Vanity publishing is called vanity publishing for two very good reasons: one, because it appeals to the vanity of the illiterate to think that they can get their book published despite it not having any commercial potential; and, two, because by going with such publishers you can guarantee that all your efforts are in vain. Blackie and Co., the vanity publishers of Matt D. Cheetham’s debut novel, You, have more or less folded now, amid accusations of criminality. Whilst investigating their current status, I came across the following (mis-spelt) e-mail written by somebody who had used them for “subsidy publishing” (nice euphemism that): “Am presently trying to get £2000 back that I paid in November. Don’t hold my breath…” All pretty sordid, making the comparisons to prostitution seem rather apposite.
In The Information by Martin Amis, the protagonist edits some of these vanity novels. As a novelist himself he sees them more as screams for help than literature, thus:
Braced at first by the Saharas and Gobis of talentlessness which hourly confronted him, he now knew this stuff for what it was. It wasn’t bad literature. It was anti-literature. Propaganda, aimed at the self. [. . . ] As in a ward for the half-born, Richard heard these creatures’ cries, and felt their unviewable spasms, convulsed in an earlier version of being. They were like tragic babies; they were like pornography. They shouldn’t be looked at.
The owner of the vanity press (which is called the Tantalus Press, check your mythological dictionaries) offers to publish Richard’s own experimental novel, but he demurs, saying: “Thanks. But it’s got to take its chances. It’s got to sink or swim.”
These contextual matters shouldn’t cloud the judgement of the disinterested critic, though they do, of course. Just as the shoddiness of the artwork and the texture of the paper shouldn’t make a difference either. They do. But we at least must try to remain objective in asking whether You sinks or swims. Here goes:
I often wondered how I’d feel when I read the worst novel ever written. Would it be pain and certain fatality, like Vogon poetry? Or boredom? Well, after reading through Matt D. Cheetham’s novel, You, which surely vies for the title of worst ever, I’ve discovered that the overriding feeling is one of embarrassment. Not embarrassment because it is illiterate, it isn’t; embarrassment because it’s just so cringingly cliched
The plot – in the same sense as a recurring nightmare has a plot – revolves three ludicrously unbelievable hit men Yeti, Spider and Fudge. Take Yeti:
The fact is, he always wore a Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt combo even if in the middle of winter. This was because he liked to keep life as simple as possible and one such way of ensuring this was to minimise any potentially complex decisions surrounding what to wear each day. He had enough on his plate without having to concern himself with such trivia as the what’s, the when’s and the why’s of wearing clothes. As far as he was concerned, a single pair of Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt was enough for any man. It was informal yet smart. It was an outfit for quite literally, all occasions.
No matter that this is ugly writing without humour or insight, it is (“quite literally”) not true. Every sentence screams LIE LIE LIE. Chapters often end with the (mock?) portentous phrase “deep into the labyrinth beyond”, the labyrinth being London. This is reminiscent of the ironic pulp phrasing that Stewart Home employs, yet the repetitions don’t change the cliche into a meaningul statement. It just sits on the page, bald and insignificant.
Of course, it is tempting to say that it’s so bad it’s good, but what prevents it from ever becoming a novel of legendary cult awfulness is an undercurrent of misogyny which courses through the novel from beginning to end. A bloody nose is staunched with a tampon, and that is as close to a sympathetic view of womankind we get. If it were only the characters, it may have been aesthetically justified, but the text is peppered with awful and unfunny narratorial asides like (look away now if you are offended by bad art or schoolboy vulgarity):
This is the twenty-first century and men know all about the female menstruation cycle, or at least what they were taught at school. How the average cycle lasts for fourteen days (or was it thirteen?). How Cleopatra’s manservants would duel to the death for the right to lick her vagina clean. How during the Middle Ages women had used small, bushy-haired rodents on wooden lollipop sticks to stem the heavy flow. [. . .]
There is no light, no cleverness to undermine and satirise the hatred, it just keeps pummelling the reader to the point of nausea. Whilst it is difficult to disagree with the biblical dictum that “all is vanity” it is, however, not true that “all is vanity publishing.” Thank God for that.