Saturday, November 30, 2013

Writers Today: the futility of Fakebook

I decided to cut-and-paste this piece rather than publish a link, because YOU HAVE GOT TO SEE IT if you are a serious writer, especially if you are a serious writer in Canada (though I believe it applies in other countries more than we know). It's a harsh truth, but a truth nonetheless, that the onus for being in the "first tier"  has fallen back on the writer, creating a whole new set of expectations/pressures:  "Hey look, you have social media now, you should do GREAT!", and, "Hey, Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published!" The money is just not there any more, anywhere, and this speaks volumes about the "global economic changes" that have marginalized literature as never before.

What's the solution? I can only think of one thing. Keep on writing, troops. Don't let the bastards get you down.

Artists struggle to survive in age of the blockbuster


In the artistic economy, the Internet has not lived up to its hype. For years, the cybergurus liked to tell us about the “long tail” – the rise of niches, “unlimited variety for unique tastes” – that would give equal opportunities to tiny indie bands and Hollywood movies. People selling products of any kind would, in the new connected world, be able to sell small amounts to lots of small groups. Implicit in the idea was the promise that since niche tastes would form online communities not limited by national boundaries, a niche product might find a large international audience without traditional kinds of promotion in its home country. People in publishing bought this, too. The end result, we were told, would be an extremely diverse cultural world in which the lesbian vampire novel would be just as widely discussed as the Prairie short story and the memoir in tweets.

In fact, the blockbuster artistic product is dominating cultural consumption as at no other time in history. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on each successive Hunger Games, and the rep cinemas have closed. A few sports stars are paid more individually than entire publishing houses or record labels earn in a year.

A couple of prominent commentators have made this argument recently about American culture at large. The musician David Byrne lamented, in a book of essays, that his recent albums would once have been considered modest successes but now no longer earn him enough to sustain his musical project. That’s David Byrne – he’s a great and famous artist. Just no Lady Gaga. The book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, by business writer Anita Elberse, argues that the days of the long tail are over in the United States. It makes more sense, she claims, for entertainment giants to plow as much money as they can into guaranteed hits than to cultivate new talent. “Because people are inherently social,” she writes cheerily, “they generally find value in reading the same books and watching the same television shows and movies that others do.”

Well, the same appears to be true of publishing, even in this country. There are big winners and there are losers – the middle ground is eroding. Publishers are publishing less, not more. Everybody awaits the fall’s big literary-prize nominations with a make-us-or-break-us terror. Every second-tier author spends an hour every day in the dismal abjection of self-promotion – on Facebook, to an audience of 50 fellow authors who couldn’t care less who just got a nice review in the Raccoonville Sentinel. This practice sells absolutely no books; increases one’s “profile” by not one centimetre; and serves only to increase one’s humiliation at not being in the first tier, where one doesn’t have to do that.

Novelists have been complaining, privately at least, about the new castes in the literary hierarchy. This happens every year now, in the fall, the uneasiness – after the brief spurt of media attention that goes to the nominees and winners of the three major Canadian literary prizes, the Scotiabank Giller, the Governor-General’s, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust. The argument is that the prizes enable the media to single out a few books for promotion, and no other books get to cross the divide into public consciousness. And, say the spurned writers, this fact guides the publishers in their acquisitions. Editors stand accused of seeking out possible prize-winners (i.e. “big books”) rather than indulging their own tastes. This leads, it is said, to a homogenized literary landscape and no place at all for the weird and uncategorizable.

But even if this is true, what can one possibly do about it? Abolish the prizes? No one would suggest this – and even the critics of prize culture understand that the prizes were created by genuine lovers of literature with nothing but the best intentions, and that rewarding good writers financially is good, even necessary, in a small country without a huge market.

It’s not, I think, the fault of the literary prizes that the caste system exists. Nor of the vilified “media” who must cover these major events. It’s the lack of other venues for the discussion and promotion of books that closes down the options. There were, in the nineties, several Canadian television programs on the arts. There were even whole TV shows about books alone. Not one of these remains. There were radio shows that novel-readers listened to. There were budgets for book tours; there were hotel rooms in Waterloo and Moncton. In every year that I myself have published a book there have been fewer invitations and less travel. Now, winning a prize is really one’s only shot at reaching a national level of awareness.

So again, what is to be done? What does any artist do in the age of the blockbuster? Nothing, absolutely nothing, except keep on doing what you like to do. Global economic changes are not your problem (and are nothing you can change with a despairing tweet). Think instead, as you always have, about whether or not you like semicolons and how to describe the black winter sky. There is something romantic about being underground, no?

Look on the bright side: Poverty can be good for art. At least it won’t inspire you to write Fifty Shades of Grey.


