Hey hey hey hey, that’s right, it’s time for another review from the eternally acclaimed book reviewer and “literary lifestyle blogger”, Scott Manley Hadley, and this time I’m giving you the gift of too many gifs:
As an opening aside, I’m very proud to announce that this year I’ve been longlisted for the Saboteur Award for Best Reviewer, which although that’s a downgrade from being on last year’s shortlist, as it’s a public vote and in 2017 I tried to get everyone I’d ever met to vote for me and this year I did literally nothing – I didn’t even vote for myself – I think that’s a real triumph for both myself and Open Pen, the magazine that most regularly publishes my reviews (if we’re not counting – and we’re not – my very own TriumphoftheNow.com). This is, therefore, some non-negligible recognition with zero direct effort: It’s flattering, because it means that some (probs not many) of the literary scenesters who vote in the Saboteur Awards think about me, in my absence, without prompting. That’s a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, and I feel honoured. If this sounds like I’m being sarcastic, I apologise, as I really really really mean this. I’m feeling great about everything atm tbh, things are genuinely good for me and I’m STILL on masses of antidepressants. Should probably lower the dose soon but meh, booo: let’s enjoy life while I can.
I am genuinely flattered to be longlisted for a 2018 Saboteur Award, though I’m probably not going to add it to my CV, my “writer bio”, or really mention it again as, like I said, it is a stepdown from last year.
So, to the review. The book I am considering today is a collection of short stories by Dana Diehl, titled Our Dreams Might Align. This is a brand new, fresh publication from a brand new, fresh indie press called Splice, based in Birmingham, UK, the top city of my very own native West Midlands.
Splice plan to release multiple short story collections, an annual anthology, plus regular new online content, and Our Dreams Might Align is their first print publication. It is, to be blunt, great. However, given that the source of the publisher’s name is the planned anthology (which will contain new writing from the writers whose collections they publish SPLICED with writing from other voices) and that this book is not a splicing of a new and old, that Dana Diehl herself would be a non-London-based British writer. She, however, isn’t.
Dana Diehl is American and this collection was previously published in 2016 by (now closed) Jellyfish Highway Press. As a huge vocal champion of British indie presses irl AND in the numerous places my “critical writing” pops up, I’m wary to criticise anyone who is setting up and putting out GREAT fiction (as indeed this undeniably is). But I did feel a little disappointed by the lack of an evidenced publisher narrative for me to rave about here. Splice has published a gorgeous, moving, impressive collection of stories in Our Dreams Might Align, but I don’t feel like this book gave me any unique sense of their identity as a publisher. Not to say that this collection wasn’t varied and engaging and taut and moving, in fact it was a near-perfect collection featuring whales and love and heartache and regret and komodo fucking dragons. It is EXCELLENT. BUT Dead Ink, Influx, Fitzcarraldo, And Other Stories, Dodo Ink, Burning Eye, Galley Beggar are all great indie presses putting out consistently top content, and from the first time I read a book published by each of those houses I understood the vibe, the theme, the ideology of said publisher. Though Splice – outside of this book – mention plans that are super exciting and pleasingly innovative, as a statement of innovative intent, Our Dreams Might Align doesn’t enter the publishing landscape with an unfamiliar bang. I love the book, I think it’s great, but I don’t know if I love Splice yet.
Hmmm. I don’t know if my comments here are useful, because Our Dreams Might Align is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in ages. Probably since Eley Williams’ Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press, 2017, my response here), which structurally this reminded me of. Dana Diehl’s collection is amazing, I want to say this plain. The criticisms I’m making are probably stupid, pointless, vapid, and the fact that I feel not only comfortable making them but UNcomfortable writing about *any* book without including some kind of pointed negativity is an example of my own white male privilege that I’d never understood until I saw a viral tweet a few days ago.
Last week I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (Bloomsbury, 2017, my thoughts here), and perhaps my own liberal, progressive prior engagement with “identity politics”, systems of prejudice and – gently – intersectionality meant that I found it a less personally-challenging book than the introduction led me to expect. Though I was made uncomfortable by the examples of state-approved discrimination, of lynchings and race riots and cruelty, I wasn’t encountering any of the “ideas” for the first time, though I was newly encountering a pointed and direct history of race relations in the UK. I understand what white privilege is, I understand intersectionality, and Eddo-Lodge’s book informed and expanded my knowledge of ideas I had already explored, whilst tying them to my own national history in a way that I was unused to. So, maybe I’m trying to say that the book about racism left me feeling almost smug in my awareness of my own progressive, liberal, attitudes and empathy and understanding. Because I try to never talk over black people speaking about race, over women speaking about gender, over gay people speaking about sexuality (though, as a white man, I am sure I am guilty of all those things at some point and I apologise), because my ability to “listen” and believe what I listen to is something I am firm and comfortable in, I knew I was not guilty of the most accidentally destructive contemporary liberal sin Eddo-Lodge writes about: wilful faux ignorance.
