Yesterday, after spending most of the afternoon cleaning and re-arranging our garage (onerous task), I settled myself on the back deck with a glass of scotch, a small cigar, my notebook and a volume of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert.
Herbert was a Polish writer who, despite growing up in an authoritarian environment, managed to compose magnificent, soul-rending verse.
As I was reading poems like “Mama” and “Chord”, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it wold be like to live as an artist in a society where personal and aesthetic freedoms are strictly curtailed, the regime relentless in its pursuit of any kind of opposition, the smallest display of rebellion.
It was someone’s job to
scrutinize every syllable,
search each metaphor
and allusion for
significance, a deeper
meaning that might
subvert the apparatus,
throw a monkey
wrench into the works,
or cast the slightest
aspersion against the
omnipotence of the
…but artists like Herbert and Vasily Grossman and Andrei Tarkovsky managed, somehow, to frustrate their ideological masters, producing works of lasting genius. What was it that made them so strong, so immune to the powers of the state, when so many of their colleagues caved in to pressure, conformed, compromised their visions? Was it some form of faith? Pride? Strength of will?
My God, the courage it would take to stand your ground, refuse to dilute or skew your art. Would I be that strong under similar circumstances? Could I resist the blandishments and threats? Choose exile and disgrace over safety and security?
Which somehow led me around to:
I cannot see the
My faith is
not so simple,
I ask for proofs
and the universe
spasms of hilarity.
God is laughing
but I, stubborn
fail to crack
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Except…wasn’t Virginia Woolf a “self-publisher”? After all, she released her work through Hogarth Press, which she co-owned along with her husband, Leonard. It was a going family concern—Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell designed some of the book covers.
And I know for a fact Ezra Pound wasn’t averse to paying out of pocket, if it meant seeing his erudite, obscure poems get into print.
Robert Browning, ditto.
If I’m not mistaken, James Joyce put up part of the publication cost of his first collection, The Dubliners (regardless, his nervous publisher held the presses for years, wary of violating Ireland’s stiff obscenity laws).
I guess I’m saying that historically self-publishing, the vanity press, whatever you want to call it, wasn’t always the province of the hack and the wannabe. And I think the same is true today. There is a lot of shit out there, don’t get me wrong, but there are also a few genuinely talented, innovative authors in amongst the dross.
Don’t give up on us.
This blog is now ten years old. Ten years to the day.
Well, well, well.
Who could’ve imagined “Beautiful Desolation” would still be around? I’ve seen the stats: most blogs sputter out after a year or two, the individual(s) involved eventually losing interest or not finding the time or unable to post regularly enough to keep it up to date and viable.
I can understand that. Over the lifetime of this blog, I’ve written 450+ posts, averaging about one every ten days or so. Which for a full time scribe and stay-at-home dad is a pretty hefty investment of time and energy. Plus, I’ve never posted just for the sake of posting, I’ve always had something to say or share (even if it’s frequently, especially in the early days, invective and bitter, icy fury).
Right from the beginning, “Beautiful Desolation” was a platform, a bully pulpit from where I could hold forth on subjects near and dear to my indie, contrarian heart. My thirty+ years as a professional author provides me with a host of experiences and encounters to draw from, and I must say it gives me considerable pleasure when young writers contact me and tell me how a certain article or mini-essay or rant I’ve posted inspired them or bucked up their courage during a low patch in their life. My entire career, from the get-go, has been all about empowering myself as an artist and not allowing others to tamper with my work, diluting its emotional, aesthetic and spiritual intensity and passion. That was an obsession for me even before I “turned pro” way back in 1985. I have always fiercely defended my work and questioned the effectiveness/competence of editors who take it upon themselves to “improve” my writing, “smooth out” the rough spots, etc.
