptance speech upon winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, British director Ken Loach said: ‘The world we live in is a at a dangerous point right now. We are in the grip of a dangerous project of austerity driven by ideas that we call neo-liberalism that have brought us to near catastrophe.’

What greater call to arms do we need?

‘Come, father, let us embrace…’                                                   Mordred, Excalibur, John Boorman (1982)

Final Thoughts

Goldendark is a speculative category, but one I hope will coalesce into a distinctive subgenre – yet not one too rigidly prescriptive or formulaic, for that will be the death of it. While it remains embryonic it has the frisson of possibility about it, it is a new frontier awaiting to be explored, a new world to be discovered. Another world is possible, and it takes a true act of the imagination to envision that.

 

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2016

View the accompanying PREZI here

 

FROM GRIMDARK TO GOLDENDARK

References/Works cited:

  1. Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things, London: Allen Lane, 2000, p305.
  2. Grimdark magazine submission guidelines https://grimdarkmagazine.com/pages/submission-guidelines-for-grimdark-magazine
  3. http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2013/02/25/the-value-of-grit/
  4. Roberts, Adam (2014). Get Started in: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Hachette UK. p. 42. ISBN9781444795660.
  5. Valentine, Genevieve (25 January 2015). “For A Taste Of Grimdark, Visit The ‘Land Fit For Heroes'”NPR Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  6. Shurin, Jared (28 January 2015). “NEW RELEASES: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR BY KATHERINE ADDISON”Pornokitsch. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  7. Bourke, Liz (17 April 2015). “The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan”Strange Horizons. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
  8. Walter, Damien (1 January 2016). “Science fiction and fantasy look ahead to a diverse 2016”. The Guardian. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  9. ‘The Survivors’, extract The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie, 2006.
  10. The Walking Dead, HBO, 2010-2016. The Walking Dead is an American horror drama television series developed by Frank Darabont, based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard.
  11. George Monbiot, ‘The Zombie Doctrine’, Guardian, 16 April 2016.
  12. Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press; First edition. edition (30 April 2008)
  13. John Clute/John Grant, (eds). Encyclopedia of Fantasy,  Orbit, 1997/1999.
  14. David Sandner, Fantastic Literature: a critical reader, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
  15. ‘Eucatastrophe’; & ‘Dyscatastrophe: sorrow & failure: ‘the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.’ JRR Tolkien, Letter 89.
  16. Joshua Rothman, The Weird Thoreau, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/weird-thoreau-jeff-vandermeer-southern-reach
  17. ‘Gleamed darkly golden…’ Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation, p65
  18. Lindsay Clarke, The Water Theatre, Alma, 201o.

 

Kevan Manwaring

Fantasies of Contemporary Culture, Cardiff 23 May 2016.