Category Archives: other book stuff

Trigger Happy: On Literature and Fear

The recent article in the Guardian about US students requesting trigger warnings on works of literature that could potentially trigger memories and feelings of trauma has been circulating with rather diverging opinions. This type of thing resonates differently with people depending on their experiences but also on how they’ve dealt with them. Nevertheless, comments are generally polarized, with little variation: mainly, by those who think trigger warnings are valuable and even necessary and those who staunchly disagree.

Steven Beattie, writer and critic and author of the blog That Shakespearean Rag, is one of the latter. He strongly disapproves of the idea of literature with warnings. He wrote:

“A draft trigger warning policy from Oberlin, quoted in Inside Higher Education, used Achebe’s acclaimed text as an example of a work which might require a warning, saying the novel was ‘a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.’”

FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

LIFE might as well come with a trigger warning.

Literature’s entire PURPOSE is to deal, honestly and forthrightly, with difficult and traumatic experiences in a fictional context. Doing so helps build empathy and understanding. It can also help people who have experienced similar trauma recognize that they are not alone. It need not be subject to warnings that it might trigger emotional responses in its readers. That is the POINT.

I’m inclined to agree, and I take it one step further: not only does it help people realize they are not alone and also many times show characters overcoming their issues, but it also can help the reader deal with their PTSD or triggers. The thing is, trauma and emotional distress is often specific to the individual, whether it’s regarding experiences of war, suicide, rape, murder, miscarriage, infidelity, bullying, loss of a loved one (including a pet), and even, yes, even vomiting. Where do we draw the line in being considerate of others’ sensitivities, or else risk every piece of literature having some sort of warning?

While considered by many a courtesy, I see TWs as yet creating the view that most literature is dangerous, something to be feared. There are few people in this world who have not suffered some kind of trauma, and then those who would deem some traumas worse or more valid than others—as do the warnings. Literature becomes rather unjustly categorized. Putting warnings on potentially disturbing literature not only segregates the work but also insults it and the author, sends the message that while authors have the right to write what they are moved to, they may be penalized for it. TWs do a great disservice to the literature in preforming people’s opinions and setting the tone for the reading experience, as well as pre-empting certain lines of discussion that more fully treat the literature. They strip readers of their ability to make their own, uninfluenced decisions, and ultimately prevent readers, even those who might experience triggers, from a more enriching experience. This cheats the author, too, whose work it was to write a story that people could relate to and that evoked emotion. And all of these sound suspiciously like the issues of censorship. Perhaps most important, putting warnings on literature comes too close to coddling and actually even setting apart trauma sufferers as Others, rather than empathizing.

I’m not saying that people who want trigger warnings are weak and should sac up. I am saying, however, aside from what I think TWs do to literature (above), that we have to question what’s behind the avoidance. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, this isn’t really about the literature, but rather ourselves. We all have our own ways of dealing with trauma, our own levels of emotional depth of experience, of preparation for dealing with it. But the significant issue in this particular case, regardless, is fear.

For 15 years I suffered from such severe panic and anxiety attacks that I became physically paralyzed at times, and also unable to do many things, like ride public transport or drive on the highway, or go many places, like parties or movies or the theatre or the fucking food court—even out for a walk on our street. Several childhood traumas led to this. I understand fear. And triggers. And I get what it’s like to live in fear of being triggered. It can be completely debilitating. It is a strain on you and those you love. It’s torture.

I understand that trigger warnings on books are meant to alert people so that those who don’t want to read don’t have to, or they can try and prepare themselves. The thing is, again, literature, art in general, reflects us, the good and the bad. If we try and cover all the bad to help people avoid triggers, that doesn’t leave us with much for English class. Fear limits us. Instead, why can’t we take the opportunity in studying the literature to examine and question the issues within, even take a stand or be moved to action? to strengthen ourselves?

Confronting and acknowledging trauma and the feelings that arise from it is, ultimately, helpful. I can say this from experience. It facilitates mental and emotional health and fosters knowledge and the learning process. Discussion about it is also good thing—this is (isn’t it?) why we go to university or college in the first place—to learn, to grow, to question. While it worked to promote equality and discourage stigmatization, university, for me, was never a safe place (not only because I was one of the very few non-Dutch students and also the only Catholic in a Protestant school at the time); it was yet meant to challenge, and by god, it did. As one reader of Steven’s comment pointed out, challenging and triggering are two different things. This is true, but applying trigger warnings invariably negates challenge. Instead, it leaves us with only benign literature.

When I was in uni, one student refused to read Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage for our contemporary lit class because, once he found out what it was about, he said it would insult his Christian beliefs. This guy not only segregated himself but missed out on a formative experience because he assumed what the book was about and what Findley was saying with it: he remained fearful of being questioned, which meant he was never prepared with valid answers. I see this as somewhat similar to what I’m discussing here: by avoiding literature, we stunt ourselves.

