Love the Art, not the Artist

mw-witch_hunt_0In view of the whole Kathleen Hale kerfuffle, I am reposting a piece that I wrote several years ago. I have never read Hale’s books, and have little taste for YA lit. But while I don’t condone stalking anyone for any reason, I am flabbergasted by the outrage expressed against her work, current and future.  I have loved books, music, and art by people I wouldn’t want to hang out with, and I’ve learned the hard way that there is no point holding the artist’s personality against the work itself. Of course, with the push for artists to have a web presence and platform, it is harder for them to remain at arm’s length, and they often show themselves in the most unflattering light, which is a shame for them and for everyone who might have been moved, transported, delighted by their work. Some of the references below may be a bit dated, but my general feelings about the separation between art and artist remain the same.

A number of years ago, I stopped reading music magazines, despite the fact that I am a great lover and consumer of music.  After johnny-ramoneone interview too many where the members of some band that I had up until that moment enjoyed turned out to be idiots, I realized that what I felt about the artist had a real effect on how much I enjoyed the music. (I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to  learn that Johnny Ramone was a staunch Republican; it took the sheen off a brief, post-show meeting with him that took place when I was 18).

I had a similar reaction when I saw the biopic about painter Francis Bacon,  Love is the Devil.  Though I’d always been a fan of his powerful, bloody, carcass-filled triptychs, the film presented the painter as so nasty, petty, and vile that the art, though it hadn’t changed, was no longer something I wanted to look at, and I felt cheated.  I think anyone who knows too much about Picasso may experience the same dissonance.

GIACOBETTI_1991_Meat_TriptychNow, the more I like the art, the less I want to know about the artists that created it.  I’m always happy to learn something about their process, but as for their private lives, I’m probably never going to have a glass of wine with them or debate philosophy, love, and politics, so I feel it’s none of my business.  I’d rather let the art speak for itself.

Is an actor or a writer or musician or painter any better or worse based on their personality? In my experience, real artists are often difficult, unreliable and not always pleasant people.  Their art is the best of them distilled and perfected.  That’s why we fall in love with a singer when s/he’s onstage, or the voice and wisdom of a writer on the page.  Writers, in fact, often say that their writing is wiser than they are.  To expect these people to live up to their work is foolish.  The song, or the book, or the painting is an artifact, outside themselves, that they have put everything they are, they know, and they aspire to be into, then given it to us as a gift.  But it is not necessarily who they are the rest of the time, nor do I need it to be.

220px-Portrait_de_DanteIs Michael Richards any less funny objectively because he spouted racist epithets?  And to fans of Chris Brown, are his songs less catchy because he’s an abuser?  We may not want to support these people after finding out their dirty secrets, but what their skills are as artists remains separate from who they are. Who knows what Shakespeare, Dante,  Beethoven, and Carravagio were really like, since their every move wasn’t recorded and broadcast 24/7?   We judge them on the work they left behind.

Barring any real nefarious acts, it’s ok by me if an artist I like is “not nice.”  This requirement of niceness is perhaps the need of people who want to be able to “relate” to the artist, to believe that s/he is no different from you and me–it is a form of self-aggrandizement. It is also the dull consequence of our time, when the cult of personality reigns supreme. Look at reality shows: how many of the real talents get eliminated in favor of mediocre competitors who have more winning personalities or are relatable? Do you really want to listen to lousy music made by someone with a sweet smile and a touching back story?  Wouldn’t you rather listen to something fantastic, even though the person who made it is a little odd, or abrasive, or offensive, or anti-social (or a lot)?

Real artists are different from you and me; they are natural subversives, and don’t give a damn what we think of them anyway–that is precisely what makes what they produce interesting.   My belief is that art should stand on its own, that it should be compared to other similar works to determine its relative value, and that the person who made it is irrelevant in this assessment, both in the moment and especially in retrospect.

MJ

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Blog Hop: Una McDonnell–The Whole Yummy-Messy Smash

Thanks to the lovely Tess Fragoulis for including in me in the Blog Hop, and letting me hop right onto her blog to do it!

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Una McDonnell

What am I working on?

