Sunday, December 6, 2015

Reading Animals and Eating Animals

Can literature change hearts and minds about real world issues? And can such effects be long-lasting? It is often assumed that novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed readers’ attitudes. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that this was so—and some have suggested that such novels may have facilitated change less by changing attitudes as by providing encouragement to the committed.

As part of a session at the NEMLA (Northeast MLA) conference in March 2016 (organized by Laura Struve and Ursula McTaggart and entitled "Literature that Sparks Social Change"), I'll be giving a paper that focuses on the degree to which the experience of reading Animals may have contributed to changes in attitudes and behavior for some readers. I'm hoping you may be willing to help.

I've now posted a short questionnaire on this topic that my partner, Maureen Okun, helped me put together. Responding should take no more than a couple of minutes; I'd be very grateful indeed if you may be willing to answer the 8 multiple choice questions. The questionnaire has been posted through Survey Monkey, and they will tabulate the responses. All answers are anonymous; neither nor anyone else will be able to see how you responded.

Here's the survey; I do hope you'll check it out!

Create your own user feedback survey

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Flattening the Past: The Recent Controversy over Woodrow Wilson as a Case in Point

Recent protests at Princeton concerning the ways in which that university honors Woodrow Wilson have elicited an extraordinarily vituperative response. The essentials of the case seem to be as follows: historical research has drawn attention to the prominent role Wilson played in purging the American civil service of African Americans (except from the most menial positions); in keeping any African American out of Princeton while he was president of that university; and in preventing the League of Nations from adopting a proposed racial equality principle. In response, some students at Princeton have demanded that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs be renamed, and that a Princeton residence named in Wilson’s honor also be renamed.

Predictably, many have rushed to attack the students—and in doing so have missed some of the most basic points about such debates about historical figures. Some declare vehemently that we must not try to “stamp out history”—as if the protesters were demanding that Wilson’s legacy not be discussed, rather than demanding he cease to be singled out for special honors at the institution. As Karen Attiah rightly put it in her November 25 Washington Post column on this topic,
Of course [such figures as Wilson and Cecil Rhodes] will never be erased from history; nor do they need to be. But in forcing their sins into the international limelight, universities, and society by extension, must reevaluate the lionizing of such men.
Others who attack the students’ demands emphasize the “nobody’s perfect” argument—pointing to the public and private flaws in everyone from George Washington to Martin Luther King, and suggesting that, by the protester’s logic, there is absolutely no one truly worthy of honoring.

While it is of course true that no one is without flaw, it is also true that, when we are judging public figures, large matters of public policy are more important than personal peccadilloes; that some have fewer flaws than others; that the achievements of some are greater than those of others; and, in the other direction, that the damage done by some is far greater than the damage done by others.

But how are we to judge fairly who should be honored and who is perhaps not so deserving of being honored? Another refrain of those attacking the Princeton students is that (to quote one comment in response to Attiah’s column), people such as the Princeton students must “stop demanding that historical figures be judged by the standards of today rather than by those of their own time.” One hears this said, of course, on almost every occasion when a historical figure is criticized for having been intolerant towards women, or towards those of other races, or towards gays and lesbians. The inference is often an extraordinarily simple one: that the past presents us with a flat picture, in which everyone in a given era (or at least every white male) was equally sexist, racist, and homophobic.

Let’s look at that assumption in the context of Woodrow Wilson’s attitudes about race. Did other American presidents of the time take a similar approach in dealing with African Americans in the civil service? Did other Ivy League universities in the early twentieth century act in much the same way as Princeton did under Wilson when it came to admitting African Americans as students?

The answer is in both cases a resounding no. Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt don't have a great record when it comes to African Americans and the civil service, but Wilson's is considerably worse. It’s worse as well than some of the oft-vilified Republican presidents of the 1920s; Calvin Coolidge, for example, apparently had a relatively good record in this area. Wilson’ racist policies as a university president during the years 1902-1910 also stand in contrast to others of his own era. African American students had by the first decade of the twentieth century been attending Harvard and Yale for more than twenty years; they were well established at Columbia as well. At Harvard African American women students were attending in sufficient numbers that they founded their own sorority in the first decade of the twentieth century.

It is with reference to facts such as those rather than purely “by the standards of today” that we should read Wilson’s refusal to allow even a single black student to enter Princeton. "The whole temper and tradition of the place,” he firmly declared of Princeton, “are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form." Wilson made very sure that the question indeed did not “assume practical form” during his tenure as university president—and it was not until the late 1940s, some seventy years after African Americans had begun to graduate from Harvard and Yale, that the same began to happen at Princeton.

Historical figures in any given era are not, in fact, all equally sexist and racist and homophobic; the past is not flat, and we should not try to make it so.

Nor should we feel obliged in perpetuity to pay special tribute to those who have been far more intolerant than others of their own era. The School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton will always have good reason to study Woodrow Wilson; surely they need not feel obliged to pay tribute to him.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rising Stories in Winnipeg

The final story in the appendices to Rising Stories: A Novel concerns the Sears Tower—and also the broad topic of the correlation that exists between great ages of the skyscraper and periods of tremendous inequality in various societies. Was that the case in Winnipeg? That was a question I found myself asking before I visited the city for a launch event at McNally Robinson’s bookstore last week. So far as I can tell, the historic early twentieth century period of extraordinary growth in Winnipeg (during which the fine towers of the Exchange District went up) was indeed a period of unusually high inequality. Levels of urban poverty and appalling factory conditions in the city are described by Pierre Berton in his history of the settling of the Canadian west (The Promised Land) as being worse than anywhere else in western Canada; people in much of the north of the city lived in hovels and, if they had employment, worked for 20-25 cents an hour, while on the south side the mansions of the rich became grander and grander. (A 2004 article by Dan Nerbas, “Wealth and Privilege: An Analysis of Winnipeg’s Early Business Elite,” details this.) And certainly the skyscrapers in Winnipeg dwarfed those in other cities of the Canadian prairie. The 1908 Grain Exchange Building in Winnipeg? 11 stories. The 1909-10 Grain Exchange in Calgary? Only 6 stories. At that time, Winnipeg had taller skyscrapers than Calgary, and also higher levels of inequality.

* * *

Rising Stories touches on the notion that Winnipeg during the early decades of the twentieth century was “the Chicago of the North.” I confess I had thought of this historical moniker as being uncontroversial, but as I was doing a bit more research before last week’s Winnipeg event I came across a Brent Bellamy column in the August 25, 2014 Winnipeg Free Press that took issue with the whole concept. As Bellamy points out, Winnipeg skyscrapers in the early twentieth century arose though a good many connections to architects from New York and elsewhere, as well as from connections to Chicago architects. The Exchange District as a whole is often today characterized as “Chicago Style” or “Chicago School,” and Bellamy is I think right that such a description is problematic. (I think it’s also worth noting the degree to which Chicago and New York architects from the period are not discreet categories; before Frederick Dinkelberg designed the Jewelers’ Building in Chicago he had designed the Flatiron (aka the “Fuller Building”)in New York. After Raymond Hood designed the faux Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower in Chicago he went on to design Art Deco and modernist towers in New York. And so on.)

I would argue, though, that the best of the towers in Winnipeg’s Exchange District are in fact strongly influenced by the Chicago style. If the terms "Chicago School" or "Chicago Style" architecture from the early twentieth century are to mean anything, it is surely that, in addition to a steel frame and a cornice, a skyscraper will have large windows to let in the light (this made possible by the walls not needing to support the building’s weight); and the windows will be in groups, with vertical elements between the window groupings that emphasize the building’s height. A skyscraper such as the Union Bank Tower on Winnipeg's Main Street, by this definition, is not Chicago Style; there is no vertical element, and the windows are small and evenly spaced. Nor does the Grain Exchange fit the description of a Chicago Style tower.

Union Bank Building

The Lindsay Building, on the other hand, or the Confederation Life Building, or the Union Trust Building—all, to my eye, more attractive skyscrapers than the Union Bank Building—do indeed fit the “Chicago Style” description.

Lindsay Building

Confederation Life Building

More than the buildings themselves, of course, was the spirit of the city. People called Winnipeg the Chicago of the North not just because some of its skyscrapers resembled some of the skyscrapers in Chicago, but because they felt the bustling spirit of the railway town that was the Canadian gateway to the west resembled that of the railway town that filled the same role in America. The comparison certainly would not be apt today—and I guess that was a large part of Bellamy’s point in his Free Press piece. But in the 1910s or 1920s or 1930s? My guess is that the expression “Chicago of the North” captured something real; both were growing up in similar ways, and growing up fast.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

P.K. Page and Rising Stories

The initial idea for Rising Stories came to me in December of 2009 as Maureen and I were reading a letter to the Globe and Mail about the sorts of imaginary worlds that children discover when they go through doors in magical closets or down magical rabbit holes. What sort of world would we imagine for ourselves if we were writing such a story? The thought came to me of a child pressing the buttons of one of the elevators in a skyscraper; rows of additional numbers suddenly appear—and magically, those additional stories turn out to be real.

