Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: Forms of Devotion, by Diane Schoemperlen

Not to let the cat out of the bag or anything, but I think it’s safe to say that Diane Schoemperlen’s 1998 short story collection Forms of Devotion is going to make my top 10 list this year. The book, which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction when it came out, is one of those very rare things: a highly stylized example of experimental writing that is also compulsively, addictively readable.

Each piece in Forms of Devotion is framed like a fairy tale, accompanied by drawings (many of which by the author herself) that lend the stories some pertinent dimension. In this collection, Schoemperlen is often concerned with taking a non-narrative premise and rendering it into story in a deliberate, calculated way. For example, her piece “How Deep is the River?” begins very much like a grade-school math problem – two trains traveling at different speeds race towards the same bridge in opposite directions; which one will get there first? – but soon explodes into an elaborate tale about the passengers on board, about loss and love, fear and the places we come from. “How to Write a Serious Novel about Love” takes on an instructional tone about the craft of writing but slowly unwinds a gripping narrative about the pitfalls of relationships. “Rules of Thumb: An Alphabet of Imperatives for the Modern Age” is a self-improvement guide writ large that rapidly veers, as most self improvement does, into the domain of vanity and its relation to the lies we all tell ourselves.

But the story that stuck with me the most did not follow this premise-as-narrative formula. “Innocent Objects” – the tale of a solitary, small-town woman named Helen who leaves on a mysterious trip into ‘the city’ and the thief who breaks into her large, empty house while she’s gone – could be the most powerful, most wrenching, most emotional and most intellectually challenging short story I’ve ever read. Schoemperlen’s craftsmanship hits this piece on far too many levels to do justice in this simple blog post. Her playful structuring of temporal space – Helen’s time in the city vis a vis the thief’s time roaming her house – is beautifully juxtaposed by the layering of the two characters’ perspectives as they move through the story. Nearly every page is accompanied by a David Foster Wallace-like footnote that describes some physical object that the thief is handling while in Helen’s house, which in turn is accompanied by a beautiful drawing of that object. Yet, none of the footnotes are random – each one provides a little extra dimension on Helen’s story, on her creepy solitude, on her deep emotional life, and the trip she takes into the city. And still, this story offers no easy answers. We never fully understand Helen’s motivations and what her relationship is to the thief. What we are left with, strangely, is a unnerving tension near the end of the story that we could never have anticipated, and the feeling that Schoemperlen has kept just the right amount of this tale hidden from our eyes. This is, without a doubt, postmodernism done right.

If there is one misstep in this collection, it would have to be “Count Your Blessings (A Fairy Tale)” – but only insofar that its problematic concept can’t seem to reach a satisfactory finish, as the other stories do. The piece tells the tale of the lovely homemaker Grace who seems to have by any measure the perfect life. She meets and marries a wonderful man named William who is flawlessly devoted to her; they have a vigorous and satisfying sex life and a beautiful home that they decorate together. William gets a high-paying job as an accountant, full of regular promotions and generous bonuses, and these allow for Grace not to have to work. The two give birth to amazing, perfect children and their domestic space becomes a domain of love and generosity and happiness. Grace continues to stay at home even after the children enter school, attaining a housewife’s life of leisure that most work-a-day husbands couldn’t even imagine. And yet. And yet – a profound depression slowly seizes Grace. The perfect life that she has attained becomes the last thing that she wants. Her husband and children watch helplessly as she descends into a kind of hysterical sadness. Her old girlfriends tell her that she’s being ridiculous, that she doesn’t know how good she has it. William, relentlessly uxorious, tries everything he can think of to snap his wife out of her funk. At last, he seeks the help of a “doctor”, but this comes, as I mentioned above, to an unsatisfying end. The piece, while wonderfully written, paced and structured, feels a bit muddled by the last paragraph, as if Schoemperlen had wanted to say something deep about feminism, the domestic life, and the teeming mysteries of a woman’s inner world – and yet painted herself into a corner she couldn’t get out of.

