Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

May 31, 2010

Moving the Goal Posts

Don’t you hate it when you spend seven years on a manuscript and then one day some Hollywood hack coughs out some summer blockbuster containing some superficially-similar concepts, and all of a sudden elements of your story that were carefully planned literary allusions make the whole work look like fan fiction? And you could change those story elements, but then you lose the literary allusion and a lot of flavour that goes with it, and anyway YOU WERE THERE FIRST and THEY’RE the ones who should have to do a rewrite, right?

Yah, me too.

May 27, 2010

The Short Story and Me

Apparently it’s Short Story Month. I know this because The Afterword and Steven Beattie say so.  I think this might be something The Afterword invented, to be honest I haven’t been paying a huge amount of attention because I don’t consider myself a big fan of short stories.  But that alone should have been reason enough for me to stick my neck out.  If the point is to encourage the reading of short stories, I am the perfect target market – an avid reader who for no particularly good reason avoids the form.

The last two short story collections I read were Joyce’s Dubliners and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, both of which I read for a class on modern literature.  Because, I think, of the context, I have no fond memories of either book.  And, because they are considered to be two of the finest examples of the short story in the English language, I assumed that since I didn’t really like them, I wouldn’t really like any short stories.  This was five years ago – I don’t think I’ve read a short story since.

But it wasn’t always this way.  When I was a kid – 11, 12 years old – I had subscriptions to Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction.  I read The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror every year from 1990-1998.  For years I felt Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s collections of “adult fairy tales” (from Snow White, Rose Red through Black Heart, Ivory Bones) were the reading highlight of my year.  And Charles de Lint’s first collection of Newford stories, Dreams Underfoot, was probably responsible for changing my life.

I know, that’s sad from a literary standpoint.  Some teens latch on to Holden Caulfield or Jack Kerouac or Nietzsche; not me.  I was living in a small down up the Ottawa Valley, hating every minute of my life there.  I didn’t have the patience or the focus to channel my frustration into anything useful, but I did have a grab-bag of strange and various talents, and a vivid imagination.  In de Lint’s stories I met folkies and artists and buskers who were living, as far as my 16-year-old self was concerned, the perfect life.  I was already a talented violinist, so I decided to take up fiddling, and jumped ship to Toronto at my earliest convenience.  I wasn’t quite done high school and I didn’t have anywhere to live, but I was determined to find the community of like-minded de-Lint-ian vagabonds who would, I was sure, be my best friends forever.

Suffice to say it didn’t end up quite like that.  Still, Dreams Underfoot moved me to Toronto and motivated me to have some of my more memorable adventures.  Once the busking season ended and winter started making itself known I dabbled in the more indoor – but nevertheless de Lint-inspired – career path offered by the University of Toronto’s Celtic Studies program.  Failing this I meandered through a similarly inspired and equally brief film career, still determined to find the faery artists of de Lint’s world.  Even now, years later, when I muse about the cozy bookshop I’d love to someday own, my mind calls up Mr Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery, a de Lint creation.

This is probably the other reason I’ve shied away from short stories: I’m afraid if I go back to them I’ll find they weren’t nearly as good as I thought they were when I was 14.  Looking back at what moved us as young people is bound to be an embarrassing exercise.

This week I thought I’d meet my 14-year-old self half way.  Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu is supposed to offer magic and fantasy in the vein of John Crowley, which is to say, with style and skill not often found in genre writing.  I did quite like her full-length novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  And serendipitously, Ladies of Grace Adieu is illustrated by Charles Vess, who I met earlier this month at TCAF, and who illustrated so many of the Charles de Lint books of my youth.  Fate?  Anyway the book has been sitting unread on my shelf for four years now.  It’s time.

May 19, 2010

BookCamp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. II: “Online Communities”

BookCamp T.O. seemed to me to be peopled by three types of people: 1) representatives from publishing houses (often, publicists) 2) technology/new media geeks and 3) commenters and critics – i.e. bloggers.  I certainly felt I was there in my capacity as the latter, and so the sessions I chose were those I thought would speak to me and my vocation best.

