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Web-Only | Dialogue | March 29, 2019

What Was Possible

Tariq Goddard on outsider publishing and capitalist realism today

Tariq Goddard is an English writer and publisher. Along with the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher (1968-2017) and others, he launched Zero Books in 2009, a left-wing publishing imprint dedicated to the idea that “in the unthinking, blandly consensual culture in which we live, critical and engaged theoretical reflection is more important than ever before.” In 2014, Tariq and Mark left Zero to form Repeater Books, where this mission continues. His latest novel is Nature and Necessity (2017). Forthcoming titles of note on Repeater include Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation by Grace Blakeley, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality by Ronald Purser and Darkly: Blackness, Blues, and the American Gothic by Leila Taylor. In November 2018, Repeater also published an exhaustive compendium of Mark Fisher’s work entitled k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016).

In 2011, I published a book about the author Michel Houellebecq on Zero. It was during that process that I first met Tariq. After several years in which we didn’t see one another (part of the reason being that I’d moved to America from the U.K.) we finally caught up again properly at the start of 2019, when he arrived in Chicago as part of a tour to promote the k-punk collection. The interview which follows covers his experiences in publishing, “mainstream” intellectual culture before and after the financial crash, Mark Fisher and the legacy of the Zero project. It was conducted via email in February and March this year.

—Ben Jeffery 


Ben Jeffery: Let’s start back in 2009, with the formation of Zero Books. I’m sure not many of our readers will know much about what the intellectual environment was like in the U.K. ten years ago and what made the creation of something like Zero feel necessary. Could you fill in some of the background for us?

Tariq Goddard: Starting Zero was a last resort. I’m a novelist, and the idea of being a publisher on top of that had seemed like an encumbrance and a distraction to begin with. But the very dire state of late-noughties publishing convinced me that it was imperative if the kind of books I thought should be in print would ever stand a chance of making it. Mainstream publishing in Britain—which had already reverted into its standard risk-free posture by the time of the financial crash—reacted to the economic downturn by becoming radically allergic to challenging, original or stimulating work. Anything that resisted easy categorization or quick summation got ignored, basically. With a few notable exceptions, imaginative writing was rigidly formulaic and tasteful, politics written in journalese, and philosophy proudly self-referential and academic. The sense that Zero was addressing a need, or that at least there should be a need for Zero, was what got the ball rolling. We felt that if it wasn’t us that took up the mantle, then who?

In terms of logistics, I’d first discussed the idea of starting up a publisher with Matteo Mandarini and later Nina Power in the mid-Noughties, but no publisher I ever mentioned it to took the idea seriously (or perhaps couldn’t take the idea of me as a publisher seriously) until John Hunt, who ran the Mind, Body, Spirit publisher O-Books, agreed to support the idea of Zero. Although our relationship turned sour from the very start, his intervention was crucial. This was in 2008. The original team was me, my wife Emma, Matteo and Mark Fisher—and with Mark leading the charge, we began to assemble our first list of authors.

BJ: How would you characterize that (real or projected) need for what Zero was offering? I interviewed the philosopher Mladen Dolar last year about the relationship between intellectuals and the modern university—and that topic obviously brings up the question of what the purpose of “public intellectual” is, or ought to be, in the first place.

Now, let me quote the opening line of the Zero Books mission statement: “Contemporary culture has eliminated both the concept of the public and the figure of the intellectual.” Clearly you saw something pretty morbid in that situation.

TG: Yeah, it had somehow become cool to be bland and harmlessly amusing in public life. As I said, academics were slotted away in their intellectual ghettos and popular critical engagement had been more or less replaced by lifestyle journalism. On the other hand, unashamedly intelligent writing aimed at a broad audience was considered almost embarrassing—deeply out of touch with the market and zeitgeist, perhaps even wrong in its very ambition. I could see from the internet that exciting new writers with a potentially large readership were out there, but the overground had gone from simply closing the door to them to actually denying that this kind of writing could serve any purpose at all. We wanted to reconfigure the mainstream. We hoped that the books we released would influence and alter the world, although that also felt pretty fanciful, because none of us were certain we would leave any mark at all. In that respect there was a strange desperation and hopelessness feeding the desire to strike out, too. Success always came as a surprise to us.