This story aside, Forms of Devotion is one of the most satisfying collections of short fiction I’ve read in a long time. Schoemperlen’s experiments and craftsmanship keep the rewards coming with nearly every turn of the page. This book is definitely worth reading again, and again.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review: Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

I must admit, I’m a little low on juice today to commit myself to a full review of this book, but I’ll give it my best shot to say something about it. Invisible Cities packages itself like a novel but really it’s closer to a collection of beautifully rendered prose poems. The narrative frame, such as it is, involves the great Tartar emperor Kublai Khan discussing the many cities in his empire with the intrepid traveler Marco Polo.

Through a highly stylized and poetic language, Polo provides Khan with a perspective on his empire by describing cities both real and imagined, with fanciful and sometimes absurdist situations that rest at their heart. Many of the sections are repeated several times throughout the book, each following their post-modern concept(s) through to their logical or illogical conclusions.

It was all really beautifully written, but I have to admit I was looking for something a bit more structural to hold it altogether. Thankfully, the last paragraph – written with a stunning aphoristic precision – left me breathless and glad I read this book. For anyone out there who feels a little bushwhacked by the ludicrousness of the modern world today, who feels like it’s so easy to cave in to the insanity that surrounds us at every turn, these words may provide comfort (as they have to me). Here they are in their entirety:

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

Don’t say I never give an author a second chance. After my relentless thumping of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash last year, you’d think I’d never touch anything by the man again. Not so. Truth be told, I became a little obsessed with Ballard following that initial and disappointing foray into his work and decided I wanted to try something else. His short stories seemed to make the most sense, since a good portion of his reputation is built upon them.

To start, though, the collection known as The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard is a bit of a misnomer. My edition is a reprint of the 1978 original (it even includes, happy day, an introduction by Anthony Burgess) and thus doesn’t contain any of the great stories Ballard wrote after that year. (For example: the ingenious tale “The Enormous Space,” which you can hear Ballard read aloud at the tail end of this audio interview, and you can also watch the creepy BBC production of it, renamed “Home”.) Still, the anthology provides a decent cross section of the best pieces he wrote during the first epoch of his long literary career.

Many of Ballard’s early stories fall into the category of “straight” science fiction, but of course that is not where their true strength lies. Ballard was forever obsessed with “inner space”, and so even when a tale is set on another planet, its primary preoccupation remains human psychology. For Ballard, the key to many of these early stories was to establish a fantastical technological or political future and then play out that premise to see what impact it has on his characters’ inner worlds.

The most successful of these early pieces really get that marriage of premise and psychology right. In “The Concentration City” we discover a future Earth that has been completely covered by a single megalopolis, and meet a man determined to ride its infinite transit system in the hope of finding the mythical and elusive notion of “empty space.” (Through his travels, he reveals that humanity has lost the knowledge that the Earth is actually round.) “Chronopolis” is a kind of post-post apocalyptic story where keeping track of time – owning a clock, wearing a watch, etc. – has actually been outlawed following a brutal dictatorship built on highly regulated time. “Billennium” explores the idea of overpopulation writ large: people are forced to live in smaller and smaller cubicles of space for increasingly more expensive prices (residents of Toronto may relate!) as the Earth’s population explodes out of control.

As weirdly fun as these stories were, I found that the further Ballard got away from straight SF, the more I enjoyed his work. “End Game” is probably the strongest story in this collection, and it tells the (relatively simple) tale of a man named Constantin, sentenced to death for his participation in some vague, unnamed revolution, who is forced to share a villa with a man named Malek, who will be his executioner. The problem is that, as part of Constantin’s sentence, Malek will reveal neither the time nor the method of Constantin’s execution – it could happen at any moment and through any means. The two men spend most of the story playing chess together in the villa, with Constantin dreaming up new ways of squeezing Malek for information about his looming fate. It’s a taut psychological exploration and one of the tensest short stories I’ve ever read.

The last four pieces in the collection might be categorized as the beginning of vintage Ballard – i.e. the kind of surrealist, postmodern writing he is best known for. Their titles are predictably po-mo – “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”, “The Atrocity Exhibition,” “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” – and their emotional/intellectual impact will vary, naturally, from reader to reader.

