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Flash fiction
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The Curmudgeon
J. Conrad's blog
Friday, 19 December 2008
No. 52
Topic: Memoir

Sister, I hear you laugh
my heart fills full up
Keep me please
Sister, when you cry
I feel your tears running down my face
Sister, Sister will you keep me?


— Dave Matthews


A daughter was born to my parents nearly 54 years ago; twenty-one months later a brother was born to her: so close in age yet distant — an expanse that only swells as the years race by.

I recently asked my uncle if he had any recollections of my mother, deceased now eleven years, from their youth. Alas, he is five years her junior and recalled little. Yet in adulthood they were very close. My father was not a handy man around the house, and so whatever the need — putting a new roof on the house, hanging wallpaper, laying down tile in the kitchen — my mother had but to call and her brother was there. I recall my uncle as a presence in my youth: at age four or five, sitting between his legs at the front of a toboggan as it raced down a snowy slope in Hines Park; also that he entrusted me with his new Chevrolet Impala to drive my prom date to the event located in the New Center area in Detroit. Knowing my parents, I’m certain they fretted more over my returning his car without a scratch or dent than he did. I must make a point of sharing these two memories with my uncle, even if I can’t today recall my date’s name (only the name of the girl who was my first choice, who accepted only to bail out) or the name of the hotel at which we danced and dined. His trust in me made me feel a man.

Neither my sister nor I have children, and so no niece or nephew will ask of us stories from our youth, which is perhaps fitting. I recall so very little of our childhood: no protective older sister, no rainy day playmate. Different as night and day: she a night owl, me up with the sun. I recall eleven years ago, our first Mother’s Day without Mom, my sister and I took Dad to Sunday brunch. I wore for the first time a summer suit and tie; she wore for the last time a winter outfit. Perhaps she wished to lay to rest that Mom was gone whereas I wished to celebrate her life. I grieved her loss in my own way, but I was looking forward, pleased that her suffering was at an end and that surely she was in a much better, happier place.

In childhood we had our differences, as surely all siblings do. Just as surely that all children at times disappoint their parents — does that mean the parents like the child any less? Perhaps it was our different temperaments that kept us from getting close.

At any rate I married at twenty-three and we drifted further apart. I was divorced before I turned thirty but never reconnected with my sister. I’m ashamed to admit that, at that age, it seemed unimportant. Perhaps it did to her, too.

The years continued to pass and shortly before my mother’s death in 1997 she wept openly that my sister and I were but strangers. My mother told me my sister had once told her she had no brother (from my perspective the obverse was certainly true), and that she didn’t like how I treated women, and I marveled over how alike our perceptions of one another were since I, too, hadn’t approved of her treatment of the young men she dated when we were in our teens.

No one gets out of this life without breaking a heart or two or without having their own dashed (along with some of our dreams) — it’s the stuff of which novels are written and seems to be the legacy the Baby Boomers left behind (and upon which future generations will certainly embellish), which makes it no more right but somehow acceptable. I have my share of regrets (my father told me shortly before he died that no one gets out of life without a few of those, too), and I’m not pleased or proud of some of the things I’ve done, some of the choices I’ve made. I’ve lived my life mostly by default, avoiding risks associated with career even as I’ve risked greatly in other areas.

It’s funny how we so often stumble when it comes to walking the talk where the biblical lessons of judging and forgiveness are concerned. If God can forgive us our transgressions, why can’t we?


I was too young to recall the rift between my dad and his oldest brother, my uncle Ed, who I never met until my father lay in hospice awaiting cancer’s claim. A few weeks after my dad passed away, my Uncle Ed took me to dinner. Apparently in January of that year (1998), just a few weeks before Dad checked into hospice, he’d taken my dad and sister to dinner to celebrate the holidays; for some reason for which he forgave my father, I was not included. But that night after dinner at one his favorite sports bars, during which we talked baseball (a love we shared) and of all the history he’d lived through in his eight-four years, as he drove me back to my car he explained to me the reason why he hadn’t been a part of my life. The reason seemed important to him; certainly it seemed important to him that I understood. But it wasn’t important to me. The reason for those missing years seemed, to me, ancient history. What mattered to me were the missing 42 years. That we all had allowed the empty years to stretch on seemed the greater tragedy. I learned a couple years later from his daughter (who taught at my high school) that she’d brought her dad to see me in a high school play in which I had a bit part. Sadly, I don’t recall that she introduced us.


