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Pickle Me This

September 27, 2013

I used to wade into fracas all the time.

I write about my children here more than I write about the wider world, the wider literary world in particular. And sometimes I feel bad about this, about the disconnect, my insularity. I don’t seem to have my finger on the button. It hasn’t always been like this either–I used to wade into fracas all the time. But then it got to the point where I could set my calendar by it–brouhaha about women writers, the Orange Prize as ghetto or goldmine, Canada Reads outrage, Giller Prize moroseness. I was writing the same blog posts all over again, in the beginning fervently hoping to bring change, hoping that if I could just explain the way things ought to be, everyone would finally understand. And then eventually despondently, as it began to become clear to me that these arguments were futile, all of us hashing out the same lines over and over again. It was even boring, and I was really tired, and there are oh so many books to read, books to write about instead. And yes, my children, who are never ever the same, even two days  in a row. So now I cease to wade, for the most part, which I fear might suggest I don’t have opinions anymore, except about out-of-date encyclopedias. Because I do have opinions, and they’re even works in progress too, but it’s progress that interests me more than opinions themselves, so I don’t bother to wade anymore.

August 25, 2013

Mary Pratt: On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly.

MARY PRATT Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly. 2007. oil on canvas 40.6 x 50.8 cm

It is not a huge leap to look at Mary Pratt’s paintings and have thoughts turn to ideas about the containment and preservation of time. Not least of all because of her paintings of preserves, jams and jellies. Or because she shows that jam jars are containers of not only condiments, but also of light. In the essay “A Woman’s Life” by Sarah Milroy, part of the Mary Pratt book, Pratt recalls early inspiration in her mother’s jars of jelly: “Oh they were gorgeous… she would arrange them along the window-ledge–they were west-facing windows with the light coming through–red currant jelly, highbush cranberry jelly, raspberry jelly, blackberry jelly–all as clear as glass.”

In her work, Pratt also includes more prosaic containers, such as tupperware, and ketchup bottles, as well as preservation agents that capture light with a different kind of beauty–tin foil, saran wrap. Underlining this idea of preservation is that Pratt’s paintings themselves have been painted from photographs, that with a camera Pratt has been able to stop time and preserve a moment in the whirl of domesticity–a supper table that will soon be cleared away, for example. In Sarah Fillmore’s essay “Vanitas”, Pratt notes that “The camera was my instrument of liberation. Now that I no longer had to paint on the run, I would pay each gut reaction its proper homage. I could paint anything that appealed to me… I could use the slide to establish the drawing and concentrate on the light, and the content and the symbolism.”

Whilst reading the Mary Pratt book, which has been created to complement the exhibition of Pratt’s work that will be moving across the country in the coming months, I kept drawing parallels between her work and the womanly art of blogging. This precludes any arguments about amateurism of course, however much some may insist that “blogger” and “amateur” are in fact synonyms. Because Pratt is no amateur, and neither are the bloggers who make art of the form, who craft their posts themselves in order to “pay each gut reaction its proper homage.”

“…it comes from a longing to hold truth in your hands, to feel something of your own existence–a longing to feel alive… The painting of the jelly jar is really about the way that light shines through the glass, the way that light is preserved, like jelly, for all time.” -Sarah Fillmore, “Vanitas”

MARY PRATT Supper Table (detail) 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

MARY PRATT Supper Table 1969 oil on canvas 61.0 x 91.4 cm

Pratt captures the domestic, the seemingly mundane. And yet behind her rich but also simple and familiar images lie deeper stories. Her painting “Kitchen Table”, the first she created from a photograph in 1969, is at first a quiet scene, a table at once empty and yet crowded with the remains of a meal–a ketchup bottle with its cap off, a hotdog left uneaten, crumbs on a plate, drinking glasses in varying states of emptiness (or fullness, perhaps?). And yet, as Catherine M. Mastin points out in her essay “Base, Place, Location and the Early Paintings”, ”Pratt’s postwar-era family table is a site of constant labour, meal after meal–which all fell to Mary, with no foreseeable end.” On a more personal note, Pratt’s “Eggs in an Egg Crate” was the first work she completed after the deaths of her infant twins, a painting whose symbolism wasn’t clear to her until somebody else had pointed it out–that the eggs in the carton were empty.

