Once & Future

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

April 24, 2016

My Ad Astra Schedule!

This weekend, I will be at Ad Astra 2016 in Richmond Hill, Ontario. This is a really fun local genre con with a focus on literature – busy, family-friendly, and well-run! I will be there the whole weekend, but if you need to nail me down more exactly, here is where I can be found:

The Relationship Between a Self-Publisher and Their Editor
Friday, April 29th @ 8pm, Room Richmond B
With Charlotte Ashley, Beverly Bambury, Jennifer Jaquith, Rob Howell, Vanessa Ricci-Thode

Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction Launch Party
Friday, April 29th @ 9pm, Suite 1086
With Charlotte Ashley, Dominik Parisien, Kate Heartfield, Kate Story, Claire Humphrey

Do Used Books Help or Hurt Authors and Publishers?
Saturday, April 30th @ 11am, Room Richmond B
With Charlotte Ashley, Brett Savory, Jen Frankel, Peter Halasz, Timothy Carter

Crafting a Believable Alternate History
Saturday, April 30th @ 2pm, Room Richmond B
With Charlotte Ashley, Dominik Parisien, Jack Whyte, Kate Story, Stephen Kotowych

Don’t be a stranger – if you see me, say hi!

March 19, 2015

Ad Astra 2015!

I will be at Ad Astra Toronto next month – April 10th-12th 2015 – participating as much as I could possibly manage to participate, so as to maximize the fun I will get out of this, the rare convention I am actually able to attend.

My panel and reading schedule is as follows:

Deconstruction: What Happens When You Take Tropes Apart
Friday, April 10th, 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Panellists: Gail Z. Martin, KW Ramsey, Leah Bobet, Me
Genre fiction thrives on tropes, from the stalwart hero, the damsel into distress, and all the way to the nefarious villain, but what happens when a show takes those tropes and turns them on their head. Join us as we discuss how and why to do this and examine when it’s done right and when it’s done wrong.

Giving It Away For Free: But You’ll Get Great Exposure!
Saturday, April 11th, 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM
Panellists: Chantal Parent, Chris Warrilow, Erik Mohr, Me
“I’ve got a cousin who could do that for peanuts, why should I pay you so much?” Sound Familiar? Advice and anecdotes from professionals who have been treated unprofessionally.

Genre Crossing: Please Watch for Slow Moving Pathetic Fallacies
Saturday, April 11th, 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Panellists: Ada Hoffmann, Karina Sumner-Smith, Nancy Kilpatrick, Me
Sometimes you just want to read, write or direct a paranormal romance during the robot uprising on the medieval planet of urban fariy hipsters.

New Toronto/Ontario Writers Reading
Saturday, April 11th, 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM
Panellists: Elaine Chen, Malon Edwards, Tonya Liburd, Me
Four up-and-coming Toronto writers will be reading from their newly-published work.

How to Sell SF to General Readers as Literature
Saturday, April 11th, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Panellists: Derek Kunsken, Erik Mohr, Leah Bobet, Me
It is nearly impossible to get a non-genre reader to even look at a book – much less read it – unless HBO has kidnapped it for a mini-series. So how do you prove that SF/F is more than pulpy star-ships and elves with perfect hair?

Interactive Fiction: No Coding required!
Sunday, April 12th, 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Panellists: Alice Black, Leah Bobet, Matthew Johnson, Me
Thanks to tools like Storium and Twine, the ability to make interactive stories is now available to everyone. Find out how to get started without having to write a single line of code.

Intersection Between SF and Contemporary Issues
Sunday, April 12th, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Panellists: Adam Shaftoe, Cathy Hird, Derek Newman Stilles, Me
Panelists discuss SF stories that take on problems of the present, and old SF that has incidentally come back around to address what ails society today.

And just a reminder that I am that rare thing – an extroverted writer – so don’t be shy about coming to talk to me at the Con! As you can see, I like conversation.

March 28, 2014

On the Economics of Creative Industries

Yesterday, Ontario’s major news outlets reported that the provincial government was finally starting to crack down on illegal unpaid internships, starting with a blitz, apparently, of the magazine industry. The reactions from the left shocked me. Progressive people who should have known better bemoaned the death of these “great opportunities” and wondered where new graduates were supposed to get “valuable work experience” now.

