Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tooth Fairy

Kasia, my six-year-old, turns to me and asks very seriously, "Dad, what happens when the Tooth Fairy loses a tooth?"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Man Who Planted Trees

Tuesday I took Kasia to see the stage version of The Man Who Planted Trees at the Calgary Children's Festival. I did this with a certain amount of trepidation as the story is inherently slow and abstract and Kasia is very...well, six.

I was familiar, as I am sure you are, with the NFB film version of the story. It has long been a favorite of mine; knowing this, Candas Dorsey once gave me a copy for a Christmas gift, back before there was a YouTube. It's a great film, but not one I would normally think to show Kasia. Kasia normally watches, Max and Ruby, Prank Patrol, and -- when we don't catch it fast enough to stop her, I, Carley.

The stage version on the other hand...was brilliant, hilarious, and kept Kasia enthralled. (Me too!)

The story is the same, and told with respect -- almost reverence -- and carried Kasia and I along through the desolate countryside of the opening, the sadness of the War years, the indignation over bureaucrats and politicians, and finally wonderment at the scope and fulfilment of the Utopian dream. The two actors used a minimalist set, and puppets for the character of the Man Who Planted Trees and for the bureaucrat/politician, to tell their story. Wonderful stuff.


That's only half the story. Interwoven in between all this is the character of the dog. Who can best be likened to the dog from the movie Up, though that doesn't really do justice to the originality and spontaneity of the character created here.

The play starts by introducing the dog to the audience, both establishing his comedic character and hooking the young audience long before the actual story begins. The narrator then invites our dog to play the part of the dog in the story, only our dog doesn't really have time to learn his lines, so improvises as he goes along. It is absolutely hilarious, with the dog's appearances perfectly timed to pace the main story and to ensure the young audience remains focused. And there really is quite a bit of improvisation involved as the actor doing the dog ab libbed constantly to respond to the audience or happenings on stage. The dog kept the story from dragging; the story provided structure and purpose to the dog's stand up performance.

It was masterful!

I highly recommend Richard Medrington & Rick Conte of the "Puppet State Theatre, Scotland" any time, anywhere you can see them. (They are currently on tour in North America, so they may indeed be coming to a town near you.)

Galt Museum

I have been consistently impressed with the exhibits mounted locally by the Galt Museum, but I was particularly struck by the recent Treasures and Curiosities Exhibit (Feb 20-May 2010). I feel strongly that this exhibit was not only engaging and innovative, but a role model for other regional museums to follow (which is why it's worth mentioning here, since most of my readers cannot travel to Lethbridge, or back in time, to see it).

The Treasures and Curiosities Exhibit had staff, board, volunteer and community members select their favorite artifacts from the Galt’s collection. This resulted in a very eclectic and slightly eccentric collection of artifacts, but presented two connecting threads: first, everything was from the Galt collection so by definition had a Southern Alberta connection; second, every item had a personal connection to, or resonance for, the community member who had selected it for the display. The write up on each item devoted as much space to the story of why the community member made the selection as on the item itself. This made for an inherently fascinating exhibit because even if the particular object held little interest for the viewer (i.e., me), the story of why someone else felt connected to the object was often as engaging, or more so, than the object itself.

The resulting display presented, therefore, several unique aspects:

First, just as Wikipedia includes entries on many topics the Britannica editors would never have deemed worthy of inclusion, the use of ordinary community members (as well as staff and board members) in choosing items for display created a wonderfully democratic process. Although the display was delimited by the fact that everything necessarily came from the Galt collection, and so all the artifacts were appropriate and of museum quality, the selection criteria still pretty broad! I find it highly unlikely that any expert curator would have put together this particular selection of items, and it is that very aspect of random juxtaposition that made the display so stimulating and such a creative success. Where else would you find a WWII model tank (made by a German POW interned near Lethbridge) next to a multilith, a grand piano, and six really creepy nurse dolls?

Similarly, given the broad sample of individuals included in the selection process, the criteria of personal resonance produced an extremely representative sample of time periods, topics, and Southern Alberta lifestyles. The greatest unifying theme was the sense of browsing through the Galt collections oneself and stumbling upon item after item with their own personal resonance for the viewer.

