Superficial And Super-functional: My Theory*

Christopher Fowler
*Oops, that headline looks like it was written by Anne Elk, especially if you put 'Chris' after it. It was Noel Coward who commented on the potency of cheap music, touching on something that has always fascinated me. It applies to music, but as much to images and phrases that linger in the mind for days - or a lifetime. A grade Z movie, an obscure soundtrack, a barely remembered pop song. Why is it that a phrase from a book, a chord from a piece of music or a flickering image from a cheap old film can haunt us so easily? If you create something for yourself and not for a market, your work is more likely to contain your personal passions. If it becomes attached to a time, a place or a person it may come to represent something more. There's an odd, mysterious painting in a Harrogate art gallery of rural summer rituals performed around a haystack that excites me more than the Mona Lisa. When I hear two chords from jazz composer John Barry I remember the piece and know that it came from someone with a very specific sound I his head. And any number of vulgar paperbacks can prove more valuable to me than the output of say, Anthony Trollope. In the Japanese animated film 'Grave of the Fireflies' two children marvel at the cinders lighting up the sky, not realising the sparkling downfall is composed of burning bodies; they will not survive after the radioactive destruction of Kobe. It's a pretty image that hides so much. A moment, a sound, a colour, gone in an instant but lingering like a painted shadow. If you aim too hard to create it, it will often dissolve between your fingers. I realise my tastes must make me incredibly shallow. Then I read about the theory of super-functionality. Isao Takahata teaches us that commercial viability is often an afterthought in innovative, unpredictable works. We write best when we don't care if anyone ever reads it. I wrote the third and final volume of my memoir, 'Word Monkey', largely from hospital, without research or any soul-searching; it was more like a rebel yell, the closest I've got to really cutting loose. It was also the fastest book I've ever produced. I felt the result would be deemed superficial at the very least and was convinced my agent would hate it. I was sure it would never be published. His response; 'This is the real you: don't change a single word'. Well now it has a publication date. I may not be here then but it will be out in the world. If I was starting again now I would not rein in my stranger ideas for the sake of the market. I would make the rebel yell my calling card before calming down and learning to write better. There are so many nascent writers I want to shake and warn; 'Avoid the obvious!'  But we live in very timid times. I used to think these things were cyclical; now I wonder if the new conformity is here to stay.


Jo W (not verified) Sun, 18/12/2022 - 14:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I’m looking forward to Word Monkey even more now, even though it may be unsigned and reading the “real” you, Chris.
At my age I think it is even more important to read, watch and listen to what makes me happy and I will quickly put down a book or switch off. I can’t now waste time on things that someone else thinks is a masterpiece. Be happy, you and Pete. Hugs xx

Ruzz (not verified) Sun, 18/12/2022 - 17:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Really looking forward to this. Keep beating the odds - please - and have an excellent Christmas.

Ace (not verified) Sun, 18/12/2022 - 18:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Aesthetic preference ? Cultural taste ? I'm sure social scientists would delight in unpicking your influences and influencers -- as they would those of most of us --- even more of which we now share in this digitally shrunk world. Then there are additional complications such as public vs private preferences and whether choices are emulative or repudiative. Certainly among publishing 'gatekeepers,' as you no doubt discovered early on, commerciality is a prominent element in their 'taste' as well (sarcasm supplied). Which leads me to suggest that whatever your influences, their confluence (and certainly not a little innate ability) has been been fortunate for you (and us) in that they have allowed you to write what you wanted with success. Perhaps not everything you wanted (as you indicate here), or the broader acceptance you may have aspired to --- but so long as we're happy... And us (along with the rest of the Fowler Fan Club) being 'happy' probably has a lot to do, I suggest, with what your agent called 'the real you.' in connection with 'Word Monkey.' To use a tuppenny-ha'penny synonym, I think it is the 'authentic' voice in all of your work, not just the autobiographical, which strikes the responsive chord. And oh btw --- you will always be 'here.' A 'cup o' kindness' (or two...) to you and Pete.

Granny (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 00:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Word monkey sounds wonderful, do not go quietly!

