Monday, January 14, 2008

Zachariah Wells, poet [Unsettled] and critic [Canadian Notes and Queries, Career-Limiting Moves]

Zachariah Wells, poet [Unsettled], critic [Canadian Notes and Queries, Career-Limiting Moves]:

1. CBT: Unknown musicians record their own music in basements -- and, if they've got talent, people take them seriously. Unknown film-makers shoot movies with DV cameras -- and, if they've got talent, people take them seriously. But unknown writers who self-publish -- in particular those who self-publish online -- are frequently snickered at whether they're talented or not, or, more often, given the publishing world's gesture of choice: the cold shoulder.

What do you think is the explanation for this? Is the publishing world the callowest of all the arts? Is it, despite the bromide that one not judge a book by its cover, the one in most need of a "package"? Or will the prejudice against publishing online change, once people become more acculturated to online creative work?

ZW: This is a hard question to answer. Of course, until really quite recently, there was really no such thing as "official publication" and some of the world's classic works started off life as self-published works (think Blake, or, better yet, Whitman, who even had to write his own reviews!), and when the vast majority of people were illiterate and poetry was a past-time reserved mostly for the gentry, poems we now find in Penguin paperbacks were circulated in manuscript.

It's tempting to think that the general snobbery directed towards self-publication has to do with the low standards of official publication. When so much crap can make it into print, the work must be really bad if you've got to pay to produce it yourself, right? I'm half-joking, but there may be something to this. It's comparably much harder to get a deal with a recognized music label or film studio, as everybody knows, so it's not surprising that there'd be less stigma ("indie" vs. "vanity") in these fields. (Also, the vast majority of self-published writing is even worse than the vast majority of officially published writing.)

Another thing is how much official publication is really veiled self-publication. One of the Griffin-nominated books last year was published by a house that employs the book's author. Several presses routinely publish books by their founders and editors (a practice with a very respectable pedigree: think Hogarth Press). And an awful lot of books get published because of personal connections between an author and a publisher/editor. This kind of self-publishing seems to be a-okay; the books get reviewed, taken seriously, and given awards. Given how easy it is to set up shop as a publisher (not that it isn't quite a bit of work and money, but it's not like you have to get a license) or to become a magazine editor, maybe some of the snobbery has to do with not following social protocols.

All that said, there is a flourishing--arguably too flourishing--sub-culture of self-publishing and chapbook presses. It's a full-fledged ethic with some people, an active rejection of the trappings of the book business. My friends at littlefishcartpress, for example, have produced a handful of perfect-bound anthologies and a whole slew of chapbooks and chipbooks, mostly by people they know, including me. People buy them and people read them. Not in masses, but then again, no one buys press-published books (except for a fortunate few) in masses either.

Anyway, I personally have nothing against it. I've done a fair bit myself (most recently, a CD recording of 24 of my poems). And whenever someone asks me how to get published, I suggest d.i.y. There's a lot to be said for having full control of the process.

2. CBT: You have posted on the rules governing copyright, arguing that they should not apply in situations where someone (e.g., you) genuinely admires someone else's work (e.g., Wendy Cope), and creates a podcast of it. Assuming that you're being forthright when you say you have good intentions, and furthermore that Cope may be self-defeating when she reacts against your desire to help her increase her fame, is that really the point? As a friend of mine says, we need the same laws for good people and bad people. Isn't the issue not your intentions, but the precedent you help create?

ZW: Mine is a utilitarian, not an idealistic, position. I don't believe that the laws shouldn't apply. I just think that people should realize that it does no harm, and is potentially of some benefit, when someone "pirates" a poem on a not-for-profit website. Most people, I think, do realize that. A few, like Cope, think they've had something stolen. Technically, she's right. Practically, she's an idiot. Paying her lawyer to threaten bloggers has probably cost her more than the "theft" of her poems.

3. CBT: You've also posted on the campaign organized by Jean Baird along with John Oliver to stipulate the amount of Canadian literature that is taught in B.C. schools. According to Baird's statement:

We will be taking the opportunity to respond to the new curriculum and have suggested that in each year from grade 8 to 12 each student should read, both collaboratively and independently, to comprehend a variety of literary texts, including one or more significant works of Canadian literature. The proposed amendment allows for the study of a play, several short stories, a collection of poetry or poetry by three or four different poets, one or two novels, or work by Canadian literary critics.

To which you responded (in part):

Hmmmm, if the teachers think it's important and that more of it should be taught, then why aren't they teaching it? Maybe they'd rather be teaching something else, but when surveyed by someone who clearly thinks it's important, they said what they thought they should say. Are they being blocked from teaching Canadian books? Apparently not. One thing's for sure, if they're forced to teach Canadian books, they'll have less freedom to form their own curricula. And it's interesting to note that Ms. Baird does not provide stats on the answer to question 19 on the survey, concerning support for a provincial policy requiring a set percentage of Canadian content. I wonder if maybe these numbers don't support her cause so well...

