“This is Publishing and Writing as Borderline Activism” — An Interview With Isabel Waidner, by Thom Cuell

Liberating The Canon, an anthology of experimental writing edited by Isabel Waidner and published by the Manchester-based micro-press Dostoyevsky Wannabe, is a galvanising document of an emerging literary movement. Calling for a politically-engaged literary avant-garde that is ‘inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left)‘, Waidner brings together writers including Juliet Jacques, Joanna Walsh, Eley Williams, Mira Mattar and Jess Arndt, constructing a critical framework to encompass a range of styles and experiences which challenge the conventions of mainstream literature.

Here, she talks to Thom Cuell about the potential of an intersectional avant-garde to effect cultural change, the interaction between identity and style, and the potential of online platforms to enable radical new work.

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TC: You argue in the introduction to Liberating the Canon that literature, if it is to be relevant, must ‘help counteract the rise of conservatism, nationalism and similarly divisive ideologies and policy-making’. How do you think small independent and micro presses can help to challenge mainstream political narratives today?

IW: If any literature has the potential to offer alternative imaginaries and help effect social and political change in real life, it’s innovative work by writers from marginalised backgrounds. These literatures have been, and still are, entirely absent from commercial publishing contexts and anything that counts as the literary canon. My starting point is that UK literature is far too homogenous, and homogeneity is the enemy of political change. The role of independent presses, then, is to help disrupt the homogeneity and normativity of literature. It’s to change literature itself. I realise this is a tall order! The role of independent presses is not just to platform already existing, unpublished works that are strikingly different in both form and content. Their role is also to provide the conditions of possibility for new literatures with different differences to be written and to emerge. In this sense, I see the roles of independent presses and innovative writers as interconnected, as a shared project. This is publishing and writing as borderline activism. It’s happening at the moment, you think?!

Following on, do you think it is still possible for an avant-garde artistic movement to influence social change, or shock audiences in the way that, for example, The Rite of Spring did?

What interests me is a queer or intersectional contemporary avant-garde (which would be very different to the canonical avant-gardes). The intersectional avant-garde has never really existed until—maybe—now?! This is from Liberating the Canon: “If there were a literary avant-garde that were relevant now, it would be what the queers and their allies are doing, at the intersections, across disciplines. This avant-garde would be inclusive, racially and culturally diverse, migrants galore, predominately but not exclusively working-class, transdisciplinary, (gender)queer and politically clued up (left).” In disciplines such as queer and trans avant-garde performance (Travis Alabanza, David Hoyle, Le Gateau Chocolat, Scottee, Victoria Sin), film (Campbell X), art (Richard Dodwell, Evan Ifekoya, Charlotte Prodger), photography (Christa Holka, Jacob Love, Holly Revell) and more recently poetry (Jay Bernard, Steven J. Fowler, Nat Raha, Sophie Robinson, Timothy Thornton, Verity Spott) queerness and avant-garde aesthetics are thriving in this country. In contrast, there is hardly any queer avant-garde fiction. And yes, I think it is entirely possible for art and literature with a difference to make a difference irl. I don’t see them as disconnected. Donna Haraway and many others have argued that collective imaginaries have a huge impact on what comes to materialise as physical fact, and I’m buying it. Fictions and metaphors are having an impact on how the electorate votes, for example.

What did The Rite of Spring do, did it shock audiences?

Historically, you argue that the socially and politically marginalised have been excluded from avant-garde aesthetic movements – what conditions have (or must) be changed in order for these voices to become included?

In order for these voices to be included and at the forefront of a literary avant-garde what counts as literary innovation will need to change. I say this in LTC in response to precisely this question:

“It isn’t just a question of printing an article about work that challenges literary conventions in an institution like the TLS, nor about inserting a couple of poc or people from a working-class background in high profile editorial positions. It goes without saying that these changes are indispensable. But widening participation (to use that term) in literature also requires a critical engagement with literary form. The writing itself has to transgress the various structures through which the avant-garde literary canon has perpetuated itself and its exclusiveness. To reiterate, the writing needs to work across various systems of oppression (intersectionality), across formal distinction (prose and poetry, critical and creative, and the various genres), and across disciplines. Same goes for publishing, editing, reading, referencing and designing curricula. Change literature (or what is defined as such) and the discipline will diversify. Diversify the discipline and the literature itself will change. Liberating the canon depends on inclusion and formal innovation in equal measures. The two are interrelated.”

In other words, the most innovative work will not come from where we think it might come from, nor will it look like we think it might look like. It will be totally different and it will be surprisingly popular! Maybe this will be the shock value of the new avant-garde: it’s popularity.

Talk of the death of the novel has become a familiar trope among the literary establishment – do you agree that the novel is dying? And would it be a bad thing if it was?