Second, I had a very strong emotional connection to several of the items. I would not normally have expected a multilith machine to be included in a museum display, and was strongly reminded of my mother, who ran that exact model of multilith for many years when the technology was still new. A far higher percentage of items in this exhibit had that effect on me than any other exhibit I can remember.

Third, I had a very strong impulse to donate to the Galt collection. Seeing, for example, the Gestetner 120 included in the display, I was reminded that I have a working condition Gestetner from two generations earlier in my basement – one of only a few dozen of that particular model left in the world. (Gestetner recalled and destroyed all the others when they realized the ‘perpetual guarantee’ they had been sold with was costing them too much money.) Indeed, there were any number of artifacts which gave me pause to think that I too had something similar, something better, or something missing from the display that could be offered to the Galt.

Beyond the association with particular artifacts, I think I and others become much better educated about the sorts of items museums actually collect when we see an exhibit such as this one. Most of us make the mistake of preserving the unusual – the commemorative coin, the souvenir, etc. – rather than the every day, common place items that are in fact the representative artifacts that museums require. Seeing this eclectic collection of everyday items, and feeling the strong emotional response such familiar objects trigger, educates potential donors about what they could be passing onto the Galt. This is especially timely given current demographics and that many of my generation are dealing with elder care and the disposition of estates. The range of items included in this exhibit – from a widower’s hooked rug of the ‘big bang’ (a nice example of both eccentricity and the concretization of abstract theory held in a particular age) to a ‘compact radio’ the size of trunk to first nation artifacts – was unusually helpful in demonstrating the scope of museum collections.

Further, as a celebration of the breadth and depth of the Galt Collection, one cannot help but feel a certain level of pride in and appreciation of -- and therefore the desire to contribute to -- that collection.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the display served to highlight the purpose of collections and museums such as the Galt. A local exhibit of local history that teaches us all that this stuff matters. That there is indeed a personal connection to local history for all of us at some level, even if we originally came from and have roots somewhere else. This is what museums are about.

The extremely simple (I mean conceptually – I’m sure it was an immense effort to organize) design of this exhibit is exemplary – there is no museum that could not adopt this particular democratic and populist approach to mounting a display from their own collections. That I have never seen or heard of anything similar elsewhere suggests to me that the collections team at the Galt has hit on an extremely useful, applicable, and transferable innovation which others would be well advised to adopt.

So, go forth to your local museum and suggest that they attempt a similar exhibit -- and be sure to volunteer as one of those to pour through their hidden collection rooms to make your own selection for the display.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Future of Independent Book Stores

My vision of the independent bookstore of the future is one with an Espresso Machine, a coffee bar, a flat screen monitor flashing random 30 second shots of coverart/coverblurbs from the available Espresso catalog, and a set of bookshelves filled with 'staff picks' off the Espresso machine. Maybe a couple of computer stations fixed to a site like GoodReads. The customer comes in, orders a latte, and as they wait, talking to their friends, they can watch the screen flashing unexpected covers or browse the shelves to find books that will NEVER show up in Chapters/Borders/Barnes&Noble. Since every book on the shelf is by definition something the store/staff thought worth the $15-30 Espresso printing cost to display, you only see books the people behind the coffee bar know and are prepared to discuss with you.

If a title or cover intrigues you and you buy the book, the Espresso Book Machine automatically prints off another to replace it as they scan the barcode in at the till, and the space is filled ten minutes later. The store never has to stock more than a single copy of any book, but unlike on-line shopping, you can actually pick up the book and leaf through it to make a more informed decision. (And the display of actual books encourages browsing among the latte drinkers in a way that an online page may not.)

And when customers come in and ask for a book that isn't on the shelves, it's ready for them at the same time as their latte -- and the staff ask the customer about the book, and sometimes, if it sounds like it might be interesting, they'll decide to print off a second copy to put on the "customer recommendations' shelf.