In the end, I felt that The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard accomplished what I hoped it would, which was to wash out the bad taste that Crash left in my mouth and get me on board with why so many people see Ballard as one of the preeminent British writers of the post-war, late 20th century period. There’s no denying the power of this man’s twisted genius and the cautionary tales it has left behind.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, by Marie-Claire Blais

My reaction to this 1966 novel by famed French Canadian author Marie-Claire Blais was similar to my reaction to Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora. Both books seem to belong to an age that no longer exists: there is something so relentlessly serious here, a solemnity to tone that is almost encoded into the craftsmanship of the writing itself. In an age where so many of our authors strive to be not only cute but cutsie, it was so refreshing to engage with novels that don’t even speak that same language.

It would be hard to overstate Blais’s accomplishment with A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, a novel she wrote while still in her twenties. It tells the bleak story of a poor Catholic family in rural Quebec run by its overbearing grand-mére Antoinette. The theme is what you’d expect it to be: the tension between the corporeal needs and desires of the real world and the obligations foisted by religion. But how Blais executes that theme through her characters and narrative structure is quite remarkable. This is the rarest of things – a complex satire with no pretense towards humour. Blais’s intention is to show the dehumanizing heart of religion, especially Catholicism, and to do so through the prism of a morose and exaggerated absurdity.

The results are startling, insofar as how incredibly engaging it all is. The book is engrossing despite the fact that the ‘story’ of this family is told in such a distant, aloof, and almost elliptical manner. And it’s engaging despite the fact that none of the characters – from the young poet in the making Jean-Le Maigre, the damaged young nun Héloise or the boy named, simply and ridiculously, Number Seven – are really all that knowable. This is another example where Blais distances herself from our more contemporary writers here in Canada. There is a pervasive trend in our literature today of making sure that characters are ‘likeable’ or ‘sympathetic,’ that the most impressive thing an author can do is forge a ‘community’ between her readers and her characters. Blais resists this temptation, since it would run counter to the grander thematic vision she has for this book, the statement she wants to make about Catholicism. The results are, paradoxically, more heart-felt and harrowing because she doesn’t simply hold a one-dimensional mirror up to her readers.

The last thing I want to say about A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is how prescient it is in spotting and illuminating the sexual deviancy of the Catholic Church. Written 40 years before stories of molestation and abuse became front-page new, Blais examines the incestuous transgressions of the Church as if they were and have always been common knowledge. But again, she does it with a remarkable sense of controlled distance, an elusive approach to illuminating this aspect of her story.

I’m hesitant to dub A Season in the Life of Emmanuel as a ‘lost classic’, as I’m in no way well-versed in the canon of French Canadian literature or Blais’s place in it. All I can say is that this book, and its writer, came to me as an undiscovered treasure, brilliant in the way it breaks so many of the rules that we take for granted today.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is this a scam?

Okay. So on Saturday morning, whilst reading one of our national newspapers over a bagel and coffee, I stumble upon a full-page colour ad for a discount airline offering seat sales for the upcoming summer. The ad brags a cost of $98 to fly from a certain southern Ontario city to certain Maritime city – the former of which I live in and the latter of which I’m in the market to fly to during the same timeframe as the airline’s sale. Conveniently, this discount airlines flies out of Toronto’s “Billy Bishop” island airport, which is not very far from my day-job office.

Now being the brainiac that I am, I understand that the “$98” is clearly a lure, that it’s only the one-way price and does not include any of the myriad taxes and service fees that are the accoutrements to the modern-day airline ticket. Still, I think, surely the final round-trip cost can’t be any more than three times the advertised price, which would put it at a maximum of $294 for a round-trip flight, everything in. This is still a mighty fine price to fly home in the middle of summer. The ad indicates that, to take advantage of this wonderful offer, I need to book my ticket by May 18.

So during lunch today, I check out the airline’s website. Curiously, after selecting (through its online booking engine) my dates and destination, all in accordance of the ad’s offer, I discover that the price is wildly different from the ad: $585! Surely this is some mistake. The offer, I think, must be available only by calling in person, and perhaps this was mentioned in the microscopic, 3-point font fine print that went on for two paragraphs at the bottom of the ad, which - my bad - I didn’t read all that closely.

