|August 2012||December 2012||Now available!|
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.
—George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’
I was not as precocious as Orwell; I did not definitely conceive the idea of becoming a writer until I was twelve, though it was among the many occupations I had played at in earlier childhood. I should have liked to be an urban planner, but I discovered, before I had any opportunity to set out on such a path, that the profession had already become what it has since remained: not a branch of engineering in which one does the interesting creative work of coming up with feasible ways of giving people the kind of towns they want to live in, but a branch of politics in which one plans the kind of towns demanded by the ideology of one’s superiors, and then crams them down the people’s throats. I thought of being a cartographer – the maps in National Geographic, of all things, were nearly my first purely aesthetic experience – but I could not discover any path that would lead me appreciably in the direction of such a career. In any case my formal education was forcibly terminated before I could make any meaningful progress towards those ends.
But writing was something that I could (and can) do, and that nobody could stop me from doing so long as I lived in a relatively free country. In an age of galloping credentialism, when even security guards are examined and licensed by the State, there is to this day no formal credential for becoming a writer – no storyteller’s certificate, not even a blogger’s licence. It is true that the creative writing programs in the universities turn out more graduates than formerly, but so far the only people that have been thereby prevented from becoming creative writers are those very same graduates. Perhaps some of the reasons for this will eventually occur to them, or even to their professors. But I digress—
In Calgary, when I was still a fairly small boy, there was a sort of minor mania for local history that lasted several years. Southern Alberta was one of the last places in North America to be definitely settled. It was only in 1875 that the first permanent building was erected on the future site of the city. That was Fort Calgary, the North-West Mounted Police post, one of several built to shut down the illicit whisky trade out of the United States. The last survivors of the pioneer period, or rather the youngest of their children, were busily dying in the 1970s, and their stories being written up by local historians like Jack Peach and Grant MacEwan, themselves old men. I myself had a second or third cousin who was so old that he had come west by covered wagon, and lived to the age of 105; and my own grandfather took up a homestead on virgin land in the Peace River country about the time my father was born, not long before the arable land ran out and the homestead system was abolished.
It should come as no surprise that my first large creative endeavour sprang out of that environment and those vicarious experiences. Where the young C. S. Lewis (and his brother) had an imaginary country, Boxen, whose history and legends came to be written up in considerable detail, I had an imaginary frontier town. I drew many maps of the place at different periods, but also wrote portions of a connected history of the place and its leading citizens, leading down from the first settlers to the imaginary characters that I and one or two of my friends played at being in the present day. All that stuff was lost long ago, thank God; some of it I destroyed myself, but most was thrown away by my mother, who never saw a piece of paper that she did not detest on sight. The fact that my father was an avid reader and liked to fill up the house with books was, I believe, a constant anguish to her.
I had left that phase behind and was writing ‘future history’ and pastiches of bad science fiction when, at the age of twelve, I abruptly discovered that writing was something one could do as a profession. I have had no measurable success at it since then, but I still persist in trying: partly because one can earn money by it, even (nowadays, through the medium of ebooks) with very small sales, and it is one of the few kinds of work that I can do in my present state of health without expensive academic credentials; but chiefly for another reason. Since that reason has not, in my experience, been much talked about, I propose to say something about it here. [Read more...]
Michael Drout’s superb lecture, ‘How to Read Tolkien’, is now available on YouTube, and by the magic of the Intertubes, it’s available on this tube too:
Fifty years and a couple of days after he departed from the Shadowlands.
Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.
—C. S. Lewis, ‘Equality’ (collected in Present Concerns)
A man is what he does with his attention
and mine is not for sale, though I’ll take cash—
and gladly—for whatever my attention
turns to for its own sake, when I’m finished with it.
Let this be my leave offering to the ghost
of J. T. Marshall, and of twenty others
who bought me cheap, and couldn’t afford me now,
because I can’t afford to be afforded
by anyone but myself, or I’d lose the ghost
of how I live, however I make my living.
And so to my last bonus, which is the first.
Any man can learn to learn from the wise
once he can find them: but learn to learn from a fool
and all the world’s your faculty.
—John Ciardi, from the Postscript to ‘Cal Coolidge and the Co’
To tide my 3.6 Loyal Readers over until The Grey Death is ready for release, and to keep the flag (as it were) flying, I’ve prepared a short collection of essais under the title, Death Carries a Camcorder. There will be six pieces in the collection, and those of you who have been following this blog will be relieved to know that you needn’t buy it – everything in the collection has been previously published here.
