These are tough times for publishers. The closure of hundreds of high-street stores, the power wielded by online retailers such as Amazon, the turbulence of the digital transition, shrinking review space in the broadsheets: this litany of anxieties is hard to escape.
Yet talk to smaller radical publishers and a less doomy picture emerges. Whether it's Verso (who brought out Owen Jones's Chavs and Paul Mason's Meltdown), The New Press (Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, a study of the mass incarceration of black Americans, has become a New York Times bestseller), or OR Books (whose titles include the well-received, rapid-response Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America), progressive houses are finding that readers are hungry for incisive analyses of capitalism's failures, exposés of the flawed infrastructure of liberal democracy, passionate dispatches from the frontlines of social change.
One of the most exciting radical presses at the moment is Zer0 books. A shoestring operation begun in 2009 by the novelist Tariq Goddard, its impressive backlist covers philosophy, political theory, music criticism, contemporary cinema and much more. Its highlights include: Ivor Southwood's mordant Non-Stop Inertia, about the culture of precariousness that defines the modern workplace; and Marcello Carlin's The Blue In The Air, gorgeously constructed essays about pop, written by a widower while waiting for his new wife to fly over from Toronto so that they can start their new life together.
Zer0 has been particularly good at identifying a nexus of young, savvy writers – such as Owen Hatherley, Laurie Penny, Nina Power and Mark Fisher (better known as K-Punk) – whose work had previously surfaced mainly on blogs and whose bylines now regularly appear but in mainstream newspapers and journals.
Zer0 titles are commissioned, edited and published quickly – and that energy and velocity carries through to the writing itself. Zer0 writers share an ability to write passionately, avoiding the clunky prose of academia and generating new lines of inquiry rather than just regurgitating critical clichés.
In this latter respect, Fisher's Capitalist Realism (published in November 2009), a bracingly smart analysis of the ways in which capitalism presented itself as the only economic system in town, can be seen as a work of fury as well as of prophecy, anticipating the questions and refusals of protesters at Syntagma Square in Athens, St Paul's Cathedral in London and Zuccotti Park in New York.
Eager to learn more about Zer0, as well as to celebrate its achievements – and by extension, that of many radical presses operating in the current climate – I emailed some of its writers and asked a series of questions.
SS: What was the background to your involvement in Zer0?
MARK FISHER: When Zer0 started, I was very conscious that the culture which formed me – free higher education; innovative public service broadcasting; a music press that unashamedly engaged with theory – was disappearing. In place of this egalitarian space, where concepts and theories could be encountered in popular contexts, there was a rigid split between, on the one hand, specialist academic writing that didn't engage anyone and wasn't really supposed to, and, on the other, facile populism. Zer0 wanted to disrupt this; it wagered on people's intelligence and appetite for writing that was lucid but conceptually dense.
The Zer0 project promised to make available the kind of writing that I wanted to read myself but which you couldn't read anywhere except online. I belong to a lost generation, really, one forced into online exile online by the lack of space in print culture for the kind of writing I was doing – writing that's too journalistic to be academic, and too theoretical to count as journalism. I'd got so habituated to this exile that, before the first books were published, it was hard to believe that the books would ever actually come out, still less be successful.
NINA POWER [author of One-Dimensional Woman]: Tariq Goddard approached me a good few years ago now, perhaps in 2007, to ask me if I would like to draw together some things that I'd sketched out on my blog regarding culture, women and feminism into a short book. At the time, I was spending a lot of time on- and offline with other bloggers who also had books put out early on by Zer0 (Owen Hatherley, Mark Fisher, Dominic Fox, Carl Neville), and I was happy to get involved in something that seemed really to understand the role that blogs were playing in the broader cultural scene – I don't think many other publishers have picked up on that then or since.
OWEN HATHERLEY [author of Militant Modernism and Uncommon]: I was asked to contribute to an imprint that Tariq Goddard was setting up, at a meeting at the late lamented New Piccadilly Cafe in Soho. I think it was described as "we want to do something a bit like Semiotext(e), with this part of the blogosphere".
