Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ian Brown - writer, arts journalist

Ian Brown -- writer, arts journalist (The Globe and Mail), and broadcaster (moderator of CBC radio's Talking Books, and host of TVO's Human Edge and The View From Here):

1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

I don't think literature is in trouble. It may be taking new and mutant forms, but literature itself--written work whose value lies in the beauty of its language and its emotional effect--is more robust than ever. In fact, I would say we are living in the Second Renaissance that way. Of course, I include the writing in a TV show such as Rescue Me as literature, so my definition may be wider than most. But for all the crap we see--all the Oprah fare and over-promoted soap such as Clair Messud's last novel along with the more obvious dreck, such as Mitch Albom's books--there seems to be more good stuff around, pound for pound, than ever--whether it is in the form of blogs, The Believer Magazine, writerlynonfiction (tons of examples), script-writing, TV, graphic novels, or even the odd traditional novel.

2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the novel be considered the prime example of it?

See definition above, hence my belief that the novel is no longer the prime example of literature. Nor does it need to be. Too much attention can ossify a genre. If anything is in trouble, it's literary fiction--but again, only because there are so many alternative ways to consume good writing these days. The book itself is a fantastic technology, but literary fiction has some serious competition for my attention. For a long time, literary fiction--the short story and the novel--had valuable territory all to itself: that is, the emotional interior of a character's life. No other way of telling a story was as good at describing that interior as literary fiction--poetry came close, drama had its days, but the novel was King Consciousness. And maybe things got a little too comfortable. Because for reasons that are still unclear to me--maybe because literature took that dank detour through the arid fields of literary theory, as Phil Marchandsuggested on this site a while ago--the actual story-telling skills of many so-called "literary novels" seemed to atrophy. Meanwhile everyone else--videographers, bloggers, the graphic folk, even journalists and critics--have been working like hell to develop new and more dashing ways of telling stories, technically. And it shows, at least by the measure of how much energy each of these story-telling forms is throwing off these days. And that's not to say that novelists can't also throw off energy if they want to--Jonathan Safran Foer is a good example of a guy who figured out how to tell his story not just one way, but in fifty ways.

3 . Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.

Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?

I think prizes are largely artificial, and possibly dangerous, although I'm not sure that's the fault of the prize, per se, so much as it is our own susceptibility to awards, as consumers of books. (The only thing responsible for one's losing one's ability to think "in a critically complex fashion" is an insufficient diet of critically complex thinking--and whose fault is that?) I've had the nightmarish pleasure of sitting on writing prize juries, and I can't think of a single case where we ended up picking what I or anyone else thought was the best piece of writing. For starters you have to compromise with the picks of the other judges, who suddenly turn out to have zero literary taste despite their excellent taste in shoes or mini-skirts.

Then the weird stuff starts happening--such as when someone says well, we need to have a women in the mix of finalists, or a Westerner. That sort of thing actually happens. To pretend that a book so chosen is "better" than another is absurd. I also think prizes tend to further commodify the business of publishing--they convey false value to ideas and writing, while undermining their real value, which is as ideas and writing in and of themselves. On the other hand, prizes--the Giller is a good example--lend much-needed glamour and pride to the literary community, which is undervalued in general. They may also attract readers to books in general, which is always a good thing. For the mind, I mean.

4. The publishing industry has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?

Real art is going to surface, no matter what--no matter how much agents and publishers and even readers conspire against it. For every publishing company that buys exit sales data from Barnes and Noble or Indigo to determine next fall's list, there are others that publish only what they want to read and publish. I admit it drives me crazy that a book like Tuesdays With Morrie--one of the shallowest, most craven books ever published--does so well while the short stories of, say, Sergei Dovlatov fail to sell. But again, that's not really the publishing industry's fault--it's our fault, the fault of readers. We keep choosing to read (or watch or listen to) shit, and then we wonder why modern life feels so empty. And personally, I have never had the experience of an editor or an agent saying, hey, Ian, make this more commercial. They seem to go instead for the most heartfelt ideas I can dream up, however unusual.

