Pissing in the Pews: 3 Acts of Sacrilege

“Literary men are…a perpetual priesthood.”

-Thomas Carlyle

I.

I detest amateurs.

I’m talking about weekend authors, hobbyists, people who write when the mood strikes them or when they can “find the time”. I must write, every day, pen and paper always within easy reach, and people like that make my skin crawl. I pay a terrible price for my addiction to the printed word. The first thing I do when my eyes snap open each morning is ponder what I’m working on and then my guts start churning with a mixture of anticipation and terror. What if I’m not up to it? Worse yet, what if today is the day the well runs dry, inspiration slowing to a trickle and then…nothing.

journal2.jpgLook…if someone wants to scribble their thoughts on scraps of paper or save their fondest memories in a two-dollar, floral-patterned journal purchased at WalMart, that’s fine with me. More power to them.

But if these same part-timers then have the gall to type and print up the products of their facile reflections and submit them to periodicals for serious consideration, I have nothing but contempt for them. It’s because of them that slushpiles are overflowing so that by the time editors wade through all that crap and get to the work of serious writers, their critical faculties are completely shot and they must turn to strong drink for solace. Under such circumstances, the poor devils can scarcely be blamed for failing to identify the occasional diamond they might find buried under all that dung.

More and more publications are seeking to preserve editors’ sanity by limiting reading periods, sometimes welcoming submissions only a month or two out of the year. The overwhelming proportion of the material they receive is excrementally awful. Slightly fictionalized accounts of so-called lives, rendered with exquisite tenderness…with little or no attention paid to niceties like, oh, proper sentence structure, syntax, spelling, grammar…

Nowadays everyone thinks they have a story to tell and most of them are dead wrong. It’s not coincidental that so many submissions are written in the first person. As documentary film maker Errol Morris noted, “people prefer to be the hero of their life story”, the star and central character (a la “The Truman Show”), inhabiting a claustrophobic, solipsistic universe, a world where the rest of us are merely supporting players.

II

Which brings us to (ack! ack!) memoirs.

People who write memoirs are the equivalent of playground flashers, exposing their willies to the rest of us and expecting sympathy because of how small or malformed their shriveled members happen to be.

afflicton.jpgAnd let’s not leave out purveyors of “semi autobiographical” novels. You know the type—sort of a twisted take on that whole James Frey business. Frey pretended fiction was truth, whereas semi-autos like to pretend their fiction isn’t true. But there’s always a dead giveaway–their jacket copy. Marie Milquetoast has written a book in which the protagonist bravely endures a mysterious illness that has confined her to her home and, as a result, has developed a richly imagined fantasy life. Then we turn to the back of the book and, lo and behold, our Ms. Milquetoast suffers from the exact same affliction. Poor dear…

A word of advice: avoid this type of book like the leaking sores of a leper. Public masturbation in any form must be discouraged. It’s not hygienic and, besides, it only encourages copycat behavior.

A writer who bases a book or story on themselves is a lazy, self-absorbed, narcissistic arsehole. He or she is looking for pity, understanding. They are charter members of the “poor me” club, wannabe Prousts, without the talent, intelligence and erudition. Treat them like fly-blown corpses, stinking up the environment. Shovel on the lime and make sure to bury them deep

III

Pen names. Pseudonyms. Disguises. Masks authors wear to rob the stupid and gullible.

If an author refuses to put his/her name on a work, said work is, almost without exception, a piece of shit. There is absolutely no excuse to use a pen name. Stephen King claimed it was his publisher who proposed he use the Richard Bachman nom de plume because he was putting out too many books under his own name.

Um. Steve (if I may call you that), a suggestion: stop writing so many fucking books. Put more time and effort into your literary offerings rather than spewing them out like an incontinent fat man.

bookpile.jpeg

Hack. It’s an ugly word, to my mind the worst insult that can be foisted on a writer. Walking fiction factories. Folks who can type a hundred words a minute and four hundred pages of drek in three weeks and congratulate themselves for their industry. People who can knock out a fantasy novel one month, a romance title the next and a western over a long weekend, all under different names. Is it possible to feel any admiration for these fuckers?

Writers who “collaborate” with popular actors or celebs, ghost-writing for familiar faces who can barely scrawl their own names. People who sign on to write books under another, more famous, name because the best-selling author in question has inconveniently died, leaving behind a legion of disappointed fans.

Hacks.

Shame on them for defiling the printed word, breaking the vows of our sacred priesthood. May they choke on their ill-gotten gains. If they ever had talent and vision, they lost it long ago, the first time they put commerce before integrity. Writing for money, whoring themselves for the crassest possible reasons. Not for them the cold garret, scribbling by lamplight, blowing on stiff fingers to better grasp a leaky pen.

We shall not retain their names, real or otherwise. We pay them no tributes; let them collect their earnings and slip away, thieves in the night, forgotten before the ink has dried on their latest shabby, indifferent offering.

History remembers the great and consigns these literary drudges to the rubbish heap. Where even the worms disdain them…

9 comments

  1. creativeangel

    I enjoyed reading your post even if I don’t agree with everything that you say. I enjoyed the way your words flowed and your meaning was felt wholeheartedly. I look foward to reading some more of your work. It’s nice to read something so honest.

  2. Simonne

    Wow, this is so very snobby one feels the need to question if it’s sincere or dripping in sarcasm…
    I fear it’s the former. To be disdained by worms even! Goodness – poor worms – to be relegated so very low in whole scheme of things. This reeks of male priviledge in an old old old old tradition. Shame, because the writing is wonderful.

