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Pickle Me This

November 6, 2018

The Future of Books is Female

In this moment when so much seems dark, the light tends to shine even brighter, or maybe it’s just that I’m looking for it, but does the distinction even matter? It all began with a tweet thread, I think, when the editor of The Paris Review joined the parade of men who’ve lately been called out for sexual misconduct and when the editorial history of the magazine was being chronicled, one vital detail had gone amiss. “I’m going to show you how a woman is erased from her job,” the writer A.N. Devers tweeted, and proceeded to tell the story of Brigid Hughes, who’d succeeded George Plimpton at The Paris Review after Plimpton’s death, after working at the magazine for her entire career. But out of respect for Plimpton, Hughes was billed as “executive editor,” Plimpton remaining on the masthead. And then a year later Hughes was fired, and thereafter The Paris Review’s second editor and first female editor was written out of its history. Devers would eventually write this story into an essay published at Longreads.

Plans for Devers’ Second Shelf Books venture had been in the works for a few years, apparently (and is just one of the many fascinating things that she’s been up to), but for me the link seemed quite direct to me from her work on re-establishing Hughes’ professional record to starting a business that champions under-appreciated books by women authors (“rare books, modern first editions, and rediscovered works…”), and I was so galvanized by her work on the former that I jumped on board to support the latter. I signed up for the Second Shelf Books kickstarter to support the project and receive a copy of their Quarterly, a gorgeously produced magazine that is a literary catalogue and a celebration of women’s writing at once—and then before time ran out upgraded my support so I would receive a surprise first edition from Second Shelf. And it has been a pleasure to watch from across the ocean as Devers’ vision has become reality, the funding drive a success, a profile in Vanity Fair among other coverage, and the online store expanding to be actual bricks and mortar.

My copy of the Quarterly arrived a month ago, and I’ve deeply appreciated its aesthetic (marbled papers!), what it’s taught me about book collecting, and the writers I’ve been able to discover—for example, the first Black woman in South Africa to publish a novel was Miriam Tlali in 1975, with Muriel at Metropolitan. It has awakened my interest in book collecting for sure, and I’ve been pleased to discover I’ve already got a few first editions by women writers on my shelf, and now I’m on the look out for more—I found Carol Shields’ The Republic of Love at a used bookshop this weekend. It’s an opportunity, as Devers has explained, because books by women have historically been undervalued by book collectors (who’ve tended to be men), and therefore the investment is lower, but as more people begin to take notice, values will begin to rise. Or so it’s hoped, but regardless, I was overjoyed to receive my surprise first edition yesterday, carefully chosen after I’d completed a short survey online of my favourite authors. Wrapped in unicorn paper AND bubble wrap, so my children were squealing, and I got in on it too when I realized which book I had gotten. The hardcover Barbara Pym Civil to Strangers, a collection of stories and fragments published after her death. Could it be more perfect? And who knew there was a whole other reason to buy books that I hadn’t even considered? But I’m hooked now, and excited for the future of Second Shelf Books.

November 1, 2018

Why I Love Literary Prizes/ Why I Don’t Care About Literary Prizes

I couldn’t decide whether to call this post, “Why I Love Literary Prizes,” or, “Why I Don’t Care About Literary Prizes,” which one would garner the most outrage and clicks, and it says something about literary prizes that both perspectives are controversial. And they’re both true, in my case. I don’t care about literary prizes, which is why I love them. Although I’m not saying that if you gave me a literary prize I wouldn’t love them even more, of course—MY LITERARY PRIZE DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN…especially because I broke my phone and now it no longer types As or exclamation marks, and if you gave me a literary prize with cash value (or a gift certificate to Wind Mobile) I would be able to afford to buy a new one.

But in the meantime, I will tell you that I used to care deeply about literary prizes once, because as a reader they were my gateway into feeling like part of a wider literary community. I read that book that won the Giller Prize by the doctor who met Margaret Atwood on a cruise ship—Vincent Lam! Although I can’t remember what the title was. I also recall being ecstatic when Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air won the Giller Prize, because I really loved that book when I first read it. It felt good to be part of a thing that everyone else was doing, and to receive reading recommendations, because this was about ten years ago, which is when my bed wasn’t a mattress on top of a perilously toppling pile of books stacked onto infinity.

