Reconsidering Dickens

While the overwhelming majority of readers and only slightly fewer critics have embraced Charles Dickens for over a century and a half now, I have not always been in agreement. Over time, this has changed and I’ll offer a few thoughts on why.

1. As a younger reader, I found Dickens exceedingly wordy, and in some parts of books, namely Bleak House (one of his books that I could never manage to finish), bordering on unreadable.

2. I now understand and can appreciate that most of his novels were serialised and that yes, the ‘column inch’ did matter a lot, I spot more richness and nuance in the writing than I did in my teens and early twenties.

3. I have a much greater appreciation of Dickens’s understanding of the vulnerable, unemployed, and working-class poor. Dickens wanted his contemporaries to see the underbelly of urbanization, industrialization, and unchecked capitalism. Obviously this continues to resonate in the twenty-first century.

4. While I still find much of his writing overly sentimental, I acknowledge that Dickens likely wanted readers to overidentify with the lives and predicaments of his larger-than-life characters, to evoke greater responses.

5. His influence cannot be denied and should be celebrated. A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, and openers – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities have left indelible imprints. These imprints transcend literature and have become significant in films and the everyday vernacular of people in the West.

I would love to know if anyone else has had a change of mind or heart over time about Dickens.

Why Ebooks Won’t Kill Print Books

There are many that argue that e-readers and hence e-books signal the end of books in print. I have a number of e-books and read them on both an iPad and a Kobo e-reader, so I am certainly a proponent and user of them. However, I just don’t believe the end of the printed book is yet in sight.  Here are some thoughts on why.

1. Spend some time with kids. As much as they enjoy reading on computers and tablets, the ‘wow’ factor continues to be higher when they engage with books in print. Whether it’s in a pop-up format, scratch and sniff, beautiful illustrations, or quite simply, that smell, kids love traditional books. Guess who the future book buyers are?

2. For the foreseeable future, I think most readers use e-readers as an additive to regular purchasing. Being in a smaller city, at times my only option is to purchase a book for my e-reader (particularly when the purchase is time sensitive). However, my purchasing of printed books, while slightly altered by this, hasn’t changed much at all. Anecdotal evidence suggests the same for many readers and writers that I speak with.

3. It’s still more challenging to share an e-book than an old dog-eared copy. Most of the readers I know are giving people that are always anxious to pass along a great recent read. This is much more challenging with e-readers for several reasons – including the format, the particular e-reader, and so forth.

4. Many, I being one of them, remain a little skeptical about what might happen to e-versions of our books in 5, 10 or 20 years. If companies are bought, sold, or go bankrupt, might our collection go with them? While there are risk factors in any home, having that copy on the shelf, still feels much more secure.

5. The tangible of a printed book cannot yet be duplicated. As mentioned earlier, the smell, the texture, the ability to turn a page, and I could go on remains special for traditional books.

I will look forward to any thoughts or comments that others may have.

Leduc’s Instructions Are Well Worth It

Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover

By Amanda Leduc

Self-Published, 2009, 388 pp. $2.99 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

Amanda Leduc’s debut novel is a well-written and interesting book that signals both skill and promise for the Ontario-based writer. With another novel scheduled to be published in the spring of 2013 with ECW Press, undoubtedly, the Canadian literary scene has an impressive addition that should be with us for a number of years.

Amanda Leduc was born in Canada and has lived in Britain, British Columbia, and Ontario. She has published articles in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Along with writing in several genres, she is an active user of social media and her blog is entitled, Waiting for an Echo. It features her writing, reviews and photographs from around the globe.

Leduc’s novel focuses on Rosa Delacroix and is essentially a coming of age story for a twenty-two year-old. While not comprehensively so, the author focuses on several months in Victoria, BC where Rosa has moved to study creative writing at the University of Victoria. The author has chosen to explore the challenges of becoming a writer through her protagonist and it works well. I found the dialogue to be crisp and witty. Rosa is believable and it is rather easy to befriend her as a reader. She is a thoughtful and generous person, and is skillfully juxtaposed with Aylish, a fellow co-ed and aspiring writer. Aylish is many things that Rosa is not, in particular, not as bound to her religion and accompanying morality. Additionally, Aylish is relatively worldly with a serious live-in boyfriend and more experience with relationships and sex than Rosa. The plot centres on Rosa’s growth as a writer and her concomitant exploration of her sexuality.

