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There is a story about Mordecai Richler that goes something like this: when he was young, Richler was asked what he wanted to do with his life, and replied that he wanted to be a novelist. His bewildered interlocutor reportedly responded by saying, “Yes, but how are you going to make money?”
It’s a good thing Richler didn’t start writing in the digital age. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, reprinted in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, the advent of e-books is making it harder for untested writers to earn even a modest income from their writing:
It has always been tough for literary fiction writers to get their work published by the top publishing houses. But the digital revolution that is disrupting the economic model of the book industry is having an outsize impact on the careers of literary writers.
Priced much lower than hardcovers, many e-books generate less income for publishers. As a result, the publishers who nurtured generations of America’s top literary-fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.
In one sense, this is not news. It has always been necessary for novelists who don’t exist in the top tier alongside figures like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling to augment their incomes by taking other work. This is not a recent phenomenon: Chekhov was a doctor. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer for an insurance company. Anthony Trollope worked for the Royal Mail. And so on.
What is dispiriting, however, is the notion that the e-book format, currently the only publishing format that is experiencing growth rather than flatlining or declining, seems to privilege established writers over new voices, and populist genres over literary writing. Trachtenberg admits that Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom has done well in electronic format, selling “well over 35,000″ copies in its first two weeks of publication. Franzen is a literary writer, but one with definite populist instincts. Twice anointed by Oprah Winfrey, reigning queen of American popular culture (her endorsements of Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner notwithstanding), Franzen has written about his own ambivalence toward the literary and popular divide (which he refers to as Status writing and Contract writing, respectively) in his essay on William Gaddis, entitled “Mr. Difficult.”
Regardless, Franzen is not in a position to need sales, digital or otherwise. His popularity and reputation are already well established. It is newer authors without proven track records who will suffer from digital books cutting into publishers’ bottom lines. Trachtenberg acknowledges this discontinuity when he writes:
The e-book is good news for some. Big-name authors and novels that are considered commercial are increasingly in demand as e-book readers gravitate toward bestsellers with big plots. Unlike traditional bookstores, where a browsing customer might discover an unknown book set out on a table, e-bookstores generally aren’t set up to allow readers to discover unknown authors, agents say. Brand-name authors with big marketing budgets behind them are having the greatest success thus far in the digital marketplace.
In other words, e-books encourage readers to seek out familiar names and traditional approaches, and discourage exploration and experimentation. They are another step along the pernicious road to the kind of blockbuster mentality that has infected Hollywood for years. Which is undoubtedly good for Jonathan Franzen. It’s not so good for literature in general.
The fall book season is now well underway and true to form, the preponderance of book festivals, awards lists, launches, and other noisy ephemera of the literary world serve only to emphasize how much I haven’t read. Practically daily, I’m asked if I’ve read the latest buzz book, or some obscure outrider from a small Norwegian publisher, and my answer is almost always a strained, “No.” This is inevitably accompanied by downcast eyes and a shameful countenance, despite the fact that no single human being could possibly read even a fraction of the books that get published in a given year.
Writing in Maclean’s, Sarah Weinman suggests that this year’s crop of fall fiction is less impressive than 2009′s, “which featured new books by awards regulars such as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Lethem, and John Irving. By comparison, this year’s slate seems a bit thin.” All I can say in response is that if my to-read pile (a.k.a. the “wishful thinking” pile or the “Hail Mary” pile) is any indication, there is a veritable cornucopia of interesting fiction out now or forthcoming in the next few weeks.
Here is a short list of titles I’m looking forward to reading, presuming I ever get the chance:
C by Tom McCarthy: Zadie Smith called McCarthy’s debut novel, 2005′s Remainder, “one of the great English novels of the past 10 years.” The new book is an historical novel set at the turn of the 20th century and focusing on Serge Carrefax, the son of an inventor who runs a school for deaf children. Carrefax suffers from “black bile,” competes with Marconi to develop wireless technology, and travels to an archeological dig in Egypt. The Guardian calls the book, which is the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, “a 1960s-style anti-novel that’s fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity.”
Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates: John Gardner famously referred to “that alarming phenomenon Joyce Carol Oates,” and in a career that has spanned close to five decades, she has done her best to live up to this description. Now in her seventies, Oates still averages two to three books each year; even her most devoted fans find it difficult to keep abreast of her astonishing literary output. Sourland, her latest collection of short stories, was described in The New York Times as “angry and tough and deeply, viscerally unsettling.”
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Well, come on.
When Fenlon Falls by Dorothy Ellen Palmer: Set during the summer of 1969, this debut novel from Canadian author Palmer tells the story of Jordan May March, a 14-year-old adoptee who was conceived during Hurricane Hazel and concocts a diary in which she imagines different circumstances for her conception. The metafictional narrative involves the CHUM Top 30 hit parade, JFK, Queen Elizabeth, and a caged, butter-tart-eating bear named Yogi.
