The death knell of Canadian culture sounds again

I read this week of the shuttering of bicoastal Canadian publisher Douglas & MacIntyre with the sadness many other writers and readers did. But immediately afterward, and for not the first time in recent memory, parts of the media announced that the great and noble dream of a Canadian culture was dead. And of course, and with reason, some folks replied that such rumours were exagerrations. (To wit, a warm and well-written reply by Anansi’s Matt Williams to John Barber’s endtimes article in the Globe.)

When local or national cultural concerns go down, it does make you shake your head. But in some ways, it shouldn’t. I’m sad D&M will not, at least in its current incarnation, continue to find authors and make books in some form. But I have no illusions that their demise in any way is a sign of general rot or decline in my or anyone’s ability to read, write, or publish.

A lot of realities have contributed to what happened to D&M, but any one of them could have resulted in a failure to thrive: globalisation, the Internet, the state of international economies, a sea change in technology, the shifting nature of literacy, the corporatisation of publishing the world over. So it can’t come as a surprise that the tenderest shoots may die off or change. But while it’s happening, something else is happening as well, and to view the closure of a publishing house, no matter how dear, as a sign of the apocalypse is (I think) a mistake.

We’re in the midst of an evolutionary shift that is affecting not only how we create and consume culture, but even the materials of it. The terms “virtual” and “digital” only begin to contain the nature of the change. Remember how much hand-wringing there was over NAFTA? NAFTA was going to destroy culture. Doesn’t it seem quaint now compared to the Internet, though? The Internet has taken our borders away much more significantly than any free trade agreement could have. It’s convinced us we ought to talk about our feelings in public, with strangers. It’s convinced us to buy eyeglasses without trying them on. It’s turned us into readers and writers much more than books and magazines and newspapers ever could have. Just as significant as the gradual decline of books and book publishing is and will be, think about the push-and-pull of the Internet on literacy and the gradual outcomes of digitization, and imagine what that will mean for what gets read and how it gets read in the future. Then answer this: is the disappearance of publishers, the decline in physical book sales, and the difficulty of making a living as writer tragic or inevitable?

Already it seems clear to me that self-publishing is the most important advance the Internet offers, and making it possible for anyone to have a voice is its greatest contribution to cultural democracy. It’s been fun buying old comic books off of eBay, but the fact that almost anyone at any time can tell their story (and get readers) has already changed the game for good. Maybe some stories will only have three readers, but they will be readers all the same, seeking readerly pleasure: to hear a human voice, to be told a story, to have an emotion. Despite its coldness as a technology, the Internet was built for feeling and it is remarkably good at not just providing a forum for it, but for storing emotion as well.

One thing I find especially interesting is that flood of commerce on the Internet has had no meaningful effect on this layer of it, where all this storytelling is going on. In blogs, in the comments sections of gazoolions of websites, in forums, through Twitter (where the ancient art of aphorism has been reborn), and through ancillary avenues of expression, like Facebook and YouTube. Much of what you find is raw and rough, much is autobiographical or terse or truculent, but there are human voices out there in a quantity we have never known in the history of human society. And it is changing publishing, as much as it is changing what reading is, and what an author is. This change is not on the level of one technology displacing another. Books vs. Internet ≠ horse vs. car. It’s closer to lizard vs. bird. They are not the same in just about any way it matters, except one evolved into the other.

We see the closure of D&M and we wonder: what’s next? But we already know, even if those of us who depend on that infrastructure are afraid to say it out loud. We know that within fifteen years books and publishing books will be a boutique business. Someday awful soon, the people who really don’t want to give up books will be offered something almost identical to them, with pages that turn and all, but they’ll still upload text. Maybe you’ll buy different sizes to upload different kinds of things to. There’ll be a coffee-table book device, a pocketbook device, a comic book device, and so on. For those of us who like the feel of the analog reading experience—two carbon life forms curling up with each other—the virtual book will make your Kindle seem like a grandfather clock. But publishing houses? Sprawling bookstores? Um, I don’t think so.

So whither publishing houses? Whither books? More of what is happening right now. Small, regional, expressly literary, risk-taking, or specialist publishers like Anansi, Coach House, Cormorant, Pedlar, Playwright’s Canada, Gaspereau, Brick, Wolsak & Wynn, Annick, Biblioasis, Cocteau, Dundurn, Raincoast, and so on are going to keep doing what they do: finding and publishing and trying to survive. Some will make the leap fully to virtual publishing. A few, or many, more will die. Amazon is going to be a part of it all whether you, Author Currently Published by a Non-Virtual Entity, like it or not. There will be more paroxyms. But even as we brace ourselves, we shouldn’t be waiting for the sky to fall. We need to brace ourselves the way Johannes Gutenberg’s countrymen—the ones who were decrying the end of the scroll—prepared themselves for what was to come.

