LAST WORD articles
In the mid-nineties I wrote a regular brief article for TTA’s ZENE (ZENE being forerunner of THE FIX) entitled LAST WORD. These articles are now dated and merely of curiosity value.
Here is the first one from ‘Zene’ Winter 95/96:
I suppose I get more than most people: rejections, that is. So I am writing in order to give a brief view on the way editors handle this sensitive matter. It is said that rejections should be shrugged off or allowed to act as a spur towards pursuing that goal of being ‘a successful writer’. But rejections do weigh heavy and never get any easier however many acceptances one may previously have had. Since rejections figure such a lot in many writers’ lives, they deserve some consideration as an art form in their own right.
The most boring rejections are things like ‘Just not for us’, ‘Incorrect manuscript format’, ‘We’ve seen this kind of story before’, ‘Do not be discouraged’, ‘This came close! Please try again!’ etc. Such mumblings behind the hand often appear on checklists where the editor ticks the appropriate boxes applicable to that rejection. In fact, there is one American magazine that has over a hundred possible standard boxes! Better than a bland preprinted rejection letter, though.
Some checklists have some very funny standard boxes, such as ‘Listen carefully. Please, PLEASE leave us alone’, ‘Not enough uses of the word nubile’, ‘You watch Star Trek a lot, don’t you?’, ‘You’d do better as a plumber’, etc. My favourite rejections, however, are personalised letters, with some sense of humour, for example these I received very recently: ‘No Dutch jokes; no Danish pastries, just sorry, its edge didn’t slice my bacon!’, ‘Well, you managed to confuse the hell out of my new assistant editor. She didn’t know what to tell you and asked me to write this to you. I think your story made her wonder what she had gotten herself into’, and an editor who rejected my submission after wrestling with whether it was ‘cleverly surreal or just plain bollox’.
A type of rejection I loathe (worse than a standard slip or a rude insult) is one that tells you how marvellous the piece was but at the end of the day it just didn’t grab the editor sufficiently. Then there are inferred rejections (no reply), the very worst of all. Whatever the mode of rejection, they’re to be relished as part of life – much like death. Yet, surely, all editors can afford the time to write at least something non-standard when rejecting writers’ pride-and-joys.
Here are the remaining ‘Last Word’ articles:
I’m never unduly sacrilegious or controversial but this personal view is a plea for fiction magazines to be stripped of their illustrations and artwork. Let the words do all the work � there is nothing more vivid, original and satisfying than the one-off images conjured in the individual reading mind. No longer should there be skulls, spaceships or other paraphernalia decorating the page with their temptation towards a single interpretation of the text. In some magazines, illustrations even infiltrate the print itself, often making it difficult to read. Also, unlinked artwork and text are not always mutually user-friendly. Nevertheless, some brilliant jobs have been done in the past by visual artists in independent fiction magazines. I’m just trying to make a general point, that can have some exceptions. For example, the original illustrations for Dickens and ‘Just William’ books were decidedly enhancing. But to return to magazines, the artwork (especially that on the cover) – whether amateurishly perpetrated or wonderfully evocative with excellent craftsmanship – often deter potential readers from the contents. Readers who have a prejudice against a certain category of fiction as represented by the cover will not discover how ill-founded their prejudice actually is. Visual art is a wonderful phenomenon and has its rightful place in galleries, films, television etc, but please believe me it can also disfiguringly stifle, dilute or hype up the written words which it’s intended to complement. Over-egging the textual cake rather than allowing the pure meaning of words to work alone can and often does destroy our pictorial privacy.
I know this plea of mine is tied up with other issues, relating to the marketing of books with garish covers, for example, or to the rights of the writer – AND my artist friends may now no longer be such! Meanwhile, I hope what I have written above provokes some constructive thoughts.
