Thursday, May 31, 2007

Grants for gardens

NYC is apparently awash in arts money, though the way they define such activity is a little, mmm, broad.

From the article:
The calculations include artists' salaries, money that arts groups spend on services and supplies, and audience spending on hotels, meals and parking. Also included is "induced spending" on food, clothing and other items by people who earn money through the arts.

The arts industry in the report includes theaters, museums, gardens, art galleries, auction houses, arts-driven tourism and movie and television production.
Why not count all money spent while talking about the new Ben Stiller movie?

This demonstrates nicely the folly of trying to assign dollar figures to the "worth" of the arts. Bookninja thinks Harper should sit up and take notice. Really? If Harper were to take a lesson from this, it would be that we need more large-scale, commercial entities like Broadway, Spider-Man, and the David Letterman show, which doesn't exactly the fit with the usual "more arts funding for unprofitable niche dilettantism now" creed.

Give a starving poet a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to work a boom mic and he can feed his family.

ADDED: Just to make clear, I'm all for funding unprofitable niches - I'm an unprofitable niche myself, after all – but let's not compare oranges with Big Apples. And justifying arts funding based on payoff just opens the door to someone saying, "Well, if payoff's the aim, why not only fund sure-fire payoffs?" Which is very nearly the opposite of what arts funding is – or should be – about.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Canada: the world's small town

Not sure how underrated some of the books on this list are – Martin Amis? Lydia Millet? Russell Banks? – but this one is even more of an eyebrow raiser:
By Mavis Gallant
Canadian expats look lovingly home in this collection by Mavis Gallant, a kind of Alice Munro for those who got out.
—Chris Beha, Bookforum
"For those who got out?"

Monday, May 28, 2007

Yo ho

All of the criticism that has been hurled at the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie (that it is too long, too loud, too everything) is accurate but completely irrelevant. This one is a mind-musher, and an effective one at that. As long as you go in with the correct level of immaturity, you'll be just fine. And it's not like the first two were Throne of Blood, or something.

It also does an interesting bit of revisionism by making Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa – and not Depp's Jack Sparrow – the most interesting and watchable ham in the joint.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Birth of the Fool (me)

I didn't know until today that I share a birthday with Miles Davis. In honour of that, here's some Miles from 1959 with the Gil Evans orchestra. I'm guessing that Miles' Gil Evans albums sounded pretty square to most jazz fans even then, and yet they are the ones I keep getting sucked back into, more so than the electric stuff or the iconic mid-sixties quintet. (I'm especially a sucker for Miles Ahead, from which the pieces below are taken.) They're brilliant fluff, ear candy, but never campy or glib. Miles was dead-serious about it all, as usual. It was if the challenge was to see just how far into seriousness light music could be pushed, which is why the albums always remind me of Pet Sounds.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Angry at the Angry Old Men

A review of Colin Wilson's The Angry Years: the Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men here.
Instead of being funny and outrageous, however, the tone of The Angry Years is gloating and the prose flatter than a cartoon cat hitting a wall. All Wilson wants to do is settle scores.


Amis wanted to push Wilson off a balcony during a party ("Look, there's that bugger Wilson"). Of this incident, the author reflects, "For some reason I never quite understood, I seemed to arouse in Kingsley Amis the same deep uneasiness I could sense in Tynan." The explanation is not hard to seek. Wilson gets up people's noses because he has such a high opinion of himself: "I had taken it for granted that I was a man of genius since I was about 13."
Amis père, before he became bloated and hateful, wrote some scorching things about Wilson. I'll dig them out later.

Slush to flush

I'm not sure the news that slush piles are full of unpublishable shit counts as "shocking" anymore. And I say that as one who has had a few jobs where donning the enviro-suit and wading through the slush was required, and as one who has occasionally contributed my own earnest, unpublishable turds to those piles.

Speaking of slush piles, Miss Snark has retired her blog.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Arts & Letters Daily... today

I know A&L Daily's been this way for a while, now, but I thought I'd do a semi-random sampling of its front-page links from today.

