Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Alberto Manguel vs the philistines

In the same issue of Geist that has Stephen Henighan’s bizarre take on the Gillers, Alberto Manguel has a column in the form of an open letter to novelist George Szanto, apologizing on behalf of our crude and vulgar culture for not valuing him more. (Szanto is apparently having a hard time finding a publisher for his new novel.)

For a long time, Manguel has been revered as a specimen of all-but-extinct breed, the man of letters. Certainly in Canada, where such a species never flourished, editors fall over themselves to offer up column inches for him to fill with the warm, cask-aged tones of capital-C Culture.

It is not to dispute Manguel’s intelligence, the fact that he is astonishingly well-read, or that he is utterly sincere in his devotion to art and literature to say that he drives me right fucking nuts. Manguel’s voice is that of the slippered classes – calm and dispassionate, preferring reflection to fevered inquiry or debate; firmly “spiritual” without being, you know, religious; always favouring the colourfully exotic to the homely homegrown or the unnervingly foreign. Manguel, however involuntarily, is the champion of the kind of writing and culture that Q.D. Leavis classified in Fiction and the Reading Public as being a kind of middlebrow daydream, the kind of writing that eschews all thoughts of genuine transcendence or painful self-awareness for vague dreams of being “slightly better.” Slightly richer (though slightly less concerned with money and material things), living in a slightly more interesting city/country/hemisphere, slightly more knowledegable about art and history and wine, slightly better-read, slightly more attuned to amusing ironies, and slightly more alarmed by signs of creeping philistinism.

Creeping philistinism is the theme of Manguel’s column. Creeping philistinism – or maybe that’s rampant philistinism – is the reason Szanto’s book has not found a home, according to Manguel. Publishers, he reveals, are now turning down books by writer-friends of his “for anything but literary reasons.”

I can sympathize, and it’s obviously true. Even publishers that are not looking for outright moneymakers are looking for books that “fit” – with a tone, a subconscious set of aesthetics, or merely a sense of what a book should and should not do. (The problem is in determining whether or not 'twas ever thus – I lean toward "pretty much, yes.")

Manguel goes further to castigate the general culture for being ignorant, firstly, of literature outside of English.
Having once been the keen discoverers of Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Unamuno, Neruda, Dürrenmatt (in the first half of the twentieth century, for instance), English-speaking readers locked themselves into something worse than an imperial mentality, since at least the Empire forced them to look outside England: a state of stolid contentment.
And so we're stuck reading bangers-and-mash-eaters like Borges, Marquez, Günter Grass, Heinrich Boll, Italo Calvino, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Primo Levi, Roland Barthes, Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houllebecq, Haruki Murakami, Gil Courtemanche, and even Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina was an Oprah pick...
Readers and writers in English today know practically nothing of what is taking place in the cultures of the rest of the world. Step into a bookstore in Bogotá or Rotterdam, Lyons or Bremen, and you can see what writers from other countries are doing. Ask in Liverpool, Vancouver or Los Angeles who António Lobo Antunes or Cees Nooteboom are (two of the greatest living authors, the first Portuguese, the second Dutch) and you will be met with a blank stare. But such a question would probably not be asked, because English-speaking readers have became prisoners of their own language, living off whatever the publishing industry chooses to feed them.
Um, António Lobo Antunes? Cees Nooteboom? Manguel has obviously travelled a lot more than I have, but I still get the feeling that if I walked into a bookstore in, say, Bogotá and ask to be shown to the Cees Nooteboom section, I would be met with a similarly blank stare. I'm assuming Manguel reads both Portuguese and Dutch, and therefore is qualified to bestow "greatest living authors" honours. This goes back to the preference for the exotic – Manguel is of the school of thought that holds that literature's primary duty is to reveal how others live. But what about showing us to ourselves? How is any author "great" if his work says nothing to us, even across the gulf of translation? (And no, I'm not arguing that readers are better off staying within their own language, though many other very intelligents critics have made this very assertion.)

