"I'd have stopped writing years ago if it were for the money." --Paulo Coelho Link To Blog Archive here.
I'm back. Been busy, but I didn’t get as much writing done as I hoped.
Nevertheless, Man Friday still posted his messages in a bottle on the “Your Man Friday’s Ideas” website and emailed his Ideas to subscribers. Here are all the postings since the beginning of June through today.
2014-05-30 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Food Porn
2014-06-06 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Ignorance and Stupidity
2014-06-13 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Creative Rants
2014-06-20 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Before Safety Was Invented
2014-06-27 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Huge And Interesting
2014-07-04 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: The Mother Of Invention
2014-07-11 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Reading And Reasons
2014-07-18 Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Island Isolation
New Book Out: Explaining Canada
Hardly worked on Chicago Days: Growing Up Absurd On The South Side. But some things got accomplished.
Participated in a Writers’ Union reading in Rutherglen. Then went on the 'road': First to the Writers’ Union AGM in St. John's, Newfoundland, and then for bit of a holiday in the Maritimes. Shortly after returning I joined James Deahl and some southern Ontario poets for an Acorn/Souster commemorative reading at Gulliver’s Books here in North Bay.
But my major, personal news is that Explaining Canada: A Primer For Yanks has made it into print!
Explaining Canada: A Primer For Yanks
Reading in Cosmopolitan Rutherglen
I was delighted to read in Rutherglen, a small hamlet in Northern Ontario, about a 30-minute drive west of North Bay, partially because it was well attended—better than readings I’ve attended in Toronto! In North America, poetry readings (or any author readings) don’t attract huge audiences (to put it mildly). This is very unlike some South American and European countries, but interest doesn’t seem to depend that much on the size of the place where it is given. A somewhat cynical explanation for the good turn-out in Rutherglen is that the people in smaller communities are just starved for any cultural event. I certainly don’t know, but frankly I don’t really care why the audience is there—as long there is a chance to spark their interest.
Writers’ Union Annual General Meeting
This year the AGM for The Writers’ Union held in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I’d never been to that province before, and it reminded of my reading in Rutherglen a week before, in that it seemed much more culturally alive for the size of its population than places like Toronto.
A major part of the pleasure in AGMs and conferences is just being with people of similar interests. The travel to interesting places and the enforced break from actually working are added bonuses.
In Canada three annual major get-togethers for professional writers are:
Praise St. John’s and the Maritimes!
You have to love the Maritimes! The people there are the friendliest one can possibly imagine. (Of the places I’ve been, only Denmark is up there.) And it’s far more culturally rich than one would ever expect. One has to wonder why some places seem so friendly and others far less so.
The Canadian Writers’ Union was concerned about attendance, given the very substantial distances (and cost) of holding the annual AGM in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Fortunately, the attendance was excellent. I suspect many members knew about the charm of the Maritimes—and how many literary lights hail from there. For example, The Fiddlehead, a old and venerable Canadian lit mag was started there. (They published my first chapbook back in the Seventies, and The Dalhousie Review was the first periodical to publish one of my poems)
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Digital Social Networks
Email, Facebook, and Twitter are tools the Internet made possible. They have useful functions and many people simply enjoy using them. But, like just anything, they can have less than desirable effects. (Also, it should be remembered that not everyone wants to or even can use them.)
Man Friday links here:
It Ain’t A Revolution Anymore
I’ve always been interesting in the ‘newest thing’, in revolutionary innovations or changes. I think one should be, at least to some extent.
In art, including writing, these innovations open up new opportunities for artistic expression. Sometimes these changes lead to new and important work. In literature, the invention of the novel and the familiar essay are just but two examples. In the visual arts, many of the new art movements at the turn of the century that we now call '‘modern art" greatly enriched the visual arts.
But some of the innovations led to nothing of significance, beyond their own historical significance. Surrealism in the visual arts led to some of the most important works of the 20th Century (which are now embedded in popular culture), but as a literary movement it was a dead end. No one reads the ‘novel’ Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields) by Andre Breton and fellow surrealist writer Philippe Soupault, although Breton is often considered the founder of the Surrealism movement.
In the visual arts many people still feel that abstract expressionism is a dead end, although some of its practitioners are highly rated by some art critics. It certainly leaves many people unexcited, and is a far cry from surrealism in having universal appeal and interest to both serious art connoisseurs and the broader public.
‘Modern art’ is now an historical label. Art “post-modern” is, at least for now, called “contemporary”. Personally, I am far more inclined to visit a Museum Of Modern Art than a Museum of Contemporary Art. I know I’ll find something of interest in the former but very little in the latter. I feel much ‘contemporary art’ is just flogging a dead horse, and—frankly—boring. It just isn’t avant-garde any more. The best ideas from ‘modern art’ have been expanded on and elaborated, but the others should just be respectfully buried in a place on honour. And artists should concentrate on consolidating and elaborating what was of value in the real revolutions of the past.
I feel much of this also applies to literature, which is where I’m going next with these blog rants.
Verse Freed? But Freedom Comes With A Price!
English language poetry has been through several major revolutions in the last half a millennium, but not all the changes have been unequivocally good.
One critical change was the result of the introduction of the novel. Poetry was primarily narrative and had a substantial audience, at least partially because everyone loves stories. The novel stole its thunder. It was a more flexible story-telling genre, because it wasn’t constrained by the then formal restrictions of verse.
So poetry concentrated on the lyric form, the intense and passionate and brief expression of emotion, with which the novel couldn’t easily compete. But this had a smaller audience, and so meant less fame and fortune for the successful writer.