I undulated between frothing anger and silent shock all afternoon. From… jobs, maybe? The paying kind? How did we manage to swallow, hook line and sinker, the idea that the first step into the workforce should be unpaid?

We probably swallow it because we of the creative-dependent industries work deep in the belly of starving artist territory. Not only are we told day in and day out that we cannot make a living at our art, but we’re chastised for having entered Humanities programs in the first place, then shamed if we consider “soul-destroying” paid work over pursuing our art. Writers are told not to quit their day jobs, cartoonists give their product away for decades before managing a single successful Kickstarter campaign, and we pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for skill-developing workshops.

Of course we expect people to work for free. An internship, after all, is about education, and we have agreed as a society to pay tens of thousands of dollars a head for those, endlessly, forever. Rational, kind people continue to argue this morning that as long as you’re learning something at your unpaid “internship”, they should be legal.

So why stop there? What separates a “job” from a “learning opportunity” anyway? Especially in the creative fields, where we’re offered jobs for “exposure” and “experience” every day? Or academia, where you publish relentlessly for no compensation whatsoever except a vague CV-padding? You learn something at every good job – why pay anybody for anything?

To further muddy the pool, almost everyone who is associated in any way with the publishing industry works for free once in a while. I read slush for free. The only people who get paid at a place like Taddle Creek are the writers. Rose Fox recently argued that editors need to start asking for a piece of the pie. They correctly point out that “money isn’t thick on the ground” in the industry, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

If the only people who can break into an industry are the people affluent enough to work for free for years at a time, you’re going to get an industry entirely staffed by white, middle+ class, single young people. Diversity and representation you can throw right out the window, because most people don’t have rich parents, savings, supportive, well-employed partners, or 28-hours available to them in a day. You also help contribute to false economics when you fail to factor in all the labour that goes in to your product. Every literary product I have backed on Kickstarter recently has completely glossed over the editorial costs of their book. $5000 will get you ten stories, cover art, printing and shipping costs, and that’s it. The editors, layout designers, promoters and marketers? You’re volunteers. You’re unpaid interns.

We work for free because we want these products to be made, to be available. Given the choice between volunteering to edit something for free and seeing the project die in development, we choose the labour of love every time.

But listen, broadly applied, this is a false dichotomy. The publishing industry is worth billions. If the editors, authors, designers and publicists aren’t being paid, who is? When St. Joseph Media eliminates 20-30 unpaid internships and blames the government, they are being incredibly disingenuous. The Gagliano family who run St. Joseph Communications do very well indeed. CEO Tony Gagliano has donated millions of dollars to cultural projects throughout the GTA – and good for him – he can find $750,000 to pay 30 interns minimum wage.

The money is out there, but we’re never going to see it if we don’t start putting our labour back into the equation. After all, the more of us that are being paid, the more we can pay back.  Hey writers – you know you can claim magazine subscriptions as a business expense, right? Do that. Pay in. Demand it pay out.

September 26, 2012

Back From Leave!

I do mix bookselling and parenting. A little.

I’ve been back at the store exactly one month now, launched from the relatively peaceful life of the stay-at-home mom into the bustling world of trade bookselling successfully. We’re at the height of our busy season now, receiving and selling thousands upon thousands of books for the 2012-13 university year.  Even so, I have had more time to read, write and think in the last 30 days than I had in the previous 320.

I am pleased to find that very little has changed here. In fact, books still sit on the shelf exactly where I left them one year ago. The same customers come looking for the same books, the same professors ask us to provide the same books for the same English students. From the news I’d found on the Internet it had seemed as if the book business was changing entirely every week I was away, and I’d wondered if I’d even have a bookstore to come back to. Ebooks continue to find their place in the market, publishers fold and get sold, and Amazon continues to come up with new innovations to destroy us all reinvent bookselling. But no, now that I’d back in the belly of the beast, I see very little has changed after all.

