A short little piece I wrote many many months ago, about the heaviness at the end of love, is up at Flash Fiction Magazine. Check it out if you have two minutes to spare!
Clever humour of that title aside, where do you stand on the issue?
Up until six months ago, I was starring things without a lot of deep thought on the practice--books mostly, and usually on Goodreads. And then I read The Goldfinch. And then I read The Luminaries. Both are award-winning books that I really did not enjoy that much, and like unsatisfied readers everywhere, my first reaction was to find other unsatisfied readers to justify my opinion.
What I found eventually, after reading a lot of scathing reviews of both books, was a piece by Eleanor Catton in response to criticism that she is a writer of elitist fiction. On Literature and Elitism deals with a few interesting questions as to the relationship between reader/consumer/writer, but the one that really gave me pause was her questioning the habit of giving starred reviews to reading experiences.
I spent some time this week trawling through customer reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, in order to look for trends — paying particular attention to the scathing one-star reviews that inevitably warn all other readers against buying or reading the disliked book. Starred reviews affix to all works of literature a kind of efficiency rating, which over time average out to a meaningless valuation somewhere between the middle threes and the low fours.
And she's right, there isn't a lot to be learned from a star rating because it generally does fall smack in the middle of the scale, but also because the ratings are coming from an audience of people that you don't know anything about. For instance, I think it's a fair bet that someone who normally reads and loves Danielle Steele is not going to enjoy The Luminaries, but should that person feel free to give The Luminaries a one or two star review? I got a rejection letter last week that also speaks to this issue ... one of the feedback snippets basically said, "I would have liked this story a lot better if it was a horror story." Which is kind of like saying, I would like cottage cheese a lot better if it was yogourt. That's not criticism, constructive or otherwise, that is just identifying what you like, and telling other people that you only like what you like. Catton concurs, saying that a starred review amounts to "just an expression of brand loyalty," that is as ridiculous as "giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat."
Shortly after reading that, I stopped star-reviewing the books I didn't enjoy. One thing I don't want to do anymore, especially since putting my own book out in the world, is tear another writer down. The vitriol that normally accompanies a poor rating of a book astounds me. People seem to forget sometimes that the book they read and didn't like and then proceeded to trash online is still the product of a human being with feelings. The book, though you may not care for it, is the outcome of a lot of time and hard work.
Also, if a book doesn't mean much to you, that's not necessarily the writer's fault. That's maybe, at least partly, the reader failing the writer at being a good reader. I know I sometimes read things impatiently, or while distracted with life, or while in an especially critical or otherwise unfavourable mood. Maybe I wasn't the intended audience. And though it's nice to think that a great wordsmith could transcend the boundaries, could draw everyone in and wrap them up in a great story no matter their age, interests or life experience, it is just not possible. Preferences are normal and we shouldn't feel guilty for having them, but we shouldn't think that they hold any evaluative worth. It's fine to have opinions, and it's good to voice them, even if they are negative, but if you do, then criticism should be well-considered and go beyond the realm of thumbs up/thumbs down.
And if I love a book? Then I star it and share it and love it up all over the place. Because even though what I think doesn't mean anything about the quality of the book, it is the only way I have to show my gratitude for a very rare experience: synergy between reader and author.
There's been a lot of fuss lately about grown-ups reading Young Adult (YA) fiction. The most recent hubbub started after Ruth Graham's piece, Against YA, appeared on Slate.com As you can probably surmise from the title, she has a bit of a problem with adults reading "maudlin teen dramas." She fears that grown-up readers are missing out on the big, mind-expanding masterworks (and just so you know, Ruth was reading them when she was a teenager- So there!) because they're stuck in an unfortunate rut of trite adolescent love stories.
As you can imagine, the rather large population of adult Y/A readers did not take kindly to Graham's criticisms. Among many other insults, she was accused of being a genre snob. Book and literacy advocates got their knickers all bunched up too. People are reading. Even better, people are enjoying what they're reading. Lay off!
Look, I get both sides of the argument. I finally read The Fault in our Stars because it was all anybody was talking about. Here's my review as it appeared on Goodreads two weeks ago:
This is a Y/A novel and belongs to the twelve and thirteen year olds out there who might get something from the very simple pathos of this love story. I'm not sure why (and somewhat discouraged that) grown adults are reading and loving this book in such numbers.
