Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Water Cooler Conversations: TV. Not books. Not movies

At a few social events recently, I've been struck by how rarely movies or books figure into our social conversations. I was chatting with a couple of people about Woody Allen's new movie, Blue Jasmine (I liked it though it definitely has some problems. I think it's his best movie since Vicky Christina Barcelona and the story is rather complex for a Woody Allen film), but discussing a movie in such a setting was unusual. It was just three of us in a corner, chatting about the movie, how we felt about it, what was new or unusual about it. This was in a room full of maybe 25 people. A few people indicated that they'd seen it but had little to offer to the discussion beyond "yes," or "no."

Pick up a book once in a while...
But then someone brought up Breaking Bad and Justified and the conversation just took off, several people then joined in, all had something to say. And people were passionate: arguing, getting sharp and even shrill. Even if people hadn't seen Breaking Bad, they all had read and heard enough about it that they could at least understand what the conversation was about and could even contribute a bit. Mad Men, Girls, The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, Dexter: all of these shows were discussed with varying degrees of enthusiasm and criticism.

Afterwards, I thought about how rare it is that books figure into these conversations. Why is that? Are there just too many books so it's rare to find people who read the same books as you do? If I were at a party where most people had read something very popular (like Twilight or 50 Shades), would a conversation develop around these books? Or do they lack the complexity necessary to make an interesting conversation? (Or perhaps people would be embarrassed to admit that they'd read them?) It seems to me that books are better suited for a conversation between two people or in a forced setting (like a book club).

It's depressing, actually, because since I read all the time, I rarely have the chance to talk about a specific work I am reading or have recently read. I will occasionally have the chance to talk with someone about a writer whose work I admire, but it rarely gets very in-depth. And I'd say that my social circle reads more than the average person does (since I work in the book world but also since so many of my friends are writers, artists or those who work in the arts). The rare exception is when I lend a book to someone I know and we discuss it when they give it back (and this frequently centers around graphic novels, for some reason, since typically people won't take 2 months to read a graphic novel).

Movies, too, operate in this way like books do: if someone is interested in indie or foreign movies, there are so many that it's not likely we will run into someone who has recently seen a movie we have. And if one is into huge blockbusters that many people see, there is little in it to discuss since these movies are so rarely complex.

So that leaves TV. I don't mind this wave of TV that has been sweeping through North America the last 10 years or so. Certain TV shows have become the new water cooler topics since it's "good" popular culture. Still, being a book lover and promoter, I wish that element were present, too...

Friday, September 13, 2013

Literary Prizes and Capitalist Tendencies

I've been thinking about the plethora of literary prizes lately and all the stories that have been circulating about various prizes and ways that prizes are awarded and how juries are organized, etc., and it occurs to me that the reason we completely reorganized our Grand Prize jury in the last few years was to alleviate some of the pressure that prize-awarding bodies have been under to make the process as independent and transparent as possible. To be honest, this was something that was suggested to me and so when I came on board, we completely reorganized the way we awarded the Blue Met Grand Prize without much thought or discussion.

And we've been happy with the results. Our last few winners (Colm Toibin, Joyce Carol Oates, Amitav Ghosh) have attracted the public and received a good deal of press attention. Oates and Ghosh have published some solid work since their wins, too. (Toibin only won six months ago, so we should give the guy some room!)
Joyce Carol Oates, winner in 2012

The down side if, of course, that the independence of the jury limits certain aspects of the
prize. In past years, we typically alternated between awarding the prize to a Francophone one year and an Anglophone the next year. But with an independent jury, that doesn't always work, particularly given the criteria of our prize (especially since we change our jury each year). Letting a jury decide, though, allows us to get a winner who represents more than just our own opinions in the office about who should win. We want people to think of the prize as a community of readers who award it with jury members composed of journalists, editors, cultural workers and even politicians.

Carlos Fuentes, winner in 2005
Writers who have concerns about literary prizes, about "grading" writers or works, about ranking something which is inherently subjective, miss the point, it seems to me. The honest truth is that prizes are less about "quality," really, and more about putting a temporary spotlight on a writer. A prize is something the media understands, it's something government bodies understand, it's something the public understands. In many ways, our prizes each year are a kind of stand-in for our Festival for we have often found that if our prize winner is a big name writer, our Festival gets a lot more attention from the press and we sell a lot more tickets. The name of our winner also influences who come to our Festival: when it's a Francophone, we get a lot more Francophones, when it's a man, we get more men, etc.

So while the prize is given to the writer, it's less about ranking or grading work or individuals than it is about putting a temporary spotlight on a writer or on his or her work for the world to have a chance to look along with us. It's about quality, of course, but there's a lot more to it than that: it's about writers who are contributing to the literary milieu, but it's also about availability, innovation, tradition, stage presence, and attracting the public. So "the work" is only one part of a larger picture. At any rate, most of our prizes (we have two others) are for a body of work which means something different than a prize for a single work.

Paul Auster, winner in 2004
What I appreciate about the way we award our prize is the rigorous debate that goes on behind the scenes: disagreements, arguments, it can get heated at times. But it's a real discussion and there's more to it than just throwing a big pot of money at it and lining up all our media contacts and sending them out like flying monkeys. It's also a varied prize and we've awarded it to writers from at least 8 different countries (though most with strong connections to Canada, the US or France). A look at our past winners reveals no "flash in the pan," and all of our laureates so far (two have subsequently died, Norman Mailer and Carlos Fuentes) have continued to do amazing work; this stands in contrast to other prizes which seem to be more about the dollar amount of the award (as if that makes any difference whatsoever to anyone but the writer), and the whole media campaign which surrounds it.

Another thing I've been told by a few winners that they haven't accepted our award because it pays X $ amount but because it means something in a larger context. Anyway, most of our laureates could ask a lot more to appear in public than our prize pays them, but they still come happily...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fall reading....

Fall pokes its head around the corner and 2014 is beginning to take shape. Arab prize-winner confirmed, check. Metropolis Azul prize-winner confirmed, checked. Two pretty big stars confirmed. Several international writers confirmed. Still some big pieces to put into place and still a lot more writers to invite and events to confirm. But we're moving along...

Been reading like a madman:

Sarah Schulman's novel The Mere Future which was excellent. Robert Walser's Berlin Stories (ok, again, I read it last year). Carolina de Robertis' Perla, Jenny William's biography of Hans Fallada, then I read Fallada's A Small Circus which was slow-going at first but I managed to get into it after 100 pages or so...finally read Heinrich Boll over the weekend (his A Soldier's Legacy)

Picked up Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy and been racing through that.

And none of that even includes reading for the Festival! I've got a huge stack of books on my office desk that I am slowing making my way through though every few days, another one gets added to that pile. What a great problem to have...

Lately one of my reading obsessions has been fiction set in Europe between the wars. Again, this is personal reading, nothing related to the Festival (though I can always find some connection) and when I look at my day, it's amazing that I even have time to read at all since I am up at 6:30 every morning, running all day without even a chance to sit down until dinner, then to the gym and in bed at 11.

I guess I manage to get a lot of reading done over the weekend, but also on the metro, while I wait in lines, just before I fall asleep.

People who don't read don't know what they're missing...