Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Copyright Debate

The following was shared with Access Copyright Affiliates.

You might also want to check out an interesting post on this subject at John Degen's blog.


By now you must have heard about the federal government’s summer-long consultations on reforms to the Copyright Act.

Like other creator and publisher organizations, Access Copyright will make formal submissions to the government on our priorities as your rights collective. Nevertheless, it’s vital that you also get involved to ensure your voice is heard.

This is because an important aspect of these consultations is being expressed online, and that debate is dominated by individuals who do not agree you should get fair compensation for digital and other reproductions of your works.

It’s a simple fact that users outnumber us. But Canadian users involved in the online debate are so adept at leveraging the Internet and social networks to their advantage, there’s a danger that your voices as Canadian creators and publishers will be drowned out by the chatter. Your interests need to be expressed as forcefully as possible, and it’s up to you to get involved to make that happen.

So what can you do? To begin with, go online and tell people who you are and what you do. Before posting a comment online, you do need to register, but not to worry, registration takes all of one minute. Tell them you need and deserve to get paid for what you do, and tell them why it’s in their interest as Canadians that you do. The more you make your presence felt, the more effective you will be.

What else can you do? Use social networking tools to generate discussion of your perspectives. Shoot a video of yourself, post it on YouTube and then Twitter or Facebook the link. We won’t even try to offer suggestions on being imaginative and provocative as that’s your domain, not ours. But do what you can, as often as you can, as loudly as you can, and encourage colleagues and friends to do the same.

Here’s a sample of the sort of message that needs to get out there:

“My name is Jane Doe and I’m a writer. I’ve published xx novels and xx plays in Canada, and I am read all over the world. This is my livelihood. It pays the rent and puts food on the table. I have a right to benefit from my work and get paid for it. I need to get paid, or I can’t go on. When someone reproduces my work for free, it destroys the market for it, and I suffer the consequences. Don’t let them make that legal. It’s not right, and it’s not fair. Creators need to get paid.”

That’s the bottom line: It’s only right, it’s only fair. Creators need to get paid.

Over to you!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Margaret Christakos

Wordsworth told us poetry was "spontaneous emotion recollected in tranquility." Us post-postmoderns now consider this trite in the extreme. About the only thing people seem to agree on these days about poetry is that they don’t agree on anything.

When I first encountered Wordsworth’s construction as a dim undergraduate, though, it seemed reasonable enough. I hadn’t read any Wordsworth. The only poetry I’m sure I’d read before ENG101 was Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie (such was the state of Ontario’s school system in the 1980s – which is much improved these days, I’m sure).

Still, somehow I’d decided to pursue a degree in English lit, and I was ripe with spontaneous emotion. Recollecting my teenage chaotic inner life in tranquility seemed almost delivered by doctor’s orders.

I even wrote a couple dozen poems following that principle, some of which were published. Others, of course, were horrid, but I kept at it. I caught a Romantic fever and eventually had something that resembled a poetic voice, though my lines kept turning into sentences and my poems into short stories.

Now that I’m past 40 and more tranquil than spontaneous, I can no longer claim to understand what John Keats meant when he claimed to be "certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination." (A quotation I liked a lot back in those lazy, hazy, crazy days.)

Nowadays, poetry often irritates me. It seems too often naïve, baffling or irrelevant. At the same time, I long for some old time religion.

In part, my distaste for poetry is a rebellion against Romanticism, I know, and a rebellion against youth. My own. (How could I have been so stupid?) But it was never poetry’s fault, and it’s me who’s changed; me who had silly, unrealized expectations.

Another way of confessing this is, it took me too long to come into contact with Auden.

"To live outside the law, you must be honest" (Bob Dylan).

It’s not like I prefer the traditional over the experimental, or the formal over the visual. I like the original over the cliché, the lively over the staid, which isn’t saying much.

