Monday, December 21, 2009

Loveography 1: Inside Haemi Fortress


A WESTERN MAN is walking down the city's main street. To his left is Haemi Fortress, a medieval Korean fort. Its wall is built of unevenly-matched stones, each lightened by age to a gentle ochre, as if the stone itself has softened.

The MAN walking beside this wall has a peaceful expression on his face. But from his body language we can tell he's lonely.

VO: Those were the days before I met you.

SFX: A light breeze.


The Western man sees a group of CHILDREN. They are giggling and playing with each other. Then one of them spots the man.

CHILD: 의국인! [Foreigner]

SECOND CHILD: [sing-songy] Hello!

MAN: [smiling] Hello.

ALL CHILDREN: [gleefully] Hello! Hello!

MAN: [speaking slowly] Can you speak English?

The CHILDREN suddenly start to giggle uproariously. But their amusement is more a symptom of shyness than a desire to carry the game any further. They run away, still laughing.

The MAN continues walking. He makes his way through small, sad, empty streets.

V.O.: Chris Marker once asked how we can remember thirst. What I want to know is, how can we remember loneliness? It penetrates not just oneself but the world. Reality itself appears changed.
The side-streets suck themselves empty, their noise vacuumed behind shuttered store-fronts. The sky pulls itself as taut as a blue drum. The clouds starve themselves and harm themselves, like self-loathing anorexics.

And as the world seems to change, so does the self: feel lonely enough, and that juncture of soul and body that comprises what you think of as you becomes as parched as cracked soil. The lonely individual is ancient, he is dirt.


The MAN enters. He is somewhat surprised to see a CROWD OF WORSHIPPERS. They are very involved in their prayers.

The MAN walks cautiously forward.



MIDDLE-AGED KOREAN MAN: 하느님! 하느님이 자를 사랑하습니다! [God! God loves you!]

The MAN pulls back, alarmed.


The MAN is walking by himself again. He looks even sadder than before. A DIFFERENT CHILD spots him.

DIFFERENT CHILD: [especially enthusiastically] Hello!

V.O.: I don't know what it is was about that kid's voice. It went to my heart -- pierced it, like an exquisitely fine spear, the sharp end of sweetness. And it was this strange combination of sensations -- the needle's prick and the blood's sunny melt -- that suddenly transported me (there's no other phrase) to a different time. It was a time in the more recent past, when I still felt the residual parch of loneliness. But it was a time when I started to feel.

I mean, it was a time when I started to feel again.

stills without scripts

Judy Stoffman

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 video-games. 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 over-involved. Smart booksellers will feature Canadian books because Canadian readers want them.

6. In Aug. 25, 2006, you wrote an article entitled "CaLit 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 a 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.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Philip Marchand

Philip Marchand -- writer, critic (The Toronto Star and The National Post)

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'm not sure how much "trouble" literature is in. The age of Tennyson was the last period in literature when "serious" literature found a mass market. Ever since, we've had a very small minority of readers for "serious" stuff, and a fairly large audience for thrillers, romance novels, detective novels, and so on. Then there's the Da Vinci Code phenomenon in which everybody, from your dentist to your car mechanic, is reading a certain book - in order to be able to join in discussions about the book on social occasions, if for no other reason.

There is no doubt that electronic media are the dominant entertainment and cultural media in our society. But this was also true of the 1920s, with the development of radio and cinema. Perhaps the only difference between then and now is that television, sometime around 1962, definitely killed the popular short story, as a distinct genre that once flourished in magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, Maclean's, and so on. (Or the Toronto Star Weekly, for that matter.)

Kids certainly have been affected by video games as a component of their entertainment. Yet I'm told that many kids still read - still read a lot, as a matter of fact. The only problem is that what they read are these massive multi-volume fantasy epics, etc. I suppose that's a problem. But literature as such is not going away, any more than stamp collecting, playing acoustic guitars, and so on.

I actually think the biggest threat to literature is not electronic media but a corrosive intellectual climate of "theory" that works against any ambitious piece of literature nowadays.

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.

