Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Winter Classic

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After spending close to 1300 hours on the ice, or sitting in the Thirsty Penguin drinking certified cold Coors Lights with the boys, or standing in Jeff’s or Brent’s garage doing the same thing these past couple years — hell, even during a driveway chin-wag with Billy Day after he was finished reno-ing my bathroom — it’s come up more than a few times. My hockey buddies are curious, smart. And so in many different ways they’ve all asked: “This whole book business, Mikey, what’s that about?”

Answering, and discussing it with them, getting their take, I think, has given me a better sense of what I’ve been involved in for half my life. That’s the thing about beer league: context, perspective and, in no small measure, the tragicomedy of brutal truth.

The book business? Well, it could do with a bit of that, too, right?

I think I’ve finally come up with a succinct answer. And when the guy lacing up beside me or ducking his head into the beer fridge next asks, this is what I’m going to say: “Bud, because the whole damned business gets off so easy, it has it so damned hard.”

Maybe it’s because the planet’s been wobbling around its axis, realigned, and I’ve just been told my son’s not a Sagittarius; maybe it’s the Tylenol 3s I’ve been popping like candy to make this toothache recede; but I’m more than amused by the alternate universe I’ve been imagining for a week. Go ahead, you newborn Ophiuchians, ease into the codeine fog with me and picture a world where TSN, Sportsnet, ESPN, the Fan590 and the rest never heard of the NHL, NFL, NBA, MLB or any other major league acronym, where sports, in fact, no longer exist. And what if the focus of their programming were suddenly replaced with an entirely different entertainment/ obsession/ pastime — yup, with books.

Now, after the popping of cultured corks and fizzing of writerly bubbly has abated, after the publishers have “recovered” and booksellers have issued IPOs — after bookies replace bookies in the economic food chain — let’s consider what all the newfound, rabid attention actually means.

Instead of Alex the Gr8 and Sid the Kid, HBO’s been following Michael Ondaatje’s every wily veteran move since Anil’s Ghost, and they’re wondering, as he steps from the shower, along with all the other camera mics hovering in his face, how he feels about the graph he just revised on page 87 of his upcoming novel, The Cat’s Table. Someone with an old-fashioned tape recorder, from the print media, the guy who has got it in for all things Toronto (remember, this is a world where M&S is owned by the teachers who once owned MLSE), has the temerity to interrupt his thoughtful answer with a question/ insinuation about feeling pressured by Johanna Skibsrud’s latest numbers or that new Richler movie’s Hollywood buzz. Had the young guns taken things to a new level? Were old rivalries bigger than the game?

Can you blame him for falling back on those writer’s den clichés?

Records are made to be broken.
I’m giving 110 per cent.
That last sentence… sent a message today.
I’m taking it one word at a time.
You can feel the momentum swinging.
I have to stay focused…

And former Leafs plugger, current Caps bench boss, Bruce “Gabby” Boudreau? What if he’s replaced by Ken Babstock, or Kev Connolly, say, and they’re overheard plugging away at Anansi’s or Coach House’s poetry for next spring. Wouldn’t “Delete the !@%$#%@ semicolon and break the !@%$#%@ line here, you !@%$#%@ !@%$” make a lot of sense once the furor died? Really? Really? How do folks expect poets to talk in the locker room, er, editorial meeting?

It’s a tough business, and sometimes harsh things need to be said. To paraphrase Donald S. Cherry, What do you think avant garde lit is, a ballet on the page?

Which brings me to the latest waffle incident. Today our panel of Sportsnet insiders will discuss what the IFOA is going to do about the rabble. Have disgruntled season’s ticket holders finally forced their hand? Sure, Kipper, screaming “Leggomyeggo” and hurling tasty breakfast treats at Dutch short-story writers is as wrong as leaving your cellphone on while someone delivers a eulogy. Every good Canadian kid knows that. But when Geoffrey Taylor took over he promised “proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.” Can you really blame the locals for responding in kind? We’re talking Hogtown, Mac, and the refrain is “Fifty-Mission Cap,” not “I Want My MTV.” When is Harbourfront going to acknowledge T-dot deserves non-fiction that at least has a chance to make the playoffs? You know, the kind of thing the mayor recited, back in the bad old North York day, to the kids on the Newtonbrook gridiron. When you bleed blue and white you expect Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness, not Milan Kundera’s KHL knockoff; Justin Bieber and Russell Peters, not John Vaillant and Ian Brown. Real Oprah books for real Oprah people, GT, will stop the gravy train — and the Belgian rain.

