Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Smoky the Cowhorse and Other Fictions

The inside jacket text of my library copy of the Newbery medalist for 1927, Will James's Smoky the Cowhorse, says that "A cowboy, son of a cowman, Will James was born in a covered wagon in Montana." Well, no, he wasn't. As a matter of fact, James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d'Acton, Quebec, Canada. I do not know precisely where he was born, but covered wagons would have been extremely uncommon in Quebec even in 1892, so it seems safe to assume that this detail too was fictionalized. Dufault learned wrangling and other cowboy skills when he relocated to Saskatchewan as a young man, so it also seems likely his father wasn't a cowman, which like covered wagons would have been almost unknown in nineteenth century Quebec where cattle herds were too small to require specialized staff. Dufault changed his name to William Roderick James when he fled Saskatchewan for the States after being accused of cattle theft. After several years of drifting and working at this and that, he was arrested for cattle theft in Nevada and served 15 months in prison. Upon his release he spent some time working as a movie stuntman and then served a year in the U.S. army during World War I. When the war ended, he worked as a wrangler, and sold his first book, after which he made his living from writing and probably also with the various ranches he bought with the proceeds of his books, until his death from alcoholism in 1942.

The dust jacket quotes James as saying, "I write for everybody like I would talk to friends who are interested in what I have to say," and Smoky the Cowhorse is written in what is purportedly a written version of a cowboy's tall tale, but even before I finished the book and did the internet research that told me James was not who he claimed to be, I didn't buy it. Those who genuinely speak an authentic regional or cultural English dialect always write in standard English prose to the best of their abilities when it comes to putting words on paper, unless they are reproducing a dialect in a dialogue between characters, and even then it's best to use a light touch in terms of misspellings and grammatical errors so as not to make the text too unreadable or to make the character sound too caricatured or ignorant. To write an entire book in a cowboy's supposed semi-literate folksy vernacular is an irritating affectation, especially when said cowboy uses words like "eddication" or "crethure" but has no apparent difficulty with the correct spellings of "commotion", "functioning", and "superintendent". My subsequent discovery that James was actually French-Canadian did nothing to decrease my annoyance.

Like the 1926 Newbery medalist Shen of the Sea, Smoky the Cowhorse is another example of a regrettable faux exoticism that seems to have deceived and dazzled early Newbery selection committees again and again. To be fair, they weren't the only ones taken in by James's folksy act. In 1930, Will James wrote a fictionalized autobiography, Lone Cowboy, which became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and even my library copy of Smoky the Cowhorse which, as I've said, features James's fictional biographical information on its dust jacket, appears to have been published circa 1980, which means that his personae may have remained intact as late as that. It's astounding to think how much our contemporary easy access to information has changed such things.

There are occasional modern day cases of authors slipping fictionalized memoirs by their publishers, such as Norma Khouri's Forbidden Love, or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but these days such fabricators are rare and are generally caught out within a year or two of publication. Fabricated biographical details used to be much more common. It used to be standard practice for movie studios to demand that their contracted actors and actresses change their names, lie about their ages, and even pass their illegitimate children off as much younger siblings if not deny their existence completely, but now it's so easy for anyone with internet access to check IMDB that no one bothers. There is still quite a lot of lying among politicians, but it's usually promptly and gleefully called out by the likes of Jon Stewart or John Oliver. Unfortunately too many citizens continue to embrace the lies circulated by those too shameless, too dysfunctional, and too greedy and power-mad to ever admit that they've been lying no matter how high the evidence is stacked against them, but these days the truth is usually out there for anyone who cares to seek it, and human beings have long hated being lied to and have little respect for liars once they know the truth. I didn't hear too many people defending James Frey when he appeared on Oprah after his memoir's debunking and Oprah Winfrey all but turned him over her knee. A book written in a fake dialect would never be published by a traditional publisher now, much less selected for a major literary award.

