the archives: 2001.
The Canadian publishing industry is in a state of despair and disrepair.
This year has been especially tough, what with the long-awaited demise of chapters. Larry Stevenson, erstwhile ceo, used to brag that he knew nothing about books, they're just another commodity to sell, like shoes or toilet paper. Thanks for the input, Larry. If there were justice in the world, he'd be begging for change on a street corner somewhere, but somehow it seems that the only people that land on their feet when an empire comes crashing down are the ones whose stupidity and bad management caused the problems in the first place.
But all of this has been thoroughly hashed out already. You don't need me to recount the tale. If you do want to read all about it, see the list of websites below, participants in an activist advertisement in the Globe & Mail's fall book supplement, or read Martin Levin's column in that selfsame issue.
You'll notice that one of the troubles Levin mentions is our woeful national currency. The loonie is currently worth something horrific like sixty or sixty-five cents American. Ouch. The money situation "forced" distributors of foreign titles "to hike their prices to precarious levels."
certainly I noticed this when I picked up The Corrections for thirty-eight dollars. Worth every penny, but yikes.
So here's the question: why do local resources sell for the same amount?
I mean, if paying foreigners in foreign dollars is a main reason why book prices have shot up astronomically, than why aren't local writers, who are paid in the same little dollars I am, comparatively cheaper?
And if they were, wouldn't it be a huge incentive for people to buy and read Canadian authors? A win-win situation, as they say?
Maybe there is a reason it doesn't work this way. Maybe there is some weird NAFTA rule. Maybe the difference disappears into the same void in which other economic anomalies end up: when there's a frost in Brazil, the price of a coffee goes up, but it never comes back down again, for some reason, no matter what the coffee-bean market is doing.
Or perhaps Canadian books got their prices bumped up to match the foreign books. Perhaps the foreign books don't need to be quite so fiendishly expensive if some of the burden of cost is shared by the locals. Perhaps that American book should cost $40 and the Canadian $30, so they average it out and price everything at $35.
Which would mean we're subsidising the enemy.
I certainly hope that's not the case. I'd hate to think that I have to pay extra for my copy of All Families are Psychotic in order to subsidise someone's Jeffery Archer addiction.
I'm no economist. In fact, I'm just making this theory up as I go along. Perhaps there is a reason for everything to be priced the same regardless of country and cost of production. Maybe everyone, even those patriotic writers who encourage us to shop Canadian, demands payment in yankeebucks.
I certainly hope not, though.
updated 29 november 2001. permalink
Oh, no. I've just been accused of being part of the "in crowd."
Is this the kiss of death?
Is this like when Starbucks moves into a "hip" neighbourhood, thus making said neighbourhood, by definition, no longer hip?
Nah. Can't be. Especially since it's so far off the mark.
Or maybe it's not.
The thing about the concept of the "in crowd" is that it's so niche-oriented. I'm sure there are many people, for example, that think hockey players are part of the "in crowd." And there are people who disdain such boors and think the "in crowd" is all about breeding. There's a music "in crowd" and an indie music "in crowd" and a theatre "in crowd" and a literary "in crowd." I read a review of an "in crowd" restaurant this summer - no food was mentioned in the review, just the attire of the attendees - men with silk poufs in their pockets. Deadly, if you ask me. But the snob-wannabe reviewer was gushing.
The same applies to any of these subjective terms: "cool," for example. "Cool" has been around so long it's lost its original meaning (let's save that debate for another time, shall we?), being a jazz term meaning (oddly enough) the opposite of "hot." Now cool means little beyond "stuff I like." Everyone has their own definition. I can wander the aisles of Active Surplus looking at beakers and think, "That's so cool!" while someone else might have the same thought about, say, the new Jewel cd. And we'd both be right.
Cool is different for every person. You know it when you see it. There is no definition.
Not to say that people don't try to define it. At one of the magazine parties I went to last week (the one we left early because it was dull), there were a lot of lost souls wandering around - people who seemed to be there because someone told them it was cool, not because they felt that way themselves. So they were standing around in clumps, like grade niners at their first high school dance, experiencing the car-sick queasiness you get when your eyes and your guts are registering different things. Or maybe it was just the incredibly vile food on offer.
It was so uncool, it might as well have been at Starbucks.
Magazine party number two was smaller, funkier, more festive. People were there because they knew they wanted to be there. Besides, the food was much better.
So what was the qualification to go to the cool party? Did you have to know the right people? Have the right job? No, actually, all you had to do was like what was happening and make up your mind to go. That's it.
And that's all it ever is. If people are doing something that matters to them, something they consider important, whether it's music or art or theatre or publishing a little magazine, they love meeting people who have the same interests and goals. If you express honest appreciation for what they're trying to do, or an honest effort to try to do something yourself, you will be rewarded. I mean, when I moved here, I didn't know anyone and my social life consisted of drag queen karaoke. So it's funny to me to be accused of being in the "in crowd." Terms like that create a false sense of elitism, like there's a door you can't open, a velvet rope and you're on the other side. Maybe the real question is not "how do I get in," but "why do I want to?"
So, you wanna be in the "in crowd." Simple. Just do the things you like to do, hang out with people who share your interests, and voila. What could be simpler than that?
updated 22 november 2001. permalink
Well. Now that everyone else has said everything that needed to be said, I guess it's time for me to weigh in on the franzen v. Oprah debate.
First off, The Corrections is a brilliant book. The writing is excellent but understated, it serves the story as it should, rather than vice versa. The plot is rich and sweeping yet realistic, the characters complex and conflicted and human. The settings are so described as to create a three dimensional image one can imagine having walked through. The themes are important and compelling.
It is a remarkable book, and achieved critical success upon its release, and commercial success shortly thereafter, all on its own merits.
Then came Oprah.
For anyone living under a rock: she picked his book for her book club, he expressed reservations, she disinvited him.
Its important to remember how the troubles began. Franzen did not initiate the dissing of Oprah. An interviewer started it, and the media have taken it up with relish. It is as though they had been waiting for an opportunity to make fun of the big O, and now they had that most sought-after of alibis: "We were only quoting someone else. Well, paraphrasing. Well, misquoting, actually."
It all began with an innocent little bookstore interview, published verbatim as a Q & A on Powells.com. The interviewer didn't just say, "So, tell me about Oprah," and receive a diatribe for his efforts. He actually said:
I had recommended The Corrections to a friend. A few days later, Oprah announced that it would be her new Book Club pick. My friend soon emailed me to ask if I really thought he should read it.