I want poetry to be sceptical about its insights and conclusions. But I also want poetry to be something other than another layer of advertising, technical lingo or other form of 21st century linguistic falseness.

Recently, therefore, I was pleased to discover Sooner (Coach House Books, 2005) by Margaret Christakos, which reminded me how wise, funny, irritating, insightful, dull, confusing, sexy, marginal, neurotic, blissful and mind-blowing poetry can be.

The book also stirred up my thoughts about poetry, which led to the above speculations.

The poems by Christakos seemed to be engaged in the same kind of struggle with their aesthetics that I’ve described above. Providing songs for angels while also proving the non-existence of God. Giving reasons to celebrate life regardless of the collapse of truth and the new unreliability of spontaneous emotion, however reflected or refracted.

Or whatever.

The book consists of seven sections. Some consist of a single long poem. Others contain a series of shorter poems. One lovely, Romantic Ode is about the voice of Peter Gzowski.


The voice of XXX the bodiless lover XXX is a trope
for the world’s XXX brooding power to XXX scintillate our aliveness


I picked up Sooner in a bookstore and bought it because of the two long poems that begin it. I read a few pages and wanted to possess them, wanted more time to read and contemplate them.

Each is a narrative. Characters do things, move through time. The reader sees different perspectives. Characters seek to fulfil desire and are disappointed. Ideals are unfulfilled, held back by reality.

"Between the real and the ideal falls the shadow" – TS Eliot.

This is the essence of wisdom. To keep trying, though failure is certain. Every destination is a new beginning and other cliches of this sort.

This is how the first one starts:


If there was a place in her body that could
turn to ice then melt again she might have seen

the point of walking forehead-first into the restaurant whose air
conditioning charged one with the sense of a balloon-shaped planet

whistling oxygen at alarming speed The park attracted her lungs
with a movement of green shadow She laid her body

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx on the grass like a wrestler felled by brute force


I trust this voice. I will go anywhere with it.

But, okay, not every section of the book pleased me equally. The section RETREAT DIARY I found hard to fathom. This I wasn’t keen on:


This is my new book.
This is of jouissance and I
half smile. You are some

one I like a lit
tle playing to lose pants fair
ly. Her middle fin

gers smell of the juice
before the curtains tank. …


But I appreciated the experimental spirit exhibited throughout. I sensed an engagement both with life and with language. This is vague and untechnical, but I mean it as high praise.

I'm happy to say I’d read anything by Christakos at this point, and I surely mean to read her again soon(er - ha - too irresistible). I trust her to read me somewhere interesting – and to provide fun (and sometimes strange and difficult) companions along the way.

She has helped renew poetry for me. An unending process, I imagine.

Thanks, MC.

Some links to check out:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Alexandra Leggat

Alexandra Leggat's Animal (Anvil Press, 2009) contains 14 stories in its 169 pages. I'm tempted to say it's a slim, distilled masterpiece.

Other early reviews are good, too.

In today's Globe and Mail, Ibi Kaslik compared Leggat to Amy Hempel and Joy Williams:

Consider the marked narrative fragmentation of Amy Hempel's work, in which the only clean message is that love is owed to dogs and art is redemptive. Consider also Joy Williams's languid and rootless female characters, who do not make a move without their canine bodyguards who double as soulmates. It is no coincidence that Hempel and Williams, two of the best and most innovative U.S. writers, both women, write nearly obsessively about animals, specifically dogs.

Writing about dogs is a brave and defiant choice in this era of post-postfeminism, where women are simultaneously mocked and celebrated for their choice of nurturing animals over infants. Leggat's characters, like Hempel's and Williams's females, find solace in dogs, and all three writers seem always to return to canine as symbol, as saviour, as truth.

Defiant of whom or what, I wonder.

Interesting, too, that the back cover blurb compares the "style" of the stories to Raymond Carver, though I found this comparison weak. The blurb continues: "The stories contained in Animal depict people on the brink of major life change." Then: "Life acts for them."

