Thursday, October 27, 2016

Without Editing, A Long Ride

I took  a ride with The Girl on the Train but found the journey a bit too long.

The Girl on the Train is the hugely successful thriller by British author Paula Hawkins. When it was released last year it broke book sale records. This year sales got another upward bump with release of the film version.

No one really needs my views on the book. However, just a couple pointers for those who have not read it yet: the timeline is kinky, - somewhat difficult to follow. You need to pay close attention to which of the three female narrators is talking, and on which dates.

An interesting part of the book is the author’s acknowledgements, which are completely ignored by everyone except people like me who not only write for a living, but consider writing their favourite pastime.

Ms. Hawkins acknowledges the many people who helped her with the book, noting she is very grateful to her “brilliant editors.” Her editors might indeed be brilliant in some ways, but they have ignored an important fact about readers.

Readers are time starved and want compressed stories. Not abridged stories. Not the 140-characters quick hits of Twitter or other social media sites offering bits and bits of information without depth or context.

Readers want stories that intelligent editors have read deeply, seeking and paring every not-absolutely-necessary scene, paragraph, sentence or even word. That involves cutting text that does not advance the story. If it doesn’t directly advance the storyline, it should not be there.

The Girl on the Train would have been a much better book if someone had spent the time to reduce it by 20,000 or 30,000 words. The book runs about 100,000 to 105,000 words by my guess.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald runs 47,000. Somerset Maugham’s classic The Painted Veil is about 60,000 words. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger 73,000.

The Girl on the Train contains some text that does not advance the story. It could easily have been 75,000 without losing any critical part of the story.

Obviously not every good book has to be a shorter length. Epics such as Gone with the Wind, which cover extended time periods, can be longer without trying the reader’s patience.

At any rate, the point is that many of today’s books, especially crime novels, need better editing.

Writers famously are afraid to “murder their darlings”. They see their words, phrases and descriptions as precious when in fact some are self-indulgent and do not move the story along for readers. The writer won’t kill them, so editors must do it for them.

(Incidentally, the phrase about killing your darlings has been attributed to almost every author going, especially William Faulkner and Stephen King. They both have used the phrase but the original author of the thought was British writer Arthur Quiller-Couch, who used it in his On the Art of Writing lectures in 1913-14). 

Unfortunately, editing excellence is fading in this age of turbo-capitalism. Publishing houses are like chicken factories. A book is fast fed, plumped up and zipped out to make room for the next one on the conveyor belt.

Good editing takes talent and time. Time is money and money is made these days with competitive speed that requires skimping on, or even eliminating, critical processes such as editing.

It is all about speed and volume, which is why The Girl on the Train sells at some Costco stores for under $7. Despite the lack of hard-nosed editing, it is a good read. Entertaining and well written.

Not so much the film version, according to the reviews. They have been mixed, roughly averaging a five out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie an average rating of 5.4, noting: "Emily Blunt's outstanding performance isn't enough to keep The Girl on the Train from sliding sluggishly into exploitative melodrama."

Rolling Stone was more positive: "The movie gives away the game faster than the novel, but Emily Blunt digs so deep into the role of a blackout drunk and maybe murderer that she raises Girl to the level of spellbinder."


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Blowin' in the Wind

It was a week of good news and bad news.

First came the good, and surprising, news that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Dylan’s songs changed popular culture. His lyrics became hymns for the civil rights and anti-war movements.

The bad, and also surprising, news was that yet another fine journalist is out of a job. Lee-Anne Goodman, a reporter who epitomizes bartender Dooley’s famous quote -  “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” -       is out at The Canadian Press, the country’s venerable news service.

Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in recent years. The reason I mention Ms. Goodman is that I worked with her for a number of years and respect her work. She reports stories that we all need to know in these complicated times, eschewing the easy bubbles and fluff crap that we see too much of these days.

When excellent journalists are pushed aside, society as a whole suffers. Excellent journalism truly is a pillar of democracy and when journalism  is eroded, so is democracy.

What’s happening in journalism is more than erosion. It is disintegration.

In the United States 25,000 journalists have been laid off since 2005 while digital publishers have created only 7,000 jobs. Those figures come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Canadian Media Guild reports 10,000 jobs cut from the print and broadcast industries between 2008 and 2013. The Guelph Mercury and Nanaimo Free Press dailies were shuttered earlier this year.

Postmedia, which owns two daily newspapers in several cities has combined staffs in Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver for a loss of 90 jobs.

The Toronto Star cut 52 journalism positions in August. Rogers Media has said it will print Maclean’s magazine only once a month, and an online version once a week. It is closing some other titles.