So I was disappointed, to say the least, in the final session of the day, “Building and Sustaining a Community of Readers Online”.  Far from being concerned with community-building or readership, this session wound up being about leveraging existing community in order to generate sales.  Tan Light of Random House pointed out to us that social media, while “free”, is extremely time consuming and thus requires a lot of man hours.  So, by building (or finding) self-sustaining communities, you basically have an engine that will generate that labour for you.

Needless to say, from this “community as marketing tool” standpoint, most of the discussion focused around what to do when the community is saying bad things about your company or product; how to manage or minimize the things you don’t want the “community” to be saying.  Customer service!  Transparency!  Smiley emoticons!  Okay, that last bit is mine.

I’m sure the publicists in the room were thrilled.

But for my part, the session left a bad taste in my mouth.  Is that what I am?  An unpaid publicist?  Is that what we’re building all these “communities” for?  To sell books?

This has been an issue with “free knowledge” rhetoric all along.  The “knowledge economy” is supposed to save us from economic collapse, but who along the knowledge production chain gets paid?  If I am participating in a critical community which is hashing out important issues in, say, bookselling and then a media giant comes along, scoops up the buzz and the discourse and the leads we’ve worked up and prints it in their for-profit newspaper, we (the critical community) have produced the bulk of the knowledge to be sold by a third party.  This is part of the problem with copyright in general: What right has anyone other than the content producer have to make money off of an intellectual property?

But someone should make money – I don’t advocate reducing people whose talent is for knowledge production to slaves or hobbyists.  If what you do is write or make music or draw or think, you should have the right to make your living off of it.  You don’t owe it to “society” to give away your product for free.  And you certainly should be annoyed if you do give something away for free and someone else capitalizes off of it.

So I wonder how the blogger model fits into the new economy.  Blogging is almost always done for free. The Quill & Quire profiles a number of “big” book bloggers in their latest issue and we learn that among them are only two who actually make money from it – BookNinja and GalleyCat.  So what’s in it for the rest them?  I hate to be so crass, but let’s be honest: sure, there’s an element of fun and community to it, but most bloggers have some back-of-the-brain idea that blogging will net them something in the long run.  Money?  Legitimacy?  Popularity?  A job?

“Hits” are a big deal.  We let our stuff be quoted, linked and promoted elsewhere, often by companies who use our influence to promote a product of theirs that we’re lauding, because there’s an expectation we’ll get traffic in return.  The Quill’s article suggests the legitimacy of blogs like BookNinja and Maud Newton comes from being cited by “real” news sources like the Washington Post or the New York Times.  Great publicity for the bloggers, right?  But Maud Newton isn’t underwritten by a media conglomerate and she doesn’t run ads.  Major media sources use her work, and in return she gets…

On the one hand, it’s nice to imagine that most of us are blogging for the altruistic purpose of “contributing to public dialogue” or “making a difference”.  Maybe we really love Canadian Literature and want to see it succeed, or we feel strongly that new transmedia projects will make the world a more equitable place.  But fact is, this is a time-consuming practice.  Blogging as a form of philanthropy is, like all philanthropy, the privilege of the already-underwritten-by-someone-else.  As we move into a future where blogging is an increasingly legitimized form on journalism, and “real” newspapers are dropping like flies, there’s really nothing just about a blogging model that expects the new journalism to come from generously employed hobbyists with a bit of an obsessive compulsive streak.  If we as a society value the knowledge production they’re engaged in, we’ll find a way to make this their full-time job.

I sort of wish I’d gone to mesh  ’10 because I think there might have been more opportunity for me to learn about these issues.  But then, I have a job I had to attend, and a toddler to take care of.  My exploration of media issues isn’t being underwritten by anyone, so I’m left musing to myself in my “spare” time.  Hopefully I haven’t fired way off the mark this time – what do y’all think?  How do you reconcile your status as unpaid publicist; dharma bum?

