Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 3

Last summer, I got back the rights to 10 of the 18 paperback novels I saw published in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These 10 are copyrighted in my name and are about my original characters, so . . . they’re mine. (The other eight novels—seven of them coauthored with Dick Tierney—feature characters originated by Robert E. Howard, the famous author of the Conan the Barbarian stories. Neither Dick nor I own those characters.) Once I had the rights back to these books, however, I was a little unsure what to do with them.

For years I had neglected these novels because, perversely, I had tried to ignore or forget the fact that I had even written them. This state of mind was as odd as it sounds. But the fact is that, after having published 18 paperback novels and pretty much having reached a dead end in trying to become a successful popular writer, I dropped out of writing in 1984. In retrospect, I can see that this was a foolish decision and an immature overreaction to the pressure I was under, but there it is. I had been working very hard at my craft for about 12 years, had seen a small measure of success in the fanzines of the time and then with the sales of those paperback novels, but otherwise had not one blessed clue about what I was doing or how the business worked. I saw no foreign sales of my own work and no nibbles from TV or film production companies. I relied on agents to promote my work and regarded them as business partners when, in fact, as I have learned over the years, literary agents are in business for themselves, and writers are useful to agents only insofar as they help increase the bottom line. Which makes sense. But in my desire to become a writer, my appreciation of such a practical fact was on par with my desire to become, when I was 10 years old, a Mercury space program astronaut. That is, I had about the same level of unsophisticated understanding of both professional milieus. In determining to succeed at writing, I thought it best to put my head down and go as fast as I could so that somehow something would happen.

My mind is turning in this direction right now because I have been working again in earnest at the writing craft. Starting a few years ago, I have been trying to get the fires going again, and I am beginning to see some success on the page—that is, the work I’m doing now reads well to my friends and to me. So the coals that were going dead and turning cold have been stoked and are blooming again with heat. What a good feeling it is. I spent the winter and spring revising my old fantasy trilogy, The Fall of the First World, and recently turned it in to John Betancourt at Wildside Press. I was able, in revising it, to make some changes or corrections I’ve wanted to make since Pinnacle Books first published the trilogy in 1983—improve some word choices, tighten sentences, round out some ideas—things of that nature. I’m enormously pleased that this trilogy and the other 7 of my 10 books will be reprinted by Wildside. (I’m sending John the two David Trevisan books next, as soon as I have scanned them in. Then Oron and the other Attluman novels.)

Also, I’ve placed my novel Call of Shadows with Ron Fortier’s Airship 27 Production. I’m very happy about this, as well.

And sooner or later, I suspect that Magicians will be produced, once we can get the modest $5 million needed to do the movie the way it should be done.

So I’m getting back into print after a long hiatus and, in surveying the radical changes in publishing that have occurred since the rise of the Internet, the collapse of the midlist, and the total corporatization of New York fiction publishing, I came across an article that appeared recently online in Prospect, the British periodical.
The article, by Edward Docx, is “Postmodernism is dead” (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/07/postmodernism-is-dead-va-exhibition-age-of-authenticism/) and reviews a comprehensive retrospective, currently on display in a London gallery, of the postmodernist movement. Docx provides a very nice definition of this social, philosophical, and artistic movement: “In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. . . . Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilize the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.”

Postmodernism quickly descended into the confusing, foolish parody of itself that we know today, although Docx makes it clear that postmodernism made critically important contributions to society. It has cleared away the paranoid concept of one dominant “narrative” (such a postmodern word, that) and provided alternatives to the conceit that that dominant narrative was western. It has provided parallel avenues of expression and acceptance of “difference” perspectives, thereby offering a horizontal appreciation of history, experience, and identity rather than a vertical, hierarchical one. And it has exposed the fiction of identity as a solid entity rather than as an aggregate of shifting coordinates of gender, religion, class, and so on; as Docx says, “We are entirely constructed. There is nothing else.” Postmodernism changed “the great banquet of human ideas” from “one of self-determination (Kant et al) to other-determination. I am constructed, therefore I am.”

