Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Talkin’ CanLit

Here is David Gilmour, in the Saturday (September 18) Globe reviewing the new book Mysteries by Robert McGill:

There are only two people who really care about a book review, the critic who wants to sound smart and the writer who doesn't want to be wounded in a public forum. Understandable, on both sides. For the rest of the people, let's be candid, it's essentially fish wrap, albeit interesting fish wrap.

It is also true, I think, that for a young Canadian writer, there is no review more affecting, perhaps ever, than the review of his first novel in The Globe and Mail. Other papers can say what they like, The Globe is the review of record, and writers know it

Essay Question: In his recent book review, David Gilmour contends that "there is no review more affecting, perhaps ever, than the review of his first novel in The Globe and Mail." Do you agree or disagree? Provide evidence for your opinion, and wherever possible, show your work. Use the back of this blog if more space is required.

On a somewhat related note, here is a sole sentence from Prairie Fire’s recent "please subscribe" letter:

The literary magazine is the nursery of contemporary Canadian writing.

Lest you think me a snit for selecting this sentence, it was both italicized and printed in red ink in the letter. It’s not entrapment when I select a sentence that was already highlighted. Clearly, the folks at Prairie Fire were proud of that turn of phrase. As such, I’m going to put that phrase on a T-shirt posthaste. I mean, here it is again:

The literary magazine is the nursery of contemporary Canadian writing.

The next time anyone asks about the role of literary journals in the CanLit ecosystem, I want you to answer:

The literary magazine is the nursery of contemporary Canadian writing.

I’ve heard lit-journals described as a "farm team," but never a nursery. Who, then, are the parents of Canadian contemporary writing? And why are they so abusive and neglectful?

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Quoting the Wisdom of Others

Clive Thompson, in the May/June 2004 issue of This magazine, talking about stump speeches versus lab coats:

I started my career as a political writer, but soon realized that politics wasn’t a game of progress. On the contrary, human history is pretty much just the same grim cycle over and over: A group of people gain power, then use it to screw over everyone else. Rinse and repeat. Open today’s paper and you’ll see stories of Paul Martin’s graft, or tax cuts for the rich, or First Nations bands wrestling over ancient land claim. Go back 3,000 years and you’ll find hieroglyphs describing essentially the same things.

This is not to disparage political activism; the sheer intractability of injustice is why we have a moral imperative to fight it. But when I started writing about science, I felt, for the first time in a long while, an unusual emotion: optimism

Russell Smith, in today’s Globe (September 16/04), on Canadian magazines and the healthcare debate:

The September issue of Saturday Night magazine decided it would capitalize on this frenzy of excitement by putting out a cover almost as boring – I mean almost as relevant – as any grey-on-grey Walrus cover, showing a grey-haired, grey-faced doctor in a grey tie in a grey room. This makes me feel distinctly strange: If someone has consciously and soberly calculated that such an image is going to light up the jaded eyes of Canadian newsstand browsers, then I am even less of a Canadian than I thought. I must be weird.


Who are these magazines for? Recent poli-sci grads eager for jobs at the CBC? High-school Canadian Studies teachers, who use them to torture trapped youth on sunny days? Or just other Canadian magazine writers?

And I hear that The Walrus itself, not to be outdone in the race for the Dullest Worthy Endeavour prize at the next National Magazine Awards, is itself feverishly preparing a blockbuster of an article on the state of health care in this country. I can’t wait to see the shades of grey they use in their cover art. I guess they’re hoping to use a piece on health care to bring down the dangerously high levels of reader adrenaline brought on by the other entertaining articles on trade tariffs and parliamentary subcommittees

By the way, The Globe will no longer allow you to access columnists on their website for free, so I might have to retire my interest in Smith commentary for the immediate future. On a related note, as this Wired article points out, paid access and registration-required tactics work to disappear a publication from the Internet. Without links to articles there is no resulting discussion in the blog ecosystem and thus little to no traffic around the marketplace of ideas. But that’s a whole other post.

Now, Carl Hiaasen on hurricane journalism (Miami Herald, September 6):

* What you should wear: Always choose the flimsiest rain jacket available, to visually dramatize the effect of strong winds. All foul-weather gear should be brightly colored in the event you're swept out to sea or sucked down a drainage culvert, and someone actually goes searching for you.

