I knew the award-winning author long before he was an award-winning author. We were at college together and were briefly friends. He bequeathed me a stack of issues of Doctor Who magazine and then moved away. We wrote to each other, but our correspondence was difficult to maintain for some reason.
Three decades later I encounter his first novel in a book shop. 'Fuck,' I exclaim to myself. 'I know that guy!'
We re-establish communications through social media. I've already read his novel, because it would have been rude to get back in touch without having done so. Also, I was initially worried I might not like the book, so I wanted to get that out of the way in the event of my needing to come up with elaborately diplomatic reasons to avoid direct discussion of his having become an award-winning author.
The problem is that I dislike steampunk. At my most unforgiving I would characterise steampunk literature as a conservative genre tailored to those who don't actually enjoy reading books, but who like the idea of themselves as people who read books, and who see the measure of a good book as whether it gets made into a television series or a film, or at the very least whether it can be pictured as such in one's mental cinema screen whilst reading. They are people who like to read about familiar characters having adventures, just like that Sherlock Holmes on the telly; and so steampunk literature strikes me as prioritising style over content - in my possibly limited experience. Like anything which needs to quantify the limitless expanse of its imagination, which promises anything can happen with wide sparkly eyes and the smile of Johnny Depp in yet another shitty Tim Burton film, it is repetitive and characteristically lacks range or variation from a central theme.
The above paragraph represents a view pushed to an extreme, and there are always exceptions to the rule, but my general opinion is to be found somewhere therein; excepting novels by Michael Moorcock - which are generally wonderful - and maybe a few other things, Bryan Talbot's Luther Arkwright and the like. For me, the term steampunk conjures a million self-published eBooks, generic thrills and laboured titles delineating the most fantastical and diverting escapades of two names; because it's always a hero and his sidekick, just like on the telly - Holmes & Watson, Burton & Swinburne, Newbury & Hobbes, Grace & Witherbloom, Arseworth & Tabernacle*: ripping yarns all. C'mon chaps, let's all pull on our jolly old plus-fours and fire up the difference engine, what? The stuff practically writes itself.
Words therefore seem inadequate to express the sense of relief I experience when the award-winning author's effort turns out to be decent and entirely free of the worst clichés of the genre, thus sparing me the ignominy of having to say well, it's not really my sort of thing but I can see that you put in a lot of hard work. Were more steampunk novels of such quality, I might never have formed quite such caustic opinions as those expressed above; and I decide it's not difficult to see why the award-winning author won the award which qualifies him as an award-winning author.
I've written a short series of eBooks, the award-winning author tells me, just something I can stick on Amazon to bring in a bit of money on the side, and I need you to draw the covers. How much do you generally charge?
Fifty quid, I tell him, because that's how much I generally charge. In all honesty, I don't particularly enjoy painting book covers unless I'm fairly directly invested in the novel. Most of my energy goes into writing these days, and my eyes are failing so the production of cover artwork is no longer quite such a pleasant undertaking as was once the case. Fifty quid is, by the way, one sixth of the standard charge for the sort of cover artwork I do.
The award-winning author seems disgruntled, reminding me that he is an award-winning author and that this will be good exposure for my artwork. He requires cover illustrations in the general spirit of a Victorian periodical. I supply preliminary sketches of the two characters - the hero and his sidekick who are to have adventures in this proposed series of eBooks - but the award-winning author doesn't like what I have done. After a few revisions, I give up and go back to working on some novel or other. It doesn't seem worth the trouble and I don't want us to fall out.
In any case, the award-winning author has other fish to fry, notably his website. He's having trouble with how it displays on different devices. My wife offers to help out, it being her field, but leaves him to it after a day or so. He seems to want his website to be able to perform actions which simply don't work in certain browsers, and my wife has the impression he's been getting pissy with her.
She doesn't want to fall out with my friend, the award-winning author either. He posts pictures of his children on facebook and they're cute.
I finish my novel, Against Nature, and it's published by Obverse Books. I send a copy of the eBook version to the award-winning author seeing as how we're both authors - even though only one of us has won awards - and we're both writing variations on science-fiction, and we're buddies from way back.
How critical do you want me to be? he asks.
I'm a little bothered by this. Some sort of feedback would be nice, but I'm not seeking career advice, even though he's an award-winning author. This is 2013, and I presume he never reads it because my novel is never mentioned again.
The award-winning author is writing something new, something which isn't steampunk, because he doesn't wish to be seen as a one-trick pony. He sends me twenty or thirty chapters of the unfinished work and asks that I criticise it as thoroughly and brutally as possible. This is difficult because there's not much wrong with it, and it is by far the best thing he has ever written. During our exchanges he tells me that anyone who does not want their work to be read by as wide an audience as possible cannot call themselves a writer. This is bullshit, so much so that it almost makes me laugh. I'm beginning to realise why we lost touch three decades before.
