When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of “professional” actors would stage and perform it.
I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.
I wish I’d kept a copy.
And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.
The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—
He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.
Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.
My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.
My first submission and my first rejection.
But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.
I’m referring to a recent post over at Mediabistro (why do I continue to subscribe to them, they only depress me) crowing that over 235,000 self-published books were released last year. That’s physical books and their digital cousins.
Sturgeon’s Law would have you think 90% of those titles are complete crap but, based on my own investigations, I would say the actual figure is closer to 99.8%. Which means, according to my very rough calculations (I’ve detested math all my life), less than 500 of the aforementioned books are worth even glancing at.
Nearly a quarter million books, only 500 possessing any kind of literary merit. Pretty grim, huh?
But when was the last time you walked through a Chapters or Barnes & Noble book barn? Of the thousands of books your eyes passed over, what percentage looked intelligent enough to warrant a closer look? I’m guessing it was a very tiny proportion. Crap is crap, whether it’s produced by a bad cowboy poet from Dubuque, or issues forth from Random House, with the full weight of their publicity machine behind it.
I’ve just about given up on the big box stores. This past week we were visiting Edmonton and I had the great fortune to spot Old Strathcona Books, a wonderful used book place on Gateway Boulevard. The selection was amazing and the two gals behind the counter friendly and welcoming, real book-lovers, with in-depth knowledge of their wares. My kinda joint.
Get out there and support first rate bookstores like Old Strathcona, marvel at the wide selection of titles they offer, hard to find tomes and marginalia that highlight the diversity of fine fiction available to discriminating readers, unheralded authors waiting to be discovered. Because despite the flood of offal being spewed out these days by traditional publishers and the self-publishing gits, superb works of literature are still being produced…you just have to dig around and search for them.
Don’t be discouraged, steel your nerves and have at it.
The reward, finding a book that changes your perspective, alters the way you think and look at the world, sends seismic shockwaves through your soul and soma, makes all those tireless efforts worthwhile.
This is a cartoon by Mike Twohy—my pal Robert Runte sent it (so blame him, wannabes).
Peter Darbyshire has just published an article in the Vancouver Province, discussing the future of books and publishing—you’ll find it here. He was good enough to ask me about my experiences as a long-standing independent author and publisher (21 years and counting) and I was only too happy to oblige.
Smart man, Peter, a guy who knows what he’s talking about. He’s had his own adventures in the publishing biz and is familiar with the new technologies that are allowing authors the chance to by-pass traditional gate-keepers and take their work directly to readers, via e-books and print on demand efforts.
As I wrote to Peter in a followup note, one of my fears is that while these technologies may empower good authors turned off by a corporate system that slots and niches books, producing dozens of copy-cat knockoffs of popular titles, it also accords terrible scribblers the opportunity to foist their mindless, adolescent crap on the world. Thus, the marketplace is currently overwhelmed by dreadful vampire porn, brain-eating zombies and godawful tripe that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school yearbook. Anyone can call themselves a writer these days and with a minimum investment can produce a decent-looking book with their name on the cover. “Look at me! Aren’t I great? And you all thought I was a loser!”
I recently posted similar views on a couple of sites frequented by amateur writers and wannabes and was soundly taken to task for my arrogant insistence that there is a difference between good writing and bad writing. One remark I’ve heard a number of times is that “we live in a post-literate society and the old standards no longer apply”. You know, standards like good spelling, syntax that isn’t tortured beyond recognition, an ear for dialogue, an aversion to over-writing, etc. etc.
In the old days, these dingbats would be working in the rightly discredited sub-sub-genre of “fan fiction”, read by a few geeks with too much time on their hands and a roomful of Star Wars action figures. Now they can inflict their offal on a far wider audience, pricing their e-books at 99 cents to draw the most possible readers and congratulating themselves for their genius.
It’s truly sickening.
I do not want to be lumped in with folks who have no respect for the printed word, who wish to emulate literary idols like Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson…the very worst of the worst. I revere great writing and devote enormous time and effort to producing the finest, most literate work I can; to hear these people crowing about how many e-books they’ve sold, how much money they’ve made, goes against everything I believe in, as an author and an artist. Their attitudes revolt me, their “writing” makes me shudder, their success impresses me not one whit. They are bottom-feeders and pornographers and if that’s what sells these days, the literary world is in more trouble than I ever imagined.
