Remaining relevant in a post-literate world

The latest royalty figures have arrived from Lightning Source and the news is mighty grim.

Print and e-book sales of my Black Dog Press titles have pretty much bottomed out in the last few months. If I ran a real publishing house, I’d have been shown the door (with no golden handshake) a long time ago.

Of course, it doesn’t help that my last four books were almost doomed to fail:  The Last Hunt is a novel set in the Old West and, let’s face it, cowboy yarns aren’t exactly leaping off the shelves these days; following that, I released two companion volumes of verse and prose poems…not what any sane person would consider bestseller material.

And my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, is a short story collection. Yes, you heard correctly: a short story collection. And, yeah, I’m aware that no one reads short fiction any more and that, as a format, it’s as dead and buried as Ramses II.

What can I tell you, I’m a throwback. I love obsolete art forms like short stories and silent movies and radio dramas and mixed tapes. I own two Super 8 movie cameras and and a five year old iMac. I collect plastic model kits and first editions of books by Philip K. Dick.  I know, it’s pathetic. A man my age…

I pay little heed to current trends and fashions. One glance at the bestseller lists or what’s prominent on the “New Release” racks is enough to set my teeth on edge. Whenever people complain to me about the poor state of writing in the indie/self-published world, I invariably reply have you been inside a bookstore lately?

Folks, I don’t know about you but I’m finding it harder and harder to find good writers. This despite the fact that there have never been more books published, the internet and print on demand outfits making it easy for anyone to put out a book. And that’s the trouble. These days, everyone from your dotty aunt to her pet parakeet call themselves “authors” and never mind that they’ve never mastered grade school spelling or punctuation and think “thesaurus” was one of those old Greek guys who taught philosophy and tried to seduce his students. No vetting of manuscripts, no quality control and, as a result, no quality. The worst of the worst. And with diminished expectations, publishers scramble and claw at each other in the race to the bottom of the barrel. Fifty Shades of Grey. The gospel according to “Snooki”. Christ. Offer North American readers unlimited shelf space, a world of knowledge at their fingertips and what do they select as their reading material of choice?

100_0795Fan fiction and paranormal romance.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We’re a society obsessed by superficiality; the cult of celebrity holds sway and most of us would do anything for a few moments in the limelight, our allotted fifteen seconds of fame. We want to know what the important people are doing so we can act and dress and think like them. They are the annointed ones, lit from within by some special flame. Like Prometheus, we seek to steal their fire but not for the good of humankind, but to keep it and nurture it within ourselves. To out-shine the common people and know what it’s like to be royalty. Flashing that vapid Kate Middleton smile. Winking to your adoring fans like Brad Pitt. Besieged in your own homes. Stalked because you’re you. The universal dream.

The arts are not immune to such asinine sensibilities. Today’s aspiring writers don’t want to have to work at their craft. Spend endless hours coming up with original concepts, a fresh approach or innovation. Easier to borrow characters and plot lines, sharecrop franchises, remain on well-worn paths. Stick with the old stand-bys: porn and elves, vampires and chick lit. Serial killers and serial adulterers. The living dead and the mindlessly idiotic. All for 99 cents a download, forty thousand words and not one of them in tune.

It used to be our role models were Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Don DeLillo.

Now everyone wants to be Dan Brown, James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Not good, just rich.

How can I compete with that kind of mentality? Why should I bother going through the effort and not inconsiderable expense of conceiving, writing and releasing my books, some of them taking years to bring to fruition? Who’s going to notice my smart, sharp-toothed prose when there are hundreds of thousands of books churned out every year, all of them clamoring for attention, aggressively lobbying readers for just a few minutes of their time…

But if you’re an artist and you start down that road, it isn’t long before discouragement and contempt for your fellow human beings overwhelms you. You become sick in your soul, envious of others, dismissive and scornful; a universe of one.

No, what it comes down to in the end is the work. Keeping on keeping on. Laboring on behalf of the legacy of literature, those authors of the past and present who expand our horizons, warp and distort our perspectives, enlivening our moribund senses with the vitality and courage of their visions. You know their names, they’re the writers who set fire to your imagination, whisper words of commiseration during a difficult time, speak intimately to your heart when the rest of the world seems oblivious to your very existence.

