Saturday, February 13, 2016

Brian Palmu - Critic, novelist

Brian Palmu - Critic, novelist - Feb. 12, 2016

CBT: V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, 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 an 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. Finally, in the 2015/early 2016, it's become common for writers to observe their audience is shrinking rather drastically – what we might call the Smart Phone Effect.

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?

BP: V. S. Naipaul would say that since he’s no longer writing fiction. Novel reading, at least in its literary guise, has always been a cult activity, though I agree that it’s lost some of its cultural import. Stothard’s bowed-head conclusion is funny: fiction writing, like poetry, has always been cyclical as to quality, and it’s a mug’s game to weigh those sweeping differences within one’s contemporary clothes-closet-on-a-manse. Siegel et al seem to be caught up in hot-button social issues. The self-promotion and justification of their stylized genre omits, by design or ignorance, the pleasant reality that fiction rests on invention and imagination. They want it both ways – the intellectual acclaim of fiction’s difficult originality with the commercial awards of popular interest. I like some of the books their team publishes, but I wouldn’t dress it up as superior to fiction, or worse, groundbreaking.
The short story came of age with its publication in well-read dailies and magazines, pre-T.V. More than a few of those ever-elusive common readers would get their one-sit dose of fiction by listening to radio serials or, more often, reading a short story. I don’t have stats for Canada, but in the U.S. there were 18,793 newspapers published in 1899. One – one! – syndicate, McClure’s Associated Literary Press, put out 155 short stories in 1885. But T.V., it seems, killed the form’s popularity. Much easier to sit down after work and dinner to a passive series of sit-com images than to spend the same amount of time reading a short story. And once women entered the work force in droves, competition – both from among different entertainment sources and forms, and for the audience’s limited time – increased further. Short story fanatics will remain, thankfully, but I don’t think we’re going back to the twenty-pager glory days.
Novels and poetry are not only not going to fall off a cliff, they’re going to thrive, in numbers if not quality. The turbulence we’re seeing is one of transmission, not declining interest. Publishers, especially the top-heavy and risk-averse Big 5 (Big 3 in Canada?), have to realize what readers not only want (in distribution options, pricing, convenience, availability), but expect. The technology has changed. Publishers can’t fight it. But, just as ‘establishment’ is currently (and justifiably) a curse word in American politics, the same identification will continue to take on negative associations in literature. This issue isn’t confined to the genre world, of which I couldn’t care less. It’ll ramp up in litfic, as well.

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?

BP: It’s easy to say that less money means fewer chances that a publisher will take on a new writer, or a writer that doesn’t check off all the popular CanLit boxes – template realism or historical litfic. It’s easy, but it’s also true! I feel for authors who are trying things that can’t be assessed by facile comparisons to contemporaries. But the good news is there are now alternatives. After all, 98 % or more of submissions aren’t published, anyway. One may as well go for broke (though I wince at the unintended pun).

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?

BP: I think I covered this a bit in the above answer. I can’t speak comprehensively because it’s impossible to read, never mind even being aware of, all the titles issued twice yearly. But it’s safe to, again, look at the economics. As money shrinks, publishers, foremost, have to look to their own existence. The bland, formulaic, dour, pretentious, narrator-flattering fiction that is a staple in Canada will only increase (or, better put, narrow) when pressures likewise increase to satisfy the reflex expectations of book clubs, ideological syllabi recruiters, and current affairs advocacy groups.

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

BP: I’m unpublished, so this doesn’t really apply to me, though I had a long-running reviews blog through to this past December.

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?

BP: My blog was a labour of love, yes. I couldn’t any longer justify spending much time on it, and rather than limp along at a post every few months – what’s the point? – I decided to close shop and let it stand for any archival interest it may garner for readers googling a title for a review. As for other author sites, I’m all for them. I’ve read others sneering at their desperation and boasting. Well, self-promoting is boasting, necessarily so. Publishers are doing less of it, and in any case, the promotional window for a book is brief. Of course, if you’re a megalomaniacal, floodposting dick about your work, that won’t help, either.

CBT: Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?

BP: Fair for who? Publishers are only responsible to themselves for who they take on. The issue I have with the entire submissions process – and I’ve experienced this – is when editors and/or publishers are too lazy or chickenshit (more the latter, I suspect) to even inform the submitter with a simple yes or no. But it’s naive to think a publisher won’t take into consideration extraliterary matters when deciding whose work to select.

