Best Reads of 2016
Managed to read over a hundred books and view about the same number of movies in 2016.
You’ll find my list of favourite films over at my blog, Cinema Arete.
Read slightly more non-fiction than fiction last year, a bit of a worrying trend. I’ve really cut back on my genre fiction in the past while; I’ve found the suspension of disbelief rarely works for me any more. The last horror novel I read, by Peter Straub, struck me as completely implausible and I barely finished it.
More and more, I’m looking for quality reads, books that are innovative, literate and unique.
And, more and more, contemporary fiction just doesn’t meet that criteria.
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Best Books Read in 2016
Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
The Execution by Hugo Wilcken
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo
The Heavenly Bible by Donald Ray Pollock
Today I Wrote Nothing (Stories) by Daniil Kharms
Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse
The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken
The Adulterous Woman (Stories) by Albert Camus
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Without by Donald Hall
Felicity by Mary Oliver
Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes
Ghost Wars: Secret History of CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll
Contrary Notions by Michael Parenti
When the Facts Change by Tony Judt
Disaster Capitalism by Antony Lowenstein
Young Orson: The Years of Luck & Genius by Patrick McGilligan
We Learn Nothing (Essays) by Tim Kreider
Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
The Idea of Communism by Tariq Ali
Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich
My Life & Travels by Wilfred Thesiger
Hogs Wild (Essays) by Ian Frazier
An essay on why I love westerns
As previously mentioned, I’ve been asked quite a few times why I decided to write a western. Even old pals were left scratching their heads. Not only a western, a traditional western, featuring a gunslinger who might have been played by Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott.
As some of you know, I also keep a film blog. I spent most of the last couple of days composing a lengthy personal essay on my love of western movies. I think the piece perfectly sums up my attraction for the genre and I hope you’ll click on this link, pop over and give it a read. I don’t often write non-fiction of this length but I’m really pleased by how this piece came out.
Don’t be shy about contributing your thoughts, opinions and reminiscences, perhaps offer your own roster of all time faves.
Always looking for tips on great films…
Pursuing the Ideal Reader
Another birthday rolling around, my 48th, and, natch, the critical, self-regarding mind casts its gaze backward, forward, hither and yon, seeking a pattern, a design, some semblance of order.
Usually in vain.
I’ve described my writing “career” as something of a train wreck and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I lurch from project to project, with absolutely no conception of how to “market” or promote myself, zero interest in shilling for my work, peddling it around like an itinerant vacuum cleaner salesman. My writing doesn’t comfortably fit any niche, veering from genre to genre, encompassing everything from radio plays, to short films, ambient music and spoken word pieces. My last two novels were supernatural thrillers, my latest is an old fashioned western. Huh?
But that’s the glorious thing about the new technologies that have sprouted up in the past few years. They allow creative types to try their hand at a variety of disciplines, expressing themselves through different media. I don’t discriminate between my various projects, no matter what form they take. They all reflect my interests, fears, fixations and dreams. They all originate in the labyrinthine depths of my mind.
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Thanks to one and all who have stuck it out thus far. Popped in to this site for a quick look…and then lingered, read more and more of the entries, downloaded big swathes of my writing or tuned in to some of the weird music I’ve made available for free listening and downloading.
Through this blog I’ve become familiar with good folks and sharp thinkers. Thoughtful, intelligent people who love the printed word as much as I do.
And I believe that somewhere among the tens of thousands of curious types who’ve visited this blog in the past 4 1/2 years there is at least one ideal reader, someone who has followed my career, read the lion’s share of my oeuvre and eagerly looks forward to each new release. That’s the gal/guy who brings me back to my desk, morning after morning, my raison d’être, my secret admirer, number one fan and staunchest defender. Every day I sit down and create purely for the purpose of entertaining, surprising and intriguing my I.R., presenting them with a narrative or tune or spoken word piece that startles them and causes them to re-appraise my work (yet again), examining it in a wholly different light.
I am prepared to go to any extent to unsettle and shake up my Ideal Reader. I don’t want them getting complacent, taking me for granted. For that reason, my work must never fall back on tried and true formulas or reinforce commonly held beliefs and preconceptions.
I have to to believe my I.R. would be very disappointed in me if I resorted to such tactics.
My Ideal Reader is as courageous and aesthetically demanding as I am.
And they’d know if I wasn’t giving them my best work…
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It’s become something of a custom for me to either release new work or make some kind of announcement around my birthday.
First, please note to “self-portrait” that accompanies this post. A couple of Christmases ago, Sherron and my sons gifted me with a big fat scrapbook that I was supposed to play with; included among my tasks was executing a self-portrait on canvas. Last month I finally got around to it and, well, see for yourself. I have absolutely no acumen for visual art, couldn’t even figure out how to mix pigments—that’s why my picture is in black and white.
Okay, so I’m no threat to Vinnie van Gogh.
How about another strange, spacey, ambient tune, created a couple of days ago. “Lapse (II)” clocks in at over seven minutes and I think it’s a worthy addition to my odd musical catalog.
