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Another review

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water….

Reading Combat Camera, A.J. Somerset’s brave and gritty debut novel, one discerns here and there evidence of influence from Nathanael West’s classic Miss Lonelyhearts: the disillusioned and powerless protagonist trapped in a job that threatens to destroy his soul; the amoral boss given to endless philosophical pontificating; the vivid depictions of the squalor and desperation of the lost and disowned. For West, all that squalor was easily found in America during the Depression. In Combat Camera, the sordid setting is the realm of hardcore internet porn. Any influence from Nathanael West, however minimal it may actually be, is of course a good thing, but unlike the great American satirist, Somerset offers his protagonist something Miss Lonelyhearts never gets: a viable opportunity for redemption, a possible second chance. West was never so cruel.

Turns out I’m a big meanie. You can read the rest at Encore Literary Magazine.

Categories: combat camera

All things must pass

March 21, 2011 2 comments

Stan C. Reade Photo here in London has gone out of business. I spent many hours there, and many dollars also. But the film business isn’t what it used to be, people buy their cameras at Future Shop, and e-Bay killed the used market and its economics of scarcity.

Let me say to Progress the same words with which I intend to greet the Apocalypse: fuck you, and the horses you rode in on.

Rows of lenses beneath the glass top of a display cabinet: a couple of well-used 50/1.8s for less than nothing, two slow midrange zooms, an old 24 mm f/2 going cheap, a battered 300 mm f/4.5, an 85, a 20-35 zoom, some crappy third-party teleconverters. In short, nothing exciting. No good lens going cheap, no cheapie worth using as a beater, nothing worth playing with for its own sake. Nothing holds its value anymore. Returning from El Salvador, you sold those two battered F3s for three times what a mint F3 high-eyepoint will fetch now. Photography today is nothing but a game of technology. In the computer age, the philosopher’s stone is merely a serviceable paperweight.

Poring over the used gear cabinet became unpleasantly like looking at Lucas Zane preserved in a museum. He had gone down to the ROM that summer, wanted to see the dinosaurs, felt he could deal with all those bones. But the place was closed for renovation. You want to see a dinosaur, look for your reflection in the glass.

Charlie, run-down, slightly stooped, thinning grey hair, asked if he wanted to take a closer look at anything. Charlie had worked there as long as Zane could remember. Longer than that, in fact. Charlie had worked there since the Nikon F, knew every good camera made since 1959. Tell him you needed to rig a remote trigger for an arcane motor drive that hadn’t been made since 1983, and he’d drag a dusty box up from the basement and find the connector you needed. With a wink: you can have that free because I’m pissed off at the boss today. Charlie liked anyone who wanted things obscure and obsolete.

“Those prices are breaking my heart,” said Zane.

“Used prices are way down. Great deals in there.”

“That’s what’s breaking my heart.”

Zane wandered away from the used cabinets to the back corner  of the shop. On the back wall he found a shelf where assorted used developing tanks lay jumbled. Yard sale junk; no-one uses this stuff anymore. The shelf bore three lonely bottles of liquid black-and-white developer, Kodak HC-110. Zane picked one up and inspected it, taking note of the colour change at the top of the bottle, where the developer had reacted to the air. Easy to work with, has a long shelf life, but like any liquid developer it’s heavy to carry. It was Zane’s favourite, in the days when he still shot a lot of black and white. In El Salvador.

He set the bottle aside. The chemicals on the shelf were jumbled together in no particular order but he found bottles of rapid fixer and glacial acetic acid without difficulty. He still had his old tanks back at the apartment, in one of the boxes. He had all he needed. He deposited the chemicals on the counter and Charlie looked at him dubiously. He rarely used Zane’s name, probably couldn’t remember it without reading it off his credit card. But he could tell you that the difference between an AI-S Nikkor and an AI Nikkor only matters if you own the Nikon FA. And who owns a Nikon FA, anyway?

“I always preferred D-76.”

Which was exactly what Zane might have expected from Charlie.

“That’s what Saint Ansel used?”

“It is indeed.”

“Europe is in flames, and Ansel Adams is photographing rocks and trees. Cartier-Bresson said that.”

“Did he?”

“But no doubt, someplace else was in flames when Cartier-Bresson was shooting guys jumping over puddles.”

“No doubt.”