So here we are (tell me if you see a pattern):
Londonistan calling. How a nation moved from cricket and fish-and-chips to burkas and shoe bombers in a single generation... more»

Bad news from Gujarat: why is India seeing the erosion of democracy and the rise of Hindu fascism? Martha Nussbaum asks the hard questions... more»

Western analysts bleat on about the strategic importance of that backward, oil-rich area we call the Middle East. Why not just ignore it?... more»

Literary blogs are fine. They’re a version of your mom’s book club. But when it comes to serious reviewing, we need serious media... more»

Who’s “more literate” when it comes to literature, Bob Silvers of the New York Review of Books, or George W. Bush? Tom Wolfe says he knows... more»

Climate change is “a baptism by fire for the developing global society,” says one scientist. And so what, if science becomes activism?... more»

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution can be linked, some say, to such diverse evils as communism, fascism, and terrorism... more»

What’s wrong with the modern literary novel? Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so boring? Julian Gough asks... more»

American feminists are destined to play but a small role in the battle for Muslim women’s rights. They are too preoccupied by their own imagined oppression to help others... more»

Goethe was a new kind of hero, and man who brought art and life together in a way that did not look like a grubby compromise... more»

European leaders mean well but are naive in their stance on Turkey, says Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Turkish liberals need the army in the struggle with the Islamicists... more»

Ahmadinejad’s promise to wipe Israel off the map has not been taken seriously the West. It should be – and we ought to bomb Iran, says Norman Podhoretz... more»

Stalin’s greatest pleasure was to choose his victim, wreack cruel vengeance, and then go to bed. “There’s nothing sweeter in the world”... more»

George Tenet’s new memoir: a bogus history by a man whose hindsight is cockeyed and who had no foresight at all... more» ... more» ... more»

Decaf liberalism brewed with fair-trade coffee. Benjamin Barber’s new book is about as subversive as Ben and Jerry’s or Whole Foods... more»

Cardinal Ratzinger’s message was that Jesus is a genius, and the lucidity of his exegesis should prompt Alleluias... more» Also: Did Hitler go to heaven?

And, finally:
Blogging is yammering, not writing, and the “democratic literary landscape” it creates is a wasteland, without standards, maps, or oases of intelligence and delight... more»

Kent Brockman: "Tonight on Smartline: The power plant strike, arglebargle or fooferaw?"

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Reviewing as drudgery

About the only thing that needs be said about this, is that the piece is about as dull and stodgy as the kind of reviewing its author envisions as an ideal.

He may the kind of reader that gets intrigued by the passionless, ego-less, turn-your-head-and-cough-type review, but I believe – I hope – he is in the minority.

Book reviewing and book chat is imperilled as it is – one thing we don't need is to dull it all down a little.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Review or Press Release?

It’s time to play Review or Press Release?, in which you, the reader, must determine whether a piece of writing about a book is written by a critic or a publicist.

First up is this review in The Independent, of Shaena Lambert’s first novel, Radiance.

Ready? Go!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Don't read me...

... go read Zach.

I agree with just about everything Zach says – except the line about "ersatz stuff peddled on every streetcorner and campus quad," streetcorner poetry pedlars being a rarity at best, and thankfully so.

That boring crap is made no less boring or crappy by virtue of the themes it "investigates" is a truth so self-evident it's a mystery why it continues to get overlooked by so many writers, editors, and critics. However, it is possible to run too far in the opposite direction when trying to distance oneself from the more nationalistic critical structures of Atwood or Frye. Most of the reading I have done, and which has shaped my own thoughts about what fiction can and should do, has been British and American, which I am fairly sure is the case with a lot of writers. For the longest time, that fact didn't bother me – you go where the food is freshest and most plentiful, after all. Maybe it's a side-effect of living in this massively multicultural city for the past decade, but for a while now I've felt more of a yearning to see more distinctly Canadian experiences transformed into art. And that includes the multicultural fact of this city, warts and all, in case any anybody thinks I am getting wistful for the old days of Scotch-Protestant hegemony. Though even there, I am personally interested, as a writer, in the pockets of passive resistance to the "good new days." In the ways in which, say, Ontario's essential cold-bloodedness – see: Munro, Alice – can continue to reign all-but supreme, even as the province becomes more diverse and interesting on the ground. That's a visceral cultural tension you'd think more writers would be leaping on hungrily.

That's all to say that it would be going too far to say that a work's Canadianness it totally irrelevant to how it gets received. Mediocrity should not be cheered on, wherever it's from, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't hope a little harder for success for the home team, or feel particularly despondent when it goes into a slump, for this very reason (from Zach): "a country's poetry should be one of the things that shapes it."

