Toronto bookstores step up

Now, which is like Toronto’s Village Voice, profiles a bunch of bookstores that are offering delivery. I really wish we had something similar here in St. John’s, but we can’t seem to sustain a single independent store here. It’s shameful, really, for a place so steeped in story. Go buy some books so these guys are still around when this whole thing slows down.

While you’re cooped up at home, take a break from Netflix or doomscrolling on Twitter and support your local bookstore, many of which are offering free delivery and curbside pick-up within Toronto. Some have started virtual book clubs or selling “mystery bags”, or have staff available to recommend the best quarantine reads. Although there’s nothing quite like browsing the packed shelves of a bookstore, this is the next best option.

Emily St. John Mandel interview

The publicity team behind this behemoth campaign has got this young woman everywhere. I relate to many of her answers here, including A Canticle for Leibowitz as her favourite dystopian novel, which I read as a teen as well. Maybe time to reread? People, including Ms. Ninja, keep telling me to read her Station Eleven, but we’ve lost our copy somewhere in the house.

Your previous novel, Station Eleven, featured a global pandemic – Georgia Flu. In light of the coronavirus, does the novel now seem worryingly prescient?

It doesn’t, but only because I read so much about pandemics when I was writing it. This is not to make light of pandemics at all – it’s a terrible situation – but this is just something that happens from time to time in human history. There have been pandemics before and there will be again. I think the unfortunate reality is that every few years Station Eleven will seem horribly relevant.

On dabbling when grappling with crisis

Often when I can’t write (usually when I’m holding down a soul-sucking corporate gig or have some other sort of ongoing crisis in my life), I turn to other forms of art I have practiced over the years but would never define myself as a practitioner of… Music, painting, photography, etc. I haul out the guitar and play a few numbers or draw something or go for walks to photograph plants (for some reason…) I usually find it restorative. It’s like charging a battery. However, I started writing a piece of commercial fiction in late September and got about 250 pages done by Christmas, and was feeling pretty good about it. Then Snowmaggedon hit here in Newfoundland and we were in a state of emergency until about halfway through February. Then just as that was settling down, and because we were paying attention, we could hear the distant train horn of The ‘Rona speeding down the tracks and decided to just stay huddled against the vagaries of the cruel world. This is all to say that I’ve been struggling to write since the first days of January, but have not allowed myself the luxury of wandering off to other creative endeavours. Just trying to keep the words coming. Certainly haven’t written 250 pages in this three month debacle. Maybe I should just cave and bang out some Merle Haggard on the old gittar. It’s nice to see this person coping.

For me, creativity comes when I “get out of the way” of whatever the impulse is; I feel like a vessel through which ideas are channelled. It’s such a curious thing, this muse. Do I write my own stories at all? Sometimes, when I’m writing, my protagonist does or says something that surprises me. How is that even possible when it’s come from my own brain? The easiest comparison I can make to this experience is falling asleep – let it happen, and it happens, but if you try to force it, you’re a lost cause.

This week I can’t get out of the way. The dialogue about coronavirus echoes on in my head: Italian death counts, hand washing, British prime minister Boris Johnson and the women on The View eviscerating US president Donald Trump. All these opinions, more and more ideas and words . . . my head is too cluttered with them to come up with a few new ones.

But, in the absence of words, a different creativity has emerged.

Monday news catchup

I imagine I don’t have to tell the sort of folk who read this site to not listen to the Ochre Buffoon (whose inability to effectively tackle even the most minor aspect of this crisis will go down in infamy), but please don’t go trying untested drugs to treat symptoms of a disease we have just been introduced to and haven’t been able to collect a proper data set on. I hate to see anyone sick, but it’s hard to find sympathy for this MAGA/gun idiot in Texas who called the virus a socialist conspiracy hoax and is now dead of it. Don’t let it be you next (or worse, someone you love that you gave it to).

On time and critics

Do you have a friend or colleague who seems to have success no matter what mediocre bullshit they publish? Just wait them out. Like Dickens did Ainsworth. The snobs of history will delete them and you will be either what’s left on the page or perhaps the little black rubbings from the eraser. (Excerpt is from a book on Ainsworth.)

