Category Archives: oulipo

Inspiration – and its alternatives

As some of you may have spotted I’m doing a project during lockdown to write a story a week based on people’s suggestions. These will be published as a book when the crisis is over with the profits going to a local food bank.

It has been a fascinating experience in terms of its impact on my creativity. The first change being it forces me to sit down and write as, even in lockdown, there are other things which I could be doing and which are less challenging than writing.

The other thing that is a bit of a revelation is that the initial seed of “genre, character, location” is all I need to come up with a story that works reasonably well. Not that I should be that surprised when I think of the way constraints encourage creation within OuLiPo and the interesting results of the Surrealist experiments with automatic writing and their Exquisite Corpse game. I am also reminded of Harlan Ellison’s experiments sitting in a bookshop window and writing story after story for the customers.

Part of the creative process has also been thinking “that is the sort of story X might write” X being one of my literary heroes. In my first real job as a journalist on the Shields Gazette, colleagues and I would fill in quiet times of the day with what we called Two Finger Exercises (referring to the number of fingers we used to type, of course). We would write news stories in the style of a famous author. Not all of our parodies were successful but it was great fun.

One of the story prompts I was given was a one armed salmon poacher on the Wye river. The Wye rising in Wales, and that being the home of Rhys Hughes – who wrote one of my favourite parodies of all time in “Crash -With Shopping Trollies – I did a homage to him using elements of the plots from Moby Dick and Casablanca. The latter was because my mind threw out the phrase “we’ll always have Powys.”

Another Welsh location I was given was the Brecon Beacons and the characters were a T Rex and a Brontosaurus. As the dinosaurs were named after the suggester’s children I tried ti make the story age appropriate, but ended up with a story inspired by Italo Calvino’s T Zero tales and Roy Lewis’ The Evolution Man.

As I was worried I would not be able to keep to my commitment if no-one made any suggestions I have also been working through my story ideas file and writing up some of those. Many started as just a title or a character or some other nugget of inspiration, and have since been added to as other ideas popped into my head followed by the thought: “That would work well with that.” I’m not worried I run out any time soon as I tend to add at least one story seed a week and I have a few dozen to work through without adding any at all.

If you have any thoughts for the Lockdown Stories though, email them to me at timnewtonanderson@hotmail.co.uk or message me via my Facebook page Tim Newton Anderson. Cheers.

Publish the damned

I was reviewing my catalogue of books about ‘pataphysics, surrealism, and related enthused literature and noticed that there are a number of publishers that come up again and again.

Some of these are sadly no longer with us, but many have stayed the course and there are one or two that have emerged recently so I thought it was worth  giving some details so you can seek out their publications. Most of the books created by the publishers below are worth looking at.

The first to mention is, of course, Atlas Press. As their recently revamped web page says, they have been publishers of the anti tradition since 1983 and they are also the publisher of the documents of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics. It’s well worth looking at their catalogue as they have added a number of titles which were previously listed as being out of print. Some may be a bit expensive due to their rarity, but others are extremely affordable. Do yourself a favour and visit the website – or after the Covid 19 crisis pop in to Bookartbooks in Pitfield Street in London where you will be able to see all of the titles plus a myriad of other wonderful publications.

Even older are New Directions which has been active since the 1930s after a discussion between Ezra Pound and its founder. It concentrates more on Modernist literature from around the globe, but there are still lots of great books to be found there.

Moving up to 1955 we have City Lights – initially linked to the Beats but with a wider range of literature now including Cortazar, Breton, Daumal, and many more. Many of the beats were also published by Grove Press – now absorbed into Grove Atlantic – who also published the Evergreen Review including their classic edition on ‘Pataphysics. More recently Dalkey Archive – founded a year after Atlas in 1984 – have had an intensive programme of both new and classic books from the alternative tradition.

To mention a couple of newish publishers,Tamtam Books have recently published a number of newly translated titles by Boris Vian and Wakefield Press are building an impressive catalog of titles of mostly French authors running from the 1890s to today.

