Friday, October 25, 2013

Taiwan #3: the work of Chang Chao-tang

In Taipei over the weekend, I saw one of the most interesting exhibitions I have seen in many years. It was a retrospective of the work of Taiwanese photographer, Chang Chao-tang.

Born in 1943, Chang is one of Taiwan's best-known photographers and his career spans some of the island's most tumultuous historical periods: from the early 1960s when the island was still agricultural and rural to the dizzying heights of the 2000s when Taipei became one of the Asian Tigers and became highly urbanized and developed.

What strikes me about his body of work is how it reflects the cultural and artistic changes in both Asia and the Western world. His youthful work is bold and realist, almost naturalistic, and I kept thinking while viewing his photos from this period, that he was a 17 year old kid, walking through the neighborhoods of Taipei, asking strangers (workers, farmers, children) if he could take their photos. The images are bold, arresting and even shocking. They show us, as one critic noted, "his innate character when viewing the world - engaged yet observant, extremely calm, not removed yet not intrusive, with a faint atmosphere of doubt and questioning, behind which loomed a potent love for everything that exists."

Once Chang is into his mid to late 20s, his work becomes imbibed with Western cultural trends:
Wuchihshan, Sinchu, Taiwan, 1962
existentialism, avant garde conceptual sorts of framing, ghostly images that are experimental, especially in light of his earlier work. These are often blurry images with decapitated figures, indistinct facial features, done in barren landscapes in between rural struggle and idealism and the heady shiny developed cities of more recent times: the landscapes serve to underscore the importance of the body - new images of the body, in fact - and the oppression and political suffocation which the country was experiencing.

His later work strikes one on a very basic level as some Chinese equivalent of Annie Leibovitz since it's so involved with documenting the lives of the country's writers and artists. Chang's work is less conceptual and far be it from me to criticize a well-known artist like Leibovitz, but I'm drawn more to Chang's images. They are edgier, more about the the bone structure of individual faces, more naturalistic with juxtaposed artists and environments; stories seem to hang over each image. Chang's photographs from this time in his career document writers, musicians, puppeteers and other artists of Taiwan. These range from youthful images of poets from the early 1970s to more contemporary images of painters and visual artists from the early 2000s. Nearly every image on display contained a story I wanted to access.

As I was leaving the exhibit on Sunday, a rare treat: Mr. Chang himself just happened to be passing through. I got to shake his hand, briefly tell him how much I appreciated seeing his work (which is always an awkward way to interact with an artist, I believe) and he was on his way, camera around his neck, still out on the street each day, documenting what he sees and experiences. We should all be so involved at 70 years old!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Leonardo Padura coming into his own...

I was so happy to see this Jon Lee Anderson piece on Leonardo Padura in the New Yorker last week. I've been writing about Padura for a while, before he even came to our Festival in 2012. His events didn't get as much buzz as I'd have liked and I was pounding the pavement with his books, trying hard to sell them and sell his events, but his participation lacked the buzz that some other events had.

This is a tricky part of programming a literary festival: of course, my job is to "sell" all the events and writers associated with the festival each year, but the public and the media seem so fickle at times, and it's not always easy to predict which authors will capture the public's imagination or interest. And every year, naturally, I have my favourite books or authors that I try hard to get the public and media interested in. It doesn't always work.

So I thought I'd take this opportunity to sell Padura again: he truly is one of the most interesting writers working today, not only in Cuba but in the Caribbean broadly. He writes these almost 19th century crime novels that present a complex and intricate view of life in modern Havana. Because his characters live in Cuba, there are no smart phones or Internet so the novels recall the past in tone and function. His novel Havana Fever shows his protagonist, Mario Conde, as he adjusts to his retirement. He becomes involved in book selling (which sets up a beautiful metaphor about the role that books play in modern life) and then comes across an article about a mysterious bolero singer who disappeared in the 1950s.

