Friday, 19 April 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Amber Dawn's "How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir"

   Known yet unknown, prostitution was a shimmeringly exotic occupation as well as a fatally poisonous one in my young mind.
   While girls at school were routinely called whores, sluts, and scrags (that last term a late 1970s' Fraser Valley regional idiom reserved for a trashy, disreputable young woman), and a few of them in high school were plagued by reputations as willing targets for entire sports teams on a Friday night, to my knowledge no actual prostitutes worked in the small BC towns where I grew up. If there were, they stayed in the shadows and out of harm's way.

   American TV, then, with its cop shows set in L.A. and New York and warehouse district strolls where tough, brazen streetwalkers with over-the-top fashion sense fought and joked and sauntered and bantered and eventually got into cars with single men with ready cash, provided my first impressions of a life that from many angles (and discounting the real dangers of pimps, psychos, and police brutality) looked way more fun than being a secretary or a nurse. 

   Still, an enthralled viewing of Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway, set in the same colourful Los Angeles (a fiction that basically collapsed the entirety of that enormous, complex city into the vibrant but tatty corner of Hollywood and Vine), led me to believe in the wisdom of conventional careers: waitresses and dental hygienists might suffer from boredom, I learned, but at least they won't get their faces cut up by a mean pimp who expects productivity in exchange for his investment.

  Books—in particular, The Happy Hustler: My Own Story—gave me other tantalizing glimpses. I can't remember how I obtained my copy, but I know I kept it hidden, stuck in a cubbyhole at bottom of my closet that led to rafters. I pored over it multiple times and savoured whole scenes. And while I no longer recall plot details, I remember feeling entranced by this fantasy of the life, and imagined how exciting it would be to live in an American metropolis and get paid (with money, drugs, cars, jewelry, vacations) to be admired—the centre of attention every time—and for a few weeks I vowed that one day a happy hustler I would be. (Such vows were always fleeting; before and after The Happy Hustler, I planned to be an assassin, a pimp, a fashion designer, a spy, and a cat burglar.)
   Elsewhere in the house, my father possessed a copy of The Happy Hooker, which I read and liked a lot less (for obvious reasons, in retrospect). 

   My father, eager to set his only son on a heterosexual trajectory, also educated me, offering (unsolicited) practical advice based on his own experiences in Calgary brothels back in the day. The advice was medical in nature and instructed me about how to respond if I suspected the "hooer" (his word) I'd just finished with was "dirty." (This patently idiotic advice relied on the antibiotic properties of my own urine, famous sworn enemy to syphilis and gonorrhea as any medical expect will confirm.)

  These early formulations of the figure of the prostitute and the landscape of prostitution rushed to my consciousness as I was reading How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir, not least because early in her book Amber Dawn, referring to prostitutes, asks, “Why do we so seldom hear the voices of those whose experience is so widespread?”
   From Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway and network television to kids at school and my father, I realized I'd been raised being told about prostitutes from ostensibly reliable sources who were for the most part not prostitutes. 
   And while these experiences occurred years ago, my guess is they're not all that out of date; I'd bet that circa now, the young routinely learn about societal outsiders and marginalized jobs from people who are invested in telling the stories in a particular way (with familiar, easily digested tropes such as the prostitute as dirty, sinful, fallen, contagious, Other, etc). 
   Dawn understands how damaging that kind of 'knowledge' can be, especially because it grants a kind of cultural permission, one that, for example, might tell a guy it's okay to beat up a prostitute because she doesn't matter, not really, or for others to view prostitutes as lesser beings whose 'immorality' and marginal status means their pain or suffering or even disappearance counts for little (cue "the wages of sin..." etc). 
   A report from the street and a "voice" worth hearing, How Poetry Saved My Life tells compelling stories while encouraging you to examine the truths of your own education.

(Oh, right, my review of Dawn's memoir appears in The Vancouver Sun.)


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Non-Fiction Sidebar: What's in a Name? Book Titles, Product Names, and Predicting Consumer Behaviour.

