Friday, May 31, 2013

For Publicists: How to Approach a Book Blogger

Several months ago one of my favourite online contacts whom I’ve never met stepped down from her job. She was a publicist for a mid-sized Canadian publisher who had approached me a couple of years ago asking if I’d consider reviewing on this blog a novel she was promoting. I still marvel at the way she introduced herself. Instead of including me on a huge, impersonal email blast, as most publicists would do, she wrote me a friendly, individualized email. In it, she cited a previous blog review that I’d written of one of her publisher’s other books (which I had discovered on my own), told me how much she enjoyed my analysis of it, and asked if she could send me the current novel she was promoting.

I agreed, and about a month later the review appeared on this blog. The piece was, to put it mildly, quite negative. But I sent her a link to it anyway (that was part of our agreement) and wholly expected a terse, rude email back from her, questioning my critical faculties and telling me to please fuck off. In fact, the opposite happened. She wrote to say that she appreciated the review, even if it was negative, and asked if she could send me more books. Over the next two years, I continued to receive regular missives from her—always individualized, always friendly—about various titles in her employer’s latest catalogue. I wrote reviews of many of them—some positive, some negative, some mixed.

I’m going to miss our interactions because this woman really was a paragon of class and a delightful ambassador for her profession. I get occasional correspondence from other publicists at other presses, and it frustrates me that many of them don’t put as much thought into their jobs as she did. I must confess that I have a deeply ingrained and rather reflexive need to mock and be suspicious of publicists, marketing managers, PR flaks and other corporate spin doctors—this is what journalism school does to you. But I thought I’d lay out some tips on how publicists might interact with book bloggers, and base them almost exclusively on this person’s behaviour.

As a proviso, though, I do want to point out my knowledge that book blogs, including mine, have a very limited impact on our country’s overall literary culture, and so they should. The vast majority of book blogs out there are utter garbage—poorly written, sporadically updated, with no clear mandate or voice—and no one should think that this medium will ever replace professionally run book sections in professional publications (even as they increasingly shrink or outright disappear). My own blog is often hastily written—I started composing this post at 4:30 this morning when I really should have been working on a poem—and I know I battle exhaustion, hangovers and a paucity of time to keep this blog updated and relevant. But still, it plays enough of a role to attract the attention of publicists, so let’s go ahead and help them do their jobs better.

Tip 1: Write a personalized introduction. I hate being included on mass emails, especially when the correspondent wants something from me. I work hard to show there’s a working brain behind this blog, so you should show that there’s a working brain behind your marketing efforts.

Tip 2: Read my blog beforehand and cite previous reviews I’ve written. You get extra points if can do so with books I’ve reviewed that weren’t published by your press. In this era of Hootsuite and Google Alerts, it’s pretty easy to keep tabs on what people are saying about your own stuff. But I’d be mightily impressed if you mentioned a post that had nothing to do with the company you work for.

Tip 3: Don’t get huffy if I write a negative review. I know there’s a burgeoning culture out there of censorship and antagonism toward negative reviewing, and I want no part of that. I’m often shocked at how sycophantic a lot of book blogs can be. Most posts tend to follow a similar formula: the reviewer spends the first 40% of her review reciting a personal anecdote or confession, often tangentially related to the book in question, and then spends the remaining 60% basically parroting back the book’s publicity materials. If that’s the kind of blog you’re looking to send books to, then Free Range Reading is not the place for you. I try to review every book I read, and I try to be as honest in my assessment of them as possible.

Tip 4: Don’t just automatically send me every book you publish every season. A number of small presses do this to me, and it’s fucking annoying. Touch base with me first, either via email or through a mail-out of your latest catalogue. Describe the books you’re flogging and then ask me if I’m interested in any of them. Don’t send me books I’ve already reviewed on my blog. Don’t tell me when you’d like me to review the books—I read on my own timeline. And most importantly, keep all correspondence with me individualized.

Tip 5: Keep the hyperbole to a minimum. I know you’re tasked with promoting your authors’ works, but try to keep some perspective on the quality of their books when writing publicity materials and correspondence about them. You shouldn’t have to tell me how great a book or author is: it should be self evident from the work itself.