The fly in the ointment, however, is clearly this: the unease that most of us feel in regard to this radical awareness or sensibility. Do you really think that you are “constructed”? Do you really sense that you are a kind of postmodern, fluid force field of almost arbitrary labels—this religion, that gender—and not a real person or a real human being? My answer to this is that we are what we think we are. If we are able to make choices, then we will do so, but we won’t make them because we surmise that we are “an aggregate of shifting coordinates.” We know this intuitively, and most of us recoil from the idea of being an aggregated force field (my term, not Docx’s!). It is very similar to the ancient notion—surely there is nothing new under the sun—that life is an illusion and that we, too, are no more than an illusion. And this creates a paradox that may very well lie at the heart of human experience.

Call it what you will. Such thinking led to the floor’s being pulled away beneath our feet as tedious, pompous, circular arguments took all of the air out of the room. Docx refers to it as the postmodern paradox: “because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognize the schlock from the not.” The professors, in other words (in an irony that Mencken, for one, would have relished) had created a Frankenstein monster and could not control it. The result? “In the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. Capital, as has been said many times, accommodates all needs.”

Capital accommodates all needs. This puts into perspective what has occurred over the past several decades regarding publishing, writers, fiction, storytellers, New York corporate entities, print-on-demand, the young writer just getting started, the old dogs left on the sidelines, and the constructed auteurs promoted by New York that are our rock stars of the moment. The paradox is that “by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended…. In other words,” as Doxc says, “increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason that we feel the genre writer’s cry ‘I sold millions’ so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than that ‘it sold millions.’”

And so here we are. I have not made millions as a writer and the odds are that neither have you. I’d sure like to. I like money. Everyone likes money. Who doesn’t like money? I’d like to have lots of money. But my desire for all of that money, as a reward for the stories I write, must confront the modern (or postmodern!) reality that market success right now is bestowed upon writers who, more than ever before, fit into the postmodern zeitgeist, which is one of surface and not depth, acceptance and not challenges, sensation and not thought. It is immaterial whether James Patterson writes well (he doesn’t), just as it is immaterial whether Madonna has any talent (she doesn’t) or whether Fox News really provides news (it doesn’t); they are what they are—exclusive postmodern constructions that weirdly feed upon themselves and do not include us but allow us to observe them—and that is sufficient. Same for Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian and other manufactured entities that I tend to regard as foolish but which others reward simply because they are the flavor of the moment.

Where does leave those of us who don’t feel that we are constructions or illusions, those of us who are not of the moment, those of us who feel there is more to artistic creativity than simply defining it in terms of money? Well, we are starting to get past the notion that the only yardstick by which to measure worth is the yardstick of earnings. Artistically, as Docx says, what is happening now, as postmodernism recedes into the past and becomes just one more –ism, is that we are free to use whatever we like of postmodern conceits without pretending that it is the last word in human expression or social relevance. It provides options for us, nothing more and nothing less. I recall discussing with Donald Sidney-Fryer years ago, What will come after postmodernism? There had been an article in the Chicago Tribune that I had shared with him, and we kicked this back and forth for a while. My sense was that we will gravitate back toward some sense of the classic or the formal because we inherently need that, we human beings. I could discern no other options. It is deeply part of us to require such a foundation in our storytelling, our arts, our societies, our lives. My notion of a new classicism or formalism Docx calls the need for, and a resurgence of, authenticity: “Values are important once more: the values that the artist puts into the making of an object as well as the values that the consumer takes out of the object. And these striven-for values are separate to the naked commercial value.”

These values are separate to the naked commercial value! A commercially successful author may actually be good, but not necessarily so. And writers who have not gained commercial success may indeed be worth your time and attention despite the fact that the marketplace hasn’t lauded them. These facts are truer now than ever before. (As though an absolute term such as true could be truer, in any event!)