As my mother lay in hospice dying, her heart weighted with a lifetime of unhappiness, it was for my sister and I that she wept most: that as a mother she’d failed because my sister and I were so distant. I promised her I would change that. Yet just as surely as love cannot conquer all — not if only one party is committed to the cause — my efforts fell short. An invitation to take her and her husband to dinner to celebrate her birthday was met with excuses and no offer to take a rain check. At a cousin’s sixtieth birthday celebration she not only avoided me, acknowledging my presence from a distance with a nod, but avoided any room in which I might mingle with other celebrants, finally leaving early. She invited me to her wedding but looked decidedly disappointed that I’d attended. My phone calls are answered by her machine and returned during the day to my own machine, when she is most certain I am at work. I receive annual Christmas cards from her that wish me well but speak nothing of her life or of any interest in mine. I stopped reciprocating, not out of anger but because of the Potemkin village hers seem to portend — a façade behind which she continues to hold onto her anger or indifference, or whatever it is she holds onto.

I hear from her only when necessity prompts her to pass along the news of a death in the family: my father’s second oldest brother, Alphonse, a few years ago, and most recently when my youngest cousin, Tom, died of a heart attack at age forty-four. I arrived at the funeral home on a Tuesday evening after work to offer condolences to my aunt and uncle and their other two sons, the cousins I hadn’t seen in close to thirty years. Not surprisingly, I missed my sister by a few minutes.

It was good seeing my cousins and their families, catching up on their lives and they on mine, trading memories of our youth. With sincerity they expressed that they’d thought of me often over the years and that they were pleased to see me. I’ve since spoken with my uncle twice, and after I suggested we not wait for another similar occasion to meet, he proposed dinner in the near future. I intend to hold him to that.

It is with heavy heart that I write these words because it’s true, the concept of paying it forward, just as it’s true that, sadly, we continue the mistakes of our parents.


JCG/August 2008

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 7:57 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 23 December 2008 7:23 AM EST
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Monday, 15 December 2008
A Case of Writer's Block
Topic: Flash fiction

I once had a life outside this park. Years ago, and it was a pretty good one, too. I’d been a private investigator and some of the cases I worked on would’ve made for good reading had they been fictional. As a matter of fact, the last case I’d been working on had started out to be a simple missing person—an attractive young woman from Gramercy Park had hired me to find her missing father. The case had turned out to be anything but simple.

It seems her father had, for six years, been on the lam from a very elite overseas group. When I finally caught up with him, he spun a wild yarn about an alternate reality future in which the Nazis had won World War II. Of course the story sounded crazy to me, and I hadn’t believed any of it, but I couldn’t disbelieve the two Germans after this woman’s father—I’d met them both—and so I had had to be careful.

That was 50 years ago and about all I remember until ...

I first noticed the tall man passing through the gate at 86th Street. Obviously he was a tourist, with a Yankees cap pulled down over his eyes, wearing a University of Michigan t-shirt, and holding hands with a pretty and petite woman who had eyes only for him. He looked familiar—slender with broad shoulders and gray hair showing from beneath the edges of his cap. Because I have a good mind for names and faces, I knew I’d never seen him before. Still, I couldn’t help but feel we had unfinished business between us.

Our eyes briefly met as we passed, going in opposite directions, and I saw brief recognition in his eyes followed by a look of shame mingled with guilt. The woman holding his hand, oblivious to the look we exchanged, laughed—a rich, sultry sound—and whispered, “So do you love me just a little, J. Conrad Guest?” and the name registered, although I couldn’t say from where or when. That feeling of unfinished business grew stronger.

I followed the two of them across Central Park, not intending to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of their conversation—two lovers on vacation from someplace in Michigan, and something about an unfinished novel and the writer’s block that seemed to have crippled the man’s creativity.