Thank you D&M, because publishers like you carried on what was nothing less than a thankless, ongoing act of citizenship. Who could expect you to live forever? But no books have died, no ideas have died, and the new, in all its forms, is ceaselessly arriving. The only death knell is for yesterday.

A Banff Memoir

[Hey, if you click the titles of my posts, you can see them laid out in a more eye-pleasing form. Should that sort of thing appeal to you.]

I’m out in Banff, Alberta for two weeks, at the Banff Centre. I’ve been sitting in a studio in the woods, typing. Fourteen hour days with the music playing and the trees bending outside in the faint wind. I’ve somehow written 15,000 words in one week, which is shocking to me, but when the phone doesn’t ring and the elk leave you alone, you can get a lot done.

Banff is a mythical place to me, especially the centre. I first came here in 1984, when I was 18, to participate in the theatre program. I was in the “beginner” program; there were two levels. The “senior” program involved frightening older people who really knew how to emote. David Barnet, who still teaches at U of A, was the acting teacher that summer for our group. I don’t remember much except the last day, when David gave us our marks out loud, in a group setting. We were all given Bs, I think, owing to our efforts (these grades counted toward high school or university, if I’m remembering correctly), but the real appraisals were given live, in front of our peers. He talked about what each of our strengths and weaknesses were as actors. When he was done, he’d discussed everyone but me. There were protests from the rest of the class, and he finally admitted he’d skipped me. “I skipped you, Mr. Redhill,” he said, “because you’re not an actor. You don’t know what you’re doing. However, I’ve never seen anyone analyse a text the way you do. Your insight into character is quite fine. But, you can’t embody it.”

It was therefore his fault that I went to university for acting the following year. To prove him wrong. In Bloomington, Indiana. I lasted one year.

We also had to take “movement” class, which was some kind of dance class. We wore leotards and dance belts. All you need to know about a dance belt is that it’s a pair of thong underwear crossed with a boxing glove. It’s big, and it holds your nuts in a vice and goes straight up your bum. It’s supposed to make your grande chausees better I guess. It had no effect on mine. The teacher of the class was a 74-yr-old  man named Paul Draper. Paul was tall, with an incredibly erect bearing, and he had a tragic story. He was a tapper, and he’d been famous in the 30s and 40s. Hugely famous. Hollywood, Carnegie Hall, Broadway. He performed for ten years with Larry Adler. Then he came to the attention of Joseph McCarthy and his friends and he was blacklisted for life. He told us the only work he could get in the movies after that was doing shadow dancing, like behind a curtain, a sihouette.

He took dancing seriously. When he was showing us a routine, he’d move his feet through it, murmuring some kind of private language hup-a-hup-dup-dup-dohh and then we tried to do it. He was ferocious. Despite the fact that none of us had had any training in dance, he would be furious with us if we couldn’t get it. The highest mark he gave was a C+. He gave me, who moved like a spavinned ape, an F. He died at 86 years of age in 1996.

I fell in love for the first time that summer, too. First, some kind young woman kissed me on the lawn behind Donald Cameron during a costume party. I was dressed in civilian clothes, but I had a shirtboard Superman “S” taped to my t-shirt. Guess it worked. Then I met someone and eventually had a relationship with her! But in August of 1984, we were meeting for the first time.

I came back to the centre in ’88 and ’89 for the writing programs. More my speed. In 1988, the writing program at Banff had as students Gil Adamson, Laura Lush, Terry Jordan, Rick Hillis, Gabrielle Gunther, Lesley-Anne Bourne, Jean Yoon, and others whose names I’m neglecting to recall. I shared a room with a man who, some years later, changed his name to Algo McNada, which he said meant Nothing From Nothing. He got married to another student who was here that year, too. W.O. Mitchell, huffing snuff, Alistair MacLeod, Richard Lemm, Lorna Crozier, Dale (now David) Zieroth and Holly Ballard Rubinsky were the teachers. All of them were wonderful. Holly and Bill are gone now. Bill was already getting a little old and forgetful. Holly would have to draw him away from the students, who he would have spent 12 hours a day talking to, and remind him to go eat.