(Added: this also puts Manguel firmly on the side of those who believe that literary greatness is self-evident and requires no argument or evidence or re-evaluation; it's a kind of visible glow that authors take on and never lose – if we can't see it, then we're no better than illiterates. What if you've read their work, and made every effort to understand every allusion, uncurl every local irony, and been patient through every bit of alien-seeming indulgence or opacity, and you still don't like it? What then? Are you a lost cause?)

From hereon in the generalizations get truly sweeping:
Even the literature written in English has become, by and large, watered down to canteen fare. Of course there are many exceptions, and great writers are writing superb literature all the while, but they work in an atmosphere of intellectual numbness.
And we’re all hypnotized by television, and music today is just noise, and no one knows how to make a proper risotto anymore, etc, etc… In what decade was this an original thought? (By the way, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a canteen, but I’m guessing the fare available in one is not characterized by its excessive water content.)
Bloomsbury, the publishers who once boasted Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood on their list (though those now “safe” modern classics are still published by them), bring out Jane Austen and Charles Dickens in editions for an illiterate audience with cute introductions by bestselling “chick-lit” novelists such as Meg Cabot, of The Princess Diaries fame. Cabot writes: “OK, so I’ll admit it: I saw the movie first . . . But, as I had discovered from reading Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, sometimes there are scenes in the book that aren’t in the movie . . . The movies always leave something out. Which is what makes Pride and Prejudice such a joy to read over and over. Because you can make up your own movie about it—in your head.”
Ok, that is pretty stupid. (I had the same thought when I read Jaws, the novel – of course, I was about 14 at the time....)
There used to be a time when publishers (though traditionally reviled by writers) were educated, literary people with a love for books. If they made money from their authors—and several did—it was more a question of happy chance than ruthless method.
Whenever someone starts suggesting that “things were better when,” I almost always assume the truth is closer to “things were better in certain limited ways when” (not to mention “things were better for me when,” though, to be fair, I don’t think that’s what Manguel is doing here.) Manguel posits a golden age of the gentleman-publisher, when books were evaluated on literary terms alone, and money was the furthest thing from everybody’s thoughts. From my admittedly limited reading, this sounds semi-true at best. Yes, there were a number of highly educated, literary minded editors with a passion for the printed word – just as there are now – but these individuals were far outnumbered by money-minded, dour, intellectually uncurious publishers who saw books as a business, period.

The problem with Manguel’s thesis is that, even as capitalism has become savvier and more entrenched and more self-aware (and therefore more devious and subtle), it has also inadvertently engendered a greater diversity and broader range of work than was ever possible back in the first half of the twentieth century. (After all, there weren't a whole lot of bestselling English-language authors around with last names like "Manguel" sixty or seventy years ago.) The fact that a publisher like Soft Skull can get the attention and acclaim it does, and that something like McSweeneys can be taken semi-seriously as a publishing concern, suggests that things are not quite as dire as Manguel might think. From my own perspective, Canada is filled with small, narrowly focused regional, ethnic, and ideological presses that punch far above their weight in terms of national attention and sales. Thanks to advances in technology and distribution, it has become relatively simple to set yourself up as a publisher. That more people don’t is more a reflection of the work and time involved, not the fact that we are all smothered by corporate media.

What Manguel is really saying is that the largest publishers have become more timid and money-minded, which is hard to dispute. Many veteran authors are finding themselves outside the gates. The same thing has been happening in music for the past few decades, and what has been happening there, and what is starting to happen in publishing, is that many of these veterans are starting to accept, however grudgingly, that their livelihoods lie outside the corporate model. Just about any veteran author can get published with a smaller, independent press. The biggest difference is money, and it's not supposed to about that, is it?

(An interesting side point: Manguel spends much of his column railing against the evil multinational publishers, but guess who puts out Manguel’s own work? Not that I condemn him for it – take the money and run, Alberto, and I say that quite sincerely. However, you would think this slight inconsistency would serve to make Manguel’s generalizations slightly less sweeping. After all, if companies like Random House have lost all interest in literary works, what are they doing continuing to publish Manguel?)

