Archive for the 'Publishing' Category

Tom Robbins ‘Lite’ fails to quench readerly thirsts

Years ago, while in university, I used to enjoy the sly, self-reflexive playfulness of Tom Robbins’s early books. In fact, somewhere between Aldous Huxley and Stephen King I went through a Tom Robbins phase. So it was with a certain sense of nostalgia and curiosity that I picked up his most recent book, B is for Beer.

B is for BeerI wish I could report Robbins and I hit it off again like old chums, but one of us has changed. Billed as an adult book for children and a children’s book for adults, B is for Beer is a slim, sappy little tale I can’t imagine appealing to either group. The story, whose kindly narrator is always talking down to the reader, transports Gracie, our six-year-old heroine, to the mystical reaches beyond “the seam,” a sort of parallel otherworld. There she learns all about, what else? Beer. Her guide is none other than the Beer Fairy.

Perhaps it doesn’t look so bad sketched out like that, but the result manages to be so boring and predictable I felt like I missed the transcendent intoxication part and went straight to the hangover.

Much of the text, for example, is devoted to Wikipedia-type information on the origins of beer and methods for brewing it. And although you might expect a stylist like Robbins could overcome those shortcomings with some prose pyrotechnics, such is not the case.

Many of the figurative devices are either incomprehensible, juvenile, or both:

“The week passed as slowly as a snowman’s gas.”

“…if good looks were two flakes of snow, she could provide nesting grounds for half the earth’s penguins.”

“…her bright and bouncy little life seemed to lie scattered in pieces, like a disco ball after an earthquake.”

And then there are the preachy little asides like this one:

“Some brewers will leave particular beers unfiltered, however, so they can continue to age in the bottle. Children such as you, Gracie, are best left unfiltered while you age, although some parents and institutions, regrettably, do attempt to filter the young souls in their charge.”

And many, many puns and other wordplay:

“…(for a time she believed yeast to be the opposite direction of west)…

Oh Tom. Stop. You’re killing me.

If all that isn’t enough to leave a bad aftertaste consider the cover price: $24.99 for what is essentially a hard-covered short story. (I wisely borrowed from the library.) However many bottles of beer those $25 bucks might buy, I promise you they’ll bring more amusement than this little belch of a book.

Bottoms up.

Tree of Smoke casts spreading shadow

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson shows how great writing can deliver the reader straight into the stinking belly of the whale, largely without the reader realizing they’ve been swallowed.

TreeOfSmokeWinner of the United States’ National Book Award in 2007, this dense, 700-page novel of Vietnam ranges from the war’s most visceral evils, to quiet, human moments of the people caught up in it. Johnson references myth, scripture and history, but also uses a pointillist’s brush to render scenes of striking depth and texture.

The overall effect is harrowing and unforgettable.

Challenging, too. Tree of Smoke isn’t an easy read and the mixed reviews on Amazon reflect that. (There are as many one- and two-star reviews as four- and five-star reviews.) Most of the naysayers invariably begin, “I must not be smart enough for this…” or “I just couldn’t get into this….” or “I picked this up because it won an award but I can’t see why…”

Interesting how books sometimes review readers. Do you really need to be a member of MENSA to appreciate literature? Clearly not. (As this blog and its author attest!) But readers will always be rewarded by a little patience, an openness to different narrative approaches, and a willingness to expend some candle power on what they’re reading.

Movies have trained us to be passive receivers of narrative. We grab our popcorn, strap ourselves in and then the story simply unspools in front of us. It’s no wonder many of us now apply the same strategy to books. We straddle the first sentence and then ride it to its conclusion many pages and chapters later. We notice the surroundings as they pass, but we rarely pause to reflect on the journey while we’re taking it. How many of us routinely go back and re-read something that happened a few chapters previous? How many will read a book twice before passing judgment?

Perhaps readers no longer have the desire to nurture the close collaboration with the writer that a rounded appreciation of fiction requires. The reading public, drunk on books like The Da Vinci Code, has only one demand: “Just tell us what happens next!”

