Perfidious Albion, Sam Byers’ second novel, occupied an uncomfortable territory between the state of the nation novel and dystopia. Set in the small fictional town of Edmundsbury in the aftermath of Brexit, the novel examines what happens when tech companies, populist politicians, activists and well meaning journalists begin to take an interest in hitherto obscure provincial areas. Byers expertly satirises the gamification of labour and the gig economy, the rise of business gurus and populism, poverty tourist journalists and the commentariat and more in this incredibly well observed novel.
He spoke to Minor Literature[s] about some of the issues raised in Perfidious Albion.
Perfidious Albion could be described as a dystopian novel without being particularly speculative. Which writers did you look at for inspiration? And was there any temptation to go further into speculative territory, in terms of the technologies you described?
That’s a fascinating way of thinking about it. I hadn’t actually expressed it to myself in that way at all. The honest truth is that it began in a much more speculative fashion. I did the bulk of the work on this book in 2015 and 2016, and while it’s true I continually adjusted for events such as Brexit, I think what really happened is that the world just caught up with me in surprising and disturbing ways, and so I accepted the idea that rather than continually reinventing things in order to be out in front of the phenomena I was depicting, I should anchor myself and play more with the ways in which the context of the book was evolving. That said, my speculation was never especially technological. I’m not as interested in the granular technicalities of innovation — how things work and such like. Other writers do that far better than me. I’m interested in the experiential, social and emotional changes those technologies engender and the ways in which those changes can add up to quite profound political and economic shifts. In that sense, there was no real need to speculate — the evidence was all around me as I wrote.
Interestingly, I think this experience is actually quite informative in terms of thinking about the inherent problems of imagined dystopias. This has been pointed out before by thinkers far more eloquent and informed than myself, but one of the issues around dystopias is that, if not deployed imaginatively, they can be these slightly cynical vehicles by which the real suffering of one class or group of people is communicated to another class or group of people in a way they can comfortably understand. So say you build a dystopia around deportation camps, or water shortage, or environmental disaster — these are things that are actually happening to real people right now around the world. In that sense, to say what if . . . runs the risk of inadvertently suggesting these things are only imaginary. Right now, as far as I’m concerned, the dystopia has arrived, and this calls into question the role of the novelist. Is our job still simply to imagine? Or is it in fact to interrogate the ways that we as political and economic subjects have already been imagined, and to reassert our right to make a world around which imaginative constraints have not yet been imposed by others? This is why I’m so suspicious of the recent trend among novelists and critics for talking about ‘the power of stories’ or the way in which we somehow ‘need’ stories in order to make sense of our lives. For me, our lives are already oppressively and violently shaped by narrative. By working with the raw material of narrative itself, novelists have an opportunity to dilute and rebalance that power.
The novel that really kick-started my ideas, several years ago, was Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which I read on holiday one year and which completely knocked me sideways. That was the model for writing a novel that was both satirical and socially realist, and which retained a keen sense of how different systems interact with each other. After that, most of my reading was more theoretical, just feeling out some of the subjects I wanted to explore. Nathan Jurgenson’s digital dualism work is an obvious point of reference. Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman remains hugely significant. And Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love helped me try to imagine ways of stepping outside of what might be thought of as my own novelistic and emotional ‘default settings’.
Early on in Perfidious Albion, you mention the ‘collapsed distinction between creativity and commerce’. How do you see this phenomenon affecting the literary world, and culture in general?
I think there’s been a move towards novelists rejecting any sense of themselves as artists. Perhaps this is a uniquely British and American problem but there seems to be an awkwardness around even using the word art when speaking of literature. Instead, we see this swelling discourse around ideas of craft, commerciality, and entertainment. I think that in part accounts for the new wave of more formally experimental work we’re seeing in the UK at the moment. It’s a reaction to what you might think of as the Netflix-ification of literature.
I accept that once I finish a book it becomes, to a certain extent, a commercial object. What’s difficult is the feeling that I should construct a persona to match — someone who is a charming performer, a public presence, a compelling advertisement for their own work. I have a tendency to chafe against that. Aside from my own basic awkwardness, I worry that fiction is increasingly only accessible to the wider media culture through reference to the personal, the ‘true’, which in some senses seems at odds with the freedom fiction affords.