   What's in a name? Would the makers of Ambien or Febreze sell fewer units if they'd named their products Aldazane or Bufian? Or, would the Insight and Leaf become household names if the North American marketing divisions of Honda and Nissan had opted for different naming strategies? And would you, shopping online or wandering through shelves of books, choose against considering a new Margaret Atwood novel simply because she'd titled it Journey Through Doom and Gloom instead of The Year of the Flood? (Okay, and probably in contradiction to any point I might be making here, I'll admit now that I was once offered a copy of a novel called The Shadow of the Wind and could not get past what I thought was the most idiotic of titles.)
   I'm wondering about that today because I read Deborah Copaken Kogen's "My So-Called 'Post-Feminist' Life in Arts and Letters" while negotiating with a publisher about the title of a book project.
   One of the intriguing elements of Kogan's article was the account of her largely unsuccessful struggle with publishers about the visual content of her books. While she shared her insights and preferences with her market-eying publishers about jacket design and the titles of her books, she appears to have repeatedly met a wall: the expertise of marketers trumped her own ideas every time, the supposition being that they (possessing the wisdom of marketing experience and the book smarts from degrees in Marketing) could better predict, or had special insight into, the mysterious processes of consumer behaviour. Kogan wanted Newswhore. Random House, she relates, told her Shutterbabe. She asked for Shuttergirl or Develop Stop Fix instead, but was told No and that, furthermore, she had no say in the matter. A few years later she ran into pink ghetto problems; she wanted the book to be blue and categorized as a memoir, while her publishers aimed to select pink and market it to women as a parenting book. Guess who won?

   I have had nothing close to that mixture of bad luck and closed-minded publishers. I submitted my first novel to my publisher as The J.H. Manuscript and was told the title was enigmatic without being interesting and that it seemed obscure. In retrospect, The Age of Cities really does look better. That said, it's anyone's guess if one title would have sold better. I'm doubtful.
   More recently I've been working with two other editors and four handfuls of contributors on After NAFTA, a scholarly book whose basic concept and title came to me in a dream. As did the subtitle: "Contemporary Canadian, American, and Mexican Dystopian Literature." 
   Maybe because the title appeared in a dream I took it as some kind of mystical sign and was emotionally invested in keeping it. Naturally, then, when the marketing people at the press told me that one result of a lengthy meeting was that the title had to go, I did a quick cycle through the Kübler-Ross model (dwelling a tad too long at Resentment, which while technically not a step in the model seems akin to Anger) before moving on. 
   Unlike Kogan, I initially received no pressure from an alternate title I actively disliked. Nor was a design foisted on me that made me feel powerless, manipulated, and miscategorized. The press merely asked for a new set of title options and I generated some. 
   For Round #2, though, all of my titles were rejected. The publisher's counter-proposal, in turn, made me dig in my heels. Despite highly dramatic imaginings—such as tearing up my contract and walking away with my dignity intact—my better, diplomatic self offered another set of titles. Ultimately, we agreed on Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature, and everyone's happy. 
   That said, if we'd run with After NAFTA or A Common Future (which was the publisher's suggested title), would the title make an iota of difference? Are consumers truly affected by the words that comprise a title and do supposed marketing experts truly possess the insight into consumer patterns that enable them to 'hook' gullible buyers with a special, nearly magical formulation of words? I'm guessing experts would like to think so. 
   Sitting here in my H&M sweat pants, Nike socks, Obey hooded pullover, and American Apparel T-shirt, I'll remain skeptical.


Friday, 12 April 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Shyam Selvadurai's "The Hungry Ghosts"

   "A flair for melodrama undercuts an otherwise enchanting and insightful novel" is the accurate précis appended to my National Post review of The Hungry Ghosts—a sprawling saga of a novel I wanted to like much more than in fact I did.
   The review appears here

Friday, 5 April 2013

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Don Gillmor's "Mount Pleasant"

Unlike in real life, where a bad few months rarely produce anything but feelings of inadequacy, depression, and wow-does-life-ever-suck, literary characters going through a rough patch can effortlessly produce scathing zingers, biting indictments, and brutal dismissals. Tagging along with them, in other words, is an occasion for mirth and schadenfreude. At least that's the case with Don Gillmor's ever-amusing Mount Pleasant.
   My review of the novel appears in The Vancouver Sun.

   (ps, if this genre—aka, life's really tough for middle class educated heterosexual white guys in North America—appeals to you, be sure to check out David Eggers' Hologram for the King, in which a defeated 54 year-old IT consultant dreams of escaping the "crushing vise" called his life and striding the world "a colossus [with] enough money to say fuck you, and you, and you." 
   Terrific! Sad! Funny!)