Support for Independent Publishers in Canada

(This article was published on the Heritage Canada website on Nov 14th 2016, where it got some attention before being drowned in that tsunami called the “Newsfeed.” I salvaged the article and am publishing it here to give it an extended life)

After a successful career in business, which I gave up to pursue writing, I graduated from the Humber School for Writers in 2002 and realized that, at the age of 47, I had arrived at the CanLit party too late. I was too old to be picked up by an agent or a mainstream publisher and too removed from the established literary community. I ended up self-publishing my first novel that was recommended by my mentor at the Humber School to its in-house literary agency, but which wasn’t picked up by that agency. My next two works, a collection of short stories and a novel, the latter which won an award at Write Canada, were published by a small Ontario trade publishing house that has never enjoyed subsidies from Federal or Provincial arts agencies despite being in business for over 20 years.

In 2011, realizing that I could do better, I decided to set up my own publishing company with my money to publish my work and the work of other deserving writers across Canada who were having difficulty getting through the narrow portals of publishing. In particular, I have focussed on the writers of Northumberland County, Ontario where I live, publishing two anthologies of their work and planning another for next year. I have operated on the trade publishing model, selecting manuscripts, editing them, and providing authors with publishing and global distribution via Ingram, because I haven’t found a Canadian printer/distributor who provides a more cost-efficient service, despite having a low-dollar advantage. I use POD (print on demand) not because it is a vilified technology but because it is cost-efficient and saves trees. I also publish in e-book form (Kindle and e-pub). I pay my authors royalties and promote them via social media and fund their book launches. I wish I could do more for them, but my resources are limited. I have been publishing an average of three books per year as that is my maximum bandwidth as an unfunded independent operator who quickly came to the realization that he still had to make his living with a second job. I have incorporated my publishing company and have submitted tax returns for every year of its operation. I have not taken a cent in salary out of my publishing company for the hours I have toiled in it.

My requests (to whomsoever needs to action them) in this note, are the following:
1) Simplify the grant application process so that new entrants can understand it and play equitably alongside incumbent recipients.
2) Hold Canadian printers and distributors responsible for bringing their costs in line with global standards. Currently grants to publishers are going to subsidize printers and not to help promote authors or defray publishers’ other costs. (It would also be nice to see Canadian distributors being open for business and not act as cartels that shut out new entrants, but I am not sure if this is something anyone can influence other than market forces).
3) Make the grant system a dynamic one based on merit and not one that has become an annuity for incumbent recipients.
4) Create grant categories for “author promotion by the publisher,” if these don’t exist today; and if they do, make them more transparent. Traditional media channels are closed to small publishers and we have to find new channels – social media being our best avenue. But now social media has moved away from “free” to “paywall” when it comes to advertizing, and this needs money.

Subsidy or not, I will continue to write and publish, for I have a deep commitment to my art and to this industry. It would be nice to see our Federal and Provincial bodies recognize the fact that publishing has changed and morphed into many hybrid models compared to the original upon which CanLit was founded. These hybrids need assistance to grow and stand on their own, just like the fledgling CanLit once did. And, aren’t we all parts of an evolving CanLit, incumbents and newcomers alike?

I thank you for listening to me and look forward to seeing a more inclusive system of publishing emerge in Canada during my lifetime.

The link to the article on the Canadian Government website is:
http://www.canadiancontentconsultations.ca/stories/stories/support-for-independent-publishers-in-canada?fb_page_type=story_telling_tool&fb_tool_id=6028

Peregrinations in Gros Morne

Rocks, bogs and ponds are what come to mind when travelling the mountainous roads of this beautiful national treasure, a land that must take on desolation and danger when the winter arrives. I was in Gros Morne, partly as a writer attending a literary festival at Woody Point and partly as a tourist sampling the wares of this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m not going to describe the geography—the tour brochures and Google do better jobs of that—but I would rather convey the impressions the land conjured for me.