And I still haven't read one word of Harry Potter. So yeah, I get where Graham is coming from. There are so many excellent, thought-provoking books to read. Too many to read in a lifetime of avid reading. So why are grown-ups using any of that precious time to read things that aren't asking big questions, that aren't reflecting life experience as the difficult, confounding, and beautiful mess that it is?
On the other side, I understand the appeal of books that are simple and satisfying. It's like food: we love to talk about the smoked trout and apple feuilleté we tried at the latest fancy restaurant (The Goldfinch/The Luminaries), but at the end of a long and stressful day, sometimes the best thing is a grilled cheese sandwich (The Fault In Our Stars/Catching Fire). Y/A is comfort food for the brain. We know what to expect, and we've been enjoying it since we were very young.
I like grilled cheese. I love it especially so with thinly sliced vidalia onion and swiss cheese. (fancy, right?) I also love to partake in an excellent chef's tasting menu. I love the nuances, the envelope-pushing, the unfamiliar ingredients that you might have to train your palate to enjoy. Usually, I eat somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, like most people. Ruth Graham is someone who really enjoys haute-cuisine. And the Y/A-fanatic adults out there mostly eat grilled cheese. Both are perfectly acceptable choices that fall on opposite sides of the spectrum. The trouble is, Graham basically walked into the middle of a Mom-and-Pop diner with a tray of raw oysters and a bottle of shallot vinaigrette and began haranguing the grilled cheese-loving patrons: Life is short. You should really try this. If you don't like it, there's something wrong with you. And later you'll thank me for opening your mind to all these fresh flavours.*
But instead of telling Graham to get lost with her high-brow opinions, instead of ignoring her, a lot of supposedly proud Y/A-reading adults got very defensive. They started up huge comment strings on various webpages, justifying the genre by pointing to all the books in the literary canon that could be classified as Y/A (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of a Young Girl, etc.) Mark Medley wrote an especially snarky piece for the National Post in reply to Graham that imagines him chucking all of Shakespeare's work in the garbage because Romeo and Juliet were teenagers. The piece is supposed to be satirical, but it comes across very earnestly, which in my mind is a bit of a failure of form. I can't understand why so many adult Y/A fans are getting het up about one writer's opinion.
But let's get back to that food analogy (Is it lunch time yet?) ... Some people don't like oysters. They'd never think of eating one. Others can't stand the formula of (bread + cheese + bread )griddle = meal. But if we are grown-ups, that means we get to choose what we consume, and that also means we shouldn't care too much what other people think of that choice.
*Also, there are better ways to get someone to try something new than yelling at them, or shaming them.
In honour of Maya Angelou:
Also, in her honour, I wanted to talk about beautiful titles for books, because the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has long been one of my favourites.
Titles are tricky things, especially these days, with so much attention paid to the supposed science of marketing. In many cases, choosing the title of an author's work is a decision made by committee (editors, marketing experts, author input), rather than something the author comes up with on their own. Usually, the book has to be finished before a title can be chosen. All the thematic cards have to be on the table. Fathom Lines was called The Depths for a long time, until I realized the stories were more about the charting of those depths rather than the metaphorical deep waters themselves.
So, I have no idea how these titles came to be, but congratulations to whoever is responsible for putting these particular words together:
I could keep going with this list for a long time, but what about you? What are your favourites?
Okay, so remember way back when I made my resolutions? If not, here's part of my plan: Submit at least 2 short works per month to different literary journals/online journals. What you will read below are the results (so far) of this very humbling project:
I love that you are so sure of this Metazen. Thanks for the weird (and not entirely trustworthy) compliment!
Dear Erin Bedford,
I'm not sure if this is worse or better ... "So close--you just missed it by that much ..."
This is one of those times when I think maybe they just didn't like the piece that much, for whatever reason, and had to come up with something that sounded plausible because I submitted this as a flash fiction piece (under 1,000 words) which doesn't leave a whole lot of room for backstory.
Dear Erin Bedford,
Insert sad faces here.
But wait! I know this seems bad, but really, it's not. The major thing I've learned from publishing Fathom Lines on my own, is that some people don't like the way I write, or the stuff that I choose to write about (the agents and publishers that sent me rejections, for starters), but there are people out there that do. I just have to keep searching for them.