ADDED: As Adam Gopnik wrote about Mordecai Richler:
He had to write about a city (and country) that didn't quite know it was one, about the manners of a tribe who hadn't been told they had them. The urge to inventory a reality that everyone else thought was merely a dependency, one that didn't really count.
What he said. Except that – now, and here – tribe has become tribes, and all that entails.

Not that it is the only possible one, but "the urge to inventory a reality that everyone else thinks is merely a dependency," is, by the way, a great response to the question (often self-directed), why write?

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Car

An old fragment from an unfinished story that sort of works as a story, at least in the context of a blog.

Thalia was a little late getting away this morning; she'd already called in to say she'd be there soon. Coming in from the west end the city looked warm and alive, it was so sunny out. It was still only March but already the snow was gone. There was green visible between the buildings and in the ravines, and big pools of water on the flat roofs that reflected the blue sky. She couldn’t see anyone in heavy winter clothes to wreck the illusion. She tried to read a magazine, but rapid shapes of sunlight kept flashing off the pages and hurting her eyes. When the train dipped into the underground stations, she gave up trying to read and just stared at the ground.

They crawled through one tunnel, so slow Thalia could look out the window and see blue chalk marks on the wall. They slowed and stopped in the next, but only for a half a minute or so. Finally, in the next tunnel, the train stopped for good. Thalia thought again that if she hadn’t stopped to buy the magazine, she might have got on the previous train and avoided all this. Maybe that one was stopping, too. Maybe the whole system was fucked, and every train was trapped in a tunnel.

Thalia couldn’t get used to the time it took to get to work. She was used to thinking of herself as living pretty much in the thick of it, but the thirty or forty minutes she spent nodding and yawning on the train had destroyed this image. She and a friend had shared a car when they’d both first moved downtown, years ago. Their offices were close together – less than a block apart – and her friend got free parking where she worked, so it was perfect. The car was used, a pale blue compact they’d bought off somebody who was leaving the country.

“As is,” the guy selling the car told them. “It’s kinda lived-in.”

“Who lived in it?” Thalia asked, deadpan.

“No, I mean, it’s pretty lived-in, not… it’s kind of beat up inside.”

“I was joking.”

She didn’t say much else while they were looking at the car, or when they came back with the cash.

Even after they’d had the car for a few months and had cleaned it out, they still found peanuts and Smarties in the folds of the seats and beer caps under the carpeting. The floor was pocked with cigarette burns. They covered the back seat – which was dying from a dozen lateral slashes from a knife or a tool – with a quilt that used to belong to Thalia’s cat. She’d bleached it heavily to kill the smell of cat-piss: it looked as though there were clouds of frozen steam covering its surface.

They never came up with a funny enough name for the car, but they both liked to pretend it had a personality that only they could detect. They would send silly emails to each other throughout the day, commenting on the car’s mood that morning, imagining various pasts for it. They competed to find the ugliest air freshener to hang from the rearview mirror. The winner, hands down, was the raw pink set of over-sized tits that smelled like strawberries. Thalia had found it in a joke store. It sat in the glove compartment with the other joke fresheners, under a map and some paper, never hung.

The arrangement worked beautifully for almost three years until the car started shuddering and dying at stop lights – at first just once in a while, then on every other trip. It stranded them in the middle lane more than once and wouldn’t restart for minutes at a time. They had to stay off the busier streets.

“I’m not paying for repairs,” Thalia announced. “I think you should cover it.”

“What for? It’s both of our car!”

“Yeah, but you took it to your cottage a couple of times. And you drove up to your parents' a bunch of times with it.”


“So? It was supposed to be just for work and around the city. It’s an old car: probably all the long-distance driving is what’s wrecking it.”

They fought about it for a week, while the car sat like a shamed dog in the small lot behind a mutual friend’s apartment. Thalia refused to return her friend’s calls and wouldn’t answer her emails, except to bluntly repeat that she wouldn’t help pay for the repairs. The mutual friend attempted to negotiate peace between the two, but Thalia yelled at him over the phone, saying that the two of them were ganging up on her and trying to make her the bitch.

“Well, you are kind of being a bitch,” he said, and she hung up on him.

Finally, her friend gave up and took the car in to be repaired. When she got it back a week later, she called Thalia.

“It was just something with the fuel line,” she said, sheepishly. “The guy said the rest of the car’s pretty solid, so we shouldn’t have to worry about it for a while.”

“So?” Thalia said, as hard and as cold as she could.

“So… it wasn’t that expensive in the end. They hardly had to do anything. So it’s cool.”

