Throwing Books Through Flaming Hoops
Over a 48-hour period, Alex Boyd, award-winning writer and former host of the reading series at the IV Lounge (which closed its doors in the summer), and Chris Reed, bookseller and series coordinator for Pages Books & Magazines' This Is Not A Reading Series, interviewed each other about worldviews, educational reforms and how to captivate an audience of readers. The interview was conducted via e-mail on September 6th and 7th, 2008.
I see from the magic voyeurism of Facebook you describe your views as "Post-Punk Humanist," can you elaborate on that a little? And would you say it fits well with the philosophy behind This Is Not A Reading Series?
Why do I bill myself as a "post-punk humanist"? Like a lot of humanists these days, I demur at the monikers that have been in heavy rotation since around the time of Darwin: "scientific humanism" or "rationalism." Overall, I have more faith in reason than I do in authority or revelation. Importantly, however, I am uncomfortable with the notion that reason can provide the basis for morality. Instead, I feel we should be able to appeal to emotions or feelings. Also, I do not want to entirely close the door on the divine.
In other words, my position echoes that of Renaissance humanists. My neologism of sorts, "post-punk humanist," is an attempt to situate this worldview within my own cultural setting. It also underscores the generative potential of a Do It Yourself ethos. Seventeenth-century thinkers and vintage punks like Joe Strummer both created a new discourse by taking matters into their own hands.
This Is Not A Reading Series is an ongoing aesthetic experiment. Our events do not reflect a coherent philosophical position. Rather, they are motivated by two core beliefs. Firstly, readers want a sense of connection with writers. Tradition podium-based readings rarely provide them with one. Secondly, we believe that every individual has creative potential. We design our events to shed some light on the creative process behind a given text. In so doing, we hope to motivate others to embrace their own creativity. That people have the ability to do so is a basic tenet of humanism.
I notice that you do not categorize yourself on Facebook. How would you characterize your worldview? What is its relationship with the operative assumptions behind the IV Lounge Series?
I can certainly relate to borrowing what you want, in terms of forming a worldview. With so much information available to us these days, history is before us like some kind of um, tremendous salad bar, and we take what we want. Or more accurately, we take what appeals to us and what we believe in. Like some others (and I assume we agree on this), I prefer an educated mongrel to a devoted follower, though I also like to think a smart, thoughtful person can recognize that one religion is the right fit for them. I was raised Christian, but without really attending anything in the way of Sunday school, I got few details hammered into my head, and more of a general idea that we should treat others as we'd have them treat us, and the idea that a little reverence is good for you, and for the perspective. In recent years I've been more attracted to Buddhism for its awareness that everything is transient. It also has a somewhat more relaxed way of looking at the world, in terms of avoiding getting caught up in expectations, or as one book I read put it, "cycles of longing and loathing." That can be a good antidote to capitalism, which is of course all about trying to get folks caught up in certain kinds of longing and loathing.
As far as "traditional podium-based readings," I disagree that they rarely get through to an audience -- certainly a terrible reader doesn't have much success with it, but lose the podium (which always strikes me as a barrier of sorts), switch the setting to the IV Lounge reading series and you have something more intimate, as long as the reader can invest it with a little something that isn't found on the page, and the IV had a pretty good track record. When I hand my first book of poems to someone, I'm handing them fifty of the most intimate and meaningful things I've ever said. At the same time, I like the freshness behind This Is Not A Reading Series, and the idea of inventing new ways to promote and discuss books. I probably sound overly diplomatic, but I honestly think the city is richer for having both kinds of events, and I do plan to start a new series along the lines of the IV Lounge (though there will be some surprising changes).
I've appreciated the work TINARS has done, and I think it attacks a basic problem -- how do we market books in a way that makes them a trifle more appealing to the average person when there's so much for reading to compete with these days? It's important to find ways to market books as a pleasure, not a chore (which is something readers already know, of course), so if you can't have an intimate IV Lounge setting, something more inventive like your series works too.
