He’s one of my literary heroes—he and George Saunders are the two best short story writers in the English language.
For a number of years he wrote a column for The Believer and in 2017 Tin House Books (great little press) released a collection of those pieces titled The Tunnel at the End of the Light.
It is, needless to say, a smart, articulate book and I wanted to quote a passage from Shepard’s Introduction to give you an idea of why I revere the man so much:
“The Republican Party has for decades claimed that the American government is the implacable enemy of the American people. This administration (Trump) is working to make that statement true for the first time for a very large majority of citizens.
That leaves the streets, and we can already see what’s in store for us there. The militarization of the police over the past forty years, begun with the war on drugs and amped up a thousandfold by the war on terror, was never really about threats from without and has always been about anticipating threats from within: as in, What happens when economic inequality and political irrelevance become so grotesque that they lead to civic unrest? The solution to the problem, for the Republicans and the corporate Democrats who have held power, has never been, So I guess we should do something to alleviate economic inequality. It’s always been, When the have-nots have nothing left but the streets, we need to be ready to take the streets away as well. And of course the exponential growth of the surveillance state will help with that. Hence our leaders’ seeming lack of concern over the last decade or so about all the metadata about US citizens—citizens who haven’t been suspected of a crime—that’s being hovered up.”
At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I was hit with a wave of nausea…a short story machine? Tales pumped out of a dispenser like junk food?
Sherron, bless her heart, anticipated my reaction and printed up a number of stories to bring home for my examination. Without exception, the offerings were inept, tuneless, unoriginal, poorly executed, childish. There was no professional vetting in terms of quality and it showed. Apparently the company in question, ShortEdition, has over 80,000 stories, of varying genres and length, for potential readers to choose from. Based on the examples I scanned, you’d get more aesthetic satisfaction reading the back of a cereal box or instructions for using a pay toilet.
Awful, awful stuff, printed on thin tape for speedy consumption, as disposable and forgettable as most of the other crap we produce these days.
And the horrible thing is that we’re living in an absolute golden era in terms of the short story format. Geniuses like Jim Shepard and George Saunders are gracing us with tales that can move us deeply, while maintaining the highest literary standards. Daring, innovative prose that shatters preconceptions and offers entirely new perspectives of the world around us.
This ridiculous gadget is yet another example of the dumbing down of society, offering blatant mediocrities and tone-deaf amateurs a platform to exercise their egos. It is junk food for the post-literate, the mental equivalent of fucking Pez.
Anyone who pays for this service is a moron, anyone who enjoys the “writing” needs to stop wearing their hats so tight.
How about spending your money on real authors, men and women who devote an enormous amount of time and effort ensuring their prose is as tight and polished as it can be? Masters of the printed word.
They deserve your support, whereas the ShortEdition wannabes warrant only a snort of derision and a sad shake of the head.
I added some background music tracks for dramatic effect and I think this performance is an excellent teaser for the book.
If you want to hear audio renditions of more poems from the collection, recorded back in 2016 at the ancient amphitheater of Epidaurus, go to my “Other Media” page and scroll down a bit; you’ll find it.
This blog is approaching its 500th post and, of course, I have something special planned to mark the occasion.
Watch this space.
Five hundred posts, eleven years of maintaining Beautiful Desolation…that’s a lot of time (and words and music and rants).
Couldn’t do it without you, folks, your support, your public responses and private messages.
Enjoy this snippet—there’s much, much more to come:
A looooong interval between posts.
Well, what do you expect? I’m a working author, with a mind that doesn’t allow for much leisure or fun.
Mainly, I’ve been editing The Algebra of Inequality, my latest collection of poems. It has been an agonizing process, choosing the best poems from the past five years, winnowing out the rest. And sometimes a poem gets the chop not because it lacks tunefulness or thematic unity, but for other, more nebulous reasons. Somehow it just doesn’t quite fit with the rest. It’s a judgement call and often I had second, third and fourth thoughts, so the whole thing became ridiculously drawn out and fraught, dragging on for weeks.
But now it’s done. The interior layout is just about ready and my regular cover guy, Chris Kent, is hard at work on another doozie. I’ll be leaking a sneak peek of said cover in the coming days; it’s based on one of my paintings and, knowing Chris, it’s bound to be eye-grabbing.
Yes, what’s up with the painting, why has it become so important to me? Because when I haven’t been editing, I’ve been regularly making that trip down to my little basement dungeon and attacking canvases with acrylics, a screwdriver, awl, various other implements. Getting physical. The results are odd, distinctive, and the works tend to elicit interesting reactions from the people who see them. But it’s a thrill leaving text behind for awhile and working purely symbolically, utilizing a totally different area of my brain.
Recently, I’ve also completed a large, complex collage piece that may end up as the cover for my short story collection later this year.
One of the poems I lopped from The Algebra of Inequality was one I concocted a number of years ago, titled A Personal Cosmology. It has a strong, visual component. I used some square styrofoam and black paint to create a series of stark, geometric images. Then I employed “automatic writing” and started scribbling, one short prose bit for each of the six images. I think I posted one of these images and accompanying text a few years ago but, for the first time, this is the complete version of Cosmology.
I love this piece, it comes right from the soul, but it just wasn’t right for the collection.
It was one of the final cuts, a hard one to leave out.
Click on this link, scroll through it…enjoy:
Hunter S. Thompson became one of my literary idols when I was nineteen years old. Reading Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas changed my life…in good ways and bad.