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

MARY PRATT Eggs in an Egg Crate, 1975 oil on Masonite 50.8 x 61.0 cm

For all their luminosity and the domestic focus, Pratt’s paintings are also wonderfully subversive. Her eggs are usually broken, is what I mean, the cake half-eaten and cut with a big sharp knife, the bananas in the fruit bowl are just a little too ripe. The meat in her “Roast Beef” is a charred hunk (and Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay, “I can remember when I first showed it in a gallery [and] I heard a woman say, ‘Well, I guess she can paint, but do you think she can cook?’”). Milroy is correct that “In this day of highly stylized food photography…, Mary Pratt’s work seems ahead of the curve,” and yet Pratt’s food paintings are always just a little “off”–the leftovers from a supper of hotdogs, for example, or the casserole dish in the microwave. This is food that people eat, instead of a lacquered sandwich intended for a magazine cover. Hers is a messy, imperfect domestic scene, and yet there is beauty in these scenes that are captured precisely as they are.

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

MARY PRATT Split Grilse, 1979 oil on Masonite 56.1 x 64.0 cm

Her images of meat and animal carcasses suggest something basic and bodily about domestic life, a suggestion echoed vaguely in the images of her model “Donna”. ”That’s what women do,” Pratt recounts in Milroy’s essay. “They wrap things up, or unwrap them, or cut them open, or chop them, ready for the oven.” Fish are also a recurring image in her work, not surprising considering she’s based in Atlantic Canada, but here is the rarely seen flip-side of maritime life–”Salmon on Saran”, “Trout in a Ziploc Bag” or “Fish Head in Steel Sink”. They don’t write shanties about this kind of sea. And then there  is the fire, Pratt’s burning dishcloth on her “Dishcloth on Line” paintings. That same agent used to wipe down the table of dinner-after-dinner is annihilated into a glorious flame which captures the light as intriguingly (and eternally, now that Pratt has preserved the image) as do the far more innocuous jars of jam on the window sill.

Whoever thought the kitchen was a scene of mundanity probably wasn’t looking…

In her essay “Look Here”, Mireille Eagan writes that “Ultimately, [Pratt] asks the viewer to see; she tells us: “Look, here.” Which is what the very best bloggers do too, instead of “Look at me!” using their blogs to implore their readers to, “Look at this!” The result of this being the “sideways autobiography” that Eagan refers to of Pratt’s work. There is no over-arching narrative here, and instead we come to understand the depth of these writers’ lives from the objects, moments and stories they choose to include in their blogs, each individual post its own still-life. Like Pratt, these bloggers are curating their lives, crafting something permanent out of the whirl of the ephemeral. As Eagan writes of Pratt: “Her images reveal a pattern of privacies, of things half-visible, half-said–but articulated, nonetheless. They represent a lifetime of looking closely, an intimation of the buzzing pause before one turns and continues.”

Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

MARY PRATT Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2011 oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

Mary Pratt is available from Goose Lane Editions. Read more about this stunning book here.

May 16, 2013

On book blogging and criticism

All my best opportunities usually come my way a week or two before or after I give birth, and you can’t say no. So at the moment, I am working on a review assignment I’m quite excited about, and I’m not remotely bothered that Baby will probably still be a little while in coming, because I have to get this article finished anyway. I am also pleased because from my post-partum stupour, I’ll see my name in print, and I imagine this will read as an encouraging sign from a world beyond (or behind) that I still exist, or at least that my writing does, somewhere. Anyway, none of this is really the point, which instead is that I’m thinking how much more time I spend on the books I’m reading for work than the books I read for fun, and what I’m missing. For example, the first time I read through this slim volume, I found it baffling and wondered how one was supposed to review a book one didn’t understand. And then I read it again, and again, and now all of a sudden I’ve got this ARC full of notes, crazy connections, ideas, and I’m working toward a spectacular synthesis of this short story collection which, you won’t believe it, won’t just be a summary of each of the stories contained within–who knew this was possible?