Padura has also written a more political novel (as of yet untranslated into English) as well as a book on Hemingway. As Anderson puts it in his piece, "For Cuba's intellectuals, and for its professional class, a new Padura book is as much a document as a novel, a way of understanding Cuban reality."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Taiwan #2: Country of Artists

I've really been struck on this trip at how much art and culture there is in this country. And how art/culture seem to be going hand in hand with development.

Detail on tea shop door
In Dadaocheng, a very old market neighborhood that has been in steep decline since the mid-century, small entrepreneurs are moving in, taking over old spaces and creating ceramics workshops, cafes, boutiques, bars and bike shops. The patchiness of these shops is evidence of its newness: there are still ramshackle tiled buildings that are grimy and full of junk. But that only underscores the beauty and sheen of the newly done shops.

The city government assists in the renovations and cleaning up of these older buildings. And there are limitations as to what kinds of business are allowed to take advantage of these funds. No office buildings. No factories. Only things which are related to culture.

In other neighborhoods, too, there is an abundance of excellent graphic design, great little boutiques that sell lovely designs by local designers. Much of it is in neighborhoods that are being redeveloped.

Detail on garage door
Of course, this raises other issues such as what happens to the working class when they are priced out of their neighborhoods. In a very expensive city like Taipei, these are not inconsiderable things to keep in mind. And it's a balance that cities throughout the world struggle with between encouraging development and artistic expression while limiting the open faced effects of capitalism on the real estate market.

Near Longshan temple, there is a preserved neighborhood that is intentionally kept empty. There must be enormous pressures on the city government to open the space up to rentals or leases for private companies but they keep the space free for art events and festivals. They manage to keep it looking pristine and beautiful, a preserved section of the past that underscores the importance of national pride in the uniqueness of this small country's story.

Overall, culture seems to be flourishing and both government and business seem to be working hard to promote local art, literature and culture.

As we know and as we have seen in much of the world, art rarely can survive on a local scale without government intervention. And though the costs are not exorbinant, the payoffs are enormous: would there be a thriving Korean cinema scene without the money the Korean government spent 15 years ago to ensure that Korean cinema be made? And in Canada and Quebec, we can thank in part the government for being willing to promote our writers, artists, dancers and designers. Though only a few make it "international" each year, Canadians know their own writers. Quebecois know their own aritsts and musicians. That means a lot.

Renovated old mansion

Preserved area near Longshan Temple

Friday, October 18, 2013

Taiwan #1: Local writers vs. International stars

One thing that surprises me as I travel for work is the fact that the struggle for writers today is the same all over the world. Sitting in a cafe in a small Taiwanese city, discussing the work and writing lives of some local writers, I am struck with the fact that none of them can make a living writing from their work. They all have full-time jobs.

This has been a problem for writers for many many generations, but it seems to be getting worse. When I look at the best-sellers in Taiwan, what is it that's selling here? Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey, Dan Brown.

Why do I see these books on the best-seller lists in nearly every country I visit? Is there really something in these books which has captured the imagination of the entire world? Or does it have to do more with marketing and how these authors are sold to us?

Confucius Temple, Tainan
I've said it before, but why is it that we can't spread out money and reading out? Why can't we support more of our own local writers?

I think the situation is solid in Canada and in Quebec. Yes, writers struggle but there are Canadian writers that do well, that can make a living on local readers only. Not a lot of these writers, but some. Whereas, I think in Taiwan (population 25 million) it's extremely rare.

The government and private companies willing to spend money promoting Canadian writing and culture is having enormous benefits. Most of the literary prizes in Taiwan are newish so the rewards are not out there yet. If they can keep at it, I have little doubt that Taiwan writers will start to get better known, both inside and outside the country.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Americans and the Nobel: Perennial whining

With apologies if my gripe is too whiny or negative...

I feel like I write about this every year but every year, after the Nobel prize is awarded, there are such typical reactions in the American media. First it`s accusations that the Nobel has chosen someone "obscure" or "unknown" as if the US media is the arbiter of all that's "known" in the literary world.

Roth: maybe one day
But this year, with our dear Alice Munro, they can hardly say that the committee has chosen an "unknown" writer, so the whine is that so few Americans have won. Again, this seems so terribly America-centric. Why do American literary writers think that the US is the center of the writing world?