But what or who would be up there?

I’m not entirely sure how or why I came to think within a few months of someone like P.K. Page inhabiting this magical world—but if I put my mind into analytic rather than imaginative mode I can think of a few possibilities. The rising stories of the skyscraper are from one angle a metaphor for growing up, and that growing up in which physical growth mirrors mental growth is followed (if we’re lucky) by growth of a different and purely invisible sort—the growth of mind, of feeling, of wisdom. From this angle it makes a certain sort of sense for the child to travel up to find a very old person in a space that you can't at first see.

In the case of K.P. in Rising Stories, there is a further wrinkle, quite aside from the question of whether or not the story on which she lives is real: it is not at all clear that she is real. Robin remembers at one point that she has died: is the person Robin meets in her apartment on the 86th story a ghost? Or some other sort of magical figure? Or simply a figment of Robin’s imagination, and Robin’s memory?

(As an aside here, I might mention that, at about Robin's age, I had a similar experience involving the death of an aunt. I think I had felt guilty for not having sent her a thank-you note or some such thing; when I was told that she had died I pushed the information from my mind, preferring to think of her as still alive; I did not "remember" that she was in fact dead for many months.)

P.K. Page died on January 14, 2010. You would not think that the death of someone in her 94th year would inspire shock and a tremendous sense of loss. If you make it to your 93rd birthday still able to get around a little and with your wits more or less about you, (as P.K. certainly had most of hers), and you die a death that does not entail prolonged and horrendous physical pain, we generally think it has to be counted good news—a good end to a good life. The fact that I (and I’m sure many others) nevertheless did feel a very powerful pull in the heart on the news of her death, a feeling of pained shock as well as deep sadness, attests to the extraordinary warmth of feeling P.K. inspired—and also, I suppose, to her having come to seem almost ageless. Of course she looked old in her last few years, but far less old than she was. And she retained an extraordinary vitality, as well as real elegance—an elegance not at all the product of fancy clothes or jewelry or makeup. “In the strangest of ways, she was beautiful” is what Robin thinks when the door opens.

P.K. was a well-known painter as well as an acclaimed poet, and I wanted the story of a painter to be part of Rising Stories.

As well, I may have thought of P.K. in part because she represented to me bookends of my own experience. She had known my family in the 1950s in Ottawa, when both her husband and my father worked in the Department of External Affairs, and I was a very small child—too young to remember her. Roughly fifty years later, as a book publisher, I contacted P.K. about her inclusion in an anthology and she encouraged me to be in touch if I ever came to Victoria. I did exactly that, and between 2005 and 2009 paid her visits on several occasions when I was in the city. She would always welcome me with a strong gin and tonic, but take vodka herself; she explained that she would prefer gin but that, for some medical reason, vodka had come to agree with her more in her old age. (Those who have read Rising Stories may at this point be reminded that, although Robin never sees K.P. eating anything, the child does comment on the “colorless liquid” that she drinks.) And she would always provide wonderful conversation—about aging and about love, about the oddities of the human spirit, and of course about writing books—mostly the many books she was still writing, for children as well as for adults, but also my own Animals, which she was kind enough to read in manuscript, and which (as she later wrote) led her to give up eating meat.

The character of K.P. in Rising Stories is inspired by P.K., not based on her. The story of collapsing skyscrapers in Brazil is lifted from P.K.'s Brazilian Journal, and P.K. did say (as K.P. does) that she felt she had aged more in her 91st year than all the other 90 put together. But I don’t believe P.K. was particularly interested in skyscrapers—and she had no more lived in one than I ever have. She was a painter of a very different sort than is K.P. And K.P.’s voice is not that of P.K., either, though I do think there are echoes of the one in the other. I hope to always hear those echoes.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Against Our Way of Celebrating Thanksgiving

[Canadian Thanksgiving is over for another year; American Thanksgiving approaches. The piece below--a short work of speculative dystopian fiction rather than a conventional essay--is not specific to either one of these. The year is 2215, and the gniebs now control earth; the gnieb who is the author of the essay below is addressing the issue of what moral status should be accorded the creatures who were once themselves the dominant species on the planet---the humas, as they are now referred to.

The story was published recently in The Navigator. ]
Oct 20, 2215

I know this will be an unpopular argument: I want to speak out against something we have come to accept as part of our community values, as part of our traditions of sharing.

Some may say the matter I bring before you is a trivial one, one that pales beside the great issues of our day. Scientists warn that our “progress” has put at risk our great forests, our waterways, our atmosphere—indeed, almost every part of our environment. Increasingly, we are told that a war involving the entire planet is a real possibility. In the big picture, you may say, can it seriously be suggested that the condition of our food animals is an issue meriting our attention?

This is where I beg to differ. Rest assured, I am no extremist: I make no call for the food animals to be “freed” or for we gniebs to eat nothing but plants. There is simply no case to be made for radical views of that sort. That’s an obvious point, perhaps, but let us not forget the evidence on which it is based. Following the conquest, test after test after test established beyond a doubt that the intelligence level of gniebs is far above that of humas—so much so that it would be ludicrous to suggest that humas be accorded the same moral status as gniebs. And of course no responsible person does suggest they be accorded such status: I mention all this merely in order to make it abundantly clear that, in what I am about to say, I am no extremist. Though I will in a moment be defending the “interests” of humas—I would not for a moment suggest they be accorded “rights.”

These preliminaries dispensed with, let me go directly to the main point. If there is one thing in this culture on which all parties may relied on to agree, it is the value of community—and of sharing. For neighbors to show respect and consideration for each other—to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to work together to keep neighborhoods clean and safe for our children, to support local initiatives as much as national and international ones, to extend a welcome to families new to the neighborhood. And, of course, for gniebs of all backgrounds to gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. That is for us a central ritual—a ritual that honors our shared history and all that we share in our national community, that honors as well the community that goes beyond national borders, and that honors the sanctity of life itself.

There are of course those who believe that the values of individual striving are more important than those of community—but no one is against community, no one is against sharing. The left will always put a different twist on the idea than does the right, of course. To those on the right the values of community and of sharing are more a matter of tradition; those on the left put more emphasis on sharing as a form of egalitarianism. But no one is against sharing per se.

I declare myself here and now to be against one form of sharing. I am opposed to the very foundation on which our tradition of Thanksgiving dinner has come to rest. More specifically—and I do want to be specific—I am opposed to the cruelty that underlies our treatment of the humas, whose consumption has become such a central part of our ritual of sharing at Thanksgiving.

When we conquered this planet all those centuries ago—and in the process, it seems safe to say, saved the humas from extinction—we gniebs were faced with a set of very difficult questions. Perhaps the most difficult was how to deal with the humas, who had themselves been so dominant for so long. Should we simply consign them wholesale to oblivion, as they themselves, whether through negligence of through willful slaughter, had often consigned their own inferiors—from Beothuk to Bo to Bororo, from auk to passenger pigeon to rhinoceros. Or should we make a place for them in what would now become a better world—a world of gnieban values, of gnieban striving, of gnieban sharing?

We chose the second, of course. Humas were not subjected to wholesale slaughter. They were raised to be productive throughout their useful lives; huma life was put into the service of higher values.

But at what cost? Here it is essential to distinguish between the practices of our ancestors and those that have become prevalent in our own day. When gniebs first domesticated the humas we treated them well—virtually every authority is agreed on that point. (Too well, many might say.) Their lives might be taken and their blood spilled, but as a rule that occurred at the end of their productive lives—and/or in harmony with the natural cycles of harvest and of thanksgiving. Throughout their productive lives they were treated with dignity, even with kindness, in some sense as fellow creatures. They tilled our soil, they tended our crops—and, at the end of their productive lives, their meat graced our tables, and we gave thanks together for the sacrifice of their lives.

Is there anything that can equal the sense of true sharing that comes at Thanksgiving time? Family and friends gathered around the table to celebrate the season, and to give thanks for that sacrifice. Its value is deeply moral, but deeply spiritual as well—even those of us such as myself who belong to no organized religion can sense the spiritual significance of that sacrifice, that sharing. I may even suggest that such traditions extend to the animals themselves, the animals who share themselves with us. We cannot understand their gibberish, of course, but perhaps we may imagine their own gratitude—imagine their own sense of sharing themselves, in gratitude for having been given fruitful lives, lives without suffering. It is to honor that tradition, not to sully it that I ask you to remember how those humas in bygone days were treated throughout their productive lives—with dignity, even with kindness, as our fellow creatures.

And their milk? That is arguably a more complex question, but once the nutritionists weighed in and informed us of how healthful humas’ milk was compared to our own, we could hardly be blamed for arranging a system such as that which survives to the present day. (Humas themselves, of course, are known to have put into place a very similar system with a four-legged species that is believed to have become extinct not long before our arrival on the planet.) By removing the young from the mother, she may be induced to produce more milk, which the superior species may then consume. The young are of course the unfortunate victims of the process, but so long as their end is brought about quickly and without cruelty, there can be no ethical objection—any more than there can be any reasonable objection to ending any huma life quickly and without cruelty.