Friday, November 29, 2013

My favorite moment from Amelie

The hate crime no one talks about

Oh yes. Oh, yes, Captain Kirk, and his noble soliloquy in perhaps my fave original Star Trek episode, Miri. The one with all the kids on that planet, you know, all by themselves cuz the adults all died, and they get all gross when they hit puberty and Yeoman Rand's leg looks like a major cigarette burn. I watched it at 13, tape recording it as I usually did on our old reel-to-reel Webcor with the fan-shaped microphone. Kirk wasn't ridiculous then, he wasn't a joke, he wasn't a buffoon and to date, he had done no Loblaws commercials. Kirk was just Kirk.

But his immortal line, "no blah blah blah!" has taken on a special significance in my mind over many decades of observation.

Do you know what I'm talking about? Happens so often I want to yip with irritation. In fact it happened yesterday:  we're in Denny's eating our veggie omelettes with hash browns, when I hear a familiar drone coming from behind Bill's seat.


I -

UMMM da bummada bummda. Mm-mmoom-dah! Da bomada bomadadamda bom.

A - 

Bum BUM DA dum dum, demda dum! Dem -

So you get the idea by now. It was one of those totally one-sided conversations you constantly overhear (without meaning to: this is hardly eavesdropping, as I would have loved to shut out all this blathering) in restaurants or theatres or other public places. 

One person is blathering on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and - sorry, my hand just fell off - but as this blathablathablathablathablathablatha goes on, all of it self-referential, all of it self-serving, all of it self-entitled, all of it related to the blatherer's intense suffering at not being treated like a crown prince/ss, I can sense the listener/receiver's blood volume being slowly, slowly, and surely sucked down and siphoned out.

When they leave the restaurant, the blatherer will be hugely inflated with self-righteous helium and all ready for the next deadly gas attack, but the victim (for that is what it is) will be but a pale shadow of his/her former self. She will be so anemic, you'll be able to see through her. She'll have to go home and lie down for a month or more, maybe get a transfusion.

But the thing is, they'll still go out again next week for lunch. The same thing will happen all over again. He or she will tell the same pompous, pointless stories, the same tales of persecution. No one even notices how soul-destroying the experience is. The entitled one will be bursting with hemoglobin by now, ready to explode like some honey-forced queen bee or ruptured giant termite. The victim will now weigh 37 pounds. Doesn't matter how many pancakes she puts away.

I heard it yesterday and I heard it at the mall food fair the day before with a similar booming, thrumming, droning male voice, this time with some sort of European accent. Bom-bomda-BOMmmdaa-bommmm-daBOMmada-bonga, etc. etc.

This is not a conversation. This is a monologue. The monologuist has no idea that it isn't a conversation and in fact thinks he's a very good conversationalist, very smart and sharp. His blathering about camping equipment or the plumbing in his house or his car troubles or the asshole at work who got the promotion he should've got (or his bitch of a wife, always a favorite) strikes him as scintillating discourse sparking a lively debate, an exchange of witticisms rivalling the Algonquin Round Table in sheer witti-blah-tudinous-ness.

He doesn't know, because his brain is made out of shoe leather and his psyche is about as penetrable as a block of obsidian. I would like to start carrying a baseball bat around with me to play whack-a-mole with these characters, but there are just too many of them, and besides, then *I* would be considered obnoxious and antisocial, hitting these poor innocent guys who weren't doing nothin'. 

This is abuse. The endless, boring, repetitive blathering with only the occasional squeak out of the audience/receiver/victim/codependent masochist.  This person NEEDS this sort of ego-stroking, this constant reinforcement of his (or her: one of the worst I've encountered is a her, droning on for 45 minutes about her Grade 11 science teacher and what he wore to class) innate sense that his every word is interesting and useful and even enlightening, when in reality it's a torrent of horseshit more horrific than the result of opening Mr. Ed's stable door.

There is nothing to be done. Stay away, that's all I can say to you, try to stay away and not call them friends. A friend does not stick a drinking straw in your jugular vein and begin to vigorously suck. Blatha-blatha-blathata-blah.

I don't know if this codicil belongs here, but I might as well tack it on. It's the self-proclaimed expert who charges into a room full of chemo patients and bellows, "TAKE MILK THISTLE AND YOU WILL BE CURED!" The person so sure of (his or her) convictions that they force them on others as absolute, unassailable gospel truth.

One doctor I know is a doozie. Educated, an "expert" on many things, in fact famous.

"Illness means you've repressed your emotions."

"No, you mean: I believe illness means you've repressed your emotions."

"There's no debate about this, it's simply true."

"So everybody else, everyone who believes something different from you, is completely erroneous and full of shit?"

"I didn't say that! Don't be so defensive. It's just an opinion."

