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Pickle Me This

January 22, 2018

The Opposite of Democracy

“…the ideal of the internet represents the very opposite of democracy, which is a method for resolving difference in a relatively orderly manner through the mediation of unavoidable civil associations. Yet there can be no notion of resolving differences in a world where each person is entitled to get exactly what he or she wants. Here all needs and desires are equally valid and equally powerful. I’ll get mine and you’ll get yours; there is no need for compromise and discussion. I don’t have to tolerate you and you don’t have to tolerate me. No need to care for my neighbour next door when I can stay with my chosen neighbours in the ether, my email friends and the visitors to the sites I visit, people who think as I do, who want what I want. No need for messy debate and the whole rigamarole of government with all its creaky bothersome structures. There’s no need for any of this, because now that we have the World Wide Web the problem of our pursuit of happiness has been solved! We’ll each click for our individual joys, and our only dispute may come if something doesn’t get delivered on time. Would you rather be at home?”

—Ellen Ullman, “The Museum of Me,” which WAS WRITTEN IN 1998 (!!), from her amazing essay collection Life in Code.

September 16, 2010

9 Tips for the Book Blogger in your life

I’m going to feign me some authority now, because this October marks ten years since I started blogging, and also because CBC Books so kindly just included me in their list of “Book Blogs We Appreciate”. This on the occasion of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, because apparently it’s been 52 weeks since the last one, and I thought that since I appreciate book bloggers too, I might impart a little bit of what I’ve learned in my career as a world-famous, would-be pickler. Feel free to chime in and let me know any I got wrong, or any you think I missed.

1) Book bloggers are not unpaid substitutes for publicity people or literary critics (and see here for an interesting piece on book blogging as unpaid labour). We are readers, and this is the best thing about us (and see here for a talk I once gave on this very subject, and Virginia Woolf’s quote about the responsibilities of the common reader: “The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work”).

You do have a responsibility– take it seriously. But also, don’t take yourself too seriously.

2) In line with the first point, our obligation to the publishers that send us free books is to be the best and most honest readers we can be. This can be difficult– initially, I found making contacts with publishing people a bit overwhelming, and this was all happening as I was still finding my feet as a reader. I think some of my early reviews were too generous, though perhaps hindsight will always have that effect. But it took me a while to get confidence in my own opinions, to understand that while publicists are just as concerned as I am with fostering a strong literary culture, they’ve also got a product to sell. Our priorities are not always exactly the same, but that is okay. You’ve just got to know what your own are.

3) We have to buy books. Lots of books. Free books aside, if we don’t buy books, who will? Buy new books, and used books. Shop at Chapters if it’s the only show in your town, but if it isn’t, shop somewhere else. Buy books from small presses, buy poetry. Buy translations. I once read a quote by Annie Dillard regarding karma, and the obligation to buy new hardcovers if you ever hope to make money from the writing life yourself, and I think she’s right. If fostering a strong literary culture is what you’re after, buy lots of books (at full price!). If you are broke, then buy just one.

4) Accept free books with discrimination. It is expensive for publishers to ship books to us, so we’re doing not them a favour by receiving a book we have no intention of reading. Also, accept free books with discrimination because your time is valuable, and why read something that you’re not interested in? And because one person’s house can only hold so many books, and eventually, your postman will hate you.

5) Original content!! Don’t copy text from the publisher’s website– write about the book in your own words. Don’t merely recap literary gossip– what is your own particular take? And if you don’t have a take, the world won’t end because it’s lacking your two cents. You don’t have to write about what everybody else is writing about. What interests you? Write well, and write long (but not too long). And aim to be a better writer all the time.

6) Read an author or a book first before you agree to take part in promotions. Don’t be afraid to say no if the author or book is not your thing, or is not in keeping with your blog’s focus. We should aspire to mean everything we write on our blogs.

7) We should all blog like nobody is looking, if only because very often, nobody will be. We should write only to satisfy ourselves, so that the writing is inherently worth the trouble, and also because that kind of writing has a passion that shows.