I’m working on a book of short stories I started during an MFA in Creative Writing with the amazing Zsuszi Gartner, who taught me how to unleash my own voice as a short fiction writer. I don’t know whose style I was trying to write before, but it was some safe, bland compilation of a “literary” voice. For the first class, I’d written this truly horrible last line in a story, involving one tenacious leaf hanging from a winter branch. Zsuszi and the gang—we later named ourselves “The Tenacious Leaves”— facilitated that breakthrough moment in which I could finally see how I was getting in my own way as a writer. Once I kicked the nasty self-imposed critic, with all her “shoulds,” off my shoulder, the writing and my enjoyment of it opened up. That’s the book I’m working on now, The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

In the title story, I was interested in that particular problem of consciousness in which there is no logical reason why we should have experience, or a rich inner life, as part of the meat-machine processes of mind. How then do we share our experience? Or as Betty Goodwin asks in one her preliminary sketches, “How long does it take one voice to reach another?” I like playing with that in story—how little of what we mean gets across once its been through the filter of our personality and the listener’s own psychological makeup. The extraordinary capacity of language and its failures. I find I’m always drawn to books and movies with interweaving story lines and characters. I have a triptych in the book that takes place on one night in a small village (very like the one I live in) with three characters in the middle of various crises that draw direct and indirect connections between them.

I also have a mostly-completed book of poems and half a novel and a small business. Starting a business is like pushing a huge boulder off a mountain peak, then getting in front and running. The boulder is slowing down and my legs are way stronger than when I started. So, right now, the stories. I’m learning to focus.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is the sort of question I wouldn’t have the first clue how to answer. It’s hard to see my own work objectively. One thing I’ve decided about other people’s art—to dispel that feeling that I’d have to take survey courses covering the whole of human history in every discipline to properly “understand” it—is that if a work engages me on numerous levels, then it’s working for me. A Betty Goodwin mixed media piece challenges me intellectually and visually, cracks me open and gives me goosebumps. That method of engagement with art has a corollary for my own work: that the best I can do is develop my craft and strive to be authentic. The writing I most admire has spiritual grit, and by that I mean, it’s earnest in the best sense of the word, but has its feet on the ground too. It feels elemental, like a brilliant new idea, yet one that resonates in my most hidden self, and I wish I’d written it. I try to write the work that in a parallel universe, I would wish I’d written.

Why do I write what I do?

It’s nice to be asked to talk about writing, and I enjoy reading factual articles and memoirs, but so far, the only kind of writing I love to do is fictional. In fact, I wither under the mental organization of other kinds of writing and of life tasks in general. The regular world, with its exigencies and details makes me tired. I can feel a nap coming on right now…

I write fiction and poetry because those forms engender more epiphanic moments than anything else I could do. So, yup, I chase that feeling. Everyone has had those seconds in the morning mirror, when, for some reason, time slows, and you can see yourself, really see yourself, briefly, from a slightly different angle, as though a veil has dropped, and you think, “My God, that’s me, I am Me.” You are both more familiar and more a stranger to yourself in those moments. Or as one of my characters, an adolescent girl named Tanya, says, (cause, lets face it, my characters know much more than I do), you get pulled “into the big old world and every living thing we share it with, all the animals and trees, rivers and caves, stars in the sky, and everyone, the whole implausible, irreconcilable, yummy-messy smash.”

The specifics come based on whatever gets lodged in my mind or body and haunts me until I let it out.

How does my writing process work?

Before a first draft, I spend a lot of time working when I’m not working. I need to fill my life with the right things in order to write well—time in the world of nature, time to read, and some good old-fashioned loafing about on the couch and staring at the ceiling with a song like Springsteen’s The River on a repeat loop, à la my sixteen-year-old self. Caffeine helps. Sometimes wine. Long drives are good. So is sleeping on it. Once I can feel the story, feel the emotion of the idea, character, or question that’s asking to be written, then I can face the blank screen.

When it gets down to writing the story, I have to say, I have a pretty unstructured mind, so sometimes laying down a structure frees me up to delve into character and ideas. I want the content and the form of the story to work together and I really enjoy playing with that. Revision is my favourite part of writing, where I really develop the characters, the line by line craft, etc. The best I can hope for in a first draft is that I get the voice on the page. Most of it gets cut later, and everything else is re-writing. If my writing process were a poem, it would be Steven Heighton’s Ballad of the Slow Road.