I like to refer to myself as a novelist. I like to refer to my book Gaudy Bauble as a novel. If you’re buying the idea that Gaudy Bauble is a novel, then the novel is fine. Going strong.

In your introduction, you discuss the intersection between queer identities and experimental literature, and point out that many of the contributors to Liberating the Canon are ‘lesbians, trans women, (gender)queers, some gay men. Many of us are BAME, working-class, women, migrants, or from a background of migration’. How do you feel these marginalised identities impact on your contributors’ style?

Form should be an extension of content. Instinctively, it should. The point I’m making in LTC is that it isn’t, and it hasn’t been. Historically, working-class, BAME, LGBTQI and women’s literatures have tended towards straightforward narrative. Sociopolitical marginalisation and avant-garde aesthetics have not come together in UK literature, counterintuitively divorcing outsider experience and formal innovation. This is so counterintuitive, there has to be some serious governmentality (in a Foucauldian sense) at play to account for the state of innovative literature in this country (its normativity). What I’m trying to say is this:

how literature has taken shape has more to do with structures of exclusion and privilege, rather than with matching form to content. We have ended up in a situation where experimental literature is considered classist by many of my natural allies (including my partner, a working-class academic at Goldsmiths). Experimental literature is seen to be tied up with educational capital, and historically, that’s true!

So yes—the LTC contributors’ backgrounds and identities are coming through strongly in their styles, form and content, and that’s what’s new.

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You mention UK publishers issuing, and having some success with, work by a number of American avant-garde writers in recent years – Michelle Tea, Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson to pick a few names. Do you feel like there is less appetite for similar experimentation from UK-based writers? And, if so, why is the UK literary scene less receptive to them?

Commercial publishers need to get with it. There’s an enormous public appetite for innovative and diverse literatures from the UK. Commercial publishers are acting all shy, they’re basically sleeping on it. It’s fantastic that US avant-garde writers are being published in the UK for the first time (in the case of Myles’ Chelsea Girls and Kraus’s I Love Dick decades after their original publication), but that’s got to be no more than a starting point.

As a European writer in the UK, working within a British movement that looks to be part of a wider European or even international avant garde, what impact do you feel Brexit could have on literature within the UK?

Let’s just say Brexit will galvanise us. I’m writing a new novel called They Are Made Of Diamond Stuff which explores some of these themes, namely the possibility of artistic production and resistance in post-EU-referendum Britain. It’s about a couple of queers navigating the complexities of their own working-class milieu which is defined by rifts even within marginalised communities.

Online publishing platforms such as CreateSpace and WordPress have drastically reduced costs for producers of avant-garde work (such as Dostoyevsky Wannabe and Minor Literature[s]), but there are still challenges around rewarding authors and other contributors for their work. Do you still see a tendency to associate value with worth? And do you think that not-for-profit organisations will remain integral to the production of avant-garde work?

At the moment, nonprofit writing and publishing are necessary for the sake of the project to change literature. To quote the queer and trans scholar Louise Chambers: we never used to get paid for our activism either (private convo, different context). Given the state of the industry, it’s publish and widely distribute innovative and political work by all means necessary, via CreateSpace and WordPress if needs be. Make it affordable to the reader. Manchester-based independent press and publisher of Liberating the Canon, Dostoyevsky Wannabe have developed a publishing strategy that facilitates global distribution and affordable pricing without any financial capital or middle-class money back-up. CreateSpace, WordPress and so on, if subverted, are enabling publishers from working-class backgrounds (and, in turn, working-class writers and literatures). Publishing models like your own or 3:AM’s, say, are based on a lot of (diy) skill and vision, but no financial capital. In this sense, I associate nonprofit, rather than value, with literary worth. In the long-term, these writing and publishing practices aren’t sustainable. We’re doing this beside working in full-time jobs, which is too tall an order. What I fear might happen is this: once we’ll have done all of the footwork and commercial publishers will cotton onto the fact that there is money to be made from innovative and diverse literatures (which they will, ’cause, capitalism), some of us will get paid—those of us coming through Oxbridge don’t quote me.

How do you envisage experimental literature taking advantage of digital formats in the future?

Ask Joanna Walsh.

Finally, how has editing Liberating the Canon influenced your own practice, if at all?

I’ve been living this book and its themes for years. I’ve followed the work of all of the contributors for years. Editing this books is my practice. My writing is nothing without it.


Isabel Waidner is a writer and cultural theorist. She is the author of three books of innovative fiction, most recently Gaudy Bauble (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017), which the writer and critic Olivia Laing described as a “beguiling, hilarious, rollocking and language-metamorphosing novel”. Her articles and short fictions have appeared in journals including 3:AM, Berfrois, Configurations, The Happy Hypocrite, The Quietus and Minor Literature[s]. As part of the indie band Klang, Waidner released records on UK labels Rough Trade (2003) and Blast First (2004). She is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Roehampton University in London and the editor of Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018).