For some small newspaper or provincial website, I guess I can understand since Americans can be so terribly nationalistic. But even the New Yorker whines on this point.

So let's consider: since its founding, the Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to :13 French writers,
12 German writers, 9 British writers (lots of Swedes, Norwegians, some Italians, etc.). It's been awarded to 10 Americans, including those who have dual backgrounds (like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Czeslaw Milosz). I guess I don't see why these numbers represent "few" Americans.

It's true that an American hasn't won this prize since 1993 when Toni Morrison won so perhaps the gripe is more a recent reality. Even so, when one considers the Europe-centric laureates in the past, it shouldn't be a surprise. A prize is not pure. There are political considerations, tastes that come in and out of fashion, and the fact that the Nobel prize tends to jump around a bit (so they won't award the prize to a French writer two years in a row, for example). Also, there are lots of great writers who live outside the US. Go figure!

The prize is not representative of democracy. In other words, a country with a big population won't
Oates: maybe someday
necessarily win more Nobel prizes than a country with a smll population. China has won once (twice if one counts Gao Xingjian, whom the Chinese don't usually count). Japan's won twice. These are not small countries. Scandinavian countries, which represent a fraction of most of the world's larger countries, have won 14 times.

To me these gripes get at the heart of America-centrism that is so key to so much of its problems: as if the American way, the American approach, American values, art, culture are somehow the envy of the world or the thing which is the standard.

America is but one country. An important country, yes, with some important writers. But this argument (from the New Yorker)  that not choosing an American winner is reflective of some political prejudice (from a writer who clearly doesn't know much about "international" literature) is just stupid.  And dangerous because it just underscores the insularity that so many (even worldy, educated) Americans have about the world.

It reminds me of a Chinese guy I talked to once who told me that he only eats Chinese food because it's so varied and so encompassing. And "foreign food" is too bland and too much of the same. In his very limited and underdeveloped mind, there were two choices: Chinese and not-Chinese and the entire complexity, history and variety of all "non-Chinese" cooking was one blanket category in his mind.

Or a friend in the US who was arguing with me about US politics, who asked me which newspapers I read: The NYT, the Guardian, the Globe & Mail, Le Monde and the South China Morning Post (not every day but I read those and more regularly). He reads the Seattle Times. His analysis: that my papers were "anti-American" and his paper had the "correct" view of the situation. Oy.

I say the above as an American, mind you. An American who has lived outside the US for the majority of my adult life. I probably get much more worked up about this than any America-phobe I know!

(Sidebar: the article also suggests the criticisms of the Booker prize for opening up the criteria to include Americans is based in prejudice. Could be true. But is there a single major US literary prize that considers writers who AREN'T American? Has there been a British National Book Award winner recently? A Japanese Pulitzer prize winner?)

An American will win the Nobel when it produces a writer good enough to compete with all the excellent writers who live outside the US.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro and the Nobel Prize

Hey this is really good news. Not terribly shocking, I must say, and a more conventional choice that Nobel committee has been making in the last few years. Except Llosa. And that's not to say that she doesn't deserve it, God knows. I also like that the committee has selected someone who writes short stories as her main medium. I can't think of another Nobel laureate who is known mainly for short stories, at least not in recent memory.

You go, girl
As per usual, Americans gripe that an American hasn't won in 20 years (Toni Morrison in 1993) which I always find incredibly irritating. Even the New York Times did it this morning. As if all or most writers come from the US. Yes, there are many famous writers in the USA but fame is not itself a criteria for the Nobel. (Sidebar: what is this obsession with fame? Americans - and Canadians for that matter - often equate fame with quality.) That said, I don't recall Canadian media outlets griping each year that a Canadian hasn't won when they award it to someone else.

I thought Murakami would be up there but maybe he's still too youngish. That said, only two other Japanese have won, Kenzaburo Oe (the year after Morrison) and Yasunari Kawabata way back in like 1968. I was also thinking perhaps Umberto Eco might be on the list though he often isn't listed there in the possible laureates.