Literature that examines the dark side of what it means to be human is a gift. In a classroom, it’s a tool we can use to gain perspective and understanding, to broaden our knowledge of issues, to intelligently form defensive and offensive positions, to cultivate empathy and space for healing. By applying trigger warnings, we close the doors on bettering ourselves. We perpetuate avoidance, fear of both the known and unknown. We cut off opportunity to dialogue about culture, power politics, heinous crimes, human tragedy, all part of the lives we lead. We separate ourselves from others who have suffered. We label people as too fragile. We label authors as offensive. We categorize literature as threatening or safe. We change the point of literature entirely. In that case, why take the class at all?

Project Bookmark Canada: What it is and why you should support it

downloadI recently had the privilege of being featured on Project Bookmark Canada’s site as a Page Turner. What this means is that I wrote about what the project is, what it means to me, and how it ties in with my profound love of CanLit. And then I donated $20 to help the organization—spear-headed by author Miranda Hill (Sleeping Funny, one of my favourite story collections)—put up bookmarks across Canada for the nation’s literary enrichment and cultural heritage.

You can read the post here (apparently, Google gets pissy if you duplicate content, so I can’t post it here as well). And you can donate, too, if you like!

Saleema Nawaz Updates Us on Fire Damage—And Her Books

To all who’ve read and so generously responded to my previous blog post Help Canadian Author Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire:

THANK YOU. Your responses showed kindness, understanding, empathy, and also a kindred love of literature. I feel certain that your comments have buoyed Saleema’s spirits even while she’s faced with the destruction of her home. As Sam Gamgee said to Faramir a long, long time ago, you have shown your quality, the very highest.

However: Saleema has posted an update on her blog. Please read her post. There are pictures, too. Importantly, she gently requests that since their books were mostly undamaged except by smoke, it’s not necessary for us to send her any to help her rebuild her collection.

Again, I thank you so much for your responses and suggest instead, as Denise Bukowski commented, that you buy Saleema’s books. Mother Superior is a collection of, well, superior short stories. Bone and Bread, her new novel, has already been welcomed with high praise, and the Quill & Quire has called her Anansi’s new star.

This post serves to end the campaign to send books. Even if I jumped the gun, for which I apologize, I don’t feel the posts were in vain. Saleema saw your gracious, caring comments, and at a time when all was uncertain, felt us as the ground beneath her feet.

Thank you all again.

-Steph

UPDATE on the Campaign to Help Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire

Hi all,

I just heard from Saleema and I have her permission to repost her email to me here.

Hi Steph,

Thank you again for your incredibly touching and generous idea you shared on Bella’s Bookshelves.  As much as I love the idea of receiving a hand-picked book from literary folks all over Canada, I could never accept them. Not least because many of our belongings (including books!) have been saved, but also because we are now guests in somebody else’s house — we will be staying with my in-laws for the next two months.

[Steph: No worries! You can send the books to me or give them to her personally. If you send them to my address, which you'll find on my Contact page, I will personally deliver them to Montreal or ship them myself.]

[Saleema's response: Thanks so, so much ... Of course, I would never object to somebody buying my books!  But honestly that is the most I could accept, and the support I have already felt from everyone is the most amazing bolstering help I could ever receive or want.  Please do feel free to post my earlier email.  I'm hoping to do a blog update, but I'm so exhausted, having been up for so long with just a couple of hours of snatched sleep... I'm not sure how soon it can come.]

You have no idea how much it means to me that so many people came to our aid…with offers of places to stay, food to eat, clothes to wear, and so wonderfully, books to read.

Some books have been lost to water and falling plaster, but most seemed to have been spared based on our cursory visit to the building this morning. In fact, although half of our kitchen, the bathroom, the front entryway and most of the living room have been destroyed (not by flames, but by falling plaster, fire axes, and water), our bedrooms and our hallway were spared from everything except for very heavy smoke. Many of the books were actually on bookcases in our hallway and in the half of the kitchen that was spared.

It is like a tornado has ripped through the place, with odd items here and there lying intact amidst the destruction of splintered wood and crumbling plaster.

I’m not sure how costly (or, indeed, possible) it will be to remove the smell of smoke from our large collection (and from everything else we own), but it is one we will cheerfully investigate.  I am so grateful to you and all the loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and strangers who have reached out to us.

With so much thanks,

Saleema

I’ve asked Saleema to keep me posted on whether or not the books that were not damaged by water or fallen plaster and such can be salvaged from the smoke damage (this can be pretty bad as to render the books unreadable), and if so, whether or not insurance will cover it. If the books can be salvaged and insurance will not cover it, perhaps we could start a campaign to help her pay for the recovery.

