1 V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on an on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. Furthermore, the short story seems to be under siege as well: many agents and multinational publishers do not handle/publish story collections, small magazines seem perpetually underfunded, and a YouTube-ification of text and image seems to be taking short narrative in new directions.
What is your opinion? Do the novel and short story have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very forms of them? If so, how?
I don’t agree with Naipal – I think there’s so many great writers right now that no single “great author” is standing out the way Thoreau, Orwell, or Woolfe did back in the day. There are more than 100 Canadian authors whose diction and imagination dazzles me book after book, the way few authors, pre-2000, ever has. In an excess of greatness, we transcend this “epic writer” concept, and end up with something better: diversity, something for everyone. Shakespeare might have been epic in the stories he wrote, but I’ve never cared for him the way I do, say, what Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, or Russell Wangersky can do to make a sentence snap like firecrackers, and what imaginations like Jessica Grant and Buffy Cram can do to make a human story an utterly unique one. I think Naipaul was referring to epic story, whereas these days we measure writers by quality of writing more than anything. Or originality. Or something else. There’s too many ways to be great to make a statement like Naipaul’s. And certainly too many great writers around, no matter how we measure them.
But I might agree with Roth that the novel is becoming a cult activity, in this TV-obsessed, anything-more-than-a-Tweet-is-taxing-to-read generation. But, luckily, there’s enough seriously passionate readers to keep the industry alive. That, I know for a fact. By how passionately people react to the Giller every year, or because I’ve had the pleasure of being invited to speak with more than a dozen local book clubs in my city alone, and those ladies have an insatiable appetite for good books. In short – what a novel provides is irreplaceable by television, Tweets, or whatever else might threaten it. Nothing, short of yoga, shuts off the mind and sinks you into another world like reading a novel. And that’ll never change. It’s the closest we come to a pause button in life, and even the impending attention-span-limited generation will long for that.
Short fiction has had a rampant resurgence in the last years. It’s appearing on award shortlists, publishers are doing more than ever, and contrary to popular belief, the stuff is selling quite well. I blame publishers, not authors or readers, for sticking the stuff in the backseat. Some say it’s because we live in a fast-paced, attention-challenged world that negates time for reading a novel, others say short fiction is quite simply better written, punchier, and a better read. I think both are true.
Will e-technologies alter the form? Maybe: I can see added features, like digital images and videos in non-fiction, soundtracks for novels, and more poets reading their own stuff as recordings instead of books … but ultimately, the written word should always be strong enough on its own, and not need the bells and whistles of the modern world. Orwell never needed any of that stuff to grab a reader’s attention. The art of writing is: writing. Not what technology does for it, the same what the art of photography is composition, not what Photoshop does for it. It’s crafting dazzling sentences and human stories, not the flashy things an e-reader can do.
2 Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel or short story writing? If so, how?
There’s a lot of changes afoot in publishing now, paired with some discontent from writers on a variety of subjects (like royalty splits from traditional publishing, poor edits from increasingly busy publishers, the kinds of fiction certain houses tend towards publishing, etc). There’s also more passion and input than ever from readers, on the kinds of books they want in their hands – even the Giller prize lets the public put a book on its longlist now! Evolution, in that sort of scenario, is inevitable.
But, that’s not affecting what writers are writing. There’s a lot of changes in how books are getting from writer to reader – self-publishing versus vanity publishing versus traditional publishing, or, exclusive short fiction in online blogs, journals, and papers – but the writing itself is the first step of the process, so that’ll remain largely unaffected, until publishers start enhancing fiction in some way that requires an author to factor in possible “text enhancement” scenarios. Which will slow a writer down, if they have to think about more than plot and word choice.
3. Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?
Absolutely. I think the industry overly concerns itself with bios and previous praise, more so than the merit of each individual book. Ondatjee or Atwood can write a bad book, just as easily as a new kid can write a stunning debut. To think otherwise is absurd: How does a new name emerge, if not given a shot? How does Canada’s body of literature stay fresh and vivacious without new voices broadening the spectrum of its collective output? And there’s a fierce passion and electric pulse in debut novels these last few years that has been outshining our icons. Cycle of life. Luckily, plenty of publishers are giving plenty of new writers a shot.
