Bookninja Interviews… a literary critic

In the third of the Bookninja Interviews… series, we talk to a notoriously strident literary critic about the art of talking books for the betterment of literature.

Whether Jason Guriel is considered famous or infamous in Canadian–and increasingly global–literary circles is a matter of opinion (and politics, for some). But whether or not you like it, his critical prose is by turns clever, thoughtful, and deeply cutting. (I’ve been on the sharp end of his stick, and I can tell you, it’s pretty fucking sharp.) Regardless of how you might feel about his literary bedside manner, he is an obviously a smart man, with many large opinions that get people talking–a critic in the vein of Carmine Starnino, Harold Bloom, and John Metcalf.

His work appears widely and his latest book is the remarkable Forgotten Work, a speculative fiction novel in verse.

1) You are known generally as both a talented poet and tough critic, but tell us a bit more about yourself and your accomplishments in these fields.

That’s already a nice, generous description. Why don’t we leave it at that?

2) What are the core aspects of a “good” book (*vs “bad”), critically-speaking?

It’s hard to talk about good or bad outside of specifics. Some books are bad because their authors are novices who don’t yet have a handle on their craft. See, for instance, my first book of poems!—though the novice is an all-ages phenomenon; I remember reviewing Jonathan Galassi’s debut novel, and wondering how the head of FSG, who’s supposed to know books, could’ve greenlit so many clichés.

On the flipside, some books are bad because they betray too much craft. The books are too clever or overdetermined. Then there are the authors who have a shtick they should think about shucking.

I’ve been toying with a global theory lately: a good book gives the sense of an author in control of their effects; a bad book suggests an author who’s lost their grip on their materials and is coming across in ways they never intended, as cliché or shticky or whatever. In good books, like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, there’s a confident intelligence behind the arras, making good calls, sentence by sentence, word by word.

3) What is your opinion on the general mediocrity in literature? Whose fault is it: the authors, the editors, the publishers, or the readers?

I’m less struck by a “general mediocrity” and more by a kind of virulent competence. There are so many competent poems and essays, a constant crush of them. I stopped writing essays for a time—there was such a deluge of online writing that I felt I needed to do something else, something harder, more baroque, something that couldn’t be pitched to an editor. I wound up writing a science-fiction novel in rhyming couplets.

But I’m not sure there’s anyone to blame. It’s probably the case that there will always be a general state of mediocrity or competence, whatever you want to call it. Really great books are rare, aren’t they?

4) What are the core aspects of a “good” piece of criticism, critically-speaking?

Criticism should be at least as engaging and entertaining as any kind of writing that aspires to be read. The criticism I like has a clear opinion, lively sentences, a sense of wit, even original metaphors. I don’t see the point of criticism that assumes a studious and somber attitude toward its source text, as if in monkish deference to the real writing. If criticism is going to illuminate anything, it needs a live current of its own.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself especially drawn to critics who have a deft way with irony. There’s a lot of strident culture writing out there, so it’s a relief to read, say, James Wolcott, who keeps the balloon wedged under an arm and lets the air out carefully: a controlled deflation. I suppose there’s a lot of irony on Twitter, but it’s the wilted kind. It’s sarcasm. 

5) Should authors be keeping their critics (future and/or past) in mind when writing?

I can’t imagine it would hurt for an author to picture, say, a very demanding reader. Kay Ryan has a great bit about how when she’s writing she feels that she’s at the “long, long desk of the gods of literature…I am at the table of the gods and I want them to like me. There, I’ve said it. I want the great masters to enjoy what I write.” I like that a lot. It’s quite a lovely quote in full, actually; I wax on about it in an essay I just did for Lit Hub.

For my part, I’ve always found that I’ve really needed to write for a demanding editor. Christian Wiman at Poetry was always tough. You just knew he had a finely-tuned taste, and so you had to raise your game any time you were writing a review for him. Same goes for my friend Carmine Starnino at The Walrus. I liked writing for Chloe Schama when she was an editor at The New Republic. She had rigorous standards and airtight instincts. Writing for her made my writing better. Writing for any good editor makes an author better—the loftier the editor and their publication, the better. You just bring a different intensity to the keyboard. You have something to prove.

I don’t know how those concocting their own newsletters—who are self-publishing, basically—are ensuring quality control. A little bit of the old gatekeeping keeps you honest. I need someone to throw up a hand sometimes.

6) When pitching, how do you choose which books to review?

I haven’t written a lot of reviews in recent years. When I did write reviews, the books were often assigned. But sometimes I pitched. I’d usually pick a recent book by an author I knew I could get behind—like Daryl Hine, say—or an author I wanted to quarrel with—like Anne Carson.

