Kickass Writing on a Literary Site – Stephen Graham Jones

There is some superb writing, along with quite a few book reviews of novels, though the author insists that they are not book reviews at all, on the webpage of this very interesting author. The guy’s name is Stephen Graham Jones, and he is 37 years old. As I noted earlier, this is around the age when novelists peak. Anyway, he talks about a lot of good writing on there, a lot of great books and great authors. I do not read much lit anymore, but when I was an undergraduate at California State University Long Beach in 1981, my professor, Larry Meyer, said I had, “… greater knowledge of literature than any undergrad I have ever taught.” Anyway, he goes over much recent literature that seems like it is worth a recommendation. Many of these books and authors I had never ever heard of. I will just go through them in case you are interested in checking them out. First of all, William J. Cobb, author of Goodnight, Texas. Sounds like a good read. I have never heard of the author, and Wikipedia has nothing on him either. Next up, Richard Grossman’s Breeze Avenue, which was discussed here earlier. It turns out that the 3 million pages are not going to be authored by Grossman himself, thank God, but are being written by a team of hundreds. The reading room that the 750 volumes will be housed in will be installed on a volcano in Hawaii. There will also be five copies sold via bid at an auction. In addition to the features I discussed earlier, the work will include:

Breeze Avenue will spawn seven works of art, four other published books, and various performances, concerts, architectural projects and films. The Breeze Avenue contents include, among other elements: A prose-poem epic whose protagonist is a male prostitute who ascends to heaven and guides the sun through the sky; A glossary of every humorous word in the English language, illustrated by Pierre Le-Tan. The product of fourteen years of reading dictionaries; A 37-foot high pyramid covered with hieroglyphs, to be erected in Palm Springs; The documentation and mapping of a suburb of homes that squeeze their inhabitants through the movements of interior walls; A hundred-poem sonnet cycle transformed into eye charts; A musical instrument composed of automobiles moving in phalanx; A drawing scrolling through the longest poem ever written, taking eighty-five years to complete; A poem created by birds in an aviary; A novel concerning a degenerate scrabble player, the victim of an elaborate hoax; A ‘torah ball,’ inscribed with the Ten Commandments that will roll down a Colorado mountain in twenty million years, re-creating the Mount Sinai experience; Artificial universes that embed religious canticles through the positioning of stars. Plans are being developed to have the canticles sung in planetaria; A brain building that emits opera, utilizing a libretto of people talking in their sleep; Poetry created on a Scrabble board; The longest short story in the world; Poetry created in ASL and then translated into classical Chinese; 365,000 photos of clouds, documenting the daylight history of a portion of sky in Minnesota over the period of a year; A filibuster that occupies 100,000 pages of text and requires 130 days of continuous speech to deliver.

I still say, “No, I’m not going to read it.” Next up is Against the Day, the latest novel by Thomas Pynchon, which I have not read. However, I have read V., The Crying of Lot 49 , Cormac McCarthy, who is also said to be one of our greatest living authors. The review is of an awesome dystopian novel called The Road. The recent movie No Country For Old Men was based on a novel by McCarthy. Blood Meridian is probably his best book, and it is also said to be one of the great books of our modern era. McCarthy is somewhat like William Faulkner. If you can handle Faulkner, you can handle this guy. It was written 24 years ago at age 51. Child of God, Outer Dark and Suttree are said to be some of his best works, alongside The Road. Next up is an utterly incredible book by Michael Z. Danielewski called Only Revolutions . This, along with House of Leaves, are two of the most strange and celebrated works of experimental writing produced in recent years. The works go far beyond writing itself to the actual product of the book. I had never heard of Danielewski either. Next up we have Dirty Job by Christopher Moore. I had never heard of him before either, but he sounds like a very interesting author. Next up we have Old Boys by Charles McCarry. Never heard of him either. He is the author of spy novels, especially the Christopher Paul series. I think it is important to acknowledge that some of this stuff goes beyond genre fiction and into some actual kickass writing. Next up we have R.M. Berry’s Frank, another very strange book. I have never heard of this author at all, and he has no Wikipedia entry. Still, he sounds like a fine writer. Finally, we have the extremely strange Land of the Snowmen, by the equally odd George Belden. There is no entry on Belden in Wikipedia and I have never heard of him before. He claimed to be on Robert F. Scott’s famous and ill-fated 1910-1912 expedition to the North Pole. The book, Land of the Snowmen, which claims to be a journal of the disaster, is made up. Belden was never on the expedition. Belden is another one of those famous mentally ill writers, probably a depressive or manic-depressive. I used to hang around the literary scene in Los Angeles a lot, and writers are pretty weird people. They are prone to depression and often drink too much. A lot of them are introverted. Many have mood swings, and are quite difficult people to deal with. Although I’m a writer myself, I don’t much like writers as people. I’m not exactly normal myself, so I ought to cheer on the fact that these folks are mostly nuts too, but I just can’t. Writers are just too unpleasant. Musicians are nuts too, but at least they are fun. Artists are crazy too, but at least they are nice. Writers are like a bunch of brooding, moody drunks. No thanks. About the author, from the publisher’s website:

Norman Lock discovered Belden and his remarkable journal by accident. He had been for some years in Africa, writing a novel, A History of the Imagination. The strain of living in a country as alien as Africa, with little money and little hope of finding a publisher, caused him to have a nervous breakdown. A friend in Mombassa contacted his wife, who arranged for his return and commitment to a private sanitarium in Vermont’s Green Mountains. During the final weeks of Lock’s recuperation, the institution’s chief of staff asked if he would sort through boxes of old files in the sanitarium’s basement to determine whether or not any should be kept. In one of those boxes, Lock found Land of the Snow Men.

About the book, from the Foreword:

Little is known about George Belden. One thing is certain, however; he was not in Antarctica at the time of Scott’s 1910-12 expedition to the Pole, but the year after the disaster. His name does not appear on the list of passengers and crew aboard Terra Nova, nor is it mentioned by Scott in his journal or in any other known to have been kept by a member of the tragic enterprise. Belden’s own journal, purporting to be that of a witness to the misadventure, is clearly an invention—one which became increasingly whimsical and hallucinatory. His extraordinary account of having been with Scott, Wilson, and Bowers when they perished on the Barrier Ice and his fantastic depiction of the trolley-car hearse, which transported Scott up into Mt. Terror, must be understood as an attempt by Belden to forge a modern myth of the hero.

In addition, Jones’ site turned me onto a lot of other books I had never heard of before. I’m not into sci-fi much, but Jones praises Philip K. Dick‘s VALIS to the skies. I’ve heard of Dick, and an old friend of mine, Avram Davidson, knew Dick very well, but I have never read any of his stuff. It’s clear to me that Dick was psychotic when he was writing VALIS, and probably for the rest of his life starting around then. As I said before, writers are nuts. Ubik is said to be one of Dick’s greatest works and one of the best novels of our time. Dr. Bloodmoney, a dystopian novel, is also very good. Mary and the Giant is supposed to be great writing. He also discusses some other works I have not read. Martin AmisKingsley Amis. Lucky Jim is out of this world. I also really enjoyed David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest. This is supposed to be one of the greatest books of our time, but I have not read it. I’ve heard of it and Wallace. Wallace was another writer genius depressive, and was deeply depressed for most of his life. He eventually committed suicide, like so many of these nutty writers. He was not a drunk though, and he seems to have been a really nice guy, which is sort of unusual. A Canticle For Leibowitz is also mentioned. Yet another dystopian novel, this time by William M. Miller. Although it was sci-fi, this is one of the few sci-fi books that has broken out of the genre to be embraced by non-fans. It is said to be one of the greatest sci-fi books ever written. The book was written in 1961 and is still popular. However, the author, yet another seriously depressive and difficult author, was a suicide long ago. This one did not drink, but he was a recluse, (Reclusiveness is not uncommon in authors.) and he was also very difficult. He was seriously depressed for many years. This was really his only novel, though one more book was published after he died. He also recommends The Parable of the Sower, another dystopian novel, this one written by Octavia Butler. Never heard of her or the book. Incredibly enough, she’s a Black woman! Never heard a Black woman as a great science fiction writer, but hey, Black folks can do anything, come on now. Butler was yet another reclusive, hermitic writer. Jones also recommends, curiously enough, Stephen King‘s The Stand. Yet another dystopian novel. Unlike many books reviewed here, this novel is readable by pretty much any old ordinary person. I remember my neighbors reading it in Long Beach back in 1980. The Stand appears to have a huge fan club, but I’ve never read it. I’ve never read anything by King. He is said to be quite overrated as an author. However, Carrie, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Rebellion , The Green Mile and The Shining were made into great movies, and The Shining is one of the greatest movies ever made. He praises a book called Cryptomicon by Neal Stephenson. I have never heard of the author or the book. It is a big hit and has its own underground fan club. The author also has a cult following. He also mentions Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. It’s not one of his most famous works, but it is said to be quite good. I have had Moby-Dick on my shelf for decades, and never had the guts to dip into it. Also mentioned, Ray Young Bear’s Black Eagle Child/Remnants Of The First Earth, a prose-poem. This is an American Indian writer who also writes in the Fox Indian language, which he speaks as a mother tongue. He learned English as a second language! I never would have guessed it, but Jones is also an American Indian, in this case a Blackfoot. Another recommendation is Michael Ondaatjee‘s book of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I have never been a real big fan of poetry, but give me Robinson Jeffers, Arthur Rimbaud and especially T.S. Eliot any day. I’ve even written some verse, but even I think it sucks. The best prose is just about poetry anyway. Ondaatjee is known for the movie adaptation of  his novel The English Patient, which I have not seen. One more recommendation is World War Z, An Oral History of the Zombie War, another dystopian novel, this time by Max Brooks. He’s the son of Mel Brooks. Never heard of him or the book, but the plot sounded really cool! Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies, and it’s got to be one of the scariest movies ever made. He also mentions a number of books that I have read, including Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road and William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury. I love Kerouac, and I don’t care what the critics (“That’s not writing, it’s typing”) say. On the Road is one killer book. The Sound and the Fury is difficult but very good. Light in August is great too; it’s too much. I have not read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (How can anyone?) but I have dipped into it. Kerouac and Faulkner were both drunks, and Kerouac was a depressive. He was noted for repeating the Buddhist saying, “All of life is sadness.” It’s a shitty thing to say, but I agreed at age 22, and I double agree 29 long years later. And that’s not the POV of a pessimist either. Don’t agree? Think about it. Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard is little-known, but it’s glorious. Even my Mom likes it, and she hates Beatniks. It’s about the very short life and tragic death of Kerouac’s older brother, Gerard. I’ve also read some biographies of Kerouac, especially Ann Charter‘s book.