That summer of ’84, we had a student from Calgary, a young woman whose father was a rigid, religious type and who disdained the arts, especially dance and theatre because it was too physical. Her mother had plotted with her in secret to get her here, and here she was, slight, pale, frightened, but talented. In the second week, her father found out she wasn’t in bible camp and told her to wait for him; he was coming to get her. That night, sitting in the third-floor lounge, a bunch of us saw her walk into the elevator in what looked for all the world like a wedding dress. She’d pushed the up button. We looked at each other silently and then made a run for the stairwell. We ran up three flights of stairs, to the top floor and began looking for her frantically. She was standing at the railing on the outdoor deck, looking down. Three of us grabbed her and held her. Her father came the next day and I’ve never heard of her since.

1989, I was here in the May Studio, working on poetry with Don Coles. I remember Don reading the whole manuscript of K in Love to us in his room. Laura and Lesley were there that year, too, as well as Steve Heighton, Karen Connolly and, again, faces without names. (Someone, I know, is going to write me an angry email—we were best friends in 1989! Forgive me, whoever you are.) I was working on the poems that would become Lake Nora Arms that year. That book wasn’t published until 1993, but my real beginnings as a writer are rooted in that month in 1989.

1989 was one of the years that Adele Wiseman, the late and lamented Adele Wiseman, was the head of the literary program at Banff. She was a fierce woman who took no prisoners, and she was political to her toenails. However, she was also one of the warmest human beings I’d ever known. In my early twenties, I was a frequent dinner guest in Adele’s house in Toronto, but this summer, I was meeting her for the first time.

She was driving me and two young women to the Banff Springs Hotel because the program was having its yearly visit to the gourmet trough that is Sunday Brunch at the Banff Springs. And one of the women in the car was talking about the movie Stand By Me, that film with River Phoenix, remember, based on that Stephen King story? This young woman was talking in dreamy tones about the boys in the movie and how sad the movie was, etc etc, and when we parked the car in the hotel parking lot, Adele turned around in her seat to her and said, “That movie is a garbagy piece of misogynistic bullshit.” And got out of the car. And then we got out of the car. Adele waited for us and when the young woman caught up to her, Adele said, “I’m very disappointed in your feminism.” Then she put her arm around her and a minute later they were laughing at something. Adele Wiseman was a force of nature and I was lucky to know her.

In 1991, I came to the Leighton Artists Colony for the first time. I wrote a terrible screenplay. The few people who read it died instantly of brain hemmorages. I was at York, in film school, by that point. I’m in the same studio I was in in 1991 right now: Hemingway. Perfectly round, with a high conical roof, and a balcony that looks out onto the woods.

In 2001, I was here as part of the Banff/Calgary Wordfest (running as I write this in fact) and met Nick Earls, who’s now an old friend. That was the year of my novel Martin Sloane and I recall experimenting, serially, with how much I could drink at book festivals. Finally, I was here in 2002, helping, with John Murrell, to dramaturge a multimedia piece that the Gryphon Trio was developing. The centre had changed some since 1991, but nothing like it’s changed beween 2002 and now. The quaint, Swiss-cottagey centerpiece of the whole campus is gone. Donald Cameron Hall, which used to house the administration, the cafeteria, a bar, a nice little shop, and other things is gone, replaced by this:

I accept that corporate citizenship leads to things like this, and support of culture from the private sector is very important, but when they block your view of the mountains and stomp on your memories, I don’t like it as much. They’ve done something similarly blocky and unfortunate with the Sally Borden, which used to house the rec centre and had a huge lounge for artists to gather in. It was built to mimic, in reverse, the peak of Mount Rundle, which is behind it. Now it’s a massive hunk of pleasantly designed, multi-purpose CorpoStructure. No lounge anymore. No fireplace. No pool table.

At least Lloyd Hall is the same. The main dorm. I walked in there a week ago and smelled its slightly yeasty carpets, the vaguely pleasant pong of human beings living and sleeping all together and it shot me back to 1984.

I’ve been here a week in the Leighton Colony. It’s been wonderful to be here again, to have the mountains and the trees and the animals (I’ve even seen one of these!):

A pine marten. Latin name: Oo-cutie-pa-pootie-num-num

My life as a writer would have been different without The Banff Centre. I was lucky to discover it, and so many writers in this country have passed through here and been glad they did. And thank goodness they haven’t touched the Leighton Colony. DON’T TOUCH THE COLONY, BANFF CENTRE! It’s such a wonderful place to work.

Both the centre and the town have changed a great deal in twenty years. In the town, there are more souvenir shops. A Gap. A Keg. But it still has the charm I remember when I was eighteen, galloping downhill with a girl I’d just met to the Magpie and Stump, probably the worst Mexican food in Canada.