Part of the stasis I’m seeing seems to come of the differing aims and ideas of bookselling’s players. Amazon introduces same day shipping, but ever more titles are shifting to print-on-demand. Ebooks continue to gain market share, but our students are discovering the format’s limitations. People are still buying books in bookstores, and demographically it seems likely to continue for some time. If ebooks or internet sales are ultimately going to put an end to my line of work, they aren’t doing so quickly, at least not until they get their acts together and form a unified plan of attack.

There are two big reasons people continue to come into the shop, and neither one of them is because of the patient and romantic respect for the time-honoured profession of bookselling. As much as individuals wax eloquent about the community services and individual attention neighbourhood bookstores provide, at the end of the day every one of you succumbs to the convenience and savings offered by Amazon or Chapters-Indigo.ca. Very few people really boycott big online sellers. To do so requires some sacrifice on the part of the book-buyer, and we’re not a people who are generally fond of sacrifice. To cite a recent example of the disconnect between professed love of independent booksellers and the reality of the indie’s powers I offer up Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton. This memoir of Rushdie’s years spent under fatwa has been, in publicist lingo, “hotly anticipated” to the point where it was classified as an embargoed title, meaning there would be no advance reading copies and no shipments of the book in advance of the release date. Logistically this tends to mean that stores who order enough copies of the book to receive sealed boxes (containing perhaps 12 copies) will get their shipments on the release date, but if you have ordered fewer than a box worth, you have to wait until the cases have been cracked and individual copies can safely go out. In our case, because we ordered only five copies, this meant we received our books on September 24th rather than the 18th.

So while on the one hand, Rushdie crafted an open love-letter to independent booksellers for their support of Satanic Verses while he was under fatwa, in reality, most independent bookstores miss whatever mad scramble the publisher thought there would be for this book. Will the buyer wait? I had a few requests for the title on the 18th, but I have not yet sold any of the copies which came in on the 24th. I suspect, no she won’t.

Yet people do show up and we do sell books. The biggest draw is convenience. When we have the books, they are on the shelf right there. You don’t have to wait, or order. You pick it up and start reading that minute. For students this is especially relevant, because often it doesn’t occur to them to buy the book until they are three days from an essay’s deadline. They can’t wait. This is, of course, one of the biggest draws of the ebook as well – there you don’t even necessarily need to leave your home to instantly receive your book. Yet whatever market share we’ve lost to ebooks we’ve made up for by the loss of older competitors. Chapters Indigo don’t seem to carry many books anymore. One desperate student calling to confirm we had his book in stock informed us that the closest copy Chapters had of Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey – surely an easy-to-find staple if ever there was one – was in Stoney Creek. The ease of “finding a used copy” has also tanked, as used bookstores around the GTA go belly-up. A few monster used bookstores don’t make a suitable replacement either – while ten small stores might have an Odyssey each, that doesn’t mean one big one will have ten copies. We have books, so people come to buy them.

The second draw remains a fundamental mistrust of ebooks. Consumers may be warming to the idea, but in my experience, many ebook readers have mistaken ideas of what an ebook is, and what rights it gives them. Several people have tried to return ebooks to us because they discovered they “could not print them out”. For a student or academic, having a paper copy – even in fragments – is still key.  You need somewhere to scribble your notes. You need a copy to bring in to the exam. You need to copy a chapter for your students. These consumers also have mistaken ideas about to what extent they own the “book” they’ve bought. They want to lend it out, to sell it when they are done. They need access to it even if they’re having technical difficulties. It is apparently easier to phone me than to reach tech support for many ebook publishers, and I find myself trouble-shooting my customers’ reading experience. This is in no way my job, and while I like to be helpful I am reluctant to be yelled at when a customer is, for whatever reason, locked out of her book. Loathe as I am to ever refuse to help a customer, I begin to wonder if I should even admit I know anything about ebook difficulties. To own up to any knowledge seem to be to invite blame. To avoid headaches, I recommend paper books every time.

So I don’t know if it will last, but as of today the bubble holds strong. People read, and we facilitate reading. The thrill of a new release, a new find, or a new favourite hasn’t gotten old for the customers or for the seller. I count myself lucky that I can still be in the business now, and I hope to still be here in 15 years. And beyond? I’m not willing to forecast, just enjoying the good weather while it lasts.

