Friday, June 14, 2013

Luddites, Permissions, and Reprints

Right now we are preparing to move back to Kelowna. There are the usual anxieties, despite having moved about every year, sometimes every third year--probably every second year, on average--since I left home the first time after high school. I feel like since then I have carted around boxes and boxes of unsorted paper. Stacks of old typewritten poems that thankfully all the editors rejected when they were written, a few dot matrix printouts of my first short stories, also, thankfully, unpublished.

I have no idea why I can't get rid of them. They are a trial to read, but I think I just wonder if there will come a time when I have grown enough that I can see something useful in them, in the same way it's been growth that makes them appalling to read now. I remember the old story of the man who had dementia and would wake up happy each day, eat his breakfast, take his pills, then disappear into his cluttered office to redo the taxes from some distant year. I wouldn't mind being stuck in that kind of loop as long as my aesthetic judgement has deteriorated along with my memory and I am moved by some spark in the work of myself as a child.

The sad part is when I think of that old man working to fix a problem, to prove he didn't owe in some distant tax year decades past.

I think digital copies of things will make this more awful, too. I am compulsive about keeping all my work now that it's digital, too, but if I actually have to work on it I print it out. Imagine trying to make sense, with a failing mind, of 16 copies of one poem or story improperly filed on your computer, encountering the title changes and the same story in different folders from different years and thinking it's new, and then not even being able to sit with it and remember, say, when you had that cheap yellow paper because it was all you could afford and when you sat on the floor with your old typewriter, working on a coffee table in an otherwise empty apartment.

When I was younger the cigarette smoke that was caught in the latest used fantasy or science fiction book I bought from the old Westgate Books, or Donald's Bookstore, made the books seem romantic to me. I romanticized what I didn't know then were marginal figures, those adults who were obsessed with those fantastic worlds I was beginning to discover. I thought the perfect life would be working the most menial job you could find, so your mind might be free and you could afford books and role-playing games and who cared what else?

And just now, while packing, I have found two permission agreements I need to sign and send off, before my next novel comes out. I don't know why four lines of Leonard Cohen cost 30 dollars plus tax, and three lines of Jorie Graham cost 50 dollars, but I guess that's how it goes. I remember that first time I read the Leonard Cohen poem from which I'm quoting. I found the book, a selected poems paperback, in that same Westgate Books. I returned there every chance I got, until it moved to the east side, I guess, when I would find myself back in Saskatoon between years in school, or projects in construction. In those days a book could save my life, it seemed like. I would live in a old and cheap motel in a small town, most of the time, working on a highway job somewhere, and if I picked the right book, the evenings could mean something more than exhausted sleep.

I am also looking at copies of my latest collection of stories, since it's been accepted for publication and will come out in the fall of 2014 (though no contract yet, so anything could happen, but it's 99 per cent sure). I think of an old story I had one paper copy of. It was called "Barn Burning" because I had not read many books in those days. Why can't I find that old story? I think it was quite good.

But in reading books from the catalogues of some of the publishers to which I'd sent the ms., I find odd things, and things that cannot help but hurt your feelings, sort of.  (And here I have to remind myself this is healthy. As the writer Ed Allen once told those of us in his class, probably in response to some criticism of criticism in a workshop class: "It should hurt!")

For instance an old collection of stories recently reprinted and with a foreword by the author. The foreword seems apologetic. It's framed as an attempt to argue for the writer's particular aesthetic, but it comes across as an apology, with nothing but a kind of whiny but I like this kind of writing underpinning the short foreword. There is no need to apologize, but further, any argument for your own writing becomes a kind of apology, because in any explanation is a kind of acknowledgement that what you explain is not normal.

That's stupid. No apologies or explanations necessary. I recently got pretty close to having this next book accepted by a very good publisher, and it hurt when it didn't happen, but the rejection was flattering. One of the comments was that my stories are unCanadian. It was meant as a compliment, and I took it as one. It was in the context of over-explanation, something quite common in CanLit. What's worse, to me, is that the over-explanation often takes the form of tautological constructions that are gauzy and accepted as "poetic" -- a kind of gosh, I don't understand it so it must be deep. They are actually nonsensical and do nothing to further our understanding of the fictive world. They distance us from it.

Far better to leave space for the reader, let the reader inhabit the fictive world, than use obfuscating language to distract the reader from those spaces. Painting flames on a car does not make it fast.

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