Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Is Amazon all BS?

There is no doubt that more people are reading than ever before. They are buying more books too, in a variety of formats. But are they reading crap? Is the reading public being dumb-downed by the tidal wave of literary garbage that book purveyors like Amazon.com have made cheap, available and convenient? Has it changed how we define books and what we expect from them? Can it be that literature is being sacrificed on an altar of BS (the Best Seller)? Is the situation analogous, as Ursula K. LeGuin says, to the promotion of fast-food: The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is. I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.

My take on whether Amazon is to blame for dumbing down books is in agreement with this writer's when he says, The mass culture has been convicted of killing off serious writing for about as long as there has been a mass culture. I don't agree with LeGuin that just because McDonalds sells more burgers and fries than any other restaurant, people think that that's what food is. In fact, people got tired of Big Macs, which is why McDonalds is selling salads these days. Mass marketing changes things for a while, and then they change again. People have always bought books in a variety of new formats and controversy has typically ensued with the introduction of each new format to the marketplace. For instance, when the mass market paperback was first produced and sales of pulp fiction skyrocketed, purists made the similar arguments about the decline of the literary novel. And yet great novels continued to be written and sold. Like the advent of pocketbooks, ebooks have made reading more affordable and convenient. When it comes to the book market, the general rule has always been that there is no general rule. 
Tastes change. People read books for a variety of reasons including enjoyment, education, escape, entertainment, and enrichment. The beauty of books is that they can satisfy all these needs. There are books that cater to the largest segment of the reading public (Harlequin romances etc.) and there are books that cater to smaller, more refined segments. What I will say about books in the digital era is that there is a lot more of them, and there is much more choice and variety, which is about all I'm willing to pronounce about the fate of literature. 

But from the point of view of this author, I think Amazon has been, on balance, positive. Yes, there is a lot more crap out there, which means it's more difficult to garner attention for any particular book. People have to be more creative in this highly competitive, crowded marketplace. But as a publishing, marketing and selling platform, Amazon has empowered authors in a game-changing way, and that's significant, since authors were so powerless before. 

Here, for what it's worth, is my experience a nutshell. My debut novel was published by a small respected independent publisher nine years ago. It garnered quite a few good reviews in local and national newspapers, and was shortlisted for a respected national first novel prize. It sold relatively well in the national market, relatively, that is, for a first novel by a completely unknown writer, and in a national market that is relatively small. There were no sales whatsoever internationally. My royalties, at the standard rate of 10% of the cover price were pretty paltry. 

Almost eight years after it first appeared I decided to re-issue my novel myself in ebook format (in the contract with my original publisher I had not signed over the digital rights - it was still early in the game.) Amazon enabled me to make the novel available, quickly and easily, and to reach an international market. In the eighteen months since making the book available it has sold steadily and one hundred percent of new sales have been international. Copies sold have not yet reached the number of the previous eight years of the print edition - which benefited at the outset from some mainstream media attention and the sheer luck of having been nominated for that aforementioned national prize - but it's getting close, and with absolutely no marketing investment to speak of. Since the author's royalty from the ebook is seven times higher than that the royalty I received from the print edition, even though the cover price is half, the revenue from ebook sales will shortly surpass the print edition in a fraction of the time. On top of that, I retain complete control, no waiting for sales reports from a publisher or agent, no waiting for payment (the royalty cheque arrives on time and regularly). Admittedly, the main challenge remains marketing, how to get the book some attention, but Amazon provides a number of tools that make marketing, on a small, economical and highly selective scale, possible and simple, even for a doofus like me. Amazon has enabled the author to be an entrepreneur with his own product, and that's no BS. I like to think, though its unprovable so far, that the reason my book has sold almost a decade after it was published, is that Amazon gave it a chance to find its readership and that the quality of the work has prevailed. Unlike many good books that are abandoned by their publishers and go out of print if they have not found their readers within the allotted time, ebooks have an indefinite lifespan, which is about as much time as any author can hope for. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Money, the ethnic vote and literature

I was recently invited to take part in a panel discussion on Mordecai Richler and Montreal Jewish writers. It was a lively discussion focused mostly on Richler, which I guess might be expected, so synonymously is he identified with Montreal Jewish literature. I don't think Richler would have any qualms about the close association with his beloved native city, but categorizing him as a Jewish writer brought him to fits during his lifetime. One of the panelists was an academic who is translating Richler's oeuvre into French for a Montreal based publishing house Editions Boreal, the latest novel a translation of Solomon Gursky was Here. Two things I learned from the discussion that I had not known: First, that many of Richler's novels have never been translated into French. I would have expected that an author of his international reputation and standing, translated in dozens of languages around the world, would have by now had all his novels translated into French, the language of his home province. Second, the novels that were translated into French were published in France not by Quebec publishers. Notwithstanding the difficulty (enmity?) that the Quebecois had with Richler I would have thought that a Quebec publisher would have published, if not his essays which were particularly damning of Quebec politics and history, than at least some of his fiction. It appears that the new Boreal series is the first. I guess that time (and death) has softened the edges of the relationship between Richler and the Quebecois literary establishment. This initiative by Boreal seems to signal that the accomplishment of the late author's literary legacy has begun to endear him to a less sensitive, self-conscious society. And it only took a little more than 14 years, less than a generation.  