5. As well, should the Canadian cultural nationalism of the 1970s make a comeback? Do we need a "National Culture Policy" that will put more Canadian books front and center in bookstores?

Yes, we need a national culture policy, if only to compensate for our paltry numbers here in Canada. There are just too many American readers and too many American writers and too many American books, for starters, and the sheer force and size of their numbers would overwhelm Canadian writing and publishing without some help from our federal government. That policy helped make Canadian fiction an international success. Character may be destiny, but geography is a large part of character.

6. Many major houses refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it isagented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?

My experience as an editor suggests the opposite--that talent and good writing are in fact in permanent short supply, especially in a country that has only 32 million people. No one good is being ignored. I mean, I've read slush piles; you're lucky to find one salvageable piece in a hundred. I don't know where we get this idea that there are thousands and thousands of brilliant writers out there waiting to be read, but for the narrow greedy tastes of publishers. It isn't true. And look at some of the dreck that gets published anyway! And I mean in so-called "literary magazines" and by so called "literary presses," not just on self-published blogs. This so-called quality literary stuff lands on my desk at Talking Books all the time, and I can tell you a lot of it is terrifyingly bad. It can make your eyeballs spin out of your head at fifty paces. I sometimes think that publishers resort to formula so often not because it sells--it often doesn't, as it turns out--but because they have nothing else to publish, because good writing and inspired story-telling are in such short supply. It's a talent. It's rare.

7. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?

I don't know. I haven't found that to be the case. Winning an audience--to say nothing of keeping an audience--is very hard in any event, in any medium, even if you are published by a so-called "big" house. I suspect the roadblocks that do exist are most often erected by the chain bookstores, which do tend to stock only what they can turn over, and tend--this is what I hear from publishers, anyway--to be driven by a less literary, more bean-headed mentality. And then there are those scummy marketing ploys, such as the tables at a well-known chain marked "Great Books for Women" and "Great Books for Gardeners" and "Great Books for Airheads" and--oh, wait, sorry, that last one isn't one of them, I'm just imagining that. Still, getting a book on one of those tables costs money: the publisher has to pay for display. A small publisher likely can't afford that on his or her own. Yet another reason to support your local independent bookseller, if you ask me.

8. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?

You can never have too many publishers.

9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

I'm not sure new technologies will affect the form of the book, except perhaps to make it more various. I mean, hypertext is interesting: it could replace the footnote, except that it's less convenient than footnotes, provided the footnotes are at the foot of the page, and not at the back, which is a dumb idea, in my humble O. Audio books seem like they ought to be a growing business, but I don't have any data to support that, and my agent once told me there isn't much money in them; I'm basing my contention solely on the number of middle-aged people I know who now own iPods and who now listen to audiobooks while they're on a plane, avoiding the crap movie and the nuked food. But then, they're just as likely to be watching their own movie or listening to a RickyGervais podcast of Carl Pocklington's apercus, aren't they? The dedicated e-book is a loser, I think, at least at this point--it's just too hard to read for long off a screen, and too cumbersome. For research--yes, of course, online is the present and the future. But plain old books, as a technology, are very hard to beat. They are portable, sturdy, they don't require batteries or recharging, and--most important--they are private and personal and rare in ways that the iPod and the eBook can never be, by definition. Electronic text has a shared feel; physical books feel like they are one's own, a private, personal thing. I realize I sound crazy, but I think that's a very important difference.

10. You have worked across media for several years now: "Man Overboard" was both a book and a TV show. You work in print and broadcast journalism. But there seems to be a particular reticence in Canada to seeing that kind of Renaissance cultural activity as, well, Renaissance.

I'm not sure I agree about the reticence. I think some members of the literary establishment still look down their noses at TV or radio, or at the prospect of dealing with books and literary themes on radio and TV, but those people are rare now, and probably look down their noses at newspapers and the internet too. I also run into the odd academic who gets snotty when one of the rabble dabbles in his or her specialty. The biggest problem in that regard is that these new media are still new: for instance, we still haven't figured out how to talk about books on TV, unless it's a fast-hit, end of year, this-is-what-to-buy kind of thing. TV doesn't lend itself to long abstract conversations the way radio and print do, and long discussions are what you need when you talk about books.