So I call the airline’s toll-free reservation number. After spending 13 minutes on hold (Wow, I think, everybody’s got the same idea as me!) I get through to a human being. I tell her about the sale and my desired dates and destination. “Let me check,” she says. “Oh I’m sorry,” she says, almost instantly. “There are no more tickets available at that price.” Before I have time to point out that today isn’t, in fact, May 18th and, in the spirit of the ad, the price should still be available to me at the advertised price, the lady retorts with, “But I can give you right now a 30% discount on the regular price.”

Through some magic of mathematics, the final price she offers me – round trip, everything in – is $428. Which is still $18.50 more expensive than 30% off of $585, and still preposterously more expensive than the $294 I thought I’d pay – at most – for the ticket before I called. Needless to say, I curtly ended my conversation with her and hung up.

So is this a scam or what? Is there anything stopping this or any other airline from advertising a too-good-to-be-true seat sale, a sale that the airline has no intention of honouring, a sale that it is only used to goad people into calling and then offering them an inferior discount on an already over-inflated price? I mean, are these sorts of advertisements in our national newspapers not regulated? Or am I just being naive and should just go back to ignoring them altogether? Can someone shed some light?

Review: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Oh my. Ahem. Alrighty, then. Take that, traditional immigrant novel. It’s virtually impossible to know where to begin describing and assessing Gary Shteygart’s high-octane and deliriously brilliant 2006 book Absurdistan. I don’t think I’ve engaged this much with (and laughed so hard over) a novel’s complexities since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. All I can say is that when I hear people talking smack about Canadian literature – the dourly formulaic immigrant coming-of-age tomes, the reflexive holding up of mirrors to quotidian minutiae, the survival-in-nature themes, the menopausal navel gazing in small-town Ontario – I think this is what they’re talking about. I think they’re asking: Why can’t Canadians write books like that?

Ahem. Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, a little bit of assessment. Absurdistan serves up the monstrously comic protagonist Misha Vainberg: a corpulent (he tips the scales at 325 pounds) young émigré, son to the 1,238-richest man in Russia, nicknamed “Snack Daddy” by his buddies at the fictitious university he attends in the US Midwest called Accidental College, Misha’s appetites and humour are as large as his frame. When Misha’s father kills a high-profile Oklahoman businessman, the entire Vainberg family is barred by the INS from re-entering the United States. Consequently, Misha finds himself stranded back in his native St. Petersburg (which he, having grown up during the Communist era, refers to hilariously as St. Leninsburg) and is desperate to return to America and his one true love, a stripper named Rouenna, whom he met in a New York City ‘titty bar.’

Alrighty, then. What follows is a mad caper of epically sarcastic proportions. When Misha gets a chance to acquire a fake Belgian passport, he travels to the fictitious nation of Absurdsvanϊ (“Absurdistan”), located on the Caspian Sea near the Iranian border. An ex-Soviet republic, Absurdistan has, thanks to its alleged oil reserves, become a poster child for globalization, perestroika, free-market economics and classy Hyatt hotels. (All you really need to know is that the nation’s main urban area has been dubbed “Gorbigrad.”) Misha arrives to acquire his phony passport but soon finds himself embroiled in a burgeoning civil war between Absurdistan’s two main ethnic groups – the Sevo and Svanϊ. (The crux of their conflict is based on a dispute over which way the "footrest" of the Orthodox cross should be tilted.) Of course, the war is actually nothing more than a concoction of the Halliburton corporation, and hilarity ensues as Misha attempts to flee the country with his life.

Try pitching all that to a Canadian publisher, would you.