Really hot titles might justify a second copy behind the first on the shelf in case the latte bar gets busy; and the presence of a second copy becomes an obvious physical sign that this book is a best seller (at least locally). Titles that start to move more slowly are replaced with a photocopy of the cover -- want to look at it, we'll print off a copy for you with no obligation, because we're pretty sure the book is popular enough that we can sell it eventually. But if nobody ever asks for it, the photocopy is retired at essentially no cost to the store.

Once every six months they have a half-price sale to get rid of the books that never sold even that first display copy; or a dutch auction where the price is reduced a little bit further each day until it finally sells. I could see that working pretty well to clear out unwanted books. At some point, following the big half price sale, would be 'Refresh the Shelves Day" or whatever it would be called, a sort of Grand Re-Opening, as essentially all new titles are rolled out --- at the very least, 'refresh the shelves day' would probably move a lot of extra lattes, as people come in to see what's new!

No more going from bookstore to bookstore to find a copy of a book you need tonight for tomorrow's class or book club meeting or just because you really need book three in the series NOW-- it's always in the store you entered because every book is. No waiting for three days for shipping from Online venues.

And writer events -- readings, signings, panels, would go without saying. Listen to the reading, then decide if you'd like the book -- if you did, they can print off a copy for the author to sign before you've made it to the head of the line up at the signing table.

It's not just that this approach has the advantages of Print On Demand (no shipping or warehousing costs, very little wastage/remaindering; books remain in print much longer; and can service smaller niche markets than legacy publishers) but that it promotes community and communication. Since the books displayed reflect staff and customer tastes, one could anticipate each locale developing its own bestsellers, its own underground hits and guilty reads; the customer base would slowly evolve until the coffee shop bookstore becomes the hang out for particular genres or authors, etc. You'd know when you walked in that -- unlike Starbucks next door -- everyone who came here not only could read, but chose to buy their coffee there because they wanted to talk books, at least some of the time. It would be one place where "read any good books lately" wouldn't just be a pick up line.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Story of My Life

Author Casey Wolf recently asked the question, what would be the title of your autobiography. (She suggested hers would be "Sometimes a Vague Notion", which I rather liked.)

So I asked my wife what she would title my biography, and she suggested:

"Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down"

which is, admittedly, my family motto, although it sounds a lot better in the Latin.

But I'm thinking the subtitle here would have to be "The Story of a Sedentary Life" and that is the sort of title that might not make the best-seller list.

Her alternative for me was likewise unhelpful:

"Drifting: So Far, So Good"

Although that does accurately describe my general approach to life, it might mislead readers into thinking I was a hobo, which would likely be more adventuresome than my actual biography.

So upon reflection, I have to go with:

"Still Thinking About it"

but again, for commercial reasons, I thought I should drop the subtitle:
"A Life of Procrastination"

But then Quebec author Jean-Louis Trudel argued:

I don't know... IIRC, Proust was one of the first to use the word "procrastination" in French, and _Remembrance of Things Past_ is a masterpiece of procrastination, showing how a writer can procrastinate in the course of writing about a writer who
procrastinates until he finds out he's going to write about procrastination.

It worked fairly well for Proust, though he died before he could finish it all, proving that he was a true procrastinator and turning his masterpiece into a work of performance art. Or perhaps a Totalkunstwerk.

I am, however, no Proust. So I spent quite a long time debating and wondering what the perfect title would be, right up until I went to post this on my blog. Then of course it came to me: I had to call my autobiography, "I'm Not Boring You, Am I?" Pretty much sums up all aspects of my life as an academic, an essayist, and especially as a parent....

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What Type Are You?

Casey Wolf drew my attention to the website that asks the question, "What type are you?". It is an amusing bit of pop-psychology and well worth 10 minutes of your time. I was particularly pleased that this is a free-standing webpage, not one of those annoying Facebook apps that tells you what character in Avatar you are, or whatever, and then raids your Facebook info to sell to marketers, because you had to allow the app access to everything in order to play. This site, by contrast, seems to have a deeper and more noble purpose.

There's a bit of a punchline involved, so to get the full benefit, you might want to go do it before reading the rest of this post, which includes spoilers.