But then I started to become more defined as a reader, and have a deeper knowledge of “the CanLit scene” and started paying attention to things like small presses vs. big presses, which meant that literary prize culture started to seem annoying—because these books were supposed to be celebrating “the best,” but I wasn’t sure they were doing the greatest job of that. This was also before I discovered that “the best” is not a thing, and that tastes (and juries) are subjective. But before that discovery, prizes seemed frustrating and useless and occupied so much real-estate literary-coverage wise that I’d rather ignore them than pay attention, because I don’t get off on being angry for recreational purposes. If a book I liked won the Giller Prize (Hello, Hellgoing!), well then, hurray. But I was certainly not going to read a book just because it had a sticker on it, and definitely not if it was a book that I had no intention of reading in the the first place.

Another reason I went off literary prizes was because I’d have to listen to writers moan about not winning them, and also hear others declare that winning such prizes was “humbling” (which makes no sense whatsoever). The collective malaise that hits Canadian authorial communities on the days when shortlists are announced is even more annoying than a poet who reads for thirty-five minutes—it makes me want to all-caps scream, GET OVER YOURSELVES. Yes, you worked hard on your book, and yes, you would have wanted this success for your publisher who put all his faith in you and your book, and who wouldn’t want to win hundreds of thousands of dollars (or a Wind Mobile gift certificate, even). But I have wanted a great deal many things in my life that I never got, and so have you, and one upside to the downsides of being a woman is that we rarely ever feel entitled to anything, including the things we’ve earned, so your assumption that you belonged on a prize list is kind of weird to me and I just think you should stop it, and go out for a beer and cry with your best friend, and them move on with things. It’s going to be fine.

I am also an author of commercial fiction, which never gets nominated for literary prizes anyway, which makes the whole equation easier for me. Although I will admit that I was fully prepared to be UNEXPECTEDLY nominated for the Giller Prize last year for my SUBTLY BRILLIANT UNDERRATED BOOK, and I’d been practicing both feigning surprise AND being a dark horse, and when the call never came, all that practice was for nothing, but I am an author, so certainly that wasn’t my first disappointment. All of us in this area are nothing if not well-trained.

When I am not busy being a non-award-winning author with a broken phone (VERY GLAMOROUS), I am fortunate to earn a living as editor of the Canadian books website, 49thShelf, and it was through this role that my appreciation for literary prizes began to return—for practical reasons, mostly. Because it’s part of my job to switch up featured books and lists on our homepage every week, and it’s a task that’s very easy this time of year as prize lists and award winners are being announced by the day—just this week, The Taste Canada Prizes, the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards. List after list, some with the usual suspects, but others with titles readers might not have heard of yet. And while not all prize lists lead to a huge bump in sales, I still love the way these lists shine a spotlight on titles and place them in a broader literary context. I love anything that gives us a reason to talk about a book—to make a book news, to tell a bookish story, to get us a little more excited about books. The actual awards might not be hugely meaningful (apart from a few with big cash prizes and sales bumps), but the books themselves mean an awful lot, and anything that gives even a few readers the chance to discover that is perfectly fine with me.

August 28, 2018

On Diversity and Excellence

Earlier this year, some windbag on Twitter had a hissy fit and started posting about how—and I quote—”Political correctness is killing fiction,” which I found really annoying mostly because of a conspicuous lack of evidence that this windbag has read a single work of fiction in the past five years. And also because what he really meant by “political correctness” was actually a) that white writers are facing a new and demanding kind of criticism in their work when they write about other cultures and b) a new spotlight on and celebration of works by writers who are telling stories many of us haven’t heard before. These comments were also really frustrating because this person who never reads fiction was proclaiming the death of fiction when my own personal experience is that fiction has never been so rich. I was reading The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, by Kim Fu, when this stupid tweet was posted, which only underlined its absurdity. I loved that book. And all this came to mind again last week when I had the great fortune of reading Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker followed by Miriam Toews’ Women Talking. Has fiction ever been more alive? But I guess you actually have to read a book to know that.