For all of the jaded Newfoundlander’s claim that his Rock rightly belonged to Europe, before those conniving politicians switched it over to North America in 1949 and hitched it to a mainland he could not afford to travel to because of the atrocious cost, I immediately felt the presence of being in Canada while I was over there, more than when I was home in Ontario. The overt signs of federalism stood out: the RCMP providing policing, Parks Canada offering excellent conservation and tourism facilities, and the Trans Canada Highway stringing remote communities together. Even Air Canada flew into Deer Lake, the gateway to Gros Morne (there are no deer in Newfoundland, only caribou, but who cares!) Back in Ontario, federalism hides in a remote city called Ottawa and my view of Canada is obscured by provincial, municipal and…ahem..American flags. I explained that to my despondent Newfie chum, but he couldn’t see my point, even over a pint, or two. Proof of his patriotism came when the literary festival closed with the singing of “Ode to Newfoundland,” while “O Canada” was forgotten.

Fishing brought Europeans to this rocky island, and little communities still box on in the coves that ring the coastline, communities that surprisingly voted to join Canada (perhaps they saw the bigger picture) while the fat-cats in St. Johns opposed the move 2-1. Logging followed in the sailors’ wake to give birth to pulp and paper centres (correct that to “city”) like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second largest city—population 19,000. Music is very much a part of life here with guitars, accordions, banjos and fiddles providing accompaniment to strident voices that unabashedly slip in the f-word for effect. Literature is also important—poetry and memoir, in particular. I guess the creative arts provide solace and make sense of those long cold months of isolation when icy roads between towns like Trout Lake and Woody Point shut down. Ghosts and goblins are part of the scene, and every family has a tragic tale of someone lost, at sea, in an accident, or in childbirth. The sense of community is strong and I found it hard to break into the local gossip as I was the outsider from the mainland with a funny accent that didn’t trip easily off local ears. People were polite but not curious. I must have sounded like that ambitious relative who had gone “away” to earn his fortune on the distant mainland and who had now become “different.”

And so I amused myself doing the following: eating moose burgers, an animal that had been imported into Newfoundland in the 19th century and now outnumbered the native caribou—I guess caribou burgers are no longer on the menu; walking over the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands and inspecting its unique arctic alpine vegetation, while across the road a huge boreal forest grew on the earth’s proper crust; walking over a four-metre deep bog and taking a boat ride on Western Brook Pond, a former fjord turned into a fresh water lake due to the sinking of the ocean; drinking Icebergs and Black Horses—that’s Newfoundland beer, by the way; smelling manure and fish in the cove settlements, which reminded me of the rankness of life rather than of decay; listening to an overabundance of performing artists—musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and prose writers— and hoping that the cod fishing would return to similar abundance again.

And what were the images? Courage, Isolation, Loss, Endeavour, Humour, Art – the usual human smorgasbord of emotions captured in one place. Gros Morne is an acquired taste, and one I was getting quite used to by the time I came to the end of my visit, prompting the question: “Will I return?” I’ll let that question hang in the air for now.

The Writer’s Ego

I once met a writer of some eminence who proclaimed quite openly that he didn’t have an ego. In a fit of shock I challenged him and almost laughed in his face. On reflection, perhaps my ego had gotten the better of me. But, a writer without an ego? Why, it sounded like a car without an engine!

This engine, ego, call it what you may, is what drives us to sit in quiet places, away from the rest of the world, trying to make sense of humanity, trying to form messages for humanity that will live on long after we are gone. This ego gives us the belief (misguided or otherwise) that we have the answers to life, or at least that we can frame the questions that need to be answered, that we can paint the picture of the flawed human condition, forcing our fellow humans to take action, because we cannot, for we are only showers not doers.