March 30, 2012

My Response to David Mason – Huh?

I really do enjoy my subscription to Canadian Notes and Queries. It is probably my only periodical – outside of Chirp – which I happily renew every year without even having to consider it.  I love Seth’s design work. I love the featured cartooning work. I love the often arch and argumentative nature of many of the essays. And I love that they give space to David Mason, really the only space in any Canadian periodical given to an antiquarian book dealer. But,

Dear Mr. Mason,

You lost me with your latest contribution, “Secrets of the Book Trade: Number 1“. I sorrily admit I didn’t understand a word of it. I followed you as far as the admission that antiquarian booksellers are snobs  – agreed, and good for you! – but the following generalizations about trade bookselling sounded outright made up.

Which booksellers, pray tell, were you referring to? I’m not sure if you’ve looked around lately, but there aren’t a lot of trade booksellers left, and those still standing don’t bear any resemblance whatsoever to the characture you’ve drawn. “…what they are lacking is knowledge of about 500 years of the history of their trade.”? “new booksellers share with publishers is a certain distrust – even fear – of antiquarian booksellers”? “You order a bunch of books from a catalogue, provided by a publisher, sell what you can and return what you can’t. No risk, no penalty, if your opinion of what might sell is wrong.”???

The above quotes represent three total untruths about trade bookselling featured in your essay.

Just this week Ben McNally delivered the 2012 Katz Lecture at the Thomas Fisher on the topic of Is There a Future (Or Even a Present) for Bookselling? which included a learned history of the book trade. Yesterday I attended new book creator Andrew Steeves‘ lecture on “The Ecology of the Book” which also consisted, largely, of a history of the book trade. Even I am a new book seller and a book historian, not to mention an antiquarian book lover and collector. The booksellers I know – those who remain – are very knowledgeable people who are in no way the peddlers of pap you seem to be describing. I think you and I can agree that Chapters/Indigo is not staffed by “booksellers” so let’s leave out their lack of participation in the larger world of books – unless it was actually that straw man you meant to burn down, in which case I’d feel better if you’d been a little more clear.

We bear the antiquarian trade no ill-will. In fact we continue to foster relationships with used and rare sellers. Our remainder tables continue to be pillaged by scouts and dealers, and we offer deep discounts to some favoured dealers who will take away our overstock by the box. We know that the antiquarian dealers do us the same service we do them – redirecting customers who erroneously visit one or the other of us in search of “nice copies of…” or “cheap copies of…”. I send my customers to you weekly. I hope you do us the same courtesy.

As to this business of publishers’ returns policies giving us a free pass… well, perhaps it is this which stuck in my craw the worst, as I hear it again and again from everyone, customers, academics, and now you, who should know better. The ability to return a limited quantity of books allows us nothing but the merest bit of breathing space. We have to remainder or toss books too. We have to vet the vast, vast floods of new books which are solicited each year into a good, salable collection of which we can return no more than 15% and, even then, which we often have to return at great cost to ourselves in shipping and brokerage – especially brokerage. Choosing which books will sell requires not just an intimate knowledge of every author, publisher and subject we cover, but of our customers and their interests, price points, and whims. Every book we buy is a gamble. Unlike you, who can pick up certain Modern Firsts at a good price without having to think about it, we have to speculate on the market of every book which comes through the door. And we can only be wrong 10-15% of the time.

Further, if we feel a social responsibility to pick up and flog new, upcoming authors and presses with no existing market whatsoever in the name of encouraging local talent and the potential cultural giants of tomorrow, we do so by the grace of this returns policy. Not that we send books back to small and independent publishers – quite the contrary, we have a policy of keeping these books whether they sell or not, out of respect for the limited resources of their publishers. But we can do it because of the returns to larger publishers who can afford it, which will let us free up some cash for zero-gain experiments.

I cannot imagine what point you will eventually make with Number 2 of this series after making such an artificial distinction between booksellers in Number 1. If your intention was merely to point out how very learned you are, I salute you but suggest that you do not become more learned by painting us as less learned. I’d like to suggest that a more useful project might be to make common cause against the real outsider in our field, the entirely algorithm-based online bookseller who is undermining both our businesses by selling entirely unvetted, undifferentiated texts based on price point alone. But that’s another post.

