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A glance in the crystal ball

February 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Oh, the good old days. It used to be that publishers would be willing to take on a book, edit it, publicize it, wrap it in a nice-looking cover and push it on booksellers. But in today’s hyper-competitive publishing landscape, with a soft economy and an illiterate public, roles are changing.

“What we hear again and again is that publishers would love to publish books,” says literary agent Amanda Vautour, “but they just can’t afford to.”

Authors, finding publishers unwilling to take on the work of turning their worthless manuscripts into books, are increasingly hiring freelance publishers to do the work for them. “I advise all my authors that their project has to be as close to a finished book as possible before a publisher will take a risk on it,” says Vautour. “Nowadays, that means it has to be edited, designed, printed, hyped and pimped, and preferably on the shelves of major bookstore chains before we approach a publisher.”

“Ideally, the author should arrange coop at Chapters/Indigo. Most publishers are much more willing to at least consider a ‘Heather’s Pick’ than, you know, just some novel stuck back in Fiction and Literature someplace.”

Typical of the new trend is Vancouver author Janet Hackenscribble, whose blockbuster hit Not Bloody Likely was written by a ghostwriter, rewritten by a stream of freelance editors, and publicized by an aggressive campaign of murder and mayhem before finding prominent paid placement for an undisclosed fee at chain bookstores  across the country. Just before Christmas last year, following shortlist nominations for the Giller, Writers Trust and Governor General’s awards, Random House picked up Not Bloody Likely. The deal was a lucrative one by today’s standards, with at least half a percent of the discounted sale price going to the author.

Public Service Announcement

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Do not stick your chewing gum to the armrest of your airline seat. This is asinine.

If you do this, I will take DNA samples from your residual saliva, track you down, encase you in well-chewed Hubba Bubba, and stick you to the fuselage of a westbound 737. When the aircraft reaches 40,000 feet, where the outside temperature is always minus sixty, the gum will freeze, harden, crack, and detach from the fuselage, and you will fall, encased in a streamlined cylinder of gum, attaining a terminal velocity well over the speed of sound, and your gum-coffin will penetrate the ground to such a depth that it will be unnecessary to excavate a grave. All we will need will be a cross to mark the spot.

You have been warned. And now, I’m off to the dry cleaners.

Categories: ill-considered rants

A metametacritical digression

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

To me, the most memorable scene in the film Pollock is of Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock, in a stairwell, falling down drunk and shouting, “Fuck Picasso.”

That scene neatly summarizes the creative struggle. The anxiety of influence, the difficulty of making it fresh, the struggle to break through and create something new. How do you break through the influence of a Picasso? How do you find the next thing?

The answer to a bad book, it’s often said, is to write a better book. The response to worn out tropes is to move beyond them. Problem is, this is hard. You can struggle for a lifetime and never get there. In fact, you probably will never get there; probably, your efforts will amount to nothing more than another shovel-load on the heap of mediocrity, that muddy middle of art. You will also, in all likelihood, spend some time drunk in a stairwell.

This is why we have criticism. Doing the next thing is hard, but it’s relatively easy to point out that the people doing the next thing aren’t actually doing it at all.

(You may deduce that I’m skeptical of the claim that a healthy literature cannot exist without vigorous criticism. Congratulations, Holmes. Vigorous criticism is a good thing, but it doesn’t get the writing done.)

Of course, most criticism is not vigorous, and this leads to our quarterly lament on the state of criticism. This iteration was kicked off by Andre Alexis, writing in The Walrus, who bemoaned the supposed nastiness of Canadian book reviews, blamed it all on John Metcalf, and suggested a more communal criticism is needed. He didn’t bother to explain what that would look like.

All kinds of discussion followed.

So, now we’ve had the criticism of the criticism. It’s time for the criticism of the criticism of the criticism.

What’s wrong with Canadian criticism? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong with Canadian criticism: more ink is spilled in bemoaning the state of Canadian criticism than in bemoaning the state of the literature itself.

We debate what’s wrong with book reviewing, instead of debating books. We debate general ideas about criticism instead of the specifics of a critique and the text it examines. Instead of (for example) taking John Metcalf to task over his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan, his opponents complain in general terms about the tone of his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan.

Where are the specifics? Why all this generalized moaning about the state of criticism?

This is not criticism, and it is not serious discussion of criticism. It is idle book chatter.

