My son, Sam, finally overcame all sorts of technical glitches and released his latest cinematic effort, a short film titled “Snoop”. It’s already garnered a good number of “hits” and positive comments from folks who’ve seen it. I know I’m prejudiced, but I’m just amazed how well it’s framed and cut; the kid’s visual eye is nothing short of amazing. Be sure to head over to YouTube and take in an eye-catching caper film.
Last weekend, I checked another item off my “bucket list” and participated in a sweat lodge out at the Sweetgrass Reserve. My gratitude to Joseph Naytowhow and my wife, Sherron, for making the arrangements, and to elder Fred Paskimin for a once in a lifetime experience. It’s going to take awhile to assimilate the power and intensity of that afternoon. A lot of spiritual energy surging and buzzing around that cramped, sweltering interior…
A few of you have been pestering me for an update re: my “100 Book Challenge”. All I can say is that I’m holding my own. I just finished book #82 but I confess progress has definitely slowed over the past couple of months. I’m going to have to pick up my game if I expect to make the cut. Recent reads include Knockemstiff, a superb collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock, and The New Space Opera 2, a so-so anthology of SF tales that featured a couple of genuinely solid efforts, including “The Island” by Peter Watts, which was the high point of the book.
Spending too much time over at Jukesy, arranging playlists of strange, ambient tunes and discovering new groups to add to my personal soundtrack: A Place to Bury Strangers, The Vandelles, The Radio Department, Hank Williams III…
Still researching my western novel, arranging my notes for the next draft, which should commence soon. But there are distractions, including pricing out a new roof for our house (which turned 100 this year), tons of yardwork, a pressing need for all-season tires for the Toyota—
And, of course, my upcoming reading at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon (Wednesday, October 12th). In case you missed my previous plug, here’s the official invite, drawn up by my pal Alicia at M-R:
Hope to see you there.
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
Pliny the Elder
It’s an ugly word, one not found in my vocabulary. Honestly, I utter it so rarely I actually had to look it up just now to find out if there was an “i” after the r or an “o”.
Got it. Commit to memory. Or…maybe not. After all, how often will I end up using it?
Some writers see bending to the will of agents or editors or the grand-all-powerful marketplace as a necessity if one wants to be a published, successful author. They see no problem letting outside parties tamper with story lines, suggest the addition or removal of characters, chapters, subplots. I read one account in Poets & Writers magazine where an author sat down to lunch with his agent, outlined a couple of different ideas for a novel and let his rep pick the one he would work on next.
My immediate and visceral reaction: what an asshole. Imagine giving someone that much influence over your writing. Now, I don’t really have a lot of hard and fast rules when it comes to my work but there are certain tenets that I live by and here are a few, strictly FYI:
1) Editors should remain unseen and unheard. They are non-entities. Spell-checkers and proof-readers and if they try to raise themselves above that lowly status, slap them down. Hard. Writing is not, repeat not a collaborative exercise. Anyone who credits an editor for saving a manuscript didn’t work hard enough on it, chickened out when the going got tough.
2) Agents have one job and one job only: protect their clients from greedhead publishers. Pitbulls when it comes to negotiating rights and contracts, pussycats when it comes to dealing with their clientele. No creative input, no vetting of manuscripts. No career advice. Here’s my completed manuscript–now it’s your job to sell it and get the best deal you can. Oh, and by the way, I expect to have final clearance over cover art and jacket copy. Make sure I get it…or you’re fired.
3) The writer is always right. There might be rare exceptions but, for the most part, the writer should know his/her work, its strengths and weaknesses, better than anyone else. Any wordsmith willing to abdicate responsibility, autonomy over a book or story, should take up flipping fucking burgers for a living. You don’t belong in our sacred guild of artisans. You ain’t good enough, strong enough…so do us all a favour and fuck off.
Now, admittedly, some authors aren’t comfortable with such a stance. Timid, insecure creatures, they need to be reassured, stroked. They’re willing to cede control of their self-esteem, their vision and integrity, as long as they have a pretty book they can show their friends and impress the proles. Their greatest dream is getting published and if that means opening themselves up to every indignity and humiliation, well, that’s part of the price they’re willing to pay.
I’ve been on-line for a couple of years now, poked about hundreds and hundreds of blogs and websites devoted to authors, established or otherwise. With very few exceptions (my friend Peter Watts being one), few scribblers take issue with the treatment accorded to writers and fewer still express the slightest antipathy toward a system designed to belittle their importance.
It’s fear, I suppose, but it’s something more than that too–an innate cowardice, a reluctance to make waves that is nothing less than craven. This fawning, milquetoast attitude I find in our little community makes me nauseous.
Other disciplines feature far more mavericks than the literary world.
How about a band like Tool, who refused to release any new albums for four years until they finally secured complete artistic freedom from their record label? I’ve already alluded to Trent Reznor, Ani DiFranco and Radiohead, musicians who tired of executives and A & R people fucking with their musical direction.
Kubrick demanded and received “final cut” throughout his career. MGM treated him with something akin to awe, enduring the lengthy hiatuses between pictures, editing suites booked for months of expensive post-production, mediocre or insignificant box office receipts…as long as he kept making films for them.
Welles wasn’t so lucky. After “Citizen Kane”, Hollywood never again granted him creative control. “Magnificent Ambersons” was butchered and rather than accept his reduced status, Welles broke away and spent the rest of his life in the wilderness, scraping together financing for films that were never made, left half-finished or suffered badly due to poor production values. There were occasional signs that his genius was undiminished–portions of “Chimes at Midnight”, “The Stranger”, even “F For Fake”.
I read an interview with Welles reprinted on the website for Senses of Cinema and, despite his frustrations, the soul-sucking necessity of expending 95% of his energies on searching for financing, he remains as defiant as ever, God bless him.
Orson was one tough sonofabitch.
But I don’t see the equivalent of these strong-willed personalities in the writing world. A willingness to break with convention, defy authority, maintain one’s independence and vision even if it costs you any chance of achieving fame and fortune.
And that says something.
After my Mediabistro rant was published, where I “burned bridges” and “committed artistic suicide”, I received a few cranky notes but I also got quite a show of support from other writers…most of whom were unwilling to go on the record with their remarks.
“Good for you”…”Glad someone’s finally taking these fuckers to task”…etc.
The point I was trying to make was that you can tell editors, agents and publishers to take a flying fuck at a rolling hand grenade and it doesn’t mean the end of the world. Thanks to the burgeoning indie movement that the new technologies are facilitating, authors can achieve a decent readership, gain fans and followers around the world and not have to jump through hoops to do it. The balance of power is shifting, the old edifice is crumbling. POD means “print on demand” but also “piss on dickheads”.
Dickhead editors. Dickhead agents. Dickhead publishers.
Poets and writers: your readers are out there, waiting for you. Take my word for it. Seize control of your career, refuse to cater and kowtow to people who move their lips when they read and have the social skills of a badger with mange.
Friends, colleagues, fellow wordsmiths: the revolution starts NOW.
Coming soon: So Dark the Night (the podcast).
That’s right, Sherron and I have been spending long hours up in my office, figuring out the software, doing sample recordings, trying out theme music. We’re laying down the tracks, baby, getting ready to release a full-length, unabridged audio version of the best occult thriller around.
Keep watching this space…