Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal, shmoyal—there are other things going on

It's not a new thing. But for crying out loud, does EVERY media outlet in the world have to let itself be dominated by the Royal Wedding?

Record-breaking storms across North America, elections around the world, the Arab Spring, Apple tracking its users, Apple actually not providing tracking information to third parties, the erosion of Canadian democracy and the way we consumers continue to be ripped off by oil companies. These are just a few of the stories that are more important than two obscenely rich young people getting married.

Sure, they're beautiful. And it's nice when young people in love get married. Hooray.

But enough on the royal wedding. Royalty is an evil that has long outlived its usefulness.

Kudos to Gian Gomeshi for trying to ban royal wedding information from today's Q.

And for the republican who let the Royal Wedding change his political ideology—wake up, man! It's two young people getting married! It happens every single day! It does not change the world, nor make anyone's life better, except for the privileged contractors who supplied the event.

Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On negativity

The Liberal Party’s message in this Canadian federal election has become very negative. It started last week, with their aborted, misquoted attack against Stephen Harper. Now, they’re attacking the NDP.

There are many things wrong with this approach. First, it shows desperation. The Liberals began with one message, and then with two weeks left in the campaign, changed it. A week later, they changed focus again. They know they’re losing and are trying everything to change their fortunes.

Second, it shows they don’t know what their strategy should be. They began fighting against the former government, the leader in the polls and therefore the biggest target. Now, they’re targeting the party that was in third place going into the campaign. So, what is the Liberals’ goal: to become the government or the official opposition?

Finally, I don’t like negative messages in any competitive situation. Don’t tell me what’s wrong with the other guy. Tell me what’s good about you. The Conservatives have had a completely negative campaign, which really has put me off. The overall impression I get from Harper’s ads and speeches is that all will be right with the universe, or at least Canada, if Stephen Harper is Prime Minister, and therefore we voters will be in the wrong if we do not ensure his party wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons. I react against the admonishing tone.

Likewise, the Liberals’ attack ads are not convincing me. I can think of many messages they could have said that I do not hear from them.

Yes, the other parties and leaders should point out their opponents’ shortcomings and misspeakings. But the loudest, strongest message should be what they themselves are good at and what their plans are.

I know that negative ads have worked in the past, but I have never liked them. US elections are full of negative ads, and to me, they’re a weakness of their political culture. Now, I see them used increasingly in Canada. It’s a development I do not like.

What do you think?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Independent writers deserve respect

I've been having a lot of conversations in person and online lately about independent writers—also known as "self-publishers." The field is growing quickly. Last year, Amazon sold more e-books than paper books. And Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, two established writers, reportedly both turned down six-figure advances from conventional publishers in favour of self-publishing.

But I keep reading the ideas that the editors at the major "New York publishers"—the Big Six publishing conglomerates—provide a level of professional editing and quality control that is missing in self-published books.

I admit, there are a lot of poor self-published books out there. But there are a lot of poor books from the major publishers, too. And as for books that really need editing, just look at Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy.

The Big Six have no monopoly on the English language, or on the ability to edit.

Commercial publishing is getting increasingly risk-averse. And it's a business. Writing, however, is a craft and an art, as well as a commercial venture, and most writers do not write just to make money.

We need to start talking about independent writers, those who control the publishing function themselves, in the same we we do about independent filmmakers and independent musicians. "Indie" group Arcade Fire, after all, won a Grammy.

Which means that book reviewers need to stop excluding independent publishers from their in boxes and review those works.

No matter how much the conventional, established publishing industry resists, independent publishing is growing fast and strong. It has already changed the publishing industry and will continue to do so.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spoken words reveal unspoken ideas

“The other parties 'are saying that even if we receive a mandate from the people they will defeat us on our budget if they can. They will get together and form another alternative, of some other kind of government'” said Stephen Harper, according to the Globe and Mail.

Let's deconstruct this statement. First, the “mandate from the people.” Harper implies here that an election that results in more seats for the Conservatives than for any other party equals a mandate.

This is not so in the Canadian parliamentary system. Calling a plurality vote a “mandate” is invoking the kind of electoral system in the U.S., or other countries (the U.S. Electoral college system is actually more complex than that).
In the Canadian system, we vote for local members of parliament. The government is formed at the confidence of Parliament.

In so many of his statements, Harper implies that he has some kind of right to govern the country, and any method anyone else uses to form a different government is somehow illegitimate.

Canadians will not fall for this argument. We decide who has the right to form a government. And let's remember, we decide. The government works for us, not the other way around.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Leaking words

Sheila Fraser, Canada's Auditor General, found some things worth questioning about the federal government's (the Harper Government, as it likes to call itself) spending on the G-20 and G-8 conferences, and it is reasonable to conclude (I'm not the only one) that Tony Clement and his cronies had a lot of say in what was spent around Muskoka last year—and it did not always meet government criteria for appropriate spending. Millions to refurbish a very high-end resort? And the guy who decides whether, and how much federal government money goes to that project is the resort owner, and a long-time Conservative?

There is a lot to complain about.

The Conservatives find a quote by the AG that praises the government's spending—but they had to did down through 10 years or more of quotes to find one positive statement, and it turns out that it was about a previous government.

Then Stockwell Day tries to say it was an error.

Written words, recorded words, spoken words. We know when they're believable, and when they're not.

Friday, April 08, 2011

What’s getting printed?

I’ve been looking into the growing e-book phenomenon. And obviously, I’m not the first, so I’ve got some catching up to do.