Well, how to respond?
And let's be honest, I know many people who'd planned on getting the book, and once they heard about the Oprah choice, dashed out to by an unstickered copy. People traded tips on messageboards: unstickered copies left at Pages! Run! I mean, who would want an Oprah book on their shelf? Ugh. We don't need a talk-show host to tell us what to read, thanks.
Franzen's instant response was to compare himself to an indie band everybody likes when they're unsuccessful, and ceases liking when they start playing stadiums. Tall poppies. It's an old story. Note: he is not insulting Oprah; if he is insulting anyone here, it's the shallow offended fans.
Being pressed, he admitted:
She's picked some good books, but she's picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she's really smart and she's really fighting the good fight.
Um, who can argue with that? Good books, check. Schmaltzy books, check. She's smart and wants to to good things. Check.
Ooh, how offensive!
Before you know it, reporters are turning this into news, because, it's been a slow month for news, I guess? They're asking questions, the kind you can't answer without putting your foot in your mouth. Franzen elaborates that many men are turned off by the Oprah sticker (he's right on, of course; I could name you twelve). The press turns this into "Franzen chasing lucrative young male demographic, doesn't want middle-aged middle-brow Oprah watchers to read his book."
Someone show me where he said that, please.
There have been various (ludicrous) comparisons of the Oprah sticker to the Nobel prize etc. Sorry, but established awards chosen once a year by an appointed impartial jury carry a tidge more weight than a sticker handed out every month or two based on the whims of one person, acting on the advice of her friends and employees.
And those who've pitched it as "plucky black chick against nasty old white man," well, Oprah is a multimedia multimillionaire. No way can she claim underdog status, sorry. You'd have to be drunk to think otherwise.
And speaking of media empires, let's not forget that the sticker matches the logo of the Oprah magazine (which features the same covergirl month after month: hello, megalomania). Yes, it's advertising. Anyone in marketing will tell you that quantity is job one: you can get your logo displayed four hundred times in a bookstore, it helps. Don't believe me? Then explain why cable networks bother advertising on those wee (annoying) fruit stickers?
Well, Franzen shouldn't have said yes to Oprah in the first place then, right? One point to consider (which I can neither confirm nor deny without seeing his contract) is that Franzen may have had no choice: it might have been up to his publisher.
In any case, the book industry loves mellerdrammer and there seems to be a regular shortage. Throw a literary grouchfest their way (cf. Tom Wolfe v. the world), and they go bonkers. Between prizefights, any old catfight will do. Even if they have to invent it themselves. Franzen simply fell into the trap of speaking frankly in an interview, something a seasoned celeb would never do. But writers are used to toiling in obscurity. Lulled into a false sense of security. Franzen has been around the literary scene for years, ignored by the world at large as writers often are. Fame didn't chime in until after the damage was done.
I asked a friend of mine (not a "literary buff" but nonetheless someone who reads a fair amount) whether, speaking as a guy, the presence of an Oprah sticker would affect his decision to by a book. "No." I mentioned the Franzen issue; he half remembered seeing Franzen interviewed on tv. "Fe seemed like a pretty cool guy." His last word on the oprah debate? "It's a book. If it's good, it's good. Beyond that, who cares?"
If only the rest of the world could be so clear-headed!
updated 15 november 2001. permalink
There seems to be a misconception alive in the world that the arts are only appreciated by a very specific subset of urbanites. I just don't get it.
I mean, I'm a small-towner myself, having grown up outside of a farming community of under four thousand. Sure I moved to Toronto, but so have many of my classmates. Anyway, I was a culture vulture before I ever got here. Toronto cannot be said to have tainted me.
But still, many people disdain the arts in the same sophmoric way that engineers dis Comp.Sci. Undergrads for being artsy. A meaningless sneer. Rich or poor, it doesn't matter; it isn't just the proverbial cabdriver who says "my two-year-old could do that." Go to any Bay Street bar and mention "experimental dancefilm shorts" (as I foolishly did on Friday), and wait for the howls of derision.
Of course, the criticism is pretty hollow, since most of these people have never actually seen a short film, let alone experimental short films. Why this need to put things down out of ignorance?
People tend to think of the artistic community as a gated suburb, no one allowed out or in. They believe that art is written in a language they do not understand, which they are not invited to understand. And it's true, to a point. Artists often fail to conceal their surprise at finding a non-artist amongst them. And a lot of the best art of the twentieth century requires a moment or two to absorb and reflect - but doesn't everything worthwhile take time? And this country is filled with public galleries and libraries and free performances - live and televised - of all kinds. There are no real barriers.
The funny thing is, when I look around at the average post-performance reception, I see a wide variety of people. I see writers who grew up in trois rivieres, I see dancers and composers from suburban Alberta. I also see accountants adn lawyers and chefs. In contrast to the mocking Bay Streeters at the bar, I see hard-nosed businessmen who love dance (one of the National Ballet's past presidents was publisher of the Financial Post for thirty years, after all). Hell, the guys drinking at the bar could have done some serious networking at the dancefilm after party.
It's a remarkably diverse crowd.
updated 8 november 2001. permalink
So sad to see the passing of Sam!
The giant neon records have been spinning on yonge street for as long as I can remember, marking his old-school flagship store: in stark contrast to the gleaming blue HMV monolith which appeared a block away a few years ago, Sam the Record Man's main store gradually took over a few buildings over the decades, a junk-store mish-mosh of mis-matched architecture. Not sleek, not stylish, but more likely to have what you're looking for than any other record store in Toronto.
Sam Sniderman, now in his eighties, first opened up a little record shop on college street over sixty years ago. The arc of his fortunes is analogous to the growth and changes in the music industry itself. Fifty years ago, pop-music marketing consisted of CHUM, Canada's first top-forty station, calling up Sam and asking what his top sellers were. Sam, being an unrepentant Canadian music booster, would mention local musicians he liked, to help them out. Miles away from today's carefully focus-group-ed songs and stores. They were making it up as they went along.
And as Sam's fortunes grew, so did the fortunes of Canadian music. Sam made sure of that. As one of the founders of FACTOR (foundation to assist Canadian artists on radio), he ensured that Canadians still had a chance to be heard on the radio, once music stats keeping moved beyond the dj-calling-the-record-store stage. Factor is still going on strong today.
