The Cortland Review


Stellasue Lee
An interview and poetry. J.M. Spalding talks with the poet and editor.

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 1: Four Authors You Should be Reading

Bruce Canwell


Writers On Writing 1
Four Authors You Should be Reading


Writers on Writing is a new regular feature exclusive to The Cortland Review. That plural in the title is no mistake –– Douglas Thornsjo and I will share this space on a rotating basis, offering opinions, anecdotes, and predictions shaped by more than a combined quarter-century of freelance writing. This column will not always be cheery, but it will be honest; we trust you’d prefer candor over false optimism every time.

Next installment, Doug will provide his own introduction. As for me, I’ve been on a writer’s path since my mid-1970s high school days. My first full-time job was as a radio station copywriter, for which I earned the princely annual salary of $7,000 in return for working sixty-and seventy-hour weeks (ahhh, Youth...). I have reviewed everything from comic books (for Amazing Heroes, the former sister publication of the venerable Comics Journal) to films (for the New Hampshire-based Portsmouth Press); currently I am the book reviewer for Algis Budrys’s on-line magazine of speculative fiction, tomorrowsf.

Over the past decade my short fiction has appeared in a handful of small-press publications. Last year I achieved a major milestone when DC Comics published Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet, a graphic novel collaboration between myself and noted comics artist Lee Weeks (Gauntlet is perennially on sale; I direct your attention to the TCR Bookstore for details).

Since then I have done more comics work for both DC (the Superman and Batman people) and Marvel (the Spider-Man and Hulk people). It is also a great pleasure to report that my latest short story, "The Brownshirt Mentality," will appear in The Cortland Review’s fourth issue.

So much for the bonafides. Let’s move on to consider a nugget of wisdom both Doug and I agree upon:

Good Writers must also be Good Readers.

This does not mean learning to speed-read at 750 words per minute –– it means enjoying and patronizing those authors who are serious about their craft so you may (to quote E.B. White) "echo the halloos that bear repeating." Here are four writers you probably don’t read, but should. . .



It’s unfair to point at an author and say, "She’s the next Updike," or "He’s the next Ross MacDonald." Every serious writer is a revolution unto himself –– he may share sensibilities with certain peers, but to be worth lasting consideration his voice and observations must be his own.

I therefore refuse to call Jack Womack "the next Anthony Burgess," though his love of language makes him, in my opinion, the writer best positioned to fill the void left by Burgess’s passing. Womack’s "Ambient" cycle is a consistent auctorial triumph –– Random Acts of Senseless Violence was deservedly a Publishers Weekly Best Book for 1994, and its four audacious predecessors (Ambient, Terraplane, Heathern, and Elvissey) have just been re-released by Grove Press.

But Womack is no one-trick pony, as proven by his most recent work. Let’s Put The Future Behind Us is a delicious black comedy set in post-Communist Russia and featuring bombastic politicians, gangsters, and a shabby theme park called Sovietland...

Jack Womack pushes the envelope with each new novel; ignore him at your peril.



More than once I’ve heard the advice, "Don’t make your protagonist a writer. The audience doesn’t care about writers!" Leave it to the exceptional William Browning Spencer to gleefully puncture that theory. His Résumé With Monsters introduces us to Philip Kenan, a neurotic would-be novelist who makes ends meet working at Ralph’s One-Day Résumés, where he discovers the unholy connection between Business and the Eldritch Gods.

Spencer’s follow-up, Zod Wallop, is the story of author Harry Gainesborough. A personal tragedy has turned Harry’s life to ashes, but he gets one last chance at Happiness when his most unusual and devoted fan propels him on a fantastic adventure of Dr. Seuss-like proportions.

Spencer combines the fantastic with genuine, heart-rending emotion better than any author since Ray Bradbury, which is high praise indeed. Be on the lookout for his next novel, Irrational Fears, in August.



Sadly, certain darlings of the lit’ry set occasionally get dumped like ugly prom dates, forsaken in favor of newer, trendier stars. Dos Passos is one such case: once the centerpiece of many a writing curriculum, he is now largely (and unjustly) forgotten.

Many excellent Dos Passos volumes can only be found in second-hand bookstores. Fortunately, the cornerstones of his oeuvre remain in print; your neighborhood retailer should carry Three Soldiers (Dos Passos’s first novel, offering a doughboy’s-eye view of World War I), Manhattan Transfer (which Sinclair Lewis accurately described as "a novel of the very first importance"), and the masterful USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money). Though it deals with characters and events based in the early 1990s, the USA Trilogy was stylistically fifty years ahead of its time. The intertwined multiple plots and quick-cut "Newsreel" and "Camera Eye" segments were groundbreaking in their day. They still have tricks to teach even the most MTV-influenced Generation Xers.



Lucius Shepard has written a handful of creditable novels –– Green Eyes, The Golden, Life During Wartime –– but it is as a short story writer that he shines. Many’s the writer who wishes he had the tools in his pencil-box to craft stories as distinctive and wonderful as "Delta Sly Honey," "How The Wind Spoke At Madaket," "R&R," or "The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule."

Of course, we live in at a time when most publishers would rather vacation at the Chernobyl Hilton than do one-author collections, so it falls to the small-press publisher Arkham House to keep in print Shepard’s three wonderful collections: The Jaguar Hunter (absolutely essential reading), The Ends of The Earth, and the forthcoming Barnacle Bill The Spacer (previously available only in a UK edition).

There are times when it seems the short story is dead. Reading Lucius Shepard is a reaffirmation the form has not yet flat-lined...


Next Installment: Writers on Writing 2: Four More Authors You Should Be Reading


© 2002 The Cortland Review