Tip 6: Know which kinds of books I don’t read. This blog is called Free Range Reading for a reason, but there are still certain types of books that just don’t interest me. Go through the blog and figure out what they are. (And no, I’m not going to tell you.)

Tip 6: Keep the conversation with me going. This is especially important if I write a negative review of one of your titles. If I feel like our relationship is contingent on me writing a certain type of review, then I’m less likely to touch one of your books in the future.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Iron-on Constellations, by Emily Pohl-Weary

This slim volume of poetry (just 54 pages) was published in 2005 by what must have been a still very nascent Tightrope Books. Pohl-Weary, known for her editorial work on the magazines Broken Pencil and the now-defunct Kiss Machine, uses these poems to examine her feelings about guys and other foibles of young-person angst, as well as the various vicissitudes of being a west-end Toronto hipster.

Indeed, Canada’s largest city is a live wire in this collection, (starting with its opening piece, “What I Learned Growing up in Parkdale”), a near-electric current that Pohl-Weary plugs into for inspiration. Her take on the city is what we’ve come to expect from young, distracted hipsters leery of substance: her observations are urban without being particularly urbane, a surface exploration of the sights and smells of this patchwork city, the whalesong of streetcars, the storefronts of Queen West, the fish markets of Chinatown, our clichés of downtown Toronto superimposed over its daily, actual existence.

Pohl-Weary is at her best when she allows her desire for raw emotion to slip away in favour of evocative implication. One of the strongest pieces in Iron-on Constellations is “Throat Flower”, which opens with the stirring lines:

Today, walking,
we talk as a flower sprouts deep in my throat.
Spewing green, red pedals push out.
I submit to growth.

and closes with the earthy couplet, “I gnash at the green stalk,/ tastes like wooden asparagus.” There is just enough wiggle room in the central symbolism of the plant for the reader to create his or her own meaning. Or take “My Gold Hair Is So Unreliable”, a piece that fuses clever imagery to the ache of a broken heart to create a deceptively complex poem.

Unfortunately, these examples are the exception rather than the rule in a book overrun with adolescent anguish, lazy descriptions, and minimalist misfires. The poem “Break the Ice” is among the worst, a narrator’s shallow plea to a boy to awaken desire in her, which comes with the cringe-worthy stanza:

You are life.
You are not life,
you’re just a boyfriend.
A little boy kneeling before my pain.

I’ve read lines by ninth-graders that contain more polish and sincerity. Or take the piece “Subway of Love.” The poem is as bad as its corny title suggests, where Pohl-Weary tells us “I’m riding the molten metal flow/ you would probably call desire” and describes the stars as “muggy”, which wouldn’t make sense even if you didn’t set your poem in a subterranean locale.

In these and other instances, it often seems like Pohl-Weary is reaching for the easy rather than the difficult, the vague rather than the specific, the prefabricated rather than the vibrantly original. In her poem “Picking at Walls and Armies,” a kind of half-ekphrasis, she writes: “I would portray my lover in black and reds,/ infuse him with the correct dosage of passion, mystery, and pain.” Look at the lack of specificity: not one single word or combination of words in those two lines create—if you’ll forgiven the pun—a portrait in the mind of the reader. It’s like the poem can’t muster enough drive to be vivid.

And therein lies the larger issue, the hipster hole that Iron-on Constellations has fallen into. There often seems to be a deep and abiding suspicion of ambition in these poems. There is a lackadaisical tone, a half-hearted indifference to the craft of poetry throughout this book, as if the author felt that such effort was somewhat beneath her. Which is a shame, because Pohl-Weary does display instances of talent throughout this collection. But I’m left with the sense that it didn’t even occur to her that anyone would, eight years out, actually read this small book closely, or with any care.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Gaspereau Gloriatur - Volume II: Prose, edited by Michael deBeyer, Kate Kennedy and Andrew Steeves

If any readers of CanLit were unfamiliar with the Kentville, NS-based publisher Gaspereau Press prior to 2010, that ignorance quickly evaporated when Johanna Skibsrud won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel The Sentimentalists, which Gaspereau had released the previous year. Suddenly this artisan publisher became known as the little press that could; it also became known as the little press that wouldn’t—mass produce its books that is, despite the additional demand that the Giller win had engineered.

