Free lunch, with a side of contempt.

You know that old saw about there not being any such thing as a “free lunch”? I’m guessing that the contestants in the Canada Reads 2011 Hunger Games are thinking about that right about now.

They are everywhere. I see them tweeting and facebooking and getting themselves “out there” like crazy. I see the producers of the Games have them singing for their suppers: “Holiday Gift Guides”? please. I wonder if they’re paid for that work by the CBC? (odds are, they aren’t.) There are podcasts and interviews and articles and tweets…. it’s kind of crazy making, really. I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for them.

Not too much — really, it’s a great thing to be nominated and I’ll bet that it’s helped sales of their books. Always a good thing. I wonder, though, just how much dancing they’re doing? How much of their time is now taken up shilling for the CBC?

I’m being a bit harsh here — perhaps belabouring it a bit to make a point. But here’s the thing, and it’s the same thing that’s been bugging me all along: where is the dignity in this? Why is it that the authors not only create the art, but then have to run around selling it too? Since when do they have to write freaking holiday gift guides in order for the Hunger Games overseers to publicize their books?

I wonder what Flannery O’Connor would have put on her holiday gift guide or if she would have tweeted, tongue in cheek about how a “good book is hard to find”. Oh, how droll that would be, no? It would have helped the Hunger Games producers a lot, and would have been completely in keeping with the snide/sly/self-referential tone of the CBC Hunger Games’ branding.

Speaking of which. Can I just say that my deep antipathy to the over-all tone of the CBC Canada Reads site — nay, the entire CBC Books portal — is growing daily. Sometimes I go there and cannot believe my eyes. I’m not sure what bothers me the most, but there are days when I just can’t manage to get past the tone of it. The “voice” is very clearly that of a twenty-something smarty pants who isn’t half as smart as she thinks she is. It is derisive and sly and just so insulting.

Case in point. A recent smarty-pants post with a romance novel theme said the following:

With so many romance writers out there, I began to think: How hard can it be to whip one of those novels together? Not very, I told myself! There are how-to guides are all over the Internet. I’m smart. I’m creative. I can write coherent sentences. Surely, I can write a romance novel in a mere month. What better way to get intimately acquainted with this genre than to write one?

Then I remembered that I am lazy.

So, CBC Book Clubbers, I need your help. We’re going to write this romance novel together. I’ve consulted the eHarlequin guide to How to Write the Perfect Romance and learned the most important things involved in writing a successful romance novel. With that in mind, let’s begin!

I’m as much of a book snob as the next person, but I’ve grown to respect the act of writing a little too much to let this pass without comment. I don’t get the derisive tone, I really don’t. Does she think this will endear her to the 78.4 million people who read romance novels every year, or to the authors who (even if you don’t like the genre) are crafting work that those (let me say it again) 78.4 million people read? This is a craft, and as usual she is lazily contemptuous of the creators of that craft.

It’s not about the books at all, is it? The point she really seems to be trying to make is that she could do it, if she weren’t so darn lazy.

This isn’t the first time that being lazy has been trotted out by this particular  writer. We’ve met Erin Balser before, no? It was she who I discussed in this post.  Perhaps it’s worth showing you again her illuminating biography from her site:

This is who the CBC hired to help produce their books coverage? I’m still trying to figure out how being lazy is an endearing quality. Lazy is what made her link to only Quill & Quire reviews of the books in the Top 40, regardless of the quality of those reviews (spotty). Lazy is what creates this groundswell of contempt toward the CBC on the part of readers/listeners. Lazy is what makes authors write (for free) holiday gift guides instead of finding thoughtful commentary on their books to post. Lazy is being snarktastic without substance to back you up.

Thing is, she’s a product of her age, and has created a niche for herself. She was probably hired by people a generation removed from her who don’t actually quite “get” the whole social media/twitter thing — who think she’s really connected because she and her friends all create the impression that they are a movement by incestuously (re)tweeting one another’s work and commenting on one another’s snarktastic websites.  Maybe they think that this is how things work now…. but what she must think is insouciant irreverence has turned the corner, most of the time, into contempt. Perhaps she doesn’t realize it? Who knows.

After I wrote about the CBC Canada Reads game a few times, I got this comment from Bonnie Stewart, educator, writer, and social media maven:

re. Canada Reads, i think my biggest issue is with the CBC’s apparent decision to leave the whole shebang in the hands of the tragically-hip 25 year old who set the tone. she treated it all like a big, ironic game and her ‘condescending cheerleader’ schtick has, IMO, set the case for social media in the arts in Canada back by 10 years. she did not have the professionalism to lead the contest, even if it was her idea. and she didn’t have the good sense god gave chickens to ensure that big novels that had ALREADY been on Canada Reads were set respectfully aside to make some limelight for, i dunno, the unexpected. she neither understands social media nor promotions nearly as well as she thinks she does, and my respect for the CBC is negatively impacted by her handling of this.

So, it’s not just me. There’s a groundswell out there of growing contempt for this type of arts… marketing (reportage? branding? I don’t even know what to call it.)  My feeling, whenever I read something she’s written is that no matter the subject, it’s really an exercise in selling Erin Balser.

I’m going to keep writing about this stuff. Odds are I’m going to see things that I disagree with. Reading the drivel that keeps getting put out there under the umbrella of the CBC Books makes me crazy. Can you see Erin and Eleanor Wachtel at lunch, talking literature? Or even with Shelagh Rogers — what a great meeting of the mind that would be.

