That Little Something Extra

Yours humbly.

It was a random act. Last spring I contributed to an Indigeogo campaign to help Irish cartoonist Dale O’Flaherty get to TCAF. I had no idea who Dale was, nor was I familiar with his work, but his Tumblr was cute and it was cheap to pitch in. Shouldn’t everyone have the chance to hit the awesomeness that is TCAF? So I kicked in a bit.

Cartoonists? I love them. What is it about the ability to draw thrifty, expressive little people that makes a creator so darn likable? Not only did Dale draw for me the sketch on the left (a portrait I now use as my Twitter avatar), but this week he mailed me both of his mini-comics and, once again, there was that personal touch:

I have long held that this is part of what makes collecting comics or graphic novels so fun. Most writers will sign your book. If you’re lucky, they will “personalize” the signature with a vapid little “Hope you enjoy the book, Charlotte!”. It is often uninspiring, whereas there is something really special about a personalized drawing.

A lot of it is that most of us can’t draw ourselves, and so those little sketches are a bit of magic. It’s something to treasure that nobody else could have done, and nobody else can have.  Can words hold the same magic? Short of writing a limerick in the flap of every book you sign, can a writer offer the same fan service?

I want to say yes, because I do believe that writing is as much a skill as drawing, dancing, coding or welding. A good writer has a power the average person does not have. So is there a way to personalize and to share that skill? To reduce writing to tiny parcels that can be created on the fly for any anxious fan?

Tweets? Bitty poems? Or are those little notes that I heartlessly labelled “vapid” above valued and treasured by the fan? What can a writer give only you that will make you treasure their work always?

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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!

Canada Reads 2013 Review #1 – Indian Horse

If you, like me, are horribly, inexcusably ignorant of Canadian Indigenous history, you will probably want to read Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse with Wikipedia open next to you.

Perhaps you don’t; perhaps Wagamese’s beautifully crafted sentences and compelling story alone will suffice for you. Perhaps you will read for the fire and excitement of the sport – hockey – that is the focus of most of the book’s narrative. Perhaps you will just read to know what happens to Saul Indian Horse, the book’s very likeable protagonist. Perhaps you won’t find your mind racing away with the issues and implications of what he has written. Perhaps you are that very focused person.

I am not that focused person. I got as far as page 8 before my jaw hit the floor and I scrambled for my iPhone. I thought I knew my history. How did I not know children were being kidnapped at gunpoint by representatives of the residential school system as recently as 1961? But wait – it continued after that? The Residential schools were still run by the churches until 1969? The last school didn’t close until nineteen-ninety-six?

Was I asleep during the reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Apparently so; but I, like so many other people, get most of my history from novels, for better or for worse. Historical fiction has a lot of detractors in literary circles, people who feel that fancy costumes, dates and out-of-scale events deter from the human heart of good writing. I think this is 100% pure crap. A story is a story, and stories have characters and there is nothing less human about Wolf Hall‘s Thomas Cromwell than Things Fall Apart‘s Okonkwo. I wasn’t there for either of their lives: thats why I read the bloody book. But I digress.

Richard Wagamese is telling the very human story of a boy heavily, heavily damaged by Canada’s horrifying colonial history who finds some peace through his incredible gift as a hockey player. The stark contrast between his off-rink and on-rink life is beautifully illustrative of the power of talent or sport to provide an escape from the most awful circumstances. But it was difficult for me to share Saul’s love of the game because, though evocatively, powerfully written, as soon as a white person showed up, he would ruin everything.

The short period of peace in the book takes place during the time Saul plays with an Indian hockey team against other Indian hockey teams. It’s a beautiful thing to read, the camaraderie and hope borne of these games. As word of Saul’s talent gets out, his team – The Moose – starts to play games and tournaments against white teams, and from there everything goes to hell. It is very hard for a person like me not to have a political reaction to a narrative like this. The history is so recent, and the setting so familiar. Canada continues to deal out racism, oppression and vast injustice to its Indigenous peoples. Read the news lately? Exactly. I could not be a passive reader of this book.

Horrified though the book left me, I think this book’s ability to evoke a reaction like this in me – and, I hope, thousands more Canada Reads readers – is a very good thing. I hope it provokes us all to bone up on our history, current political movements, and provokes some action. I doubt that was Wagamese’s intention when he wrote Indian Horse, but frankly there are few enough books being written about Canada’s Indigenous history that even the even-handed, polite and non-accusing narratives like this one should shock and incite the reader.