Yes, you would know a Gaspereau volume just by the feel of it: their hand-made tomes, created in small runs of a few hundred copies each, are exquisite to hold in your hand and have won numerous awards for their breathtaking design. But what of the press’s literary sensibilities? Can we find some overarching statement to make about Gaspereau’s tastes in novels, short stories, poetry and nonfiction? Maybe, maybe not—but a good place to start looking would be with this Gaspereau Gloriatur anthology series. Published in 2007 in two volumes—one for poetry and one for prose—to celebrate the press’s tenth anniversary, these anthologies collect some of Gaspereau’s best work from its first decade in business. I received the prose volume as a gift a few months back from my good friend J.J. Steinfeld, whose charming story “Outliving Hitler” is included in its pages.  

Prose, for the purposes of this anthology, is defined as short stories and novel excerpts, as well as personal essays and other forms of nonfiction. These parameters give the book a bit of a hodge podge feel, but a delightful one for the most part. Indeed, I was pleased to find a number of real gems from both familiar names and writers I had never even heard of. This is part of Gaspereau’s allure: whether publishing a small-press veteran or an emerging new voice, the press doesn’t resort to attention-hustling or elaborate promotional schemes; it quietly allows the work to speak for itself.

One of the stand-out pieces for me was Jonathan Campbell’s novel excerpt Tarcadia—a writer and a book I was hitherto unfamiliar with. Campbell’s tale, set near the Sydney tar ponds in the early 1970s, could have easily slipped into the clichés of a dour, regionalized rumination on place and self. Instead, his prose is lively and humourous, the dialogue sharp and pitch perfect as he captures the lives of young boys trying to make their way in a small, isolated place. Campbell is a natural storyteller, and this excerpt—which involves a rafting trip along the polluted tar ponds—is riveting.

I was also impressed with Don McKay’s nonfiction excerpt “Vis a Vis: Fieldnotes On Poetry & Wilderness.” McKay is mostly known as a poet, and I’ve read a bunch of his verse and like it well enough. But this personal essay is a cut above: from the title you might assume it details one of McKay’s frequent contemplative walks through the natural world; but he kicks things off with a brilliant description of a yard sale he held while living in New Brunswick. The essay then moves seamlessly into an analysis of metaphor and the role it plays in “the normal traffic of events.”

Other standout pieces in the anthology include Elaine McCluskey’s brilliant short story “Queen of the Losers”, which contains the most perfect description of a Halifax tall ships festival; John Ralson Saul’s talk “Joseph Howe & the Battle for Freedom of Speech”, delivered at my undergrad alma mater, the University of King’s College in Halifax; a wonderful piece on cycling by the chronically underappreciated author and scholar Kent Thompson; and Glen Hancock’s surprisingly original memoir excerpt “Charley Goes to War,” about his time in WWII.

There are, as with any anthology, a few disappointments along the way. I’m a huge fan of John Terpstra’s poetry (see my review of his collection Disarmament) but his personal essay “Falling into Place” was both incredibly dull and utterly baffling. I found the prose and preoccupations of Susan Haley to be somewhat dated and unoriginal. The piece on songwriting by Bob Snider was so vague and generic as to be virtually unreadable. And the ramblings of Nova Scotia poet Peter Sanger had me lost within the first couple of paragraphs. Overall, I also felt the volume could have benefited from more stand-alone short stories, rather than an imbalance of excerpted pieces from longer works.

Still, there’s a great deal of value in this anthology and in Gaspereau Press as a whole. It’s hard to pinpoint that overarching sensibility I mentioned above, but one can try. Most of these pieces deal with, in some way, the off-the-beaten-path aspects of our Canadian experience. There is, for the most part, a privileging of the rural over the urban, of the slowly ruminative over the quickly familiar quotidian. These pieces are, by and large, quietly brilliant rather than, well, loudly brilliant. But one can only take these statements so far. Gaspereau is like most small presses: it’s trying to cast a wide enough net in order to publish some of the best writing in the country, while still staying loyal to a particular taste in writing as a whole. This anthology is a great view into that aesthetic microcosm. Here’s hoping the press puts out a similar volume in 2017 to celebrate 20 years in business.