That's not to say Smoky the Cowhorse is completely inauthentic. James did indeed work as a cowboy, he was a rancher, and he knew, and I suspect deeply loved, horses. Smoky the Cowhorse relates to us the life of a cowhorse from the time of his birth on the range through his training and work as a cowhorse, his subsequent theft, and his passing through the hands of various owners and change of names and work as he becomes by turn a rodeo bronco, a riding horse rented out by the day, and a broken down plow and cart horse destined for the knackers, before he is finally rescued by and reunited with Clint, the cowboy who originally broke him in and loved him. It's a narrative arc very similar to that of Black Beauty's, and though as a literary effort Smoky the Cowhorse is far inferior to Black Beauty (I pined for Black Beauty's perfect prose the entire time I was reading it), James's anger over the extent of the cruelty and neglect a horse could endure from its owner is as palpable as Anna Sewell's ever was.

The deliberately misspelled and ungrammatical prose of this book makes it a tedious chore to read, and the opening chapters that describe Smoky's early years running free on the range are very boring, but I haven't even gotten to the book's ugliest flaw: its racism. The horse thief who steals Smoky is described as "being a half breed of Mexican and other blood that's darker... a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring, and with no pride", and is referred to through the subsequent pages as "the breed". I don't even know where to start when it comes to deconstructing that appallingly racist characterization, and it only gets more disgusting when I consider James's own history as a cattle thief. And it gets worse. Because of his treatment at the hands of the horse thief, Smoky becomes a horse who hates all men of colour, or as James so delicately puts it, "his hate was plainest for the face that showed dark". I have no real experience with horses, but I am very, very skeptical that this would even happen.

Then, in a later incident, when Clint finds Smoky again and subjects his abusive owner, whom we have been given to understand is non-white, to a horse whipping, a sheriff approaches Clint, grins, and says, "Say, cowboy... don't scatter that hombre's remains too much; you know we got to keep record of that kind the same as if it was a white man, and I don't want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was." Clint then proceeds to go "back to his victim and broke the butt end of the whip over his head" as the sheriff watches. Smoky's former owner goes to jail for animal cruelty, but Clint faces no consequences for assault. He gets to take Smoky home with him and then "spend the evening 'investigating' with the sheriff". His vigilante assault is considered to be not only just deserts but a joke, and he is elevated to the level of a de facto officer of the law who works with the sheriff as an equal. I don't believe for one minute that a native American or a Mexican who had attacked a white horse owner for animal cruelty would have escaped any consequences for his actions in the American west of the 1920s. While a white cowboy like Clint who attacked a "hombre" for his treatment of his horse may well have gotten away with it in that time and place, James's representation of it as a just and even satisfying turn of events is unacceptable.

Between the poor and affected quality of its prose, the dullness of its opening chapters, and the stunningly bigoted treatment of its non white characters, this is not a book that deserves to still be in print, but it is, because that is the power of the Newbery medal. Choose well, future Newbery committee members. You really do not want a Smoky the Cowhorse to be your legacy.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

An Uninvincible Biography

The Newbery medalist for 1934, Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women, by Cornelia Meigs, hasn't aged well. But then biographies don't tend to. Continued historical research efforts into a subject of interest and scientific advances as well as the greater ease of access made possible by computerization and the rise of the internet means that the amount of biographical information available tends to grow rather than decrease, and very often an old biography proves to be not only incomplete but incorrect. Then too, the standpoint from which we view and analyze a historical subject can change radically.

Such is the case with Invincible Louisa. I wasn't far into my re-read of this book (I first read it as a teenager) before I decided I'd have to track down and read a more modern biography in order to assess the accuracy and worth of Invincible Louisa. These days there are many books available which treat not only Louisa May Alcott's life but also the other members of her exceptionally talented and accomplished family, but the one I chose was Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen, which from what I can tell seems solidly researched and written, though I will say I was taken aback by the several errors Reisen makes in her references to the text of Little Women (i.e., she writes that Beth March was sixteen when she died when Beth actually would have been twenty or twenty-one, and she refers to the twins Daisy and Demi Brooke as Jo's children when they were Meg's). I expected better accuracy from someone who describes herself as a passionate Alcott fan, especially when these textual references were so easy to verify. However, I am here to review Invicible Louisa rather than Reisen's book.