I’m most productive at writer’s residencies, where I can be locked away in my room with a view, but know that there are great people working near-by, stimulating conversation and a cuppa tea or a pint waiting when I’m ready to leave my bubble. So right now I’m renting a studio with the writer Lesley Buxton in the Farrellton Artist Space in an old, country school housing 20 other artists. It hasn’t produced as much beer-drinking as I’d like, but I’m getting work done.

I’m passing the rabbit’s foot over to playwright, poet, short-story writer, and fibre artist, S.Lesley Buxton, who is currently writing a Memoir through Dalhousie’s King’s College based on her beautiful and heart-breaking blog Fall On Me, Dear. And to poet, Dilys Leman, (who will also post on Lesley’s blog) great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Augustus Jukes, senior surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police during the 1885 Rebellion. Dilys’ new book, The Winter Court (McGill-Queens University Press), challenges the official story about the roll of First Nations in that rebellion through a mix of original poems and reconstituted archival texts.

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Una McDonnell has performed at literary readings and music festivals, on top of café tables (to get a gig), and on one occasion in a boxing ring (she won her round). She attended the 2002 Banff Wired Writing Studio and the 2003 Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium and has a Masters of Fine Arts from UBC. She has published work in Arc, Prairie Fire, Written in the Skin: A Poetic Response to Aids, and Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature.

So You Want to Win a Literary Contest: 10 Tips on Getting Out of the Slushpile

Ah, the promise of the literary contest: the fame, the accolades, the love, and the cash. The rewards are enough to bring every closet scribbler into the light.

But it’s not that simple. Though everyone may indeed have a story worth telling, not everyone knows how to tell it well.

I recently agreed to be one of several readers for a literary fiction contest. As someone who not only writes fiction, but teaches creative writing and literature, you could say that I have a lot of experience reading, which comes in handy when you receive hundreds submissions, from which you must chose the best 5 with only a few weeks to deliberate.

This process of separating the wheat from the chaff is what I assume agents, editors at literary journals or at publishing houses, and selection committees at creative writing programs the world over spend much of their working life engaging in. The latter, of course, are just looking for potential, the diamond in the rough, whereas everyone else is really just after the diamonds.

So what advice might I give contest hopefuls who, most often, are paying to have their work considered among hundreds or thousands of other hopefuls?

  1. Have a great title, something intriguing, suggestive, rather than a cliche or someone’s name. Work as hard on the title as everything else, and try not to include it in your first or last line. A good title gets your story more favourable attention right off the bat. It makes the reader curious about what will be revealed.
  2. Avoid long prologues or epigrams, and especially don’t italicize them. The former is better used in a novel, which has room for a ‘before,’ the latter is often trying to deliver the message of the story, which is the job of the story itself–and by extension the writer. And please leave the introductory poems to the poets.
  3. Make sure that your first few lines are interesting, have a hook, and get the story going right away. There’s no room or need for back-story in a short story. You need to hit the ground running. I want to already be in the weeds halfway through the first page, if not at the end of the first paragraph.
  4. For God’s sake, don’t have typos or grammatical errors in those first lines. If they come later they look like an oversight, but right at the beginning they tell me you’re not paying attention or simply don’t know better.
  5. Actually write scenes so the reader can immerse him/herself into the action. This falls under show don’t tell. I don’t want to read about the story, I want to be lost inside it.
  6. Make sure something happens! This should go without saying, but recent experience tells me that it needs to be said. On a related note, make sure something changes for your characters because of this thing that happens. When did watching someone stuck in the mud become interesting? Don’t we all have enough hopeless friends and aggravating relatives who refuse to change their minds, learn from their mistakes, or do what is obviously necessary in the face of adversity?
  7. Avoid the 1st person. This may seem harsh, but there are too many disguised autobiographies floating around out there, which is the primary cause of the lack of scenes and the dearth of important action. Third person gives you distance and forces you into a fuller storytelling. But if you do write 1st person, or 3rd for that matter, give your protagonist other characters to interact with. That will also ensure something happens.
  8. Try to make your language evocative and interesting. It will bring extra life to your story, whereas mundane or repetitive language will drain it of energy. Use regional accents/dialect sparingly. They become annoying and unreadable, and don’t really help in defining character or place–they are a short cut that doesn’t get your characters or your reader anywhere.
  9. Give your characters names. Why should anyone care about anonymous he’s and she’s? It’s the individuality of characters that make the same old stories interesting. Remember, nothing comes into existence until it is named.
  10. The last line is as important as the first. You can get away with a so-so ending in a novel, but a short story lives or dies by its ending. The standard advice is that it should be surprising yet inevitable.

