Vendredi en direct

It’s Friday and for some reason there’s a lot of news out of France. The calendar creeps towards the final battle of the American Civil War and a pandemic sweeps across the land, fires and record number hurricanes rage, there are murder hornets coming and now there are sinkholes full of rats appearing. It’s like Doctor Venkman said: cats and dogs living together…. Mass hysteria! So, breathe through that for a moment, then let it go, because you have two days to do something different. My suggestion is reading poems. Much less stressful. Unless they’re by Frederick Seidel. They upset me when I like them.

Are you leery of theory?

I got so sick of theory in my undergrad, but I clung to one English professor’s opinion, which I will paraphrase here: theory is useful for exploring writing AFTER it’s been written, but deadly to consider BEFORE starting.

So, what exactly is “Theory?” For scientists, a “theory” is a model based on empirical observation that is used to make predictions about natural phenomenon; for the lay-person a “theory” is a type of educated guess or hypothesis. For practitioners of “critical theory,” the phrase means something a bit different. A critical theorist engages with interpretation, engaging with culture (from epic poems to comic books) to explain how their social context allows or precludes certain readings, beyond whatever aesthetic affinity the individual may feel. Journalist Stuart Jeffries explains the history (or “genealogy,” as they might say) of one strain of critical theory in his excellent Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, describing how a century ago an influential group of German Marxist social scientists, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse, developed a trenchant vocabulary for “what they called the culture industry,” so as to explore “a new relationship between culture and politics.” At the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a new critical apparatus was developed for the dizzying complexity of industrial capitalism, and so words like “reify” and “commodity fetish” (as well as that old Hegelian chestnut “dialectical”) became humanistic bywords.

Why is everything so damn long?

I feel this way too, sometimes. In truth barely have the attention span to sustain engagement with my own work, much less anyone else’s. Partly explainable by my diagnosis last year of ADHD, but also partly because everything seems to be getting longer. Remember the half hour show? The short novel? The 2 minute pop song? The 90 minute feature film? How far does our lust for story go before it’s too far? I feel this way these days about poetry as well. A 56 page book is a beautiful thing. Enough time to establish your voice and intent before leaving the party and heading home. Of course, my book of selected poems that’s coming next year, is over 200 pages, and I can’t help wanting to cut it, but it’s got 25 years worth of poems to cover. And then there’s my novel, which is over 400 pages and counting, but it’s a fantasy, and nerds seem to like books that can keep a door from swinging shut in the wind. I sometimes wish I could just publish 16 page chapbooks for the rest of my life. But think of the cost in staples.

About halfway through Tenet, the mind-frying Christopher Nolan film, I began to wriggle in my seat. Twenty minutes later, I had to sit on my hands to stop myself digging around for my phone. At 150 minutes, not only was the film long, it felt endless. Nolan isn’t the only one stretching his legs. Other film-makers – and podcasters, authors and playwrights – are increasingly choosing languor and scale over brevity. The last Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, pipped Nolan’s by 10 minutes, while the forthcoming Bond instalment – when it finally appears – is set to be the chunkiest ever for 007, at two hours 43 minutes.

Length seems to be in vogue in other genres, too: just feel the thunder from JK Rowling’s latest Galbraith book as it lands on a table. At more than 900 pages, it’s her longest crime novel, about the same extent as Hilary Mantel’s Booker-snubbed doorstopper, The Mirror and the Light.

Thursday news dumpage

On being new and locked in

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a book out right now, much less having your first book be born into this shitshow of a century-in-a-year. The Star looks at a raft of gracious new writers who had to brave circumstance at what should be a moment of nervous pride. I have a new book coming next Fall and I’m already worried things will remain cancelled then. Maybe we should start profiling new writers here at Bookninja, to help offset the screaming void of inattention and apathy into which these folk are emerging.

Even during normal times, one of the biggest challenges for debut authors is getting their books noticed at all. Events such as the Toronto International Festival of Authors — running this week — are an important place for readers to discover new writers, and writers to make a personal connection with readers.

Amid a pandemic, opportunities to do book signings and speakers series and festival appearances in real life are close to nonexistent. TIFA, like many fests, is still going on but online this year, a completely different experience. We were curious about the impact on debut fiction writers appearing at the festival, so we asked them to finish the sentence: “Publishing my debut during a pandemic …” What they had to say is quietly inspirational.