CBT: 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?

BP: Money, obviously, is tight for print publishers. And the economy ain’t gonna recover to what it was after WWII through to the end of the tech bubble. Federal and provincial subsidies may or may not remain at current levels, though I’d suggest any movement will be downward. Publishers, as they’re now constituted, will be fewer and will publish fewer books. But I disagree that small publishers will feel the squeeze the worst. I hope small publishers can still afford to stick to quality and originality over safe choices, (the ones currently doing this, of course), and I’d hope others can start up and sustain their own visions. But the big 3 are less nimble. Big pub’s modus operandi – long turnaround time, expensive in-house talent, big city rent, warehousing, high-percentage returns on their frequently shitty products, a focus on hitting a seventeen-run homer rather than supporting their wider stable with smaller hits, increasingly unjustifiable and draconian contract terms, shrinking resources for mid-list promotion, one- or two-and-done decisions on inexperienced authors who can’t overcome the blunt mathematics from Book Scan – will be exacerbated by industry changes, and detrimental to not only their health but to their existence.
I predict the Bertlesmanns of the book world will just one day look at a fourth-quarter bottom line, shrug, say “fuck it”, and take over an as-yet-to-be-imagined, lucrative, alternate entertainment source – say, interactive stories with sexbots where the customer can select from frequent plot twists. And good riddance to them. There are many possible, positive alternatives. Micro-publishing, now a tiny niche, could take off. Community read-alouds and concerts could replace digital entertainment in an energy-compromised world. Self-publishing is the obvious, pressing alternative, but also resource-friendly online publishing, of which, surprisingly, I’ve heard little. It’s too large a question to cover here, even to a speculative sliver, as to how things will change. And impossible to predict. But I’m sanguine about the future.

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?”

BP: My take on this seems to come from a different angle than most. The standard objection to literary prizes seems to be that the originators and publishers of prizes are debasing literature by forcing submitters into a mold, by creating inevitable ethical problems inherent in the process, by turning the focus on one winner at the expense of hundreds of still-obscure also-rans, or by turning the entire literary promotional model into a superficial contest of blurb clichés. That’s all true. But publishers are gonna do what they’re gonna do. A significant chunk of a journal’s subscription base, for example, comes from contest entrants (all entries usually receive a “free” year’s subscription). The economics don’t favour contestants. Many entries come in at $25 to $35 a pop, with the first prize ranging from $500 to $1000, usually.
So unless a submitter is cynically able to game a (say) poem to the specific and career predilections of the judge, why bother? CV value? Enter if you think you can win and make some money, or if you actually find the journal or mag worthy of financial support. But otherwise award organizers are just feeding a demand which would be stillborn without the writers’ input. As for the larger national prizes, they’re so obviously subjective and frequently corrupt, the only positive thing to mention is that many Canadians realize, with shock and for a week, that books are actually available for sale at their local big box.

CBT: Philip Marchand once stated, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Marchand is correct as far as perceptions go; Canadian writing is not considered formally or stylistically groundbreaking. However, is this in fact the case when one regards our de facto production? What examples can you think of (including your own work) which would suggest another point of view?.

BP: Marchand is right. He could have added U.S.-born authors to those four names. We’re a conservative country, in our political underpinnings, our cultural choices, and our literary output. Our modernist transition was delayed, our postmodernist beginnings, in poetry, a third-hand travelogue from Black Mountain via San Francisco to Vancouver (throughout BC) and third-hand French theory (in much of the rest of the country). Our current experiments in form have yielded more heat than light, and we’re still borrowing wholesale, only now we’re at least more up-to-date with what other countries are doing. I’m sure I’m missing out on original work, and there are a few novels I’m intrigued by that I haven’t gotten to yet. And we’ve had some success at crafting excellent material from traditional (as that term constantly changes) patterns. But our most internationally lauded writers aren’t game-changers. And the “we’re still a young country” excuse is getting rather thin.

CBT: You've written on the importance/difficulties of being an independent critic. (In many ways, you and the critic Dan Green seem to be of the same mind on this.) Is this sort of criticism more necessary than ever? Or is it unrealistic to expect "citizen criticism" to emerge and be sustainable? After all, economic pressure in the form of head office-determined downsizing has been a factor in your own ability to write indie criticism.