The problem with all this—at long last I come to the main point—is that we have not held to these values. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Under the name of “tradition” we bring to the table humas that are nothing like the humas of old. I leave to one side the matter of taste—though I confess I can find nothing in the taste of today’s factory farmed huma to compare with the sweet and slightly gamy taste that I can still remember from when I was young. But it is not taste that should concern us—it is morality. Readers may not wish to know the truth, but know it they should. Today’s humas live lives that are hideous to contemplate. They are no longer to be seen in the open fields, of course, where robotic devices now perform almost every task once assigned to humas. We no longer see them. They live behind closed doors in vast sheds, cramped, confined, and generally in chains; it is only for their milk and flesh that we value them now. The udders of those bred for the dairy industry—their breasts, as once we called them—are painfully distended as a result of the way we have bred them, bred them to produce more and more milk that can be sold at lower at lower prices. So too the bellies of those bred to gain weight quickly and reach the table as soon as possible; the weight we have bred into them is intensely painful to carry.

There is more, much more—I believe that most of you who are reading this may have some dim awareness of everything I'm speaking of, a dim awareness you would perhaps rather push from your conscious mind. I sympathize with your desire not to know the details; I do not want to paint for you an endless series of pictures of suffering animals wallowing in their own excrement—animals that are bound in due course for our dinner tables. It is enough to be aware of the general picture.

Once we know that, it is surely unconscionable not to take some action. To be blunt, it is unconscionable to continue to eat these products of cruelty. If we are to continue, on this and on every Thanksgiving, to glorify the harvest and to accept with grace the humas sacrificed at this special time, we must honor the traditions some of us remember from the time when we were young, when meat and milk were not the products of cruelty, when the traditions of sharing and of sacrifice did not entail needless suffering on the part of humas or of other animals, imposed through our own cruelty, throughout the full duration of their lives. We must return to the practices of the past—to a time when we could eat Thanksgiving dinner with a clear conscience, knowing we were consuming the products of kindness rather than of cruelty. We owe it to the animals; even more importantly, we owe it to ourselves.

“But what of the poor?” I hear some of you say. I own this to be a serious problem. If it is the case (as I believe it to be) that the mistreatment of humas has led to great reductions in the prices of animal foodstuffs, what are we do about prices if conditions for humas are ameliorated—if the efficiencies of breeding and of mechanization are rolled back, if the animals are allowed to lead more or less natural lives up until slaughter? If no other measures are taken, that could surely place an intolerable burden on the poor.

Of those who accept my case that we must address the cruelties that have become part and parcel of modern farming, there are no doubt a few who will say forget about the poor. They have only themselves to blame for their poverty, and they deserve no better. There are surely a few at the other end of the political spectrum who will say we should eat lentils and leaves, all of us, nothing but lentils and leaves; we should leave the humas and all the other animals alone. We need not adopt either of these ludicrous extremes: let me propose a sensible middle ground. Just as it would be unreasonable to insist we all get our protein from legumes rather than from meat and milk, it would be unreasonable to insist that the poor do so. But let us recognize that eradicating cruelty to humas cannot be done for free; the meat and the dairy products will all have to carry higher prices—and that, unless we provide subsidies, the poor will indeed bear that burden disproportionately. That, then, is exactly what we should do—provide income assistance to those who require it. Such subsidies will prevent the poor from slipping into worse poverty, while allowing the animals—the huma animals—to live lives that are no longer filled with endless suffering.

So there it is—a modest proposal for our families, for our communities, and for our world to depart from today’s traditions of sharing and of thanksgiving by returning to an older set of traditions, a set of traditions that did not rest, as ours does today, on an unacknowledged foundation of cruelty.

No, this is not so important an issue as that of how to avoid war, or how to save our environment from destruction. But if we are to judge ourselves as superior to the other creatures—morally superior, not simply more intelligent—then we must listen to our better selves. We must refrain from unnecessary cruelty. We must reject the false tradition of sharing that is reliant on that cruelty. We must return to the great traditions of sharing and of sacrifice that were once the foundation of our society. We can—and we must—re-establish gnieban society on that great tradition of true sharing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Copyright, the TPP, and the Canadian Election

The message below was composed with the Broadview Press e-list in mind (and sent earlier today). I'll post it here as well, in the hope that it may be of interest to others.
Late last week it became known that the TPP trade agreement would significantly increase copyright restrictions in Canada.

Let me begin by filling in a bit of the background for those who may not be aware of it. The 1990s were a time of triumph for the many large corporations who continually seek to extend copyright restrictions. In 1995 the UK (along with the rest of the European Union) increased the duration of copyright from 50 to 70 years following the death of the author. In 1998, pressed by the Disney Corporation and others, the US followed suit, increasing the duration of copyright in America to 95 years after publication (for works published in 1978 or earlier) and to 70 years following the death of the author (for works published thereafter). Later, Australia and other nations also moved from 50 to 70 years.

But a few holdouts in the developed world remained—Canada and New Zealand among them—and as we have moved further into the twenty-first century it has sometimes seemed that the tide might be turning. More and more people have argued that it is both unwise and unfair to keep works from entering the public domain for more than three generations following an author’s death. Copyright restrictions have an undeniable value when they allow authors to control the rights to their works and to be compensated for the time that has gone into the creative process. Copyright also ensures that publishers are able to justify their investments in the publication and promotion of new books; without the temporary grant of an exclusive copyright license there would be little incentive to create new works. But copyright has always been intended as a temporary license that must be balanced against the public good of a public domain. Unlimited, or excessively long, copyright terms have often kept scholars from publishing (or even obtaining access to) material of real historical or cultural significance. They have severely restricted certain options for university teaching as well. Broadview’s editions of Mrs. Dalloway and of The Great Gatsby (edited by Jo-Ann Wallace and by Michael Nowlin, respectively), for example, are to my mind unrivalled. Each includes far more than just the text itself: explanatory notes, extended introductions, and an extraordinary range of helpful and fascinating background material in a series of appendices. They offer a truly distinctive pedagogical option. But instructors and students in the USA are still not allowed access to those editions.

Currently, we at Broadview are looking at publishing similar editions of works by other authors who have been dead for more than 50 but fewer than 70 years—works such as Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, for example; a Broadview edition of such works, with the appendices of contextual materials that are a feature of almost every Broadview edition, would provide highly valuable context for students at all levels. We are also looking forward to January 1, 2016, when we will finally be able to make the superb Broadview edition of The Waste Land and other Poems—with its excellent explanatory notes and extensive range of background material on modernism—available in Canada. (Eliot died in 1965.)

Until now Canada’s government has insisted that it would retain a “made-in Canada” copyright policy. This past week, though, it signed the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Nowhere in the information made public by the Canadian government about the TPP are we informed of any change in the 50-year rule. Last Friday, however, the text of the intellectual property provisions was leaked; it has now been revealed that the TPP agreement will force Canada and other countries that had resisted the push toward longer copyright restrictions to fall into line with the American and European Union standards. (The news was revealed on the blog of law professor Michael Geist, with whom I’ve often disagreed over other copyright issues—notably, the appropriate interpretation of the education-related provisions of the Canadian Copyright Act—but to whom we are I think indebted in this instance. See . Here is a link to the full text of the intellectual property provisions in the TPP agreement: )

If the legislatures of the governments involved ratify the agreement, the public domain will be cut back by a full 20 years in Canada, New Zealand, and Malaysia; those countries will be forced to extend copyright restrictions from 50 to 70 years following the death of the author.

If the TPP is approved in Canada, then, say goodbye to those Orwell and Eliot editions. Indeed, given that the application would appear to be retroactive in Canada, say goodbye to a number of books that we’ve been making available in Canada for some time already; we at Broadview will have to take them off the market until the authors have been dead for the full 70 years. The newly-published Broadview editions of Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs and The Tunnel? It seems likely that we would be forced to take them out of circulation in Canada until 2027; though the works were published in 1915 and 1919 respectively, Richardson died in 1957.

Looking forward, how significant would the effect be? Let’s look at just one year—at some of the authors who died in 1970, and some of the classic works they published. Among them are Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929); E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, first published in 1924; and Bertrand Russell (author of The Problems of Philosophy, first published in 1912). Under the current law, we could publish Broadview editions of these works on January 1, 2021; even the current law, in other words, creates an effective monopoly in these cases for roughly a century after initial publication. If the TPP is approved, the situation becomes far more extreme. Each of these early twentieth-century works would not enter the public domain in Canada until at least 2040.

And for scholars seeking to publish historically important hitherto-unpublished material that might be controversial and that, for whatever reason, a copyright holder might prefer to keep under wraps? The new rule would be 70 years from date of creation. The Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris died in 1970; under current Canadian law it will become possible to make any of his unpublished papers available to the public at the end of 2020. Under the TPP, a Lawren Harris letter from 1969 that his estate did not wish to see enter the public domain could remain under wraps until the end of 2040.