* * *

I have to say, I thought the sight a brilliant bit of understated comedy — and the commentary on typefaces very informative. The site is obviously intended to be sent to people who think the test is about a different meaning of "type", so the purpose of punchline appears to be to get people to think seriously (albeit in a satirical context) about fonts and their meanings. Whoever developed this page is trying to provoke the audience into asking the question: 'What do different typefaces express?' The typology developed is simplistic, but I nevertheless applaud the serious undercurrent here. Somebody was trying to get a general audience to think about the meaning of fonts when most people are barely conscious that there is a choice to be made.

So, in case you're wondering, I come up Bifur. I am very pleased.

But to expand on the comment I made in passing about book design in yesterday's post, one problem with self-publishing is that authors seldom think of issues such as font choice. Even excellent authors, who take the precaution of having their work edited for their work, and know to get a good cover artist, are still likely to miss details like designing professional looking text. Consequently potential buyers can sense these works are self-published or 'amateur' even though the reader often cannot put their finger on what it is that is giving off that impression.

I concede that I would never have given typeface selection a second thought if I had not happened to be friends with two fellow SF fans in college who grew up to be two of the top Canadian type designers and text experts — one, Thomas Phinney, was until recently a font manager at Adobe; the other, David Vereschagin, is now a professional book designer in Toronto — so I had it kind of beaten into me that this stuff matters. Thanks to them, I tried to pay attention to issues of font selection and layout in my zines, and when I grew up to be a prof, in my course materials. The latter in particular had a significant impact on students and colleagues, who have repeatedly told me that my course outlines, course manuals, powerpoints, and so on "just look more professional" than anybody else's, even though I have -- knowing my limitations -- stuck with the very simplest of designs. But apparently, basic is better than no design at all.

This effect has worn off somewhat in recent years as undergraduates these days are much more visually sophisticated than a generation ago. Having grown up as part of the digital generation, they have always been immersed in a world of fonts (in contrast to my growing up with typewriters -- what a revolution it was when I got an IBM Selectric which allowed one to switch fonts by switching 'golfballs'!) My colleagues constantly complain how less literate today's students are, but they seldom recognize how much more sophisticated they are visually. When Macs first appeared at school, every term paper would come in with a minimum of 27 different fonts on the title page, but today's students never make that particular faux pas. Similarly, most undergrads come in having at least a rudimentary understanding of how to handle text in power point or on a Smartboard. Less so, my aging colleagues.

But the problem remains that universities are very slow to adapt and update their curricula, so although my students get a pretty decent training in a variety of the skills they will require on the job, we still have nothing on design, layout, fonts, and so on -- but these have become vital to anyone (which means everyone!) interested in contributing to the on-going conversation that is the Internet, POD publishing, or etc. We used design daily, but so many of us are limited to the templates provided by others that it limits our ability to participate fully. Most high school grads have the reading and writing skills to present themselves in a reasonably good light, but almost no training in design. It's a bit as if a business executive made a fabulous presentation to the Board or a group of buyers, then ate the salmon entree with his hands at the luncheon. You know? Understanding fonts has become part of social capital -- if you have it, one simply exudes professionalism and is automatically taken more seriously; if you don't, it becomes something others have to get past....

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reading, writing, and publishing as conversation

My previous post got me thinking about the place of books in the 21st century and it suddenly struck me that the central paradox of our age is that reading is in decline at the precise moment that writing (publishing) is undergoing explosive growth.

It's true that people read less these days...I certainly see that in my undergraduate students compared to when I started teaching here 20 years ago...but the other, largely overlooked, half of that picture is that of those readers who remain, a great many more are also writers. Phrased negatively, it is easy to complain that the only people left reading are the writers; the idea that we are just writing to ourselves seems to be spreading among many of my colleagues. But I think that has it backwards. True, more people are watching TV and playing on the Internet or gaming or whatever than buying books, and even those who still read regularly may be reading less thanks to these other distractions. But more of my undergraduates are also serious about writing. Facebook set that back briefly as the writers' urge for audience found it's outlet in social media, but more and more of my students are dropping out of Facebook and its ilk and starting work on their novels or epic poetry.