In other news:

I’m going to be on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers this Monday at 1pm EST. I’m talking about Inger, me, and writing in general. I think it went pretty well, hope you’ll listen in. The wonderful Christine Pountney is on the show, too, talking about her novel, Sweet Jesus. If you miss the show and want to listen to the podcast, click here.

The Case for Clutter

I like clutter. I don’t know a lot of people who do, but those of us who like it (the clutteri) have a reason, and it’s not just because we’re messy and lazy. Clutter is a very specific thing, though. Messy is not cluttered. Clutter is just a little, of a certain genus of objects. Socks and dishes with crumbs on them do not clutter make.  Things like books and avocados and eyeglass cases are clutterable. A certain amount of unintimate clothing, like a wool toque or a sweater, is also sometimes quite pleasant.

I think the world was supposed to look sort of cluttered anyway. The continents arrayed over the oceans are not very tidy, and neither are the oceans themselves, with all that stuff in them. It is especially nice to be in a mixed forest, but even a forest made of nothing but pine is still a clutter of pine. And what about towns, those things people once made out of what they could yank out of the woods and the ground? At one point, those people’s bodies were the reference to the workable world. Things existed at a human scale and the human scale is cluttered. Go to Carcassonne, go to the old parts of Brooklyn, walk down to King and George streets right here in Toronto and look at the buildings. That’s some fine clutter.

One of the most satisfying things about living with other people is that sometimes, when no one else is about, you can be alone with hints of them. Say it’s a barette on a table. You see your wife walking past on her way to bed, taking it out, putting it down right where she’ll pick it up again tomorrow morning at 7 am.  Of course you don’t have the kinds of associations you’re looking for when, instead of the barette, you find a dirty sock on the table with a food wrapper stuffed into it. That doesn’t count as clutter.

A clutteri can usually keep his or her house reasonably cluttered without causing anguish to orderer spouses or guests. It is a very fine balance. However, I prefer it to the clean house, where everything is sorted. It makes me wonder if the person I’m visiting doesn’t really want me to get to know them. I know it must also be a courtesy, but at the same time, it makes it hard to believe that they actually live there. In some houses, it feels as if the rooms reset themselves whenever you leave them. In others, the books are sorted onto their shelves like little tombs. I can’t tell what you’re reading unless you leave your books out!  And what, no magnets of your travels on the fridge? Who are you people?

Now, if you are a person who likes clutter, there is a very poor chance that the person you live with is also a clutteri. Clutteries are only twenty per cent of the population. They tend to live in houses or flats.* It would be rare to find two people who like clutter living together. But it would probably be beautiful. I mean, a disaster. Clutter is, after all, a stage of entropy. Two clutteri living together have a 45% chance of appearing on a reality show. You have to be very careful.

If you’re a clutteri, it’s almost certain you live with an orderer. People who hate clutter just hate it. They can’t help it and there’s nothing wrong with it. Order has its uses. But sometimes you have to push back a little. You have to help them accept a judicious disorder. From time to time, salt your clutter lightly with some belongings of the orderer and you may be able to establish a slightly cluttered stasis. You leave something of theirs out and then say: “Your sweater draped over the chair gave me a sudden fond memory, a frisson you might say, a soupçon of something we once did together when you were wearing it.” (By the way, orderers will remember everything they were wearing on any given occasion, so if they weren’t wearing the sweater that night you’re remembering, you better start skating.)

That’s my case for clutter. I think the world is returning to clutter (and what are blogs if not digital clutter among the clutter of the internet?) and I just want to say that when they start giving out prizes for it, I was always on the side of clutter.

So I’m just going to leave this here for now.


* Apartment or condo buildings are too Miro-ish to get clutter into. And although all clutteries like Miro, his paintings exude a strange threat of order and you could never live in one.**

** Footnotes make fine clutter.

On Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

In June, Chinese artist’s Ai Wei Wei’s bail conditions were lifted one year after he’d been released from 81 days of detention. He can now travel within China, and he’s tweeting again, but he can’t travel outside of the country. The documentary based on his life and work has an ironic title, because the Chinese authorities did find a way to make Ai sorry. Near the end of the film, we see a broken and exhausted man being returned to his Beijing home, a once-garrulous man who now refuses to talk. Earlier in the film, we’d seen Ai sitting in the back of a cab gently stroking the hand of his little son, and there was no doubt in my mind that while in prison Ai was informed what the next wave of penalties would be if he ever stirred the shit again.

A year after those images were shot, his account of the lifting of his bail conditions was published in The Guardian. The language in his essay shows astonishing courage—he calls China “a monstrous machine”—and you have to wonder what fate the man is heading toward now.