For those who may be vaguely interested my own catalogue of titles is here: Pataphysics Catalogue

Under review

I was pleased to find in looking at the Amazon page for my short story collection – The Cat Factory and other stories by Tim Newton Anderson – that it had some very positive reviews.

One of them was from a friend – albeit one I have only seen once since leaving university thirty odd years ago – but the other two were from people I don’t know. All of them gave me five stars and very positive reviews.

It is always worrying when you put something out there that it will be received negatively. Performing on stage is not too bad. You may not get the reaction you want but it is over quickly and you move on to the next event. It’s only if you continually get bad responses you start to worry. My former band guitarist always reckoned you get gigs in a set of three threes – one bad, one ok and one good. Sometimes you just aren’t feeling it, sometimes the audience are not in the mood or are more interested in chatting, and sometimes there isn’t enough audience there to create any kind of atmosphere.

With music you can also quickly go back and work out how to improve the next performance. It is harder with a book. Once it is out there it stays out there. Jules is doing an audio recording for me of the collection and in preparing the files for her to scroll through I’ve noticed several typos I missed despite lots and lots of proofreading. Nothing that major but still annoying to me – and more importantly to the reader.

I also keep thinking of ways to tweak the stories to make them better. If I’m totally honest I’m not sure I would award the collection five stars, because I can see ways in which it could be improved. Perhaps the important thing is the reader’s reaction. They only know what they read and whether they enjoy it – not what I was trying to do with the story. cover

H Jones Has Talk Mod – an appreciation of John Thomas Sladek

One of my favourite science fiction writers of all time is John Thomas Sladek.

Sladek, who died in March 2000, first came under the spotlight in the New Wave of British science fiction around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, although he was born in Iowa and most of his writing was set in the USA, His writing fitted the experimental nature of the New Worlds stable of young – and young at heart. He also shared the sense of humour of many of them – especially his frequent collaborator Thomas Disch.

Where Sladek was unique was his satire and scepticism, and especially his fascination with puzzles and formal games. His experimental fiction often resembled the blend of mathematics and art practised by the OuLiPo group of writers who grew out of the Institute ‘Pataphysique and included Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews. It also echoed Postmodern writers like John Barth. Unlike those writers, the publication of most of his short stories and novels under the science fiction banner meant he had little critical interest from the mainstream and his experimental fiction meant he did not achieve the sales of more more straightforward SF writers.

Like OuLiPo he would set rules in the way he approached many stories – including writing the mystery novels Black Aura and Invisible Green under the rules laid out Rev Ronald Knox for Golden Age detective novels at a time when no-one else in crime writing cared about them. At the same time he subverted Asimov’s rules of robotics in Tic Toc – one of his many novels which used robotics, artificial intelligence and the sciences of Information Theory and Cybernetics developed in the Macy Conferences in the 40s.

Although the structure of his stories and novels were based on formal rules – they were anything but formal in their humour. He was a savage satirist of the worst of human nature and particularly of wilful ignorance, stupidity and hypocrisy. His non fiction book The New Apocrypha ripped apart pseudo science, woolly minded and crank theories and cults with devastating logic and rationalism and most of all with humour. Sladek was always very funny and he used the same scalpel in writing his mock new age books Arachne Rising, The Cosmic Factor and the Judgement of Jupiter – the best joke being that most readers believed they were serious non fiction.

He has sometimes been compared to the more well known satirist who came out if the science fiction community – Kurt Vonnegut. But his work could not be more different to the bleakness of Vonnegut’s vision. Sladek has hope and his masterwork Roderick (published in various slices as one or two books) brings out the humanity in his young robot who becomes a real boy and suffers but overcomes the same issues we can all face in childhood. A Candide for the Information Age.

Some of his work was written just for fun – like the affectionate but devastatingly accurate parodies of other science fiction writers or some of the squibs collected in Maps – but he never wrote anything that wasn’t interesting and clever and his best work deserves wider recognition for its innovation, fun and intelligence.

Most of his writing is available as e-books. Read them.