Published ‘Zene’ Spring 1996
Snail mail! That’s how us old-fashioned folk are now written off in some quarters because we ain’t got Internet or E-mail or whatever it is called. I’m not a luddite, nor am I someone who cringes at modernity, nor do I make whining excuses as to technology’s affordability. If it’s vital to our culture, get it, whatever the cost, I say. You only live once – I think. No, what I have against worldwide immediacy of communication is the eventual ephemerality or, another pretentious word meaning the same thing, transience, whose drawback is prevalent whatever best will in the world remembers to save on the system. Who will collect your letters for future publication? Who will be able to fondle and sniff the wondrously aesthetic second-hand book containing your creative work? Can you lounge in the bath reading a screen? Well, I suppose so, at a push. There’s something very pleasantly human and fallible about books or magazines. Personality oozes from written correspondence: the type of stamp and envelope used, the perfume, the green ink looniness, etc… When I was at university, nobody seemed to have phones and I always had to write to my parents, saving them the bother of my impulsive problems – cos I’d always sorted them out by the time I got to writing a letter – unlike my own grown-up children who pick up the phone at the slightest whim of distemper. (Nice to hear from you, though, kids.) Goodness knows what I’d be getting on the screen, if I had E-mail. I get enough off-the-cuff insults in writing, as it is! But it seems I’ll no longer be able to submit stories to pukka magazines for much longer. Words’ll be all flying round a hyperspace which has no room for an old fogey like me. Then, there is that other hyperspace called death. You only die once. Well, at a push. Of the abandon-edit button.
Published ‘Zene’ Autumn 1996
Well, how many times have you come across an independent fiction magazine advertising subscriptions and future highlights as if not only its own life but life in general is eternal? Yes, I know, even the most professional organs can go bellybutton-up. But, does this excuse the way many literary outfits seem to come and go with no bye or leave? A precious few have folded (do they fold like deck-chairs when the sea reclaims the beach?) in a civilised and upright manner – whilst too many others just fade away as if their god-given right is to exist or not to exist at whim. No thought seems to be given to pale breathless writers who, in some cases, are eagerly waiting for their first publication to unfold – nor recompense to their subscribers. My suggestion is that if you cannot afford a professional accountant, then do not offer subscriptions. Contracts and payments to writers is quite another issue which I currently have no space to cover.
So, don your cloaks of cynicism, when wondrous schemes of future publications are advertised in such organs as Zene and Scavenger’s Newsletter … no blame. naturally, to this excellent pair acting as conduits, of course – because, indeed, where would we be without such communication of potential avenues of creative exposure or of literary delight? But a pinch of salt is no more than is needed to sting the weeping wounds for a bloated vampire whose only shade of doubt is whether to suck from a ready-made opening in the beer-paunch or simply collapse into a sunbed of unwatered flowers. In short, as with some fiction, I suggest you do not believe what you read.
Published ‘Zene’ Winter 1997
I’m not the sort of person who always needs to have the last word. I much prefer the true word, whether it’s at the beginning, middle or end. ‘Last Word’ implies that nobody can get back at you – an implication disproved by the letters of complaint in Zene (and, yes, of agreement which I received personally) about my suggestion that independent fiction magazines should be stripped of all their artwork. (By the way, I do love artwork in its own right, including pukka paintings throughout the centuries together with the small press work of Alan Casey, Chad Savage, Margaret B. Simon and Roddy Williams, inter alios.) Anyway, back to the matter in hand, today I shall brook no comeback. This is the last word. Fiction genres should not exist. What point do they serve? This question is generated by one of the considerations that formed part of my ‘ban artwork’ ‘Last Word’ – the evil of presumption, bigotry, pride and prejudice. (Incidentally, Jane Austen has always been a passion with me, and not just lately with all her media fixes.) Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and, for want of a better word, Mainstream are all facets of imaginary fiction. For example, Peter Ackroyd writes excellent horror within his Booker Prize nominated novels, Iain Banks and Iain M Banks are the same person. Why should potential readers not enjoy the miasmic blurred territories between so-called genres? Perhaps that�s why someone thought of the term Slipstream. But even that has become a genre in its own right, attracting some and not others, because of the way it’s packaged. I know some think they need pointers as to the books of likely enjoyment according to one’s taste, bearing in mind the massive bulk available. But I suggest you rely on serendipity of choice not simply on reviews or on dust wrappers or on the fact that a particular book has been banned to a particular shelf. In the beginning, there was only the Word. Logos.
first published ‘Zene’ 1997
More positive this time, I hope, since I wish to speak on the subject of fiction collaborations. In the last year or three, much of my need to unblock has been helped by doing it with others. I have been very lucky in being able to do it with… Hold on, I ought not to taint their names with their perhaps rash decision to share a creative intimacy with the likes of me. Suffice it to say that I’ve done it with many stars of the Independent (and not so Independent) Press. It has been, without exception, a glorious experience. The method I have favoured (and none have so far complained) is for one of the two of us to write a beginning (with no forward plan), then for the other to continue, and to take it in turns until one party says it is finished. All this is piecemeal by post, each story being typed in full by the one who started, the latter being responsible for final welding together, brushing up and subsequent marketing. Most have come back for more. There is nothing greater than this adventure of the imagination. It beats going solo hands down. The results can be amazingly good. Breathtaking. But it is fair to say, sometimes the method merely works. Often, though, it works beyond the wildest dreams. Try it.