And, finally, a couple of updates:
Edits on my western, The Last Hunt, commence soon. Looking forward to knocking that little beauty into shape. Anticipating a March, 2012 release date. I’ll keep you posted.
My science fiction novelette, “Eyes in the Sky“, should be up on Amazon/Kindle in the coming days. It’s dedicated to “the Golden Age” and I think fans of the genre will understand what I mean.
No plans for my birthday, just another work day. Forty-eight years old and maybe a tad wiser. Still a long way to go and enlightenment continues to tease and then elude me. Every time I think I’m getting close to some kind of meaningful insight into the human experience, something truly ghastly and horrific happens and I am forcefully reminded of the Alain Finkielkraut quote:
“Barbarism is not the inheritance of our pre-history. It is the companion that dogs our every step.”
WTF? Where did this sci fi tale come from?
Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.
My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact. There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—
Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.
I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years. I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on. Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney). The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave. I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago. Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up. I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.
My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it: like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg. Nothing state of the art or high tech. A small story about a lonely, little man. Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…
All very nice. But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation. Poking a finger at the prize money: that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.
Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns. My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.
One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”. It came in a rush and would not be resisted. Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about. The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good. But Sherron has reassured me. She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.
But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation. I guess it’s an object lesson. Something this control freak had better get through his thick head: I am not in charge. I am merely an agent, not the Source. I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster. I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…
“The Last Hunt”–Coming Soon!
Well, gang, I can’t keep it secret any more. My next book is coming along nicely and I’m anticipating a late October release. Right around my birthday. I’m working hard to make that happen.
But here’s the thing: The Last Hunt is a western.
You heard me. I’m talking about hard-bitten gunslingers, tall, wide vistas, ornery horses, evil black hats, the whole bit.
Oh, sure, you say, but it’ll be like some kinda weird Cormac McCarthy hybrid, right? A whacked out, modernistic take on the Wild West, standing the entire genre on its head.
Nope, nope and…nope.
Y’see, I happen to love westerns. I don’t look down on the genre, relegate it to second-class status. I grew up watching Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies. I enjoy reading the novels of Elmer Kelton and Richard S. Wheeler. They’re superb writers, regardless of categories and classifications.
I’m saddened by the cinematic decline of the western—the last truly great cowboy flick I saw was “The Long Riders”, made back in 1980. “The Unforgiven” (1992) was a decent movie but far too earnest and over-long. “The Long Riders” was the shit.
And since then there’ve been remakes and abominations like “Young Guns”—westerns by people who’ve never been near a horse in their lives and whose knowledge of the Old West is, put kindly, superficial. Hollywood has tried to update westerns, reinvent them with big name stars and budgets that would make even Michael Cimino swoon…but they’ve lost the spirit. Sam Peckinpah and John Ford had a real grasp of those who pioneered the land west of the Mississippi, their contrary natures, the sort of valor and resolution Alan LeMay refers to in a quote that precedes his classic novel, The Searchers:
“These people had the kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.”
In the course of writing The Last Hunt, by pure chance I happened across a reproduction of a William R. Leigh painting called “The Warning Shadow”. It was another one of those too-amazing-to-be-a-coincidence moments (and I should know, I’d had a few of them). The image was perfect for my book—but I had a dickens of a time tracking down who owned the rights. Finally, I was put in touch with the Rockwell Museum of Western Art (in Corning, New York) and Bobby Rockwell helped me secure permission to use the painting. Mr. Leigh’s artworks are highly prized, very collectible and I’m honored to have “The Warning Shadow” on my cover.
The cover accompanying this post is, I hasten to say, a mere mockup…but it gives you a fair idea of what to expect. Once our designer, Chris Kent, has a crack at it, the cover will look even better.
As for plot details, er, I think I’ll keep that to myself for now. When it gets closer to publication date I’ll be more forthcoming. Hoping the novel will be popular with fans of the western genre as well as people who just love a fast, entertaining read. Like my last two novels, I think The Last Hunt has a lot of cross-over appeal, the potential to draw a wide variety of readers.
I’ve spent the past three weeks going through the second draft and I like what I’m seeing. It’s a short novel, around 50,000 words, and it moves along at an exciting clip. Good, solid protagonist and memorable supporting players. By the time this book is released in the late fall, it’s gonna hum.
So stay tuned, check in every once in awhile for updates and further developments. Maybe even an excerpt or two, just to whet your appetite.
Yeah, I know, a western. But, trust me, it’s a helluva tale…
Listen to my work on audio
With the help of the tireless Anthony, a support staff member with WordPress, I’ve figured out how to add a special “Audio” page to my blog.
You’ll find it by looking to the right hand side, under the “Stories” widget. Just click on “Audio” and you’ll discover a large selection of my stories, poems, commentaries, even an excerpt from my novel So Dark the Night. All available for free listening and downloading onto whatever device (iPod or cell phone) you currently favour. Many of these pieces are accompanied by music, which provides dramatic highlights, a soundtrack that is either pleasing or provocative (or both).
