Once & Future

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

October 26, 2009

Romance for the Rest Of Us

There comes a point where even I, perpetual outsider and pop cultural imbecile, start to feel the pull of social pressure.  The final straw came this weekend, when shopping with my younger sister in a mall.  In search of a cheap, generic hoodie we wandered into a shop which was branded top to bottom by a popular franchise – not in the sense that they sold t-shirts featuring the characters or lunchboxes like when I was a kid, but the fashions themselves were featured in an upcoming film, and this season the young and pretty would all be dressed like characters from the movie.

Something in me snapped, and I had to know what all the fuss was about.

This is why I acquired the first Twilight film (with, admittedly, the Rifftrax commentary), watched it, and then borrowed the book.  I needed to know.  And now, 150-or-so pages in, I’ve thrown it a few times, sworn outloud in exasperation several more times, and come perilously close to having my face frozen in a permanent sneer.  Far from being an indulgent gift to my fourteen-year-old self, the book is terrible, offensive and outright insulting.  But then, I knew it would be.  This isn’t a review.

Twilight has sold over 40 million copies worldwide.  Forty million.  Though we tend to dismiss it as pandering to the imaginations of 12-16 year old girls, a huge bulk of the franchise’s fans are adults – adults I know – who are drawn to the romantic storyline.  I suppose it avoids the stigma of the Romance Novel, though Harlequin makes about a bajillion dollars a year selling Romance Novels, and apparently half of their readers are college educated and employed, mirroring “the general population” demographically rather than being, as we might want to believe, the genre of the barely literate.  But that’s not surprising either, given the massive cult of educated young women built around the work of Jane Austen.  Who isn’t in love with Mr. Darcy?

I’ll admit it – I am a huge sucker for romantic stories.  I have read Jane Austen’s oeuvre twice in its entirety and specific works more times than I care to admit.  And I really did want to enjoy Twilight in some guilty way.  I’ll hide behind the statistics here – we, women, educated, self-confident, modern women, love romantic stories.  And isn’t the Love Story the greatest literary trope there is?

So why, exactly, am I having such a hard time finding the upscale replacement for Twilight?  I don’t want to read this series – it sucks (ha ha ha).  I don’t like my men overbearing, controlling and liable to eat me, thanks.  I want to put it aside and read something for me – the well-written but nevertheless tragic/intense/melodramatic story of love and passion.  I don’t see how it is possible that, given the market and archetypal nature of the story, there is nothing between Jane Austen and Stephanie Meyer.

I have taken a quick lap around my bookstore (okay, actually, I have spent a months worth of hours combing the place in desperation over several years) seeking my romance fix.  There are a few paragraphs worth of indulgence to be found in War and Peace.  I liked Carol Shields’ Republic of Love well enough though she is frustratingly restrained, and Doctor Zhivago has its moments.  Don’t start me on those Brontes.

Love stories are in shockingly short supply among the literati.  Either the genre is used with bitter irony to underscore some bleak topic or “realism” takes the stage and leaves us with some dull drawn-out affair the likes of which most of us have had in real life and have no especial desire to revisit.  Happy endings are utterly taboo.  The message seems to be that if you want a romantic indulgence, you can get it from the pulp-and-paperback section – greater minds are dedicated to higher things.  Yet where in the Romance aisle are the strong, educated, indomitable women portrayed?

I don’t have an answer or a witty conclusion to draw now.  Call this a plea for recommendations.  We need a Twilight for the rest of us.  We’re a huge friggin’ market, people.  Surely someone has found a way to tap us directly?

August 8, 2009

Via Book Patrol…

June 24, 2009

A Wednesday Tidbit

I am at the SHARP 2009 conference (“Tradition & Innovation: The State of the Book”) all week and so don’t have time to make normal posts, so I leave you with this totally amazing website.

Sketches and paintings of favourite literary creators or characters by comic book artists.  Above: Gene Ha interprets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. But every piece is amazing – click on the image to check it out!