Eventually, though, I’ll have had enough. I do want the CBC to know that it’s because she’s lazy that I’ll have stopped listening and reading.

I was, um, double-booked

Life can get really busy, really fast. Or  it can be slow, but still somehow not have any room in it, you  know? Box 761 is full these days, but operating in slowtime.

Since I last I wrote, I have somehow become a “book blogger”. I didn’t realize I was one, but a few people referred to me thusly, and I guess it’s what I am. In part, anyway. I’m working on a separate site for stuff that’s not about books or related to book bloggery in some way. That will appear some time soon, though I’m not sure when…. stay tuned. I have the domain name, but haven’t done the work around it.

Sometimes when life gets that slow-but-no-room feel to it, I find that I can with some effort actually get a monstrous amount of work done. Other times, well, I have to take a month off (like I just did). Today, though, a reporter from Canadian Press interviewed me about e-books. I figured I might as well discuss it here, now that I’m being interviewed and all.

So. Where was I? Ah yes. When last I wrote, I could feel a long treatise coming on. It was called “What is a Book?” and I started crafting long sentences in my head while in the shower, and finding all sorts of fabulous bricolage from my daily life that made its way into the shower-monologue.  Then it got kind of old — in the way things go these days, the Giller seems a long time ago and all the issues seem old, and solved. My problem was that nothing got down onto, er, paper (for lack of a better word).

And there’s the rub. What I was thinking of writing wasn’t dependent on the medium. What I was thinking needed to be articulated, but I wasn’t even fussy about the delivery method, as long as it was eventually articulated. It seems to me that much of the angsty teeth gnashing of the past month or so is built around this question, “what is a book?“.  At first blush, though, it seems, I dunno, too obvious somehow. I mean, duh, we all know what a book is, right?

Well, my dictionary (the kind in a book, not one online) tells me that a book is

n 1.a number of printed or written pages bound together align one edge and usually protected by covers. 2. a written work or composition, such as a novel, technical manual, or dictionary.

In order to find that definition from my Collins Concise English Dictionary 3/e, (c)1992 I had to scan the shelves in my hallway for a few minutes. It has been a while since I used that book. The covers are on it, but the hard spine has been detached (though for some reason I kept it, and placed it right at the end of “L”). There’s one of those sticky arrows pointing to “serendipity” on page 1226. You get the idea — it’s a well-used book. If I recall correctly, I took it from the stacks at HarperCollins the year this edition was published — I think it was intended for a client, but ended up on my shelves instead; such is the way of publishing….

What I like about the snippet of definition above is that it describes both the physical object “book”, and the idea of “book”. I think those two things conflate in our minds when we think of it, and it’s hard to separate them, but often when we use the term “book”, we are actually talking about only one or the other of those definitions — not both.

Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had half the kerfuffle with Gaspereau and The Sentimentalists, right?

Since the time when that lovely dog eared and downy dictionary mysteriously found its way into my possession, the word “book” has expanded and contracted. Even then, though (way back in the mists of the early ’90s), we were talking about digital books — they weren’t in any way useful or accessible yet, but they were already in the discussion, and (tiresomely) feared. The internet was barely extant, and that was, I think, the year that I finally decided that I needed a computer monitor that had color.

Now, in the second decade of the 21st Century, “book” is the word we use for a digitally delivered document. It’s what we call anything that has a discrete beginning and end and is written by someone, right? I liken it to how we all of us, of a certain age, still call a group of songs an “album” ….

I say I wanted to “get it on paper” when, of course, what I really  mean is that I wanted to put it on my blog and sent it out into the ether. I say wanted to “write” it, when really I was typing — a much different process, and one that I find almost mystically rhythmic — like playing some sort of weird piano that puts out words instead of notes. If punctuation is score (thank you John Metcalf), then my keyboard is my instrument.

(c) J. Langevin Levack

So then, what would the product of this activity be?

A book.

Do I care if it’s electronic? No.

Do I care if it’s artisanal? No.

Do I care if it’s written in crayon on cardboard shirt-bards? No.

I do, however, care if  it’s well written.  I care that it delights me and makes me think and makes me want to tell people about it.  If it isn’t something that delights me, then I’m… uh, up the boohai (see photo, above). If I like it, I might buy both the e-book and the hard copy, who knows?

I know that all the brouhaha around The Sentimentalists is probably old hat now, but this has been bugging me a little bit. This is the truncated box761 version of my “What is a Book?” treatise. I’m kind of over it, but want to make sure that’s it’s clear. Ebooks are not the end of literature. They aren’t even the end of physical books (see M. Wente’s ridiculous fluff piece, here). There’s room for everything as long as there are people with abstract thoughts.

Now all I need to figure out is “What is a Book Blogger?” and I’ll be all set.

A little green around the, er, Gillers

I went on a little vacation to New England last week, and when I got home it felt like all hell had broken loose in the Canadian literary scene. Incidentally, I was in a great bookstore in Portland ME called Longfellow Books and was very happy to see quite a few Canadian-authored books there. Beautiful store that bills itself as “a fiercely independent community bookstore”. Too bad most of the Canadian books were second-hand — I’d love to see the authors get recompensed for their work, but am happy at least that they are leaking over the border and perhaps gaining audience in the States.

