Ten years since the self-promoting literary group opened their manifesto with, "We're the Brutalists—fuck you," what happened to their brand of raw writing?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
For a few heady months in 2006, it felt like MySpace was going to change the world. Well, in literature at least. As a chronically-earnest Northern teen with loose literary aspirations, I was fairly sure that my writing would never be published—I didn't know anything about marital infidelity or inner-city London (the only topics that publishers seemed to be interested in) and my haikus about menstrual cramps seemed unlikely to entice a mainstream audience. Then, in came social media's first literary movement—the Brutalists—who, for a while, seemed like some kind of answer.
They were Adelle Stripe, Ben Myers, and Tony O'Neill; three Myspace-centric Northern writers who wrote poems called things like "Piss Town" and opened their January 2007 manifesto with: "We are the brutalists—fuck you." Brutalism rejected what its founders considered the homogenization of mainstream publishing, calling for "raw," "honest" fiction and declaring that; "[The] only maxim we adhere to is an old punk belief, which we have bastardized for our own means: Here's a laptop. Here's a spell-check. Now write a novel."
"There was no home base or Brutalist websites or magazines... It was always about doing it yourself," O'Neill says now. "In a way ISIS kinda ripped us off, because theirs is a similar structure. We got the word out via manifestos and postings online, and then told people to take the idea and run with it. Literary lone-wolf operations."
A comparison to a global terrorist organisation is a definite stretch, but the Brutalists did form at a time when industry observers were predicting that the internet was either going to destroy the publishing industry or raise it to new heights. Myspace seemed like the enigma machine to crack mainstream elitism in 2006; a captive audience and a group of people unafraid to criticize the cultural gatekeepers.
"My favorite thing about Brutalism was the dismissive reviews we were getting from irate Guardian readers, before we had even published anything," says Myers. "Just days after announcing ourselves our work was being publicly derided, while some people were professing to prefer our early work."
"[Myspace] connected us," says Stripe. "The internet encouraged us to talk to other writers and publish each other's work. As a young writer it was the only feedback you could get... There were young writers coming through who, for the first time, had the chance to put their own poems and stories online."
That all sounds lovely and empowering, but critics suggest that the Brutalists exploited the media attention and then used it to promote themselves above other, more deserving, writers. "Unlike the Brutalists," says Penny Andrews, a doctoral student at University of Sheffield who'd been a gigging writer in 2006, "most Myspace writers just built a following via social networks, as underground writers have since the beginning of time. Moving it online changed nothing. They can be credited with forming a movement, but most writers aren't part of one and don't want to be. If writers want an audience they do what the Liverpool Poets did, what John Cooper Clarke did—get off their asses and gig where the people are."
Whether they overplayed their own impact at the time or not, the Brutalists pre-empted a lot of the issues facing novelists today. They were candid about their own struggles to be published and had an impressive list of alternative writers they thought should be getting recognition, including, of course, themselves.
A decade on, the group's calls to reject the mainstream industry have taken on new relevance. A 2015 report found that the UK publishing industry made it difficult for non-white fiction writers to address anything other than race or play to stereotype; novelists' wages are falling; women authors and literary critics are still relatively under-represented in most publications. The rise of Amazon, the decline of independent bookshops, and public indifference to non-franchised, non-serialized books have seen publishers becoming more risk-averse and conservative in their commissioning.
"Mainstream publishers churn out books based only on sales projections rather than exciting, experimental, or thought provoking literature," says Heidi James, founder of alternative publishing company Social Disease and a contemporary of the Brutalists. "We need the independents finding great writers and stories and taking risks."
James would know. Her company was an inspiration for Galley Beggar Press, the independent publisher behind Eimar McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. McBride became the surprise winner of the Baileys Women's Prize for fiction in 2014, the only shortlisted author not represented by a major publishing house. McBride's win drew attention to Galley Beggar Press and other independent publishers who have started challenging the hegemony of mainstream publishing. While less confrontational than James, publishers like And Other Stories and Dodo Ink actively engage with the industry structures that exclude marginalised writers.
"Brutalism was always more about attitude than technique," says O'Neill. "We weren't posting how-to guides on self–publishing or anything like that—I don't think any of us would have had the expertise nor inclination. We were attempting to inject some much needed humor and anger and style into the literary scene... [The] success or failure of Brutalism should be judged on what came next."
That makes sense according to author and literary publisher Dan Holloway. "I came to Brutalism as an angry, arrogant iconoclast who thought they'd stuck the knife in and sold out," he remembers. "I wrote very sneering things about them.
"I think what I saw as a selling-out was the start of something much more significant, which has now forced its way onto the most respected broadsheet pages. We now have And Other Stories, Galley Beggar, even Unbound publishing award-winning, groundbreaking fiction. Brutalism expressed something about the insularity of the literary world that was bang on the mark and, most importantly, the writers involved were good enough that they have become part of the reshaping of that landscape."
Ten years on, it's clear the Brutalists never pretended to be anything other than a carefully-curated version of themselves. They all still write today, in one form or another, from poetry to journalism, and seem happy with what they accomplished on their corner of the internet. "The internet is a beast that needs feeding constantly," says Myers. "I think we collectively exploited that for some quick attention. We were a mere idea."
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