Saturday, March 25, 2006

Type Cast 10

If, as the saying goes, politics is show business for ugly people (who said that, Sheila Copps?), than fiction writing, in Canada at least, is show business for invisible people.

For the last several months - ever since the fall book sales figures came slouching in - the publishing world has been full of stories, some apocryphal, some verifiable, about the Great Sales Slump of 2005. Fiction, we are told, is moving off the shelves at about the same pace as Nsync re-issues.

Like the alleged Hollywood slump of 2005 (isn’t it heartbreaking to hear people complain about only making 100 million dollars instead of 150 million dollars?), the fiction slump has bred any number of theories, almost all of them from people who do not actually write fiction.

To find out if the sales slump is real or imagined, and, far more fun, to give writers an outlet for their always amusing anxieties, I solicited views from fiction writers (and one editor) from across the country. Not surprisingly, there are lots of opinions and no hard facts. These people aren’t novelists for nothing, and facts are for sports writers.

Jason Anderson, a Toronto arts journalist whose first novel, the very funny entertainment-world satire Showbiz, came out last fall, wonders if any artist should ever expect an audience.

“I have no illusions. Whenever I see those Nobody Buys Novels stories, I’m always amazed that people ever bought novels in the first place, the novel is really commercial. If you’ve written a difficult literary novel, why is it strange that nobody has bought it?”

“For my own book, I was happy to have acquaintances buy it, the ring beyond family and friends. Just because you created something, it’s egotistical to think there’s an audience for whatever you do – you have to constantly create an audience. Sometimes people in the arts in Canada think that they are owed an audience, but I think you should be happy with whatever audience you can find.”

Sally Cooper, the Hamilton-based author of the critically-acclaimed novel Love Object, is wary of all the doom-saying and, like Anderson, flips the question back to the audience.

“Nobody I know who loves fiction has suddenly switched to non-fiction. People like a balance, sure, but lovers of fiction will always buy it and read it. I'm always wary of trends, anyway. Fiction's not going anywhere; neither are its readers.”

Sabine Campbell, Fredericton-based editor of the legendary literary journal The Fiddlehead, and the Montreal novelist Peter Dube, author of Hovering World, both cite economics as a factor in the overall decline in book sales.

“I can say that a) our subscription rates seem to be down a bit this year and b) that our fiction contest isn't drawing as many writers as it used to”, Campbell admits.

“And I know that I'm buying fewer books myself. I tend to lend and borrow among friends and go to the library more often. Books cost so damn much.”

“So am I saying prices are to blame? Not entirely - perhaps the ever increasing number of books is a problem too.”

Dube echoes the supply-demand argument, and questions the marketing strategies employed by Canadian publishers.

“I suspect the problem – as usual – is the business model. Publishers put out more and more books, looking for the next big thing – which makes it hard for any title to stand out. They then stack up their marketing behind a very, very few books compared to what they actually print. And the marketing budgets get allocated on the principle of it being easier to sell more of what is already selling than to sell something new and different – all in the interests of maximizing short term profit in an increasingly competitive arena, versus audience (and author’s career) development.”

“So, if memoirs are selling, flog more of them until they stop selling. People tend to buy books they’ve heard of (especially in a market where unit prices have been raised to the roof in order to offset the cost of all those books printed that didn’t sell). More titles with higher prices, with less attention given to any of them must necessarily equal a tiny handful of books in a handful of genres being the only ones to move.”

See how the Hollywood model is never very far away when one talks about selling cultural products, be they ballet or books? As Dube notes, if one thing sells, publishers will find five more of the same thing – kind of like those Hollywood executives who keep turning old television shows (Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard) into stinky movies (ditto), just because Mission: Impossible was a huge hit.

As you read this, I guarantee you some Canadian editor is primping a memoir of drug addiction set in Saskatoon and an ecclesiastical mystery based on Krieghoff’s painting of Montreal’s Notre Dame cathedral.

Warren Dunford, author of a trilogy of hilarious murder mysteries – his latest, The Scene Stealer, is out in paperback - echoes my cynicism, and has a few choice words for the nation’s editors.

“If fiction sales are in a slump, it may be because many of the new Canadian books feel like old Canadian books. Publishers keep putting out subtle domestic dramas and tales of historical angst. Obviously that's led to some very fine literature, but not many people want to step into those dire worlds over and over again.”

“Books have to hold their own as entertainment in today's culture. People want to feel excited about reading a new book, not just dutiful. That means that books need to offer really compelling stories, not only character portraits. Unfortunately, the idea of a 'Canadian page-turner' still feels like an oxymoron."

To end on a more philosophical note, I’ll leave the last word to Vancouver’s Michael V. Smith, author of the award-winning novel Cumberland. Although Smith leads a double life as a notorious drag queen, he’s no Silly Sally when it comes to the bigger picture.

