Prose & cons of outsider status as a writer


The art world has a name for work produced outside the mainstream by untrained creators who conform to marginal norms (e.g. eccentric recluses, criminals, schizophrenics and visionaries). And, like most else under capitalism, Outsider Art has become an industry. You know the kind of thing: introverted, obsessive, repetitive, decorative yet subtly unsettling; cryptic words embedded in intricate images…

Writes Colin Rhodes, in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (2000): ‘The artist outsiders are, by definition, fundamentally different to their audience, often thought of as being dysfunctional in respect of the parameters for normality set by the dominant culture.’ Just how tricky it is, in some cases, to judge that goes without saying.

In today’s all-inclusive art world, work by ‘outsiders’ has become institutionalised (if not in the same way as were many of its initial producers), so it’s started to assume its, ahem, rightful place among major art movements, while not yet claiming comparable space (if any) in large public galleries. Yet now that Outsider Art is in, what sets it and its creators apart from other collectible brand names is no more than style (+ an apt bio). Because once you emerge from seclusion, prison, the asylum or anonymity, and take your wares to market, you’re arguably not so marginal. Besides, the ubiquity of digital culture is changing the meaning of marginal and continuing what postmodernism started by broadening definitions of artist. Is a rural-dwelling recluse whose DIY conspiracy videos on YouTube go viral an outsider or an insider?

And if Outsider Art had a literary equivalent – let’s say ‘Outsider Writing’ – what would it look or sound like? Where could it be found? How to identify it? Might bizarre grammar, punctuation and spelling repel the intelligentsia? According to anarchist poet Hakim Bey, in ‘Raw Vision’:

All art can be positioned or labelled in relation to [capitalist] “discourse.” And it is precisely & only in relation to this “metaphysical” commodity-spectacle that “outsider” art can be seen as marginal. […] It does not pass thru the paramedium of the spectacle. It is meant only for the artist & the artist’s ‘immediate entourage” (friends, family, neighbours, tribe); & it participates only in a “gift” economy of positive reciprocity.

For a writer to find a readership that extends beyond family, friends and acquaintances used to depend on major publication, which in Oz meant growing a CV from the baby steps favoured by publishers/agents: minor publication, prizes, grants, mentorships, writing degrees… but new options for exposure have appeared in recent years. Self-published authors have overcome stigma (and hack work) with entrepreneurship; new literary forms – like the humble blog – have taken our culture by storm.

In art-world discourse, outsider is synonymous with untrained or self-taught: true of two of my writer friends (in the UK and the US respectively), each of whom is, to quote Rhodes, ‘fundamentally different to [his] audience’, if not as ‘dysfunctional’ re the dominant culture’s norms as each might contend. The eccentric can work when forced to while the visionary earns a regular wage. In some ways I’m more dysfunctional than both these friends and yet, since wasting money and time on a creative writing MA, can’t pretend I’m untrained. Yet at heart I remain an outsider. And there’s the rub…

Like publishers, funding bodies for ‘emerging’ writers favour those whose work has appeared enough times in elite literary journals (they need to agree on some sort of benchmark). And your typical lit journal editor is a left-leaning, PC academic; political correctness implying awareness of and respect for unfairly disadvantaged (human) others – relative outsiders – so it’s cool to write on their behalf (PC-ness has yet to admit powerlessness over its addiction: ‘Hi, my name is P and I’m a co-dependent…’).

The thing is, PC-ness is a culture of guilt. Why else, during its heyday, could Christian Lander’s blog, Stuff White People Like, take the piss and yet be so popular? An insider teasing his own privileged kind about their fixations, like Grammar, Writers Workshops and Facebook, he’s eminently PC himself, and so presumably aware that people who feel guilty are easy to manipulate (as preachers, professional beggars/swindlers and partners of adulterers know). Guilt is an itch that needs scratching, a scab that seals in riskier feelings. Guilt will settle for pay-offs. Guilt resists change… a subject for a thesis?

In short, too much formal education, social mediation or both can narrow instead of expand understanding. So outsiders make insiders feel embarrassed, so we need gatekeepers. Speaking of which, the last time I submitted work to a certain journal, I noticed new questions on their cover sheet. What was the first issue I’d read? What was the most recent? And what pieces had I most enjoyed? Do the editors use this mini survey for market research (assuming would-be contributors comprise their customer base)… or to assist a preliminary cull (don’t expect us to read you unless you’ve read us)?

Market research makes sense, as the field grows ever more competitive: innovative lit journals springing up like mushrooms and publishers slashing their long-fiction lists – as if the decay of one form is fertilising the rise of another. But I digress. Several journals that publish short fiction also require contributors to disclose whether or not they’re subscribers. Work by some of the authors they publish appears in diverse journals (in the Oz small publishing scene, ‘diverse’ is relative). But wouldn’t subscribing to all of those journals cost authors more than they’d earn from them?

And while some brilliant, diligent writers with something pressing to say can lack the social skill it takes to break into the locally published club, similar laws govern success in the blogosphere, on Facebook etc. To be PC is not enough; you must also show others you’re someone with whom it’s safe to be seen associating; ergo, the more ‘followers’ or ‘friends’, the better. So bloggers solicit followers by following etc. OK, it’s time-consuming and fake. But hey, that’s the dark side of equality.

So I don’t read all the trendy PC Oz journals from front to back, every quarter; don’t aspire to write like their regulars, some of whom I respect and even admire. If I lost the outsider edge that gives me my perspective, I might become more palatable to insider editors and subscribers. But then I’d be domesticated rather than feral, mediated instead of rare, too processed and not raw enough… Yawn

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