The Importance of a Critical Community
I admit it: I despise wannabe writers.
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?
Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man
“Here where others offer up their works I pretend to nothing more than showing my mind.”
“What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude and rejection.”
I’ll be turning forty-four later this month and, naturally, with the passing of another year I can’t help taking stock, appraising the state of my life and work. That can be a tricky proposition, especially when you have, ahem, depressive tendencies.
The first thing that comes to mind whenever my birthday rolls around is the line from that old Pink Floyd song that goes “another day older, another day closer to death”. Some people actually celebrate their birthdays but not me—I have to dwell on mortality, my mind taking a sharp, left turn toward morbidity. Typical.
But the point of this post is not the inevitability of death (thank God), it’s about change, rites of passage, the sense of moving into another phase of my life and, especially, my writing life.
I’ve written a number of journal entries (don’t worry, I won’t reproduce them here, I have more respect for you than that) in which I state that I feel my literary apprenticeship is over and I now have a strong sense I can take all that I’ve learned and can finally start establishing my own unique voice.
Does twenty-two years seem like a rather extended apprenticeship? Not to me. Over the course of that time I have immersed myself in the best writers I could find, reading them, studying them with the rapt attention of a monk scrutinizing ancient holy texts.
Applying all I’ve learned and assimilated from the Masters has taught me technical craftsmanship but it has also reminded me of the importance of discipline, self-sacrifice and perseverance. They’ve given me crucial insights into the level of commitment and devotion required to create something of lasting worth. I’ve always admired authors who are original and innovative and now, more and more, I want to see those virtues reflected in my work.
And I don’t mean literary experiments, self-referential, modernist (or post-modernist) tripe composed for my eyes only and readers be damned. I’ve gone down that road before and while it produced some interesting prose, I found, after awhile, that it didn’t speak to my heart and spirit and resulted in closed, claustrophobic bits and pieces that seemed to obscure rather than illuminate. In the end, I abandoned that approach as a creative cul de sac, a road that went nowhere.
What I’m talking about are new approaches to characterization and, also, incorporating more cinematic elements to structure and story, employing multiple viewpoints, juxtapositions, flashbacks, superimpositions, fadeouts, cutaways…all in an effort to deny that old canard that “there’s nothing new under the sun”.
Nothing new…what a bunch of horseshit.
The first time I read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist I knew I had found a writer with fresh ideas, thematically and stylistically. Every Cormac McCarthy novel I read is an epiphany. Project X by Jim Shepard body-slammed me with its remarkable authenticity.
The best authors have their own distinct perspective they bring into play…and after twenty-some years I can finally say that I’m ready to tell my stories my way. The history of the world from the standpoint of an agoraphobic neurotic obsessive-compulsive perfectionist with delusions of grandeur.
Or, looking at it another way, I can grace my stories with the hard-won insights of a man who has now lived more than half his life, who’s gotten married, has two sons, lost friends, gained friends, fought, fucked up, suffered, laughed, seen and done things I couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago. Thanks to a host of life experiences my work is informed by a richness and maturity that wasn’t there previously, deeper shades and tones I couldn’t have managed as a younger author.
I’m not as afraid as I used to be, not as prone to ungovernable fits of rage and frustration. That doesn’t deny my work passion, it means I can better channel, direct and control those passions that used to send me shooting off in all directions, dissipating my creative energies.
I’ve written extensively of futility on this blog, the despair that sometimes overwhelms me because of my brain chemistry and bad genetics. Some people have then turned around and used these confessions in other forums to attack my credibility on subjects relating to literature. I’m a “failed writer”, don’t I even admit it myself?
Yes, according to my high standards, my literary output seems pretty insubstantial. But look at who I’m holding myself up against, geniuses like Louis Ferdinand Celine and Joyce and Beckett and Bobby Stone. Who wouldn’t come off as second-rate compared to those lads?
But when I look at the wannabes out there, the ones who insist on calling themselves writers because they published a romantic fantasy novel in e-book form, I come off pretty well, don’t you think? These twats actually have the nerve to announce to the world they’ve written 80 or 100 (or more) novels in the course of their illustrious careers…and yet when you “Google” their names, none of their work seems to be kicking about. Funny. And they’re the first ones to get biscuit-ersed (Irvine Welsh’s hilarious phrase) when I talk about “aesthetics” and “critical reading”.
“I write to entertain,” they sniff daintily, demurely paging through a fat forest-killer with a dragon or unicorn on the cover. And when I call them on their silly pretensions, their transparent lies, I’m dubbed “elitist” or a “pompous ass”.
Go back to your fucking knitting, you hobbyists. How do you manage to see your keyboards with your heads so far up your own arseholes?
Worse yet are the horror hacks I’ve come across with their brain-sucking zombies and superannuated vampires and misogynistic rape fantasies. They go ballistic when I remind them of the subtle, cerebral horror of Roman Polanski. Their tastes run more toward the latest Rob Zombie abomination, great gouts of blood spraying everywhere to the accompaniment of a throbbing, crunching soundtrack. Subtlety to them is a body count under a hundred.
Horror fiction has been in the doldrums for a long time and I blame the splatterpunks, who unzipped their flies and pissed all over the genre in the late ’80’s and early 90’s. It’s never been a field that features good writing but, Christ, the stuff that’s been proliferating in the past ten to fifteen years is scraping the muck and slime off the bottom of the barrel. It’s time to take the genre back from these fuckheads—where is our generation’s Ira Levin or Clive Barker or Richard Matheson? Who will save us from these purveyors of shit?
Well, it won’t be me. I want nothing to do with horror until it cleans up its act. And that means smarter editors and more talented writers—and the chances of those things coming to pass are roughly the same as the Rapture sweeping up all the worthy Christians next Thursday (and good riddance to them).
In any event, I’ll still be here, in this 10 X 12 office, composing my strange, little stories, dreaming of a readership in the tens of millions. And I’m content with that.
An unjaundiced look at my career tells me things might be looking up. My novella “Kept” may or may not be made into a movie that may or may not be pretty good. I’m working on a new project, feeling more engaged than I’ve felt in a long while. My marriage is solid, my family the greatest support system a guy could ever want or have.
Success and riches may never come…but I made a conscious choice a long time ago that regardless of what happened I would never compromise, never sell out, that I would aggressively defend my offerings from the predations of those who are not worthy to pass judgment on any title more sophisticated than a Dick & Jane reader. That stance has probably cost me a shot at fame and fortune…but, conversely, my work can’t be accused of being derivative or formulaic and I’ve composed some truly original fiction that I believe will stand the test of time.
“Tell a good story and the readers will come…eventually,” I wrote on another blogger’s site and I believe that.
You found me here, didn’t you? And now you might just scroll down and read more screeds by this crazy fucking Canuck…or click on Stories and tackle the excerpt from my smashing great novel So Dark the Night (it’s worth it, believe me).
Thanks for taking the time to pop by—and I’m grateful, as well, to my regular readers, the repeat visitors to Beautiful Desolation, folks I’ve come to know through their comments and personal communications.
Let’s give it another forty-four years, shall we? See what happens. I’ll keep putting one word ahead of the next, telling my stories in my own inimitable style.
Yes, the apprenticeship is officially over. From here on, whenever you read one of my tales, the only voice you’ll hear is mine.
Listen to my song…
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.