Why don’t writers wear corpse paint?

Last year – and I no longer remember what prompted this – I became briefly obsessed with Norwegian black metal, especially the band Mayhem.

There’s a car-wreck fascination about Mayhem, partly because their backstory’s so extreme. Briefly, the band formed in the 1980s, playing a more minimal, less rock’n roll style of metal, a music that eschewed guitar hero theatrics for a bleak, evil sound. The key members – guitarist, Euronymous; the vocalist, Dead; the drummer, Hellhammer and bassist Necrobutcher – became the centre of a scene that merged Hollywood Satanism with Norse pagan imagery. In 1991, Dead, a deeply troubled individual who pioneered the white stage makeup (‘corpse paint’) now associated with the scene, shot himself. Images of his bloody corpse, photographed by Euronymous, turned up on a later album cover; his bandmates also turned his skull fragments into amulets. The surviving members were involved in a rash of church burnings until, in 1993, Euronymous was stabbed to death by Mayhem session guitarist, Varg Vikernes, who then recorded extensively while in jail.

There’s other lurid details as well but you get the general idea.

Aesthetically, it’s not a music that appeals to me and politically the scene merges into a loopy occult fascism (Vikernes, the main intellectual of black metal, is an overt racist). Yet what’s interesting is that, reading the accounts of the early black metal scene, you get the impression of an art movement that really mattered to those within it. (Perhaps only for a brief period: the later Mayhem conveys a distinct sense of going through the motions.)

Anyway, it all made me wonder: why doesn’t literature inspire the same devotion as, say, pop music? That is, the Mayhem story might be over the top – what with all the murder and all – but it’s not at all unprecedented. The history of pop music is of musicians and bands and cliques around which aficionados have built entire lifestyles. If, say, you’re a mod, you don’t simply listen to a certain groups. Your identification shapes your haircut, the clothes you wear, the places you go, the way you act – it’s a thorough-going way of being.

Literature claims to offer a profound aesthetic experience, in works of art more intricate and complex than three-chord pop. Why then doesn’t it shape how we live in the same way as simpler forms?

Sure, reading’s an isolated, contemplative activity, quite different from the Dionysian experience of a rock gig. So, in a way, it’s apples and oranges.

But I do think there’s something in the question. Even these days, when rock’s at a low ebb, music fans divide into warring tribes, each making their enthusiasm for a particular genre or band in their particular personal style. When you go to a rock festival, you can tell, from a distance, the diehard supporters of various acts. Why doesn’t anything similar happen at writers’ festivals? Why don’t literary readers form subcultures around particular literary movements, so that you can tell from their tattoos which event they’re attending?

To an extent, I guess, it happens with genre, with SF fans dressing like characters or whatever. But in some ways that simply presents the question in a different form. Why SF and not literary fiction, given that the more literary modes claim to offer a more profound aesthetic experience?

Let me put it like this: the Norwegian black metal scene was kind of ridiculous and tragic,* based around a homemade theology mashed together from B-movies, a garbled Norse patriotism and Lord of the Rings. Yet, for a time, a bunch of bright, talented kids were so gripped by its aesthetics that they shaped their entire lives around it, in quite extreme ways. Does Australian literature have this effect? If so, what does it look like?


*Take, for instance, the story of Gaahl, the lead singer of Gorgoroth. Gaahl’s career was almost as legendarily violent as Vikernes’. He was imprisoned for assault and torture; Gorgoroth’s concerts featured impaled sheep heads and naked models doused in blood and crucified upside-down. Like Vikernes, Gaahl flirted with fascism, denouncing blacks and Muslims. Then, in 2008, he threw the scene into disarray by announcing he was gay and in a relationship with a European fashion designer, whose clothing range he was helping to fund. The dismay that still pops up on some of the fan sites, where a macho Norse warrior persona remains central to the music, is very funny. Gaahl himself now seems much happier: in a recent interview, rather than ranting about ‘subhumans’, he was venting his rage against ugly sweatpants.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I guess maybe because the literary fiction genre eschews easily-recognisable tropes, or at least claims not to be influenced by them as much as other genres. It’s kind of hard to cosplay a Franzen character. And ‘literary movements’? You’d have to have done an MFA to recognise them. It’s not as easy for a casual reader to get caught up in the ‘latest craze’ in…what, suburban Australian portraiture? Road trip fiction? Outback Wintonism?

