HOW WATTPAD IS TURNING THE PAGE ON PUBLISHING

That was the headline for a provocative article by Carly Lewis in the Globe and Mail on Saturday May 4.

I read it with fascination, and much surprise.

I realise that my lifetime role as a “gatekeeper” in Canadian book publishing leaves me poorly qualified to understand the newest ways of getting a manuscript accepted for publication. To make matters worse, as a white, male, Anglo-Celtic editor, I was (and am) far from the diverse ideal that is valued today. But I realise that the system we devised in the old days was far from ideal, even indefensible. Unsolicited manuscripts that came in by mail out of the blue from optimistic authors rose in a toppling tower in the publisher’s office. It was rudely known as “the slush pile”. When eventually resentful editors tackled the pile before it collapsed and smothered them, the reading conditions were very bad. The pressure to reject this manuscript and move on to the next, then the next,  meant that few manuscripts got the relaxed, respectful attention they deserved, and terrible mistakes were made.

To be personal, you could stock an interesting library with fine books that were eventually published with success, after I had stupidly rejected them.

So I was keenly interested to learn about what Wattpad was doing to simplify — and improve– the complex  process of getting published. The Globe article promised that “Wattpad’s significance is in its mutiny, waged against the gatekeepers” (pause for a Gibson cringe, although I never heard the term during all of my years of gatekeeping) “of literary homogeneity first as an online library, and now as a physical force in  the book-buying market.”

I was reading eagerly when I came on this paragraph, about why Wattpad (“an online and mobile platform for amateur , unagented writing”) is entering the physical book market, because it is ” not only logical from a revenue standpoint, but necessary in the company’s quest to highlight voices often excluded from the industry. Plus, with a fanatically engaged user base, the platform’s most promising stories rise to prominence without staff having to spelunk a slush pile.”

Wow! How is that possible? Avoiding the slush pile is a fine thing, but how can you do it?

The next sentence tells all. “Wattpad’s machine learning intelligence, which evaluates content based on an algorithm, user data and elemental qualities such as grammar, does that for them.”

Hold on. Please read that sentence again. Unless you believe that the word “algorithm’ equals “miracle” the sentence makes no sense. And it would be interesting to learn more…..much more… about these “elemental qualities”.

But I think we can make an educated guess about what the algorithm is doing here. It is, I suspect, set up to find new book proposals that are EXACTLY LIKE OLD BOOK PROPOSALS, where the books have gone on to success in the marketplace. If that is indeed the case, all of the fine talk about avoiding “literary homogeneity” is just nonsense.

The troublesome fact is that truly fine books are original, and unique. Algorithms are unlikely to be able to help here. Unless, of course, the new Wattpad system comes with a magic wand.

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WALKING THROUGH AN EXCELLENT READ

I’ve just had an experience that I can recommend to you . I was in the middle of reading a fine novel when I realised that its local setting meant that I could stroll through its pages.  I’ve just done so today…a fine brisk day, good for a walk in the fresh air… and I found that the walk enriched my reading, when I returned home to finish the book.

The book in question is A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving…..or, as Owen himself would put it, “BY JOHN IRVING”. Of course I’ve read, and enjoyed, other books by John. But  as you know, we all have gaps in our reading.  Somehow I had never  read this  book, although it was on our shelves. It was time to change that. So I opened this book from 1989 ( aha! I was only one year into my new role as Publisher at M&S, so I had other things on my mind!)  with the keenest interest.

As I settled into this very unusual novel, I learned a lot about its setting in New Hampshire.  Small-town Gravesend in northern New Hampshire is described in great detail, almost snowflake by snowflake, house by house, shingle by shingle. As the group of kids around our narrator and his friend Owen ages, we go from scene by scene classroom activity (and literally scene by scene Nativity plays) to summer jobs that involve work in the woods, or in the local granite quarries, or to Hester the Molester waitressing in local dining spots where lobster is a specialty.

Then , to our surprise, Canada comes into the picture.

The book’s narrator, John Wheelwright, is notable for two things. First, his protective love of his tiny friend Owen Meany, an astonishing character with a larger than life voice, personality, and brain. Second, his political conscience. John is a member of the generation scarred by the Vietnam War. So scarred that although an amputated finger leaves him unfit for the U.S. draft, after he leaves university he feels obliged to leave his country in disgust, and move to Canada.

To Toronto. As the lengthy plot moves forward, the main activity continues to centre on Owen  and John and New  Hampshire. But whenever we move to John’s present life, we roam around a specific part of Toronto. So that’s what I decided to do. I put down the unfinished book, and became an Owen Meany tourist.

