Sunday, January 10, 2016

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer - novelist

Kathryn Kuitebrouwer - novelist 

(Note: My personal URL website is no more, and therefore I'm re-posting the interviews that I had up at that site. These are older pieces -- for example, this one with Kathryn took place in the summer 2012. However, with that context in mind, I think they remain interesting reading.)

(interview received July 17, 2012)
CBT: V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers any more, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on and on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. Furthermore, the short story seems to be under siege as well: many agents and multinational publishers do not handle/publish story collections, small magazines seem perpetually underfunded, and a YouTube-ification of text and image seems to be taking short narrative in new directions.
What is your opinion? Do the novel and short story have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very forms of them? If so, how?

KK: For about six months two years ago, I believed that the book as artifact might become something so arcane that only diehard collectors might like to own them, and that consequently, books would naturally become more beautiful, that publishers would make books with elegant flourishes in order to compete with the cheap e-book feeding frenzy. Then, I won a reading device, tried it, wanted to like it, hated it, and re-evaluated.

Now I think that reading devices will likely exist in the way that all devices exist. They will be supplanted by supposedly better, faster, more user-friendly technology every 2 years and some people will read off them, and a lot of people will stop reading because it will seem to have become too expensive an activity. In this way, I think that these devices are detrimental to literacy, or at least potentially detrimental, at least to those who can’t afford such luxuries. This means, of course, that the poor may become more vulnerable, something I loathe to see happen.

Luckily, I also think these devices might be something of a fad. They aren’t the perfect interface for reading. It’s risky to take them to a beach, or near water, and, as has been often pointed out, they don’t feel as pleasant as a codex, and it is harder, less intuitive, to relocate passages in them.

Of course, it is difficult to predict what will happen with e-reader market share. No one really knows, though the codex seems to be holding ground. As for stories—novels and short fiction—they’ve hit an apex in their ability to hold the attention of the masses, and are in decline. People are swayed by film, and Youtube, and music. But there will always be pockets of dedicated readers. I like to think of these people as the Darwinian edge of evolution. We need people who read, as much as we need stories.

What’s interesting to me as a creative writing instructor is the proliferation of writing programs and the huge success that continuing studies CW programs enjoy. There are many many people who want to part of this endeavour. Humans have evolved along with story. We need it. It is how we form our collective narrative, how we grow, how we understand that growth.

CBT: Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel or short story writing? If so, how?

KK: The publishing industry is imperiled at the moment. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I am likely not the best person to answer the question of why this might be. Megastore mentality has commodified books, and e-technology/pricing has been a devil for the publishers to predict and cope with. The industry hit a peak and then slowly plummeted. Any writer who pays attention will know this has affected the novel (probably less the short story, though, since, as you say, no one pays it much attention except writers – and smart readers).

It’s made the novel (often, but not always) into something quite silly. I do not know exactly what goes on in the back rooms of publishing houses but hearsay suggests that marketing departments have some front end control, and so, whereas before, the marketing department would receive the manuscript and figure out how to promote it, now teams decide whether a book CAN be marketed. It’s obvious to see how this could streamline the sorts of things that get published to what’s EASIEST to promote.

This is why, in my opinion, some of the best work coming out these days is emerging from the smaller presses who can still work with complex, grey-area narratives from proven and unproven authors. Larger publishers are having to drop loyalty as part of their mandate, which has meant that so-called midlist authors have, in some cases, moved to smaller indie publishers.

It doesn’t mean that larger publishers are never publishing interesting work, but from what I see (and to some extent what awards juries seem to be saying) is that readers should be betting on the underdog where editors still take chances with riskier material.

CBT: Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?

KK: Yes, it is improving it in some cases. It means that the indie and smaller publishing houses are able to choose from more experienced writers. It also means that new writers are often coming through mentorships and CW programs where they have honed their stories. Many seasoned writers have their work professionally edited ahead of submission (even ahead of submitting to their agent, in some cases). It makes sense that the less material that can be published, and the smaller the advances on royalties for these works (and they are much much smaller in the big houses than they were even five years ago), the fewer people will write with the intention of publication. Those who continue will intensely want it, and they will bust themselves to make sure the work is good. I just juried the Journey Prize and was amazed and pleased at the caliber of writing coming out of the small journals in Canada. One can only hope that the prizes, assuming they continue to go to smaller press writers, will send a message up the ladder. We want complexity. We want intelligent writing. We want risk taking.

CBT: Do you have an author's website? Does it help you sell books?

KK: I do have an author’s website but I have no idea whether it helps me sell books.

CBT: How do you feel about running an author's website? Do you feel its a labour of love – or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?

KK: It’s just a thing I do when I feel like doing it. Mostly it is a gateway on the internet to all things me. It might get me the occasional student, and I like to have a repository for articles and ideas I think are interesting. I also started a Tumblr blog to hold research I am doing for a novel – the site is called May I Stare At You? That’s been very useful as a tool for me. I doubt anyone looks at it.CBT: Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?

KK: I can’t see how that would work. If I were a business person in the book business I would want to know whether the author could manage PR, could present herself publicly, had some profile on which to build. Publishers are buying into a package not just a book.

CBT: According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?

KK: I think I may have covered this earlier. I will add that there are some great publishing enterprises out there like Red Lemonade and Chizine Press that publish boutique editions as well as regular beautiful trade paperbacks.

CBT: What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture's ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren't?”

KK: I have similar problems with literary prizes. They select out. I sometimes feel as if the world might be more interesting if more people went to bookstores and browsed around and took chances on new titles. Finn, it’s a really big question. My impulse is to say that what worries me a little is that the trend with prizes, and the way readers seem to react to them (ie buying books) is useful to the industry but not necessarily useful a literary future (ie we want people to read books not just buy them!). But, still, I can’t see the prizes dwindling, and they do do some good, after all. I just wish they could somehow intersect with a deeper critical approach to the work. Jurying the Journey Prize made me appreciate the work that does go into choosing – the intellectual work on the part of the jurors as they engage in the writing of others. If that could translate more fully, for an entire longlist, say, that would fascinate me.

CBT: What are you working on now that you're excited about?

I have just finished a novel called Bearward. Bearward is a novel told from the point of view of a 14-year-old Vietnamese boat boy, named Bo. Bo's sister is severely handicapped as a result of her parents' exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War era. The story follows Bo as he grapples, both literally and figuratively, with other boys, with bears, and with history, both personal and national. This grappling leads him deeper into carnival, and the question of spectatorship. At its core, Bearward is about trying to understand what we see and who we are. I believe it to be a deeply human story, concerned with all of our relationships — human, animal, political. I am excited to see what people make of it.

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