It has been an interesting time for Canadian literature — the Canada Reads thingy ended and the Top Ten were chosen. All great books, I’m sure (still have to read a few) but I still harbor some serious reservations about the way the whole thing happened. I was on the CBC Canada Reads blog today, reading the most recent prattling from the producer and I just can’t get past some of the commentary. She came up with a Top Ten list of “Goodies” that came out of Canada Reads 2011, and number 10 was

Goodie #10: Friendships!

The Canada Reads Top 40 authors are adorable. They’ve forged friendships on Twitter, have retweeted each other, recommended each other’s books. It’s a fantastic, vibrant and unexpected conversation that popped up, and we’re thrilled by it. Canada Reads brings people together. They shared headstand tips, baking tips, and invited each other to lobster boils. It makes me sad that on Tuesday, there will only be 10.



That’s what they’re all aiming for. When they sat, alone with their thoughts and were deep in the process of birthing a novel, they were hoping that someday the producer of Canada Reads 2011 would call them adorable because they tweeted-for-their-lives while simultaneously trying to keep their dignity during the Canada Reads Hunger Games. I have no doubt that some of what she writes is true — it did bring some people together. I made quite a few new Twitter-friends in part because of my commentary on this, and am very happy about that. This has certainly opened up some dialogue about the state of the written word in Canada.

What it didn’t do, though, is offer those authors any real dignity. Thank goodness, as a group, they rose to this ridiculous challenge and all managed to retain the dignity they came to it with. One blogger cited a comment from the Canada Reads website, which said:

“I’m usually not one to eat crow, but I was wrong when I snarked at the “self-promoters”. I’ve had a chance over many hours to follow their tweets and visit their websites and I’ve discovered a whole lot of grace and creativity, as well as support for their fellow artists (from Angie Abdou’s video in support of Steven Heighton’s Every Lost Country to Leo McKay’s reason #17 for voting for his book). I hang my head and say I am sorry.”

My only issue here is that the grace exhibited was not because of the circumstances, but in spite of them.

So, congratulations to those Ten who made the short list (a special holla to Ami McKay, who lives close by).

And congratulations to those Top 40-ers too. I have a plan, and will be (re)reading all 40 of those long-listed, but it might take a while. I gave up reading them in order — just too structured for me. Next up for me is Leo McJay Jr.’s book, Twenty-Six. Thank you for your videos Leo, and thank you for your wit.

I’m also planning on not listening in to the Canada Reads Battle in February. I’m going to try to stay away, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it. Right now, just reading their frigging blog is making me feel kind of queasy.

Speaking of feeling queasy, how about that Giller prize?

I have to say, I’m a bit bemused by the controversy. It has been fascinating to watch the past few days. Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau Press) has made a splash for a few reasons — it won the Giller Prize, and her publisher will not be able to provide a large print run for that post-prize frenzy of book buying Canadians generally indulge in. And it’s a big frenzy — when a “bestseller” in Canada generally means 5000 copies, the Giller win can boost those sales up to 70- or 75,000 copies. That’s a big boost.

There are a lot of reasons for this whole situation being problematic. Gaspereau is known for crafting objects of beauty; objects that take time and care to create. They are hand-produced, and lovely. There was an original print run of 800 copies, and they are very scarce now. You cannot expect to find many hard copies around, and while they are taking orders, they can produce (at best) a 1000 copies a week. Even that seems ambitious, frankly. Gaspereau Press plans to concentrate on fulfilling the orders of independent bookstores first, rather than those of “big box” stores.

I bought an e-book version on Kobo. I was happy to see it, hadn’t really expected to find it in e-version, but on a whim typed it in on my iPad and 30 seconds and $9.99 later, I owned the book.

The artisanal copy costs $27.95 and you can order it online, but only through paypal or a personal cheque. There’s a fairly complicated procedure where you email them the information — which book you want, etc., and then the email connected to your Paypal. you can’t pay from Paypal directly. You cannot use a credit card. Their online retail page is here. There is no information on their site regarding how long it will take to receive a copy of this book. I would imagine that they are in a bit of a shock.

I want to make it clear that I respect Gaspereau Press very much. I have visited the press before, and own several of their very lovely books. I get that their commitment is to creating a piece of art. Jack Illingworth, in an excellent article in the National Post, wrote

“This may seem like willful eccentricity on the part of Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfield, Gaspereau’s co-publishers. It’s actually something much more interesting: a commitment to a thoughtful, rigorous, refined mode of publishing. While publishing is usually discussed as a business, or an industry, all of the finest small press publishers practice it as an art form. The books that they choose to publish aren’t chosen to fill out a season with a handful of products that stand a reasonable chance of selling. Their lists are cultural projects, embodying a few individuals’ ideas of what literature can be.”

He goes on to say that “Gaspereau, and the handful of other companies that operate in a similar way, take this conceit to its logical extreme: both the process through which their books are made, and the physical objects that result, are inextricable from their editorial objectives.”

“Conceit” is a fun word here, because I think we can use it both ways. I get that they do things a certain way and that they have a Philosophy here. I wonder, though, what the Author thinks of this? I know authors. It’s hard to be one. It’s often lonely, and it’s not exactly well-paying, right? So here’s this young woman — a success artistically with poetry and short stories under her belt and now a novel that wins the freaking Giller and they can’t meet demand. Not only that, they won’t meet demand. The refuse to create anything other than an artisanal product. And when they do make more, they’ll service Independent bookstores first. And if you order it online you have to write a cheque and mail it to them?

