January - June 2004

June 11/04: The Future of Retail

Chapters/Indigo stores will soon be carrying more non-book (or "lifestyle") items in an attempt to transform the book barns into what CEO Heather Reisman calls "the world's first cultural department stores." Some attempt will apparently be made to tie the products to themes in popular books (for example: selling yoga mats along with yoga books). The new lifestyle items are expected to be filling the stores in time for the holiday season.

So it's come to this, has it Heather? Well, we don't have Martha Stewart around anymore, so I guess someone has to be the new lifestyle guru. Who would have guessed?

We can't say we weren't warned. From an earlier rant, "The Passion of Heather Reisman", which ran on May 30, 2001 (I've been at this quite a while!), I quote the following:

"Leaving Cott, Heather founded Indigo Books and Music: 'the culmination of her passion for books and music' (and roses, and tulips, and . . . whatever). Her stated goal at Indigo was to create a chain of 'cultural department stores': a 'complete retailing environment' that would, in the words of one commentator, be like 'Martha Stewart meets the megastore.' We may assume from this that Ms. Reisman has a passion for retail, but this is a very different thing from a passion for the 'written word'."

And now the eagle has landed. Something was needed to fill those megastores besides books. It doesn't take an M.B.A. to know that there are more profitable things to put on shelves. Pity the written word! You have to ask: Do the products have to be tied to the books, or the books to the products? And exactly what is it that will make these new department stores cultural? All those yoga mats and candles? The displays of affordable crystal and gardening tools? Wasn't Wal-Mart the world's first cultural department store? Is that where we're heading, Heather?

I think it's likely. Let's face it, the online retailers are really putting the squeeze on the bookstores. How do you compete with free shipping and 30-40% discounts on almost everything? Answer: You can't. Better to stock your shelves with lifestyle products and a thousand copies of The DaVinci Code than try to go head-to-head with warehouses that don't have to maintain bricks-and-mortar locations. Indeed, even the warehouses may disappear as publishers get into the business of selling direct.

As I've said before, I won't be too disappointed to see the book barns go. Their closing could even give some smaller bookstores a boost. Summer's here, the patios are open . . . cafe culture may be coming back.

There really was such a thing once, before it became a lifestyle.

June 6/04: Recycled Praise

According to a report that first appeared on BookNinja.com, the 2004 Danuta Gleed Literary Award press release contains comments by the jury that are almost a word-for-word transcription of jury comments made the previous year. Example: 

2003: "In making their decision the jury of award-winning short fiction writers Carmelita McGrath, David Homel and Gary Geddes confirmed that The Broken Record Technique provided, "An exciting play with language: Lee Henderson whether describing an incensed desire or a vicious fear, creates characters who, like most of us, are often baffled by what life presents." The jury agreed "Lee Henderson's brilliant stories stretched the boundaries of language and form without losing their focus on character and situation."

2004: "In making their decision the jury of award-winning short fiction writers Nino Ricci, Sharon Butala and Fred Stenson confirmed that A Hard Witching & Other Stories provided, "An exciting play with language: Jacqueline Baker whether describing brutality or tenderness, creates characters who, like most of us, are often baffled by what life presents." The jury agreed "Jacqueline Baker's brilliant stories stretched the boundaries of language and form, without losing their focus on character and situation."

And the same repetition of praise occurs for the two runner-up titles.

What an embarrassment for the Writers Union of Canada (sponsors of the award). They can't even explain it away as a clerical error, since some changes have been made to the language.

In a bizarre comment sent to the BookNinja forum, one Penney Kome (a past chair of the Writers Union), considers it to be all much ado about nothing: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with updating and re-using a standard news release."

But this is not a standard news release. It contains what are represented to be the judges' comments. And they aren't. They are just generic words of praise deemed appropriate for a prize that the Writers Union seems to assume no one cares about anyway.

Literary awards need to become more transparent. They are, after all, a form of critical response. A "jury of award-winning short fiction writers" shouldn't just sign off on something like this (if they signed off on it). What did they really think? Would the truth be worse than this polite ignorance?

March 14/04: No Small Loss

In an open "Letter to Publishers", Danforth Review editor Michael Bryson has asked publishers to stop sending new books to the DR for review. Starting in September 2004, the DR will be "publishing fewer book reviews, interviews and other features" and " focusing on its core activities as a publisher of original fiction and poetry."

This is no small loss. The DR has been doing a great job covering the Canadian small press. Who is going to take their place? Where will these titles get reviewed? We're talking about books that will never be noticed by the national (or, for that matter, most local) media.

