“The system is taking over,” says Ben, smiling, aware of the cliché.
We’re sitting in his back garden; it’s around eleven in the evening; warm, a near full moon overhead; rich dark hulks of bushes and trees fill our vision from the decking where we’re drinking whisky and talking about the world of books. His bookshop is still struggling, which may be why every time we meet he has a new theory for what’s wrong with the publishing business.
“Wasn’t it always?” I say.
“This is worse than the man, he says. This is the men, and the women, and the kids too.”
“Do you mean everyone’s finally been taken over by the system?”
“No, I mean everyone is the system, and now the system eats itself.”
“This isn’t going to be about how the man lost control for just a brief time in the 60s but is now more in charge than ever, having learnt his lesson?”
“Not quite. Leaving aside the commercial hacks who’ve always been around, the way it used to work with the good writers was that they just wrote. And when they’d finished writing, they gave it to their publisher who published it. Then the reader read it. End of story. So to speak.”
“Like Philip Wylie.”
“Yes! He was driven by ideas and passion and challenge. Remember that book he wrote where all the men on the planet disappear and in parallel all the women disappear. Right in the middle of it he sticks this thesis about men and women; says to the reader, you can skip this bit if you want but it’s why I wrote the book.”
“‘Generation of Vipers’ – an all-out attack on the American Mom.”
“And he created Superman without hardly noticing. Of course a couple of hacks stole the idea, sanitised it and made millions.”
“And Wylie wouldn’t get published today?”
“It’s worse than that: he probably wouldn’t write today. In his time, readers weren’t a system. They were the great unknown mass of unconnected individuals without a voice. There was no internet; just letters and mostly only two people ever saw those. Readers got what the writer wanted to say and the writer hardly ever knew or cared what the reader thought. Wylie wasn’t writing for readers. He was trying to smash a way through the system.”
“There’s that time his doctor told him to take a cruise as a break from writing but he spent the entire trip shut in his cabin writing a hundred and twelve thousand word novel.”
“Doctors are part of the system. And they want their patients to join the system, to do as they’re told, to take their medicine. Supplied by the drug companies which run the bigger system that controls the doctors’ system.”
A neighbour’s cat creeps onto the decking like a lateral thought. We hear the gentle tinkling of cutlery from the house backing on to Ben’s.
“In Wylie’s day,” says Ben, “the publisher’s system was sandwiched between two unknown non-systems: the writer and the reader. But now the writer is outnumbered because the readers have become a system that works in tandem with the publisher.”
I know what he means. I think about recent writers’ workshops I’ve been on where intelligent people, stuffed with craft and story instinct, are often bowed down by the requirements of a system that wants more and more of the same, with just a little twist of different.
“The worst thing that happened to writers was the creation of interconnected fans,” he says. “They’re demanding and powerful and full of cash so they now dictate what appears in books or screens. They love Sherlock Holmes and Batman and the X-Men and Doctor-Bloody-Who but they love them their way. And publishers and producers are too artistically spineless to tell them to go screw themselves, that they’ll get what they’re given and take a chance on expanding their creative comfort zones whether they want to or not.”
“Even Stan Lee . . . ” I begin.
He laughs. “Even Stan Lee! Even Stan Lee, commercial genius that he was, could create characters outside of the system. The comics system wasn’t as inflexible as it is now so he could dream up all kinds of outlandish new superheroes and Marvel would just give it to their readers.”
“But, hey, you and I are old farts out of touch with the world. I bet if we had a bright teenage comics fan here, he’d tell us there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on outside the mainstream.”
“There probably is, but it won’t be denting the sales of the commercial giants, and most people won’t have heard of it. Which the system can accommodate easily enough. It even gives it authenticity: it can claim there is more variety in comics and books today than there ever was.”
The whisky takes me back to when he and I were younger, and we’d sit up all night talking about the universe and where it ends, or why grass is green. Now, we know too much about what’s wrong with the world to let the wonder out very often.
“Does it really matter?” I say. “Even if there’s just one great book that says something real, and only one person who reads it, and gets changed by it – doesn’t that mean the world’s a better place?”
I think he shrugs; it’s hard to tell in the dark. “The other problem with systems today,” he says, “is that they can edit the truth faster and more effectively than ever. I was watching this BBC programme the other night, all about pop stars who grow old. Because it’s a programme made for the system, it has to have a simple message. So it had a succession of old sixties artists who are still singing the stuff today they sang back then. Why not? the programme says, if the music’s good.”
“Well, they’ve got a point,” I say, “especially when you think of One Direction.”
“But their nice neat system of organising the sixties’ singers didn’t have a place for Scott Walker, so he wasn’t even mentioned. He had massive success back in the day but you won’t catch him singing the bloody sun ain’t gonna shine any more at the Albert Hall any time soon.”
“I nearly had a nasty accident the other day because of Scott Walker,” I say.
“I was in the bath, listening to his latest album for the first time: ‘The Childhood of a Leader’. A lot of it is very orchestral and fairly normal for him. Anyway, I was enjoying it when suddenly there was this rasping, hacking, ugly sound. I thought the washing machine was about to blow up. So, I jumped out of the shower, slipped, and bashed into the door frame. Which was when I realised the horrible noise was part of the music.”
We’re quiet for a moment, musing over the thin line between art and the seriously bonkers. Then Ben says, “Well, you won’t knock yourself out listening to Olly Murs, that’s for sure.”
I know he’s right about systems, and how they’re more in control than ever, yet in the west at least, disguised much better than before. Increasingly, however, I’m seeing that there really is no choice. Even if it means I never publish a story again, the duty of an author is to avoid complying with systems with everything he’s got.
He points his iSomething device towards the living room and we hear a great swelling of orchestral music, at a galloping pace, followed by that great baritone voice.
“And if one day I should become, a singer with a Spanish bum, who sings for women of great virtue . . . ”
Which of course is one of the greatest songs ever about breaking out of the system.
“Though I’d be drunk as I could be, still I would sing my song to me, about the time they called me ‘Jacky’.