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5 thoughts on “Kickass Writing on a Literary Site – Stephen Graham Jones”

  1. I’ve just filled 6 big laundry bags with books I know I’m never going to read. I’m going to give them to a charity shop rather than sell them on Amazon or Abe – I just want rid of them quick. I just haven’t the room or the time. My walls are still lined with books I’d like to read. So new book recommendations no longer cause my ears to prick up – life’s just too short, especially for ‘literary’ fiction. Did you ever read that ‘Underworld’ ? I tried it when I was in hospital for a couple of weeks, but I got about three quarters through it without really taking anything in. The British Guardian newspaper has a regular feature where someone gives a brief synopsis ( often comical) of a famous novel; someone did Underworld, and it made perfect sense – it made me feel thick for not ‘getting it’. Anyway, now I feel comfortable enough with myself to say confidently that the last thing I want from a novel is an intelligence test. So there you go.
    Brief comments: Martin Amis and T.S. Eliot – I say no, no, no! Take them away!
    ‘The White Hotel’ is a pretentious bit of holocaust emotional manipulation – aimed at rich jewish hippy New Age therapy-tasters. Pass.
    Canticle for Leibowitz – yes, yes, yes! Funny too.
    Try Faulkner’s ‘ Absalom, Absalom’ – stunning bit of writing, and entertaining to ( which ‘ the Sound and the Fury’ isn’t very).

  2. I’ve only read a few of the books listed here. I read The Sound and the Fury in high school, didn’t like it. I tried – twice – to read Cormac McCarthy’s highly rated All the Pretty Horses, but I couldn’t stand it. Reminded me of Faulkner, for one thing.
    Moby Dick is every bit as great as they say it is. Don’t be intimidated – just read it. Also check out Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.” A great horror-comedy-suspense page-turner. Scary, funny, and very profound. Check out “Bartleby” again even if you’ve already read it in high school. It’s also a great story. Never heard of The Confidence Man. Right now I’m reading tales and sketches of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville greatly admired.
    On the sci-fi books: A Canticle for Leibowitz sucked. Shrill, badly-written Catholic propaganda, and the ostensibly “funny” parts weren’t funny at all.
    VALIS was fun, but it was nowhere near Dick’s best. Same with Ubik. (Don’t be misled by the fact that it got on some “100 Best” list.) Personally, I liked Dick’s mid-1960s novels the best, especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Now Wait for Last Year. It’s a cliche that Dick was “prophetic,” but it’s true. In Stigmata for instance he’s got people getting together to trip out on mass-marketed hallucinogens while projecting themselves into a Barbie-and-Ken doll set-up (which is marketed along with the drug) placed on the living-room floor. This was written in 1965. I like PKD more for his social satire than for his Philosophy 101 stuff.
    Stephen King is a sometimes entertaining bad writer. Nothing worth paying any attention to. For horror, read the classics. Besides the biggies – Dracula, etc. – check out Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (see above) and also (I just finished reading this one) Shirley Jackson’s great psychological horror story, The Haunting of Hill House.

  3. I haven’t read ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’ for maybe 30 (or even 40) years I have to admit. I find when I revisit these old 60s SF favourites that the writing is wincingly awful, but I’d guess that if you think it’s Roman Catholic propaganda that you didn’t finish it – quite the opposite!

    1. I did finish Canticle, though I skimmed a lot of it. I thought that the worst, most blatant Catholic propaganda was towards the end, when the priest or monk or somebody was trying to convince some mother, whose child was dying painfully from radiation poisoning, not to take the child to the government euthanasia center which was set up after the nuclear attack. I was like, gee, wouldn’t it have been easier for the author just to cut and paste the catechism?

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