4 October 2018

‘It’s unfortunate, but I’ve managed to cultivate a certain reputation there’: Francis Plug at the London Review Bookshop

Posted by the Bookshop

Francis Plug is back. Now a published author and Writer in Residence at the University of Greenwich, he still finds time to troll us here at the London Review Bookshop, and honestly, we're honoured. Read on for an extract from the new book Francis Plug: Writer in residence, featuring yours truly.

Rachel Cusk is being interviewed at the London Review Bookshop, which isn’t ideal. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve managed to cultivate a certain reputation there. This is simply the result of some silly misunderstanding after I smashed through their rear glass door during a John Banville talk, before running away, into the night. This evening, I’m hoping to avoid any such fuss. Because now I’m an author myself, and I stand to financially benefit from the LRB, via sales of my acclaimed and heavily criticized novel. Also, I don’t want to rock the boat with my contemporary author fellows, Rachel Cusk and her interviewer Adam Foulds.

My late arrival proves fortuitous. A small number of fold-out chairs have been set aside near the door for latecomers. A tray, also near the door, contains glasses filled with wine. At previous LRB events, the drinks table was right around the back, which meant passing directly in front of the featured speakers every time you needed a top-up. This, I think, helped lead to my bad rap. Tonight, however, there’s a good half-dozen wines right there. Maybe the LRB have learnt from my own mistakes. When I lean across for a second, my fold-out chair creaks like hell. It’s a very noisy chair for a bookshop. But I obviously can’t let good wine go to waste.

Outline features a writer who doesn’t seem to write, or talk, and her creative writing students who don’t write but do talk. Rachel Cusk teaches creative writing in the real world. Perhaps her students are actually in attendance this evening. In a way, we the audience are all students, hoping to learn. Maybe that’s my problem. I don’t want to teach. I just want to learn.

Author events get a mention in Rachel Cusk’s book Transit. Faye, the same narrator from Outline, is attending a literary festival somewhere out of London. Her interviewer and the other participants debate whether drinking before one’s author talk can be likened to a jumbo jet crew drinking before take-off. After much research on this matter, I can emphatically announce that no, it’s not. It’s more akin to adding jet fuel to the jet, before take-off. On their way to their event marquee, Faye and company get soaked to the skin, due to poor festival organization. There’s a lesson there for Dr Alex, in the lead-up to the inaugural Greenwich Book Festival. There’s also a lesson for creative writing students, both in Greenwich and beyond. If you go along with all this author PR nonsense, you may end up like a drowned rat.

Some of the answers reached by Rachel Cusk in her work are taken by certain readers as provocations. Rachel Cusk herself is completely unable to understand this. On the strength of these perceived provocations, she has been on the receiving end of numerous personal insults.

Rachel Cusk: I write for an individual, who benefits from it. So the criticism is annoying. And the critics are anonymous. I’m not. I think I’ve possibly offered myself up as a sacrifice to the rude, hatefilled, post-Brexit, post-truth, pre-Trump world.

D.H. Lawrence, who Rachel Cusk greatly admires, came in for a fair amount of stick also. Many of his books were reviled for challenging sexual norms and using language deemed unsuitable and inappropriate. Lawrence faced sustained abuse, not just from people claiming to be offended by his work, but from official institutions too.

Outline and Transit are the first two books in a trilogy Rachel Cusk is writing, centred round a creative writing teacher, very much like herself. They aren’t campus novels in the traditional sense, lacking a defined ‘campus’ for one thing. But as David Lodge recently suggested, the modern campus novel is more likely to revolve around a creative writing class than a traditional university environment.

In Outline, the first book, Faye spends much of her time in Athens at a two-day summer school. Her teaching topic is How to Write. During one of her classes, a student tells her she’s a lousy teacher and they intend to seek a refund. In Transit, she teaches an adult fiction writing class in London. But her eye is constantly drawn to the strange cloudscapes that appear outside the classroom window. As a result, her students increasingly talk to each other, rather than to her, and end up running the class themselves. It’s possible, I think, to discern very strong teaching similarities between Faye and myself. The only difference being that Faye isn’t real, while I, of course, am.

Rachel Cusk’s books aren’t banned. She’s not about to be thrown in prison, forced to write secretly on toilet paper, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o was. But she is getting a lot of flak. These days, it’s not just religious extremists preaching hate. Ordinary, anonymous trolls are at it too.

Rachel Cusk is signing books, and a queue begins to form. But given all that wine, and the lovely golden ale, I must first descend to the London Review Bookshop’s basement toilet, where a separate queue exists. Beside the loo is an open storeroom where staff are storing the fold-up chairs. On a shelf inside sits a massive plastic tub of Swarfega. This is rather puzzling, and a bit suspicious. Why would a bookshop need loads of Swarfega? There is also an abundance of light bulb boxes, a mop, and many cases of WD-40. Huh? WD-40? But my chair was really squeaky…?

I don’t want to sound alarmist, in this age of heightened and critical terror, but I think the London Review Bookshop may be creating a bomb, right next to their basement toilet.

Rachel Cusk: A bomb?
FP: Yes. Is nowhere safe, in this day and age?
Rachel Cusk: You tell me.
FP: What’s your favourite hand soap variant?
Rachel Cusk: Oh god. Really?
FP: Mine’s Milk and Honey. They have it right here, in the basement loo.
Rachel Cusk: How wonderful for you.
FP: There’s also a sign above the toilet that reads: PLEASE FLUSH TOILET PAPER ONLY. So at least those trolls of ours won’t be flushing our book pages in here…
Rachel Cusk: God.
FP: Ed, the landlord of my old local in West Hampstead, told me they’d been using my book as toilet paper. For wiping their arses.
Rachel Cusk: [Shaking head.]
FP: Have you read my book?
Rachel Cusk: Your book? What book? Francis Plug? No, I haven’t read your book.
FP: Your dark hair. It’s like daffodils, sunrises…
Rachel Cusk: Next!
FP: Wait, wait, wait. There was something else, something else. Something important. Um… Nope.

Francis Plug: Writer in residence’ is out now from Galley Beggar Press.