Monday, May 13, 2013

My review of Alice Munro's Dear Life ...

 ... has been published in the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ), which arrived in the mailbox today. Munro's Dear Life was, if I were perfectly honest, one of the tougher reviews I've had to write. I read the collection back in October when it was first published, and I found myself reading other reviewers who really loved the book. I did not, I found it exceedingly difficult to say so--especially with Munro's reputation being as weighty as it is. Anyway, I managed to get through my piece and am actually kind of proud of the result. I was also relieved that, after I had submitted it, the New York Times also ran a fairly tough review of the book. Glad I'm not alone in my negative assessment. Did anyone else out there think this was a weak outing by Munro?

There looks to be a ton of other great stuff in CNQ, as always. The issue's theme is music and there are features on such luminaries as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Anyway, you should check it out. On sale wherever intelligent Canadian magazines are still sold.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Event reminder: Racket at the Rocket

Just a gentle reminder that RR and I will be doing a reading on the Danforth next Friday (May 17) as part of a new-ish east end reading series here in Toronto called Racket at the Rocket, put on my Open Minds Toronto. Here again are the details:

When: Friday, May 17, 2013. 7:30 p.m.
Where: Red Rocket Coffee - 1364 Danforth Ave (near Greenwood Subway Station), Toronto.
Cost: PWYC
Featuring: Me, RR and others.

Here's hoping you can all make it out.


Friday, May 10, 2013

How to Read a Literary Journal

I remember the incident distinctly. It was 2002 and I was attending the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, a eager-eyed grad student on the cusp of finishing his MA in English. I stood in line following a reading by two women whose work I admired greatly, looking to get them to sign their books for me. The first woman, from the east coast, had just published her second novel, her first having done very well four years earlier. (She had also published a successful short fiction collection in between.) The other woman, from the west coast, had just published her first book, a collection of short stories, with a major Canadian publishing house. She seemed more nervous and inexperienced than the first woman, unfamiliar with the mores of a literary event. Sitting at the signing table, she would ask each and every one of us in the line the same question with a kind of grating automation as we approached with our books: “Do you want me to sign it or sign it and inscribe it?” When it was finally my turn, having had to listen to this query 15 times in a row, I opted for just the signature, and while she scribbled it onto the title page, I said: “I really loved your book. I had actually read a number of these stories before, when they were published in journals.”

Journals,” she replied, then turned to the first woman and laughed caustically. “Do people actually read those things?”

Her comment—and its tone—has stayed with me all these years. Here was a young writer who managed to get several stories published in Canadian literary journals, and (according to profiles run of her in our national media) used that track record to land an agent and score an impressive book deal with a major publishing house. Yet, she was more or less confessing in the semi-privacy of a signing line that she didn’t actually read the journals that had helped launch her career, and that there was something anomalous about me because I did. I’m not sure it’s relevant to point out that this writer has, in the 11 years since the incident, gone on to publish exactly nothing else; but I do think it’s relevant to say that there’s not necessarily anything anomalous about her view on journals. I know a lot of writers or would-be writers who don’t read them—even if they do submit to them on a regular basis, and occasionally get some stuff published.

On the one hand, the trepidation or lack of interest is understandable. Literary journals can be intimidating. There are so many of them here in Canada, and who can possibly keep up with them all? And isn’t the quality of their writing a bit iffy anyway, on account of most the contributors being at the beginning of their careers? I know that when I first dipped a toe into reading journals back in the mid 1990s as a wet-eared undergrad in journalism in Halifax, I certainly struggled with them. If a story or poem’s “lead” didn’t grab me immediately, I was prepared to write off the entire enterprise. Surely I, in my 19-year-old wisdom, was better suited to judge the quality of these publications than their long-suffering editors, most of whom slave away in their volunteer positions for years. Thankfully, I grew up and got over myself. I began reading more journals more thoroughly, and came to understand the nuances and the focuses that shape them. This in turn helped me to be a better reader, and a better writer. By the end of 2002, I had published my first short story in one of them.