“So?” Thalia said again, angry that her friend wasn’t taking her seriously. She felt as though no one was listening to her – the bill could have been for five dollars, she wasn’t going to pay it. Finally, she demanded that her friend buy out Thalia’s share of the car and take it all for herself. “That’s the way you’ve been using it, anyway,” she said.

Over a series of bitter phone calls, she brought out every minor grievance she’d collected against her friend, every petty annoyance, shedding more of their friendship with every call. By the end of it, her shattered friend gave Thalia exactly half of what they’d paid for it. Thalia insisted she mail her a money-order for the full amount, and she did, without complaint.

In the six years that followed, they only spoke a few times – mostly awkward meetings on the subway or in bars. They attempted one reconciliation, meeting up for lunch on an outdoor patio downtown. The two had joked and brought each other up to date on the shit that had been happening in their lives and in their jobs, but when the other woman started to talk about their broken relationship, Thalia went cold, as if her friend were a tenacious sales rep, pulling out for the millionth time the unwanted samples and brochures and price lists.

Since then, Thalia had heard that her friend had had a little girl and was living with someone in Montreal. She thought about sending something, a gift or some baby clothes, and for a few weeks she fingered the rows of bright, congratulatory cards whenever she was in a drugstore. But in the end, she did nothing. The card she did buy stayed blank inside and got slowly shuffled in with the junk mail and old photos in her front hallway. If Thalia saw her friend’s mother she would greet her warmly, ask her to pass on a hello, and get again her friend’s new phone number.

The official history of their friendship got sanitized and relegated to a back room of her mind, along with a few token objects – a funny T-shirt, a wine-bottle candle they’d made as a joke and never lit, the crazy singing toy they found in Chinatown. Her memories got debriefed: the end of the friendship was a sad but inevitable thing, something brought on by mere time and circumstance. Thalia still had a photo in a magnet-frame on her fridge of the two of them at a party, and she got a little sad whenever she noticed it. But none of this was connected to the fight over the car, the wistfulness never mitigated her sense that she’d been fucked around and was right to act as she had. It was as if the fight had been with someone else entirely, some treacherous stranger.

She even complained a lot about having to take the subway to work after driving in for so long, the car another phenomenon that had passed from her life for reasons unknown. The extra keys on her chain were mysterious keepsakes, something from her past she could finger half-interestedly, like the crater-shaped inoculation scar on her shoulder. It was all far away, on another planet from where she was now, encased in this dead train, its thin hull painted over with an ad for a movie.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Teaching history backward

Tucked into this story about a history teacher getting fired for showing his students the HBO documentary Baghdad ER is an idea that is so simple and brilliant I can't believe it hasn't already toppled the reigning standard: teaching history backward. You start with current events and situations, which students are most aware of and most interested in, then work backward to show how these all came to be.

Obviously, there is potential for some "controversial" reverse-timelines – say, of the Iraq War and the U.S.'s relationship with Saddam Hussein – but then, those subjective interpretations exist in forward-running history courses, they are just masked.

More on the idea here and here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Arbeit macht Langeweile

The people you work with are people you were just thrown together with. You don’t know them, it wasn’t your choice. And yet you spend more time with them then you do your friends or your family, but probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.

(from here.)
I am up to my ears, so please go read DJ "Readin' Skillz" Taylor on the relative absence of work in fiction. (Also read Alex Good on the same subject.)

Taylor writes "that the novelist's real problem is how to dramatise boredom." (Auden saw that reality not an obstacle for a novelist, but rather as part of his solemn duty.)

This is resonating with me, because part of what is keeping me busy at the moment is, well, work, but also trying to finish the polished draft of a novel (see link at right) that features, among other things, many scenes of people at work and in various states of boredom. It's a tricky thing, to depict tedium and frustration and states of unproductive distraction without making the depiction itself tedious, frustrating, and unproductively distracted.

I'm not entirely sure I have always pulled it off.

But at the very, very least, no one in the novel is finding letters in an attic, or struggling with philosophical/ideological/aesthetic questions that were pretty much settled a century ago, or spending 400 wasteful pages seeking out the slimmest margins of middle-class nonconformity, or Zeliging their way through the Great Moments in History.

Which is something.