We've been working on Alice for a few years, a number of years more like it. But she's not been in the greatest of health, so we've had no luck. I'm sure she'll manage to rest up to fly to Oslo to accept this, though. It's funny because I was just talking about Alice Munro last night to our board, an event that we are planning involving her work at the 2014 Festival.

So when it happens in late April, remember: it wasn't because she won the Nobel prize!

Anyway, it's a first for Canada! I believe? And will generate interest in her work (which has managed to do well for many years anyway).

Great news.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What the public often doesn't understand about Festival programming

It's a tricky balance, programming a big literary Festival like Blue Met. On the one hand, people like stars, people like to come and hear writers they know talk about books they've read. The media prefer stars, and when we have Festival years with some big names, we get bombarded with media requests.

Franzen: our most requested author.
But we can't just invite stars. First of all, they're expensive. I often surprise people who assume that writers come for free (just their expenses covered) in order to promote their books. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. A big US writing star who is a well-known name can easily cost upwards of $30,000, not to mention first class airfare, etc. For one appearance. Yes, it's true, there are a limited number of those kinds of writers, but these authors represent the standard list of writers we get from people making suggestions. In other words, these are often the writers people recommend to us.

Think about it from the writer's point of view: their job is to sit in a room alone and think quietly, tapping into a computer. Their job is not to be on stage, not to sign books, not to shake hands with strangers and go to shwanky dinners. It's a part of it, sure, but the most important part is the first part. So writers need quiet time in their homes to do this. Some love the public aspect of it but big star writers will get dozens, maybe hundreds, of invitations a year. They can't do them all. And one way to "weed" requests out is to charge for an appearance.

Some writers even charge for an appearance when they have a book to promote. In other words, they don't even need to tour to sell books.

Yes, connections help but only a bit. I am thinking of a very well known youngerish writer
Carofiglio: not a household name but immensely successful event
who lives on the West Coast of the US. His going rate is $30,000 plus business class airfare from San Francisco (near where he lives). I know someone who knows him and his wife. But what he says is that he has to set his speaking fee at this amount so that he only has to do a few speaking engagements a year. This makes it worth his while, and can spend the rest of his time at home writing. It's about setting priorities. And for anyone who travels a lot for work: travelling frequently gets really old.

Of course, not all writers costs $30,000 but many cost $10,000 or $15,000. It's hard to get a big US, Canadian, French or British "star" writer for less than that (though sometimes we get lucky).

What I often hear next from our public is, "Well, Montreal is a place where people love to visit so that should make it easier to get a writer to come." Yes. But mainly no. When you're a big name writer and you do 10 literary Festivals in one season, you really don't care where it is (with a few exceptions). You might be there three or four days, have an event or two each day, but the rest of the time you're in a hotel room, in airports, in taxis, around strangers. There's nothing "Montreal" about that kind of experience.

Also, we're not considered a big market by book publishers. We might fill a room with audience members, but unless we sell books, the publisher doesn't really care. As a general rule (media attention counts for something, but in the end, it's about books). That's why we are always harping on about buying books: if we don't sell books, publishers are less likely to work with us.

None of this to say that it's impossible to get big stars. We have a budget but we have to spend it very wisely. Again, it's about balance. Part of what we do is bring (some) stars but part of what we do is introduce new or lesser known writers to our public. Some of our most talked-about events, in fact, have been with writers that are hardly household names.

I'm often irritated when I see the programming choices of certain big Festivals: star, star, star, star, star. As if that takes any creativity at all. If one's budget is high enough, of course, it's easy to just tick off a list of the biggest writers around. But that doesn't make an interesting literary Festival in my mind. Or perhaps our audience expect more than that. I like to think it's the sophisticated taste of Montreal readers.

Along with some big names, it's also about creativity and variety: doing events which are appealing to our audience and don't cost $20,000 to put on, doing events which appeal to different age groups, different backgrounds, creating discussions which get people thinking. Introducing a new writer to our audience.

It's like putting together a giant puzzle every April, making sure the pieces fit together, making sure it all comes together to represent a beautiful and colourful picture.