Rosa maintains a good relationship with her family in Ontario and has an ongoing platonic relationship with James, an older, former high school teacher that has kept in touch with her. He lives in Vancouver and he and Rosa get together from time to time throughout the novel. Like many of the other characters, he is developed fully and likeable. James is one such character and his importance to Rosa both personally and intellectually is important throughout the book.

In this excerpt Rosa is in a story workshop with Aylish and classmates at the university:

“I love this story,” says Gemma. Gemma is a poet, a songwriter more than a short story person, and this she freely admits. “It’s so strange, but so symbolic at the same time.”

Symbolic? She doesn’t remember the story as being symbolic of anything. Did she not read it hard enough? What did she miss?

“Yes,” says Aylish. “ I thought so too. I liked the allusions to Carroll’s Alice, the question of what waited for Tom at the bottom of the drain. And that last scene with the plunger-that was hysterical. I thought it was a great way to leave things.”

“I’m not so sure,” says Peter, and now they begin the shift, the move into what’s not working. “The ending felt unfinished for me. We get that Tom’s obsession has reached a dangerous point, and his wife, at least, sees this as well-but then what happens? Everything’s been built up so much that to leave it hanging feels like a cheat. And I didn’t like the plunger-I thought that was cheap, a bit slapstick.”

“What if he went down the drain?” Darcy asks. “It’s already a bit fantastical-maybe that could work. Then Tom is making some type of action at the end of the piece, and we still don’t know what’s waiting at the bottom, so it still has that nice ambiguity.”

“Maybe,” says Peter, without waiting for anyone else to speak. “I still think it calls for something larger.”

 Rosa sinks back into “Mornings”. Dilly, as it turns out, is new to the area, a recent Irish immigrant to Vancouver’s bustling shores. He drinks the beer and eats the grocery store hors d’oeuvres and lies on his floor until two in the morning, listening to Jimi Hendrix. Then, seized by a sudden hot dog craving, he saunters out into the town and proceeds to sample the nightlife of Vancouver.

It is, so far, a good story. Aylish’s prose has a natural rhythm and there’s a lilt to the language of the story, much like the soft burr in Aylish’s voice. But Rosa is only half-reading, half-appreciating. They finish the first workshop and hand their drafts back to Simone, the author, who looks quietly pleased because as far as workshops go, hers could have been a great deal worse. Rosa thinks back to her first story and tries, unsuccessfully, to squash her envy.

The novel does suffer from a handful of sections where additional editing would have helped. It’s not that large swaths needed to be cut, but some deletions would have been helpful. I also never got a great sense of place – particularly in Victoria. Conversely, I thought the trip home to Ontario was a well-written part of the book. The setting and mood in rural Ontario was great. But Leduc’s Victoria is relatively nondescript and disappointing in most ways. I also found her foreshadowing techniques to be heavy-handed. While I commend the author for not tying up every loose narrative strand, some of the plot was predictable dozens of pages prior to it unfolding. Foreshadowing is a good technique, but there was more foretelling versus hint or suggestion in a number of sections. Finally, it will be interesting to see how Leduc manages characters in her next novel that both she and readers dislike. Part of this might reflect her worldview, but not every character should have redeeming qualities; although it would make life much easier and enjoyable.

While there are some weaknesses, Amanda Leduc’s debut novel is well worth a read. Character development is an obvious strength and as she moves to new themes and topics as her writing matures, this will serve her well. At different turns, the book is poignant, without being sentimental, and very funny. Humour is not easy for many writers, but is absolutely no problem for Leduc. I also like that not everything is reconciled by the novel’s close – readers can make personal inferences based on previous action.

This novel is suitable for readers in their mid-teens and older. It could serve as an important gateway for young readers exploring their sexuality, moving away from home for the first time, or, most importantly, seeking a good read. The transition to books beyond debuts is not smooth for all writers, but I will be surprised if Leduc does not come out with a wonderful effort for readers in 2013.

*An electronic copy of Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover was sent to me to read and review. It was not purchased.

An Interview With Amanda Leduc

Author Amanda Leduc was kind enough to respond to some questions about her debut novel, publishing, writing, social media and reading. Her  responses were thorough, thoughtful, and informed. In the coming days, I will be posting a review of Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover. I trust that you will enjoy her responses as much as I did.

JO: Amanda, you self-published your debut novel, can you tell us why you chose to do this?