I made it plain from those initial posts that this blog is devoted to the celebration of literary, intelligent, innovative, genre-busting fiction that defies fashion and formula and seeks truly new and unique representations of the world around us. I’m contemptuous of amateurish drivel and people who think insisting on proper grammar and syntax is “old school”. I respect authors who make herculean efforts to write and revise their work, laboring tirelessly, excellence their only goal. I’ve been a full-time author for a long time and struggle each day to find the courage and inspiration to go on. It takes me weeks to polish a story, years to finish a full-length manuscript. So you’ll excuse me if I say that, by those standards, dabblers and weekend scribblers and NanoWriMo wannabes just don’t make the grade, sorry.
It’s been interesting to go back to some of those early posts on “Beautiful Desolation”—some of them are very, very angry and confrontational. I’m thinking of my pointed words on contemporary science fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s rather lifeless interview on “Oprah”, the mediocrity that is CanLit and my repeated diatribes against the idiocy that is National Novel Writing Month (“part-time writers unite!”)
The nastier stuff kind of flickered out after the first couple of years, though I’m still capable of delivering withering scorn on command. I’ve said a few things about paranormal romance and shapeshifter-erotic-fiction that had a few people gnashing their teeth and hastily “unsubscribing”.
Ah, well. Some folks are touchy about being sub-literate and dull-witted.
Recently, this blog has taken on a more overtly political tone, which reflects my growing interest in leftist politics, socialism, Marxism…really, anything that is an alternative to the capitalist juggernaut devouring all the resources on this planet, rendering it unsuitable for a growing number of species (a list that will eventually include, y’know, us).
The election of CEO Trump to head Corporation America, the emergence of the far right around the world, as well as the on-going shenanigans of the neo-liberals and their wealthy sponsors, have alarmed progressives and activists, who view the rising intolerance and racism as part and parcel of a system that disenfranchises and impoverishes the masses, in order to fatten the wallets of the elite.
A concerted effort to unite disparate voices and causes under the banner of freedom, true freedom, must be undertaken or we are headed down a long, dark, scary road. I hesitate to predict what our society will look like when we reach the end of that particular journey. My imagination quails at the notion, quite frankly.
But, as I’ve come to realize, one can’t always dwell on these gloom and doom scenarios; for the sake of balance (and sanity), you have to be able to conceive of a better, healthier, more equitable world, a chance at a brighter tomorrow. And so I’ve sought out individuals and organizations, voices that offer entirely different perspectives on where the human adventure might lead us, given the right kind of moral and spiritual leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover people like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek; Paul Mason, Naomi Klein and Tariq Ali. The LEAP Manifesto and the existence of good, ideologically committed leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders offer at least the hope for change, the introduction of real ideas into a partisan, over-heated discourse.
Books like Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, Klein’s This Changes Everything and Karl Marx’s Capital provide us with workable blueprints for correcting our course, indicating different, less spooky paths to travel, and once absorbed they alter your whole mode of thinking—I’m talking a complete paradigm shift. We don’t have to live the way we do, there are methods we can employ, mindsets we can adopt to alter our lives, our ingrained habits and actually make the world a better place, just by our example.
I’m sure I’ll be writing about this in more detail in the months/years to come.
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed “Beautiful Desolation” in its various guises. Ten years has given me the time and scope to cover a lot of ground and during that interval I’ve undoubtedly said some things I probably shouldn’t have and managed to piss off an impressively wide assortment of people. But all along I’ve made it manifestly clear to even the most desultory, unwary visitor: if you’ve come to this blog looking for reassurance and treacle, a collegial atmosphere and warm, fuzzy support system, you’ve opened the wrong door, I’m afraid. This site is about the price we pay for having feelings, for being alive and sentient in a world that’s increasingly chaotic and disorienting, our “civilization” gradually losing its thin veneer of humanity, revealing the glistening skull beneath its skin.
“Beautiful Desolation” is, in that sense, the perfect title for this blog.
The more I think of it, what could have been more appropriate?
* * * * *
A few recent developments I should mention:
The Mindful Word, a site devoted to conscious creativity and holistic wellness (hey, how can you argue with that?), has published two short essays I composed, offering advice to young, developing writers…and warning of the possible perils of semi-autobiographical fiction and memoirs. Pop over there to check them out and then take some time to poke around–it’s a cool site.