In conclusion, I think you’ll find those booksellers among us who remain in business in this difficult age are a hardy bunch, creamier than whatever booksellers of yesteryear you’re remembering. We each have our bodies of knowledge about aspects of the objects we dedicate our lives to.  We are aware of how we compliment each other – have we kissed and made up yet?

Thanks for you time,

Charlotte Ashley

P.S. I would love and prefer a job in antiquarian bookselling. If you’re ever looking for a knowledgeable and neurotically dedicated apprentice, you just let me know.

March 26, 2012

Things To Do This Week (March 26th 2012)

It’s not often that I outright plug an upcoming event, but this one came at me kinda last minute and I have been rather lax about keeping my regular bookish event listings current. Also, I will be attending, so think of it as an opportunity to come see me!


March 22, 2012

5 Things For Your Kids To Do While The TPL Is On Strike

This week the Toronto Public Library’s library worker’s union officially went on strike. I support the workers 100% in this: their desire to give a little bit of security to their largely precarious workforce is absolutely reasonable and, if you ask me, even asking too little.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad to see the libraries closed and locked. We made the ill-timed decision to return our library books last week without choosing a new batch, a snap decision made when faced with an unexpected double-nap on the part of my two daughters. No fear, though: Toronto is chock-a-block with book events, even for the littlest persons. So with no further ado, here are five things you might want to do with your small persons while the librarians fight the good fight!

1 – Visit an Ontario Early Years Centre

Or, in my case, The Children’s Storefront, a not-for-profit drop-in for preschoolers and their care givers. All Early Years centres have books, but the Storefront has an especially impressive library, the result of donations and a fundraising campaign over the last two years while the organization was moving to a new space in the wake of a devastating fire. While you can’t withdraw the books and take them away, you can cuddle up in the library alcove with the rugs and the pillows and enjoy the collection which runs the gamut from board books through picture books, reference books, big-kid books and even parent reference books. My voracious reader and I spend at least three days a week here and have yet to even make a dent in the literal wall of books available.

2 – Take A Class at Mable’s Fables

If you haven’t taken your child to Mable’s Fables, you are doing them a disservice. When I moved here twelve years ago, Toronto had an array of children’s bookstores and, unfortunately, all but one of them have gone out of business. But one of the last ones standing is unimaginably perfect. Mable’s has launches, book clubs, book drives, a web store, institutional services and classes as well as the given great selection of books. They offer a range of children’s activities, some of which are not too dissimilar from the TPL’s “Baby Time” and “Family Time”, though they do cost a one-time fee. The new session begins between now and early April – so it’s the perfect time to sign up!

3 – Make Comics at Little Island Comics

Little Island Comics, the just-for-kids (-and-childlike-adults) comic book shop on Bathurst at Bloor, hosts a drop-in comic making session for kids every Saturday morning from noon-3pm. You can take these home or leave them at the store where they will be on display, and especially young visitors can do a little colouring. And more often than not, your Saturday comic making session will be hosted by actual comic book creators doing launch-like events for their recent books. Go work with Chris Leung and Sondang Sianipar of The Misadventures of Mal & Lot on March 31st, or Peyton & Hilary Leung of The Pirate Girl’s Treasure on April 14th. And on that note…

4 – Go to a Book Launch

Maybe it’s just me, but I think kid book launches are WAY cooler than grown-up book launches! Maybe it’s the emphasis on activity rather than schmoozing, I don’t know, but kid’s book launches always seem to involve games, magicians, theatre, music, contests and a whole lot of drawing. We had a fantabulous time two years ago at a Ninja, Cowboy, Bear launch which involved a very spirited Ninja, Cowboy, Bear session (think rock, paper, scizzors), and so we have every intention of attending Small Print Toronto‘s launch of The Pirate Girl’s Treasure, Origami for Pirates! I didn’t realize until writing that I’ve plugged this book twice in one post – I swear I’m not working for anyone involved – I just think the idea of a pirate girl’s adventures with an origami theme is AMAZING. But your interests may vary – check Small Print’s website for other launches and events this spring, or keep an eye on Open Book Toronto‘s extensive listings.