In much the same way, I find myself very uncomfortable with this rising swell of strangely medicalised thinking about literature — that if you read books you live longer or become suddenly more empathetic or something. These ideas dress themselves up as sincere pleas for the power of art but they’re really just an extension of the idea that anything which doesn’t produce a tangible effect isn’t worth paying for. It reduces literature to speaking of itself in all the same ways all the other products that are pushed on us speak of themselves: this will make you happier, this will make you healthier etc.
I don’t want to think about literature, or any art, in these brutally transactional terms.
We talk a lot now about existing within bubbles; how much do you feel a novel, or any other form of satire, can reach beyond the already converted and make an impact on political debate? And should that be an aim of literature?
I think the audience for novels is, by comparison to the audience for other media, a small one. And as we know statistically, it’s a relatively homogenous one too, sadly, although that is mercifully changing. So in that sense it is a kind of bubble. But I think two quite powerful things are possible within that slightly constrained space. One is that you can force people to examine the extent to which they’re complicit in the systems you’re writing about, which I think is valuable. The other is that you can encourage readers to confront lives and philosophies that might be quite different from their own. No, it’s not going to suddenly reshape society or whatever, but nor would I say that it has no effect whatsoever.
Whether this should be an overt aim for literature is really a question for individual writers. Every writer wants to achieve something different through what they write, and for most writers that changes from book to book, so I think it’s hard to make sweeping statements about what literature should or should not be aiming to achieve. What I will say is that around the time I was writing the book, there was quite a lot of discussion about whether fiction could or should be ‘political’, and an apparent consensus that overtly political fiction would always be ‘polemical,’ which for some reason is supposed to be a bad thing. Again, I think this is a distinctly English worry, as writers from other countries don’t always have the privilege of ‘deciding’ to be political — their work simply emerges into a highly politicised landscape and is read accordingly. In England, there’s almost this sense that novels should be ‘balanced’, or apolitical, as if they’re an extension of the news media. My view is that it’s fundamentally impossible to write something apolitical. Every decision you make about your narrative and your characters is politically informed. So although we might be able to set aside the notion of whether impacting on political debate should be an ‘aim’ of literature, we’re not at all able to set aside the reality that all literature must negotiate its own position within a political context. I think that once you accept that, the possibilities become more interesting, because to accept that there’s no such thing as an apolitical text is really to accept the notion that there’s no such thing as an apolitical life. No-one, not a single one of us, exists ‘outside’ of politics. To suggest anyone does is either to fail to interrogate one’s privilege, or to suggest, patronisingly, that politics has no significance in certain lives we might choose to depict. So in that sense the ‘bubble’ almost becomes the subject, the point of interrogation. And because the novel as a form is uniquely able to bridge the inner and outer lives of its characters, it’s an area in which I think there is actually quite a lot of space to shift perception.
The slight danger now is that most fiction writers, myself included, have other avenues of expression available to them, be it through personal essays or social media. On one level, the possibilities for this are interesting. But sometimes I wonder if we risk a bit of a ‘church and state’ situation: a literature effectively bled of the overtly political because the consensus is that that’s what social media and the occasional thinkpiece are for. That’s a notion we have to resist, I think.
The presentation of Edmundsbury, as seen by the media characters in the novel, is very reminiscent of the ‘poverty tourism’ of journalists like John Harris. How do you think writers can challenge this idea, presented by sections of the media, of the provinces as exotic monocultures?
The problem is that writers want to be authoritative. That’s what we need to let go of. People want to write the book or the article about a particular area, and there’s almost a sense in which writers want to claim certain territories. As far as I’m concerned, no writer can be authoritative. I reject that completely. You can only ever produce a highly subjective representation. As soon as I decided to make Edmundsbury a fictional town, it felt as if I was freed from that expectation of authority. It’s like a way of saying: this is obviously highly subjective, because I made it up. Unfortunately, I think the publishing industry and the media to a certain extent reinforce this idea of authority by saying, sometimes tacitly, do we really need another book about such-and-such a place, given that we just published one last year? If we let go of the idea of a book being the last word on a subject, we’re open to the idea of every book and article being a small contribution to a larger dialogue, and then I think we can be a bit more radical in our thinking. We can say say not only, this merits attention, but, this merits a plurality of viewpoints.
I think it’s interesting though that you phrase your question in terms of how writers can challenge certain ideas. Given what I’ve said above, I think it’s important to note that readers have just as much responsibility as writers. We all, I think, contribute to this idea of authority by being a bit lazy about our sources, and from that laziness stems the idea that writers have a duty to give us the whole picture. I’m not sure they do. I think they have a duty to offer their view, and we all, as readers and consumers of these accounts, have a duty to balance them with other accounts and to use those alternative perspectives to reframe what we originally and erroneously regarded as complete.
