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Barry Graham: A Spinetingler Magazine Interview Video
Barry Graham is a bit intimidating to sit down with.Maybe it’s the Scottish burr or the fierce intelligence which radiates from him or maybe it’s the long string of hard as nails characters he’s been writing about for the past 20 years?
But without question Graham has hit his stride as a storyteller with his latest effort, The Wrong Thing. (PM Press) The tightly wound hardboiled novel featuring the near mythological “The Kid” only weighs in at a scant 136 pages, but packs the strength of other books three times its length and much like his fellow Switchblade authors Gary Phillips, Summer Brenner, Benjamin Whitmer, and Michael Harris, he has crafted a novel which surpasses most crime fiction being produced by the big six New York publishing houses.
On August 20th I was lucky enough to sit down with Graham after The Wrong Thing's premiere at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ to talk about the novel and other upcoming projects.
My current publisher crush has got to be PM Press’s Switchblade lineBy Jedidiah-Ayres
Ransom Notes: The B&N Mystery Blog
Sure we’ve all got our favorite series and authors, but I want to know if you’ve got any publishers whose books you’ll pick up just on the strength of their track record?(Seriously, if you do, I'd love to know about 'em as they must be doing something right.)
I’ve had a few. Black Lizard, Serpent’s Tail, Hard Case Crime—I’ll always take a good close look at what they’re offering, and I've got my ever watchful eye on Tyrus and New Pulp Press but man, my current publisher crush has got to be PM Press’s Switchblade line.
After last year’s blunt-instrument assault Pike by Benjamin Whitmer, (plus Sin Soracco’s Low Bite and Jim Nisbet’s A Moment of Doubt—both PM, but not of the Gary Phillips/Andrea Gibbons shepherded Switchblade line), I adjusted my radar for whatever else they had coming down the (cough) pike. So when Barry Graham’s The Wrong Thing showed up, you better believe it went straight to the top of my TBR pile. And am I glad it did.
The Wrong Thing is the story of The Kid, a lost-cause, outcast turned criminal in the American South West. It's a stripped-down outlaw ballad delivered in terse, but lyrical passages, and though The Kid doesn’t live to a ripe old age, I’m terribly impressed that the story of his life fits so well into the compact boundary of just over a hundred pages. Seems to me that when you know how to use words effectively you just don’t have to use as many, (another analogy would make Barry Graham a one-bullet-one-kill sniper and your average popular thriller writer a tommy-gun-wielding-thug spraying an excess of lead for the same result).
The other virtue Graham’s book should most be praised for is keeping me entirely in the dark about the story’s direction. Yeah, you can't help but feel tragedy around the corner, but I never knew where it was coming from (or headed), and for that reason, the book's big events snuck up on me and caught me unaware so that I could feel their full effect.
Keep me off balance and you’ll knock me down with a feather. Thanks, Barry.
Summer Brenner’s I-5 also had that virtue in spades. The saga of Anya - a Russian girl who thinks she’s taking on legitimate work in the United States only to find she’s been duped into life as a sex worker for global organized crime, (did you ever read Peter Landesman’s New York Times Magazine piece The Girls Next Door? No? Do it). We learn Anya’s story in layers, and we learn her character in actions that are never quite what we expect them to be. She kept me guessing all the way through this hallucinatory shadow-world tour. Neither a wilting victim nor a femme fatale, she’s hardboiled and wiley enough to be a survivor, but the complexity of her psychology can’t be condensed to a casting call bullet-point.
I remember The Wrong Thing and I-5 in episodes. Both books feature multiple scenes of out-of-left-field suspense, humor, horror and humanity that stand out in such sharp and refreshing contrast to the barrage of swollen, by-rote thrillers glutting the shelves, that it’d be more than a little negligent of me not to spread the word where I can—PM Press’s Switchblade line is some sharp crime fiction, folks. Get on that.
(Next on my list from them is Michael Harris's The Chieu Hoi Saloon)
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.