This ego is what keeps going when feebler souls give up and take easier pursuits like watching TV or reading the books that they found too difficult to write, or just going with the flow and not ruffling any feathers. This ego endures rejection because it knows no other way but to go forward, even when thrown a knockout punch. It reminds me of an ant colony patiently building their hill; when disturbed they scatter for awhile, but then regroup and continue their work. They know of no other way, nor does the writer.

This ego can go into furies when thwarted or crossed. Many are the writers’ feuds we have witnessed in public over the ages: Le Carré vs. Rushdie, Dickens vs. Andersen, Byron vs. Keats, the list goes on. We could call these writers pompous bores but they are merely heeding the dictates of their egos, driving them to call the shots, to shape public opinion and mold the world according to their vision at the expense of everyone else. How dare they be contradicted without there being consequences?

The Buddist mantra says that we should abandon the ego. I think that writers would have a hard time working, especially writing fiction, in this ego-less universe. Jack Kerouac and J.D Salinger are classified as Buddhist writers and yet their writing is embroiled in conflicts surrounding the human condition. It would appear that the journey from ego to selflessness and the conflicts inherent therein make for better fiction than fiction solely grounded in the present and encased in selflessness. I’m also sure that many writers will not agree with me on these points, but that is all the better, for my ego does not necessarily have to agree with theirs.

I have therefore concluded that I am glad for having an ego, and for its power to propel me forward, often into unknown zones where I start to see connections and form beliefs that convert into ideas and stories that could be communicated to the rest of the world. To lose ego would be to lost this gift. After all, if God gave us an ego, it would be for the purpose that we use it, not amputate it like an appendix or a tonsil, unless it has turned toxic.

So the next time I meet my eminent writer friend, I am going to ask him whether the fact that he proclaims he has no ego is a sign that he indeed has one, and a very powerful one at that.

The Artist’s Career Progression

There is a progression in a successful artist’s career. First, toiling (for several years, sometimes) in the trenches to reach base camp, then beginning the climb up the mountain of fame, then reaching a point on the gradient where a magic elevator suddenly appears and creates an inverse tipping point that starts to hurtle the artist to the pinnacle with no further effort required on his part. Finally, a period of success-building-upon-success, of walking on clouds, until disability or death intervenes to close that chapter. The last period is the posthumous one, when the artist’s work in enshrined and cleverly marketed to keep his spirit and estate alive.

Take our Joe, a budding writer, who writes some pretty decent stuff but who has to compete with every other Tom, Dick and Harry, along with Ann, Meg and Sally who are also writing pretty decent stuff. Joe meets Mike, an influential person in publishing, at a bar, where they both get drunk and wax lyrical over everything from Homer to Hitler, and realize that they have a lot in common. “I’m going to help you… hic,” says Mike, as they stagger homewards. Mike keeps his promise, and Joe gets a publishing contract from a decent publishing house. Unknown to Joe, he has arrived at base camp. Mike exercises some marketing muscle and introduces Joe to a movie director. Film rights, foreign rights and a literary prize follow. Joe is on his way, leaving his cohorts in the dust of self-publishing where he too once worked his heart out; he is now into cleaner air. He churns out a book per year, easy to do now that he does not have to worry about earning a living elsewhere. His publisher, and his agent (yes, he needs an agent now, and an agent sees value in Joe at this point) realize that to keep Joe’s books moving, he has to be in the news; therefore, more literary prizes, more film deals, foreign translations, and a couple of celebrity romances (and failures) should be part of the continuing life of Joe. When anyone is thinking of holding a literary conference or organizing a literary awards gala, they must invite Joe. Our Joe is on that magic elevator ascending the mountain. Now he does not have to think of ideas for his next book – his publicist (yes, he has one of those now too) and his script development team (fancy!) provide him with what he needs to write. His publisher will even fly him to the locale of his next book so that he can immerse himself in the scenes he is going to write about. Joe is now at the “walking on clouds” stage. Sounds familiar? I think you get it, so we can skip describing the “posthumous stage.” And this story is not quite fiction, for a chosen few in every generation have done it.

