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.

Holiday Round-Up Pt. I

I like to find cool literary gifts for people. I don’t mean books, since I have been long since barred from buying members of my family “any more damn books”; but the next best thing, items which tastefully display a person’s literary leanings. Gifts for the reader: that’s what I like to find.

I’m a little bit obsessed with neckties this year. I am close – VERY CLOSE – to re-imagining my own wardrobe in order to ensure that I can wear a tie every day. Given that my current uniform consists exclusively of jeans and t-shirts this would be a very expensive overhaul, but I think you will agree with me that the ties make this a very attractive prospect regardless.

Latin Lover 1: Spondeo. (Vow) from Cyberoptix Tie Studio

The Lindau Gospels Tie from the Morgan Library & Museum

Harry Potter House Ties from ThinkGeek

Canterbury Tales Tie from the British Library

Canada Reads 2013: The Panelists

The Canada Reads 2013 list is out, and yesterday I had the pleasure of going down to the CBC building in Toronto to meet, greet & grill all five panelists. What I learned made me even more optimistic about this year’s show. Last year I spoke with the 2012 panelists about their reading habits and in hindsight, their answers reflected a lot of what turned me off about last year’s show. Two of those panelists were not really readers at all, and a third spoke disparagingly about “Canadian Literature”. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Shad, an enthusiastic, heavy reader, who brought the prize home for Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce.

This year I spoke to the five panelists about their reading habits and asked them to recommend a not-Canada-Reads book for me. Their answers were diverse, intelligent and revealed a panel of first-rate readers.

Charlotte Gray is a gimme. She is an academic and a writer who has won every award for non-fiction that I know of. Of course she is a heavy, heavy reader. Gray admits she doesn’t sleep a lot, and reads different kinds of books at different times of the day. She spoke highly of Will Ferguson’s 419 and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase as nighttime reads, both of which she read before they won their respective 2012 literary awards. As a heavier, daytime read she recommended Tim Cook’s recent Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King & Canada’s World Wars. I have no doubt that this is a woman who will have read most of the finalists already, and will read them again before the debates. She and Urquhart (self-identified “Alpha Females”) will be, in my opinion, very hard to beat.

Ron MacLean was the last panelist I expected to be so literate. My apologies! MacLean says he “reads professionally”, feeling that reading is one of the responsibilities of a public figure. He spoke both to me and on stage of how he feels reading is a way of having a two way conversation with the society he is sometimes seen to represent. He is genuinely enthusiastic about Bergen’s The Age of Hope, and has some very sophisticated opinions about art, “gender fluidity” and the big themes of the book to bring to the table. His favourite recent reads were literary non-fiction: he sited Nuala O’Faolain’s Almost There and John Ralston Saul’s recent A Fair Country, and admits he’s looking forward to reading Jian Ghomeshi’s own 1982. And Jian wasn’t even standing nearby!

Trent McClellan won’t thank me for listing him after the two heavyweights above, but this is a heavyweight kind of year! Trent has the tools available to him, though: the book he represents is terrific and he personally remembers the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982 which would give him an emotional insight that might influence the other panelists. “So they can read, no big deal,” he quipped onstage; and he can too. He recommended Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie but admits he’s a much more enthusiastic reader of biographies, siting especially Jamie McLennan’s hockey biography The Best Seat in the House. Trent also plugged Jian’s 1982, making me a little suspicious that Jian’s newfound status as bestselling author will be the foundation of many flattery campaigns!

Jay Baruchel gets the difficult job of making a book best known for its inclusion on high school syllabi exciting to a new audience, but if his stage time is any indication, he will do just fine. He tactfully addressed Quebec’s contentious politics by referring to the province as the “cradle of Canadian civilization”, a place where “love and tension come from the same place.” As a reader he had both literary nonfiction and literary fiction to rave about, citing Joesph P. Farrell’s Nazi International and Irvine Welsh’s Porno as recent recommended reads. If his tastes seem a little macabre it is because he admits his favourite genre is horror – he is working his way through Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books right now. I almost wish Jay hadn’t been limited to the top five Quebec books to choose from. I would have loved to see what he would have brought to the competition otherwise!