I walked to Avenue Road and St. Clair, heading north to Upper Canada College. I looked with interest up the  driveway, studying the buildings, remembering that John had compared them to the Gravesend private school where Owen and he spent their young lives. Then, impressed by the rich history on the  plaque outside U.C.C., I walked west. After  four blocks of elegant Forest Hill neighbourhood houses I came to Bishop Strachan School. It is, famously, the female equivalent of the boys-only U.C.C.. In the book it is the school where John Wheelwright becomes a teacher of English. His discussion of that role allows him to speak warmly of the writers he most admires, from Thomas Hardy to Robertson Davies and Alice Munro.

I did not enter the good, grey, Gothic walls of B.S.S., (“Hi, can I look at a classroom like the one that John Irving’s character would have taught in?” seemed an unpromising approach) but I did walk two blocks north to get a sense of the school. And I did recall that John Irving’s wife, the former Canadian Publisher, Janet Turnbull Irving, (now a notable tennis player) had attended B.S.S. as a literary teenager, so John did have inside knowledge of the place.

In the novel Owen , and his friend John, care deeply about God and the mysteries of religion. So it’s appropriate that in Toronto John Wheelwright falls in love with the gentle charms of the building due west of Bishop Strachan, the old Grace Church on the Hill. I slipped into the church and relaxed in a pew. gazing around me with slow pleasure.  Very soon, I had come up with a rule for this new programme for literary walks: it should — perhaps must — include a spell spent sitting in a church, or other religious space. Doing nothing but looking around, and thinking.

A slow tour of the stained glass windows, and the monuments, revealed, yet again, how the First World War obliterated  a whole generation of young Canadians. Twenty-year-olds who should have been sunning themselves in Toronto parks were chewed up by a war machine they could not even have imagined. I thought of what R.H.Thompson’s brilliant work to remember those millions of lost First World War lives had achieved, and how proud I had been to help him.

A final, personal look at the lives lost in that war from that little church. I always look for possible relatives. Yes, there was one Gibson, one Young and one Thomson.

A slow walk out of the Church led to Russell Hill Road, along which John Wheelwright would walk every day, to and from his classes. I trudged thoughtfully south to St. Clair, noticing the new houses that have been recently inserted, but enjoying the traditional homes that John Wheelwright would have passed. Then, with a turn at St. Clair, past the Timothy Eaton United Church, I walked east twenty minutes to reach home.

There a lively book awaited me, greatly enriched by my walking tour.

Try the idea!

GO LEAFS/LEAVES GO!

I grew up bilingual.

I’m not talking about my acquaintance with French, from my teenage years. No, in my wee Ayrshire village from the very start I was bilingual, speaking both a version of English that all of my readers would recognise, and the local broad Scottish idiom, now formally called “Lallans”.

On the local soccer field, “the fitba pitch”, I ran around imploring my 8-year team-mates to pass the ball to me with the urgent cry “Geesabaw! Geesabaw!” At home my mother would have been scandalised if I had introduced that language, with its array of improper words like “pish”and “shite”. So I was carefully bilingual at home and in the classroom, and very different in the schoolyard.

My mastery of Lallans came to play an important part in my literary life, and it can be argued that it brought me to Canada. Because I was in Ayrshire, the older people around me, especially the farmers, were speaking the language of Robert Burns. My first summer job was working on a local farm that was placed right beside Dunlop House, where Burns used to visit his patron, Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop. The grandfather on the farm, “Auld Moneyacres” (like Tam o’ Shanter he was known by the name of his farm) spoke pure Burns. In the nearby Stewarton kirkyard my Young ancestors lay beside an uncle of Robert Burns.

So when I went on to study English at the University of St. Andrews I had an advantage when we studied the poetry of Robert Burns. My classmate from elsewhere, especially from England, tended to treat it  as a new language, like Chaucer’s Middle English. To me, it was just the language I had known in the village. Easy.

But I had never written in it. Then, in November in my final year, I started thinking that it would be nice to win a scholarship to go to somewhere interesting the next year. I learned about a sort of Rhodes Scholarship in reverse. It was open to contenders from each of the Scottish Universities, and a selected Scottish candidate from Oxford and Cambridge. The winner would receive a free year at the American university of his or her choice, thanks to the scholarship provided by the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York.

One scholarship would be given.

I looked at the requirements, and looked at my own qualifications. Thanks to my sporting and dramatic and newspaper deeds, not to mention my being President of the Student Union, I found that I ticked many of the required boxes.

But not any academic ones So I started to leaf through the list of annual University prizes. I found “The Sloan Prize, awarded for the best composition in Lallans”. A friendly professor advised me that an entry should run about 5,000 words, so that Christmas I cleared the decks at home, and on the dining room table, bolstered by dictionaries, I created a short story in Lallans.