Sam was the little guy who could, building his business from one store to over forty across the country. But the music industry is constantly changing: there is no room for little guys to grow. Gone are the days when every teen in the country listened to the exact same beatles single over and over again. Now the choice is between one or two mega-slick popsters, or a gamut of specialty sub-genres, from UKG to instro-surf to insurgent country to happy hardcore.
Sam wasn't big and slick enough for the slick kids, who feel more comfortable in a plasitc-coated personality-free environment like HMV. But the niche markets are best handled by the tiny guys, the me-and-the-records-I-like one-off shops that still abound across the country. Niche won't support the overheads that come with a chain of stores.
Sam was running to stand still, and it couldn't last. He tried getting into internet marketing (I thought Sam's online store was the best, with all the variety he's famous for, but easily searchable); it didn't work. The site shut down overnight last spring. Now the stores are following. Creditors have promised to keep the flagship store running. With any luck those neon records on Yonge Street will keep spinning.
updated 1 november 2001. permalink
Last night, I watched tv.
I don't watch television at all, normally. I don't own a television. I've lived happily without for years. But last night I went to a friend's house, ostensibly to feed her cat while she is away, and I succumbed to the numbing lure of the 500 channel universe.
Does it count if you don't watch more than thirty seconds of any one show?
I skimmed, I scanned, I clicked up and down the dial from end to end. The great thing about the new digital cable is that you don't have to see or hear anything; if you click fast enough, you are rewarded by a clean black screen with a band of information at the bottom to tell you what's playing that you don't want to see. No nasty programming to get in the way of mindless clicking.
Occasionally, one is compelled to stop and look. The Odds channel? Can it be what it sounds like it is? Yes, and it's conveniently located next to the horse racing channel. Gamble away the kiddies' future without once having to leave your couch! Every sport, it seems, is considered worthy of a channel of its own, in addition to TSN, and regular network coverage. Naturally there are sex channels; what could be easier or cheaper than aiming for the lowest common denominator? There are two indie film channels. Much seems to have four or five channels of its own, ranging from easy listening to loud. In fact, just about every old school cable channel has split into many branchlets, some of which sound interesting, but perhaps a bit diluted. Showcase, for example, has split off into "Showcase Action" and "Showcase Diva."
I checked out "Diva" out of morbid curiosity: what now? "Star-studded movies with a bold female attitude," aka, lame movie starring Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase circa 1978. I didn't even sit through the credits.
That's the problem with expanding too far too fast: what do you use to fill the inevitable gaps? My skimming turned up Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, the Mary Tyler Moore show, and of course Let's Make a Deal on the Game Show channel (!). Yes, the brave new world of home entertainment is more of the same dreck you've been gaping at for the past twenty years. Oh, joy. Who will pay to watch this stuff?
That's the problem, of course. They don't have content, and they also don't have advertisers. I couldn't help but laugh to see poor "Diva" filling in space with clever little station promos, with the only actual advertising I saw on my flip throughs consisting of yeast infection medications, some sort of attachment for paint rollers, and a box set of the best of Bobby Vinton. "showcase's sassy sister ... It's hip, bold and brassy - the girl everyone wants to see." Um, sure.
Expect these networks to be crying poor soon.
updated 11 october 2001. permalink
It seems specialisation is no longer acceptable.
I was just leafing through the latest flyer from the LCBO, which features, in addition to the usual booze, a lovely carafe (okay, that makes sense), a tray for cheese (um, stretching it), and a cd.
hold it right there.
Since when does a puritanical government body get into the music business? Since everybody's into everybody's business.
This has been going on for years, it just seems more unavoidable lately. A cinema now has to contain a wee caf within its own four walls. Designers don't just want to dress you, they want to decorate your house and perfume your bath and season your sauce and tell you what to hum in the shower. Musicians strike back by launching magazines, clothing and fragrance lines. It's out of control!
Once upon a time, people picked a craft, and practised it, and became pretty damn good at what they did. Now everyone imagines himself a renaissance man, thinking notoriety in one narrow area translates to expertise in every other.
It doesn't. The sad result is mediocrity run rampant.
But all is not yet lost. There are still artisans practising their craft. You might have to look a little harder to find them, but they're there. There is a leatherworker on danforth who can make a handbag a stunning work of art. There is a somewhat obsessive man in germany who collects antique eyeglasses and designs frames which are then made by hand, the hinges are a thing of beauty. No, really. Look around and there are luthiers, glassblowers, weavers and spinners who create objects of unique beauty.
Just don't look for a label, or you'll never find a thing.
updated 4 october 2001. permalink
Popular culture. The farther away I can get from it, the happier I am.
This has been especially true over the past two weeks, with the saturation news coverage on television eating away at people's sense of security, but is also true in many other ways.
I haven't watched television for years. I do occasionally pick up a girlie magazine - at a doctor's office, at a friend's house - for the same reasons that people stare at car crashes: morbid fascination. But I find that as soon as I start flipping through them, my mood changes.
At first, I'm full of smug condescension as I snicker at "our readers share their dating disasters," but gradually my brain shuts down, and I look longingly at gorgeous and expensive boots, at whisper thin models with flowing hair. And even though I'm foxy and doing fine, I start to feel inadequate.
Because that, of course, is the goal of magazines and televisions: to make people feel adequate, and sell them a cure for their misery. But I've found a cure. Don't go near the rubbish in the first place.
I've just started a new job in a not-for-profit media organisation, and I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I used to shuffle amid the blank-faced drones of the office towers, each imagining a tv-perfect life, and each intent on shutting out the ugly world around them. Now I walk to work past a divy bar I never dreamed would be open for breakfast, past second-hand shops and funky boutiques, down a street where self-expression is the norm rather than the exception. I feel alive. I feel like I can breathe again.
Everyone in the office towers wears the uniform of blandness and the mask of bitterness. The younger ones still have a bit of movement behind the eyes, a sense that maybe they still imagine excitement in their lives. It doesn't last, though. They soon decide to compromise themselves for the sake of a minor promotion. They realise that this is it, the achievements they had dreamed of as children will never come to them.
Why do you think people get so wrapped up in television and office politics and buying cars? If you have no life, you've got to invent one to fill the void.