In any case, getting the voices that I had encountered in blogging into print was primarily a practical matter for me. I didn’t have a particularly evolved or programmatic view of what the role of a public intellectual ought to be. But to the extent I did, I thought that they should look and sound like our authors, and not the lightweights we were seeking to displace.

BJ: How do you feel now looking back on the first generation of Zero books? I’m thinking of titles like Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism, Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman and of course Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism—which I imagine must still be the most famous Zero publication.

TG: Given the number of readers in the last ten years who have told me that these titles made a definitive impact on them, inspired them or just got them thinking—in spite of most of those authors going on to write other, and usually better, books—I think that initial wave has a cultural importance and impact that’s kind of separate from their artistic quality. For me, those titles are more like a band’s first album than masterpieces. Their value lies in their boldness and cheek, and in how they showed a different approach could succeed commercially, rather than whether they made original or lasting contributions to the canon of great writing. But even for those of us who had been published before, like David Stubbs and myself, a Zero book meant a pass to experiment without any fear of editorial consequences, and although not everything published was a winner, I think they all deserved their day in the sun, if just to show what was possible.

As you say, Capitalist Realism is still the most famous and bestselling Zero title, and I am certain it will always be. At the time I saw it as the flagship book the others would coalesce around, reflecting Mark’s position in the blogging community, and that if it took off it would give the rest of the list a boost, but the chord it struck was deeper and more lasting than any of us had expected. People had had enough, and Mark’s book very clearly laid out what they had had enough of.

BJ: Yeah, I want to come back to how Capitalist Realism (and Zero more generally) anticipated the leftward shift in culture over the last decade. But before that I have a couple of questions about form. As you’ve alluded to, the first generation of Zero authors were all more or less creatures of the internet—people who had built up their audiences through blogs, mainly. But then you have this big threshold moment with the emergence of Zero itself where there’s a kind of digital-to-analogue transition. So on the one hand we have this vibrant new area of discourse made possible by the internet and yet at a certain point it has to leave the internet behind in order to really flourish. How did you think about the relationship between the two mediums?

TG: I thought then, as I still do, that a book is an unimprovable form of communication. The internet and blogs were an excellent way of being able to talent scout and find authors that were geographically scattered in sometimes far off and disparate places—but in order to be taken seriously by the mainstream, to reach an audience that wasn’t online and properly go public, publishing a book was still the gold standard. I also felt that while blogging encouraged people to write without fear, experiment in a way that they might not have been able to if they were employed by a newspaper or magazine, distilling and putting together one’s thoughts in a book calls for a level of commitment and focus that usually tends to produce a more interesting result. So despite dealing with many authors who had a strong emotional attachment to blogging, I rarely found anyone who took much persuading to make the switch, as there seemed a tacit consensus that by the late Noughties the possibilities of blogging had been taken as far as they were going to go.

BJ: I’ve thought before that what the U.S. had instead of something like Zero was the resurgent “little magazine” scene—starting with the launch of n+1 in 2004 but going on to spawn Jacobin, the New Inquiry, the revival of the Baffler and others (not least The Point). As with Zero, what you find is an assortment of intellectual writers, generally on the left-hand side of the political spectrum, who are having trouble finding a home in either academia or the mainstream press. And in each case the internet seems to serve as a catalyst for turning these people into a network. But over here, at least, I’d say it still feels very doubtful whether such networks are ever going to grow to the point where they might represent a real institutional alternative for people who want to try and make a life out of thinking and writing. What’s your impression of the situation in the U.K.?

TG: The Quietus, Novara Media and New Socialist are all examples of credible online magazines in the U.K.—but they’re exceptions. For writers, I think the practical difficulties of getting paid working for a site with free content (and making a living out of that) intervene, plus the worry that your work will just get lost online. On top of that, a lot of people who might be potential readers view the Internet as synonymous with work, and can’t wait to get offline. So although the internet is still an effective way of bypassing the middle man and creating networks, those networks don’t have the same cultural centrality as buying a book in a high-street store. As you put it, the digital-to-analogue is still, for me, the next step; being online is a great way of testing the water, but I don’t know if there will ever be a substitute for a book. The parts of the net that are still popular—Twitter and Instagram—don’t threaten the primacy of books in the way blogging and online sites once appeared to. It should also be said that the mainstream media in the U.K., unlike mainstream publishers, started to pick up on the new names coming through quite quickly and give them jobs, which of course stole momentum from the internet scene.

