Saturday, September 15, 2007


Notables Dangeureux

Mark Kaplan on the un-ironic dangers of irony:

I read that one philosopher-blogger declared that everything he says is a joke. A declaration which would itself be a fairly predictable self-cancelling philosophical joke, no sooner made than evaporating in a question mark. Regardless, the remark reminded me of the empty, faux-ludic nihilism of contemporary ‘irony’ – serving no purpose, devoid of critical or satirical intent, endlessly putting its own speech in quotation marks and the world in brackets. Sometimes it poses as a Deconstructive provisionality, a radicalism so subtle & subjunctive as to leave things exactly as they were before; other times it is a paralysed mockery, its suspicion of seriousness, commitment or Causes merely the alibi of political compliance and withdrawal.

Steve Augustine on On Chesil Beach, middlebrow chivalry, and the dangers of premature beatification of the author:

McEwan’s schematic stacks the deck with the force of stereotypes so entrenched they feel like empirical laws of a natural science. Making the upper class female love-object in this novel superior in almost every way may feel like an expression of the author’s (unconscious? Self-hating?) class prejudice, but it’s also the de rigeur chivalry of the post-feminist celebrity, as it would be difficult to imagine a writer with McEwan’s following getting away with making any of the males in his couples more intelligent than their invariably attractive wives or lovers. Hewing obediently to this unspoken stricture is a minor failure of nerve that doesn’t, on its own, threaten the integrity of the work. But as McEwan ages and his stature grows and he devolves towards the artistic cul-de-sac of Elder Statesmanship, other strictures … other obediences to the sensibilities of his auditors … undermine his mastery. A certain squeamishness sets in.

Nathan Whitlock on the dangers of excessive artistic conservatism:

I'm not sure the world has gone so conservative – culturally, morally, and economically, things can get fairly frontier-town out there, and that's not such a good thing – but it's true that Canadian publishing seems to represent a virtual (and occasionally literal) de-linking of a huge chunk of society from the rest the rest of the world, a perpetual High Tea held on a floating barge that's slowly taking on water. I've watched a lot of people in books – writers, editors, publicists, booksellers, myself – voluntarily and somewhat subconsciously adopt a kind of narrowed cultural vision in order to survive/thrive in the business.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Jon Evans -- novelist, journalist

Jon Evans -- novelist (INVISIBLE ARMIES, BLOOD PRICE, etc.), journalist ("Apocalypse Soon")

Note: In order to put this interview in context, reading Evans' article "Apocalypse Soon" is recommended.

1. In a piece you wrote entitled "Apocalypse Soon" that recently appeared in The Walrus, you argue that print culture -- the publishing industry as it has traditionally been aligned -- is about the be hit by a meteor. And that meteor is digital culture. But these arguments have been floating around for several years. How soon is soon? And what factors can you identify that would bring about these changes in a way conducive to good writing and expanded opportunities for serious authors?


Well - that's actually not quite my argument. Culture is important, but secondary. The actual meteor will be a good, reasonably priced, widely available e-book reader that eliminates paper's most important advantage. The Sony Reader I mention in the article is a step in the right direction, but certainly not the answer. It's hard to predict hardware developments (other than Moore's Law) but there is a whole lot of research into various forms of electronic ink going on, so I'll stick my neck out and say we'll see something like that in less than five years.

Culture - well, there are already a whole lot of free books available online, and I think it's reasonable to assume they'll come pre-installed on these readers; we already have the culture of online file-sharing; we increasingly have the culture of people using their Palm Pilots, iPhones, Nokia E90s, etc., as major information intake devices. Once the hardware is available, I think a small but significant portion of the reading population will take to it immediately, and then their numbers will steadily grow.

Note, though, that the "iTome" won't conquer as fast as the iPod. I suspect hardly anyone over forty will adopt it. Paper will remain a significant, albeit shrinking, segment of the book market for a long time.

As for "conducive to good writing and expanded opportunities for serious authors" - I'm not at all sure these changes will be conducive to those things. Basically this is a question of economics: will there be more money in literature? And if so, will it be spread among more authors? (Allowing more to write full-time, which would presumably be conducive to good writing, and would also draw more talent into the field, thus expanding opportunities.)