Charlie put the chemicals in a plastic bag. Zane knew he was far more interested in the merits of HC-110 as compared to D-76, and could cheerfully have discussed contrast curves and push processing characteristics all afternoon. What a dead Frenchman had once said about a dead American, he couldn’t have cared less.

“Thing is, someplace or other is always in flames,” said Zane.Now that he had the chemicals, he felt no real desire to take any pictures worth developing.

“And there are always rocks and trees.”

“True, that.”

Rocks and trees. Who cares? No doubt Charlie will shake his head sadly after you leave: what a pity that Zane guy hit the bottle. Used to be good, you know, a real pro. In any case, Cartier-Bresson had taken to painting by the time Capa got himself killed in Indochina. Zane was more or less sure of that. If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. Then Capa stepped on a mine. Cartier-Bresson was better off painting.

from Combat Camera

Categories: combat camera, photography

A brief glance into the crystal ball

March 17, 2011 1 comment

Health Canada advises that crystal ball gazing is hazardous to your credibility, yet we insist on doing it anyway. Call it an addiction.

Literary journalism is particularly addicted to the crystal ball these days, as publishing is in crisis — by which I mean to say only that publishing is in perhaps slightly greater crisis than it usually is. (We are doomed. When’s lunch?) The latest example is found in the pages of the Globe & Mail, which is to say, online at the Globe & Mail — a distinction I make because it will soon become important — wherein the ever-hapless John Barber endeavours to get a read on the future of publishing.

Among Barber’s “trends to watch” is the revival of the short story, which is exemplified by … well, pretty much nothing at all, as there’s no evidence of a “revival” in progress.

What there is, in place of evidence, is a great deal of hope that the new world of electronic publishing and e-books will lead to a renewed interest in the short story. It makes sense: your e-reader doesn’t care whether you read a thick tome, or a thin one, and the disappearance of distribution costs means that you can sell single stories, instead of relying on collections or magazines to carry them. But I’m a-gonna tell you, don’t bet on that horse.

The notion that electronic media will promote the short story as a form relies on rigid ideas of form that themselves are shaped by past media. New media is as likely to change a form as to revive its popularity.

Consider the novella. (All those who whine that the short story receives no respect should consider the novella at length, and shut up.) The novella has all but disappeared, and the reason is simple: the reader, that person who (in theory, at least) buys books, tends to buy by weight, not volume. The twenty-dollar price tag on that trade paperback becomes steadily less attractive as the book grows skinnier; to the reader, buying this thing is like paying full price to watch a 30-minute movie. And so, with the exception of a few writers who specialize in the form (Jim Harrison), nobody writes novellas.

The same pressure leads novels to grow thicker. A 400-page novel is more attractive than a slim, 200-page novel, even though that 400-page novel may consist of 200 pages of novel and 200 pages of filler, word meal and editing by-product. Some readers equate the thickness of the novel with its difficulty, and therefore with their prowess as readers, which explains in part the appeal of William Vollmann. Readers like doorstops, and so there is pressure to pump air into a story to make it bigger, pressure that is created by the medium in which it is delivered — the book, with its physical heft and price tag.

Similarly, the short story is a product of media. It was created by the magazine, and the constraints on its length are created in part by the number of column inches available in an issue, and in part by the attention span of magazine readers.

We have already seen how, when liberated from the constraints of the magazine, the short story may grow. Short stories in literary magazines today are unlikely to exceed 5,000 words (at most), but when published in a collection, are often much longer. This is not to make the book thicker, one hopes; you could instead include one more story. It should be because, freed of artificial constraints on its length, that story can grow to its natural dimensions.

I believe strongly that every story has natural dimensions. Some ideas lead to novels, and others to short stories. Some lead to novellas. Too often, we try to squeeze these things into a smaller space, to fit into a magazine, or inflate them to fill the expectations of a novel. The results are not good.

A new medium in which to deliver stories, one that puts paid to artificial constraints of length, is not likely to promote the short story so much as it is likely to make the boundaries between short story, novella and novel fuzzier. We will still have short stories in our brave new world, but only as defined by some arbitrary definition that uses word count to place short stories in one bucket, and novellas in another. The notion that length defines form, in that context, begins to look silly; if, for example, a short story is under 7000 words, can you define the formal differences between a 6,999-word short story, and a 7,001-word long story?

Perhaps, in the future, we’ll stop talking about short stories and novels and begin talking only about stories, and how they are told.

Categories: publishing, short stories
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