The most recent offering is a six-minute chat about “indie” writing I recorded because I’ve received a host of questions, both here and in various forums where I hang out. People want to know what it means to be an independent writer…and I want to do what I can to dispel this notion that one goes the indie/self-publishing route because your work can’t cut it with traditional publishers. Hey, kids, I chose to go my own way because after 20+ years of dealing with inept, sociopathic, moronic editors, I’d had enough. New technologies like blogs, podcasts and print-on-demand put more control into authors’ hands, a situation I welcome with open arms.
For the record, here’s what I said–
–and after giving it a listen, I hope you’ll have a clearer understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog. And please check out the rest of my audio releases, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the production values and the power and intensity of the work.
Theatre of and for the mind…
“Who the F*** Are You?”
Recently, Milan Kundera raised a few hackles in the Czech Republic by refusing to return to his home and native land to attend a conference devoted to his work. Mr. Kundera stated that he did not wish to contribute to a “necrophile party” made up of academics and scholars, discussing and debating his work.
He also said, even more provocatively, that he considers himself a French writer and writes exclusively in that language.
Take that ye cultural nationalists!
It has long been my belief that a writer is a stateless citizen, an individual who inhabits no country and is beholden to no particular culture, gender, creed or race. To identify oneself as an “American author”, “Czech author” or what have you, is to fly in the face of the kind of universality true authors seek to achieve through the power and originality of their work.
When I make my rare public appearances I often have to provide a short bio so I can be introduced to an audience or gathering and I struggle mightily to compose something that isn’t embarrassing or misleading. Earlier this year my wife adapted a couple of my short stories into theater pieces that were performed at a function here in the small city where we live. I think the M.C. at one point called me a “local author” and I shrank down in my seat. Is that all I am? A local author? A Saskatchewan author? Even a Canadian author?
Christ, I hope not. After twenty-five years of beating my brains out and destroying my fingers and shoulders and lower back, I’d like to think I have higher aspirations for myself than that.
Nossir, I want to be read not only locally, not only nationally but around the entire fucking world. I want my books and stories and essays to be devoured and enjoyed by future inhabitants of the Martian colony. I want my collected works taken on the first flight to Alpha Centauri. I want my prose to survive long after places like “Saskatchewan” and “Canada” cease to exist.
Isn’t that what all artists of worth strive for? Immortality, an appeal that persists centuries after their bones have turned to dust. And that is also why I struggle so hard to preserve the integrity of my work, not allowing some bowdlerized or aesthetically gutted version to supersede and supplant the real thing.
I honestly wouldn’t change places with the likes of James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer for all the filthy lucre in the vaults of Fort Knox. Their work won’t survive the next twenty years, let alone the uncounted eons that lie ahead. No, let them choke on their money and watch as their books go out of print in their own lifetime.
It’s funny: this past week I commented on the on-line site for CBC (our national broadcaster), responding to a short feature devoted to Robert Charles Wilson. Mr. Wilson has managed to secure something of a reputation for himself as a SF writer, even snagged a Hugo Award for one of his novels. Frankly, I find his prose merely workmanlike; he is yet another SF scribbler (like Jack McDevitt and Robert Sawyer) who has cashed in on a modest talent for stretching neat ideas into over-long novels and, in the process, made a tidy living for himself. It’s a situation that’s pretty much endemic in SF but those guys are more guilty of that particular sin than most.
The folks who responded to my initial post comported themselves like typical, moronic SF fans. They made all sorts of assumptions about me and indulged in numerous pointed, personal, ad hominem attacks, opining that I was merely jealous of Mr. Wilson’s commercial success.
Welcome to the Western world, where we equate achievement with how much money we make and how often our picture appears in the news (and our names show up on the ballot of worthless genre awards).
I made the mistake of trying to debate with these “minions of fan-dumb” and earned more vitriolic attacks for those efforts. Fuck it, I thought, and signed off without posting the really nasty parting shot I had composed. It would have been a waste of time. These are the same vacuous shitheads who are lining up in droves to see “Star Trek XXIV: The Quest For Profit” and the latest comic book adaptation, wearing out their thumbs on their game consoles. The only heads they have on their shoulders are blackheads from all the junk food they cram into their maws so they can stay up all night watching the “Lord of the Rings” movies back to back and wrapping “Fallout 3”. Fuck them. No way I’ll lie down with those pigs.
No, I’m bound for the stars. I write for posterity and to preserve a literary legacy that I hope will last as long as there’s a single, discerning reader out there who longs for something off the beaten track, a work that reminds them what it means to be human, the attendant hopes and accompanying foibles. A man or woman lonely, isolated, seeking the companionship of a long-dead author whose devotion to the printed word transcends time and vast distances and alien, hostile farscapes.
Keep your trophies, baubles and bullion.
I serve a higher calling…and make no allowances for those whose lack of courage and faith causes them to choose low roads and demean the gifts they have been so generously granted.
Culling the Herd, Improving the Breed
I’ve been accused of lacking a certain amount of, well, esprit de corps when it comes to the plight of my colleagues in publishing. These are not the best of times for people in the biz: staffs are being cut, longtime employees dismissed, whole divisions lopped off in response to plunging book sales and evaporating profit margins.