BJ: It’s really interesting to notice how comfortably you’re using the word “mainstream” in all of this. Not that it doesn’t make sense—but there was a moment roughly concurrent with peak blogging and the beginning of Zero where it really seemed possible that the old mainstream/subculture model was going to get overturned in favor of something less rigid. Instead, it seems as if what we ended up with is either essentially the same thing or an even greater centralization of power. Along the same lines, the big story in the last decade of the internet has been the transition from the rhizome-y phase of the web to the social media era, in which the bulk of online life is locked into the orbit of a handful of supermassive gatekeeper corporations.

TG: You’re right, the internet is even easier to manipulate than the older forms of communication and information ever were. It may be a law of gravity that vastness shrinks to controlled and concentrated spaces, and where there is control there are gatekeepers, profits and profiteers. What I think happened in the moment you mention is that the exceptional weakness of the mainstream (both in terms of its content and in its sluggishness to take charge of and impose itself on the internet) gave birth to the temporary illusion that the old distinctions were collapsing, when in actual fact a decadent system had merely slowed down and been caught off guard. From our point of view, the advantages of challenging and trying to influence, and ultimately becoming “the mainstream” always outweighed the dangers of being absorbed and neutered by it. By contrast, free downloading and free content, open access, the refusal to engage with or acknowledge the mainstream in any way whatsoever—those seemed like guerrilla tactics destined to limit the number of people you could reach. We wanted to penetrate and alter the structure itself. As Mark Fisher wrote, our model was The Jam appearing on Top of The Pops, and not whatever happened to be in the lower end of the indie charts that week.

BJ: That brings me back to Capitalist Realism and what really does seem to have changed over the last ten years—which is that even if it’s true that much of the old power structure has survived, its ability to tranquilize hearts and minds is just nothing like what it was. You mentioned that the seismic event which coincided with the launch of Zero was the financial crash. But the crash was a strange kind of crisis. I don’t think the scale of what happened became “real” for a lot people until several years down the line, with the election of Trump and various nationalistic emergencies in the E.U. And so it’s one of the funny things about Zero, although you say you never expected success, looking back it seems almost like a harbinger of this profound transformation in public discourse. 

TG: The immediate political reaction to the crisis was to shore up the system, leave the structures that led to the implosion unchanged and then introduce austerity to pay for it. At the time, there didn’t appear to be a widespread public desire for change, and in that sense our books were outliers for a readership that had yet to discover its political clout. The sales of our titles showed that disenchantment was rising, but it still wasn’t being mobilized or reflected in any of the main political parties. “Capitalist realism” had succeeded to an extent where an immediate and revolutionary response to the crisis would have been deemed completely unrealistic. Our own doubts about whether we would succeed were a sign of how deeply that outlook had affected us as well. What I can see now is that our books were softening up a cultural and political landscape that was slowly, but decisively, becoming sympathetic to the kind of arguments our authors were making—to a point where they are now very much a fixed part of our political landscape and public life. That isn’t down to one publisher, obviously, rather the failings of capitalism itself. But I agree that we were certainly in the vanguard of a process that is now making the running on both sides of the Atlantic.

BJ: What does the term “capitalist realism” mean to you, these days?