8) Avoid taking the link bait! Very often, desperate newspapers will write terrible articles that insult us and ours in an effort to enrage us. They don’t actually mean what they’re saying– they just want hits from the links you post, but don’t lower yourself. Only link to awesome.

9) And along those lines, make your blog a portal rather than a virtual brick wall.

June 22, 2010

Important Artifacts 2

I’ve been thinking more about “thingness” as narrative since reading Carin’s comment on my last post (and it was her review that brought me to read Important Artifacts and Personal Property… by the way). She remarked that the hipster aspect of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris’ life together was probably to emphasize its emptiness, that it all looked very slick but was without substance. That a couple can’t build a life together on vintage bathing suits alone. And so Shapton’s text was to be a counter-narrative to the thingness then, making clear what was going on beneath surface? I’m not totally convinced, but it’s an interesting idea to consider.

What I am convinced of, however, and what the book makes clear, is that these glimpses we’re given into other people’s lives (whether by auction catalogues, lit windows or Facebook data) is often so deceiving. Partly because what we glimpse is so contrived, (which is Shapton’s entire point), particularly since social media is such a performance. Because I’m all too aware of the view of my window from the sidewalk, because I’ve actually spent my whole life cultivating such a view, but you’re never really going to know what happens when I pull the blinds down, are you?

Motherhood is the best example of this, particularly its presentation via social media. I was devastated last year when my daughter was born, and I found my feelings in the days afterwards so far from the obligatory “Kerry is totally and utterly blissed out and in love with her gorgeous new daughter” status update. Everybody writes statuses like that, and I absolutely couldn’t, and at that point I didn’t know how many moms were just more capable of lying than I was (or of being “blissed out in love” in addition to having a pretty terrible time, but the terrible time itself they never cared to mention). All all of us have a “just given birth, baby on the chest” photo somewhere in our Facebook stash, but it so doesn’t begin to tell my story. We let it stand in for the story, because it’s more comfortable that way, but that doesn’t even begin to stand in for the real thing.

Of course, it’s not supposed to. Online anywhere is not the best place for private life anyway, and there is something to be said for keeping some things to yourself. But I must say that I was fooled by the Facebook motherhood narrative. The blissed out love, the dreamy photos, the quiet baby asleep in a bouncy chair– it did not convey the effort it took to get that baby to sleep. The effort it took to get that mom out of her pyjamas. I felt so incredibly inadequate for not being able to put myself back together as easily as my FB friends had, for being thoroughly miserable when I should have been blissed out in love. I had been expecting blissed out love because I’d perused so many of the pictures. And how could a picture lie?

But they do. They don’t just withhold– they totally lie.

There is no longer such thing as a candid shot, if there even ever was.

May 18, 2010

Deeper Withinness, and other thoughts on You Are Not a Gadget

Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget is incredibly provocative, and reviewers seem to be ripping it to pieces for sport. Not because it’s a bad book necessarily, or that Lanier’s ideas are particularly faulty, but because Lanier is critiqueing something the rest of us take for granted. And even if Lanier’s book was bad or his ideas were faulty, his book would still be worthwhile. It doesn’t necessarily have to be read as a polemic, as an assault on a whole way of life. Lanier could be 100% wrong the entire way through (and I’m certainly not one to determine whether he is or not) but I dare you to read this book and not learn something new. To not come away with questions you’d never considered before.

What I learned/considered: Lanier’s ties to the internet go back thirty years, and he takes great pains to point out that the internet could have developed any number of ways. That it developed the way it did because of decisions that people made for various reasons, some of them misguided, naive or ill-intentioned. That we overestimate the capabilities of computers and compromise ourselves in order to get along with them as closely as we do. That social media has much the same effect– in order to interact with Facebook, we reduce ourselves to catagories, keywords, standardized versions of ourselves. Twitter demands we communicate in short bursts of nothing. This is self-effacing, we’re playing into the hands of marketers. Content has become devalued by its treatment in the online world. Jonathan Coulton is an anomaly. Having finance in the hands of computer scientists as opposed to those who understand economics is a recipe for disaster. Remix culture sucks. With all the amazing advances in computer capability and open culture, all we have to show for it is LINUX and Wikipedia, both of which are just versions of things that came before.