Switchblade is a noir imprint showcasing the grittiest in new work, illuminating the lamentably unavailable classics in the genre, and highlighting the shadows on the margins of the dark end of the street.
Series Editors: Gary Phillips and Andrea Gibbons
1. The Jook - Gary Phillips
2. I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex - Summer Brenner
3. Pike - Benjamin Whitmer
4. The Chieu Hoi Saloon - Michael Harris
5. The Wrong Thing - Barry Graham
6. Send My Love and A Molotov Cocktail - edited by Gary Phillips and Andrea Gibbons
7. Prudence Couldn't Swim - James Kilgore
8. Nearly Nowhere - Summer Brenner
Real Cost of Prisons Comix in Bitch MagazineBy Joyce Frohn
Comic books can't change the world, right? Maybe they could, if more were like The Real Cost of Prisons Comix (PM Press).l Comprising three comic books originally published by the Real Costs of Prisons Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to educate about and track the human and communty impacts of incarceration, this collection combines graphic-novel punch with the facts about what drives prison policy and growth. From exploring the economic impact of a new prison, to laying out the history of drug laws as they relate to imprisonment, to telling the stories of incarcerated-women and the children many of them leave behind, these 100 pages contain vital information for anyone interested in the realities of the prison-industrial complex and the need for reform.
The Poisoned Fiction Review: The Wrong ThingBy Steve Shadow Schwartz
Poisoned Fiction Review
August 16, 2011
A SHADOW REVURB...
Barry Graham, a local writer by way of Scotland, has just had a new novel published by PM Press under the Switchblade imprint. PM Press is a group of publishers and media people using every means possible to encourage new and challenging ideas. Check out the web site. Switchblade is the arm that puts forth the hardest of the hard-boiled works of fiction.
They publish what I call "heart-break noir," stories that take us to the edge of human longing and it's often disastrous results.
Graham, a well known journalist and novelist, takes us to these far shores where societies castaways dwell unseen and uncared for. In The Wrong Thing we get the American nightmare rather the the American dream. The main character in the book is known only as the Kid, his story bracketed by prologue and elegy. He comes to us a fully realized human being who never gets a break. Unloved and unwanted he must try and find a path through a world he is ill prepared to face. Uneducated but bright, talented but directionless, unaware and unguided he tries his best to adapt.
The novel is set in Santa Fe and Phoenix and shows a side of these cities we are barely aware of. The barrio of the hispanic underclass is presented by Graham as a place of richness and kindness. It can also be a trap and a road to a life of pain and grief. The Kid's journey through this minefield is riveting and tragic. His story is short, compact, and powerful. The writing is deceptively simple and straight forward. Graham's subtle style weaves a spell-binding web that left me mesmerized. The violence and sex are graphic and presented without judgement. This is strong material wrapped in the cloth of truth.
Obviously Graham knows this world well and it shows.
Barry Graham also happens to be a Zen monk and Abbot of the Sitting Frog Zen Center in Phoenix. His story in the Phoenix Noir anthology was an early version of what became the new novel. His early work has recently been made available on Amazon for download. I recommend his novel The Book of Man and Scumbo: a Novella and Stories.
For further reading try last years Switchblade release Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. It is a hard-boiled neo-noir knockout of a book.
Benjamin Whitmer Interviewed
By Len Wanner
The Crime of It All: At the Critical Edge of Crime Fiction
How would you describe yourself in a sentence?
A guy doing everything he can to make up for a lack of natural talent with pure pigheaded tenacity.
How would your best friend describe you in a sentence?
A guy who takes himself way too seriously.
Crime fiction is at its best when…
it takes crime seriously. Obviously not every book hits on every issue to do with crime, nor should they, but the best take their subject matter very seriously—even when they’re being funny about it. Also, when the art of fiction is at the forefront of the equation. There’s no reason great writing should be considered solely the domain of so-called literary fiction. Especially given how many great writers are writing crime fiction right now.
