Five Finger Exercises For The Damned

Posted by Dan Saturday, March 17, 2007

When you do enough online reviewing (assuming you have something nice to say) you'll eventually start seeing snippets of your reviews crop up on various printed works. While it's a good feeling to know that the subject of one of your essays liked what you wrote enough to use it, it's a kind of dubious honor at best. After all, we all know that a critic doesn't really create anything right?

There's a certain kind of poetry in a well crafted essay, and the best critical essayists from Michele de Montaigne to Hunter S. Thompson, to Lester Bangs, to Harlan Ellison can make what is basically just an essay that says, "I liked it." or "I didn't like it and here's why." nearly as entertaining as the work that was reviewed.

One of the fun things I do when I'm writing a critical essay is to include the literary equivalent of a DVD easter egg. These are sentences that I've specifically written, that I think would make great cover copy. The trick is to work these in well enough so that they don't really jump out at you unless you're specifically looking for something cool to put on the back cover of your new graphic novel.

There's an art to writing good cover copy that transcends even the art of the critical essay. It's much harder to tell people how cool something is in just a few sentences than it is to use an entire essay. I've gotten good enough at it that at this point, that when someone picks out a few lines from one of my reviews for cover copy, it's almost always exactly the lines I wanted. So I thought I'd share with you all some of the practice runs I do on a regular basis, just to flex those specific writing muscles. Some of these are better than others, but they were all good practice, and they at least give you all a rare peek at my non comics related reading list. These are five finger exercises for those of us poor souls, damned to that special hell reserved for the most despised of all writers, the critic.

Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite
Bar none, the best vampire novel since Bram Stoker's original, and Ms. Brite can write circles around the old bard. Lost Souls is hip, relevant, and more than a little responsible for most modern teen-agers wanting to dress in pale and black.

The Store by Bentley Little
Have you ever got the feeling while walking through Wal Mart that there was something...wrong? The feeling that just under the surface was something seething and evil. Bentley Little captures the true horror of the big box store in this masterpiece of genre fiction.

Collected Fictions by Jorge Louis Borges
Andrew Hurley does a stellar job of translating the finest short fiction of this master storyteller. This volume is a treasure mound of stories, and a must have for anyone who loves to read.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Mrs. Madrigal is the landlord you always wanted but never got, and the stories are told through the eyes of her renters at 28 Barbary Lane. Classic coming of age fiction by an astounding writer. Maupin is a national treasure and his work should not be missed.

Stranger Than Fiction by Chuck Palahniuk
Palahniuk had the unfortunate luck of having his first novel Fight Club stick firmly into the heart of the pop culture zeitgeist, guaranteeing his succeeding work would be ignored. This is a collection of some of his best short fiction. Smashing reads all around.

Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem is the best living short story writer who isn't Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison. Although the three are a fair comparison, Lethem shines brightly enough all on his own. This is his most recent collection of short fiction, and it's absolutely excellent.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire
A brilliant updating of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, told from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. Turns out she was a lot deeper than we ever gave her credit for, and her side of the story makes for an excellent read.

Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
All the mysteries, myths and magics of life on planet Earth are revealed through the parable of a love story that takes place in a pack of Camel cigarettes. Still Life With Woodpecker is a work of pure genius by one of the best modern writers.

Slippage by Harlan Ellison
Often mis-classified as a science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison consistently transcends the limitations of genre. Slippage is a masterpiece of collected short stories by the most amazing writer on the planet!

Angry Candy by Harlan Ellison
Required reading for anyone who has ever lost someone they care about. Ellison brings forth all the pain of lost loved ones and channels it into an amazing collection of scalpel sharp short fiction.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Read the book before you go see the new Richard Linkletter movie. This book will make you think twice before going out to eat at any restauraunt that labels itself fast food.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Even though the pandas come across as jerks, this is still the best English lesson of the new millennium. Truss makes the mind-numbingly boring subjects of grammar and punctuation fun by injecting them with wit and humor.

Classic Feynman by Richard Feynman
A collection of hilarious essays by the amazing physicist who's tragic death shortly after his investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, keeps the conspiracy theory nuts in business to this day. Feynman makes Carl Sagan look like a piker when it comes to making advanced physics potable for the masses.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Meet the amazing people who make and serve food in some of the world's best eateries. Master chef and gonzo journalist Anthony Bourdain takes us on a tour of back kitchens and dark alleyways around the world.

Captain America is strictly bush league!

This is also the reason that when John Byrne left The Uncanny X-Men so did I. Okay except for the stellar run by Paul Smith, but I can assure you I didn't read them, just looked at the pretty pictures. Okay...okay, I did pick up the Grant Morrison issues too, and I did enjoy the Jim Lee stuff as well. Sigh! I need help.