Hive culture has come at a cost– we’ve killed journalism and music. Great art is not being made, rather we’re rehashing old art and doing it badly. We’re babbling about television recaps, writing blog entries without thought and posting idiotic movies on youtube. Lanier doesn’t reference literature. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate omission– could it be that books will fare better in this culture than other media? And I’m not talking about plagiarism– in most instances, I think there is a pretty clear distinction between plagiarism and “mixing” (and Opal Mehta is the former, FYI). But in the poetry I’ve read lately, by Michael Lista, PK Page and Julie Holbrook, I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things made out of recycle material. Perhaps poetry in particular lends itself to this? I’m not sure that a remixed novel wouldn’t totally suck. Or is the poetic trend towards this sort of thing a kind of omen? Is this what Lanier is talking about. The future as a place where originality goes to die?

And then there are literary blogs, or book blogs. Lanier doesn’t mention these either (perhaps he doesn’t read a lot of fiction? Though his interests are far-reaching. He is obsessed with cephalopods and ouds). I know I spend a lot of my time here rehashing other people’s ideas, or simply pasting them down as is. Is this pursuit any more worthwhile than episode recaps of So You Think You Can Dance?

The other day, Charlotte Ashley asked “Are bloggers/twitterers just unpaid publicity staff? What do we “get” out of this relationship?” So now what I’m thinking about has nothing to do with Jaron Lanier anymore, but it sort of does. I think this is the kind of question he’d want me to be thinking about. Why do I write a book blog? First, because it’s made me smarter. I am a much better reader than I was five years ago, and I have learned so much from the readers who’ve joined me in this conversation. Second, because although I am pushing goods here (books), those goods are culture, and there’s something a bit more noble about that than me pushing, say, lipstick (as long as I’m discerning, because, frankly, some books are lipstick). Because when I find a book that’s good, I can help nudge it farther out into the world. I get to be useful, and that’s a fine thing. And because even if nobody ever read this blog, it allows me to engage with the books I read (which is all too important when one reads too quickly like I do). Writing book reviews helps to figure out what I really read, and I really think about it. It makes reading a book a much deeper experience. Because books are worth talking about. Blogging about books, like talking about books, takes us deeper within them.

Deeper withinness being the whole point of virtual reality (which Jaron Lanier invented) so maybe he’d be on board afterall.

March 23, 2010

Jumping in and out of portals

This afternoon I was reading The New Quarterly (and one thing I fear, by the way, is that I will never find the words to articulate just how much I love this magazaine), and I was enjoying Eric Ormsby’s article “Fine Incisions: The Art of Reviewing” when the following jumped out at me: “Mere opinion isn’t the same as reasoned judgment; opinions, the fodder of blogs and websites, are fine and dandy, and everyone’s entitled to them.”

And it took me way back to last week when a Canadian newspaper columnist wrote a ridiculous piece about how all bloggers are men, the reason being that “spitting out opinions on current events every twenty minutes” is just “a guy thing.” Oh, the furor that ensued! For me, however, the column’s most egregious misstep was its painting of all blogs as mere opinion-spit receptacles.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the columnist was writing about political blogs, which I don’t read, but I think most of them are written by men– am I wrong? (And of course, women do engage with politics in their blogging, but in the the blogs that I read [which are written by both men and women] this engagement occurs more pragmatically than that of bloggers for whom politicking is a passion and an end in itself.) Perhaps with political blogs, opinion spitting is indeed in order, but this is so far from the case for the blogs that I love best.