I’m now tempted to admittedly flawed comparisons to the changes in musical taste. So-called classical music became less popular as less demanding and less structured ‘pop’ music became available through radio and recordings, just as wider literacy and the relative ease of publishing and distributing contributed to the decrease of the popularity of poetry.
Another major poetic revolution was breaking the chains of formal accentual-syllabic verse structure, with the great American poet Walt Whitman leading the revolt. This actually increased the popularity of poetry (and the numbers of writers who chose it as their medium), but not enough to catch up with the novel.
The downside to this revolution was the idea that anyone could write this undemanding ‘free’ verse, and a lot was written that lacked the intensity possible by more attention to the sound , including rhythm, (required by conventional structures) that elevates poetry to the highest literary plane. Of course, the loosening of poetic ‘rules’ didn’t necessarily mean a decrease in attention to the sound component, and most of the best poets of the last hundred years wrote what might be called ‘free verse’, and were just as attentive to all the musical components of the poem as someone like Pope or Shakespeare. It was just structured in a new way, just as jazz is really quite structured, although it doesn’t follow such classical rules as the sonata allegro form.
So where is the revolution in poetry? The closest thing to an answer is spoken word poetry, but that’s really old hat. All poetry was spoken word until roughly five hundred years ago. It was the language of theatre! How a poem sounds remains of great importance.
The Novel Is No Longer Novel
The novel may have killed the market for poetry, which retreated into the lyric form, but the novel itself is now in danger of being replaced by the biography, and that new kid on the block—the movie.
Biography has risen in popularity because people are naturally curious about the real lives of other people. Famous folk of all kinds are of interest. This includes celebrities whose claim to fame is just being a celebrity, evil people who are famous for their nefarious actions, and, of course, movies stars or other familiar names. People like to read about people living lives very different from their own too-ordinary lives.
Autobiographies are even better, even though most should probably be classified as fiction, because resemblance to any person living or dead usually is purely coincidental—including that of the author.
But movies and TV have really been the most serious threats to the novel’s popularity. Most people spend more time with movies and TV than with reading anything.
Is The Familiar Essay Getting Too Familiar?
The “familiar essay” is a term usually applied to a work of prose characterized by the personal nature of the writing and the presence of the author (or persona) as a distinct voice. It is like having someone speak to you personally.
It was back in 1590 that Montaigne published his Essais, what is often considered the first major work of familiar essays. It is a genre that has become very “familiar” to us in the common usage of that word. Clearly opinion pieces like editorials or most blogs fall into that category. Not counting instructions or news reports, it is probably what constitutes the majority of most people’s reading.
That may be unfortunate. There are two reasons.
One is that most people’s opinions aren’t worth one’s attention or time. You don’t spend a lot of time with people whose company you don’t feel worth your time.
Two, there is a tendency for people to confuse opinion with factual information. (We know fiction is fictional.) We tend to pay more attention to people that share our opinions, and so this confusion is almost to be expected. But it is not good.
Of course there are writers who are very much present in their writing, but whose writing is factual. (And whose writing is interesting because of both characteristics.) Here I have to give credit to an author of several books (full of solid science and imbued with her charming personality) on everything from sex through digestion to the dead. Plug for Mary Roach.
Also here: interesting and insightful remarks on the essay and a master of the form: Annie Dillard.
Has Theatre Become Irrelevant?
No longer is “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” In these times, I won’t catch the conscience (or even the attention) of very many people with a work of drama. (I have no sense: I’ve written a verse play for voice: Colonization Of A Small Planet.)
Film has taken over. Theatre (even opera) was once pop culture and spectacle like film is now. But film can do spectacle better and is even more accessible than even theatre was in Elizabethan times.
Theatre is moribund. This is unfortunate, but inevitable. Mounting a theatre production is prohibitively expensive, and so are the admission prices for the vast majority of people. Never mind it’s availability, except for those physically near the theatre.
The only hope is screenwriting (script-writing). But then the writer has little control over his or her work, and it is problematic for many other reasons I don’t have time to elaborate on here.
In writing up the publicity for a book launch for a recent book, Going Home: Cycling Through The Heart Of America, the organizer asked me if she should call the book “creative non-fiction”. I flippantly replied, “Sure, that sounds sufficiently pretentious.”
I see this term used more and more often, presumably to add a little class to the more inclusive category ‘non-fiction’, and I suppose it is useful. Even many bookstores have separate sections for fiction and fiction considered ‘literature’ (meaning, of course, literary fiction).
The category ‘non-fiction’ includes everything from cookbooks, through self-help manuals, to academic papers. Rarely are they creative in the literary sense. They are intended to convey information, not produce an aesthetic response. (Although the food porn photos in cookbooks and the occasional witty passages in books primarily written to convey information are an exception, as are familiar essays such as those books by Mary Roach that I mentioned in a previous blog entry.)
And biographies are non-fiction, although many autobiographies could certainly be called fiction. Some are, indeed, works of literature, such as Boswell’s classic Life of Samuel Johnson. And much literary fiction is based on real people and events.
My book, Going Home, is non-fiction, the same category that includes cookbooks, and it could also fit the subcategory of ‘travel book’, a category that also includes guidebooks. The taxonomy of written works is problematic. Just compare the way library books are classified by The Library of Congress or the old Dewey Decimal system. (Ask a research psychologist what he thinks of having a book on the limbic system sitting beside How To Win Friends And Influence People at the public library).
I like to believe Going Home is ‘creative’ non-fiction, but when asked, I usually just say it is a ‘memoir’.