By coincidence, The New Yorker - a magazine with which Richler was associated - has published an interesting piece by Toronto writer Pasha Malla on Quebecois fiction being translated into English. Malla makes the argument essentially that this fiction has a distinct quality that merits broader attention in Canada and the US and the time is right. He writes, Despite tapering enmities, though, the dynamic between Canada’s Francophone and Anglophone communities remains less one of cohesion than indifference and estrangement. Championing a recent translation of Raymond Bock's story collection "Atavismes: Histoires" Malla's uncommon (for an English-Canadian) fondness for French-Quebec fiction may stem from his stint studying creative writing at Montreal's Concordia University. Despite his effort to spotlight French-Quebec fiction in the pages of the NewYorker - counterpoint to Richler's famous expose of Quebec historical anti-Semitism in the same magazine more than two decade ago - it is unlikely that much notice will be paid. The fact that Bock's novel is being publishing through something called Dalkey Archive's and Literary Translation Program (and not by a mainstream publishing house like Penguin or Viking) speaks volumes about how far outside the margins it (and all French-Quebec literature) remains.

By another coincidence, a recent article in the daily Le Devoir also speaks of the thawing of the cold political and cultural climate in Quebec to outside influences and a new openness. Like Malla who writes about the 'international sensibility' of the new French-Quebec fiction, the author of the Le Devoir piece characterizes the current younger generation's distaste for the old separatist paradigm which simply has little relevance in this hyper-connected, borderless digital world: « Les jeunes ont moins peur de l’assimilation crainte par les générations précédentes. Ils sont moins dans la tension, l’animosité et dans cette logique identitaire nationale forte »

In addition to the Richler translations to French and the Bock translation to English, Malla mentions the initiative of Montreal publisher Vehicule Press and editor Dimitri Nasrallah (who hosted the panel in which I participated) who have committed themselves to exposing French-Quebec fiction to English-speaking readers by devoting half of their publishing program to translations next year. So we seem to have an auspicious confluence of political opening, generational attitude shifting and literary initiatives all resulting in a new spirit of understanding and rapprochement. I'm all for togetherness and openness and Kumbaya singalong moments, but you'll excuse me for being skeptical.

I don't think Richler's novels will sell in Quebec or be read in high-schools, as they should. I don't think the US or English-Canada will clamour to embrace a long-lost, shamefully neglected kin in French-Quebec novelists. And Malla makes one major conceptual error in his article; grouping Canadian writers as either English-Canadian (also called Anglophone) or French-Canadian (also called Francophone). This, to me is a false dichotomy, for several reasons, one being that in Quebec there are many kinds of writers and I don't believe Quebec-English fiction writers should be grouped with the writers outside the province. Quebec-English writers are a distinct sub-species that, with few notable exceptions, Yan Martel, Heather O'Neill, Rawi Hage among them, have not generally been readily accepted either outside provincial borders or within them. It is telling that of the writers listed, Martel and Hage struck gold with major international prizes before they were embraced nationally or locally, an old refrain. The Richler translator on our panel made one very revealing remark. She said (I paraphrase) that the Quebecois could never acknowledge a Montreal (or Quebec) regarded through the eyes of 'others', by which she meant ethnically diverse Quebeckers (such as Richler), whether they were born here or not. The experiences they wanted to read about had to reflect and support their own pure laine current, historical or mythical experiences. Are the new Richler translations indicative of a new 'acceptance' of another experience and perspective on Quebec? More likely they just serve to underscore the shameful fact that Quebec has never cared about its English writers and remains suspicious of us and other minorities.
On the day it was announced that former Quebec Premiere Jacques Parizeau had left the planetary plane, his bitter drunken remark on referendum night in 1995 still resonates for some of us: C'est vrai, c'est vrai qu'on a été battus, au fond, par quoi? Par l'argent, puis des votes ethniques, essentiellement. And I think about Le Prix Parizeau, a literary prize founded by Mordecai Richler in response to those fateful utterances to celebrate Quebec 'ethnic' writers (and to mock Parizeau's remarks) and I smile and miss him more.   