At the same time, I wonder if we've both been attacking the symptom, rather than the bigger problem, and that's how do we get more folks reading again? We can throw books at people through flaming hoops, they still aren't going to be interested if they aren't readers, and I've met two people in the past year that told me without a hint of embarrassment they aren't readers. I think to get at the root of the problem, we need to change to way books are taught in schools. Students end up resenting reading if they hate what they read (and not only that, but what they read and then dwell on day after day). Been a while since I was in school, but I do wonder how teenagers are supposed to relate to an old lady in The Stone Angel -- better to have them reading Slaughterhouse Five, Day of the Triffids, or even something like Goldfinger along with an examination of how sexist and racist it is, and then once they're readers they'll find their way to works like Stone Angel in a lifetime of reading, would you agree? I know TINARS events don't involve readings, but are designed to be related to the book and author somehow -- I wonder if you've had much feedback on events and if it has given you any thoughts on how to market books and encourage readings. Would you say your favourite authors appeal to you for any particular reasons?
At the risk of sounding overly diplomatic myself, I have always considered This Is Not A Reading Series and the IV Lounge to be different sides of the same coin. IV Lounge is not part of the, for wont of a better term, traditional podium-based reading circuit. Indeed, the IV series has always struck me as a literary salon (not for the pretentious few but for the sort of writers who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty changing the ribbon on their printers). Part of this is due to the physical intimacy of the space. Another reason is that IV seems to attract people who value the literary process. They are the sort of folks whose voices will rise as they debate whether a particular line scans or the validity of a metaphor. Authors who want to read their work aloud are guaranteed a proper hearing.
Educational reforms would certainly foster a love of reading amongst the school-age set. What can we do to keep that love alive within the confines of our respective series? When it comes to encouraging folks to read, one of the most common bits of feedback that I get at This Is Not A Reading Series events runs something like, "I haven't read a book in a while, but tonight made me really want to read this one." Given that they are essentially paying us a compliment, I am loath to say "can you expand upon that?" What I glean from these comments is that people are motivated to pick up a book by the communal aspect of an event. The IV Lounge and TINARS provide people with the opportunity to meet with like-minded individuals. I recently heard about a venture by Penguin Group UK that takes this Book Club-style networking a few steps further. They have started a dating service. Singles are asked to write a paragraph about the last book they have read, and submit a list of their favourite titles and authors. Other singles can use these lists to determine whether or not they will be compatible with someone. Perhaps the IV and TINARS can start having singles nights - for the sake of fostering literacy, of course.
My "favourite" authors and books (and the reasons for which I value them) tend to shift with my obsessions and moods. How about what I have hand-sold over the past month or so at Pages?
The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Stunt by Claudia Dey; Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics In An Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe; After Theory by Terry Eagleton; Be Good by Stacey May Fowles; Lost & Found by Oliver Jeffers; Skim by Jillian & Mariko Tamaki; The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber; A Week Of This by Nathan Whitlock; and The Republic Of Pirates by Colin Woodard.
What did you look for in an author/title when you were programming the IV Lounge series? Do you plan to apply much the same criteria at your new series?
It's interesting to get an overview of the kind of thing people are asking for at Pages -- I was a bookseller for about four years, and miss having that close an idea of the sort of thing people looking for. Seems to be a decent mix of titles too. It's interesting that the communal experience helped a great deal, in terms of getting folks to actually buy a book when they wouldn't normally do it. Now that we're a few generations into the popularization of film and TV, it suggests people might be declining to read a little more, often because they can't consume it quite as fast, and as a result, share it quite as easily with others. Something of a disturbing trend, and yet a great many people still know books provide an experience nothing else can.
Running the IV was just a matter of getting sincerely dedicated writers out there, either published or promising, and sincere doesn't necessarily mean authors that I'm personally excited about... I tried to remember the series wasn't about my personal taste. I think the new series will do much the same thing, including both fiction and poetry and established and emerging writers, and no open stage. The main difference is that I'm not going to host the new series -- after more than five years I'm ready to have all my evenings back, so I'm arranging something that will be the same format, new host. Hope to be able to make an announcement on my site and blog before long.
The idea of marketing books together with dating is a... curious new approach. There's a fine line between fun new ways to market books, and slightly desperate ones. Maybe we can work books into support groups as well, sort of like "My name is Alex Boyd, and I watched too many X-Files episodes, but was saved by Arthur Conan Doyle books."
