February 25, 2007

Vancouver Writes...

The gravest error any writer can make is assuming that what they're working on HAS to be read to by others. The sad truth is no one needs to read your work. Adoring fans, or any audience for that matter, are not conjured up; they are manufactured. And an egotistical perspective of your own work is a great way to find yourself left alone to flounder in your own devices. There can be pride, sure. But respect, humility, and an ability to stroke the ego's of others go a long way too.
You have to sell yourself, which means networking, a huge componant for any artist desiring audience. But networking also provides the opportunity to connect with like-minded people, an invaluable resource.

Networking is not an easy thing to do for some people. There are times when I know I would much rather be safe at home, TV remote in hand, then heading out to some function where people don't know me and I have to schmooze. But it can be a lot of fun, once you make that almost Kierkegaardian leap to get out there.
For all you writers close to BC, there are number of festivals and conferences that take place annually:

On the more literary side of things (see my previous post for thoughts on "literary"), there is a wonderful gem called the Vancouver International Writer's Festival. I attended an event this past Friday called Vancouver Writes, which grouped aspiring writers in competitive teams to complete three writing tasks. For each task, a different published author would join the team as a guide. A poet friend of mine pushed me into going and I was glad she did. Not only did we meet some wonderful people, but I managed to make contact with some great authors/poets like Brad Cran and Nancy Lee, who were more than happy to provide email addresses and information. Their talent is immense, so I encourage you to research both of them. Of course, the wine and other libations helped too.

For those of you who enjoy genre writing (Fantasty, Romance, Thrillers etc.), one of North America's largest conferences is held every year in Surrey: SIWC (Surrey International Writer's Conference). I've attended it twice, even though I don't write genre fiction and made some good contacts on both occasions, not to mention receiving some valuable advice from agents and published authors alike. One great feature is called Blue Pencil which allows you to sit and dialogue with agents and/or authors (15 minute intervals) about your work. If you've completed a manuscript, you can pitch it to an agent or publisher. If you just need some advice or help, they are available for that too.

The important thing is to act. Don't be passive about your writing. Attend events that provide you oppportunity. Be genuinely interested in what others are doing; learn from their successes and failures.

Thus endeth my sermon...

February 11, 2007

What is Literary?

No Great Mischief

I know that a lot of us often walk by the top-ten bestseller lists in supermarkets and cringe. We roll our eyes at stories of sordid affairs between wealthy octogenarians and well-muscled pool boys, thumb our noses at yet another supernatural thriller about demon possession. Of course, from time to time when no one is looking, we’ll grab one of these little brain-candy pieces and read them while we hide downstairs in the den with a flashlight held between our teeth and a blanket over our heads. But we would prefer to be known for our exquisite taste in literature (like the Macleod book pictured here... absolutely brilliant), our wealth of knowledge about Steinbeck, Faulkner, Thoreau and the multitude of other greats Oprah has unfortunately claimed as her own. We consider them to be “literary” greats, genius scribes in a kingdom of hacks. But what does it mean for an author's writing to be “literary”?

This question gets asked all the time and the answer is more difficult to come to than you would think. I attended a seminar at a writing conference a few years ago that posed this question of literary value and everyone seemed to have their own opinion. For some, it was an indication of something that had stood the test of time, a classic like
Crime and Punishment or The Age of Innocence. For others, it was word choice: the author’s painstaking measures to craft the perfect sentence. Still others said it was those books that garnered critical acclaim.

It’s perplexing that such a simple word has such a complicated definition, maybe no clear definition at all. I discussed this with a poet friend of mine once and she made the rather intelligent observation that the term had become ambiguous. It may not have started out that way historically, but now the word is used in so many different scenarios it cannot possibly retain a clear, decisive meaning.
She may be right. The definitions mentioned before cannot stand on their own accord. We cannot place all classics along the same gradient. Clearly what Dostoevsky did was monumentally different from Dickens, or Edgar Allen Poe. Likewise, some authors have different skills at morphing words into images (compare
Alistair Macleod to Rohinton Mistry). And, of course we all know that critical acclaim is in the eye of the beholder. There are enough awards to go around for everyone, and what one considers prestigious, another may find laughable. And yet these authors have a vast number of readers, and their books are almost sacrosanct.

So, what then do we use as our barometer for literary value? In my mind it is likely a combination of all the mentioned definitions plus some personal taste. I’ve always said that our approach to literature, film, painting, illustrations etc. is similar to wine tasting. When starting off, you go for what is sweet, what tastes good to you. But as time goes by, and your palette develops you begin to notice complexities to what you drink, subtle flavours or influences. Art, in kind, also grows to become something more than sweet entertainment. Embedded in its subtleties lie truths about human nature, relationships, the earth and how everything interacts. In other words, the term “literary” is a blend of certain poetic qualities and nuances but also a reflection of someone’s own artistic journey, the ability to empirically detect more than what appears at the surface and to feel the weight of words.