It’s really difficult to sum up the vast array of sacred cows, current affairs and cultural phenomena that Shteyngart is skewering in this novel. Capitalism, communism, strip joints, the Iraq War, the “immigrant experience”, senses of national identity, 9/11, porn, globalization and Mother Russia herself all fall victim to his fearlessly satiric eye. Shteyngart shows tremendous skill in creating a protagonist like Misha, who is as lovable as he is repugnant. (Beyond his unapologetic obesity, he also, over the course of the novel, sleeps with his stepmother, watches online porn, and tears a strip off a super-Orthodox fellow Jew who refuses the kosher meal on an airline flight.) But like any lasting humour, Absurdistan’s comedy is as engrained in its language as it is in its situations. Take this passage, lifted from one of the novels many tangential scenes set in Russia:

Club 69 is a gay club, but anyone who can afford the three-dollar cover charge – in other words, the richest 1 percent of our city – shows up there at some point during the week. Homosexuality aside, this is without a doubt the most normal place in Russia, no low-level thugs in leather parkas, no skinheads in jackboots, just friendly gay guys and the rich housewives who love them. It brings to mind that popular phrase bandied about by expatriate Americans over their bagels and cream cheese: civil society.

Nearly every paragraph of the novel is written with this kind of verve. Shteyngart has not only created a character as obscenely memorable as Ignatius Reilly and a picaresque worthy of Cervantes; he has created an entire world, one caustically similar to our own but infinitely more comic, and more tragic.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My Q&Q review of Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre ...

is now online at the Quill and Quire website. It's actually been a few months since I read this book, but I'm glad to see it's getting some attention. (There was also a review of it in one of the national papers on the weekend.) While I didn't enjoy every aspect of Aguirre's "Memoirs of a Revoluntary Daughter," I still think this is an important piece of nonfiction and worth picking up. You should do so if you get the chance.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review: All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

I’m not sure what got me in the mood for a good cowboy story. Maybe it was listening to this New Yorker podcast of “Cowboy,” by Thomas McGuane, that opened me up to the possibility of reading a full-length novel about wranglin’ horses, sleeping outside, eating chow, and falling in love with sultry Mexican damsels. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy, is as unapologetically a cowboy novel as they come; and yet this book is so much more, and nothing within its pages is quite what it seems. While this is the first novel I’ve read by McCarthy, I’ve heard his regular readers have come to expect nothing less from the man.

In a nutshell, All the Pretty Horses tells the story of teenaged cowboy John Grady Cole, who learns that his family’s Texas ranch is to be sold following the death of his grandfather. Unwilling to give up the ranching life that he considers his birthright, Cole flees down across the Mexico border with his best friend Lacey Rawlins to find work as a cowboy. While there, the two boys become embroiled in a complex situation involving another young guy named Jimmy Blevins, a stolen horse, a murdered man, and a beautiful girl named Alejandra who is the daughter of the ranch owner who hires Cole.

The story is quintessentially Western but the genius of the book is McCarthy’s way of telling the story. He relentlessly attacks the clichés of the genre and infuses nearly every paragraph with strong, lyrical descriptions and insights into human complexity. In this sense, the book reads like a writerly challenge – to write a genre novel but in the vein of literary fiction. It’s a challenge that McCarthy is wholly equal to.

What sets this book apart from the usual batch of mass-produced Westerns is that Cole and Rawlins really do wrestle with core existential questions and a belief in a bigger purpose in the universe. Both men find their hearts leading them into dangerous waters, but their belief in the power of integrity helps to face the absurdity of their situation. Cole’s love for Alejandra is real and palpable, and it makes the tough decisions he faces all the more gripping. All the Pretty Horses is a truly satisfying read from a master storyteller.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Island Poems" exhibit now online

I got word earlier this week that the "Island Poems" exhibit that ran at the Gallery at the Guild in Charlottetown last month, which included my poem "Donor", is now online. (More information on the show here.) Anyway, lots of interesting paintings and poetry for your gawking pleasure. Enjoy!


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

John Lavery (1949 - 2011)

The CanLit community got the sad news this week that acclaimed novelist and short story writer John Lavery passed away on Sunday. I was very fortunate to have read and reviewed his novel Sandra Beck here on the blog back in November and enjoyed the book immensely. If you're looking for a good profile of Mr. Lavery, The Globe and Mail ran this one, also back in November. And for a beautiful tribute to the man, check out Michael Bryson's post from yesterday at The Underground Book Club.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Review: Folk, by Jacob McArthur Mooney

This is another one of those entries I hesitate to label a “review,” since Jake’s a friend and somebody I see around a lot at various literary soirees here in Toronto. Instead, let’s call this a public service announcement: in case of mental torpor or a persistent inability to see the world in startling new ways, please read Folk by Jacob McArthur Mooney for immediate relief. It really is that good.