I’ve kind of lost my zest for performing my stuff live but I started going, hoping it would encourage my two sons, both talented writers, and their friends to contribute. I love it when a visibly nervous teen author stands in front of us and, voice quaking, reads a poem or short story. Takes me back to the days when I—
Well, never mind.
I always try to have new material for the “open mike” and this time premiered three pieces that even my wife hadn’t heard before. Here are the four offerings I read last night, including “Accident”, which appeared on this blog a couple of years ago but, what the heck, thought I’d reprint it anyway (it read beautifully):
This is a car crash. It’s happening right now. A collision in progress. Metal folding and bending, glass slow-motion bursting, bodies swaying in their seats. And the thing is you see it with perfect clarity, high-def to the max. You watch in fascination as the air bag blooms in front of you, a time-lapse explosion expanding toward your face as you lean forward to meet it. Something else. A heaviness. In the region of your chest. A tug in your neck that isn’t quite pain but soon will be. A sound, a soft exhalation but really a scream in the midst of being born. From the backseat. Ten A.U.’s behind you. Any moment now it will all come rushing in, a cacophony of distress, a wall of noise and sensations. Someone, maybe even you, might be in the midst of dying. On the threshold of an instant. The law-defying lip of an event horizon. Falling…and forever suspended mere petaseconds away from nothing at all.
November is bleeding,
leached of color, vitality,
the land losing its life’s blood
in dark, spreading gouts.
Anemic, cancerous, brittle,
tiny bones crackling underfoot:
this is the graveyard of summer.
Brightening it with festive lights,
disguising it with tinsel, false cheer
but unable to defeat the oppression,
looming like a storm front.
Hibernation is a state between life and death,
a sleep from which some animals never wake–
another hard winter descends from the mountains,
the sun creeping back to make way.
“When that love was done with, I was left like a bird on a branch. I was no longer any use for anything.” Paul Eluard & Andre Breton, The Immaculate Conception (Translation by Jon Graham)
I am that bird/a useless, futile thing/purposeless and unblinking/stiffly clutched on my shivering perch
Denied foresight, stratagems/creature of instinct, heedless/as scattered petals or blown seed/no decisions, save alarm and flight
like the lilies of the field
like the trees and stones,
or a worm, turning in thick, black dirt
Free from striving and strife/charged only with existence/descended from dinosaurs/ small-brained and tuned to the stars
Waking you with piercing melodies/disdainful of the tardy dawn/spying with small, beady eyes/as you depart for work in a funk
Nestled against the weather/high up where the cats can’t reach/alert, yet lightly dozing/untroubled by what you call “dreams”
“My health was endangered. Terror assailed me.”
Arthur Rimbaud, on the writing of Illuminations
Franz Kafka insisted we should only read books that “bite and sting us”. Volumes, one presumes, capable of savaging unwary readers, leaving them spotted with blood. Kafka, a gentle man, left strict instructions in his will that his writings be burned. His executor, Max Brod, ignored his friend’s wishes and preserved his distinctive novels and stories; as a result, each year I risk serious injury plucking them from my shelves.
Words created us and words sustain us:
“The technical language of religion is
symbolism, with storytelling one of its
most important varieties.”
(so sayeth Huston Smith)
Ideas become words become action. The correct conjunction of vowels and consonants will, according to some mythologies, lead to an unbinding.
A return to nullity. From whence we came.
Be mindful and compassionate. Practice right thought, right speech. Do not call the worst into being. Offer prayers to a Creator beyond faith. Use the ancient words of praise. The ones handed down through the ages. Hallowed be thy name, o, God, thy will be done…
When I finished reading, Sherron was beaming.
Snuck in under the eight-minute time limit too.
Thanks to all the participants and audience members. See you at my book launch on Wednesday!
(Photo by Zach Den Adel)
Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria. I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind). Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs. They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.
The wannabe is far less circumspect. These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community. They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz). That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point. Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed). They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously. God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.
The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes. If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.
Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum. Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life. Juvenilia. Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull. Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent. Some are clearly cries for help: look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands me…I need affirmation…
There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).
I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true. The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption. The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).
One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work. Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days. These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops. By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.
But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value. And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required. With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.
And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us. I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback. Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude. If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage. You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.
Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes. They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone. Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls. They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise. Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).
I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset: recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption. Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you. Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.
Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?