    There’s also a hint of selection bias. Does the sci-fi novel inspire people to dress up, or do people who would have a tendency to dress-up read sci-fi novels?

  2. I can think of one historical example: the Beat writers and the beatniks.
    Does this prove your thesis wrong, though, or is it the exception that proves the rule?

  3. I wonder if music lends itself to quasi-religious communities in a way that literature doesn’t? The ritual, the repetition and the simple imagery?

    I wouldn’t have thought Australian literature has an overwhelming influence on anybody much at all, let alone bands of late-teens/early-twenties searching for aesthetic identities. Why would it want to?

    Outside of genre, accessible US counter-cultural literature (eg Kerouac, Vonnegut) seems the most closely tied to a spread of vague sensibilities.

    1. Both Robert and Ben have mentioned the Beats, which was an example that occurred to me. Not simply in the fifties, either: even today, you can imagine a copy of Kerouc accompanying a particular set of lifestyle choices, especially by young men. But isn’t that precisely because the Beats seem anti-literary? Which still leaves the main question open.

      1. The Beats promote(d) a lifestyle attractive to a youthful audience in an accessible literary form.

        What Australian literary fiction meets these three criteria?

        It’s an interesting discussion, Jeff.

        1. Possibly grunge in the early 90s, maybe. I dunno. Perhaps it’s a long bow but there kinda was a lifestyle around that.

          1. I thought of that too, but I wondered if it was just reflecting a wider movement (inheriting, perhaps, another American counter-cultural sensibility that was doing all the shaping?).

            Could anyone say that reading “Praise” changed their life?

            Perhaps we need to go back to centuries when literature was a more dominant form of artistic expression, with less undercutting by more visual modes. I remember reading that Goethe’s Werther had a strong aesthetic influence at the time, and there are always the French Bohemians.

            How would you notice an aesthetic’s influence unless it was tied to the counter-cultural?

  4. I just can’t resist this:
    “and I no longer remember what prompted this.”

    Of course you don’t. Come on Jeff, out with it.

    Great post. You should write more like it. Deserves a post in return.
    Maybe lit types are just too stuffy and don’t know how to party. On the other hand cosplay with people dressed as Jonathan Franzen, or David Foster Wallace would be hard to take.

    1. Jeff – that was a very absorbing documentary and would bear a lot of discussion, which we don’t have the space to have in a comments thread. Thanks for the link. I’m all over black metal now.
      For what it’s worth: I guess the question about the lack of writers finding their way into these kind of groupings might be related to two things: music as youth culture, and the formal structures through which contemporary literature is propagated.
      Popular music is intextricably linked to adolescence, and the music that really grabs us when young can often be transformative in ways that later music loves aren’t, and can’t be. It often arrives at a time of fluid identity, when we have a lot of trouble knowing what on earth is going on inside us and outside us. The black metal guys in their late 30’s featured in the doco have been dressing that way for 20+ years.
      But you’re right, homicidal behaviours, racism and serial arson aside, the blackmetal boys (no women I note) really saw themselves as doing something different musically, something radical and marginal. The female equivalent, and a more politically progressive one (no stabbings, or doctrines of purity, and churches invaded not incinerated) would be Pussy Riot.
      You’d be in a better position than me to judge, but I wonder about the formats that modern lit uses to create and display itself – writing competitions, literary journals, creative writing courses, agents, lit festivals.
      That seems to be the path for a writer – get a few publishing creds, maybe get shortlisted or win a comp, do a PhD, get an agent to shop your novel around, get reviews in all the right places etc etc. It seems to be such a dead end, so hidebound about what literature is, so unlikely to produce something transgressive. They don’t seem like very creative, politically challenging structures or behaviours. I mean, there’s no literary Pussy Riot. Certainly no churches are being invaded – or burned down.

      1. Thanks for this Jeff. Stephen, I like your comment.

        Electrified music is a broad church.

        The theatre element of SF fashion can’t be underestimated – there is so little opportunity for public flamboyance in these conservative, terrorised times. I think heavy metal meets this need, too. (I shall give Mayhem a miss, thanks anyway).