The poetry collection is broken into two sections that are loosely focused on air travel: the first explores the September 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of St. Margaret’s Bay, NS, not far from where Jake grew up. (I, too, was in Nova Scotia at the time, working as a magazine editor in Halifax.) The second is comprised of a suite of poems set around Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Of course, the works engage with a lot more than just their assigned subject matters; Folk is really an examination of the impact of the big on the small, what a monolithic event (the crash) or place (Pearson) can do to the psychology of character.

The great strength of Jake’s writing is the way it assembles a series of seemingly discordant images or ideas to create first a mood and then a reflection in the reader’s mind. Take, for example, the poem “Sin of Omission,” originally published in a recent issue of The Walrus: it begins with the arrival of a priest to a church in small-town Nova Scotia:

The priest
was Haitian and unpopular, sent
from Halifax to lift the
church’s sinking numbers
Someone made a joke about
Someone made a joke about
how he choked on certain words

But then it switches gears to deal with the prominence of the Swissair disaster:

… On the Sunday
of the crash, he
decided not to mention it, just
Those people
in the ocean, those people
are not us.

Here lies a double strangeness for the parishioners – the foreigner conducting their Sunday services and the foreignness of having a major catastrophe happen right outside their door.

Throughout Folk, we see examples of mild, everyday discordances butting up against larger, more grandiose forces. This idea extends from the very opening salvo, a poem called “An Introduction to the Geographer’s Love Song of His Life,” which details the machinations of a fictitious island state, all the way to final piece, “Vectorfieldfolk,” which states: “That no one made us ready for the speed the earth was moving,/ something kept us sheltered from the spin.”

The beauty of these poems stem from their subtle wisdom, and their cloak of portent.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Event (in absentia): Calgary - Launch of FreeFall magazine Vol. XXI No. 1

Any Calgary peeps out there? If so, let me extend an invitation to you to attend the launch party tonight for FreeFall magazine's new issue, which contains my poem "On Choosing a Mattress," which won second prize in the magazine's poetry contest.

Being stranded here in Toronto, I obviously can't attend myself (this is the third event in the last few months involving some bit of my work I've had to miss because I'm in the wrong city - argh!) but I encourage you to do so. Here are the particulars:

When: Tonight, May 5th, starting at 7 pm
Where: Shelf Life Books #100, 1302 - 4 Street SW Calgary
Fran Kimmel (I just read her story "Elephant Air" in my contributor's copy last night. It's lovely!)
Cassy Welburn
Rosemary Griebel
Gabrielle Volke

If you go to the event, as always please pop back here and let me know how it went.


Monday, May 2, 2011

How to Compensate a Writer

I’m not exactly sure what precipitated me writing this blog post. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had an unusually high (for me) volume of smaller pieces published over the last few weeks, each one arriving with a different definition of “payment” attached to it (each of which I’m grateful for). Or perhaps it’s because I’ve recently listened to this hilarious interview with novelist Gary Shteyngart where he mentions how, when he wrote his very first story at the age of five, his Russian grandmother paid him for it in cheese – and then jokes how Random House continues to pay him in cheese. Or perhaps I’ve just been thinking about what I consider to be fair compensation for a piece of my writing and where my own threshold of payment resides.

Now maybe you’re one of these young go-getters looking to break in to some facet of the publishing business. Perhaps you want to start your own small press, launch a literary journal (either online or in print) or found a brand-new reading series, and you’re wondering – how do I go about paying a writer anyway? How do I make sure I adequately compensate an author for the work he or she has created? Well don’t fear, because I am here to help you out.

Now before I begin, please keep in mind that this is a) not an exhaustive list, b) not to be considered in any sort of hierarchical order and c) not an either/or scenario. These are more like guiding principles, tips you can use when wrestling with how to “pay” a writer whose work you are using. Feel free to mix and match them as needed. And if you see some obvious omissions to this list, by all means add them to the Comments area below.

