books of the month: Dostoyevsky Wannabe

Dostoyevsky Wannabe are a ridiculously prolific independent publishing house based in Manchester. Founded by Richard Brammer and Victoria Brown in 2015, they make incredible books, one of which, Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner was recently nominated for the 2018 Republic of Consciousness award (eventually won by Eley William's sublime collection Attrib. and Other Stories).

We spoke to Richard to find out more about they have managed to publish over 40 books in four years on zero budget.

can you tell us about dostoyevsky wannabe, how you started, and what you're working on recently?

We used to do art for a brief time, video art and other kinds of things and Vikki used to paint for a while and then we both started writing because writing is easier to do when you’re on the train or walking about and we both had day jobs (Vikki still has and I’m currently back at university for a year and hoping to get some PhD money to do a project on the Olympia DIY scene around K Records in the 80s and early 90s) and so time is fractured into weeks and weekends and so on and we didn’t want to be weekend painters (or writers) we wanted to do it ALL the time and ANY time so for a while we wrote. I had a period of doing, I don’t know, borderline-serious writing in that way that people sometimes do when they turn thirty. It’s like you do the twentysomething thing and you’re into raves and all that and then, for some misguided reason, you turn thirty and start listening to Radio 4, which is an increasingly awful idea, and listening to endless debates about euthanasia and reading the Guardian, and you spend a lot of time at farmer’s markets for some reason, and literature and the 1950s and bicycle clips and Philip Larkin and everything all seems to go together in one big horrible morass where you might find yourself having something awful and middle class like a study or something.

Also, you find yourself trying to fit in with people and chase after relatively pointless recognition at the hands of megalomaniac poetry magazine editors with far too much power in the tiny literary world, despite their miniscule sales figures, and that kind of puts the dampener on why you write. Even worse, you might find yourself saying things like, ‘This would look good on an Arts Council application’ and happily we realised, before it was too late, that we didn’t want to join Tony Blair’s re-purposing of the Arts Council towards ‘business’. We didn’t want to plan every poetry book that we wrote like it was a business plan or something. That was really the roots of Dostoyevsky Wannabe, a sort of anti-normative literary model. It was just a question of finding a way of doing it.

where do you take inspiration from?

Following on from the last question, when we came out of our Radio 4 literary farmer’s market-coma towards the end of our thirties, we realised that a lot of what we’d left behind, which was basically the kind of DIY youth culture of our twenties – whether it be the DIYness of rave where people put on club nights and put out records or the DIYness of indie pop music and labels such as Sarah Records and 53rd & 3rd and K Records – was something that we really loved and didn’t want to leave behind at all. We loved (and still love) fanzine culture, but we didn’t want to do fanzines for two reasons:

1) Believe it or not, we didn’t have (and still don’t have) enough money to make fanzines. Even though their costs are really small, there are still costs. Printing ink is expensive for your home printer and paying a printer isn’t something we could afford to do.

2) We wanted to have a distinct visual style that was recognisable and fanzines, by their very ethos, are often not quite that. That visual style was something we loved from independent labels such as Factory Records, but also from labels like Ghost Box and Warp and people like that.

So really that was, and still is, our main inspiration. From the book world, our early designs took inspiration from the egalitarian nature of Pelican paperbacks of the Sixties and Seventies, and the way in which they promoted a great many autodidacts in the second part of the 20th century. We liked how these books brought knowledge that was often specialised to the wider public with their extremely affordable books. Vikki underpinned our book designs with the Marber grid which was the grid that was used on many of those books and that was a kind of homage.

The next thing, namely how to start and run a press with quite high production values on a (very literal) zero-budget, was trickier and it involved compromises with forces in capitalism that we don’t particularly sit well with, inasmuch as our decision to use a print-on demand company named Createspace was not taken lightly. We knew we had to be print on demand and we knew that Createspace was one of the few companies where we wouldn’t even have to buy a copy of a book that we put out because we could soft-proof on screen for free. It costs us, again, an extremely literal, zero pence to put a book out on Createspace. Of course, our accounts show a regular loss because we can never pay ourselves for the considerable time that we put into this, but we do it because we want to do it, so that’s fine. Another reason for using Createspace is that we needed free distribution on a wide scale, and using Amazon in this way, like a giant photocopier and postal service, frees us up to do that for free. Of course they’re making their money and we aren’t, but neoliberalism has a tendency to be efficient like that. It’s interesting that more radical bookshops who’re against Amazon understand our position, inasmuch as they know that living in a capitalist world means you can’t live in a vacuum. There are other, usually more middle-class, areas of the literary world who, in our opinion, practice a kind of pseudo-ethics when it comes to Amazon. They happily use laptops, smartphones, social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as do we, of course – all of which are just as ethically dubious as Amazon and so sometimes you get the odd person trying to call us out for that, but we see that as hypocritical. At an extreme end of the spectrum you might have these hipster types who seek to bring back moveable type or something, but to us that’s just a fetish and, quite often, imagine how much of a rich kid someone has to be to practice these supposedly ethical back-to-the-past methods. People also forget that huge companies such as Waterstone’s and Borders and supermarkets and places such as that started, what could arguably be said to be, the rot by lobbying to have the net-book agreement revoked so that they could offer huge book discounts, to put many bookshops out of business. It’s one of the quirks of capitalism that Amazon (and the internet) later showed up and did something similar to those businesses (see the demise of Borders).