Not unrelated, the other day Conservative MP Lisa Raitt was quoted as saying, somewhat incoherently, that she wouldn’t want a place in the Liberal Party as a woman because if she succeeded there she’d never really know if she’d made it on her own merits or if it was because a certain number of women had been mandated. As though the two categories (quotas and qualified candidates) were mutually exclusive, as though there might not be a healthy pool of qualified women candidates to choose from—which, admittedly, for the Conservatives, is a possibility, as their candidates in the 2015 federal election were 20% women, vs. 42% for the NDP. The Liberal candidates were only 31% women, which was not entirely impressive, and yet. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his gender balanced cabinet  (because it was 2015, if you recall) he somehow still managed to appoint a Health Minister who was a doctor, an Attorney General who was an Indigenous lawyer, an International Trade Minister who’d been a Rhodes Scholar and a renowned expert on global finance, an Environment Minister with a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics, a Minister of Sport and Persons With Disabilities who has been a lawyer and a Paralympic athlete, and a Minister of Science who has been a scientist since receiving her PhD in 1992. And while we’ve all spent a lot of time in the years since then thinking about the fact of gender parity, too little focus has been put on the fact that these women are among the most qualified cabinet members I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

Lisa Raitt too comes to the political arena with a lot of expertise and experience—and something to keep in mind when thinking about gender parity is how much more excellent a woman has to be than her male peers in order to reach the same levels of success. Which reminds me of this very funny satirical piece written shortly after Trudeau’s cabinet was appointed: “50% female cabinet appointments lead to 5000% increase in guys who suddenly care about merit in cabinet:” “I mean, Jason Kenney alone was Minister of Immigration before being shuffled to Multiculturalism, then Social Development, and then finally National Defense—clearly because he was the most qualified person in the entire country on all those four completely unrelated files.” Clearly.

They are not exclusive, diversity (whether it be gender balance and ideally beyond) and excellence, is what I mean. Is what Trudeau’s cabinet has proven, although so many seem to miss the point, forest for trees etc. because for ideological reasons a focus on diversity makes many peoples’ heads explode. But  I will go so far as to say that excellence is actually a natural product of diversity, which is why diversity is so necessary and important right now as our society confronts a variety of challenges. And if you’re looking for excellence, diversity is naturally what happens. And if diversity doesn’t happen, then you have failed in making something excellent.

Which was only confirmed for me in my experience as a juror for The Journey Prize this year—as jurors, we read one hundred stories with no identifying details of their authors. Which is a fraught exercise at this political moment, particularly if you are someone who, like me, thinks that the author is not dead and personal identities matter. Fraught, because I didn’t want to fail at excellence. Of course, the stories themselves are what really matters, but personal identities matter too because it’s always obvious to me when I’m reading a book about a fourteen-year-old girl written by a man who has no idea what that feels like and who has failed in the imaginative leap of writing that experience in a way that is convincing. Personal identities and experience only fuel a writer’s work, I think, and make that work so much richer. So much more excellent. But all this was still just faith for me while I was reading stories for the Journey Prize, and my fellow jurors and I were having some meaningful conversations about what excellence meant. Concluding, basically, that we wanted the stories we selected to definitively not be the Jason Kenneys of literature, in a nutshell. Serving as Minister of Immigration before being shuffled to Multiculturalism, then Social Development, and then finally National Defense. We wanted specificity. Details, in addition to sparkling prose. We wanted to be unsettled in ways that are entirely new, transported to places that were familiar and yet unknown to us. No mediocrity would sneak its way into this book. We wanted unfailingly interesting.

And guess what: diversity happened. My faith confirmed that diversity and excellence are inextricably linked. When we focussed that hard on excellence, we ended up with a list of writers from a range of ages and backgrounds. Some of them names we’d never heard of before, others that were familiar. A list of writers whose faces look more like the world does than your average Conservative cabinet, which is a wonderful thing to discover, that something has gone very right in the process. Because diversity and and excellence go hand and hand, as the Journey Prize Stories 30 will demonstrate when it comes out next month. In addition to serving as a reminder that fiction is absolutely thriving.