Admittedly, that's a good news bad news story: more people fully engaged in literacy -- as both consumer and producer -- is good; more very badly written books being produced is probably less good. The emergence of practical POD self-publishing has made publishing much more democratic and diverse, which is very, very good; open access may also mean no refereeing and often no editing at all, which is often very, very bad.

But I remain optimistic that that will quickly sort itself out. As I've predicted here before, as the number of new, and especially self-published titles proliferates, the role of reviewers and small press editors correspondingly gains in importance in helping readers sort out the pearls from the dross. As readers come to know and trust particular reviewers, editors, and imprints, they will give preference to books (whether paper or digital) that come with their quality guarantee. Indeed, we are already seeing Amazon and YouTube and Goodreads and the like setting up channels/communities to which consumers can subscribe to more efficiently follow such recommendations.

It is all very reminiscent of the pre-megacorporate days of publishing when imprints reflected the tastes and literary values of their editors. When you bought a story edited by John W. Campbell, you knew exactly what you would be getting, even if you had never heard of the author before. Same with, say, the Ace Specials edited by Wollheim and Terry Carr. You didn't have to worry that the author was unknown to you or the cover blurb sounded dubious, it was an Ace Special and so a very safe bet. The editor or the imprint was the guarantor of the product.

This reliance on editors has been lost as the large-scale corporate publishers have allowed marketing departments to dictate editorial policy. As editors have been pushed aside in favour of fixed marketing categories, the neverendingseries, and author name recognition -- all in search of predictable sales in an inherently unpredictable market -- 'safe' titles have overwhelmingly replaced 'good' ones. Legacy publishers often find it difficult to publish cutting edge titles because they cannot afford to stand on the edge, and marketing departments don't know how to market something they can't fit into their pre-existing categories. The result is a retreat into republishing essentially the same book over and over with only slight variations. The trend towards narrowly focusing on a known product in hopes of reliable sales results in a sameness that the industry itself refers to as 'processed cheese'.

[Its as if GM and Chrysler were still producing the same cars today as sold in 1960, as if there had been no advances in automotives in 40 years! Oh wait. They did that and had to be bailed out by governments when consumers refused to buy their products. The publishing industry would do well to take note of this precedent; except, there's no bailout coming for publishers and booksellers....]

So here's a thought: perhaps one reason readership is declining is because the publishers themselves have become so fixated on 'the winning formula' that they have reduced their offerings to overly predictable formulaic crap: after you've read five Honor Harrington novels, you start to feel like you've pretty much read them all, so why bother buying the next one? Why continue reading at all if one's experience is that most books just aren't that good? If all that the legacy publishers are offering readers is the same 40-50 tired series, what other reaction could they expect from the reading public? Maybe the real problem isn't competition from movies, games, and the Internet; maybe the more fundamental issue is that the legacy publishers have become so risk-adverse that they are no longer providing the quality and range of books people want to read.

As small press niche publishers (like Five Rivers) emerge to fill the gaps left by the legacy publishers, I think the legacy publishers increasingly risk being cut out of the conversation.

First, as more and more real readers -- those interested in literature and fresh ideas and approaches, rather than just the latest movie novelization -- begin to turn to particular niche imprints, editors, and reviewers for their reading fix, the impersonal, marketing-driven publishers will begin to lose market share. Of course this won't happen over night and the trend won't be immediately obvious because the legacy publishers will continue to churn out processed cheese, and frankly, there will always be a market for processed cheese. I myself don't mind a slice of processed Cheddar on my burgers, but it's not, you know, to be confused with real Cheddar. Same with books. There will be a market for cheese slices and Dan Brown, but somewhere, someone will be reading Matt Hughes and eating a nice piece of brie.

Second, megacorporate publishing is a one-way street: the publishers produce books and we consume them. That was true for music and TV too, up until MP3 and YouTube, when consumers could suddenly also become producers. Just as the emergence of those new technologies turned consumers into sometimes producers, POD and digital make it possible for many more individuals to enter the print conversation. Yes, that raises the noise to signal ratio at first; but in the long run, I foresee authors and readers forming channels/communities where readers are reading the books by people who've read and are reacting to the books they themselves have written.