"Then why didn't you say so?"

"Because it's an opinion that happens to be true."

"Jesus, don't you hear yourself? That's total arrogance!"

"Obviously you have issues with authority figures."

"No, just with YOU, asshole!"

(That last line was fantasized, but isn't it great?)

I once attended some sort of workshop (it had something to do with my sick and dying church trying to manage a last-minute, futile resurrection) where the facilitator said, "Tell me the difference between these two statements: Divorce is terrible."

(Slight tremor in the room, caused by minute vibrations from the divorced people trying not to spit at her.)

"MY divorce was terrible. Which statement is easier to accept?"


But people don't do it that way! They stride in and say, "Everything happens for a reason/God never gives us more than we can handle/It's all in God's plan." This person has never suffered a major hardship, and in fact has led a charmed existence.  God's will has been, at least up to now, a piece of cake. (Secretly she/he thinks it's because she prays a lot and "surrenders", so God favors her.) But never do they say, "I've come to believe that - " or even, "It's my conviction that - ". No, they just take one of those thingamabobs they used to tamp down powder in a cannon, and casually shove it down your throat.

"I was about to die in a car crash, but my angel saved me."

"God must have intervened."

"It was meant to be" (but NEVER with reference to anything negative. Only positive things are "meant to be". No sense of entitlement here.)

"It was God's plan that little Timmy survive being run over by an express train 47 times."

Oh yes? What about this couple over here, dying of grief because God DIDN'T save their son? What about the man whose wife actually did die in a crash? Didn't she believe enough, didn't God love her enough, didn't she have the right mojo or put enough on the collection plate?

It's really just more BLAHBLAHBLAH, of a particularly toxic variety. It's toxic because it is so un-thought-out, so carelessly said. So smug. So entitled ("see, God loves me enough to pull me out of flaming wreckage. What's wrong with you?")

I wonder sometimes if even half of what people say is really considered, or if it just pours out of them like so much raw sewage. They snag on to jingles, axioms, homilies, catch-phrases, churn them around unexamined, and spit them in your face. They never preface these statements, just jam them up your nose as "fact".  It's easier than thinking, easier than feeling empathy or compassion or any of those dangerous things that require a little stretching of the soul.

The blatherers of the world are verbal thugs. When you see one, whether it's in Denny's or the hardware store or your local church or synogogue, whacking the palm of his hand with a lead pipe and wearing a smug self-involved smile, there's only one thing you can do.


What I do when I'm not writing

Keep warm.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What a hokey, impractical idea!

I was completely gobsmacked - though perhaps I shouldn't have been - when I found this tidbit on the Turner Classics site. Along with everything else, Harold Lloyd was a visionary who had a way of piercing the limitations of technology, simply because "no" wasn't in his vocabulary. Even if his view wasn't quite "yes", it always had the spirit of "let's try". He was the perennial boy genius who never stopped tinkering and exploring in every medium he could get his hands on: microscopy, oil painting, stereo sound, and the primitive 3D photography of the era. Speaking of which, his favorite photographic subject was buxom, Jane-Russell-like nude women. Harold always loved his work.

Many fans of Harold Lloyd think of him simply as one of the very talented founding fathers of cinema.  This is true, but Harold was ALSO one of the first proponents of 3D motion pictures!  In 1923 an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times visited Harold on the set of Girl Shy and they discussed Harold’s interest in 3D.  During this interview Harold is quoted as saying “I believe that the man who invents a means of producing a perfect stereo motion picture will have accomplished the greatest achievement since the first motion picture.”  He went on to say “Today, the motion pictures projected on the most perfect screen are lacking in solidity and relief.  If the characters could only be made to stand out as they do in stereopticon pictures, and still retain the action of motion pictures of today, I think the ultimate would be reached by the cinema.”

In his Columbia University interview in 1959 Harold discussed the early attempts at 3D movies.  Many in the industry had given up on the medium, as the results had not been great and 3D was viewed mostly as a passing fad. In the interview Harold says “I think if they’d handled [the transition to] sound as horribly as they did three-dimension, we wouldn’t have sound today.”  After this, he goes on to explain technically why the earlier 3D attempts had not been successful and how the technology would have to advance before the medium would take off.  He was absolutely convinced that once the technological advancements were made, the transition from 2D motion pictures to 3D would be unavoidable and all encompassing.

Harold’s interest in 3D manifested itself in his passion for stereoscopic photography.  From 1947 until his death in 1971, Harold Lloyd shot over 200,000 3D slides some of which featured celebrities of the day, scenic views of the United States and various countries around the world.  He was a member of the Photographic Society of America and served as the Inaugural President of the Hollywood Stereoscopic Society.