Now, fair enough, sometimes this isn’t possible. Some books are really as insubstantial as they appear at first reading. A lot of short story collections really are not very remarkable as wholes, or even in parts. I’ve been fortunate to have been assigned a book by a writer whose talent is extraordinary, and it’s this extraordinary work that has drawn me so deeply into this book I just skimmed across first time through. But it makes me wonder what would happen if I approached every book I read this closely, if I were this actively engaged, if all my unpaid reviews were as interesting and thought-out as this paid one is going to be. A few things: there is not time enough in the world, and the pay for my blog reviews is just the smallest bit, um, paltry for such dedication, and my blog is meant to be a kind of leisure for me, not labour. Also, for the past 39 weeks (and maybe even longer) I’ve been so so tired, but yes, I’ve be thinking about how much gets missed. What if the key to any book’s brilliance is just to read it enough times, to study it deeply enough? Of course, I’ve read enough terrible books to know the fault isn’t always mine, that there are terrible books indeed, that taste counts for something, that there are books and then there is *this book* I’m reading and writing in right now and which makes me consider the infinite possibilities of literature.

February 6, 2013

Blogging Like No One is Reading

172133_4680Blogging stats are important*, and I pay attention to mine, so I was a bit dismayed last summer when my traffic levels plummeted. Part of the problem of course was that it was summertime, when traffic always falls down a bit, but that didn’t fully explain what had happened. But then these things (particularly online things) are always about ebb and flow, popularity is fleeting, and I’ve found that whenever I get too confident about anything I’m up to, life itself has an amazing ability of administering a kick in the ass–which is always useful, I think, in healthy doses.

So what does a blogger do when her traffic falls off? I, of course, turned to my number one piece of blogging advice, which is Blog like no one is reading. It’s advice that is always useful, and never more so than during those times when no one is, in fact, reading. Blogging like no one is reading runs counter to traditional advice, which is to write for your audience, which is to jump through hoops and perform virtual naked tapdances in order to garner online attention, but I find such advice is always delivered by folks without a clue of what blogging is all about, with no real sense of the tradition it was born from.

To do the opposite of blogging like no one is reading is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in the naked tap-dancing that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.

People to come for blogging for a variety of reasons. For many writers, a blog offers a way to keep a website up-to-date and active. An effective blog can be as simple as a news and events page updated monthly or so. Others come to blogging because they were advised to, because it would help their online cachet, though they don’t fully believe in the spirit of the thing. They believe that the blog is to bring forth results (ie traffic, ie book sales, ie fame and fortune) when the  fact of the matter is that a blog, at its most bloggish, is its own final product. So many of us blog for the sake of  the blog itself, a work of art, a creation, as eternal as a thing can be in ephemeral world of the internet. The blog is the point, the one thing you have control over anyway, rather than what anyone else happens to do with it.

The thing about blogging like no one is reading is that you really can’t go wrong. And you’ll find that this is precisely what the most amazing and popular bloggers out there have been doing all along anyway–creating something original and personal with their own interests in mind. That reams of followers were interested too was really just happenstance. (There are exceptions to this, but these are so often marketing tools rather than blogs proper. And if you don’t see the distinction between the two, then you and I were never really on the same page in the first place. And you don’t know what a blog is. But I digress…)

The thing about blogging like no one is looking is that it gives you some perspective, allows you to take a real good look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and change and develop accordingly. It is easy to get caught up in a run for readers, but when winning traffic becomes your sole preoccupation, then you’re doing blogging wrong. You’re probably not having fun either.