Sound like too many things to consider? Then save your entrance fee. Because this is what separates those who have taken the time to consider the art and craft of writing from those who simply know how to line up sentences one after another until they, more or less, get some sort of event or series of events across. And rest assured, if you don’t consider these basics, there will be at least a few people among the hundreds of submissions who have, and chances are they will be the ones to make it out of the Slushpile and into the winners circle.

Bonus tip: Hospital stories, the decline of the aged, accounts of trips to exotic locales, and love stories are often prone to dull, informational writing and cliche. The first two are also inherently depressing, so if you want to write about any of these things, make sure you have a bigger point to make above and beyond the plot. And don’t write them in 1st person (revisit Tip 7)!

Caveat: All rules can be broken, but you need to know them first, and you need to break them so well that readers are blown away, and all they are paying attention to is your brilliance.

All except this one, of course.

No Cure for Ignorance (or Writing)

Most of the major projects I have undertaken in my writing life have been preceded, if not encouraged, by a sort of blissful ignorance. When I wrote my first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother, for instance, I had no idea how difficult it would be to create and perfect 14 self-contained worlds, let alone how difficult it would be to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. With Ariadne’s Dream, my second book, I was happily unaware of the gargantuan task of keeping all of a novel’s details, characters and subplots straight, let alone the sheer laboriousness of reviewing 400 pages at every stage of the publishing process.

Having written and survived one novel, I felt primed to take on another one. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that twaddle… But instead of sticking even a little bit closely to what I had just taught myself to do, I chose to burden myself with an extra layer of difficulty without truly understanding what was I was doing. No, I didn’t write and entire novel without using the letter “e”– I mean, isn’t it challenging enough to tell a great story in beautiful language without excluding five of the last ten words, Monsieur Perec?

Due to that pesky thing called inspiration, which we all know is only 1/10 of the work involved in writing, so it can afford to be charming and frivolous, I decided to take on a historical novel, set in a time I knew almost nothing about, and about which there wasn’t much written in English. My third book, The Goodtime Girl, which is set in Greece and Asia Minor during the 1920s, took about ten years to complete. It’s safe to assume that had I known I would spend a decade working on one book, I would have chosen to do something, almost anything, else, like go to med school. In fact, I used to make fun of my novelist friends and their ten year prison sentences, as I called them. But I’d heard a song from the period that intrigued me, and the next thing you know I was researching music, fashion, drug culture and war, then writing character sketches and preliminary chapters, and by the time I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to bail (I tried, I’ll admit, but the story wouldn’t let me. It warned it would haunt me FOREVER!).

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my books like parents love their children, even after the teenaged years. I have no regrets. But I have to wonder, had I known how tough the process after inspiration and before publication would be, would I have persisted?

Possibly.
Probably.
Yes.

There really isn’t a choice when you have a story in your head that must be told, that takes over both your waking and dream worlds, that suggests lines to you when you are about to fall asleep and makes you turn on a light and pick up a notebook, all the while cursing, but also feeling a little exhilarated when the words appear, as if channeled, on the page.

No one ever said literature was easy–it’s just worked on until it looks that way. But there’s no use thinking about writing as a never-ending and unavoidable chore–like dusting. In the end, a bit of ignorance, willful or pure, is indeed bliss, and perhaps vital to my creative development. It allowed me to write three books, each one different and more ambitious than its predecessor, and a fourth (yes, difficult-to-sell short stories) is almost finished. As for the fifth, though I have sworn up and down over the last decade that I will NEVER EVER write another historical novel, the other day a reader asked me whether I was going to write a sequel to The Goodtime Girl, set in another place, another time. I have to admit I’m considering it.

It has to be easier the second time around, right?

Cross-posted at 49th Shelf

The Trouble with E-books

Though I am a longtime fan and consumer of independent films and music, I am not so convinced that indie is the way to go when it comes to books. I realize that by championing the old guard, the gatekeepers, the money-grubbers, I am A) going to piss quite a few people off, and B) will likely have to eat my words in the future–or possibly the pages of a book like the lover in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. But in watching the e-book r/evolution from the sidelines, I have come to the conclusion that the traditional route to publication and distribution is still the best route for literary fiction.