The magnificent library of Harold’s 3D photography remains mostly unexposed to the public.  Suzanne Lloyd has published two books containing some of the images, but most of the 200,000+ slides have not been seen by anyone outside of the Lloyd family.  

(From the Turner Classic Movies web site)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Just kind of a blah day, Christmas coming at me like a freight train (though the actual day is usually quite wonderful - so why?). Frustrated at the breakup of a 20-year friendship which had become irretrievably sour, unwilling to be a dumping ground for misplaced buckets of bile. The assumption being I was always ready and willing to receive, infinitely patient, accepting and understanding.

Life is just sour sometimes, it sucks or is boring, and the nice parts fly by so fast you don't even know how good they are. None of this is new. None of this is dramatic or suicidal or even really depressive, just fed up and uninspired.

I make Facebook covers of Harold Lloyd, obsessively, usually late at night (and when did I start staying up so late? For years and years I went to bed at 10:00 and got up at 6:00), and lately they are becoming more florid. Just for fun. I like the candy-colored tinted photos that were often used for promotion, and they lend themselves to florid backgrounds.

But in the final analysis, it's boring and I still feel chronically left out. It's no use, after all these years, to learn to skip Double Dutch or any other way. So I am left standing on the sidelines, or behind something. Bored.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Forever young

At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams
With no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means.

Bob Dylan, Gates of Eden

Sometimes I actually do this: I take my morning coffee and curl up on the leather sofa next to the Lazy Boy my husband has preferred for something like 30 years. And I tell him. In the manner of nearly all dreams, these will soon sublimate into the air like so much night frost and disappear, though I sometimes try to get them down on this blog (i. e. Whatever Happened to the Wildwood Flower, about a young Sissy Spacek-like woman preparing to get married in a church where no one knows her). I tell my dreams as an attempt to fix them in time and memory, and mostly it doesn't work, leaving Bill with the usual baffled look on his face.

This one, well, it was even stranger than that.

Like Bob Dylan, I think the eternal question "what does the dream mean?" wrecks it more often than not, like analyzing poetry until it's nothing but fragments of phrases and unmoored words. But it's interesting to behold what bin-ends of thought and experience re-emerge in scrambled or rearranged form, unrelated jigsaw pieces suddenly revealing a picture you never thought of before.

I was in some sort of big theatre, a movie theatre I would guess, and it reminded me of the theatres of my childhood in Chatham. We had two, the Capital and the Centre, and I remember we felt considerable civic pride in the fact that we had more than one. In the dream the theatre was huge, cavernous, more like the Orpheum in Vancouver, though I am sure the Capital and the Centre were rather puny and not grand at all.

There were only three people in the theatre: myself, Hassan (a colleague of Bill's from 30 years ago, a fellow engineer relocated from Saudi Arabia) and Paul, a spiritualist medium I have known for many years. He was sitting facing away from the vast silver screen at some sort of monitor, and without saying it Hassan and I knew he was going to tell us what would happen to us, what our future would be. He seemed, in retrospect, a little like the "man behind the curtain" in the Wizard of Oz,  except that there was no curtain.

He worked away. Apparently he was "doing" Hassan first, and I was rather jealous. All the while, ghostly images appeared, more on the ceiling of the theatre than on the screen, giant people, like blowups of characters from silent movies, though I didn't recognize who they were.  I wish I remembered the middle of the dream, but most of it has already faded and gone all patchy and jumbled like a poorly-restored movie from 1915. He finally did tell Hassan his "fortune" in a fairly straightforward way, and he listened intently, obviously taking it very seriously.  But it seemed to me that time was running out, that there would be no time for my own fortune and I would be left hanging.

It was true. As Paul began to pack up his things (what things? His henbane, his Merlin hat?), he told me I would have to "wait until next time" to hear my fortune. I was frustrated by this, and even wondered if something would happen to me if I had "no future", if it had not been laid out for me.  Then I realized he had been using something that looked like an old overhead projector to "see" and project that seeing into the future, and I wondered how that worked.

Then I had this bold idea. Since I couldn't wait for my fortune, I would write it myself. So I started writing it down on something unusual, maybe on an old piece of parchment, but it flowed easily. And I have almost no remembrance of it, though it struck me as quite specific and in detail. I do remember one line, something like, "Sometimes friends will be the greatest comfort and help to you, and sometimes they will vanish and you will be left completely alone." I had a sense of a lacuna or a round hollow space in some sort of rock formation.

Sometimes this, sometimes that: it was a bit like Ecclesiastes and "to every thing there is a season". But when I came to writing the last line, it reminded me strongly of Bob Dylan's most heartfelt song, "Forever Young".

May God bless and keep you
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

Sunday, November 24, 2013