The only recent book I can think of that spawned any kind of critical debate is Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, which touched off some interesting exchanges concerning how we can write about the Holocaust, whether we can appropriate the experience, and whether the book just plain sucked.

Why is this? I dunno. I just observe the observations, man. I don’t explain ‘em.

Thanks for nothin’

May 11, 2010 1 comment

You know, I think we’d all benefit if fewer people were convinced they had a book in them, and more importantly, that said book needed to get out. Heck, my puppy has a book in her—my copy of The Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien, in fact—and that book is bound to come out sooner or later. But trust me, you won’t want to read it when it does.

The firm belief that we all have a book in us is responsible for a similar product. So you’d expect, with that attitude, that I’d applaud Geoff Pevere’s wake-up call to would be authors in The Toronto Star. But I won’t, for two reasons.

First, articles of this sort achieve nothing good. Would-be writers of sensitive disposition, people who actually can write, read this sort of thing, look at what they’ve written, and burn their manuscripts in frustration. And these are the writers most likely to succeed. Those with an ironclad and unjustified faith in their own brilliance, on the other hand, carry on without heed.

So what’s the point?

Second, the rather bleak picture that Pevere paints is, thanks to it’s large-house, agent-driven perspective, incomplete.

And….

“Critical response to a book could once make a big difference to a book,” he says. “Now it’s great to get terrific reviews —where it’s possible to still get a review, and that’s harder and harder all the time — but that’s not what a retailer or a publisher looks at first. It’s the sales you racked … it’s sometimes easier to get something that is fresh and new — a first novel by someone that no one has heard of—published than it is to get the third or fourth novel published by someone who has written in the past but whose book sales haven’t been record-setting.”

But Doug Pepper says:

“In some cases, agents are very important. We rely on them, because that’s all they do.” says Pepper. “They go out there and find stuff, and they cut a lot of the dross out. There’s agents I know, they have fabulous taste and they’ve backed it up with success. When they tell me to read a book, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to agree with them, but I’ll read it. It will mean a lot to me that that agent says that.”

Before the fact, agents are held to be superb arbiters of merit, and increasingly take on the role of front-line editors, whipping manuscripts into commercial shape—often at the author’s risk, with no guarantee of representation.

After the fact, shit slides off their Teflon suits and sticks to the author; instead of holding him responsible for the one thing he really controls—the quality of his own work—we’re gonna hold him responsible for all the decisions made through the entire production chain, from agent to bookseller, and cut that bastard loose.

This is a case of trying to have your Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien and eat it too, something that my puppy has demonstrated to be impossible.

The pull of the analog

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I like typewriters.

I collect them, actually, although not the pre-war, glass-keyed desktop behemoths that most collectors like. I like lightweight, post-war portables, especially my 1969 Olympia SF. And I use them, often, for first drafts, partly because I have this notion that first drafts do not deserve hard-drive permanence, and partly just because I used typewriters as a kid and I like the solid thwack of progress being made, letter by letter, word by word.

My 1951 Royal Quiet Deluxe has a neat feature called the “Magic Margin”: you position the carriage where you want the margin, press a button, and voila, your margin is set. The magic is done by a spring that pulls the margin stop into place once the “Magic Margin” button releases it from its catch. It’s a wonderful, Rube-Goldberg feature. And this is the attraction of typewriters. You press a key and you see all the complex levers move.

Of course, the machine I’m typing this post on is infinitely more complex, but the complexity is hidden. The machine is a black box, running an operating system that is also a black box, over which software runs, likewise a black box. And it’s no fun unless you can see the levers move.

I have been dusting off a couple of old cameras, buying chemicals, and blowing the dust out of the corners of my memory where the processing of black-and-white film is filed. And needing a subject, I took my camera down to the poet Patricia Young’s excellent reading on Wednesday night, and shot some pictures afterwards.

I love shooting available darkness, and this is one of the places black-and-white excels. You maintain a sense of how things actually look, in a dimly lit bar; you don’t have the sense, as you can get with flash, that everything in the world is evenly lit with pure, white light. But you pay a price, as is evident in the picture I posted yesterday: you get heavy grain, and you have to shoot wide open with a slow shutter, so any movement becomes a blur.

Newer digital SLRs with full-frame sensors can kick black-and-white film’s ass, to use the technical lingo of photography; I recall night shots of the Olympic torch relay, for example, posted to Twitter by Steve Simon, with minimal noise. The DSLR lets you preserve not only the shape and quality of the light, but its colour. And you don’t have to develop the film on your lunch break the following day, as I did, and then wait for it to dry, and then scan it, and then spot the dust out of the scans.