Carol Huynh gets a gold star in my book because she admitted to reading seven of the ten books nominated for the BC/Yukon nod in just one month! But outside of some hard-core Canada Reads dedication Carol admits to being a lover of fantasy novels. She gushed about Tolkien and cited Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and the books of Terry Brooks as other books she has enjoyed, winning my heart instantly! She has also, of course, read all of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. When my Canada Reads buddy asked me “how jocks fare in this competition” I had to admit they have not traditionally done well, but neither have I met any who had the same enthusiasm for the material that Carol exhibited. At the launch she confessed that she was more nervous about Canada Reads than she was about the Olympics, but if I had to weight in on the subject, I’d say Indian Horse is the crowd favourite among these books.

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Good luck to al the panelists!  I am excited to tuck into these books in the new year, and hopefully we’l have a little read-a-long, blog-a-long, tweet-a-long action to go with it. Stay tuned!

*phew*! Canada Reads 2013 Finalists At Long Last

The Canada Reads 2013 finalists have been announced! I am super enthusiastic about this list – it is the strongest, most literary list Canada Reads has settled on since they introduced the “crowd-sourcing” rounds in 2010.

It is also a very conservative, traditional list, which perhaps explains why I am pleased with it. Every book on the list has solid literary credentials, laurels and critical recommendation. There are truly no adventurous or unknown picks here.  I don’t feel there is a dark horse in this race, but here are some considerations that may or may not shape the debate:

– From a longlist weighted 30/20 in favour of women, we have a shortlist back to the usual split of 3 men and 2 women. Panelist Carol Huyhn managed to pick the ONLY book on the BC & Yukon longlist written by a man. Will gender be in issue in the debate?

– None of the books this year are translated works; notably Jay Baruchel’s Quebec pick is Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan. This isn’t surprising given the dominance of English works on the longlist, nominated as they were by an English audience. This imbalance has been corrected in the past, however, by the inclusion of a Francophone panelist who could help us learn more about Quebec’s incredible literary heritage. Not so this year. In a debate billed as a “turf war”, will MacLennan’s heritage doom him?

– On the diversity front we have only Richard Wagamese’s Ojibwe self to represent all of not-white Canada. I am a little surprised at the lack of “immigrant stories” on this list, given how prevalent they can be in Canadian Literature. Is this an advantage for Wagamese?

– Speaking of whom, Indian Horse is published by the in-limbo Douglas & McIntyre. If Wagamese’s book wins, will the books be available? I have to hope that the CBC thought this one through, and perhaps some kind of escape hatch is already inked whereby another publisher is ready to take up the reigns if the worst happens and D&M isn’t able to meet the demands of a Canada Reads win. But there is always the chance of another Sentimentalists fiasco.

– We get our literary cred back! After last year’s panel of three TV celebrities, a musician and a judge, this year’s panel boasts the incredible Charlotte Gray. Will this help raise the level of debate this year? I am extremely optimistic!

I’m off now to the launch at the CBC where I hope to meet the authors and the  panelists – I’ll be back later today with my two cents on the latter! Will you be there? See you soon!

On Anna Karenina In All Forms

Director Joe Wright has just released his Anna Karenina, a film based on the opera based on Tolstoy’s book. Wait – there wasn’t an opera? Well, there is now. And it’s bloody fantastic. This is big, overwrought Romance done up exactly right for the stage, and does its source material justice.

I do love Tolstoy to a more-than-usual degree but it wasn’t that hero-worship that made this movie for me: for once, it was the film interpretation’s departure from the source material. Tolstoy is, generally speaking, Jane Austen filled with disagreeable men arguing about philosophy. It’s a formula aimed at my heart. I love Jane Austen, I love disagreeable men, and I love arguing about philosophy. Tolstoy’s best heroes are his grumpy little outsiders, more concerned with their moral development than the high drama going on around them: War and Peace‘s Pierre and Anna‘s Levin. The high drama seems to be there as a feint. One might think War and Peace is about Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostov or that Anna Karenina is about  Anna Karenina & Alexei Vronsky – but they aren’t, not really. By the end of the books the romantic leads are long dead and there sit Pierre and Levin contemplating peasants and making babies.