There have been several reports published on paper and all over the Web about how e-books are outselling print books, staring last year. In July 2010, Wired reported that Amazon’s e-books outsold print books. And the margin is accelerating.

And there are many more sources than Amazon for an e-book: Chapters/Indigo in Canada sells books for the Kobo e-reader that it sells; Barnes & Noble sells its new Nook, now available with some colour, and sells e-books formatted for it.

And don’t forget that the Borders bookstore chain has filed for bankruptcy and closed a lot of stores.

Print will never die completely. TV didn’t wipe out radio, right? US print shipments are up 4.4 percent in February 2011 compared to February 2010. Granted, 2010 was a tough year in printing, so this is regaining ground that was lost, but there is still a lot of printing going on. KBA, the second-largest manufacturer of printing presses in the world, reports a “printing boom” in the developing markets of China, Brazil, India and Turkey, and strong growth in the Middle East and Latin America.

So, what’s getting printed? I think it’s probably flyers. The volume on my doorstep keeps getting bigger.

And then there are books by celebrities—anyone who’s done anything flamboyantly egregious gets a book out there pretty quickly.

Whatever’s getting printed, it ain’t literature.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Scary: a coalition?

Is "coalition" the scariest word that Harper's Conservatives can think of?

Since before the election started (and how long Harper's Conservatives have been campaigning is a subject for much more than a blog post), Harper and his mouthpieces have been warning us against a "coalition." They tell us it is necessary unstable, and indefinably bad for the country.

Let's think about this. In a coalition, parties that on their own do not have enough seats to form a majority in the House of Commons agree to come together to form that majority. Their relationship requires compromise on all side, so that the overall tone of the government they form has elements of each party's platform and philosophy.

In the Canadian parliamentary system, this seems to be a lot more stable than a minority government that can only survive confidence votes by making sure it has as many sitting members for each vote as possible and making deals with parties on each motion on an ad-hoc basis. At least with a coalition, there is some kind of relationship or understanding for some period in the future.

Doesn't a coalition seem very Canadian? Different groups agreeing to work together, compromise for the greater good and accomplish something that may not be ideologically pure, but is at least workable?

So, no, I'm not scared of a coalition. And I don't think that many Canadians are. The poll published on the front pages last weekend shows that most Canadians actually would favour a Liberal-NDP poll over a Conservative government. (Put the Bloc in, and that changes everything, of course.) And I found an interesting Facebook group called "I'm not scared of a Canadian coalition. See the link above.

No, we're not buying the logic that a coalition is a terrifying prospect. That's not keeping the Conservatives from trying it, though. So the question is: how stupid do they think we really are?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson and writing

How many of you have ready The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Probably quite a few—I have read its series is the fastest selling book in history.

I read the first book, and I'm now working my way through the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I can't say I'm enjoying the reading, the way I enjoy reading authors like John Updike or Mark Helprin or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Larsson's writing is sloppy and wordy. His work reads, even in translation, as if it's a first draft, never edited. It breaks almost every rule of good writing. The dialogue is unbelievable. Larsson wastes pages describing daily routines, like the exact contents of the groceries a character buys. Who cares how many Billy's Pan Pizzas a character eats? The descriptions of the particular model of PowerBook and Ikea furniture seem more like product placement than anything else.

So why did the books sell so well? In The Larsson Scandal: The unauthorized guerilla critique of Stieg Larsson, author Andre Jute says that it's got a lot to do with Larsson's feminist pronouncements. However, most readers of the trilogy don't follow, or care about the arguments between self-described and -promoting feminists and the literary establishment.

I think the reason that people read this series and stick with Larsson's bad writing through thousands of pages is the Girl herself, Lisbeth Salander. I don't know about you, but I've never found a character like her before in anything that I've ever read. We all know people like her, but never in fiction before. She is not likeable, not admirable—she does some very questionable things, despite Larsson's description of her as having her own rules. Still, Lisbeth Salander is a compelling character, and it's she that makes these books interesting.

I don't believe in any of the other characters:
- Blomkvist, the character who is supposed to the hero and is obviously the proxy of the author, is far too cool to be believed. Irresistible to women, athletic, the most admirable journalist in Sweden who makes a mistake that every reader sees coming from the beginning of the first book.
- Erica, his companion with her open marriage. Do you think this situation exists anywhere in reality: Erica has a long-time relationship with Mikael Blomqvist, which ends after a few years because Mikael does not want to get married. However, Erica and Mikael have started a magazine together and continue their professional relationship. Erica marries another man. However, she can't keep her hands off of Mikael. So she confesses her affair to her husband, who accepts it. All she has to do, when she wants to sleep with Mikael, is phone her husband and explain why she won't be home that night. The husband goes along with it "because he loves Erica." He doesn't come after Mikael with a baseball bat, doesn't divorce his wife, doesn't change the locks. And I haven't read anything about him sleeping around, either, in misguided revenge. Any of these things would be believable, but not "Okay, honey, have fun!"

Andre Jute exposes all the plot holes as well, and I recommend you download and read his e-book.
Now, I do not accept Larsson's diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. Larsson is not qualified to make that diagnosis. It may be true, but then, this is a fictional character, so making psychiatric evaluations is ridiculous. And Larsson is not a good enough writer to provide the richness of detail and characterization to describe a real Asperger's patient.

Larsson deserves his fame and sales simply for creating Lisbeth Salander. Too bad he's such a lousy writer.