But you can’t see the levers move.

I am amazed at the ingenuity of an all-mechanical camera shooting film. It is, on the one hand, incredibly primitive: a metal machine operated by springs and levers that exposes a strip of plastic coated with silver halides, that you then treat with a hand-mixed chemical soup, in your laundry room, to produce pictures. But consider the engineering genius behind a mechanically-timed shutter that’s accurate from one second down to 1/4000 of a second, or the complexity of Kodachrome — a film that is, by today’s standards, primitive.

Who came up with this stuff?

Yes, a DSLR is much more complex, just as this computer is much more complex than a mechanical typewriter. And yes, a digital photography workflow is superior in every way to threading film onto developing reels in total darkness.

Okay. But I love the way the faint, sulphurous smell of fixer sticks to my hands.

In a world where it seems that everything is a commodity to be sold at market price, maybe it’s an artistic temperament that insists things should have intrinsic value, that the value of an object should be determined in part by the ingenuity of its design, an ingenuity that you can only truly appreciate if you can see the levers move. There is something to be said for Model T Fords, for manual typewriters, and for various other things that you can fix with your own hands.

Confirmation bias in Baghdad

April 6, 2010 7 comments

By now, everyone has seen the Wikileaks video showing an American helicopter crew deliberately targeting civilians and journalists, and is aghast at their callous and bloodthirsty behaviour.

Except this is not what the video actually shows.

What the video actually shows is how confirmation bias leads to disastrous decisions, and the dehumanizing effect of fighting at long range through television cameras. It shows what happens when we fight wars with modern technology.

And at another level, the video—or the reaction to it—shows how framing and context shape our understanding of what we’re seeing, and how happily we allow ourselves to be manipulated, as long as we’re allowed to believe what we want to believe.

The problem with this video is that it encourages us to see what we see and hear as the whole truth—it encourages us to believe that the camera is authoritative. But it is not the whole truth: we see the action only from the perspective of one camera, and only for the time that camera is active. We don’t know what’s going on outside the frame, or what happened before the recording begins. The full transcript helps, but it’s confusing, because we don’t know who or where the various callsigns are.

The first event on the video is a target handoff. An observer (Hotel Two-Six?) passes a target he has identified (“target 15″) to another helicopter, presumably Crazyhorse One-Eight. In the transcript, target fifteen is initially identified as “a guy with a weapon.”

The gunner slews the camera about fifty degrees to the left to pick up the designated target, and zooms in. He’s looking for a weapon, because he’s been told this is a guy with a weapon, and this is probably why he initially identifies what appear to be camera bags as slung weapons (starting at 3:14).

But moments later, he also sees real weapons, as he shifts the camera to a group of four men following the photographers. Three of these men (starting at 3:38) are unmistakably carrying weapons. At 3:45, one of them turns, and it is clear that he’s carrying an RPG.

And the next thing he sees is a long cylinder being aimed around the corner of the building. The gunner is looking for weapons; he sees an RPG. And the last thing he sees, as the wall obscures his view, is the man with the RPG raising and aiming it.

At this point, we hear “we had a guy shooting, and now he’s behind the building.”

“He was, uh, right in front of the Brad.”

So this is not an attack on unarmed civilians and journalists, as a torrent of self-righteous protest insists. It’s an attack on a group of armed men, accompanied by two journalists, after the helicopter gunner misidentified a long telephoto lens, protruding from behind a wall, as the business end of an RPG. And the gunner saw an RPG, instead of a camera, because he had been told his target was armed, and because he had already seen a real RPG on the scene. That lens was aimed at an American vehicle, the Bradley IFV.

When the helicopter clears the buildings, the crew already has permission to engage and have already made the decision to open fire. In the few seconds before they do, they don’t consider what the group of men are now doing. They are just watching for a clear shot.

In the gunner’s place, you would likely have made the same decisions. If you saw this video without first being told that two photographers were killed, if you could only watch it once, if you didn’t have the ability to freeze it, and if you had to make the decision to fire, you would likely make the same decision.

And you would likely have had the same cockpit conversation: look at those dead bastards. Because to you, the guy who was aiming an RPG at a Bradley is a bastard, and now he’s dead, and that’s a good thing.