May 25, 2009

Gaspereau Press & Quality Books

The Afterward is reporting the very distressing news that Gaspereau Press, independent printers & publishers based in Nova Scotia, is significantly reducing their staff and delaying several publications.  In these tense economic times this is barely a blip on the publishing-job-cut radar – two and a half jobs eliminated, three books delayed – but for a press of Gaspereau’s size this is significant.  With only about a dozen new books offered annually and a future release schedule undecided one can’t help but feel a bit grim about their future.

I adore Gaspereau Press.  They are among only a few publishers left in the country who print their own books and the results are artisanal.  The mission statement on their website – which I encourage you to read – describes their standards but let me add that their books have a tactile quality that is totally unique, marrying letterpress text with handmade papers and inventive presentations.  Furthermore, unlike other publisher-presses like The Porcupine’s Quill, Gaspereau offers their printing services and standards to the commercial public.  If you need a well-bound, professional and beautiful book printed – say, a catalogue, a journal, or a self-published work – they are one of only  two  Canadian (along with Coach House Books) options that I am aware of.  That does not a healthy local fine press ecosystem make.

There’s not much left to be said except to implore you to visit their website and take a good look at their product, and next time you need to procure a well-crafted gift for someone, consider throwing some business their way.  I would hate for this latest news to be a herald of the end.

May 18, 2009

Happy Victoria Day!

I think Kate Beaton might agree with me that it’s time to bring some Victoria back into our Victoria days.

May 13, 2009

In Which I Feel Smug

I have re-enrolled at the University of Toronto in order to tack a major in Book and Media Studies onto my old degree.  This was a controversial decision for me; after all, I am already working, blogging, tweaking a novel and trying to raise a 10-month-old.  Who has time to go back to school?  Well, you know what they say: you can sleep when you’re dead.

The course instructor for my summer course has made the very interesting but not unheard of decision to get us all of our assigned readings (120 pages a week worth, I’m told) in digital format.  Though her primary motive was to lower our book costs, she also felt it was an appropriate (or maybe she said “topical”?) move in light of the fact that we will be spending some time studying “the death and possible rebirth of the book”.  Anticipating any student complaints about having to print the readings out, she recommends to us that we purchase Adobe Acrobat Professional in order to digitally annotate our readings.

I have spoken here before about the problem of annotating digital texts.  As I mentioned, I keep a stash on hand of journals in order to keep notes on texts so that I don’t have to mark up my books.  So, no problem, right?

Ugh.  Well it is one thing, it turns out, to camp out on my couch with a cup of tea, a book, and a journal to take notes.  It’s quite another thing to be tethered to a computer.  I have never in my life longed for a laptop before.  I don’t want to read in front of my computer.  I want to read in my sitting room, or in the garden, or at Madeline’s.  And another thing?  I don’t understand how anyone can read 50 pages of dry theory in a webbrowser without succumbing to the urge to pull up a tab and check Facebook.  That’s a temptation I just don’t need.  Good grief.

I’d like to reintrench myself as a supporter of actual, physical texts.  I don’t care what it costs.  This endless list of pdfs is sucking all the pleasure out of reading.

April 29, 2009

Aesthetic Books

My husband and I had a minor disagreement in a bookstore this weekend.  We were browsing editions of Lord of the Rings for his collection, it being high time he replaced his mass market paperbacks with a “good” copy for long-term enjoyment.  I was leaning towards the 1965 box set with the painted dust jackets, but he liked the look of the 1984 Easton Press leather bound edition with the lovely gilt elf-runes all over.  Both have their place from a collectibility standpoint, but I prefer the books that reflect their original time and history, rather than fancy reprints.  Having a library full of beautiful leather bound editions is certainly pretty, but I find it doesn’t capture the history and authenticity of individual books.  I like my books to be cultural artifacts rather than art-works.

Of course, books as pretty things have their place too.  Like, for instance, as purses.

This artist was recently featured on some US tv show or another and her work is gorgeous.  Sadly she didn’t have a beautiful Three Musketeers or Count of Monte Cristo that I was willing to shell out for, so I found myself skimming Etsy for similar items.  To my great delight, it seems there are several vendors who “upcycle” old books like this.

Thank you, clever artistic folk, for keeping me enthused about all the endless possibilities offered by books.  You never cease to amaze me.

