Print and e-book sales of my Black Dog Press titles have pretty much bottomed out in the last few months. If I ran a real publishing house, I’d have been shown the door (with no golden handshake) a long time ago.
Of course, it doesn’t help that my last four books were almost doomed to fail: The Last Hunt is a novel set in the Old West and, let’s face it, cowboy yarns aren’t exactly leaping off the shelves these days; following that, I released two companion volumes of verse and prose poems…not what any sane person would consider bestseller material.
And my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, is a short story collection. Yes, you heard correctly: a short story collection. And, yeah, I’m aware that no one reads short fiction any more and that, as a format, it’s as dead and buried as Ramses II.
What can I tell you, I’m a throwback. I love obsolete art forms like short stories and silent movies and radio dramas and mixed tapes. I own two Super 8 movie cameras and and a five year old iMac. I collect plastic model kits and first editions of books by Philip K. Dick. I know, it’s pathetic. A man my age…
I pay little heed to current trends and fashions. One glance at the bestseller lists or what’s prominent on the “New Release” racks is enough to set my teeth on edge. Whenever people complain to me about the poor state of writing in the indie/self-published world, I invariably reply have you been inside a bookstore lately?
Folks, I don’t know about you but I’m finding it harder and harder to find good writers. This despite the fact that there have never been more books published, the internet and print on demand outfits making it easy for anyone to put out a book. And that’s the trouble. These days, everyone from your dotty aunt to her pet parakeet call themselves “authors” and never mind that they’ve never mastered grade school spelling or punctuation and think “thesaurus” was one of those old Greek guys who taught philosophy and tried to seduce his students. No vetting of manuscripts, no quality control and, as a result, no quality. The worst of the worst. And with diminished expectations, publishers scramble and claw at each other in the race to the bottom of the barrel. Fifty Shades of Grey. The gospel according to “Snooki”. Christ. Offer North American readers unlimited shelf space, a world of knowledge at their fingertips and what do they select as their reading material of choice?
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We’re a society obsessed by superficiality; the cult of celebrity holds sway and most of us would do anything for a few moments in the limelight, our allotted fifteen seconds of fame. We want to know what the important people are doing so we can act and dress and think like them. They are the annointed ones, lit from within by some special flame. Like Prometheus, we seek to steal their fire but not for the good of humankind, but to keep it and nurture it within ourselves. To out-shine the common people and know what it’s like to be royalty. Flashing that vapid Kate Middleton smile. Winking to your adoring fans like Brad Pitt. Besieged in your own homes. Stalked because you’re you. The universal dream.
The arts are not immune to such asinine sensibilities. Today’s aspiring writers don’t want to have to work at their craft. Spend endless hours coming up with original concepts, a fresh approach or innovation. Easier to borrow characters and plot lines, sharecrop franchises, remain on well-worn paths. Stick with the old stand-bys: porn and elves, vampires and chick lit. Serial killers and serial adulterers. The living dead and the mindlessly idiotic. All for 99 cents a download, forty thousand words and not one of them in tune.
It used to be our role models were Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Don DeLillo.
Now everyone wants to be Dan Brown, James Patterson or Nora Roberts. Not good, just rich.
How can I compete with that kind of mentality? Why should I bother going through the effort and not inconsiderable expense of conceiving, writing and releasing my books, some of them taking years to bring to fruition? Who’s going to notice my smart, sharp-toothed prose when there are hundreds of thousands of books churned out every year, all of them clamoring for attention, aggressively lobbying readers for just a few minutes of their time…
But if you’re an artist and you start down that road, it isn’t long before discouragement and contempt for your fellow human beings overwhelms you. You become sick in your soul, envious of others, dismissive and scornful; a universe of one.
No, what it comes down to in the end is the work. Keeping on keeping on. Laboring on behalf of the legacy of literature, those authors of the past and present who expand our horizons, warp and distort our perspectives, enlivening our moribund senses with the vitality and courage of their visions. You know their names, they’re the writers who set fire to your imagination, whisper words of commiseration during a difficult time, speak intimately to your heart when the rest of the world seems oblivious to your very existence.
The hacks don’t do that for you. The scribblers who aim to please and reassure and entertain, even at the expense of their integrity. They don’t care about you and they have nothing important to say. They’re in it for the wrong reasons, motivated by little more than greed and pride, surely the most venal of sins.
The authors I revere and try to emulate have a higher calling.
The best of them eschew fame and fortune, forsaking all trappings of success in favor of a singular and personal approach to their work, persisting regardless of ignominy, poverty, shame. Willing to sacrifice their bodies and minds as long as they are permitted to pursue their calling with dedication and obsessive zeal. Nothing dissuades or discourages them.
Brave as any frontline soldier, resolved to forge on to the bitter end.
No medals, no plaques—often, not even a well-tended grave.
Messengers and prophets, making “visible what, without them, might perhaps never have been seen”*.