Alternatively, I’ve asked her if she has a wish list. Again, I’ll let you know. If not, even if she receives doubles, your copy will be better than what she has, and she could always pay it forward by donating hers. Don’t be afraid, either, of not knowing what to choose. As a former long-time bookseller, I can advise: Let your heart tell you. What book would you match her to? What book would you press into a friend’s hand and say, oh, you must read this? Whatever you send, it will be picked with concern and thoughtfulness and received with gratitude.

Thank you so much, everyone, for your generosity of spirit so far.

-Steph

PS. Saleema is on Facebook, and her Twitter handle is @pinkmeringue

Help Canadian Author Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire

426457_10151528279906368_309430823_nUPDATE: This post is no longer in effect. Please read this one!

In case you haven’t heard yet, Saleema Nawaz, author of the collection of short stories Mother Superior and the recently released and very well received Bone and Bread, lost her apartment in a fire last night. I can only imagine how devastating this must be, and I’m deeply saddened by her loss. She wrote briefly and bravely about the experience. She lost 16 packed bookcases of books. I’m very thankful that she and her partner are safe.

What I’d like to propose—since we are all book lovers and would be utterly destroyed by the loss of our precious books, which we’ve taken years and much time and love to collect and read—is purchasing one or more books to help Saleema and her partner rebuild their library. I’m thinking we could buy our favourite book(s) for her, so she’ll have a shelf or more to remind her she is supported both as a Canadian author and friend, and has our best recommendations as well.

We all know that a house without books is not a home. We know that books are friends and lovers. And we know that without our books, we would be uncomfortable, displaced. When I look at the familiar volumes on my shelves, no matter where I’ve just moved to, they help me feel instantly at home.

This idea is fresh, and admittedly I’m writing this without her permission. I haven’t been able to reach her. Saleema will likely find this out from this post. She may protest. I don’t know.

I bought Mother Superior on her birthday. If I can do something to give back to an author who’s enriched my reading experience, right now there’s no other way I can think that’s more appropriate.

There are few things more tragic than losing one’s home for whatever reason. If the fire didn’t annihilate the books, likely all the water did.

To help, please just leave a comment below and I’ll email you with details. Saleema doesn’t yet have an address, but I will arrange the particulars of this campaign and then get back to everyone. Either all the books can be sent to my home and I can drive them to her, or we may be able to send them directly to her. She will have an apartment soon, and it would be fun for her to keep getting mail at this new address, since books in the mail are not only exciting but also make a house feel like home.

Thank you so much in advance for your support of this endeavour. If anything changes once Saleema reads this, I’ll be sure to let you know.

PLEASE NOTE: I’d really appreciate if the books you buy or donate are your very favourite, not ones you just need to get rid of. Thank you!

Year’s End and Then Some

2012 was a great year for Bella’s Bookshelves. I found good friends, albeit mostly online, who helped me understand and forge my place in this world and who allowed and encouraged me to give back to it in several ways. Yes, this world, not just the literary one. These new friends are mainly bookish—authors, publishing professionals, book bloggers, book lovers in general. It is not amazing when you think about it—rather, it makes sense—that books bring people together in intimate ways.

I’m utterly grateful for these friendships, for the warm exchanges between us, for the scores of books, some so beautifully inscribed, that I have received over the past two years, for the important and fun copy editing, proofreading, and writing work that publishers have entrusted to me, for the contributions I’ve been invited to make to the Quill & Quire and the CBC, and for the joy I find in recommending books to you. I’ll say it again: it was a fabulous year for me and for Bella’s Bookshelves, and the kindness, generosity, encouragement, and support constantly surprised and buoyed me.

And I needed that. At the same time, I was experiencing severe anxiety and mild depression. I had it for about fifteen years, but in 2012 things came to a head. I started to have panic attacks every day, wherever I was: in the car, behind the cash register at Greenley’s when a customer approached, even while just out enjoying a walk with Lucy and my husband. I avoided going on busy streets, and then streets altogether, because even one person on the other side could make me feel crowded. Instead, I took sanctuary in the nearby woods. I was afraid to take the train to Toronto (though money is more the issue there). I had panic attacks as soon as we hit the 401, or certain intersections or areas of town, particularly the street on which I worked. I physically struggled to get out of the car to go to work. Some attacks were so severe my limbs contorted and froze, I shook and cried uncontrollably, and I couldn’t get enough air. If we were in the car, my husband would have to pull over. I was always petrified that I was going to barf.

Finally, I hit my limit, not just of panic attacks and anxiety and being unable to do anything but also of hearing myself bitterly complain that I was incapable of change regardless of my efforts. It’s amazing how much we can put up with, though, how avoidance makes our agony greater, yet we continue the way we always have. But by March, I couldn’t make myself do anything, except get to work (and then barely). Thanks to the last shred of tenacity in me, I made an appointment for therapy. Along with medication, another thing I was phobic about, it has helped tremendously.

Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.

Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.

In April or May I quit my job at the bookshop and started freelancing full-time again from home. That action in itself changed so much, especially since I love the work and it’s coming in regularly. I also started writing short stories again and have had some truly life-changing writing coaching. And my posts on this blog have given me great opportunities. I’ve been on the Giller stage with Michael Enright and Erin Balser at Word on the Street, I’ve done CBC radio interviews about Canada Reads 2013, I’ve posted on the CBC blog, I’ve worked with Esi Edugyan and Sarah Selecky on discussion questions for Half-Blood Blues and This Cake is for the Party, I’ve edited Ann Patchett for Kobo, and I’ve submitted a book proposal to Anansi Press (fingers crossed!).

The direction I’m confidently taking now, one dedicated to helping authors and publishers produce their best work and sell as much as they can, as well as pursuing publication of my own stories, is good. I feel that in my soul. I know what I’m doing. I know where I belong. I’m happy. And busy. Now that I’m freelancing full-time, it takes more of my time than a regular job. Then there’s my creative writing (writing, being part of a writer’s group, doing Sarah’s Story is a State of Mind course, and mentoring with her soon!). I’ve recently started reading more, though not nearly as much as I want to. I also like to be connected to all of you on FB and Twitter. I love this blog, and I love being in the bookish loop.

Where Reviewing Comes In

But it’s obvious that my reviewing on Bella’s Bookshelves has fallen off. Partly it’s because I’ve been tied up doing other things. But also I haven’t felt an urge to do it, and this has been a great cause of stress, not least because so many have kindly and generously and excitedly sent me books for review and I’ve accepted them.

Read but not yet reviewed

Read but not yet reviewed

Someone suggested that perhaps I haven’t been inspired to review here because now I am writing my own stuff, or that reviewing for the Quill, for money, has taken away my desire to do it for free. The former is possible, I suppose. Not the latter: money is a bonus but not a determining factor for me; with the Quill, it’s about fulfilling a goal and contributing to what I think is Canada’s greatest lit mag. And reviewing for them is different than the kind of reviewing I’ve done here.

No, I think it’s more that I find reviewing here exceedingly difficult. It takes me an entire day, at least, to write a review for this blog—because I want to make sure I include everything, because I have such strong feelings about what I want my reviews to be, because books are hard work to make and are thus not to be taken lightly, because I want my writing to be my best, and because I suddenly have no idea why, considering the over-abundance of reviewers and reviews, I should do it. I have been struggling with this question for a couple of months now.

Then today I came upon Saleema Nawaz’s post called “The Art of the Elegant Review.” I read it three times. I cleaned the house and while I was sweeping I thought about it. I’d been composing an “I can’t do it, I’m taking down the shingle” email, believe it or not, when her post showed up.

Not yet read, for review

Not yet read, for review

There have been plenty of essays and posts on reviewing, some even heated. The right way to review, the right things to say, the way you mustn’t write a review, the way you must…I don’t much care for most of them because I have enough shoulds in my life and I don’t like being told what to do or what I can’t do. But Saleema’s post, even more than the bookcase of books I’ve been sent making doe eyes at me, answered my question as to why I should continue to review, as much as I’ve felt resistant, scared, dubious, guilty, and overwhelmed.

Saleema describes author Joan Thomas’s review of Atwood’s Robber Bride as “not some kind of boldly negative exposé (that’s at least what some people (not me) mean when they wish we had more ‘real’ reviewing), but an insightful and elegant take on the novel.” She talks about the value of longer, explorative reviews over “brief reviews, star ratings, Likes and +1s.”  She quoted a sentence she appreciated for its craft. And then she tweeted to me, “I know I’m elated to find long, excellent reviews everywhere they turn up, online or offline.”

And I thought, hey. I’ve written the kind of reviews she likes. There is a place for them. There is value to them. People read them in their entirety.

More not yet read, for review

More not yet read, for review

And that’s what it took, not much but enough, together with the terrible thought of disappointing everyone who’s sent me books for review, for me to finally change my mind.

I’m a slow reader. I’m a very slow reviewer. I feel I should apologize for this to all those wonderful people who have sent me books with the hope of a thoughtful review in a timely manner. There are about a hundred books now, and I badly want to read every single one of them.

So then. The reviews will continue, but in order for me not to dread them, they have to be when I can and when I feel ready to put my best effort into them. If you can be (very) patient, I promise they’ll be worth it.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays!

I’m sitting in the living room by the tree, Bing’s voice like molasses dripping in my ears. I snuggle deeper under my soft red HarperCollins blanket, sip chocolate chai tea in my Random House mug, and rest my eyes on all the fairy lights and shelves of books. Just looking at books elicits so much emotion in me. Warmth, nostalgia, comfort, sanctuary, the hint of adventure.