AL: I suppose I should start this by noting that I went the self-publishing route after trying for the better part of two years to find a traditional publisher and agent. The book had garnered a certain amount of interest—I’d had an agent interested in it who ultimately turned it down, and then it managed to find itself on the shortlist for a new UK literary award, which was lovely—but despite this initial buzz I hadn’t managed to find a publisher. Everyone was really encouraging, though, even in the process of rejection, so I kept taking on suggestions for what could improve in the novel, kept revising, and kept sending it out. Then, at the beginning of 2009, I began working for the London-based self publishing company CompletelyNovel.com, and they encouraged me to publish the book through their website. I will admit that I was hesitant about it at first, mostly because I knew that the responsibility of proofing, editing, and doing the layout for the book would fall entirely on me. I wanted it to be as professional a product as possible, and at the time I couldn’t afford to hire professionals to complete the book for me, so going about it by myself was quite the undertaking. Ultimately, though, I went with the self-publishing route because I recognized that it was a unique opportunity to learn all about the process of turning a manuscript into a book. Anyone who works with a traditional publisher will know that decisions regarding the cover and layout of the text and other such considerations are often made by separate departments within a publishing house, and oftentimes an author doesn’t have as much control over what the final product will look like. Publishing my novel on a print-on-demand platform—in addition to saving me the usual fee paid to standard self-publishing companies—allowed me to retain full control over what the finished book looked like. It was, as I’ve noted above, quite a difficult endeavour for me, especially because I wanted it to look and feel as close to a traditionally published novel as it could. But in the end, I’m glad that I went the self-publishing route. I learned a great deal about the technical aspects of book production, and I came away from the experience with an immense amount of respect for the editors, copy-editors and designers who help to turn the cogs of the traditional publishing machine. Packaging and marketing a novel is tremendously hard work, and as a result of my self-publishing experience I feel that I understand this now in a way that I didn’t before. I am transitioning into the traditionally published world now—my next novel, The Raptured, is slated to be published with Toronto’s ECW Press in the spring of 2013—and my hope is that my self-publishing experience will help me embrace the traditional publishing world with continually humble, grateful eyes. When you self-publish, more often than not you’re a one-woman everything team, so to be in a place now where there are editors and designers there to help and guide you is quite lovely. I think I appreciate this all the more now for having done it, first time around, on my own.

JO: What would be your recommendations to authors who are considering the self-publishing route?

AL: This might seem old-fashioned now, and perhaps even controversial given the momentum that’s been building behind the self-publishing movement, but I would still recommend that authors look to find a traditional publisher before they go the self-publishing route. I do understand that self-publishing is much more than a “last minute” strategy now, that the advances in technology and the ability to hire freelance editors and designers for your book make it all the easier for your books to be as professional as anything put out by a traditional house. I still think that there’s something to be said for having other people behind your work, and having the strength and connections of a known publisher on board as the marketing part of publishing your book begins. Not to mention the growth that can come from having a good editor—someone who isn’t being paid directly by you and may therefore be able to see your work with entirely unbiased eyes. The writer Peter Straub once talked about the ability of a good editor to help an author submerge their ego and put out a version of their work that is “truest to itself”, and I think this is key. The American writer Edan Lepucki recently published an article in The Millions on the debate around whether or not to self-publish, and one of the things she noted was the fact that publishing with an established house, even a small independent literary press, gives a writer a vote of confidence in the literary game. This is especially critical when you’re a writer new to the publishing world. I don’t regret self-publishing my novel—as I said above, it was a very enriching, educational experience in many ways—but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the reach that a more established house might have. Having said that, I think I also need to acknowledge that promotional tools are becoming so widely available now, and for such comparatively little money, that marketing your work is becoming a much easier thing to do. So it isn’t inconceivable to think that in a few years, a savvy writer with an excellent grasp of social media would be able to market and promote their book just as well as a publishing house might have done. You can argue, of course, that this is already happening—witness the likes of Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath. But I don’t think we’re there yet, at least not for everybody, and particularly not in the case of literary fiction. I think traditional publishing houses still play a hugely essential role in helping to develop an author’s career, so I would caution against anyone discarding them entirely in favour of the self publishing model. I would advise authors to strive for a traditional publishing placement, and if that doesn’t work, use the tools available via self-publishing companies to publish your work and build a platform for yourself as another way of strengthening your credibility as a writer, again with the aim of eventually catching a traditional publisher’s attention.

JO: Amanda, you have lived in several places around the world. How has this contributed to and shaped your writing?