Anyway, of course, these are all the things you tell yourself during the summer that your blog’s traffic plummets. These are the things that offer consolation. And then when you discover that the reason behind the plummet was that your blog has been hacked and is now (unknown to you) packed full of invisible ads for Viagra and therefore search engines have seen fit to abandon you and so too has all your organic search traffic, well, you get your hack fixed of course. And the numbers come back. But you just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, blogging like they haven’t, which is what you should have always been doing in the first place.

*Note: Blogging like no one is reading and paying attention to blogging stats are not necessarily contradictory. Each has its uses.

January 22, 2013

The opposite of this scattered post would be an empty space.

IMG_02371) A friend emailed recently as she was doing a clear-out and wondered if I wanted any of her books on babies and birthing–Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Birth, Sheila Kitzinger, Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby. And it was such a pleasure to tell her no. I’d read these books already. I remember poring over Gopnik’s book when Harriet was six weeks old, desperate for some kind of understanding of this creature who’d arrived in my life. I remember the hours spent on internet forums trying to work out a pattern in the pieces of brand new life as a mother. I remember a lot of talking about talking about motherhood, the desperation of these conversations. How important they were for me to have at the time, but how there came a time eventually when I didn’t need them anymore. I have this fantasy that when our new baby arrives in the spring and my life becomes all-baby again that literature might be my one escape from the haze. That I might spend my summer reading about everything except babies, even if it has to be done in the middle of the night while the rest of the world (except the baby) is sleeping. But I’ve never had a second child before. I do not know if my fantasy will come true.

2) Motherhood still interests me, but on a broader level than the whole strollers on the bus brouhaha and whether breast is really best. The conversations I appreciate most about motherhood are those that don’t usually appear on the pages of glossy magazines, which rise above the Mommy Wars to broaden notions of what motherhood is and can be, and the ways in which different women’s lives are affected by various experience of maternity, and the elusiveness of “choice” (which is so often another fantasy, no?). Anyway, I’ve got more to say on the topic and the most exciting news ever forthcoming in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned.

3) We took a picture of my baby bump! How positively first-pregancy of us! It is not altogether flattering, as I’ve no make-up on, lighting is poor and I’ve had a cold for three days and it shows. But this is me at 22.5 weeks pregnant, which is kind of remarkable. I know many people find pregnancy pictures obnoxious, but as someone who has spent most of my life feeling fat and the last three years in particular trying to hide an unfortunate abdomen post c-section (3 years later, it is no excuse, I know, but still…) it is awfully refreshing to embrace and celebrate the shape I’m in. And it’s a remarkable thing, however ordinary, to have happen to one’s body, to change so much in such a short time, different every day.

4) I keep vague tabs in my mind of how my blog content is divvied up, the grown-up things, the kid things, the women things. I always have this notion that I’m doing terribly well when a string of posts doesn’t reference children or motherhood at all, and yet I don’t fully believe this either. My blog has always been a reflection of life as it is, and small children (and the books they read) have been a huge part of my life for some time now. I could pretend otherwise, but then I’d be left with not much to write about. Anyway, all of which is to say that I’m feeling self-conscious and babyish posting about pregnancy and belly-shots, but then here is where I’m at right now. The opposite of this scattered post would be an empty space.

April 2, 2012

My blogging course begins again.

It’s true, it’s true! My course The Art and Business of Blogging at UofT’s School of Continuing Studies is offered again starting on April 16th and runs for the next 8 weeks. I’m looking forward to it. Space is still available so register now.

March 18, 2012

On books, "buzz" and magic

“You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was just because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.” –Among Others, Jo Walton

It’s like magic, the way good news of a book spreads. I’m currently reading Jo Walton’s Among Others because at our last book club meeting, Deanna couldn’t stop talking about it, and then Trish tweeted, “Dying to get on the streetcar so I can get back to reading Jo Walton’s Among Others“, and this is the kind of buzz I listen to. It’s real and you can’t buy it, but I trust it because it’s the sound of real people talking about a book that’s made a connection.