Or so I keep telling myself.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

"Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/ Reminiscin' when it wasn't all business"*

Until the early 1990s, a Canada-wide network of independent bookstores made it possible for a well-received small-press short story collection to sell 700 to 1000 copies, and sometimes more. Today the omnipresent outlets of Chapters-Indigo make it possible for a well-received small-press short story collection to sell 250 copies. But if Chapters-Indigo is the disease, the Giller Prize is the symptom. Nothing signalled the collapse of the literary organism as vividly as the appearance of this glitzy chancre on the hide of our culture. - Stephen Henighan, "Kingmakers," Geist 63

... we are currently living through the dismantlement of Canadian publishing. Evidence supporting this view is not in short supply. - Henighan again.

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. But since the 1980s, publishing companies, bought up by large international corporations, began to apply industrial methods to the making and distribution of books. Having discovered that books are sold and bought, these entrepreneurs reasoned that books could be bought and sold like any other artifact, from pizza to sports cars. - Alberto Manguel, "Idiot's Fare," Geist 63

We live in a period when, for better or worse, most of the realities of publishing and bookselling are being transformed in order to conform to the demands of money. Editorial lists appear and disappear, books are published in enormous quantities with huge promotional campaigns only to be pulped into oblivion, publishing conglomerates come into existence or suddenly vanish. The reason is always the same: money and profit. - Matt Cohen, Typing: A Life in 26 Keys (Random House Canada, 2000)

Money, and Prizes. Prizes proliferating. And along with them the manufacturing of celebrity by the manipulation of publicity budgets. Literature metamorphosing into Show Biz. - John Metcalf, An Aesthetic Underground (Thomas Allen Publishers)

Literature used to be about literature. Now it's about money. - Steven Heighton, quoted in An Aesthetic Underground.

On other hand:
My stance on huge advances is very simple: I would like one, please. The politics of money, the role of it in publishing, the effect on out literature – all of these are issues that pale in comparison to what this kind of money means to a writer. It means freedom. If it makes you a lesser writer, or creates a media tempest, or makes readers think Canadian writers are being bought and sold – these are other problems. A writer with money has the basis of a life of writing, which is the goal, I think. - Michael Redhill, quoted in The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers (Anchor Canada)

* Nas, "Hip Hop is Dead"

(For more on the good old days, go here.)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Harland Miller's big penguins

Here's a thing in the Guardian about Harland Miller, an author and painter who, in his painterly guise, creates huge covers for non-existent Penguin/Pelican classics, including Hemingway's I'm So Fucking Hard and D.H. Lawrence's Dirty Northern Bastard.

Miller is interviewed here by Jarvis Crocker Cocker, who starts off sounding like a parody of a pseudo-intellectual rockstar dimwit ("Oh yeah, I've written about Sheffield. 'Sheffield, Sex City' - a title as inappropriate as some of yours. I suppose, whether you like it or not, you are formed by early experience. Have you made a painting about Sheffield?"), but who mostly calms down and lets his subject do the talking.

I liked this, from Miller:
I think much sociopolitical art delivers truisms that are quite flat. I saw something recently that read "Men and women are equal", and then "Like hell they are!" People tend to read something like that in a gallery and nod, as though the act of agreement makes them kind of active in the debate, when it's more that they - the converted - have been ... not enraged so much as assuaged. Because they agree. There's no dialogue in that.
Which, I guess, a lot of people will read and nod, as though the act of agreement makes them kind of active in the debate, but it's good to see it put so plainly.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Smooth like butter

Jacob Richler has apparently left his position as snob-at-large at the National Post – maybe someone offered him a reheated sausage roll and coffee in a styrofoam cup last time he went into the offices, and that was it.

But Jake's impeccable taste-buds have found a new home at Macleans magazine. And if you are worried that some of his prattishness may have been lost in the move, don't.
Yes, it seems like only last year it was good enough to pick the unsalted Lactantia over the salted. But if you had stopped by my place last week and swung open the overladen fridge door you would have found seven different flavours on hand, every one of them packing more flavour and more fat than yours, some locally produced, some from Europe, and two of them illegal, unpasteurized stuff smuggled in from France hidden under a pallet of Camembert, as if it were smack -- although in my experience the contraband from Normandy is far more addictive.
Precious? Check.

Unnecessarily expensive? Check.

A little greasy? Check.

(Oh, I mean the butter, of course.)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Killer reads

Tangential to this piece in The Times on the idea of books inspiring killers, I give you this, Ricky Gervais on Hitler's misreading of Nietzsche:

    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...