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 10:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We could all look back and think that we could have done better.
I’m sure we are all more than happy with your work. I could happily spend years rereading Peculiar London, and finding out more about the thousands of interesting places and events.
Please don’t regret anything you have written. As Ace said, your books always have an authentic voice.
Looking forward to Word Monkey, and hoping you will be reading our comments about it.

Bob Low (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 13:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I don't think that your tastes are a sign of shallowness at all. I prefer to think of them as proof of Theodore Sturgeon's famous claim that "90% of everything is crap". I think some science fictionally minded people still refer to this as "Sturgeon's Law". I've always taken it to mean that 90% of all art, music, film and literature produced is crap across the board, including 90% of what is considered to be worthy of serious consideration, or "high art". This leaves a fascinating, 10% of really good stuff frothing at the surface, which includes as much "cheap music", supposedly popular literature and genre cinema as it does symphonies, poetry ,art cinema, etc. I've always thought of your work as belonging firmly in the frothy 10% of really good stuff, however its categorised.

Ace (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 16:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Let's face it, the way of the world is to try to keep us in a state of unease. Satisfaction is not good for the economy. Full stop. And I would include the well-being, both social and financial, of the often self-appointed arbiters of taste.
With the latter, as even a cursory glance at the history of any creative endeavour will amply demonstrate, there will be another group of aibiters along any minute. So, for the sake of a certain measure of serenity (and sanity) in a world flashing by at 60 frames/second, I subscribe to liking what you like and be done with it --- whatever the 'brow' (high, low or middle). In truth, there is no 'shallow,' however many autocratic noses are looked down. Let others be in a continuous state of anxiety about the next best thing. Doesn't mean we can't appreciate new or different, just means we don't necessarily have a compulsion to do so. The fact is we have long accepted these individual differences.

De gustibus non est disputandum > there's no accounting for taste> different strokes for different folks>‘Different Volks for different folks.’ (VW advert from the '70s.)

Bob Low (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 17:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ace - I couldn't agree more. Everyone should try to own their own tastes and just enjoy the things that make them happy purely on their own merits, whether it's a Radio 3 production of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" or a disreputable paperback collection of horror stories.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 19:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Bob, be careful; that "disreputable" puts you into the realm of the arbiter. Or is "disreputable paperback" a genre with "horror" a sub genre?

Peter T (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 20:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This is probably rubbish, but it sounds good.

There seem to be three main elements in life: survival, the things that we have to do or have to survive; entertainment, the things we have or do because they please us; and obligation, things we see as our moral duty or are imposed on us. Art should fall in the entertainment category; it shouldn't be duty or compulsion or keeping up appearances. Have you ever noticed how 'special exhibitions,' even the ones that aren't very special, are always jammed solid, while the rest of the museum that costs zilch to enter is close to deserted.

SteveB (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 21:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hey I like Anthony Trollope!
But I like loads of rubbish too. Even books by some guy called Christopher Fowler ;-)
Looking forward to Word Monkey, even more to the next B&M.
Take care everyone

Brooke (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 21:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In response to the diffused thoughts of this post:

Some time ago I suggested that you should “light out for the territories,” i.e., cut loose and become the writer you were meant to be. Congratulations! I hope to see Word Monkey published this side of the pond. Perhaps Arthur needed to disappear for awhile so you could break through to another level.

Potency of the cheap…cheap and shallow are value judgements, not morally definitive judgements. And who is the arbiter of what is cheap, shallow, disreputable, vulgar …? Odd pictures, popular cinema music and so forth exist pleasantly alongside other more accepted types of works, making life an interesting walk about. If objects, fragments of music and the smell of little butter cakes get embedded in our brains, well that’s the gift of human consciousness. If the brain’s magpie nest spurs innovation and creativity that’s for the better. Indeed, observing the brain explore its collection is exciting.

Poverty makes for timidity, less risk taking and little time to learn your craft; industrial publishing pushes conformity. In today’s environment, nascent writers may not be able to take your advice.

What does “super-functional” mean?