        Style is part of the the rock and roll aesthetic, its artists take risks and make statements with fashion well beyond what I’ve experienced that writers and editors do. (I suppose some sort of pyjama-cult might be possible).

        Rock and roll has more overtly turned on to sex of the sex-and-drugs-and-rock and roll kind. Literature has a different kind of sex appeal, I reckon.

        I might buy and wear a piece of literature’s t-shirt to identify myself at hardcore literary events, if such a tee were readily available. I could be convinced to raise my lighter in a slow sway if they’d turn the lights down low enough.

        1. There’s probably something in music that literature doesn’t have. If I were given a gunpoint-choice of dumping my books or my music collection, there’d be no contest. The books would be out the door, asap.
          The cultures around popular music can make a great difference to one’s life, and of course are often shared.
          There’s something about music discovered in one’s early adulthood (18 – 30) that can be radically transformative, that is also something one doesn’t want to forget and quite rightly.
          There can be a kind of fierce rage, a determination not to give up, or be done over by the system, and the music can encode that very powerfully.
          Literature has for all kinds of reasons, lost the ability to do that I think. at least in the West.

          1. Yes, I guess that was what I was thinking about with that post: the extent to which books (or stories or poems) get as deeply into our psyche as music, especially the music of our teenage years.

  5. Think your mention of apples and oranges can be pushed a little further. Different relationships to audiences, different temporalities, different traditions, different relationships to culture and society, situated differently with regards to popular culture, different intentions and reasons for being etc etc.

    1. Look, I accept that. I’m not trying to say that, say, Les Murray and Mayhem are one and the same. But I do think there’s something in pushing the comparison, to make us draw out more about the differences. You can, for instance, think about artistic movements in literature and fine art that have been much closer to subcultures (in the rock and roll sense): Croggers mentioned on Twitter the suicides inspired by The Sorrows of Young Werther, for instance.

      1. I’ll also add different type of relationship between the individual and the social. The examples of where literature approaches rock and roll so far seem pretty eccentric – maybe I’ll throw in the example of dandyism in the late nineteenth century? Yeah alright, push the comparison to draw out the differences, but wondering how much these examples tell us about literature? I’m guessing the question of what is literature and what are its transformative effects and what type of devotions does it inspire are quite particular.

  6. You might ask the same question about the visual arts, or movies or whatever. Is it possible the real curiosity here is rock music/pop music, and the habit they have of forming intense sub-cultures?

    The rise of the rock band as the kind of all-purpose musical unit is something that interests me anyway: why that, particularly (vocals, guitar, bass, drums) as opposed to the variety of other instrumental combinations? There have been bands for a long time, but the few examples of 19th century musicians attracting cult followings I can think of are those of individual soloists – Franz Lizst, Nicolo Pagganini.

  7. On Arthur Miller writing The Crucible:

    “I was pumped so full of Deca Durabolin I couldn’t get in or out of my room at the Chelsea without shaving my chest and slathering my hips with melted butter,” he says. “Eventually the owner, a Hungarian fellow named David Bard, got a saw and widened the door. He used to say he liked being around writers and musicians but their collective muscle mass was putting unacceptable stress on the building’s foundation.”


  8. I still remember the thrill of listening to Dark Throne-A Blaze in the Northern Sky when I was a 17 year old kid with my mates.Black metal was a pretty new form of music at the time and it suited our teenage need to push the limits of the extreme.We wanted to piss off our teachers,our parents and all the square kids at school who thought Midnight Oil was the be all and end all.Wearing band t-shirts with pretty revolting images and moshing to Mayhem/Dark Throne/Dissection et al was excitement to the nth degree.I can’t imagine wearing a Tim Winton t-shirt emblazoned with the front cover of Cloudstreet would get you any attention from the vice principal.No rubbish duty at lunchtime.No kudos at all really.And there is definitely no moshing in the literary world.Perhaps the next time there is an event at Gleebooks the writers presenting their wares could lead a circle mosh like they were Metallica playing Kill Em All in the 80s.

  9. Rather alarmed to see the old distinction between literary and ‘genre’ fiction trotted out like this. Good science fiction *is* good literature.