Fewer journalists means less poking and probing, uncovering and reporting information that citizens need to know. Like when Chad Ingram of this newspaper fought for and won access to the multi-million dollar contract between the province and Carillion Canada Inc., which county residents believe has provided  sub-standard winter highway maintenance.

As news outlets and journalists disappear, journalism retracts into the tight, homogenous thinking of big cities, like Toronto, Canada’s centre of journalism elitism. Toronto journalism knows little and cares little about anything beyond the metro area borders.

People in Guelph and Nanaimo and many other places like them are being deprived of information and viewpoints they must have to tell them what is happening and to form ideas on how to fix problems.

News media black holes are widening across the country. We hear and read less from other parts of our country and what problems they face, what successes they enjoy.

News executives, panicked by the ascent of digital news and the advertising it is drawing away from them, are dumping journalists to save money. The more they cut, the further the dumbing down of their news reports.  

They are focused on ways to regain lost revenues. What they need to focus on is providing stories so important, so compelling, so well reported and written that people are willing to pay for them. That type of thinking is beginning in other parts of the world, but regrettably not in Canada.

The collapse of journalism and its weakening of democracy has caught the attention of government. The House of Commons heritage committee is studying the news media crisis and is expected to make some recommendations this fall. Other government studies – the Kent Royal Commission on Newspapers and the Davey Special Committee on Mass Media – have done nothing but collect dust.

Meanwhile, astute observers of the news industry expect that most printed daily newspapers will be gone within the next 10 years.

While politicians ponder their belly buttons and news executives panic, questions go unanswered.

Like, how many injustices exist out there with too few journalists to see? The answer is same one Bob Dylan wrote four decades ago.

“The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Taking A Break from Government

Finally there is an escape route from the nightmare in the United States. How did we not think of it before? It has been in front of us for 10 months.

The nightmare, of course, is that country’s presidential election. It features a 70-year-old tantrumic child and a 68-year-old robotic opportunist who he accuses of being unfaithful to her husband, who has been unfaithful to her.

So Americans have a choice between a vulgarian with the attention span of a grasshopper and an automaton devoid of emotion and human touch.

Voters don’t want either as president (can you blame them?), but they don’t have any other choice. At least, they thought they didn’t.

All they have to do is look to Spain. It has been without a functional national government for almost a year now, and is getting along quite nicely.

A few days before Christmas last year Spaniards voted, but failed to give any party a majority. Negotiations to form a coalition government failed. Another election was held in June but no party won a majority, and more negotiations for a coalition also failed.

So Spain’s 47 million citizens were left without a working national government. There is a “caretaker” government, but it has little power to do anything. It can’t fill diplomatic posts. It can’t appoint cabinet ministers, nor can it approve next year’s budget, which is supposed to be in place by now.

No laws have been passed by the Spanish Parliament since late last year. Critical decisions are left unmade. Most parliamentarians are out trawling for votes for the next election, or involved in continuing negotiations to create a coalition government.

Local governments are still at work. Public transportation is running, garbage is being picked up and those on welfare are receiving their cheques.

Few Spaniards appear to be upset by not having a functioning federal government. One poll showed that only 2.3 per cent of the population considered this a serious problem.

News reports from Spain show more satisfaction than concern.

We’ve done very well without a government . . . perhaps the best half year of Spanish politics in at least the last decade,Gabriel Calzada, an economist, wrote in a daily business publication.

No government, no thieves,” Félix Pastor, a language teacher, told the New York Times. Pastor said the people of Spain were better without a government because the politicians were unable to cause any more harm.

The Times also interviewed Rafael Navarro, a 71-year old pharmacy owner in Madrid, who said too little government is better than too much.

Spain would be just fine if we got rid of most of the politicians and three-fourths of government employees,” he said.

Polls show that a majority of Spaniards believe that most of their public services work only “a little” or “not at all.”

Polling data also shows they are fed up with fraud and corruption and with politics, politicians and political parties. A whopping 86.6% believe the tax system is unfair and 94.6% believe it is riddled with fraud.

That should sound familiar in America where potential president Trump has not paid federal income taxes for a couple of decades.

Americans should follow the Spanish lead. Don’t elect anyone. Better still just call off the election. Let the lame-duck Obama administration carry on for a bit longer while Trump, Clinton and the other politicians behind them get psychiatric help.

Being without a functioning government would not be a calamity for Americans.  Their Congress already is so divided that it can’t get anything done. It shut down government temporarily because of disagreement over health care law, and has argued and stalled anything that might improve the lives of Americans.

American politicians, and politicians in many other democracies, are divided and becoming more polarized every year. There is no compromise – or little effort to even discuss compromise – on the big issues such as economic policy, immigration, racism, security.

It’s time they all take a break and sit down to discuss how the system is broken, and what can be done to get it functioning properly.

It seems to be working for Spain.