May 17, 2010

Book Camp T.O. Wrap-Up Pt. I: Book as Object

Two of the six sessions I attended at BookCamp T.O. this weekend have given me real meat for thought – a pretty good ratio, I think.  The other four, to give you a quick summary, went down like this:

The EBook in Academia was somewhat hijacked by someone who seemed to have no idea why we were there; meanwhile the “good” discussion mostly concerned open-source movements which, while academically exciting, wasn’t very useful to the thirty publishers in the room.

The Literary Grassroots session was alright, but the absence of Taddle Creek’s representative left a big gap in the discussion.  Lots of handwringing, no real information on how a literary publication might stay viable in this environment.

CBC’s Canada Reads panel featuring JK, Kerry Clare and Steven Beattie was excellent, but there’s not much more to say about it.  Good format, lots of community involvement, we look forward to continuing that involvement!

I also sat in on a discussion on bibliographical metadata, a subject about which I knew nothing.  Well, now I know something!  Not very useful to me as I am not in publishing, but nevertheless gave me something to think about about the costs/challenges small publishers face if they want to be part of this big globalized industry.

The 11:30 talk on “Book as Object”, on the other hand, was fascinating.  What was fascinating was that the room was packed with people. They lined the walls and sat on the floor.  Maybe word got around really quickly that Anstey president Neil Stewart had brought along a free handout, a beautifully bound blank notebook that reads “NICE BOOK CAMP BOOK” on the front cover (this may or may not beat the wine Michael Tamblyn fed his Kobo session).   But more likely I think we were experiencing a bout of nostalgia.  Few of us went into English Lit or Publishing or whatever with the intention of bringing about the obsolescence of the codex, but years of reality checks later that’s what we’re doing for a living.  I think people wanted to hear there’s a future for the object, even if most of us won’t really be working with them.

Certainly, the book-objects Neil Stewart and his partner Aurélie Collings were not the sorts of things most of us could ever create.  Stewart works on commission, producing limited edition fine letterpressed editions which are absolutely works of art.  His bindery employs 18 people, among them printers, sewers, binders and designers.  This is high-end craftwork in addition to publishing.  Stewart told us of a limited run he did of Margaret Atwood’s The Door featuring a relief print “keepsake” done by Atwood “in her kitchen with a spoon”.  Two were auctioned off for charity and fetched, according to Stewart, $1600 (Abebooks.com reports they went for $2000 and $1800).

Aliquando Press's The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy - $65 CDN.

But buying private press books needn’t be that expensive.  Compared to buying art, Collings rightly points out, these books are downright cheap.  Actually, they’re affordable even when compared to frontlist trade books.  Many private presses have books in the $65-$90 range, including Barbarian Press’s Rumour of a Shark by John Carroll ($75), Aliquando Press’s The Quest for the Golden Ingots by Maureen Steuart ($65), or Frog Hollow Press’s The Book of Widows – Contemporary Canadian Poets: Volume 6. New poems by M.Travis Lane (Deluxe Edition) ($60).  This is not appreciably higher than frontlist hardcovers have come to cost – consider that John English’s Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau is $39.95, while I bought the Modern Library’s Adventures of Amir Hamza for $57.00, or the new Library of America Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor at $50.

In fact, the print runs of both a private press book and a non-blockbuster trade book might not be that different.  These days a new Canadian author can consider themselves lucky if they sell as many as 1000 or 1500 copies of their book.  In reality, most Canadian fiction trade books sell 200-500 copies – well within the range of a limited edition run.  This isn’t to say there’s no difference between publishing with a private or craft press and a commercial one – the differences between publishing with a small or large press were discussed at length at That Shakespearean Rag a couple months ago – but buyers who love the book and authors who love to be published in book form need not necessarily panic.  The private press model is almost as accessible, available and affordable as the conventional one.