But having said that: as a writer, things have never been better. I mean, I recently wrote a story about culling one's books, and what a grand and impossible endeavor that is. I wrote the piece for the Globe, and it was 5,000 words long--two entire pages of the broadsheet. But since it was published I have had discussions about turning the piece not just into a book, but into a TV story--an actual narrative--as well. And that's a story about tidying up your library.

Why the interest in such an obscure subject? Because--and this may be the real answer to Question 9--there is a huge hunger these days for stories that are not on the official media agenda (and I think most bloggers are now pretty much on the official agenda too). One of the ironic consequences of the information explosion--the internet, cable, the iPod, etc--has been that the same 5 percent of human experience (the news, the daily stuff that gets wired around the world, the daily agenda that everyone talks about, the standard concepts and topics) gets talked about over and over and over again. You know how it works: CNN goes big on O.J., so all the papers have to go big on O.J. too, whereupon NBC and CBC go bigger, whereupon the bloggers jump in too. etc, etc, blah blah blah. A lot of bloggers will claim this doesn't happen in the so-called blogosphere, but it does: blogs, I find, are especially susceptible to picking up the agenda zeitgeist, which only makes most of them sound like everything else. (Talent is as rare in Blogdom as it is anywhere else; unfortunately, editors are even rarer down there.) Anyway, the result of all this me-tooism is that the remaining 95 per cent of human experience is completely untouched, at least by the established media--unless they recognize the fact, which happens very rarely, and make a special place for the unofficial stories and a different kind of reporting/writing and reading, which is how people like me get to do what we do at the Globe, and publish stories about culling. The Globe's a very daring publication in that regard. And then the stories get picked up and re-developed by radio and TV, which are equally hungry for well-told, well-reported, off-agenda stories. I find that very encouraging, as a writer-slash-journalist. Now all we have to work on is the rate of pay.

11. Is Canadian literary culture a little obsessed with what lit-blogger Dan Green once called "print sniffing"? Is there a tendency in our country to fetishize books qua objects, and not pay enough attention to the actual content of what a writer produces over his/her career and over various media?

No, I don't think so. I think of Don McKellar as a great writer (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, among many other works) but he's better known as an actor. Ditto Susan Coyne, who wrote Slings and Arrows on TV and Kingfisher Days between hardcovers, while also acting. Books are still the gold standard in some circles--because books are where the most serious thinking and writing has been done, traditionally. You can refer back to what is in a book, more easily and more reliably than you can refer to what has been spouted into the ether on TV. It's not for nothing that George Bush prefers to give TV interviews, over print ones--because the stuff he says on TV gets forgotten. Although with YouTube that is now changing. But I don't think Canadians are more fetishistic, book-wise, than anyone else. Books have weight, historically; they deserve a little sniffing, frankly.

12. And if so, will this rather straight-laced tendency of Canadian literary culture lessen its chances of retaining its small market on the world stage in the coming years of great technological change?

No. If anything, the size of our local national market becomes less important with new technology, because you can publish anywhere, in a multiplicity of forms. I admit I'm an optimist in that regard. We just have to take chances, and give good writers the freedom and opportunity (financial and otherwise) to do what they are convinced they have to do. Talent takes care of itself.

13. In the introduction to the essay collection you edited, "What I Meant to Say", you recount a conversation with publisher Patrick Crean. In it, you describe thrashing out identifying the audience for a book of personal essays by men about their personal lives. Finally, you both agree the audience for such a book wouldn't so much be men as women who want to find out about men.

Has this theory been borne out? Or have you found that there are many men, too, who want to read essays like these?