We don’t often get holidays, but now is the time, and it’s one of the cosiest holidays, too. So many of us don’t get the time we’d like to read through the year, so my wish is that you allow yourself that much coveted time. Almost every day, as much as I’m pulled to do nothing but read, I don’t. Or I read things I feel I must instead of things I really want to read.

This holiday, let’s not only give and get books, let’s read them too. Let’s live in them, really notice the writing, the stories, the gifts they truly are.

Merry Christmas, dear readers! Happy holidays!

literary_holiday_card-p137406133488180161en4xs_325

 

“Give Canadian” and “Defying Convention: Reading Short Stories”

On the #CanLit chat today on Twitter with @CBC books, a couple of us were talking about the impressions people have of Canadian literature. Usually, these are unfortunate and misguided impressions, caused inadvertently by school teachers or others who define CanLit as only from a few major authors like Atwood, Ondaatje, Shields, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with these authors or their writing, but CanLit is so much more than the canon.

We also discussed the negative and negligent attitude toward short stories. I’ve found as a bookseller that the response is exactly the same from each person when I offer short stories and people decline: No, I don’t like short stories. They leave you hanging, they never feel finished, they aren’t fulfulling, etc. It’s true that the short story can seem strange if you’re used to novels. But good short stories are simply not guilty of being unfinished. The craft of writing a short story is very precise. And it allows you afterward to think about the literature more so than after reading a novel. Short stories entice you to engage, and they often cause more of an emotional reading experience than you may have with a novel. Yes, short stories can be a bit of work, but not always. They do take some understanding of form, but not anything that’s beyond you as a reader to comprehend. And most importantly, not all short stories are the same. Lydia Davis’s are sometimes a paragraph, while Miranda Hill’s are long and very fulfilling.

When I made up a short story table at the bookstore where I worked, I targeted those readers who often found themselves short on time or with frequent small chunks of time during their day—such as waiting in line, at the airport, while commuting, before getting out of bed, before falling asleep—saying that they could still read an entire piece of fiction in their busy days rather being constantly interrupted in the story of a novel. And you know what? The table was such a success (in store, on Twitter, and on Facebook) that not only did we keep it going for at least half a year, we also now order in more collections than ever before. Short stories right now are being published left, right, and centre, and are being more widely recognized among our readers and literary awards juries. The signs are all here. Short stories are in. But still far too many aren’t willing to catch the wave.

Many times I’ve argued for the expansion of our views on CanLit, here on the blog or elsewhere. Examples of the posts I refer to can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here. And then I thought, maybe it’s easiest if I just make lists of Canadian contemporary CanLit people can browse. “Give Canadian” was created in response to 49thShelf’s invitation to make a list of CanLit we’d recommend for Christmas. And because short stories are my very favourite format, and I’d love to be able to share that passion and excitement with others, or to change others’ minds about short stories, as well as showcase superb contemporary CanLit, here is my list called “Defying Convention: Reading Short Stories” (contemporary CanLit short stories).

Happy browsing! If you buy any of these books, try shopping at your local indie. If you have to go elsewhere or order online, at least you’re buying and supporting our Canadian talent. I don’t think we should only read Canadian, of course, but I love it enough to say  I think it’s worth trying out. You never know. You may love it. Just as I did when it was introduced to me.

If I’ve forgotten any, let me know. These lists are from my own bookshelves.

For D&M Publishers

Small sample of D&M books

This morning I read the devastating news about D&M Publishers (Douglas & McIntrye and Greystone imprints) filing a notice of intention under the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act. You can read the article here. For forty years, this company has been making Canada proud by publishing quality CanLit, and I am truly saddened.

Lately, too, we’ve been inundated by the upsetting news of more beloved bookshops closing. While I abhor the “books and publishing are dead” lament, it’s difficult not to be overcome by a sense of panic sometimes. I know we are not buying as many books as we used to; like many, though, I continue to buy more books than I can keep up with and promote the hell out of authors and their books in general. And as much as I see the way things are changing and how necessary it is to adjust in light of that, I can’t jump on the bandwagon. I accept it but I’m not excited about digitizing everything, for one thing. I love my print books not just for their stories but for their designs and make; I appreciate the amount of work that goes into publishing a book. And Douglas & McIntyre and Greystone make really gorgeous books, lovely clean and distinctive design; they’re among my favourites on my shelves.

While the news is that they’re going to continue publishing while restructuring, I can’t help but feel more sad than relieved. I mean, this is good news, that they’re planning to carry on operations, but that one of Canada’s quintessential publishers is in this state distresses me (as I’ve felt with the news of other publishers suffering and going under).