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

I've been grousing about literary prizes for years and nobody pays attention to me. There are so many problems with them - the foremost problem being to get good jury members. To get three good jurors is quite a feat, and it only takes one unfortunately chosen juror to drive the whole process off the rails. Even with a reasonable jury, Giller Prize winners and their like always turn out to be compromise choices, and sometimes they make your heart sink, thinking of an average literate person reading some of these prize novels, under the impression it's the best our writers can do. There has been a high percentage of mediocre works of fiction that have won the Giller. It's also punishing to authors - prizes being one more way for writers to fail, as one of them put it to me. But the worst effect is the corruption of literary publicity. I just wish we could have more periodicals devoted to accessible but rigorous critical examination of new novels, instead of this hoopla.

3. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. 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?

I remember the publisher Jack McClelland once commenting, some time around 1970, when his publishing house, McClelland & Stewart, was the first port of call for unpublished authors with their manuscripts, that it was simply not true that there was a substantial body of good literature out there in the hinterlands that was being unfairly neglected or overlooked. If something was really good, it eventually found a publisher. Nothing has changed in that regard. It is true that agents are now the first gatekeepers of literature, as it were, but that's not an insuperable barrier for a writer who truly has something to say and can say it well.

4. 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?

It's very hard for any author to win an audience. It is also true that it is harder for small press authors to win an audience, since they don't have the publicity machine behind them that larger publishers do - although it's a very creaky machine at best. But a remarkable talent will almost always eventually get broader exposure and make the transition from small press to more mainstream press. It is important to have half a dozen good literary presses going at any time, and unfortunately it does require some assistance from granting agencies, and so on.

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

Canada could use a few more publishers. It wouldn't hurt.

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

So far technologies such as the e-book and the audio book have had zero effect on the basic format of the book. That format is just too good and convenient a technology to be replaced or seriously modified. Interesting developments such as print on demand and the whole internet e-bay phenomenon will affect the marketing and distribution of books but the basic product will remain the same.

7. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

Some libraries, anyway, certainly take their mandate seriously, hosting readings, hiring writers-in-residence, and so on. As a writer, I wish they would buy more books than non-book items, such as CDs and so on, but they have a wide community to service and these choices are always difficult. If I were ruler of Canada I would certainly spend more money on public libraries generally. English Departments also have a tricky balancing act - giving English majors a solid grounding in canonical literature - Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, as they used to say - and presenting them with some contemporary literature. Unfortunately, many literary academics proved to be traitors to the cause, subjecting their students to gaseous clouds of "theory" as opposed to helping students pay close attention to actual texts and to analyze them with both clarity and rigour. A student who has learned to examine George Eliot or Nathaniel Hawthorne with almost microscopic attention is more likely to have a discriminating interest in contemporary literary fiction than a student who has mastered theory.

8. Recently you remarked that Toronto lacks a great chronicler -- a great novelist who focuses specifically on Toronto. But again, given the realities of the fiction market and the fact Canadian authors often depend for their financial success on foreign sales, and the fact that contemporary Toronto as a topic does not elicit as much interest as London or New York, is there really an audience to sustain this kind of work these days?

I think American and British readers will give Toronto a chance if a novel set in this city is good enough.

9. In response to the same article, Catherine Bush remarked part of the problem is Canadian critics/academics not paying enough attention to the work that has already been published. Is this true? Do Canadians tend to forget their own literature?

This goes back to the question about literary prizes. If there were more serious and widespread critical discussion about literature in our culture, rather than all the fuss about one day wonders, or television panels about Giller Prize winners, then those books that deserve permanent attention, no matter how long ago they were published, would get their due of attention.

10. Finally, you are a writer yourself. You've written popular history mixed with memoir (Ghost Empire: How The French Almost Conquered North America), cultural studies/biography (Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger), criticism (Ripostes) and a crime novel (Deadly Spirits). But you are probably best known as a critic. Does the hard -- and necessary -- work that a critic does tend to get overlooked, especially given North America's (as opposed to Europe's) sole veneration of the author as the locus of literary achievement? In short, is the critic engaging in a form of literary writing, too?

A serious critic certainly tries to "engage in a form of literary writing" by making his or her writing lucid, intelligent, lively and above all passionate. If these qualities are present in the writing, then some criticism will have a long life. It will also be criticism that will contribute to deeper understanding of literary works in general, which I think authors would be happy about. But there's no doubt that purely imaginative writing - fiction, poetry, and so on - will always be the main focus of readers' attention. Great imaginative literature just burns deeper into the mind. I don't care if critics take a back seat in that respect. But it's always nice to be recognized for contributing to the cause, and there may be some deficient appreciation of that fact in literary circles.