The thing is, I agree with much of what Manguel is saying. And I give full credit to a magazine like Geist for giving Manguel (and Henighan) a regular forum for their take on literature and publishing. I absolutely agree that readers are smarter and more game than publishers give them credit for. What Manguel doesn't understand is that his approach to literature – soothing, levelling, exoticizing, anational, with a bit of tut-tutting about the philistines to make us feel a little guilty for liking trash – is exactly what most mainstream publishers want. It provides the aroma of culture and learning without the effort. It flatters the well-off and educated and fits in perfectly with publishers' marketing of books as a lifestyle accessory.

What readers need is to break free of both publishing hype and the middlebrow fantasies of people like Manguel. They need the courage to trust their own instincts, and they need intelligent, honest, and entertaining criticism that helps them build that courage, as well as a critical vocabulary with which they can express their tastes and discoveries – similar to the critical vocabulary about film that many people absorb through casually reading dozens of movie reviews every day.

The last thing they need is someone telling them to feel guilty about not spending their time reading obscure Portuguese novelists.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Big Fuckowski

I will defend to the death my belief that The Big Lebowski is not only one of the funniest movies ever made, but also one of the best, most tightly written ones, the kind of movie that is almost as funny to read in screenplay form as to watch.

It is just as funny when shorn of almost everything but the word "fuck":

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jake Richler uses his noodle

It's too easy to make fun of Jacob Richler, but it's also fun, so...

Jake's latest "snob at large" column is about the lowly ramen noodle, which is an ideal jump-off for Richler's favourite sport – twitting the underclasses. He adds an interesting twist this time out, however:
... if you look at the numbers -- last year Nissin's premier product line, Cup O' Noodles, hit aggregate sales of 25 billion -- you know that there are a lot more cheap soup eaters out there than there are university students. The university angle is actually a reflection of journalistic elitism: Generally speaking, university students are the only poor people we know, or at any rate know well enough to be familiar with their eating habits.
See that? In an impressive demonstration of Richlerian ju-jitsu, he undercut an example of journalistic elitism with the use of... journalistic elitism! Jake, who attended my old alma mater, Concordia University (motto: "It's like four more years of high school!"), lets us know that he did not turn into a smug little shit once he got out into the real world, but was insufferable even as an undergrad:
Speaking for myself, I've never been much of a ramen-nosher, and I doubt that I had even heard of it when I attended university. And unlike most people writing on the subject of Mr. Noodle's death, I did not get by on the home-grown equivalent of KD either, because when abjectly broke and faced with that horrible prospect I preferred to resort to small-time crime.
Purse-snatching? Smash-and-grab? Selling weed at the tam tams?
Popping into local private clubs and signing other peoples' names and made up membership numbers on the chit...
"Welcome, sir. If you wouldn't mind signing right here."

"No trouble at all, my good man." (M- o- r- d- e- c-...)

There follows some highly dubious "crimes" supposedly committed by young Jake, most of which probably fall under the category of "wishful thinking." The rest of the column is about discovering the humble ramen noodle on a flight to Hong Kong (in "business class" he does not neglect to mention), and some boilerplate stuff on its history and how it is "supposed" to be prepared.

Richler then recounts his attempt to find some decent noodles here in Toronto by venturing into Chinatown (hankie pressed firmly to nose and mouth). He finds some, though not without being disappointed by the "paucity of choice." And how did he find his meal?

No points for guessing "adequate."

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean Margaret Atwood isn't out to get me."

Stephen Henighan goes off the map to where the paranoia-dragons live in this Geist column on Vincent Lam's Giller win.

If the teaser deck ("In an instant, Vincent Lam became a member of the Family Compact") weren't enough, Henighan comes right out of the gate with a statement so baldly wrong it manages to demonstrate exactly the point at which exaggeration for rhetorical effect can lift one's point free of all truthful mooring:
The Giller Prize is the most conspicuous example of corporate suffocation of the public institutions that built our literary culture.
Whoa now, you might say, I know the Gillers can be pretty ridiculous and have only a tenuous connection to the creation and appreciation of actual literature, but the most conspicuous suffocator of our literary culture? The Gillers? Exactly how does a high-profile book award – one whose Max Fischer-like desire to be both popular and respected has resulted in an annual ceremony that manages to be both a low-camp, celebrity-obsessed self parody and a stiff parade of humourless bourgeois irrelevancy – exactly how does something like that kill off a culture?