Since my first book of criticism came out, I’ve pitched a lot of essays, and these are usually pegged to some recent event, like the reissue of Whit Stillman’s films, or a milestone, like the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds. Editors seem to want essays that are timely, so I’m always trying to find a way to write about the stuff I want to write about, while satisfying the editorial need to be relevant. There’s a particular movie I really love that finally turns fifty this summer, so I wrote a piece about the picture and managed to place it.

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of essays with no obvious home or peg. This has been fun—writing something for myself, and then seeing if I can find a home for it.

7) What do you wish authors, who may or may not have been the subject of a negative review, knew about critics and the act of writing criticism?

I don’t know. The question sort of presumes a subset of “pure” authors for whom criticism needs to be justified or even just explained. But I can hardly imagine the mindset of a novelist or poet who doesn’t also write the occasional essay or review—even if I know these novelists and poets exist.

I would hope that writers who don’t write criticism know that criticism is itself a vital art. I would hope they don’t need someone to tell them that criticism isn’t personal.

Bookninja Interviews… a book designer on how to be a good author, design-wise

In the second of the new “Bookninja Interviews….” series (in which we ask the people who work with and around writers to make their lives function) we talk to Ingrid Paulson, veteran book designer and now publisher (and perhaps most famously, winner of the Bookninja Cover Redesign contest (as Ingrid Olson?) back in the day), about current trends in design and what constitutes an ideal relationship between authors and designers. Also: who’s actually in charge.

BN: Tell us a bit about yourself, who you are, what you do, and some highlights of your career.
IP: I’m a book designer. I design covers and interiors, mostly for trade publishers but also sometimes for academic presses as well as galleries and museums. If that wasn’t enough, a few years ago I started my own micropress, Gladstone Press, where I reissue classic novels with an updated look, great typesetting, printed on premium paper stock. And to top it all off, I also teach book design at Ryerson University as part of their Publishing Certificate program.

I swear, I do have other interests and hobbies outside of books and book design. [shuffles feet]

BN: What makes a cover design that has iconic staying power?
IP: I could say a lot of things, but to be frank, there isn’t a formula. The only two things a cover needs on its side are acceptance and time.

So, there’s acceptance. If we see enough book covers that use similar design devices, and also see echoes of those design elements in our daily lives (through advertising, magazines, websites, apps, posters, etc.), then we start to adjust our perceptions and accept certain design conceits as ‘good.’ Are they? Hard to tell when you’re in the middle of the message… That’s why you’ll see certain design ideas used for certain genres to attract those readers (think of the quiet, restrained poetry cover vs a swords and lasers SFF series design, and you get the idea).

And time: if enough time goes by, we reject something we thought was the best design idea, just because we’ve just seen it too many times and crave a change. Then, years later, we switch back and foster a new appreciation for that same aesthetic. We rearrange our visual worldview to say that an old design is particularly pleasing because it is familiar and nostalgic and resonates with us on an emotional level. Who would have thought three-bar Penguin covers would rise to such a cult status? Much less the text-only look used for 1970s Philip Roth covers?

Now, what I just said doesn’t really help anyone out when trying to pick cover A versus cover B for an upcoming title. There are always structural tricks one can use (keep the visual message simple, make sure that there’s a large vs small tension to any object on the cover, use a Z-curve to orient elements on the page, etc. etc.), but those are just tools.

How about this? If the visual message is muddy, the cover doesn’t have legs. Pretty simple. So long as the design composition intrigues us before we start the book, and doesn’t let us down once we finish, it’s the right design for the job.

And if you want to stand out? If all the other book designs look like they are shouting, make sure yours whispers. And vice versa. People notice differences more than they notice sameness.

BN: How are current trends in design shifting?
IP: The past few years there’s been a bit of a revolving door between Instagrammable cover designs (huge title text, wallpaper/colour field backgrounds that look great at small sizes on a screen) and the handmade look (handwritten titles, cut paper/guache/watercolour illustrations that remind readers that books are physical objects). We’re going to see those trends for awhile, but there’s a backlash brewing: I’m starting to see more collage and tight, blink-and-you-miss clever concept imagery tucked into corners. A bit of quiet in the storm.

Also, designers are still in thrall to juicy, bright multicoloured palettes. Readers crave technicolour escapes, I guess?

BN: What help can an author provide in the design process?
IP: Most authors understand that the cover is a marketing tool and leave the designer to do their thing, which is great. It can help to suggest an image or two, particularly if they inspired the author while they wrote the book – I remember it was you who suggested Steichen’s Lake George photo when I was designing your book, The Cottage Builder’s Letter. That was very helpful! But original artwork doesn’t always work on a cover, mostly because the artwork has to act as a visual to sell the author’s work first and foremost. So, suggest, but don’t insist. It may not be the right image for your book, much as you love it.