After I read the article, I looked at my beautifully stocked bookshelves, I thought about my passion and livelihood as a copyeditor and proofreader, I thought about how my whole life has always revolved around books. I thought about all the book-loving employees over the years who’ve been let go from bookshops and publishers. I could feel myself on the edge of despair.

So I did what I normally do when this comes on (besides escaping into a book): I took Lucy for a walk. I have a gorgeous park nearby that I like to call my own (I’ll share but I don’t like to when I’m there), and I walk its perimeter and concentrate on breathing deeply, letting my mind empty so I take in only my surroundings: the creek, the clouds, the trees moved by gusts of wind every which way so that they remind me of ents talking. It’s a sort of meditation I like to do, and I get so into it, I often don’t even know how many times I’ve gone round by the time I finish. Lucy runs joyously. The trees are majestic and border the entire park. On one side, the maples are tall and bright as though lit by sunlight, even though today it’s raining, and the trail is thickly carpeted with fallen leaves so vividly coloured I marvel. This place is my sanctuary, and it was here that I composed this poem. It’s nothing great, but the sentiment is true.

*

i went to the park today

as I usually do

i did my five rounds

and watched the dog run free

i told the trees about the

state of publishing

they shivered in the October breeze

with the chill of my news

and cried vermilion tears

till they were bare

and could cry no more.

*

Dear D&M, I’m rooting for you. You are beautiful, you are smart, you are important. Canada loves you.

What is CanLit: The Illustrated Version

If you’d like to read yesterday’s post on CanLit, you can find it here.

In case you saw it and thought, “Hell no, that’s WAY too long!” here is the gist of it, in photos. Some people don’t want to have to do all that reading and instead prefer illustrations. No problem.

What is CanLit?

In 2006, this guy

said that CanLit was this:

Unfortunately, people still believe him. I think that myopic view was outdated in 2006 and is indubitably irrelevant today. I say that CanLit is not only that (above, and note, that looks like a lot of books but is only 13 authors) but also this:

And that’s not all, of course. I can’t possibly own all the Canadian literature out there. (If you want to send me your CanLit for review, let me know.) But let’s take a closer look at what we have here, just to make sure we’re clear.

and

CanLit is not only the (old) literary canon, and not only about rural areas, small towns, and immigrants. It is not necessarily depressing and bleak and humourless and boring. It is not even stories that take place only in Canada. In my view, CanLit is anything written by a Canadian author.*

Thus, altogether now:

Like our country, comprised of a diverse mix of imaginative people from all corners of the earth, our literature should also be inclusive. As readers and writers, we have a responsibility to continuously redefine CanLit. A culture, and literature, that remains stagnant cannot survive. I suspect that the broader our view of CanLit, the prouder we’ll become of it.

***

Absent from photos: Miranda Hill’s and Sarah Selecky’s stellar and award-worthy collections Sleeping Funny and This Cake is for the Party, respectively. Hill’s book is behind these piles, with Michael Cho’s Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes and Sarah Elton’s City of Words: Toronto Through Her Writers’ Eyes, on the coffee table, as I just (regrettably) finished it, and Sarah’s book is with my sister in Yorkshire because Anne couldn’t bear to part with it before finishing. Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading is on display on a side table. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series and a few others by her, as well as Moodie and Traill, are also not in these photos, because I forgot to include them from the small shelf behind these piles you see in the photos.  Also absent are Vincent Lam’s Headmaster’s Wager, Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten and Stolen, Anne Michaels’s Winter Vault, Jim Williams’s Rock Reject, Hilary MacLeod’s Mind over Mussels, Cary Fagan’s Valentine’s Fall, Andrew J. Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue, James King’s Etienne’s Alphabet, Katrina Onstad’s Everybody Has Everything, Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt, Shree Ghatage’s Thirst (*this is a tricky one. Shree and her family moved to Canada in the 1980s. Possible post: What is a Canadian Author?), Catherine McKenzie’s ArrangedHelen Humphreys’s Reinvention of Love, and Tony Burgess’s Idaho Winter. One last thing: Obviously, I haven’t included any children’s and YA literature here, although I do have some that’s Canadian. 

Much Ado about Literary Awards

Over the last few years, and the past two especially, there’s been a hullabaloo about the value and credibility of literary awards, particularly concerning the big three: the Giller, the Governor General’s, and the Writer’s Trust. The discontent is multi-faceted, but focused mainly, I think, on the tragedy of awards featuring mostly already much-hyped books and major authors, on the awards being rather irritatingly predictable and even unfair, and on the loss of credibility. CBC’s Canada Reads has equally been under much scrutiny.

