Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From "The Business Army"

Here are some images from THE BUSINESS ARMY that I've been "greyizing" with Gimp. Not all the images were changed at the same time -- in fact, there was a lag of close to a year between some of them. In that interim, I've become more comfortable with (and, I hope, more competent at) using Gimp. I've also gotten in the habit of saving files as I add each layer of grey-scale. This allows me to experiment with the image I want to use, since sometimes the most detailed and fussed-over one is not the one worth choosing.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


L. Lee Lowe interviewed by Tinashe Mushakavanhu. (Mushakavanhu's site -- Sentinel Literary Quarterly -- also looks interesting in and of itself.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant! on the relationship between Benito Juarez and Maximilian of Habsburg.

Melanie Chartoff and Larry David  on Alexander Haig, post the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, taking control -- albeit, in this case at least, very momentarily [via Long Sunday]

Phil of Le Blog de Phil on Louis Hemon's Maria Chapdelaine.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Democracy Evolutions 6 -- Levi Asher Contra Egoism, Part Two

art: Finn Harvor [from "The Business Army"]

Levi Asher's recent post on Paul Ryan -- the Republican who wants to cut spending by drastically reducing social programs -- can arguably also be seen as a continuation of his  series on posts on egoism. For instance, central to this post is the effect that the egoism-embracing thought structures of Ayn Rand has had on a certain brand of neo-conservative theorizing (Ryan is a fan of Rand).

Ryan's brand of fiscal responsibility -- the phrase has become such a cliche that scare quotes are not necessary -- is one that voters in industrialized nations have become well-acquainted with: social programs are too expensive, government is inefficient at performing civic or national tasks like garbage collection or teaching or health care and private enterprise would deliver these services to clients better. In most countries, such Canada and South Korea, this results in fiscal conservatism that pares back the social programs that exist and does not initiate new ones. In a superpower such as the United States, the dynamic is similar at first glance, but quite different precisely because of its superpower-enabling institutions.

The historian Andrew Smith recently wrote a must-read post on the effect the post-World War Two military-industrial complex has had on the American economy. Smith's argument is that the great European powers of the 18th and 19th Centuries sowed the seeds of their own economic decline by overspending on empires, and, by necessity, their military establishments. The United States, on the other hand, a nation that was by the late 19th Century already awesomely powerful economically, did not overspend on its military. That changed with World War Two, when arms spending shot up stratospherically -- and also kick-started the U.S.economy. But the end of the Second World War did not bring a proportionate return to pre-war arms expenditures; the Cold War kept arms spending at an elevated level that represented a higher percentage of GNP than that which had existed previously. The result, Smith argues, is a nation in which social spending is less and rates of infant mortality or life-span are affected in a deleterious manner.

The connection between this argument and Asher's comments on Paul Ryan is, I think, this: military spending is rarely mentioned by the Republican party as a prime target for fiscal cutbacks. It is almost as if Republicans, as a political entity, have some kind of pathological blind-spot; a logically inexplicable (and therefore hysterical) inability to see the obvious. Even for supporters of the invasion of Iraq, it must be painful to read news reports such as this which alleges "loss" [read: corruption] of over six billion dollars in U.S. funds. Yet an outcry against the war does not exist among Republicans who otherwise are passionate about balanced budgets.

Even if one were to agree with the fiscal responsibility argument in its generalities, why the general American right-wing refusal to apply it in a genuinely even-handed fashion? Part of the answer, I think, lies in egoism: empire has become addiction; the psychic sense of power latent in the phrase "superpower" feeds an egoistic brand of ultra-nationalism.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Democracy Evolutions 5 -- Levi Asher Contra Egoism, Part One

Finn Harvor

In recent months, Levi Asher of LitKicks has been writing a series of interrelated posts which might be characterized as being about the importance of human beings working together. As part of this, he's written a book entitled Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (And Why it Matters). And he's also written in a more general manner on his ideas about collective – as opposed to individual and self-interested – activity.

One post in this series appeared on April 8th, 2011. It is interesting on several levels. Asher states his main idea immediately: he is unconvinced that egoism is an elementary characteristic of humankind. Instead, he challenges the contemporary pop-psychological (or perhaps, evolutionary psychological) presumption about egoism:

Egoism, the belief that people can or should only act on their own individual self-interest, is the great unchallenged premise of our age.

It’s hard to imagine that many people fully subscribe to this idea, and yet there is no well-known critique of egoism. Various religions or social/political activist movements point away from egoism, but religious or political writers rarely confront the egoist premise directly. Many people object instinctively to the egoist idea, but there is no popular common understanding of why the egoist premise is a weak and unconvincing one.