Just before they exited the park from its west side, the tall man glanced back at me. I considered pretending I hadn’t noticed, but somehow I knew I couldn’t pretend anything in front of him: he had known I was here from the moment he entered the park. Even from a distance I could see his nearly imperceptible nod. A smirk came to his mouth; a moment later he winked at me and turned to leave the park with the woman.

The exchange puzzled me, yet it seemed to comfort me as well. Somehow I knew this tall man who seemed familiar but whom I had never met, knew me intimately. I also knew that he wouldn’t forget me in this park, and that one day soon my life outside its walls would resume ...

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 1:28 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 1 November 2009 11:54 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 10 December 2008
Ritual of cigar smoking
Topic: Cigars

Cigar smoking dates at least as far back as 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the West Indies to find the natives smoking a primitive cigar shaped from rolled leaves and made of aromatic herbs. Today, cigar smoking is immensely popular, and although many claim that cigar smoke is equally dangerous as cigarette smoke, the leading cause of death today is, as it has always been, birth.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, cigar smoking boasts an elegance as well as a ritualistic pleasure not found in cigarettes. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it that the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce.” The same comparison can be made of cigar and cigarette smoking.

The ritual starts with selecting the proper cigar for the proper occasion. Whether opting for something mild to enjoy with your morning cup of coffee and crossword puzzle, a bourbon-flavored cigar while sipping your favorite bourbon in the evening, or perhaps something simple to enjoy while puttering around the house, even the novice can derive pleasure from the selection process.

When cutting the head of your cigar (the end that goes into your mouth), opening between 75%-85% of the cigar’s surface will allow for a nice, easy draw. A quick examination of the head will reveal how far the cap extends down the barrel of the cigar, usually between ¼” to 3/8”. It’s best to cut just above the cap line; a cut below the cap may cause the cigar to unravel. When cutting a tapered (torpedo) cigar, you may have to cut more to enable a sufficient draw, although because the narrowing ring concentrates the smoke, many smokers find that less of the cigar’s surface needs to be opened. The key to a good cut is to be quick — quick cuts are clean cuts. Once you find your spot, clip it.

A punch cutter works well and is easy to use. Simply line up the cutter on the center of the head and twist. The punch cutter will remove the cut portion of the cigar when you withdraw the cutter. Some smokers complain that a punch cutter fails to cut a large enough hole for 50+ ring cigars, but to each their own preference.

When lighting your cigar, it’s best to warm the foot (opposite the head) for 10-20 seconds, never touching the flame to the cigar but passing it over the flame while rotating it. Then, with the cigar in your mouth, bring the flame near the foot and simultaneously puff on the cigar to draw the flame into the cigar while rotating it between your lips to assure even ignition. Once lit, gently blow on the lighted foot to confirm that it’s evenly lit across its ring. The key to lighting a cigar is to ignite the tobacco at a low temperature, thereby allowing a cooler, smoother smoke, one that will be free of harsh flavor.

When using matches to light a cigar, be sure to wait a moment for the ignition to stop or you’ll end up with an unpleasant sulphur flavor to your smoke. Paper matches burn too quickly, and while kitchen matches work well, multiple matches are often required. Long Spanish cedar matches specially designed for lighting cigars can be found in many fine tobacco shops.

Torch style butane lighters have recently become popular, but as this type of lighter can burn as hot as 1,500 degrees, care must be taken to avoid using the hottest part of the flame and instead use the super heated air just above the flame.

A cigar is not meant to be smoked like a cigarette; never inhale, but instead allow the smoke to circulate in your mouth and nose … and like a glass of fine wine, don’t forget to enjoy the fragrance of the wrapper!

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 2:58 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 28 October 2010 2:06 PM EDT
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January's Paradigm
Topic: Novel excerpts

“You don’t really believe she can read the future, do you? I mean, isn’t this against your religion or something?”

“She’s really very good, Joe. She uses her gift to help people, and there’s nothing in the Bible that prohibits that.” Laughing, she put her hand on my knee. “Besides, it’ll save me a lot of time and trouble getting to know you.”

“But —”

“Unless you’ve got something to hide,” she suggested ominously.