Awaiting our discovery, keepers of the Logos, brilliant revelations yet to be told.
* Robert Bresson
Initially, I read to escape.
Found my way to the neverlands and never-will-bes as part of a protracted and determined effort to seek refuge from a real world in which I was vulnerable, helpless.
Books also helped assuage the loneliness, the sense of otherness that frequently assailed me. I’ve always had an earnestly held desire to isolate myself from an indifferent, possibly hostile universe lurking just outside my front door. It’s a type of agoraphobia, I suppose, a reluctance to leave an environment where I wield power and control and venture out into the Chaosium.
Ray Bradbury was an early companion, The Golden Apples of the Sun an important reading experience when I was ten or eleven. So was Arthur C. Clarke’s tale “A Walk in the Dark”. I went through many anthologies and short story collections (I have a love of short fiction that persists to this day). Candidly, I was an indiscriminate reader. Popular fiction, history and, when I was particularly desperate, books plucked from my grandmother’s shelves: Daphne DuMaurier, Harlequin Romances, just about every offering in the Companion Library Series (I was bored by Hans Brinker but loved Baum’s Wizard of Oz and also, surprisingly, The Five Little Peppers).
Science fiction dominated my young adulthood: Lucifer’s Hammer (Niven & Pournelle), Childhood’s End (Clarke), Voyage of the Space Beagle (van Vogt) and every story by Robert Sheckley I could lay my hands on. Sheckley was a fortuitous discovery—I can reread his fiction today and still enjoy it. There’s something about the combination of SF and satire that definitely appeals to me. Some of Sheckley’s best stuff is in Citizen in Space, a volume that shouldn’t be too hard to find. Check it out.
By my mid-teens I was writing a fair bit (mainly bad poetry) and seeking out literary role models, authors whose sensibilities came closest to my own. I found I liked tales with a Twilight Zone-ish aspect to them, something not quite right with the world, fate lying in wait for our hapless hero just around the next bend. Enter Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Jerome Bixby. They became big influences–I think it could be fairly said that their grim(m) worldviews and melancholy ambience still inform the work I produce today, twenty-five years later. That’s how strong an impact their books and tales had on me.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d given up on poetry and was turning my hand to short stories. Slowly, incrementally, I got better and that’s entirely due to the excellent tutelage of my literary heroes. I’ve never taken a writing class or workshop; my “education” is entirely the product of a lifelong addiction to the printed word. I’ve evolved into a better, more critical reader by seeking out authors and books that challenge me intellectually and aesthetically. In the process, I’ve also become a better writer, more demanding when it comes to evaluating and critiquing my own work.
My literary tastes are constantly progressing, expanding. For a time I was enamored with the surrealists and then Samuel Beckett, J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, authors and movements bent on distorting or eliminating traditional narrative. I was also drawn to the intricate, cerebral mazes constructed by Jorge Luis Borges.
Over the past decade or so, other writers have instructed me, helped propel my work in interesting new directions: Paul Auster and Jonathan Carroll (his first novel, Land of Laughs is a magnificent effort). Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. James Crumley. Robert Stone. Jack O’Connell. Irvine Welsh.
Each passed along important lessons—I luxuriate in prose by good authors, immerse myself in it, dissect and analyze it to discover how a certain effect was achieved. My hyper-critical mind has little time for those who resort to “hackdom”, it recoils from the discordant, tuneless prose produced by such derivative or porous imaginations.
Lately, my reading has ranged all over the place—one day, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, the next something lean and mean by Charles Willeford. Nonfiction in the morning to get my brain moving, fiction to wind me down at night. I may go two weeks without reading a book, then binge on them, blasting through six in the next six days. For the longest time I didn’t read science fiction; now, thanks to authors like Tony Daniel, John Barnes, Charles Stross, Peter Watts, Vernor Vinge, James Morrow, Iain M. Banks, Paul Di Filippo, Dennis Danvers and others, I’m back in the fold.
Can’t say the same for horror, unfortunately. The field is in a dreadful state. Do most of the guys and gals scribbling zombie stories these days even know who Matheson and Beaumont are? Do they understand that a well-told tale is a beautiful and enduring thing? Doubtful. They’re too busy ministering to their printers. All that blood and viscera keeps clogging up the works. Such “writers” have nothing to teach me.
Right now I’m really attracted to condensed narratives, brief and fierce and tight. Many books these days are afflicted by clutter and bloat…so I seek out authors who have pared down their prose to the bare minimum. Providing descriptions and back stories with a few well-chosen words. Those fat tomes by Proust, Tolstoy and Durrell will have to wait for another time.
I think it’s important for an indie writer these days to be aware of the DIYers and mavericks who preceded them. Independent spirits like Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Poe, Lovecraft, Kafka, Celine, Artaud, Dick and Ellison. Non-conformists and originals, determined to protect the integrity of their work, willing to risk rancor, exile, public indifference or disapprobation. While our themes and objectives may differ, the examples they set as individuals of great fortitude and perseverance have served to inspire me when I’ve questioned my talent, the direction my life and/or career is going in.