So there is hope for me. A former agent once suggested that I am a “cult author.” I may wear that declamation as a badge of pride, but what he meant was that my commercial appeal is limited. No doubt! I still hope to earn all of the money I mentioned a few paragraphs earlier. Give me millions! But if my hope is to be fulfilled, then it must come about as we go through a transition of social awareness: if Docx is right (and Donald Sidney-Fryer and I, as well), then we are moving toward a new appreciation of formal construction, authentic intent, and artistic sincerity. If such be the case (and doesn’t that sound formal, using the conditional subjunctive mood there!), then perhaps my semi-commercial but authentic, cult-figure fiction may yet earn me some more dollars. In a postmodern world, I can earn money and still be authentic; it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

As for what is coming in our post-pomo world of popular fiction—which is where I make my home—I can give you some recent examples that most of my readers will be familiar with. Take Howard Andrew Jones’s The Desert of Souls—a wonderful new novel that many are comparing to Robert E. Howard’s stories first published in Flying Carpet and Oriental Tales magazines during the Great Depression. The comparison holds up, but there is more than that going on here: Jones has gone back to the modern period of adventure storytelling and, fully aware of what he is doing (as are we), has made excellent use of the storytelling methods of that period. But he is doing it in our postmodern or post-postmodern world, and by doing so allows us to experience the world of Haroun al-Raschid, not as an exotic other place that requires taming by the West, but as a land unto itself that requires no one else’s permission to exist and needs to offer no explanations for itself. Jones can create women characters that are not one-dimensional but many dimensional. Yet he writes in a style that is not shallow and clever and self-referential but is clearly modeled on the strong, objective style of popular writing of nearly a century ago, the popular fiction of the early pulps. And if Jones’s doing such things seems acceptable to us and not extraordinary, that is precisely the point: he is doing these things on this side of postmodernism, making use of postmodern tools while providing an authentic story that continues the trajectory of the mid-twentieth fiction that itself was so authentic and modern that readers return to it still for that voice of the authentic it provides us. What a joy. (As the literary executor for Harold Lamb’s estate, Jones has had the rare opportunity to steep himself in the work of one of the best writers of the first half of the twentieth century, and clearly he has learned from that master, for the tone and pace of The Desert of Souls echoes the best work of Lamb, who, in his own time, the modern era, approached writing historical fiction with an authenticity that we can now see was ahead of its time, was indeed an early marker of our time.)

Another example: Ron Fortier’s Airship 27 Productions, which I mentioned earlier—“pulp fiction for a new generation.” Having now made our way through the swamp of arbitrariness, of the foolish contrivances of imperialism, and of force-fed narratives of exceptionalism, we now have Charles Saunders revisiting the racist 1930s with a pulp hero, Damballa, who (brilliantly!) is the product of a biracial union and serves as a hero-of-the-night to right wrongs in late-Depression Harlem. Don’t we wish we had had a story like this in 1938? Well, now we do. Is there a more authentic voice in our community of writers than Charles Saunders? I don’t know of one. And we are here with him, in post-pomo America, living in 1938, just as we always knew we could.

Ron will also be bringing out my new novel, Call of Shadows, early next year—formally structured, based on the classic form of mid-twentieth-century popular storytelling, but infused also with sufficient post-po-mo self-awareness that it takes is itself—not nonseriously—but very seriously indeed. We used to have to suspend our disbelief. Then we went through a period where we knew everything; the artist had no secrets, or the filmmaker, or the writer; we’re all in on the gag as Michael Bay pummels us with another Transformers movie. Now we are moving past that, and we really actually seriously choose to go back to suspending our disbelief, because by doing that, we are coming home and trusting the artist to do something for us, not party with us. Invite us, but be an artist first of all, not a gag master.

I like it.

It means that the old dogs have another tool in the tool kit to do what we do best: tell a good yarn.

And be appreciated for it.

And perhaps make a few bob for it, too, whether or not any us make some of the millions currently going to the far more commercially successful writers.

Hey, we’re the authentic ones. Give us a try after you finish that James Patterson novel. The flavor is a bit different—and maybe a little new and improved, as well.

Additional Note: A quick epilogue regarding the time in my life when I tried to squash the part of myself that hungered to succeed—on my own terms—as a writer. How weird was it, trying to negate or subordinate part of myself that I had spent years cultivating and strengthening? Weird enough that I offer it as a cautionary tale and suggest you not do it. Take life as it comes, is my new motto.