As I wrote above, Invincible Louisa, while it would have been solidly researched and written for its time, has been supplanted in its usefulness by more modern biographies. Modern biographers like Reisen have access to much greater mass of material than Meigs: more Alcott family correspondence and other writings as well as newspapers and city records, and more records of interviews with those who knew Alcott personally, as well as a great deal of Alcott's own fiction that was unknown in the thirties and has been rediscovered since, and the result is a fuller, more nuanced picture of who Alcott was and what her life and circumstances were. Meigs paints a portrait of the Alcotts as a family that lived on love and intellectual stimulation and took poverty in its cheerful stride. In Reisen's account, Reisen goes into much greater detail about Alcott's family background and her parents' early lives and marriage, and then relates how Bronson and Abba Alcott spent so irresponsibly and were so cavalier about debt that at one point they owed their various creditors the astounding sum of $6,000. (According to an online calculator I consulted, $6000 in 1850 dollars is the equivalent of $177,777.89 in 2015 dollars.) Bronson and Abba Alcott not only had no expectation or hope of ever repaying their debts but were none too concerned about it. Abba's well-to-do relatives became unwilling to lend them money outright and instead would take steps to safeguard any gifts of money by such measures as arranging a line of credit at the grocer's, and Abba was outraged by the terms of her father's will, which tied up her inheritance in an effort to keep the Alcotts from wasting it. This picture is a far cry from the kind of noble privation Meigs writes about, and it gets even darker when one considers Reisen's suggestion that Bronson Alcott may have been unable to earn a decent living for his family due to his suffering from some form of unrecognized and untreated mental illness. More sobering as Reisen's account may be, I much prefer it to Meigs' prettified version. It's far more interesting, for one thing. It's always better to know the truth of a matter, and the sentimentalization and oversimplification of poverty, with the accompanying claim that poverty's solution lies in rugged individualism, is a long-standing pernicious myth in North American society and one that can't be deconstructed often enough.

Speaking of pernicious forces, I can say the same of Meigs' sickly sweet portrayal of Louisa May Alcott herself as the dutiful, self-sacrificing daughter who never thought of herself and died just two days after her father, with her life's primary mission accomplished. Here are the closing sentences of Invincible Louisa:

When she died, she did not know that Bronson Alcott had gone just before her. What she did know was that she had taken care of him to the very last of his needing her, that she had been able to guard and protect and watch over the entire family. That, indeed, was happy ending; that was the whole of what she had wanted from life -- just to take care of them all.

You'll have to excuse me while I unroll my eyes. Meigs is asking us to believe that Louisa May Alcott, an ambitious, driven, passionate, moody, impatient, complex, talented, sophisticated, and intelligent woman, asked nothing more from life than to care for her family, and that's not a proposition that makes any sense even on its face. Reisen's account, which is supported by her references to historical documentation, is again a less simplistic view. Alcott was generous, she did love her family, and she did greatly enjoy providing them with the kind of easy, comfortable lifestyle she wanted them to have. But she was no saint, nor simple-minded, and there were other motives and emotions at play. She sometimes feared she was more loved as a moneymaker than as a daughter. She adored her young sister May (the counterpart of Amy March), but Alcott felt some resentment over the fact that her sister had an easier life than herself thanks partly to Alcott's efforts and partly to May's sunnier gifts: her more admired golden-haired looks, her gracious personality, and her even temperament. Alcott complained that May "always had the cream of things". As in Little Women where Amy is invited to go on a European tour with her aunt and cousin while Jo remains at home, the Alcotts' wealthy and well-connected relatives were quicker to be generous with the gentle, grateful May than the sharp-tongued, independent Louisa. Then too, Alcott's generosity wasn't without an ulterior motive: supporting those she loved kept them more closely bound to her.

Alcott also definitely wanted more out of life than simply to take care of her family. She loved her writing for its own sake and strove for literary excellence. She could be quite political and campaigned for the abolition of slavery, complete racial equality, and women's suffrage. She enjoyed social life and cultural attractions such as plays, lectures, and concerts (as long as they didn't take too much time away from her writing), and she wasn't above enjoying her wealth herself once she had it. I was glad to read that she indulged in silk dresses and a European tour, and hired a household staff rather than subscribe to her father's view of housework as being good for the character. She had many friends, both male and female, some intense relationships with men (most notably with a certain Ladislas Wisniewski, a Polish expatriate twelve years her junior who became the model for Laurie Laurence of the Little Women series), and some marriage proposals, though she accepted none of them. She was not a woman who was so emotionally wrapped up in her birth family that she didn't wish to marry, but rather a passionate woman who never happened to meet a man she considered a satisfactory counterpart, and who consequently wisely embraced the freedom and independence of single life despite its loneliness rather than settle for any of the substandard marital partnerships that were open to her. Again, the true story is the one I would rather read, and I don't care to see the Victorian mythic ideal of woman as a selfless and single-minded caretaker perpetuated.