I’m also aware, of course, that what I’m suggesting would need to be backed up by quite tangible structural changes. We need more investment in local journalism, for example; we need the publishing industry to strengthen its presence outside London so as to have more regional diversity — all things that have been pointed out by various other people and with which I agree wholeheartedly.
In both of your novels, some of the sharpest satire is targeted at the writers of opinion pieces – Perfidious Albion tries to connect words with their consequences, linking the words used by comment writers with the reality which they seek to influence. What do you think are the effects of the shift away from news to opinion as journalism has moved online?
Yes – that’s totally key to the book. It’s why I open with that quote from Subcomandante Marcos, ideas are also weapons. You can interpret that in a lot of different ways but one way of looking at it is that the things we imagine are merely ‘opinions’ or ‘thoughts’ have very real consequences in the wider world. Given the speed with which an idea can travel, that’s never been more true. I think we live in an age of hugely increased personal power, but our sense of personal responsibility has not yet caught up to that.
I think the shift towards opinionism and punditry in our media has been ruinous, quite frankly. It just beggars belief that someone can knock out a column about, say, ‘the culture wars’ or whatever, which is constructed entirely from that writer’s Twitter feed and other columns they’ve consumed, and still expect it to be received as a valuable piece of work.
Worse, it seems obvious to me that far too many of those writers have become hooked on the dopamine of controversial attention and now, rather than trying to get at anything meaningful, actively seek to offend as a means of manufacturing importance. The whole point of that thread running through Perfidious Albion is that a piece thoughtlessly and irresponsibly produced from the comparative comfort of a journalist’s home can have very real, very dangerous effects for people who might be the subjects or targets of that writing.
Meanwhile, I have the greatest respect for what I think of as ‘actual’ journalism, and I think, paradoxically, that the noise of opinion in which we now live has only made fact-based reporting and investigative journalism more important. Look at Carole Cadwalladr’s work around Brexit and Cambridge Analytica, for example, or Amelia Gentleman’s reporting on the Windrush scandal. This is era-defining stuff. I’m in awe of it. Contrast that with the strain of ‘journalism’ in which someone sits in their kitchen with all their hate-channels open and knocks out some pungent wind about identity politics on campuses, or whatever. But of course, we’re all complicit in this because we all bought into the great fallacy of the internet — that it would enable us to understand anything at any given time. If you believe that, then you’ll believe that a columnist can explain the world to you without you or the columnist in question actually engaging with that world.
One of the possibilities opened up by social media is the opportunity to create new identities, or characters, for ourselves – something which can be used for good or ill, as Jess explores in the novel. As a writer, is this creation and burnishing of identities something you relate to?
Yes and no. I mean, obviously, my whole job is basically inventing other personalities. But I think the difference with fiction is that you’re being very clear that’s what you’re doing. Only a fool would read one of my novels and attempt to learn from it anything about my own life. With online identities it’s a bit different. We still, to an extent, believe we’re seeing something ‘real’ of the person we’re interacting with.
Where I think the internet has been extremely helpful, however, is in helping people to build a wider sense of identity and belonging out of their own seemingly individual experience. I might be cynical about the motives of the organisations that effectively run the internet, or the ways in which it has leveraged our unpaid labour in the daily circulation of disinformation, but I’m not cynical at all about the ways it has helped foster a sense of connection among people who previously might have felt isolated or disempowered. As with everything else, there may be dangers or new responsibilities associated with that, but I think it’s hugely significant at both an emotional and a political level.
The reason the conversation gets complicated, though, is because we have a tendency to buy into something of a false notion of identity. Too often, this discussion is framed around the idea that we have a single ‘authentic’ self, and then we go online and construct a load of ‘false’ selves. The truth is that our presentation of self is never consistent. We all have multiple aspects to our personalities that we filter at different times, depending on where we are and who we’re with, and it’s actually really important that we’re able to do that. So it’s not like the internet has come along and given rise to this totally unprecedented phenomenon, it just facilitated an existing need — the need we all have to maintain our right to complexity and contradiction.