Which is wonderful, but opera is about melodrama and so Wright’s Anna Karenina has sided with the Jane Austen and dispensed with the disagreeable philosophers. Levin still makes an appearance, but his story seems to be a cute side-plot to soften, a little, the doomed tragedy that Anna & Vronsky endure. An opera about hiding away on your country retreat writing a treatise on farming, while agonizing over your inability to properly tend to your cows because of your new baby would be very dull indeed. The film chooses instead to cut right to the hair-tearing and the horse racing. The drug addiction and the suicide.

The film is not all scandals, though. Wright does an excellent job of making Anna out to be, not likable, exactly, but right. All through the book women are made to endure hardships and are made to feel that they, despite being the victims, are responsible still for the continued happiness and stability of the men to whom they are attached. They must forgive philandering, tolerate loveless marriages, wait on moody philosophers and accept public humiliation for the sake of their husbands and children. It’s grossly sexist and unfair from our modern standpoint.

Without hugely altering the source material, Wright shifts our sympathies. Oblonsky’s philandering is portrayed more foolishly and his wife Dolly is more aware of the wrong done to herself. In a scene not to be found in the book, Dolly confides to Anna that she wishes she’d been brave enough to do what Anna did.  Anna herself is put into a tighter cage and even her rages and jealousies become understandable. Her suicide is an inevitable tragedy rather than an act of cruel vengeance. The film’s Karenin seems the most cognisant of the entire tragedy and paints for Anna explicitly what must be done to avoid a horrible outcome, and we understand through it how bad things are for the lovers due to the entirely unavoidable points of gender inequality. The book’s Karenin succumbs instead to some strange spiritualism that operates as a plot device and a reminder that Anna has sinned against a God or a fate.

Personally, I like and sympathize better with a woman trapped by unfair social conventions than one doomed by her unwillingness to conform to her proper place. This is a departure from the philosophical Tolstoy, but a welcome one.

Add to this refocused social commentary a brilliant script by Tom Stoppard and a beautifully choreographed staging with an operatic conceit and you have what I consider to be a fabulous film. The best news of all is, the book is also amazing and is still available. Those who want the disagreeable, philosophical parts as well have the supplementary material. The new movie lets readers like me have it both ways: a deep, philosophical book with the Romantic, tragic parts pulled out, set to music and painted on the screen. Is there anything else to ask?

Themed Reading Projects, and Publicity

I suffer from a lot of reader’s guilt. I want to buy all the books, read them all, write about them all, and single-handedly support the writing and publishing careers of every scribbler and bibliophile out there. I can’t, of course, but it is this feeling of needing to do something to support the culture I love that leads me to write and to blog. I’m trying to do my bit.

I am not alone, thank goodness. The bloggosphere is a big wide place filled with readers and writers of every stripe, but we do all seem to share this sense of responsibility: we need to prop up the under-sold and the under-read. One of the major symptoms of reader’s guilt is, I have discovered, the Themed Reading Project. A reader or blogger resolves to limit their reading to works that fall within certain parameters, presumably to avoid wasting time on works which will sell very well, thank you very much, without one little blogger’s help. Like a $50 Christmas donation to the charity of our choice, this helps the reader feel like they have contributed in some small way to the continued viability of their favourite corner of the publishing industry. It is also nice that in staking out an unsung corner of literature, you become a semi-legitimized voice of that corner, with all the support and publicity professionals who have been labouring away in that corner can throw you.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Themed Reading Projects. I stare daily at heaps of books that I mean to get to but never seem to. By setting a challenge for myself, these poor little neglected books no longer have to compete with the majority of what distracts me. David Annandale’s Gethsemane Hall may not be at the top of my reading list, but it is much nearer to the top of my list of Canadian Horror Titles TBR. Or Canadian Small Press Titles. Or Books I Didn’t Pay Money For and Therefore Should Offer Words For.