I also somehow managed to place an extremely odd piece, “A Personal Cosmology”, with The Oleander Review, a literary journal published by the University of Michigan—the issue in question is due out in April. Here’s a sample from “Cosmology” I posted awhile back. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Finally, “Happy Birthday” to my pals Laird and Karen—who share the same birth date and the unfortunate tendency to root for two historically dreadful hockey clubs (the Leafs and Canucks, respectively). This lifelong Bruins fan tries not to hold that against them, although sometimes, I admit, it takes concerted effort to restrain my natural tendency to trash talk. But, then again, it’s hard to feel smug when your favourite team includes an unrepentant arsehole like Brad Marchand.
Note: the accompanying pictures are drawn from our Summer, 2016 visit to Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Istanbul, in particular, continues to haunt our memories (and sometimes our dreams). What a magical, terrifying, wondrous metropolis. One day, we hope to make it back…
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.
* * * *
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
Over the holidays I devoted a considerable amount of thought to what should happen next with Black Dog Press.
So far, my imprint has released eleven books, a couple of limited edition chapbooks…but now what?
I’ve come to the determination that I won’t be publishing anything in 2017—and before the emails and complaints start flying, let me elaborate.
Despite my considerable efforts, Black Dog Press remains a very marginal enterprise. It is a constant struggle to draw attention to my writing when there are so many tomes being published and self-published, churned out like dumb, identical widgets. I want to pursue new methods for advertising my books, trying my best to overcome my aversion to self-promotion (a particularly ugly manifestation of narcissism). I’ve never been an author who haunts forums, always looking for an opportunity to reference my own work, and I’m not much a joiner, if you get my drift. More like your classic lone wolf.
In the past, I’ve sought out other, like-minded indie authors/publishers but, candidly, haven’t found many who take the printed word as seriously as I do. Very few scribes these days produce genuinely original, literary work; their prose is often derivative (fan fiction) or stuck in a genre of little interest to me (zombie, shapeshifter romance, etc.). Sadly, the proliferation of technology, the growing number of publishing platforms, means that the amateurs and wannabes out there can publish all the crap they excrete, with the minimum of editing or critical scrutiny. Pounding their chests and calling themselves writers, having a fit when anyone dares question their professional credentials. As petulant as they are untalented, vicious, rather than visionary.
Sending out review copies doesn’t work—that much has been made clear. Again, too many books, too few good publications (even fewer qualified critics)…and then there are the unnamed rags that want you to buy advertising space before they’ll even consider your book for review. There’s a special red-hot poker in Hell waiting for that scum.
I adamantly refuse to purchase a positive, five-star review from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. Never, never, never.
What does that leave?
I’ve been looking into hiring a publicist, but that would mean leaving my comfort zone and putting my books, my personality, my face in the hands of a stranger. Granting them permission to do what’s necessary to “raise my profile” (I’m literally squirming as I type those words).
But something has to be done. I’m publishing terrific, intelligent, compelling novels and stories and they’re not getting the attention they deserve. After over 30 years as a professional author, my stature isn’t anywhere near what it should be…and the fault lies with me.
I have to do better at promoting my growing body of work, even if that means trying things I’ve never dared attempt before.
It’s an approach I’ve always shied away from, but there’s no other option.
If I want to continue growing my readership, keep Black Dog Press afloat, I have to cast aside my aversion to, gulp, selling myself to the public.
This isn’t going to be easy…
In a few months, this blog will be ten years old.
Time to upgrade the old gal, select a new theme photo, clean out some of the clutter, etc.
I’ve paid particular attention to my “Other Media” page, tossing some older efforts and adding fresh renderings of my best, most popular tales, along with a few recent electronic pieces.
More changes to come, but do let me know what you think of the “new look”—your opinion is important to me and, no, I’m not just saying that. Honest.