Speaking of Conan Doyle and bookstores, do you find genre books are getting more respect in bookstores these days, or are they still fairly dismissed? When I worked at a couple of bookstores in the nineties, the attitude was that H.G. Wells had gathered enough respect to be able to graduate from the science-fiction section to the fiction section, which I always found puzzling. He's clearly a science-fiction author. I was also curious to ask if authors would come up with their own ideas for something to do at TINARS. I never followed through on it with anyone, but as my poetry book is about time, change and mortality, I had the idea I'd dig my own grave. Ah, poets. We aren't serious at all.
The stigma associated with “genre fiction” has not faded entirely. For instance, corrupt cops, noble robbers, duplicitous spies, lusty vampires and misunderstood zombies now roam freely amongst the inhabitants of the Small Press and Literature sections at Pages. But characters in spacesuits or neo-medieval costumes are still largely quarantined within the Science Fiction section. Distinguishing "speculative" from "science" fiction can sometimes be a bit like splitting hairs. Why do we put many of JG Ballard’s titles on one shelf and those by William Gibson, Neil Gaiman or Phillip K Dick on another? Perhaps, as you say, in time they will all be alongside HG Wells. Also, what about those authors who straddle the line between fantasy and magic realism, like Haruki Murakami?
It’s funny that you mention wanting to dig a grave for the launch of your collection. I spent several weeks this summer trying to arrange just such an event for one of our fall titles, Charlie Wilkin’s memoir of working as a gravedigger, Land Of The Long Fingernails. Cemetery officials throughout the city are apparently inundated with strange requests. Even after I managed to convince them that we were on the level, it became clear that the amount of red tape involved in digging a grave is staggering. The City requires permits, liability insurance (in case we end up having to use the grave after all) and so forth. We decided to stage a haunted house.
The majority of the time we start with a book and shape the event in collaboration with the publicist and author. Where does this book sit on the cultural landscape? What are its major themes? Does the author have other talents? Are they also, say, a musician? Such questions usually get the ball rolling. We welcome authors bearing gift wrapped events. Sometimes their gifts require some assembly. If you came to me with your grave-digging launch idea, for example, we would likely have to work to find a workable alternative.
One of the hardest questions that we routinely have to answer is, "who will come to an event for this book?" (The folks who will buy the book at Pages are not necessarily those who will come out to a TINARS event for it) And, even more to the point: "Will we sell any books?” What makes these fundamental questions so tricky is the margin of error. We have staged events that, on paper, should be a roaring success but turn out to be learning experiences. Conversely, there are some events that exceed even our most optimistic expectations in terms of book sales. I'm sure you have done the same at the IV. Do you have any rules of thumb in this regard?
Hmm, yeah I continue to find genre snobbery frustrating -- and you're right, there are also those authors that can belong in various categories, which isn't a problem for the reading public, just for the bookseller.
I found the IV a trifle unpredictable, though mixing emerging writers with established did help with the turnout, because the newer writers will tend to invite lots of folks out of excitement, and the older writers, not so much. I was always kind of amazed when a writer showed up and said they invited one friend to the event. I guess there are all these other factors, like how much other stuff is happening on the same night, and so on. I had IV Lounge night when one of the authors treated it as a launch and sold twenty books, showing a short film and doing a reading. It was a great, celebratory atmosphere. Damn, I'll miss that. The sudden demise of the series this year makes me glad we at least did the IV Lounge Nights anthology, and I'm really happy with it (how's that for a subtle plug). Anyway, I imagine it's time to wrap this up. Nice chatting with you Chris, and all the best for your series -- very cool it has reached an anniversary this year.
I suppose the unpredictable nature of literary events is what makes programming them so interesting. If we didn't have flops, would we strive to improve our styles of presentation and promotion? (I dare say that we could endure the tedium of having nothing but one raging success after another).
Talking with you has been delightful. The IV Lounge Nights anthology is a wonderful archive. I look forward to hearing about the latest incarnation of your series.
Until then, all the best.