Mon 7 Feb 2011
it’s been in the bottom of a drawer for years.
a little black notebook, scuffed and coffee-stained, with seemingly random pages bearing notes, lists, traces of stories. some pages are torn out. i imagine their scraps handed off like gifts, late at night, to people i’ve mostly never met.
when i first knew him, the notebook was omnipresent. i can tell you his face then was thin and young and old and earnest and cloudy, long-ish hair hanging across his eyes, but the full picture escapes me. if i try to conjure him up, i see his hands, gesturing, and his handwriting scrawled across the lines of the little book.
he was younger than me. we were both of us spoken for; there was no foreshadowing of the life to come. we knew each other only peripherally, then: a casual kinship forged over ideas and writing. i knew nobody else who had a journal, even if my hardbound art book with its lineless pages and consistent trails of black pen bore little resemblance to the record of entropy and energy he kept rolled up in his back pocket. he had written a novel of sorts that past fall, in the lines of a similar notebook.
he had a way of roping people into things. there was a literary magazine waiting to be born, he and another twenty-three year decided late one night. i had worked with him on his book – i was appointed editor, all of us swimming well over our heads. i worked for them for four months, juggling three jobs. we went national, then folded. they forgot to pay me, for awhile. it was two years before i saw him, after that.
but he was my backdoor into writing. he was one of the first people to ever take seriously whatever gift i had for words. he sat with me at a rickety table with that notebook spread wide open, and dared to ask, ‘do you think this can be better? how? and then he listened, took me at my word. sometimes. he was the very first to show me by example that just doing it – just working away, writing – was the way to build one’s craft.
he was a finalist in the Canadian Literary Awards that fall. a short story about his father, and their boat. no copy exists anymore, unless CBC has one trailing around in the bowels of an office, somewhere.
the idea that our children will never read it makes me sad. the idea that we have children – that reckless, storytelling boy and i – makes me smile.
respect, like writing, is a complicated art.
today is the first day of Canada Reads 2011. for ten years, it’s been an annual CBC radio staple: five books, five semi-celebrity champions making the case for their chosen tome. CBC, basically, goes a long way in Canada towards making those of us who actually give two shits about the written word feel like valued members of society. the CBC reflects Canada back to itself as a literate culture: they run the Literary Awards, they run shows where people talk about books, sometimes in depth. and they run Canada Reads.
like all broadcast media giants, though, CBC is scrambling and struggling to establish a social media presence. which ought to be – from where i stand, as someone whose writing has found an audience through the web – a glorious thing. instead, it’s awkward. Canada Reads’ selections this year were based on a massive voting campaign that Box 761 has slyly dubbed The Hunger Games: a Survivor-esque circus whose tone and lack of depth forced the authors into a travelling-salvation-show-style pimping of their wares and stripped the discussion of depth and dignity. Inklings has interesting commentary on how the cult of personality that has been foisted on the previously-congenial competition makes any real critique difficult. we are no longer evaluating novels, she claims. we are evaluating their author’s social media personalities.
i’m chiming in to note that the issue goes beyond Canada Reads. i entered the Canadian Literary Awards this past fall, for the first time. mostly because of Dave. his parents have his finalist letter laminated and tacked to their office wall. i figure my mother needs something purdy for Mother’s Day. ahem. or maybe i’m just still trying to learn to be as brave as he was, way back then.
but i note, from the date on Dave’s distinguished letter announcing his finalist status, that the deadlines for assessment of the submissions have been pushed waaay back since 1997, people. which i’m sure is a wonderful thing, reflecting the many fine pieces of writing clamouring for judges’ attention.
except that in the interim, they’re pushing us for more content. cute little contests, replete with excess of exclamation marks, dot our inboxes. share more stories!! you might win a Sony Reader!! we might publish your story online!!
my hope is that CBC is trying to create a vibrant web community around writing. my hope is that their intent is to showcase some newer writers’ work in with that of established authors, and perhaps build spaces for discussion and sharing: an online literary salon of the highest order. i like that idea.
but they’re doing it wrong.
i mentioned on the theoryblog the other day that social media is a produsage-based economy. creativity and consumption merge, and reputation is essentially built in the context of community. when it works well, it showcases work while creating strong ties and mutual audiences between people.
these contests, though, do little of the sort. instead, they take a captive audience of hopefuls and treat them as show ponies to build free content for a CBC books site that exists to feature established authors. worthy luminaries, a number of them – and i am not being facetious – but there is no produsage here, no fostering of shared community or flattening of hierarchy.
the real authors’ work is linked, to profiles and homepages. whether they control their own publication on the page isn’t clear, but it’s unlikely that their postings are random. check back every day, Joseph Boyden!! today you might see your own 250 words on the screen!!
the Literary Awards hopefuls – whose chances in the actual contest may or may not be impacted by their participation in these little games: the issue has never been addressed – are different. no links to external pages or profiles, nothing to build name recognition. no chance to pimp their social media personalities, for better or worse. and since the site appears built to showcase rather than dialogue – comments are sparse, because it is nobody’s personal space – even hopefuls who wanted to use it to comment and connect would appear odd, too keen, inappropriate to the context.
the Literary Awards themselves are useful arguably because they ARE a chance to build some semblance of profile as a writer. the pats on the head and the chirpy tone of the contests that appear to come along with participation, though, only disrespect both the writers themselves and potential of social media to be a part of their journey.
they need more Daves masterminding CBC online, i think, roping people into things and making them believe their words can matter.
all the Sony Reader prizes in the world won’t do that.