Now, more than a decade later, I’m married to another writer who also reads journals regularly, and the stream of them arriving in our mailbox is relentless. In the last two weeks alone, we have received fresh issues of PRISM international, The Antigonish Review, The New Quarterly, The Windsor Review and The Malahat Review. We also subscribe to The Fiddlehead, CNQ, FreeFall, and others. We will read them all, most likely from cover to cover. And we will discuss and pass polite judgment on the quality of many of them at the dinner table or on a road trip.

Admittedly, we’re a bit insane. I’m not saying that to be a literary writer in Canada you need to do what we do. Not at all. But if you’re a neophyte and looking to follow the same trajectory that has shaped both of our careers, and the careers of many fiction writers and poets in Canada—i.e. publish in literary journals first, build up your C.V., then land a book deal of some kind—then it sort of behooves you to read a least a few of these magazines on a regular basis. But as mentioned above, it’s kind of intimidating. Where do you start? With so many journals stuffed onto the literary newsstands, how do you find some that you’ll actually like? And what do you do once you start reading them?

So here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the last 20 years, and want to share them with you.

Tip 1: Get over the idea that they’re all the same. Okay, to be fair, a lot of them are the same, or at least appear to be very similar. A writer I know once said that you could rip the covers off several journals in this country and have no way of telling them apart, and it would be hard to argue with him. But still, many Canadian journals have specific sensibilities, and exploring the landscape out there means figuring out what those sensibilities are. I’m pretty sure I could tell, for example, the difference between The New Quarterly and The Malahat Review, even if they weren’t printed in different formats. Room certainly has a specific mandate, as does On Spec or Rampike. Last year, I received a subscription to Matrix magazine after entering a poem in its Litpop contest. I hadn’t actually read Matrix before, and what I discovered was that the magazine published all kinds of fascinating stuff, none of which was really my cup of tea. Now I know not to send them more of my writing in the future, as it probably wouldn’t be a good fit. As for nonfiction, if you can’t tell the difference between the literary criticism in, say, CNQ and the literary criticism in, say, Canadian Literature, then you’ve probably got bigger problems to deal with. Some journals have a regional focus; others focus on a certain style of writing. As the saying goes, find your niche.

Tip 2: Dip a toe in by entering contests. You don’t have to tell me that the annual writing competitions that most journals put on seem, at least on the surface, to be a little suspect. It’s no coincidence that the entry fee is usually exactly the same price as a subscription, and the main objective may be to inflate subscription numbers in time for yearly grant applications. But still. You may want to try reading a journal regularly but are worried about spending money on something you may not like. Entering a contest is essentially a twofer: it means your work will be read on its own terms (that is, your name is not allowed on your entry) with the added bonus that the journal will arrive in your mailbox at regular intervals over the next year. When it does, read it. Read the contest winners with an open mind and see how their work compares to yours. Read it with the idea of figuring out exactly what the soul of the journal is, and whether you want to continue subscribing to it in the future.    

Tip 3: Read journals cover to cover, like a book. It took me a while to embrace this idea. For the longest time, I would only spot-read journals, going in and finding names I recognized or reading pieces out of order. But what I’ve learned is that if you want to have a relationship with a literary journal, you need to read it on its own terms. This means recognizing that most good journals want to take you through an aesthetic arc, that they put a lot of thought into the order and mix of the stories and poems. It’s very easy to parachute into a journal, read one piece, decide you don’t like it, and then dismiss the entire issue as flawed. But if you do this, you’ll miss out on a lot of great stuff.  