Once I had decided, once and for all, I thought, at the age of 31, that my ambitious hard work had been done under a bad sign and that I had been chasing a star and had now better grow up and determine how to make my way in the world, I felt alternately depressed and ecstatic. Depressed because I had put all of my eggs into one basket and nothing had come of it. Ecstatic because, after having worked so long and hard at that one thing and having failed at it, as I thought, I truly felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. All clichés have their element of truth, and I truly did feel that I had been unburdened. I clearly recall, in the summer of 1985, looking back at that poor naïve dope who had worked so hard at writing and feeling sorry for him while also being excited for myself because, perhaps, opportunities were still available, and doors still could open where other doors had been closed to me. It was an absolutely wonderful feeling. I am not kidding.

Nevertheless, as I tried to subordinate the part of me that had been predominant for so long, I came to realize that I had developed my own version of muscle memory, as it were. Imagine a musician practicing for hours every day, or an athlete, and then stopping abruptly. The muscle memory, the neural patterns that have become part of one are still there. Perhaps they recede slightly, or the muscles weaken, but the body remembers everything. I quickly became aware that I was missing part of myself, and this was particularly true in quiet moments. My mind, for example, had become used to working on a couple of different levels at once. Typically there was always a deeper layer of imagination or thought, a place where I was working out story ideas or staying alert to story possibilities even while I was doing other things and attending to what I considered my mundane life. Without this background noise of alertness, listening for story clues, working out ideas, I was always in the present. I became unsure what to do next with my time, and I had nothing to look forward to. I wondered if this were how other people spend their time, floating from one moment to the next, simply moving through the hours waiting for things to occur or to happen to them, rather than planning on what to do next. I found myself looking for things to do. My interest in reading fiction disappeared nearly completely. I recall picking up a James Ellory novel that Fred Adams had lent me, sitting down to thumb through it one rainy afternoon, and becoming completely absorbed in it for the next thirty pages. Then, when I realized what I was doing, I set the book aside with the sense that I had betrayed myself. What business was it of mine any longer to be interested in reading and writing and novels? Joe Bonadonna lent me a collection of short stories; I perused one of them and wondered at how the author could achieve such fine effects. I told myself that once I had tried to do such things, but that had been another Dave Smith. Was I depressed? Was I simply putting up a defensive wall to protect myself from very deep feelings of failure?

After a while, hating the silence at the back of my head and very much disliking the floating feeling of waiting for something to happen, of each day going by with me peripheral to it, I began to try putting stories together once more. These attempts typically went in circles, whereby I would rework the same thousand words over and over again for months at a time until the scene became utterly dull and pointless. I revised Engor’s Sword Arm, a novelette from 1978, for Morgan Holmes; it was an interesting exercise, but the storytelling spark did not catch fire. I wrote “The Man Who Would Be King,” a very odd story with no structure to it at all, as a kind of lament or eulogy. When my father died in the fall of 1997, I felt moved to try to write again as a way of handling the emotions of that event, focusing on something that would steer my feelings in some positive direction. I wrote about 16,000 words of a literary adventure-fantasy novel called Sometime Lofty Towers. I still intend to finish it. But it has sat there for nearly a decade and a half, waiting for me to come back to it.

I had come to doubt every word I put down. The storytelling instinct I had developed and mastered over many years was still present, apparently, but the practical, mechanical aspects of getting the job done seemed to be gone. I know that this happened because, after a few years of trying to write novels again, and completing pages of manuscript, I petitioned agents to read what I had done and take me on as a client. These efforts came to nothing. I blame myself. The storytelling instincts were there, yes, but the means whereby one writes plausible, potentially saleable fiction—gone.