5 – Attend The Toronto Storytelling Festival

When most of us think “story time”, we’re thinking “for kids”. Maybe even “for kids who can’t read yet”. Storytelling Toronto knows better. All literature is rooted in an oral tradition, and a vibrant storytelling scene still exists in Toronto, as it does almost everywhere. The 34th Toronto Storytelling Festival is a big, elaborate affair which will run the weekend of March 29th-April 1st at a variety of venues (the website is excellent and comprehensive – do look). Events run from storytelling sessions to workshops to meet-and-greets. The majority of the events are not, in fact, aimed at children, but family and kid’s events are in no short supply. The most focused children’s events will be at the Bata Shoe Museum – Parent-Child Mother Goose Program (March 31st, 10:30am-11:30am), Andy Jones tells “Jack Tales” (March 31st, 1:00pm – 2:00pm) and Stories from Mother Earth (April 1st, 1:00pm – 2:00pm).  But kid-friendly events don’t begin and event there, so do look at the schedule for more ideas!

March 7, 2012

I <3 the Shahnameh

In his 2003 A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, Nicholas Basbanes tells the memorable and, speaking as a bibliophile, devastating story of the Houghton Shahnameh.

The story goes like this: Arthur A. Houghton Jr., a 20th-century American book collector, has among his insanely valuable books a manuscript which has been described as the most spectacular example of Islamic art, if not of manuscript art, ever produced: The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp. This copy of the Shahnameh (a 50,000 line poem first put to paper in 1010 by the Persian poet Ferdowsi) managed to survive intact from its creation in the early 16th century until the 1970s, when it ran afoul of Houghton.

Houghton acquired the manuscript from Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1959 and almost immediately put it on deposit at Harvard University with “the understanding that an elegant facsimile would be published by the university’s academic press.” (Basbanes 2003) Then, for whatever reason, he abruptly withdrew it from Harvard in 1972 and donated 78 of the most valued pages to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yes, he cut out seventy-eight pages and gave them away.

There’s some speculation that Houghton intended to eventually donate the rest of the manuscript to the Metropolitan Museum, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, between 1972 and 1996 the remaining 180 pages of the manuscript were sold off or traded, in batches both by Houghton and later his estate, to a variety of private and public collections. Souren Melikian wrote in his 1996 report on the final Sotheby’s sale “It was a great day for commerce but hardly for the preservation of cultural treasures.”

Long story short, a priceless treasure of book art was destroyed by a single owner. But all was not entirely lost: in 1981 Harvard University Press did manage to produce a facsimile in two volumes, 600 copies of which were actually sold to the public. Nowadays you can get a copy of this facsimile for the comparatively low price of $3500-$4500.

Ever since reading Basbanes’ tale in 2003 I have been mad to own a copy of this facsimile. It was absolutely in my top-5 list of books I’d buy if I, you know, had the resources to spend on collecting that I wish I did (along with Frank Wild Reed’s Bibliography of Alexandre Dumas and the 1893 deluxe edition of the Beardsley-illustrated Morte D’Arthur, in case anyone wants to get me an especially lovely birthday present). And so I nearly had an aneurysm when I saw the solicitation from Yale University Press for a new facsimile: The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp.

Now, I couldn’t buy the deluxe edition. But I’ll be damned if I’d let a book I’d been fantasizing about for the last decade go totally un-bought. I picked it up yesterday from the Bob Miller Book Room.

My new baby!

But here’s the best bit:

Being, as I was, at headed for the Bob Miller Book Room, I thought I’d take the family to the Royal Ontario Museum for Maggie’s Daily Dose of Dinosaur and, lo and behold! They are currently showing a special exhibit on the Shahnameh! Among the ROM’s holdings are pages from another great Shahnama manuscript also broken up during the 20th century, the Great Mongol Shahnama. These and other pages on display from McGill University and other sources represent a rather depressing history of decontextualizing Islamic art, but that’s a post for another day. As an introduction to the stories and cultural value of the Shahnameh, the exhibition is absolutely worth seeing. They even have a copy of the 1981 Houghton Shahnameh from Harvard on display – “The most luxurious and lavishly illustrated royal manuscript” preserved to “document and contextualize…” the illustrations.