For me, that’s a big part of why I write — in order to have that space for myself, that expansiveness, that sense of being multiple. But at the same time I sort of worry about it. Is writing actually just a repository for parts of myself I should be expressing or nurturing in the ‘real’ world? That’s a lot of what Jess’s character is about. She’s been given to understand there are things she can’t say, can’t be, in both her relationship and her professional life, and she’s found a way to have those parts of herself exist. But then she worries that expansion might really just be dilution, or fragmentation; that in packaging parts of herself up she may not have liberated herself at all, but limited herself, denied herself the opportunity of being whole.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of being a public personality. Of course, one’s ego tempts one into it, but I think there’s something sort of corrosive about it, too. In that sense, I admire Elena Ferrante. She rejected that so totally. She found a way to be true to both her art and her private self, and I would say that came at some cost. The reaction from some quarters was outright violent, with these attempts to ‘unmask’ her or whatever. But a whole generation of writers have her as a role model now, and I notice that young writers I speak to are already processing her approach, and asking very difficult questions of themselves about the extent to which they want to exist in public. Ferrante has done everything entirely on her own terms. She’s never bowed to pressure, and she’s produced astoundingly profound work through doing so. I wish I had her confidence and courage. And her talent, too, obviously. That would be nice.
I’m not going to pick on someone who incarnates everything I’d least like to be because it seems unfair to single one person out when in fact there’s an abundance of anti role models anywhere you look. I will say this though: I’ll be forty next year. I’m becoming a middle aged man. Worse, I’m becoming a middle aged male novelist. And I’m going to be honest: role models for how to do that with grace feel a bit thin on the ground. My biggest hope is that I can stay interested in the world around me, stay open to it, stay excited and inspired by what emerging artists are doing. Most of all I don’t want to feel threatened by the future that the next generation of thinkers, artists and activists want to build. I want to feel excited by it, and support it in any way I can, because I honestly feel that they’re going to do so many things better. I’ll leave you to extrapolate from that answer a few examples of people who’ve done the opposite.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
I don’t have a particularly intimate relationship with objects, to be honest. I don’t buy a lot of ‘things’. That’s not to say I live in some sort of minimalist paradise either. There seems to be stuff everywhere, and none of it seems essential but none of it seems disposable either. I don’t know where it comes from, and so in a way I sort of resent it — it’s like it’s breeding and I can’t do anything about it. One of the attractions of death, it seems to me, is that it’s an end to what is essentially a kind of tyranny.
I sense you want a sort of light, Desert Island Discs response here, but I don’t have one to hand and you’ve bought up death and the afterlife so let’s go for it. In my conception, the ‘next world’ you describe isn’t somewhere you can take objects because it’s not a ‘next’ world at all, merely this world re-experienced. I don’t know what happens to your consciousness after you die, obviously, but I like to think that leaving your body is the last great liberation. I think it’s only a self-consciousness about the boundaries of our own form that prevents us from being part of the wider phenomenon of life, and so we use certain symbolic objects to bridge that gap and, in a sense, extend ourselves into the world, or bring the world closer to us. I think death is an opportunity to be enfolded back into wider life in a much less constrained way. So in terms of disposal of my body, I don’t even want to be buried, I’d just like to be allowed to rot, or be cremated, or slowly consumed by animals or something. Anything that implies this release from my body, this promise that it’s no longer needed. Then I just imagine my consciousness dissolving into the wider seamlessness of the ecology we live in. I’ll have no need of objects at all, then, and I think, to be perfectly honest with you, it will be amazing.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
Not one portrait, but a series: Bruce Gilden’s most recent work (Google: Bruce Gilden Faces) in which he photographs people’s faces in extreme, high resolution close-up, with brutal flash. I saw some of them exhibited in the Barbican, blown up to the height of a wall. He just picks the most extraordinary subjects — people whose whole life can be seen in their often quite damaged faces. To stand in front of one of his portraits is to be completely immersed in acne, black eyes, the burst veins across the nose of a heavy drinker. It’s simultaneously uncomfortable and very, very moving. I’ve read some awful reviews of his work that say it’s exploitative, that these people shouldn’t be photographed. I think the strong feelings his work evokes stem mainly from people’s inability to reconcile their own feelings about what they’re looking at, and so they displace their discomfort back on the artist, as if he had a responsibility to only show them what they wanted to see, rather than what demonstrably exists. Such criticisms also ignore the fact that, because of the way these portraits are shot and hung, they look at you just as much as you look at them, so there’s a power shift there, a feeling that you went along to be a voyeur and actually you ended up being the subject of judgement. I’ve heard Gilden say in response to critics: these people have a right to be seen. I think that’s so powerful. Everyone should be seen. Everyone should have their portrait on a wall somewhere. That’s something we can all contribute to as writers and artists.