But then, on Twitter – which I have very much turned into a wishy washy internationalist safe space by blocking everyone I think has an unredeemable broken soul – I suddenly saw a thread being shared by some of the team behind Minor Literature[s] that directly told me I was doing something wrong. (NB: if you don’t know what Minor Literature[s] is, it’s a more serious literary magazine than this one, basically the “bed in” era John Lennon to Open Pen’s Thomas the Tank Engine era Ringo Starr.) It was a thread written by a North American BME woman about how the only people who ever proselytise about the importance of negative reviews are heterosexual middle class white men. Oh, I gulped: you’re right, I *am* the only person I know who regularly writes about hating books (here is yet another link to that Tom Jeffreys review), and who as recently as like March has blogged about the importance (imo) of negative responses to cultural products. As I opened the thread and prepared to have my proverbial ass proverbially handed to me, I thought about how white men feel comfortable expressing whatever opinion they have, how white men judge all cultural products as if heterowhiteman is the default experience etc, but what I read instead was actually far, far more depressing. The commentator was saying that the reason negative opinions are rarely expressed is due to the fear and the threat and the reality of backlash. Of personal, discriminatory, abusive attacks aimed at a critic following a negative denouncement. This is horrendous and fucking shameful.
I thought about the literature I had written about negatively and who I had pissed off and what repercussions that had had, and I realised: pretty much NOTHING. I slated Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings, but Fitzcarraldo still send me review copies of almost everything they publish (which is a situation I love, thank you thank you thank you), Influx Press named me as a “Literary Hero of 2017” after I wrote that one of their publications was best read by anyone who “actively hopes the entire country north of Oxford will become cholera-filled slums filled with little toad men by the year 2050.” I can think of other good “working” (not for money like) relationships I have with other indie publishers that I have, on occasion, hugely offended with a review. Am I able to “get away” with negativity because of my perceived identity? By virtue of the way I present, am I intrinsically already in the tent pissing [not out but] into a bucket that’s there for the purpose, rather than outside, pissing on the waterproofed canvas? I might make the tent stinky, but I’m not gonna be asked to leave because the tent like is like mine? This metaphor OK?
I thought a bit harder and realised the complexity of my problem. When I consider which books it is I’ve read and most disliked, almost EVERY SINGLE ONE is by a smug middle class white man (occasionally I get bored by smug middle class white women too). Do I come across as bitter when I’m criticising more successful people within my own demographic, or does my ability to comfortably criticise have some kind of cultural value? Or – and this is probably the case – is every bad book I comment on by a mediocre white man just giving less attention, less space, to potential positive reviews of work by non-binary or BME or disabled writers? I don’t know any more, but having reneged on my previous decision to shut the fuck up (none of the white men who DON’T give a shit about trying to be kind bothered shutting up), I’m uncertain how I can actually help. I don’t want to be a dickhead, I don’t want to be part of the problem, but I know that the bigoted pricks who spread hatred and division and contempt will NEVER shut up while there is anyone left to listen to their old men colonial wet dreams.
Here’s a little point: it is easier for middle class white men to attain the outward markers of success than any other group. To be a published writer who diverges from that norm in any way means the book HAS TO be better than that mediocre base. That’s why most books by BME, gay or female writers aren’t shit, because they HAVE TO not be. I didn’t read Signal Failure and think “well, I’ll never read a book by a white Englishman again”, but there are too many prejudiced middle class white people who WILL avoid every book by a mixed race woman because they didn’t like White Teeth, for example. So the lesson, I think, is this: positivity about work by marginalised voices can do a lot of good, while negativity about mediocre white men barely does any harm. I will continue to read and write about books that I think will be exciting, but I firmly expect to continue being underwhelmed mostly, only, by the work of mediocre white men.
Dana Diehl’s collection deserved more attention in this post. I’ve done that thing again. Sorry. Diehl writes with gritty authenticity, she uses animals to great imagistic and allegorical strength, she plays with magical realism in a couple of pieces and the final story – about a fragmenting couple trying to reconnect in Germany while failing to tame a pair of komodo dragons – is one of the strongest and most affecting short stories I have read in a while. Splice has done a great service in publishing this, and I’m sure that the rest of their forthcoming collections, plus their debut anthology, will continue to give me much to enjoy. I’m sorry I feel the need to be negative, because this isn’t a publication that deserves it. I can’t help it. I will go away and think about what I’ve done.