Everyone has heard a great deal of the TPP provisions regarding auto parts and dairy products. Yet we have been told nothing of a change so important as this on copyright; no doubt the Canadian government is aware that it would not improve its already-low standing in the polls by announcing more restrictive copyright laws.

How many other hidden provisions are there in the TPP? The Canadian election is in less than a week, and we have no idea.

I should perhaps own that I was a supporter (in some respects a reluctant supporter, but a supporter nonetheless) of both the 1988 Free Trade Agreement and the subsequent NAFTA treaty involving Mexico, the US, and Canada. I cannot support the TPP. Justin Trudeau says that he and the Liberals are neither for nor against this deal. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will continue to defend it vigorously without telling Canadians all the specifics of what is in it. For Canadians opposed to the TPP there are two options available; both the Greens and the New Democrats have come out against the deal. Of these, of course, only the New Democrats have a realistic chance of forming (or being part of) a government.

I now know how I will be voting on October 19.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Let's Refuse to Give Mass Murderers the Publicity They Crave

John Hanlin is the sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon, where last Thursday's mass murder of at least nine people took place. He took an extraordinary stance after the killings:
Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter. I will not give him credit for this horrific act.... [I encourage the media to] "avoid using [the shooter's name], repeating it, or engaging in any glorification and sensationalizing of him. ... He in no way deserves it. Focus your attention on the victims and their families and helping them to recover.
Hanlin is surely right--and not only as a matter of what the shooter and his victims deserve. It's also a matter of deterring future such acts. As Doug Saunders ("Lone Wolf" - The Globe and Mail, Oct. 25, 2014) and various others have pointed out, sensational acts of violence are often in large part motivated by a hope on the part of a mentally deranged person that the violent act will make him (it is almost always a him) famous. The Oregon shooter was quite explicit about this. In the message he left for the world before committing his heinous act he commented on the perpetrator of the recent TV station murders in Virginia:
I have noticed that people like him are all alone and unknown,, yet when they spill a little blood, , the whole world knows who they are. ... Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.
And we play right along. After reporting on Friday morning the sheriff's plea not to name the shooter, NPR named the shooter. In the front page article quoting the shooter's comments about killing people to get "in the limelight," The New York Times published his name and picture.

From the assassinations of a long line of politicians, to the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, to the Columbine High School killings, to the Utøya island mass murder in Norway in 2011, and through to the events in Oregon last week, we keep splashing the names and photos of the killers across our front pages and our television screens. Why can we not simply say, “The killer, whose name cannot be revealed, was a 26-year old Caucasian with a history of instability and an avowed dislike of organized religion." No name, no photo, and no chance of becoming famous through committing deranged acts of violence. If news organizations feel they have a responsibility to dig deeper, fine. But do so without revealing the name, without publishing the picture. Surely that's not too much to ask.

Our laws already recognize one important circumstance (youthful offenders) that we regard as providing sufficient justification to trump freedom-of-speech principles when it comes to revealing names; it’s time to add another.

But even if legislators can't manage to change the laws governing media coverage, the media themselves can start to behave responsibly--act in the way that Sheriff John Hanlin recommends, not in the way that the mass murderers are counting on.

[NB Part of the above also appeared in "Remaining Nameless," which was posted in this blog following last October's attack on the Canadian parliament.]

Friday, September 4, 2015

Population Growth and the Economy

Amid all the talk of how serious Canada's recession during the first two quarters of 2015 actually was, one point seems never to be mentioned--population growth. Given that Canada's population is growing at an average of 1.1% per year, the economy needs to grow at at least 1.1% a year just to stay in the same place on a per capita basis.

We are now told that Canada's economy shrank on an annualized basis by 0.8 % in the first quarter and 0.5% in the second quarter--by 1.3% on an annualized basis overall, in other words. But factor in population growth: on a per-capita basis that's a decline in GDP of 2.4%.

Sure, this recession seems to have been not particularly deep compared to some in the past. But to suggest that a per capita 2.4% economic decline is a mere technicality is to significantly distort the facts.

The point is one that deserves to be made whenever GDP figures are released--though the effect it draws attention to will not always move the numbers in the same direction. In a country such as Japan, for example, population is now falling by about 0.2% annually; calculating the per-capita rate of GDP growth in such circumstances requires an upward rather than a downward adjustment to the raw figure.

Regardless of the direction, it would be a healthy development if, whenever GDP figures are released by a country, statisticians routinely provided the equivalent as a per capita figure.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Long Sentence and the Freight Train

As the co-author of a guide to writing and as someone who has spent close to forty years in academic publishing, I’ve seen a lot of misinformation doled out about writing in the English language—and no doubt I’ve doled out a fair bit of it myself. But I ran into something this week that sets a whole new standard when it comes to misinformation. It’s a discussion of long sentences that may be found in a new offering from Oxford University Press Canada (where—full disclosure—I began by career in publishing in the 1970s and early 1980s). The book is a writing textbook entitled Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing. Written by Duncan Koerber and Guy Allen (respectively of the Writing Department at York University and the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga), the book is praised in advance reviews by other composition instructors as a text applicable both to expository and to creative writing. Here’s what Koerber and Allen have to say about long sentences:
Long sentences have their own unique effect. They’re loosely structured so they’re inherently ambient and atmospheric. They’re impressionistic. They’re useful for depicting dreams, experiences of drug and alcohol abuse, intense emotion, and observational scene setting. They’re often called freight train sentences.
I know just what Koerber and Allen are talking about here; as a fiction writer given to the free indirect style, I use many such sentences. Here’s one from the first chapter of Rising Stories: A Novel:
Carol could see that Robin was close enough to grab hold of Hope, that Hope would not fall, that Hope would not die, that life could be as it had been and that never again would she leave them alone and that never again would she and Carl…, it would be all right, Robin’s hand was there, Robin was in time, Robin’s hand was at Hope’s and Hope was taking the hand.
Sentences such as this in fiction can be an effective means of conveying a character’s train of thought—and sometimes that train is indeed a very long freight train.

But Koerber and Allen don’t specify that their generalizations are meant to apply to a certain sort of long sentence only. Quite the opposite. Their claim is that long sentences are “inherently” like this; later in the same section of the book they make it very plain that what they are saying as to the “rambling, flowing feeling” of long sentences applies to long sentences in expository writing too—including academic writing.

Anyone who has read anything of seventeenth- or eighteenth- or nineteenth-century expository prose in English knows that this is rubbish, of course. For a writer such as Samuel Johnson, the long sentence is a means not so much of expressing rambling and dream-like impressions as of organizing ideas. Much as his sentences are often long, they are anything but “loosely structured” or “inherently ambient and impressionistic”:
The desires of man increase with his acquisitions; every step which he advances brings something within his view, which he did not see before, and which, as soon as he sees it, he begins to want. Where necessity ends, curiosity begins; and no sooner are we supplied with everything that nature can demand, than we sit down to contrive artificial appetites. By this restlessness of mind, every populous and wealthy city is filled with innumerable employments, for which the greater part of mankind is without a name; with artificers, whose labour is exerted in producing such petty conveniences, that many shops are furnished with instruments of which the use can hardly be found without inquiry, but which he that once knows them quickly learns to number among necessary things.
But perhaps complex structures and complex ideas in a long sentence are a thing of yesteryear; perhaps in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries we have moved beyond that stuffy old balance and parallelism. If so, someone forgot to tell acclaimed scholarly writers such as Martha Nussbaum:
I now return to Whitman, for I have come round to several themes that lie at the heart of his poetry: the pain of social exclusion; the relationship between the exclusion of the homosexual and other exclusions based on gender and religion and race; the interest all citizens have in liberty, erotic and otherwise; and the importance of fostering a rationality that can “see into“ that interest, with what Whitman called the poet’s “soul of love and tongue of fire.”
And someone forgot to tell Barack Obama:
We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag; to the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner; to the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president.
Granted, much expository prose today reads as if the writers take for granted what Koerber and Allen say about the long sentence being inherently rambling and loosely structured. In some cases, even tenured academics in English departments have shown themselves to be capable of such writing. “Loosely structured” would be a kind description of the following passage, which betrays virtually no awareness of the generally accepted conventions governing punctuation and grammar in English.
Like a status update on Facebook, the book that we carry signals who we are – or, rather, to be Lacanian, it functions in the imaginary realm as our image. And – why not? – we can indeed carry out a full tripartite Lacanian analysis of the role of the middlebrow text: in the imaginary, the book signals who we would like others to think we are: literary but not too literary, not a pointy-headed academic; in terms of the symbolic, the text can only have that meaning in a system of literary difference, of signifiers, of being neither lowbrow trash nor highbrow obscurity; then, in terms of the real, the inaccessible raw stuff of life, the book is still a commodity, a manufactured object of paper and ink and glue which, if we can’t make out the title or, from far off, even what the object is, has no meaning whatsoever. (Clint Burnham, “Middlebrow Lit and the End of Postmodernism,” in Paul Budra and Clint Burnham, eds., From Text to Txting: New Media in the Classroom [2012])
Writing in the same volume, Philip A. Klobucar has his own problems with long sentences. Here he is discussing the fact that film-based media have become much more varied in the digital world:
These new signifying forms continue to elude common genre-based approaches in arts criticism, upending the very concept of the film arts as exclusive practices to include creative work in broadcasting, software production, and cellular data networks, not to mention critical studies in information economics, globalization, and science and technology theory.
And here he is again, discussing scholarly work that has called for investigations of literary modernism to take into account material changes—new uses of type, and so on:
Specific to the first decade of the twenty-first century, writers Steve McCaffery (Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics), Barrett Watten (The Constructivist Moment, 2003), and Darren Wershler-Henry (The Iron Whim, 2005) all contend to varying degrees that research into experimental literary formalisms of the modernist period must consider changes in media technology – especially as they pertain to new typographic environments – to appreciate fully the aesthetic challenges posed by poets like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Laura Riding Jackson, among others, to more traditional verse forms. Such studies tend to be categorized within the literary arts as material histories, acknowledging how different modes of representation in terms of media technology and design help determine a work’s cultural meaning. (Philip A Klobucar, "The ABCs Of Viewing: Material Poetics and the Literary Screen," in Paul Budra and Clint Burnham, eds., From Text to Txting: New Media in the Classroom [2012])
Where to begin in critiquing prose such as this? If these are "freight train sentences," the trains in question are all either off the rails or in imminent danger of derailing. These are indeed "loosely structured" long sentences--and they are also unclearly structured. Let’s look at some of the verbal forms here. What does the participle “upending” connect to in the first quotation? It must be the “new signifying forms.” But in that case the forms are eluding one thing at the same time as they are upending another. What about the infinitive “to include”? What is doing the including? Those forms are at it again—eluding one thing as they upend another thing and include many other things, all in the same sentence. What about the participle “acknowledging” in the second quotation? Who is doing the acknowledging? Grammatically it must be the studies doing the acknowledging—yet the substance of the sentence suggests that it is those who categorize the studies as “material histories” who are doing the acknowledging. The participle “acknowledging,” in other words, is dangling, with no grammatical connection to its actual subject.