If you know me well, you know that me saying this, and sharing these rejection letters here, is a HUGE deal. Because I personalize almost everything. Not joking---I spent a lot of my life avoiding certain activities because I was afraid that I wouldn't be perfect at them and people wouldn't think I was a quality human being --even things that are supposed to be ridiculously fun when you're a kid. For instance: Musical chairs? Never. It's so obvious when you're not perfect. Bowling? Hated it. Mini-golf? Have you seen the way that windmill spins around? There's no way I'm getting a hole in one. Forget it.
But, I think I'm over it. I'm not going to lie, there will always be a pang when rejection comes my way, (and I will always have a little sarcasm to mutter under my breath at the rejector!) but I'm being a good duck now, letting it all run off my back. People won't be able to snub work that I keep hidden away in the closet, but they won't get a chance to love it either. And if Birdfeast magazine is less than impressed, that's fine. No one will think less of me for that, and if they do, then I can think less of them because they're probably not nice people. Now, I'm looking at it like this: rejection is built into what I've chosen to do with my life. It's part of my job to take it in stride.
So, who's up for some ten-pin?
Does anyone else feel like a really desperate member of the lonely-hearts club when it comes to the weather this year? This is exactly how I feel when I'm outside now, the sun on my face, the leaves and birds and people all out and about: I know Weather was a complete jerk all winter and spring. I know I deserve better, but Weather is here now and so beautiful. I won't complain about anything ever again. I promise. Please don't leave me.
Anyway, this past weekend was beautiful and so productive! That almost never happens!
On Saturday, I was able to get out to Toronto Island for a peek inside the Gibraltar Light as part of Doors Open Toronto:
And on Sunday, I was at a Small Press Literary event at the Gladstone, hawking copies of Fathom Lines. Sales were less than brisk, but the other sellers were such amazing people--gracious to anyone who had a question, generous to their fellow vendors, and so enthusiastic about their work.
As I was sitting there, waiting for customers, I got to thinking about how artistic-types get a bad rap sometimes. Maybe it's the non-conformist clothes or haircuts, or the fact that we tend to be poor so very often, but the general population sometimes takes the view that artists are lazy. Well I tell you -- I did not meet one lazy person yesterday. All of the people I met had jobs, or school programs or families that take up most of their lives. And then, when they have a free minute, they spend it doing something they love in hopes that other people will love it enough to give them a couple of dollars.
Can I say how very weird it is to sit at a table, though, and have random people come up to your life's passion, pick it up, turn it over, put it down again, and walk away? Sure, not everyone is going to love what I love. And I know I've been that customer, too. But I'm going to try harder next time when the creator-seller is sitting right there in front of me. My new rule? Smile. Always smile. I know what the discerning eye feels like now, and it is kind of like when Superman blows things up with his red-hot lasery vision. Your dreams? Poof. My favourite comment was from an older woman who said she thought my book sounded so interesting and the writing looked excellent, but unfortunately she couldn't buy it because she doesn't read anything written in the present tense. Well, we all have to draw the line somewhere, I suppose.
Which makes the experience sound much more difficult or less fun that it actually was. I had a great time. I was so nervous to do this, but I would do it again with pleasure. Because being out in the world and being able to talk about this thing that I love to do, to other people who want to know about it, is pretty fantastic.
Suddenly everything is dead or dying. Twitter is in death throes, and Facebook, well, it's already a rotting corpse. Also, blogs are dead (in lieu of flowers, you can buy my book.) The bookstore is dead, because physical copies of books are dead, as is all of literary fiction. The short story has died and been resuscitated more times than I can count. Poetry? Haha, don't make me laugh. Newspapers are dead. News is dead. Everything is dead, or on its way there.
Since Gott ist tot (God is dead) was written--as a lament for the end of a system of order, and a warning that humanity would slip into chaos--people have been predicting the next big dead thing, because alarmism (not dead just yet) gets attention. The end of western civilization was predicted. The end of capitalism. The end of the world. Whether or not we're convinced of the alarmist argument, we still can't turn away as the crazy guy marches by, shaking his placard, yelling, The end is nigh. And sure, this sort of argument can be entertaining, if only for the shock value, but I wonder, wasn't anyone listening when their parents read them Henny Penny? Quick reminder: If you run around yelling that the sky is falling, you end up with no head. (How's that for alarmist?)