Without further adieu, you can compensate a writer:

  • With cash (natch!): Never understate the power of giving an author hard currency, even if that author is purported to have a “day job.” Chances are, she resents her “day job” for keeping her from her art, and so the money she earns from her writing, especially her creative writing (especially if it is extremely creative writing – surrealist poems, comic books with no words, ‘really out there’ erotica, etc.) will be that much more rewarding to her. Cash can come from a variety of sources for a writer: royalty cheques, PLR payments, arts council grants and/or reading fees, prize money, publication in paying journals, and the hand sales of books. Combined, these can often add up to a not-insignificant amount of dough. But even a pass-the-hat at a reading event or a $5 cheque for a poem can make an author feel compensated.

  • With contributors’ copies: A lot of journals in the literary space (especially if they’re online) can’t actually afford to pay contributors cash for their work, which is perfectly understandable in my books provided that nobody else in the food chain is making any money either. A contributor’s copy can often count as a form of non-monetary compensation, giving the lowly scribe a nice little release of endorphins at seeing his name in print, a joy that never really goes away. Even if a journal is strictly online, the editor can still send the writer a contributor’s copy, simply by emailing a link. A couple of helpful hints, though, if you rely on contributors copies as a way of paying writers. Try hard to ensure that the author gets her copy before subscribers and newsstands get theirs. There’s nothing worse than knowing other people are out there reading your work before you’ve had a chance to see it. When in doubt, always treat the contributor copy the same as you would a cash payment. In other words, don’t be tardy in getting it to the author. I once had to wait nearly two years for a contributor’s copy and felt somewhat hard done by. Besides, some of us are really anal about our archives.

  • With recognition, and by sharing the recognition around: Feeling like someone else made an effort to pin a rose on your nose can be another fantastic form of non-monetary payment. I love the trend I’m seeing of journals that hold launch parties for each new issue; it’s a wonderful way to celebrate success and grow an audience. I’ve also seen journals’ websites that congratulate contributors when they’ve won or made the shortlist for a big award, which is very classy. Even a simple email, sent to your contributors letting them know that the work is out and thanking them for their contribution, can count as recognition. The worst-case scenario is if your writers are relying on a Google Alert of their name as the sole way of finding out that they’ve published something with you. This is pretty ghastly, though increasingly common, and should be considered a form of non-payment.

  • By engendering a sense of community: Very similar to the one above, but just that much more. Writing is a lonely, lonely business, and so any effort to make writers feel like they belong to something larger can often count as another form of compensation (or at least a nice adjunct to compensation). Some places are well-known for treating their writers like part of a broader family – The New Quarterly and Biblioasis being two outstanding examples. With all the tools of social media now at your disposal, building a community among writers from whom you’ve accepted work is easier than ever. But it doesn’t have to be even that complicated. I did a reading recently where the host invited us all out for a meal after the event, and it was a wonderful time to break bread together, talk shop and make some new friends. I didn’t get a formal ‘payment’ for that reading per se, but the sense of camaraderie during that meal afterwards was worth quite a bit to me anyway.

  • With cheese: Just kidding! Do not send me any cheese.

  • What do you think? Should cash still be king? Is a sense of recognition or community worth more to you? Is a hastily dispensed acceptance letter enough? Should writers just be grateful for any ink they get at all? Share your thoughts below.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: Underground, by Antanas Sileika

The historical novel remains a huge temptation for any Canadian writer, especially when the history involved hasn’t gotten the exposure that it should. The rewards for tackling obscure history in fiction are many, but so are the challenges. Antanas Sileika, in his new novel Underground, has the additional complication of writing about a subject matter that is near and dear to his own heritage: the partisan resistance movement against Soviet aggression in Lithuania during WWII and the Cold War. His protagonist is Lukas Petronis, loosely based on an actual historical figure, who rises to the rank of legend within the partisan movement but at great personal cost and sacrifice.