That may sound crazy, but there are plenty of historical precedents. I once undertook a study on the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, for example, which flourished in the 17-1800s and was exactly that sort of mutual reading and contributing community, covering the full range of literacy from scientific advances to poetry. The expectation was not only that the subscribers would be interested in everything they published, but that the readers would also themselves be regular contributors on a diverse range of subjects.

Or take Bali, for example. It's a culture where everyone is an artist -- everyone is supposed to create at least one work of art in their lifetime to contribute to the temple. Sure, some of the sculpture is better than others, and some people produce more art than others, but everyone appreciates art and craftsmanship and everyone participates. The division between producers and consumers that is so embedded in our capitalist culture that it is literally unthinkable for us not to speak in those terms, doesn't exist there to nearly the same extent.

I would therefore like to argue that the division between readers and writers that has emerged in our culture under conditions of monopoly capitalism is a false dichotomy, and one which cannot persist in the face of new technologies (i.e., the emergence of new, more inherently democratic means of production). Just as we have gotten used to not singing outside of the shower because singing is something that professionals do on the radio, we have become conditioned to thinking that writing is something that a few professionals do for publishers, not something average human beings should attempt.

But that's rubbish. Anyone reading this prepared to argue that Dan Brown is a particularly good writer? That there are not thousands of unpublished works as good or better? Mass appeal does not translate out to literary value in anyway we have ever been able to demonstrate. Big publishers, driven by the need for profit -- and the even more immediate need of servicing their stupidly high debt loads -- have to look for best sellers. They are not, cannot be, interested in whether the book is any good; just in whether it will sell. So a perfectly wonderful novel set in Alberta which might easily become a best seller in Alberta can be of no interest to the legacy publishers because the population of Alberta simply isn't big enough to produce the economies of scale the mega publishers require to make money on a book. Consequently, much excellent Canadian literature goes begging because, unless the megapublishers believe they can sell it to the Americans or the British, they just can't make a Canadian book profitable on that scale. Same goes for genre and niche fiction. But economies of scale should not fool us into thinking that 'bigger' is necessarily 'better'.

So, just as we can't allow ourselves to stop singing just because we can't get into the top ten of American Idol, I don't think we should stop thinking of ourselves as writers, or potential writers, just because we can't break into mass market publishing.

We need a whole new vocabulary here. Just as reading novels is not the same act as reading an instructional manual or a tax form, reading legacy-published novelizations of Avatar or Alice in Wonderland is not the same as reading a novel from Chi Press or the actual novel of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I think legacy publishers will continue churning out Honor Harrington novels and Dan Brown books, but we have to stop thinking of that as reading and instead add it -- along with the Internet, gaming, TV and movies -- to the list of distractions from true reading. Perhaps 'real reading', the true definition of literacy, is what happens when one reads books that are not mass produced processed-cheese but hand-craft works by local or niche artisans.

Initially, I expect to see a great flowering of Canadian literature as more Canadians have the opportunity to self-publish or publish through small POD presses then would ever have had a chance through the bloated legacy publishers. Okay, admittedly -- going to be a lot more weeds. But as we do weed out the crap, we're going to discover a hell of a lot of previously overlooked, ignored, or silenced voices that deserve to be heard.

And I don't expect the weeding-out process to take that long. After picking up a few unedited, badly-written, self-published disasters, readers will stop buying books that haven't been properly edited or vetted. Self-published authors will quickly learn to approach known writers and editors for introductions, the simplest form of vetting. As the pool of Robert Sawyers available to write introductions to Canadian SF novels is rather small, however, and as such authors won't write intros for weak books, the self-published author will have to turn to something else.

One possibility could be the emergence of an army of freelance editors who contract with authors to edit their books. As certain editors become associated with successful books, their name on the backcover becomes a quality guarantee, especially in contrast to books that provide no evidence of having been edited. As the editor's reputation grows, so does the demand for that editor's services and the corresponding ability of the editor to turn down inferior work and to enforce changes the author might otherwise be reluctant to make -- thus further enhancing the editor's ability to improve and guarantee the quality of product, which in turn enhances the editor's reputation. In theory, such editors could wield considerable influence, even within a freelance market.