Ace (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 21:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Peter --- Not rubbish at all. A benign perhaps, but nevertheless sad, fact of modern life. Slap 'Special,' 'Almost Sold Out' or '3 Out of 5 Bulgarians Love It' (nothing against Bulgarians, mind) on something and watch the queues form. Whether this is due to everyone being an online expert (and everyone being online) these days, a general public rife with insecurity or, the lack of critical thinking being taught, I leave to the experts. It's all well and good to have the courage, but you also need the 'convictions' to have the courage of, as the expression goes.

Paul c (not verified) Tue, 20/12/2022 - 16:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Great to see Word Monkey on the way. Just reread Paper Boy which is perhaps your finest?

Also read a gem in a similar vein called No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson which is almost as good as CF. Recommended.

Also good to see a mention of Sturgeon a favourite writer especially in his Unknown and Weird Tales stories. Pity he was a scientologist......

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 20/12/2022 - 17:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Weather is not usually something I comment on but the snow here in Burnaby is up over my knees and we're supposed to get another dump on Thursday. There's ice under the snow, there have been power outages, the temperature is at -10 C with a chill taking it down to -20 and we're not supposed to put food out for the birds to reduce the transmission of avian flu. We've got some guys coming to dig us out but they have to get out themselves.
How are things in Seattle, Ed?

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 20/12/2022 - 18:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Helen: Hope help arrives to dig you out. Stay as safe and warm as you can.

Ed DesCamp (not verified) Tue, 20/12/2022 - 20:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Helen - we’re in the hills east of Seattle, and I’ve been shoveling for a week now! We expect your temperatures here later this week. I love springtime!

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Tue, 20/12/2022 - 23:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry I didn't see this earlier Helen. I hope that help arrived to clear a safe path for you if you need to get out for supplies before the next storm hits. We could use some of that snow here in Central California to stem the on-going drought conditions.
And to Ed DesCamp in Seattle - when I lived there from 1966-1968 while attending Seattle U - snow was a novelty as I recall. Time and Global Warming issues have changed a lot of things. Take care.

Joan (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 01:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Gosh Helen, usually we don’t have much sympathy for you West Coasters with your mild wonderful weather, but you really have been hit hard this time. Our flights are all backed up in TO going west. Take care of yourselves and don’t shovel!

Jo W (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 08:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Wow Helen! Too much of the white stuff. You and Ken, keep warm and safe and NO snowball fights! ;-)
At least you’ll have plenty to read?

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 14:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Looking forward to Word Monkey, with Roofworld and onwards I don't think you've been very slavish to trends. Goalkeeping Made Easy by Graham Joyce is excellent and not really about football, he played goal for the England writer's XI, WD40 on the knees is supposed to help ease them.

Good luck with the weather, hope the snow ease Helen and Ed. We went deep into the minus but happily we are back in the positive scale and Manchester has rain for a change.

Sadly the Christmas odd food sas been a little on the lacklustre side, Tesco's turkey & stuffing probably being the best of a bad lot.


Ed DesCamp (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 21:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ BarbaraB I was at SU ‘65-‘67, and agree about the snow. Times have changed, for sure. At least we’re aware of such stuff, and can do our little part to help.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 22:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Our friends from L'Arche did our sidewalk and the driveway so we're set until the dump we're expecting Thursday night. A friend from down the street came by with some shortbread and almond bark, lovely.

roxanne g reynolds (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 03:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

even here in normally steamy houston tx we're about to have the coldest december temps since 1989, with several days around 19⁰ F. we'll probably end up with a repeat of the feb 2021 debacle that saw us without power or water for a week, and 200 some-odd fatalities - all courtesy of the sheer ineptitude of our state government. fortunately there's no precip in the forecast.

Peter T (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 09:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cold December in Houston! When we lived there, we were going to spend Christmas outside in 1994, but it got uncomfortably hot 28°C.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 22/12/2022 - 19:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I hear Denver went from +5C to -15C in one hour yesterday. Am assured by the geographer husband that it would be the same in Calgary. Ken is off to do the weekly shopping. Think of all those outside this weekend - including the pumas, cougars, and leopards.