I’ve expressed my feelings on Canada Reads, and concluded the contest is not for me, as what I want would make the program something entirely different, and that is, of course, not the point. I haven’t said much on the three awards mentioned above, and that’s because I don’t really have much problem with them. In spite of the complaints, I actually see more value to them. And I see that in answer to the upsets, we have undoubtedly seen changes in not only how the awards conduct their contests but also in the lists themselves. These CanLit events are not soldiering on regardless of what people say. (There’s a reason for that, right? It will come up again later in this post. Hint: because we are important.) After being accused of seeming too small-minded and exclusive, the Giller and Canada Reads and the Bookies introduced the people’s choice vote, an extension to give readers a say in what books would be recognized. This has ultimately seemingly backfired because of the variety of books mentioned (at the same time, though, it calls attention to lesser-known books) but also because of authors promoting their books, readers promoting author friends, and books being suggested that aren’t even released yet. How can anyone vote, let alone say anything about one book being more deserving than another if they haven’t read all the books? Thus, we have uninformed and poorly represented input.

But there have been good changes, too, and these can’t be dismissed as insignificant. There are awards growing in popularity in answer to the three, like the ReLit awards, that promote smaller presses and lesser-known or less lauded authors. And how many times have I mentioned the new generation of CanLit! It’s not just me. The 49th Shelf picked up on the phenom and created a list of books under that category. In fact, the site is also significantly contributing to these wonderful changes in CanLit.

This new gen is widening the canon, or defying it, or obliterating it altogether and recreating it. Younger authors are making grand appearances, as evidenced by Sarah Selecky, Alexander McLeod, Patrick deWitt, Esi Edugyan, Johanna Skibsrud, and so on. Those names are big now, but we’d never heard of them before they got on the big awards lists, often with first books. Never mind what you think of who won: this is truly incredible, considering past nominees and winners. Increasingly, we’re seeing new authors and first books garnering much deserved attention. Young, talented Canadian authors are crawling out of the woodwork at such a rate it’s impossible to keep up with them. And they’re on awards lists everywhere. Heather Birrell, Iain Reid, Grace O’Connell, Buffy CramMarjorie Celona, and so many more are commanding literary presence, and not only with their books but with their contributions to newspapers, magazines, in teaching, and in the literary community in general. We’re also consequently seeing not just larger publishers like D&M and Thomas Allen recognizing the value in and picking up these authors, but also smaller publishers in the spotlight these days, like Breakwater, Biblioasis, Goose Lane, Cormorant, Coach House, Freehand, and ECW. Anansi has always been significant but has secured a place in the big leagues and on awards lists with countless new author successes.

Happily, this deluge of young Canadian first-time authors coincides with an influx of fantastic short story collections (you know how everyone says you write short stories first and then graduate to the novel, right?) that is also evidenced not only in bookstores and on people’s shelves, but on award lists. This year’s Giller longlist contains two collections (I liked Alix Ohlin’s Inside but would have preferred to see her Signs and Wonders collection on the list. For a review of Wangersky’s Whirl Away, click here). This is a very big deal, since not only has canonical CanLit had a stigma attached to it but also the short story.  Thanks to these young authors (in particular Sarah Selecky, Jessica Westhead, and Matthew Trafford, who founded YOSS, which has extended beyond just 2011), and those alongside them, like Steven Heighton and Zsuzsi Gartner and Emma Donoghue and Alice Munro, who continue to mentor and publish stellar collections, the short story collection has just about overshadowed the novel and continues to crop up on awards lists in increasing numbers.

Another change in the awards—and this has brought contention among those with opinions about the awards—is more variety in the story. We’re not getting the typical Canadian book anymore. We’re not only seeing the “standard” Canadian author anymore, either—that is, by previous definition, and aside from them now often being younger. We’re seeing more stories outside the Canadian canon locations, beyond the immigrant in Canada—books, like Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, that are not even set in Canada, authors, like Alix Ohlin and Marjorie Celona, who no longer live in Canada. While others doth protest too much, in my opinion, this is an advancement in Canadian literature. It demonstrates our willingness to acknowledge the diversity we always speak of. It helps us grasp that ever-elusive Canadian identity people rail on about not having. We are a mixed bag. That is our definition, and in telling and allowing our stories, we cement our definition. We create and experience all kinds of things outside of the prairies or east coast or Toronto. And why should any of these stories be discounted or ridiculously labelled “not Canadian enough”? The Canadian experience isn’t about staying home anymore. It’s not just about landscape and darkness. It’s about experimenting, with place, form, humour, ideas. It’s about pushing boundaries and redefining.

That’s how I characterize Canadian authors these days. Jessica Grant and Ben Stephenson, John Lavery (unfortunately passed away now) and Stuart Ross, these authors and so many others exemplify Canadian talent that’s been up to now relatively unexplored because of our focus on the canon, and on tried and true literary devices and settings that we’ve actually become discontent with. Who can deny we’ve complained about Canadian literature being depressing? I argue we’re not seeing this in the awards lists anymore. We’re seeing more diverse choices. Will Ferguson’s 419 on the Giller longlist this morning took me by surprise. As did several others. These aren’t stereotypical choices. Perhaps this book won’t make it to the shortlist. Perhaps in the end the winner won’t surprise. But the awards, as we well know, and as Amanda explained in her post yesterday, are not simply about the winner. They are also about the other books that are nominated.