Inspired by the Pelican and Penguin model of the Sixties and Seventies, we like to offer our books almost at cost price to make them as affordable as possible. We don’t even try and take any copyright from writers, so they’re free to pull their books at any time should some big money publisher (or for any reason) come knocking for a book that we’ve put out first with them. That’s fine by us. We’re not in it for any money that can be got out of it, not that there is much money in the independent publishing world anyway, and where there is we don’t tend to think it’s spent on things that are any good for the writers or the readers.

does being from manchester influence your outlook or approach to publishing / making art?

Even though we’re partly inspired by Factory Records record covers (and, I suppose, their general ability to make a loss as a business – although there was a lot more money swirling around their operation than there is around ours), the myth of Factory is currently too dwelt upon by Manchester council, assorted property developers, and by the Manchester Evening News in a way that is much too heritage-led, and quite distinct from Factory’s original aims. So, being Manchester-based ourselves, we won’t dwell too much on that here. One thing to mention about Manchester is that it was also effectively the home of what was arguably the first independent record with the Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch EP, and that’s a definite inspiration for what we do.

Rather than being inspired only by what happened in the past, we are currently trying to link together with more current Manchester-based independent operators such as arts collectives such as Generic Greeting and DJ nights such as The Living Room Dance Club, to name a few. We were quite virtual before, by dint of being a print-on-demand thing rather than working in a conventionally local fashion and we’re trying to remedy that in various ways just now.

what would you like to see change in society?

Ooh too much. Far too much! In Manchester, and in Britain as a whole, we both think homelessness is one of the biggest and most distressing problems, and we don’t feel it to be some kind of quirk or strange phenomenon, as some more right-wing (and sometimes centre-left) commentators would have it. We think it’s very much a structural thing caused by cuts that didn’t need to happen and by the demise of council housing and policies such as Right to Buy, which destroyed the (still flawed) but infinitely more equitable fabric of society that had been created in the Post-Second World war period. Sadly, actually more than sadly, horrifically and deplorably, homelessness has been structurally created by Tory governments, and it is now being normalised in the minds of the general public too, and that is blatantly obvious in the city of Manchester in a way that it isn’t in say, Glasgow. That’s something that you can see just by walking the streets of those places. I’m not sure what the differences in policy are but there are obvious differences on the ground.

What I think is sickening is how this is being normalised. The fact that there is a debate about whether or not to give money to people on the streets is appalling in itself, it should be met with outrage and a matter of urgency but instead it’s met with a lot of middle-class pseudo-debate and a lot of social-engineering aimed at persuading the general public that it can’t be helped rather than a damning indictment of the policies that created it. The Tory councillor, or whoever he was, who made some pointless headlines a few days ago where he suggested that he’d spent some nights sleeping out – for  charity? for research? certainly not because he had to – and that it was no worse than his army training, well it’s this kind of nonsense that I’m talking about.

This attempt to normalise something which is a blight on what is supposed to be a civilised country. Clearly, the everyday lives of the civilians of a country should not be mentioned anywhere near army training. In case he’s forgotten the purpose of being in the army - army training is to train people to live and fight and survive in extreme conditions in war-torn areas, and not the stuff of day to day life for civilians in Britain. It’s this viewing of homeless people as something other, as not people in their own right, as not citizens of the country that allows this kind of, nonsensical, obviously propagandistic, statement. Homeless people should be viewed as people who formerly had council houses, as people who formerly had homes, and who have now not got homes and have to live on the street because of the lie of austerity and because of the way in which basic rights laid out after the second world have been torn up for the benefit of the 1% richest in society. Unfortunately, I feel the right-wing propaganda (often aided, in some ways, by the propaganda of the centre-left) is transforming public opinion against its own interests. It almost feels like a kind of Stockholm Syndrome is being engendered where large swathes of the general public are identifying with their own captors against homeless people. A basic divide and rule move, I suppose but I still find it appalling and almost unbelievable if it wasn’t for the evidence of homelessness literally every four or five yards in Manchester.

what gives you optimism?