August 3, 2018

Five Stars

I finished reading a novel last night, and thought what a wonderful thing it was to have no need at all to consider out of five how many stars this book deserved. What a relief it was just to read, and not to rate, or even go online at all (and it is certainly also a bonus also not to stumble across reviews of my own book that begin with, “Wow, this was a painful read. How boring was this, am I right?” (Not that I’ve ever sought out Goodreads reviews of my book. I am far too cool and assured for that, as you no doubt realize.) Instead, I just open up my Book of Books which lives on my bedside, inspired by Vicki Ziegler and Pamela Paul. And another book is entered, with whatever writing device I happen to have on hand. (I really need to go shopping for pens.) Last month, I read twenty books, which I think might be an all-time record for me. It’s been a glorious summer for reading so far, and there is still so much of August left, and I’ve been able to even reread, and make a little dint in the pile of books on the stairs, though you might not know that to see it. You see my Book of Books though, and you’ll realize I’ve been going places, bookwise. Halfway through the first year tracking books with this method, I just want to check in and say it’s wonderful, analogue, good for the soul. Five stars all the way.

October 10, 2017

Where do my books come from?

The other week I posted a photo of my mailbox on a day that was, I’ll admit it, particularly remarkable, but not unprecedented. I get a lot of books in the mail, and the photo received a lot of likes and comments that made me think about a variety of things—where my books come from, what I do with the books I receive from publishers, whether or not I persist with books I’m not enjoying, and other things. These questions are going to be the foundations of this post, and a couple of others to come, but I wanted to start with this, which is a meme I’ve done before involving listing the last books you’ve read most recently and where they came from.

  1. Saints and Misfits, by S.K. Ali: Received from publisher
  2. My Conversations with Canadians, by Lee Maracle: Purchased from Publisher’s Booth at Word on the Street
  3. Dazzle Patterns, by Alison Watt: Received from publisher
  4. What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton: Purchased from Publisher’s Booth at Word on the Street
  5. Snacks: A Canadian Food History, by Janis Thiessen: Received from publisher
  6. Collected Tarts and Other Indelicacies, by Tabatha Southey: Received from publisher
  7. Once More With Feeling, by Meira Cook: Received from publisher
  8. Just Jen: Thriving Through Multiple Sclerosis, by Jen Powley: Purchased from Staff Picks shelf at Audreys Books
  9. If Clara, by Martha Bailey: Received from publisher
  10. The Mother, by Yvette Edwards: Purchased from A Different Book List
  11. We All Love the Beautiful Girls, by Joanne Proulx: Purchased from Hunter Street Books
  12. What is Going to Happen, by Karen Hoffman: Received from publisher
  13. A Bird on Every Tree, by Carol Bruneau: Received from publisher
  14. Guidebook to Relative Strangers, by Camille Dungy: Purchased from Parentbooks
  15. The Misfortune of Marion Palm, by Emily Culliton: Purchased from Happenstance Books and Yarns
  16. Glass Houses, by Louise Penny: Received from publisher (ARC)
  17. Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple: Purchased from Parentbooks last year, this was a reread
  18. Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, by Norma Dunning: Received from publisher
  19. The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride: Purchased from Blue Heron Books
  20. Pond, by Claire Louise Bennett: Purchased from Parentbooks, this was a reread
  21. The Murder Stone, by Louise Penny: Found it in cottage library
  22. Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman: Purchased from Happenstance Books and Yarn
  23. Truly, Madly, Guilty, by Lianne Moriarty: Purchased (secondhand) from Beggar’s Bouquet Books
  24. Scarborough, by Catherine Hernandez: Purchased from Mabel’s Fables
  25. History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund: Purchased from Lighthouse Books
  26. Weaving Water, by Annamarie Beckel: Borrowed from the Toronto Public Library
  27. Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Meloy: Purchased from Curiosity House Books
  28. Turning, by Jessica J. Lee: Purchased from Curiosity House Books
  29. The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud: Received from Publisher
  30. In the Land of the Birdfishes, by Rebecca Silver Slayter: Purchased from Lexicon Books

Results are a little bit skewed because eight of these are books I read on my summer vacation and I tend to more deliberate in those choices, but still. Of the 30 books I read, 11 of them were received from publishers. They tended to be smaller publishers too because a) these are publishers I have relationships with through my work with 49thShelf.com and b) some of these books are harder to find in Ontario bookstores so I am unlikely to come across them on my own steam, at least before review copies arrive. A few are books that I would not have previously sought out of my own. Two of them I read because their publicists were quite emphatic that I, Kerry Clare addressed personally, should do so—nice work publicists; you were right. And when I do read these books publishers send me, I tend to write about them either on my blog or on 49thShelf.com, or in both places.