Many many years ago in those halcyon days of early 2002, I happened across this great web site called, The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness, or HPOO for short. It was an online archive for the critical essays of Paul T. Riddell, who's work I knew well from his days as a freelancer for Sci-Fi Universe and Film Threat magazines. Unfortunately, a few months after I found it, the web site went away. The archives were closed, and I wasn't even left with a signpost saying, "Move along. Nothing to see here." I felt like that little kid at the end of Shane, watching what was left of his hero ride off into the sunset. "Come back Paul, come back!" I never even got the chance to subscribe to his newsletter, the oh-so-marvelously named Hell's Half-acre Herald.

With the scuttling of his web site, Paul T. Riddell was gone, leaving a gaping wound in the field of genre criticism. The man who introduced me to the works of John Shirley, and the absolute genius who coined the term Cat Piss Man, had disappeared into the luminiferous aether. There were remnants though, like the image that still clings tremulously to life when you shut off one of those old tube driven television sets. If you search for them, you can still find some of his comics related work at Popimage, and at The SAVANT graveyard. His science fiction related essays and some of his movie reviews can still be found at: The Spark, and over at Dark Echo (-Edit point- Paul pointed out to me that his John Shirley review that's currently posted at Dark Echo is unauthorized. He has asked that the "editor" Paula Guran take it down, but she has so far ignored him. Should any of you desire to e-mail her and let her know what you think of this situation, she can currently be reached at: ), and you can read a lot of the stuff he wrote as Edgar Z. Harris at this nifty archive site.

Then, about a year ago, just on a whim, I threw Paul Riddell through a Google search. I do that from time to time, checking up on former SAVANTeurs, and a host of other favorite Internet writers who don't bother to keep their own blogs. This particular day, the stars were properly aligned, and Google came up with a Livejournal blog called Sclerotic Rings. It was written by none other than the aforementioned prodigal son himself. Paul had changed up his writing style a bit to favor a more chatty, conversational atmosphere, but you could still see some of the old snark, as well as gleaming edges of that black sense of humor, especially in his responses to readers' comments. It quickly became one of my favorite places to frequent within this cacophony of electronically driven noise we call the world wide web.

Paul's been sick lately with a serious bout of bronchitis that really seems to want to morph into pneumonia, but in spite of all that he keeps updating. I have, however, noticed a disturbing trend in his posts lately. It seems to be bothering him that he's still writing, still sharing his black wit and razor keen insights with an audience. It really pisses me off when writers who actually know their craft and practice it well start referring to what they do as an addiction. Writing certainly seems like something you should be able to "quit anytime," like smoking crack or watching re-runs of Matlock, but it isn't. Writing is a state of being, and while an addiction may certainly seem that way, it is in fact something extraneous to your core. Simply put, you either are or are not a writer. To deny the fact that you write is to deny your own existence, and a true writer (and Paul is one in every good and noble way imaginable) will write, regardless of whether he ever gets anything published, or even if nobody other than long suffering friends and family ever sees it. Writers have no choice but to set pen to paper (so to speak.)

Paul and I share a mutual teacher in the great essayist and short story writer, Harlan Ellison. I've met Harlan on many occasions, and have even had several opportunities to chat with him. He once told me that, "a true writer will write, no matter what. They have no choice but to serve their muse. It is an incurable affliction of the soul." Confirming for me what I've always known. Writing isn't an addiction, it's an incurable genetic disease, like Tay-Sachs or neurofibromatosis. Criticism is the worst of these because, not only must you understand your own unconsciousness, but you've also got to understand the back brains of other writers as well, and what's worse, is that you have to be able to pull everything apart, put it back together, then be clear enough to demonstrate your work to the rest of the class.

The best critics make all this seem effortless. They can juggle four running chainsaws, pull the tablecloth without spilling the wine glasses, and steal your wristwatch all at the same time, without even blinking. Paul Riddell is definitely someone I count as one of the best of us, and he doesn't even work much with the critical essay anymore. There's hope for the future though. If you go here, you'll see why.

For now Paul is still writing, and hopefully it's just the bronchitis talking, and not a lead-up to another disappearance. In the meantime, if you have a yen for some of the most fun you can have while surfing the Internet, check out Sclerotic Rings. It's been re-named The Esoteric Science Resource Center, which is a little less obscure than sclerotic rings, as well as a little more appropriate. The site is a carnival, chock full of scientific weirdness, cool science related facts, useful information about reptiles, insects, carnivorous plants, dinosaurs, and the like. It contains pretty much every interesting morsel that falls across Paul's wide ranging information gathering tentacles.

Paul is what the folks back home call, "good people." His blog is fun, open, honest, and even though he's posting mostly science related McNuggets, he still writes with passion, fire and humor. You should stop by and say hi, and if you like what you read, throw the guy some money courtesy of his PayPal tip jar. If I'm not mistaken, all proceeds are currently going towards the construction of his dream greenhouse, which I believe he plans to fill with carnivorous plants. How he plans on feeding the little bastards is a place I don't want to go, at least until he suckers my wife into wanting one too.

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Im an essayist, critic, online blogger, short story writer and to borrow a descriptor from Peter David, "Writer of stuff." I love all things pop culture related: Music, Movies, Comics, Books, Politics... if you can label it I probably have an opinion about it, and I love to argue. All informed opinions are welcome here.
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