Writers On Writing 1
Four Authors You Should be Reading
Writers on Writing is a new regular feature exclusive to The Cortland
Review. That plural in the title is no mistake Douglas Thornsjo and I
will share this space on a rotating basis, offering opinions, anecdotes, and predictions
shaped by more than a combined quarter-century of freelance writing. This column will not
always be cheery, but it will be honest; we trust youd prefer candor over
false optimism every time.
Next installment, Doug will provide his own introduction. As for me, Ive been on
a writers path since my mid-1970s high school days. My first full-time job was as a
radio station copywriter, for which I earned the princely annual salary of $7,000 in
return for working sixty-and seventy-hour weeks (ahhh, Youth...). I have reviewed
everything from comic books (for Amazing Heroes, the former sister publication of
the venerable Comics Journal) to films (for the New Hampshire-based Portsmouth
Press); currently I am the book reviewer for Algis Budryss on-line magazine
of speculative fiction, tomorrowsf.
Over the past decade my short fiction has appeared in a handful of small-press
publications. Last year I achieved a major milestone when DC Comics published Batman
Chronicles: The Gauntlet, a graphic novel collaboration between myself and noted
comics artist Lee Weeks (Gauntlet is perennially on sale; I direct your attention
to the TCR Bookstore for details).
Since then I have done more comics work for both DC (the Superman and Batman people)
and Marvel (the Spider-Man and Hulk people). It is also a great pleasure to
report that my latest short story, "The Brownshirt Mentality," will appear in The
Cortland Reviews fourth issue.
So much for the bonafides. Lets move on to consider a nugget of wisdom both Doug
and I agree upon:
Good Writers must also be Good Readers.
This does not mean learning to speed-read at 750 words per minute
it means enjoying and patronizing those authors who are serious about their craft so you
may (to quote E.B. White) "echo the halloos that bear repeating." Here are four
writers you probably dont read, but should. . .
Its unfair to point at an author and say, "Shes the next Updike,"
or "Hes the next Ross MacDonald." Every serious writer is a revolution
unto himself he may share sensibilities with certain peers, but to be worth
lasting consideration his voice and observations must be his own.
I therefore refuse to call Jack Womack "the next Anthony Burgess," though his
love of language makes him, in my opinion, the writer best positioned to fill the void
left by Burgesss passing. Womacks "Ambient" cycle is a consistent
auctorial triumph Random Acts of Senseless Violence was deservedly a Publishers
Weekly Best Book for 1994, and its four audacious predecessors (Ambient,
Terraplane, Heathern, and Elvissey) have just been re-released by Grove Press.
But Womack is no one-trick pony, as proven by his most recent work. Lets Put
The Future Behind Us is a delicious black comedy set in post-Communist Russia and
featuring bombastic politicians, gangsters, and a shabby theme park called Sovietland...
Jack Womack pushes the envelope with each new novel; ignore him at your peril.
WILLIAM BROWNING SPENCER
More than once Ive heard the advice, "Dont make your protagonist a
writer. The audience doesnt care about writers!" Leave it to the exceptional
William Browning Spencer to gleefully puncture that theory. His Résumé With
Monsters introduces us to Philip Kenan, a neurotic would-be novelist who makes ends
meet working at Ralphs One-Day Résumés, where he discovers the unholy connection
between Business and the Eldritch Gods.
Spencers follow-up, Zod Wallop, is the story of author Harry
Gainesborough. A personal tragedy has turned Harrys life to ashes, but he gets one
last chance at Happiness when his most unusual and devoted fan propels him on a fantastic
adventure of Dr. Seuss-like proportions.
Spencer combines the fantastic with genuine, heart-rending emotion better than any
author since Ray Bradbury, which is high praise indeed. Be on the lookout for his next
novel, Irrational Fears, in August.
JOHN DOS PASSOS
Sadly, certain darlings of the litry set occasionally get dumped like ugly prom
dates, forsaken in favor of newer, trendier stars. Dos Passos is one such case: once the
centerpiece of many a writing curriculum, he is now largely (and unjustly) forgotten.
Many excellent Dos Passos volumes can only be found in second-hand bookstores.
Fortunately, the cornerstones of his oeuvre remain in print; your neighborhood retailer
should carry Three Soldiers (Dos Passoss first novel, offering a
doughboys-eye view of World War I), Manhattan Transfer (which Sinclair Lewis
accurately described as "a novel of the very first importance"), and the
masterful USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money).
Though it deals with characters and events based in the early 1990s, the USA Trilogy was
stylistically fifty years ahead of its time. The intertwined multiple plots and quick-cut
"Newsreel" and "Camera Eye" segments were groundbreaking in their day.
They still have tricks to teach even the most MTV-influenced Generation Xers.
Lucius Shepard has written a handful of creditable novels Green Eyes,
The Golden, Life During Wartime but it is as a short story
writer that he shines. Manys the writer who wishes he had the tools in his
pencil-box to craft stories as distinctive and wonderful as "Delta Sly Honey,"
"How The Wind Spoke At Madaket," "R&R," or "The Man Who
Painted The Dragon Griaule."
Of course, we live in at a time when most publishers would rather vacation at the
Chernobyl Hilton than do one-author collections, so it falls to the small-press publisher
Arkham House to keep in print Shepards three wonderful collections: The Jaguar
Hunter (absolutely essential reading), The Ends of The Earth, and the
forthcoming Barnacle Bill The Spacer (previously available only in a UK edition).
There are times when it seems the short story is dead. Reading Lucius Shepard is a
reaffirmation the form has not yet flat-lined...
Next Installment: Writers on Writing 2:
Four More Authors You Should Be Reading