But rather than commiserating with the editors and book folk who have been handed their walking papers, my reactions have been cold-blooded, remorseless and decidedly ungenerous. Why?
Try to see it from my point of view: these people have failed. They have failed to excite the reading public, they have failed to choose and promote books that appeal to the tastes of their purported readership. Their gross ineptitude has led to their bosses absorbing big financial losses and, quite understandably, looking to clean house. Honestly, why should we care if they’re called to account for their incompetence, summoned into an office and given ten minutes to collect their name plates and personalized coffee mugs and get the hell out of Dodge?
Is jetissoning them any great loss? Are they irreplaceable? Tireless advocates of excellence in literature and the power and glory of the printed word? Not in my experience.
Don’t forget, I’ve dealt with publishing types for nearly twenty-five years and I have all too frequently found myself on the receiving end of their stupidity and outright dishonesty. When I think of editors and those who serve with them as cogs in the corporate publishing mega-monster, I’m not exactly overwhelmed by warm, fuzzy feelings.
Occasionally, as I read the latest casualty rolls in some industry mouthpiece like MediaBistro’s “Galleycat” site, certain names make me perk up. ____________ and _____________ (names removed for legal reasons) were both editors at major New York publishing houses who were given the boot within a few months of each other.
And in each case I cheered. Schadenfreude. It’s a bitch.
The two editors treated me abominably, hanging onto my manuscripts for ungodly periods of time, refusing to respond to my communications. In desperation, I finally called one and at first the editor in question seemed genuinely contrite. “Oh, God, yes, I remember liking that one. I’ll get to you next week”. But a week passed and then a month…and when I called a second time, I was given a rude brush-off.
“I’ll get to it when I get to it, all right?”
Never heard from her again.
I’ve detailed my many odd and surreal experiences in the world of publishing in my essay “Solace of Fortitude”. Not a word of it is manufactured or exaggerated, I assure you. I only wish that were the case. (Warning: This essay not to be read on a full stomach.)
The truth is that in my quarter century as a professional author I can count the number of intelligent and thoughtful editors I’ve encountered on the fingers of one hand (sans thumb). Ditto for agents.
So why in the name of eternal, infinite God should I give a tinker’s damn if, as a species, editors cease to exist? Should I wear a black armband because the same people who have mistreated me, lied to me and denigrated my work are dangling from every lamp post in lower Manhattan? Fat chance.
To me, all this downsizing is a golden opportunity to pare away some of the dead wood that the industry has been carrying far too long. Editors and execs who have grown old, fat, stale and comfortable in their corner offices, as secure as tenured professors (and just as paranoid and senile). Insular, self-serving, fickle. Highly resistant to change. Time for some new blood, I say, new ideas and approaches.
Traditional publishing seems to be dead, so to me the obvious question that arises is: WHAT NEXT?
Clearly the corporate approach ain’t the answer. Publishing by committee, collating and analyzing spreadsheets, projected sales figures, flow charts and pie graphs. Slitting open a sheep for good measure and rooting about in its entrails for any insights that might be gleaned there. Always on the look-out for the next blockbuster, something sort of different but mainly the same. But while the big ticket scribblers like Rowling and Dan Brown may plump up the sales numbers for a few quarters, what are editors/publishers doing to grow and sustain a stable, longterm readership? Maintaining a lifetime consumer base that’s literate (something less and less important in these days of text messaging, emoticons and three line e-mails) and devoted to the printed word, unwilling to see books relegated to the status of artifacts and curios.
The way ahead lies with smaller, tightly run publishing concerns, staffed by informed, dedicated, reader-savvy men and women. Independent in spirit, offering a more diverse, iconoclastic selection of titles thanks to the wonders of print-on-demand (POD) publishing and e-book hard/software. Works which are then promoted through podcasts, blog reviews and on-line interviews, “virtual” book tours. Live “web chats”; YouTube readings and short films.
Computer technology also enables readers to connect directly with their favorite authors through personal sites, Facebook, etc., as well as allowing them to join forums devoted to writers or genres of interest. Forming a vast, far-reaching community of book-lovers and devotees, unimpeded by geographic boundaries and undeterred by small details like race, politics, gender.
The end of corporate publishing is nigh. The signs are all there. The multi-nationals are fed up with the red ink their book divisions keep hemorrhaging. First they went at the fat with scalpels, now they’re using machetes. Desperate tactics enacted by desperate people…and I suspect it won’t make one bit of difference. The die has been cast and nothing the suits do will have the slightest effect on the massive changes technology is bringing about and a paradigm shift that is part cultural, part economic and wholly beyond the control of Wall Street, Fleet Street…or anywhere else.
These are actually great times to be a writer, or, really, anyone who works and creates in the arts. Never before have we, as artists, had access to (potentially) such a vast audience, drawn from every corner of the world. And the good news is that we can acquire this access for a relatively modest investment. No longer do writers (for example) need to kowtow to the traditional gate-keepers of publishing, the editors and agents who are largely to blame for the present moribund state of the industry. Those self-appointed arbiters of taste have been rendered superfluous, shown to be incapable of identifying or developing authors gifted with originality, power and grace—the very qualities that get people excited about reading again.
