I’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.
I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.
There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…
Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:
“Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”
I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.
What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.
Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.
Really, Mr. Wood?
I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.
Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.
I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.
If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.
Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.
David Mitchell is a marvel.
He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.
What a guy.
This question has been much on my mind for the past while. I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore. I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter. Baubles and trinkets. Bullion and bullshit.
Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it. As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call. (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)
I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.
I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies. I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).
Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?
To be the best. To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians. Note perfect. I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.
I have no interest in being average. A “decent” writer. Ugh. Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.
Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes. If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards. Which automatically begs the question: have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?
I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it). And I’m a full time writer. Imagine that. Day in and day out for 3+ years. (Shudder) But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it. And I was right.
But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels. I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label. This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves. I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation. There’s just something within me that balks at the notion. I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.
So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts. They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience. They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV. Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.
What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well. You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath? I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART. I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.
I want to be the best writer in the world.
There. I’ve said it.
It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing. But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name. My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers. Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls. Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.
With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.
My idols would never forgive me.
Where does time fly? Over two weeks since my last post and, in that interval, I’ve been occupying myself with hours of scribbling. Filling dozens of notebook pages…unfortunately, very little of this material will ever make it to publication. Lots of meditations, strange aphorisms, gleanings from the subconscious. Here’s one example:
“How many failures turn out to be posthumous geniuses? Not very many, as it happens, the proportion disappointingly low.”
What does that mean? A subconscious dig from my wily Muse, a nugget of wisdom…or mere prattle? And there’s pages and pages of the stuff, much of it spiritually oriented. Many of the entries make for uncomfortable reading, nakedly honest and personal. What should I do with these raw ramblings? This is material not intended for public consumption…but at the same time some of it packs undeniable power. Save it for the archives, hope someone will find it interesting or insightful. Bury it deep, amid old tax receipts and early drafts of stories.
The end of the year is always a time for reflection for me; I settle into introspective fugues where I consider the past 365 days and look with anticipation (and trepidation) to the year ahead. What have I accomplished? Where do I go from here? Point me to the next mountain to climb…
A few things have become clearer to me during this time—the first is that I’d like to make the act, the process of writing more fun, not bear down so hard, subjecting my system to so much abuse and stress. I’m obsessive-compulsive by temperament, a perfectionist in every aspect of my life. Everything has to be done just right or I go ballistic. No half-measures, no band-aid solutions, no excuses for failure. That’s the kind of cat I am.
But that has to change. I’m older and my body is starting to manifest some of the punishment it has absorbed over the years. My fingers, neck and shoulders. My back—Christ, my back. The mental and spiritual damage has been even more substantial, but I won’t get into that. A different approach is required…and I’m not exactly the best person when it comes to new approaches (see: aforementioned obsessive compulsiveness). Maybe voice recognition software is part of the answer, I dunno. I recently bought myself a better office chair, adjusted the height of the monitor so it’s more ergonomically placed, added padding under the keyboard—that will, hopefully, allay some of the physical symptoms. But in terms of approaching my vocation/obsession from a healthier psychic perspective, well, that requires an effort of a whole other magnitude.
I need to write in order to feel settled, sane. But how can I make writing more of a pleasure, less of a chore? I’ve devoted a lot of thought to that over the past while and I think I’ve come up with a few answers, partial solutions. Some of it involves very personal mini-epiphanies that presented themselves to me, insights that are, frankly, too private to share. They relate to my spiritual beliefs, the ridiculous expectations I place on myself. The pain that causes. It’s also about deriving a sense of accomplishment from some of the fine writing my pen has produced over the past quarter century. I don’t have to keep trying so hard to prove my worth, establish my artistic credentials. The work speaks for itself. Stories like “Invisible Boy”, “Daughter” and “Bedevilled”; the novellas and prose poems. And, of course, my two novels.
Just write. Write without a sense of self-consciousness; write from instinct, letting the words flow unimpeded from their original source.
It’s all about the words. The right one in the right place. Over and over again, sentence by sentence, until something precious and timeless has been created. The masters of language show us how it’s done. They showed me. It was reading that made me want to compose stories of my own, tales no one else has told. I read voraciously, learned my craft at the feet of giants. Books were entertainment and professional development all at once.
But something’s happened over the past decade. I’ve read less and less. In the past few years I think I averaged between 60-65 books a year and that’s a pathetic number for someone who fancies himself some kinda hotshot author. I’m talking about books read for my own enjoyment, stuff not related to research or my work.
So one of the other changes I’m making for the new year is that I’m resolving to read more.
I’m taking my own, personal “100 Book Challenge”. I want to recommit to the printed word in a big way. It means switching off, tuning out. “Off the grid” days, spent hunkered in my rocker recliner, reading a novel or collection of stories.
Because I have no doubt all the hours I’ve spent reading on-line, scanning news articles and items of interest, has screwed up my concentration. I find it hard to focus on a book for more than ten pages at a time without needing to get up, make some tea, stack the dishwasher…and then come back for another crack. Ditto movies. How many times has Sherron complained because I’m pausing a film to go to the john or grab myself a drink? Okay, part of that has to do with a pea-sized bladder but I also think all that time in cyberspace has had a deleterious effect on my attention span.
I read an article in the Manchester Guardian that talked about similar matters so I know I’m not alone in this feeling. The piece quotes me old chum John Miedema, who is a noted proponent of the “slow reading” movement and I found myself nodding along at various points. And then a chap in my LibraryThing group posted a lecture by Susan Greenfield in which she talks about learning and brain plasticity. Fascinating stuff. Ms. Greenfield makes a distinction between the information one finds on-line and “in-depth knowledge” that can only be gained from reading a book. I hope folks out there are apprising themselves as to some of the new theories that are emerging relating to how computers are fundamentally changing the way we think. I think the evidence is absolutely compelling and parents, in particular, must be educated re: how all those hours playing video games and “World of Warcraft” are rewiring their kids’ brains.
Years ago, when we were still living in Iqaluit (on Baffin Island), I gave a presentation on books and reading to an audience of about twelve people. I remember becoming quite emotional as I spoke about how books had literally saved my life. I believed then—and believe to this day—that was not mere hyperbole. My childhood was hardly idyllic and my love of reading gave me, at once, an escape from worldly travails and spurred and fired my imagination.
I want to recapture that, the allure and beauty of the printed word. The thoughts and visions reading inspire in me.
A hundred books in one year? Can I manage it? Will my hellish work ethic fight tooth and nail with my desire to settle into an armchair with some Jim Shepard stories or the latest David Mitchell effort? I’ll let you know via periodic blog posts how I’m doing. My progress (or lack of same). I won’t cite every damn book I’m reading but I’ll drop in the occasional review (maybe even resuscitate my “Burning Moonlight” column, you never know). God knows, I’ve got enough good books lying around, gathering dust. I search them out, I buy them…but can’t seem to free up the time to actually, y’know, read the f***ing things. Pathetic.
But no more. I’m turning over a new leaf. 2011 will involve a serious reboot. I’ve made my resolutions and I firmly intend to keep them. Ease back on the throttle. Stop trying to impress. Create for the sheer love of creating. Rediscover the joy and wonder of my craft through reading the best contemporary authors and the finest of past masters. Work to improve myself through a process that doesn’t involve self-flagellation.
I wrote in a blog entry a couple of years ago that after more than two decades as a professional author I finally felt like the apprenticeship period was over.
But, I amend, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be too old to go back to school.