I believe I am now past that point. I have persisted in relearning how to write fiction, and I have become comfortable with myself again, identifying myself as a writer once more. The work habits have changed, however. Where previously I required long stretches of private time in which to develop material at the keyboard, now most of that development happens mentally. I can write a sentence or two and then walk away and come back to it in a week to see where I was; it doesn’t matter. The urgency to write is gone; the desire to rework my words until they feel polished and right to me remains, but it is slow going. And where previously I used to save and file every note or jotting that I scribbled as though they were precious, now I write things down and forget about them or throw them away. The act of creating and immersing myself in the process of writing is more vivid than ever, and I like doing it while I am in the moment; what to do with a piece afterwards is problematic.

I never really had a plan, after all, only a great hope and a strong work ethic, and the results of that effort are quite interesting indeed, a series of novels and short stories that, I now realize, have given hours of pleasure and entertainment to thousands of people. Previously, that element was something of an abstraction, but I’ve met many people who appreciate what I’ve written, and I am getting past this delusional or grandiose desire to do more than I was able to do.

My friend Mike James, the artist who lives in Warren, Ohio, has helped put this in perspective for me. Over the years, he has educated me in the baffling world of contemporary art. He has explained to me the importance of getting past the canvas as window frame; the necessary freedom of the action painting and of “the painted word,” as Thomas Wolfe titled it, of the 1940s; and the direction artists have taken since then in a corporate, comodified, commercial world in which what most of us in the mainstream consider to be art is a hopelessly bourgeois and antiquated perspective. When artists canning their own feces or erecting narcissistic monuments to themselves qualify as important art, we are at the end of the line and are in the same postmodern world of conceited intellectual shabbiness that has depleted the intellectual vigor of our postsecondary English and cultural studies departments. Either we get the bad joke, or we don’t. Either way, however, it is really of no consequence.

Anyhow, I read recently that some current artist or other in New York—it doesn’t matter who; they are all interchangeable now—had sold something or other for millions of dollars ($9 million, I think) to some rich man who fancies himself an art collector. What does it mean, I asked Mike James, when a self-proclaimed artist can indulge himself in this way, and then a millionaire can indulge himself by paying $9 million for that piece of art?

Mike said to me, It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a game rich people play.

It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a game rich people play.

I don’t have rich people paying me $9 million dollars for one of my stories. I have friends who write, and I write, and we have managed to skirt the swamp of postmodern chicanery to keep alive the old-fashioned, sensible style of storytelling that takes itself just seriously enough to entertain and inform, not posture and . . . play games.

I hope to continue contributing more stories written in this manner, too. And when I can make use of whatever tools are available to me in the tool box, I’ll do that, too.

But I’ll also take $9 million from the next person who decides that some story of mine is worth it.

Any of you rich guys out there want to share the wealth with me, I’m your man.

Doing that would be so . . . post-postmodern of me!

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5 Responses to Old Dogs and New Paradigms, Part 3

  1. Martin Page says:

    Bravo! I have a suspicion that oh-so-clever irony gives people permission to enjoy things that they’d be just as happy consuming straight, if only they had the permission. Hence the success of Terry Pratchet’s slash and burn through our genre.

    Which makes me wonder: are you/we/people like us/ part of a sort of Pre-Pratchetite movement?

  2. Dave Smith says:

    @Charles Gramlich
    Charles, I’ll look for your stuff on the Wildside site. Glad to hear you are continuing to write. I am definitely back at it. Writing a new Oron story and then plan to complete Sometime Lofty Towers.

  3. Hum, I thought I left a message. Maybe it will show up.

  4. Glad to hear that Wildside is going to be releasing these books. Now we have the same publisher. :)

    I can understand your frustration. So often it seems like two steps forward, three back. But I’m very glad you are getting the writing bug back.

  5. Joe Bonadonna says:

    Wonderful, and eloquently written, Dave. You’ve got it going on now, boy! Put all the bad energy, the negative energy of the past behind you and forge ahead — sword held high! There is a new sun rising, new horizons to explore. There are new things to learn, and many things to teach. Remember: “Learning is growth. Growth is learning. Thinking is writing and writing is progress. The lesson lies in learning, and by teaching we are taught.” I’ve learned a lot from you, and am still learning — lately I’ve had the good fortune to pass on to another young writer the things I’ve learned from you, from experience, and from many other writers. This blog is a postive step in the right direction. By Crom — let’s do it!

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