Room by Emma Donoghue: Loosely based on the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who kept his daughter imprisoned for 24 years and fathered several children by her, Donoghue’s novel was overlooked by this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury but has received glowing accolades both here and abroad and has landed a spot on the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Narrated in the voice of five-year-old Jack, the book is split into two halves: the first taking place within the small room that has been his only home since birth, the second following his release with his mother, and centred on the new set of perils he must navigate in the outside world.
Nemesis by Philip Roth: Also in his seventies, Roth is not quite as prolific as Oates, but has been averaging one book a year for the last four years or so. His new novel, set in 1944, tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a polio victim whose ill health and bad eyesight have kept him out of the war. As the polio epidemic begins to inflict the small Jewish enclave of Weequahic, New Jersey, writes Tim Martin in the Telegraph, “Cantor finds himself pinned between desire and duty, and – since this is late Roth, after all – being dragged, grimly and inexorably, under life’s steamroller.”
I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore by Anne Perdue: I was on the jury that awarded Anne Perdue the Marina Nemat Award for creative writing from the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and couldn’t be happier to see her first book of short fiction making an appearance with Insomniac Press. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall says that Perdue’s “voice is just as convincing in the body of a teenage dish-pig, an alcoholic grandmother, or a raging suburban dad. Her characters feel as real as anyone you’ve ever met; they’re scared and scarred, with wells of kindness pooling beneath the skin. And the universe they inhabit is much like ours – a cracked one, where fury, joy, madness, or molten lava could burst through the surface at any moment.”
The Hair Wreath and Other Stories by Halli Villegas: The publisher of Toronto-based Tightrope Books has a new collection of dark fantasy stories out with ChiZine Publications, a small press that is also publishing new work by Craig Davidson and Tony Burgess this season. So, basically, I want to read ChiZine’s entire fall list.
And there you have it. Books that command my attention this fall, if I can manage to tear myself away from the rest of my life for long enough to get to them. Stay tuned.
Barbara Kay and Lev Grossman seem cut from the same cloth. Both of them, in their own ways, disdain what they perceive as “difficult” novels. Kay, whom some of you may recall took issue with a generally laudatory (or, in Kay’s own words, “gushy”) assessment of Lisa Moore’s second novel, February, recently published a column in the National Post decrying Canadian literature that she claims is “dying in beauty.” For Kay, Moore is, “like so many others of her sensitive, creativeworkshopped-to-death ilk, a writer’s writer privileging an artistic, leisured rendering of memory and feeling over prole-friendly dialogue, action and, above all, plot.”
In this, she echoes Grossman, whom she name-checks in her article, and who, in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, criticized the modernists for neglecting plot and inculcating the idea that literature has to be difficult in order to be valuable:
The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did. One of the things they broke was plot.
To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the Boy’s Own war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in The Mill on the Floss and spat out The Sound and the Fury.
Grossman takes issue with the “discipline of the conventional literary novel,” which partakes of “a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience,” and asks, “Isn’t it time we made our peace with plot?”
Both Kay and Grossman are rehearsing the distinction that Jonathan Franzen draws (in his 2002 essay, “Mr. Difficult”) between the “Status model” of fiction and the “Contract model.” The Status model is premised upon the idea that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” According to the Status model “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.” In the Contract model, by contrast, the writer offers “words out of which the reader creates a pleasant experience.” For adherents of Contract, “difficulty is a sign of trouble,” which “may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community: of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity or his literary-club membership ahead of the audience’s legitimate desire for connection.”
Obviously, both Kay and Grossman are Contract adherents. Kay holds little truck with novels that are “dying in beauty,” novels in which the technique or the language is an end in itself. Similarly, Grossman approves of Cormac McCarthy’s late-career digression into genre fiction, and applauds the normally prolix Thomas Pynchon for writing a straightforward hard-boiled crime novel. Where both of their arguments fail, however, is in their implicit assumption that “difficult” writing – writing that demands to be appreciated on its own terms – and pleasure are mutually exclusive. Franzen, himself an admitted Contract person, acknowledges this stumbling block when he adumbrates the extreme end of Contract thinking:
Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation. If the local symphony plays too much twentieth-century music, you cancel your subscription. You’re the consumer; you rule.