But it’s not magic, of course. It’s a chain of coincidence that begins with a writer creating a work that is really good, or sometimes a work that is not very good but happens to be exactly what readers are hungry for. And then the work drifts out into the world, and of course it helps to know a lot of people well-placed to help the drifting, to have a great cover design, be published by a press that newspaper editors pay attention to, to be photogenic and/or notorious (or fictional), to have a lot of time to twitter, and a knack for connecting with your audience. But then I’m thinking of a book like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin where almost none of that happened, and the book caught on fire. What happened with that book was the most amazing chain of coincidence, a force onto itself, and no one ever could have made that happen.

In less magical terms, I despair when I listen to men on the radio talking about an invasion of Iran or moving the economy forward as though anyone actually has any understanding of or control over how matters of war or economics transpire– these things take on unforeseen trajectories and are carried by their own momentum. You can’t plot these matters the way you plot a book, and nor can you plot a book’s reception either. I recently read a comment by an author stating that he appreciated the way that social media gives him control over what happens to his books once they’re published, but that control is an illusion. The magic is going to happen or it isn’t, and it’s unfair expectation on an author to make him think he can steer it either way, or that he’d feel responsible when magic fails to occur (except perhaps for having written a book that wasn’t extraordinary or even good. I come across a lot of terrible books in my travels. It is my opinion that more writers should be feeling such a burden these days).

Sometimes the magic should happen and it doesn’t. For example, it blows my mind (and in a bad way) that there are books on this that anybody hasn’t read yet. It’s unjust. Or that Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist didn’t win a major literary award last autumn (though magic did happen there. People loved that book). It kills me when the books I love don’t take, but it’s the way it goes, and it’s in nobody’s hands. But then I go declaring Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories as one of the best books of the year, the CBC concurs, and the book is getting rave reviews everywhere. This is what buzz is: a chain of coincidence that originates with a book that is awesome. (And now here, it’s your turn: buy it.)

Which is not to say that writers are powerless or that book marketers would be best sitting idle. Book marketing is a tool, and so is social media, and both are always going to aid the process. I recently purchased Emma Staub’s story collection Other People We Married because on one strange morning, she had turned up in every hyperlink I’d clicked on and somehow that managed not to be annoying. Now Straub is well-connected, which does help– I followed her on twitter after a recommendation by Maud Newton, who is a good person to know, I’d say. But mostly importantly, in none of the links I clicked on was Straub telling me how fantastic she or her book was. In one, she was using her experience as a bookseller to advise writers on “How to Be an Indie Booksellers Dream”. In another, she was included in Elissa Schappell’s “Books With Second” Lives feature. And then there was this. Such a chain of coincidence, I found, that obviously the universe was telling me to buy this book. And so I did.

So the writer is not powerless. But here it is, in two of these links, the magic had already happened– the book had connected with readers and they were telling me about it. In the other, Straub was putting her name and face out there, but doing so by participating in a wider community of readers and writers, giving them something other than a sales pitch.

Writers: stop tweeting the same links to your reviews over and over again (unless, perhaps, you’ve just been reviewed in the New York Times), stop spamming your followers, you don’t need to respond to every blogger’s review (and especially not if it’s a bad one), give your potential audience a reason to be interested in you besides the fact that you’ve written a book you want them to read. Social media is a conversation, and nobody likes anyone in a conversation who only talks about themselves.

But at a certain point, the writer has to take a step back and just let it happen. Magic can’t be orchestrated.

Speaking of magic, we high-fived over our pancakes this morning as The 49th Shelf received a shout-out on CBC’s The Sunday Edition in a discussion about the state of Canadian publishing. It was glorious.