Well, Henighan says, the problem is that the Gillers have consistently favoured books published by the various Random House imprints. Fair enough and true enough. But then, having made a valid point, Henighan can't resist ruining it with a bit of geographic paranoia:
From 1994 to 2004, all the Giller winners, with the exception of Mordecai Richler, lived within a two-hour drive of the corner of Yonge and Bloor.
Yonge and Bloor? Has Henighan actually ever been to Yonge and Bloor? It may astonish Henighan to know that a healthy percentage of the Canadian population lives within two hours' drive of Yonge and Bloor, a percentage that includes... the Guelph-dwelling Stephen Henighan! Note, too, that with this generous "two-hour drive" allowance, he manages to shoehorn in Richard W. Wright, who lives in St. Catherines, and Alice Munro, who lives (I think) in Clinton, Ontario.

(Sort of makes you wonder why Ben Kerr never managed to snag the mayorship, given his virtual residence at Canada's cultural ground zero.)

He goes on:
The 2005 Giller Prize was won by David Bergen, a skilful writer who conformed to type in that his winning novel, The Time In Between, was published by M&S and took place in an exotic foreign locale (Vietnam). Bergen’s earlier—and, in my view, stronger—novels, such as The Case of Lena S., were set in and around Winnipeg, where, to the horror of the Toronto media, the author still lived. “Winnipeg Schoolteacher Wins Giller Prize” read the baffled Globe and Mail headline announcing Bergen’s victory. This outrageous breach of etiquette was compounded by the fact that Bergen, a very tall Mennonite who looked like a serious fellow in photographs, did not fit the teddy bear image—think W. O. Mitchell, think Farley Mowat, think Timothy Findley, even think Richler in his final, mellower years—expected of male Canadian writers with a wide readership.
What exactly is Henighan arguing here? Follow the thread: Bergen wins with the kind of novel the Giller juries typically go for, and with a big, Random House-associated publisher, also a Giller preference. And it wasn't for Bergen's strongest novel. Again, all fair and true enough. Big prizes are poor arbiters of taste or artistic quality. (Hope you were sitting down when you read that last sentence.) So, according to Henighan, Bergen's win was not entirely deserved. But wait: having anointed Bergen, our Yonge-and-Bloor-dwelling cultural elite then shunned him for the heinous crime of living in Winnipeg and being tall and thin, and not a jolly teddy bear like, um, Mordecai Richler. What links Mitchell, Mowat, Findley, and Richler – a paunch? Has Henighan met a male over 40 with a sedentary career? Is that the central qualification for literary lionization in this country – a spare tire? Middle-aged spread?

Henighan can't quite make up his mind whether, in the case of Bergen's win, the fix was in or the little guy pulled off a rare victory. He does the same with M.G. Vassanji, painting him as both an insider and an outsider within the space of about three paragraphs.

And so he goes on to the 2006 win for Vincent Lam – who, as far as I can tell, keeps fairly fit. (I'm sure a wise editor has told him to lay off the sit-ups – he's a bestselling male author now!)

Read, amazed, as Henighan lays out the conspiracy in detail:
I should have paid more attention to the significance of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood withdrawing their 2006 titles from consideration for the Giller. This canny strategy enabled the old guard to become kingmakers.... As soon as Atwood stood up to introduce the fifth shortlisted author, Vincent Lam, anyone who understood power in Canadian culture knew that Lam had won. Margaret Atwood does not introduce losers. By placing her authority behind Lam, she was giving the equivalent of el dedazo, the crook of the finger with which a Mexican president signals his successor.
El dedazo! He fails to add that, shortly before the ceremony, the other nominees were handed the black spot. Here's where Henighan really gets into it, abandoning his obsession with Yonge and Bloor for a non-sequitur so bizarre and breathtakingly offensive I can only wonder how his pharmacist keeps his licence:
In an instant Vincent Lam, in contrast to previous “multicultural” Giller winners Vassanji, Rohinton Mistry and Austin Clarke—all of them relative loners, none of them born or raised in Canada, none of them able to boast an exemplary interracial marriage such as that between Lam and his Anglo-Greek-descended wife—became a member of the Family Compact and a potential teddy bear.
And there you have it. Lam, though Asian, and therefore multicultural, is not a loner, and has married outside his race, making him perfect for induction into the CanLit version of the Masons and the Illuminati. You can almost imagine Henighan saying all this in a heavy baritone on some after-midnight radio show way at the far end of the AM dial.