Sileika takes two interesting risks at the beginning of his novel. The first is to place his opening chapter out of sequence with the rest of the book’s linear narrative. Chapter 1 finds Lukas and his fiancée Elena luring a number of Soviet officials to their engagement party, only to slaughter them with gunfire and then take off on the lam. Chapter 2 then rewinds the story, back to when Lukas is a student before he met Elena, and describes how he came to join the resistance movement. The date and location listed at the top of some chapters help the reader to figure out this slip in time, but they aren’t really necessary. Sileika is adept enough at framing that opening salvo of violence as a pivotal moment, a moment when Lukas and Elena make a decision that will alter their lives forever and one that deserves to stand out from the other sequence of events.

His second risk, however, is far less successful. Underground’s early chapters open with a kind of historical telescoping: a bird’s-eye view of the broader geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe at the time (the mid 1940s) followed by a zooming in on specific characters. This only works if the characters we find at the end of that zoom are real flesh-and-blood people with their own quirks and eccentricities, their own motivations and unique ways of processing the world around them. On this count, Sileika fails spectacularly – at least in the first half of Underground. What we find in Part One are characters who are nothing more than mere props, wind-up toys to be set in motion through the novel’s broader and more disingenuous agendas. Every person we meet – from Lukas and his religiously inclined brother Vincentas to Elena and other members of the resistance – is portrayed as a one-track representation of something in the conflict. Good and evil are static and no one ever waivers from the point of view that Sileika has grafted onto him or her.

The problem – and I’m not the first reviewer to point this out – is primarily one of dialogue and other interactions with the characters. When people speak in this novel, it is often to simply convey a point of research or historical information, rather than as a genuine exchange that arises organically out of itself. There are a number of instances of what RR likes to call ‘exposition monkeys’ – characters whose sole function is to ask questions or raise points that provide the reader with explanations that the author feels he or she needs. Take, for example, this exchange between an engineer and Ignacas, one of the members of the resistance:

“Don’t you think the Americans will go to war because they don’t like the look of someone’s face,” said the engineer. “Why should they keep on fighting after the Germans are beaten?”

“Because they signed the Atlantic Charter,” said Ignacas. “Roosevelt and Churchill met in Newfoundland before the Americans even entered the war. The charter says we all have the right to self-determination and no territorial changes will be made without the agreement of the people.”

Now I’m sure that, in Sileika’s mind during the lengthy research for this book, he felt it absolutely crucial that the reader know this little bit of (highly ironic) historical detail. But God – to convey it in dialogue in such a contrived, dishonest way. Never mind whether it’s actually plausible in the context of the scene; no one actually speaks in this kind of rigid, wooden manner to just disperse information into the ether. This sort of dialogue is rife throughout Underground, and it really undermines what the author is attempting to do.

Another problem is that there is virtually no chemistry between Lukas and Elena. Their brief, harrowing courtship lacks any sense of the truly sensual; because they’re mere machines moving through a historical plot, they never get to experience the randomness of attraction, the quotidian joys that come from discovering the inner world of another person. This speaks to a larger problem in Underground: the novel is so obsessed with executing its broader agenda that it forgets to bring a sense of humanness along for the ride. It’s so busy trying to expose a mislaid part of history that it forgets to be funny; it forgets to be tender; it forgets to be absurd.

To its credit, the book does improve significantly in Part Two. After thinking that Elena has been killed in an attack, Lukas flees into the west – first to Sweden, then to Paris, where he works to expose the plight of the partisans to Western governments. While doing so, he falls in love and marries another woman, Monika. Their relationship becomes ensconced in domesticity: she’s studying to be a nurse; he’s writing a book about his experiences. When Lukas gets word that Elena may still be alive and that the movement needs him back in Lithuania, he makes a heart-wrenching decision. It’s a genuinely earned moment of pathos, mostly because Sileika took the time to invest more care into Lukas’ second relationship.

I won’t spoil the ending of this novel, other than to say that Sileika once again telescopes the narrative, jumping ahead 40 years to show both the end result of Lukas’ two-woman dilemma and the broader fate of Lithuania as a nation. It’s the best we can hope for, I suppose, from a novel that shows so very much and yet reveals so very little.