TG: A state of affairs whose time has come and gone, I am relieved to say. Neoliberal free market fundamentalism—confused for common sense—has limited what we think of as possible in arts, culture and of course politics for the last thirty years. But it is teetering. I’m not idealistic enough to think that anything and everything is possible, but there’s a hell of lot more than what we’ve been encouraged to settle for and believe in. Capitalist realism has, I think, already struck its high-water mark. It is now just one point of view, rather than the horizon under which we all exist, and it’s increasingly associated with fading figures like Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton, who are close to becoming anachronisms in their own lifetimes. The doctrine’s greatest strength was always its sense of inevitability and finality. Having lost those, it will doubtless have to perform the same self-criticisms, and undergo the same efforts to moderate and reform itself, as all the leading ideologies of our age have had to. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of it, because fearfulness, which capitalist realism has always “positively” appealed to, will be a powerful political argument for as long as society exists. But as an ontology it’s on the back foot. And the more we talk about it ending, the more likely it is to expire.

BJ: As for yourself, you’ve since left the husk of Zero behind but carried the spirit of the project with you to Repeater Books. How would you evaluate your ten years of work in publishing? Are your goals any different today? I’d be interested to know how much further you think the kind of ethos represented by Zero (and now Repeater) can go in public life. 

TG: I started publishing as an emergency measure and have never regarded it as my primary calling or thought I would be doing it for ten years. My preferred response to being alive is still writing fiction and there’s no avoiding the fact that becoming a publisher has taken me away from that a bit—both time-wise and in terms of being in the right frame of mind (the day-to-day of publishing being about as inspiring as any other business venture).

So far as evaluating whether it was worth it or not, on a basic level just knowing that we didn’t take life lying down and had a go feels nice—not exactly a hugely ambitious goal, but the least that can be done to maintain self-respect. I also think that our success in empowering potential writers to become actual writers, and in developing something like a coherent opposition to what we were against, means that we fulfilled the original mission statement. Not going bust was good too. And formally, with Repeater, we’re now bringing out more attractive, thoroughly-edited and better produced books in general. That all constitutes progress—even if our aims are basically the same as they were at the start of Zero. Mainly though, I think there are many ways of becoming a successful publisher, but doing it with books that you actually love is one of the hardest. If we can keep that up going forward, then I haven’t neglected my writing in vain.

Projecting beyond that isn’t something that comes naturally to me, but I guess continuing to discover new talent and take risks that other publishers are reluctant to would constitute ongoing success. Survival, which for Zero was the goal, has been replaced by a desire to compete at a comparable level to other established imprints.

BJ: Of course, there’s a terrible poignancy to the fact that you began Zero Books with Mark Fisher and now, ten years on, you’ve just published a landmark collection of his work that doubles as a memorial to him. I imagine the feelings must be pretty complicated. 

TG: I’ve felt a tension between allowing Mark to rest in peace but also wanting as large an audience as possible to discover his work—though it ought to be said that the k-punk collection was initially driven by demand more than any sense that Mark’s legacy needed flagging up. Certainly, Mark’s critical reputation and moral authority in blogging circles were why we could attract most of our best authors, and his role as our ideologue was pivotal in building our foundations. Without him, Zero would never have got out of the starting blocks, and although by the time of Repeater his contribution was as often symbolic as it was practical, he remained a talismanic figure to the end. The quotidian work of publishing never particularly appealed to him, but the platform that it gave him was something that he first embraced enthusiastically, later grew more ambivalent about, and finally turned his back on entirely, believing he was unworthy of his renown. Something I didn’t and don’t agree with, of course, but by the end it had become a negative article of faith for him.

BJ: Yeah, one of the tragic ironies of it being that—in terms of his work—Mark was among the most fiercely committed people you could ever meet to the idea of public thought as a force for life. That’s part of why he functioned as a talisman, I suppose.

TG: Perhaps that’s true. But as I said, Mark started to have serious reservations about becoming a public figure in the last couple of years of his life, despite all of the things he’d done to establish himself as one. Unfortunately, in the end all his great critical energy was directed away from the world and turned back on himself in the form of unforgiving self-censure—which seen close up, was closer to madness, I think, than depression as it’s commonly understood. Even so, none of that stopped his output or example from being brilliant when he had the wind behind him, whatever he thought about his own value. He is one of the few people I have met who I think was possessed by genius. There was a goodness and decency about him, too, that was just as important as his intellect. “What would Mark have done?” is a question I still ask myself in my day-to-day life as a publisher. It’s another way of keeping our conversation going.


Image credit: Malcs P (CC / BY Flickr)

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