During the summer, I tend to favor faster, more plot-driven narratives–thrillers, mysteries, noir—but once the leaves start turning, taking on brighter hues, I seek out more somber, atmospheric efforts.
John LeCarré, for instance, is the perfect fall read. His complex novels, populated by morally compromised characters and deep, dark secrets, are well suited for cooler, drabber days and nights. British novels, in general, are better enjoyed during autumn and winter than they are brighter, cheerier times of the year. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel aren’t really appropriate for the beach and only a complete fool would pack Orwell or Rushdie in with the suntan lotion and towels.
Glancing at my bookshelves, I can tell you in an instant which books match each season.
Contemporary Fiction (Spring-Summer)
Literary Fiction (Autumn)
Historical Fiction (Summer)
Biography and History (Winter)
Science Fiction (Summer-Autumn)
Critical Essays/Creative Non-Fiction (Winter)
Breaking it down by individual author: Jim Harrison (Spring); Cormac McCarthy (Autumn); Jonathan Franzen (Spring); W.G. Sebald (Autumn); Colson Whitehead (Autumn); Richard Russo (Spring); Raymond Chandler (Summer); Don Delillo (Autumn); Alastair Reynolds (Summer); David Mitchell (Spring-Summer); Italo Calvino (Autumn-Winter); Denis Johnson (Autumn); Thomas Pynchon (Autumn-Winter).
There are exceptions, of course, cases where those generalizations don’t apply. Works relating to politics, ecology, religion and philosophy are sprinkled throughout the year. And every so often I can’t resist plucking up some big, fat biography (ex: Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson) and just having at it. A two or three day binge that leaves me disoriented, out of step with everyday life. Barely able to prepare and eat a five-minute boiled egg. And, no, I do not exaggerate.
It’s become sort of a tradition that I tackle a real forearm-strainer right after Christmas and heading into the New Year. The kind of tome you have to bench press. Hardcover, if possible. A single volume history of World War II or the collected essays of Christopher Hitchens. To counteract the effects of all that turkey, red wine and good fellowship.
Tell me I’m not alone, that someone else out there has to deal with their own version of Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder (SARD). Perhaps we can start our own support network, help each other overcome our entrenched habits, learn to read what we want, when we want.
Oh, and, by the way, did you hear there’s a new LeCarré book out this month.
Wouldn’t you know it?
You might call that a coincidence but I’d say it’s right on time.
When we were young we
killed time indiscriminately
savagely using swords and
laser beams slaughtering it
by the hour with hyper-active
games mindless babble or just
lying on our backs making
shapes out of obliging clouds
Now time flees from us while
we are sleeping or otherwise
occupied each new morning
revealing the extent of the
damage and no matter how often
how hard we try to save or slow
time it runs down runs out always
too soon never long enough
© Cliff Burns, 2015 (All Rights Reserved)
Ligeti is perfect for a
cold late autumn day in
Saskatchewan the first
flakes of snow visible
outside my window
trees audibly creaking
a stiff north wind
oblivious of the
bad news it bears.
© Cliff Burns; 2015
“…these people…want to be considered serious writers; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of a convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.
My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.”
Richard Bausch, in The Atlantic Monthly
Would the posers and wannabes out there PLEASE note: when you’re a real writer, every fucking month is “national novel writing month”.
Now go back to flipping burgers or whatever it is you do, and leave literature to the professionals…the people who, through years of sweat and sacrifice, have earned the right to call themselves authors.
Shame on you for daring to include yourself in their company…
“And that had been with me for as long as I could remember, gaining in intensity at each new impertinence of the external world with which I signed no contract when I was ejected bloodily from my mother’s warm womb. I developed early a horror of all groups, particularly those which without further ado claimed the right to subsume all my acts under certain designations in terms of which they would reward or punish me. I could feel no loyalty to anything so abstract as a state or so symbolic as a sovereign. And I could feel nothing but outrage at a system in which, by virtue of my father’s name and fortune, I found myself from the beginning so shockingly underprivileged. What shocked me most as I grew up was not the fact that things were as they were, and with a tendency to petrify, but that others had the impertinence to assume that I would forebear to react violently against them.”
Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book
I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.