The book is now in its third printing, so something is working. I think we were right to conclude that a male version of Carol Shields's Dropped Threads would not work; that men would run shrieking from a book about men, by men, for men, because very few men would want to be seen reading or buying such a book. It would reek of feelings and weakness and insecurity and the men's movement, or at least that is what most men would think it would reek of, given what they were used to reading in that genre. Men aren't supposed to have private lives that can be talked about.
But women bought it, because I told the contributors to write their essays for female readers, and all the contributors are very good-story-tellers. And those women in turn seem to give it to men, who then buy it on their own for their pals, and even for their wives and sons and daughters.

It almost feels like a genetic difference. Historically and biologically, men are the ones who form a chain around the fire at night, facing out from their women and children, watching for marauders in the darkness. You don't want to be distracted by feelings at times like that, or when you're hunting, or when you're fighting your enemy. Maybe that's why brain scientists are finding that men have one-track brains--because distraction was costlier to men, who always did the dangerous work of hunting and warring, than it was to multi-track-brained women. Thus men have not developed a vocabulary that allowed them to talk to one another about private matters, or about their private lives. But that's changing quickly: the women's movement blew open all the doors. So guys can now buy this book and read about sex and shopping and convertibles and what it's like to try to be a hero or have secrets, and other aspects of the private male psyche.

Having said that, I should add that after What I Meant to Say came out, I began to think that we ought to have published a book of essays by men, written for women, about women, and how men see them. That would have been of even greater interest to women, I imagine.

14. Yet taking into account that frank discussion of sexual desire is an absolute must in any book about the modern male psyche, how, in your opinion, does a writer balance the fact of carnal need with the ideal of heartfelt sensitivity? (For example, you achieve a nice balance in your own piece on stripping between obligations to family and the Urge to Look.)Generally speaking, how is one to be honest and moving at the same time?

It's a big problem. A lot of women--who buy most of the books--just aren't interested in hearing about the way men behave, especially when guys objectify women--which is something men do a lot. Women especially aren't interested in hearing this stuff if the guy is furious or hates women or is simply venting his pent-up anger.

But I think you can do it, if you write candidly and stylishly, if you tell the story well. A little candour--my decision to write about being watched when I walk with my disabled son, and to compare that objectification to what happens when I watch women in strip clubs, is a case in point--goes a long way in that regard.

And there's a difference between candour and confession, which is a whole other, more complicated genre of writing, and not one I'm drawn to. Confession is passive and weak and assumes an admission of guilt and a desire to apologize. Candour is more confident--such as when Ted Bishop reveals, in his essay in What I Meant to Say, what goes through his mind when a pretty cashier's hand grazes his as she returns his change. And how that relates to the theories of Merleau-Ponty. All of which was interesting and charming and funny and complimentary to women and--most important of all--beautifully written. I told all the contributors that I didn't mind what they said--they could even admit to wanting to be left alone with the March issue of Tits 'n' Hitler--as long as a woman reader didn't heave the book arcross the room, but instead was prompted to think about what they had to say.

And that's the sort of thing you can do if you can tell a story well. It's a bit like that movie, The Aristocrats, about a bunch of comedians telling a truly gross and disgusting joke: after a while, the vile content doesn't matter as much as the wit and originality of the telling. Updike knows that: he is (still!) always going on about women's nether parts, for instance, often in the most objectifying way, but he does it with such an original eye and with such precision and care and energy and attention and careful, graceful writing and story-tellign technique, that women are seduced into reading him anyway. Plus he is always showing them how his male characters see woman, a subject of steady interest to women readers lo these many centuries.
It's one of the great thrills and challenges of writing, I think: you find yourself stuck way out over deep, shark--infested waters, and you can't help but think, oh man, if I fall, I am soooooooo dead! And then you manage to get across the gap anyway, because you figured out how to keep people reading.

Bio: Ian Brown is a roving feature writer for the
Globe and Mail. His stories mostly appear in the Focus section of the Saturday edition of the paper. He is also the host of Talking Books, a radio show that can be heard on CBC Radio 1 at 4:30 p.m. every Saturday; and the host of Human Edge and The View From Here, two documentary film series on TVOntario. He is the author of two books, FreeWheeling and Man Overboard (published as Man Medium Rare in the United States) and was the editor of What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Johanna Schneller, and their two children.

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