Felix L. Petty talks to the author about his unconventional writing style and dislike of “straightforward literature”
Photography Daniel Brackenbury
I did a project to prove that the literary establishment didn’t like me,” author Stewart Home is explaining in a crowded East End pub on a late Saturday afternoon: “I applied seven years in a row for an Arts Council writers award, and didn’t get it. The eighth year I applied, they’d introduced blind submissions and I won, that was my vindication. I had the joy of Salman Rushdie refusing to shake my hand when I got the award.”
Home continues, “but the thing is I understand how to judge a literary novel as a literary novel, but since I don’t like straightforward literature I don’t appreciate people like Martin Amis or Will Self, who I consider to be extremely bad writers. A lot of the literary reviews I get criticise me for not being able to write, whereas they don’t seem to be able to understand that I made a choice to write in the way I do.”It might not be surprising that Stewart Home is something of a perennial literary outsider. He started off writing for Punk fanzines in the late 70s before he became disillusioned with the scene (“everyone knows real punks like disco music, and don’t like punk music because it’s shit”) and came into contact with the International Neoist Network through his magazine, Smile – “an international magazine of multiple origins,” he describes it. “The idea was that anyone could publish a magazine called Smile.”
He moved into novel writing after a chance re-encounter with Richard Allen’s infamous Skinhead pulp novel Boot Boys. He’s forged something of anti-career in merging the sex, violence and cheap thrills of pulp into the non-linear narratives of the Surrealists and the playfulness and politics of the Neoists. A Stewart Home novel is generally not for the faint hearted; replete as they are with sexual perversion, violence, social critique and Marxist philosophy. “I wanted to mimic that pulp style without actually having a pulp plot.” He is part practical joker, part Marxist theorist, part committed literary vanguardist. It was rumoured for a time that he was writing the Belle de Jour blog, he’s also jokingly confessed to be a pseudonym for a group of other writers and a part-time bank robber.
Home recently release a record called Proletarian Post-Modernism as part of the Test Centre series of spoken word vinyl albums – which has included the likes of Ian Sinclair and Chris Petit – and covers his two-decade long career as a novelist. On the record he recites large sections of his books from memory, speaks standing on his head, performs acts of ventriloquism and shreds one of his books.
“I’d rather see and engage with the audience,” he explains of his unorthodox recital techniques, “so I have to learn a passage to recite it. In the 90s I used to read with bands a lot… Luke Haines and The Auteurs, and Huggy Bear, those riot grrrl bands, or to rock and roll audiences, and they get impatient, you get a lot of hecklers and you can’t read anything subtle in that environment, you need sex or violence or humour, it’s good to work with that, with people who aren’t very interested in what you’re doing. Once I’d learned how to recite from memory I got bored of it, so I learnt ventriloquism, then I started reading standing on my head.” The record’s title is something of a joke, he describes his relationship to post-modernism as “problematic”, but liked the phrase. “In some ways I think I’m clearly fitting into the notion of post-modernism, it’s hard to describe a post-modern novel but you know it when you see it. This break between modernism and post-modernism is ridiculous, it’s like punk and arguing over who the first punk band were? The Troggs? You could go back to The Kingsmen, Link Wray, whatever, you can always trace it back further because genre is socially negotiated and has shifting boundaries, but I always saw post-modernism as a continuation of, rather than a break from, modernism, a reversal of polarity, its not actually that different, reversal but continuation.”
“For example like with Warhol’s celebration of capitalist culture, if you aren’t actually into capitalism Warhol makes a pretty good critique of it too, and I’d rather have a post-modern novel than a return to naturalism and realism, who needs a 19th century novel in the 21st century.”
His latest novel, Mandy, Charlie and Mary Jane, takes as its anti-hero the titular Charlie, a drug addicted cultural studies lecturer at a fictional ex-polytechnic in the north east of England, who frames a student for arson, murders most of the other teaching staff (including a philosophy professor who hasn’t heard of Adorno) before getting caught up in the 7/7 London bombings and finally committing his own act of terrorism. It’s a bleakly humourous look at the moral bankruptcy of the institutional life of modern academia; it’s supposition, that the archetypal modern psychopath is no longer a Bateman-esque neo-liberal banker, but university pseud.
“He’s an amalgam of academics I’ve observed through my life,” Home says of the main character. “All these Marxist art historians who are actually very conservative, there’s nothing worse than those academics who leave their wives and run off with their students. I’m happy not being an academic, professionally I know very few people without a degree but I’m very proud not to have gone to university.”