The only problem being that nowhere is it written that the consumer of fiction actually does rule, at least not in the way that Kay and Grossman would have it. If a reader runs up against a “difficult” book, or a book that doesn’t play by conventional rules or act in the way the reader thinks it is supposed to act, perhaps the fault lies not with the obstreperousness of the writer, but with the narrow prejudices of the reader. A reader who assumes that plot-driven novels are the only kind that can give pleasure will not be won over by books like Century by Ray Smith, in which the main source of pleasure is revelling in the author’s technical mastery. Nor will they gravitate toward McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where what happens is infinitely less important than the author’s exuberance in the uses and possibilities of language.
In her assessment of February, Kay locates “[t]wo feeble points of what-happens-next ‘tension,’” and the dismissive quotation marks around the final word indicate that for Kay, even these two moments were pallid and underwhelming. But as a writer, Moore has never been all that interested in conventional approaches to things like plot or suspense. For Moore, language has always been more important than plot; the tension in Moore’s writing exists in the technique itself. To not recognize this says more about the narrowness of a reader than about the inherent pleasurability of Moore’s writing.
Ultimately, both Kay and Grossman suffer from an artificially proscribed view of the pleasures literature has to offer. For them, a novel is only enjoyable if it does what they want it to do (which is, finally, to behave like other novels they’ve enjoyed in the past). Such a reader will never be able to derive pleasure from books like Ulysses or Wise Blood or Hopscotch, because these are novels that demand to be met on their own terms. In order to find pleasure in them, readers must abandon their preconceptions and open themselves to an experience that is unfamiliar, foreign, and, yes, possibly even difficult. They are novels that require work, but their rewards are commensurate with the effort a sympathetic reader is willing to put into them.
In honour of the 142nd anniversary of Canada’s national inferiority complex Canada Day, The New York Times‘ op-ed page today features a clutch of transplanted Canadians, such as Seán Cullen, Bruce McCall, and Kim Cattrall, lamenting the things they miss about their home and native land. (Yr. humble correspondent’s favourite: creative director Lisa Naftolin misses the “u” in colour.) Among those represented is Sarah McNally, the proprietor of the Manhattan branch of Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson Bookstores. McNally cops to missing Winnipeg’s winters (?!?), but she also misses something she refers to as “CanLit”:
I miss the pride and simplicity of a national literature, which probably wouldn’t exist without government support. We even have a name, CanLit, that people use without fearing they’ll sound like nerds. In America we tend toward novels published specifically for one narrowly interpreted demographic. CanLit is an unassuming place, very welcome to immigrant writers, and since it doesn’t dice up readership according to profile there is a national conversation about literature, like a big book club.
It’s true that much American writing is ghettoized – rightly or wrongly – into what McNally refers to as “narrowly interpreted demographic[s]“: think chick lit, think technothrillers, think whatever it is Jodi Picoult writes. In large part, this is a result of the size of America’s population. With 300 million people, there is an authentic mass market in the U.S., unlike here in Canada, with a population one-tenth the size. If we have a more monolithic literary culture, this is largely a matter of necessity, not choice.
But McNally elides the downside of CanLit’s stranglehold on our national literary output: the stultifying sameness of the majority of books that are pumped out of the CanLit mill. We use the term CanLit, not in a nerdy way, but rather as code for a particular kind of book: muted, historical, domestic, naturalistic. CanLit calls to mind sepia tones and boxes of faded photographs, woodsmoke from the back yard and the sound of music held at a distance. CanLit is pretty and precious, eschewing dirt and jagged edges. It is never profane, bawdy, or raunchy.
CanLit is welcoming to immigrant writers, but in a melting-pot fashion that seems more appropriate to an American mythos than that of our vaunted Canadian mosaic. Rohinton Mistry may set his sprawling sagas in Bombay; M.G. Vassanji may set his in Pirbaag. But in their adherence to an historical focus and a naturalistic approach, Mistry and Vassanji might as well have been born in Toronto or Halifax. The metafictional gamesmanship of Shahriar Mandanipour, author of the well-received novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, would not find a comfortable home in the echelons of CanLit. It’s no accident that Mandanipour, an Iranian, has taken up refuge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Montreal or Vancouver. (True, Montreal has Rawi Hage, but back off: I’m trying to make a point here.)
Similarly, America can boast a literary culture in which Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy all sell in good numbers; that diversity of authors and approaches does not exist in our “big book club” north of the 49th parallel. Or rather, it does, but it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of what is usually understood by the term “CanLit.” When most people in this country talk about CanLit, they are referring to Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, not Mark Anthony Jarman, Lisa Foad, and Matt Shaw. (“Who?” I hear you ask. “Exactly,” I respond.)
McNally is correct to isolate CanLit as a national, monolithic catch-all for our literature, the “big book club” that dominates our literary discourse, and more often than not ignores the diversity of output that goes on below the surface of our cultural consciousness. McNally and I differ only as to whether or not this is a good thing.
Happy Canada Day, y’all.