April 22, 2009

World’s Favourite Ass-Kicking, Sesquipedalian Librarian!

If you haven’t already, you have to check this out.  Rex Libris by Toronto comic book artist James Turner.


– Reveals secret world of librarians and their daily struggle to protect civilization from forces of ignorant evil

– Circe vs Gaiseric, King of the Vandals

– Will please Thoth

– Bonus comic by Chester Brown feat. The Count of Monte Cristo

– Demon Samurai

I think I’ve made my case.

April 10, 2009

Pot tells kettle to get a new editor!

Yah, I know.  I don’t always produce the most polished product myself.  I can’t spell and I still confuse the possessive of “it” from time to time and I’m very fond of run-on sentences.  But you don’t pay to be here and nobody paid me to show up either, and most importantly, I don’t have an editor who is responsible for making me look more thorough than I am.

People who publish books do not have that excuse.  They have, I am told, editors.  Someone is paid a salary to make sure that the book which is produced from the manuscript is clean, coherent and is written in proper English.  Nevertheless I have seen more bad grammar, continuity errors and puzzling editorial choices in the last year’s reading than I think I have seen before in my life.  It could be, yes, that I am simply becoming a more careful reader.  I don’t want to imply that there’s a conspiracy of incompetence out there amongst editors.  Maybe I do want to appeal for an editorial job with a big publisher though.  I’m happy to proofread for any of you.  My services are very cheap.

It started early last year with a book of questionable quality from a big pulp publisher.  I won’t call it out by name because I don’t want to admit that I read it.  To give you an example of the kind of writing the author got away with, I give you the following:

“His hands trembled as he laid out the service; Laurence dismissed him once the meal was served and sighed a little when he had gone; he had thought of asking Giles to come along with him, as he supposed even an aviator might have a servant, but there was no use if the man was spooked by the creatures.”

At the time I was absolutely shocked that a sentence like this could make it to print.  Semicolons are not periods, I thought that was pretty obvious.  And yet, later that year I found a similar, though not as grievous, mess in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies.  And this book was shortlisted for the Booker!   Four of the seven sentences on the very first page (of the Viking hardcover I read) contain “colon splices”, inexplicable colons appending one thought to the previous.  Witness the first line:

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?

Colons aren’t periods either.  Are they?  An occasional sentence like the above would be forgivable, poetic even: but almost every one in the book is structured this way!

I’ve decided to forgive Neil Stephenson’s editors for Anathem.  I was puzzled at first as to why, on page 739, a meeting in a super-secret Cell is suddenly interrupted by a character who is not there and has not been seen for several hundred pages.  In hindsight, one error (however glaring) in 935 pages is probably not bad, especially when so many of those pages are taken up with arcane mathematical theorics.    But (she says, hoping someone from William Morrow is reading) I noticed it.  My services as a proofreader are still on offer.

I’m less inclined to be easy on Val Ross’s editors for Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic. This is a scholarly work.  The reader is not breezing along “lost in the book” and likely to forget what she has read a hundred ages ago.  Reading Judith Skelton Grant’s recollections of the “Dr. Gillespie” conversation in almost exact duplicate on page 62 and again on page 304 was unnecessary.  This is a page-long block of text.  I realize that the contexts are different (first regarding Eleanor Sweezey and then regarding Skelton Grant) but there was no need for such a huge reuse of material.  The statement has been reordered but is clearly the same conversation rehashed.  We are not duped.

I mentioned my editing concerns in a private blog last year and was told by one friend that the grammar I was complaining of is deliberate, and is what english and publishing students are taught nowadays.  Really? To what end?  Where is the cost saving here?

April 6, 2009


It has been a crazy weekend with many comings and goings, the result of which is I didn’t have time to write up my take on Val Ross’s Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic.  I’ll try to have it in by Wednesday, Miss, I promise!

Meanwhile, I leave you with this:

(Click to enlarge/visit the original.)

And if you want to be extra awesome, you can buy the t-shirt, like I did.

Though in my house, it is Miss Margaret who will have to learn to sink or swim, so to speak:

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