Succeeding at Failure (A Manifesto For Terminal Losers)

I am, it must be said, my own worst enemy.cliffeye.jpg

When faced with the slightest possibility of success, it’s a cinch I’ll fuck things up. I literally can’t help it. It’s something innate, some errant strand of DNA they somehow missed when they were mapping the human genome.

Listen up:

Back in 2003, PS Publishing, Peter Crowther’s fine British press, released my book Righteous Blood. Righteous Blood is composed of two novellas, tales very different from each other but both continuing my exploration of the nature and source of contemporary evil. It’s a particular bug bear of mine. Like most of my work, the novellas are very visual and cinematic and they attracted some interest from folks who wanted to adapt them into movies. Good news, you would think. But was I doing cartwheels when I signed the option agreements, was I swaggering around like Al Capone on February 15th, 1929?

Nope.

I hate the movies being made today. They’re dumb, unsubtle and tasteless. Directors have the aesthetic sensibilities of Koko the gorilla and screenwriters are more influenced by video games and TV than literature and consider the Star Wars movies to be the epitome of cinematic excellence.

That said, the chap writing the screenplay based on “Living With the Foley’s” is a nice lad and professes to be a fan of my work. He’s been trying to put together some kind of a production deal but these things take time. This past year his agent contacted me, wanting an extension for three years and promising some dough, not much but enough to buy winter tires and ease some of our credit card load.

euro_banconote.jpg I barely gave him the time of day. I was involved with a new project and didn’t want to expend the effort required to look at contracts or talk money. Wasn’t that interested, to be honest. I’m like that—I never look back at old projects; that’s yesterday’s news as far as I’m concerned. The agent got very frustrated with me. When he called a second and third time I still hadn’t read the contract and seemed eager to be rid of him. The whole thing grew quite tiresome and after blowing him off a number of times, I finally signed the contract just to be done with it. My total lack of enthusiasm made me look like a complete asshole. Made no friends there and I’m not expecting an gold-embossed invite to the film’s grand opening, should it ever come to that point (I doubt it will).

It was worse with my second novella, “Kept”. The guy who secured rights for “Kept” talked the talk, claiming he’d written a great script (I still haven’t seen it) and that a major production company was chomping at the bit. When the time came to re-up or let the option slide, the guy was late. Months late. I was busy but I noted the slip in passing. He finally did get his extension but then things got weird. My original contract stipulated that I would retain most rights, including literary, and I was to be paid a percentage, based on the final budget. About four months ago, Mr. X had his Hollywood lawyer call me and offer a new contract, one that would pay me a flat fee and, on top of that, scoop up all rights, including (according to my reading) those aforementioned literary rights. I was pissed. This was utter bullshit. I cursed and fulminated, used the kind of foul language one might hear in the locker room of a football team on the wrong end of a lopsided score. Very ugly. Then I quadrupled my monetary demands. Lots of spluttering on the other end of the phone.

“You can’t do that!” the lawyer, who claimed to be an ‘artist-friendly’ kind of guy, barked.

vhs_videotape1.jpg “Yeah, I can,” I growled. “I told you not to touch those literary rights and you’re grabbing everything else you can lay your hands on. I won’t get anything for spin-offs and sequels. Fuck that.”

“I’ll see. I’m sure we can get you back your literary rights.”

“You’d better. But the deal stays the same.” I named my inflated figure again.

“They won’t do it,” he groaned.

“Then fuck them and fuck their mothers,” I snapped.

And that was that.

There hasn’t been any further contact from those folks and I don’t expect there will be. I could’ve pulled back from the brink, negotiated…but something wouldn’t let me. A nasty little voice that I’ve come to know very well over the years…

* * * *

joycejpeg.jpgBecause there have been other lapses in tact. I’ve lost out on anthology appearances because I wouldn’t allow editors to make the smallest changes. Rebuffed them in the crudest language imaginable, insulted their intelligence, slapped them silly when a simple “No” would have sufficed. Turned off influential people with that whole “my way or the highway” routine. Producers, editors, publishers… how many of them have read James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, how many require a spell-checker to write a grocery list? These people are fuckheads and I refuse to lie down with pigs and–

Jee-zus. I guess what it comes down to is I’m a control freak. No one has the brains and talent to touch my work except me. It’s a dumb, stubborn, ridiculous attitude, suicidal as far as my career goes but (you can’t see me but I just shrugged helplessly). I’d apologize but it would be like apologizing for being six feet tall and having long, skinny feet and a devastating right hook. It’s just who I am.

Besides, real men don’t compromise.

sign.jpg

Great will be your glory if you do not lower the nature that is within you.” That’s from Pericles, the Athenian soldier and statesman.

When Xerxes, the Persian king, sent an emissary to Thermopylae, demanding that Leonidas and his fellow Spartans lay down their weapons, Leonidas famously replied: “Come and get them.”

Another of my many sins: I carry grudges for a long time. If you’ve fucked me over and we run into each other even twenty years from now, watch out. I’ll tear your head off if I get half a chance. Try to steal credit for one of my stories, bad-mouth me and I catch wind of it, I’ll eat your living heart like a fucking Aztec.

I come from a long line of thugs and bully boys, Scots brought to Northern Ireland by Cromwell to slaughter Catholics. And we were bloody good at it too.

With that kind of lineage, I’ll likely end up broke, hump-backed, unknown, living in a stinking, tarpaper shack.

But above the rough entrance of my hovel will be the stanza from the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem I’ve had posted over my office door for as long as I can remember:

“The shame I win for singing is all mine,

The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.”

Postscript: This is a shorter, nastier version of my essay “Solace of Fortitude“, which can be found in the Non-Fiction section of this blog. Mea culpa, mea maxime culpa…

7 comments

  1. Art Slade

    Ha! Can’t believe they want so many rights! Well, I believe it. But usually you don’t come back with fewer rights on the second offer. Hmmm. Perhaps better not to take the money.

    Art

  2. kswolff

    In the words of some famous dude, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

    William Vollmann also refuses to change anything — or shorten anything — even if that means a lower advance. Let’s just say you’re on the right side of history with this. No one will remember the tedious commercialized dreck that fill the bookshelves, but everyone — everyone that matters — remembers Beckett, Celine, and the other Magnificent Bastards of Literature.

  3. Mtnseeker1

    I’d be the one in the corner laughing my as off.

    Not that your right or wrong but laughing till I cry.

    Is it a sickness not to comprimise?
    Are we lessor men to conprimise?
    Or is it that when confronted by idgets we just come unglued?

    Maybe my friend the answer is truly blowing in the wind.

  4. Cliff Burns

    Thanks for the sentiments and unique mode of expression, which drew a welcome smile this morning. I’m pleased people are still finding these older posts of mine and deriving some entertainment/thoughts from the views expressed. Drop by again any old time…

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