scarecrow interviews

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Mark Thwaite

"Literature should be extraordinary" - Mark Thwaite.

RSB has continued to evolve into one of the leading online forums for literary criticism, reviewing and debate. It was recently included in a Guardian top 10 literary sites list. RSB Editor Mark Thwaite speaks with Lee Rourke:

1. Well, first things first, hello Mark and how are you? When, and how, did RSB start?

I'm really well thank you Lee. Thanks for asking. You good? RSB started about two and a half years back. I worked for for five years - from the day they started in the UK actually - and when I came to wanting to leave I thought: how am I going to keep up my contacts with the publishing industry and how am I going to keep getting review copies!? Although it wasn't the main focus of my job (I'm a librarian by profession and Amazon were using me to help organise their data), I'd enjoyed writing a fair number of Amazon editorials and, initially, I set up RSB just so I could keep writing about what I was reading. For about 12 months it was merely there, barely updated, but then I had a lovely bout of unemployment and it started to grow. And when I started blogging more seriously about 10 months ago, it really started moving ...

2. Your knowledge of world/independent literature is quite staggering, RSB seems to constantly deliver the writers and books the majority of us miss - is this a conscious descision on your part, or just the way RSB seems to have evolved?

Well, that's a very kind thing to say Lee. Thank you. Both. It has certainly evolved this way - and I want it to keep evolving away from mainstream concerns and get more "highbrow", more arcane - but it has done so very consciously. If anyone cares to watch RSB very closely then they are watching my learning very closely too! To be frank, I now have very little interest in most modern literary fiction - I don't consider it to be literature (I know: what is literature? Discuss!). Increasingly, I'm interested either in forgotten greats of world literature or modern marginal stuff (mostly, but not exclusively, in translation). When the latest Ian McEwan drops, I ain't that bothered (I only wish I had the time and energy to do a Ellis Sharp-like hatchet job).

One of the things that keeps me doing RSB and keeps me wanting to make it better and bigger is that it diarises my reading and focusses my learning. And being part of the blogosphere has been a wonderful addition to company! I've learned loads from the other lit-bloggers (the britlitbloggers particularly). I think being a "general reader" is very hard. 170-odd thousand books published each year in the UK alone. Most are rubbish. The fascinating ones get lost in the crowd. I'm hoping the RSB can be one trustworthy filtering mechanism. Work colleagues (yup, I still have a very pressurised full-time job as a web projects manager!) who ask me what to read are often unconvinced by the broadsheet recommendations and bored by what friends/lovers tell them they are reading in their book groups. I tell them to read more adventurously: do Proust (and be overwhelmed); do Appelfeld (and be humbled); do Josipovici (and read modern modernism); read Kafka (and see yourself) ... But I also hope that ReadySteadyBlog can take a step back and discuss the context of this deluge: late capitalism's spectacular moronism and the rise of an auto-didactic response!

3. RSB covers a wide, far-reaching, spectrum yet its reviews are clear and unfussy. Could you describe its typical reader and are you targeting a particular demographic?

I aim it at me. I'm happy to bang on for hours about philosophy and books and bore rigid whoever is daft enough to listen. But I'm also happy to drink, watch footy, walk up a big hill ... I'm ordinary. Literature should be extraordinary. Its extraordinariness should be talked about clearly, in as unfussy a way as ispossible. I'm not an academic and I've no interest, at the moment, of going back into academia. I think an ardent, philosophically committed interest inliterature is what I have. And I want RSB help me facilitate that.

4. RSB must receive countless books for review each month? How do you keep up with this and who are your favourite publishers?

I get inundated. And, to be honest, I don't keep up. My TBR-pile grows at a staggering rate. But my pool of reviewers (like your good self Lee) is slowly growing and they help me through the best books. The best publishers? Those who are small and focussed - like Dalkey. But I don't discount the big publishers - Penguin and OUP Classics always make me happy. Working on RSB, my big find has been the American university presses (like the Univerisity of Chicago Press or Wesleyan University Press). They publish some great stuff.

5. I had to ask you this: If it was all to end tomorrow which five books would you take with you?

Impossible to answer. But ...

Proust ISOLT (a full, bilingual English-French editionwould be awesome; but that is a fantasy book - it doesn't exist)

Marx's Capital (it IS astonishing and it IS readable)

Complete Celan (again bilingual) - his work keeps opening itself out each time you reread it

Beckett's Trilogy.

Melville's Moby Dick.

6. There are some rather interesteing author interviews on RSB, who would (and we're talking living authors here) be the all-time scoop?

I really hope to interview Gabriel Josipovici soon. And I promised Geordi Gospidinov I would interview him and I've not been able to get back in touch with him, so I'd like to get that sorted. I'd like Stephen Mitchelmore to write a novel so I could legitimately interview him, too!

7. Finally, how do you personally see RSB evolving? What do you have instore for us in the future and how long do you see all this continuing?

New revamp needs to bed-in. Few tweaks on that needed. Then more (and longer) interviews. And I want to increasingly move away from the short, descriptive book review to longer, more thoughtful, more critical responses to literature. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I want RSB to keep growing, to be seen as one of the best literary sites about, but also to get more (and I've used the word earlier, and I hate it, but I can't think of a better one) highbrow. There are lots of great sites out there for book lovers. Lots of good book groups who enjoy an Amy Tan novel and a glass of chardonnay. Great for them. And RSB is cousin to those kinds of sites, no doubt. Plenty of readers come to the site see if we've liked a book that has, for example, been shortlisted for the Booker or or Orange prize, and, if convinced of our review, go off and get a copy.

But, for me, the more important side to RSB is entering into the general conversation about books, and entering into that conversation with a unique and critical voice. Someone called RSB semi-Blanchodian ... I dare to hope to one day live up to that.

Mark, thank-you for your time...


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