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)
“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
― Ray Bradbury, FAHRENHEIT 451
Okay, here’s the situation:
You know I don’t like publishers, I’ve pulled no punches on that front. You’ve read the blog, maybe zipped over to my Redroom author site, seen what I have to say there. A lot of it isn’t nice but all of it is true.
Some people don’t like that. One publisher has gone so far as to have their legal beagles contact the Redroom administrators and threaten them into removing one of my posts. They didn’t like it when I quoted one of their editors; they thought the quote made her look bad.
What did she say exactly?
About eight years ago, I was shopping around a novel of mine called Lost. I sent out copies of the manuscript to a couple of dozen publishers and got nowhere. After holding on to Lost for more than a year, this editor finally took it upon herself to call (guilty conscience?) and give me the bad news. I held the phone out so my wife could listen in on the conversation and we both heard this editor quip, right after saying thanks but no thanks:
“It’s too bad you’re not an East Indian writer, they’re really hot right now.” Those exact words. Sherron said I turned pale when I heard that.
“You mean that would make a difference if you were considering my novel?” I inquired, trying to stay calm and measured, despite the fact I was seething.
She quickly realized what a ridiculous statement she had uttered and tried to backtrack. “Um, actually forget I said that.”
She hung up soon afterward.
I reported this conversation in a short blog entry on Redroom a couple of days ago, naming the editor and the publisher.
That’s when the shit hit the fan.
The publisher’s lawyer contacted Redroom, who immediately yanked the post. Redroom’s legal representative then e-mailed me, informing me what they’d done.
My response was: where’s the actionable offense? I related what she said, literally word for word and even if worst came to worst and the publisher did sue, it would be the editor’s word against me (and my wife). But clearly the Redroom folks were nervous.
I’m not blaming them; we live in litigious times. And sometimes the threat of litigation is used to stymie free expression and intimidate people from telling the truth. This is a perfect example. And because the publisher has far deeper pockets than either Redroom or I, they can get away with shitting on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to protect an editor who made a dumb and telling statement that, let’s face it, reveals attitudes that are endemic in Canadian publishing.
Let me ask you something: if those sentiments had been uttered toward a writer who happened to be a visible minority, what do you think would have been the result?
“It’s too bad you’re not a Caucasian writer, they’re really hot right now.”
Can you imagine the explosion of outrage, the howls of “Racism!” that would have bounced from coast to coast to coast?
But it’s okay to say such things to someone like me, Mister white, middle-aged male.
So if you pop by Redroom, looking for the original post, good luck–you won’t find it.
The publisher and their lawyers have closed ranks and they know neither Redroom nor I has the resources to fight them. The rich and powerful win again and anyone who steps out of line, anyone who calls them on their stupidity and dishonesty will pay the price.
It’s an object lesson in power.
One I won’t soon forget.
A tip of the hat to Mediabistro for printing excerpts of my most inflammatory statements re: publishers (you think there was a connection between that and the arrival of the Men in Black?).
Their staff writer opined that thanks to such statements I was burning my bridges–unaware that those bridges had been burned long ago, thanks to conversations like the one I quoted above and nearly a quarter century of dealing with publishers, editors and agents on all levels.
One thing I do take issue with–I’ve had hundreds of downloads of my novel So Dark the Night and when I said that in Canada hundreds of downloads in a month represented a bestseller, she scoffed. Not the same thing as a book sold.
Why not? In order to read So Dark the Night someone has to go to the effort of finding my site, clicking on the novel and either saving it to their hard drive or printing almost 470 pages. That shows real interest and commitment on the part of those readers, just as much interest as if they’d walked into a physical store and bought the book.
She’s selling my novel short and casting aspersions on the credibility of e-books in general. Dead tree editions aren’t the sole criteria here. Hundreds of people around the world are reading So Dark the Night. Does it matter if it only exists in virtual form? Not to my readers.
And, in the end, they’re the ones who really count.