Charles Bukowski On Writing

‘On Writing’ by Charles Bukowski   (2015) – 214 pages – Edited by Abel DeBritto


There is still a lot of controversy about Charles Bukowski so before you read this article I want you to read Bukowski’s famous poem of writing advice called ‘So You Want to be a Writer’.   This poem might change your mind about him.  Then again, maybe not.

Charles Bukowski, the King of the Underground, would never be mistaken for a respectable person.  Lewd, crude, and rude are three words often used to describe him.

“I don’t write so much now.  I’m getting on to 33, pot-belly and creeping dementia.  Sold my typewriter to go on a drunk 6 or 7 years ago and haven’t got enough non-alcoholic dollars to buy another.”

‘On Writing’ is a collection of the letters that Bukowski wrote to editors and to other writers from early in his career until the end.  After some early success getting stories and poems published, he went on “a ten-year drunk” during which he sold his typewriter for alcohol and horse race money but still submitted a few poems to editors in longhand.  He was persistent.  Around 1960 he took a job at the post office, got another typewriter, and wrote some more poetry.  Beginning in  1967 he wrote a column called “Notes From a Dirty Old Man” for an underground newspaper.  In 1969 Bukowski accepted an offer from Black Sparrow Press to become a full-time writer.  He was 49 years old.

“I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”    

The following year he published his first novel, ‘Post Office’.

What kind of writing advice does Charles Bukowski give in ‘On Writing’?  Above all, “Don’t try”.  This is the actual epitaph that is written on his gravestone.

“We work too hard. We try too hard. Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb. There’s been too much direction. It’s all free, we needn’t be told. Classes? Classes are for asses. Writing a poem is as easy as beating your meat or drinking a bottle of beer.”

Here are some more good lines of advice from ‘On Writing’.

“It’s best to stay loose, work wild and easy and fail any way you want to.”   

“My writing is jagged and harsh; I want it to remain that way, I don’t want it smoothed out.”  

“That’s crude.  I like it.”

 “I’m not interested in poetry.  I don’t know what interests me.  Non-dullness, I suppose.  Proper poetry is dead poetry even if it looks good.”

Bukowski also expresses some literary criticism of other writers in ‘On Writing’.  Here is his take on the poet Conrad Aiken:

“His main fault was that he wrote too well; the silk-cotton sounds almost hid the meaning, and, of course, this is the game of most shit-poets: to appear more profound than they really are, to sneak in little delicious darts and then retire to their safe comforts.”  

589088505Charles Bukowski’s literary heroes were  Knut Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, John Fante, and Henry Miller.  Those first two were Nazi sympathizers who also wrote fiction.  Lately there has been a lot of talk about whether Bukowski himself was a Nazi sympathizer.  After all he was born in Germany.  He may have been, but he wasn’t much interested in politics at all.  His interests were elsewhere.

“Right now I’m into a great many things: screenplay, correcting somebody else’s screenplay, a short story and playing the horses and fighting with my girlfriend, and visiting my daughter, and then feeling bad and then feeling good, and all the rest of it.” 

He was given to saying outrageous things just to set people off.  I’ll end with one of his better lines.

“Most drunks I’ve known aren’t very interesting people.  Of course, most sober people aren’t either.”   


‘The Dog’ by Jack Livings – Stories from China Today

‘The Dog’ stories by Jack Livings   (2014) – 226 pages


This year is shaping up for me to be the Year of the Short Story Collection.  Some years are like that.  I’ve read four of the novels on the Booker-Man longlist, and none of them has soared.  There have been a couple of other novels this year that I’ve read which have been excellent, but the main action has been in short story collections.  So far this year I’ve read fine story collections by Edith Pearlman, Rose Tremain, Kelly Link, and now Jack Livings.

All of the stories in ‘The Dog’ take place in China, and all the main characters of the stories are people who are citizens of China.  Some of the reviewers have called Jack Livings ‘courageous’ for writing these stories; I would call him audacious.

Forget all your stereotypes about the Chinese people.  In these stories Livings captures individual people with empathy and sensitivity.

We here in the West tend to think that all Chinese people are similar, yet there is much diversity among its people.  Take the employees of the Horizon Trading Company.

“There were a couple of Mongols, a guy who was half Xibe, a Uyghur, a couple of Yaos, some Koreans.  For a while we even had an American, but he was lazy and got fired.”

China has a significant twelve million minority population of Uyghurs – Turkic Muslims from the western provinces.  They are treated poorly, forced to live in their own Uyghurville ghettoes, and are blamed for everything that goes wrong in China.

In these stories, a reader gets the impression that earthquakes occur quite frequently in China and are a significant problem.