The worst literary vice is…
not doing everything within your power to write the best book you can at the time you’re writing it. I’ll put up with an awful lot from an author who you can tell is stretching their own powers. Who is doing everything they can to write at their very best. Others, the ones who’ve discovered a formula to sell books and are coasting on it, whether it be in the crime or literary genre, those are the ones I have zero interest in. I’d rather read the backs of cereal boxes.
The highest order a writer can aspire to is…
to be one of those that strike that perfect balance between artistry and just letting it all hang out on the page. Nothing gets me more excited than reading a great metaphor, a perfectly hewn sentence, or a brilliantly developed theme. Nothing. But, at the same time, I just can’t read fiction where there’s nothing at stake. It’s gotta come through that the book meant the whole world to the author. That they put absolutely everything they had into it.
Plot or character?
Character, easy. Character provides ninety percent of the movement I care about in a novel.
What’s your favourite word?
Lonesome, per Woody Guthrie. You can be lonesome for a job, for a little company, for a drink of whiskey, or even be high lonesome on a bender, but everybody’s lonesome for something. Self-help gurus will disagree, of course, but they’re lonesome for your money.
If you could remove one word from the parlance of our time, what would that be?
Redemption. Hate the word, hate the concept.
If you could remove one profession from the planet, which would that be?
Cops. I’ve never been in a situation that was improved by their presence, not one. And I don’t ever again need to play subservient to some twenty-five-year-old with a head full of Jason Statham movies and three hours a year of range time.
If you could remove one person from the planet, who would that be?
Toby Keith. Stopped by his restaurant last night and had an American Soldier burger with Freedom Fries, served by his Whiskey Girls. There was even a shopping section my wife wouldn’t let me visit, where I bet you could buy those stupid skinny cowboy hats. The only thing missing was a Toby Keith hair salon where you could get Toby Keith highlights.
Which fictional character is going to be shot come the literary revolution?
Henry Perowne from Ian McEwan’s Saturday. And, come to think, the rest of his upper-crust, whining family. I kept waiting for the whole thing to be some kind of joke. I was three-quarters of the way in before I finally realized there was no vicious satiric turn coming.
Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life?
Ahab, about fifteen minutes after his dismasting.
What’s the best oneliner you’ve ever read or written?
“She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” Flannery O’Connor. I’m about as far from Catholic as you can get, but that always seemed the perfect line to me.
An American, an Englishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…
My guess is somebody’s getting fucked up.
Your ideal party of five is composed of…
Sticking to the living: Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Slavoj Zizek, Noam Chomsky, and Emmylou Harris. I wouldn’t say a thing. Just curl up on Emmylou’s lap and try not to miss a word.
Which book other than your own do you wish you’d written?
Lately, Gilead by Marylinne Robinson or Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Not because of what amazing books they are—though they are—but because if I could write them, then I could probably write anything.
Sum up your latest book in no more than 10 words:
Charlie and Ira Louvin. Booze, brutality, and blood harmony.
What’s the most amusing situation your writing has gotten you into?
At one point I had an entire notebook full of racial slurs for a book I was writing but never finished. And I got drunk at this Chicano bar in North Denver one night and left it on the table. Well, I couldn’t let it go—it was months worth of research from the factory I was working at—so I had to go back in and ask the bar tender if he’d seen it laying around. He smirked at me, reached down, and tossed it on the bar. And then when I asked him for a beer, he just shook his head. I exited, quietly and quickly.
If God exists, what will you say when you crash the pearly gates?
I thought you’d be bigger.
Who is your ideal reader?
There’s actually one guy who I always think of. His name was Tom and I worked with him on an assembly line for awhile. He was in his forties, just out of prison for credit card fraud, a big scar down his arm from a knife fight. He was this working-class Zen character, and as far as I could tell, he didn’t do nothing when he was off work but drink good whiskey and read. He’d read every book I’d ever heard of, and turned me on to dozens I hadn’t. He had no use for gentility and less for bullshit, but he loved literature like nothing else.
