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Is there a literary underground?

Literary undergoundA century ago, in the 1990s, the only thing that interested me more than literature was heavy metal music.

Before the Internet went mainstream, being into a metal subgenre meant ordering obscure albums from poorly photocopied mail-order catalogues (“distros” was the word), attending local concerts, and buying hissy cassettes with logos on the cover called demotapes. The sum of these activities was called “supporting” the scene, a thing you were supposed to do if you were serious about your attitude, and the totality of people keeping the thing alive made up the “underground”. It was cool being in the underground: it was much more than a limbo in which bands waiting to go major honed their skills on the sidelines. It was a shadow realm, a parallel world in its own right. It had its rules, its codes of behavior, its economies of honor, its patterns of motivation. There were dos and don’ts, basic requirements and big no-nos. One mistake (“wimping out”, “selling out”) and you were done for, but “true” scenesters were entitled to moral, financial and social credit. In some cases, it was even uncool to graduate from the underground. Why leave, when you could sell hundreds, sometimes thousands of copies without being mentioned once in a fancy magazine? Most of us were mighty sorry when this was over, and folk death metal with Old Norse lyrics and operatic vocals began to be sold at Virgin megastores…

Why am I mentioning this? Because my recent participation in a pow-wow of literary blogs precipitated a feeling of puzzlement I had been harboring for some time. I have been involved in books, bookworming, and book-mongering for longer than I care to remember, most recently as a blogger. However, I always had trouble adapting to the mores of a tribe I certainly belong to, but possibly as a half-blood. The tribe of aspiring authors, amateur critics, informal opinion makers, independent agents and editors, destitute translators, and cult writers that makes up the literary underground. Except that there is no “literary underground”, at least by my standards! Here’s cognitive dissonance for you.

How comes that in the music scene a professionally packaged self-production is an asset, a statement of intents that puts you on the map, but a novel you published on your own is a mark of shame, just about the lamest thing you can do? Finance your own album when no label has signed you up, and you’re serious, dedicated, you’ve stood up to hardship; pay to get your stories printed, and you’re the laughing stock of the Internet. Back in the days, a demotape (to say nothing of a demo-cd) was supposed to look “real”, you had to stand in for the label, master the moves. An expensive glossy cover was the proof that you meant it, that you believed in your stuff. In literature, doubling as a publisher or hiring a service to do so immediately labels you as a “poser”, especially if you go for the flashy package. «He paid to get published, what a schmuck!». Granted, most self-productions are excruciatingly bad in both cases, they suck, but I’m talking attitude here, not quality. The metal underground could be childish and sometimes awkward, but it was always ok to circulate your stuff, to signal your existence, in any form. You might be denied attention, but not the right to strive for it and ask for support. Sometimes people would write from Finland or Maine just to catch up with your news. This is definitely not happening with “vanity press” and “print on demand”. There is no group, no solidarity, no sense of belonging or rivalry. Why is it?

A 40 year old friend tells you that he has started a jazz quartet. Your reaction is: «Great, man, I might be coming to your next session. Keep up the good work!». The same friend tells you about the novel he is writing (most people around 40 are writing a novel these days). Your first thought is glacial: «Too much information here. Let me off the hook, man. This is not going to happen. Not reading this». Why? Does one respect music-making just because it involves non-basic abilities that weren’t taught in school? Does one feel less cocky when a foursome, rather than a lonely individual, is involved? Does the intrinsic sociability of a band, a society in miniature, facilitate the socialization of its output? Do cooperative enterprises as such command more esteem? Is it because “going solo”, as all novelists necessarily do, is perceived as conceit and exhibitionism? But then again, isn’t blowing into a saxophone in sun-glasses the quintessence of showing off? Why is the latter socially acceptable?

Is it because you can listen to music while doing other things, as opposed to reading? A bad book is a wasted afternoon (or two): no redemption, no money back; a bad album or concert is much easier to get out of your system. Is it because literature is more about ego and social standing? Is it because bad jazz or metal are much more like the “real thing” than a poor approximation of a novel? After all, we have words for music that fails (“noise”, “clatter” etc.), but our vocabulary for sub-par literature is much less differentiated.

The fact remains that the hallmark of an approved authorial existence, in Italy at least, is getting published and distributed. Going major is the only option (besides fan fiction, perhaps). Do either thing yourself – self-print or self-distribute –, and you’re out. «Oh, you’re one of those losers who ask bookstores to keep a batch of copies, aren’t you?». What kind of haughty crap is that? In my world it was ok, it was respected to travel miles to beg record stores to keep your demo on a shelf. It was ok to come from the grind, to put your ass on the line every time. In small-fry literature, it is permissible to do a small promotion tour-cum-debate, but only if your book is a “real” book, no matter how marginal the publisher.

I simultaneously find this ridiculous and inevitable. This is why I am confused and uneasy. I encourage young musicians but admonish would-be writers. To the ones I say: «Play, do gigs, get around, learn by doing»; to the others I bark: «Get down and study already! You don’t need to publish your expectorations. Novels aren’t written in a day». Why? Why?, I keep asking myself in a fake Mexican accent. We know better than to take major debuts at face value, especially in later years. Still, like it or not, a first novel on Mondadori carries much more weight than a self-published work of equal bulk and quality, no matter how much of a “scout” you are. Isn’t it because the latter exists in a sorry vacuum, while the first joins an ongoing conversation? A disgraceful major debut (Italian specialty along with pizza) still means something, still makes a difference, gets tongues rolling and pens oozing. A work of literary genius circulating outside “approved” channels, on the contrary, will be ignored. Not a real book, not gonna work. There are no alternative structures that kick in, no alternative publics, no “distros”, no demotapes (manuscripts?), no informal reputations. After all, professionally edited novels are better, 9 times out of 10. Quod erat demonstrandum: there is no literary underground, there cannot be one. The pre-Gutenberg book market and Soviet-era samizdat will forever be the only examples. (Or will the e-book change the rules? Beats me.)

Publishing, self publishing, vanity pressThere might be a philosophical angle here. Literature has always had subgenres, especially now that fantasy authors thrive, but at the same time it always subscribed to a universalistic, Kantian aesthetics: a work of beauty must, at least potentially, appeal to all rational beings. There is no such thing as a “regional” aesthetic justification. That is why there is only one forum, one stage, one channel: the publishing industry. The world of popular music, with its precocious differentiation into “scenes”, is the first instance of an irreconcilable archipelago of contrasting aesthetics. The first non-Kantian art world. There is no way a classic of hip-hop can be judged by black metal standards, or shared assumptions, and vice versa. Still, each “island” has its codes, values, and record companies.

I am not trying to make any specific point here. Just thinking aloud. Is there something we can learn from the music underground as literary critics? Or are we better off this way? Is it ok to fight the oligopoly of major publishing groups without questioning their logic? Why is it so hard, if not impossible, to imagine doing so? Caught between two ages, two experiences, two faiths, I absent-mindedly scratch my abundant facial hair – only remnant of my headbanging days – and do what I do best: wonder.

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