I’ve been a professional author for 30-odd years now and I think it can be fairly said that I’ve earned a reputation as someone who stubbornly (ruthlessly?) defends my aesthetic autonomy.
With that in mind, I guess it’s understandable that I field the occasional question from other artists who find themselves wondering whether or not they have the right or strength of character to resist the suggestions and/or demands of editors, agents and fans.
I tell them:
Listen, as far as I’m concerned your inner editor should always take precedence over any external influences. It’s your name on the story or book or painting or piece of music, not someone else’s, which means you have a personal, vested interest in making sure your work is presented exactly the way you envision it. Brook no compromises or attempts to dilute the power and integrity of your project.
Editors and agents aren’t collaborators, that is a mindset that must be impressed upon them right from the get-go. You might welcome their opinions, but their input is not necessarily required and won’t be followed if it runs counter to your own thinking. I have encountered more than a few inept, dim-witted editors in the past three decades and I’ve learned to take everything they say with a grain of salt. They aren’t all bad, of course, but, truthfully, most are poor-to-mediocre, their contributions to literature existing largely in their own heads.
Agents, well, agents want to make money. That’s their primary focus and never think otherwise. They aren’t interested in developing the next DeLillo or Nabokov, they’re seeking clients who follow trends and deliver bright, shiny, commercial product. For which they will collect a tasty percentage. It’s all quite cold-blooded and transactional. Why should they hold your hand when they’re more interested in the contents of your wallet?
As for fans, who gives a shit? Your role as an artist is to frustrate expectations and short-circuit preconceptions. Your work shouldn’t reassure or offer words of comfort; if it does that you are kowtowing, truckling to popular opinion. Wrap everything up into a nice, tight bundle, adhere to formula, offer happy endings and you might as well be a ten-dollar hooker on a seedy street corner. You’re laboring on behalf of filthy lucre, rather than contributing to the legacy of creative endeavors extending back to the timeless cave paintings of Lascaux.
Art that resists imitation, that refuses to be derivative, is the work that lasts, achieving posterity because of its uniqueness, a courageous, unprecedented approach to your chosen discipline.
Why yearn for fifteen minutes of fame when you should be seeking something far more permanent and profound?
Finally, on a completely unrelated topic, let me say to those idjits who insist there are no new stories to tell, that they’ve all be told, you are out of your tiny fucking minds.
Every single minute of every single day, billions of human beings are interacting with each other, talking, engaging, sharing space, and each of these encounters represents a narrative that is distinctive and unrepeatable.
Each restorative walk you take, a trip to the bank or back fence discussion with your neighbor is a short story waiting to happen. No two individuals are exactly alike, every encounter potentially fraught with drama or humor (or, ideally, a bit of both).
Open your eyes, ears, hearts to possibility and it will find you.
Remember that the next time you’re out and about.
Turning a corner, bumping into a stranger…watch what can happen when two ancient souls meet for the first time.
Sometimes it makes for great Art.
This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.
- Recently received a note from an Italian digital musician wishing to use images from one of my strange, short films to accompany a piece of music he’s been composing. Why not?
- Things like that happen every so often. Like the two individuals (one from Hong Kong, the other the Netherlands) who contacted me seeking permission to include my photos of the “cut-up” method for inclusion in a scholarly book or as part of a presentation at an academic conference. Happy to oblige…always in the hope that exposure in different venues will help draw attention to my literary work (well, a fella can dream, can’t he).
- Some good, smart discussions on Twitter lately regarding books, writing process, films, politics, etc. (Shout out to Shaun Hamill, Steve Savile, Geoff Andrew, among others.) The trolls seem to have gone into hiding for the time being, leaving room for rational discourse. A refreshing development.
- How do my fellow progressives feel about the first month of Joe Biden’s presidency? Anyone who was expecting massive policy changes, a sudden lurch to the Left, an administration to rival FDR’s is either soft in the head or has only just awakened after a fifty-year coma. “Meet the new Boss/Same as the old Boss.”
- Go out today and either buy or borrow a good book. Just this once treat your frontal lobes and higher brain functions with the respect they deserve. Enough with the empty-headed, escapist fare. Remember: you are what you read.
- The fact that Justin Trudeau and his cabinet declined to join the rest of their parliamentary colleagues in a motion condemning the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese shows just how morally bankrupt and hypocritical the Liberal Party of Canada has become. An absolutely disgraceful display.
- We’ve signed up for a three-month tryout of the MUBI movie-streaming service. Great selection of cinema from around the world…but the goddamn thing keeps freezing and buffering, even during a 15-minute short film. I’ve contacted them and they’ve reached out, trying to effect a fix but so far, no good. And if they don’t solve the problem soon, hasta la vista MUBI!
- Is it just me? It seems like my fingernails and toe nails are growing at an accelerated rate during this extended lockdown. Please apprise if something similar is happening to you.
- Sherron keeps trying to get me to explore the wonders and benefits of kimchi…but I still recoil from the stuff. It looks like the material that gets caught in our kitchen drain; it may be a miracle food for some, but my rising gorge says otherwise.
- Back to the Big City (Saskatoon) soon to check the state of my new hip. Hopefully will have a bit of extra time for a side trip to Peryton Books and, later, some tasty ethnic cuisine before heading back on the road.
- Making excellent progress on what will be my next Black Dog Press release, Notebooks: 2010-2020. Printed up a draft and will give it to Sherron for proofing in about a week-ten days. And then final tinkering and polishing. Still anticipating an early May release date (perhaps even sooner, but don’t you dare quote me on that).
- Listening to a couple of newish Bob Mould CDs in my office the past few days. Ol’ Bob still rocks, the spirit of Husker Du lives on!