I tend not to read ARCs because I don’t like them—I liked to read finished books with nice covers and I like to read them when everyone else is reading them.

I also buy a lot of books and am an avid independent bookshop customer.

And finally, I don’t disclose in blog posts if I’ve received a book from a publisher. A lot of bloggers do, and on some blogs that are exclusively review sites, it makes sense. But I don’t think it does for me. I trust myself after ten years that my reviews are not biased because I’ve received a review copy—though this was a learning curve for me for sure but I got over it years ago. I get so many books in the mail, most of which I don’t even read, that the idea of treating these books differently than the books I purchase myself is kind of ridiculous—if anything, these books that find their way to me rather than me seeking them out myself actually get read much more critically, as in, “You better be worth my precious time, Book-I-didn’t-even-ask-for.” I also know that professional reviewers (of which I am one) receive review copies as standard practice and this doesn’t need to be disclosed in their reviews. And finally, I see this blog as a space for me, first and foremost, and that anybody else likes to read it is just gravy, but to pepper my posts with disclosures and the like would undermine the authenticity of what I’m up to here.

August 1, 2017

Camping With Louise Penny

I have developed a hammock habit over the last few years, and most lazy summer afternoons you’ll find me in my urban backyard enjoying a warm breeze and basking in the shade of our enormous silver maple. Reading, obviously. And the best thing about a hammock habit is that it can be altogether portable if you’ve got the right hammock, which I do, complete with a foldable frame and a carrying bag. It is the heaviest most awkward portable object imaginable, but it’s mine, and it’s the most essential item in our mountain of equipment when we’re packing the car to go camping.

We’re not natural campers, my family. I’m a bad Canadian and my husband is an immigrant, and so camping (along with ice skating) is an activity we’ve had to work hard to fall in love with—mostly for the sake of the children. But because camping doesn’t involve falling all over perilous slippery surfaces while wearing blades on our shoes, we’ve actually had some luck with this. This summer will be our fourth year pitching a tent out in the wilderness—or rather, more realistically, while my husband is busy pitching the tent, I’ll be setting up my hammock.

The hammock itself is not the only ingredient necessary for a successful camping weekend, however. We need bug spray, and sleeping pads, fire-starters and marshmallows, and we need books. And not just any books. For me, I’ve learned that a weekend camping in the woods is not completely unless I’ve got a big fat Louise Penny novel to be absorbed in. The hammock would be wasted without it.

Miles from the cozy civilization invoked by the fictional Three Pines, with its bistro, B&B, boulangerie and bookshop, I spend our camping afternoons in my hammock wholly wrapt by Penny’s novels, compelled by her character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his call to duty. There will be some sort of crime, either immediately or eventually a murder, and any gruesomeness related to this matter will be abated by the scenes Penny sets in Three Pines, a place as familiar to me as my own neighbourhood is. I pick up these books in anticipation of returning to Three Pines, and to its people, who are complicated, irreverent, brilliant, warm and funny. And there, in the middle of the woods in Ontario, insects buzzing about and sunshine peeking in through the canopy of tall skinny pine trees, there I’ll be.

You can almost smell the croissants warm from the oven, which is saying something, when a fictional redolence can overpower the actual smell of outhouse.

(We had an amazing, albeit bug-infested, camping trip this weekend. Lucky me, I had an ARC of Louise Penny’s new novel Glass Houses in hand. You can see more photos on my Instagram.)