How things are diver-SciFi-ing

See what I did there? It was pretty subtle. Look again. Anyway, this is a great discussion at Polygon in which various industry professionals talk about how the trend toward diversity in the spec community will affect its future. I know myself that my favourite books of the of the last few years have been writers of Colour, including Marlon James, NK Jemisin, Eden Robinson, Liu Cixin, etc.

For the last 10 years, science fiction literature has been radically diversifying, with more stories and books being imported from other countries, and more LGBTQ authors and writers of color being recognized and celebrated in the genre than ever before.

But what does that actually mean to the field? It’s easy to say “Science fiction is more inclusive than it used to be,” or “authors are more diverse.” But how is that actually effecting change, and what does it mean for the next decade of science fiction? We reached out to a group of BIPOC editors and curators working in science fiction what to ask what kinds of changes they’re seeing in the field so far, and what they think and hope the next decade will hold as a result of the way authorship is changing.


RIP: RM Vaughan

News dropped a few days back that the body of Richard Vaughan had been found in New Brunswick. Richard was an old friend of mine, and all my memories of him are good. He was very supportive of my work in its earliest days, and very fun to be around. Hanging out with him made you feel like you were part of something. Such was the power of his charisma and personality that when he asked me, a straight 24-year old redneck dude who was living in a mostly Queer context at the time, on a date, I said yes without even thinking, and went out with him a few times. (You should read his poem “10 Reasons I Fall For Inaccessible Straight Boys Every Damn Time“) He was lovely and respectful and super kind, even when it felt like he was probably teasing you on some level you didn’t get, it felt like you were being included rather than excluded. We lost touch in the last 10 years or so, but would greet each other fondly if we bumped into one another. While I thought of him as a Toronto creature, the last year of his life was spent back in his home province, New Brunswick, working as a writer-in-residence in Fredericton. With Covid raging, Richard moved in with friends Amber MacMillan and Nathaniel Moore who led the movement of people searching for him. Bert Archer remembers him in the Globe and Nathaniel has written a lovely remembrance at The Star. Richard’s darkness was something you saw now and then, but it came and went like an untucked shirt, in my experience: something he didn’t notice was happening until he did, and tucked it back away. It’s upsetting me that I can’t find any pictures of us, but everything was on paper back then, so who knows where they are? I hope he’s found peace.

Richard Murray (RM) Vaughan, 55, was one of my closest friends, confidantes and collaborators. Two decades after I first met him, while growing up in Toronto publishing streams, Richard came home to New Brunswick in January, where I had been living for three years — when he was appointed Writer In Residence at the University of New Brunswick. It was a sort of CanLit relocation program and I was happy to see him. He was here only a short while when COVID-19 hit and he was booted from his digs in downtown Fredericton, so we asked him to live with us which, thankfully to us all, he did, on March 1. My wife, 11-year-old daughter, four cats and a new puppy were soon familiar with his hilarious personality, and his love of crafting — which would greet us in many forms every few days. Sometimes a collage would appear on my desk, left like a proud grade-school child bringing home work he’d made during art class.

What’s enough when it comes to details of abuse?

This author wrote a memoir about her abuse as a child and is now being picked apart by a media mining for salacious detail. Read the fucking book. That’s all you get. She said what she was willing to say. You don’t get, or deserve, more than that. When you buy a book or pay to see a film or enter a gallery, you’re paying for the chance to experience story/image/sound the artist intended — not buying rights to demand something more/different. When audiences start to think of themselves as investors who are “buying” art rather than merely visiting it? She told the story she wanted to tell. The rest is none of your fucking business.

n the weeks since the launch of my memoir on grief and abuse, No Matter Our Wreckage, I have been asking myself a lot of questions. Questions such as, how much can I complain about people overstepping my boundaries when they want more information? What rights to privacy have I given up? To what extent is my consent being ignored, re-enacting the very abuse I wrote about when I am interviewed about the book?

I wrote a memoir about child sexual abuse, so I asked for this. Or did I?

Some of these questions have been prompted by readers, but mostly they have been prompted by the media. In particular, an interview at a radio station which asked for intimate details about the abuse that I found uninformed and uncomfortable, and who gave my mobile number to at least one listener who called in after it aired. The station has since apologised, but my mobile kept me awake through the night as it vibrated with messages from people who had heard the broadcast, reinvoking the anxiety that comes with feeling violated.