What happens to the various characters in Tree of Smoke is, in a sense, beside the point. What happens is the giant wheel of war, with its iron spokes of history, idealism, hatred, glory, treachery, humanity and hope, grinds through a span between 1963-70. The characters in the novel either have their shoulders to that wheel, are getting ground underneath it, or are hanging on for dear life.

Granted, it takes the first 200 pages to get the wheel turning, and it’s this apparent decoupling from a traditional narrative engine that many readers probably find difficult. But go ahead – live a little. Ask yourself if your inability to enter into anything but the most traditional narrative dream state may be a symptom of an atrophied imagination.

It’s been said that novelists can’t disguise their personal cosmologies. Ian McEwan may claim he’s an atheist, but a book like Atonement suggests at the very least he’s a Church of England atheist. (I wish I could claim ownership of that line — can’t remember where I heard it.)

Johnson, on the other hand, weaves the idea of God into the very warp of his novel. I love how Jim Lewis’s review in the New York Times speculates that his dedication to H.P. stands for Higher Power. (Incidentally, Lewis himself writes the kind of insightful review that makes me want to search out his books.) I’m sure that among the many PhD dissertations ripening at this very moment, at least a few will examine Johnson’s expression of God in Tree of Smoke.

From the trees all around came the waterfall sound of scrabbling claws and the curses of demons driven into the void.

More women screamed. The men howled. The jungle itself screamed like a mosque. Storm lay naked on his back and watched the upward-rushing mist and smoke in the colossal firelight and waited for the clear light, for the peaceful deities, the face of the father-mother, the light from the six worlds, the dawning of hell’s smoky light and the white light of the second god, the hungry ghosts wandering in ravenous desire, the gods of knowledge and the wrathful gods, the judgment of the lord of death before the mirror of karma, the punishments of the demons, and the flight to refuge in the cave of the womb that would bear him back into this world.

His poem whirled upward as an ash…

Tree of Smoke is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. Thank God people still write like this; thank God books like this still get published; and thank God writing like this still gets critical acclaim.

Amen.

What Yann Martel is doing…

…is beyond delightful. For the past year, the Booker Prize-winning author of Life of Pi has been sending a book to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and lovingly documenting his choices on his web site, What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images)Harper is well-grounded in economics, conservatism and hockey — and pretty much nothing else. Unkind observers say, “stuffed shirt” or “automaton.” The conservative government’s parsimonious approach to arts funding precipitated Martel’s efforts, but many would argue the Tories have a record of other short-sighted and soulless policy choices since they took office back in February 2006. (Has it really only been two years?)

Martel’s choices aim at “expanding stillness.” Thus far Harper has been the recipient of everthing from Kafka to Lindgren, Acorn to Tolstoy.

Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!

The very first book Martel sent, The Death of Ivan Ilych, netted a perfunctory response from a prime ministerial assistant, but since then, nothing. But no matter — Martel’s charming introductory essays may be falling on deaf ears at 24 Sussex, but I’m sure they’re being savoured by lovers of literature worldwide. You should check a few out…

Martel has vowed to send Harper a book every two weeks for as long as he’s prime minister. For Martel’s sake — and ours — let’s hope that’s not much longer.

Photo credit: Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images

I’m writing this with two hands, 10 fingers

Pause for a moment today, March 7, to think of Jean-Dominique Bauby. On this day in 1997 he had his book Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly) published. Two days later, at the age of 44, he died.

bauby.gifThanks to the film his story is well-known. The former editor of the French Elle magazine, he suffered a massive stroke at the height of his career and recovered only enough to move his left eyelid. He retained complete cognizance of the world around him but suffered what is called Locked-In Syndrome.

Eventually he and his therapists developed a system of communication whereby, while stepping through the alphabet, he would blink on arrival at the letter of the word he wanted to spell. Then on to the next letter, and then the next word, and so on.

By such painstaking perseverance a book was written — and a beautiful, affecting book it is. You should read it.

The next time I feel a whine coming on about how difficult writing can be, I’m going to think of Jean-Dominique, feel truly humbled and thank my lucky stars.

Then get back to the keyboard.

Sticks and stones: name-calling in the name of art

Céline Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods.