Three questions follow from this....

First, it doesn't seem that Baird and Oliver are asking for that much. Isn't the amount of CanCon that they want to mandate in B. C. classrooms a reasonable amount, given that teachers already teaching this much Canadian literature will have already met the proposed standard?

ZW: First, amount is not the issue. Something that teachers in BC have fought hard for (my mother-in-law's a retired union negotiator with the BC Teacher's Federation and my wife recently completed her teaching certificate at SFU, so I hear a lot about these issues) is autonomy in setting their curricula. Mandating anything is antithetical to that freedom. Secondly, given how few books of any sort seem to get taught in public high school "English Language Arts" classes, this is actually a significant chunk of the curriculum.

4. CBT: Second, isn't there a principle involved? In other words, isn't it a recognition of reality that Canadian culture needs a form of "space" in order to thrive? After all, most countries apart from cultural hegemons mandate percentages of their indigenous culture: South Korea has screen quotas, Canada has CRTC regulations. Shouldn't Canadians maintain quotas in classrooms as a matter of course?

ZW: Yes, there is a principle involved, viz.: Classrooms are not marketplaces for the sale and purchase of products.

5. CBT: Third, in an exchange you and I had on the subject, you drew a contract between the Canadian and American novels you read in university, and commented:

Of the Canadian books, I would classify only one (The Double Hook) as brilliant and another (The Diviners) as very good. The Handmaid's Tale I will grudgingly call good, but I didn't like it much. The other two are dead dull. All of the books on the American list range from very good to brilliant.

Agreeing that there is a lot of good American writing, and that your first duty as a reader is to assess work objectively, and not be mindlessly patriotic, is it still not the case that perhaps part of the problem was the list itself? (I should say at this point that I, also, feel a fair degree of frustration with a rather fusty tendency that seems to have great strength in this country, and has a dampening or even excluding effect on lively but unorthodox writing.)

Augmenting this tendency is a Canadian tendency -- see the question about creating more "space" above -- to not celebrate our own. Evidence of this can be seen on the Internet. For example, litblogs routinely discuss U. S. outsider authors like Charles Bukowski, Noah Cicero, and Gilbert Sorrentino. Canadian outsider authors like Britt Hagarty, Daniel Jones or Matthew Firth tend to be ignored. And so it goes, with the work of many Canadian writers not getting attention in either the United States or Canada. Isn't the apparently "dull" quality of CanLit partly a problem of perception, and isn't this perception in part formed by the amount (or lack thereof) of commentary that surrounds it?

ZW: Yes. Part of the point that I was making in our earlier discussion was that if English teachers aren't teaching Canadian literature, it's probably because of the way it was taught to them (bad books; thematic criticism masking their badness). While I'm very quick to disagree with people who say that Canada has produced no good or important writing, I can't say that we've done a good job identifying what's best. (George Bowering, the husband of Jean Baird, being a prime example of our over-rating of prolific second-rate talents.) Forcing teachers to assign Cancon is not a productive way to solve this problem, only to exacerbate it. We need to persuade teachers that teaching Canadian books will enrich their courses. This is, of course, much more work than passing a bill in the legislature.

As for your point about "outsiders," I think it might be a demographic issue. If, say, 5% of American readers are drawn to the sort of writing you're talking about, that still generates a lot of conversation because it's a lot of people. 5% of Canadian readers is considerably fewer people. But still, someone like Mark Anthony Jarman has a pretty good following in Canada. And he should, he's a damn fine writer. But it seems to me that "outsider" writing is plagued with the same fundamental problem that plagues all writing: most of it's not very good.

6. CBT: Alternatively, are Canadians too hung up on questions of cultural nationalism? Should we simply relax and not categorize work according to a checklist in terms of its content or origins?

After all, the banner of cultural nationalism tends to morph fairly easily into a double-edged sword; it can engender provincialism, and it can have a cooling effect on the freedom a writer feels to write in any setting he/she chooses. The world should be the artist's oyster; that tends not to happen in a culturally nationalistic atmosphere.

Would a revival of cultural nationalism in English Canada carry the risk of making us overly inward-looking? Or is it a question of "getting the mix right"? Is some cultural nationalism necessary, given the reality of Canada's place in the literary culture of the 21st Century?

ZW: I have no idea what "the reality of Canada's place in the literary culture of the 21st Century" is. And I frankly don't care. So I guess my answer to the first part of your question is yes. When I ride on a Skytrain full of people from other countries, the notion of an English Canadian Identity feels not so much provincial as colonial. The great lie we tell ourselves is that we're a nation that suffers from having been colonised politically by the British and economically by the Americans. The fact is that Canadian WASPS are British and Americans and we've been doing the colonising (in my case, being 1/4 Russian Jew (family surname "Douglas"), I've colonised myself). Or maybe we're the Lucky Pierre in this arrangement, both buggered and buggering... Whatever, I get very tired of all the Survival-mythologizing, ressentiment-mongering, special pleading and excuse-making. I've just finished editing an anthology of 99 Canadian sonnets, and something that struck me is just how international in flavour the book is. A staggering number of the 100 contributors have come from somewhere else or have emigrated from Canada and are, like you, living abroad. Or have moved around extensively within the country, which really is a place of distinct regions (I know: I've lived on all three coasts and in 6 different provinces and territories). I think there's much to be said for adopting inverted commas whenever we talk about "Canadian" Literature.