This will only happen if a) more people read, and/or b) more money goes to authors, while c) we don't wind up with everyone reading the same fifty or hundred big-name authors, while everyone else scrabbles for scraps. I think c) is actually very unlikely, but I have no idea about a) or b).

2. In the same article, you argue the file sharing that is already changing the way music companies must model their business will have a revolutionary impact on publishing as well, once text-readers like the Sony Reader became common.

The resulting change, you continue, will lead to online distribution (including, as in the music industry, pirate distribution) of e-books. This will be likely to lead to two possible scenarios: one in which authors are not paid any more, and will have to rely on the generosity of patrons and other outside sources of income in order to survive financially, or one in which they are paid directly for their work.

It is probably safe to say that for many emerging writers, frustrated by the endless carousel of not having one's work read without an agent, and not getting an agent without an impressive publishing history, the prospect of "e-publishing" holds a certain appeal. But there are a lot of impediments to doing even this -- or at least, doing it well. For example one needs a bit of capital to build a really attractive website, manage the e-business, and generally avoid stumbling into too many of the pitfalls of DIY culture.

Do you also foresee a model in which businesses to help set up e-publishers also evolve? (I"m thinking of something more publishing-specific than the Yahoo start-yer-own-biz site). Or will we end up with an e-publishing culture in which corporate behemoths still dominate simply because they can pour more money into slick homepages, PR staff to focus on "viral" publicity, etc.?


The Internet already makes self-publishing a theoretically viable concern: go to, sign up for free, upload a PDF of your latest opus, and sell print-on-demand hardcovers for $25, of which about $10 is pure author profit. It's every writer's dream!

Except of course it isn't. Because nobody has ever heard of the vast majority of authors. Because most people still shop for books in bookstores. And most importantly, because everyone knows that Real Writers - ie those worth reading - are published by Real Publishers. And for the most part, this is entirely true.

It's less true in the online world, thanks to the increasing number of Real Writers publishing online - but still, even if/when distribution is no longer an issue, books that are professionally edited, copy-edited, and marketed, and receive the imprimatur of quality from an established arbiter, will retain an enormous advantage over amateur work, and rightfully so.

The thing is, there's no longer necessarily any reason for these things to be done by a single corporate behemoth. A large part of the barrier to entry to publishing has always been printing and distribution. If/when those are no longer necessary/relevant, an author could quite easily hire his/her own editor, copyeditor, and publicist, and bypass publishers entirely. (Many authors - not me - already hire their own publicists.)

Now, traditional publishers will still have major advantages. They have a stranglehold on bookstores, and even if paper shrinks to, say, 40% of the market, that's 40% authors won't want to ignore, which is an incentive to sign with a publisher. And publishers provide that imprimatur of basic quality. (Yes, there are a lot of bad books out there, but there are far, far more unspeakably awful unpublished ones.)

On the other hand, authors can make enormously more money self-publishing. (Because they don't pay for a publisher's overhead and failures). So I can envision a future in which occasional amateur digital hits come out of left field with no publisher; big-name authors maintain their own digital rights and sell their own digital copies (and/or hope pirate readers are willing to donate a buck or two); and traditional publishers get squeezed at both ends.

3. Stanislaw Lem once wrote a novel set in the distant future after a bacteriological epidemic has destroyed a substance hazily remembered as "papyr". As a result, this future society has lost virtually all records, all history, all knowledge. Compared to "papyr", "dijital" seems even more susceptible to massive losses of data because of some unforeseen catastrophe. Isn't one argument in favour of print culture over digital the former's relative permanence?


Well, technically yes, but first of all, nowhere do I argue that paper is going to entirely vanish, and second, even if this becomes a problem, it's a solvable one. Books could be archived in the same way that seeds for all the world's plants are being stored in vaults in Norway and other places. I suppose you get long-term durability for free with paper, and you have to put a little effort into it in a purely digital world, but it's only a little effort.

4. In many respects, the computer screen is not so much a "page"; it is a "flat-screen TV". In other words, computer technology allows a creative individual to use video and audio as well as text when creating narrative.

Continuing with the dinosaurs-and-evolution metaphor, do you see the e-book as being the final form of the online book? Or will it morph into something more multi-media?.