85184.jpgDon’t you just love a good rant? The above comes courtesy of Sam Anderson writing in the December 17 New York Magazine. His book review is headlined: “Taster’s Choice: Is disdain for Céline Dion innate or learned? And what’s wrong with liking her music anyway?” The book under consideration is by Carl Wilson, a writer/editor for The Globe & Mail, and called, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

I bring it up here because nothing grows quite so robustly in the garden of cultural criticism as debate about low and high, and what the significance is – for individuals and entire civilizations – when one group of people likes something that another group doesn’t.

Defenders of taste and decency will of course argue that a Giuseppe Verdi belongs in Milan’s La Scala, and a Céline Dion in, well, a Las Vegas hotel. The same sort of classifications come up in book discussions all the time. Stephen King is not a serious writer. John Irving is hopelessly middlebrow. Heaven forbid anyone should dip their toes into the cesspools of genre fiction.

In a piece that appears in The Times online, Brian Appleyard considers the stigmatizing effect of being branded a science fiction writer, while tenaciously defending the genre.

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Undeterred, Aldiss has just published a new version of A Science Fiction Omnibus, a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s, the original was on everybody’s bookshelves, dog-eared and broken-backed. Aldiss says that was SF’s one golden age, when Oxford dons were happy to be seen indulging the genre. Now they wouldn’t be seen dead with a Philip K Dick, a James Blish or a Robert Sheckley. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insists her books are not SF, but “speculative fiction” or “adventure romance”. “She’s quite right,” says Aldiss. “She had this idea that a certain amount of opprobrium always hovered around the title science fiction. You might call it double-dealing, but I can quite understand it.”

Labels stick; having one slink along in front of your name (science fiction writer Salman Rushdie) could carry surprising and unwanted meaning. “Literary fiction,” I suppose, is meant to signify something of weight that displays a certain technical and artistic mastery. Trouble is, as Appleyard points out, it often doesn’t. At the same time, writers of so-called genre fiction — like a Stephen King or a PD James — can demonstrate a high level of artistic assurance in handling the serious theme.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I wouldn’t know. I spend all my time reading Proust and Schopenhauer.

Yeah, right.

It’s a bit sad, really. Not quite, “My-Heart-Will-Go-On” sad, but sad nonetheless. Maybe what we really need is a little tolerance. I too “would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda” than listen to Céline, as one critic puts it in the Anderson piece, but the fact is millions of others would say she’s brought music into their lives.

Is that so bad?

The protracted death rattle of books and reading

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More gloomy news from the intensive-care bedside of the book, where it appears last rites may soon be in order — again.

As the article in the Dec. 24, 2007, New Yorker puts it, we may be slipping into an age when reading becomes an “increasingly arcane hobby.”

“Twilight of the Books,” written by Caleb Crain, contains a number of interesting and gloomy figures.

…In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

…More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability….

…Between 1982 and 2002, the percentage of Americans who read literature declined not only in every age group but in every generation-even in those moving from youth into middle age, which is often considered the most fertile time of life for reading. We are reading less as we age, and we are reading less than people who were our age ten or twenty years ago….

…Some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby….

Crain notes that “the Internet, happily, does not so far seem to be antagonistic to literacy,” although that could change “if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.

Perhaps not the cheeriest note on which to end the year. Quick! Slip another book — or three, or 10 — under the tree.

The clerisy: alive and well — and blogging!

So who has the right to parse or praise prose, and in ways that may influence the impressionable minds of other readers? Not just any Tom, Dick or Harris. Or so it would seem, judging from some of the sermonizing going on in the blogosphere.

pool.jpgA recent review in The New Republic of Gail Pool’s book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, has helped reopen a hoary skirmish between those who see themselves as The Sacred and Professional Guardians of Literary Standards, and the rest of the unlettered rabble of pretenders who dare to express their views on what they read. James Wolcott is the reviewer and here is a teaser from his review, Critical Condition:

Long before bloggers became synonymous with damp mold and scurrilous moldaway-4.jpginvective, book reviewers were cast as the pox carriers and bottom feeders of the word business, tattooed with the rep of being bitter, envious parasites, cunning predators, or charter members of the Dunciad. They tore the iridescent wings off Romantic poets for sport, and crouched in the hills like hyenas waiting for Hemingway to falter. Insidious by nature, they fluff up authors’ reputations in order to fatten them up for the sacrificial kill: the young slain for failing to live up to their early promise, their distinguished elders dragged by their whiskers into the lair of the spider-queen, Michiko Kakutani, to be eaten. Even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reviewer is considered suspect, a discount knockoff of a real writer.