I’d bet that to the Author this book is a book regardless of its form. It’s her book and she’s been awarded a very prestigious award for it, but now her publishers can’t/won’t produce the things, not in any way that would get this book, her creation, into the hands of people who will exchange money for the pleasure of reading it.

I’m kind of shocked that I could get an electronic version of this book. I don’t know how that stuff works really — I left publishing before electronic/digital rights were involved in any contracts I worked with. One of my peeves is that I can’t find e-books of Canadian authors — not half as often as I would like. I read books, all kinds of books — hard copy, e-book, sometimes both versions of the same title. Whatever.

It feels like Gaspereau (who I really like, really I do) is confusing their role here with hers. They are bookmakers. They make books and they are artists at it. She writes books. While the form and the function may be inextricably linked within the rarified air of Gaspereau, we here in the cheap seats still think it’s a work of art, even if it’s printed off my HP inkjet. Even if it’s written in crayon on a paper bag. Even if it’s an ebook

All of those things are the art, at least the art that matters at this point, to the author who created it. It is her publisher’s job to make sure that this art is disseminated.

Over the past two days since she won, there has been a lot of commentary on this. I’ve been surfing it, and it feels like it’s getting bigger. It feels like it’s turning a bit icky in some ways… I’ve read some very derisive blogs about Gaspereau Press (hey,  they can do what they want, right? I might not agree, but they are ideologues, and I love idealogues — you always know where they stand), and even a few comments about how it doesn’t really “matter” if Skibsrud loses some sales because she’s won that big prize and has a fat advance from a UK publisher (um, prizes are taxable — I think — and advances are just that – an advance, like, a loan). That she’d be “fine” regardless.

I’m not going to get into that debate. I’m just speaking now about my initial impressions. I haven’t even finished the book, and at the moment I’m not entirely sure I like it. I think that it needed more editing. More on that later, I guess, but here’s a review that says  pretty well how I feel about it right now. When I finish the book, maybe I’ll feel differently, I dunno. None of that matters. If I’d been able to go out and buy the artisanal copy, I probably would   have bought two copies on spec (one for me, one for a gift). As it is, I bought an e-book for around ten bucks and saved myself $45.91.

How many other people did the same, or can’t buy the e-book because they don’t have the technology? How many people do you think will buy this book later, in an independent bookstore when it finally becomes available? How many people are going to mail a cheque or send an email with Paypal info? Ugh.

I think quite a few people just won’t buy either version, and it seems that the “conceit” mentioned earlier might be one that costs the author more than she bargained for. Gaspereau Press can live with the concessions they’ve made to their Art, but did Johanna Skibsrud choose to make those same concessions?

My congratulations to Ms. Skibsrud on her win.

Red Shoes, Connecticut, and A Lesson in Alphabetizing

I’m sitting in a Toyota dealership, waiting for my car’s regularly scheduled maintenance to be completed. I came armed with all of my tools – Sony e-reader, iPad, Blackberry. In the past half hour since I got here, I’ve used all of them, but find the iPad the most beguiling.

Right now I’m people watching…. Such a motherload of characters here, in this little dealership today. My current fave is the woman with red patent leather high heels. She also has dangly earrings like cherries (I am not making this up!), an ankle bracelet, a full length pleather coat, and a fake Louis Vuitton bag. She is both over- and under-dressed. She has been swanning around the showroom, clickety-clacking her heels and stroking her chinny-chin-chin and looking very important.

I thought she wanted to buy a car, but now I’m not sure. She was tippy-tapping around the SUV (the shiny red one, to match her shoes) but now she is sitting with the rest of us in the waiting room. She is one of those people who lick their fingers when they want to turn the page of their magazine. That used to seem glamorous to me; those sassy dames in 40’s movies licked their fingers when they read. Now it just makes me think about germs.

Her heels are open toed and she has coral toenail polish. I really want to take her out for a coffee. I have imagined a whole life story for her, and wish I could compare notes with her to see if I’m close.

One reason I’m here, aside from it being the regular time for this car check up, is that Mr. 761 and I are going on a road trip to Connecticut, and it’s always nice to have car checked out first. My brother lives there, with his wife and two adorable girls, and since it’s an easy drive we thought we’d go. Grandma & Grandpa 761 will also be there, and it seemed like a nice way to make a quick week’s jaunt  into something extra nice. The last time I chatted with Grandpa 761 he didn’t sound great, but I talked to him this afternoon and he sounded much better. I’m happy about that.

I like that Mr. 761’s job gives us this freedom…. For so many years we lived minute-to-minute, working at raising the kids, working at our jobs, and making ends meet. Anywhere we wanted to go had to be accessible, which ruled out a lot – even family. Now, the kids are grown, or almost-grown, and we have these month-long leaves that allow us to go places. Connecticut is only 14 hours away by car – one long day, or two lovely relaxed days – but we have never driven there together. This is our time. I’m hungry to spend this time with him, to show him places and people dear to me – places and people we were too busy/broke/tired to see until now. It really is a gift, in a lot of ways (the whole work-in-Kandahar part of it bites, as does the not having him here all the time, but we’re managing, and trying to really appreciate the perks).