You can see where this is going. There was a moment of horror when I learned that the Sloan Prize judge would be the Editor of The Scottish National Dictionary. But the Essay won The Sloan Prize. And it won in time for me to include it in my Scholarship application, ticking another important box.

I won the Scholarship, went to Yale, and after a year gaining my MA, came by Greyhound Bus to Canada, and never looked back.

But what about those Leafs? Thanks to my friend Donald Gillies, I recently read an edition of his magazine “Lallans”. It mentions the amazing fact that when the version of English spoken in Scotland began to be written, in formal print, the correct way to form the plural of the Scottish word for “wife” and ” life” and “leaf”, was simply to add the letter “s”.

Who knew? Generations of schoolteachers have decried the spelling as simply wrong. Now we’ve learned that the spelling”Leafs” is an official old Scottish plural.

Go Leafs Go!

WHITE FANG IN SUNNY CALIFORNIA

Winter in Ontario — where, as John Kenneth Galbraith wrote,”The seasons are good and strong” — can try the patience. So this March we decided that a visit to California, to see our relatives who had just moved there was essential to family harmony. Flying to L.A., then driving up the coast to the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, would be a great inconvenience, of course. But for family, we all have to make sacrifices. Right?

Our sacrifices included being ushered around L.A. by my cousin Doug Caldwell and his wife Judy McAlpine (both formerly of CBC). Their place in the hilly Silver Lake district (and L.A. is made up of many distinct parts of the city) gave us a view of the famed “Hollywood” sign, while allowing us easy access to the old downtown core . And we were whisked from Malibu to the Huntington Centre and its Desert Garden, to the Los Angeles Library and the Getty Centre, and so on, before we staggered off in a haze of delight.

And there was no ice to chip off the driveway. At any point.

The drive up the Central Valley around Bakersfield, where North America’s fruit and nut crops are grown, was long, but instructive. The miles of orange groves are dropping millions of oranges, left to rot, for want of Mexican pickers. President Trump seems to have turned his back on this California problem.

We spent happy times in the hills near Los Gatos with two old friends, then paid — yes, paid — for  a hotel room near Half Moon Bay. We spent one afternoon, then a morning, walking along the beach beside the booming surf. Because I have Scottish skin (my friend Matthew Swan, of Adventure Canada fame, claims that he can get sunburned from watching a night-time fireworks display) I soon got a robust, red, sunburn.

Then it was, ho, for the North, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Sonoma and Napa, where Jane’s brother Michael is now based, with his Saskatoon-raised wife, Jan. Joined by Jane’s brother Peter, and his wife Heather (down from Kelowna) we had a fine few days of family reunion. We may even make the sacrifice again next year.

But what about Jack London? To our surprise we learned that this man who made a reputation for his books about the Klondike, later bought a ranch near Napa. with his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. Near the town of Glen Ellen you can still visit that ranch, and learn all about the experiments he made, to improve on the old system of ruthlessly mining the soil, and then moving on. His new system involved contouring his vine plantations so that, like ancient Chinese plantations, they would last for many years. His attempts to grow cactus for cattle and pig feed were less successful, and his ranch is now regarded as a failure. But the old Publisher in me was pleased to see that his expenditures on the ranch led him to increase his requests to his luckless publishers for higher advances on his next book.

But of course, Jack London was at the time, thanks to THE CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG, the most successful author in the English-speaking world. In the Napa Valley today we can visit the Jack London Park and the Jack London Museum and learn all about his farming life, about which I knew nothing.

TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS.

You can get a copy of my Podcast (a decade by decade look at Canada’s greatest storytellers from 1867 onward) ABSOLUTELY FREE if you are on i-tunes. Simply sign into your i-tunes account and go to podcasts, and then search douglasgibsonliterary talks. You can download it for free.

Also, you can get a copy of my NEW AUDIO BOOK by encouraging your local Library to stock it. You’ll find that they ask you to fill in a form, where you explain that ACROSS CANADA BY STORY is an Audio-book, that it’s available from ECW Press, that it came out in January, 2019, and that the ISBN Number is 9781773053776 .(You might want to take this form with you, unless your memory is remarkable.)

Then they’ll order it, and you’ll be able to listen to my 16 hours of reading, FREE. And I’ll be very grateful to you.

REACTIONS FROM CBC LISTENERS TO THE HUGH MACLENNAN CHAT

As you know, I used this blog to spread the word about my forthcoming chat with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition. But I sat there nervously, listening to the show.