What appeal does crime fiction have for you?
I think of crime fiction as one of the last places you find the stuff I’m interested in. Class, race, the consequences of history, the necessity (or not) of violence, political and social corruption, the right of moral judgment, all those big things that don’t really get discussed anywhere else. There’s space to discuss those in crime fiction that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
How did Pike come to you?
I had a vision of this hulking behemoth and a little girl. That was it. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew he’d lived a life of violence and would need it.
Who was he to you, and who is he to you now?
I finished the book about five years ago, and I think when I got done I had this impression of him as much cleaner and more pure than I do now. I mean, I knew he was flawed and I knew he wasn’t always right in his actions, but I saw him as almost Ahabian in his determination. Now I see him as much more compromised, much more uncomfortable. He’s more human to me now.
Where do his politics of violence sit vis à vis your own?
When I was beginning Pike I was thinking a lot about violence. I was reading Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence, William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume history of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, and Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology. A lot of the questions I was coming up while reading those ended being played out in the book. Pike’s use of violence was a question for me. The way he thinks he can always determine who needs to be dealt with violently. The way he can make those judgments in an instant.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been around long enough to know that there are people you can only deal with violently. And I absolutely believe in the right of self-defense and to defend those you love. I’m about as big a proponent of gun rights as you’re likely to find. But Pike’s ability to delineate that line as easily as he does is troubling. And should be.
Crime writers are regularly charged with glorifying violence. Are those critics picking out isolated examples of prurience to hide their deeper aversion to an aesthetic of violence or what do you make of such criticism?
I get irritated at the charge, to begin with. Here in America, we live in a culture predicated on violence. The last century of expansion has been nothing but continual violence, and I won’t even go into the centuries that preceded it, with the so-called Indian Wars. (Wars that haven’t ended, as most of the folks I’ve met from, say, the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, will tell you in a minute.) The fact is, there hasn’t been a year in American history, ever, when we haven’t been engaged in combat somewhere. There’s no debate that we’re one of the most violent cultures on the planet. But it ain’t books, video games, or rap videos causing it—it’s the usual mix of politics, power, and greed.
But as to prurient violence, my answer’s easy: Shakespeare. The history of Western literature, whatever the hell that means, is the history of prurient violence. Deal with it. I consider myself a very minor player in a very proud tradition.
How do you approach a life, a character, and a scene that calls for violence?
I try and approach it from the vantage points of the characters involved. If a violent scene doesn’t reveal something about one or the other of the characters, I cut it. It’s the same as a sex scene, I guess, though I write less of those. Every act of violence is as individual as everything else a character does.
As a crime writer, what do phrases like ‘due process’ and ‘civil liberties’ mean to you?
Maybe it’s just where I’m at, but due process means nothing to me. Here, we’ve got more people in prison than any country in the history of the world. It’s an ongoing war of attrition on the poor. Due process doesn’t look to me like anything more than shoveling broke people into prison as fast as humanly possible.
As to civil liberties, or civil rights, there’s nothing I hold higher. At times in my life I’ve been a card-carrying member of the ACLU and the NRA. Any right you can keep to the people and away from government infringement, I’m for. And you maintain those rights by exercising them. Maybe it’s a result of living in a country where you can’t cross the street without it being legislated, but I’m of the opinion that the more freedom the people can withhold from their government, the better.
What are your thoughts on our current culture of fear and crime fiction’s dealings with it?
I think the culture of fear is entirely warranted in America. People have a right to be scared, especially working-class people. Hell, they oughtta be waking up in cold sweats every night. The fear isn’t always directed well, but not being able to feed your family, not being able to live a life of dignity, not being able to take care of those you love, not being able to ensure any kind of care in your old age, those are tangible realities. Our lives are being bargained away to make the already rich richer, and there’s absolutely no help coming, either from the government or their supposed watchdogs in the media.