So. We leave tomorrow, and I may blog, but may not. Depends.

You have not yet read a single thing on this blog today about CBC Canada Reads 2011. The reason for that is that I have had nothing much to say about it lately. I have voted already, and I’m awaiting the results of the vote next week. I’m now trolling the blogs to see what people out there are saying, and I’m starting an alphabetical read of all 40 — what the hell, right? I’ve read about half of them, but will re-read those as well, so I’m going to have some very pleasant times ahead.

One reason I’m doing it alphabetically by author is that the bright lights at CBC Canada Reads decided to alphabetize it by book title, counting THE as a word. My sense of order was so offended by this that I had to re-order it. I could not leave it the way it was. Maybe I’m too picky (I did create my own early version of the dewey decimal system for my books as a 10-year old geek girl), but you just can’t organize book titles and count THE as part of it. Holy Mother of all things Lexicographical, what school did Erin go to?

So, two Atwoods and an Abdou – the Bone Cage (which was listed waaaay down in the “T’s” instead of the freaking “A’s” where it belongs…. yikes. I’ll be reading Abdou’s book first, since it’s alphabetically FIRST (unless you do it by title, and count THE as part of it, which would just be silly).

Below, I have placed the alphabetized list of the Top 40 the way I would do it if I were my job to, I dunno,  alphabetize a frigging list of books. I’ve left the links to the reviews from Q&Q that the CBC crew put in there, but please just read the books. Or look around for more than one review (more than 140 characters would be useful).

1.      Abdou  The Bone Cage

2.      Atwood Oryx and Crake

3.      Atwood The Year of the Flood

4.      Benjamin Drive-by Saviours

5.      Boyden Three Day Road

6.      Boyden Through Black Spruce

7.      Buchanan The Day the Falls Stood Still

8.      Conlin Heave

9.      Crummey Galore

10.  Dixon The Girls Who Saw Everything

11.  Donoghue Room

12.  Fallis The Best Laid Plans

13.  Finucan The Fallen

14.  Gibb Sweetness in the Belly

15.  Gibson Pattern Recognition

16.  Glover Elle

17.  Grant Come, Thou Tortoise

18.  Harvey Inside

19.  Hay Late Nights on Air

20.  Hill The Book of Negroes

21.  Lawson Crow Lake

22.  Lemire Essex County

23.  MacDonald The Way the Crow Flies

24.  MacIntyre The Bishop’s Man

25.  Martel Life of Pi

26.  McKay The Birth House

27.  McKay Jr. Twenty-Six

28.  Moore February

29.  Novik Conceit

30.  O’Neill Lullabies for Little Criminals

31.  Pick Far to Go

32.  Redekop Shelf Monkey

33.  Robertson Moody Food

34.  Shields Unless

35.  Tamaki Skim

36.  Toews A Complicated Kindness

37.  Urquhart The Stone Carvers

38.  Vanderhaeghe The Last Crossing

39.  Whittall Bottle Rocket Hearts

40.  Wright Clara Callan

Clusterwha? and a Poll….

Mr. 761 is ex-military. As such, he has a colorful vocabulary that I have found particularly enriching. There are phrases and terms that grad school didn’t teach me (but should have).

The term “clusterfuck” for example.

I can’t help it, I really like that word. It is related to the word “snafu“, which stands for “situation normal, all, er, effed up”. I hate to offend people, but anyone who knows me knows that we all curse like sailors here at Box 761. Or, rather, like airmen. Anyway, clusterfuck (aka “charlie foxtrot”) signifies a few different things, but my favorite definition is this one:

A situation that is totally fucked up, especially as a result of managerial incompetence.

Originally of military origin; a double play on the word “cluster,” both evoking multiple fuckups, as used in the term “cluster bomb,” and evoking the oak leaf or star “cluster” insignia of the [officer] who did the fucking.

Why am I taking you through this potentially offensive vocabulary lesson, you ask? Well, because I have been trying to figure out how to write about CBC Canada Reads, and have been trying to find a way in to the conversation. This topic has kind of taken over box 761, and while I like it and am obviously invested in it, part of me wants Canada Reads to just get their act together so I can write about other stuff — like, the green curry I made for dinner the other night, or how nice it is to have Mr. 761 home on leave from Kandahar. I’d love to write about my ongoing (and quite heart-breaking) search for just the right wall-covering for my bedroom, or my upcoming road trip with the Mr.

I’d like to talk about my trip to Toronto last weekend to see Wicked (not the best show ever, but oh, so steampunkily terrific – full of gears and giant clocks and smoke), what a great travel companion my youngest is, how great it was to see old friends from university days, and about my new boots:

Instead, I find myself getting in another froth about the doings over at CBC.

Last night, an author I know posted on Facebook that he’d been on the CBC Canada Reads site and Lo, (cue angels singing) found the list of the 40 Essential Books up and on the site. His own name was on it, as were, well, 39 others. There was a tag line about Erin “knowing how to read to 6000”, which I assume was the number of votes cast.

Really? That’s all? For crying out loud. There are 34,260,000 million people in this country and only 6000 votes? We should all weep for shame.

When he went back to check again, it was gone. I assume that Ms. Balser or the tech person (if they have one) had been previewing how it was going to look or something? Stupid mistake, and not one you can get away with in this day and age. It was all over Facebook almost immediately.