I suspect many publishers base their acquisitions on sales – on what kind of book sells – and there’s a danger in that. Primarily, books sell on buzz, not literary merit – people buy what other people are buying and are talking about. The end result is that many “bestsellers” are selling well, but that doesn’t mean the people reading them are enjoying them. More often than not, people are let down by a bestseller, yet, publishers are seeking new books in line with their previous bestsellers, under the assumption people liked that bestseller, which is not always the case.
I know a lot of my friends – terrific writers – are being fed lines like, “We love your book, but our marketing department isn’t sure they can sell it to readers.” I’ve even been told myself, “Your writing is strong enough to have brought me to tears twice in a chapter, but the plot lacks sellable buzzwords, like an interesting setting.” Since when does an editor worry about sales? Publishing is a business, sure, but we’ve overly commercialized this industry to the point that even our awards are more about money and sales than recognition.
Publishers should be trendsetters and tastemakers, hungry for the next big thing, and if they’re not that, they’re a book factory, scanning submissions for “buzzwords” and bios that sell better than they read (more often than not). Above all, a publisher ought to concern themselves with literary merit, not commercial potential. Yes, they’ve got a business to run, but their business is in the arts, and you can’t strip integrity and artistry from that industry, or you’ll end up publishing garbage like Fifty Shades of Grey. In that scenario: you get rich by cheapening literature.
4. Do you have an author’s website? Does it help you sell books?
Yes. I have an author’s website. The minute you publish a book, you admit you’re taking it professionally, and a person in any profession – a plumbing company, a law firm, a band – ought to have a website where people can see if your services meet their expectations.
A website is a place where people can go to get a feel for your work and make an informed decision on whether they want to drop 20 bucks on one of your books, instead of someone else’s. Does it sell books? Maybe not, but it does help sell media or readers on my book(s), because it’s a collection of positive information about my work, with samples to boot. It also humanizes an author. I read Heather Jessup’s bio on her website, and her personality sold me on her. I laughed out loud, smiled. So, yes it works.
5 How do you feel about running an author’s website? Do you feel it’s a labour of love – or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?
Well, doesn’t matter how I feel about it. It’s 2012, and by publishing, I’m admitting I’d like some readers, and if you’re not Google-able in 2012, you don’t exist to people. Who cares if that’s a bad thing or a good thing, or if an author should or shouldn’t have to concern themselves with that sort of thing. The fact of the matter is, it’s 2012, and you’ve got to get with the times instead of fighting against them the way some authors do. I also sell photography: do I want to colour enhance and photoshop my work? No, but I have to because everyone else is doing it, and I’ll look dull if I don’t. Same difference.
I’m not an advocate of overly self-promoting yourself, the way some authors abuse the Internet and social media, but people should be able to find out a little about you and your work, if you want their 20 bucks for your novel. And publisher websites often seem 2 steps behind a writer’s website, in keeping up to date on what’s up with your book, because they’ve got more books than yours to keep up with. Also, I mean, Shouldn’t you be excited enough about your work to take 30 minutes and make a website?
Anything beyond a simple, basic personal page is a personal choice. In addition to a static personal website, I run Salty Ink, and that is a labour of love, not something I do to enhance my writerly status and sales, but rather, something I write because I’m as interested in blogging as I am in writing fiction. It’s like the book I’ll never finish.
6 Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?
Everything should always be blind. Whether we’re talking about submitting to a publisher or submitting to an award, the covers should always be stripped and the names whited out. Every single one of us is biased by bios, publisher logos, and even, for some, by genders, ages, and the personal lives of authors. A book should always be made to stand on its own, free of bias: who wrote it, who published it, how “good” their last book was, etc. It works both ways too: the wo/man with the terrible debut is capable of a stellar sophomore effort.