December 19, 2011

Blogging course makes the news

Much of this Fall was consumed by the adventure my first round of teaching The Art and Business of Blogging at through UofT’s School of Continuing Studies. An article on the course was included in The Toronto Sun‘s recent continuing education supplement, and is available for your reading here. And just a reminder that the course will be offered again in the spring!

December 6, 2011

What I Hate About Book Bloggers

It’s certainly not a secret that publishers send me books to review. I’m currently indulging in a Goose Lane binge because of a package that arrived on by doorstep last week. Most of the new releases I review have come my way via my mailbox. But I don’t make a note in each post of where my books came from, because I promise you that it really has no bearing on how that book gets reviewed. Also because professional book reviewers are not required to disclose that they were also sent the book for free, so why should I have to? I don’t regard the books I receive in the post as compensation– books don’t pay the rent, my friend. I’m not obliged to do anything with the books that come my way, to review positively, or even to review at all. Regardless of how these books found their way to me, I am beholden to nobody.

Which is not to say that this has always been the case. Of course, I’ve never received compensation for a review on my site– that’s so not my style, plus the very best books don’t have to pay people to like them. But when I started receiving books from publishers about 5 years ago, I found the whole process pretty overwhelming. I was flattered by the attention, and anxious to please, and though I was never dishonest in my early reviews, I was sometimes more generous in my assessments than I should have been. Though I also think I was a more generous reader then– 5 years of reading so many middling books does tend to make a reader rather crabby. But I’ve also found my footing as a reader, as a critic (though it’s still evolving; it has to be), I’ve read so much more, and learned so much more that I feel more comfortable to simply term a book a disaster, rather than trying to puzzle through the writer’s intentions as I might have done once upon a time. Though I don’t often declare a book a disaster here on my site, partly because it’s inconsistent with the tone here, and also because I don’t have enough free time to devote to writing reviews of books that are terrible.

During the past week, book bloggers have been getting some attention after many received a letter from William Morrow laying down the laws of book bloggerdom– reviews must be posted within a month of the book’s release, failure to adhere to these rules will result in getting bumped off their mailing list. To be honest, I didn’t find the letter or its tone too surprising– since the economy broke in 2008, I’ve noticed a similar reining in of bloggers by the big publishers I deal with. Gone are the days when they’d send me any/every book in the catalogue (and sometimes screw up the ordering so I’d end up receiving the same books twice, or three times). And obviously, I’m not exactly heartbroken about this, because the three-book thing never really seemed like an excellent business plan anyway. Also because there were so many books that I was often overwhelmed, and I ended up reading books I wasn’t even particularly interested in, which didn’t make me happy at all.

The problem with the reining in however, in letters like William Morrow’s and elsewhere, is not that publishers are asking more of bloggers or that bloggers are practicing book banditry, but rather that the publishers are treating the bloggers like kindergarteners. There is an abject disregard here by publishers of what bloggers do, no understanding of their function beyond that of unpaid publicists, and it’s clear that bloggers are not being taken seriously as the force they are. And when I look out at the book blogosphere these days and see such an abundance of unfortunate blogs (enacting many of the problems William Morrow notes in their letter), I’m not sure the bloggers themselves are entirely to blame. Sure, there seems to be a lack of responsibility on behalf of the bloggers, but the publishers are doing absolutely nothing to cultivate an alternative, which it will be very much in their purview to do.

The upside to beginning to receive free books on my blog, along with the overwhelmingness and dangerous sense of flattery, was the notion that someone was taking what I was doing seriously. It was a revelation! And the individuals I was dealing with at various publishing companies did take me seriously, working to create a genuine relationship, reading and engaging with my blog, suggesting books that they’d considered and thought that I would like. Many of these individuals were book bloggers themselves, rather than marketing types straight-up, and so they understood how it worked, that a book blogger requires the autonomy that any reviewer does.

