“What needs to be said about Holland these days?” asks Craig Taylor, Editor of Five Dials’ 41st offering The Dutch Edition. “What are the Dutch struggling with?”
The answer, surprisingly for the so-called happiest country in Europe, is widening inequality, right wing politics, uncertain national identity, dislocation and alienation—and the fact that outside of Holland few have read a word of Dutch literature. 5D41 addresses this imbalance with a thoughtfully curated introduction to Dutch writing—some new work, some translated classics, poetry, essays and comedy, bound together with a series of slightly surreal cartographical illustrations and watercolours. It’s a literary culture most of us know next-to-nothing about, and it’s fascinating. Print it out here and read from start to finish—it comes in a free PDF format for you to download. But before you do, we really want to talk about the last essay in the journal, ‘How the Light Gets In’ by Nina Weijers, which blew us away.
Whenever we set out to write something original, our media-saturated brains have to sift through clichés and overused phrases in order to say something genuinely new. This is Weijers contention, and it feels familiar. In every article, pitch or poem we write, we catch ourselves typing out hackneyed metaphors and clauses regurgitated from essays gone-by. It’s frustrating. More than that, it’s a lazy reinforcement of the status quo, of linguistic norms dictated by a literary canon generally comprising of white men, and ‘listicles’ pushed out by media industries run by the same demographic.
Nina’s essay is a call-to-arms against these self-perpetuating forms of expression. Writing, for her, exists in a fragile state filled with a ‘contradictory desire for both order and chaos.’ It only becomes real through the experience of the reader, and is therefore embodied, temporal and individual. Literary clichés work in the same way that the repeated experience of, say, brushing your teeth, work. Automatic and soulless. Necessary too, she acknowledges: “language is an instrument, after all, a means of communication.” But writing that rallies against the drudgery of cliché can unsettle systemised thought and create challenging new experiences (publishing houses and book shops also have a responsibility here—see ‘The Hard Truths of Independent Publishing’ on p.50).
Weijers points out that these communication cycles are reflective of the way we live. Writing from a holiday resort, she notes that the life there is ‘pretty reminiscent of a parody itself.’ It’s a place where people go to ‘recharge their batteries’, to take a break from the treadmill of Western living just long enough to douse themselves in coconut oil, yoga and green juice. Then it’s back to the the fast-lane again, tanks full and engines purring. And of course there’s a book for every holiday location and life situation, neatly categorised into genres so that we can find just the right words to fit the jigsaw. But Nina’s problem—and we’re inclined to agree—is that we spend our time taking out the same jigsaw piece, only to replace it. In the language we use, the books we read, the rituals we practice. She writes ‘Sometimes I get the idea that, in terms of marketing, ethics and literary criticism, we’re still stuck in the 19th Century.’
So how do we let the light in? Weijers answers: ‘Just as the writer keeps writing against the stream of unknowing, the reader keeps reading against the stream, and at best they meet somewhere in the text. Such a meeting can produce all kinds of things: knowledge, insight, entertainment, but, primarily, an experience. And as we all know, experience is something that is very difficult to transfer in any other form than experience itself.’ She makes the astute point that in our age of so-called media untruth—that nonetheless claims absolute truth—a novel that celebrates ambiguity can undermine the unnervingly streamlined flow of information we face daily. In the novel form Nina finds a ‘dizzyingly free space for unrestricted experimentation and exploration.’ She asks us, as readers and as writers, to engage with these experimental and unrestricted forms—they might just be the cracks that let the light flood in.
Thanks to 5 Dials Editor Craig Taylor and the wonderful team at Visual Editions for their help with this piece. Download your own copy of 5 Dials here to print or enjoy on your screens.
For more stories about magazines, check out FvF’s series Print Matters, where we examine some of our favorite indie mags and literary journals.