“No” My denial sounded uncertain. At first I’d fretted that Monica might use this opportunity to tell lies, to fabricate untruths to undermine my status in Susan’s eyes. But now I was forced to acknowledge the possibility that the truth — the truth I’d been hiding from Susan as well as myself — if indeed Monica held in her power the ability to decipher it, could be more damning than anything she could make up. Either way, I’d be at her mercy.

“In here,” Monica called from the dining room.

Resigned, I went to confront whatever fate awaited me.

In the dining room Monica was arranging a midnight blue silk scarf, similar to the one in the living room that served as a doily for her imitation crystal ball, on top of a piece of wood that looked like oak, although it was stained a dark brown. The wood, about an inch thick, was approximately twenty-four inches square. From a small, ornately carved hinged box she procured a deck of tarot cards.

“These have been in my family for three generations,” she announced.

What a pity, I reflected sardonically. With your sexual preference there will be no fourth generation to pass them down to. I wondered if she’d contemplated that, and if she had, how she was planning to overcome that little obstacle.

Monica removed a card from the pack and set it down on the center of the silk scarf.

“This card, the King of Swords, represents you.”

“Why that one?”

“Of all the cards of the Minor Arcana, he looks most like you — fair, with blonde hair.”

“I think he’s very handsome,” Susan said.

I’d never been able to take a compliment. Blushing, I glanced over at Susan and found her smiling warmly at me. The affection behind her smile warmed me further.

“Too bad the card can’t blush,” she teased.

Embarrassed further, I took recompense from the daggers of jealousy that came at me from across the table, where Monica had been silently appraising our exchange. She caught my look and in that moment knew that I knew. Embarrassed by her own transparency, she quickly averted her eyes.

“What’s the Minor Arcana?” I asked, trying to forestall the reading.

“Fifty-six cards make up the Minor Arcana,” she explained. “Like the four suits of a deck of playing cards, only with Kings, Queens, Knights and Pages. These cards deal with love, pain, gain or loss … anything that has to do with earthly affairs. The remainder of the deck contains the cards of the Major Arcana. They represent primal cosmic beings. Unlike the cards of the Minor Arcana, they cannot portray a person.”

She handed me the pack of cards.

“Shuffle the cards well. Then cut the cards twice, using your left hand.”

My mind swam as I tried to think of some way to delay the inevitable. It was impossible. If I backed out now I would appear suspicious, and so I could only hope that Monica’s gift was a sham and that this would amount to nothing more than a parlor game.

I cut the cards into three piles.

“Past,” Monica said, indicating the pile on my right. “Present and future,” she assigned to the remaining two piles. “Select one.”

I already knew what my future held, in 2047. And my past I could read about anytime in the biography on the coffee table in Porter’s apartment. I pointed to the cards that would depict my present. Monica looked askance at me, as if my choice surprised or puzzled her. She took the cards I’d indicated and squared them.

I watched Susan as she peered intently at the cards Monica was turning over and positioning around the King of Swords. The first she placed across the King of Swords at ninety degrees. She next placed four others around it, one above, one below and one to either side. Finally, she placed a column comprised of four cards along the right edge of the silk scarf. I held my breath. The cards meant nothing to me; yet not knowing what else to do, I carefully scrutinized the images that would, truthfully or not, reveal my present. I’d wanted Monica to reveal my present first because it was that aspect of my life that I knew least about. Suddenly aware of the silence around me, I looked up to find Monica studying me intently. I saw distrust in her eyes. I let out my breath and …

… Silently took another, grateful to see Susan still studying the cards.

“You are not who you pretend to be.” It was not an accusation; an assessment perhaps, based on uncertainty. She went on. “The Two of Swords crosses you. You keep many secrets.” She stared at the card a moment, as if seeking to discover something more about it. “You are a man shrouded in mystery.”

I felt my heartbeat quicken.