The book is not perfect. Wagamese makes use of one of my pet peeves, the Character Saved By Books trope. I know, books can protect and save anybody, but surely, once in a while, an illiterate person can be the hero of their own story? Must every sympathetic protagonist be bookish?

I also found Saul’s descent into alcoholism abrupt. He doesn’t take his first drink until page 180 of a 220 page book. Saul’s life between the ages of 15-18 takes most of the book, time spent exploring and understanding the world through Saul’s eyes with beautiful, careful prose and acute observations. The years between 18-25 seem to float away in one three page chapter, and the next thing we know he’s in his thirties, an alcoholic, and writing a book. I got the feeling Wagamese knew where he wanted to go with the ending but didn’t know how to get there, so he just left the time in between off the page. I would have been happier with a book longer by fifty pages, better understanding Saul’s post-hockey existence. It might have brought his return to hockey at the end a little more gravitas.

Still, I think this book will be a fierce competitor for the Canada Reads title! I certainly feel it should be a must-read for Canadians. If there are any educators out there reading this, get Indian Horse on your syllabi. It’s a beautiful, readable book students will adore and the history is so, so important. Don’t wait for it to win or not win Canada Reads. This book should be out there either way.

Review: Kitchen Party by Sheryl Kirby

I first met Sheryl Kirby in Parkdale as a wide-eyed, totally hysterical and completely raw 17-year-old in the late 90s. At that time I was so overwhelmed by Toronto and living alone for the first time that I gravitated towards Sheryl, who was, in my eyes, a stylish, savvy and competent urban citizen; the perfect role model and tour guide for someone in completely over her head. I don’t know that I was a very good student of this school of urban chic, but I certainly did learn a thing or two on the subject of Toronto and its food. It was with Sheryl that I had my first roti, my first pad thai, and my first Ethiopian meal. Reading Kitchen Party, Sheryl’s first collection of essays, I realized how deep and intrinsic to Toronto life those experiences Sheryl offered were.

When talking about culture, food is a divisive subject. Culture is more than food, and the various attempts to celebrate “multiculturalism” through food pavilions are generally reviled. But at the same time, food rituals are deeply, deeply ingrained in all cultures, Toronto being no exception. Part of Toronto’s cultural identity can be best experienced through its culinary offerings in a way that is unique to our city. Kirby, who along with her husband wrote, edited and maintained the popular food and drink website TasteTO for 5 years, has been deeply involved in Toronto’s food culture for decades. She has arrived at a place where she can now describe Toronto to us through a variety of food-related experiences and anybody who has lived in this city will recognize its soul through her essays.

The collection is divided into three sections: essays which bring us back to her childhood in Halifax, essays relating to her experiences in Toronto, and what she calls “food writing” which is supposed to transcend the Toronto-centric quality of the previous section, but which I found to be a more focused extension of the same. Kirby is at her best when she lets it all hang out, so to speak: her strong voice and opinions are what really makes a piece leap off the page, and when she doesn’t restrain herself the results are poignant  insightful and hilarious. Sheryl is the best character in any of her essays, whether she is pushing fruitcake, deriding Alexander Keith’s, stealing quinces from Toronto parks or screaming in horror as a roommate deals with a cockroach infestation with a pair of chopsticks – on LSD. Kirby confides to us that she is not much of a world traveller, but in place of foreign adventures she seems to have experienced Toronto all the more intensely.

Kirby as a savvy adult Torontonian visits those early essays about simple Nova Scotia childhood as well, with mixed results. The early essays have a more restrained tone than what comes later, and though this helps to show the differences between the 1970s and now, or between Halifax and Toronto, I found the work less engaging. Kirby has a chance to show us a softer side of her writing here. She offers some poetic gems and nostalgic insights, but the energy of the later essays is missing. My favourite essay of the first section is a history of the Alexander Keith’s brewery in Halifax and it is a bit of a polemic, but it is the unrestrained sharp tongue of modern-day Sheryl that gives the essay its kick, not the softer, more sentimental writing.

The “food writing” of the third section will be irresistible to anyone with an interest in food justice issues. With a joint focus on food culture and Toronto-specific phenomena Kirby analyzes the political side of eating with a sharp and savvy pen. Her observation that the “local food” bandwagon might actually be what defines the Toronto culinary scene resonated with me and could be the basis of much more analysis and debate. So-called “foodies” (and Kirby hates this term – “who doesn’t like food? Who among us isn’t a “foodie”?”) will find a lot of think about here. As a simple eater and Toronto citizen I appreciated instead how Kirby contextualizes the Toronto food experience and helps us understand how the “scene” is more than a hobby for the rich and privileged  Her history of Harlem soul food, personal experiences with an array of Haggis and discussion of Oaxacan mole all dissect how local food can be, even when it claims to offer “authentic” experiences of elsewhere. There are few essays where the word “privilege” doesn’t appear, but her writing brings out the element of the eating experience that is common to any reader.