They’re all owned by the same people.
That fear is one of the things crime fiction is uniquely able to address, and the best of it does. Thanks to writers like Charlie Stella, Daniel Woodrell, and Gary Phillips, crime fiction remains one of the few imaginative spaces in American discourse where class still exists. Speaking of fear, one of my greatest fears is that middle-class liberals will stop reading The Help and start reading crime fiction. Gentrification will come about ten seconds behind the first Oprah nod, and we’re all screwed then. They’ve already done it to me with Johnny Cash, I’m not sure I could take it again.
Do you think readers care one way or another when it comes to the above questions about an author’s politics?
The standard wisdom is that writers should keep their mouth shut about anything remotely controversial. And that’s fine for some, but for myself I would consider it profoundly chickenshit. Maybe I’ll wish otherwise further down the line, but right now I just feel incredibly blessed to be getting books published, and it’s very important to me that I do it the way I want to do it. Part of that definitely means not withholding my own point of view in hopes of achieving better sales figures.
Moreover, I really doubt readers care too much. I think about Flannery O’Connor, who was an avowed Catholic conservative, and Cormac McCarthy, who is described as a radical conservative. Those aren’t my political views by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re two of my favorite writers. I think readers understand how idiotic it would be to dismiss a writer because of their political views. Other writers, maybe that’s a different story.
How different is Pike’s world from our own?
That answer is two-fold, I guess. Back to Cormac McCarthy, he once wrote that “The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” and Pike is absolutely no exception. I can’t write except by writing to, from, and for other books. Whether or not I pulled it off, I was in large part consciously dealing with problems set out by other authors.
That said, I don’t think I made anything up as far as Pike’s world goes. It’s my interpretation of the world through Pike’s eyes, of course, but it’s also the world as I see it. I don’t think I could write a book that wasn’t. I hope to be able to someday, but I don’t have anywhere near the necessary tools yet.
Is Pike’s existential jaundice a symptom of our times or a solution to its problems?
It’s a kind of solution, I think. Maybe not the best one, but perhaps the only possible one, at least for people hardwired in certain ways. As the book opens, I see Pike as somebody who has seen people—himself included—at their absolute worst, and has since pared his life down to the essentials. Somebody who does everything he can to want less, need less, to keep his life as quiet and contained as it can be, given his own nature. That’s something I have a great deal of sympathy for, and I think the world could do with a lot more of it. I know I could.
Why did you touch on the controversy of a man becoming romantically involved with an underage girl?
The short answer is that that’s the direction they were moving in. I couldn’t see any other outcome. They’re two brokenhearted people doing the best they can, and it made sense to me that they would reach for each other. That’s what brokenhearted people do.
How do you sustain the high voltage charge inside Pike’s head throughout the writing of an entire novel?
Man, I really hope I sustained it. I worried constantly about it. If I did pull it off, it was just pure revision. Going over the manuscript time and time again, reworking sentences, reading it aloud, tweaking metaphors, doing everything I could to tighten it up. Just labor.
What does ‘noir’ mean to you?
I’ve never heard a better definition than Dennis Lehane’s line about noir being working class tragedy. That’s broad enough to encompass everything I care about, and restrictive enough to exclude what I don’t.
What’s a typical writing day for you?
Every day is a writing day, more or less. I just finished two book projects within a couple of weeks of each other and when I told my wife I was planning to take a month off before diving into the next, she just laughed at me. And she was right to. I lasted four days.
I usually get up early, before my wife and kids, write for awhile, go to the day job, write on breaks, come home, and after getting through dinner and evening activities, write or read after the kids are in bed. A couple times a week—as much as I can, though not as much as I should—I skip one of the writing sessions to take a walk. But then, most of my time walking is spent thinking about whatever project I’m working on. I live on the edge of Denver’s northside industrial wasteland, so there’s lots of inspiration there. And I’m not too far from the mountains, which is immensely helpful.