Of course, the book blogosphere was smaller then, so such relationships were easier to foster, and I know that publishers’ resources have become unbelievably stretched in recent years. But I can’t help thinking that publishers themselves could have had more control over what has been the general decline of book blogs (or maybe what I mean is that they had more control than they imagined in the decline itself). Why, for example, do they send books to bloggers whose blogs are terrible? Does it still count as “buzz” if it’s generated by idiots (and it’s probably at this point that you clue in to the fact that I’m really not a marketer, no?)? Why send books to those bloggers who think a “review” is a 50 word assessment, and a pasting of the book’s marketing copy? Why do you send YA books about dragons to 35 year old men who like reading Malcolm Gladwell? The point of bloggers is to create buzz, yes, but that buzz is only going to buzz if it’s coming from a legitmate conversation. And publishers have missed their opportunity to heighten that converation’s tone.

Now I’m sounding like Jaron Lanier, I think, sitting back in my rocking chair wearing my enormous black t-shirt. Back in my day, I’ll tell you, things were different. I lament the decline of the individual voice in book blogs, I hate the standardization, the memeishness. I can’t stand the “In My Mailbox” meme, and I do wonder how anyone finds the times to read all those books, which are so often the very same books that other bloggers are receiving, so that the conversation is an echo chamber, and what is lost for that.

I do hope that the bloggers receiving so many free books continue to do their share as readers by actually buying books– I certainly did my bit with a $240 splurge at Book City last week (and hey everybody, guess what you’re getting for Christmas from me this year!). I want bloggers to keep exploring the fringes of the literary scene, whether it be with new books by independent presses or dusting off old books from the shelves. Blogs have always been interesting for being an alternative to what we might find in our newspaper’s dwindling review pages, and not simply a regurgitation. For the discoveries they yield that no mainstream medium would have been able to bring forth, and for the small, specialized communities they foster. For the genuine connections that happen.

And I don’t hate book bloggers at all, of course (though I am well-versed in writing an attention-grabbing title). I have as much hope for the what we can offer to books and literature in general as I ever did. But I just think that when publishers ask more of us, it should be about not simply towing their line, and that it’s most important that we never stop asking more of ourselves.

October 2, 2011

What's the point of being a sell-out if you're not getting paid?

I have never, ever blogged for free. Well, except for the times I did, here and elsewhere, but it’s different, and I will tell you why. But first, I want to underline how much I appreciated Russell Smith’s column last week about his bafflement with young writers who have no qualms with slinging words for nothing. Writers, I suppose, like me, who’ve spent the last decade slapping my life up online: “Ever since they were teenagers, they had clever thoughts, they posted them online, people reacted immediately… They can get famous fast this way, and it’s gratifying to have a huge audience.” (Or a tiny audience, or any audience at all. Hi Mom!)

I appreciated Smith’s article because it’s good to have occasion to step back and question the absurdities of one’s own life. And also because I think he’s right, in particular in the case of online magazines like the Huffington Post, “the cash-cow possession of a giant media conglomerate. There is no question that the HuffPo can afford to pay, and pay well.” And I’m sure he’s right, because when I blogged for the literary journal Descant from 2007-2009, they could afford to pay me.  Not a whole lot, no, but no one pays me a whole lot for anything I do. But no one who pays me has a whole lot either, and I have even less, so it actually comes to be not insubstantial in the end. (And isn’t that the great thing about living on little– it doesn’t take much to make you feel rich.)

Anyway, my experiences have actually been the fulfilment of what Smith so scathingly rebukes. Though I promise you that I’ve never given a thought to my “brand” (because such a thought, I think, would undermine the fact that I’m a person), much of my writing career has come about as an extension of the work I’ve done for free. Indeed, it’s paid off pretty well. (I used to have this theory that perhaps I’d done okay because I was a person instead of a brand, but then I discovered there exists this wildly popular circuit of bloggers who do nothing but go to parties and wear ridiculous shoes, and realized that beating hearts, in fact, count for little.)