A context we only get now in facsimile, thanks Houghton.

The ROM’s Shahnama – The Persian “Book of Kings” exhibit runs until September 3, 2012 in the Wirth Gallery of the Middle East, Level 3.

May 6, 2011

Obligatory Pre-TCAF Post 2011

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is one of those events that I budget my whole life around for an entire quarter. Which is funny, because if all you know of me is what you learn from this blog, you might not have me pegged as much of a comic geek: I tend to blog about book collecting, book-as-object issues, bookselling and Canadian literature. Comics, a huge subject on their own, I tend to pass over for other things.

The truth is that I am a bit of an outsider when it comes to comics. I’m aesthetically barren and not especially hip, yet not nerdy enough for mainstream comic geekery.  I encounter and consume graphic novels with a kind of layman’s how do they DO that??? awe.  There’s no doubt that I love the finished product, but I have little to no insight into the techniques, styles, influences, communities and trends that come together to produce the work.

However, there are a few things I can say for sure. FACT: TCAF is one of the best, if not THE best, non-mainstream comic shows in North America. FACT: Toronto itself has produced a disproportionate number of incredibly influential comic artists and cartoonists, suggesting there’s something to the community here (or maybe just in the water) that’s creating a comic arts nursery.  FACT: The Beguiling, the instigator and host of TCAF, is just about the best comic book store ever. FACT: The graphic novel is becoming an increasingly legitimized literary form and TCAF is probably the single best place to learn about and buy the best and brightest of the form.

Last year I posted 5 Things That Will Be Totally Amazing About TCAF 2010, and the year before I discussed The Toronto Comic Arts Festival and Why a Book Collector Should Care. This year I admit I have nothing to add to those points. But the importance of TCAF hasn’t lessened any, so consider this a simple reminder: Get out there! The launch party is tonight, and the Toronto Reference Library will be packed to the rafters with vendors, exhibitors and panelists Saturday and Sunday (May 7th & 8th).  The show is free so there’s virtually no reason not to check it out.  It’s even kid-friendly.  Aside from being a colourful spectacle of the graphic and literary cutting-edge, there’s also a whole rooster of kid programming.

It has been a good spring for book festivals so far!

April 1, 2011

The Gryphon Lecture on the History of the Book: Digital Reviewing

Last night I attended the 17th annual Gryphon Lecture on the History of the Book for the Friends of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  The lecturer this year was the very prolific and always amazing Prof. Linda Hutcheon speaking on, to my delight, “Book reviewing for a New Age”.  Well well!

Though Prof. Hutcheon is an academic and the Thomas Fisher is an institution within the University of Toronto, the Gryphon lecture is intended for a “layman” audience of supporters and friends.  Unlike so many talks I’ve attended on book reviewing and the internet, the audience here was entirely devoid of persons employed by the publishing industry.  These were readers, heavy ones, and especially, readers of print book reviews. So understandably, much of Hutcheon’s talk was aimed at making a case for digital forms of book reviews, and what they offer to readers.

In this regard, she was not tremendously successful. She began with outlining the decline of the print review, giving us a good history of which papers have scrapped their Books sections and why. The reasons given by the papers and by Hutcheon were all economic: it is no longer, apparently, worth it to a publisher to buy advertising at the same rates and quantities in print.  The blame for that has been placed on the internet, probably rightly. The same advertising budget now has to include websites like Amazon.com, the lit blogs and the review copies given out through the thousands of social media channels.

The decline of print reviews has been matched by a much larger increase, however, in digital reviews. All signs point to an overall increase, rather than decrease, in engagement with books. Hutcheon explored at length the “economic, political and ethical” implications of this new divide.