Asher acknowledges that the idea egoism exists naturally and should be accepted as a fact of life is widespread: “A person might claim in an argument or chat about politics that "everybody's going to do what's best for their own selves", and who will argue that this isn’t true?” He also realizes that egoism has a political ideology.

Something about this dichotomy recalls the political dichotomy between conservativism and progressivism. In political or economic debates. the separatist or individualist position (lower taxes, suspicion of outsiders) is often seen as representing the base or core position, while the group-conscious or collectivist position is seen as a questionable artifice, a dubious advancement from the basic core. In this sense, it’s easy to mistake the egoist doctrine for good, simple common sense, and to dismiss any alternative doctrines as foolish, ideological fantasies.

But as Asher notes, “Non-egoists who allow egoists to take it for granted that we live only for ourselves give up too much ground.” Further: “The doctrine that all people care only for their private well-being is not a self-evident truth.”

At the core of Asher's critique, then, is an attempt to show that egoism is not 'elementary' – is not the default setting of humans, and is not the initial building block upon which further characteristics or behaviors – whether individual or social – rest. Asher does this through a couple of thought experiments. The first is his reference to simulation games that model successful human behavior.

For example, imagine a simulation of a town with 1000 simulated citizens. A hypothetical conflict emerges: the mayor of the town proposes to build a new road near a public park. Some of the citizens in the town form a pro-business party that supports the building of the road. Other citizens form a nature preservation party that protests the impact on the parklands. Still other citizens form a anti-expenditure party that objects to the spending of taxpayer money on the project.

This is nicely conceived description of how a real-world political struggle might begin at the local level. The policy of the mayor – to build a road – has its supporters and its detractors. But not all the detractors have the same motivation. And not all the people in any of the groups have the same personalities. Asher: “The game carries the argument to its conclusion -- but it cannot do this very well if it only assigns attributes to individuals.”

What is needed, rather, is, so to speak, a group personality: “From a software designer's point of view, the conclusion seems clear: for the model to work, attributes and aspirations exist at the group level as well as at the individual level.” The drives of the individual ego must sublimate themselves into the workings of each group; individual action alone cannot bring about any workable political solution – whatever the solution in this particular SimCity happens to be. Instead, given that some group will achieve some goal (for example, building the road or stopping its construction), the achievement of that goal will rest upon the “winning” group operating as an entity which is sur-egoistic.

The conservative-ideologic argument that egoism is primary to humans is not the case in a simulation game of this sort, and, given that the simulation game is a workable model of the real world of local politics, the question arises: what is primary here? From Asher's point of view, it is something larger than the individual. This explanation has serious ramifications because while it does not deny that egoism exists, it calls into question the idea that egoism is the root of human behavior.

[to be continued]

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Monday, June 06, 2011

Kevin Peterson -- retired journalist, lit-blogger (Kevin From Canada)

 Kevin Peterson of Kevin From Canada

1. When I started this interview series it was already clear that publishing -- especially of literary fiction -- was in dire straits. At that time, one explanation that was fashionable was 9/11 was the reason people weren't reading as much literature (or as much anything) as they used to. Now we are living in a time when the long-term repercussions of 9/11 are still with us. But using 9/11 as a primary explanation for what ails literary publishing simply doesn't work. For one thing, we are now in the midst of a particularly serious recession, and for another, it is clear the general decline in reading is a widespread -- and possibly unstoppable -- phenomenon that has roots which go back decades.

What is your take on the current depressed state of literary publishing? Is it a passing phase? Or is it an intractable problem -- in other words, it is the new normal? And if the latter, what can be down to counteract it? 

I am one of those who does not think that literary “publishing” is in a depressed state.  More works are being published, some in new formats including electronic.  Self-publishing is exploding.  Particularly in Canada, with various government subsidies, it is far easier now for a first work to get into some version of book form than it was in previous decades.

Marketing and sales are a different issue.  Blockbuster titles are selling more than ever, but after that there is a challenge – which I do think is still evolving.  Experienced readers who know how to browse and shop online have much easier access than they have ever had to titles that even a few years ago they would have never seen.  On the other hand, the second and third tier of authors face severe difficulties as the “major” houses cut back on publishing second, or even third, novels from writers who do not sell well.  Getting a book published is easier than ever – making a full time living from novel writing is an entirely different story.