As a critic, the only hope of longevity I have is that remarks I have made about various novels will turn out to be useful for students of those novels years hence. That would make me happy.

Bio: Philip Marchand is one of the best-known and most influential critics in Canada. He is also an author (see question 10, above), his most recent book being Ghost Empire: How The French Almost Conquered North America. For several years, his literary column appeared regularly in the books section of The Toronto Star. He now writes the Open Book column of the National Post.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Please note: the following publishers have been added to my links section:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Recently Read

Michael Bryson on 13 Shades of Black and White

L. Lee Lowe on the launch of Corvus

Jacob Russell on rejection

Monday, November 02, 2009

Baram Writer

[note: this originally appeared in Dark Sky Magazine]



Wind blows through trees, rustles dead leaves, makes branches sway in a creaking, slow dervish.

VO [male]: The wind has its own tone, its own feeling. It’s like … coldness, thinness.

It’s like hunger.

The wind has a body. The wind is someone.




A married couple walks along the trail. We see the wife, walking ahead.

VO: You’re someone. I’m someone.

Your body: petite, a source of warmth. A body to whom love is directed.

My body?


That is, has been wind. Still feels like wind, but sometimes feels warmth.

I think this is the final state of love.




A view of nearby apartment buildings. Several of the apartments, while still in somebody’s possession, lie empty. The buildings look spectral and aristocratic: the second homes of the well-to-do. The empty homes of the well-traveled.

The couple on the hiking trail, dressed in their simple clothes, look at the buildings.

HUSBAND [in accented Korean]: 열령 집. [”Ghost houses”]

WIFE: They go somewhere, maybe to Swiss.

HUSBAND: We should go on a trip sometime. Get away.

WIFE: I can’t. I have too much stress at hospital.

HUSBAND: I know. That’s why we should go. Your job is too difficult.

The WIFE looks at her HUSBAND. She sadly shakes her head.



The HUSBAND follows his wife. He follows her along the trail as the cold sun sets.


VO: You walk along the trail, together today, but tomorrow, Sunday, you have to work an evening shift.


VO: I’m alone.

I walk along the trail. My daily exercise.

The scene is still, quiet. Thoughts pour through my head.

I’m worried about you. Your job is too hard. It’s affecting your health.

The sensation is like wind, a stress-wind, blowing the chemistry of the mind in circles.

Worries swirl like brittle, dry leaves.

A new sensation comes to me. It’s a sensation that combines worry and love. It is a sensation in the bones. It radiates through muscle, through organs, through eyes. It’s a reverse heat, as if the body burns from its core.

It’s more than heat. It possesses a force, subtle yet existent in the world, which collides with our lives: it is an interior shake, an earthquake of marrow. It’s the wind of reality. And it has made an impact.

The body must withstand this impact. The body must marry the mind, tell itself the wind is weak, not the person it shakes.



VO: The sun sets behind trees. Blackness descends upon the world.

The sun sets and the wind dies. It retreats to its apartments, its clouds.

Screenplay-novel FAQs

What is a screenplay-novel?

It's a novel. But it's written in the form of a screenplay.

How did you get the idea of writing a screenplay-novel?

Over time, it dawned on me that I treated movies the way I treated novels: I would appreciate their stories in a similar way, and talk about them afterwards the way a person might talk about a novel. In fact, I do this more often with movies ... mainly, I think, because nowadays movie-watchers vastly outnumber novel readers and so there are many people you can have a conversation with about a particular movie -- even a very serious movie. It's a lot harder to do that about a particular book.

The epiphany occurred when I was reading the published screenplay of the film version of Out of Africa (I'd read the Karen Blixen original many years before). My wife had a copy of it, and it was lying around the house.

I live in South Korea, and these kinds of scripts are enormously popular here. They're marketed as an English learning tool (English script on one page, with Korean-language "key points" on the other). But as I read the script I found I really enjoyed it in and of itself. And then I thought, if this works as a book form of an existing movie, why wouldn't it work as a book form of a movie that's never been made? In other words, why not use the same combination of stills and script?

[N.B. It's worth noting that some time after reading this book for the first time, I noticed it didn't in fact contain stills plural, but the same photo from the movie over and over. However, the point still stands -- an artistic experience similar to that of a movie can be created in book form.]

And then there's the creative process involved: Unless writing autobiographically, I like imagining scenes as if they were in a movie. My imagination seems to naturally work that way.