It’s a lively and enjoyable bit of analysis that has rightly received worldwide Web circulation, as has Pool and reviews of her book, including 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 – let’s just say ‘dozens’ of blog posts. Meanwhile, Pool’s hand-wringing thesis (and this is admittedly a rather flip abridgment based on the Wolcott review) appears to be:

  • Given that book reviews are declining in quality
  • And given that book sections are decreasing in size
  • And given that the internet is a cesspit of craven and shabby reviewing

We should therefore…

  • Establish some sort of professional code of conduct that lays out better ways to pick books to be reviewed, reward reviewers, and develop technical competence.

Fair enough. But it’s always seemed to me that the heart of this particular scrap is less about the ‘How?’ of reviewing books, and more about the ‘Who?’

Academia has long asserted its robed and mortared authority as Keeper of the Canon, albeit often without consensus and mired in its own protracted internecine convulsions. Literary criticism ain’t for the faint of heart. The multi-tiered mainstream media — from the New York Times to Your Town Times — also claim proprietorship as upholders of literary standards, but with varying impact and credibility. And of course at the bottom of the totem pole — well beneath the dirt-line, in fact — are we bloggers. Wolcott exhumes a passage from a New York Sun item on book bloggers written back in the spring of this year by Adam Kirsch:

In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can’t, blog.

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Bloggers, with their suspect motives and outsized chips on their sloped little shoulders, simply can’t be trusted. And in some cases that may be true. But might it also be possible — and not just 99-monkeys-typing possible — that professional critics may have their own motives for attempting to discredit a class of laypeople that’s been stealing some of the limelight to which they were formerly accustomed? I mean, have you heard?! Even mainstream media outlets have institutionalized blogging! Understandably, nervousness about the influence of bloggers is widespread and more than a few professional print reviewers are circling the wagons.

But perhaps an idea like that just makes me a conspiracy theorist.

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At the end of the day the whole debate is really a bit silly and assumes the reader has little intelligence and few critical faculties of her own — both when it comes to reading books, and reading reviews of books. Most of us in the reading trenches have been at this for more than a page or two now and we’ve honed our intuitions when it comes to books and book reviews.

davies.jpegThe late great Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s finest exports of the 20th Century, weighed in on the whole business of writers, readers and reviewers in his 1960 essay, “A Call to the Clerisy,” which is in his book, A Voice from the Attic: Essays in the Art of Reading. I think he still says it best and would in fact applaud the efforts of the book-blogging community today.

It is particularly displeasing to hear professional critics using the term ‘layman’ to describe people who are amateurs and patrons of those arts with which they are themselves professionally concerned. The fact that the critic gets money for knowing something, and giving public expression to his opinion, does not entitle him to consider the amateur, who may be as well informed and sensitive as himself, an outsider. Admitting that there are triflers hanging to the skirts of the arts[,] it is generally true that we are all, critics and amateurs alike, members of a group which meets on a reasonably equal footing. The critics have their special tastes and firm opinions and are in some cases, more experienced and sensitive than any but the most devoted of amateurs. But they should never assume that it is so; they, of all people should know the humility which art imposes and avoid the harlotry of a cheap professionalism.

Hear, hear.

Davies argues for more influence from what he calls the ‘clerisy,’ which sounds suspiciously like the blogosphere:

voice.jpegWho are the clerisy?…. The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime, but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books. As lately as a century ago the clerisy had the power to decide the success or failure of a book, and it could do so now. But the clerisy has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups, not themselves malign or consciously unfriendly to literature, which are part of the social and business organization of our time. These groups, though entrenched, are not impregnable; if the clerisy would arouse itself, it could regain its sovereignty in the world of letters. For it is to the clerisy, even yet, that the authors, the publishers, and the booksellers make their principal appeal.

Enough about who has the right to say this or write that — I think I’ll go read another book.