It’s my personal belief that a good deal more publishing poobahs need to have their tickets punched before authors and the general reading public have any hope of being better-served. And if the end result of these lay-offs and staff reductions is better books, a wider selection and variety of formats for readers to choose from, more authors having their voices heard, I say:
HASTA LA VISTA, YOU WHITE COLLAR, SELF-REGARDING, MARTINI-GUZZLING, TOFU-EATING, FAKE-MEMOIR-SOPHIE KINSELLA-PIMPING IDJITS! AND GOOD RIDDANCE, TOO…
Once More Into the Breech
“I have no desires, save the desire to express myself in defiance of all the world’s muteness.”
Sorry, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it?
Well, the news is good: I’ve finally summoned the nerve to start a new, long project and have completed an outline/first draft in just over two weeks. About 150 pages, partly typed, mainly handwritten. Raw footage. Tuneless, inconsistent, fraught with continuity errors. Really quite dreadful…
I’ll take it. Whatever form it’s in, I’ll take it. Anything is better than the alternative.
Previous postings have alluded to my confidence problems resulting from the overwhelming lack of success I had peddling my last attempt at a novel, So Dark the Night. When you spend three years on a project, beating the shit out of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually and said manuscript goes absolutely fucking nowhere…well, it can dampen your enthusiasm for attempting anything similar for a long time.
Candidly, this is actually the second full-length project I’ve taken a crack at since So Dark the Night. I wrote the first draft of a SF tale set two or three thousand years in the future, completing it…hmmm, I think it was last November. About 180 typed pages but…again, the confidence thing. After I finished typing it in, I started second-guessing myself: is it good enough? More to the point, is it worth spending a year to eighteen months researching and writing a decent draft? And even if I do write something that verges on the terrific, what chance do I have of seeing it published?
So the SF project was shelved. Not for good, there are some neat ideas and an intriguing central concept but…for now.
This new manuscript falls more into the horror category but you’ll excuse me if I don’t disclose any particulars as to its plot, characters, etc. It’s not that I’m overly worried about someone ripping me off, it’s just that I have a superstitious reluctance to talk about a project until I’m very close to finishing it. I recall a story I once heard about the great Civil War historian, Shelby Foote. For years he claimed to be gathering material for a book, rhapsodizing to friends about it, providing a surfeit of details including character summaries, etc. When Foote died, archivists looking through the voluminous amount of boxes and files he left behind couldn’t find the slightest trace of Foote’s big book.
The lesson here: don’t talk about writing something, DO it.
So I don’t usually talk about a story or poem or novel that’s in-progress. Not to you, not to my wife, not to anybody. Sherron knows nothing about this horror book I’ve got going, not even the title. The only thing I’ve told her is the page count.
I am determined that this new work will not go the same way as the SF manuscript. I’m going to find the courage and inner strength to nail this fucker. Because while I’ve been nursing my wounds and feeling sorry for myself, less talented authors, hacks and wannabes have been tapping away, foisting their horrible shit onto unwary readers.
Why should I withdraw, leaving the field to these no-talent, feeble-minded, derivative shitheads?
Last night I read an interview with Will Self, maybe one of the five or ten best writers in England. During his chat with Rick Moody (in Tin House #28), Self, not a big fan of the internet and new technologies, made the following observation:
“I do think electronic publishing is likely to further subvert the print media in the next few years, but I’ve no doubt that the medium isn’t altogether the message. Simply because there’s another way of making views known, it doesn’t mean that good style, research, or engaging opinions aren’t required. There’s an aspect of the internet forums that presupposes—and enacts!—that old canard that everyone has a novel in him. I don’t think everyone does at all—and the Net is a medium which unfortunately makes it easier for those who have bad novels and miscellaneous other screeds to get them out.”
God, bless ya, Will. I’ve said much the same in various forums, including a LibraryThing chat group made up of writers-readers and was labeled an “elitist”, a “snob”, etc. etc. A glance at the profiles of those who cried foul revealed that few of them had anything close to professional qualifications. As I remarked to my colleague John Sunseri, “there seems to be a fuck of a lot more readers in this group than actual writers”.
Listen you wannabe cocksuckers: you’re not writers until you’ve paid your dues. That means writing every single day of your life, perfecting your craft, working your ass off. You are not a writer if you once scribbled a poem about your dying grandfather or make occasional journal entries about how no one understands you, boo-fucking-hoo.
I claim the honorific as writer because despite the pain and rejection, I still pick up my pen or sit before this keyboard and do the job. Every day, rain or shine, sickness and health, wherever I am. Got that? If you aren’t doing the same and try to claim the same status as me, you are a poseur and a fake. Go fuck yourself. The people at iUniverse and all those other POD publishers will be happy to take your money and give you the illusion that you’re really something special. If you gits are the future of publishing, then God help us all.
So I shall go on, in defiance of failure and discouragement, despite editors with double digit IQ’s and readers who anxiously await Dan Brown’s followup to The DaVinci Code. I’ll write ’til my fingers break, my back gives out and the spirit leaves my body. They’ll have to pry my Ticonderoga “Executive” pen (with the thick, light barrel I prefer) out of my clawed hand.