Getting away from the consumers - nay, over-indulgers, these people have grown fat and complacent feeding on commercial hype - of pop-culture has been the final step in my withdrawal. No longer will I absorb their desperation through osmosis.
updated 21 september 2001. permalink
I'm sure you'll forgive me for being a day late this week, considering what a week it has been. I have been vascillating between speechlessness and mindless babbling. My brain aches. All of my friends and relatives in New York and Washington have been accounted for, by sheer luck and timing, many of them. Oein was late for work that day. Alex had just left the building. Lisa decided to fly that morning, instead of heading to New York earlier, as she'd originally planned.
But for every person who made it, many more did not. On wednesday I saw lineups spilling out of the Canadian Blood Services clinic on College Street. "The sad part is," my cousin Jennifer said, "they're donating all that blood, but they're not going to need it."
Everybody in the world has issued a statement in the past couple of days, from the MyPoints rewards program to the League of Poets to every municipal politician on the planet. For the most part, they mumbled the same shocked condolences.
One voice that stood out was that of Mario Cuomo, former mayor of New York City and Governor of the state of New York. He said that the only way to prevent such a terrible thing from ever happening again is to civilise the world, ensure that every citizen of earth has the same rights and freedoms, and no reasons to be disgruntled. I was overwhelmed that someone like Cuomo, who must have lost many, many friends and acquaintances on Tuesday, could be so clear-headed, thoughtful, magnanimous.
Unfortunately, the voice of reason is usually drowned out by the chorus of the ignorant. Some people have suggested we should carpet bomb the entire Middle East, including our arab allies, just to make sure they get the point. Some have said we should instantly double our foreign aid to Israel, and threaten to increase it again should further attacks occur (huh?). Some have taken the opportunity to malign the Clintons' marriage, although what that has to do with anything, I am not sure. Some have said that this tragedy is god's punishment for homosexuality. Bush, ever incoherent, has promised that "terrorism against our nation will not stand." Whatever that means. Most of his speechifying was given over to promises that "our financial institutions remain strong" and "our economy is open for business." He has promised retaliation and punishment.
What he has not promised is that we will be safe in the future. The one thing I wanted to hear on Tuesday was this:
We will take whatever steps necessary to ensure that nothing like this will ever happen again.
Surely punishment for punishment's sake is meaningless? Surely killing people - assuming we find out for certain who is responsible - who have shown they would gladly die for their cause is an exercise in futility? Surely retaliation will merely up the ante for future attacks?
Surely the safety and security of the American people should be his paramount concern?
updated 14 september 2001. permalink
Well, fall is upon us, back to weekly updates...
The line is a little different every weekend. It depends on the weather, I guess. I never know where until we cross it, but somewhere on the 400 we leave the range of Toronto radio and start listening to Barrie. The moment you hear "water on the water, beer on the pier, summer fun is here!" you know you are officially in cottage country.
The ritual which for me marks the end of summer is the rock 95 top 500 hits of all time countdown Labour Day weekend, three days of your favourites from the Rolling Stones to the Tragically Hip, with emphasis on Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Eagles.
It seems fall arrives overnight between Sunday night and Monday morning; one day we're baking on the beach, the next it's too windy, and the leaves are indeed falling from the trees. A deep red sets in behind the green of the maples, and kansas' "Dust in the Wind," number fifty-five this year, feels appropriate.
The closer we ge to the top, driving home Monday night, the better the music, and the better for in-car singalongs. Every year, betting on what will be number one kills time in traffic on the 69. Will it be that highschool slowdance classic, "Stairway to Heaven"? Again? How could they pick "Hey Jude"?
The timing seems to shift a bit from year to year; once we were so far south we lost reception when they had only reached number thirteen. We had to consult their website when we got back to the city, to quell our need to know. Although "Hotel California" was a pretty easy guess.
Of course, there is always conflict, always surprises. The current unavoidable song (every summer has one) will displace treasured favourites. How could that stupid "Drops of Jupiter" song beat "A Space Oddity"? It's criminal!
For me, it's also educational. I was raised on a steady diet of CBC: Gilmour's Albums and Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. A lot of these songs are new to me. While everyone else groans or cheers when the dj promises to play Badfinger, I remain quiet, almost afraid to say, "Um, who?" However, I am happy to report that my education is almost complete. Years of study have enabled me to recognise some of the cheesiest prog-rock in two chords or less. I can sing "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" word for word, while driving through a hurricaine.
Labour Day used to mean back to school (the sight of goldenrod in full flower still provokes in me such scholarly urges as attempting once more to read Proust in the original French). Now it just means one last fling in flip-flops before trading them in for boots. But it's a wistful sort of weekend nonetheless; it reminds me that I'm supposed to be a grownup now. This is one last weekend of being a kid, of listening to the half-remembered soundtrack to my childhood.
That's okay though. Because after three solid days, I think my head will explode if I have to listen to one more song by Rush or Cheap Trick.
updated 6 september 2001. permalink
Hi. Long time no see. It's summer, I've been running around. I'm sure you're all waiting for a full report on the Philly Throwdown (and yes, that is humble moi Neal mentions in his report), but you shall have to be patient for the time being.
Meanwhile, anyone up for yet another dissertation on the death of poetry?
This argument grew out of a throwdown conversation with a woman novelist, one of the few who manages to write about something other than the experience of being a woman. This got me started on poets who write poetry for poets about poets writing poetry. The novelist (who shall remain nameless, as I only spread gossip which is completely gratuitous) said, "well, I must defend poetry, as I am in love with an Irish poet." The rest is kinda foggy as we were drinking.
Anyway, I have nothing against poetry per se. Poetry is like the polio vaccine. We still need it, but we tend to forget. I love good poetry as much as the next person, and can even count myself among the increasingly small number of people who have actually gone out and bought books of poetry of their own free will. The problem, as I see it, is this:
The world that has forgotten their value. So like many disenfranchised artists (e.g. Women, African-Americans, exiles & migrs), poets have become insular. Too many have turned their backs on their audience, and the audience has responded in kind.
Poetry's original raison d'tre is no longer in effect. In all of the articles I have seen decrying (or saluting) the death of poetry, no one has mentioned the original reason for writing verse instead of prose: as the offspring of an oral culture, it had to be memorable. It had to be mnemonic. The only way to disseminate history, opinion, etc. In a culture without means of mass reproduction (or masses of people who could read) was to tell them, in a catchy but succinct way, and hope they'd remember. And pass it on. Hence Pope's essays in verse. Hence theatre, prayer, and history (viz: Homer) in verse. Because simple stick-in-your-head-ish-ness is no longer what drives it, the mass audience is gone.