“The Justice card, reversed,” Monica said, pointing to the card. “You will not receive remuneration for that which you thought you had paid. Here, the Three of Pentacles. This card indicates material gain that was lost because of your own selfish reasons. The Two of Cups,” she said, eyeing me with suspicion. “The Two of Cups is the marriage card. You are estranged,” she added, her voice barely audible. “This relationship is flawed. You thought you loved her, but you were only in love with the idea of being in love.” She paused a moment, perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps listening to some inner voice of her own. “The relationship cannot be fixed, it is gone. Even though it is something you still want, you can never have it — it will never be.

“The Ace of Cups indicates you gave material things to this person out of love, expecting to receive love in return. This woman you gave these things to was materialistic, but it was never enough for her. The Strength card, reversed,” she said, touching the card. “You must let go of this woman in order to go forward. Forget her,” she advised. “The Hanged Man reversed. The Hanged Man will provide strength — you will discover yourself, who you really are, through the guidance of this person.”

I chanced another glance at Susan, who was caught up in everything Monica was saying. Monica continued with the reading.

“The Emperor reversed. An invasion of your privacy by another man …” Was that a glimmer of triumph in her eye? “The Strength card,” — she pointed to it again — “is also the Devastation card. You were unable to control your emotions over what was done to you, so you escaped. You must look to the Hanged Man for guidance.”

Monica now directed my attention to the last card, the bottom card of the column of four along the right side of the scarf.

“The Moon card indicates psychic ability.” She eyed me with amusement. “You knew she would do this to you, but you were unable to prevent it. Or perhaps you chose to do nothing. The Moon card also tells you to surrender and start over. This is a brand new beginning for you … but only if you choose …”

Here she stopped; the silence became deafening.

Not knowing what was expected of me, I looked from the image that depicted the Moon card — a dog and a wolf both baying at the moon — to Susan, who was staring at me, waiting expectantly for me to say something.

There was truth in Monica’s reading. How I knew I didn’t have a clue, but I knew. Images of the dark-haired woman from the hidden photograph haunted my mind’s eye. Embarrassed by the idea of a past love I felt myself redden, and driven by the searching beauty of Susan’s warm brown eyes, I sought exile in Monica’s cold, calculating, masculine stare. She wore a look of superiority, born of the discovery of intimate events about my life.

How much does she know? More than she lets on.

But why hold back? Why not destroy me now, in front of Susan? Perhaps she was playing a game of discretion, waiting to relate the rest of the damning evidence later, after I’d gone. But if Monica was indeed psychic, then it was also conceivable that she already suspected the outcome and was content to allow Susan to make the discoveries on her own.

No. More than likely she merely wants to observe my discomfort.

“Wow,” Susan breathed.

“There is truth in what I have seen in the cards?” Monica was daring me to refute the facts as she’d presented them.

I couldn’t …

… And I’d already told enough lies …

… So I conceded. “Yes, there was a woman. She was unfaithful to me.” Somehow I knew this to be true. “She’s gone now … I don’t know where she is. She hurt me.” I sensed loss and felt pain in my breast, pain as real as truth. “But I’m … working through it.”

Monica, I saw, was disappointed. She’d expected denial. On the other hand, my response elicited sympathy from Susan.

“Oh, Joe, I’m sorry.”

Susan’s response served to displease further, for Monica had expected to see my esteem in Susan’s eyes fall, not rise. Her reaction to the ensuing silence was harsh as she gathered up the cards from the reading.

“Select,” she said. “Past or future.”

“Future,” I said, thinking there just might be more to my alleged future than I’d at first thought. There was my future in 2047, certainly. And being a part of my past I already knew much about it; but there were questions regarding my future here in 1992 as well.

Curious, I waited in silence as Monica squared the pack of cards that contained my future, and then proceeded to turn them over, one at a time, placing them as she’d done before. I nervously glanced over at Susan for a measure of reassurance. Her smile calmed me. I drew further assurance from the hand she placed on my arm. I drew in breath and listened as Monica began the second phase of my reading.

“The Ten of Cups crosses you,” she said. This time it was Monica’s turn to sneak a peek at Susan; in dismay, she went on. “You will find that which you seek, your paradigm — that which has seemed so elusive to you. Because of her you will be able to finish that which was started long ago. Also, a lost child will seek to renew a relationship with you — this is indicated here, by the Ace of Swords.

