Canada Reads 2013 Review #2 – The Age of Hope

David Bergen preempted this review in the last chapter of The Age of Hope with a scene in which Hope’s middle daughter, Penny, divulges her intention to write a novel that sounds like it’s likely to be a biography of her mother.

“It will be too episodic. You’ll need some backbone to the story. A plot. My life was plotless.” Hope tells her daughter. Later she thinks her friend Emily’s life might make a better book. “What was so important about Hope Koop? Emily, in every way, had lived a more interesting life.”

Emily isn’t the only one. Hope is surrounded by people whose lives sound as if they would make good novels: her Olympian daughter, her strange, tumultuous, declining son, her cousin caged in marriage, a hitch-hiking indigenous man, even her house-cleaning Communist co-worker. These colourful supporting characters might have livened up the book but for Hope’s solipsism  She is so “mystified” by herself, the world, and the people in it that the other people who appear in her life are pushed away, appearing only in glimpses seen at a distance.  It is as if Bergen’s project was to pluck a character from the margins, the most ordinary background character he could think of, and do them some kind of justice by giving them centre stage.

While I appreciate Bergen’s desire to give a voice to a demographic that is not given enough credit, good intentions on behalf of the author do not make a good story. Hope’s story is boring. Bergen mirrors the simple mediocrity of Hope’s life with equally simple, mediocre language and leaves the reader very little to hold on to.

Hope has brushes with plot – episodes – which threaten, occasionally, to turn into interesting stories. She has a nervous breakdown and spends time in an institution having electroshock therapy. She has to rebuild her life after a bankruptcy.  In late life she meets a man and embarks, abortively, on a new, adult relationship. But none of these episodes are given much page space or gravitas, and Hope’s relentless ignorance and obstinacy prevent her from really taking these events into herself, letting them change her or put her on a new path. No, they are blips, potholes, on the road through her dull, mediocre life.

What was perhaps the most baffling thing about Age of Hope was how other characters would occasionally suggest that what we were reading was somehow extraordinary. Hope’s friends comment about how different she is. Her different way of looking at things. She reads books, we’re told, though she doesn’t often seem to like or understand them. If this was meant to suggest that the people of Hope’s community were on the whole even more self-centred, ignorant and little-minded than she was, I am terrified for the people of Manitoba.  The few moments of free-thinking and charity she afforded others hardly warrant more than a golf clap. Stayed friends with your friend the divorcee? Yah, okay. Drove your daughter’s friend out for an abortion? Want a medal?

Perhaps this was a very bad reader/book pairing, but I found very little to like in this book. At least when Dostoevsky wrote The Adolescent he was purposely painting a portrait of a headstrong, self-absorbed, painful stage of human development. Hope, on the other hand, never grows up. If anything, she becomes more adolescent as she ages.

Perhaps I missed the joke, though. Perhaps “Age of Hope” was meant to be ironic, and this was a cynical tirade against the generation that squandered the wealth of a civilization. That might help me justify why Bergen, a perfectly competent writer, bothered “tackling” this story. Alas, that might be too much to Hope for.

My money is still on Indian Horse. And I Hope you’ll join us on Twitter Thursday, January 10th 2013 at 2pm EST to discuss Age of Hope under the #Canadareads hashtag! You can read a roundup of the reviews at Bookgaga’s blog here.

Read 2013

The books I have read in 2013, and links to the reviews (where I bothered):

The Age of Hope by David Bergen
Away by Jane Urquhart
February by Lisa Moore
Dark Matter: Reading the Bones ed. Sheree R. Thomas
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge
Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge

See my 2012, 2011, 2010 & 2009 reading lists too!

On Literature and Fandom

When Jim Zubkavich, the Toronto-based creator of the comic Skullkickers, posted this plea to fans to support creator-controlled comics, it got me thinking about the new realities of publishing.

