A Review Asks Only Whether One Can Live With It Or Die Of It

I've been reviewing small press publications on www.bugpowder.com for a few years now. Totemic small presser Andy Luke recruited me; he'd been impressed with my essay, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll, and was convinced that I could restore some cheer to the reviews section.

Ostensibly a scoff-mixture, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll discusses the pathogenic presence in UK small press of comics creators eager to produce work sterilized by an ambition to be adaptable to the strictures of an intrusive company bent on 'product development', and who derive a vanity-buzz of satisfaction from tucking themselves into deadlines and knocked-off scripts. "This budding hack is fuelled by little more than the desperation for a sense of celebrity," I wrote, "and must be destroyed."

My muscular reviewing-style grated with small press enthusiasts' indulgence in self-satisfied congeniality and writer/artist shape-throwing, but I refused to conveniently dismiss creators with throwaway compliments, employing instead a reviewing discipline based on four simple tenets: 1, perspective is to be achieved; 2, the standards by which one is judging the work are to be made clear; 3, credit is to be given where it is due; and 4, one should not be such a fucking misanthrope, you above-being-human narcissist.

Regularly achieving three of the four principles with my aesthetic evaluations, and quickly developing an obsessive-compulsive urgency for production of symmetrically paragraphed reviews, the meaningless absurdity of opinionative writing soon revealed itself to me. I was not deterred.

John Robbins

Scribblers Editions

Posted on September 25, 2002

An imprint featuring short works and extended fictions in limited editions by writers who have been associated with the Scribblers creative writing group (London), Scribblers Editions are intended primarily for subscribers and collectors of chapbooks and other innovative publications. Not available through bookshops, here's your chance, gentle reader, to get your grubby maulers on some unique works...

The Infanta Of Castile, by Leonard Emerson

Written with appealing innocence and a wide-eyed clarity that captures a sense of excitement in the mundane, 'The Infanta Of Castile' is a kind of Footballers' Wives without the wives. It follows two likeable Millwall players (?) in their preparations for a match with Athletico Madrid, then presents us with dugout seats for the actual encounter - in which some football breaks out during the fight!
A short story of two halves, there exists an uneasy undercurrent that suggests the possibility of unsettling twist, but that instead continues to delivers Carry On farce. Still, that farce is often hilarious, and as a light read, where little really is implied and everything spelt out, and where its characters laugh uproariously, have mischievous grins, and fall into fountains with a loud splash, it's thoroughly engaging.
At the end of the day, maybe it's a couple of points dropped, but an entertaining score-draw nonetheless! Well worked, and a definite crowd-pleaser. One certainly worth tackling!

An Open Letter To J.K. Rowling From You-Know-Who, by M.J. Weller

This is a slight offering, which attains a considerable weight through the space and production afforded it. And curiously, as a result, becomes less a work which functions as a piece of writing, and more a kind of collectable objet d'art.
Weller, as ever, writes with seductive authority, again embroidering his work with a niggling sense that beneath the surface lies some meticulously researched contra-history to which he alone has access. And again his concerns are for the crass commercialism that hijacks all that is popular in our society, and indeed, that blunts our ability to discern between popular and commercial. Unfortunately, in spite of some deftly clever, cleverly bitter writing, things feel amiss: ultimately, An Open Letter is little more than an amusement; a polished novelty item that JK herself might delight close friends with during black-tie dinner parties at the castle. And ironically, the thing smacks of an odd commercialism-by-association - as if it too is simply yet another spin-off.
A flawed production then, with coffee table satire, where the charmingly ridiculous form taken by the ridicule seems to dilute the worth it possesses. (But good god, don't take my word for it! I think about tits mostly - and not always of the female variety!)

The Community Of Mermaids, by Kelly McKain

A story powered by impatient ambition, this. Rather than take one flash of wisdom and weave a parable about it - utilising a show, don't tell strategy - wise words are strobed throughout this New Age stress-management; the effect of which leaves this reader blind to its actual purpose. But that doesn't matter, because there is nothing to learn - I need only remember what I already know. And I already know everything, because I am everything!
Written with irritating fragility, but with impressive descriptive nuance, Mermaids chronicles the encounters of the disillusioned Stephanie with a sisterhood of the sea. It's an enchanting enough tale that succeeds in capturing a sense of dream-like obliqueness, but the neediness of the protagonist is mirrored in the neediness of a writer desperate for meaning. As a result, Mermaids is a tale peppered with vague suggestions of worth and depth, but no concrete proof. It's all just that bit too wishy-washy. (For me.)
Still, though not one for the cynically depressed, those who go barefoot in the steps of the Taoists, and who sit comfortably within their skin, will no doubt find renewed comfort in the company of Mermaids.

Tile, by Frank Goodman

It's accepted fact that the most satisfying stories are those with the human condition at their heart - Goodman does nothing here to contradict this assertion. In fact, so convincing is his portrayal of the female protagonist that one suspects he may possibly have gone the Roman a clef route.
A well crafted tale, this, about a young woman's return 'home' from a period of disenchantment, self-loathing and abandoned hope. Particularly affecting is the ease and economy with which a sense of displacement is captured, and the dynamics of an uneasy mother/daughter relationship is revealed through subtle exchanges, wonderfully judged. It's a resonant story with which we can all empathise, touching as it does on the struggle for meaning, a niggling awareness of the threat of ennui as the motivation for most activity, and the inclination to embrace the existentialist state of not being in an effort to avoid emotional hurt.
Though it provides no new insight, and though there is little relief from its sombre, hushed tones and suspect punctuation, Tile is an involving, intimate read that captures well a grappling with depression-induced distortion of perspective, and really only falters in its abrupt, quick-fix ending. Much like life then, not wholly satisfying, but what the fuck can you do?

The Infanta Of Castile - £3; An Open Letter To JK Rowling - £2; The Community Of Mermaids - £2.50; Tile - £2.50. No post and packing charges. Check availability at www.thescribblers.co.uk