But that is not the main point of this article. The main point is that the pinnacle is the most important stage, and it must be defended at all costs and made to last as long as possible. When Joe has reached the top of the mountain, and when anyone thinks of literature, they must think only of Joe. His social calendar must be overflowing and he must decline a number of invitations so that his “decline factor” will create even more mystique and increase Joe’s appearance fee at future events. Meanwhile, Tom, Dick and Harry, and Ann Meg and Sally will be still waiting hungrily for their call to climb the mountain, churning out angst-ridden tomes, that if only someone had the time to read, would probably be far more authentic than Joe’s scripted deliveries. At this point, Joe’s management team will further determine that in order to extend the life of their “product” they need to create barriers to entry; therefore subtle attempts will be made to keep Tom & Team, and Ann and Associates or anyone creating “Joe’s look-alike literature,” or “better than Joe’s literature” out of the running until targeted returns on investment in Joe are met. Upstart attempts to dislodge Joe off his pedestal will be…ah…resisted. Creative destruction is healthy for society, but not for those who have their investment in the incumbent cash-cow.

That “the cream rises to the top” is true in this business as in any other. And once there, it stays at the top until death or disability renders the cream no longer edible, and investors have to either go into the posthumous stage of the artist or go looking for new talent development.

And then, the next Joe (or probably even Tom, Dick or Harry, or Ann, Meg or Sally, if they are not too old and beaten by then) will be waiting in a bar, scanning the crowds for Magnanimous Mike to start their climb up the mountain…

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Book Reviews

I review books, and have a few hundred posted in the public domain. Writers constantly request me to write reviews of their books. Of late, I have resorted to writing reviews only of the books I like and politely turn away many that I don’t, author notwithstanding. Why? Because reviews sell books, I’m told. But what I have experienced is that while good reviews do not necessarily sell books, a bad review by a respected reviewer can stop a book in its tracks.  And I do not want to hurt anyone’s career, unless they are established writers now resorting to writing junk and riding on their fame, and who are direly in need of a wake-up call. Therefore, I decided to explore the practice of review writing that I began as a way of reminding myself of the books I had read; a practice in which there was once only a few trusted adherents, but which today has become a flood with no barriers to entry or quality of content, it seems.

It is important to understand the reviewer’s background and agenda before submitting a book for review. We all have limited experiences, and our backgrounds colour our views on the world and how we respond to literature. Different reviewers from different backgrounds and with different levels and types of education may review the same book differently.

Why do we write reviews? Like me, to remember what we have read so we can refer back to our review in conversation? To enter the literary debate and provoke discussion? To make a name for ourselves, particularly in this social media universe where we have to publish frequently in order to stay relevant? To take a power trip and destroy writers that have made it through sheer luck and influence while our own literary ambitions have languished due to a different combination of luck and influence?  To have followers and admirers who pick their books based on our comments? For money, even though there isn’t much there anymore? To extend the maxim of “those who cannot do, teach” – thus, “those who cannot create, criticize”? Perhaps it’s due to a combination of all of the above.

Once a book is in the public domain it is impossible to control who says what about it, and many camps could be at play: clever publicists who gather a raft of supporters to write nothing but glowing reviews (the sameness shows after awhile and can be a turn-off); the popular writer who has a stable of sycophantic fans who cannot say anything bad and can quickly flood a Goodreads or Amazon posting with nothing but plaudits, making a critical review look out of place – another turn-off; the revengeful reviewer, planted by an enemy, who says nasty things with no means of backing it up but who serves to create confusion in the minds of neutral readers looking for a good read; that erudite power tripper I described earlier out to make a name for himself at the author’s expense. Some authors even create alter-ego reviewers to review their books and post the most spellbinding reviews of their own work – it has a neutralizing effect on all those bad reviewers, and may place a “cease and desist” order on those considering posting a “not bad, but not terribly good” review. This all leads one to the question: “Can I trust book reviews?”