Now, other bloggers’ posts and challenges begin to crop up about reading the entire awards lists and then weighing in on what they’ve read. It’s great attention for the books. Customers are starting to buy and order the books from bookstores. The awards, of course, help sales. But I argue that they do not in fact shut out other deserving books. Not everyone goes for the awards books, and it’s in fact ridiculous to think that only these books are being read by all Canadians for the duration of the awards season. While marketing will push the contenders extra hard, the awards season is only that, a relatively short season of the year. The awards are not so great that other books being published will be ignored. For one, this is not in a publisher’s best interest. For another, we are not necessarily, helplessly at the mercy of the Giller or other awards. We’ve already seen adjustments being made by publishers to ensure other titles in their catalogues do not go unnoticed. Because, yes, publishers can do something in answer to this issue of books going unnoticed. Promotion, relationships with readers, solid and consistent decisions, all these things, not only an award, affect if and how books are received.

Ultimately, though, publishers are going to focus their energies on what they know is going to bring in the bacon. So it comes down to us readers. I personally will read only what I find interesting, as I always do no matter what time of year. And that’s why I don’t predict who will win or say who deserves to win over the others. I will never read an entire awards list unless I want to read all the books on it. I’m sure there are countless others like me, who will also read other books brought out this season that make no awards lists, who will also promote them, alongside their publishers and authors. I’m sure there are more people like me who will also check out the ReLit Awards and the Other books at lit festivals and on bookstore shelves and so on.

While they are a significant factor of the CanLit scene, the awards do not have to be guilty of what people lament. It’s not the awards that necessarily shut out books. It’s us. The readers. The consumers. We’re actually the ones in control. We decide how much the awards have effect by how much and what kind of attention we give these awards and their lists, and in contrast, the books not on the lists. If we want other books to garner as much attention as award titles, if we want the awards to have less say on the standard of Canadian literature, on the definition of it, then we need to speak up. It’s that simple, really it is. Especially these days, in the age of rampant social media. It doesn’t have to be an award that gives a book the most attention it will ever get. Of course it helps. I don’t deny that many readers trust the name of the awards and will buy books based on their accolades. I also do not think these books or authors on these lists likely unworthy of the attention they’re getting. The main thing is, people also buy books when they are enthusiastically lauded simply by word of mouth. In the end, this all comes down to opinion, of judges, of us, also judges. People will love the winners, people will scorn them. In the end, where books and their popularity are concerned, it’s not about awards. It’s about us, the readers. Awards, crazy marketing, big names…no matter how intimidating, how much the pinnacle of the fall season, without the cooperative reader, these are rather ineffective.

Mark Medley recently wrote:

Last year, for the first time ever, a list of all the books eligible for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s pre-eminent literary award, were posted on the prize’s website. Organizers have done the same thing this year. As of Thursday morning, 224 books were listed, ranging from bestsellers such as Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager to rather obscure titles, such as June Bourgo’s Winter’s Captive. Even though only one of these books will be this year’s winner, the prize wants to celebrate them all.

“People work so hard on their books, and publishers work so hard with the writers,”  prize director Elana Rabinovitch says, “that it just doesn’t seem right for them not to have any kind of visibility.”

Yet visibility is low. The odds are that after Tuesday, when this year’s longlist is revealed, you’ll never hear about most of these books again.

In these paragraphs I see an awards committee recognizing what people are complaining about. But in Mark’s last sentence, I see nothing to do with the awards. If that happens, that we never hear about the books again, that’s not the awards’ fault. That’s where the publishers come in. And the authors. And where we come in.

We are talking about awards in the hope of perhaps changing them. But maybe in all this we allow these awards to be too definitive, of books, authors, ourselves as readers. And maybe the focus is ironically in the wrong place. Perhaps the focus ought not to be on what we dislike, on the various problems of literary awards, but rather on what we want. You want to effect change? Be the change you want to see. Read (and promote) what you want to read, not what you’re told. You’re allowed.

Updating Bella’s Bookshelves

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to change the look of Bella’s Bookshelves. I’ve done it countless times, we all know, but I’ve never thought it right enough to leave alone.

It now has quite a different look, and one I’m more comfortable with. The other style, dictated by my sister’s excellent illustration, made it too feminine, I think, and I worried about excluding men readers. Also, I’ve managed to garner several major clients (see my About page) from my writing on this blog (yippee!), which has led me to think I need to take it to the next step of looking a bit more professional (but not stuffy!).

I hope you like it still. The content will not change.

Thank you for reading!

As ever,

Steph