It seems that I was wrong to worry.  Lots of kind people got in touch with me to tell me that they enjoyed it. Sometimes they told me fascinating, moving things. One friend, for instance, really liked the positive spin I put on Hugh’s use of the term “Two Solitudes”. He said that he came from a family with a French-Canadian father and a mother whose language was English. At her funeral  he spoke about the successful touching of the two solitudes in the house where he grew up.

Others wrote about family memories involving The Watch That Ends The Night. One man proudly recalled that his father ran the Bookstore Launch for the book in Montreal in 1959. Another spoke excitedly of her recent discovery of a fine Dartmouth restaurant named The Watch That Ends The Night. Another wrote warmly about the book’s excellence, remembering especially the moonlit escape by canoe by young Jerome after his mother’s murder in the New Brunswick lumber camp. ( I recall when I put together the anthology, Hugh MacLennan’s Best, just after his death, that particular set piece leaped out of the book, although the book was full of very fine essay and novel selections).

As you know, greatly daring, I read aloud the passage in Barometer Rising where Hugh sees Canada, coast to coast, as if from outer space. My claim that this paragraph marked the start of Canadian Literature seems to have pleased a number of people. Many told me that they now had TWO books by Hugh MacLennan on their reading list.

The CBC people keep track of the impact of the programme. Before the show, the Toronto Reference Library had no “holds” on Hugh’s great novel. By Monday there were over 50  such eager requests. Even more today, maybe. It’s the perfect response to a show that’s intended to get people reading neglected books.

One of the other results was that people brought out their memories of Hugh the man. One woman contacted the programme with her memories of being a high school journalist who, with another over-awed colleague, were assigned to interview the great man, in 1962. Hugh was, of course, charming, and the interview went well. Afterwards he bought both of them a chocolate milk-shake. To this day, she says, milk-shakes make her think of Hugh MacLennan!

A West-Coast book trade friend recalled taking Hugh on a publicity tour. Hugh was concerned about my friend’s  limp, the result of weeks of lugging boxes of heavy books. The long-term implications worried Hugh so much that he insisted on taking my friend back to the Hotel Vancouver, showing him important back exercises, and even massaging his back. When he was in mid-massage, there was a knock at the door, and both the masseur and the patient roared with laughter at the gossip column possibilities of the massage.

Under Michael Enright’s shrewd direction of the conversation, I talked about how love was at the centre of Hugh’s great novel. But there was no chance to talk about Anne Coleman’s fine book about how friendly she and “Mr. MacLennan” became in her teenage years in North Hatley. She stresses that it was always “correct”, with nothing physical at any point. As an explanation, I’ve suggested that at the time Hugh was immersed in writing The Watch That Ends The Night, where one of the major characters is young Sally, who, like Anne, was a McGill undergraduate, and thus a very good model for Hugh to study.

Of course, people who have read ACROSS CANADA BY  STORY know that in Montreal I was approached by “Emily” who informed me that she was Hugh MacLennan’s daughter. The details of this proud love-child are in the book, and of the long affair Hugh apparently had with her mother. Fascinating.

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THIS SUNDAY ON CBC RADIO, AT 11 A.M.

Exciting news! Some time ago I sat down for an interview with my old friend , Michael Enright, in the “Sunday Morning” series about neglected classic Canadian books.

This Sunday, March 3 at 11. a.m. , or just after the news, you’ll be able to hear me talking about THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, the great 1959 novel by HUGH MACLENNAN.

As you’ll know from my chapter about Hugh in Stories About Storytellers, I believe that this is his best novel,  and I’m delighted to have the chance to persuade CBC listeners to read it….or to read it again! Michael  is, of course, a superb interviewer, and I recall being surprised by what he drew out of me, about this book, and about Hugh’s role in creating our own literature.

I’ll be listening with keen interest. I hope you will, too.

MY NEW AUDIBLE BOOK

Great news!
The fine folks at ECW have just launched a new edition of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY.
It’s an Audible version of the entire book, narrated by me!
When I have more time I’ll tell you what every actor already knows, that reading aloud for an audience, emphasizing THIS word, but pausing softly over that one, is demanding, exhausting work, sentence after sentence, page after page. But when the author is the one doing the reading. you can rest assured that the proper, intended emphasis is coming out. Very interesting, and sometimes surprising.
In this case the reading runs for 16 hours and 29 minutes, so the digital recording’s price of $34.99 is reasonable.
You can order the audible book — for yourself, or family, or friends who’d enjoy it — by contacting this site: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/audiobook/across-canada-by-story-2 .
I hope that you (and maybe your carload on long journeys) will enjoy it. Good listening!