One final note in case you’re now considering Kitchen Party as a Christmas gift – the book is illustrated by Toronto artist Katherine Verhoeven to great effect. Verhoeven’s stark ink badges bring out the comic and the kitch in Kirby’s essays, but are also lovely little Toronto set pieces in and of themselves. The resultant book is lovely in a lot of ways – I can not speak to how the look translates to the ebook, but the physical copy is quite nice.

Kitchen Party is available through the usual channels, but if you’re local I recommend sticking with the spirit of Toronto and grabbing it from The Cookbook Store! It’s where we live, doncha know.

Five Big-Idea Holiday Best-Sellers

My bookstore is an unusual one. We are a trade bookstore, but we have a disproportionate number of academics and intellectuals as customers and this has flavoured our stock. So when I look at other peoples’ round-ups of the biggest books of the season I often feel left out. We don’t sell a lot of fiction, so that pretty much leaves us out of the true bestselling loop, nor do we sell the usual celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, self-help scams or whatever else serves as the mainstay of most big bookstores.

We have our own bestsellers here, books I rarely see on other lists but which clearly resonate with a large percentage of the people who walk through the door. These are often big idea books: trade books still, intended for a general audience, but not quick reads for casual readers. If you have a heavy thinker on your holiday gift list, you could do worse than the following off-the-beaten-path works!

The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan by George Steiner

Steiner is a huge name in literary criticism and has been since the 60s, but my first encounter with him was through Eleanor Wachtel, whom he told in an interview that he felt there wasn’t much interesting going on in novels anymore (I’m paraphrasing). For a big reader of contemporary novels, this was a jarring thing to hear from someone who seemed to know so much. Steiner did admit he felt poetry was going places, however, and now he offers us a book giving full literary credibility to philosophy, to the act of philosophizing. The idea is remarkably new and Steiner has always been a pleasure to read. This is a must-have for the literary critic.

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism by Judith Butler

Butler is a most un-classifiable academic, writing about gender, race, violence, politics, philosophy and anything else that seems to catch her fancy. At the end of the day, however, she is a literary critic, seeking to give us the tools we need to think critically about all those things we tend not to. Her latest, and by far the most popular new work of hers we have carried in a long time, tackles the Israel/Palestine problem. She mines the public sphere for support for her theories of cohabitation and ethic of social plurality, which is at the heart of her other work as well. You can’t write a word on the topic without being controversial, but Butler seems to be offering a good tool for critique without having to criticize.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

Okay, a little Can-con. The Inconvenient Indian hasn’t been out as long as some of these others, so it hasn’t sold quite as well in terms of sheer numbers. But the way it is flying off the shelf now, I think is deserves a mention. King sells well here as an essayist, if not as a novelist. His Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories is among the all-time top-selling Canadian books we have in the store, so it’s no surprise that the people who thought so highly of his last collection would come seeking the latest. The collection is funny, smart, insightful and a desperately-needed addition to Aboriginal Canadian history. King deserves to be better recognized as one of this country’s most important public  intellectuals. On top of being a top-notch writer he is an engaged political figure, an academic and now a film-maker. When we speak of Margaret Atwood, we should speak of Thomas King in the same breath.

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature by Charles Rosen

I picked this list three days ago, and so of course that’s the day Charles Rosen picks to die. I don’t mean to suggest I had anything to do with it, but honestly? Really? Freedom and the Arts is now officially Rosen’s “last and best” work, at least that’s what we’re calling it today. Rosen was one of those incredible people who just happens to be best at everything, and excels everywhere he chooses to allocate his effort. Rosen is best known as a pianist and a music writer, but this collection of essays covers everything from music to literature, philosophy and academia, and does it all with a beautiful word and a deft mind. I hate him for it, but this collection is just masterful.

Memorial : A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald

There are some years when re-worked versions of Homer are a dime a dozen. I feel like Christopher Logue’s offerings weren’t that long ago (All Day Permanent Red was published in 2004) and David Malouf’s Ransom was actually published yesterday (i.e.  2010). And yet Oswald’s kick at the can is an incredible work. She seeks to memorialize in prose all two-hundred-plus people killed over the course of the Iliad, and manages to do so in a smart, sparse, 81-page poem.