Monday, March 29, 2010
Trawling the Internet for B.C.'s best 100 books
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 29, 2010
A writer and a photographer join a publisher for lunch. In short order, the conversation turns to books.
As they enjoy dishes at the Cafe Ceylon, whose purple sheers obscure the traffic of busy Cook Street, the merits of various authors are discussed. Hosannas are sung, the odd raspberry offered.
She’s incredible. He’s unremarkable. That book is overrated. That slim volume is an unknown gem. Of course, we can’t be talking British Columbia letters without including Him. Or Her.
An idea hatches.
Before anyone has a chance to order jaggery pudding for dessert, they settle on an idea.
What about a book about British Columbia’s best books?
“I know that’s not how books are done,” said Linda L. Richards, an author who has five mysteries and four non-fiction titles to her credit. “We didn’t go into a meeting with notes. We were just talking about great books.”
Ms. Richards (the writer at the lunch) and her romantic and business partner, David Middleton (the photographer), agreed to create a book for Ruth Linka (the publisher) of Victoria’s TouchWood Editions.
(Both have worked for the house, Linda as an editor, and David a designer. He recently handled a cover for a novel, depicting a stiletto-heeled shoe with spilled blood on the toe.)
The title was easy and self-explanatory: “The Greatest 100 Books of British Columbia.”
The obvious problem was how to come up with a definitive list in a province with so rich a literary heritage, where every selection was inevitably going to be second guessed, where folks of good intent could disagree vehemently on so subjective a quest.
How do you build a pantheon?
In this age, you hit the Internet.
The typical schedule for a book is as follows: Writer works in obscurity to deliver manuscript, publisher transforms scribbles into marketable commodity complete with colourful dustjacket, writer hits the bricks under publisher’s publicity campaign to push product.
In this case, the campaign comes first.
Earlier this month, the authors launched a website — greatest100books.com — calling on visitors to submit their lists. In the age of social media, they’ve also hit Facebook (85 fans as of 2:53 p.m. yesterday) and Twitter (192 followers).
We use lists as a means of sorting a complicated and confusing world. We have lists of top-10 hits and lists of one-hit wonders; lists of best-dressed and worst-dressed actors at the Oscars; end-of-year (or decade) lists are a staple of newspapers and magazines, and a certain way of filling space on days lacking news.
Ms. Richards, who was born in Vancouver, is the daughter of Karl Huber, a portraitist and postcard photographer. She grew up in Munich and Los Angeles, where she studied journalism and graphic design. For a time, she was a reporter with the suburban Delta Optimist, where she covered the police beat and wrote restaurant reviews. She later became art director of The Computer Paper, wrote an early business guide to the Internet. “I’m geek girl,” she declares happily.
In 1997, she and Mr. Middleton co-founded and launched January Magazine, an online site dedicated to “a cool conversation about books and authors.” Within three weeks, Yahoo named it “site of the day” and they went from near-obscurity to 14,000 hits overnight. “It was like heroin for me,” she said. “It was a drug.” The site continues to thrive today.
She has had critical success with her hard-boiled detective novels, some set in the province. The Chicago Tribune called her “Death Was the Other Woman” “a must-read for palookas.”
The authors are leaving it up to contributors to determine the definition of a B.C. writer, whether born here, living her, or writing with the province as the setting. That broad definition can even include, one supposes, Malcolm Lowry, who completed “Under the Volcano” while living in a squatter’s shack at Dollarton.
Still in the early stages of a book not scheduled to be published until the fall of 2011, Ms. Richards has yet to compile her own Hot One Hundred. She expects to read many submissions suggesting the likes of the poet P.K. Page, fishy non-fiction writer Roderick Haig-Brown, and William Gibson (the sci-fi guy).
Lists are irresistible. How dare you not submit one of your own, lest some other reader of less-discerning acumen trump your favourites?
Pruning will be brutal. Just think of the voluminous works by the prolific likes of Pierre Berton, George Woodcock, and George (formerly Douglas) Fetherling, each of whom could have their own personal book-of-the-month club lasting for years without repeating a title.
Can’t forget Alice Munro, or Carol Shields, or Audrey Thomas, or Dorothy Livesay.
Does anyone in the province write prose as crystalline-pure as 93-year-old Edith Iglauer? Her experiences as a novice aboard a commercial salmon troller in “Fishing With John,” an inadvertent love story, won a deserved Governor General’s award for non-fiction.
And how can you not include a work by George Bowering, Canada’s first poet laureate and a two-time GG winner for poetry and fiction?
What about Howard White, also a publisher, who has a Leacock Award for humour to his credit, but whose unforgettable “A Hard Man to Beat,” a biography of labour leader Bill White, is one a rare non-fiction book worthy of more than one reading?
The political columnist Vaughn Palmer would undoubtedly champion a work by Bruce Hutchison, who had three — count ‘em, 3 — GG awards in non-fiction.
I’d find space in my 100 titles to include “Never Shoot A Stampede Queen,” Mark Leiren-Young’s hilarious memoir of his stint as a cub reporter on the Williams Lake Tribune, and, “Guilty of Everything,” John (Buck Cherry) Armstrong’s liquids-through-the-nose-funny account of his punk years as frontman of the Modernettes.
There’re so many others. Let the culling begin.