Now to be fair, there is more than enough to criticize about the Gillers, both in general and specifically with Lam's win. (Go here for some of that.) But what Henighan has done here is effectively discredit all criticism that shares any of his more valid points while stopping short of demanding that the RICO Act be enforced. The Gillers are a rotten borough, no question, but again, no big cultural award possesses integrity and venality in proportions that favour the former. Henighan's column displays so little perspective it may as well have been presented in cartoon form. To be honest, I hope every person he goes after in the thing comes away feeling just a little flattered to have been mistaken, if only fleetingly, for someone who wields genuine power.

[UPDATE: for photographic proof of the Giller conspiracy, click here and scroll down.]

Monday off-site blogging

Two posts of mine over at Quillblog: one about a nutty column by A.L. Wilson on Ian McEwan's long-lost brother, and one about the new head of Bertelsmann.

The Bertelsmann one is a snore, so skip it unless corporate transfers of power are your thing. The Wilson column is pretty funny, however.

Zeus the some-mighty

An attention-grabber in the Star today, buried deep within the A section:

Modern pagans pay homage to Zeus

ATHENS–A clutch of modern pagans honoured Zeus at a 1,800-year-old temple in the heart of Athens yesterday, in the first known ceremony of its kind held there since the ancient Greek religion was outlawed by the Roman empire in the late 4th century.

Watched by curious onlookers, some 20 worshippers gathered next to the ruins of the temple for a celebration organized by Ellinais, a year-old Athens-based group that is campaigning to revive old religious practices from the era when Greece was a fount of education and philosophy.

The group ignored a ban by the culture ministry, which declared the site off limits to any kind of organized activity to protect the monument. But participants did not try to enter the temple itself, which is closed to everyone, and no officials sought to stop the ritual.

Dressed in ancient costumes, worshippers standing near the temple's imposing Corinthian columns recited hymns calling on the Olympian Zeus, "King of the gods and the mover of things," to bring peace to the world.

"Mover of things"? You'd think, given all the trouble they'd gone to to worship Zeus, they would come up with some powers not shared with, say, a three-year-old. It gets worse:

Our message is world peace and an ecological way of life in which everyone has the right to education," said Kostas Stathopoulos, one of three "high priests" overseeing the event, which celebrated the nuptials of Zeus and Hera, the goddess of love and marriage.
There you go: world peace, the ecology, and the right to an education. Personally, I'm waiting for Zeus' thoughts on eliminating third-world debt and the many uses for hemp.

After all this time, would a little awe have been too much to ask for?

Friday, January 19, 2007

The art of woohoo

Popmatters has a "A field guide to unscripted exclamations in the pop-music wilderness,"wherein they attempt to itemize the hoots, hollers, and screams that have become standard in le musique pop. It ain't the most intensive piece of music scholarship around, but even still, the absence of Screamin' Jay Hawkins seems willfully perverse.

My own favourite exclamation was always the ironic-sounding "wooo!" Neil Young gives his own one-note solo on the recorded version of "Cinammon Girl". Lately, however, it's been both the opening "Oiiiii!" and the recurring "a-heh heh heh" from Dizzee Rascal's "Fix Up Look Sharp".

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Thinking outside the camp

A potentially grim new business book: Project Lessons from the Great Escape (Stalag Luft III)
While you might think your project plan is perfect, would you bet your life on it? In World War II, a group of 220 captured airmen did just that -- they staked the lives of everyone in the camp on the success of a project to secretly build a series of tunnels out of a prison camp their captors thought was escape proof. The prisoners formally structured their work as a project, using the project organization techniques of the day. This book analyzes their efforts using modern project management methods and the nine knowledge areas of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). Learn from the successes and mistakes of a project where people really put their lives on the line.
Another (actual) title in the series: Avoiding Project Disaster: Titanic Lessons for IT Executives.