“He found himself in a wild notion: he should bus the entire workforce to Sichuan to aid in the recovery effort.  But by the time they got there, the men would have been drunk for two days.  They would have beaten each other to a pulp and would get off the bus in worse shape than the quake survivors.” 

From this it appears that alcohol use is also rampant in China today.

From a productivity and economic standpoint, China has been a success story of the twenty-first century despite the recent stock market problems, and several of these stories take place in factory situations.  China has been Communist for seventy years, but today just about everything is at least partly privatized.  Perhaps the best description of China’s current government is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.  General Motors now sells more cars in China than in the United States.

 Beijing, China

Beijing, China

In one of Living’s stories, “An Event at Horizon Trading Company”, some of the employees start to dress up in traditional Hanfu feudal garb, but some of the other employees are real skeptical.  These other employees point out that it is the Japanese, China’s bitter enemies, who worship their feudal past.

“Look at it this way.  If there’s going to be a battle over who’s got more Chinese pride, I want to be on the side that destroyed feudalism and liberated the peasants, not the side that oppressed the masses.  I’m just saying, if it weren’t for the Red Guard, we wouldn’t be here today, Slick Lips said.”

Perhaps I will find a Chinese writer who will give me accurate insights into China and the Chinese people today.  In the meantime I trust Jack Livings to provide the lively inside story.


Grade:   A       


Beryl Markham – Brave Heroine or Scandalous Woman or Both?

‘Circling the Sun’ by Paula McLain   (2015)  – 355 pages


beryl‘Circling the Sun’ is an historical fiction memoir of British-born Kenyan aviator, race horse trainer, and author Beryl Markham.  In the novel Beryl Markham tells her story herself from when she was a little girl.  When Beryl was four her father decided to move the family from England to a horse farm in Kenya, Africa.  However her mother couldn’t stand being isolated on the farm and soon returned to England.  Thus Beryl grew up independent and wild in Africa without her mother.

As a young woman she became the first female race horse trainer in Kenya and was successful and renowned among the racing community in Kenya. Later she took up flying and became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west in 1936 and also flew from Kenya to England.  She also became friends with the Danish writer Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) who also spent years in Kenya.

Since ‘Circling the Sun’ is written as a memoir, Beryl Markham presents herself in a positive light as a spunky trailblazing young woman.  The website Scandalous Women has a quite different take on Beryl.  The life story is pretty much the same, but her romantic life is presented in a much different light.

‘Circling the Sun’ presents the first 28 years of Beryl’s life up to the year 1931 when her lover Denys Finch Hatton is killed in a plane crash.  Up to 1931 the novel depicts her as having two marriages, both of which end in divorce, and three other lovers.  According to Scandalous Women, her marriages “foundered under the weight of Beryl’s infidelities. Beryl didn’t know the first thing about the responsibilities of being a wife, nor did she grow up with many examples of a good marriage.”

b2Her first marriage at seventeen to a man twenty years older than her was a total disaster.  However she was definitely at fault in her second marriage as she had an indiscreet affair with Prince Harry, a previous Prince Harry, while married.  Her husband at the time, Mansfield Markham, found out and threatened to sue for divorce, and Prince Harry to avoid a scandal agreed to put 15,000 pounds in a trust for Beryl.  According to Scandalous Women,

“Beryl treated sex more like a man, as a necessary function like brushing one’s teeth, or eating. Very few of her lovers touched her heart.” 

‘Circling the Sun’ has Denys Finch Hatton as the love of Beryl’s life, the only problem here being that he was Karen Blixen’s lover at the time that Beryl moved in on him.

Scandalous Women places Beryl Markham as one of the notoriously decadent Happy Valley set in Kenya.  According to Scandalous Women,

“She could be ruthless and amoral, using people and then discarding them. She often took advantage of friends, running up huge bills on their accounts, without guilt.” 

‘Circling the Sun’ is fairly accurate in relating the significant events of Beryl Markham’s life, but it is a prettified high school girl’s version of her life.  This often happens when one is allowed to tell one’s own story.  To get a more realistic, objective view of Beryl Markham’s life, you need to dig deeper.


Grade: B+ 

‘Get in Trouble’ by Kelly Link – Far Beyond the Typical

‘Get in Trouble’ stories by Kelly Link   (2015)   – 333 pages


7485bc71999564284c24dbe3a916719cThe stories in ‘Get in Trouble’ are exceedingly strange with ghost animatron boyfriends, demon lovers, super-heroes and sidekicks, pocket universes, and mermaids.  What saves the stories from drowning in strangeness is Kelly Link’s brilliant use of dialogue.  No matter how far-fetched the story is, the down-to-earth conversations between her characters give the readers something real, substantial, and emotional to hold on to.  The people relate to each other human-to-human no matter how strange the story is, and we readers follow the story line due to these interactions.