“I think a lot of the decline in fiction has to do with the current political climate. With the war in Iraq, and post-911, I suspect we're a lot more interested in current affairs and politics. People are hungry for facts, and truth. We're not getting much truth nor much analysis in the media. Fiction is often seen as escapist, because it concerns itself with the construction of alternate worlds. “

“Perhaps if there were more books being written like Handmaid's Tale, Canadian books with politics, social commentary, criticism, satire even, rather than domestic dramas of middle class angst, we'd see more fiction flying off the shelves.”

Hear, hear!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Type Cast 9

I covet new novels by Cape Breton born Lynn Coady with the same fervour that foodies covet aged truffle oils and free range goat pomades, or whatever those nasty little turds of mouldy blue cheese are called. A Lynn Coady novel will instantly transport me back to my ancestral homelands, the old country, the expletive scorched valleys and cod dappled mounds of Atlantic Canada - where people are cheerfully morbid, argumentative for fun, and as unapologetically bilious as, well, icky cobalt goat cheese.

With a handful of wildly entertaining novels and a growing collection of sparkling short stories, Coady has created a body of work that positions her as the anti-Alistair MacLeod. You won’t find any of the familiar stereotypes of Atlantic Canadians in Coady’s books – no stoic, hard bitten natural poets ennobled by grinding poverty, no long suffering seamen’s wives wandering the harbours wrapped in shawls and seaweed, no toothless fiddlers full of gingery wisdom. Coady smartly leaves that nonsense to the lighthouse-haunting romantics.

What you will find in a Coady comedy is the most thunderous cacophony of oddballs, cranks, lunatics, bores and ferocious talkers created since the heyday of Preston Sturges . Critics of Coady’s fiction stumble over themselves trying to unravel her ease with screwball antics, and heartily praise the way she seamlessly blends the mundane pursuits of her hapless characters with madcap pacing that would send Kingsley Amis reeling. Some devotees have even attempted to mine her work for Life Lesson gold (Coady does set all her works within some form of loving family dynamic, albeit one as cracked as a dropped plate), but I suggest the reader look elsewhere for psychological reassurance – Coady’s characters are simply too wily to pin down.

Coady’s new novel, Mean Boy, is a juicy coming of age tale set within the satire worthy halls of a small PEI university. A mix of St. Urbain’s Horseman and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, with some Montgomery-esque pictorials thrown in for colour, Mean Boy follows the fortunes of aspiring poet Larry Campbell, a working class boy desperate to leave behind his unimpressive beginnings and become a great writer, just like his idol and professor Jim. As Larry grows more and more fond of Jim and increasingly separated from his origins, the Trilby-Svengali relationship turns hilariously sour. Reading Mean Boy is like eating an entire bag of salt and vinegar chips – the most tongue-blistering bits, the searing, sharpest crumbs, wait like jellyfish at the bottom of the bag.

Coady’s great strength is her keen ear for dialogue (which I imagine is pointy and elf like – her ear, that is, although the dialogue is pretty sharp too), and I’ve always wondered if she was one of those writers who lingers in coffee shops and scribbles down found conversations. From the comfort of her Edmonton home – lying is so much easier over the phone – Coady swears she makes it all up.

“No, I don’t take notes. I’m not an eavesdropper, but I am a snooper. I’m not the kind of person who carries around a notebook, but every once in a while … There is some dialogue in Mean Boy that I overheard on a bus from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver. This woman sitting behind me was just going and going, and I had to write it down.”

“Growing up, I was pretty quiet. I learned about people by listening to how they communicated their thoughts. And I grew up in Cape Breton, where everybody is kind of blustery, and the conversation never stops. People talk in Cape Breton almost as if they’re talking for comfort.”

Setting a novel in a university, even if the university is as treacherous as a coal pit, is something of a departure for Coady. Her previous fictions were primarily set in the working world, the world of shifts and lunch pails and taverns. Is she trying to land a tenure track job?

“I think setting this novel in the academic world is kind of a natural progression for me. The place I first encountered people who were not working class people was at university, like a lot of Canadians who come from similar backgrounds as me - and Larry’s progress does somewhat mirror mine, except my coming of age was more internal.”

“What drew me to this setting was that while a university might be located in the middle of nowhere, as are most of the universities where I come from, people come to the campus from all different backgrounds and make it cosmopolitan. I wanted to write about those important but vulnerable first years when you leave your family and meet other people from other classes and places, and realize that you don’t have to be one way for the rest of your life.”