I do my best not to write on the weekends, to save that time for family, friends, and brown liquids. But it doesn’t usually work out that way. Luckily, I don’t really have any other hobbies besides shooting 3×5 cards. And with the price of ammunition these days, that’s not one I can indulge very much.
Take me through the major and, if you like, minor stages of your writing, from a novel’s inception to its completion. Anecdotes are welcome.
So far, they’ve all started in different ways. Pike started with an image. The one I just finished started as a framing device for another I’m about half done with, and that one started with the title. Then I’ve got an idea in mind for another that started from research I did a few years back in order to teach a series of classes on genocide and American Indians.
After I get the initial idea, my process is just flat stupid. I write a first draft. I hate it. I end up keeping some kernel out of it, and, if I’m lucky, fifty percent of the text. Then I rewrite that. And of the new material I usually end up keeping some new kernel and hopefully another fifty percent of the text. And I keep doing that until I’m satisfied enough to start real revision work. That process seems to take me a year, at least.
Revision is uglier. At first it’s big stuff. Adding new scenes, cutting others. Then I get down to sentences, themes, metaphors. And then back to adding and cutting scenes. This until I’m just exhausted, until I’m so sick of the thing that there’s just nothing else I can give the project. Then I’ve got no choice but to give up and call it done. That’s usually at least another year.
During that process I’m trying to keep most of my reading geared to the book. And trying to visit the places where I want to set scenes. With Pike, that meant walking all over Cincinnati, taking my infant daughter into some bars and alleys she had absolutely no business being in. I kept a Glock 9mm in her diaper bag, but never had any need for it. That’s one of the most fun parts for me, getting out and exploring places I probably shouldn’t be in. As a guy pushing middle-age, it’s a lot of fun to have an excuse to just hit the streets and explore.
I always think that there must be smarter writers who don’t need to do it this way. But I’m not one of them. It’s labor intensive, and it’s indefensibly dumb. Luckily, I love every phase of it, including revision. If I didn’t, there’s no way in hell I’d do it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m just getting back into the half-finished one I mentioned above. It’s a monster, set in Denver in the 1890s. A train-hopping, Panopticon, Pinkerton-killing, love-obsessed monster. I’m having to do things I’ve never had to do, and I’m really nervous about pulling it off. We shall see. It’s gotta be done, though, because the one I have planned after it will be a much more complicated beast.
Which books are you reading these days?
Right now almost all of my reading time is going to books by writers who will be participating in a panel I’m moderating at Bouchercon this year. Eoin Colfer, Sean Doolittle, Chris Ewan, Peter Spiegelman, and Keith Thomson. Which is a gas. When I get done with those, I’m looking forward to hitting new stuff by Sandra Ruttan, Barry Graham, Nigel Bird, and Stephen Graham Jones, which I have loaded on my e-reader. (Just broke down and got the cheap Kindle, and I’m absolutely sick at how much I love it.)
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
That it would take me 20 years of hard writing and reading before I came up with anything I considered worth publishing. But it’s probably best I didn’t know that.
CLICK HERE FOR THE ONE BOOK EVERYBODY SHOULD READ: Pike
William Morris on Rain Taxi
by Paul Buhle
Summer Online Edition
A massively popular figure in his British homeland, with his 1963 tome The Making of the English Working Class still widely considered a foundation stone of modern learning, E. P. Thompson was known across the world from the 1950s until his 1993 death also as a global peacenik, anti-nuclear activist, and magnificent orator. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, his first major work (published in 1955), offers a guide to his favorite Romantic, the eco-visionary and Pre-Raphaelite ally who also transformed interior decoration. It is also part of Spectre, an auspicious series of classic reprints and new books edited by radical radio host Sasha Lilley.