Poetry does not lack an audience due to a lack of good poets (although poetry, like opera and stand-up, must be sublime in order to avoid being awful), but due to competition. It used to be the only game on the block. Now it has to vie with movies and novels and videogames for attention.
Since poetry no longer commands a mass audience, it no longer makes any great attempt to appeal to a mass audience. When Spenser was writing the Faerie Queen, for example, it succeeded umpteen levels: biblical analogy, critique of prevailing monarch, etc., etc., but it was also an entertaining read on the surface. Kind of like the way kids laugh at old bugs bunny cartoons and the simpsons even though they don't get half the jokes. Poets have shied away from and shunned accessibility as something demeaning. Not surprising in a world where commercial success is believed to sully one's artistic reputation (ask any indie music fan).
Of course, that is the one area in which poetry continues to have massive influence: music. Pop lyrics always conform to poetic conventions, even if they don't always work as stand-alone verse. And what is rap but poetry? Its driving force is rhetoric. Word play, rhyme, alliteration, metre, and rhythm are all integral to the form.
But if it's popular, it must be artistically suspect. Right? Well, you can't bemoan the lack of a poetry-reading public and scorn the public at the same time. Have cake? Eat it too?
The greats, of course, did manage to do both. Cf Ginsberg: decrying society, getting his point across, in a form that was not only eloquent and aesthetic, but understandable to the reading public. The purpose of art, as Paul Klee said, is to make people see. If an artist's work (whether it's poem or a sculpture or a fill-in-the-blank) is beyond comprehension at first glance, if it fails to say anything without further explanation, surely it has failed as art. The good stuff will reveal layers of meaning on repeated readings. But if a poet is incomprehensible to all but grad students who have made a career out of studying semiotics, then he can't bloody well complain about lousy sales. And it's nobody's fault but his own.
updated 9 august 2001. permalink
Nic Musolino, dot-org 'zinester and member of the hipster elite, was not kissing in Manhattan with Pindeldypublisher Whitney Pastorek last monday.
Kerri wants a puppy.
Tim "ukelele" Bovaconti is spending the fall running around with none other than Elvis Costello. No, really!
David "the Demigod Maui" Lord doesn't know it, but we taught ourselves to drive standard on his Porsche last week. We are terribly sorry. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The international media elite is headed by a Canadian named "McGregor Sainsbury," which sounds suspiciously like a randomly-generated character name out of a Robertson Davies novel.
Jude Law is secretly in love with me. Shhh.
Cary Grant has been seen about town with the little red-haired girl previously lusted after by that round-headed kid.
Chatty columnist Leah MacLaren passed up a rare opportunity to have cocktails with silicon valley e-zine editor Bob Delamar.
and she used to tell people that her name was "Jordan" and that Bette Midler was her real mom.
but she was just a kid then, so I guess it doesn't count.
Annie Logue has thrown over the glamourous world of finance for life as a comic book heroine.
The whole Smith/Marsh long-drawn-out break-up fall-out is getting really tedious.
Gayle Hurmuses is the pied-piper of the arty-boy set.
updated 28 june 2001. permalink
(this entry has been moved here.)
updated 24 may 2001.
Today we had some exciting news: the first "real" portrait of Shakespeare has been discovered. A genuine one. The painting in and of itself is no great shakes; a mediocre likeness done by a c-grade set-painter, it has no artistic merit whatsoever, and would be worthless if not for its subject.
We now know what the brilliant man looked like.
"If this absolutely is a portrait of Shakespeare, then it is very significant," Catharine MacLeod, curator of 16th- and 17th-century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, said.
As everyone knows, the science of phrenology can be extended beyond the cranium to the whole of the physiognomy. Or in layman's terms, you can tell how smart/nice/shifty a person is just by looking at him.
Scientists working in this field had already documented many physiognomical-phrenological (or, "phyzziphren") phenomena, such as the law of beady eyes resulting in shifty behaviour. Discovery of this portrait will do much to further their research.
A mere cursory glance will make it obvious to the casual observer that there is a distinct likeness between Shakespeare and Woody Allen; both have the same curly red hair (receding), eyes simultaneously a bit buggy and a bit sad-dog droopy, that world-weary "que sera sera" smirk. Both are similarly known for their work, tragic and comic or a blend of the two, ever witty and erudite. These similarities have enabled the phyzziphren community to link frizzy red hair with a sense of humour and a good vocabulary.
The implications are far reaching.
Now that we have these facts so plainly before us, we will be able to isolate young geniuses by analysing their hair and eyeballs. These children can then be removed from the public schools, where they may pick up bad habits, and exposed to Greek mythology at an early age to encourage their inherent appreciation of symbolism. When old enough, these children will be cross-bred to create a race of sardonic-but-sympathetic geniuses, who can be put to work in the industrial complexes of Hollywood, to save the flailing-in-its-own-ineptitude film industry.
Plastic surgeons and cosmetologists are currently working to see if, as is widely believed, it is possible to change one's talents and thus one's destiny by altering the appearance. In addition to the current clinical trials, in which our gaolers are trying to bring about rehabilitation by doing lid-lifts, thereby changing those evil beady eyed crooks into winsome Keane-worthy waifs, hair-plug specialists will be implanting the red fuzzy stuff onto the scalps of the developmentally disabled, in an attempt to improve their preformance in the field of witty reparte.
Yes, significant indeed. I am glad to see that the world is finally recognising the value of appearance above all.
updated 10 may 2001. permalink
It's funny, this love/hate relationship that the world seems to have with virtual culture.
On the one hand, the success of chain email and webhoaxes is a testament to people's fondness for instant communication. It's all too easy to send dozens upon dozens of messages a day, engage in multi-party conversations, and dash off quick notes to people around the world.
So, where's that paperless office I was promised?
Somehow, it isn't enough.
Somehow, the virtual friendships must be dragged kicking and screaming into reality. I have made many connections in the - gasp - almost ten years that I've been online. The ones that last are the ones who make the transition. In the end, the virtual world is just another way of making plans for the real one.