A year ago I commented on "The Disappearing Book Review - Offline" (see here). I said then that "a high turnover rate is business as usual on the Internet. Whatever is lost, more good things are on the way."

Let's hope so.

February 24/04: Blogging

In a comment on the Arts Journal Weblog "About Last Night", Terry Teachout (if that is his real name) suggests some rules for the Internet's literary blogs. In particular he would like all bloggers to give credit to other blogsources for borrowed links.

Mr. Teachout is new to the Internet, so he can be forgiven for spouting off about things he doesn't really understand. Just a couple of pointers:

(1) There is no such thing as a "blogosphere", understood as a "community" with  "members" and rules. And it's a damn good thing too.

(2) Repeat after me: Blogsources do not have any proprietary right to the stories they link to. Therefore, you cannot "poach" a link.

Goodreports.net is not a blog. I link to a daily news story and I give no credit to anyone for where I got the link (though I do have the names of some sources on my main page). That's because (a) it's not their story, and (b) I have no interest whatsoever in what's "good for everybody in the blogosphere."

In general, I like the blogs. I began the 2003 Year-in-Review Panel by saying this:

"One of the things that impressed me most in 2003 was the continuing development of a real literary culture online. So far the Internet is behaving more like a print medium than like television, which seems to make it especially attractive to writers and readers.

We all know about the shrinking (or disappearing) book review sections in daily newspapers, but I think a lot of that interest is hopping online. And it is making the leap with a style, intelligence, and depth of reporting that the mainstream media gave up on long ago (at least with regard to books). When I go trolling the blogs for book news and commentary Iím amazed at the wealth of material out there. And best of all, the majority of it is refreshingly independent."

What I was happy about, and what I'm still happy about, is the development of a literary culture. That is, the criticism and literary journalism available online that the blogs link to. In turn, a good literary blog, in my opinion, is one that is grounded in actual book stuff. BookSlut is not, primarily, a blog - it is an online literary magazine with reviews, interviews, and essays. The Complete Review's blog, the Literary Saloon, was only launched a couple of years after the Review had been online, publishing in-depth essays, reviews, and book industry reportage. When I go to BookNinja it's not just to read the links.

Blogs serve a purpose. But anyone who thinks that it's the links that are important to the growth and development of an online literary culture is spending way too much time studying their traffic reports and not enough time reading books.

February 16/04: Exposed!

A glitch at Amazon.ca last week inadvertently revealed the true identity of the writers of some anonymous "customer" reviews. In some cases the reviewers turned out to be the authors themselves, or close friends. According to a report in the Observer, "The gremlins that bedevilled Amazon all week laid bare how writers can exploit the web to praise their friends, rubbish their rivals and even champion themselves in the hope of shifting extra copies. The humiliation ended only after outed reviewers ordered Amazon to fix it."

I should say off the top that I like Amazon's "customer reviews". They aren't always very well written, knowledgeable, or otherwise helpful, but they sometimes turn into entertaining message boards for opinionated, bookish types. Of course the comments posted have to be taken with a grain of salt. There's nothing new in authors, anonymously or otherwise, taking an interest in promoting and/or defending their own work. Amazon has had trouble with this before. And remember Caleb Carr?

Well, let's stop and give some credit to Caleb (if you're wondering what I'm talking about, see here). He stood up for himself, and took a lot of heat for it. Compare his public stand to that of . . . "A customer from St. Louis, MO." writing in to defend The Effect of Living Backward by Heidi Julavits.

Headed "The Truth", this review begins "Readers beware." Beware what? Beware the bad customer reviews given the book (allegedly) by members of the Underground Literary Alliance (the ULA has denied the charge). According to St. Louis it seems the ULA has a grudge against Ms. Julavits because she is the co-editor of The Believer, a magazine that ran an "unflattering article" on them. ("Unflattering" is good. One hopes the article wasn't snarky! But of course snark is only something other people do.)

The truthful customer from St. Louis dismisses the ULA as a pair of bitter losers and concludes by saying that The Effect of Living Backward is "one of the best books of the year."

So far, so good. If the negative reviews are just literary politics, I want to know (though I might have figured it out for myself). But what about the customer from St. Louis? As of last week, visitors to Amazon.ca found out that he was none other than "David K. Eggers", fellow Believer and good friend of Heidi Julavits.

"I've done that one or two times before," Mr. Eggers remarked, "when I like a book [by a friend?] and the reviews on Amazon seem bizarre. In this case I just tried to bring back some balance."

Balance. Maybe. But was it the Truth?

Readers beware.