Coming soon:
  • For Every Problem there is a Final Solution: Lessons from the Holocaust
  • Sell 'Em All (And Let Accounting Sort 'Em Out): Lessons from the My Lai Massacre
  • Higher Ground: Lessons from the Tsunami.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Quill & Quire steps boldly into the late 20th century

Quill & Quire, the august book-trade magazine that pays my rent and puts food in my children's stomachs, has just completely overhauled its daily blog, known as Quillblog. It looks nice, it's easy to read and move around in, and, speaking as one of the thing's regular contributors, it's about a thousand times better and easier to use than the old gas-powered version.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The grim task of the headline writer

It's likely that the editors who give newspaper photos headlines don't often stop to think about their job. Probably things move too quickly for introspection. But then, every once in a while, they must find themselves with the grim task of giving a hed to a shot of a bear frolicking. My guess is that, at those times, an editor will sit for a long time, thinking back over the many things he wanted to do but didn't, wanted to accomplish but couldn't. After a few minutes of that, he takes a deep breath, types in some variation on "Grin and Bear It," then puts his computer to sleep and goes looking for booze.

Today, I feel for that sad man (or woman) at the Star who had to do this (from today's front page):

Blues, tears, and sorrow

Funky 16 Corners, unearthers of the finest soul, funk, and r&b on 45, has a new downloadable mix up entitled "Blues, tears, and sorrow." Go get it before it disappears. This is apparently the eighteenth such mix he's made available. I've only caught the last three or four, but this new one's my favourite thusfar. I am a sucker for soultown melodrama, and tend to prefer the slow burn to the firecracker.

On the other hand, the Chess Northern Soul compilation is one I've been sticking to like glue lately, and that stuff don't burn slow.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fuck compassion

James Grainger, in a review of Colum McCann's Zoli in the Toronto Star, makes a point about compassion in literary fiction that should be forcibly tattooed on the forehead of every book critic and reviewer in Canada:
This narrative strategy is employed by many contemporary novelists and is quite simple: Find a tragic period in recent history (World War II, the Stalinist purges); gather up the right period details and then drop in a sympathetic protagonist. The result: instant pathos and a good chance at making an award shortlist or two.

By creating protagonists whose struggles to maintain personal dignity in the face of war, poverty and persecution are so patently tragic that only a sociopath could fail to shed a tear, these authors are inevitably labelled "brave," "humane" and, of course, "compassionate."

Why is this so hard to understand? Why are we repeatedly asked to admire writers for bringing us the shocking news that war is bad, or that bad things happen to good people? It's always frustrating to see ostensibly sophisticated readers and writers allowing themselves to be repeatedly taken in by the literary equivalent of a Ron Howard movie.

(The flipside of this, something I am depressingly familiar with, is the complaint that a given work of fiction "lacks sympathetic characters." About that, I've been planning to write something longer for a while now – a "defence of unlikeable characters.")

Best book title of 2006

Hands down, it's: Ptarmageddon by Karen Dudley.

(This book, it should be noted, is the fourth in a series that also includes Hoot to Kill, Red Heron, and Macaws of Death.)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Jack Layton's Blurbgate

Steve Janke of the Blogging Tories has gone trawling for scandal and come up with a boot:
Jack Layton and the NDP advertise Jack Layton's books on the party website. That's fine, except that the review excerpt is misleadingly quoted out of context. Instead of praise for the entire book by a major newspaper, the reality is that one columnist praised the first chapter only.

It's all very tawdry, really.

It sure is, if your definition of "tawdry" is "standard industry practice." As one of Janke's own commenters points out, review blurbs almost never cite the actual reviewer. As for a blurb being taken slightly out of context, well, what exactly does he think a blurb is? There's a reason you rarely see entire reviews reprinted on book jackets, movie posters, or CD cases.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Working for the Yankee dollar

So Shaun Majumder will play a terrorist on 24. (Story here.) He says the role will give "people who only see me in a comedic light a surprise that I can do drama."