“The Queen of Wands shows herself as an unfaithful lover. She will try to rekindle your love for her, but beware … she tells lies! Here, the Page of Wands, are those lies. But the truth is, if you take her back all will be lost.” She paused again, head cocked, as if listening to that voice that was hers alone to hear. “This woman caused you much suffering. You feel she must be punished because of the man who removed you from your place and subsequently caused you to lose your ambition. This man shows up in your reading as the Five of Swords reversed. He will be defeated in battle and will no longer perform for her what she needs. Therefore she will return to you.

“The Six of Swords tells of future travel. You will have business regarding your work. A long lost brother will seek you out, as shown by the Knight of Wands. He is very angry with you, as well as disappointed. Listen to what your brother has to say. It will be easy for you to distrust his words, but he will speak the truth. The Ace of Pentacles, reversed, shows a loss of business or opportunity for continued success. You will regain all, but only if you spurn the Queen of Wands —”

“That’s enough.” My outburst surprised everyone at the table save myself. My decision to halt the reading was the only thing that hadn’t surprised me since this nonsense began.

“But I have not completed your reading.”

“I don’t need to hear more.”

“But, Joe, what about your past?” Susan asked.

“I already know what resides there.” The truth was that the reading she’d completed thus far, concerning my present and the one that lay incomplete before me, didn’t belong to me. None of what she was talking about dealt with me. Unfaithful lovers! How could a lover be unfaithful to me when I in turn had never been faithful?

Untrue! a part of me argued back.

But I was already moving on. A child? Impossible! I’ve sired no offspring. And I have no brother! It’s all a sham.

Or meant for someone else.

Who then?

I arose, upending the board the cards had been positioned on, sending them into Monica’s lap and onto the floor; the reading had come to an end, of that I’d made certain.

I strode purposefully into the living room, where I stopped in front of the window to gaze at two gays strolling hand-in-hand past Monica’s second floor apartment. A moment later I felt Susan’s light touch on my arm. That simple gesture sparked anger in me — that she could make me feel the way she did just by the gentleness of her touch. I turned, preparing a reprimand and was stopped short by the concern in her eyes.

Now my anger was directed inward. The very idea that I could even consider reproaching her was reprehensible. Suddenly I was nearly consumed with a passion to cup her face with my hands, to taste the sweetness I knew resided on her lips, and to hold her close and bury my face within the soft, luxurious texture of her wondrously dark hair, inhaling its fresh fragrance …

Ashamed, yet not knowing the source of my abasement, I turned away.

“What is it, Joe?”

I ached for her. And because I ached for her, it pained me to have to do what was becoming more and more common although no less difficult — lie. There was trust in her eyes, but like the cards had foretold, I was a man shrouded in mystery. I held secrets that were the truth known could not be believed. Hell, I was finding it more and more difficult to believe the facts as they unraveled, so how could I expect her to comprehend them?

I took a deep breath. My peripheral vision afforded me the sight of Monica leaning against the archway to the other room. How much did she actually know? Would she contradict what I was about to say? It didn’t matter. I had to say something; maintaining silence at this point was just as damning.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that … well, I thought I had that part of my life under better control. I thought I’d put all that behind me. But to see … in the cards … that I’ll have to deal with all that again, it’s painful.”

“Ah, but the cards also say you have the option of closing the door.”

“What if I can’t?”

“A better question would be what if you don’t want to?” Then, in response to my exasperation, she added, “There is a difference.”

“I know that.”

“Isn’t it better to recoup at least some of what you lost as opposed to losing it all, including yourself?”

I smiled down at her. If you only knew, I reflected. If I opt for what you think is the best option the cards offer, then I will lose myself.

My smile seemed to reassure her.

“Come on,” she said, taking my arm and leading me back to the dining room. “Let’s have another cup of coffee.”

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 1:15 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 11 December 2008 7:21 AM EST
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What has happened to the novel as an art form?
Topic: Writing

Will today’s popular fiction endure the test of time, to replace the classics of the past?