Thompson’s Morris is the son of a shrewd investor, a product of the bourgeoisie who rejects almost every consequence of its emergence. Despising “shoddy,” Morris sets about creating a studio that turns out extraordinary furniture (including the famous Morris Chair), curtains, upholstery, rugs and assorted materials that in effect repudiate the overstuffed royalism of the age. For inspiration, Morris looked at nature, and more specifically, to the artistic remnants of the otherwise vanished Celts—their love of trees, flowers, birds, and natural designs. He hung out with the circle of artists who sought to recuperate the romance of earlier times and themes of Biblical lore, with human figures too ethereal to be quite human.
Morris, following the logic of his own aesthetics, became a crucial defender not only of old buildings, but also of ancient hedgerows, the rural remnants of a thousand years or more in community life. From there, he went on to found, with a handful of others, the British Socialist movement, funding a weekly newspaper that he edited, and many public events, out of his own pockets. As Thompson unravels the tale, the great designer was ever the romantic but steadily more the revolutionary.
Anarchist no less than Marxist, Morris made the likes of Friedrich Engels uneasy, since “utopianism” smelled of backward-looking dreamers, and Morris was definitely a backward-looking dreamer himself. Besides, Morris seemed to stiff-necked socialists too popular for his own (or their) good, his News from Nowhere offering up a novelistic picture of a future society more dependent on free time than on mechanical marvels.
The massive text of this volume, which revolutionized Morris studies and outraged conservative (and purely literary) specialists, compels the reader to take on these complicated matters bit by bit, almost day to day, sinking into Morris’ life, letters, and milieu. Reading the book can be overwhelming but will be rewarding, not only for the subject but also for the author himself, as we read him through the study of his favorite romantic. A new foreword, by Thompson scholar Peter Linebaugh, offers a lyrical view of the Great Peacenik as well as a close reading of scholarship about Morris before and after Thompson’s text. Morris, we learn, was with Thompson his whole life. Through this book, he is bound to be with us as well.
Re:Imagining Change in Dark Matter
by Jason Harle and Michelle Stewart
Dark Matter in the ruins of imperial culture
August 31, 2011
Long-time activists Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning have drawn from their wealth of practical contributions to successful and creative campaigns for ecological and social justice to craft the insightful and useful book, Re:Imagining Change.
Canning and Reinsborough are the co-directors of SmartMeme, a collective that helps grassroots organizations establish campaigns that are media savvy and develop through grassroots participation. Re:Imagining Change brings to life contemporary social theory by showing its application by both powerful interests and grassroots activists. Semiotics and hegemony are strategic approaches well-known in the corridors of the corporate public relations firms and public institutions that strategically shape public perceptions. The book aids students in using theoretical concepts to understand social change and helps activists adapt them to intervene in the production of social meaning around their principal sites of struggle.
The innovation of SmartMeme is narrative activism based upon a “story-based strategy.” At root, SmartMeme promotes a practical method of taking control of the language surrounding a socio-political issue, event, or campaign. Doyle and Reinsborough argue that there is more at stake in narrative-based political activism than “messaging” and “branding,” though these are powerful tools in the activist’s toolbox. Indeed, SmartMeme works via a holistic approach that includes a discourse analysis of both dominant groups and those groups working for social change, holding that “the power of story and storytelling has been at the center of social change efforts” (12) and at the heart of social control. In leading activists and students to perform this kind of analysis, Reinsborough and Canning are careful to point out that the issue is not simply one of facts or accuracy: “we often believe a story not necessarily because it is factually true; we accept a story as true because it connects with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling” (20-1).
Thus, Reinsborough and Canning lead students to understand the creation and dissemination of cultural meaning beyond the news industry’s battered standard of objectivity. Rather than hitting our heads against the wall trying to understand the media traction of recent canards like the health care bill’s alleged “death panels” and the media myth most impervious to documented truth, the real birthplace of President Obama, Reinsborough and Canning show how essential it is to understand the staying power of the well-crafted story that resonates with pre-existing habits of thought. The significance of their narrative-based activism lies in its ability to encourage self-examination of mainstream stories and those of left-wing/grassroots groups, those stories lived as real and coherent, stories that organize movements and counter-responses.