From my point of view, when Y2K came and went, the tone of the eulogies changed. We, along with our computers, survived the big switch from three nines to three zeros--kachunk, like the dials on an alarm clock(RIP) flipping over--and we woke up and the world was a new place, a modern place, and we did not have time to waste.
Now, there seems always to be something better that we could be doing.* Because of that, our eulogies switched from alarmism to trend prediction. And we're all interested in reading these predictions because nobody wants to be the last person doing something.
This leaves me with the bad feeling that sounding the death knell for a particular thing is all just a lot of taste-arbiting, a popularity contest. You're wearing pink? Pink is dead. No one wears pink anymore. When someone tells you that journalism is dead, or photography, or the symphony, are you more or less likely to want to be involved with those particular things? If you are human, and you are telling the truth, I'm guessing you'd have some reservations you didn't have before you heard the bell toll. But we need to think about where these dire pronouncements are coming from. If Twitter told you that Facebook was dead, or vice versa, you might think twice about believing it. Sometimes, too, I think it's less that ___________ is dead, and more _________, you're dead to me. Whatever it is that once was loved and known intimately has changed so much that it can't be recognized anymore, and so have the original feelings. That doesn't mean there aren't whole lifetimes of interest and new feelings to be had by others.
Also, writing a great obituary is an art--a brief reflection on a life-lived (hopefully) well and long, weaving together the touchstones of accomplishment, family, love, joy, sometimes tragedy, and always, inevitably, loss. Certainly, an obituary is more than Jim is dead. Once alive, now not. Oh, and if you're interested, here's how we know he's dead. All these eulogies seem intent on predicting and proving the death, and spend little to no time celebrating the good of the life.
Eventually, everything dies (or changes so much that we have a hard time recognizing its attachment to the original). But it doesn't matter. We didn't stop living and enjoying our lives when we found out that at the end of it was death. So, if you love bookstores, support the ones that are left. Love poetry? Read and write it. Go ahead and post that status update on Facebook while it's there to enjoy. Who cares if it's dying? You are too.
*Do you doubt me? Take a look around the next time you're at a restaurant. How many of the people (including you, maybe?) are with a friend or a loved one, but also have their phones on the table so they can keep track of the other people in the world that want their attention?
As part of an author profile I put together at Smashwords, I answered
eight questions about my writing and reading habits. Here they are, for
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
Probably "Ferdinand", by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson. It introduced me to character complexity!
What are your five favourite fiction books, and why?
In no particular order:
Who are your favorite authors?
Peter Carey, Alice Munro, Michael Crummey, Charlotte Brontë.
When did you first start writing?
As soon as I could hold a pencil, probably. I know there were quite a few stories with poor spelling and even worse illustrations that I read with great pride to my family and friends. I also wrote plays, and by wrote I mean "borrowed very heavily from Grimm's Fairy Tales."
What is your writing process?
Strong coffee, comfortable chair, clean work area, sad music, think, write, edit, repeat.
What's the story behind, Fathom Lines, your latest book?
Lise makes maps of places that used to exist and lives with a man she doesn’t love. Her mother, Vee, pines for the husband she lost so many years ago, and can’t stop thinking of the place she grew up and left behind on purpose.
As the book opens, Vee is a very soon-to-be-retired librarian, mother, and widow. She is smart and no-nonsense, but wasn’t always as reserved as she is now. She worries that her daughter is unhappy and unwilling to do anything about it. Lise works for the Preservation Society and wishes she didn’t. She lives with a guy that she isn’t sure she likes, much less loves. She worries that her mother is having trouble with her memory.
The story is about memories and family secrets, and how both keep us from truly knowing the ones we love best.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a historical novel, based on the experiences of a real man, set in York, Ontario (what is now Toronto) at the turn of the nineteenth century. Murder is involved, and war, and love, of course. Royals, too.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
The challenge of finding the best words to express what is often inexplicable.
Here's my confession for this week: I don't usually read books about writing because most of them annoy me.