This being Canada, I have to raise the topic of regionalism. Coady and I have both railed, in various venues, about how the literary world in Canada only seems to appreciate Atlantic Canadian fiction that re-affirms non-Atlantic Canadians’ ideas about the area - how the smartest thing to do, from a marketing perspective, is to write a sentimental, sugary tale featuring sad but brave Down East peasantry. And yet, Coady continues to return to the region for her inspiration. Is she crazy or just cantankerous?

“It’s not deliberate, it’s just the place where my imagination sets itself, whether I want it to or not, my psychic ground zero. But the longer I’ve been away from home, the more I feel I’m moving away from home as a topic. I feel that maybe Mean Boy is my farewell to the region.”

“You know, there probably is an expectation that my books be about the Maritimes, but the people who sell my books would probably be happy if the fiction moved away from there, because it might be perceived as limiting. I also suspect I’d do really well if I was to write something very lush and gothic about Maritime life, something very melodramatic and turgid, which I don’t want to do, needless to say. I react against that kind of thing - strongly.”

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Type Cast 8

Counter to popular opinion, you can indeed tell a book by its cover – in fact, it’s really the best way to make decisions about books. I always check for raised type on paperbacks, because raised type – or, better yet, a peek-a-boo cut out – tells me that I am in for a quick, blissfully un-taxing read, and that there is a strong possibility that said book will contain scenes with demons, vampires, or werewolves. The taller the type, the higher the monster quotient.

However, since I started this column I’ve learned that what you can’t tell from a book is practically anything at all about the personality of the author. I’ve read terribly serious books and expected the authors to be as solemn and unsmiling as judges, or Michael Ignatieff, and then discovered that the gloom peddlers are back-slapping, good time party hounds. Conversely, I’ve read goofy books about silly subjects and then found myself on the phone with authors who could give Poe a run for his black crepe and crypts. Authors are as unpredictable as newly elected Liberals, minus the chauffeurs and hair cut allowance.

Case in point: the American humourist, performance artist, novelist and part time pugilist Jonathan Ames – a man, at least on the page, who has more demented fun than Gary Glitter at Toys ‘R Us. Racing through Ames’s latest book, I Love You More Than You Know - a brisk, laugh-out-loud funny collection of essays chronicling Ames’s sexual, spiritual, and, um, genital misadventures - I imagined that interviewing Mr. Wild And Crazy would be like trying to hog tie a racoon. I even did finger warm ups before I called his New York City home, figuring I’d have to type fast and hard just to keep up.

Instead, I found Ames to be a careful speaker who chooses his words deliberately, and a man more than a little inclined to take his time with a question. Perhaps the fact that I shamelessly flirted with him via email (he’s a foxy number, and mostly straight, which only goads me on) made him feel cautious toward me. I can be very seductive, as long as I am not visible. Or perhaps he was just sleepy. Or perhaps he was bored. I’ll never know for sure, and hopefully won’t find out in his next collection of essays. I can just imagine the title: Fat Canadians Talk Too Much.

At any rate, Ames was hardly the ribald raconteur one would expect from reading his work, and that lead me to try to uncover the man behind the monkey, the Mickey behind the Pluto, the middle aged father of a twenty-something son behind the gonzo, tranny-chasing, celebrity barroom brawler and boulevardier of Brooklyn.

The first thing one notices about Ames’s writing is his skilful conflation of blunt potty mouth humour and an overtly sentimental, Erma Bombeck-ish devotion to all things domestic and familial. How does he pull off this balancing act?

“Well, I guess I blend them by being up front and honest – and the mix makes them more interesting . If the moment calls for it, the both sides of my life, the ridiculous and the human, just go on the page . But there’s no scheme, I usually write my essays the night before they are due, so maybe it’s just panic and confusion. But, you know, ultimately it’s just storytelling.”

Ok, so he’s no Joan Didion, not a writer overly concerned with the intricacies of his art. There goes his creative writing gig at Columbia. But let’s find out about the action man side of Ames. What on earth drives him to get into so much trouble on a regular basis? Is he self destructive, or just on the hunt for good material?

“I do go into my Perils of Pauline moments, but I don’t intentionally try to get into trouble. Honestly. I do like the strange things in life, I’m drawn to them - but I’m not necessarily entering into “crazy situations” just because I’m looking for something to write about. It’s just that I seem to have an inner magnet for crazy things.”

So far, so mild. And mild-mannered – Ames speaks at a glacial pace, and politely pauses between thoughts to allow me to catch up. I begin to suspect that he’s scribbling out a thank you note, on embossed stationary. Where’s the sexy rebel, the bad boy whose muscle-man boxing photos I’ve been ogling on the internet?

One more try: I suspect Ames’s reputation as a super freak has garnered him a devoted following among frat boys and bookish jocks, that he’s a hero to young men seeking lurid adventures. Wrong again.