I’ve been banging about for over 20 years now and I just don’t see surrender as an option. There’s something inside me that rebels at the notion of giving up. Especially when I know that I have more talent that 98% of the scribblers out there. What has hurt me is my refusal to compromise, my refusal to cede final say over my work to an editor who needs to write L and R on their shoes to figure out which foot goes where.
Does that sound harsh? Let me tell you something else: you may see some writers who thank editors on the acknowledgments page of their books but I guarantee you that in most cases the writer is simply reflecting his/her relief at finally seeing their book in print. The writers I know detest their publishers and denigrate their editors but if sucking up to them is what’s required to get their book out there, fuck it.
Editors today don’t have the status or intelligence or erudition of someone like Maxwell Perkins and they certainly would have little truck with Michael Korda who once said that the greatest lesson he learned as an editor was to leave writers alone and not interfere with their work.
As for genre editors…well, I’ve met more intelligent marsupials. They aren’t well-read, have no aesthetic sensibilities and possess the social skills of those inbred Appalachians in “Deliverance” (the only difference is, editors have slightly better teeth).
All right. Enough. This will have to suffice for the next couple of weeks as I bend my brain on—shit, I almost gave away the title. Clever buggers, aren’t you? I’ll pop back in for the occasional progress report and to whinge about how hard I’m working. In the meantime, I’ll gratefully accept any and all the good vibes and prayers you send my way.
Believe me, I’ll need all the help I can get…
* Our little hedgehog Promaia continues to hang in there. Part of her problem may be that she (like yours truly) has obsessive- compulsive tendencies. We switched her to a water bottle some months back and she drank and drank constantly…to the point that her bladder distended and that might be the cause for her swelling and not, as the vet initially suggested, a tumour. We’re cutting back her water, only giving it to her at night; we’ll see what happens.
** Nothing new to report on the movie front. As far as I know, “Kept” is in pre-production but whether or not it will ever go before the cameras…er, well, that’s why I insisted on a 2-year limit for the option. If filming hasn’t started by then, I keep the dough and all rights revert back to me.
*** And, finally, a tip of the hat to all you folks who have sought out this site and come in for a look. I should receive my 10,000th “hit” in the next 20 days or so and that completely blows me away. When Sherron talked me into starting “Beautiful Desolation” seven months ago, I didn’t imagine numbers anything close to that. Thanks for coming by and for the comments (good or bad). I hope I’ll continue to provide you with posts that amuse, disturb and annoy. I promised myself when I started this I’d never bore you and I’d like to think I’ve kept my word.
Burning Moonlight (Selected Readings)
(Reviews of Charles Simic’s Dimestore Alchemy, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man & Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse)
Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell
by Charles Simic
(The Ecco Press; Hardcover; 1992)
A remarkable and inspired short volume, consisting of prose poems devoted to the mysterious boxes Joseph Cornell conceived and constructed over the course of his life.
Mr. Cornell’s singular creations , some of which are reproduced in the book, were assembled out of found objects and thrift store knick-knacks. These “irrational juxtapositions” were the products of a man who received no formal training in the arts. Many relate to his obsession with 19th century ballerinas and film starlets that caught his restless eye. He was a surrealist by nature and temperament, although never a formal acolyte of the movement. A reclusive and intensely shy man, he counted among his acquaintances Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali.
In his brief Preface to Dime-Store Alchemy, Charles Simic praises the “genius and originality” of Mr. Cornell and, it is clear, his literary responses are homages not only the actual works but the man—and mind—responsible for them. A good number of the proems in Dime-Store Alchemy are reminiscent of the “automatic writing” championed by the surrealist movement. There’s an intuitive and unfettered quality to the pieces, the way they so successfully emulate the dreamlike world Mr. Cornell inhabited and delineated—fanciful, perplexing but never trifling or fey.
It is the perfect marriage of two great minds. Mr. Simic is a poet renowned for his minimalist approach to writing and that spare, unadorned style is well-suited for the task at hand. His enormous regard for Mr. Cornell’s vision and untutored talent is apparent in every word. There are sentences/stanzas (what does one call them?) that are perfect capsule summaries of the Cornellian universe:
“The father of our solitude is a child.”
“Making deities is what we do in our reverie.”
“To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions.”
“The forest is a place in which everything your heart fears and desires lives.”
“Every art is about the longing of the One for the Other. Orphans that we are, we make our sibling kin out of anything we can find. The labor of art is the slow and painful metamorphosis of the One into the Other.”
With Dime-Store Alchemy, Mr. Simic enters the mind of a master artisan and with great care and empathy offers a fitting tribute to an artist who made no great pronouncements, affected no airs and left only puzzling artifacts to mark his passage in the world. Out of his solitude he brought forth cryptic montages, evocations of lost times. His lonely endeavors led him to produce insoluble puzzles, boxes of trinkets and bric-a-brac, manifestations of a mind “without precedent, eccentric, original and thoroughly American”.