Has this idea been done before?

There's a long tradition of writing satire in the form of a screenplay -- you know, some comic scene, for example, an inane conversation in the White House. And there is a tradition of teleromans in some countries. These are basically comics made of photographs, not drawings.

But there are no examples of a literary novel written in screenplay form that I've seen. At least, this was true when the idea first came to me. Since then, people have given me examples. One was a script by Michael Turner entitled "American Whisky Bar". I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on it. But some time after it was published, it was produced by CITY-TV and Bruce McDonald as a live television drama. I saw that broadcast. The broadcast was really more like a 1950s-style televised play than anything else. So I don't know if it qualifies.

Personally, I think people will come up with other examples and this will turn into a long-running debate over who was first. And I doubt it will ever be satisfactorily resolved. Instead, what I'd like to emphasize is I'm calling for the screenplay-novel to exist as a distinct form of novel. In other words, I'm hoping that many serious writers will adopt this way of writing novels -- at least, for some of their work.

So it's a good idea because it's new?

Ideas aren't good simply because they're new. I might be the first person to invent chocolate-flavoured cheddar cheese. That doesn't mean it's worthwhile. Instead, I think this idea is good because it has the potential to be artistically effective. It solves problems for the writer, and solves problems for the audience. Although it should be written with care and craft , because its word count tends to be lower than in a traditional novel, it's quicker to produce and quicker to read. Yet at the same time, it keys into people's imaginations. It is a very effective way of creating the vividness necessary for certain types of narrative, especially those emphasizing dialogue.

Of course, some people don't feel the same way. For them, the screenplay-novel is not a particularly evocative way of writing. They need more in the way of description -- both of the environment and of interior consciousness. I understand this. Because the screenplay-novel is stripped-down, it seems to have certain inherent shortcomings, one of which is less physical description and the other which is the apparent disappearance of interior consciousness.

So it's important to underline the first quality can still exist in a screenplay novel. As in a regular screenplay, there is no necessary restriction on the number of descriptive passages that exist. There are simply conventions about this, just as there are conventions in what might be called traditional screenplay writing; screenplays tend to be very minimalist. However, a screenplay-novelist doesn't have to follow this convention. He or she can include as many descriptive passages as he or she wants.

Evoking interior consciousness is more of a problem. Interior states of mind don't "disappear" in a screenplay-novel. Instead, they have to be evoked mainly by the characters' dialogue. (This is one reason why I tend to use more description of gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice in my dialogue than you'd find in a regular screenplay.)

The screenplay-novel form is not perfect. It has strengths and weaknesses. But let's be honest: the traditional novel has short-comings, too, not the least of which is its increasing tendency these days toward self-consciousness and overripe writing (or over-write writing; a lot of books suffer simply from being longer than they need to be). It is a sad irony of contemporary fiction that just as the novel is facing so much competition from other narrative forms -- from movies to video games -- so many novels that are published are either strait-jacketed by convention or so self-indulgent and flabby that they fall into the category of books that can be opened but not finished. This is one of the real strengths of the screenplay-novel: it is designed to be finished. It is designed to succeed in keeping its audience's attention. There is something shameful and affected in insisting this is an irrelevant goal for the serious writer to keep in mind.

(And I cannot keep repeating often enough: the screenplay-novel does not have to eschew fine writing; belles lettres can exist within its pages -- it is just that belletristic description is kept to small proportions, unless those belles lettres arise naturally in a character's speech.)

You mentioned interior consciousness. This is exactly what I like about novels. How can a screenplay ever compete with that?

This is probably the most complex aesthetic question that one can ask of the screenplay-novel as a form. As I suggest above, interior consciousness does not "disappear" because putative descriptions of it disappear. In other words, interior consciousness -- or rather, consciousness generally -- when evoked in art can be revealed many different ways. A good stage play tells us a lot about characters' interior consciousness; it does this through dialogue that takes place in more-dramatic-than-one-finds-in-regular-life situations. In other words, even though a stage play generally does not attempt to "show" interior consciousness, it can quite effectively evoke enough of the characters of various dramatis personae that we, the audience, develop a sense of both the outer and inner life of the people on stage. (Furthermore, just as staged theatre can, to a degree, and through the artistry of well-written dialogue, tell us something about the interior consciousness of characters, so traditional novels can fail at successfully evoking it. It's also worth noting that a fair percentage of "interior consciousness" that one finds in works of conventional fiction is simply not very convincing. More on this in a moment.)