Monday, May 25, 2015

So let's just say

So let's just say that there is no such thing as paradise on earth. And let's just say that the best we can hope for is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And let's just say that it's an ongoing project, and although we're not perfect, at least we're moving in the right direction, and our task is to keep moving in that direction. And let's just say that the goal isn't to become super rich or super smart or super famous or super powerful or super influential or super holy but to create a society in which the most defenseless, most vulnerable, most disadvantaged among us have the opportunity to live dignified, meaningful and productive lives. And let's just say that evil is taking advantage, harming and exploiting the most vulnerable and defenseless, and not caring.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is no doubt that Jennifer Egan is a talented writer with a gift for observation and a clever turn of phrase. Which makes it all the more regrettable that she decided it was necessary to experiment with structure in this novel qua short fiction collection that doesn't quite know what it wants to be and forfeits the power of storytelling in the process. Each chapter is told by a different character and time periods shoot back and forth which disrupts flow and makes it difficult to care for any particular character. The result is less than the sum of its parts and forgettable. Warning: If you're reading on an ereader the Powerpoint section is difficult to read, it was unscalable on my Kobo.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fortress of nerd-dom

When did novelists and poets become such dullards?

I have nothing against literary festivals. In fact I've even participated in a few myself. But there I was reading the newspaper, scrolling through the lineup of the upcoming local litfest, and feeling completely uninspired. Don't get me wrong, there are some great writers coming from all over the world who have written some fantastic books, some of which I've even found the time to read. But it was the personalities that failed to attract and get me excited. If I'm going to pay good money to go hear an author speak or read or opinionate, he/she better be worth the expense. They'd better be as surprising and inspiring and entertaining as any performer I'd want to see or hear. Musicians, for example, know that they better have a great show because in the digital era live performance is how they make their living. What happened to the days when novelists and poets had to sing for their supper? Staring at the newspaper, my mind suddenly began to wax nostalgic for an era, even I can recall, when novelists and poets actually had personalities.

But did writers ever really have to sing for their supper? Maybe it was only the mediocre writers who had to pound the pavement to drum up an audience. Actually it was the exact opposite. There was a time when writers understood that it was part and parcel of the job, and the best most renowned writers, from Oscar Wilde to Dickens to Mark Twain to Walt Whitman, were relentless at it. They embraced public performance, understanding that it was an essential component of what they did. And they were as well known for their stage appearances as their writing. Later, television was a boon to writers and some novelists were masters of the medium. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal come to mind, both of whom had feuds with William F. Buckley and each other, stirring controversy with wit and verbal swordsmanship. 

In Canada we had poet Irving Layton,  Leonard Cohen's mentor of whom he famously said "I taught Irving how to dress and he taught me how to live forever." Layton appeared regularly on CBC's show Fighting Words together with other author-guests like novelists Robertson Davies and Hugh Garner and poet Earle Birney. But of his cohort, it was Layton who perfected the image of the celebrity-writer persona with his verbal stridency. A bit later Layton was matched by Mordecai Richler who seemed to have a particular gift for offending, and embraced the role.

No doubt, over the last few decades, the chill of political correctness, on the one hand, and the ubiquitousness of media and pervasiveness of opinionating 'talking-heads' on the other hand, have mitigated against the importance of the public intellectual. But more than that, maybe novelists in particular have simply given up. With everyone trying to get attention for one endeavour or another, selling their wares on a variety of platforms and being more outlandish in the process, the nerds have simply decided to retire to their laptops in their fortresses of nerd-dom. They are content to write their novels and not get noticed because they know that in the crowded marketplace of attention-seeking, they don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of competing. Could Mailer or Layton compete nowadays, in the era of media stars like Kim Kardashian? It's an intriguing question to ponder. Not too long ago the late Christopher Hitchens showed how adept a writer could be at courting controversy, leveraging media attention with articulateness and wit to his advantage. Were he speaking at this year's litfest I'd at least be tempted to shell out the bucks to hear him. Alas Hitchens is gone, and anyway he wasn't a novelist, which was my main point. The last novelist I can think of who garnered significant media-hype for his public appearances was Salman Rushdie and it took a fatwa calling for his murder and ten years of hiding to drum up public enthusiasm. I guess my biggest concern is not about boring novelists after all. Turns out to be boring audiences who, I fear, wouldn't know the difference between Kim Kardashian's booty and Irving Layton's intellectual bravado, or rather they'd prefer a public showing of the former over the latter. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Gum ThiefThe Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My second Coupland in as many months, the other novel being Microserfs,and for a time I thought I'd become addicted to his style of writing, his keen observations, and his dark humour. I love Coupland's thoughtfulness, his playfulness, his cleverness, the layering of voices that conveys the texture of ordinary contemporary life; it's the modus operandi of a performance/conceptual artist as much as a writer. And I guess where it can also feel a bit plotlessly redundant is when you realize that the voices are all really, at base, the same voice, conveying facets of the same essential message about alienation with the same ironic tone. In the case of Microserfs the voices belong to a group of Silicon Valley computer programmers. In The Gum Thief the voices belong to unremarkable losers, principally Roger a divorced mid-forties man and Bethany a mid twenties Goth girl, both working at Staples, and wondering, as David Byrne sang, "How did I get here?" Other voices in the mix belong to Bethany's mom Dee Dee, Roger's Ex Joan, and characters from Roger's novel manuscript in progress "Glove Pond." It's a mash-up, where fiction meets fact meets fiction, that ultimately goes nowhere, sort of like the characters. Still, Coupland has a way with a phrase and metaphor that uncannily captures a sense of what consumer/voyeuristic/empty culture feels like, and for that alone, and the fact that he's got a great sense of humour, makes reading The Gum Thief worth the effort.      