Mr. Simic respects the integrity and inviolability of Joseph Cornell’s secret and sequestered life while still managing to hint at the man’s motivations and sources of inspiration. The combined effect of these short pieces is a portrait that is graceful and impressionistic, respectful and convincing, as close to truthful representation as fiction can be.
by Don DeLillo
(Scribner; Hardcover; $32.00)
“These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after…”
(Falling Man; pg. 138)
The events of September 11, 2001 horrified the Western world and permanently altered its sense of invulnerability and comfortable complacency. Our way of life was now firmly within the crosshairs of cruel, resolute enemies, our cities and reservoirs and power installations potential targets for attack. A state of siege followed, emergency measures declared, laws enacted, constitutional limits exceeded, all in the name of national security.
In the six years since that sense of urgency and fear has abated but, as we are frequently reminded, threats still exist and plotters are hard at work in their secret lairs and redoubts, devising new means of inflicting terror and chaos on a grand scale.
This past week, while waiting for an appointment at my bank, I happened to pick up a copy of an American news magazine. I flipped through it and came across a three or four line dismissal of the latest Don DeLillo novel, which is set against the backdrop of the World Trade Centre attacks. The unnamed commentator curtly opined that although the book relived those terrible days, Falling Man was not the great 9/11 novel we’ve all (apparently) been waiting for…
I was appalled that one of America’s pre-eminent writers was accorded such shabby treatment—a few lines devoted to latest DeLillo?—but what bothered me most was that the reviewer believed Mr. DeLillo, an author of unsurpassed poise and intelligence, would give serious thought to attempting some grand, definitive take on September 11, 2001.
Falling Man, compared to Mr. DeLillo’s epically proportioned Underworld, is a modest offering, an account of how the events of that fateful day affected the lives of the Neudecker family: Keith, his estranged wife Lianne and their seven year old son, Justin. Keith worked as a lawyer for a firm in the North Tower, the second to fall, and his escape and odyssey through the rain of ash and debris make for harrowing reading. Those scenes frame the book, beginning and ending it, an effective structural device.
What Keith experiences that day has a profound affect on him. He is reconciled with his wife and child, although he maintains enough emotional distance to embark on an ill-advised affair with a fellow survivor whose briefcase he carried with him as the Tower threatened to collapse around him. Keith has little interest in returning to his pre-9/11 existence and gradually spins out of the close orbit of family life, taking up professional high stakes gambling and flitting about America in search of poker tournaments. Lianne is a freelance editor and serves as a volunteer with a support group for elderly men and women suffering the initial onset of senile dementia. It’s a tough assignment, watching week by week as her charges lose themselves, personality and memory on a steep “slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible” (Falling Man; pg. 30).
Forgetfulness and coping are important components of Falling Man. People, as a necessary survival mechanism, wish to escape the raw emotions associated with traumatic events; beta blockers are often prescribed to dull the intensity of searing memories. The “falling man” referred to in the title is a performance artist who suspends himself from buildings and venues throughout New York, assuming the posture and attitude of those who plummeted from the heights of the Trade Centre towers, ghastly images that remain with many of us to this day. His appearances outrage New Yorkers anxious to get on with their lives. He will not let them forget the last moments of those doomed men and women and is arrested, even pummeled, following his unannounced exhibitions.
While the intensity of 9/11 fades, the emotional and psychic effects of that day persist—for the survivors and everyone else old enough to remember. Keith’s reintegration with his family and society is, in the end, impossible to manage—he has seen things they will never understand. He is not a part of them, their lives, any more. Mr. DeLillo is too good a writer to provide a comforting conclusion to his novel and throughout his distinguished career has never resorted to treacle or, as fellow author Rick Moody puts it, “…appeals to sympathy (that are the) only allowable response. This is precisely how melodrama and sentimentality do their worst”.
Those expecting, like the anonymous reviewer, a big, soppy, emotional take on 9/11 (a la Oliver Stone’s bombastic “World Trade Centre”) had best look elsewhere. Don DeLillo would not be so stupid and deftless to attempt such a thing. In the days, months, years following the destruction of the towers, Keith Neudecker’s awareness of the small, insignificant gestures and details of life is heightened but, in the final analysis, the events of 9/11 do not ennoble him or make him a better person. Instead he chooses to remove himself from his family, the rituals and banalities of ordinary existence. It is Lianne who finds reluctant solace in such things, even returning to the church of her childhood despite intellectual misgivings, existential doubts.
“But isn’t it the world itself that brings you to God? Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas. Others bring you closer, church brings you closer, the stained glass windows of a church, the pigments inherent in glass, the metallic oxides fused onto the glass, God in clay and stone, or was she babbling to herself to pass the time?” (Falling Man; pg. 234)
Lianne’s spiritual groping is nothing like the certainty and religious fervour that possessed Mohamed Atta and his eighteen co-conspirators as they unerringly steered their planes into the Towers, making course corrections right up to the last second. Mr. DeLillo has Atta and his fellowship of death make fleeting cameo appearances at several points during the novel—he felt the necessity to at least partially convey the thoughts of those who served such pivotal roles in that day’s destructive narrative.