- These days half the time when the landline in our house rings it’s either a “robocall” or a scammer. This is what our society has been reduced to.
- One Twitter post in particular caught my eye the other day. A high school student was seeking advice on how to publish their book. Excuse me? Isn’t this a case of putting the cart before the horse? How about learning the rudiments of grammar and syntax first, gaining a basic understanding of language or, like, paying your fucking dues? We don’t need more books published, we need to identify and weed out the absolute shit that’s already being churned out at an accelerating pace. Most of it produced/excreted by sub-literate tits with no notion of just how terrible they really are. Sorry, kid, you won’t be getting any help from me.
- I’ll close this first installment with an appropriate quote from Aldous Huxley: “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.” Yep, that about sums it up. See you next time!
A solid week of windchills in excess of forty below.
So, I’ve been hunkered down, editing my Notebooks, prepping for a May release of what will be my fifteenth book.
Fifteen books, not one of them a dog, all of them written out of love for the printed word, rather than for the purpose of fulfilling a contract or meeting some hairy-palmed editor’s neolithic expectations. Let’s see you top that, all you hacks and wannabes.
The editing process is always incredibly intense for me, driving myself nuts finding the exact right word (and, as Don DeLillo insists, “the right sounding word”).
At the same time I am still not back to 100% from my hip replacement surgery so can’t stay seated for the prolonged periods of time I’m accustomed to—gotta get up frequently to stretch, move about, which, of course, interrupts my train of thought and then it takes me awhile to re-focus on the manuscript. I’m having trouble adapting to the new regime but that’s the reality I have to deal with now, no use bitching about it.
When I’m not editing, I’m reading and some of the excellent books I’ve finished since the beginning of the year include N.K. Jemsin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, The Cold Millions (Jess Walter), The Great Glass Sea (Josh Weil) and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, a stunning exposé of how wealthy special interest groups are undermining democracy.
Movies with Sherron to unwind after a hard day of polishing my book: last night it was “Hud”, a classic starring Paul Newman; other favorites are David Fincher’s “Mank” (best movie of the year so far), Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit”.
I tend to devote the first part of the morning to catching up on Twitter, checking out the headlines and snorting with laughter as I read other writers’ self-congratulatory posts about their latest zombie novel or slasher offering. Sometimes I can’t help firing a comment their way and am always amazed by the sheer vitriol of their replies. The moment you bring up literary standards to these arseholes they completely lose their shit. Their reactions always serve as a reminder that genre people tend to have the smallest brains and thinnest skin.
But once I’ve had my fun it’s back to the business at hand.
Giving myself a deadline/release date is always an effective way of directing my nose to the grindstone. Otherwise I’d drag the process out past the point of sanity.
As I wrote in the introduction to the Notebooks, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would have even the slightest interest in the thoughts and reflections of a cult author with a tiny readership and a marked propensity for misanthropy.
Nonetheless, come May Notebooks: 2010-2020 will be released into the world and we will just have to wait and see how it’s received.
I’ll probably be posting some teasers in the coming weeks so I hope you’ll pop in for a look.
Have to say, I love having another title in the publishing pipeline.
It’s not for all tastes but, then again, that pretty well sums up my entire body of work, don’t you think?
After 30+ years, why would I change my approach now?
I try to read at least a hundred (100) books a year but in 2020, due to various circumstances, I didn’t quite make that goal.
Ninety-three was the best I could manage; not bad, but still, c’mon, Cliff, you should be able to make it to the century mark. There was a roughly equal split between fiction and non-fiction and, as usual, my tastes were all over the place.
Here’s my “Best of…” roster for 2020 and, man, when compiling it I had to make some very difficult choices:
PROCESSED CHEESE by Stephen Wright
YELLOW EARTH by John Sayles
VANISHED BIRDS by Simon Jimenez
RED PILL by Hari Kunzru
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad
AUSTERLITZ by W.G. Sebald
RULE OF CAPTURE by Christopher Brown
METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr
PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf
GROWING THINGS (Stories) by Paul Tremblay
A CHILDREN’S BIBLE by Lydia Millet
PROVIDENCE by Max Barry
THE ASSAULT by Harry Mulisch
MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES (Stories) by Amber Sparks
THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
RABBIT FACTORY by Larry Brown
HITLER: ASCENT (1889-1939) by Volker Ulrich
POETRY FROM THE FUTURE by Srecko Horvat
SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari
ON TYRANNY by Timothy Snyder
THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich
IN TRUTH: A HISTORY OF LIES FROM ANCIENT ROME TO MODERN AMERICA by Matthew Fraser
CULT OF GLORY: THE BOLD AND BRUTAL HISTORY OF THE TEXAS RANGERS by Doug J. Swanson
CHURCHILL AND ORWELL by Thomas E. Ricks
THATCHER STOLE MY TROUSERS by Alexei Sayle
SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin
ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING by Bill Bryson
HOW THE SCOTS INVENTED THE MODERN WORLD by Arthur Herman
A peek at the cover of my next release through Black Dog Press, ELECTRIC CASTLES: A BOOK OF URBAN LEGENDS.
Chris Kent performed his usual design magic and special thanks to Gabriele Marras, who supplied the original photo.
My odd little imprint has always focussed on releasing the best and most beautiful books, but this cover surpasses anything we’ve come up with before. As you can probably tell, we’re mighty pleased with it.
The proof has been printed and is already winging its way toward my mailbox and the ePub and Kindle versions should be available later today.
Place your order with me if you’d like an autographed copy, otherwise buy ELECTRIC CASTLES at your favorite independent bookstore.
Support indie publishers and booksellers!