However, since I don’t have a tip jar and do have bills to pay, I shan’t take it amiss if some of you voluntarily shell out the $2.99 (or equivalent in your local dosh) as a token of appreciation or encouragement. (You can make it a token of whatever you want; I’m not proud that way. Just make sure to send me an email clarifying what it’s a token of, or I may persist in feeling appreciated and encouraged; and that would be a bad thing, assuming arguendo that you want me to feel differently.)
Sarah Huntrods has just delivered the cover design for the new book, as you can see in the attached image.
I think the old boy looks rather cheerful today, don’t you? Either he’s well pleased with his new technological toy, or that Karen Carpenter diet really works.
In 1916, after extensive study, French writer Georges Polti announced that all the stories in classical and modern literature could be reduced to 36 essential situations.
Au contraire! There are only two possible stories in the whole of literature:
1. Something happens.
2. Nothing happens.
All True Literature is, of course, in the second camp. The other kind is vile pulp for the kiddies, and we turn up our noses at it to prove that we are Cultured People.
H. Smiggy McStudge
A lively discussion has erupted at The Passive Voice, in response to a rant by one of the usual suspects telling self-published writers to slow down and not write so much. Fast writing is not necessarily bad, and slow writing, Heaven knows, can be utter crud. Great novels have been written in a span of weeks or even days. But nobody ever wrote great novels at that pace, one after another, and kept it up for a span of years.
People point to Isaac Asimov as an exception. He was a man who wrote 500 books, so Wikipedia tells us, and Wikipedia wouldn’t steer us wrong, would it?
If you look up the word prolific in any really good dictionary, you will find a picture of Isaac Asimov sitting at his typewriter. ‘Prolific’ was the adjective most often applied to him as a writer, and the one he was most proud of. But even he had his limits. His average output from 1958, when he became a full-time writer, to about 1989, when illness took away his ability to work regularly, was (by his own reckoning) in the neighbourhood of 500,000 words a year. That’s 15 million words in all, or about enough to fill about 200 paperback books of the size that used to be usual in his younger days – say, 200 to 250 pages. (The average size of paperbacks began to balloon in the 1970s, but that’s another story.) Some of his nonfiction books were quite short, and a number of his stories and essays were published in more than one book; that brings us up well over 300, but it still leaves us far short of the number given by Wikipedia.
So how did he get to 500 books? Simple: he cheated.
This past Friday I received two books from Amazon, and passed the whole night and most of Saturday morning in an orgy of reading. First, as an hors d’oeuvre, I read C. S. Lewis’s collection The Weight of Glory, which is much less known than it ought to be; it contains some of Lewis’s best work. The main course was The Last Dark, the tenth and absolutely last of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books.
Barbara Morgenroth inquires:
Question. My book Impossible Charlie was published by Atheneum and that French publisher attempting to steal it but that’s another issue. I republished it as Dream Horse. Is it still a book or did it lose credibility because I’m a nitwit indie publisher with the result that it is only halfway there now and we might call it a spook–Self Published (B)ook? It has the appearance of what a book looks like but it’s insubstantial and not all there.
Our Resident Expert replies:
Answer. Your book used to be real, but now it is indeed a spook — the ghost of a book that has turned into something dead and unnatural. However, we are prepared to overlook your fault, your fault, your most grievous fault, and absolve you of your literary sin. If a French publisher tried to steal it, why, that confers a halo of sanctity on a book that not even self-publishing can outweigh.
H. Smiggy McStudge
The self-publishing industry has allowed anyone with a computer and a small amount of money to call themselves authors. Not long ago, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it when I did an Internet search) that questioned whether self-published authors should be called published authors. Rather, the article suggests, they are book writers who have their books printed. There is, I believe, a significant difference between authors published by traditional houses and self-published books in that the latter lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style.
—Dr. Jim Taylor, ‘Are Self-published Authors Really Authors or Even Published?’
How glad I am that a sane, sensible, and official person has weighed in on this important issue. It is manifestly obvious that a self-published author is no author at all, and that a self-published book is not published. And since a book must have an author, it is surely evident that a self-published book is not even a book. What it is, I cannot say: a new variety of spam, likely.