When we talk about interior consciousness in art, we are not talking about something that reflects with absolute accuracy an already existent state(s) of mind. Instead, we are talking about a mimetic process; an attempt on the part of art to capture something that is "real" -- if consciousness can be said to be real in the way we normally understand that word. Quite often, this mimetic process falls short.

All this would be fine if literary people could reach some kind of genuine consensus about when writers succeed and when they fail at depicting interior consciousness. But they can't. What this means for defenders of traditional literature as a repository of "something that movies can't do" because, so their argument goes, only literary fiction can evoke interior consciousness, is a need to re-think just what it is that allows a work of literary fiction to tell us about various characters' inner lives. Showing inner life is not as simple as claiming one shows it; a work of art has to do more. And this is something screenplay-novels can succeed at doing as well, if they are written well enough.

I've read other screenplays, and they're a lot different from yours. Why?

Those aren't screenplay-novels, they're screenplays. They are meant to be produced into movies. What I'm doing here is a novel meant to be imagined as a movie.

But it's just words. What I like about movies are the pictures.

Books can contain pictures, too.

Why don't you just write a regular novel?

I do. I have. But recently I have become interested in this approach to -- this form of -- writing. It's a method of writing that works for me; that re-inspires me after years of increasing frustration with traditional literary techniques.

So you hate traditional fiction?

No. When it is well done I admire it just as much as I ever did. Traditional fiction (which could be called conventional fiction, but here I really mean to say literary fiction in the form in which we usually find it) has been what formed me: this is true from 19th Century geniuses like John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Edmund Gosse, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, to the extraordinary richness of 20th Century literature -- including giants such as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Theodore Dreiser, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, J. D. Salinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Leonard Cohen to lesser knowns such as Bruno Schulz, Tadeusz Borowski, Knut Hamsen, Ole Edvart Rolvaag, Sigrid Undset, Violette Leduc,Elizabeth Jane Howard, David Plante, Daniel Jones, Harry Sonny Ladoo, and Britt Hagarty, to artist/writers such as R. Crumb, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucette, Chester Brown and David Collier, to recent discoveries among Korean writers such as Chai Man-shik, Oh Jung-hee, Chae Yun, and Yun Heung-gil ... the list goes on and on.

In the period described above, there's such an enormous quantity of good writing that at times one might be forgiven for thinking that "good writing" is for the recent historical period like "progress" was in the late 19th Century: something we can take for granted. The early days of the 21st Century, however, indicate an opposite trend. Much fiction that is getting published and praised these days has a tired, predictable quality.

If I were the only person who felt this way, I'd blame myself. But many people who are serious about reading feel the same way. When best-of-year reading lists are drawn up, one often hears the comment that a particular book which won major prizes or was promoted by establishment taste-makers was a disappointment. There is a malaise affecting contemporary fiction, and this malaise is corroding the faith that people at all levels of the literary enterprise have in the process of producing literature. Agents are taking on less literary fiction than they used to, publishers are publishing less of it, and writers are finding their careers stymied when the sales of one book just don't materialize and they find it difficult to sell their next manuscript. (Or else, their careers are stymied by not being published at all -- and yes, this happens to good writers.)

But being a writer has always been difficult. Why complain about that?

It's not so much a complaint as an observation that the cultural landscape is in the process of changing rather drastically. This isn't news. The readership of fiction, especially literary fiction in its traditional form, has been declining for years. Recently, this decline has become alarming. By all means, read traditional novels, and, if they move you, venerate them. But we have to face the larger cultural reality. We have to think in new ways.

So why don't you just watch movies and TV?

I like movies ... TV I'm not so sure about, although there are good programs out there.

The problem with movies and TV is this: they cost a lot to produce. No, let me rephrase that -- they cost an astronomical amount. Apart from the indie movie scene, which tends to be perpetually marginalized, no one individual can make them. They are group efforts, and while this gives them some strengths, they suffer from the near-inevitable tendency of group creations to lose any singular voice. And it's the singular voice that has to survive. It's the individual consciousness, not the group, that maintains contact with life.

And this is one of the great strengths of books: because they're relatively cheap to produce, they can still be made by individuals. (The contemporary trend toward "packaging" a book is pernicious on so many levels, as the Kaavya Viswanathanincident showed. Whether this scandal will be enough to stop the general trend to package books and turn even them into bland, committee-made products remains to be seen.)