First published ‘Zene’ 1997
In the ‘Last Word’ before last I said it was the very last word on genres. I would brook no comeback. Well, of course, I exclude myself from this dictum. Indeed, I am now proposing an exception to the logic of what I then said: fiction and non-fiction, I assume, are separate genres and should always remain so. But, on second thoughts, who says? I’m an idiot in so assuming. Everyone has their own slant on reality. Their own style of describing or exploring it. And, doubtless, their own hidden agenda.
Take the reviews in this very ‘Zene’. All written by different souls. But to obtain a neutrally pure review on anyone work of art, I feel that one must gather as many individual angles of ‘attack’ as possible upon it and then merge as one general trend. That’s the optimum. A single review is simply another fiction. Every time I start writing nonfiction (such as this billet-doux), my fiction hat slowly resumes its wearing of my head. The language creeps into a more surrealistic mode. And any hope of sense escapes through my fingertips. Fiction and non-fiction, like music, are just shades of colour in the world painting. When I was young in the 1950s, most books in public libraries had similar marbly covers, few illustrations (if any) and carelessly categorised. I merely judged by the potentiality of future nostalgia in the book’s smell.
Finally, does anyone suffer like me? When an anthology or suchlike (in which one of my ‘fictions’ appears) is advertised or reviewed, it is often the case that no mention (bad or good) is made of DF Lewis, sometimes even in the case when every other writer is mentioned. I’m beginning to believe I’m not a selling-point. Or am I being paranoiac? Mental disturbance, thankfully, is just the stuff of that ring-fenced genre called dream.
Published Zene #13 1997
With the coming of central heating, much challenge and pleasure has left the art of reading. When a child in the 5Os, there was nothing but a tin bath which, once a week, we dragged in front of the coal fire, filling it by kettles for family sudsies (residual stink for other six days? Well, I didn’t notice) and a wooden hut of an outside toilet at the end of a long backyard path – a phenomenon that no doubt helped the stink stakes! Also, reading in bed for most of the year was an artful interchange of one hand out of the bed until it got too numb with cold, then using the other to prop up the latest Enid Blyton (and, later, Charles Dickens), till you had to give up and abandon both hands to the body warmth of the inner bed. This cut back on the reading time before dozing off during those evenings when parents put kids to bed extremely early (no doubt something to do with a lack of telly). But, believe me, the reading experience was enhanced. Fiction worlds conjured up against the odds seemed more real, somehow. No insults intended, but much of the independent press provides challenging odds in the cold winters of folding, delay, unfulfilled promises etc, thus, for me, making the writing experience more positive and thus valuable when, despite everything, you’re finally published. I once compared the American independent press to surfing. With mixed success, riding the multitudinous waves of uncertainty and of lurking simultaneity across a vast ocean of Opportunity. Bit different from a tin bath.
Published Zene #14 1998
This is my last ‘Last Word’. I am grateful to Team Zene for allowing me to sound off for the last year or so, but I have decided that I cannot justify the valuable space in such a fine magazine for anything other than what I passionately need to say. I’ve used up this column’s most meaningful words and now those that remain are residual empty ones. The art of life is to appreciate beginnings and endings for what they are; do not try to fight them. So, to summarize what I tried to say about creative writing in past columns:
the undecorated word is all important in literature; rejections are hand-brakes on the steep slope to God’s acceptance; the unsnailing emails store up infinite trouble and lose an awful lot of concentration; never promise to go beyond the event horizon; unring-fence the genres and gambol in the free spaces; collaborating with others helps you unbend and paradoxically unblend; uniformity of the medium can distil differentiations from within the medium’s message; tin baths and outside toilets: well, they were where I first came in. Not surfing the net, but scooping off the effluence. See you in my next story.
Published Zene #15 1998