Of course this doesn’t mean all publishing can be replaced by small or private press work, but it does seem to support Stewart & Collings’ thesis that there is potential for a healthy fine publishing industry in the wake of the digital revolution.  We all still love books.  There are people out there who publish beautiful books (often 100% Canadian content I might add, right down to the paper and cloth).  We don’t necessarily have to pay much more for these books, nor are they any more scarce than most new literature.  All we need is to discover some of the book availability that exists out there beyond Amazon.

Most private presses are just that – private – and you need to make a little effort to seek out their work, but it’s not rocket science.  Most have webpages, however basic.  Trade organizations like the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild (CBBAG) keep lists of membership.  And best of all, they go out to trade shows like next month’s Toronto Small Press Book Fair (June 19th 2010) where you can gawk and browse and even (*gasp*) buy to your heart’s content.

Neil Stewart repeated his assertion  that he didn’t want to be “all things to all people”, and I think that’s fantastic.  One of the best things about new reading technology is the diversification of work available: nowadays, there’s something out there for everyone, no matter what your taste.  Private presses fit very well into this new personalized world.  Next time you need to buy a gift, consider a book object that really is irreplaceable.  Your gift-ee will probably just download the latest Ian McEwan or Peter Carey onto their iPhone anyway.  Try something different.

May 14, 2010

The Other Thing I’ll Be Doing This Weekend

(Because, you know, BookCamp T.O. isn’t enough to keep me busy. I need another major book event the next day!)

The twice-yearly Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show will be this Sunday, May 16th and me, I have a mission: to find and acquire any of the works of George Taylor Denison III. Why him? Who’s he? He’s my great-great-great uncle (fun fact: he is also the great-grandfather of Oberon Press founder Michael Macklem, making Macklem my 3rd cousin, once removed – did you know they have calculators for this kind of thing?)

Uncle George (George Taylor Denison III)

The politics of George Taylor Denison stand in stark contrast to my own, but nevertheless he was in his time a fairly influential politician, military officer and writer. His works ranged from the polemical (Canada, is she prepared for war? or, a few remarks on the state of her defences, pamphlet, 1861) to the historical (Reminiscences of the Red River rebellion of 1869, Toronto, 1873) and contain a good amount of local Toronto flavour (Recollections of a police magistrate, Toronto, 1920).  It’s this latter title that set me on my search.

The Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show can be, in a lot of ways, a sad little show, but there’s no question it’s a brilliant place to find works of local history.  I have always known I had “writers in the family”, so to speak – family legend has it that the library of Rusholme (the old “family estate” which would have been bounded by what is today Dovercourt Road, St. Anne’s Road, Rusholme Street, and College Street) contained not just George Taylor’s works but those of my great-great grandfather, Frederick Charles Denison (Historical record of the Governor-Generals Body Guardand its standing orders, Toronto, 1876).  But by the time Rusholme was sold and bulldozed in 1953 the library had vaporized.  Certainly my family retains some books as well as other keepsakes – I’m sure the same can be said of other descendants – but as for a comprehensive collection there is none.

At last year’s book fair I happened to stumble across a copy of Recollections of a police magistrate. It was inscribed by George to some unknown, and priced at $60.  I was sure someone in the family had a copy so I let it pass, thinking I’d just track down whoever it was that inherited Uncle George’s books and take responsibility for them.  Silly me.  The family seems largely agreed that if any books had remained at Rusholme by the time Uncle Harold (Harold Edmund Denison, son of Frederick Charles) sold it, they were either sold or absconded with by some distant and unscrupulous relation.  Nobody has any copies of anything.  Suddenly that $60 Magistrate looks like one that got away.

But if collecting were easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.  After a year’s reflection I’ve decided to get snapping and track the family books down in some shape or form.  Any copies would be nice, but wouldn’t it be fine to find the family copies from Rusholme?  I’m seized with the thrill of the hunt.  In any case, I feel after my unfriendly review of the Book Fair last year I owe it a second go.  It’s worth mentioning that Heritage Antique Shows has lowered the entrance price from $7 to $5 – maybe they read my post?  Perhaps this indicates some thoughtful planning on the part of the show organizers.  So off I go, in search of my bookish heritage.