BP: First off, I make a distinction between reviewing (which is what I do) and criticism. Reviewing is a flat-out joke in this country. I’m not talking about the various publicists, blurbers, book club sites, and fan-based readers’ blogs, who, after all, are only fulfilling their mandates. I mean what passes for honest, engaging commentary in our biggest dailies. As to Marchand (again): I’ve read little by him for years. He’s mailing it in. Alex Good is good, but so many others in the Toronto Star, the NatPost, Globe & Mail, and sundry other outlets – mygawd, the howlers, the bourgeois assumptions, the lack of historical understanding, the surface nature of their conclusions. I feel for authors. Even when they do get the occasional review, it’s apt to be misguided at best, poorly thought-out and worded at worst. The Quill & Quire is sometimes good, but they have to fit the review onto a fridge magnet, and there’s only so much you can do with that super-short format. And mind, there’s no excuse here of a fear in biting the hand that feeds one. Many of these reviewers are not also authors of fiction or poetry. As to those who fill both roles, well, a lot of cross-seams show. Solutions? Reviewing – and long-form criticism – is indeed more important than ever because of shrinking spaces in traditional outlets, but there’s no reason this can’t be taken up by the reading community in one online format or another.

Some already exist: Dooney’s Café pulls no punches. Mark Sampson's Free Range Reading publishes thoughtful new reviews, plus links to his other online reviews. Steven Beattie, at his That Shakespearean Rag site, has offered an in-depth post-a-day for a month each year on selected short stories. Norm Sibum’s Ephemeris, through Encore Literary Magazine, though in part a mix of gossip and political handwringing, nevertheless comments on art, artistic shenanigans, and poetics. Numero Cinq includes reviews of various sorts. The Winnipeg Review sheds some light on new fiction releases, and I'm glad they've lately added poetry to their reviewing mix, but aside from a few stellar reviewers, the output is tame and bland. Your own site shares links and comments on the publishing industry. All of this is important, but I’d love to see a site in Canada that focusses exclusively on book reviews, or (more practically possible) that teams with other writers to create a reviewing site that can be updated fairly frequently. The Partisan is sometimes interesting, but, again, it’s a mix, and a mix I don’t find at all attractive (Daryl Hine bumping up against whatever was said on a reality T.V. show the other night). The Northern Review, the Danforth Review, and a few others have tried this, the latter notably so, but it’s defunct, and the former went dark, and now (I believe) updates sporadically. Journal reviews are important but diminished by their small circulation and limited access. Some, fortunately, allow those reviews online. All of the above is encouraging, but the driving force – reviewers willing to take on books honestly – is still lacking. As a writer-reviewer, your negative review is gonna hurt your chances for some possible future prize? Seems less a threat to an author than what’s currently on display – crappy or compromised reviewing, or total neglect.

CBT: You have a keen interest in politics, especially international politics as it manifests itself as a geopolitical force. This seems to be a relative rarity among Canadian writers these days (at least, as an explicit concern). Broadly speaking , is Canadian literary discourse too provincial?

BP. I have to laugh. I actually think Canadian literature would be better served if it were more provincial. That’s not because I think politics and literature can’t co-exist – they can, should, and sometimes, magnificently, do – but that what passes for so-called political novels or poems are often obvious and ideologically vapid. By pure chance I happened to have read, back-to-back a month ago, José Saramago’s Seeing and Pasha Malla’s People Park. Both had similar themes set in similar circumstances. Unfair to contrast a first-time novelist with Saramago? Perhaps. But it shows the gulf, and we have to remark on the novel on its own terms. The late Portuguese writer concocts a complex, hilariously satirical commentary on the ruling class, and its effects, in a mesmerizing array of emotions, (especially) on a waveringly faithful police inspector; intriguing characters are absent in Malla’s novel. The former suggests, through indirection and conflicted alliances, how political decisions are made; the latter concentrates on blunt effects among cartoon characters, and the author’s writing suffers terribly trying to navigate through the mess his narrative requires. I’d much rather read a novel with small parameters done well than an ambitious train wreck.

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

BP. I have a novel making the rounds. I’m slowly sketching out ideas for a second. I continue to write flash fiction – 500 to 1,000 words. And I’ll be writing and submitting reviews in a few months, on what I don’t yet know.

Bio: Brian Palmu is a writer living on the Sunshine Coast, BC. His long-running blog, now retired, can be accessed at

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