I suppose that when this is your day job –
On This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Majumder plays the somewhat damp Hindu reporter Raj Binder, as well as a clueless news anchor.
– the chance to portray stereotypes for real money must be pretty hard to turn down.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Writers who like writers

I spent the weekend lying on the couch, coughing and shivering (thanks again to the philthy and germ-ridden kids at my daughter's daycare), but through the miracle of delayed publication, a review I wrote in September of The Company They Kept: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships appeared in Sunday's Star. Read it here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Having worked for a couple of years in a literary agent's office, this gives me a warm feeling of nostalgia (or perhaps that's just my mouth filling with blood).

Actually, that entire site is filled with things that got said pretty much every day, as the mail got opened. The most important thing a writer needs is a clue. Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

Oh, and know that the best way to get your foot in an agent's attention is to work for one for a while. (Crosses self, says a prayer of thanks, knocks on wood, throws salt over shoulder...)

Speaking of advice, I came across this, Elmore Leonard's rules for good writing. Most of them are the standard, "don't be one of them lit'rary types, and no showin' off" kind of thing. The same kind of thing (and in a couple of cases, the exact same advice) that Stephen King gives here and in On Writing. On the other hand, I really liked Leonard's quoting one of his own characters, a writer of historical romances who says she writes books full of "rape and adverbs."

I immediately thought that we do that kind of thing a little differently in Canada: most of our earnest, middlebrow, "major" novelists keep the adverbs but lose the rape.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An eye for an eye, a noose for a noose

From today's Globe and Mail:
Baghdad — The person believed to have recorded Saddam Hussein's raucous execution on a cell phone camera was arrested Wednesday, an adviser to Iraq's prime minister said.
If found guilty, the man will be pulled apart by wild horses. His lawyer will only be smeared with honey and tied to an anthill. (And the whole thing will be on YouTube within hours.)

I like that Hussein's execution is described as "raucous." Maybe my experience is atypical, but I've managed to attend quite a few "raucous" gatherings where no one was hung by the neck.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Answering rhetorical questions

from Macleans:
Is [George Stroumboulopoulos] just the latest point on the CBC hipster-doofus continuum – Daniel Richler, Avi Lewis, Evan Solomon, Jian Ghomeshi – or The One?
The first one.

Lord, please take him to the bridge

Look what happens when the hardest working man in showbusiness takes a day off.

Larry over at Funky16Corners has been eulogizing James Brown like mad for the past week. His essay on JB's birthing of modern funk is a good one, despite the dubious, cranky-old-man shots at JB's musical descendants. (Prince borrowed a lot from Brown, but to say that he is wholly Brown-derivative is just bullshit.)

I especially like the section on "There Was a Time," a song that is probably the perfect demonstration of Brown's polyrythmic approach to funk, where no single instrument carries the groove. You can also draw a straight line from that song to Fela Kuti, someone who stole a hell of a lot more from Brown than Prince, and who made just as much brilliant and original music with what he took.

[Update: How not to write about Brown (from ZNet):
James Brown was spot-on in voicing black people's demand for more fairness and justice in U.S. employment. He nailed the alienated, exploited and oppressed lot of wage-labor for African Americans.

Moreover, his freedom lyrics for them had to, and I say did in fact, appeal to others for whom the workplace by its very structure of inequality creates un-human conditions. Therefore, I think we overlook to our loss the revolutionary attraction of Brown's lyrics to society's mass, the laboring class, employed and unemployed. The black struggle was/is a race, class and gender struggle for a new society.

Not that any of this is wrong, but don't write about the guy like he's frigging Pete Seeger. The revolutionary aspect of Brown's music was in performance, not mere lyrical content. It's an extension of gospel music – the words sung are secondary (something Brown himself both parodied and affirmed in The Blues Brothers). Even "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" gets most of its power from the intensity of Brown's exhortation, not the mere fact of it's title/chorus.]

    A very subtle and funny writer - one I've become obsessed with over the past year - in a decidedly Muriel Spark mood. Imagine The Pr...