Even those people I haven't met in person yet, the ones on the other side of the world, end up as physical presences: there are solid objects to be sent in the mail, the magazine you can't get in Australia, the real smoked meat I can't get here in T-dot, the article we missed last year that some packrat saved.
As much as we marvel at the beauty and ingenuity of some sites, we still mostly use them to access solid objects. If ecommerce is ever going to be successful, it will be because people adore getting things in the mail. Other than bills I mean. People want brown paper packages tied up with string. Mp3s? Yeah, they're great and all, but whenever people drone on about the revolution, I remember the words of a friend years ago, in our starving students days. She wanted a new cd. I had the cd. I offered to tape it for her. And she said, "I don't want a copy, I want to own it."
No matter how brilliant our imagination, it's just not the same as holding something in our hot little hands.
updated 3 may 2001. permalink
Why I don't watch television.
Got into a discussion about snobbery the other day, so I thought I'd write about this little non-issue, since people always assume that I'm a big snob because I don't watch television.
But it's not true. The reasons are many and various.
Tv is lame, wake me up when it gets interesting.
updated 19 april 2001. permalink
Here I sit, on a train to the country, to the town where I grew up. Well, to a town near where I grew up, I should say. My parents abandoned my childhood home last summer for something more elder friendly.
but I digress.
The point I am getting at here is that I am a small-town country girl by birth and breeding. I was raised near wolves, if not by them. I collected sap from maple trees when I was wee and we boiled it down into syrup in our kitchen. Very rural.
So why is it that I feel this twinge when I put my current address (Toronto) at the end of a letter to the editor?
I can just feel the potential audience saying oh, another urban whiner, another city-dwelling elitist, another Toronto-centric blah blah blah.
But you know what? Rural types like culture too. I know, because I am one. One of many. Probably half of toronto's culturevultures are transplanted farm kids.
Growing up outside of a town of four thousand, there weren't a huge number of opportunities to experience high culture. But we had piano lessons and ballet lessons. The local arts council would bring popular performers - I remember seeing PDQ Bach as a kid - to town to play in the school gym. There are local theatre groups and people raised money to put an elevator in the old town hall so people could get upstairs to the theatre, which was refurbished with a combination of grants and private donations.
So why do Canadians persist in painting cultural issues as something for city folks only?
Simple. Rural votes count for more than city votes. Rural ridings have fewer people in them. If culture is described as a city thing, then goevernments can slash arts budgets without jeopardising rural votes. When, in fact, arts and culture is just as much a part of life in the country as it is urban. They just don't refer to it as "high art." It isn't thought of in those terms.
It's there, and it's important. Just as important as it is in the city, if not more so. But as long as it's easier to slash budgets when we portray the arts as solely the province of city-dwelling weirdos, the sterotype will persist.
And the budgets - for everyone - will get slashed.
updated 5 april 2001. permalink
Okay, this weekly rant is intended to be about the arts.
Which leads to the question: what, oh what, is art?
Wow, that's only seven words. A new record I'm sure.
But it's actually (thinks humble moi) relatively accurate. Think about it. Certain things are required for human survival: food. Shelter. Air, water, sex. Will art get you any of those things? Maybe, if you play your cards right. But basically it's all about aesthetic enjoyment. Why do tycoons build their wee empires? So they can collect paintings. Or train sets. Or go to the opera. Or the ballet or the theatre. Or visit the great museums of europe. Or buy sleek cars.
"But wait," I hear you cry. "is a car art?" well, that's the question I have neatly side-stepped with my definition.
Are movies art? Are crafts art? Are Jeff Koons' nudie-wood-carvings-of-his-ex-wife-the-Italian-porn-star/politician art? For that matter, what about Nudie himself? The high art v. low art argument has been going on as long as the what-is-art argument. Let me settle it here and now, to prevent further bloodshed.
If it serves no purpose, really, other than to provide aesthetic pleasure, it is art. If it makes you think, if it gives you any kind of insight into the workings of humanity, you can spell that with a capital A. If it doesn't, call it pop art or low art or whatever.
Either way, whether it's art or Art, it should provoke a visceral reaction, deep inside of the viewer, that just says "Wow." Cheesey special effects do that. So does the opening page of Anna Karenina. So does the second movement of that Bach oboe concerto that makes your heart stop beating so as not to interfere with the music's own subtle rhythms. It all contributes to the fullness of human experience and gives us corporate pawns something to look forward to at the end of the day. It's what makes life worth living.
updated 29 march 2001. permalink
I am consistently amazed by the amount of time people spend watching television.
Especially when those people claim they don't have "time" for other things. Whatever.
The average person spends something like thirty-five hours a day absorbing carcinogenic beams from the cathode-ray tube, changing channels at the speed of light as they complain that's there's nothing to watch.
I don't know about you, but I don't have time to watch tv. I'm too busy reading the newspaper. And books and magazines. Or going to see live theatre or live music. Or cooking. Or thinking. Or socialising with other human beings, out in the wilds of this crazy old world of ours.
Some people, of course, build their social calendar around the tv guide. They have to run home early if Frasier is on. They can't leave the house on Thursday (or Monday, or...).
Then there are the people who spend massive amounts of money installing hideous home theatres. You know what? Even with a 63 inch flat screen surround sound system, the programming is still lousy. It's worse even: Jerry Springer, the size of a giant. I shudder with revulsion at the very idea.
What really stuns me is that so many people think of television as a necessity. These people rank cable right up there with running water. Oh, the cable guy! we moved three days ago, and he hasn't hooked us up yet! whatever shall we do! oh, the cost! they charge so much and there's still nothing to watch but ads! it's not fair!
Remember a couple of years ago when everyone was up in arms over "negative option" billing? Even though it is an incredibly commonplace practice, used by book clubs and Columbia House (49 records for one penny!) for decades, our lethargic nation was up in arms when, after enjoying the food network for free for a couple of months, they were expected to pay to keep it. Oh, the droning and moaning that went on. Anytime I was subjected to this litany of complaints, I suggested that the complainer protest by abandoning cable altogether.
You would think I had suggested a macrobiotic diet or a vow of silence. Apparently once you are addicted to the boob tube, it is impossible to live without.
I will freely admit that when in a room with a television, I am drawn to its blue glow. It's the car crash effect again. You know you shouldn't look, but you can't help it.