On a practical level, with careful analysis and great in-the-trenches examples from current grassroots political campaigns, Reinsborough and Canning elucidate and update Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Gene Sharp’s “consent theory of power,” and Foucault’s notion of how discourse conditions the terms and limits of political action. As such, this book is a great addition to a communication and cultural studies curriculum that includes Goffman’s work on framing and Lakoff’s linguistic analyses of political discourse, as well as any course exploring the workings of political media in the contemporary society of the spectacle. We are not dupes, but we are sidelined from meaningful political action if we fail to understand the “control mythologies,” the narratives disseminated by those holding power. And, we must then intervene at the level of the emotional hold of the story – we can’t merely “speak truth to power” anymore. Instead, Reinsborough and Canning’s strategies promote a “narrative power analysis” that challenges hidden assumptions, the resistance encouraged by what people already believe they know (27). Change agents must examine their own “narrative filters” and identify the crucial “points of intervention,” the moments of weakness in control narratives where creative activists can “challenge, change, and/or insert a new story” (28).
Reinsborough and Canning also offer a useful model for an analysis of the efficacy of marketing campaigns, showing how branding diffuses corporate self-image and how successful cultural jamming can intervene in such messaging in order to promote awareness and social change. Likewise, they challenge the control-memes of power-holders, deconstructing the story elements of dominant narratives: “Conflict, Characters, Imagery (Show, Don’t Tell), Foreshadowing, and Assumptions.” By leading activists and students to analyze these elements and by highlighting the centrality of timing, targeting and addressing intended audiences, Reinsborough and Canning show how the framing of discourse is much more elaborate, subtle, and powerful than mere messaging or sloganeering. As they argue, “We believe framing is an important concept because it is fundamentally about the issue of power in the story.
Story-based strategy explores who does and does not have power in the story, with the aim of shifting power in the story. This interplay of power and representation is the essence of framing and reframing” (49). Moreover, through useful exercises and discussion questions, the authors encourage students and activists to apply insights from the book to other campaigns and to develop communication strategies collectively.
Reinsborough and Canning provide several contemporary examples of the setting of both dominant frames and successful counter-campaigns to shift the frame to reveal where power has selectively or manipulatively directed our attention. One particularly potent example contrasts the CNN images of the famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003 with Reuters photographs of the same event that show the small crowd of Iraqis dwarfed by US tanks. The lesson here is two-pronged, highlighting the powerful symbolism of popular citizen action and the power relations that may condition such actions and their representation.
Other examples highlight creative campaigns for brand-busting, for derailing control memes, and of “repurposing popular culture narratives,” for example, the “selling of the World Bank on eBay.” The culture-jamming logic of the campaign drew on critiques of the functioning of the World Bank, pointing to the low-wages of sweatshops and diffusing the message via spectacular headlines, such as, “World Bank for sale on eBay – Activists say the bank ‘will do a lot less harm to the world gathering dust in your attic’ (CNN)” (77). By identifying the most effective points of intervention – the points of production, of consumption, of destruction, of decision-making, and of assumption, Reinsborough and Canning argue that activists can most successfully frame new narratives, unravel control mythologies, and, fundamentally “change the story” to promote new visions of the future from the bottom up.
Re:Imagining Change balances techniques for incisive, “deconstructive” critical analysis with “constructive methods” for building resonate narratives and successful campaign actions. Reinsborough and Canning’s comprehensive “Story-based Strategy Campaign Model” can be a useful guide and source of optimistic inspiration for 21st century grassroots activists. Finally, Re:Imagining Change can serve as a powerful classroom tool for communications studies, cultural studies, sociology and political science, elucidating complex arguments about social power with great clarity and concrete, poignant examples.