AL: Traveling and living in different parts of the world has become such an integral part of me that I no longer know whether I travel because I want to write about it, or whether I write because I’m getting so many stories out of traveling! I think I’ve always had a certain amount of restlessness that has bled, in various ways, into my written work, and in that sense the traveling has helped to intensify the feeling of being unanchored. Ten years ago I thought that I could travel to find myself, and now I’m beginning to realize that I travel because there will never be an end to the questions I ask of myself or the world. In that sense, I can see now how there’s a definite sensibility toward feeling unfulfilled in my fiction—a kind of yearning that doesn’t necessarily always get resolved. In the case of Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover, I wanted to write a story about someone who has very set, definite ideas for how she should live her life and therefore what should make her happy. I wanted to explore what happens to her when she realizes that what should make a person happy is so often different from what actually achieves the aim in the end. And I wanted to look, too, at this idea of being fulfilled, and at how erroneous it can be. Sometimes we are fulfilled—that is, we become the people that we are most meant to be—simply through being unfulfilled, through having our desires thwarted and our lives thrown off-kilter. Sometimes we are meant to exist in between, and float, and ask questions, because otherwise the questions might not get asked in the first place.

JO: I’d like to know your thoughts on e-books versus traditional formats. Can they co-exist peaceably?

AL: From the standpoint of a reader, I think they can, definitely. I myself don’t have an e-reader—yet—but there are definite interesting parallels between e-readers and the rise of the indie, or self-published, author, and how the rise of digital music gave independent musicians a new platform to promote their own work. E-readers, and the comparatively low prices for a lot of self-published work, have allowed self-published writers to get their books out in a way that no one anticipated. This has brought an entirely new generation of writers to a reader’s attention, and I admire that a great deal about the e-reading phenomenon. For myself, I don’t have an e-reader because I love the tactile feel of a book—I love turning the pages, and marking in the margins, and while I know you can even do those things on e-readers now, there’s still something about engaging with a physical book that, for me, isn’t there on an e-reader. And I think that there are a great many people out in the world, like me, who still prefer to buy their books in physical form. The rise of the e-reader and the great availability of e-books isn’t going to obliterate that tactile experience of physical books anytime soon. As a writer, I must confess that I feel a little differently. I have inner battles about this all of the time. As someone who would eventually like to make a living off of her work, I worry about the nature of e-book pricing and the prospect of a dwindling “living wage” for a writer. Again, one can always look to the example of writers like Amanda Hocking, who published her novels online for $.99 apiece and made herself a millionaire in the process, but the fact of the matter is that she’s a very lucky exception to the rule. Most writers will never be that lucky. Can they co-exist? Yes. There will always be people who stick by physical books. But are there still questions to be answered around what e-books will do, in the long term, to the viability of writing as a sustainable income? I think so. (Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that writing has never offered all that much in the way of sustainable income anyway, aside from a very lucky few!)

JO: Who are some of the writers that have the most influence on your writing?

AL: The American writer Flannery O’Connor is probably my favourite writer, followed closely by Arundhati Roy, the author of The God of Small Things, which is my favourite book. Both of these writers have influenced me a great deal, though I think they’re leagues ahead of me in many ways. I still have so much to learn! I’m also a huge fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I love the lyric nature of Vladimir Nabokov’s storytelling. Once again, both of these writers are leagues ahead of me—particularly Nabokov, when you consider that he wrote most of his novels in a second tongue, and yet somehow managed to wield the English language in a way that I’ll likely never master. But it’s a continual inspiration to have these writers in front of me, to read and re-read their work and look at the different ways in which they see the world, in the hopes that this can shape my own ways of seeing and telling.

JO: You are very active in social media. How do you feel this impacts and influences you as a writer?

AL: The greatest gift I’ve received as a result of social media has been the companionship and camaraderie of so many writers I admire. From a professional standpoint, too, being active in social media has proven extremely valuable in terms of teaching me rudimentary marketing skills. I’m not on Facebook, but I do try to engage quite a bit on Twitter, and I strive to update my blog on a regular basis. I was a bit hesitant, at first, when I began blogging and tweeting specifically about writing—writing has been such a solitary medium for so long that it felt strange, and not a little inconsequential, to be blaring my thoughts about the process to the world—but as time went on I found that I really enjoyed and was inspired by the connections that happened as a result of the sharing. I’ve met so many readers, writers, and assorted bookish people who are intensely passionate about what they do, and this wouldn’t have happened had I not dipped my toes into social media waters. In this sense, I think it has galvanized me in many ways—I’m no longer prone to feeling overwhelmed by the solitary nature of writing, because all I have to do is sign in to Twitter to see so many others who are there, wrestling with the same things. We can encourage each other now. And the comments that I’ve received from people all over the world who have enjoyed reading my blog have been intensely uplifting. I only hope that I can continue to write and reach out in a way that inspires others as much as connecting with them has inspired me.