Imagine keeping to a writing regime like this, day in and day out:
My daily routine involves a couple cups of tea first thing in the morning, long spells of staring off into space and endless hours of self-doubt and gnawing anxiety.
Clearly, I’ve been going about it the wrong way…
A quick glance ahead at 2018 would seem to indicate a year of some promise. I have two books I am readying for release, the first a volume of poetry (The Algebra of Inequality & Other Poems), which will be out April-May. A compilation of my best poems in the past five years. I am currently in the process of culling and selecting from a roster of nearly a hundred and fifty; not an easy or pleasant task. In the fall, finances permitting, I’ll be publishing a collection of short stories, Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends. Two hundred plus pages of prose set in cities here, there and nowhere.
Two books in one calendar year—that will be quite a stretch for my wee press but I think we can manage (crossing his fingers).
Looking back on 2017, I see it as a year where I managed to dabble in a little bit of everything: writing, photography, painting, music…
Is it good that I’m no longer so focussed on writing, that it isn’t my sole obsession these days? Am I right to believe that any form of expression belongs in my oeuvre, regardless of the media involved?
I feel such a tremendous sense of satisfaction when I see one of my books that also features cover art that I helped create or devise. That’s empowerment, I tell you. Watch for the cover of that aforementioned volume of poetry, come April; it’s one of mine as well.
I managed to achieve my target of reading one hundred books in 2017—actually, the final tally was 103. I also watched over a hundred movies last year and I’m be posting my favorites over at Cinema Arête in the coming hours.
Here’s my “Best of…” picks for the books I discovered and devoured in 2017. My reading, as ever, far-ranging and eclectic, about evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction.
Best Fiction of 2017
The Street of Crocodiles (Stories) by Bruno Schulz
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Tsar of Love & Techno (Stories) by Anthony Maara
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
We The Animals by Justin Torres
Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Sleet (Selected Stories) by Stig Dagerman
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Trajectory (Stories) by Richard Russo
The World Made Straight by Ron Rash
Flings (Stories) by Justin Taylor
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds
The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert by Zbigniew Herbert
War Primer by Bertolt Brecht
Flying at Night (Poems 1965-85) by Ted Kooser
Scarcity: Why Having So Little means So Much by S. Maullainathan & E. Shafir
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason
The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali
October by China Mieville
The Lost Amazon edited by Wade Davis
The Art of Space by Ron Miller
A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros
Keep Watching the Skies! American SF Movies of the Fifties by Bill Warren
A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre
Unknown Pleasures (Memoir) by Peter Hook
Footnotes in Gaza (Graphic Novel) by Joe Sacco
Trouble Boys (Biography of The Replacements) by Bob Mehr
You knew I had to be up to something and you were right.
A month between posts? C’mon, you know me better than that.
This summer has been my most productive, writing-wise, in several years. It’s like the taps were turned on again and I’ve been writing with all my focus and concentration, feeling the juices flowing again.
Two, count ’em, two long stories since June, quite a few poems, a short prose piece that’s one of the best things I’ve written in quite awhile…
And everything registering strongly on the aesthetic Richter Scale—nothing slight or inconsequential. Intelligent, literate efforts, not pandering to any school or taste.
I haven’t lost a fucking step.
Oh, and I’ve started work on a new novel. Well, not quite a new novel—I’m completely overhauling a 250-page manuscript I originally conceived around 2002. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m looking at 12-15 months worth of revisions, so you shouldn’t expect to see that one in print until, ballparking it, mid-2019. No teasers, except that it references a classic Victorian thriller and will be darker and more horror-related than some of my recent work.
But fear not, impatient readers, I shall be releasing not one but two full-length efforts in 2018: first, The Algebra of Inequality and Other Poems, a selection of verse culled from the past five years. The title is nicked from a line in a Don Barthelme short story that caught my eye. Ol’ Don had some zingers.
I know poetry is a hard sell to some folks but I believe it gives me the opportunity to address profound philosophical and spiritual and existential questions in the most spare, personal, unforgiving literary format. Poetry permits no artistic missteps—it really is like walking a tightrope.
And there will be (drumroll please) a new short story collection next year, Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends. Original tales, all centered around everything magical and terrifying about cities, near and far, real and imagined. Killer stories, spanning just about every genre, guaranteed to amaze, disturb and warp your puny perceptions and sensibilities. Consensual reality? What the hell is that?
Both books will feature, as per the custom here at Black Dog Press, gorgeous cover art and will be professionally formatted and bound. There will be an e-book version of Electric Castles, still mulling it over re: the poetry. Poetry is so unique and personal and analog…does it really belong on a tablet or phone screen?
Lots of writing and revisions in the months ahead, some highs and lows, good days and days when, as they say, “the bear gets you”. All part of the creative process: painful and terrifying, but also exhilarating and inspiring. No doubt you’ll be reading something of my triumphs and travails here…and I hope it will serve to remind you that the writing life is not easy and requires a great deal of courage and fortitude. Perseverance and sheer guts get you a lot further in any profession than mere talent. Surely you know that by now.
Some mornings I can’t imagine facing that page again.
And yet I do.
That’s the difference between an author and a poser.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: for real writers, girls and boys, every fucking month is “National Novel Writing Month”.
You heard it here…
Photos by Sherron Burns