January 17, 2017

Reconciling

The first definition of “reconcile” in the Merriam Webster is ” to restore to friendship or harmony <reconciled the factions>” but it’s the second definition that is more meaningful to me: “to make consistent or congruous <reconcile an ideal with reality>.”  This definition certainly resonating in general, because in the past two months my ideals and reality have certainly been at odds, and reconciling that has been a process. The world is more complicated than I ever knew, which makes “restoring to friendship and harmony” seem like a pipe-dream, except: restoring, how? Because when was there ever friendship and harmony? It all sounds a bit like the notion of making America great again—elusive and facile. The first definition is a misnomer. Reconciliation is a process, and in order to be properly it is a process that will never end. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about reconciliation lately, as I’ve been reading I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. A friend of mine has also recommended Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. I’m interested in and troubled by the way that people seem unable to constructively disagree with each other. (Another book along these lines that I’ve appreciated is Creative Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking With Creativity, by Patrick Finn.) I take some solace in the fact that people in disagreement, while inconvenient, is actually much healthier than the alternative, and that the potential for learning is infinite. A community in which everybody though the very same thing, and nobody challenged anyone or asked any questions, would be the very worst thing I could imagine. Worse even than the state we’re in now.

Remember my mantra for 2017, “Listen. Be Better.” I’m trying. It’s a challenge, and such an opportunity. Once upon a time, when I was young and things were simpler, I fervently underlined the following bit from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play I loved: “This is the best time possible to be alive. When everything you know is wrong.” Such a prospect is more terrifying than I ever thought it would be, now that we’re kind of here and, you know, with the collapse of the world order, but still, there is something extraordinary about it too. I’m thinking about reconciliations big and small, in terms of domestic politics and literary criticism, even. Literary criticism, especially, because I wonder if this is a constructive metaphor with which to understand the process that has to happen in order for anything to happen.

Literary criticism, the best kind, is a conversation. A back-and-forth, a broadening, the prying of a text wide open. The best kind of literary criticism isn’t just about the text itself, but it’s about everything, and it invites big questions and many different answers. It provokes debate and causes the reader to change her mind—about the text, about the world. It’s not about whether a text is necessarily good or bad, but about the things it makes us think about, the places it takes its readers beyond itself. Literary criticism is a process, a collaborative ongoing pursuit which requires generosity, openness, consideration and respect on the part of the players involved. If no one’s listening, nothing happens, but if everyone is willing, anything can.

I was thinking about all this as I read Debbie Reese’s review of the award-winning picture book, Missing Nimama, which I reviewed in 2015—and you can read my review here. I am a huge admirer of Debbie Reese’s scholarship and advocacy about representations of Indigenous people in children’s books—she’s taught me a lot and she challenges my understanding in uncomfortable and constructive ways. She’s not afraid to go up against really popular authors—see her review of Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts. I don’t always agree with her assessments of certain books, mostly because there are so many lenses through which readers approach a book, and hers is one, but I’ve never found her to be wrong.

While I still appreciate Missing Nimama and celebrate its success, Reese’s review shows me my own weaknesses in approaching it as a writer and a critic. Reese writes: “To me, however, Missing Nimama …. strike[s] me as something Canadians can wrap their arms around, to feel like they’re facing and acknowledging history, to feel like they’re reconciling with that history.” She continues, ” To many, this review…will feel harsh. Most people are likely to disagree with me. That’s par for the course, but I hope that other writers and editors and reviewers and readers and sponsors of writing contests will pause as they think about projects that involve ongoing violence upon Native women.”

And this is just the point. The pause, the reflection. Disagreeing is even okay, but it’s failing to consider that is inexcusable. The point is the conversation, the questions that are asked, which are far more important than the answers. And how we take these questions with us, this broadened perspective, with the books we read and the books we write. The point is to listen, and then be better.

UPDATE From Carleigh Baker’s review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break:“A generous storyteller, Ver­mette does not take it for granted that all readers will inherently understand how damaged the relationship between indigenous people and Canadian society has become. As readers, we can honour this generosity by not allowing ourselves to be lulled into a satisfying sense of camaraderie, having suffered alongside fictional characters. We can honour it by not repeating over and over how strong the women in this book are. It is true, they are strong. But let us not nod our heads in grim recognition of this strength, as if acknowledgement equals solidarity [emphasis mine]. Let us not pull our lips into thin lines and furrow our brows and express amazement at their resilience, as if its origin is a mystery. This makes it too easy to dismiss.”