Make no mistake, my journey to publication has been a rocky one at the best of times, but there are many things I appreciate about my publishers and what they have done for me. First of all, a dedicated group of professionals selected my manuscript out of the thousands they receive each year, and deemed it appropriate for their list. This is truly a vote of confidence. It may seem to many people that these middlemen and women are the only thing standing in their way of love and accolades from the masses, but the truth of the matter is that each publishing house that takes on a book knows who its audience is, what they might like to read, and puts its money where its mouth is. Publishing houses take huge risks with every book they publish and very rarely get a return on their investment–this is equally true of small and large houses.

Each house that has published me has invested in me,  putting together and paying a team of editors, proofreaders, designers, and publicity people to help my book make a splash once it is out. An objective editorial eye is imperative to any writer, no matter how advanced or accomplished he/she is. We all have blind spots, especially after we’ve spent years staring at the same pages. Even if the editorial changes are minor, they are invaluable on the road to perfecting a manuscript for the ease and pleasure of a reader. In addition, with my latest novel, I have been more involved in its p.r. than ever, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be to get it noticed without the constant work and support of my publicist. Generating publicity is time-consuming and an art form in itself, which I’d really rather leave to the experts.  That way I have more time to do what I do best: write the damn books.

I am also a book lover: here I’m talking about the book as object–not only my own books, but also those written by others. When there was delay after delay in the release of my last novel, the idea was floated by my agent that we might just publish it electronically, with a print on demand option. In my depths of despair, I considered it because wasn’t it better to have a book out there rather than a manuscript collecting dust under my bed? What stopped me was a real sense of loss. Not having a tangible book to hold in my hands, to put on my shelf next to my first two, and next to favorite volumes by beloved writers depressed me almost as much as not publishing it at all.

Why all the doom and gloom when Kindle and Kobo are taking over the reading world? Well, I may just be a late adopter, but I have yet to take the plunge into a e-reading device. I have the Kindle app on my iPad, a device that I am literally addicted to, and I have downloaded a bunch of books to it, but I rarely read them. Some might say that this has to do with e-ink and back-lighting and such, but I think it has more to do with my preference for holding onto the real cover of a real book and flipping real pages. Somehow, it gives me a more sensory and substantial experience. I know this may be entirely subjective, but when it comes to my own books, I think I’m allowed to have an opinion as to the format. You have to be totally behind what you are selling. I believe the Oncler loved thneeds. I don’t love e-books. The Goodtime Girl is available for Kobo and Kindle for those who do love their e-readers, but as an alternate option, not as the only format.

And let’s face it, most stand-alone e-books are not getting the same attention as traditionally published books in magazines and newspapers, which still have more clout and reach than the best-curated blog, and definitely more clout than reader reviews on Amazon (though I appreciate them folks, I really, truly do.) Why are serious book-reviewers not jumping on the e-book bandwagon, except to make a point about some grand success story that usually comes to someone who has self-published genre fiction online? It may very well be because they too, professional readers that they are, find the “interface” of a real book easier to read. Even the bloggers I’ve contacted about my book prefer to receive a hard copy when given the choice. But, more likely, it is a combination of format, prejudgment, and time.

We watch indie films in more or less the same manner we would a blockbuster, and we listen to music through the same devices whether it was recorded at EMI or on someone’s computer (though many would rightly argue that mp3s lack the sound quality of vinyl). We  also dedicate a limited amount of time to them. A film may be two hours long, an album forty-five minutes. A novel takes hours and hours to read and then hours to write about. It’s a much larger investment for a reader/reviewer, and for the time being, the team approach of the publishing house assures some sort of juried pre-selection and quality control for both reader and reviewer. There is also the issue of what it takes to produce a film or an album vs what it takes to publish a book these days. Perhaps it is true that everyone has a book in them, but not everyone can actually write one worth reading. As the writer Stuart Dybek stated, we write novels and stories in the same language we order pizza, but it is not used in the same way. There may be fabulously written and perfectly edited self-published e-books out there, but there are hundreds of thousands of books out there, period, and a reviewer will likely go for something, from someone, from somewhere that already has a track record of offering the best reading experience.