Anything that subverts or shakes normative convention, and anything that is capable of highlighting what the late-Mark Fisher termed "capitalist realism" for the sham that it is. I’m afraid we’re not the kind of publishers who preach an idea of literature (particularly whatever is calling itself the literary canon at any one time) as the most important thing in the world. It’s a nice thought of course, although totally misguided. In a British context. Making sure the NHS stays free at the point of use, and ending homelessness are both infinitely more important to us.

That isn’t to say that we don’t love to see people read the books that we put out, or that literature plays zero role in a fairer society or that literature can’t change things culturally. It’s just that often independent literature becomes just one of many minority interest, middle-class lifestyle choices and pivots around the ups and downs of literary prizes, and around just a few presses. I mean not all prizes are necessarily so elitist in how they choose their long-lists and short-lists, we were recently shortlisted for a prize and we were obviously pleased to be included (and to be honest we think Gaudy Bauble, the book that we worked on with Isabel Waidner, should have won because it ticked all of our boxes about what innovative literature can be) but we are also ambivalent. There is something slightly Darwinian, something a bit too much survival of the fittest about prizes overall, and that doesn’t ring true for us. The idea of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ and related terms such as ‘fittest’ and ‘unfit’ represent the kind of binaries that not only mask the structural inequalities inherent in most things but which are also used to justify a whole host of spurious and often destructive nonsense. Obviously that kind of thing is not just confined to literature and shows up in all manner of horribly competitive contemporary areas – TV is particularly bad for it. I suppose I’m thinking of that cake baking programme, and the dancing programme, and so on and so forth. I don’t think it’s a useful way of conceptualising life and think it’s more damaging that is realised whilst it masquerades as good clean fun.

Of course, we might submit to the odd prize still. If it’s good for the writer involved, if it costs us zero pence (often prizes don’t and that’s something not often mentioned). Often it creates more exposure for not only one book but for all books that we put out and that suits our co-operative ethos.

what do you have planned over the next year?

Aside from far too many books – I think we have around 18 this year, plus anthologies of work coming in collaboration with really interesting and innovative literary mags such as Partisan HotelQueen MobsMinor Literatures and Berfrois, we’re starting our Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities imprint, which is going to have more of a focus on events, as well as featuring small anthologies of writers based in particular cities.

This all started, like many of our ideas do, as the answer to a problem that was presented to us. In this case, it was a very nice problem to have. We were offered a Dostoyevsky Wannabe showcase in Brooklyn to take place at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn, and we wanted to do it but we knew we couldn’t afford to get there and also that many of our writers would not be able to either. With that in mind, we thought ‘Hey why not work with the organisers of the event to organise a small set of Brooklyn writers and they can have a good time over there without us but we’ll put out the book’. Since our early days, for various reasons, we were better known in America, in areas like Portland and Brooklyn than we were in England and certainly in Manchester. By the time the Brooklyn showcase was offered to us, we had writers from all over and we were more well-known in London and also as far afield as Madrid and Melbourne, Amsterdam and other places (we’re not talking major fame here) so we thought why not do different cities/areas as and when we can. To our surprise people are lining up to do different Cities in partnership with us and, typically for us, we’re not even sure how we’re going to fit them all in and in what timescale. We’ll find a way though because that’s how we work. We work in a relatively improvised manner.

Again, since we’ve largely been an extremely virtual operation, this is a chance to get back into the physical, local world. Paradoxically it often won’t be on our own doorstep in Manchester. The idea was definitely inspired by regional indie music scenes of the 80s and 90s in Glasgow, Olympia, Portland, Austin, Bristol, Dunedin and places such as that. It maybe allows Dostoyevsky Wannabe to get off the internet and for people to be able meet each in real life, even if we won’t always be able to afford to get to all the events. For myself and Vikki personally, we’re trying to connect with people in Manchester, which is our locality, but there’s no reason, given our more international internet presence, that we can’t do things elsewhere too. Everyone can be a Dostoyevsky Wannabe after all. Hopefully people can enjoy themselves at the events and we can help in our own small way by getting a book out commemorating the event and maybe designing materials for the events sometimes, etc. We keep thinking that it’s almost like going on tour without the expense of going on tour, which is very much typical us really. Probably more that though we think of that line in Withnail and I where Withnail says to the farmer, “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!” That level of adventitious farce mixed with literary and pop cultural innovation pretty much sums up what we do.

 

For more information visit www.dostoyevskywannabe.com