November 10, 2016

How Women’s Fiction Can Save Us All

the-mothersOn Tuesday night I started reading The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg (which came to my attention in Belle Boggs’ essay in The New Yorker, “The Book That Taught Me What I Want to Teach My Daughter”). Not a comfort read, exactly, although there is some of that, but then the first essay is about her years in exile from the Fascists in Italy before her husband died in prison: “Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish of what preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us—to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow.”

There are some moments when it’s important to face things head on, and to learn from someone who has gathered wisdom from decades of experience.

Women’s fiction doesn’t usually get that much credit for helping its readers face things head-on: these books are escapes, they’re beach reads. Fluffy rather than edgy, entertainment instead of education. Women’s fiction that takes on “issues” is its own sub-genre, and there tends to be a formula as to how these stories are executed, with tidy resolutions. Faced with a tyrant being elected American President, we’re supposed to be turning to weighty French philosophers, right? Or Natalia Ginzburg (which I really do recommend). Certainly not Jodi Picoult.

commonwealthWhat is political? I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the novel I’m writing at the moment, about two women’s friendship over decades. About my forthcoming book too, Mitzi Bytes, which is about a woman who dares to have a voice and what the consequences are—but it’s also more complicated than that, because she’s not entirely innocent in her own downfall. My character is flawed, scared, arrogant and insensitive. A lot of the book is about her relationship with other women—her friends, her sister-in-law, her mother, the other other mothers at her children’s school. And what’s the point of a story like this, I wonder, at the moment of onset of a world like that?

The question of how women get along and the ways in which they don’t is fascinating to me. I suspect that every story I ever write will be about this. And I am also fascinated by how 53% of white American women voted against a strong, experienced feminist and instead for a noted misogynist. I am fascinated by the women who cheer for him exuberantly and claim that he could grope their pussies anytime. Who are these people? What planet do they live on? Could it possibly be the same one as me?

today-will-be-differentWomen’s fiction tells women’s stories. Women’s fiction also sells. And it occurs to me that this genre has the  best capacity of any to help us better understand each other. The authors who are writing nuanced stories about the dynamics of sisterhood are laying out a path of relations. Why are women’s friendships so intense? How come when we don’t like a woman we don’t like her so much. Why is it so challenging to see a woman making choices that are different from yours? Why is it all so personal? Why can mother/daughter relationships be so fraught?How come when we have so much in common (and when so much is at stake) we can be so vehemently opposed?

Part of it is because we’re human, of course. Human beings are complicated. This is awkward, but is in fact one of the best things about humans. While these differences are difficult to navigate, it would be terrifying if we were all the same. Who would push us to be better? How would we know what to rise above? Part of it too comes down to something I’m working out about gender and specificity—a guy in a suit is a guy in a suit, and any guy is going to see that and identify, but women have different hair colours, and different hair styles, and maybe she’s wearing a pantsuit and maybe she’s wearing a dress, and does she stay home and bake cookies or is she Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, and all these differences make it easier to find something to dislike about somebody. Unless, of course, you just happen to dislike guys in suits as a blanket rule (and lately I am thinking there is something to that).

dont-i-know-youIn women’s fiction, I think, we can get to the point of figuring it out. We need authors to consider these questions and write thoughtful and nuanced stories about them (and this is happening now). We need readers too to pick up these books and reading with questions in mind, to allow themselves to be challenged by some of the ideas contained therein. I need to get a better sense of that 53% of white women and what they were voting for or against. The women who supported Clinton but did not dare to admit it beyond the confines of a secret Facebook group need to grapple with these questions too, because they bear some responsibility as well for what happened—women who won’t dare to make Thanksgiving dinner uncomfortable. White liberal women who need to (for the sake of their children, their country) rise up and flip that fucking table, and let their fathers and brothers (and sisters and mothers) know just what has been stolen from them with this election.

And what better place to find stories of uncomfortable dinners and torrid family dynamics? Why, women’s fiction, of course. (And Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections too, which totally falls into the category.)

were-all-in-this-togetherWe need to be reading more authors of colour too to find out what’s happening at the dinner tables of families who might not necessarily look like yours. I’ve been so grateful to those who chose to market books by Brit Bennett and Angela Flournoy as mainstream fiction this past while so that their books came onto my radar. I am going to continue to actively seek out diverse voices in commercial fiction and use whatever platform I have to amplify them, and hope that other white commercial writers will do the same, for its a genre that’s as disturbingly white as any other.