But you too can be free. You can escape. Turn it off. Step outside. The sky is blue today.
updated 22 march 2001. permalink
Today I (brave and noble warrior, I!) ventured into a mall. The Eaton Centre, no less.
There were boutiques with lady-like dresses and teen-oriented shops with kitschy light shows and fun fur jackets and eighty kinds of blue jeans and pierced blue-haired imps working the cash.
And I thought, "hey hey, it's the sixties."
Yep, youthquake revivalism in all it's glory. You've got peace-loving druggie music festivals (woodstock=raves), you've got rage-gone-wrong rock (Altamont=anything involving Limp Bizkit). You've got angry young political activists (Kent State=Battle in Seattle) and their protest songs (the Five Man Electrical Band=Rage Against the Machine), which use a lot of words to say not much of depth. You've got mouseketeers (Annette & Cubby=Britney & Eminem*) and girl bands (Shirelles=Spice Girls).
A wee continuum stretching from people earnestly trying to change things by reading Adbusters, to sheep who are just following whatever trend happens to be big this week.
Now, I know the boomers don't like anything (except perhaps Athenian democracy+) to be compared (especially favourably) to their sacred decade, but the similarities are too numerous to ignore. Yes it all looks cheap and ugly now, but be honest. I'm sure the suburbs haven't changed all that much in the intervening thirty-five years. All of those aging management-types had to get their MBAs somewhere, didn't they?
Whatever. I was walking down the corridors of the mall (I only wanted to pay my Bell bill. They moved the Phonecentre to a different floor), and the Urban Outfitters (or a knock-off version thereof) caught my eye, and I thought, man. Imagine how all of this plastic will be romanticised a few decades from now. Imagine forty-year-olds telling their kids how they "thought for themselves" and got the same tattoo as all of their friends.
It may seem unlikely now, but it will happen. I just know it.
And it frightens me.
updated 15 march 2001. permalink
Sometimes it seems as if every ex-junkie has written a novel about his/her descent into addiction.
Correction: make that, every ex-junkie has written half-a-dozen novels about the experience.
Actually, the ex-junkies are not the only ones. There are also the abuse survivors, the disease-of-the-weekers, etc. Ex-junkies just seem to be getting the press lately. The real question here is, why is it that people think bad experiences make them good writers?
I'm not saying all books on these topics are necessarily bad. But the topic does tend to repeat itself after a while. Trainspotting: what a compelling film! As are many of Irvine Welsh's books! Thing is, the first one you read is the one you'll like the best; the second (whatever order you go in) will feel a tad rechaufe, the third... Well, you'll be right bored. A friend of mine tried to read them, found it a cure for insomnia.
Hardship is only compelling if it is (like anything else) a story well told. And the same story told over and over gets a wee bit dull after a while. The eyes glaze over. The audience loses its focus, and merely tries to remember to nod at appropriate moments.
I know many, many people who struggle with writing because they are afraid that what they have to say has already been done better by someone else. What gives with the hard luck cases?
Oh, I know, I sound horribly callous. Cruel even. But I'm not really. There is an issue here beyond my personal ennui when faced with book after book which can be summarised as either:
The problem here (aside from the catastrophe of bookshelves being glutted with dreck written by every poor sop who reads a confessional memoir and thinks "I coulda wrote that!"), is that it diminishes the experience. Remember the Ethiopian famine? Unfortunately neither the first nor last of its kind? Remember how it faded from the headlines when people got bored with seeing it every day? Remember "donor fatigue?"
Not to mention the small weird subset of people who seek out hardship in order to enable them to write a novel. So the theory goes. And yes, I know people who have lived in doorways with nothing but an old Smith-Corona (always Smith-Corona!) to keep 'em company. Doesn't work.
I appreciate that some people use writing as therapy, and that is fine, but must they publish? And must the publishers buy it? All they do is make what could be tragedy into something pedestrian and dull.
I guess it's just easier (as they say in acting school) to do tragedy than comedy. Everyone laughs at different things, everyone cries and the same old same old.
So give them the same old. I guess it's what most people want.
updated 8 march 2001. permalink
Not long ago, I read an article on "the perfect mate" in which a guy described how he changed from chasing Veronicas to being "a Betty man."
Now, I love old Archie Comics as much as the next person, but the over-simplified freud-for-kidz stereotypes of women as either Veronica (foxy, but fiendishly fickle) or Betty (dependable, but docile and dull) is a wee bit tired, to say the least. It's the ol' madonna/whore thing once again, where women are given two options: exciting and evil, running off with whomever makes the best offer at that moment; or saintly and stupid, happy to wait eternally for a boy who spends his energies - emotional as well as physical - chasing after someone else.
Which of those are you? I'll take none of the above.
But surely, surely, pop-culture must have more to offer? Surely there must be a retro-cool cartoon character for a twenty-first century fox, such as my humble self, to relate to?
There is. Velma Dinkley.
Forget your Archie comics, and re-read the gospel according to Scooby-Doo. The two females from that cartoon, Velma and Daphne, once again fall into the categories of fox and non-fox, but in this instance, they work together (sisterhood, man!). There is no competition. There is no backbiting. There is none of the bitchiness that some men like to equate with femininity. They even eschew the blonde/brunette dichotomy: each girl is a redhead. One is strawberry, one chestnut, but nonetheless the old stereotype is neatly avoided.
Daphne... Those legs! that hair! She may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (although she is the most sharply-dressed), but she has a good heart. She is loyal to Fred, but sees him (and treats him) as her equal (which he is, being handsome but not excessively bright).
But it's Velma we relate to. Velma is smarter than the lot of them, but doesn't suffer the sin of pride. Or envy. She may not be a supermodel, but she does have curves. She's the one that boys have secret crushes on. She's the one that you could look to as a kid and say, "Yeah, that's me, smarter than the rest of them, smirking occasionally, but we can still all work together."