But I am sure that I have had some success as a blogging writer precisely because success as never been my primary objective. (This is going to be a discussion we return to many times in my blogging course, which starts on Tuesday. [I realize now this looks like product placement. It isn't. I'm just excited, and have blogs on my mind].) When I stared blogging, no one did it to attain anything, except maybe a weird boyfriend on the other side of the country who looked like a hobbit. I’ve blogged for so long because I like the platform, yes, but mostly my blog has been useful to me in all manner of ways beyond that– my blog is a record, an infinitely valuable catalogue of memories, it has made me into a better writer and a better reader, it has allowed me to tap into communities of readers and writers who’ve become my friends (some in my neighbourhood, even!), it has allowed me to write rambling pieces (ie this one) that develop my ideas and has clarified my world, and it’s also a fine way to keep in touch with friends and family near and far. If no one was reading my blog, I would still be doing it.

But of course it’s a minefield, trying to answer these questions of why do we blog exactly. A less nice way to phrase what I wrote in the preceding paragraph is that blogging is inherently self-indulgent. Of course, I like getting positive attention. But I really do like to think that I’m serving the books I read, the authors who wrote them, and their readers. For me, it always come back to the Virginia Woolf quote: “The standards we raise and the judgements we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work.”

Last week, I read another article about blogging, this one about women bloggers who wield enormous influence, and are paid in consumer goods by companies who are hungry for some online attention. These women appear to be more frustrated with the system than Russell Smith’s bloggers, but it’s remarkable to me how much these women are corporate slaves as much as the HuffPo bloggers are, how much blogging has come to have everything to do with furthering corporate interests and making people spend more money on shit. It seems remarkable how many bloggers are compromising their integrity to be courted by corporations who really don’t seem to make the best suitors– I mean, what’s the point of being a sell-out if you’re not getting paid?

This isn’t blogging as I’ve come to know it. These women are doing it wrong.

And yet. I mean, I’ve got my own corporate relationships here. For years, publishers have been sending me books for review, and this has been something it has been tough for me to negotiate. Initially, I was pretty bad at it. Initially, I thought these publicists were doing me a favour, and this is probably reflected in a review or two in which I went a little too easy. I didn’t understand that our relationships were actually reciprocal, and I’ve slowly figured it out, I think. That I’ve got to keep buying books in order to exercise my power as a consumer and my independence as a reader, and that I’m allowed to criticize the books that come my way, and that I deserve to be taken seriously as a reader and reviewer (but I’m not to be an asshole about it. I’m a blogger after all. I get that too.). I claim the right not read certain books, and to stake out my territory as a reader– it amazes me to see bloggers reading totally out of their comfort zones because a publicist “was kind enough” to send a book that didn’t suit them. I guarantee you the publicist was less kind than kind of lazy.

But I also appreciate the publicists who do take the time to highlight books that are up my alley, and who care about good books as much as I do.  I like to think there is an important distinction between books and the vast amount of unnecessary crap that mothering blogs, or gadget blogs, and the advertisements accompanying both are always trying to convince you that you need. The difference is that books aren’t stuff, they’re culture, and when book bloggers are doing their jobs right, that culture is enriched.

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Coming April 2014

The M Word Events
Waterloo: April 14 Indie Lit Night at Starlight Social Club, 8pm (w. Carrie Snyder)
Toronto: April 15 at Ben McNally Books, 6pm
Kingston: April 16 at Novel Idea, 7:30pm
Burlington: April 29 at Different Drummer's Book and Author Series, 9am
Calgary: May 4 at 3pm, Shelf Life, 3pm (w. Susan Olding, Fiona Lam & Myrl Coulter)
Winnipeg: May 6 at McNally Robinson, 7pm
Hamilton: May 7 at Bryan Prince Bookseller, 7pm
Toronto: May 15 at Another Story Book Shop, 7pm
Toronto: June 19 at Parent Books, 7pm
Everywhere Via Twitter Livechat: TBA

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