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone

It is said that children are the best teachers. I have been learning from mine for the past nearly twenty-one years. I had to share my latest education. It came courtesy of my daughter Tamar who had to write an essay for her grade 10 English class on a work of art that was influenced by the social or political context in which it was created. An intriguing assignment from an inspired teacher, I thought, considering that so much of what passes for art these days seems to be insular, self-gazing drivel, more concerned with the promotion of personality than with social conscience. Tamar asked for my help to edit the essay, which was about a song by Nina Simone. Have you ever heard of her? she asked. How the heck did you ever discover Nina Simone? I shot back. Of course I knew of Nina Simone, especially her rendition of I Put a Spell on You. But the song Tamar had uncovered was not one with which I was familiar. And what a song it is. Essential. Tamar still hasn't revealed exactly how she found it. I guess for all those internet naysayers who lament that kids are wasting their time in front of the screen, here's the flip-side. 

With Liner Notes By: Tamar Black-Rotchin 

Picket lines School boycotts
They try to say it's a communist plot 
All I want is equality 
for my sister my brother my people and me
- Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam 
In the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights movement had a major impact on artists. Musicians, writers and poets took the opportunity to express their desire for political equality and social justice, and to give voice to the historical pain and suffering endured by American minorities. One artist who rose to prominence in this context was jazz singer Nina Simone. Simone is an excellent example of an artist who was influenced by the African American struggle for civil rights, and her 1964 song, “Mississippi Goddam” demonstrates how historical events can inspire and motivate protest in the form of art. Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in North Carolina. She was a classically trained musician whose aspirations to be become a concert pianist were thwarted when she was denied admittance to a prestigious music institute reportedly because she was black. According to The Jazz Encyclopedia this event “...heightened her anger over the racism...pervasive in the United States during this period.” Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Simone made a name for herself performing and recording popular music that blended classical and jazz styles. As the quintessentially African American musical style with origins in the historical experience of slavery, jazz became Simone’s principal mode of musical expression. Two events inspired Nina Simone to write Mississippi Goddam. The first was the assassination in 1963 of civil rights activist Medgar Evers by a member of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. In the song, when Simone wails "Everybody knows about Mississippi," this is the event to which she is referring. Evers was a well known activist whose work in the civil rights movement made him a target of opponents. He was shot down in cold blood outside his home on the morning of June 12th, a few hours after US President John F. Kennedy made a nationally televised speech in support of a civil rights act. The Evers murder was a lightning rod for further protest, political engagement and artistic expression by musicians such as Bob Dylan and writers like Eudora Welty who responded to the tragedy with protest works of their own. The second event that inspired Simone’s song was the horrific bombing on September 15th 1963, of The 16th Street Baptist Church by four members of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, which killed four young girls and injured 22 others. The nation was horrified by this event. It was widely considered a turning point in the civil rights movement, and contributed to the support for passage of civil rights legislation in 1964. In the song Simone refers to the bombing when she sings "Alabama's gotten me so upset." Artists like Nina Simone who risk expressing unpopular political views in their work often do so at great personal and professional cost. When it was released in 1964, the recording of Mississippi Goddam was banned in several Southern states with the reason given that the title was religiously objectionable. In a March 1986 interview in Jet magazine Simone declared that although she does not regret her role as a civil rights activist, Mississippi Goddam probably hurt her career. “All of the controversial songs - the industry decided to punish me for and they put a boycott on my records.” Still, it seems to me that a genuine artist must speak honestly above all else. They must use their talents to tell the truth no matter how unpopular that may be. Protest songs have much importance because they convey powerful and purposeful messages to the public, letting the masses know that they are not alone in the hardships that they face and their daily battles for justice and equality. Protest music can bring a sense of unity and harmony to those who are suffering, and most of all, they can be a catalyst to major social change for the better. In this respect Nina Simone is a true hero. As she says in the song:
Lord have mercy on this land of mine 
We all gonna get it in due time