What do fiction writers owe people for their stories?

As someone married to a thriller writer, I have been relatively lucky to have my quirks and mannerisms appear mostly as aspects of the good guys. Mostly. That said, I am married to a writer and I am getting what I asked for. Stories of mine get YOINKed all the time — mostly little details or interesting tidbits… the stuff that feels like real life. In fairness, ideas and expressions of hers also appear in my poems. That said, I have this one piece of advice for you as someone who knows a writer: if you tell them a story WITHOUT saying, “Now, this isn’t for use in a novel” first, I don’t know that you have any moral avenue of objection. It’s what they do, and you knew that going in, and their experience of hearing the story without being told it’s not for use in their art is really just their experience of hearing something one day. We do it all the time, in all artistic genres. God knows, some science article comes up with a vaguely poetic image like “wolf moon” or some shit and two years later all the lit journals are filled with crappy poems about the wolf moon. Because what writers do is process reality and hand it back to us for context that we can use as decoration for our minds. Anything they hear or see is just another part of their day tucked away for future use. But I do think most writers will respect a “please don’t use this” request. Beyond that, everything said and done in and around them is fair game. So beware, is what I’m saying.

Thief Stealing Idea From Businessman Stock Vector - Illustration of  innovation, bandit: 85688728

Contemporary entertainment is a hall of mirrors, an endless flow of simulacra: reality shows, biopics, documentaries, Instagram posts, Youtube vlogs. Podcasts and docuseries and movies process the same real-life events (Tonya Harding, the O.J. trial, Theranos), responding to one another, building on one another, until the metanarrative is part of the entertainment. I guess it is no surprise, then, that our fictionalized characters have starting launching protests about how we’ve used them. A woman named Alexis Nowicki recently wrote a Slate essay outing herself as the inspiration for the viral short story “Cat Person,” and Amanda Knox, who was falsely accused of murder by Italian authorities, wrote an Atlantic article about a movie that (very) loosely transposes her story. Tom McCarthy, the director of Stillwater, did acknowledge in a Vanity Fair interview that his movie was “directly inspired” by Knox’s case. I still can’t decide if this was all marketing — McCarthy trying to stir up the true-crime audience and situate his film amid the flow of Amanda Knox content — or naiveté, an artist assuming that people will understand that inspiration is about the spark of an idea, not the act of appropriation.

Should we gather in person again to listen to authors give their sales pitches?

I just got back from a week in the wilderness of Gros Morne national park where I attended and spoke (twice!) at the Writers at Woody Point festival — a magical spot among the mountains that I very much love returning to every year.

In 2020, the venerable festival (a favourite among writers simply because of how beautiful it is there and how frigging well they treat you) was all-online, but this year they got the go-ahead to do it live, with some changes. So there was reduced capacity at events, distanced seats, etc. That said, much of it was still indoors, and people were hugging and shaking hands (a thing I haven’t had to endure for 18 months). In many ways it was a relief, even for someone like me who doesn’t like public things. That said, it was also deeply strange and uncomfortable at times.

Our mask mandate in Newfoundland ended a couple weeks ago and the Delta variant has yet to take hold here. Further, we’re doing quite well with the vaccine rates and myself and all my family are double vaxxed, so I shouldn’t really worry, right? Some people wore masks anyway, myself included, but as the week went on, more and more masks got forgotten in pockets or left in rooms, and the world did not end. (Well, we’ll see if it ended in about 2 weeks, I suppose.)

That all said, as someone who is already uncomfortable in crowds but who is also good getting up in front of one when he needs to shill a book, I found myself constantly looking for excuses to leave (moreso than usual) and head off to a river somewhere with the missus.

I kept finding myself among groups of people not only wondering which of them might be anti-vaxxers (I would imagine a small portion of this particular crowd would be so stupid, but, like conservatives, they are surely among us), but also whether even us double-vaxxed people could drag something like the Delta variant from a “major” urban centre to a rural one simply by showing up. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to see people and great to read from my new book to a live audience (it sold out!), but I was very discombobulated the much of the time.