That's the best thing about the show. Aside from proving that you can be entertaining and ignore the usual sterotypes at the same time, the characters built on each other's strengths in an environment so non-competitive as to be almost communistic. The fact that they always solved the mystery, working together to foil their greedy foes, could almost be seen as a comment on the ineffectiveness of capitalism versus, if not communism, perhaps a milder version thereof. Fourierism, anyone? As Emerson wrote: "society, concert, cooperation, is the secret of the coming paradise. By reason of the isolation of men at the present day, all work is drudgery. by concert, and the allowing each laborer to choose his own work, it becomes pleasure. 'attractive Industry' would speedily subdue, by adventurous, scientific, and persistent tillage, the pestilential tracts; would equalize temperature; give health to the globe, and cause the earth to yield 'healthy imponderable fluids' to the solar system, as now it yields noxious fluids. The hyaena, the jackal, the gnat, the bug, the flea, were all beneficent parts of the system; the good Fourier knew what those creatures should have been, had not the mould slipped, through the bad state of the atmosphere, caused, no doubt, by these same vicious imponderable fluids. All these shall be redressed by human culture, and the useful... Dog... Shall take [his] place." Could Scooby-Doo himself be this "useful dog" of whom Emerson speaks?
But perhaps I'm reading too much into all of this.
At any rate, the triumph of Velma & Daphne over the one-dimensional Betty & Veronica can be seen in the rise of the Scooby aesthetic over the last five years. Look around you and count how many young women you see wearing Velma's chunky glasses and ubiquitous orange turtleneck. They've thrown on Daphne's foxy gogo boots too: hey, it's the twenty-first century, no reason why we shouldn't have our Scooby-snacks and eat 'em too.
I think what amazes me most about the world wide web is the effort that people put into their little obsessions.
I mean, yes, I have this dumb little self-obsessed page, but its maintenance requires very little energy: I vent a couple of times a week (which I need to do anyway), and if someone sends me something interesting, I stick it up for all to see when I get sufficiently bored to start messing around with html (generally after a period of several months. See my unfinished family tree for proof of apathy). No big whoop.
What I find really interesting, though, are the people who put vast amounts of time and energy into chronicling other people's lives, quasi conspiracy theories, weird jokes. I mean, it's one thing to come up with a wacky idea over drinks with a buddy; it's something else entirely to write pages of text, create graphics, set up photographs, et cetera et cetera.
One of my personal favourites is Gary Baum's FoE! log. In it, he chronicles the life of author Dave Eggers (and anyone and everyone eggers may or may not have met) with an obsessiveness usually reserved for stars who died young. Updated every week or so, it's a detailed and heavily annotated account of every Eggers-related anything to ever happen, with hints that Eggers and his friends control everything publishing-related in the United States. The fascinating part is that this assumes a level of power that very few (if any) authors achieve even after a lifetime of publishing, let alone after writing one book and editing two magazines (one defunct). Let's face it, the figures for a best-selling book over the course of a decade don't even pretend to compare with the number of records Britney Spears sells in a day. I mean, we all love the idea of the pen being mightier than the sword, but outside the rarified world of letters, the average schmoe doesn't know who Eggers (or any of his supposedly powerful friends) is. Nor does schmoe care. But Baum does. Fascinating.
Who are these people, who have expanded the web's content beyond anyone's wildest dreams or nightmares? Where do these loveable kooks come from and where do they get their energy, not to mention will? Ah, the spectrum of humanity extends far beyond the horizons of human comprehension. We are all trying for immortality. Some of us just got distracted along the way.
updated 1 february 2001. permalink
All of this talk about how the American version of Queer as Folk isn't as good as the U.K. original.
Yeesh, it's like the world has forgotten that stealing scripts and watering them down is a longstanding tradition among the brain-free nabobs of the networks down south.
The Americans basically came up with two sticom ideas (the family! the workplace!) and have been rewriting them over and over for the past forty years, occasionally spinning a funny character from one show into a show of his own. Anything new was stolen outright: whether it was Too Close for Comfort), Absolutely Fabulous, Whose Line Is It Anyway, or the classic of classics, Three's Company (aka Man About the House) they even stole the idea for the spin-off from the British spin-off.
Why do we expect them to achieve anything other than their usual level of mediocrity? Why not just accept the fact that the only way we'll ever see decent television come out of the Yanqui cess-pit is if they start stealing from better shows?
They tried (and failed) the obvious already, but there are many brilliant scenarios yet to be explored.
First off, someone really ought to revive the Young Ones. The brilliantly off-kilter show about four scags sharing a filthy house and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous landlords goes beyond funny, to the brilliantly surreal. Watch as the boys discover oil in their basement, resulting in exploitation and the inevitable class warfare. Watch as they spend an entire episode being bored (a script which ends with, and I quote:
Thirdly, all television executives should be forced at gunpoint to watch every single episode of Blackadder in a row.
Finally, we have to do something about the number of fansites devoted to truly awful crap. You wouldn't believe some of the rubbish I come across whilst doing research for this clever and insightful page. You people need lives.
updated 25 january 2001. permalink
Last night I went to see the first two installments of the Dekalog, Krzysztof Kieslowski's stunning interpretation of the human condition via the ten commandments.
What is perhaps most startling about these films - beyond the unsentimental yet kind treatment of everyday people struggling with the daily ethical dilemmas we all face - beyond even the leisurely grace with which he imbues every facet of his surroundings, be it milk swirling in a cup of coffee, or the maddenong drip of water through a leaky ceiling - no, what is most startling is that this is a made-for-television mini-series.
Here in Canada, where we obviously have more money to devote to such things (as evinced by the poor production quality of Dekalog, not to mention the conditions in which his characters live - even those who would belong to the haute bourgeoisie have to boil water on the kitchen stove in order to have a hot bath), we come up with disappointing crud. Worse than disappointing, it's unambitious. True, we did make the effort with the history mini-series last year, but not on a level comparable with Dekalog, and not just because we haven't produced a director on the scale of Kieslowski. It's because we haven't tried. The directors who worked on Canada: A People's History were unknowns brought in for educational television. Auteurs aren't allowed near Canada's television screens, unless they can convince the broadcasters - for a while, at any rate - that what they are doing is comedy. Otherwise, the broadcasters won't touch it.
Why be afraid of greatness? We do this all the time. Everyone was afraid of Robert Lepage, too, until he got big in England. Then he couldn't be ignored anymore, brilliant or not.
Canada has a global reputation for being dull. We are trying desperately to trade it in for a reputation as beer-swilling hockey-loving inbred morons. I guess being respected around the world would conflict with that.
Hm. Maybe I should move to poland.
updated 18 january 2001. permalink
* Yes, Eminem might as well be a Mouseketeer. He and Britney are virtually interchangeable; each one wears a super nasty persona on stage, but insists "I'm really a very nice person, I'm just doing this for the money." Same diff.
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