Making money as a content-creator, be that content comics or words, has always been tough, and these days writers are left mostly on their own to make that money. It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that any writer, even an established, mid-career author, will be signed to a multiple-book deal that allows them some time and space to hone their craft and develop a body of work with the financial support of a publishing house. Journalists are all freelancers, living cheque to cheque, when they can extort the money from their clients. Even writers who have sold their books are expected to do a lot of their own publicity and marketing. A writer (or comic creator) is pretty much exclusively responsible for every dollar they make. Which sounds reasonable when you put it like that, but this is a fairly new situation. There’s no security net in creative content generation.

This direct interface with customers can work very well for the creator. A hundred self-publishing gurus will tell you that self-publishing will make you rich, quick. You get a bigger share of the pie, and you have greater creative control. You can look at Indigogo and Kickstarter and see a huge number of successful, funded projects.  Ryan North and Kate Beaton have raised over half a million dollars for their new book, a choose-your-own adventure take on Hamlet called  To Be or Not To Be.  Less spectacularly, over the holidays I bought into J. Torres’ anthology True Patriot. Comic creators have made very successful use of these platforms to finance their creative careers – can authors do the same? And would they want to?

Some supporters of self-publishing don’t understand why every established author hasn’t just jumped ship to publish their own work. There are still a lot of good reasons to stick with a publishing house, like the services they offer in editing, publicity, design, and just plain handing “the business end” that can be so baffling to creative types. But I think there’s more to it than that. Most literary writers don’t actually have the fan base – “the data” – to support a go alone. In other words, they don’t actually pay their way.

When Rich Burlew of the webcomic Order of the Stick smashed open the crowdfunding box by raising $1.2 million to reprint back volumes of his work, he explained in an interview that he found approximately 1 in 50 of his readers was willing to put money into his venture. A friend of mine moderated a panel on crowdfunding novels which discussed a very similar guesstimate:  The Thousand True Fans Theory, which states that in order to successfully fund something you need 1000 “true fans”, people willing to buy anything you produce, and these people can be expected to spend one day’s wage on your goods.

Kate Beaton, Ryan North and Rich Burlew have these followings: they have fandoms, not just readers. People who are dedicated to their brand and will buy anything – anything – they produce. Can writers mimic their crowdfunding success? Sure, the writers with fandoms. I bet if Neil Gaiman Kickstarted a book he’d have eleventy-zillion dollars in 24 hours.

Do literary writers have fandoms? I think this is an untested question. I’m inclined to say no – literary readers seem less brand-loyal, so to speak. They want each work to win them over anew. Loyalty seems to be to the work, not the creator. Services like Goodreads and Wattpad let users “fan” writers they admire, and the numbers attributed to even “successful” literary writers are dismal. Vincent Lam, winner of the Giller prize for his debut collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, has 18 fans on Goodreads, 202 on Wattpad.  By comparison, Paul Coelho has about 14,500 fans on Goodreads and 2,700 on Wattpad. Using the Theory of a Thousand Fans, Vincent Lam would be lucky to sell one book.

Could this be turned around, and should we care if it can’t? I’m inclined to think that even if an author hustles their little bum off, they won’t see numbers like Rowling, Gaiman, or even Coelho can post.  They could hire a stylist and a media manager, but that will only go so far. I think there is some success to be had by establishing a social platform for literary readers – something like the 49th Shelf, if they had a “fan” button. But, as a literary reader, I can say I’d probably run around fanning everyone, and that would amount to a lot of goodwill but maybe not a willingness to buy everything.

Part of what alarms me about publishing according to “data” and sales is that I think some things are worth putting to press despite their commercial viability. Be it a promising writer who needs time to develop, or a work which simply deserves to be saved for posterity or academia, regardless of how the unwashed hoards like it. If we only made popular art, we’d be a civilization of cretins in no time. But who will be the altruistic philanthropist that supports non-commercial literature?  The government? Random House? Need writers seek out patrons again?

I believe this is the direction of things, so ultimately time will tell. Good luck, writers!