Then the day finally came. We listened to Jian Ghomeshi’s admittedly very lovely voice read out a random selection of the Top 40, and then when we went to the website like he told us to do (five times he said “go there now” – we counted), we discovered there was no list. It was slated to be up at eleven Toronto time, apparently. It’s a big country, Jian — we were all listening at 11 a.m. Atlantic time. Some authors were named over the air, but not all. Certainly I didn’t expect (or want) you to read out all forty names, Jian, but exhorting us to go to the website when it wasn’t actually loaded was not cool.

FINALLY, it’s up and all is well, right? Nope. Quickly, we realized that while there were indeed 40 books on the list, there were only 37 listed on the poll. Apparently Erin can count to 6000, but not to 40. They took the list down, and when it was up again, those three books were on it, but tagged on to the end, rather than in alpha order with the others. You don’t think that’s going to affect the votes?

Long boring story. I’m  boring myself, really I am. I’m just tired of this, this… tiresome slack-ass lack of respect for Canadian authors. Fine, make it like the Hunger Games. Make it so that it’s a mix of American Idol and Survivor, fine. But stop changing the rules in the middle of the game, stop egging them on with orders to “get cracking” (jeez, that still rankles), and for the love of all things holy try to get this stuff right the first time.

You don’t know how to count? Get someone to help. You don’t know how to put a poll up online? Get someone to help. You mess up and only put 37 on the alphabetical list? Fix it AND put them all in order. You might have to type the whole list out again, but don’t you think that they’re worth it? You don’t think that making it to the Top 40 of all books written in Canada in a decade doesn’t rate retyping the list?

Today on Q Jian Ghomeshi sounded like he was trying to make sure we all knew that it’s just this year that Canada Reads will be in this format. I don’t know if that’s because he’s been keeping an eye on the blogosphere/Twitterverse/CBC website or what, but it did sound as if he were slightly apologetic about this. I see that The (Canada Reads) Life of Brian blog addressed some of the issues that I’ve been bitching about, too.

That’s all good. Really it is. But does it address the overall clusterfuck-ishness of this process?

No. I think not. This truly is a bit of a snafu, seems to me.

I had more I wanted to write, but I’m feeling as if this rant isn’t doing any good. I keep writing the same stuff, in different ways. So instead, I’m going to end this post with two things. First, a heartfelt congratulations to all authors involved in this spectacle. Thank you for writing and thank you for playing this game, with grace.

Second, I have a hankering to do a poll (look familiar?). Here are the rules:

  1. You can vote only once, unless you feel like voting more. (just an aside here… with a Polldaddy poll, you can vote more than once if you change your IP and cookies, or just use a different computer, just sayin’)
  2. I reserve the right to change the rules, at any time
  3. There will be three winning answers. I will post two
  4. If you want this to count, you should get cracking
  5. Write your own answers. Hell, write your own questions. I want to know.

Monster Truck Reading

This blog was not written on the iPad

My computer has a nasty virus. So nasty, in fact, that I haven’t been able to write anything in days. Coincidentally, I was gifted by Mr. 761 with an iPad. I have been enjoying the virus-free nature of both and as a consequence I have fallen behind on filling Box 761. The iPad deserves (and will get, eventually) its own post. I love it, almost as much as I love the guy who gave it to me.

I am getting distracted though.

After the past few posts about the CBC Canada Reads silliness, I realized I was spent. Maybe I’m a little glad that my computer is infected (maybe that’s what infected it?)it made me take a breath and step back a little to think.

I keep coming back to that “get cracking” comment of 14 October. I can’t seem to get it out of my head. I’ve been reading the CBC Canada Reads website, but only sporadically since. I realized I was reading it and looking for fodder, for something to snark about…. not healthy, and certainly not helpful in any way to any one.

Have you ever been to a demolition derby? I went, once, and had a terrific time. For me, it was 85% tongue-in-cheek post-modern snotty fascination, and 10% real enjoyment — watching the silly violence, the lights and smoke. The other 5% withheld judgment of any kind — I guess I was trying to process the spectacle, and suffered from a sort of sensory overload.  That’s how I feel about this Canada Reads spectacle. The crowd is getting really large, there’s stuff going on in all corners of the arena, and I can’t quite seem to catch a clear view — too much smoke. I wonder if it’s going to be worth the time and energy. I’m kind of digging it, but it’s entirely mediated by the noise around it.

Frankly, I’m not sure I’m going to bother waiting this out to the end.

One of the peripheral benefits of this has been, for me, that I’ve gathered a renewed respect for those who choose to make a life as authors. I’ve wondered if I had what it took — to sit and create; to craft my thoughts and life into a work that spoke to others. Then you have to contend with getting published,  try to figure out how to deal with agents or marketing managers and publicists (or lack thereof)… it’s all business in a way that seems counter productive, as far as art goes. I see the need for it, but wonder too at how this business has formed itself this way.

hello, Mr. Richler? You just haven't generated enough emails to be in the competition, I'm sorry....

Since when does the artist have to get cracking at anything but creating?  Did Ernest Buckler have to figure out how to get his publisher to adequately market his book? Did Dorothy Parker have to worry about getting enough friends to send Tweets on behalf of her book? Can you imagine some flippant 20-something who thinks a book review over 140 characters is “too hard” telling Margaret Lawrence to get cracking?