* What you should televise: The first rule of hurricane coverage is that every broadcast must begin with palm trees bending in the wind. Never mind that the puniest summer squall can send a coconut palm into convulsions, your producer will demand this meaningless shot

And finally, as for Toronto Life being sued for $2.1 million by Conrad Black, I like the magazine (full disclosure: I write for it often) and I wish the publication the best of success in fighting this stupid lawsuit. However, I must say that the Robert Mason Lee article at the centre of the suit was an unreadable piece of drek. Horrible, horrible writing that should have been deleted at birth. A class-action lawsuit organized by Toronto Life subscribers, demanding some money back for wasting their time with such an unfunny piece of "satire" would be reasonable; Conrad Black suing for defamation is ridiculous.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Everything and Anything

I started my Masters in Communication and Culture yesterday, which means my postings will soon be littered with terms such as "recursive" and "hegemony." I mention this because I’m also not sure how often I’ll be able to post. Either more often (I hope) or less often (more likely). Right now, I think that one long post each week is more feasible than shorter posts updated more frequently. It means the material will be less topical, but provide more analysis. Or something. Anyway, enough jaw-boning:

* Over at Slate, Eric Weisbard spoke talks about the new album Blueberry Boat by the Fiery Furnaces:

Sometimes a new album has critics so dazzled that we're forced to recommend it before we're positive we even like it. The Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat is that kind of work.

This is how buzz often gets incorrectly assigned. I prefer the opposite instance: of being forced to dismiss something before even hearing it or reading it. Toward that end, check out this bit of clairvoyance regarding the Globe’s new alt-weekly 7. As for my first impressions: 7 resembles Queue, the Vancouver Sun Thursday supplement, except worse somehow, because the Globe is involved. (This just in: I’m wrong. Here is Edward Greenspon in the September 11/04 Globe discussing the matter: "Going tabloid also provided an opportunity for our in-house designers to let their creative juices flow in making 7 both user-friendly and visually appealling." That is some arid juice, man. And check out the rebel sell in his next sentence: "We wanted to change the look radically because we were changing the content radically." To the barricades, comrade!)

Suggested slogan: Why Waste Your Money Reading a Free Alt-Weekly When 7 Costs Only A Dollar?

* I received a four-page sermon disguised as a subscription plea from the Walrus this week. I realize there is some kind of (dismal) science involved in writing direct mail, but four pages? I find two whiny pages is generally enough. Four went past "methinks he doth protest too much" and lurched into "methinks he doth be pathetic." The funny thing is that the subscription letter focuses on all the success the Walrus has received and lists all the ways in which the magazine has exceeded expectations (gold awards at the NMA, record number of subscribers, etc, etc) and how much good press it has received. But it seems to me that you diminish your confidence if you have to spend page after page describing how great you are. We’re great. Really. No really. Really, really, really, please subscribe to the Walrus. Please.

That said, the Walrus offered to send me an issue absolutely free, so I took them up on the offer. In a related note, I must regretfully admit that the October issue looks decent, save for this. Perhaps things are finally turning around.

* Check out betterlivingcentre courtesy of Marc Weisblott and company. Very thorough and savvy and updated constantly. They even have professional illustrations – I figure they’ll put me out of business within the month.

* The new issue of Saturday Night hit the stands on September 8. If I find the Walrus a touch boring, then how best to describe SN? How about this way:

Bart: Nothing you say can upset us. We're the MTV generation.
Lisa: We feel neither highs or lows.
Homer: Really? What's it like?
Lisa: Ehh. [shrugs]

Anyway, the September issue of Saturday Night (Ehh) contains a kind of article I see every once in awhile in Canadian magazines. It’s by Jay Teitel, who is a very gifted writer. It’s about cellphones and how they’ve "restored the lost art of the social call." In the fifth paragraph, he writes "Formal studies may not exist, but anecdotal evidence abounds." First off (Ehh), here is my new tip – stop reading the next time you see a sentence of this variety. The second thing (and this may seem contradictory) is that the article isn’t bad. In fact, if you judged only the quality of craft, it’s near flawless. The quality of thought is the problem -- the article can make no claim to referring to life outside the borders of the page. Take the article out of the life-support of the magazine however, visit a bar or a cafĂ© and try and spin the same ideas about how the cellphone has altered the way in which we communicate (for the better, no less!) and the delicate lattice-work contained in a sentence like "The cellphone in its most extreme social-call incarnation functions like a modern astrolabe, fixing us in latitude and longitude at any given moment" melts like the word sugar it is. It would have been nice of Teitel to acknowledge that the resurrection of the social call has corresponded with the eradication of civility in public spaces. Or referred to this truly vexing existential problem first raised in Hermenaut:

Forget the brain tumor—did you know that whenever you use a cellular telephone you're destroying your own existence? Convenience dissolves contingency, and as the facts of your current state fade to insignificance you are melting! melting! Who knew you were so soluble?

