The Times They Are A Changin’

Bob Dylan playing at the recent Azkena rock festival in Barcelona,Spain in 2010
Bob Dylan playing at the recent Azkena rock festival in Barcelona,Spain in 2010

The Award

A couple of weeks ago (October 13th, 2016), the Nobel Prize Committee in Sweden awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature. This particular award has raised some eyebrows, since even though Dylan has penned one autobiographical book, Chronicles (2004), and one book of poetry (1966), called Tarantula, he is not really considered a literary writer. There is even a sequel to Chronicles in the works, but no one, not even Mr. Dylan knows when the manuscript will actually be released to the general public.

Here, is what Mr. Dylan will receive at the awards ceremony. (if he shows up)
Here, is what Mr. Dylan will receive at the awards ceremony. (if he shows up)

Bob Dylan, the Songwriter

What Bob Dylan did do, was to create a body of music and lyrics that has rocked the music industry since the early 60s. Undoubtedly, it is this accomplishment that has earned him the prestigious award and the large sum of money ($900,000) that comes with the little piece of gold. Starting out as a protest folk singer, the Minnesota native has continued to produce new and intriguing music right up to the present day. Some of his lyrical masterpieces that may have helped him earn the award, could include such timeless hits, as Maggies Farm, Desolation Row, Positively 4th Street, Like a Rolling Stone and My Back Pages. Of course any list like this, is highly subjective, as is the award itself.

P.S. His last two releases, Shadows In the Night (2015) and Fallen Angels (2016) consist almost entirely of Frank Sinatra covers.

A Proverbial Can of Words

My first reaction to the announcement that Dylan had been nominated for the award, was one of surprise, for this seemed to be a major change in direction for the Nobel Committee. True, it has been over a hundred years since the first awards were passed out by the Swedish and Norwegian (Peace Prize only) delegates, but still this choice has the airs of travelling down a new road that will forever change the nature of the highly-regarded, Literature Prize.

The new direction seems unfair and perhaps disrespectful to all the writers across the planet who work daily in creating words that communicate to readers instead of those who prefer to get their words of inspiration from the international music industry. All in all, this is not a good development that may lead to problems in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps, creating a special award for songwriters would be a better alternative.

Rigid Guidelines

Over the past two weeks since the award was announced, I have undergone a gradual transformation in my thinking. For one, I have always admired Bob Dylan for creating an oustanding musical and lyrical body of work. There is absolutely, nothing superficial about what the man is done.

What is important in considering the importance of this choice, is the way the Nobel awards are set up. Created in 1900 by the Swedish scientist and inventor, Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Foundation only gives out medals in the endeavors of literature, chemistry, physics, peace and medicine, which is sometimes referred to as physiology. Nothing less, nothing more. And since all this is willed by the late Mr. Nobel, there is no way to change the categories, except by expanding the intellectual ground that each award covers.

So this is why I am more excepting of the commitee’s choice and I do look forward to see who in the near future will receive the literature award.

Public Announcement

Yesterday, October 28, 2016, Bob Dylan finally responded to the Nobel Committee, which for the last two weeks, had been trying to contact the reclusive American songwriter. In a statement sent to the Nobel Committee, he said he would accept the prize and also attend the awards ceremony in December, if he could. This closes a two-week period, when no one knew whether or not Mr. Dylan would accept the award or attend the award ceremony.

This modest house in Hibbing, MN is where Bob spent his younger days
This modest house in Hibbing, MN is where Bob spent his younger days

How Not To Write a Short Story

Homer writing
Homer writing on a memo pad. As convenient as this method is, most writers would probably prefer a desk and a typewriter, where they can sit down and compose sentences on a solid surface. I wonder if Homer actually scribbled out the Iliad and the Odyssey using this archaic method.

About the Short Story

Short stories are often considered the building blocks of the literary world. Learn to write a good short, and all of a sudden you will find that your avenues of literary communication have broadened dramatically. For example, the short story format can be expanded to create a screenplay, a stage play or a novella. Another alternative is to string together a linked series of short stories to create a full length novel. No matter, how you look at it, putting together a good short is nothing but beneficial to writers of all levels.

Following are a few methods you might consider when you desire to shortcut the creative process.