JO: Some critics and writers argue that all fiction is at least partially autobiographical. Would you agree with this in the case of Instructions for an Inexperienced Lover?

AL: Absolutely. In fact, I think it was difficult for friends and family to read the book—knowing that I, like the heroine of the novel, also studied at the University of Victoria—and not wonder, on some level, whether the entire novel was autobiographical. It definitely made for some interesting discussions! Instructions, however, is only that—partially autobiographical. I wanted to ground the novel in a place and situation that was at least somewhat familiar to me, because at the time I think I wasn’t yet sure enough of my ability to delve into territories unknown. But there is plenty in the novel that’s entirely fictional, so writing it ended up being a fascinating exercise in balance. What was real vs. what was not-real, and striving to make sure that the fictional parts had their own authenticity. Many of the comments that I’ve received about the novel thus far have centered around how real readers felt the characters were, so in that sense I think it’s been successful. A lot of readers have commented on how much they identified with both Rosa and Aylish, which was really lovely to hear.

JO: What is the most enjoyable part of being a writer and what do you find the most challenging about it?

AL: I enjoy the freedom that comes from writing. It’s a strange freedom, because on the one hand you’re always at the mercy of words—they can strike you anywhere, and you’d better hope that you have that requisite paper and pen on hand when they do. I can write a good amount of words during the day, leave my work, and suddenly find myself scribbling again over dinner. So in that sense it’s almost a 24/7 job. You never leave it behind. But the pay-off is that it’s a skill you can take with you anywhere, at any time—something that definitely lends itself to an unconventional life. It has suited me very well over the course of the past ten years, when I was picking up and living in all sorts of different places! The challenging thing is the tendency that I have to read old work and feel discouraged by it—even and in some ways especially work that has already been published. You’re continually growing as a writer, and trying out new things, and the upshot of this is that those “finished”, published pieces inevitably fall under your revising eye again—you look at them a year or so down the road and think: if I could have it now, I’d change this word, or maybe I’d say this differently, etc. I find this a hard thing to grapple with. But then, every writer that I’ve ever admired has dealt with this, on some level. Flannery O’Connor published four versions of her short story “The Geranium” over the course of her lifetime, because each time she went back to a published version she saw different things about it that she wanted to change. And one of my instructors back in university used to talk about how she would revise pieces even at author readings—she’d be reading parts of her book to an audience and she’d revise things right in the act of speaking the words aloud. So it seems a necessary part of the game. An occupational hazard, I guess you’d call it.

JO: Can you share with us what books you are reading right now? How would you describe your reading tastes?

AL: Well, at the moment I’ve entered into a Canada Reads challenge with two other friends, so I’m reading The Tiger, by John Vaillant, and I have plans to get through the other four books on the shortlist by the end of January, 2012. I’m also about halfway through State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I’ve been a huge Ann Patchett fan ever since reading Bel Canto back in my undergraduate days, so to see how she’s progressed and matured as a writer is really quite fascinating. It gives me hope for my own writing in the future! My reading tastes in general are quite varied. This year I’ve been on a bit of a Canadian fiction kick, and my favourite read of the year was Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, followed closely by Trevor Cole’s Practical Jean. But I also read and adored the Inkheart series, by Cornelia Funke, and I will unabashedly admit to devouring the Twilight books when they first came out. (I didn’t think they were particularly well written, nor do I agree with them politically in the slightest, but I did devour them).

JO: Are there any specific writing projects that you are working on that you can share with us?

AL: I’m actually working on another novel right now. It just recently passed my 100 manuscript page milestone mark, which means that for me it now feels like a viable idea, something that could actually make it through to the finished novel stage. And that’s always a great feeling! I’ve also started thinking about a short story collection, which is a bit of a new thing for me. For the last few years I’ve focused almost exclusively on novels, so ruminating on a book of short stories—how to structure it, what to talk about, the different voices I can include—is a really refreshing departure from my usual writing. A bit scary, too, if I’m completely honest. But definitely a challenge I look forward to exploring.