I read somewhere that a book is an argument between a writer and a reader that the latter can never hope to win. And a review is the opposite; the writer cannot win, especially when faced with a negative review. I have often believed that it is better to have one’s book read widely than to have it reviewed widely, for the wider you cast the net, the easier it is to catch one of those reviewer types I have described above and face the issue of reader trust (or the lack of it) and suffer the opposite consequences to what was being sought in the first place. And yet, the current trend is to try and gather as many reviews as possible because the number of reviews seems to correlate with the number of reads. And while that wisdom may hold true in some cases, I wanted to provide these counter-points that authors may want to consider as they go on a tear trying to gather as many reviews as they can to promote their work.

Never correspond with your readers, unless invited

I have been asked whether I ever correspond with my readers. Well, naturally we writers do, especially when we are so embroiled in social media these days. Writers automatically seek an audience, that’s why we write, so when someone writes back to us and refers to our writing, our interest is aroused, our vanity is stoked, and our bubble of loneliness is punctured.

But what happens when a writer takes a reader unawares and initiates the conversation? I am guilty of this act of commission, and after three lessons, I decided to discontinue this practice. The first incident occurred when a reader gave one of my books a score 1 on a scale 1(poor) to 5(excellent). This particular book had been enjoying an average reader score of 4 on Goodreads, so I was curious as to why this reader had found the book so weak. As she hadn’t written comments to support her rating, I was itching to find out more. So I wrote to her asking why she had scored my book so poorly, and could she provide some constructive feedback. I never received a reply. The second time, I encountered an independent reviewer who said that another one of my books needed stronger editing. As I had self-published that particular book, I wrote to this reviewer to ask for pointers on where I could improve. I never heard back. On the third and final occasion, I stumbled upon a social media group that had been discussing my books in a positive way. I wrote to thank the lead member of the group, and asked for her view on a controversial point in one of my books; I thought an enthusiastic and engaged reader would be able to provide me a new perspective on this point. Silence was the reply.

To say that my self-confidence was shaken was an understatement. But after the air returned to my deflated ego, I tried to figure out why I had been treated so shabbily. Then a few things became clear to me. I am a fiction writer. I create worlds in which the writer is absent, only his characters exist. Fiction writers are not intrusive, and their voices emerge through the mouths of their creations; readers draw their own inferences from what is laid down on the page, sometimes, obviously, sometimes opaquely. Therefore, my sudden presence “in the flesh” must have been alarming – like a dead man come to life, and one who had been snooping on the conversations others had been having about him! I had betrayed the trust of the storyteller, where the story is more important than the teller.

In the age of social media, self-publishing, and shameless self-promotion, writers are pushed towards breaking the wall that exists between them and readers, and towards making contact with the “other side.” Some say it’s the “new way,” that readers buy the writer and not the story. That may be so for commercial survival, and even then, commercial writers work with their publicists to create a persona and all communication with readers is carefully scripted and routed via one’s literary agent or publisher – an even greater wall of separation.   Yet, readers seem to be more comfortable with this “fictitious” form of correspondence than with a message from the heart.

After my experiences, I have returned to my cocoon of silence and only speak through my stories. Yes, I still remain active on social media and other online channels to announce upcoming projects (the shameless self-promotion stuff), but a serious discussion of my work will not be on the cards, unless specifically invited. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and one I thought worthy of sharing with others on the same journey.

Your writer’s story – different to the one you imagined

Our times are generating many more writers than demand can bear. This is due to better education, improved health and longevity, technology, inflated egos in the age of “me first,” and due to our eternal quest for immortality. This ambition to be a writer begins in our formative years and is inspired by our favourite writers. As a teenager, I was greatly influenced by Greene, Steinbeck and Hemingway; I dreamt of sending manuscripts out into the world where they would become best-sellers and make me a reclusive millionaire. I would hide out in some remote island and submit more manuscripts and continue to dazzle the world with my brilliance until I was invited to a cold capital in Europe to accept the Nobel Prize. And I would refuse that honour, making me an enigmatic figure like Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Pasternak or J.D. Salinger. It was nice to dream!