May 11, 2010

My BookCamp T.O. Itinerary

This Saturday, May 15th, the University of Toronto’s iSchool will be hosting the 2nd annual Book Camp T.O., an “informal unconference” whose theme this year is “Book Publishing Is Going Digital, Now What?”  At the time I signed up, only 10% of the sessions were booked, few sessions moderators had stepped forward and we weren’t quite sure what were were going to un-confer about; but nevertheless the event was sold out after only three days.  Now the sessions are booked, the participants are listed and it looks like the event is going to live up to our expectations.

And yes, I will be there.  Quote: “…participation and conversation is what we will strive for, rather than a more static event with formal presentations.”  This suits my outspoken and eloquent (read: pushy) tastes very well.  My itinerary, subject to change without notice, will probably be as follows:

9:30 eBooks in Education and Academia — the glacial revolution

This is my nod to participation.  John Dupuis and Evan Leibovitch of York University will lead the session, but I will bring my three cents worth as an academic bookseller with pretty comprehensive knowledge of how academic eBooks are interfacing with their reading public.

10:30 Writing about Writing

I expect this session, led by Stuart Woods (Editor of the Quill & Quire), Amy Logan-Holmes (Executive Director of OpenBook Toronto) and Conan Tobias (of literary journal Taddle Creek) to be packed to the rafters with bloggers. Who’s with me???

11:30 Obscure Objects of Desire

Okay, I’ll be honest with you:  this session is the primary reason I’m attending BookCamp.  The blurb: “Before Gutenberg, books were fetish objects collected and hoarded by the elite. Are we headed back to the future? A session on all things paper, printed, bound and beautiful. A text is not a book, which is another way of saying that a book needs to be more than a “content delivery platform”.  A book that is well made and sensitively designed satisfies the reader, pleases the author and reassures the archivist in ways that digital (so far) cannot.”  Preach!

2:00 CBC’s Canada Reads

It’s not clear what Rosie Fernandez intends to do with this session, but I’m in.  I think the bloggosphere’s contribution to Canada Reads has been singularly influential – the integration between web and radio content is likely to get even more blended.  Let’s see where this goes!

3:00 The Onset of Exhaustion: Publishing in 2010

Led by Alana Wilcox of Coach House Press, I think this will address an aspect of the digital revolution that is being under examined so far: so, okay, technically we can address most aspect of the publishing trade with new media technologies, but how top-down is this model? Not every publishing house is funded by Bertelsmann. Is publishing in the global digital future feasible for everyone?  Good damn question.

4:00 Building and sustaining a community of readers online

Of more interest to bloggers.  Actually, neither this nor any of the other 4pm sessions excite me tremendously, so we’ll see if I even bother.  Maybe this will be a good opportunity for a wind-down martini?

May 5, 2010

5 Things That Will Be Totally Amazing About TCAF 2010

TCAF!  TCAF! It’s time for the 2010 Toronto Comic Arts Festival and I am SO EXCITED!

As I mentioned last year, TCAF is one of those events Toronto should be most proud of.  It is one of the very best events of its kind on the planet: a free, vital, bustling celebration of the most important (in my opinion) literary revolution since Allen Lane branded a bird in 1935 – the graphic novel.  There will be launches, parties, signings, debates, lectures, seminars, workshops and shenanigans starting now and running until May 9th.   TCAF’s focus on the independent, the literary, and the revolutionary makes it totally unlike a conventional “comic book convention” and much more like the very best of what a book fair should be.  Nowhere else, I will bet, will you find people travelling great distances and lining up for so much self-published product [1].

And me?  Well, here are 5 things I am completely excited about.

1)  Charles Vess!

Vess is hardly an indy darling: he has been a long-time collaborator of Neil Gaiman’s (they shared a World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991 for Sandman #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; collaborated on the original graphic novel Stardust, and more recently the wonderful children’s book Blueberry Girl, among other things), and has produced covers and art for Jeff Smith, Charles de Lint and George R. R. Martin.  My favourite Vess work? The Book of Ballads (seen at left), a collection written by the crème de la crème of fantasy writers and illustrated by Vess.  Most of these ballads are taken from Child (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child, 1898; reissued by Dover in 2003) and are lovingly treated by both author and artist.