What about the van? It comes down to whether you think you’re seeing unarmed civilians picking up a wounded man, or a group of insurgents picking up a wounded comrade. With no weapons in evidence, you might err on the side of caution.

Or you might prejudge the situation, assume they were insurgents, assume they’d be picking up the weapons, and you might open fire. That would depend on whether you saw what you expected to see, or what was actually there.

We want to be angry at someone, and the helicopter crew is the obvious target. But the helicopter crew is only doing what normal people do when they’re put into that situation. Instead, we should direct our anger at the men who put them there—at the “goofy child president” who launched that war, and the people who helped him to do that. Because this video demonstrates clearly just how easily confirmation bias can get non-combatants killed, and just what happens to bystanders in an urban fight. This video shows why war is not acceptable.

So I support Wikileaks; it’s important to bring these things out into the open. But I will also say that their video is deliberately manipulative.

They frame it with an introduction that encourages us to see the video in a certain way. They run radio noises, but no chatter, under that introduction, giving the impression that nothing was happening up until the first transmission we hear. And they highlight the journalists, but do not highlight the AKs and the RPG that were on the scene.

They lead us to see what they want us to see, and we see it. And we loudly complain about what we see, and puff ourselves up with self-righteous indignation.

And this is how I know, gentle reader, that in the gunner’s place, you would have made the same decision: because just like that gunner, you see only what you expect to see.

Categories: ill-considered rants, war

We are doomed, etc.

March 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Something always happens to spoil my morning. Today, it was an article in The Globe & Mail, suggesting that we should do away with the old, crusty idea of teaching students literature, and just let them read, well, whatever the heck they want to.

For the past three years, Dr. Ivey has been involved with a project at a Virginia school in which 300 Grade 8 English students were allowed full choice over their reading with few strings or work attached, other than classroom discussions about shared themes and small group conversations if several students had read the same book. The goal was to get every student engaged in reading – the kind that you do in your own free time.

Why are we moving the reading we do on our own time into the classroom? Because, I suppose, we don’t read on our own time otherwise. So it would make sense to get the kids reading, but the thing that puzzles me is, exactly how are you going to develop literacy beyond the basic level without discussing the book? And how are you going to discuss the book if everyone’s reading a different book?

There’s a distressing overtone to this article. The suggestion is that simply reading is good enough. Dr. Ivey herself confuses the goals of any decent English curriculum:

And to those who argue in favour of a common base of knowledge through class-assigned novels, she scoffs: “The experience of being assigned a book is extremely common. Having knowledge of [that book] is rare.”

But the point of high-school English is not to make sure everyone can quote Hamlet, as this article continually suggests. It’s to make sure that students have the literacy skills to understand Hamlet, and anything else they may read in the future, including half-witted lifestyle articles in The Globe & Mail. The aim of teaching literature at the high-school level is not to teach literature itself, but to teach students how to read it.

We don’t let math students solve the equations they want to solve. We don’t let chemistry students run the experiments they want to run. We don’t do these things because we want these students to learn a set of principles. But with literature, we throw up our hands and say, what the hell; let the universities teach principles to those who want to learn them.

This is important. If fiction becomes a game for people with MA’s, fiction is doomed. The audience that literary fiction should engage includes literate, educated people with degrees in things like aquatic ecology and mechanical engineering—literate, educated people who haven’t taken an English course since high school. Our schools can’t throw up their hands and leave it up to the universities.

We need to improve the way English courses are taught. But declaring that we’ll be happy as long as the kids are reading surely isn’t the solution.

Categories: ill-considered rants

Toronto can’t be a great literary city….

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

… according to Geoff Pevere, revealing the old Toronto-New York penis envy writing in the Toronto Star.

Of course, all kinds of places aren’t great literary cities; the list includes Wingham, Ontario, Great Falls, Montana, and Kidderminster, West Midlands. The desire to inhabit a great literary city belongs to people greatly enamored of their own navels.

And I was concerned, at first, that Pevere was going to tell me that the problem is that Toronto doesn’t spend enough time contemplating its own navel, which would be so obviously false as to set me off on another long, ill-tempered rant and further cement my reputation as Internet crank.

But no: the problem is that Toronto is too busy contemplating the present state of its navel to consider the history of its navel, and thus has no shared vision of the future of its navel.

That sounds plausible.

Last gasp

March 1, 2010 1 comment

Now that Rebecca Rosenblum has correctly pegged me as an Internet crank,* I’m almost afraid to post any further grumpy remarks regarding writing advice.