Kaslik's analysis is much more interesting.

This isn't a book about life change; it isn't a book about animals as symbols, either. It is, however, a book heavily infused with a female perspective. It is a book about women, mostly childless, mostly disappointed with men. Animals are a recurring motif. So is alcohol.

I don't find the style reminiscent of Carver. Some of the situations described are mildly Carveresque. Characters seem mildly adrift, confused, uncertain, passive in the face of life's absurdities, but many writers have stuff like that. Not just Carver. And Leggat has much else going on besides.

The comparison to Hempel also surprised me. Hempel is a more abstract writer than Leggat, in my memory at least. She is more stylistically awkward and illogical, leaving wild gaps in stories that readers need to be lively to fill in. Leggat isn't like this either. She is more human, if that's fair to say. More humane, maybe.

A post-feminist writer? I wouldn't say so.

One character notes if you are a woman, you are always being observed. Leggat's characters don't nurture grievances about their femininity, but they do often remark on the fact of being female. One narrator begins her story noting her "long blonde hair," then goes on to tell how she has dreams about playing for the Indianapolis Colts, taking passes from Peyton Manning (probably the only male in the book who posseses no weakness, fault or anxiety).

The recurring scenario in this book is about being female and being let down by men and getting on with life anyway, without children (doesn't make you any less of a woman) and probably without a dog either. I don't think that's a post-feminist thing.

Honesty, in my view, is what makes these stories strong. And, yes, brave and defiant.

Defiant of all the pressures in contemporary life to stifle the truth. Be a team-player. Don't rock the boat. Put others before yourself: your man, your children, your job.

Like Rawi Hage, Leggat harkens back to an earlier generation of existentialists.

Leggat's characters state the honest realities of their lives. They aren't self-pitying. They aren't narcissistic. They don't ask for anything special, except Sunday afternoon's free to watch football and a chance, once and a while, to catch a dream.

Ending with an aside: In his Eye Weekly review, Brian Joseph Davis indicated he generally liked the book, but not the opening story:

“Wide,” Leggat’s first story, has a terse first-person narrative in which the writer delays, perhaps too long, letting the reader know what is really going on. Jess is affected in some way: he can’t talk; he bangs his fists against the ground; he bruises easily; he points; he falls asleep to the sound of static on TV. His wife narrates the five pages, following him out into a cornfield and back. Another man pulls up and, for reasons unknown, trims branches from their fir tree. It’s all a little too vague for an opening salvo.

Myself, I liked the opening story. It is stark, and it is not easy to read, but it alerted me to quickly to how sharp this book would turn out to be. The collection's closer, on the other hand, is much more accessible (and would be the hit single, if this were an album). Maybe it would have been a easier way to begin the book. But easy isn't what Leggat is going for here. Neither did I find the story vague. In fact, I'd made a mental note to write here that it seemed a great way to begin the book. As it is, it's a great way to end this review.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Goodbye Pages

I have no problem calling Pages Toronto's premier book store. Now it's closing.

But it's a new world, isn't it? I saw this news first on Twitter. Someone linked to the Torontoist story.

Looks like the This is Not a Reading Series will continue, which is somewhat consoling. But for those who'd like to save Pages, including me!

Independent book stores have been disappearing for a decade or more now.

There's something going on with the future of books. Who knows what.

Somewhere in all of this, literature will survive.

I have some photographs that I took on Queen West in the 1980s that I will add to this blog post soon. When I think of Pages, I think of 1987.

I think of that ad from NOW of the boy smoking!

Pages, you were great. You are still until August 31st!!

Added link: Toronto Star article, July 10, 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Terry Griggs

The new Terry Griggs novel Thought You Were Dead (Biblioasis, 2009) is described across the blogosphere as a mystery, but I think it's a satire. A satire of what, though?

Early reviews are available here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. They are unfailingly positive.