  10. i would like to say … there seems to be a fairly brush-offy reading of the beats going on in this thread. & also an unrealistic distinction between “pop music” & “literature”, the latter conceived as definitively differentiating itself by being distanced, reflective, complex, & above all (& this seems the least realistic take to me, considering how literature actually works) non-ritualistic.

    2. the etiolated/commodified image of a time & its literature (e.g. “the beat generation”) doesnt necessarily reflect the depth & breadth of activities that are there on the record as having surrounded it. this doesn’t just go for the beats. compare also surrealism, dada, various other french & european movements/moments, not just in “literature” but across the “various different” art forms; the new american poetry beyond kerouac et al; new york city generally (as sara toa has already pointed out above); poetry in latin america; “misty poetry” in china; & probably lots of other examples, including australian ones. i think all of these can be interestingly compared to things like black metal or punk (which i suppose is what jeff is saying) & that literature will not come off too badly in terms of the absolute commitment, expressed in many different forms, it has been able to exact from its devotees – or rather that its devotees have been humanly able to give it.

    then of course there is the question of espoused political content or dogmatic rigidity this committment takes on in various forms or subcultures. (e.g., futurism & black metal have a lot in common probably.)

    there’s a photo of john forbes wearing a t-shirt, apparently home-made, that says “life’s no joke” –

  11. For the academically inclined this harks back to symbolic interactionism and Gestalt theory … For the commercially inclined this harks back to marketing 101. Mayhem et al were not playing “black metal” because black metal didn’t exist. Exactly like Black Sabbath were not playing “heavy metal” – they were playing a cantankerous, eccentric homage to Led Zeppelin. The foreboding cuts on the group’s self titled first album were presumably influenced by Tony Iommi’s pervasive preoccupation with the occult given that “the prince of darkness” Ozzy Osbourne has stated on many occasions that he “just wanted to be the fucking Beatles, man”. Hence the ascribed pioneers of black metal looked like embittered fugitives from an unemployable Poison tribute band. Today “black metal” practitioners appear as anything from latex horror masked monsters to polite young men in black button down shirts standing in a forest reminiscent more than anything else of a group shot from Tech Support’s end of year barbeque.
    Genre confusion aside, no-one is so “gripped by” the aesthetics of black metal or anything else as to “shape their whole lives around it” – this is the illusion of subculture (and politics, for that matter). Fenriz of the revered Darkthrone, is also a DJ and makes electronic music. Other influential black metal figures are involved in neo-fascism, others still would be involved in volunteering at the local animal shelter and some are probably involved in both. Dead did not become a self-fulfilled prophecy for the glory of black metal but it is entirely fortunate for black metal that he did, and that churches are burnt and people have been murdered. Mayhem T-shirts are now a hipster fashion accessory and while Miley Cyrus is so far sticking to the less controversial Iron Maiden and Metallica shirts, it won’t be too long before an iconic black metal image has its fifteen minutes on the cover of New Idea splayed across the emaciated cleavage of some starving starlet.
    Literary scenes are rife with these sorts of affectations – impressionable young people have been trying to live the lie of the Beat lifestyle for sixty years – see Barry Dickins’ The House of the Lord for further details. This lie endures in spite of genuine depression era hobos reiterating how much traveling around America on an empty stomach sucked and Kerouac dying of alcoholism while living at his mum’s. Apparently Hemmingway conferences exist and are attended by meek academics who wish they were Papa. White Noise anyone? Any writing related event is populated with bright young things sporting op shop frocks, bob haircuts and lousy tattoos. Or intense vegans wrapping the microphone lead around their wrist in an inexplicable effort to emulate the mediocre efforts of Sage Francis. And don’t get me started on the legions of poet(aster)s imitating the execrable Bukowski …
    There are no genuine “fans” in literary scenes – there are only those who aspire to be writers; usually as per above, they aspire to be specific writers. This is what separates the sheep from the goats – truly great writers have no need to be anyone else – and often only get good when they find their own identity. Flaccid affectations are meaningless to the truly great – the words speak for themselves.

  12. The Cure, Led Zep, Bowie and heaps of others refer to to literature in their work. I don’t think any of the music I love would mean as much to me without the books I’ve read.

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