Get Hammered and Just Let The Words Flow Onto The Paper

Homer Simpson drinking with a friend
Homer Simpson drinking with a friend

Alcohol has long been a substance associated with and abused by writers, especially of the male gender. Furthermore, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson were sometimes associated with doing their best work while under the influence. With Hemingway this is mostly myth, for even though the American novelist was often photographed in bars and taverns with a drink in hand, most observers believe that Ernest usually did not crack open a bottle until he was done writing for the day.

Unfortunately, such is not the case for his Parisian ex-pat buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who according to his buddy, Ernest, had a horrendous drinking problem. In fact, the publication of A Movable Feast, which describes in sordid detail, F. Scott’s Parisian drinking escapades, was not published until after Hemingway’s death, in part, due to the stark portrayal of Fitzgerald and other American ex-pats .

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald is not the only notable writer to have died at early age from alcohol abuse. Other members of this not-so-elite- club include Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Dylan Thomas and Edgar Allan Poe. Fortunately, the women seemed to have fared better with the bottle, though they are not exempt from the excesses of imbibing.

Write An Outline and Spend Lots of Time Getting Organizing Before You Actually Begin Writing

Homer Simpson actually has a very organized mind.
Contrary to popular perception, Homer actually has a very organized mind.

There are two schools of thought here. The first is to outline, organize and pre-plan thoroughly before you actually glue your ass to the chair and churn out a manuscript, ASAP. After all if it worked for Jack Kerouac (On The Road), it will surely work for you.

The second is to write by the seat of pants, but who really wants to put words down in that fashion.

P.S. Other novels that were penned in very short order include Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), Enders Game (Orson Scott Card), The Gambler ( Fyodor Dostoyevsky) and A Catcher In the Rye (J.D. Salinger).

Play It Safe, Don’t Take Any Risks

Homer making himself comfortable
Homer making himself comfortable.

The more comfortable you are, the better your writing will be. Just look at Homer.

Seek Out Agents and Publishers As You Write

homer on the phone
homer on the phone

If you got a really great idea, the publishing world will flock to your doorstep. No need to have the whole manuscript written out beforehand, just get the general gist of your concept down on paper, and then start making contacts. The rest should be relatively easy.

 Write Only About Your Own Experiences

Homer networking
Homer networking

All you have to do is follow that old axiom, Write What You Know; you can’t go wrong. If Mark Twain said it, it must be good advice. Even today, an up and coming writer will see and hear this said from all sorts of sources. Best advice is to follow this attitude religiously and if you happen to come across a Nobel Prize winner who advises differently, you should discard those words immediately.

 

A House Made of Sky

A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author
A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author

A Montana One-of-a-Kind Passes Away

Since noted Montana writer, Ivan Doig, passed away this pass week, I deciced to honor the famed author of This House of Sky with some comments and a series of sunset photographs from the West. Though Ivan spent most of his adult life in the Seattle area, he did grow-up in the shadow of the Montana Rockies and wrote extensively from that experience. One of his best known books was This House of Sky. It was a memoir of his Montana youth that became a finalist for the National Book Award.

Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM
Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM

Western Childhood

Ivan Doig was born in 1939 in White Sulfur Springs, not too far from the Big Belt Mountains and the state capitol at Helena. He grew up in a family of homesteaders and ranch hands. His mother died at age six, so after that tragic event, Ivan was raised by his father and grandmother. Soon thereafter they moved north to a different part of the state, where the family’s main occupation was sheepherding. Doig stayed in Montana until educational pursuits drew him away from the state, first to Northwestern University in Illinois and finally to the University of Washington, where he obtained an advanced degree in American history. Ivan would remain in Washington for the rest of his life.

Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author
Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author

Last Bus To Wisdom

Even though Ivan Doig just passed away, there still is one more book on the way. The novel is called Last Bus To Wisdom and it will not be officially released until August of this year. The publisher is Riverhead Books and this autobiographical story revolves around an eleven-year old boy from Montana, who is sent to the Midwest to stay with some friends of his caretaker, a middle-aged woman, who needs to undergo an emergency medical operation.

The visit to Minnesota does not go well and soon the boy from Montana is back on the bus home with a surprise companion. This posthumous traveler’s tale falls in line with a lot of the western tales that Ivan wrote during his lifetime and should consolidate his well-deserved reputation as one of the best Western storytellers of the 20th century. The book is definitely on my reading list for this year.