(Of course, this vision of the freelance editor may be influenced by my intention to become one upon my retirement from academia, so I concede that I may be indulging in pure wishful thinking here.)

More likely, authors will choose to go through small press POD houses that can offer not only editing, but cover art, book design (the least appreciated and understood aspect of publishing, but nonetheless a crucial one) and marketing as well as act as a significant guarantor of quality.

In the longer term, however, I see the emergence of literary communities. As more readers turn writer and write their own books in response to what they are reading, tight knit communities could emerge based around a particular subgenre, regional literature, or otherwise mutually familiar literary cannon. This again has many historical precedents, such as the Amateur Press Associations of the turn of (last) century; or more recently, SF or comic fandoms. (See my essay on the history of fandom or discussion of amateur Press Associations) Both fandom and apas were briefly superceded by the emergence of the Internet, since chat rooms and web pages were cheaper, easier and faster technologies than print; but I think the emergence of POD could lead to a new, more professional and sophisticated print version of these earlier social phenomenon: Not fandom, but prodom; not zines but books. Indeed, the parallels here are intended only as illustrative of the sort of social relations I envisage evolving, and are by no means an exact parallel.

And that is about paper-books. Digital books add entirely new possibilities. It is only a matter of moments until someone figures out how to network ebooks with social media, so that reviews and reader commentary automatically accumulates with your copy of the book, creating whole new dimensions of book club/literary criticism and networking. We already see something of the sort in GoodReads and similar, but that is only scratching the surface of what we are likely to see in the next couple of years....

So what we may be witnessing is the re-emergence of a literate culture similar to that of the educated landed aristocracy, where literacy didn't just mean reading, but also carried the expectation of writing. Instead of readers being passive consumers, I foresee those still engaged with print as a medium using it productively to become themselves part of the conversation. With POD houses and Espresso machines in every Starbucks, there is now no reason why everyone should not have a shot at developing and contributing their talent to the pool of cultural objects available to everyone.

I think Clay Shirky's (Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.) may be onto something. His central thesis is that Web 2.0 etc has created an environment that allows people to pool their 'cognitive surplus' -- leisure time. Although each of us has only a couple of hours to spare here or there, multiplied by the entire population, this cognitive surplus becomes a vast resource of personhours. Whereas previously our options for putting this time to productive use were limited (the occasional community project or carpentry hobby, but mostly frittered away in front of the TV), the Internet makes massive undertakings such as Wikipedia possible. For all its weaknesses, Wikipedia is a vast cultural resource which is growing and improving by the second. It is a perfect example of what I am talking about: instead of sitting back and waiting for experts to publish an encyclopedia -- with all the advantages of vetting and all the disadvantages of control and restrictions on what is to be considered worthwhile knowledge -- consumers have themselves become contributors and editors. They have become part of the conversation.

It does not take a great deal of extrapolation to suggest that the same sort of ongoing dialog, the same contentious arguing and vetting and occasional vandalism and correction that ultimately results in fairly reliable entries on Wikipedia can create a conversation that results in the publication of an equally vast and quality body of literature.

The Future of the E-Book

Interesting column at "The Idea Logical Blog" trying to get a handle on the upcoming issues for publishing arising out of the digital revolution. The blog raises 15 issues; the commentary by readers immediately adds more. (Thanks to M. D. Benoit for pointing column out.)

I'd love to be a fly on the wall at either the Digital Book World conference or the Tools of Change Conference mentioned in the blog; I've wanted to attend/present at the more academic Future of the Book conferences but the conference sites have mostly been overseas and too expensive for me to get to. But no question we live in exciting times, even though I strongly believe that repeated announcements of the imminent demise of the paper-based book are premature -- you and I will be reading paper books for a long time to come.