Worse, what if your favourite team, I mean publisher, were scrutinized like the Canucks, Oil, Flames, Sens, Habs or Leafers? Shut out of the Giller or the GGs again, your authors drink their first cup of the day to Andrew Krystal telling folks making the morning commute that the “effort” in their books is undeniable — the problem is, simply, they’re “short on talent.” Three times an hour they hear it repeated, on the twenties: they’re just not good enough. It’s time to rebuild through the draft; the shelves are bare; you’ve gotta get worse before you get better; dump the contracts of the overpaid stiffs and let the slushpile kids play, the call-in show regulars say. By the time the Bobcat takes over for the afternoon drive, who can blame the shaken wordsmith for calling their agent and demanding a trade?

I don’t envy the folks at Westwood Creative, though. By 3:05 a superstar can go from A-list to fourth-line benchwarmer and no one’s dealing. Talk about shattering your confidence — being told you’re not worth a bucket of pucks and that Heather Reisman has pulled your novel from the remainder table in favour of a quick-moving scented candle.

It doesn’t matter that your team let you down — that your book was never “put into a position to succeed.”

No editorial direction, no publicity, no marketing? Questionable coaching, selfish linemates, no power play time? It doesn’t matter what the scouts said, pal: the cash register says your book sucks.

That’s the way of the world, thanks to the culture of immediacy and the 24-hour newscycle. Just business and nothing personal: it’s a salary-capped industry, and there’s no more capspace for you. Bookscan has got your number, and stats don’t lie. High five-figure advance, minus low four-figure sales, equals: applying to MFA programs, praying for teaching gigs and years of bitter resentment.

Decades from now, at one of those oldtimers’ charity readings, at least you’ll be able to say you made it to the show. Imagine being that 18-year-old writer, one period away from taking the world junior literary championship in front of the “hometown” crowd who travelled all the way to Buffalo to celebrate Canada’s victory over plastic-bottled Bud Light and Anchor Bar wings. Well, what happens when your syntax craps its pants and you lose the plot as some kids from Minsk channel Dostoevsky and Kharlamov, Tolstoy and Tretiak, Nabokov and Yakushev? What happens is: you go from hero to zero in less than 12 minutes, and a nation posts your picture beside the word “choke” in its online dictionary. Still dreaming of the Amazon First Book Award? Right. If you’re luck you’ll find a photocopy shop that’ll run 50 copies of your next chapbook….

It doesn’t matter if it’s astrologically or pharmacologically induced, the book world re-imagined under the glare of the overindulged, fanatical, obscenely rich and “easy” populist cultural dominance that is the spotlight cast on pro sports becomes a star-crossed, trippy dystopia. And really, books, and book folks, can’t handle the truth. Or at any rate, should never want to.

Yes, there’s a lot for writers and publishers, editors and booksellers to envy. Mark Knopfler’s infinite, ironic wisdom (get it, Mr. and Mrs. CRTC? — I mean, would Sting ever be involved with a literary device that wasn’t politically correct?) called it “money for nothin’ and chicks for free” back in the '80s. But the cost of all that attention, fame, and fortune is far too steep. The whole industry, in fact, would probably implode. Writers would stop writing anything that wasn’t, essentially, ad copy. Editors would never have the guts to take a chance on the unknown. Publishers would look for ways to eliminate the variables that writers and editors represent entirely. And booksellers would sell anything and everything but books. (Um….)

Instead, our whole little business survives on its own terms — from negligible profit margins to wild dreams about changing the world in a few lines of poetry. My hockey buddies, these past couple of years, have helped me understand this. To them it’s a mysterious, yeah, sometimes goofy place. But it’s also one they respect, because somewhere, deep down, they see it as being built on hard work and mutual respect and integrity (and “win or lose, drink the booze”) — just like a good beer league team.

Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes writes fiction, poetry, cultural criticism and literary journalism. His books of poetry include Parts Unknown, James I Wanted to Ask You, Satellite Dishes from the Future Bakery and Got No Flag at All. He is also the author of the novel Watermelon Row. His current project, Beer League, chronicles (among other things) the on- and off-ice exploits of the Oshawa Bulldogs. Holmes wears number 7. Since the early 1990s he has edited more than 150 titles for a variety of presses. He is now Senior Editor at ECW Press, where his imprint unleashes a half dozen or so new literary misFits on an unsuspecting world each year. He lives in Whitby with his wife and son.

Photo of Michael Holmes by Anna Ross.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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