 

Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author
Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author

The Storyteller’s Art (according to Jack London)

Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell......In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum
Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell……In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum

To Build a Fire

In case you don’t know who Jack London was, just go backtrack a few years to your American Lit class in any basic English course. Chances are you will come across a story about the Alaskan frontier titled, To Build a Fire. That story was written by Jack London, based on his adventures and prospecting up on the Klondike trail way back at the end of the 19th century.

To Build a Fire was first published in 1902, then released in 1908 with a slightly different plot
To Build a Fire was first published in 1902.

More London

But there was a lot more to Jack than that one short story, for the man from the West Coast was a well-rounded traveler, hobo and adventurer. Unfortunately, he was also a very accomplished drinker, for like too many great writers, alcohol consumption killed him at age 40. Still, in his short time on the planet, the author from Oakland, California left numerous novels and short story collections for readers to consume, long after he passed away in 1916. Some of Jack’s best know novels include Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf.

The Road

One of my my favorite Jack London books is his hobo memoir, called The Road. Here, he recollects his rough and tumble days of the early 1890s before he went north on the Klondike Trail in search of wealth and gold. In The Road, Jack recounts the hard times brought on by the financial crisis of 1893 and how he survived the difficult times by riding trains, begging for a meal and trying to stay clear of the police, who were always throwing bums in jail. (Jack actually landed himself in jail and fortunately he recounts his jail time in The Road.)

The Storyteller’s Art

From The Road comes this little gem of a quote. “I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tall tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.” In order words Jack often had to lie his butt off in order to keep from starving to death. Times must have been quite difficult in those days, before it became commonplace for charitable groups to provide food and shelter for those without a place to live or food to eat.

More Words of Wisdom

Incidentally, Mark Twain, who had his own share of mis-adventures and times on the street, said the same basic thing quite succinctly. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So does this mean that to be a successful story-writer, you need to drop out of school and devoid yourself of all worldly goods. Of course not, though the life of asceticism could give you some memorable life experiences to write about. Then again you don’t want to end up like Christopher McCandless, where you end up as the subject of a book (Into The Wild) rather than an author. But even in these early decades of the 21st century, there is a lot to say for taking risks both in lifestyles and written content.

Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia
Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia

Why We Read (and write) Horror

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”  by Stephen King

The Joker from the Dark Knight
The Joker from the Dark Knight

Those Terrifying Flying Monkeys

I have a confession to make…….I could not watch The Wizard of Oz all the way through until I was 14 years old. It was always the flying monkeys that would send me running away from the TV set and into another room, where I would bide my time reading a book or some such activity until the movie ended. Even my younger brothers were able to sit through the whole movie before I was able to. Why I was so terrified of these fictional animals I do not know, I just know that there was something very primal in them that frightened the Dickens out of me.

In fact, we all seem to have a few basic fears that storytellers from past ages to the present have tried to exploit. And as Stephen King expressed in the opening quote, their motive may not always be financial, for there is also the innate need to develop an effective way to prepare ourselves for any misfortune or disaster, which are bound to come our way from time to time.

Living In the City Where Stephen King Was Born

For over ten years I lived in the city where Stephen King was born, Portland, Maine. And to be honest, the place is a beautiful city on a series of hills that overlooks a saltwater bay. The port has picturesque lighthouses, ocean-going freighters and popular seafood restaurants that specialize in boiled lobsters. Not by any stretch of the imagination can Portland be considered a dark-spirited place. So where did King get his stories. They must have been internalized.

King’s Memoir Almost Comes Home To Haunt Him

Stephen King’s book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, started out just like any other book on writing. Put rear end in chair and type. But then a demon showed up, a middle-aged man in a SUV. Accident or not, he ran Mr. King over and near killed the famed author. As a result, On Writing differs from other treatises on the same subject, because the details of Mr. King’s horrendous accident and miraculous recovery become part of the story. Even Mr. King could not escape his own stories.