7. CBT: In the comments thread mentioned above, you describe Canada (accurately) as a "minor power", and then make the point that Canadians should not assume that on a per capita basis we produce equal amounts of high caliber work as other nations .You then ask rhetorically, "Now quick, how many Australian or New Zealand writers can you think of off the top of your head?"

This raises the issue of whether we Canadians -- who tend to be ignored by our American and British cousins -- also tend to overlook work from English-speaking that are also "minor". And not just Australia and New Zealand, but also Kenya or the Philippines, among others. (And then there is the issue of work in translation, from French-Canadian work, to that of, say, Korea.) Do English Canadians need to do more to seek out work from nations that are equally or more "minor" than we are?

ZW: Probably; it can certainly do no harm. But personally, I find "seeking out" work, whether here or abroad, to be mostly tiring and fruitless. I've stumbled occasionally on things that are of great importance to me ( e.g., the novels of Yukio Mishima, which I first encountered--wait for it--in a high school English class).

8. CBT: You're a poet, and you blog about both prose and poetry. In your opinion, does there need to be more commentary of this sort? Given that poetry and prose tend to exist is separate worlds (or two solitudes, if we want to get all CanCon about it), do we need more sites devoted to both?

ZW: Only if people want to build them. I started my blog in large part because I was frustrated with the way arguments would get sabotaged in other fora. It was an experiment; I didn't know if blogging was something I'd enjoy. It turns out that I do like it, so I'll keep doing it until I don't.

Personally, I read very little contemporary prose fiction and very little fiction period. I only read a lot of contemporary verse because I get paid to do it. Far too much of what I read I don't like. At some point, I'm going to have to quit, at least for a while, and read only good books (a few of which will be Canadian).

9. CBT: Returning to the theme of writing that is "outside" -- should the standing notion of "writing" be expanded in Canada, especially at the institutional level? For example, there are some who feel (myself included) the Canadian literary establishment should embrace what are now called graphic novels for the simple reason that Canada has produced a really great number of artists/writers in this field alone -- Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Dave Collier, etc. Any comments on this?

ZW: We should definitely embrace graphic novels if it means more graphic sex. I have no issue with this sort of thing in principle, but I haven't read any graphic novels and haven't read much Sci-Fi or fantasy since my early teens. But genre has nothing to do with writing quality. A good sci-fi novel is better art than 90% of the poetry published. But "poets," oddly, have more political clout in the literary establishment, so they get to decide what's "real art."

10. CBT: A lot of American literary magazines have a forceful online presence: they offer complete short stories to be read, they allow for online submissions. Canadian lit magazines (with a few exceptions, such as The Danforth Review, Matrix and Lies With Occasional Truth (I'll add more to this list as I come across them)) don't. A survey of the online presence of Canadian lit mags shows that they do not have much (or any) of their content online, and do not allow email submissions. They seem, to put it bluntly, behind the times.

Should Canadian literary magazines be more proactive in taking advantage of the Internet? And given that a strong Internet presence requires more labour, should they get Canada Council funding specifically for this? Or is this a typically Canadian reaction, and should those with a passion for narrative culture (in all its forms) just open that blogspot account and get their work out there?

ZW: There are few things more hidebound than the average litmag. I posted about this a few months ago. Arc magazine has a really excellent website and they keep it updated. Most others are pretty shabby, as you say. If anything, the internet seems a better medium than print for a lit journal. Journals are ephemeral anyway, so why not save a whole lot of money and paper and stop printing the things? It's far easier to reach a wide readership online and you can be more adventuresome with content because there are no space restrictions. And you don't have to assemble an issue out of what you have on hand. Whenever you get something really good, you can add it. I don't think more labour is needed, just a bit more savvy. The magazine I work for does not, unfortunately, have a very good site, because none of the editors is very web-wise. But we're working on it.

But yeah, open that free account; just be aware that if you want to build an audience for your site, you've got to add content regularly. If I go a week without posting something on my blog, the traffic drops way off and takes a bit of time to build up again.

BIO: Zachariah Wells is a writer and editor from Prince Edward Island living in New Westminster, BC. He is the author of a highly regional collection of poems about the Canadian Arctic, Unsettled, the editor of Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets and co-author of Anything But Hank!, a children's picture book forthcoming in the fall. His blog is Career Limiting Moves and he edits the reviews section of Canadian Notes & Queries magazine.

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