It’s hard being a writer, it’s hard getting published and recognized for your work. It always has been and it’s not getting any easier, despite the wild frontier of e-books and self-publishing, which used to be called vanity publishing once upon a time and, valid or not, was generally dismissed as the second-rate work of the unpublishable. There is probably a way for e-books to escape this, perhaps, unfair taint of vanity, to produce and package themselves with the same professionalism as books taken on by publishing houses, to gain the credibility they need. But I believe it will take a long time to get there, and there will be many casualties along the way in the form of dashed dreams, and money and time spent for little satisfaction.

In the meanwhile, I’ll keep writing and reading on paper, browsing covers in bookstores, and occasionally buying a book I can slip into my purse.

Because at the moment the medium is still the message.

Fiction vs Non-fiction (with cameos by Jim Jarmusch, James Frey & Truman Capote)

Over the years I’ve had more than one person announce “I don’t read fiction” upon hearing that I’m a writer of stories and novels.  When asked why, these people told me that it was because fiction is not true.  These same people, when asked whether they went to the movies or just took in the latest “very serious” documentary on war or obesity or the disappearing naked tribes of the Amazon (who are very lean, by the way), replied that of course they went to the movies.  Perhaps they even identified with a character, shed a tear, or decided to leave their families and find themselves in Alaska or the Andes or Timbuktu. Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law convinced me that life could not go on if I didn’t take a swamp boat through Louisiana’s Bayou.  Perhaps a guide to alligator hunting would have had the same result, or the latest spate of reality shows like Cajun Justice and Swamp People, but probably not.

When I teach creative writing, I dedicate one class to a discussion on the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  The different expectations  a reader has when approaching an autobiography vs a novel comes up, and inevitably we end up talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, who was publicly spanked by Oprah for giving into the impulse to make his memoir more exciting by fudging the facts a bit.  No one batted an eye when Truman Capote embellished In Cold Blood in what he called his “non-fiction novel,” but those were other times, and I guess he didn’t embarrass the queen of daytime t.v.  It was when his fiction read too much like non-fiction that the ladies who lunch hung him out to dry.  Uncomfortable bedfellows, fiction and non-fiction, although they have much in common.

Anything you read includes certain things and excludes others.  All writers have a point of view and a story they want to get across.  I once gave a talk at a college where my first book was being studied, and a young woman raised her hand and asked me why I was so unfair to Greeks in one story, why I didn’t also talk about all the good things about them. I replied that I was a writer of fiction, not a sociologist, and thus was not responsible for a fair portrayal, but for telling the story I needed to tell completely.  (I take this opportunity to share my favorite Marguerite Yourcenar quote: “Everything that any one of us can do to help or hinder his fellow-man has been done, at least once, by a Greek.”)

When I teach essay-writing and rhetoric, I also point out that although it gives you credibility to tip your hat towards your opposition, your argument should focus on the points that will persuade your reader of your superiority.  So it is with most works of non-fiction.  You don’t get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but a slice of it.  In that sense, fiction can actually give you a more expansive view of a world, a time, or the dynamics between people, between past and present.  Unlike history, it is not necessarily written by the victors.

That said, I’ve been wanting to cross over from literary fiction into non-fiction for a while now.  This is not simply because non-fiction writers seem to get large advances even before the whole damn book is written: we are living through troubled times where literal truth is valued more than figurative truth, and people need information that will help them make sense of things. I must confess that many of my favorite books in recent years have been works of non-fiction: travel writing, biographies, psychological studies and spiritual explorations which have touched me as much as a good novel with their voice, their depth, their strangeness and their honesty. Also, some ideas lend themselves to fiction, others to poetry or drama, and others to essays or the newfangled name for Capote’s non-fiction novel: creative non-fiction.  I’ve had  a few ideas bouncing around in my head for a while that are clearly not meant to be novels or short stories.  They need a more direct form, a more direct voice–my voice perhaps, whatever that may be.

Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, or as I like to say, there is shit you can’t make up, but I am stopped by an ironic dilemma.  I am actually more honest in my fiction than in my non-fiction.  My voice is more genuinely my own, and I feel free to tell things like they are (or were), to share my most perverse and dastardly thoughts, to expose my very soul from behind fiction’s veil.  You get more of me through my characters than you would ever get if I chose to write a memoir.  I am far too private to hang out all my dirty laundry, and would really only be able to give you my side of the story, and a sanitized one at that.  (Here I recall Lauren Bacall‘s autobiography, each chapter ending with this chirpy capper: “Oh, we had such fun!”) It is safer to speak through a narrator and through all my characters than as myself. I feel less implicated, less accountable.