What may be under imminent threat is the current publishing model. (I almost wrote "old publishing model" but the truth is the current model of giant monopolistic corporate publishers is relatively recent -- we may in fact be moving towards something that looks a lot more like the good old days of multiple small, editor-based publishing houses of fifty years ago.) The giant legacy publishers may have to rethink how they do business if they wish to survive, but the book itself is just fine.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Writers Retreat

Well, daily postings of words written didn't work out, partly because I did not have reliable access to Internet, partly because it was difficult to generate reliable word counts. The first couple of days I wrote only three to five hundred words of final copy, because I kept having false start after false start, so spent a lot of time rewriting the same scene or otherwise spinning my wheels. This is a fairly common pattern in my writing, where it takes several days immersed in the task to get any traction. By the third and fourth days I was getting a bit more written, but I was also throwing out more of what I had written up to then. I would produce a chunk of something, kind of like it, but realize that logically it could not come here -- the protagonist had to know X before Y made sense, or that if I went with A in this scene, I would have to abandon B in that one. And so on. Slowly, slowly, it started coming together. I started having 1500 word days (my minimum target) and more importantly, some of the pieces started to fit together; some of the scenes I had thrown out I could bring back, though this time it was that character saying X rather than the protagonist. And so on. In the end I came away with three more or less finished chapters, or about 15,000 words. That averages out to about 1500 words a day which is what I set as a minimum (the level one has to maintain to successfully complete NaNoWriMo). I had hoped for more, of course, but I often have unrealistic expectations and the key here is that I managed to cover all the scenes I had written in my head; that is, what I have written down has once again caught up with what I had worked out.

Not that what came out on the page what as all like what I thought it was going to be. I find the writing process fascinating. My characters often refuse to speak dialog I hand them, and say something completely different. I used to think that was a metaphoric kind of thing when authors would say that, but now that it happens to me on a regular basis, I totally get it. (Not all authors subscribe to this view of course: I recall the late Phyllis Gotlieb saying in effect that her characters did damn well what they were told and that was that.) But I am largely writing this novel freefall. I have only the vaguest outline, and just throw my characters into one situation after another and then sit back to see what happens. So, this can be an awful lot of fun, because my characters keep doing and saying things that take me totally by surprise. The most amazing to me is how characters discover clues and reinterpret events I've already written to solve mysteries I hadn't actually known I had written into the book. Some tossed off line I just had someone say because it seemed like a funny bit of repartee turns out 60 pages later to be a vital clue to what's really going on. And even more astounding, my characters seem to be undergoing development, and have motivation and characteristic speech patterns I hadn't actually thought about consciously. So that part's pretty cool! Hopefully the same excitement I feel writing this stuff will be there for the eventual reader. (Well, I am talking first draft here -- obviously drafts two through seven will more consciously refine all of that so that it does work for external audiences.)

On the other hand, the down side of not knowing precisely where I'm going is that I get lost a lot. I write something for this character, and that character responds, and the next thing I know is that the conversation has written me into a corner from which there is no escape. So I often have to back track, throw scenes that don't make sense out, or at least put them aside until later when I may be able to salvage some of the dialog or action. Other times I have to stop and realize the characters are acting on a scene I cut two months ago and that they do not in fact know any of what they just said. Or that it wasn't this character that figured X out, it was this other guy. And so on. So exciting, but highly inefficient.

But that is the nature of this particular novel. Others novels I have in my head have much more developed outlines and often very much more developed scenes -- I've had one novel in my head since Grade 9, and I know exactly what happens and why -- but those are for another time. This novel was my practice book to see if I could (a) finish a novel (in contrast to all the previous 1 chapter false starts), (b) manage the basics of plot, dialog, action, character, and (c) enjoy the process in spite of the frustration that comes when things don't flow. This story had an okay general outline and a couple of vaguely developed scenes here and there -- just enough to give me a general direction and tone -- but not enough invested in it that my emotional investment in it working out would lead to paralysis if it didn't work out entirely as I imagined. I know I am not yet a competent enough writer to pull off my two or three more 'literary' novels; and I have too much invested in my two deeply developed novels to try to commit them to paper before I am ready. So I chose the simplest storyline with the most straight forward characters and just went for it.

And I am enjoying the process more than I ever thought possible. And so far at least, I am pretty happy with what I have written.