The reality, even back then, was different. I had chosen to gloss over the private demons my literary heroes had to overcome in order to achieve their fame: dual lives, alcoholism, drug addiction, persecution, shell-shock (called PTSD today), hypertension, depression, divorce, estrangement, chronic pain, and suicide staring out of the barrel of a gun. Not forgetting the early struggles with rejection and penury that they each triumphed over. These trials gave impetus to their work and are mentioned only in discreet biographies, not on the glossy covers of their books.

My writer’s story turned out differently to my idealized dream. For instance, I didn’t imagine that after hacking away at this craft in my early twenties in a developing country where English was a second language, and after having a handful of stories published, I would pack up my authorly tools and try something easier to earn a living – Greene, Steinbeck et al, be damned! I never realized that the “other living” would come so easily, and earn such a handsome income, that I wouldn’t bother with the writing game again for another twenty years. I didn’t realize that it would be the curse of “guilt” that would bring me back to reopen the dusty toolbox and start to catch up to where the literary world had evolved in the intervening years.

Once “Take Two” started however, the stories and novels came easily, and are likely to continue into the future, health permitting. It was like a dam had burst and all that had been stored for years just gushed out. But the publishing landscape had changed, drastically. Prizes sold books now. And the prize money was cornered among the “1% of the 1%” in the literary hierarchy. There was no middle class in publishing anymore – there was a huge gulf between self-published and best-seller, and the only way to bridge the two was with a stroke of luck.

But with every closing door there were others opening. There were now many ways in which to be published, I discovered, thanks to evolving technology that had finally demolished the dominant publishing model of eons, which was: publish a large quantity of paper books on ancient printing presses until unit costs become affordable, ship them across the land in trucks into stores that can’t keep track of them, receive most of them back after awhile to be shredded, then start the cycle again, and hope like hell that grants institutions continue to support this inefficiency in the interest of promoting the arts. That was the model under which my heroes had thrived, and now it was dying, supplanted by DIY publishing, POD, electronic media, subscriptions services, free story sites, social media, and blogs like the one you are reading. And my heroes were dead too.

I enthusiastically tried all the models available, traditional and new, and discovered that they all had their pros and cons, but as their readerships’ were distinct, this lack of homogeneity helped plaster me all over the map, assuaging my guilt for having neglected “the gift.” There was also no way I could hide out in a remote island, I realized;  I had to be front and centre in the global public domain (a.k.a. the Internet, which also never existed during the time of my literary heroes) selling my wares like a shoe salesman.  I even started a small publishing house, using the new technology, and have helped bring other writers into print, ones who may have been sitting for years in the slush piles of the Big Five ( or is it Four, now – hard to keep track!). The joy of bringing others’ work into the world, to watch them stand on the podium reading from their debut novel at their book’s launch gives me immense satisfaction. I was doing my bit to restore the middle class in publishing. And I finally faced the darker side too: the rejection, the shrunken revenue streams, the even further shrunken attention spans, and the need for that other source of income to fuel this one. None of this had been part of my teenage dream.

And so I have accepted that my writer’s story is different from the one I had visualized in my youth– creative visualizers, take note: it doesn’t always turn out the way you paint it in your mind. But it can be a damn sight more interesting and surprising. Why go on a trip where every stopover is carefully laid out, predictable and boring? Where would the thrill of the unexpected lie? Isn’t that what we try to create in our work – the unexpected?

So dear Reader, what was your writer’s dream, and how did it pan out?

The drug novel – a new sub-genre in fiction

I’m wondering if the time has come for us to classify the drug novel as a distinct sub-genre in fiction. In the absence of global wars (wars have gone local or regional these days) and other universal grist mills of human conflict, it seems that drug dependency has become a prevalent theme in our times, a state of being that many can identify with. All the ingredients for a gripping novel are here: premise, weapon…err…drug, hero, villain, and setting.