I think you want to ask a cognitive scientist, not me, but:

I suspect there will exist many, many multi-media works a la Griffin & Sabine, or graphic novels/comic books/manga - but text & video? Eh. I think in general, people respond to text in a fundamentally different way than they do to video (see also McLuhan) and context switching between the two will just be too annoying to be successful. Digital comic books, absolutely; digital movies, obviously; and video games will continue to grow and evolve (and that's a whole separate fascinating subject); but digital video intermingled with long sequences of text? My gut feeling is that will never be much more than a curiosity.

5. In "Apocalypse Soon" you also argue that in order to avoid an avalanche of self-published dreck, this new digital publishing paradigm must emphasize quality. But of all the qualitative adjectives that can be applied to literary creation, "quality" must be one of the most open to wildly different interpretation; after all, there is some very good work online that is "self-published", and some of the allegedly literary work being printed by major publishers these days is not conspicuously ground-breaking or even, on occasion, well-written.

How will "quality" be judged in a digital literary culture? Do you think newspapers will begin reviewing online writing? Do you think other lit-bloggers will do this review work? Who will assess "quality"?


Eh. That "quality" bit was more of an aside than a central part of the argument, to be honest, and it's only there 'cause the editor talked me out of removing it, a decision I now kind of regret.

Newspapers as we know them will probably not begin reviewing online writing regularly, mostly because they will be too busy dying. (They're already cutting down significantly on pages devoted to books.)

What is "quality"? Er. That's a deep philosophical question. I'm just this writer, you know?

I suppose it can be approximated by some mix of a) widespread readership; b) being approved and championed by The Authorities, whoever they are (English profs? professional literary critics? The big-name bloggerati?); c) influence on other writers (and other mediums); and d) whether or not the work lasts and is read by future generations. No one of those is good enough, and probably no two, but three or four serve a pretty good marker of Quality.

Online publishing/distribution isn't much likely to change that.

6. You also emphasize that one reason you want to take advantage of digital culture now is because very few authors (outside the SF examples you mention, such as Cory Doctorow) are currently doing it, and you would like to gain a little publicity by being one of the first in. However, you are currently stymied by your publisher's insistence that you not give your writing away for free online.

Are you planning to re-negotiate any publishing contracts you have? Will you insist that future publishing contracts you sign allow you to post digital manuscripts? And what is your agent's feelings about this issue?


I tried to renegotiate those contracts (by getting permission to publish online.) I failed.

My agent backed me 100% through all this.

I'll probably try to maintain digital rights in future contracts - but honestly, I don't think it much matters. I think this year was the right time, and DARK PLACES the right book, to publish online. Some other book a year or two from now will be the wrong book at the wrong time, which is one reason I'm annoyed at my publishers for failing to share my vision.

I'm actually serializing a weird but good little book called Beasts of New York online right now, in its stead, which I can do because I didn't sell it.

7. Canadian culture does not have a particularly high (or even visible) profile on the world stage. And the reason typically given for this is we are a country with a small population. Yet Canadian culture also tends to be subsumed within English-speaking Canada; certain cultural industries are constantly struggling to gain/retain an audience. (Example, when was the last time you saw a Canadian movie -- not one shot in Canada, but set in Canada?) This predicament is well-recognized by cultural commentators in English Canada, and, again, there is a ready explanation: the massive, ongoing influence of American culture.

But isn't this explanation now part of the problem? Doesn't it instill a sense of fatalism, and prevent Canadians from developing workable strategies that might strengthen our culture? In short, doesn't the "America usually wins" mantra become a self-fulfilling prophecy? After all, small population size and proximity to more powerful cultures do not spell cultural marginalization for other countries: South Korea, where I now live, has a population and economy approximately the same size as Canada's (49 million to our 35 million, and 11th largest economy compared to our 8th). Yet it has a tremendously vibrant and successful culture.

What is your own take on this issue? Any examples from your own experience? Or do you see the Canadian cultural status quo as just fine?


Well, there was BON COP BAD COP. But in general your point is well taken.

I think the biggest difference is that very little of South Korea's talent goes to Hollywood. I can easily rattle off dozens of Canadians who have been very successful in America's entertainment industry, and I'm sure you can too. There are still a lot of very talented people in Canada; but America is where the money is, and ergo it's where all the big hits are produced. South Korea is sheltered by its language barrier.