Mass culture, with its converging technologies such as TV-receiving cell phones and ubiquitous WiBro reception, keeps moving more and more toward post-literacy. We are in desperate need of narrative forms that both can reach an audience but also allow the artist to retain his or her individuality. The screenplay-novel is a way of "writing a movie".

So you're suggesting we just give up? That because mass culture is so pervasive we are obligated to mimic it?

The screenplay-novel is not a selling out. Think of it this way: there are good movies. There is good TV -- especially outside a North American context. In other words, both mediums are capable of producing genuine works of art, despite their group-made natures. If you write a screenplay-novel, you should try to make something that also has artistic merit. Obviously, it won't possess descriptive passages to the same degree that great traditional fiction does. But this does not mean the screenplay-novel must diminish a good writer's requirement to produce (or good reader's requirement to be sensitive to) linguistic originality. The screenplay-novel is intended, above all, to re-invigorate the relationship that exists between writer and audience.

When reading a screenplay-novel, people can read it as a director might. This is one of the broad-based effects that movies have had on the modern mind: it is possible -- even natural, it sometimes seems -- to think "cinematically". In other words, our minds have already been conditioned to
imagine narratives as if they were movies. Maybe everyone doesn't do this. But many people do, and they do it effortlessly. In this sense, we are all directors now.

The trick is to be a good director -- an auteur, if you will. The need for this is especially pressing these days as the role of the auteur has been severely diminished within the movie industry generally. And that's an irony that stands in favour of the screenplay-novel: movies are becoming too expensive and formulaic for auteurship to genuinely thrive within movie-making itself. Therefore, a creative individual with the sensibility of an auteur needs the book. He or she needs the artistic freedom that the book still can provide.

It's worth noting that the best movies and TV that squeeze through the system are often made in opposition to mass culture. The screenplay-novel is another way of doing that.

But what about reading? If everyone is "being a director", won't reading suffer even more?

People are still reading lots these days. The trend among readers, however, is to buy more non-fiction than fiction.

What's wrong with that?

Nothing in the sense that non-fiction has always been popular, and now simply is more so. However, we still need fiction. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity, as well. It's something of a cliche to observe that cultures rise and fall based partly on the stories they tell themselves. It might be more accurate in a 21st Century context to point out that cultures wage wars -- or passively witness them -- according to the stories they tell. (This, incidentally, is one theme of my screenplay-novel TRUTH MARATHON.)

I still think screenplays suck. Traditional novels are more interesting to read.

Then read traditional novels. I do. But consider the possibility that the screenplay-novel idea is a relatively new one, and part of your antagonism to them may be the result of being conditioned to read fictional narrative one way and not another. Remember that: the screenplay novel is just another form of narrative. One of the main reasons it exists is to re-connect author with audience. If you want an extremely short summary of why the screenplay-novel is worth taking seriously, that's it: it is a form of literary fiction many people will read.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Recently Read

Richard Nash on Ted Striphas' The Late Age of Print

"Sharp was the Blade" by Jacob Russell

Peter Stothard on the decline of the book review

Sunday, October 04, 2009

"All the World's a Grave"

From my interview with John Reed at Rain Taxi:

FH: All the Worlds a Grave is dubbed a "new" play by William Shakespeare, but it's really an innovative pastiche of the extant Shakespeare playsKing Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, etc. Tell us a little about what prompted you to produce this work.

John Reed: When people ask me why I did this, I feel like saying, "because it was there." It didn't hurt that my editor liked the idea, of course, but I'd had the notion for a long time. Four catalysts, I think, got me going: I had kids, so could contend with Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Lear, and other Shakespeare characters who were parents; my editorial skills, as the result of editorial work and teaching, were up to snuff; my understanding of narrative structure had been enhanced by the work Id done in entertainment; last, and most spurringI saw a terrible, terrible production of a play widely considered Shakespeares worst. Sitting in the balcony, moaning in agony, I semi-consciously decided that I could do better.

As for the content side: war, parody, the question of authorship, sex and exploitation, the current Shakespeare fracas, the long history of Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare and Hollywood, the Public Domain, the literary canon, the state of contemporary letters in relation to great works, the creative future we bequeath our children all of these were things were prompts.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

stills without scripts

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.