Also online: a "trailer" for the book; a profile of the author; an essay by Griggs on flies; a report on the book launch; an interview with the author; the innovative Revenge Lit contest the publisher dreamed up to help promote the novel.

The plot (the least interesting part of the book):

Set in contemporary small town Ontario, the action revolves around the erudite but perpetually under-employed Chellis Beith. Abandoned as a child by his mother and taken in by a local family, Beith finds himself in the unlikely occupation of literary researcher. His employer, Athena Havlock, an older woman and famous novelist, swears him to secrecy and sends him on odd missions of information dumpster diving. Meanwhile, Beith's true love, Elaine Champion, a slighly sadistic odd-ball inventor, has married a yuppie and imitates the bland upper-middle-class lifestyle she is clearly ill-suited for.

Yes, there is a murder, too. But though the murder is referenced in the opening pages, it isn't what kicks off the action. This isn't a whodunnit. The relevance of the murder is only made clear towards the end of the novel. In the meantime, much delightful mayhem has ensued.

Doesn't sound like a satire, does it? Doesn't sound all that interesting, either.

But it is.

The London Free Press review called it "cheerfully insane." The Hamilton Spectator review warned the book is "so screechingly funny and impossibly glib that you sometimes have to give your head a shake and remind yourself: Serious up! There's evil afoot!"

Satire, of course, is where the serious and the humourous join together.

To write this review, I wanted to provide at least one link to a relatively recent summary of satire in Canadian literature. I didn't find any. You can find the results of my quest here.

I also looked for a quote that in my memory is linked to Lynn Coady, who I believe once complained that the only Canadian writer allowed to be funny was Mordecai Richler. (I tried to source this, but Google turned up nothing; I remember it as possibly appearing in This Magazine).

The career of Terry Griggs might serve as further proof of Coady's thesis. Or as one person advised when I was researching satire in Canadian literature: "try Earnestness and Canadian Literature for a much richer source list."

In fact, there is a long, rich history of humour and satire in Canadian literature; the popular imagination, however, resists acknowledging it. Greater minds than mine will need to explain why.

The most current and comprehensive summary of "Humour and Satire in Canadian Literature" that I could find was by UNB professor Jennifer Andrews and appeared in Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (U of T Press, 2002). I can't say that I recommend it.

While it provides an extensive review of humour and satire in writing based in Canada from the pre-contact First Nations through to Dany Laferriere, it also manages to leave out Lynn Coady, Douglas Glover, Mark Anthony Jarman, John Metcalf, Stuart Ross, Tony Burgess and, incredibly, Leon Rooke, among others, including Terry Griggs.

The further reading suggested cites articles published in 1982, 1969, 1938, 1980-1, 1992 and 1968. Clearly, here is one topic eager to be mined by the next generation of graduate students.

Shaun Smith, however, in a 2002 review in Quill and Quire of TG's Rogues' Wedding (Random House), had no trouble identifying the genre and finding much to admire:

Iconoclasm lies at the heart of the novel. The closer you look at things – bugs, the sexes, social customs – the less familiar they become, until they no longer resemble themselves at all. For Griggs, every strange world is a portal into another equally strange one. With astonishing talent and control, she smashes apart Victorian society (and modern society by extension) and rebuilds it as a Swiftian fantasy, as raucous as Huckleberry Finn and almost as bizarre as Alice in Wonderland.

This is a rich mixture, intensely intoxicating and bestowing delicious feelings of hallucination. Farce and satire elevate to a kind of surrealism or Dadaism. Bugs mysteriously emerge from people’s mouths; pretty girls vanish through doorways never to be seen again; a crow dons a baby’s bonnet; a woman wears a trout on a ribbon around her neck. Like a labyrinth of words, a cipher of images, the novel defies one to look away, because its reality is redrawn (in distinctly feminist form) with every letter.

In fact, Smith later reviewed Douglas Glover's Elle (Goose Lane, 2003), which went on to win the GG, and found it wanting against the earlier Griggs novel.