He transcended all the rules. There have been, perhaps, greater novelists, but he was incomparably the greatest artist who wrote a novel. — H. L. Meneken on Joseph Conrad



Today’s emerging writers are encouraged by a host of resources, including Writer’s Digest and The Writer, to adhere to a strict set of rules. The result is that today’s popular fiction finds all the punctuation in place and the sentence structure clean, narrative held to a calculated fraction of dialogue, and certain devised bells and whistles implemented to urge the reader to turn to the next page; but the characters seem a bit detached (writers are advised to separate themselves from their characters), the grammar a bit bland (lacking the beauty of a finely crafted sentence that leaves the reader breathless and stays with them, like a song they can’t get out of their head, long after they’ve closed the book for the last time)… all of which amounts to a formula, as if anyone with a good grasp of basic writing technique could’ve written it. Something is missing — signature.

Signature identifies the author to the reader. If you’ve ever read Joseph Conrad, you most certainly will be able to identify his signature. The same can be said about Poe, and Twain, and many other artists of the written word. These and many other writers from previous eras created art. They weren’t afraid to infuse their work with a healthy dose of themselves, perhaps because they understood, at some level, that readers read novels because what they really want is to know the author. Today’s writers are taught to remain apart from their creations. Yesteryear’s writers also knew how to turn a phrase, to elicit emotion, to, literally, paint with words. Today’s writers are advised to write down to a ninth grade level — keep it simple, stupid.

For a story to appeal to a reader, it must mirror, either through its protagonist or storyline, something in the reader’s life or it will fall flat. The failure to touch all readers is not a failure of the author; like other art mediums, fiction is not meant to appeal to everyone. You either get Jackson Pollock or you don’t. Rodin leaves you in awe or yawning.

Samuel R. Delany, arguably one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time, said: “Above all things, the story, the poem, the text is — and is only — what its words make happen in the reader’s mind. And all readers are not the same. Any reader has the right to say of any text: ‘But I didn’t think it was that good.’”

In other words, what reverberates in my being, what moves me and causes me to shiver, and leaves me both satisfied and hungry at once, may leave another reader in search of something else that in turn might leave me untouched. That’s the nature of the beast.

It could be argued that the publishing industry knows what the public wants to read, as evidenced by what appears on the best seller list. But despite publication of 100,000 more books (in part due to the growing self-publication industry) in 2003 than in 2002, a recent report by the Book Industry Study Group, a not-for-profit research organization, stated that 23 million fewer books were sold in 2003 than in 2002. While net profits increased slightly, due to higher prices, overall sales dropped despite high-profile releases such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Dan Brown’s thriller, The Da Vinci Code, neither of which, 100 years from now, will likely be used in classrooms as examples of exemplary writing.

While a struggling economy and the used book market can be considered factors in declining sales, cable and satellite, radio, music and movies all offer better value for the consumer’s entertainment dollar. Reading is a solitary endeavor (although its rewards are potentially far greater than the others), while the other entertainment offerings require much less effort and can be enjoyed, sequentially, as a couple or as a family. Is it any wonder that many consumers are finding it more difficult to justify parting with up to $35 for a hardback, something which they will in all likelihood enjoy but once?

Yet the one factor the publishing industry fails to consider as contributing to declining sales of fiction is the product they continually feed the consumer. The publishing industry, once comprised of 70 or 80 competing businesses, today, as five corporate bean counters, insists on such wide audience appeal that most popular fiction is, like two opposing politicians afraid to talk about their respective platforms for fear of offending some minority group, watered down. Hence they’ve taken much of the innovation and signature, and unfortunately most of the art, out of the novel. These five corporate bean counters all claim they seek new, original and fresh writing, but it often must also wear the scent of a best seller before they’ll take a chance on it. Sadly, the message this sends to agents and emerging writers is that the only formula for success is to produce mainstream fiction that will appeal to the masses. It’s unfortunate that the market for literary art seems to go largely untapped, and perhaps even more unfortunate that most of today’s popular fiction will, in the next century, be forgotten, while past works that today are considered classics will endure. Such is the significance of true art.

Posted by J. Conrad Guest at 12:09 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, 11 December 2008 5:24 PM EST
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