  3. Kate

    Weekend writers are the equivalent of garage bands. Everybody has to start off as an amateur sometimes. Or are you the sole exception?

  4. Terry Karney

    I’ve been thinking about this post, and the flaw is this… it’s not a zero sum game.

    I happen (among other things) to be a photographer. I’m a professional. People pay me for my pictures. They’ve been paying for them for more than 20 years.

    I am not diminished by someone who carelessly snaps a few. If he sells them he’s not taking bread out of my mouth (unless he sells too cheap, but that’s somethng else).

    If she’s a one-shot wonder, so what? I sell my pictures (art, if you will) because someone wants to buy it. If an gallery owner likes it, I get a show. If a contest jury likes it, I get a place. If the judges like it, I get a prize. If a client likes it, I get a job. If an editor likes it, I get a book, monograph, assignment, illo, whatever.

    If they want shots that look like Cambler, or Mapplethorpe, or Adams, or Cartier-Bresson, or Newton, or Hockney, or… I’m not the person for them.

    I look at new/old/flash in the pan/amateur photographers. They might have a perspective/technique/eye which I like, which I can digest and incorporate into my work.

    I am enriched by them. An amateur works for love. That’s a noble thing.

    Quantity of effort does not equal quality of work.

    Art is a meritocracy. Those who can do it, will be received (contrary to myth, van Gogh did sell in his lifetime, his brother just didn’t tell him, but I digress).

    Weekend writer, or everyday toiler, those who write, are writers.

  5. Terry Karney

    Cliff sent me a private e-mail, asking what I thought about the rest of this post, and about him in general, “Can you address the piece in its entirety–do you hate it all, like some of it…or do you consider me too much of a lost cause to bother taking any of it seriously?”.

    Lost cause… in the subject I thought worth addressing in the first response, probably. Looking at the whole (and I’ve read a lot of this blog) something has made you bitter. A flip answer would be that despite the work you put into it, the writing just isn’t good enough to sell.

    A less flip answer is that the problem you point to in the piece on pride is there, and you can’t figure out how to fix it.

    Pseudonyms, I don’t care. The work speaks for itself. I do read for pleasure. I write for pleasure too. I sell for money. Sometimes what I sell I wrote for pleasure. Sometimes it was something I did to pay the bills. I’ve been writing, non-fiction; published, for 24 years. I can’t write fiction to save my life. One scene, sure. Edit a piece for you to tighten it up, sure. Structure some dialogue to move from a to b, no problem. Devise an ending and work to it from a beginning; out of whole cloth? Nope. Not in me.

    But non-fiction, commentary, journalism, not a probelem.

    The guy who has a story to tell, and has someone willing to publish it, power to ‘im. Because he’s not diminishing your work.

    Your work is good, or it ain’t, and his work is good, or it ain’t.

    One hit wonder, or gradgrind, so what. There are people who work at it, every day. Who sweat blood and tears to create the words on the page. They are writers, but it may be crap.

    The guy who “dabbles”, as you put it, may be a natural. That’s the way it goes. All the work in world can’t turn a mud-pie into an apple tart.

    As I said in my previous response, it’s not a zero sum game. The amount of effort you put into it has nothing to do with the value of your work (which I referred to above, when I quote the late Wm Rotsler, a most amazing artist, phorographer and writer), and the same is true of the amount of work other put into it. I think you are attaching a mythic purity to inent, and I think, honestly, that this is part of the “pride” issue you say you are conteding with.

    I have to thank you, because the things you said at Making Light, and the posts you’ve written have made me ponder things, and this is the distillation, off the cuff and crudely put) of what I came to see.

    It’s not the how much work one puts into something which makes one a practitioner, it’s the intent. Amatuer means one who loves. If someone does something for the sake of love, then they are a practitioner.

    Your mileage, obviously, varies.

  6. Sandra Hanks Benoiton

    I love this post. Plan to print it out and hang it somewhere near my desk.
    It appears that “amateur” as you use it is more a state of mind … and work ethic … than anything to do with bank balance.

  7. Rose Ghost

    Meow! Loved that post, however I have always used a pen name because I dislike my real name so much, and to be honest, I don’t like having my real name pasted all over the internet. I understand your point though – putting your name on something proves that you are proud of it. I’m linking you baby! :-)

    I do wonder about another point you made…what on earth is a blog if it isn’t public masterbation? I’m fully aware of how much of an egocentric maniac I am, but some blog’s are written really nice people.

  8. A writer

    I think you see things in black and white. I always wonder about writers who “spleen” all over the net. Maybe they should concentrate on actually doing the work instead of talking about it so much. But hey, you have your opinions, that’s fine. I don’t have to agree with them. I don’t. I think, for one thing, you’re dead wrong about pen names. Writers use pen names for all kinds of reasons, not just because they have no belief in their work. Or, as you say, because their work is shit. I write under a pen name because I was always self-conscious about writing under my own name. A kind of mental block. The pen name released me from it. Now I feel that my fiction has been accepted I will probably start using my real name. A writer must find his own way, his own path. You may have have to stand there and watch many an amateur overtake you. On another point, that of literary versus genre and professional sale versus amateur, you acknowledge that you’re a snob. That’s enough for me. I would have told you so if you hadn’t mentioned it yourself. You could never prove to me or anybody else that your fiction is better than Mr. Amateur or Mr. Pro out there. “There is no test of literary merit except survival, which is in itself an index to majority opinion”

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