Awhile back, I exchanged some e-mails with my colleague Andrez Bergen, both of us bemoaning the sorry state of the publishing biz. Andrez is a superb writer, his novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat a stunning blend of Phil Dick at his best and “literary noir”—if you haven’t read it, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Which is kind of the point of this post.
In one of my final missives I joked to Andrez that I was going to start an association called The Neglected Authors Alliance (NAA), and that the two of us would be charter members. Over the ensuing weeks, the idea kind of stuck with me and sometimes, as I passed my bookshelves, I’d take note of an author or two who weren’t household names, who had either slipped into obscurity or had never been widely read in the first place. I started putting together a roster; the living and the dead.
It was a depressing task; once I saw the sheer amount of raw talent represented, I felt sick. If these guys and gals couldn’t garner the rewards and praise and posterity to which they’re entitled, what chance do I have? Thirty years I’ve been putting pen to paper and my literary profile isn’t exactly where I want it to be (he says, choosing his words with extreme care).
And so, in tribute to Andrew and some other very fine scribes who deserve(d) far, far better from fickle readers and negligent publishers, I would like to recommend to you the following authors who have labored selflessly and courageously to produce innovative, literate prose, and who I am honored to add to the rolls of our oddball “society”:
Paul Di Filippo
Abraham Rodriguez, Jr.
Steve Rasnic Tem
Past (Honorary) Members:
Louis Ferdinand Celine
Adolfo Bioy Cesares
Notice to any authors on my list who come across this post: drop me a line if you’d like to have your own, official NAA button, with all the perqs and benefits that implies.
And, in the meantime, don’t give up, don’t stop producing great work, refuse to cede the field to the hacks, “share-croppers” and pornographers plying their trade today.
We need you.
The barbarians are at the gate…
Photo by Sherron Burns
Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant. These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades. Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them. Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit. Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody. Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter. Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?
Never in hell. I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid. A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.
This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.
“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”
“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”
“Only the chapter I had to.”
“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”
“That was half decent.”
“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”
And so on. Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.
What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store? Waiting for the rain to subside? I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?
* * * * *
I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles. It’s getting scary. We’re running out of space. Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand. I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles? How much can she get for all these fucking books?
And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans. If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.
Or perhaps not. It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore. I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch. Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…
Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that, well, nuts?
It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.
I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder. When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.
Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that. The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess. That’s it.
Pitiful, ain’t it?
But, of course, it isn’t just books. I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it. I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending. Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.
No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control. Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals. Thanks, kids!
We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling. The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down? That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational. It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity. The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.
I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old. Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days. I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist. Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.
I’ve been a reader all my life. Forty years with my nose in books. Books have always offered me comfort and consolation. In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality. As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today. I would be one of them: mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.
All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.
A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage. Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.
New and old enthusiasms: Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice. It goes on and on…
When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)? How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words? Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?
Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.
How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years? Two hundred? Three hundred? The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…
I’m a sick man. Addicted to the printed word. Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically. Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy. How could I have missed them? Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.
The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.
Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there. Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant. A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.
Photos by Sherron Burns
“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…