I don’t want to be ranting on and on or anything. But the most interesting bits of writing advice, and the most interesting ideas, are often the specious ones, because it’s in reacting against them that you start to really think, and perhaps reach some new insight.

It occurred to me (a phrase that I’m not supposed to use) that the one piece of writing advice I never see is perhaps the most valuable: challenge everything.

Reacting against ideas should become a habit of mind. Good art shakes things up, or so I’m told. It would seem, then, that good fiction can’t spring from accepting received wisdom or from drifting with the zeitgeist’s current. If all you intend to do is repeat the ideas of others, why write?

Besides, what’s the point of a conversation in which everyone agrees?

This brings me to my grumpy rant of the day — my last gasp on this topic of writing advice. I’m going to pick on something that didn’t bug me when I first read it, but really started to bug me when people started agreeing with it: Stacy May Fowles, at the Afterword.

Don’t dismiss pop culture as beneath you. Watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model can be just as useful in studying human strife and conflict as reading Tolstoy.  Especially now that André Leon Talley is a judge.

I wouldn’t say that pop culture is beneath anyone, but I can’t help think that people who love this idea just happen to love America’s Next Top Model, because it’s actually a pretty bad idea when you take it apart.

If you want to learn about chimpanzees, I suppose you could read National Geographic or watch Every Which Way but Loose. And this would be just fine if you just wanted to be able to talk about chimpanzees at dinner parties, should the topic ever arise — and who knows? One day, it might.

But if you wanted to write a paper on chimpanzees, you’d go and track them down and study them in their natural habitat, because behavioral ecology frowns on papers sourced from Clint Eastwood movies.

Similarly, the best way to understand human strife and conflict is not by watching conflicts manufactured to sell advertising to eyeballs glued to the television — which is like learning about human pair bonding by watching pornography — nor even by reading Tolstoy. It’s to study the human animal in its natural habitat: street, workplace, home. You go where the people are.

In short, you don’t need an excuse to watch America’s Next Top Model — but you do need an excuse for making that excuse.

(It occurs to me — with apologies to Russell Smith for the second occurrence of that phrase — that I’m going to have to read Reality Hunger.)

*I’m just kidding, Rebecca.

Thanks for your input, Sergeant. Now shut up.

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Those words were once spoken to me by the Regimental Gunnery Officer, and they come to mind today as I consider the latest contribution to the flood of writing advice with which we are now inundated: “A reader’s advice to writers” at Salon.com.

Of course, readers do know what makes a good book, according to their lights, but they know it from the reader’s side; this doesn’t imply that they can advise on the mechanics. When I flush the toilet, I know that various things, which for reasons of good taste I shall decline to name here, are supposed to absent themselves from my bathroom. That doesn’t mean I can tell the plumber if his work is up to code.

I’m not going to pick on the fact that almost everything in that article is contained in any of the numerous books on writing found at your local bookstore, that said books proliferate like fruit flies, this topic being (as Russell Smith observes in the Globe)  a sure-fire winner, and that those things are already, therefore, known to writers. Writing about writing is the oldest scam in the book. It’s the easy topic, what you do when you’re creatively bankrupt and have nothing else more interesting to write about.

Which is exactly why I’m doing it right now.

Moving on, then:

I am going to pick, without mercy, on the following remarkable statement: “You probably don’t go to movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don’t come to books in search of breathtaking sentences.”

Let me point out that if you don’t go to the movies to see lighting and photography, you’d better just close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, because that’s all you’ll have left. Lighting and photography are what make movies movies; without them, you’ve got a blank screen. Lighting and photography are the entire medium of film. This is what defines the film experience and separates it from theatre.

You may not go to the movies and take note of the moody, high-contrast lighting, or reflect on the use of wide-angle lenses for dramatic effect, or the choice of camera angles, but these things nevertheless define your experience of the film. They affect the viewer in ways he may not consciously realize. Doing these things well won’t make a bad story good, but doing them badly can make a good story flat and uninteresting. It’s through lighting and photography, and in no other way, that the story is told.

Similarly, sentences, breathtaking or otherwise, are the entire medium of prose. The idea that you can carry a story without narrating it well is simply nonsense. People who subscribe to this notion should study comedy and ask themselves why some things are funny, and other things are not, and why the same joke can be very funny when Uncle Hank tells it but fails utterly coming from the mouth of cousin Ernest.

A good joke badly told is never funny.

It really is that simple.

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