If as an author you’re asked to fill out a cover design questionnaire, don’t let it overwhelm you, especially if you have no ideas or don’t feel you’re visually astute. Just try to say a few things, mention a few similar books to yours if you can, and because it’s your book, do mention any things you hate to see on a book of yours (if there’s anything). It’s your work, after all. But don’t get bogged down in type choices or suitable colours – usually your own writing will tell a designer all they need to know about mood, setting, colour palettes, symbolism, that kind of thing.

BN: Whose opinion matters most to a designer: the author’s, the editor’s, the marketing team’s?
IP: I…I…I can’t answer that. Whomever is in charge? [hides]

BN: If you could have people know one thing about design, what would it be?
IP: Design’s purpose is not about making something pretty for pretty’s sake, nor should a cover be illustrating complex plot points in excruciating detail. Design’s sole purpose is to communicate something intriguing about the book so a reader picks it up. Everything else is gravy.

Bookninja Interviews… an arts accountant on the rules around collecting HST/GST

A conversation arose on Canadian-writer-Twitter last week about who is required to collect and pay HST/GST in transactions between writers and their various employers (magazines, reading venues, schools, festivals, etc.) Seems some places or events think they’re exempt because they pay in “honoraria”. Consensus seems to be that most writers who are required to collect and pay HST have run up against this at one time or another, and the information sharing was illuminating. That said, none of us are experts, so Bookninja asked an expert. Enter Artbooks. My accountant, my wife’s accountant, my friends’ accountant, and the best damn pals an artist could have. Tova Epp, our point person, takes it from here. Thanks to Artbooks and Tova for having our backs! 

BN: Can you please tell us who you are and a bit about Artbooks?
TE: I’ve been a tax preparer at Artbooks for almost 12 years now, and before that I was a long time client. I am an actor by training, and came to Artbooks after receiving some solid recommendations from friends in my field, and now I do those very friends taxes! Artbooks was launched over 30 years ago as Canada’s first organization dedicated to artists and entrepreneurs’ financial sanity.  Artbooks is a place where we know and understand artists and freelancers, as the majority of the staff are also freelance artists. As a freelance artist myself I get to bring my own, real understanding of the life of an artist to the tax return, which I think helps me communicate with my clients in a way that they understand and that lets them feel comfortable. 

BN: When must a writer collect and pay GST/HST?
TE: If your gross (pre expense) revenue is close to $30,000 you must register for an HST number. That gross revenue includes all freelance income, including foreign income, but does not include grants, which are an exempt HST supply. In the words of the CRA: “If you are a sole proprietor, include the total amount of all revenues (before expenses) from your worldwide taxable supplies from all your businesses”

BN: When must an organization pay a writer GST/HST?
TE: When they pay them! Basically if you are invoicing a Canadian organization you need to be your own best advocate and bill them your HST, or remind them you have an HST number. There’s a huge, common misconception about honoraria and that they are exempt from HST. They are not exempt if they are not a surprise. If you agree to do a reading for $100 in advance and the organization tells you this in advance, it’s not exempt from HST. Of course these organizations won’t pay the HST because they think they’ve found the loophole but in general we just need to do the best we can to get HST from everyone who has offered us a fee for a service. You do not collect HST on grants, and you charge any foreign vendors 0% HST. 

BN: For writers who are obligated to collect and pay HST, the most common complaint seems to go like this: the festival/magazine/school/etc. says they will pay $XXX.xx for delivery of a specific service (a piece of writing, an appearance, a reading or performance, etc), but when it comes time to invoice and the writer includes their HST number and appropriate taxes to the bill, the organization says it only has the original $XXX.xx to pay the writer. The reason most often cited is that the payment is considered an “honorarium” and is therefore not taxable (effectively making the writer forfeit the money she will have to pay to taxes later.) Is this true? 
TE: Yes, this happens all the time. See above answer. I don’t have a solution to it, it’s just really shitty. Most festivals, etc. are non profits or are functioning on tight operating budgets and they are just not factoring HST into their budgets, which means that there’s no room on their end for extra. It’s complicated and an uphill battle for anyone who wants to fight this, because until there’s formal legislation about it, no one is going to change their practices. 

BN: What are the options for a writer if an organization or venue refuses to pay HST when required?
TE: Talk to their accountant…. 🙂 They can back it out of their original fee. There’s always room for a few small honoraria but if all someone is making is honoraria it gets complicaed and needs to be taken on a case by case basis. I can’t offer specific advice about this, as it’s a bit too specific….