The film is wonderful. Half satyr, half mad buddha, Ai is a force of nature and a man of incredible appetite. (And not just for food.) The movie is more tense than any of the Bourne films because Ai spends the entire film tempting the authorities to capture and/or kill him. The absurd machinations of the Chinese authorities trying to thwart this strange and wonderful man make Never Sorry as comic as some of Ai’s work, but it reminds you that you can put a smile on just about anything and obscure its real meaning. I don’t think Ai smiles once in the film, but a uniformed policeman on the steps of one of the courthouses  smiles warmly as he physically pushes Ai and his supporters away from the building. When  Ai found himself a guest of the government, you can only wonder how many times a day they smiled at him.

It’s a great thing to be born free and not have to struggle against anything but chance. Never Sorry inspires you to think of Ai and his supporters as courageous and daring and fearless, but they’re more than that. Each person you see in this movie could meet their fate as a sacrifice to an ideal, and every one of them has made of their life an artwork. 

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry. Do see it.

A Door in the River

Today is pub day!

A Door in the River is the third Hazel Micallef Mystery by Inger Ash Wolfe. Although the first two were written in a space of three years, the third book itself took almost three years to write and went through six drafts. It also had about nine titles, including Permission to LeaveMurder Plot, and Sparrow’s Grove. 

These books are about a fictional county in Ontario called Westmuir and concerns especially the town of Port Dundas. (One day soon, I’ll publish a map of Westmuir County on this site.) A Door in the River begins with the death of Henry Wiest, a citizen of Kehoe Glenn, which is about 30km south of Port Dundas. His body, however, is found at the back of a parking lot in Queesik Bay, an Indian reserve of the Mjikaning Nation. His death is ruled anaphylactic, the result of a bee sting. But when his grieving wife is attacked in her own house, Hazel and the Port Dundas Police know that there is a killer afoot, someone with a deadly grudge and a grievance of her own.

Why not stop in to your local bookstore and pick up a copy? Of course, you could always get it online, too.

Jack’s house

The image for this site is a photo I took at a place called “The Cutoff” near Tunica, Mississippi. I was looking for a house for a character in a book. He was a far-off-the-grid kind of guy and I wanted him to be somewhere almost not on the planet anymore.

The novel takes place in Toronto and in the American south. Jack Beifus is a “non-paying spouse” who’s scarpered to the middle of nowhere in the state of Mississippi in order to evade having to pay support to his ex-wife back in Toronto. I wanted him in some kind of shack or house in a field or a cabin in the woods. Then I was having breakfast one morning and got to talking with a Tunica local who told me to drive down to The Cutoff. It’s called The Cutoff because the Mississippi river was cut off in two places to form a standalone lake there. This lady told me there was a place in The Cutoff called Charlie’s Camp that I should go take a look at.

Charlie’s Camp was on the other side of the levee. You had to drive to the end of Fox Island Road and then go right up the levee and down the other side.  This was where you launched your boat, and there was some kind of ramshackle corner store and bar there too. Around it, on about an acre of land, were a collection of the strangest houses I’d ever seen. Most of them (including the store) were raised up on six-foot stilts. Obviously, it flooded here often enough to warrant living six feet in the air. There were about thirty houses here, on either side of the launch area. But not very many of them looked lived in. And there had been more houses as well, because there were the remnants of demolished buildings lying around.

I started to drive and take pictures. Then I realize I’m being followed. It’s a gargantuan man in a monster-truck size 4×4. He cuts me off on the main road and demands to know what I’m doing. I tell him I’m a novelist from Toronto. “The hell you are,” he says. He has a head the size of a Hallowe’en pumpkin, but it’s the colour of a butternut squash. I ask him if he’s doubting that I’m a novelist or that I’m from Toronto. “I don’t doubt you are, but what the hell are you doin aroun here?”

He turns out to be Charlie, the guy who owns the land Charlie’s Camp is on. When I succeed in charming him with my friendly, naive way, he tells me that he’s owned the land for fifty years and as recently as two years ago he had eighty-two tenants paying a hundred dollars a month to park their stilty houses on. But there was a massive, destructive flood in May of 2011 and the federal goverment wouldn’t let people go back to their houses for weeks. So many of them simply left. Now he had seventeen tenants and he was about to wrap up his business at The Cutoff. I told him I could be on my way, but if he didn’t mind, I wanted to take some pictures. He told me to make myself at home. Then I asked him if I could come back out when he wasn’t so busy and buy him a drink, and he said, “I’m never not busy. Got no time to talk.”

He drove off and then I found the house. Couldn’t have found a better house for Jack Beifus, nor a better image for life as a writer these days.