At the moment, I’m reading a book I’m really enjoying. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. The review will be up in a day or two when I’ve finished it, but in the meantime I was thinking about what I want to say about it in that review, and the phrase ‘cult classic’ has come up in my head.
I said in a previous post that I seem more drawn to books, music and films that sit outside the mainstream. In fact, if something proclaims itself to be a ‘cult book’ or a ‘cult movie’, the chances are I’ll be all over it like a rash. On reflection, I’m not sure why this is. I suppose there is a part of me that clings onto that teenage fixation with finding things of quality that other people around me haven’t discovered yet. How great was it at 16 to discover a band that none of your mates had heard of and then be able to nod knowingly 6 months down the line when everyone was listening to them? I don’t think that’s all there is to it though. I know people who do that and just bide their time until the thing they’ve found becomes popular then denounce it as it’s no longer underground or cool enough for them. I’m not like that – I think it’s quite childish to be a slave to your perception of yourself in that way.
Let’s take a film analogy. How many films come out in a year? Hundreds? Thousands? I don’t watch as many as I used to, but looking back over the ones I have watched, it’s the independent movies, the small budget American films, the French films, the Japanese ones – these are the things I tend to hold in high regard. Very few oscar winners. Why? Because the ones picked for the oscars tend to be the ‘worthy’ films, the ones about big hollywood stars playing someone with a disability, or adopting disabled kids from a war torn country, or struggling with a fatal illness. Nothing wrong with these subjects as such, but for me it gets a bit tiresome being hit over the head time and again with the same message. For me, literary prizes work on the same sort of principle. None of my favourite authors have really won anything of significance, and I’m not sure whether that’s because they deal with the wrong subjects, or they’re too subtle in their approach, too localised – or maybe they just swear too much.
I was talking to a few people at the writing group the other night and we got around to books we like and the struggle to find things that interest us. It is a problem. I remember when I was 17, doing A-Level English and the teacher told us to go out and start reading. He suggested a few authors for us to look at. Most of them were the ‘top 12’ writers of the time – Winterson, Amis, Rushdie etc. I read almost all of the Martin Amis back catalogue and came to the conclusion that, actually, I didn’t like him. He irritated me. His books were trite. With Winterson I liked Oranges are not the Only Fruit, thought The Passion was ok and then got tired of chasing her up her own backside after that. Rushdie – well, I liked Midnight’s Children but by then I was learning a lesson about recommendations and had already started off on my own haphazard path and never bothered to read anything else by him. By sheer floundering around I struck on Hemingway, Orwell, Bukowski, Brautigan, Kesey, Carver, Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, Heller, London, Welsh, Nersesian, Eric Miles Williamson, Hunter S. Thompson, Jay McInerney, Murakami, Camus, Celine, Nelson Algren etc. etc.
Undoubtedly, these writers made more of an impression because I discovered them for myself. But how I wish someone had provided me a reading list of these guys because I only discovered half of them by accident, and I’ve probably missed just as many again. Waterstones used to have a ‘cult fiction’ section in their stores. They stopped doing it, probably because it was deemed a niche idea, but I miss it so much because it was the only tangible thread I had to find the kind of thing I like. Luckily, the Kindle seems to have provided some sort of an alternative, because now there are a lot of writers, similar to those above (in some cases obviously not as good – yet), who are self-publishing. Maybe it is a niche – certainly there are enough people on Amazon forums bemoaning the rise of the indie authors – but for me it’s great. If some of my favourite authors were writing now I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t get a publishing contract and I would only be discovering them via 70p ebooks. Yes, there’s dross there too, and I think I’ve probably been lucky in my choices (although those choices have been strongly scrutinised and, I’d like to think, wisely made). If the book I’ve almost finished (Loisaida by Marion Stein in case you’re interested) is anything to go by, some of these writers are going to be the future of cult literature, I’m willing to stake my reputation on it.