If Koerber and Allen have read a great many long sentences of this variety in their academic careers, they may perhaps be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that a long sentence is by its very nature loosely structured. Certainly their textbook—brand-new as it is—cannot have contributed to the evident lack of understanding among certain of today’s academics as to how to create highly structured, finely balanced, and readily comprehensible long sentences in expository writing. And I would argue in any case that, in any first edition of a textbook, the authors should be forgiven if they take a wrong turn or two. (Certainly there was a good deal to be forgiven in the first edition of The Broadview Guide to Writing—which, I should make clear, was written before co-authors Doug Babington and Maureen Okun came on board.) But what of textbooks that are now in their seventh or eighth editions, and that have been ubiquitous on college and university campuses over the past generation? To be more specific, what of “the Hacker”—A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker (together with Nancy Sommers for recent editions)? There is surely a case to be made that the most influential writing handbook of the past twenty-five years should shoulder some of the blame for today’s defects in academic writing in general—and, in particular, for the ways in which many academics have become accustomed to structuring long sentences. But that’s a subject for another day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

African American Leaders

This is the full text of a letter I sent to the Globe and Mail just over a week ago; a slightly trimmed version was published in the Tuesday August 18 edition of the Globe.
Margaret Wente laments the lack of a Martin Luther King-like figure among African Americans today—someone who would “preach a narrative of hope and forgiveness” and believe that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”(White America Dons the shroud of Guilt—August 15). If he did exist, Wente insists, “no one would listen to him.”

Interestingly, the greatest moderate African American leader today has that very quotation woven into a rug in his office. Perhaps Wente missed the widely-reported eulogy he delivered at the recent Charleston memorial service, a speech praised as one of the most moving and important ever made on the subject of race in America. But has she heard nothing of the eloquence over the past many years of the greatest moderate African American leader since King? Does she not know that he not only exists but has for seven years been President of the United States of America? How could someone have missed this?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Rising Stories and Second Hand Memories

When I was young, the worlds my parents had inhabited before I was born seemed strange and impossibly distant. The 1930s and 1940s were a world that had to be imagined, not a real one. And imagining it was no easy business.

It’s hard to be sure exactly when that changed—and how and why it changed. As the years went by I listened to my parents’ stories (especially, my mother’s stories) more and more, and found I enjoyed hearing more and more about the 1930s and 1940s, and was almost beginning to “feel” something of those decades myself. By the time I was into my forties and early fifties (in the 1980s and 1990s), there was no question about it anymore; the world had not begun in 1954.

Is one’s capacity for this sort of strongly connected historical imagination simply a matter of getting older oneself? Might it in some small part also have to do with having reached the age your parents were when you were young—and/or having children yourself, or interacting with children a good deal?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know that I am curious to find out if my strongly connected historical imagination will start to extend further backwards in time as I become older (and, perhaps, have grandchildren). Will the stories my grandfather told to his grandchildren in the 1960s and 1970s start to become much more palpably real? Will the 1890s become as real for me as the 1930s and 1940s have now become?

The relevance of all this to Rising Stories is of course the part of the book in which K.P’s life in Winnipeg and Chicago in the late 1930s is recounted. I was interested to find that writing about that era now comes entirely naturally to me; it feels real in a way I can directly connect to (as the Edwardian era or the Victorian era does not).

I wonder if it might be fruitful to look at historical fiction as falling into one of three categories. In one category—historical fiction that the author bases at least in part on first-hand memories—we may put works such as Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (set in the 1840s, when Hardy was a young child), and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (published in 1921 but set in the 1890s, when Wharton was in her thirties). In a second category we may put works that may be based at least in part on the sort of second-hand memories we build from what our parents or others of their generation have told us. In that category we would put, for example, Tolstoy’s War and Peace (written in the 1860s, when Tolstoy was in his thirties, but set roughly fifteen years before his birth in 1928). Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day would be another novel in that category. (Should there also be a 2(b) category of books comprising works partly based on the sort of second-hand memories we may build from what our grandparents have told us?) Then of course there is a large third category: what one might call pure historical fiction (Waverley, Wolf Hall, and so on).

Insofar as I’ll ever be a writer of historical fiction, it’s in the first and second of these categories—I can’t fathom trying to fully imagine a world that I haven’t at least heard people tell me about. Which may seem odd in the case of Rising Stories, because neither my mother nor my father ever told me about Chicago in the 1930s—or any other era. Indeed, I’m not sure if either of them ever went there. I do remember that my mother (very much a New Yorker, though she lived much of her life in Toronto and Ottawa) would say the world “Chicaaaago” with a loud, long stress on the middle syllable, and with the same sort of dismissive tone that she would adopt when speaking of other places that were impossibly far away and that one would never go to by choice. (“Way the hell and gone, in Brooklyn” was the paradigm.) What makes the world of the pre-war American city half real to me is the stories she would tell not of Chicago, but of New York.

No. Of Manhattan, I should rather say.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Those Left Unprotected by Canada’s Protectionism

After simmering for decades, the dispute over Canada’s agricultural policies and free trade has finally boiled over. All three major parties defend Canada’s supply management system for its supposed support of “food sovereignty” and the family farm. But the Conservatives are anxious at the same time to defend the principles of free trade and be part of any TPP pact. Those who argue against supply management say they are defending the interests of consumers who, it is presumed, think only of lower prices.

What no one defends in all this are the interests of the animals—the non-human animals who are at its centre. Where do the eggs and the dairy products come from? In some sense, of course, farmers are the producers—but in another, much more direct sense, milk and cheese and eggs are produced by cows and chickens. Every politician and every media report on “supply management” has been leaving out those who are doing the supplying—the animals.

It’s not hard to guess why that might be the case; as numerous undercover videos have revealed, the reality behind the closed doors of these industries is horrific maltreatment of animals. When Canadians drink milk and eat cheese and eggs they are, with very few exceptions, consuming the products of animal cruelty.

There is a better way. In the case of dairy products entering or leaving Canada, we could require that the cows be allowed to graze in fields rather than be constantly chained indoors in concrete “farms” (as is now the case). We could require that they not be bred to have udders so large as to cause them constant pain. We could eliminate the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture. The list of best practices is long, but the underlying principle is simple: ensure that non-human animals are treated as they are in Switzerland, not as they are in Arkansas.

As it happens, what’s good for the cows and chickens is also good for us. A large body of research suggests that, while a vegan diet is healthiest of all, the next-healthiest is a diet in which any animal products consumed come from free-range birds, “happy cows,” and so on.

If our current protectionism is merely preserving artificially high prices in the interests of protecting a small number of wealthy farmers, it deserves to be scrapped. But what if the system were re-designed to protect high standards—of animal welfare and of human health? That could indeed justify higher prices.