I am speaking as myself here, but it is a compromised version because I am loath to confess my prejudices, weaknesses, fears and insecurities, and I am sticking to the subject, as much as I can anyway. I completely understand how James Frey blundered over the lines and got into so much trouble. He let his imagination go in order to create the essence of the experience of drug addiction for the reader, to  produce a visceral feeling rather than simply providing information.  The fallback position of some of my creative writing students, when they are told that their story is cliche or plodding or one-dimensional, is “but that’s how it happened.”  So what?   Frey’s book was touted for its honest portrayal of an addict’s life, for its ability to shed light on addiction and recovery.  Maybe he should have called it a non-fiction novel, but it apparently helped a lot of people nonetheless.

How is that not the truth?

Reviews Ain’t What They Used To Be

It’s true that it had been a while since I’d published a book.  My first book came out in 1997, my second in 2001, and here I am eleven years later facing a whole new reality when it comes to my new novel, The Goodtime Girl, getting publicity.

Newspapers have cut their book sections to a mere page or two on weekends, Montreal has lost its two alternative weeklies, The Mirror and The Hour, and what reviews do appear are shared amongst various papers under the same corporate umbrella, so the variety of voices and views is very much diminished.

Social networks are supposed to fill in the gaps, give the author more control of his/her marketing, and readers more of a voice in terms of their likes and dislikes.  This is not a bad thing.  A study by Heritage Canada states that the top two reasons people buy/read a book is because a friend recommended it, or because they received it as a gift.  Reviews came in third in terms of book buying, which is probably a good thing at a time when fewer and fewer books are being formally reviewed, but more and more are appearing thanks to wild frontier of e-publishing.  Rankings and reader reviews on Amazon,Likes on Facebook pages, recommendations on Goodreads, not to mention the plethora of other sites dedicated to books, book clubs, etc. are certainly valid sources of information, and I value the time and effort any reader puts into expressing an opinion on my books. In fact, I encourage it.

But it’s a lot of work for an author to maintain a presence on all of these different sites, to remain in the virtual spotlight, to get the word out to others who will in turn get the word out, and so on, and so on…  There are experts who recommend the number of Tweets a day an author should send out, how many contacts he or she needs to make on a daily basis, how many freebies to give away in order to hopefully sell a few other copies of the book.  Granted, this freebie-to-sales ratio is probably no different than when publishing houses send out review copies in order to generate a review and subsequently sales.  So here we are again: reviews let people know your book is out there, and whether they are favorable or not, they start the ball rolling.  Even a lousy review will give at least a bit of plot summary and context for a reader to go by.

But opinions on any form of art are, to some degree, going to be subjective.  I know that when I look up restaurant reviews on Yelp or Urban Spoon, I am not sure who to believe.  The person who deemed the lobster thermidor sandwich the best on the continent or the one who swears the lobster was actually mock crab? And when I check out the reviews after I’ve visited one of these places, I see how my experience  varied wildly from some of these self-appointed food critics.  The problem is familiarity–or lack thereof.  When you get to know reviewers you can gauge your taste against theirs, you can recognize their peeves and their agendas.  If you read a Manohla Dargis review in the New York Times, you know what you’re getting, and from whom.  She is a known quantity, love her or hate her.

One might say that if you follow a certain blogger who reviews books, you also get to know his or her taste, and once again you can make an intelligent decision about whether you want to read a book. This is, no doubt, true, but those stellar reviewers can be hard to find, and if there’s one thing you can say about the more conventional (some might say old-fashioned) venues for reviews, it is that there was oversight, quality control, and consistency. Not to mention that it can be daunting for a reader to wade through the various blogs, opinions, profiles, etc.  I’m an obsessive reader, and I find it difficult.

We used to have common sources, which gave us some common ground for information, for debate.  They were not always inclusive or fair (there are still more men being reviewed by the major publications, and most of the reviewers are also men, which raises the question about the kind of information they are delivering about certain types of books by female authors, but that’s a whole other blog post for another time).  With the internet, we no longer watch the same t.v. shows, listen to the same music, read the same books–we are, in a sense, on our own, both as artists and consumers.  There is definitely more variety, but it is harder to find, and most importantly,  harder to trust.