I guess that there are a few things that are bothering me. This is a contest, after all, and I suppose I shouldn’t be bothered with people competing, but I am. It doesn’t feel like a fair fight, or a clean one. At this point, I’m not even sure who the contestants are.  Some of this might be a generational thing — I’m old enough to feel like something about this whole thing is, well, unseemly. That the CBC and its youngsters aren’t affording authors and their works enough respect. That it’s their job to help raise up art, rather than to build the demolition derby  arena and then make them fight to get in it.

I can’t say that I won’t be keeping tabs on who “wins” and listening to the program. I will, however, be listening with 85% tongue-in-cheek post-modern snotty fascination. I’m not sure what the remaining 15% will be.

Mistress of my domain

No matter where I go, 761 is home

I have finally gotten around to making a permanent home for Box 761….

Now, if you type in, it will take you here. If you have links from when it was on WordPress, don’t worry — they’ll still work.

Was talking today with a friend about the particular sweetness of finding one’s place. Box761 feels like it’s my place, and it is sweet.

She’ll write things for you, if you like….

I started Box 761 unwittingly. Not without forethought, but with a sense of not knowing (or even caring overmuch) where it was going to go. I just wanted to write about what I was thinking. As a result, I’ve felt free enough to write about anything I want, when I want.

A few days ago I felt like writing about the Canada Reads 2011 “Essential” list. That post got more hits than anything I’ve written to date, and changed this blog into an entirely different proposition for me.

I’m a  “stats watcher”. I like to see how many people read what I’ve written. I understand the urge to look at the stats, and I know it must be akin to what an author feels when they have a book published. It feels good. It feels validating. It feels like what you’ve written matters.

I found that with that single post,  my “readership” went up hugely. . It certainly hit a nerve. When I wrote that post, I didn’t do much except sit down and just write. I was responding to one specific post on a CBC blog. I didn’t research it, or even look around to see who else was writing about it — I just wrote it, and wrote it quickly.  Since then, I’ve read some great blogs about Canada Reads: Stephen W. Beattie’s post Canada Reads loses the plot: updated was especially well-written and germane. I felt compelled to write a comment on his post, largely to speak to an earlier comment from Erin Balser, an Associate Producer of Canada Reads.

She wrote, in part (full comment can be found at the link to Mr. Beattie’s blog, above):

I personally think change is good, and we’ll just have to wait and see if it works. I have faith in the reading public that the list will be reflective of what Canada reads or wants to reads or what they want to see on Canada Reads. And if it’s not, well, Beattie, you’ll have something else to write about.

So, thanks to everyone who has discussed, dissected and destroyed this year’s format. I’m loving every minute of it.

And so is everyone else at the CBC. Really.

I need to point out that the “Really.” tagged onto the end of that line just really gets my goat. Her calling him “Beattie” bothers me. Her obvious glee with the way this is shaping up made me sad. Here is the response I left on that site:

I further add that what I find especially difficult for me to watch is that this new format is pitting authors against authors (not, I might add, book against book — it’s a nuance that’s important to point out).

Erin Balser (producer at CBC) points out the connection to “Survivor” here; I take that further and suggest that it’s a Can-lit “Hunger Games”. Balsor’s comment […] seems to me to be just a little bit dismissive. It makes me think of her and her cohorts rubbing their hands together as they snicker over the hoops they’re causing authors to jump through. This isn’t – not any more — about readers. It’s about which author sings loud enough for their supper.

Having already conceived of and created the supper, it seems really unfair to make them beg for it too.

One nugget of information I did glean from Erin Balser’s comment was that she has a blog, called Books in 140 and A Bunch of Other  Fun Things. Here’s a screen dump from her site. It explains, I think, the mindset behind Canada Reads 2011.


 About Erin  Erin Balser grew up in small-town Nova Scotia and somehow ended up living in the downtown core of Toronto, where she drinks too much coffee, tells people she’s a writer, spends all her free time on the internet and writes a lot. She’ll write things for you, if you like. They’ll be nonsensical and filled with snarktastic comments, but she’ll do it for a very low price.  She’s a whore like that. About Books in 140  Books in 140 started when Erin decided to validate her book buying addiction by writing “reviews.” Except long reviews are hard. And take time. Erin thought she’d solve this problem by writing reviews in 140 characters on twitter. The book buying validation is solved. The review writing is not.  If you want a book to be reviewed, want to submit a guest review, want to be interviewed, or just want to tell Erin how awesome she is, head over to the contact page.  If contact pages aren’t your thing, feel free to email Erin! She hearts emails. Review Policy  I read what I want, when I want and review what I want, when I want. Books in 140 is as much meant to be a representation of my tastes and reading habits as it is a space to discover new books.

she hearts emails


That, my friends, is pretty much my last word on this.

I know that from now on I’ll feel like writing about Canadian fiction much more often than I had before.

Canada Reads? Welcome to the CBC Games.

A few days ago, I wrote a fairly tongue in cheek post about books I’ve been reading. I was a little sheepish, actually, because there was a lot of dreck in there with the good stuff. I mean, I’m a reader. I have two degrees in english lit., worked in publishing for years, and have always read not only in great quantity, but managed to think about it while I was doing it. But I decided to just leave the list as it was — I’m not so invested in this that my ego will take a hit if someone laughs at me because I like popular fiction, along with my classics.