Here are Fran and Ophelia discussing those mysterious creatures, ‘the summer people’:

“Have you seen them?” Ophelia said.

“Now and then,” Fran said.  “Not so often. Not since I was much younger.  They’re shy.”

Ophelia was practically bouncing on her chair.  “You get to look after them?  That’s the best thing ever!  Have they always been here?”

Fran hesitated.  “I don’t know where they come from.  Sometimes they’re…somewhere else.  Ma said she felt sorry for them.  She thought maybe they couldn’t go home, that they’d been sent off, like the Cherokee, I guess.   They live a lot longer, maybe, forever.  I don’t know.  I expect time works different where they come from.  Sometimes they’re gone for years.  But they always come back.  They’re summer people.  That’s just the way it is with summer people.” 

“Like how we used to come and go,” Ophelia said.  “That’s how you used to think of me.  Like that. Now I live here.” 

The talk between Fran and Ophelia sets up this spooky story “The Summer People”. All the stories contain plenty of dialogue which is a good thing.

Each of the stories is a mixture of the eerie and the everyday.  “Secret Identity” is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who has run away from Iowa, to a hotel in Manhattan, where she is to hook up with a man she met online. At the hotel there are two conventions, one of dentists and one of super-heroes.  How to tell the dentists from the super-heroes is a running joke.

All of the stories in ‘Get in Trouble’ worked for me except one, “Valley of the Girls’.  I read that story twice and it still made no sense to me beyond that it related somehow to ancient Egypt.

The collection contains a great variety of locales from Hollywood to an abandoned Wizard of Oz theme park to deep space.  The emotional situations of the stories are just as varied.

The strong attraction of ‘Get in Trouble’ is that it overwhelms the predictable sameness of so much current realistic fiction by offering a diverse multitude of supernatural settings, extreme weird situations, and offbeat people.


Grade:   B+


‘The Illogic of Kassel’ by Enrique Vila-Matas – More a Cheerleader Than a Critic

‘The Illogic of Kassel’ by Enrique Vila-Matas   (2014)  – 220 pages   Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom


‘The Illogic of Kassel’  is Enrique Vila-Matas’ account of his one-week sojourn at the avant-garde art festival Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012.  He was both a participant in and an observer of the art installations at Documenta 13.

During World War II, Kassel had the misfortune of being the location of several Nazi armament factories, and ninety percent of Kassel’s downtown area was destroyed by Allied bombing.  Also fierce tank battles destroying much of the city occurred here during the Allied invasion toward the end of the war.

Germany under Hitler had classified German art as degenerate, expelling and murdering its artists.  In an act of redemption after the war, Kassel started Documenta in 1955, and now thirteen of these festivals have been held so far.  Kassel is now considered a world center for contemporary art.

As a participant, each morning Vila-Matas was to sit in a Chinese restaurant in Kassel, the Dschingis Khan, and just do what he normally would do and write in front of the public.  As an observer, Vila-Matas was “a sort of erratic stroller in continuous perplexed wandering”.

The good news about ‘The Illogic of Kassel’ is that it is written in the mature self-confident style of Vila-Matas’ later works such as ‘Never Any End to Paris’ and ‘Dublinesque’.  In other words, this is a work that makes the reader think about the world around them, to press deeper into the real questions than we normally would go.  This is a mind-expanding work.  For better or worse, Enrique Vila-Matas has become my guru, my guide.

Vila-Matas is fervent in his advocacy of the avant-garde:

“Perhaps it is this desire for something more that propels us to seek the new,  to believe something exists that still can be distinct, unseen, special, something different, around the most unexpected corner; that’s why some of us have spent our whole lives wanting to be avant-garde, because it is our way of believing that in the world or maybe beyond it, out beyond the poor world, there might be something we’ve never seen before.”

However ‘The Illogic of Kassel’ is by no means an easy read; it is a most difficult read.  First, even though he describes many of the art installations at Documenta 13, don’t expect any sort of meaningful criticism of any of them.  Vila-Matas is much too polite for that.  Since this is non-fiction and deals with the real people putting on Documenta 13 and the real artists, Vila-Matas treads carefully, way too carefully.  No art installation or person is ever criticized in any way.  Vila-Matas describes these art installations in detail, but these descriptions do not come alive and do not have much impact.  He apparently feels he cannot criticize anything or anyone.  He also never praises any one piece of avant-garde art highly for fear it might hurt the feelings of other participants.  Vila-Matas is a lousy critic, and the book slogs down when he is out surveying the field.  None of the officials of the festival comes alive either, because of Vila-Matas’ friendly politeness to neither criticize nor over-praise.