The hacks don’t do that for you. The scribblers who aim to please and reassure and entertain, even at the expense of their integrity. They don’t care about you and they have nothing important to say. They’re in it for the wrong reasons, motivated by little more than greed and pride, surely the most venal of sins.

The authors I revere and try to emulate have a higher calling.

The best of them eschew fame and fortune, forsaking all trappings of success in favor of a singular and personal approach to their work, persisting regardless of ignominy, poverty, shame. Willing to sacrifice their bodies and minds as long as they are permitted to pursue their calling with dedication and obsessive zeal. Nothing dissuades or discourages them.

Brave as any frontline soldier, resolved to forge on to the bitter end.

No medals, no plaques—often, not even a well-tended grave.

Messengers and prophets, making “visible what, without them, might perhaps never have been seen”*.

Awaiting our discovery, keepers of the Logos, brilliant revelations yet to be told.


* Robert Bresson


  1. robertday154

    Well, Cliff, I think you’re right, even if others accuse you of protesting too much.

    It’s just the same in photography, and probably most of the other creative spheres. I’ve lost count of the number of wannabes I come across touting themselves as “professional photographers” who say they shoot fashion, glamour and sport – all areas where they can pose with their Canons and Nikons and bask in the reflected glory of those who were truly talented in those fields.

    You may find this review interesting, in that it shows that there are others who think like this:

  2. Dean Godin

    Prophetic and a conscientious. Hang in there, brother. I have been intermittently working on a project of creative non-fiction. It is a selective chronology, spanning 1973-2000. I would value your critique. All the themes are currently set, though composition is but half to two-thirds complete. I welcome you as an appreciable ear. My email:

  3. Cliff Burns

    Thanks, gents, those are exactly the replies I was hoping to get.

    Usually, when I post essays like this, I’m inundated with missives from wannabes and amateurs that are so toxic I have to coat them with flame retardant before I dare open them.

    “Elitist!” they shriek, “how dare you deny us our right to express ourselves!”

    The posers and pretenders of this world are a thin-skinned, virulent breed and they band together like jackals (or microbes) when they sense themselves threatened.

    It’s a pleasure to deal with rational minds for a change.

  4. Karen Williams

    Hi – I usually feel too illiterate to post a comment, but today I feel brave and want to say thank you for remaining true to your art, and ensuring that there is great literature and art for those whose souls still long for it.
    (Even though I do enjoy a fluff book now and again – but I promise, none are penned by a celebrity!)

  5. Cliff Burns

    Nothing wrong with “cleansing your palette” every so often. But I still maintain the brain is a muscle and if we don’t properly exercise it, we’re all going to start voting Conservative and drive book-burning automobiles…

  6. Augustus Gump

    Cliff, there has always been trash. Try not to have a stroke about it, and keep on writing good stuff for its own sake. The chances are it will bring you neither riches nor the adulation of the masses. It is possible to enjoy it, though..

  7. Cliff Burns

    Gus, unfortunately, there has never, ever been MORE trash and, as a result, I believe people’s critical skills will erode (how can you be discriminating when all you’re seeing is crap?) and the mediocre will become the norm. The democratization of the arts because of new, empowering technologies has released a flood of offal that shows no signs of subsiding. Whereas before it was difficult to identity and celebrate quality fiction, I believe today, with a ten thousandfold increase in writing (print and digital), it is well nigh impossible.

    The good writers suffer and the bad ones proliferate like blowflies. And I find that discouraging (to say the least).

  8. The Necromancer

    One of these days those PKD first editions may be worth a mint! ;P Dan Brown is a bad, bad man. Just ask Baigent and Leigh (“The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”…Anyone?).

    But seriously, hang on to the PKD stuff. The plastic models less so.

  9. pam

    Thanks for this one, Cliff. Some days it’s hard to “keep on keeping on.” So glad that you’re still in here swinging for the fences!

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