So, through vehicles such as author’s and publisher’s web pages – and blogs – readers willing to do some research have far better access to many more titles than they ever did when physical book stores were the only source (I can remember waiting weeks to get the Giller longlist from my bookstore – I can now have the books I am missing ordered within an hour of the announcement and they are delivered to my front door a few days later).  The downside is that that group of readers is an aging one and I’m not sure whether it will be replaced by a new, younger audience.  I suspect it will – once you have read one or two books, if you are computer literate at all, a whole new world of options as a reader is open to you.  

2. How much potential do you think the Internet has as a vehicle of publishing? It's clear that there is a place for online criticism; the lit-blogosphere is dominated by it. The blogger Dan Green has even coined a phrase for this form of critical writing: the crit-blogosphere. But the crit-blogosphere's logical partner -- the fic-blogosphere -- is marginalized. Not many people read short stories or novels online.

Will the Internet really become the medium in which serious people both publish and read fiction? Or is this a technological pipe-dream, and is it more a question of using the Internet as an effective means to sell and distribute printed books?

I don’t see the internet as a publishing or reading source for serious fiction – there is a niche there but it is a small one and not lucrative at all.  As I indicated above, I think it is already well established as an information, selling and distribution source, not just in the Amazon sense but for smaller publishers (such as Gaspereau and Biblioasis in Canada) as well.  I would also say that it is already the primary information source for those looking for extended information on possible books to read.

3. It is arguable the Internet isn't effective as a medium for publishing long works of fiction because very few people can stand looking at regular screens for the necessary length of time. But e-ink provides a solution to this. It eliminates eye strain. 

How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business model?
I’m not qualified to comment on e-book technologies or e-readers – I don’t own one and doubt that I ever will.  I should note that I am retired, with a bad back that restricts travel, so the e-reader as a commuting and travelling book source just doesn’t fit my circumstances or needs.  From comments on the web and friends, however, I would say that e-books and e-readers have already been adopted by many of the public.  It is still early days for that technology and I am sure it will continue to spread – and become more customer friendly – very quickly.  Just by way of example, immediately before filling out this questionnaire I had a conversation with my sister, who is spending the summer at a remote fire-spotting post in northern Alberta.  We identified about 10 books in  a quick conversation, most of which she can download for free from her library on Vancouver Island to her e-reader to eventually read near Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Imagine what would have been required to get those “books” there in the pre-Internet era. 

4. In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks) have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too experensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?
Again, anyone who shops on line is paying far less for a book than they did a decade ago, given the retailer discounts.  E-book pricing is still evolving, so any comment on that would be premature.  Certainly, the access to out-of-copyright works is not only far easier, it is far cheaper than it has been for my adult life.

Also again, however, it is the second and third tier of authors who are feeling the brunt of change.  Publishers used to use sales of the “canon” to subsidize these works (in the hope that an author would build a following) – that revenue stream is bound to shrink.

5. Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once publishing in hardcover and then, several months later (and a spot on the best-seller lists willing), they were available as affordable pocket-sized paperbacks. However, in the 1980s this practice ceased and literary paperbacks started being published in North America as pricier trade paperbacks. Only genre fiction retained the pocket-book form. In retrospect, was this a prudent decision by publishers of literary fiction? Or should the literary pocket-book make a return?

I buy hardbacks as a preference (I’m not price sensitive and prefer the format) and trade paperbacks if that is the only option.  I’ve never bought pocket-books or mass market editions, so I don’t think any comment I might make would be of value.

6. Agents now have enormous power, effectively controlling which writers get access to acquisition editors at major houses. Furthermore, agents find themselves under enormous pressure, acting as the line of first readers who have to sift through avalanches of submissions. Is this tenable over the long run? Is it good for art?  Or should large houses be accepting both agented and unsolicitied submissions?

I think this question does raise a major issue.  The large houses still have their “A” editors, but they are an aging group and their author roster is full with established names.  The generation that should be lining up to replace them has pretty much been laid off, with the editing function delegated to agents and freelance “editors” (most of whom are not qualified).  The disappearance of qualified editors (with agents inadequately filling part of the role) is, for me, a bigger threat to quality literary publication than any of the issues raised in the previous questions.  While it is easier to get published now, I see far too many books that really miss the talents of a decent editor and suffer badly for the lack. 

7. Literary prizes have also grown in power. They have arguably replaced the glowing review as a marketing tool. But are they as effective as criticism in building a contemporary canon? After all, critics can express nuance, prizes can't. Do book prizes give the message: this books is worth reading and all these others aren't?
Prizes undoubtedly produce the best sellers for literary novels – see The Bishop’s Man and The Sentimentalists – and those few books sell far more copies than works of similar quality did in the pre-Prize era.  Shortlist books do less well; longlist books even worse.  On the other hand, all those categories produce more sales than positive critical reviews did in the past.  I also think the prize lists are the first stopping point for book clubs looking for next year’s reads – and let’s face it, book clubs are vital to sales.