Time, said Orwell, is the only literary critic that matters and time has judged Ainsworth unkindly. Carver’s professional biography, with its shouty title, does not make a case for looking at minor Victorian fiction, instead arguing that Ainsworth shouldn’t be there. His work belongs with the “living novels” of Dickens, Thackeray and Gaskell, and other “lasting” writers of the formative 1840s.

Why has Ainsworth not lasted? Reasons are offered by Carver. Primarily he was, with Jack Sheppard, the brand leader of Newgate fiction, a genre which celebrated dastardly crime in grisly detail. The most notorious murderers of the 1840s took note. The valet François Courvoisier, claimed he was impelled to slit his aristocratic master’s throat by reading Ainsworth’s newly published novel. Jesse James (not an endorsement which cuts much ice with the literati) signed his letters to the press “Jack Sheppard” in witness to the rogue’s dime-novel celebrity.

The “literary elite” have always conspired to keep Ainsworth down, Carver alleges, because “they fail to understand popular fiction”.

Bored? How bored? Poetry-bored?

Look, Ese, once you take the red pill, there’s no going back. So, approach this surprisingly informative primer on how to read poetry with caution.

Signed — Your Man on the Inside


Listen, I know how this looks. An NPR piece about “how to appreciate poetry” reads like self-parody. I get it! But — in case you haven’t heard — things are extremely bad right now. And if you’re holed up at home and have burned through all the TV you can stand, you may just need some art to help you process that sadness or anger or fear. And this might be a good time to give poetry a try.

A great poem can be there for you — the same way other works of art you hold dear can. Franny Choi, an educator and co-host of the poetry podcast VS (pronounced like “verses” or “versus,” get it?), says a great poem “makes me want to get out of my chair and pace around the room. It makes me want to throw my hands up and show it to somebody or say it out loud or shout it from the rooftops … when I have [it], it’s the only thing that matters.”

But if you haven’t flexed your poetry muscles in a while, or if you’ve always thought poems were the domain of clove cigarette smokers and adjunct professors, that feeling might be a little hard to tap into. Here are 5 tips that might help you get there.

More on the dangers of writing about now

It’s a thing I often have to put the kibosh on in intro poetry classes. I tell them, if you’re writing this for eventual publication then it’s inadvisable to try to write about “capital-I IMPORTANT” things as they are happening. The worst poetry on 9/11 happened right after 9/11. It’s a great document of how people were feeling at the time, but mostly doesn’t make for good poetry except when it is allusive and oblique. If you NEED to write about whatever’s happening to process your feelings, just keep a journal. Let it eat those sins. Then in a few years, when your brain and heart have had time to process the whole thing, go back and mine that journal for ideas and write something of value. More such advice below.

Don’t feel as though you need to write about COVID-19. Not directly, not yet. Neither you, nor me, nor any of us have perspective on this thing—the crisis and the feelings around it are only just beginning to crawl down the well of our subconscious. Once they’re settled, clacking in the dark there, they will be a part of the water when we pull buckets up for years to come. We’ll set out, 20 years from now, to write a book about model trains and we’ll drink from that well and wind up writing about the feeling we have this afternoon. Art does not traffic in straight lines. Instant gratification is anathema. Art is done in the dark.

The best writing is not a reaction to each day’s news as it happens (what ages faster than front-page stories?). The best writing is the stuff we haul up in that bucket, years and perhaps decades later, mixed with all the pre- and post-crisis moments in our life, all the anxiety and relief, not segregated by timeframe or motif, the way childhood merges with the day before yesterday in dreams. Folks these days are sharing Katherine Ann Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a story of the 1918 pandemic. What’s shared less often is the date of the story’s composition: 1939, 20 years after the pandemic had passed. Twenty years it took that crisis to settle deep enough in Porter’s mind that the particulars of her lived experience could be stripped off or alloyed with other impressions, people she met later, the weather.