The greatest writer I know in person is Ted Curtis. His writing shits over the work of most authors I've read, including the award-winning ones, and his novel The Darkening Light is available through Lulu, the print-on-demand publisher by which I publish some of my own stuff. I don't know how many people have read The Darkening Light. It could be hundreds, but it could be about ten, and I don't know how much Ted really cares. Bulletpoint lists defining who is allowed to call themselves a writer therefore mean nothing to me.
In April 2016 my wife and I attend a Night in Old San Antonio, part of our city's annual Fiesta celebrations, an event in which attendees are invited to drink until they can't stand whilst stuffing their faces. I stuff my face with a particularly messy taco and my wife takes a photograph of me as I tilt my head back and feed strips of beef and chilli into my face. She posts it on facebook for a joke, because I look ridiculous and amusingly bereft of dignity. The award-winning author makes a copy of the photograph for a joke and crops it so as to focus upon my fat face tilted back to receive beef, for a joke. He is digging me in the ribs and grinning, figuratively speaking, for a joke.
Okay, I think to myself, not quite sure how I feel about this or the amount of pleasure everyone seems to derive from just how ridiculous I look. Three decades ago I recall the award-winning author as having a particularly cutting sense of humour even before he was an award-winning author. He broke the ice by taking the piss out of me, for a joke, and it was so funny that I couldn't help but appreciate the craft involved, and it seems that he has not changed in this respect.
Human dustbin, exclaims a relative I have met just once, I love it! It's a jocular punch on the arm at the end of a drunken evening, well-intentioned but somehow misjudged coming from someone I don't actually know that well; and I really dislike being referred to as a human dustbin.
The award-winning author sends messages to make sure I realise that any acerbic comments on his part conceal no malice, and that the fact of our being back in touch represents one of the great wonders of the internet. He is really glad to know me and regrets his behaviour at college. I don't actually remember his behaviour at college, whatever it was.
My wife compliments the award-winning author's children again because she responds to anything which is cute. You must bring them to the States, she suggests, so I can mollycoddle them.
My children will never set foot in the United States, the award-winning author informs her as preamble to comments on US gun laws which are why his children will never set foot in the United States.
'I was complimenting his kids,' she later tells me, upset and bewildered. 'What did I do to deserve a lecture on gun laws?'
She unfollows the award-winning author on facebook, meaning that his status messages will no longer appear in her feed.
Finally, I post a photograph of a stray kitten found in our garden. I post the photograph because the kitten is cute. The photograph shows myself holding the kitten, my face down-turned as I look at the tiny creature. It's not a great photograph of me, and I don't consider myself particularly photogenic.
The award-winning author shares this view. I so need to photoshop the cat out of the pics and a caption: The bells! The bells!, he writes, the implication being that I resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I chuckle and roll my eyes because it's true. It's not a great picture of me. I know it.
Unsure as to whether I've quite grasped the full import of his joke, the award-winning author makes a copy of the photograph, for a joke, and alters it using photoshop so that I appear to be cradling a human brain rather than a kitten, for a joke. He tags me so that when posted, the photograph appears on my facebook page with the caption Master, I have the brain!, now implying that I resemble Ygor, the lumpy servant of Victor Frankenstein in the Universal horror movies, for a joke, I suppose just in case I hadn't quite understood the initial Hunchback of Notre Dame reference, for a joke. It pisses me off a little, which is I suppose part of the joke.
The relative who described me as a human dustbin, for a joke chips in with oohh my brain hurts!!, for a joke, and I can't help notice that despite all we might hypothetically seem to have in common and all which we might discuss, he mostly responds to photographs in which I look ridiculous, for a joke.
Let he who remains photogenic past the age of fifty cast the first photoshopped stone, I comment, hoping to communicate that I don't really enjoy having comedy antlers stuck to my head whilst being set to dance upon a heated metal plate. The award-winning author points out that some of us haven't been photogenic since the age of five, which makes it okay because I'm just some grumpy cunt with no sense of humour.
Then people I've never even met, friends of the award-winning author, take to chipping in with contributions of their own. Well done, Ygor, one of them remarks, for a joke, showing us that he gets the reference by more or less just repeating the initial joke, for a joke.
I don't really enjoy people I don't know having a laugh at my expense in this way, and I am so upset that I am unable to sleep at night. It throws me out for the rest of the week.
I unfollow the award-winning author on facebook. I no longer want to think about him or his award-winning novels.
That same week I find one of them in a branch of Half-Price. It's one I haven't read, and I guess one I will probably never read. I've now read four of his, and he never even mentioned the eBook version of Against Nature I sent him back in 2013.
*: Excepting Sherlock, these are mostly pairings plucked from the internet as representative of a general trend, and their being referenced in this rant should not necessarily be considered reflective of the literary merits of the works in which they feature which, for all I know, may well be fucking amazing.