Redesigning the system would not be easy. With limited jurisdiction over agriculture, the federal government might need to focus on standards for imported and exported dairy products and eggs; it would need to work with the provinces to raise the standards for all dairy and poultry farms. We would need a certification program to verify that cheese which crosses the border and is labelled as coming from “happy cows” really is just that. We would need measures to assist those who can now afford nothing but the cheapest, unhealthiest food. (A $15 minimum wage might be a good start.) But the difficulties involved pale beside the difficulty of, say, abolishing the Senate.

If we’d like clearer consciences about what we’re eating (and, at the same time, healthier and longer lives), it’s time to make that plain to the large political parties. (The Greens are already paying attention to these issues.)

What would be the impact of all this on trade? Cheap but not-very-healthy milk and eggs from Arkansas and Iowa would be prevented from entering Canada, but food from better American producers (better in every sense of the word) would be free to enter. In the other direction, better producers in Canada could tout their higher standards in their export initiatives. A “good for you—and good for them too” campaign could help Canadian producers build markets abroad as well as at home. In the United States, just as in Canada, more and more consumers care about how the food they eat is produced, not just how cheap it is.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Major Earthquake in Chicago

The press release announcing the forthcoming publication of Rising Stories is going out this week; I’ll paste it in below: "New Novel Brings to Life the Unimaginable—A Major Earthquake in Chicago." Those who have read the promotional descriptions of the book on the web or in the printed flyers that were sent out some weeks ago may be taken aback by the way the book is described here. Earthquake? Those other descriptions make no mention of an earthquake. Is this the same book?

The short answer is yes. The descriptions in the advance promotional materials for Rising Stories follow the conventions of copy written to promote literary fiction. Among those conventions is an understanding that one should never be sensationalistic in describing a work of literary fiction. Even if the story contains sensational elements, the emphasis—both in the way the work is written and in the way it is described in the promotional materials—should be on the way it reveals character, or evokes particular sorts of feeling, or gives rise to certain ideas.

That is very much the case with the promotional copy for Rising Stories, and the way it describes the book is, to my mind, quite accurate. But Rising Stories is also a novel with a powerful narrative drive as it approaches its climax, and on that score the “literary novel” descriptions leave out one vitally important thing. That’s right—the earthquake.

A reluctance to emphasize sensational aspects of a story’s conclusion in promoting literary fiction is not simply a matter of wanting to avoid the whiff of sensationalism. It’s also a matter of not wanting to give away the ending. I’m sure it was in part for this reason that we decided to make no mention in the promotional materials for Rising Stories of the event that is at the heart of the novel’s long, climactic scene. Such reticence is understandable; a certain sort of reader feels a good deal of justified resentment if the outcome of a story is given away in the description of the book (or, as happens often with editions of classics, in the introduction). But to “give away” the fact that an earthquake occurs near the end of Rising Stories is no more to “give away” the outcome of the novel than reading that Pierre and Prince Andrei find themselves in the midst of the Battle of Borodino is to “give away” what happens in War and Peace. (If we were told that Pierre survives the Battle of Borodino but that Prince Andrei is seriously wounded, that would be a very different thing—just as it would be a very different thing to give away what happens to any of the characters in Rising Stories as a result of the earthquake.)

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the decision as to what was included and what omitted in the Rising Stories promotional materials, we decided that a different approach would be appropriate for the press release. A press release, of course, is typically sent to a range of people in the media who don’t normally pore over advance promotional materials for literary novels. For this audience, it’s simply more newsworthy to draw attention (as the novel does) to the far-from-negligible risk that earthquakes may occur in areas not known as earthquake zones. Rising Stories is certainly a novel about characters, and about ideas, about skyscrapers and about Chicago. But it's also a novel about how and where the unexpected can occur—and in particular, it's about an earthquake.

____________________________________________ Press Forward/ Broadview Press

Press Release:

New Novel Brings to Life the Unimaginable—A Major Earthquake in Chicago

What if an earthquake were to occur where almost no one has thought such a thing to be possible? That’s a large part of the premise of Rising Stories, a soon-to-be published novel about the people and the skyscrapers of Chicago.

In this case, it’s not quite true that no one has thought a major earthquake affecting Chicago to be possible; some seismologists have suggested there is in fact a reasonable chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake in Southern Illinois occurring in this century. Back in 1811-12 there are thought to have been as many as seven earthquakes of this magnitude or higher in the region—one of them registering 8.1 on the Richter scale. Then, of course, there were no skyscrapers; the damage in St. Louis and Chicago today could be extremely serious in the (admittedly unlikely) event of an earthquake that strong occurring.

That’s the geological background to Rising Stories. The historical background is, for most of the novel, the early years of the Obama administration; much of the story takes place in 2011, with the scene in Grant Park on election night in 2008 vividly recalled.

The novel also includes extended flashbacks to the Chicago of the late 1930s—an era during which the Wrigley Building and the Mather Building and the Tribune Tower were still new. It was also the time in which the “Towertown” area surrounding the Water Tower on the Near North Side was a center of bohemian culture—and the time in which the “redlining” approach to segregation was taking a tighter and tighter hold on the city. Rising Stories brings together all these aspects of that Chicago of long ago—and links them to twenty-first century Chicago through a storyline that involves the death of an infant, missing art works, a suicidal painter, a marriage under strain, and, at the book’s center, an extraordinary relationship between a young child and a ninety-something grandparent.

Advance reviews for the novel have been glowing: “…the skyscrapers of Chicago reveal their various personalities as sites for intimate, sometimes harrowing, human stories. An elegant and affecting novel.” - Mark Kingwell, author of Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building

“Rising Stories manages to surprise, satisfy and delight all at the same time, as its protagonists—inhabitants of Chicago’s skyscrapers—recount their stories and those of the towering buildings that are integral to them. An original and compelling page turner.” - Elizabeth Abbott, author of A History of Marriage

________________________________________ Rising Stories: A Novel will be published in North America August 24, 2015; advance copies are available as of today.

Published by Press Forward, the novel is being distributed throughout North America by Broadview Press. (Rights for Europe and other markets remain available.)

For more information on sales and promotion, or to request an interview with the author, contact Christine Handley,

For additional product information, follow this link to the Rising Stories page on the Broadview Press site:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Skyscraper and the Naïve View

As a child I had a naïve, uncomplicated, untroubled view of skyscrapers. When we went to New York every Easter to visit my grandmother it could be summed up in one word: wow!

I think we may have gone up the Empire State Building only once; every year, though, we would go up to the Rockefeller Center Observation Deck, which my mother convinced me was a better vantage point, not least of all because you could see the Empire State. I suspect she really preferred it because if she had to take the child up some tall building or other, it was better to choose one close to Bloomingdales than one close to Macy’s. It’s hard to be sure. At any rate, I did agree with her that the Rockefeller had a better view.

Something of that naïve enthusiasm for the tall building has always stayed with me—though I have never lived in any building with more than three stories. (Perhaps if I had, I would find skyscrapers more mundane, less interesting.) And it was in a state informed by something of that spirit that I wrote much of the first draft of Rising Stories. At some level I must have been aware of the many ways in which the skyscraper can act as a metaphor and a symbol: as buildings grow up so too do people grow up; the taller the building the closer we are to God, or the closer we may think we are to God; the heights of skyscrapers mirror the heights of human ambition—and of human hopes and aspirations. But those sorts of symbolism entered into my conscious mind rarely if at all as I was actually writing the first draft.

I was much more aware as I was writing of great skyscrapers as emblems of capitalism--and of their strong association with inequality. But throughout the process, something of that naïve early enthusiasm stayed with me. I'm glad it did; without it, I can hardly imagine how one would begin to capture in imaginative form any sense of the tensions and outright contradictions that skyscrapers embody.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Fifty Years After Death? Surely That's Protection Enough

[The following appeared as a Commentary piece in The Globe and Mail, July 16]

Randy Bachman asked recently, in a Globe and Mail commentary (Taking Care of the Canadian Music Business), why Canada’s policy on the length of copyright protection has been to “lag behind, rather than lead.” In the 1990s Europe increased the duration of copyright to 70 years from 50 years after an author’s death; the United States and Australia soon followed suit. Canada has indeed been a laggard – but in this case, that is no bad thing.

Mr. Bachman argues that copyright protection allows creators to “make a living from their work” and “leave a legacy.” Sure, but how long should a legacy last? Is the knowledge that royalties will flow to one’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren really a strong motivator for creative artists? He confidently assumes there will be spoils to divide in the distant future. For creators such as Joni Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, it is likely that their work will remain in demand for generations to come. But for those whose reputations are even marginally less established, the future is far less promising.