The rabid faith of the terrorists was an important motivating factor, to be sure. It provided them with the moral rage they required to carry out their heinous acts. Their twisted beliefs, perverse interpretations of religious doctrine, precipitated enormous loss of life and suffering. Lianne’s grasp of the essence and necessity of God is, by comparison, far more tentative and precarious. For her, religion is a source of comfort for the weary, solace for the forlorn. Her faith, as flimsy as it may be, threatens no one and offers no possibility of harm or offense. In these dangerous, fraught times, that kind of spirituality is eminently preferable to literal truths and blind obedience.
by Jim Crace
(Doubleday; Hardcover; $32.95)
It always fascinates me when authors cross genre boundaries, boldly venturing forth into other branches of writing. Science fiction, in particular, attracts numerous mainstream scribes with its various and diverse worlds, the infinite permutations and possibilities they present. Sometimes the results are mixed—P.D. James’ Children of Men comes to mind, an admirable effort that turned on a neat concept but suffered from flaccid, bloodless prose and an overly optimistic resolution.
In some instances the dabblers achieve spectacular success and here I’m thinking of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things and, most recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These offerings are thrilling reminders of what speculative fiction can produce when you combine creativity, intellectual vigour and transcendent prose. Literary writers are technically and aesthetically superior to their genre-dwelling colleagues, capable of composing evocative, daring prose, imagineering plausible worlds and fully-formed, three dimensional characters. The abilities of Messrs. McCarthy, Auster and Hoban reveal the weaknesses and bad habits many SF hacks have accumulated due to laziness, stupidity and the minimal demands of their eccentric fan base.
Count Jim Crace as another of the successful dabblers. The English author has never shied away from big ideas and never failed to deliver on them. His first novel envisioned a seventh continent and he provided it with a history, eco-system and topography, populating it with denizens boasting their own mythologies and unique stories. He has also taken us into the Judean desert and explored the psychologies and beliefs of the early Christian mystics who sought out their god in remote, hostile places and paid a daunting price for a face to face meeting with their pitiless deity (Quarantine).
The Pesthouse, Mr. Crace’s ninth novel, is his most ambitious yet. He presents us with a future America that has fallen from predominance, regressing to savagery due to some unknown, unnamed disaster. America is now longer a place to come to, a haven for the poor and weary, but a place to flee from—
“…nothing familiar was in sight, not a single building, not a reminiscent shape, not even any cultivated land, and only the footings of ancient walls and lines of metal spikes, rusted thin, as evidence that this had once been farmed many years before but now was wilderness. People had been here in better times, had lived there possibly, had died, but there was little chance that anyone would come again. People were becoming scarce. America was emptying. The land was living only for itself.” (The Pesthouse; pg. 142)
The only “Americans” left to eke out an existence are those too old, infirm or unskilled to emigrate, board the tall ships that voyage across the ocean to the new, old world for a fresh start, a second chance…or, just as likely, a lifetime of indentured servitude. But what alternative is there? To remain in a lawless environment where raiders steal your last possession and slavers pluck up those hardy enough to work and kill the rest? Plagues are rampant, superstition rife, the structures of society and civility swept aside by the need to survive, safeguard those precious resources that make survival possible.
As they journey through this barren expanse, Mr. Crace’s characters bear witness to terrible scenes, experience close brushes with death (or worse) and come to see the “dreaming road” and fabled ships for what they are. Through the eyes of his protagonist, Margaret, we experience a world that has reduced her sex to mere chattel. She is thrown into a partnership of convenience with Franklin, a big man with the heart and spirit of a boy. A strange bond forms between them and, in time, they become a formidable team, determined to do what they must to preserve their undistinguished lives and cling tenaciously to whatever existence this blasted terrain allows. They will scratch out a modest future for themselves even if that means abandoning their dreams and reclaiming a past they thought they’d left behind. It is a courageous choice and possibly a foolish one but circumstances deny them all but the most meager aspirations.
The Pesthouse does not conclude in false optimism and for that we’re grateful. Margaret and Franklin are attractive creations but not entirely deserving of redemption. We do come to like and accept them, despite their character flaws and foibles, which Mr. Crace exposes with skill and discretion.
Science fiction hacks would have stretched this book into a fat tome (or even a bloated series), positing all sorts of strange societies and enclaves, straining our credulity with far-fetched accounts of mutants living in the crumbling ruins of abandoned cities, fantastical beings of all shapes and sizes. Jim Crace resists such silly notions and, instead, offers a credible vision of an America in decline, a ruined dystopia made up of the hopeless and unwanted. In this bitter landscape metal and technology languish and civilization and all its attractions exist elsewhere, on far, unreachable shores.
If the Americans are to prevail, restore their blighted legacy, they have daunting work ahead of them. History has been lost, science relegated to myth…it is only the will and strength of those who remain that will win the day. The prospects aren’t promising, Mr. Crace has seen to that.
In the end, all we can do is leave Margaret and Franklin to their difficult endeavors and wish them the very best. Better a life of quiet desperation than no life at all. For the odd, mismatched couple, that impossibly slender reed of hope will have to suffice…