ALEX NIVEN [author of Folk Opposition]: I wrote a long blogpost about Raoul Moat, Newcastle United, and north-east regional sentiment for a football blog called Mole on the Wall. Myself and some friends had just started the blog so I sent a link to Mark Fisher (who had just put up a post on K-punk about football and neoliberalism) in the hope of sparking a discussion.
SS: Does a physical book perform certain kinds of function more effectively or differently from blogs or ebooks?
NINA POWER: The thing that really surprised me was the very different status a book still has in people's minds, even if the arguments and the texts have already appeared online in blogs and journals (which is where most of One-Dimensional Woman came from). The book still retains a curiously weighty status in comparison to blogs. A book is a snapshot of whatever it was you felt was interesting at that moment, and it's fixed in aspic, which can have its drawbacks.
There's an appeal to physical books, particularly short books like most of the Zer0 catalogue, at the moment: the physical form provides some relief from the relentless pressure of the online environment. It's very difficult to keep one's attention on online content - the temptation to click away is always there. In conditions where your attention is besieged in that way, short essayistic books, which you can read in one afternoon, come into their own.
SS: What kinds of kinship or coherence do Zer0 titles share?
ALEX NIVEN: The range is wide, from books about the musical avant-garde to critiques of the England football team, from novels to poetry to memoirs to critical tracts. But they're all united I think by a desperate desire to revive or invent or bolster a broad, alternative common culture in a country that abandoned its basic instincts of democratic dissent somewhere back in the 90s or early-2000s. Things like John Peel dying, and the NME turning into a musical supplement of Heat magazine, and the marketisation of academia, and the literary scene being reduced to a catalogue of awards ceremonies and PR spectacles really hit the counterculture hard in the last two or three decades. The blogosphere seemed to reawaken an oppositional critical tradition at a crucial moment.
SS: Many of the authors are young academics: what can Zer0 offer them that university presses can't?
ADAM HARPER [author of Infinite Music]: The fact that Zer0 will trust young authors is significant. Young people want to write and make powerful statements about the world they live in.
ALEX NIVEN: As academia has become governed by the rules of market competitiveness over the past few decades, it's started to fixate on marginalia and micro-criticism, on the sort of research that racks up CV points. Books like William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity or Raymond Williams's Culture and Society might well be laughed out of town nowadays because they aren't specialised texts, they don't really have a sexy selling point or satisfy any research criteria. But it's palpable when you're reading books like that that those authors were trying to communicate the fundamentals of why they thought culture was important, they were trying to influence public opinion and make something happen, either politically or intellectually.
SS: How do you see the relationship between pop music and "criticality" these days?
OWEN HATHERLEY: The writing many of us encountered in the music press in (roughly) the 80s-mid 90s was exemplary in its combination of mass audience, unpatronising erudition, politicisation and fearless, sometimes experimental prose, and it is in lots of ways a model for what we tried to do with Zer0. That world rather disappeared in the late 1990s and then reappeared on the internet, with blogs by Simon Reynolds, Mark Sinker, Ian Penman, Taylor Parkes. The writing has become more distant from contemporary music, for reasons that are debatable – certainly music doesn't seem to articulate conjunctural events as it used to; to use a banal example, a Ghost Town for last year's riots is now inconceivable, so broken is that link between the streets, the music press and the charts. So we're trying to produce the same sort of writing but on completely different subjects.
SS: How important is the idea of book as cultural intervention?
ALEX NIVEN: Hugely important. If you actually look at the titles and content of Penguin Specials from the 1940s and 1950s that have become a sort of bourgeois fashion accessory in the last few years, so many of them are about vital public issues. The idea that authors should communicate with the public – not in a slavish, market-style way, but in a context of egalitarian discussion – is something that needs to be revived pretty quickly or we're all in serious trouble. There's a lot of talk about the decline of the publishing industry, but books will survive if we invest collective meaning in them, even if the format changes slightly. On the other hand, if people are writing books as a lifestyle choice or purely to make money or out of personal vanity then obviously people will stop caring eventually, because literature has become indistinguishable from wine or wrapping paper or jewelry or lingerie or any other consumer product.
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