I can attest to this from three angles. At Broadview Press, an important part of our publishing program (though not a very profitable one) is to bring back into print works that have been unavailable for an extended period. Setting aside the matter of royalties on these forgotten works, the job of tracing the copyright holders would be disincentive enough for the prospective publisher if the works still under copyright. A few moments on the Internet is enough to put you in touch with the estate of Bernard Shaw or Louis Armstrong. But with lesser-known writers, finding the copyright holder can be enormously time consuming and frustrating. Raising the barriers to reissuing work by forgotten writers of other eras would increase the likelihood that they will remain forgotten forever.

I also appreciate this situation as an author, and as literary executor for my father, Douglas LePan. During his lifetime, my father was a well-known author and poet, twice winning the Governor-General’s Award. Within five years of his death in 1998, however, his books were out of print and he was less frequently anthologized. That situation has now largely been turned around – not least because it is easy to communicate with the estate, and because little or nothing is charged in copyright permission fees.

Far from wanting to extend copyright protection for his work (in this case, from 2048 to 2068), I would like to see it reduced. And I would like the same for my own work. If I were to die in 2040, at the age of 86, I see no reason why my 2009 work Animals: A Novel should be controlled by my descendants until 50 years after my death, let alone 70 years.

And if my father’s (or my own) work enjoyed the same level of popularity as that of Joni Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, I would still have no concern about my grandchildren and great-grandchildren being shortchanged. Does anyone deserve a substantial income on the basis of their grandparent having been a hugely successful writer? Attitudes on such things are changing, and none too soon.

There are plenty of areas where the Canadian government should provide better copyright protection for living authors. Crucially, for example, it should end the confusion about how to interpret the “education” exception to copyright restrictions, under the cover of which authors are now routinely deprived of revenue when their work is distributed to students.

But to extend copyright restrictions to 70 years after an author’s death would be against the interests of most writers, as much as it would be against the interests of Canadians.

[It should perhaps be made clear that re-publishing the above on this blog does not constitute any breach of copyright. The Globe allows authors of Commentary pieces for which it has not paid any fee to retain copyright, with the Globe holding paper first-print rights and a non-exclusive right to reproduce in other forms.]

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Hohoff and Lee, Hurka and Me: Help in Writing Fiction

At one point in his very interesting long review of Go Set a Watchman, Lawrence Hill comments that the experience of reading the book can teach us a good deal about “the artistic and the editorial process.” Perhaps most notably, he suggests, “a novel about an adult who goes home and offers a number of flashbacks about her childhood is less dramatically immediate than a story that dives straight into the childhood itself” (Globe and Mail, July 18 2015). Famously, that was the suggestion made by Tay Hohoff, the editor at Lippincott who in 1957 advised Harper Lee to scrap the manuscript now published as Go Set a Watchman, and to expand the flashbacks in that manuscript into a different novel, told directly from the young person’s point of view. Much as many reviewers of Go Set a Watchman find the book interesting, everyone seems agreed that Hohoff gave Lee good advice—that To Kill a Mockingbird is a more dramatically immediate book (and a better one) than is Go Set a Watchman.

I was lucky enough to receive very similar advice a couple of years ago from an old high school friend (and now distinguished philosopher), Tom Hurka. He gave me several pieces of good advice after reading a draft of Rising Stories; the most important was to scrap a lot of second-hand recounting in summary form (by someone in old age) of events that had taken place in the late 1930s, and to tell them directly from the perspectives of the characters involved as the events were happening. Just as Tom had suggested it would, that had the effect of making the story more dramatically immediate—and the novel much better. Tom was not the only one to give me very good and very useful advice on how to improve the early drafts of Rising Stories; in all, well over a dozen people were kind enough to read a draft and offer helpful comments, suggestions, and criticisms; the final result is, as a result, tremendously improved.

I followed the same process with my first novel, Animals, and in that case too I am convinced that the final result is far, far better than it would have been had I tried to write entirely in isolation. I recognize, of course, that to think of good writing as to some degree a collaborative enterprise goes against the grain for many in the literary community. Shakespeare and Middleton and Jonson may often have collaborated with other playwrights, but since the Romantic period the presumption has taken root that the appropriate stance for a writer to take is to work in isolation—that to collaborate to any significant degree might somehow constitute a threat to the integrity or the originality of the work.

No doubt that model may work for some writers, but I certainly can’t imagine it working for me. And, ironically enough, it was not the approach that the most famous writers of the Romantic period took either. Coleridge and Wordsworth worked together in shaping Lyrical Ballads, Mary Shelley received helpful advice from Percy Shelley in writing Frankenstein—and so too did Percy Shelley receive helpful advice from her and from others, and so too did Keats, and so too did others of their group. (For those wishing to explore the topic, Jeffrey N. Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School and Jack Stillinger’s Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius are good places to start.) In this respect, those who aspire to be solitary geniuses may be even more unusual than many of them imagine themselves to be.

PS As has almost always been the case in recent years with anything I have written, I received helpful advice from Maureen Okun in writing the above.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Rising Stories and Imaginary Worlds

Rising Stories began one Saturday morning in late 2010, when Maureen and I were reading The Globe and Mail in bed over coffee, as we do just about every Saturday morning. There was a letter to the editor about imaginary worlds, and we began to chat a bit about Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia Chronicles, and what imaginary worlds we might make for ourselves, and how we might get into them. In a moment or two a very simple idea had come to me—a child pushes some buttons in a skyscraper elevator, and suddenly numbers appear for a whole lot of floors at the top that weren’t there before.

At first I thought I might make that idea the basis for a very short children’s book—with pictures. I started to draft what is now Part 2 of Rising Stories, and gradually as I wrote the thing changed. The extra stories were discovered, and they seemed quite real, but at the base the whole story began to broaden and deepen—perhaps a larger foundation was needed to support all those extra stories.

It all ended up very differently—but I found myself still wanting there to be pictures. Hence the color insert of early postcards from roughly the time KP arrives in Chicago in the late 1930s.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Animal Who Can Choose Not to be Cruel

One article in last week’s Economist begins as follows:
Any truth, it is said, passes through three stages: first is it ridiculed, then violently opposed, and finally it is taken to be self-evident.
How long before the following comes to be taken as self-evident?
Alone among animals, humans possess both the biological capacity to live full and healthy lives without consuming the flesh or milk or eggs of other animals,* and the mental capacity to make an ethical choice not to eat those animals or what they have made—not to take their milk, their eggs, or their lives.
If, in the face of this truth, we choose to kill them and eat them anyway—routinely, for no better reason than that we like the taste of eating the flesh of the animals we have killed, or the taste of their milk and their eggs, or that it has become a habit we cannot bother to break—we are surely, as a species, the worst of all creatures.

Our capacity as humans for cruelty (as well as for sophistry and self-deception) has been evident in so many other areas for so long that some might argue we should just accept it; we are evil, and doing evil to other creatures every day of our lives is just part of what makes us human.

But if we truly believe that we have the capacity to choose to do good--free will, some call it--and that this capacity is central to what makes us human, let us choose to be fully human. All of us, every one of us. Let us give up the killing and the cruelty that we are responsible for. A whole foods, plant based diet; it's one way we can become fully human.

*It should be readily admitted that this is a generalization that admits of exceptions; some humans do experience health problems when they eat an entirely whole foods, plant-based diet—and should for that reason feel no compunction about eating animal products. But the evidence suggests that those who suffer such problems are a minority—and a tiny minority at that. Vegans typically require vitamin supplements (especially Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D) to be fully healthy—just as human carnivores and omnivores typically require vitamin supplements to be fully healthy. As and other authorities keep reporting, though, vegans are typically far, far healthier on a day-to-day basis than are humans who eat other animals’ flesh and eggs and drink other animals’ milk—and vegans are also far more resistant to a long list of diseases.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Write What you Half Know

When writers write about what writers should or should not do, they are almost always writing primarily about their own experience; writing is an activity about which it is notoriously hard to generalize. Is it even possible to make some qualified generalizations about what is likely to work best for most writers?

I'm not sure that it is. How true (or how helpful) is that well-worn of all pieces of advice given to those trying to write short stories, novels, or plays: "write what you know" (advice often attributed to Mark Twain, though there seems to be no evidence that it originates with him). That may seem sensible advice if one thinks of how Jane Austen or Edith Wharton or Scott Fitzgerald succeeded, but it's hard to see it as a recipe for creating worlds such as those that Theodor Seuss Geisel or Italo Calvino have created. Nor can Kazuo Ishiguro or Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood be said in any literal sense to have been writing what they knew in creating the worlds of Never Let Me Go and The Road and The Handmaid's Tale. Nor, for that matter, can writers of works of historical fiction--whether it's Longbourn, Jo Baker's wonderful evocation of an alternative world within Pride and Prejudice, or Tolstoy's War and Peace or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar--be said to have been writing what they knew.

The rejoinder is of course that one should not take the advice at a literal level--that Atwood was writing about something she knew (the oppression of women) and transforming it, that Shakespeare was writing about something he knew (hubris, betrayal, and so on), and transforming it, that all good writing transforms in one way or another what the writer knows. But surely in that case it is fair to point out that what makes these plays and novels work is the transformation, not the degree to which they are based on something known at the outset.