Quotes On Horror

“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of hell.”  by Edgar Allan Poe

“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” by Clive Barker

“Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.”  by Chuck Palahniuk

“It’s a dance. And sometimes they turn the lights off in this ballroom. But we’ll dance anyway, you and I. Especially in the Dark. May I have the pleasure?”  by Stephen King

“Demons are like obedient dogs; they come when they are called.”  by Remy de Gourmont

“I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.” Robert Bloch, Psycho

“The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”  by  Frederic Brown

“There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect, and once in a while man’s evil prying calls them within our range.”  H.P. Lovecraft,  The Thing On the Doorstep

“It’s not the books of Stephen King that I read,

I need protection from the things in my head….”  by Jimmy Buffett

“Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.”  by Truman Capote from In Cold Blood

A scene from The Wizard of Oz, where a winged monkey takes an order from one of the witches
A scene from The Wizard of Oz, where a winged monkey takes an order from one of the witches

Working Class Writers

Though not literary writers, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were two American icons that rose from a modest background to stardom.
Though not literary writers, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe were two American icons that rose from a modest background to stardom. Here they are pictured on an exterior wall in Las Vegas.

Labor Day Rant

Today is Labor Day and maybe it is a good time to celebrate those writers (and other artists), who held day jobs to support their  dreams. Actually this list is quite long, so I will concentrate mostly on those who toiled in the “School of Hard Knocks” outside the academic system. For a close look at the various and sundry jobs, writers have held in order to maintain their craft, check out this article at Huffington Post.

Now…..Don’t get me wrong……Academia has produced some amazingly talented writers. First to mind, are those wonderful British professors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They both taught at Oxford and at the same time each in his own right produced some of the most remarkable fiction of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, the two were best of friends, who created and nourished The Inklings, an extra-curriculum literary discussion group that always met in one of Oxford’s many well-attended watering holes.

Jack Kerouac and the Beats

Jack Kerouac and company are notorious for allegedly spurning a whole cultural revolution that spurned higher education and encouraged various non-conformist activities, such as socializing at coffee houses (and bars), digging jazz music and writing offbeat and dissident poetry. Except for Kerouac and Neal Cassady, this group racked up quite a slew of impressive academic credentials. Though Alan Ginsburg dropped out of Columbia to write poetry, he did return and complete his degree program. Furthermore, William Burroughs was a Harvard graduate., while Gegory Corso attended the elite university as a a non-matriculating student— a poet in residence. Rounding out the group are Gary Snyder, who attended UCal Berkeley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who received an advanced degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, France. All in all, that’s a pretty impressive collection of degrees and academic experiences.

The British Class System

Just by the sheer number of writers and poets that have come from the British Empire, this commonwealth of nations has to be one of the most literary places on the planet. Some of the Empire’s finest writers, actually grew up in the British hinterlands and so they never had to opportunity to attend an institute of higher learning. At the top of this list would be  Doris Lessing, a Rhodesian writer, who recently received a Nobel Prize in Literature, and the ever-popular George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair. Eric grew up in remote India and so he was never able to obtain a proper education. Still, this did not prevent the writer from producing several 20th century classics.

Back in old Londontown, fans of the mystery and crime genres will be interested in the life and times of Agatha Christie, who spent her childhood years in both London and Devonshire. Despite being home-schooled, Agatha Christie’s books have sold more copies for all authors except Shakespeare and the Bible.

My Labor Day Reading List

Following are some classic titles by a few brave writers, who went out and did things for themselves…..and then wrote about it. In reality, there are many books in this field. These few titles are just a my personal favorites and perhaps a jumping off point for your own reading adventures……for there are many more great titles out there.

1. You Can’t Win by Jack Black    This autobiographical tale from a turn-of-the-century hobo-cat burglar was William Burroughs favorite read. Need I say more.

2. The Drifting Cowboy by Will James    Though born in Quebec, Will James (an alias used to cover his cattle rustling past) escaped to the U.S. and worked many western ranches as a 20th century cowhand and roper. He also worked as a Hollywood stunt man during the early years.

3. Down and Out In Paris and London by George Orwell    Orwell’s firsthand account of washing dishes in 30s Paris and marching from one shelter to the next in England will leave you spellbound.

4. Roughing It by Mark Twain  Before Twain made it big with Tom Sawyer, the man did many things including tramping across the West during the Civil War.

5. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry    Here the author of the Little Prince recounts his flying days and a crash in the Sahara that may have lead to the petite prince story.

6. Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour  Louis L’Amour was more than just a western writer. He was also a professional boxer and merchant marine who traveled the Seven Seas. This book takes you through his world traveling and roundabout ways of his younger days.

In Conclusion

Perhaps the biggest working class heroes of all…….the Liverpool Lads

“They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be”

John Lennon from Working Class Hero

Probably no other group of artists better represents  the working class than the British fab four, John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Probably no other group of artists better represents the working class than the British fab four, John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The Rude Boys Are Back In Town

 

Boxing Match, painting by James Pollard
Boxing Match, painting by James Pollard

The Issue

The issue is not exactly a new one, for the debate between Amazon and Hachette has been around for a while. There was even a Department of Justice settlement recently awarded to Amazon, after they determined that Apple, along with four book publishers (including Hatchette) were found guilty of colluding with Apple to set ebook prices. Incidentally, this was one of the biggest anti-trust lawsuits ever brought by US federal authorities. Since that decision, Amazon and Hatchetet are now undergoing negotiations to work out ebook prices for books sold by Amazon. At issue here is who determines the price of the ebook, Hatchette, Amazon or some combination of the two. During negotiations Amazon has removed pre-order buttons from all soon-to-be-released Hatchette books and is reportedly delaying shipment of  all hard copy books published by Hatchette.

Sound Off

Everybody who’s anybody in the publishing world has been sounding off on this feud, which may be destined to determine how much readers will pay for ebooks at Amazon.com. James Patterson, a Hatchette author and one of the most most successful authors in the world, is down on Amazon, as is Steve Colbert, another large-selling Hatchette author, who also stars in the Comedy Central hit, the Colbert report. On a recent episode of the award-winning show, Colbert joined forces with Sherman Alexie to totally trash Amazon’s dispute with Hatchette. Mr. Colbert even goes as far as to call for a boycott of Amazon. Others supporting Hatchette include John Green, JK Rowling and the AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives).

 

JK Rowling, a millionaire writer, has sided with her publisher, Hatchette, in its dispute with Amazon
JK Rowling, a millionaire writer of Harry Potter fame, has sided with her publisher, Hatchette, in its dispute with Amazon

The Battle of Fingers

When I first read about the ensuing conflict on JA Konrath’s popular blog ( A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing) I was a bit dismayed by his visual display of his middle finger. At the time it just seemed like a lot of arrogance, displayed by a successful Amazon author, who makes over a thousand dollars a day. That was until I viewed an online video of the Colbert Report, where a distraught Mr. Colbert uses the middle appendage of his right hand to stick it to Amazon. I guess dueling it out with middle fingers is a lot better than using pistols at twenty paces, but still, there seems to be a lot of room for improving how one expresses themselve.

Other Viewpoints

Not everybody is jumping to the defense of Hatchette. One of the most adamant Amazon supporters is JA Konrath. You can read his rant and check out his middle finger to Colbert, here. Other interesting opinions have been expressed at the  Huffington Post, the Washington Post (also owned by Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos,) and the Slate.

In 2015 the host spot for the Tonight Show will go to Steve Colbert
In 2015 the host spot for the Late Show will go to Steve Colbert

Not Yet Ready For Prime Time

One of the most surprising and disgusting outcomes of this whole episode is the veracity with which Steve Colbert has defended his own publisher. It is hard for me to believe that soon this guy will have be hosting one of the major night talk shows at CBS. This not bode well for the health of our national TV industry or our political discourse.

My Take

Unfortunately, most of Hatchette’s biggest defenders have been those who make the most money with their writing. Sometimes it seems like the 1% analogy that permeates our current political discussion has trickled down to the literary world. In recent years, breaking into paper publishing has gotten more difficult, even though the Big Five are finding it more difficult to make money or just survive. For mid-list and low-list writers who depend on ebook sales for this livelihood this dispute is most unwelcome. Despite its size and aggressive business practices, Amazon provides much-needed income to writers, who would receive next to nil, if ebook sales didn’t exist. Presently, I see the various ebook markets as a way in which unrecognized writers can find a voice in the world.

P.S.

One much-needed beneficiary of this running debate are the independent booksellers, who are presently seeing a surge in their tree book sales.