7 According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
eBooks are nothing more than a necessary adaptation for books to survive. We hold our music in iPods now, we communicate most often through email, our daypalnners are in our phones … our whole worlds are in our handheld electro-gadgets, and if books want a place in that world, they need to be accessible and able to be read on those electro-gadgets.
But I’m a die-hard print reader. A book is a book, something well-designed, and years in the making, that I can hold in my hands, and see my progress through as I turn the pages. It’s not a series of 50,000 sentences to jam into an e-Reader. But that’s just my opinion. I have friends who love them and read now more than ever. And that’s good for the industry. I certainly see their merit: why take 4 books on vacation instead of an e-Reader, and why hack down a patch of forest for every new book?
As for piracy, Sean Cranbury has single-handedly turned me around on that. I used to fear it. I mean, in the music industry, artists who are having their albums pirated can still make money off concerts, often at 100 bucks a ticket, or more. Writers have a handful of literary festivals, sure, but the majority of royalties has always come from the book itself. Once they’re pirated, where’s the money coming from? When you hear about Book Deals, the money a publisher gives its author is actually an advance on those royalties. Over time, as book sales plummet from piracy, those advances will lower accordingly.
But … piracy is also exposure. And hey, we’re only getting 2 bucks per book anyway, so 99 out of 100 writers will never make a living from it, and readers are readers no matter what they pay. The more people downloading your book, the more people talking about it, and buzz is what gets you a good book deal. Also, it’s been proven that piracy (or accessibility to your book, free) boosts sales, oddly enough. Paulo Coehlo claims he’s most pirated in Russia … where he also sells most of his books. I mean, I hate the idea of piracy, yet I download 10 albums a week because of it. 10 albums I certainly wouldn’t have bought at 10 bucks each to check out. Yet I find my favourite artists through piracy. And then I buy their stuff, go to their shows. A compromise would be nice: We should be giving first chapters or opening stories away as samples, if we’re expecting people to drop money on something that haven’t seen yet.
8 What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture’s ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren’t?”
I think they’re great exposure for authors shortlisted, but I don’t give them much weight, personally, as a reader. They’re conceived by a jury or three people … and I’m not one of them, so why should their opinion matter to me? Every year, awards might get me interested in 3 or 4 books, but I find the other 40 books I read on my own. Ultimately, what they boil down to, is great recognition for a writer, a pat on the pat, and a bundle of cash to help them squirrel away to write another book. They feel good and give us something to put in our bios, but I’m not sure why readers care so much about them. It’s like saying you can’t form your own opinions on what book you want to read next. You wouldn’t marry a person based on a jury’s recommendation, would you? If the Giller jury happened to also prefer Coke to Pepsi, would you suddenly switch brands?
9 In an article that appeared Aug. 8 in the Globe that you cited, Russell Smith wrote: “First, remember that it is always 1955 in Canlit. That is not to say that every prizewinning novel must be set exactly in that year, but that it helps to imagine that you are writing in that year. Imagine that you are writing by hand or at the very least on a manual typewriter (even if you are writing on a cellphone and playing Call of Duty and checking your ex-lover’s hacked Facebook messages and the updates from Comic-Con every 30 seconds). Imagine that you have never heard the words Gawker, Skrillex, Instagram, Cipralex or Cosplay. Pretend you have never sat in a boardroom and heard anyone talk about leveraging core competencies and ROI-driven scalable verticals. You have not been following the Asian derivatives market on your wristwatch. You are not in any way conscious of genre fiction or flash fiction or fan fiction or fiction written specifically for any platform other than paper.”
What’s your take on this? Is it a fair description of a problem that ails anglo CanLit?
It’s a sentiment I whole-heartedly agree on, for sure. The big international houses in Canada seem particularly drawn to books set anywhere but here and in any time but now, particularly focusing on the cultural struggles that are not our own. It breeds a sameness: go to a book store, pick a row of books, read the backcovers: No, that’s not déjà vu, it’s CanLit. But it’s not a problem that plagues CanLit, so much as certain publishing houses. It’s just that the houses I’m referring to produce more books than the rest. Therefore this books account for a large portion of CanLit’s output.