It's not that I don't want to learn from established authors. I do. I'm greedy for all the information about writing that I can find. I want to learn. But lately, with the growth of self-publishing and many people thinking that uploading a first draft makes them an author, there's now a very large market for How-to-Write books, and too many of them purport to have the tricks or secrets that will make the process quick and easy.
Look, I don't object to an established author making a bit of extra money or acting as a mentor. I do object to bad and trite advice.
Three things that people tend to write about writing that do no one any good:
So, what are the books you should be reading if you want a little advice or insight into writing? Books that tell you the truth: writing is hard, writing is a (mainly low-paying) job. Look for books that focus on the work of writing; the technical aspects, rather than the harnessing of your 'inner writing light.'
Dear Literary Mags (may I call you Mags from here on out?) ,
In an effort to keep a promise I made to myself at the beginning of this year, I have been googling your websites and reading many of your Submission pages. In the process, I've discovered a few things about you. First, the good stuff:
But I've also noticed a few things you could improve:
I guess what I'm trying to say, Mags, is that when you are a champion of the literary underdog, when you act as a place for engaging literary discussion, when you point out something from an author we love that we might otherwise miss, and especially when you are generous and polite to you submitters, I love you, and I look forward to working with you. I will be your champion, if you will be mine. And if you are not? Well, most of your readers are submitters (or would-be submitters), and publishing is a tough racket these days. I say, good luck to you.
A Birder's Guide to Everything, is "a coming of age comedy about teenage birdwatchers." From the trailer, it looks like an intelligent film about intelligent, quirky, and sometimes floundering characters, the kind that I typically enjoy quite a bit. It showed in Toronto very briefly at the TIFF theatre, but you can find it on iTunes now, I believe, for immediate download.
Anyway, partly because of this film and partly because the birds are flying back now, I've been thinking about how birding is really a perfect metaphor for the creative process. Some proof:
I love maps. And I also love photographs of how things used to be. So, it's obvious that I was always going to love WhatWasThere. They want to create a unique history of the world by tying "historical photos to Google maps, [and] allowing you to tour familiar streets to see how they appeared in the past."
This is a great innovation that everyone can use: residents can learn more about where they live, tourists can get backstory, educators can bring two somewhat abstract subjects, history and geography, to life for their students. And for writers of historical fiction---well, WhatWasThere is The Jackpot. It is an easy and direct way to the essential atmosphere of a place at a particular point in time.
From my own very rough calculations, I estimate WhatWasThere has mapped more than 36,000 historical photographs by time and location. North America and Europe are best-represented right now, but with a platform for anyone to upload photographs to the site, this amazing project could very well achieve their mission to "weave together a photographic history of the world."
Unfortunately for me, my work-in-progress novel is set in Toronto long before cameras existed. Might I make a suggestion? How about WhatWasThere: Historical Paintings version? Huh? Sound good? Too bad, I guess it's back to the archives for me.
I love maps. If I weren't a writer, and if I could go back to my early twenties and choose something different to do with my life, I would choose mapmaking. But since I don't have a time machine, and I'd hate to give up writing, I did the next best thing. I wrote a main character that makes maps. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is called Vicarious Cartography.
The thing is, traditional mapmaking is now a bit of a redundant pursuit--Google maps and GPS and satellites make plotting the boundaries of land onto a piece of paper somewhat unnecessary--so when I wrote Fathom Lines, I knew my character, Lise, had to be a different sort of mapmaker.
Instead of the physical landscape, she focuses on mapping an emotional landscape of Toronto. She gathers memories from random people from all different parts of the city, and then makes a topography of emotion.
But there are real people doing amazing things with maps right now, and thanks to these creative minds, we can find our way in the world differently. Here are a few recent projects that I love the most:
The writing process takes time and concentration. There is no quick-fix for the thousands of hours it takes to write a novel. You must sit at your computer and think of great things to write. You must do this until you have a complete story. Depending on your brilliance and how much time you have every day to write, this could take one month, three years, a decade or two. It will always seem like a lifetime.
And then, as reward for all your time and effort, you must spend many more hours editing your good draft into a great work.
The good news? Not every aspect of editing takes a lot of time and/or brain power. Here are five quick edits that you can complete in a few hours:
Erin Bedford, writer.