But all of this is taking us away from the latest title.

If it's a satire, what is it satirizing?

General stupidity, is my guess.

The two central characters, Chellis and Elaine, are exceptionally bright, erudite, clever, sensitive, environmentall-friendly, etc. ... and also surrounded and victimized by illiterates and idiots.

Chellis is far worse off than Elaine, however, because he is Elaine's victim. He loves her, and she won't love him back. Chellis is worse off than anyone else in the book, in fact, apart from the dead guy who never really comes into focus. Chellis is so put-upon, he resembles one of Martin Amis's many male protagonists: he is unable to move his own life forward without coming to some accommodation with women.

Amis on his men: "They don't want to be obeyed particularly. They just want to be fancied. And, of course, they are looking for love."

Chellis has no expectation of being obeyed. He's simply grateful for whatever crumb comes his way. His mother abandoned him. His adoptive mother is dead. His employer is highly controlling and abusive. His love-object married someone else and yet still maintains a come-here-go-away friendship with him. Later, his long-lost "sister" appears and so does someone claiming to be his mother. Chellis has no other prospects of work or fate, except those offered to him or identified for him by women.

Is this a satire about the useless male? Or a comment about domineering women?

Alex Good called the book "a parody of the traditional village mystery." But he also identified the book as satire and suggested some of its targets:

Griggs hasn't written a puzzle book that invites the reader to pick up clues and figure out whodunit. Instead she has opted for a more general satire, not only of the mystery genre but the world of CanLit in general. One imagines Farclas to be somewhere in Alice Munro country, and when Chellis drives through "this dingier, ungroomed stretch of the province" with its immense fields sectioned into "deep squares of swishing yellow plant matter," he sees in its run-down streets the very source of its "literary gothic reputation." And if this is the source of so much of our literary culture, at the other end retail receives no kinder treatment. One particularly acid scene has Chellis and Elaine going to the mall and visiting a big box bookstore furnished with shelves of books for Dummies and staff who think Tolstoy is a Canadian author.

It is also interesting to note that Amis cloaked his early satires in so-called crime writing. An essay online by Brian Finney provides some exposition on this subject.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that Griggs has written a good book.

It's exceptionally clever, very funny, sharply intelligent. As many critics have been saying about Griggs for a long time now, she is someone who deserves to win major prizes in this country. Her readership deserves to grow. Everyone who enjoys vigorous prose should scrurry to the nearest big box retail outlet and harrass the teenagers at the counter for a box of Griggs asap.

One of the funniest things in this book is its ending: I don't want to give it away, but you'll get it, I'm sure, if I say ... maybe the satire is really a comedy, or a romance.


For those interested, I point out this essay by Philip Marchand: Terry Griggs and Barbara Gowdy: The Catholic versus the Protestant Imagination (Ripostes; Porcupine's Quill, 2000). Griggs is cited as Catholic, Gowdy as Protestant.


Here's one of my favourite passages from Thought You Were Dead:

No wonder Hunt was putting on the pounds these days. He never ate at home, and Chellis had discovered why. His first mistake had been accepting Moe's invitation to lunch, instead of inviting her out to eat. She could have picked censoriously at her fast food while he picked her brain, and the drinks bill wouldn't have mounted stupendously if he were paying. At her place, during the pre-luncheon period, which was comparable in length to the Precambrian, Chellis had slowly, slowwwly but surely gotten plastered. Not only had he dislocated his head (lost it!) knocking back tumblers of grappa, but he had the quesy impression that somewhere along the line, assured of the health benefits of the Medditerranean diet, he'd knocked back a bottle of extra virgin olive oil as well. Lunch, when it finally arrived, resembled molten Shrek on a plate. Offering it a pension seemed more appropriate than saying grace. At least the meal had been colour-coordinated with Moe's necrological chatter. He'd had no idea that she was such a ghoul.