We need to support, and promote too, commercial writers who dare to be overtly political in their work, to read them as thoughtfully and generously as Roxane Gay reviewed Jodi Picoult in The New York Times. Let’s celebrate the commercial writers who are daring to take risks, as Marissa Stapley suggests in our conversation on commercial fiction. Writers need to keep striking that perfect balance between books that people are actually going to want to read, and books that give us something to think about. Books that build bridges, or at least look-out points.

The work commercial women writers are doing has always been important, but perhaps it’s never been more important than right now.

June 28, 2016

Book Publishing: The Long View

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Yesterday I responded to a tweet by Joni Murphy (remember Joni Murphy? She wrote the wonderful novel Double Teenage that I devoured last month) about the ridiculously small window of books coverage in the mainstream media. She’s absolutely right—once the “new release” glow fades, so does a lot of interest…but I suggested that this doesn’t matter. I mean, yes, it would be altogether excellent to find oneself on a  bestseller list the week one’s book was published, and for the momentum to be undeniable and inexhaustible, and to have your book be everywhere. Yes, authors do need to work and hustle to get the word out for sure. But here it is: you can only do the best that you can do. And even that is not really guaranteed to get results. And so what an author really needs to do is be satisfied with immediate coverage, but also keep the long view, and have faith in the book and its readers.

For sure, this kind of faith is not the stuff of bestsellerdom, but ultimately it is what really matters. It’s the difference between your book living on someone’s bookshelf for years and years, and being put out on the curb. It means your book not being available en-masse at secondhand bookstores six weeks after the pub date (and hello copies of The Nest and The Girl on the Train. I see you!) It means real people connecting with your work rather than just hearing about it, knowing the cover. The thing about books, good books, see, is that they have long lives, even if it’s hard to measure just how. Although the most excellent thing about the internet is that we do have some kind of a record now, a way of registering reader responses long past the on-sale date. (“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,” writes Virginia Woolf in her 1925 essay “How Should One Read a Book,” anticipating the literary blogosphere[s]). It would be really wonderful to write a book that set the world on fire, but it’s just as stunning for me as a writer to discover, say, that my book is still being picked up and appreciated over two years after it first was published.

the-m-wordMy point proven by two things that happened after my exchange with Murphy: last night I discovered a blog post from last month by the fantastic Red Tent Sisters (who I met when they were at our book launch way back when…) called “Why Is Mothering so Difficult?” It’s a terrific post, but I was even more thrilled by their suggestion that reading a book like The M Word might make mothering a little bit less difficult. They’ve also included The M Word on their Top Fifty Beautiful Books for Soul Sisters, which you  can receive if you sign up for their newsletter (and here’s a tip—if you put somebody’s book on a list they receive if they sign up for your newsletter, that somebody will ALWAYS sign up for your newsletter). So I was feeling pretty good about that, and then this morning I was tagged on Instagram by a woman called Leah Noble with a gorgeous photo of The M Word alongside a just-as-delicious-seeming breakfast. Two signs from the universe that the book goes on, after a while of radio silence. Yes, both readers are connected with writers in the book, so I’m not suggesting that the whole thing is made from fairy dust, but there is an element of serendipity about it. You really do have to trust that the book will find its way—and the good books really will. Even if sometimes the ways are small and quiet.

And here’s another thing that I discovered last night, the other side of the publishing coin, eight months before the release date. My novel Mitzi Bytes is now available for pre-order, and unless I have a rabid superfan I am unaware of, my sister purchased the very first copy last night. But this doesn’t mean that it’s too late for you: you can pre-order the book at Chapters Indigo, or from Amazon, or head over to your local proper bookshop to do so.

(But my point is that even if you don’t, it doesn’t fundamentally matter. Life is long and good books are even longer.)

May 17, 2016

New Maria Semple!!!

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I really am this excited about the news of a new book by Maria Semple coming this fall. You can learn more about it and also read an excerpt here. (Yay!!!) Today Will Be Different is out in October.

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Mitzi Bytes

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