At TCAF he will be debuting his latest Gaiman collaboration, Instructions, as well as hosting a retrospective of his career Saturday morning (10am-11am) at The Pilot.

2) KENK
This has got to be the most Torontonian thing produced, possibly, ever.  I don’t know a single person who bicycles in Toronto who has not had his or her bike stolen, and all indications are that most bike thefts in Toronto trace back to Igor Kenk.  Between bike thefts, drugs, a musical phenom wife and a bizzarely charismatic anti-hero we have the makings of the best kind of “I couldn’t make this shit up” story, told here as a “documentary film, journalistic profile and comic book”.  There’s something about the bike-courier/counter culture/eco-punk/altruistic criminal/scrap-art/anti-gentrification feel to this project that is just so Queen Street West, and so Toronto.  I doubt there’s a single literary project on the go right now which is quite as local as this one.

3) The Novella Room

I tried to find one or two of these seminars to feature (and attend) and just couldn’t pick.  The Bram & Bluma Appel Salon on the 2nd floor of the Toronto Reference Library becomes, on Saturday, an un-school offering  the most comprehensive curriculum on the history, present and future of graphic novel production that I’ve ever seen.  From “Comics as Art Objects: Form vs Function” to “Tracers, Photoshoppers, Cut & Pasters: Cheaters or Revolutionaries”, a slew of TCAF guests will discuss the format from about every angle you can want.  This is the sort of thing that will underpin future study and understanding of the genre.

4) Kagan Mcleod Drawing Live at Paupers

By all accounts, the Saturday night TCAF party at Paupers Pub is amazing, but what I look forwards to is the phenomenal Kagan Mcleod‘s archiving it all in pen-and-ink as it goes.  Kagan’s style is totally his own, even if his own comic titles sometimes seem a bit derivative (my favourite, Infinite Kung Fu, was blacksploitation kung fu cinema – with zombies!), and he has the rare talent amongst illustrators to give every character he draws a unique, recognizable face.  See his now-famous ‘History of Rap‘ print for proof.  I bet you whatever is produced in the wee beer-soaked hours of this party will be epic.

5) FREE THINGS.

I have to make a list of what I’m “allowed” to buy at TCAF and set a strict budget – because seriously, things can get out of control in a hurry.  But lucky for compulsive hoarders like me, there’s also plenty of FREE SWAG to be had.  Okay, there’s sketches.  Comic artists traditionally charge for sketches but the sort of fellow who exhibits at TCAF is less uptight about that kind of thing.  If you buy something, you can GUARANTEE personalization.  And a lot of the time, you don’t even have to buy something – artists are happy to do autographs or sketches just ’cause.  Then there’s the usual promotional freebies – postcards, stickers, temporary tattoos, bookmarks, samplers.  And then you get actual, creative attempts by the artists and presses to spread their word (and pictures).  Last year I got CDs, fridge magnets, pens and buttons; I’ve seen paper dolls, matchbooks, and condoms.  I’m not prepared to guess what these crazy people will think of next: but I will partake.

Oh, and need I mention?  TCAF IS FREE.  All of it.  Even the award ceremony for the Doug Wright Awards offers free tickets.  This is also unprecedented in convention & book fair history.  Enjoy it!

Could I be more excited?  No, I really couldn’t.  Friday can’t come quickly enough for me – but until then, I invite you to join me in reading obsessively The Afterwords‘ almost overwhelming pre-TCAF coverage.  They seem to be out to interview every one of the 200+ creators attending, and good on them.  TCAF!  Squee!

[1] Not all of TCAF’s exhibitors are self-published, but a large number of them are and they are not in any way the marginalized members of the club.

May 3, 2010

“Imaginative” Literature in 1910, 1945 and Now

Late Victorian novels are not the great things of human literature, and a reader may blamelessly amuse or depress himself with them as he will.  I prefer to be amused.” – Andrew Lang in the Illustrated London News, 1907.