I’ll leap ahead to the end in order to justify my opinion that she ultimately failed to make her case, however: no matter how many good points she made about the value of a more democratic engagement with books, or about increased readerships, the discussion never came full circle to re-include the print reviews.  Ideally, she argued, print would broadcast the paid reviewer’s specialty: reviews with a “broader cultural scope”; expansive, reflective articles from persons who (ideally) are more professional and accountable than the customer-reviewer of the internet.  Which sounds like a brilliant idea, but it doesn’t explain how this is going to be paid for.  If publishers haven’t the advertising budgets to maintain Books sections in newspapers across the Western world, I don’t think it matters whether they contain snappy, puffy reviews or expansive, global-scope ones.  Who’s paying for it?  The internet has split the same dollar, and I don’t see either new money being added to the pile, or the internet losing it’s advertising appeal.

In any case, Prof. Hutcheon made some lovely and eloquent observations about the literary bloggosphere that addressed our weaknesses and highlighted our strengths.  Though the most-often cited advantage of internet reviews is the “democratization” of the process – now anyone, anywhere can (and does) have a platform to let their views be known and the “tastemakers” or “gatekeepers” are losing their grip. But Hutcheon rightly points out that more noise doesn’t necessarily mean more dialogue – after all, can it be a dialogue if nobody is listening? Can critics have the same effect on our “cultural consciousness” if the discussion isn’t being broadcast (vs narrowcast) to a large audience?  This is certainly a fair critique of the lit blog formula. Regardless of how measured, professional and well-spoken a blogging critic is, if he or she doesn’t have the same impact on the public sphere that the Globe and Mail, New York Review of Books or Times Literary Supplement has, the role of the critic in society is being diminished.

There are many advantages to the fragmented online review scene. It allows readers to seek out and connect with reviewers who share their tastes.  Meta-tools like “liking” reviews on amazon.com do provide a way (however flawed) to distill some of the noise into helpful information.  The customer-reviewer is an excellent person to consult when your question is “do I want to buy this” rather than “what does this mean” or “how does this fit into a greater cultural context?”

That customer-reviewers are a wonderful marketing tool is pretty inarguable. But are they anything else? A blogger isn’t as much a taste-maker as a taste-matcher; after all the reader can always go to another reviewer if they start to sense that her tastes are diverging from the reviewer’s.  Hutcheon advances the suggestion that online reviewers are “cultural subjects” (after Pierre Bourdieu’s “Political Subjects”), meaning that even if they might not be the focus of a cultural turn or shift, they can at least be the subject of the discourse on culture – and I would take this to mean that the bloggosphere as a whole can be spoken of (“the blogs are saying…”) rather than specific blogs. This certainly has an egalitarian feel to it – we the masses making cultural decisions rather than individuals in powerful (paid) positions. Hutcheon suggests bloggers and reviewers are motivated by the reputation economy and by, of course, love of the subject.  So perhaps as cultural subjects our impact is freer from the politics of power.

Except, I have to interject, I think that view of the bloggosphere as a rabble of altruistic amateurs happy to contribute freely to the dialogue is at least a little naive.  The CanLit blogging scene, for example, is definitely blurring the professional/amateur line. Many of my favourite lit blogs are written by freelance print reviewers, and those that aren’t are written by people who, for the most part, have ambitions of becoming part of the paid “real critic” circle. Their blogs are, in this respect, proving grounds and elaborate CVs for budding writers and journalists who would be thrilled to death to be the next William Hazlit or Cyril Connolly.  It seems difficult to escape the fact that the same people who are blogging are the people who are reviewing for the Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail, writing for the Walrus, Canadian Notes and Queries, and the National Post, and publishing books destined to be reviewed by the same.  It’s a small world out there.  These are “customer-reviewers” to an extent, but it’s also becoming and increasingly legitimate in-road to becoming a professional critic.  Even for those who have not made that leap to legitimacy yet, their contributions have to be read as something coming from someone who does consider themselves professional, even if no money is changing hands – yet.

In any case, the audience of Prof. Hutcheon’s talk seemed interested but unmoved by her arguments for the cultural importance of lit blogs and customer-reviewers. The average age of the audience-member was probably 65 years old, and these are, don’t forget, a self-selected group of people who choose to donate money to a rare-book library. The question period certainly was dominated by incredulity and derision at the state of the print reviews.  Still, it’s good to know these issues are reaching even these, the least-receptive ears.  The dialogue is spilling out into a wider audience, and it will be interesting to see how the discourse develops as the institution of reviewing continues to evolve.

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