I want to put forward a different piece of advice: write what you half know. Find, somehow (and the how may be different for almost every writer, almost every time) an imaginative space in which you can both draw on things you know (whether about places, or manners and social nuance, or history, or the human heart), and allow your imagination and your subconscious free rein. Crucially, do not try to shut down the subconscious--the part of yourself that, by definition, you don't know, or don't know well.

In my conscious self I am largely uninterested in the supernatural, and I seem to lack any sense of the spiritual; I'm an atheist who for thirty years hasn't thought much about anything spiritual or supernatural. But when I was writing Rising Stories, something in my subconscious kept pushing to the fore elements that I think it would be quite reasonable to describe as spiritual or supernatural. All I can say about any of that is that I know those elements in the book do not come purely from imagination--that they draw on some part of my subconscious. No, I don't know that. I can't know that. At most I half know it.

More obviously, I only half know Chicago, where the story of the novel takes place. I have often visited Chicago but I have never lived there. Does setting a novel in a city one doesn't know well work against a writer? Or does it benefit the writer by leaving more space for the imagination to fill in? Like so much else, I cannot imagine there to be any rule about this. But if pressed for a phrase that gives an oversimplified expression of what works for me, write what you half know would probably be as good as I could come up with.

Again, that's just me. Write what you know may work for a lot of writers a lot more often than I might imagine. Even Dr Seuss (as anyone who has seen the fantastical plants of San Diego and its environs can attest) was writing about and drawing exactly what he knew far more often than most readers might imagine.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Imagined Cities, Real Cities

After attending the annual medieval studies conference in Kalamazoo for the first time, my partner Maureen and I spent a few days in Chicago last month. I had not been to the city since I started writing Rising Stories. Much has changed, of course--including the skyline, which when I last visited did not include Aqua, or the Trump Tower, or a host of other tall buildings. I was surprised not to like Aqua more (though it's very impressive) and surprised that I didn't hate the Trump Tower (except for the vastness of its Trump sign).

We spent a fair bit of time on the South Side, and I was surprised too at how much better things looked than one is often led to believe (mostly, it seems, by people who don't live there and don't go there very often). Here and there there were signs of bleakness, but these were surprisingly few and far between--whereas interesting and liveable neighborhoods with a good deal of pleasant architecture seemed to abound, and, unlike on the North Side, to have plenty of parking spaces that don't cost a fortune and from where your car won't be towed away immediately for the slightest violation. (A memorable part of our Chicago visit was the time we spent retrieving our rental car from the cavernous auto pound below Lower Wacker, deep under Aqua and the other skyscrapers above.) Maureen and decided that if we ever did live in Chicago, we would definitely live on the South Side.

I was reminded of when I was starting to get to know New Orleans, and lots of people who lived uptown would say that Bywater (the Upper Ninth Ward) wasn't safe, or that Bywater beyond Press Street wasn't safe, or that Bywater beyond Desire wasn't safe. All of it imagined, none of it true, as it turned out (though perhaps some of it had once been true). In the same way too, a few months ago Maureen and I heard someone who lives in north Nanaimo talking about how seedy and dangerous downtown Nanaimo was; it turned out she hadn't actually been downtown for more than six years.

Rising Stories tries to breathe life into an imagined Chicago that only occasionally bears a close relationship to the real thing. But in two cases I decided after this recent visit that I wanted to make something in the novel more real. I added a short passage describing how the Hancock Building looms over the Oak Street Beach. And I added a short passage describing the view of the downtown from where Marquette hits the park and the lake. The book will be at press within the next few days, so I won't be adding anything more!

Maureen and I also went up the Hancock, which I had never done. It offers a view as close as one can get to that from K.P.'s imaginary balcony in Rising Stories. And it is all quite lovely.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Playing Time

I wrote a few days ago about one idea I had recently about sports statistics. The only other good one I've ever had came to me more than ten years ago; I remember speaking with my son Dominic about this as we were playing darts in the Calgary house we then shared; it must have been around 2004 or 2005. The Vancouver Canucks' Sedin twins sparked the idea. They were both in the top 20 in scoring and I noticed that they were each being given no more than 15 or 16 minutes per game by then-coach Marc Crawford--while most of hockey's other leading scorers were playing 4 or 5 minutes more than that per game. I got out my calculator and figured out that if the Sedins had been playing 20 minutes per game, they would both (assuming the same rate of scoring) be among the league's top handful of players--not merely the top twenty. Why didn't hockey have a statistic that took time into account when measuring productivity?

Now it does, of course; that's been one of the statistics that have been developed in recent years as the sport has become much more sophisticated statistically.

The thought of those numbers and the Sedin twins came back to me this week. For the first few games of the Canucks series against the Calgary Flames the twins were being played for only 15 or 16 minutes. With the Flames were up 3 games to 1 current Canucks' coach Willie Desjardins changed tactics, and played them for roughly 20 minutes each in game 5; it worked, with Daniel scoring and the Canucks winning 2-1. And tonight in game 6? Daniel played for 20:36 minutes, Henrik for 22:18; neither scored and both were minus-2, with the Canucks season ending as the Flames won 7-4. Good as they are, the Sedins aren't the players they were ten years ago. In more than one way, time has to be taken into account.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Counting All the Bases

During the Marlins-Mets game yesterday the announcer used a term that's familiar to anyone who follows the game--a "productive out." The Mets batter had hit the ball to the right side and been thrown out at first, but the Mets runner on second base had been able to advance to third on the play. Some "productive outs," of course, are taken account of in baseball statistics; if the batter is thrown out on a play that allows a runner on third to come home and score a run, for example, he is credited with an RBI. But in many, many cases no credit is recorded for runners advancing on the base paths as a result of what the batter has done.

This is not only a matter of what happens when the batter records an out; it also concerns bases advanced resulting from hits and walks. If a batter hits a single or walks with no one on base, he is credited with that single or walk. But no statistic measures the impact of a single or a walk that no only puts the batter on base but also advances one or more other runners. If there are already runners on first and second who advance to second and third respectively on a single or a walk, then the total impact of the batter's single or walk has been three bases advanced, rather than one. (The same would be true, of course, if the batter is hit by a pitch.)

Why not create a new baseball statistic to measure net bases advanced? By this measure that "productive out" which advanced a runner from second base to third base would add one to the batter's net bases advanced total. That single or walk which also advanced runners from first and second to second and third would add three to a player's net bases advanced total. A grand slam homer would add 10 to a player's net bases advanced total (4 for the batter, plus 3 for the player who had been on first, 2 for the player who had been on second, and one for the player who had been on third.) Stealing second base would add 1 to a player's net bases advanced total--but being caught trying to steal second would reduce a player's net bases advanced total by 1, since the play wipes out the effect of his having gotten on base in the first place. Striking out or flying out or hitting a ground ball out would not affect the total--but hitting into a double play would subtract 1 from a player's net bases advanced total, since the net effect would be to remove a teammate from the bases.

This is one of only two sports statistics ideas I have ever had; the other one can be the subject of another day's post. So too can be my reason for watching that Mets-Marlins game in the first place--the speedy and graceful and charming Dee Gordon.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Making the Poor Poorer: An Index

The government of British Columbia declared recently that BC would do as most other provinces do: index the minimum wage to the Cost of Living index. No longer will the working poor see their earnings decline in real terms year after year; this way they will finally be able to keep up.

Not so fast.

One problem with this reasoning has been pointed out by many commentators: since BC's minimum wage is far below a living wage, indexing it to the cost of living will guarantee it remains far below a living wage.

What has not been widely recognized is that indexing to cost of living will condemn the working poor not just to staying the same distance back of the average worker, but to falling further and further behind. The reason? Annual changes for the average worker reflect not just price inflation, but also economic growth; in most economies most of the time productivity keeps improving, and--over the medium or the long term--wages and salaries increase by considerably more than do prices. In the United States, for example, GDP per person increased by almost 50% between 1995 and 2013. Such gains deserve to be shared by all workers--including those making the minimum wage.

A much fairer way to index the minimum wage, then, would be to use that yardstick: GDP per person. Very rarely, the minimum wage might go down year-over- year using that approach. But most years it would go up--and go up by more than the cost of living. If we used that index, minimum wage workers would share more equitably both in the occasional economic downturn and in the much more frequent phenomenon of modest economic growth. Using prices as a means to set wages, on the other hand, is a recipe for making the poor slowly but steadily poorer and poorer and poorer in relation to the rich and the middle class.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Co-Pilot Who Should Remain Nameless

It emerged over the weekend that the co-pilot who killed himself and 150 others in the Alps had vowed at one point last year to his girlfriend to do something so that “everyone will know my name and remember it.”

In a post last year in response to a different tragedy (Remaining Nameless, October 23, 2014) I suggested that the legal system, the media--and, indeed, all of us--should refrain from using the names of the perpetrators of these atrocities. We absolutely should not give them the fame that they craved.

Let him be known as Co-Pilot X, and let any other name be never said, never remembered.