10 In a comments thread at the FB site for Books on the Radio, you remark on an American friend who saw too much CanLit as being set during wars. Yet, it is striking that there is very little CanLit that takes place in the heart of war — that is, on the battlefield. While “time during war” includes many forms of social and psychological experience — from the homefront to the battlefield — would Canadian literature benefit from producing work about war that dealt with the experiences of soldiers? That is, is the problem not so much one of “time during war” but setting and thematic focus?
Yes, nothing appears more in CanLit than war. “Set against the X war” graces as many as 4 out of 10 books, I’d guess. And I don’t think the problem is the war in question, or point of view, or thematic meat, so much as the sheer abundance of WarLit in this country, and the subsequent fatigue for many readers.
It seems like we’ve covered all grounds: from the battlefield of various wars, to the holocaust and other senseless genocies, right down to the after-effect of war on soldiers, as in Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road or Allan Donaldson’s MacLean. Prevalent as the topic is, I think, when in the hands of a skilled writer, it can produce a fresh, stunning book: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo took the war down to the level of the individual: a sniper, a civilian, and a musician get equal narrative time, and Alison Pick’s Far to Go captured world war two from a Jewish family’s perspective, well. They were both stellar novels. The fact I can’t name a stellar Canadian novel set on a battlefield might mean you’re right? (or I’m under-read.)
But the effect on me, as a reader in a bookstore where every third book plays off a war, is that when I see “war” in a backcover description, I feel like I’ve already read that novel. So, sameness is the problem I see with it. I’m not sure if it’s that publishers love the word war as a “sellable buzzword,” or if our writers like working with the plot or the shocking senselessness or drama of the subject matter, but I’m sure I shy away from those books until someone I trust lays it in my lap, because the subject matter is about as overdone as burnt toast. To be blunt, and to generalize.
The thing with someone writing another book about the war is that there’s so many, it’s dangerous to tackle: we’ve heard it all now. A writer needs to have a seriously original spin on it (dark comedy in a fictional war?), or, it has to be the saddest, most gripping book ever, if I’m going to read another book about the war. Otherwise, you kind of know what you’re in for as a reader. Bullets, senseless violence, triumphant heroes, etc.
I’m being harsh, only to make a point. As I said, there are some great Canadian writers who have written some great books on the war(s) from all points of views. But to me, now, to draw me in as a reader, it’d have to have an interesting, fresh angle. Kathryn Kutenbrouwer recently finished a novel about a young Vietnamese boy affected by the aftermath of Agent Orange. That’s a good example of what I mean. I haven’t read that novel before, and I’m looking forward to it.
11 What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I tend to hate the last thing I wrote, and love what I’m working on at the moment. I think that’s healthy, though: it keeps you striving to evolve and improve. Once you’ve peaked, once you can’t write a better book, then what?
So, fittingly, I have a novel coming out in spring 2013, called Every Little Thing, and I already know what I’ll do differently next time. Right now, I’m really enjoying the collection of shorts I’m almost finished. They’re a different direction for me. My novels come out very weighty, tend towards relationship pessimism, and substitute constant tragedy over a linear, continuous plot. These new shorts are still very human, but not without humour and weirdo protagonists longing for something they totally deserve.
BIO: Chad Pelley is a multi-award-winning writer, songwriter, and photographer from Newfoundland. His debut novel, Away from Everywhere, was a Coles bestseller, won the NLAC’s CBC Emerging Artist of the Year award, and was shortlisted for the for 2010 ReLit award, as well as the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer of the Year award. It has been adopted by multiple university English courses, and a film adaptation is in the works by Morag Loves Company/Mad Mummer Media. His second novel, Every Little Thing, is forthcoming in the spring of 2013. Chad is also the Vice President of the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland & Labrador, runs Salty Ink.com, and has written for a variety of publications, such as Quill & Quire, The National Post, The Telegram, the Telegraph-Journal and Atlantic Books Today.