The really important issue, of course, is that I’m a reader. I buy books, almost always new, because I care about giving authors their royalties. Electronic or otherwise, I’m trying to make sure that my reading something counts. I’m a bit of a stickler about copyright, and once made my daughter cry because I wouldn’t break copyright laws and burn a cd of the Back Street Boys for her. I have dear friends who are brave enough to try to make a life as authors — not an easy thing to do in Canada, and certainly there is a special place in heaven waiting for them.

Imagine my delight when the CBC’s Canada Reads 2011 announced their contest to find the Top 40 Essential  Novels of the past decade. I thought it was a great idea, and made a mental note to nominate a friend’s novel (Heave, by Christy Ann Conlin) when I next was on the computer. I like her book a lot, I like her, and I know her commitment. I know the struggles that went into writing that book. Is it essential? Dunno, but I like it and wanted to put her book’s name in the hat. This decade had produced a vast amount of Canadian fiction that I think are essential. The number of books I’ve bought, read, lent out and put on my shelves at home is a big one. “Essential” is a toughie, so I’m not really going there. I will, though, say that 40 years from now, Heave will give a clear, poetic, and funny picture of a specific place and time, of a particular generation.

She nailed it.

So did a multitude of other hard-working, multi-tasking and over-extended writers. I could name scores of whom I think have written fine works, scores more who moved me, irritated me, made me want more. That’s what good writing does. That Canadian writers persist in writing, in the face of the small returns, astounds me. There are very few million-dollar contracts here, a “best seller” in Canada is a work that’s sold 5,000 copies or more.

People don’t do this to get rich, though we’d all like them to be able to. As with anything, there’s a certain amount of self-promotion necessary. In the world of Twitter/Facebook/YouTube/blogging odds are that it’ll help your sales if you know how to exploit (social)media. I mean, in a world where Shit My Dad Says goes from a Twitter feed to a book and then a shitty sitcom starring an increasingly squinty and ubiquitious William Shatner….

It obviously pays to know your way around the interweb. That Shit has made bags of money for that guy, and it is a household name.

There is, though, a moment when necessary, healthy narcissism becomes something more sinister. I think that moment is when that narcissism becomes celebrated. When the urge to self-promote is expected.  To wit, today’s CBC  Canada Reads 2011 blog entry:

Things are heating up in the race to the top 40! Several authors aren’t taking any chances and have started campaigns of their own: Corey Redekop, author of Shelf Monkey, has a Facebook page dedicated to getting his novel on Canada Reads and Leo McKay Jr., author of Twenty-Six, has started a YouTube series sharing 26 reasons his novel should make the cut. We’re not ready to reveal numbers just yet, but we’re willing to say that the campaigns are working. If you’re an author with a book you want to see make the list, you better get cracking.

They’re kidding, right? I find that the whole paragraph gives me an uncomfortable feeling, but that last sentence really has me shuddering, just a bit. Like, it wasn’t enough that the author worked at least one job (if not two), while writing their essential novel? It wasn’t enough that most writers choose to live at or below the poverty line, and persisted in honing their craft? It’s not enough that their novel drove enthusiastic readers to vote for the book?

Apparently it’s not. They are now required to “get cracking” and create a publicity campaign! I went to Corey Redekop’s Facebook site, and he’s actually offering money to people who vote for his book. I’m sure he’s a great guy, but I’m afraid I have not yet read his book and this Facebook campaign is not making me want to….  Just sayin’.

Remember the list I told you about? The list of books I’ve read lately? One of them was a terrific book called The Hunger Games (part of a trilogy by the same name). It’s a YA book that seems to have crossed over (meaning grown ups are “allowed” to read it too). I loved these books, and think that Suzanne Collins is a brilliant writer. For those of you who’ve not read it, it’s set in a dystopian future where once a year the government requires that each district give up two of its children, chosen by lottery, and enter them in the Hunger Games. They are dropped into an enormous arena strewn with traps and hazards, with a heap of weapons and supplies in the middle. The last person alive wins a lifetime of luxury and celebrity. The action is filmed and broadcast to the entire world.

Remind you of anything?

This whole 40 Essential books thing wasn’t set up to be  a Can-Lit Version of the Hunger Games, I know it wasn’t. It has, though, degraded into something akin to that. It was not set up to be an opportunity for authors to shill their wares. I wrote a comment on their blog, because I thought it was kind of creepy that they were encouraging this behavior — suggesting that authors get cracking, instead of reminding us all that it’s really about readers sharing books they think are essential. It’s about sharing what moved you. It’s about encouraging people to go out and buy books, to make reading a normal part of your life.

Someone answered my comment, and suggested that it was a great way for them to find out about books they’d never heard of, that authors were seizing the opportunity to publicize their books…. while this may be true, to a certain degree, the game’s rules have changed. As soon as the CBC told authors to get cracking it became an imperative.

Odds are that whichever books “win” the top 40 will be good ones –there are a lot of good books out there. But I suspect that many really great authors will be so turned off by this ridiculous, degrading exercise that they will have nothing to do with it. It’s no longer about Canada Reading; it’s about Canadian authors having to shill, and to sing for their suppers.

My advice to you? Go buy a book today, hopefully one by a Canadian author. Write a fan letter to a Canadian author, and forgive those authors pandering to the CBC Games — they just got cracking because those seem to be the rules of the game these days.