Each of the authors I just cited suffered mightily for their art, endured great privation and ignominy…but their books and stories are still read today. Their travails have been vindicated by slow posterity, their creations consigned to the ages. Art that ennobles the human experience, that faithfully reproduces the pleasures and pains of existence and depicts without flinching the true state of the soul will prevail over yesterday’s bestseller, today’s flavour-of-the-moment. Count on it.
We will always have cause to empathize with Lear’s rage and despair and have it within us to hate with the virulent malice of the Count of Monte Cristo. A thousand years from now the persecution of Jean Valjean will still move us to tears (virtual or otherwise). As a species, we’ve been imbued with the capacity to love and the capability to do enormous harm. Great art does not allow us to shrink from such notions nor concede responsibility to outside agencies. It is a mirror, the ultimate reflecting surface; it does not lie and when we balk, commands us not to look away.
Cliff’s Reading List:
A few years ago my nephew Jesse asked me to put together a reading list for him—this is a revised and updated version of that roster of faves. Books I commend without reservation for their intelligence, savagery, grace and wit:
Martin Amis DEAD BABIES (vicious/hilarious)
Paul Auster ORACLE NIGHT; THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS (magic realism)
J.G. Ballard RUNNING WILD (chilling short novel)
Wilton Barnhardt GOSPEL (brilliant!)
James Carlos Blake IN THE ROGUE BLOOD (terrific western)
Joseph Boyden THREE DAY ROAD (Sherron & I loved this book)
Anthony Burgess EARTHLY POWERS
Benjamin Cavell RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE (brilliant, edgy stories)
L.F. Celine JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT; DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN
Michael Chabon AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY; YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION
Nicholas Christopher VERONICA; A TRIP TO THE STARS
James Crumley: (anything by this author)
Don DeLillo UNDERWORLD
Philip K. Dick A SCANNER DARKLY
Katherine Dunn GEEK LOVE (shocking, bizarre…one of our faves)
Steve Erickson DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS (surreal, well-written)
Timothy Findley NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE (brilliant)
Ken Grimwood REPLAY (suppose you had your whole life to live over?)
Jim Harrison TRUE NORTH (great American novelist)
Ernest Hemingway FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (his best book)
Nick Hornby HIGH FIDELITY (avoid Americanized movie)
John Irving HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE (still his best)
Denis Johnson JESUS’S SON (grim, powerful stories)
William Kotzwinkle THE FAN MAN (another big favorite)
Ira Levin A KISS BEFORE DYING (very suspenseful; terrible movie)
Lee Maynard CRUM
Cormac McCarthy BLOOD MERIDIAN; OUTER DARK
Ian McEwan BLACK DOGS; CEMENT GARDEN
Martin Millar LUX THE POET
Henry Miller TROPIC OF CANCER; BIG SUR & THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH
David Mitchell CLOUD ATLAS; BLACK SWAN GREEN
Seth Morgan HOME BOY (staggeringly good; author died tragically young)
James Morrow TOWING JEHOVAH (blasphemous; hilarious)
Chuck Palahniuk LULLABY; CHOKE; FIGHT CLUB
Stephen Pressfield GATES OF FIRE
Mordecai Richler COCKSURE (very funny); BARNEY’S VERSION (what a swan song)
Tom Robbins ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION; STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER
Bruce Robinson THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN
Abraham Rodriguez SPIDERTOWN (amazing novel); THE BUDDHA BOOK
J.D. Salinger THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (legendary)
George Saunders (anything by Saunders; he’s one of the best)
Jim Shepard PROJECT X (he’s a great short story writer too)
Robert Stone OUTERBRIDGE REACH; DAMASCUS GATE
Donna Tartt THE SECRET HISTORY (excellent first novel)
Hunter S. Thompson FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (changed my life)
John Kennedy Toole CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Guy Vanderhaeghe MY PRESENT AGE (very funny & sweet)
Rich Wallace WRESTLING STURBRIDGE (great YA novel)
Evelyn Waugh DECLINE & FALL
Colson Whitehead THE INTUITIONIST
Karen Armstrong A HISTORY OF GOD
Thomas Cahill DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS
Wade Davis ONE RIVER (travels in Amazonia & elsewhere)
Annie Dillard HOLY THE FIRM
Richard Ellmann JAMES JOYCE (biography); OSCAR WILDE (biography)
Jon Krakauer INTO THIN AIR
Bill McKibben ENOUGH (too much technology is gonna kill us)
Margaret McMillan 1919 (story behind Versailles negotiations)
Graham Robb RIMBAUD (biography)
Eric Schlosser FAST FOOD NATION; REEFER MADNESS
Andrew Smith MOON DUST
Anthony Storr SOLITUDE
Barbara Tuchman MARCH OF FOLLY
Elie Wiesel NIGHT