Some articles try to change our mind about a certain issue using things like "statistics" or "facts," while others prefer to avoid such messy and inconvenient elements of rhetoric and instead impress us with baroque curlicues. It’s something that Saturday Night prides itself on. Hopefully the new editor will reconsider.

* The September/October issue of This contains a smart article by Arthur Johnson about how magazines that actually turn a decent profit in this country use interns as a money-saving device. This is certainly true, but I would have liked to see a reference to the seminal article "Internment Camp: The Intern Economy and the Culture Trust," by Jim Frederick, that first appeared in Baffler #9 (and again in Boob Jubilee, a Baffler anthology that appeared last year.) Frederick offered a devastating bit of class analysis in his piece:

Thanks to those who can afford to win the labor auction with the lowest possible price -- I’ll work for free!– those without outside (read "parental") support are forced to take tremendous real-dollar losses to stay competitive, or they are simply priced out of competition entirely. This ensures that the glamour industries remain the land of the rich and privileged, for they are the only people who can absorb a short-term loss to get an imagined long-term gain.

The Johnson article makes analogies between sweatshops and media interns (a fine idea) but it could have been a feature, instead of a one-pager.

And as much as I agree, a couple of things about being a po’ little intern. You can allow yourself to be exploited, or you can make the most of the situation. Back in the day, Derek Finkle, now the editor of Toro, convinced Toronto Life to create an internship program. A day after he started interning, he asked to cover the trial of Robert Baltovich. Finkle went on to write a cover story for Toronto Life on the topic, and later a book. Plenty of other interns in Canada have used the foot in the door to get promoted past the mailroom (Stuart Berman, the music editor at eye, was once an intern, and there are many other examples).

Which gives me an idea: anyone wish to intern for The Bigge Idea?

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

From East to West and Back Again

I’m back from Vancouver after a two-week holiday. There I had to curtail my media consumption, but I’ve spent the last 24 hours getting caught up with all the big hits. Topping the charts this week is my good close personal friend Russell Smith with his August 26, 2004 column about Dick-Lit. According to Mr. Smith:

The American publishing industry has, over the past five years, attempted to come up with a masculine rival to the phenomenal "chick-lit" successes of Helen Fielding and Candace Bushnell and Sophie Kinsella and all the other writers whose books have bright pink covers. "Dick-lit" fits a familiar matrix: It takes the form of first-person memoir or first-person fiction, is set among striving young people in a large city (usually New York) and tells the story of a youngish man -- a man who is starting to feel not so young -- who works in the world of media, just like Bridget Jones.


The current style was probably initiated by Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, followed by the handbook for the genre, About a Boy. Recent copies include Rick Marin's Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor, Kyle Smith's Love Monkey and Scott Mebus's Booty Nomad

Now I point you to an article in the Toronto Star, dated April 29, 2003 by Mike Dojc:

A new brand of literature has arisen to feed the 20-something guys' need to read. An antithesis to Chick Lit, this hot new typology has been dubbed Dick Lit by pundits and the British press.


Books like [Keith] Blanchard's and [Rick] Marin owe more to writers such as Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) or Chuck Barris (Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind), than any authors who follow more in the tradition of Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain's View From Above, in which he boasted to having bed 20,000 women.


Both genders need their fill of frivolity. In recent years, the male market has been underserved. One only has to walk into a bookstore and see shelf upon shelf of Bridget Jones Diary and Shopaholic clones as well as book club picks to ascertain the lack of light guy reads available

Smith’s column is stronger, but Dojc’s article appeared one year and four months ago. Which is better? To paraphrase the FNC slogan: I excerpt. You decide. (However, the next person who decides to write a Dick-Lit trend piece might want to mention the brand new Dave Itzkoff book Lads: A Memoir of Manhood in which the former Maxim editor deconstructs the myths of the lad-scivious lifestyle, in the process discovering it empty, false and stupid. But, as always, my free advice is worth every penny.)


* A great geek protest sign. If you don’t get it, it’s not your fault. You probably kiss members of the opposite sex or go outdoors.

* I’m sure I’m late to this one, but a waitress at a strip club is blogging during the RNC. According to the waitress, both Democrats and Republicans are horn-dogs, but only Conservatives are brave enough to demand both re-election and an erection during a convention.

* No one gives a backhanded compliment quite like Now weekly. And if you think that review was rough, try this classic chunk of snark.