Some of my favourite bloggers are doing Themed Reading Projects right now. Buried in Print is reading 45 House of Anansi titles in 45 days (which includes a draw for $45 worth of books!). A Young Voice is reading all 40 books from the Canada Reads 10th anniversary longlist. The whole premise of the 49th Shelf is to offer themed lists of Canadian literature for prospective readers. Every time a good blogger picks up a project, all of Canadian publishing breathes a sigh of relief.

This brings me to publicity, because that is ultimately what these projects boil down to. Yes, perhaps you are trying to better yourself and the best possible way to do that is to read a list of severely curated books on a theme, but no, not really. We live in a world of efficiencies and reduced expectations. Certain skills – the ability to write, speak or shake hands and smile, for example – are no longer considered speciality skills best left to writers, orators and publicists. Specialists are eliminated, and the expectation is folded in to the job description of everyone else. It is assumed that everyone can write and make an introduction. If you are a writer, you must now do your own speaking and glad-handing. Book-stumping has become a ful-time job that every writer is expected to engage in.

I admit I used to find the continual bombardment of self-publicizing authors irritating. I get a dozen solicitations from self-published and small-press-published authors per day. I can only imagine the deluge bigger blogger get. This doesn’t take into account the mess that is my Twitter feed, which is a near-constant stream of retweeted reviews, press releases, pleads for clicks and enthusiastically expressed intentions to read things. But now that I have a couple of manuscripts I’m stumping myself in a desperate search for willing beta-readers, I am ready to debase myself in apology. It is so hard to get people to look at your work, even amongst supporters and friends. Hitting on a blogger willing to read, talk about and review your books, even as part of a bigger project, is like striking gold.

So what are we, as bloggers? Part of a publicity machine? Readers for Social Change? Self-interested proto-journalists looking for a corner to stake out and build a career in? Philanthropists? Is our duty (if we can be said to have a duty) to the blog’s readers, to writers, or to ourselves?

Just as I want to donate blood, money and canned goods to the most needy in our society, sometimes I feel I’d like to read and push some of the most unnoticed readers in the literary ecosystem, but then I pause. Let’s say I take six months and review a dozen or so self-published ebook authors. These are certainly the writers with the least attention, but I wonder if giving them the webspace would serve anyone else. I do believe that there are some good self-published offerings out there, possibly in need on an editor or mentor, but good nonetheless. But are they better, more unique, or more satisfying than traditionally published or mainstream works? The hypothetical reader at the end of the day may not be interested in Reading for Social Change, and may just want a good book to hunker down with on a rainy day. Am I going to recommend they read Anna Karenina, The Blondes or Terror Before Dawn: A Child At War? What serves the reader, one of the greatest novels ever written, a good novel in need of attention, or a completely unknown novel which might yield unexpected delights?

I have no Themed Writing Projects planned right now. Perhaps I am avoiding the issue. Perhaps it isn’t my job to be all things to all people. I am about to dive into my first-ever ebook read, so perhaps my opinion will be won based on the quality of this one venture. I’m told that publishing and reading are changing and I hope to keep up, which means keeping an open mind. Joseph Anton, 419 and Telegraph Avenue will wait for me, right?

In Which Etsy Gets All My Holiday Money

You can follow the #FridayReads hashtag on Twitter and get a snapshot of what the Twitterati (Litertwatti?) are reading, if you choose. If you do follow, you might have noticed that I have been reading (see right) Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset for the last month or so. A week ago I added Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the mix because I’m hoping to see the new movie next week and wanted this one last chance to read the book without Kiera Knightly’s jawline dominating my imagination.

In conclusion, I have 1,700 pages of book to bull through this weekend.

Luckily Etsy has the accessory for everyone, even masochists like me.