I would have much preferred a fictional account of the art festival where the author would not have been constrained by the bounds of courtesy.

So my bottom-line feelings about ‘The Illogic of Kassel’ are quite ambivalent.  I highly regard Vila-Matas’ mind when he is dealing with literary, philosophical, and historical issues, but his take on Documenta 13 was slow going and quite inadequate.


Grade: B+     



‘Summerlong’ by Dean Bakopoulos – A Hot, Hot Summer

‘Summerlong’ by Dean Bakopolous   (2015) – 354 pages


The new novel ‘Summerlong’ reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Ingmar Bergman’s atypical comedy movie ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ which in its turn was influenced by the William Shakespeare play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.  All three of these works are based on the premise that summer is a wondrous and magic time for trysts between men and women.

If ever there was a hot summer novel, ‘Summerlong’ is it. It is summer, and sex is all over the place.  I never realized that the small college town of Grinnell, Iowa was such a steamy place, but this is a summer idyll so let the libidos wander free.

The novel centers on real estate agent Don Lowry (“It’s your home, but it’s my business”) and his wife Claire.  They are both in their late thirties with two adolescent children.  As the novel opens, Don is out walking by himself and meets an alluring young woman who is called ABC lying in the grass.  Soon he is going to her house often where she and he share some marijuana.  At the same time his wife Claire meets a young man Charlie to whom she is much attracted. Will she or won’t she? So the marriage is shaky on both sides.  Besides Don and Claire have severe financial problems and may lose their own house.

It turns out that Charlie’s father was a lecherous professor at Grinnell College who had dozens of affairs including one with ABC.  Later in the novel ABC and Charlie get together also.  Then there is Ruth, the wise old woman that ABC is caring for who makes mysterious and clairvoyant pronouncements throughout the novel.  I believe she also had a rendezvous with Charlie’s father.

All the hook-ups in ‘Summerlong’ happen at a pace much too smooth and easy, so the novel is not at all realistic and ultimately untrue.  However this is a summer idyll and not grim dull reality.

One thing Bakopoulos is very good at is to make you feel the atmosphere of a scene.  Thus when a scene is at the pool or on the beach on a hot summer day, you can feel the heat in your shorts.

‘Summerlong’ is a smooth read but not a deep read, and it is best for a reader not to think about or question the characters or events, because I doubt they would stand up to much scrutiny.

I listened to the entire audio book in three days, and it was entirely sufficient to listen to the story only once.  It is not Shakespeare or Bergman. ‘Summerlong’ probably will not make my year-end Top Ten list, because the story is much too facile, but I enjoyed it for what it is, a summer amusement.


Grade:   B+               


‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’ by David Gates – Never has Romance been so Unattractive

‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’, stories by David Gates   (2015)  314 pages



The stories in ‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’ are about adults.  That does not mean they behave responsibly.  They drink too much; they have affairs on the side.  They sneak off for a tryst away from their wives or husbands with a lie.   Most of the people in these stories write or teach for a living.  Thus they are very good at expressing their side of the story.

Many of the stories in ‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’ are about old men having unpleasant affairs with much younger women.  Considering this dismal subject, the stories are surprisingly energetic and engaging despite there being a certain sameness to several of them.   The old men in these stories seem driven to pursue sexual affairs with much younger women, and after he gets the woman the old man feels guilty and takes it out on her with his extreme dislike.  Life isn’t always pretty.  I wish Gates would try some other subject matter once in a while in his stories.   A little variety would be a good thing.

David Gates was a literary star of the 1990s.  I remember being much impressed with his two novels ‘Jernigan’ and ‘Preston Falls’.    The two novels are in the realistic mode and show a willingness to look hard at the sordid sides of upper middle-class life on the order of Richard Ford or Russell Banks.  ‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’  is the first book Gates has published since 2002.

The last story in this collection, the title story, is probably the best story, because it is about someone the old man narrator actually likes.  That person Paul Thompson is a hillbilly musician whom the narrator met when he was young and also in a band.  Over the years they have been in bands together and attended weekend parties together, and now Paul is seventy-one years old and dying.  Paul wants to stay at the narrator’s place to spend his last days, and the narrator agrees.  Of course, this being a David Gates story, the two old men both have younger girlfriends, but at least in this story that isn’t the main point.

David Gates is good at expressing himself.  There is no question he can write.  I just wish he could write about something else besides these squalid May-December pseudo-romances.


Grade:   B+    



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