Feature: Chris Kelso - Creatively Mourning the Novel
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
By Chris Kelso
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Heidegger’s claim that we only form an identity after facing death has always been stuck in my head. We should remember this when considering the death of the novel.
I have always been interested in transformation, of art and of the personal identity. Life transforming into death. Death becoming something new entirely. I think if something isn’t growing and developing then it will likely die like any other organism. It’s a theme I’ve always tried to explore in all my writing. In the main, I’ve written genre fiction with a philosophical edge, but recently I’ve been reading a lot of David Shields and Gore Vidal - now I’m thinking that the novel is a restricted, perishing medium in its current incarnation. In and of itself, the novel doesn’t have the same power it used to, especially among this new distracted soma-generation of consumers: somnambulists in the perpetual quest of instant gratification. And, alarmingly, I think Neil Postman’s doomsday hypothesis is coming true, in particular when he talks about humanity being simultaneously addicted to and oppressed by its own relentless search for amusement. But it’s my belief that the written word can survive by latching on to other forms – art installation, music, cinema, etc. Writers, we are in the business of expanding the lifespan of literature. I wanted to create something for the ADHD consumer because ultimately it’s this generation who will have the final say.
Influence started as a conversation between me and Edwin Sellors of Ragged Lion Press. Just a general chit-chat about the decline of independent literature. Edwin is a big proponent of the visual medium and has been making interesting (very literary) multimedia videos for his YouTube site for a long time. I had written these depressing little poems and they were just sitting around on my hard drive, so I decided to spruce them up a bit. I wrote this weird incidental music and recorded readings over the melody. On a whim, I sent them along to Edwin who immediately started splicing these public access images together to make a sort of hallucinogenic music video for the poems. I thought it looked cool – like he was teasing out this shadow archetype buried beneath my words, and we kept collaborating in this way. I’d send along a recording and Edwin would visualise it. Tease out the ID.
I had just spent five years writing The DREGS Trilogy (which is a sprawling multi-stranded cosmic horror novel) and I felt artistically and spiritually exhausted by the process - and disheartened by the subsequent lack of attention the book earned. The amount of time spent thrashing out a layered novel felt disproportionate to the interest garnered. I’ve always written for the sake of writing because I was compelled to do it and I appreciate craft in any form, but I couldn’t deny that something shifted. Please understand that the novel isn’t dead to me, but it’s perhaps in need of a tune-up somehow. If it’s to grow.
Marcus du Sautoy argues that technology will allow new and important transformations to occur within books and we are in the embryonic stages of this metamorphosis – I suppose this is my attempt to bring his theory into practice. And, by the way, I’ve been through the various anticipatory stages of the grieving process already. I’ve felt the initial shock and denial we all experienced when kindle came along; the anger and bargaining stage; depression. But now it’s time for the upward turn. Reconstruction and working through the new world. Influence is part of my acceptance and hope phase. We’ve mourned long enough and now it’s time to do something about it.
Dennis Cooper does some really interesting things with GIF novels and I suppose Influence is trying to capture something similar. A marriage of creative mediums to form a new incarnation of the novel. While the video-pieces themselves seem somewhat disparate, there is a common narrative thread throughout, and not a particularly oblique or abstract one. Simply put - Influence deals with all major forms of power: from the structured systemic exploitation of the government, to the individual corruption of the soul. The project could have just as easily been called ‘Exploitation’. Dennis talks about composing his GIF novel, Zak’s Haunted House, according to the same principles, planning and structuring of a traditional novel. There is still skill involved, and a lot of the same skills we’re used to as writers. So, Dennis presents the viewer/reader with stacked columns of images, a mood board that flashes and glitches. It’s sensory in a way that traditional literature could never dream of being. And he’s actually having fun with the novel (now who thought that was possible?). Earlier I talked about The DREGS Trilogy and the exhaustion that caused me - the truth is that I wouldn’t have minded the lack of critical attention had the novels composition been a remotely enjoyable process.
Also, what stories are there left to tell? There’s something to be said for Tumblr and net art. This ‘Dark Night of the Internet’s Soul’ is our new story written in HTML-code. If the internet and technology has killed the novel, or played a part in it’s demise, then it owes it to the art form to advance it somehow – and we owe the internet a place in the bookshelf of intellectual storytelling. We are in shadow times and one thing we can do is utilise this predatory technology as a collaborator. I admit it’s sort of sad to concede defeat like this, but if you can’t beat them then maybe you should join them. In this instance anyway. You need to grow. To develop. Even as I write this I’m aware it’s nothing ground-breaking – Duchamp’s spinning roto-reliefs were creating hypnotic retinal illusions long before the contemporary transgressive came along.
Influence is a kind of bootleg item. There won’t be many copies made but will feature an album comprising all the spoken-word pieces, a chapbook of poetry, and a set of B&W card photographs of Philip LoPresti’s b&w photography. It’ll be a lovely item.
Chris Kelso is a multi-translated British Fantasy Award-nominated writer, editor, and illustrator from Scotland. His work has appeared in Evergreen Review, The Scottish Poetry Library, Sensitive Skin, Locus, Dennis Cooper's blog, Black Static, 3AM, and many more.
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