“I’m not sure who my audience is, but I suspect lately that I’m writing for women. I’ve had a few young male writers come up to me, but the people who write letters to me are mostly women. I don’t see myself as a kind of “guy writer”, or any brand of writer. And looking at oneself in those categories is kind of like staring in the mirror and wondering who you are – I don’t really do that, I just want to entertain the reader. I do want to push certain boundaries and not be limited to a certain audience, and I’m not really marketed to a specific audience.”

Now I’m getting jealous. Not only is Ames not giving me any Norman Mailer attitude, he’s actually rather likeable - a humble, misunderstood chic-lit author who just happens to be trapped in the body of a prize fighter. The ultimate literary cross-over, Ames is a marketer’s sticky dream. Why do I even get out of bed?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Type Cast 7

If recent election results (remember the election?) and our Winter Olympics performance (so well behaved, so pot and judge bribery -free, so boring to those of us who only watch the Olympics for the scandals) are reliable indexes of our national mindset, Canadians are swarming to the medial standard like blowflies to bull pucks. The lowest common denominator is not just a point on the grid anymore, it is the grid. Yes, this country is in it’s annual mid-winter funk, our pale days of brine and neurosis, our macaroni salad days.

But let’s take a more global perspective and put our bad hair months in an international context. Even in our worst moments, we’ll never be as insignificant as Luxembourg or iron-deprived as most of Britain. And, of course, right next to us is the world’s greatest collection of low ballers, mouth breathers and layabouts - an ever expanding empire of browless wonders who spend their days gutting catfish, spelling phonetically, and washing with sticks. And I’m not talking about the good people of Greenland.

It is one of the great blessings of living in Canada that whenever we feel that we are wearing the ugliest sweatpants in the mall, we have only to drive 20 minutes south for a quick ego boost. And with the arrival of American humourist Dave Dunseath’s self-harm book Aim Low: Quit Often, Expect The Worst, and other Good Advice , you don’t even have to dust off your passport to get an all-you-can-eat portion of Yankee mediocrity.

Dunseath is a Nashville session drummer who, according to his author bio, has recorded with Lee Ann Womack, T. Graham Brown, Billy Dean, and Dan Seals. If, like me, you have never heard of any of these artists (my taste in country music begins and ends, abruptly, with Dolly Parton), well, that just proves Dunseath’s point. He’s a nobody, he proudly asserts, and Aim Low will teach you how to be an out, proud and happy loser too.

Broken into Big Issues chapters such as “Money”, “Love”, “Work”, and “Parenting”, Aim Low offers easy to read instructions on how to expect nothing but the least in any given life situation, and, Dunseath’s argument follows, thereafter learn to be happy with what little you have.

It’s not exactly Buddhism, or a monkish, Christian piety that’s being proclaimed here, but the idea of succeeding by failing, of having no goals or desires and therefore no disappointments, does have its precedents in both Eastern and Western philosophy (not that Dunseath would ever advocate attempting to read such texts). But his arguments are best understood as a kind of po’ white trash response to the endless striving, sacrificing and self-evaluating offered by middle class gurus like Dr. Phil. Let the educated and privileged worry about the morally upright or spiritually sound paths to contemporary happiness, Dunseath tells the reader – they’re the only ones with the time and money to fret over such things.

Some of Dunseath’s advice is surprisingly sound. On money, for instance, he reminds the reader that “whatever it is you do for a living, you probably had a pretty good idea going in what it paid”. So don’t waste valuable energy complaining about your crappy wages. On the merits of saving, Dunseath offers the sobering assessment that “you can never save enough – ever. Whatever you think will be enough, won’t be. And it’s a bad omen. … Whatever you save will be matched by a serious problem costing at or more than the relative value. In other words, save it and you’re just begging to blow out a knee or an engine.”

On the thorny subject of forgiveness (a thriving talk show staple crop, watered regularly with telegenic tears) Dunseath provides a handy cut out page, complete with a dotted line along the edge and a little illustration of a pair of scissors in case you miss the point (as will most of his target audience). Forget all that soulful breast beating and cut to the chase, proclaims Dunseath’s Forgiveness Affirmations fridge note: “When I make a horrible mistake, I should rectify it immediately with an apology. But if an apology alone is not accepted, I’m gonna see if a hundred bucks will smooth things over.”

Words to live by, and probably the best deterrent of bad social behaviour since public flogging. If I had to pay out a hundred bucks for every fit of rudeness I’ve spat at the world, I’d have to write three of these columns a day.

Americans can screw us on softwood lumber, drag us into their interminable culture wars and send us diplomats who act more like pro wrestlers than statesmen, but we will always be thankful to southern cousins like Dunseath for the priceless gift of odious comparison.

Brown and snow packed as our grass may be this winter, at least the lawn is not covered in rusty truck parts and plant pots made out of KFC buckets.