I don’t think prizes have much of an effect on “building a contemporary canon”, whatever that might be.  My intuition says word-of-mouth from informed readers and academics will have much more influence than sales in the first year after publication.  And one of the advantage of e-versions of books is that it means they will never go out-of-print, so the shelf life of a novel has been extended indefinitely, to allow word-of-mouth and informed critical assessment to build.

Prizes may reduce sales of non-listed books but I think the kind of readers who create the buzz that eventually leads to a book being added to the “canon” are more, rather than less, likely to be able to find worthy books in this new environment.

8. One of the hallmarks of your reviewing style is that you quote generously from the works under consideration. Is this the result of a critical ideology? Are you trying to promote close readings? Is it simply how you prefer reviewing? Or is simply happenstance?

I always try to include at least two quotes of some length from a work that I am reviewing.  I do this mainly to illustrate the author’s prose style or to indicate how he or she introduces plot or character developments.   My regular visitors (those who read nearly every review) are all extensive readers, so I think they expect those kind of examples for their own evaluation, as well as my opinion, in a review.  Also, I assume anyone who gets to my review through a search engine is already somewhat interested in the book – the quotes are as valuable as my thoughts to them.  About two-thirds of my hits are generated by searches for specific titles from my archives (something that the “old” reviewing sources could not make available to interested potential readers) so I would like those people to get a full flavor of the book – I did not spark their interest, something else did and my review is meant to serve them.

I tend to be more of a “content” than “style” reader so, given that bias, my use of quotes is meant to illustrate how an author handles that.  On the other hand, if the work tends more to style or poetic language (which places it at a disadvantage for my tastes) I like to include enough quoted material so that someone visiting my blog can reject my thoughts and say “well, I sure liked the quotes and think I should try this one.”

9. How do you choose books to review?

1.        About one-third of my reviews are Canadian books.  Two-thirds of my visitors are not Canadian, so in some ways I view my blog as presenting Canadian work to a global audience.  I do read and review all the Giller shortlist and most, if not all, of the G-G list.  I try to get to as many first works as I can (friends at the Calgary authors’ festival, WordFest, are my first screen there and they forward me a number of new works every year).  And I pay particular attention to Quill and Quire’s semi-annual upcoming lists to look for second and third novels from authors whose initial works showed promise.  I should note that I don’t do “negative” reviews of first works except on very rare occasions, so I read (or at least start to read) quite a few more than show up on the blog.
2.       Another third is English fiction from other countries (and newly translated work), with possible Booker contenders or longlisted books (I’ve read and reviewed all the longlist every year since starting the blog) a big portion of that.  I follow the lists of other prizes for other books that look interesting.  Other bloggers are a major source.  I’ll admit that U.S. fiction would be my weakest area – there is just so much published there that it is impossible to keep track.  So my U.S. fiction reviewing tends to be authors I know and admire, ones that other bloggers have introduced to me and prize-listed books that look interesting.
3.       The final third is classics – either in a re-read or ones that I have overlooked – or works published some years ago that have fallen off the radar (again, other blogs are a major source for that).  Once the prize (and new book) season ends in October, it is almost a relief to spend a few months with “old friends” and catching up on some books of high reputation that I haven’t got to yet.

10. And still thinking of your own site, what sorts of changes do you foresee in it? Are blogs destined to become the new magazines? Will you start using a format (and possibly working with partners) in a magazine-type way? Or is blogging as it's currently defined how you want to keep posting work on the Net?

I don’t see any changes.  I started my blog as a means of expressing my thoughts about books that I like, or am neutral about, or (less often) books that I think are over-rated.  As I said above, introducing Canadian work to the reading world was an objective and I think I have succeeded, in a minor way, in doing that.  Of the 300+ hits a day that my blog gets, about 100 are from regulars who read virtually every review that I write.  The other 200 come from searches for specific titles or themes (I am sure a lot are students) and, of course, I would like for some of those to make the transition to becoming regulars (and at least some do).  Reading and reviewing the Booker and Giller longlists has produced a significant bump in both the short and long term growth of the blog in both the last two years – it will be interesting to see if that continues. 

So while I might make some minor adjustments, I can’t see any major changes to the way I am currently doing the blog.