 The Premise – The scientific-minded rationalize that we are made up of chemicals, and that sometimes we go out of balance, so we need to restore that balance, and a little pill is all that is required. The traditionalists wail that our romance with the pill is because the world has gone to pot (I suppose even a pot pill must be out there now that the legal walls around marijuana are crumbling) and we are consequently killing ourselves faster and faster, although life expectancy rates show otherwise. The elderly thank the stars that their personalized bag of pills is keeping them alive longer, but mourn that the pills have not shown them how to command purpose, respect and dignity in their sunset years. And the young are forever trying to find a higher level of buzz, because the stuff of a generation ago is so dumb. Lots premises for basing the drug novel…

 The Weapon – Drug consumption falls into several types: the ones taken for recreation due to boredom with the quotidian; the ones taken to escape the pain of that daily grind; the ones taken for illness, that need to be counterbalanced with others due to the side effects from the first, and with still others for the side effects from the counterbalancing drugs, and so on; the ones taken to insulate us from a hostile environment (aka allergens); the ones taken because our mood is considered either too chirpy or too low. Even the medical profession has taken its first line of offence against any out-of- pattern situation with the “Do I have just the pill for you!” line.

The Hero – We could classify drug users as damaged heroes, hapless victims, weak protagonists, or unreliable narrators. They evoke sympathy in whichever way you classify them, and sympathetic characters sell, these days.

The Villains – The good villain, aka Big Pharma, promises us that “this little pill is good for you,” but then gets you hooked on it for life (e.g. statins, blood-pressure medication, sleeping pills, etc.), ensuring a steady cash flow while being protected by patents; the bad villain, aka the Drug Dealer, feeds us recreational drugs to make us “feel good,” and also hooks us for life, until death or bankruptcy do us part; the insurance company decides which drugs are good for us and throws wrenches into the best laid medical plans. And let’s not forget the arch-villains: Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other fatal illnesses that drive us towards drugs.

The Setting – This world is bleak, where hope has been sucked out and the only exit leads downhill; a world of unrealized dreams, damaged lives, grieving families, scarred children, and death or suicide staring you in the face.

This is not an easy sub-genre to digest, and I have stayed away from reading such downers because, in many instances, there is a lack of hope associated with these stories. A writer who thinks he can shock or entertain us with this stuff is taking a risk, for many of us would rather not be reminded; somewhere in our circle, someone is wrestling with this very demon, and we are too scared to get near lest we too succumb or be reminded of our failed salvage efforts.

My guess however is that this sub-genre will thrive the more we get obsessed with viewing our lives as art (Proust Revisited, Knausgaard, Bolano et al), as fiction approaches the real, and as the Selfie gains ascendance. The ingredients of a modern day-in-the-life scenario now routinely include a joint of weed, a sniff of heroin, a cocktail of prescription meds, or a bag of anti-depressants, and these drugs seep into the novel as regular props and devices, just like cigarettes and alcohol did a generation ago.

As for me, I plan to steer clear of these books for now. I never say never though, for who knows, one day I may end up pharmaceutical-dependent (inevitable as we age, it seems) and may have to go seeking a little bit of company and sympathy from fictitious junkie friends.

The Blank Page

All writers face this terror at one time or the other: the blank page. What to write next when all that must be said has already been written, when the next chapter of revelation lies just out of reach. During these moments, the desire to write is propelled by the need for output, the sign that we have not dried up. The writer’s raison d’être, the imperative to record the results of reflection married to imagination, is forgotten in our temporary panic, and we write for the sake of writing.