Tip 4: Get over the idea that journals only publish so-so work by newbies still learning their craft. Patently false. No journal I know of has a mandate to publish only beginners who show some potential for greatness. Most journals accept work from both new and established writers with the only objective being to publish good writing, however they define it. I always marvel at how some of the country’s best writers—writers who may even publish regularly with big presses—continue to put stuff out in journals. For readers, it’s a great way to keep track of what people are working on and get excited about forthcoming books. Speaking of which …

Tip 5: Engage with the work, however you define that term. For me, this means not just seeing the writing in journals as someone’s publication credit, but something worth getting excited about. There are a number of writers whose books I came to specifically because I first encountered them in journals: John Wall Barger and Catherine Owen are two recent examples that jump to mind. I actively seek out more stuff by writers whose works in journals excite me. I also have a number of acquaintances and colleagues in the writing community, and I make sure to let them know if I loved something they published in a journal. I myself had a story recently in PRISM international, and it’s a testament to the reach and impact of that magazine that I received a number of comments from strangers who had read and loved my piece. The lesson is: if you dig something you see in a journal, let the writer know.            

I want to close by pointing out that it’s entirely possible to get your stuff published in journals even though you never read them. Despite what submission guidelines might say, this happens all the time. If you adamantly refuse to even give journals a try, and yet see them as pivotal stepping stones to your own fame and glory, I suppose that’s your business. But let me say this: if a journal publishes you, at least try and read the issue you appear in. I mean, it strikes me as the minimum one can do to acknowledge the hard work that editors and contributors put into these things. And like with anything you read, come at it with an open mind. What you find inside might surprise you.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Waking in the Tree House, by Michael Lithgow

Michael Lithgow’s debut collection of poetry, Waking in the Tree House, offers up a mixed bag of styles, sensibilities and approaches as it attempts to reconcile the author’s inner world with an external reality. Here you’ll find narrative poems, observational poems, minimalisms and confessionals, all couched in a language meant to transcend the commonplace and amplify itself to the level of revelation.

For the most part, it works very well. Waking in the Tree House is one of those collections where the titular poem is well-deserved of being singled out. In it, Lithgow infuses the page with visions that are, as he puts it, “so often terrible … so perfectly, beautifully askew.” The poem is about a man who climbs into his childhood tree house after a night of drunkenness to discover he has outgrown the space, and yet is enraptured by the portal it provides into the slightly terrifying natural world around him. Lithgow writes:

 … I lay prone 
beside the soft puckering of sap. And such wind! What coy
stirrings sweep treetops at night, lifting away remnants of what
passes through us in the dark. The little house moved
with my weight; I was too big, too solid for that place.

The musicality of these lines is pitch perfect, yet belies the frightening realizations that the narrator experiences about himself as he trespasses upon his own youth.

Other pieces in the collection are, unfortunately, not nearly as successful. There were times when I felt Lithgow finished his poems in a very closed-off way, as if he were merely cresting toward a pre-determined insight rather than leaving wiggle room for the reader to find—or create—his own. An example of this would be “The old man was laughing,” a narrative poem about youth encountering the elderly, that ends with the line “As if there could be anything more important in the world.”  Or “Bog dweller”, a metaphoric romp about “[t]he parcel of land” in your own head. It culminates with these rather wishy-washy lines:

How did it get this way? Me calling at shadows
in an imaginary fen, and you so near
though far away,
holding this light, guiding me home.

Despite these lapses and the occasional imprecise description (“The smell was wretched …”, from “A rescue”; or “I remember a man’s generosity,/a rough hand in mine, always treating/the child like a man” from “Accounts”), Waking in the Tree House does reward close and repeated readings. One of the other gems in the book is “The boy who planted his words in a flower,” which opens with a quote from Christian Bök’s controversial project to encode a sequence of DNA with verse. Here Lithgow’s words practically trip over themselves with zest and playfulness as he explores the ramifications of this queer hybrid of poetry and science. The reader will want to read it several times to revel in its delights. Even poems that frustrated me upon first encounter came to grow on me. This was especially true of the opening piece, “Swimming”, which struck me as heavy-handed upon first reading but quietly brilliant upon the second.

Overall, Waking in the Tree House is as much a mixed bag of quality as it is of form, but it announces a new poet well worth paying attention to and expecting greater work from in the future.