Everybody might be entitled to an opinion (though where is this written exactly??), but it doesn’t mean I have to hear it. There are many writers whose opinions I do respect, but, honestly, most of these tend to be published by major news outlets (whose reader comments I make a habit of ignoring). The blogs I love best aren’t those that call out, “Here’s what I think…”, but rather those that tell me, “Hey, take a look at this…”

I like a blogger who will tell me about a book she’s just read, or bring my attention to an article from somewhere else that they have a reason to respond to. I like blogs that profile interesting people, or track the minutiae of beautiful lives, or tell stories beautifully. Where intelligent people are enlisted to write to us. I like blogs that direct me to cool stuff. I like blogs where conversations take place and ideas are shared. I like blogs where writers meditate, even change their minds, which means they think about things. I like blogs where brilliant people send out dispatches. In short, I like blogs that take me somewhere new (particularly if it’s into other people’s houses).

Of course, these writers do have opinions, and most of these blogs are best when they incorporate elements of the personal, but when the personal is used as a springboard out into the wider world, it’s what I like best . This is the case as well with blogs about mothering, and books about mothering, and books about anything actually. And there is nothing exclusively female about this kind of blogging, either. Boyish blogs actually seem to have this market cornered, and I’m thinking of the blogs my husband reads, like Boing Boing, which (literally) takes us (to online) places in wonderful link-filled frenzies.

Anyway, back to to the columnist and Eric Ormsby: I don’t know if these poor people don’t know blogs, or perhaps they’re visiting the wrong ones? Regardless, I think it’s a shame that while the rest of us are all here jumping in and out of portals, they seem to be smashing their heads into virtual brick walls.

March 4, 2010

Why I love the Toronto Public Library/ How the internet gets books read

I am an avid buyer, mostly because I can’t quit, but also because any person who loves books really should be. If I bought every book I wanted, however, I’d have to move to a warehouse and I’d be totally broke, so I am pleased to have the best public library system in the world at my disposal so I can eat its book-buying dust. In a good way.

Waiting for me at the library today was The Sixties by Jenny Diski (of the LRB blog, and many elsewheres), When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (which I read about on the The Guardian Books Blog), and Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Matsuki Mockett (because Maud Newton said so).

July 16, 2008

With a brown cover

A google search that sounds like a long shot: i had a short story book when i was little im 23- with a brown cover- any ideas. They probably didn’t find it here.

December 12, 2007

Education, Enlightenment and Delight

Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was so urgent. Indeed I’m not sure how one could learn to be anything without a houseful of books (as insulation and inspiration), however metaphoric or otherwise.

She writes: “We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.”

She raises the question, “How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?”

And it’s an interesting question. Lessing is right, though even if I didn’t think so, she knows better than I do. There is something to be said for listening to one’s elders. The world is where it’s at, and books are its closest cousin, but though I do suspect that a whole day passed on the internet would not be one most productive, so often does the internet manage to serve as a portal not only to literature, but also to the rest of the whole wide world.

Of course my perspective is probably skewed– I tend to stick to bookish blogs and websites anyway. But all the same, just look what I’ve found there lately: Lessing’s speech for starters, which was published in a newspaper halfway around the world; fascinatingly on “little people” in British literature; thoughts on readers within literature; on friendship and what poetry can do; a video of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking on African writing; some book recommendations.

This year internet sources have pointed me towards books as follows: here for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; here for anything by Kate Christensen; here for Lucky Jim; here for Penelope Fitzgerald (and how fitting! She’s blogged about her today) and Persephone books; I found Laurie Colwin here; and I could go on, but now, in fact, I am beginning to waste time. (See Ms. Lessing, I am listening).

Just as I believe there is no great disconnect between literature and the world, neither does the internet exist in a vacuum; these are worlds which can feed one another. Of course it’s possible to to waste time on the internet, as it’s possible to waste time anywhere, but if you’re discriminating and discerning enough, you can harness the medium. Look around and see that the internet can take you exactly where you want to go– not just towards amusement, but onwards to sources of education, enlightenment, and delight.

Mitzi Bytes

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