In contrast, I am currently recording “events” for two other literary great festivals (Wild Writers North in BC and THIN AIR! in Winnipeg), and I’m worried it’s going to be super underwhelming. There’s no audience reaction to let you know if you’re killing it or bombing, no… “energy” beyond what you bring to it yourself. And that’s a serious impediment to being even remotely entertaining for a guy like me. I can feed off a crowd, so long as I don’t have to stand among it. So I don’t know what’s right and wrong. And I imagine this is how it will be for a while.

I wonder how everyone else feels about it? We’re in a special position here in Newfoundland being isolated from the mainland and having both a very low case rates (all travel related) and a largely compliant population, but other places probably deserver my anxiety more? I don’t know. Here’s a story about the National Book Festival creeping towards live in the USA.

The festival will kick off with a virtual conversation between Burton and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on Sept. 17. Burton, known for hosting Reading Rainbow (and, if hosts of his fans get their way, Jeopardy!), is also hosting a PBS special about the festival, titled Open a Book, Open the World, on Sept. 12.

While most of the events this year will be virtual, there will be two in-person conversations, one on Sept. 21 featuring Shortz and Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them author Adrienne Raphel, and another on Sept. 25 featuring Giovanni and Hayden.

Wuh’d I miss? catchup newsday

Just spent a week in Gros Morne National Park reading poetry from my new selected to live (LIVE!), appropriately distanced crowds. Amazing. But having spent my social energy budget for the entirety of 2021, I will now return to my happy place (a chair in my office) and ride out the rest of the year here with you. So…. what’d I miss?

Visit Gros Morne › Gros Morne Events Calendar and information about  visiting Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

The problem with contemporary book reviewing

Does the book reviewer have just one job — to review the work at hand honestly and fairly? No, dear reader, she does not. Like most every other literary endeavours, from writing, to editing, to teaching in MFAs, book reviewing is not part of a capitalist machine that sucks in intellect and sweat equity from people who need to pay the rent and spits out a sort of saccharine bee-barf-honey of digestible content (or a painful sting). There’s no space, no editorial drive, and no requirement to do anything other than firehose spray hyperbole (positive or negative) into the world to see what catches people’s attention, then do more of that. Check it out at N+1.

The main problem with the book review today is not that its practitioners live in New York, as some contend. It is not that the critics are in cahoots with the authors under review, embroiled in a shadow economy of social obligation and quid pro quo favor trading. The problem is not that book reviews are too mean or too nice, too long or too short, though they may be those things, too. The main problem is that the contemporary American book review is first and foremost an audition — for another job, another opportunity, another day in the content mine, hopefully with better lighting and tools, but at the very least with better pay. What kind of job or opportunity for the reviewer depends on her ambitions.

Reader, behold your gatekeeper, standing by a broken fence in the middle of an open plain.

On books and sleep

Are you a bedtime reader? Did it used to be books but now it’s your phone? Stop it. Get back to books and get better sleep, according to this article. I used to read before bed, but have become an easy and deep sleeper the over the last 10 years or so. Ms. Ninja sits up and reads still. But neither of us are supposed to look at our phones. In fact, unless the kids are still out, we put them on airplane mode to charge overnight so we’re not taking EM showers with the faucet right by our brains all night. Personally, I miss that reading time, but on the other hand I–zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

For a long time, I have known that phones interfere with sleep. Phones release shots of pleasure. As a person with ADHD, I am especially short on dopamine, and if I train my body to expect a spoonful then I’ll stay alert to receive it. When that happens in bed, I’ll get less sleep. Until recently, I chose to ignore this theory because I feared it would be proven correct and I’d wish I’d done something sooner. The longer I put off trying a no-phone regime, the more regret I would feel, which meant I procrastinated further – and so on. Such is the miracle of cognitive loops. Whoever gifted me with rationality should have enclosed a receipt, because I would happily exchange it for the ability to fly.

But this year my insomnia got so bad that I snapped. I marshalled bedside resources: alarm clock, sudoku, pens, notebooks, British Vogue, Penguin Classics too antiquated for me to feel any compulsion to text the group chat. (“Unbelievable scenes in Rochester’s attic!”) And I made one simple rule: phone goes into a kitchen drawer before bed, and does not come out until morning.

Tuesday newsday

It’s summer and I’m frankly having a hard time justifying reading internet articles while the sun shines (I live in one of the foggier places on Earth), so if there are still people out there reading this, please excuse my erratic posting until the end of the good weather. Should only be a few hours.