Andrew Lang is nowadays remembered almost exclusively for furnishing the world with the coloured Fairy Books, but in his day (1844-1913) he was a deeply popular and influential journalist and literary critic with hundreds of books, articles and edited volumes to his credit.  Most of his work falls broadly into the categories of folklore, fairy tales, Greek classics, anthropology and romance, though he dabbled in much more.  There’s no question he felt strongly that “imaginative” literature was the highest literary art: for him, “realist” literature was the work of a literary photographer, a scientist.  Not an artist.

In Lang’s day, “realist” novelists like Henry James and Thomas Hardy were only just taking the stage and their literary philosophy was not yet the dominant paradigm.  Remember that reading “for pleasure” was only newly considered an appropriate activity for people of quality – reading a novel of any kind in 1840 would have been frowned upon as a waste of time.  By 1870 or 1880 novels for the educated classes were just starting to make a comeback and what consisted of a “literary” novel wasn’t yet set in stone.  Lang felt nobody of his period could stand up to “Homer, Molière, Shakespeare, Fielding, and so on” but felt a definite preference for the emerging school of romantics over the realists.  He championed Robert Lewis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard; Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain.  He admitted the “perfection” of writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Zola and Ibsen but he felt their novels were bitter, and greater art was “wiser, kinder, happier and more human in his mood”.

What I find fascinating is that in Lang’s time, this was still a conversation.  Today, the account has been settled: Hardy, James, Tolstoy, Zola, Ibsen et al are “literature” while Stevenson, Kipling and Twain are, at best, “children’s” literature or a specialist, historical topic.  Certainly Kipling and Haggard in particular are difficult to approach today because of their flagrant colonial attitudes, but surely they’re no more problematic than Conrad?  Nevertheless Kipling in particular is grossly out of fashion.

Reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s 1945 biography of Lang is fascinating not only as a glimpse of how a late Victorian literary critic saw the state of his contemporary literature but also as a glimpse of how things had changed by 1945.  Green was a scholar, critic and member of the Inklings, a literary discussion group based out of Oxford in the 1930s and 40s.  The most famous Inklings were C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, but at the time Green wrote this biography several of the Inklings were active and influential in literary circles.  They shared the opinion that narrative, imaginative literature had an important place in the cannon and were active in promoting this view.  So from Green’s view in 1945, Lang and his circle were the pre-cursors of a literary movement which, at his time, looked to be gaining strength and momentum.

How strange that sounds today!  Green faults Lang for overlooking, of all people, William Morris, who he feels was the “greatest” of these new Romantics and whose prose works seem to have been ubiquitously available in 1945.  Today you’ll be lucky if you can get a bookstore to order you a copy of The Well at the World’s End and most people would be shocked to hear that Mr. Morris was anything other than a designer of textiles.  Lang held that “Romance is permanent.  It satisfies a normal and permanent human taste, a taste that survives through all the changing likes and dislikes of critics”.  Green agrees, adding that the “‘Catawumpus of romance’ has raised its head again…in the works of C.S. Lewis”.  And in 2010?  If there is a single critic out there anywhere seriously advocating romance or, more broadly, narrative, imaginative literature, I’d like to know about it.  We’ve experienced a full rout.  Romance and fantasy are the exclusive realms of children and philistines.  High Literature does not accept their company.

And in history’s defense, the blame seems to lie in equal parts with writers of romance and fantasy.  There are few, if any, contemporary writers of fantasy or romance that deserve to be in literary company.  Is this the product of fashion?  If Scott, Dumas, Stevenson, Kipling, Twain, Lewis & Tolkien were taught alongside and with equal consideration the Modernist tradition, might more, better writers give the genre a go?  Or perhaps we just need a nouveau Inklings, a latter day Andrew Lang to “take up the cudgel” for what is rapidly becoming a lost art?  I advocate both for my part, if my opinion holds any sway.