Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Judy Stoffman -- arts journalist (The Toronto Star)

Judy Stoffman of the books section of the Toronto Star:

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?

It's no exaggeration, alas. Books are published by the thousands and some are even being read but they have lost their authority, their central place in the culture. When I interviewed Norman Mailer recently in New York, he told me he was appalled that at dinner parties people are arguing over the latest television show they have seen, not the latest book. Young people have had their attention span damaged by the instant gratification of DVDs and videogames. My own newspaper, the Star, allots way more space to film coverage that to books, in part because publishers rarely advertise and film theatres do.

2. 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. Please comment.

Well, there is some truth to that, although given the deluge of books out there, prizes can clear away the undergrowth and point confused readers towards books worth reading. Book clubs often make their choices based on the short lists for the Booker or the Dublin IMPAC or the Giller prize. Prizes are the new reviews, it has been said. But it's not illegal yet to read a prize winning book and find it deeply flawed.

In Canada, there are way too many prizes; they may have reached a point of diminishing returns, and become less effective as sales boosters.

3. Continuing with the same theme, 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"?

Dangerous? Of course, there are always fine books that are overlooked by juries and it's highly satisfying to discover them for oneself.

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?

The way it works is that agents arrange auctions for books with commercial potential, which drives up the cost of the book to the publisher. The more the publisher shells out for the rights, the more he/she will invest in promotion and advertising to make sure the book sells enough to recoup the investment. That the book will be a bestseller is therefore a self-fulfilling prophesy.

It's hard to generalize about "art" and whether it's being lost--after all Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Ross King, Wayson Choy, William Boyd, Orhan Pamuk do get published.

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?

No, the government is already overinvolved. Smart booksellers will feature Canadian books because Canadian readers want them.

6. In Aug. 25, 2006, you wrote an article entitled "CanLit Bonfire in the NY Times" about an commentary piece by Douglas Coupland in which he argues that Canadian fiction possesses a disproportionate amount of writing placed in rural settings and not enough in urban environments.

First, do you agree with Coupland's argument? Are Canadian writers trapped in what Andrew Pyper referred to as the "brand" of CanLit (a brand that presumably emphasizes the rural)? Or, as Patrick Crean puts it in the same article, is Coupland's characterization of CanLit "nonsense", and is he simply stereotyping a period of Canadian writing that no longer exists?

I agree with Patrick Crean. I have interviewed Douglas several times and never had the sense he is great reader. He has not kept up. He is a visual artist, primarily, well informed about art and popular culture. I love the bee-hive like paper sculptures he made after chewing up his own own books.

7. Returning to the same article: in it, Patrick Crean mentions that Canada has the toughest book market in the English speaking world -- that is, Canadian publishers are constantly locked in competition with their (larger) U.S. and U.K. counterparts. Yet recently, author and culture critic R. M. Vaughan has remarked that Canadian publishers and agents have a conspicuous aversion to genre fiction -- in other words, they avoid commercial fiction that stands a good chance of selling.

Is part of the reason Canadian publishing is constantly in a struggle because of an underlying snobbery? Does CanLit need more GenreLit? Or are there other alternative ways the Canadian publishing industry can carve out a larger, more profitable share of the book market than it does now?

No, in 10 years of covering publishing I've never known a publisher to be a snob. They'll publish anything they think will sell. All kinds of genre lit have been tried and none of it sold as well in Canada as, say, Margaret Atwood. It could be that Canadian readers are more serious than U.S. book buyers. Two of the bestselling books in recent years have been the political expose On the Take by Stevie Cameron and the demographic study, Boom, Bust and Echo. Each sold more than 200,000 copies.

Judy Stoffman is one of the pre-eminent arts journalists in Canada. She regularly writes on book publishing for the Toronto Star.

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