America's indirect influence might be even more important. It's such a huge pool of wealth that almost anything made in Canada is also made to be attractive to Americans as well - and such is the perception of America in Canada that this often means dumbing it down, making it more broad and more bland. The British make sharp, dry, well-written films and television (as well as a whole lot of crap) for a British audience, and American success is merely a potential bonus; in Canada, artists and entertainers (and I absolutely include myself in this indictment) almost always have one eye on the pot of gold across the border, and this subtly influences what we create.

8. In this interview series, R. M. Vaughan has commented about Canadian letters:

"A while back a writer friend of mine signed with a new agent. Out of curiousity, I went to the agency's website - every single one of the dozen or so agents had warnings underneath their interest lists: no science fiction, no mysteries, no horror, no thrillers, no fantasy books. In other words, nothing that might actually sell. We need to get over the tired prejudice against popular fiction in this country." [Feb. 20, 2007]

While Judy Stoffman has commented:

"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." [Feb. 13, 2007]

Who do you agree with more?


I take incredulous issue with Ms. Stoffman's statement that genre lit doesn't sell well in Canada - just look at the bestseller lists! - but I think R.M. Vaughan statement is more interesting. Major Canadian publishers certainly do publish genre fiction (I'm living proof) but it wouldn't surprise me if it's true that few to no Canadian agents represent such fiction. I think it's more socially acceptable to be passionate about genre fiction in America, and to some extent the UK, than it is in Canada; and that there is such a thing as a "literary establishment" subculture that is often dismissive of such fiction.

But who cares? Genre fiction sells very well, and if no Canadian agents represent it, then Canadian writers of such fiction should simply seek representation in America and/or the UK. They'll be better off anyway. Canada is a sufficiently small market that writers who actually want to make a living off their work almost invariably have to succeed in foreign markets as well. A major-market agent makes that success a lot more likely.

9. Should Canadian movie makers/TV producers work in much closer concert with novelists? Would all forms of fictional narrative benefit if there were this kind of integration between media?


My short answer is "no."

I write (thus far unproduced) screenplays as well as novels, so I can tell you with at least a little authority, they're very different animals. Some novels do lend themselves to being filmed, but the majority do not.

Like the abovementioned William Gibson, I too get "annoyed by people who seem to assume that feature films are the ultimate stage of novelistic creation, thereby relegating the book to the status of dull gray chrysalis."

10. 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) 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 possible solution overly reliant on arts body funding?


Yes, they're behind the times and should catch up (although I suspect their forbiddance of email submissions is for fear of being swamped, which is probably a reasonable fear.)

As to whether the government should pay for it - this is a political issue I'm disinclined to get into.

11. When discussing the hegemony of American culture over Canadian, Canadians repeatedly declare that beyond a certain point this is inevitable, and it is so for economic reasons. And while allowing that economic power is a massive factor in all aspects of life, is there not something else at work in the Canadian psyche? Is there not an argument for saying that Canadians just don't try as hard as they could?

Consider again the example of the lit-blogosphere. Here the argument that American culture reigns supreme because of economic advantage breaks down: blogging is free. Yet the Canadian lit-blogging scene is a pale shadow of its American counterpart. Moreover, speaking anecdotally, on average I tend to find the U.S. bloggers somewhat friendlier and more open to exchanging links, and so on. Canadian bloggers (and please keep in mind that there are always exceptions) seem more prone to passivity. Evidence of this is the degree to which Canadian lit-blogs do not link to each other as much as they might in their blog-rolls or posts.

As suggested above, do we, as a national culture, need to do more to create our own literary and/or political culture on the internet?

I think part of our natural culture is that we're slightly more aloof than Americans, and I'm fine with that.

I think another part is obsessive navel-gazing about what it means to be Canadian and whether we should be trying harder to be less American, and, to be honest - sorry - this just seems like collective insecurity to me, and tends to make me roll my eyes and change the subject.

I actually think Canada is doing just fine, and Canada's online culture equally so.

Bio: Jon Evans is a novelist, journalist and techie who has lived a conspicuously peripatetic life, even by contemporary standards. Born in Canada and currently living in Montreal, he is in fact, as they say, "Montreal-based".

Apart from his books, his work has appeared in Wired, The Globe and Mail, and The Walrus. And he is serializing online his "children's book for adults" BEASTS OF NEW YORK.