Writing that does not inspire reflection in the reader is empty, wasteful, and a contribution to the flotsam that clogs libraries, bookstores and the internet, making everyone go away with diminishing returns. How many books were written because of a writer’s need to make money and nothing more, or because of a writer’s desire to convince himself that he can still do it? And how many readers fell for them? Fell for the story•boarded plot, the choreographed puzzle, the exotic setting conjured off Wikipedia and Google, the sentimentalist situation that tugged the heartstrings, and the “this could be me” identification manufactured by cleverly studied demographic archetypes. “Entertainments,” I call them. They make blockbuster movies.

Fear of the blank page may have driven writers to have written those entertainments in order to keep their muscles active until the “real stories” returned. But those potboilers are like drugs, blinding you with fame and money and keeping you churning them out until any real story is stillborn and your imagination is rendered sterile.  For it is easy to tweak the formula, replace the villain, change the setting, and voila, more of the same, and another fat cheque hits the bank. But all the while, the writer is sinking deeper into a limbo that he cannot emerge from, and being typecast for posterity.

Where are the books that came from the writer’s reflections and learning from her own life, from close observations of people, and from that other source that we dare not question but what we have secretly come to admit as the “other side?” Where was the reproduction that came from the fusion of these sources of material with the writer’s vivid imagination?

I have come to respect the blank page. It informs me that the problem is not with me, but that there is a major job going on upstream, waiting to form into an intelligible form that could subsequently flow down to my pen. And the longer the blank page remains, the bigger the job heading my way. All I can do is still the mind, rest the hand, listen, and wait. And never let the blank page scare me.

The Print Dilemma

I was on a TV interview last week, promoting my recent book, and was asked whether print is dead? How could I answer this but with a resounding “NO!” me, a writer who churns out reams of print matter all the time? How dare the interviewer ask me this question when I was on the show promoting…well…print!

Coming out of the interview however, I got to thinking about this question more deeply. If he had asked me whether “print for money” was dead, I may have been inclined to say that “the patient was in the emergency room.” When you consider that writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Salinger were paid in the $’000s per story during the glory days of magazine publishing in the ’30’s and ’40’s, and that now those payouts are down in the $’00’s or less, inflation seems to have worked in reverse here. But if he had asked me whether more people are reading like never before, and therefore whether print is a more integral part of people’s lives today, I’d have said, “Yes, the patient has left the hospital in fine fettle, is fiddling with Twitter and Facebook, is surfing the web, and reading her e•book – channels filled with print, channels that previous generations never had.”

If he’d asked me whether the payment model for print has changed, I would have said “Yes” again, and if those who are reluctant to accept the new model, whether due to pride or principle, are the ones who will be left behind from making their efforts pay, I’d have said a capital “YES!” And yet this change is the most difficult one to make, and has become a moral dilemma for conscientious writers.  I recently visited a site on which my blogs are syndicated; certain keywords had been hyperlinked – this was not of my doing. When I placed my cursor on these words, advertisements that synchronized with the hyperlinked words popped up. Someone was making money off my content, no longer with mere banner ads on the periphery of the frame but with commercials embedded inside my content! I went a step further and placed my cursor over some hyperlinked text in one of my syndicated articles and it took me to a site for casual adult encounters. I was shocked and deflated. So, is this the way to be paid for one’s content these days? And in this case I wasn’t even being paid, I was being used. Needless to say, if they do not delete those hyperlinks, I will be deleting myself from that site, platform building notwithstanding.

I have never let commercials dictate my content. I am also not a fan of “advertorial” which seems to be commanding larger and larger chunks of the daily newspapers these days. But if advertizing is the only paymaster left, because readers have been conditioned to get their print for free, then content creators (writers) need some radical re•adjustments to their moral compasses, for sometimes the content and their hyperlinked ads are incongruent, and writers have no control here.

Now, if the next TV interviewer asks me, “Would you let your content be commercialized on your own website so that you can move it from an altruistic content portal to a source of paying your bills?” my answer will be a resounding “NO” —I will remain “commercial free.”  My content will be my sole message.