Tuesday, 18 June 2013
One week (let's say early June in 2013) your friend receives a royalty cheque for sales of her university press hardcover, a study that in one sense represents the most tangible result of years pursuing a PhD from Oxford.
The amount? $2.30. (Yes, as in the price of a double espresso.)
That same week a university press accountant sends you a Statement of Royalties for $13 (plus change) along with the announcement that the press will not issue a cheque until the royalty total reaches $25.00.
Your friend emails to tell you her news and you reply, feeling both empathy and sympathy, and understanding that you're swapping a fishing tale of a grimly funny kind, the humour deriving from the switch of emphasis: not "the fish I caught was this big [your hands at least 15 inches apart]" but "the fish I caught was this small [your thumb and index finger almost touching]."
The self-deprecating laughing tone of the exchange brings to mind related ideas: gallow's humour, whistling in a graveyard, Cathy cartoons. Beneath that? A gray landscape of metaphoric figures—The Swamp of Sadness, The Road to Regret, The Bedrock of Bitterness, The Slough of Despond. Also, there's that galling, depressing sense of futility embodied by the daily routine of Sisyphus.
Desperate to avoid that figurative terrain, you take heart in aphorisms and clichés—"It's the journey that counts, not the destination," "Money's besides the pint, I do it becaise I love it," and "It's an honour just to be nominated."
As always, you recall, ol' Oscar W. had something witty and pertinent to say: "Genius is born—not paid."
Further apothegms related to money are especially reassuring—"A good name is better than riches" and "Money is the root of all evil." (You ignore the wisdom of Twain: "The lack of money is the root of all evil." His smart-ass tone is impossible to take seriously.)
That biblical one provides lovely comfort too: "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, 'Who then can be saved?' Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'"
So does Dorothy Parker—"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to"—particularly because you do precisely as she asks, quickly surveying the field of obnoxious Americana: Kim K., Kanye W., Donald T., Paris H., that fatuous army of North American Real Housewives in Vancouver, Atlanta, New York, Orange County, Miami, Beverly Hills, and so on.
For a full five minutes you understand with wondrous clarity that a life of conspicuous consumption and crude staged arguments at nightclubs in front of a film crew doesn't appeal to you. Not in the least.
With those sayings digested, wealth begins to look unpleasant, no better than a burden or a curse.
Persistent, you also take to heart the long-ago strategy of your parents (and to your knowledge, the strategy of all parents since history began): perspective.
In place of the dinner Mom served you / the lecture about people starving in Africa she delivered when you pushed aside that perfectly healthy serving of broccoli, you think about relative privilege and relative affluence, and that, for instance, there are "775 million people in the world who are illiterate, with another 152 million children set to follow in their footsteps because they aren't attending school." The numbers for poverty are more sobering yet.
You realize that you're lucky and entitled and supremely well-heeled, relatively speaking.
Less far-fetched, you think about the hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts publishers receive (which represent thousands and thousands of hours of labour on the part of unpaid authors) that are glanced over before being rejected and thrown into teeming recycling bins. "At least...," you begin, and trail off. There's so much for which to be thankful. After all, you're Published, you're Reviewed, you're an Author.
A petty, never admired fold of dimwit neurons also notices that your paltry royalty-to-be is six times higher that of your friend. Guiltily, you file away that awesome fact.
Whew! You / your writing / your career as a writer has been granted an extension. You're ready to write again, free of worry about money—that vile and distracting insect.
And you're full of insights, realizations. You think of lotteries and the feverish media reportage about winners that so mesmerizes society. Practically everyone pictures themselves winning the jackpot, all the while knowing that the usual winning of a dollar or two is just enough to buy another lottery ticket...
You see with sudden clarity that J.K. Rowling's billions and Yann Martel's $3 million advance are media-circulated stories of literary jackpot winners and that chances are remote (at best) that you will be a jackpot winner too. You vow to write for the sake of Art. You know too that you'll think "Africa, Africa, Africa" while steering clear of successful writer acquaintances, industry news, bookstores, review sections in papers, and literary culture in any form.
And you'll strive to forget the remaining $11 (and change) required to receive your precious royalty cheque.
That way, its eventual arrival will be a wonderful surprise.
Friday, 14 June 2013
In last year's notorious—harsh, mean-spirited, reductive, wrist-slapping—review of Alix Ohlin's story collection (Signs and Wonders) and novel (Open) in the weekend New York Times, William Giraldi dedicated some 1,387 words to condemnation of the sort that inspires visions of print runs being hurriedly gathered up and thrown into a gargantuan pile and then torched after being doused with gallons of gasoline.
From Ohlin's "cliché-strangled" sentences and the "insufferable schmaltz" of her sentiments to "language [that] betrays an appalling lack of register," Giraldi could find nothing except serial flaws of conception and execution.
(Asked by a Boston Globe reporter to defend his criticism, Giraldi framed the review as a mode of literary activism—and by extension as a valiant act in the service of civilization: "It was an attack on laziness, on the ubiquity of indolence that is currently polluting our literary culture.... Some people want to say the review was over the top. Let’s keep in mind, over the top is the only way to conquer a mountain, and I was confronted with an Everest of awfulness.")
Giraldi also complained that Olin "has a baffling fondness for the most worthless word in English: 'weird.'" Regrettably, he set aside no paragraph to explain his empirical findings re: weird.
How he determined word value, for example, or what methodology of quantification he relied on to arrive at "the most worthless word in English" will remain undisclosed, perhaps a mystery for the ages.
I bring this up because his ferocity for a short time made me wary of dropping "the most worthless word in English" into daily conversations or, even more egregiously, into my own writing. I'd long used and liked the word, and found places for its inclusion often, from "We had a really weird conversation on the bus" to "That scene in Blue Velvet where Dean Stockwell lip-synchs to 'Candy Colored Clown' is really weird." (Okay, the second example is total fabrication. I've never spoken those words in my life, even though I do believe them.) Yes, I could have used "awkward and uncomfortable" in the former instance and "surreal" in the latter, but weird suffices too, right?
While reading Lisa Moore's Caught I thought, "What a weird scene" in several chapters. Writing the review I considered using "the most worthless word in English," but opted for "trippy," "oddball," "Twin Peaks," "touching-on-surreal," "stoner," and "Pineapple Express." Still, I could have easily inserted compound words: "funny-weird," "strange-weird," "eerie-weird," and, of course "delightfully weird." They're all apt.
The actual review appears in The Vancouver Sun.