Another myth that Reisen corrects is the theory that the poor health that plagued Alcott from her late twenties until her death in her fifties was due to her having been treated with mercury when she contracted typhoid pneumonia while working as Civil War nurse. This was Alcott's own view (it was a comfort to her to feel that she had lost her health for a noble cause), and was commonly believed by Alcott scholars until 2001, but it is not true. The mercury would have been eradicated from Alcott's system within a year, and it is now thought that her chronic health problems and early death were probably caused by lupus (though her extremely poor childhood nutrition certainly didn't help), as indicated by her symptoms as described in historical documents and by a telltale butterfly facial rash that appears in the only portrait ever painted of her.

I'm not faulting Cornelia Meigs for not writing a better biography. She did the best she could with the material and the knowledge she had available to her in the thirties. I wouldn't recommend Meigs' biography to anyone but an avid Alcott fan who is determined to glean every nugget of information possible about Alcott by reading every book ever written about her. If you have a milder sort of interest in Louisa May Alcott and are only prepared to read one or two books on the subject of her life, go with Harriet Reisen's biography and/or some of the other more contemporary Alcott treatises. We have better options now.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Chinoiserie and 1920s-Style Multiculturalism

The Newbery medal-winner for 1926, Shen of The Sea: Chinese Stories for Children, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman,is another Newbery winner that would never see the light of day had it been written in contemporary times, unless it were as one of those thousands of self-published opuses on Amazon that few ever read. The quality of the book itself isn't really the problem, at least not when judged strictly by literary terms. The sixteen tales in Shen of the Sea are written in competent if not fine prose and are even quite inventive and fun in spots. In true folktale tradition, the clever and good, or sometimes the merely simple and persistent, repeatedly and delightfully defeat the mighty and cruel. The plots are so standard for such tales that I hardly need worry about spoiling them for you: the simple beggar boy proves himself worthy to be the son of a king, powerful demons are tricked into a pickle bottle, and the exquisitely beautiful and virtuous young maiden escapes an unworthy bridegroom. We are also presented with some pourquoi tales for the invention of fireworks, china, printing, tea, chopsticks, the kite, and gunpowder.

Like the 1925 Newbery winner Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger, the U.S.-published Shen of the Sea is a collection of stories set in another land and culture from those belonging to its American author. However, unlike Finger, who collected the stories for his book on his travels through South America, Chrisman never even visited China. His stories may not have either. Chrisman studied Chinese literature and history as a hobby (one wonders just how many books and periodicals on the topic would have been available to a non-academic of very modest financial means in the 1920s), and the closest he seems to have gotten to experiencing Chinese culture himself was talking to a Chinese storekeeper he met while travelling in California. The storekeeper may have given Chrisman some of these stories, but it's equally possible that Chrisman made them up himself. These stories, far from being authentically Chinese, are actually a bit of chinoiserie, a cultural appropriation of Chinese culture by someone whose understanding and knowledge of it seems to have been slight and imperfect. Even the illustrations in Shen of the Sea are of a piece with Chrisman's faux Chinese efforts. The book contains 50 silhouettes by Danish artist Else Hasselriis. The silhouette style seems to have been chosen because it was meant to reference Chinese shadow play, but as you'll see from the Wikipedia article on shadow play, the silhouette art form does not look anything like Chinese shadow puppets, though it does look quite a lot like the French version of shadow puppets that arose after French missionaries who worked in China brought the art form back to France in 1767. The illustrations do have considerable charm, but, like the text, are a foreigner's conception of Chinese art rather than actual Chinese art.

In the 1920s, any effort to learn about and show appreciation another culture would have been progressive for the time, and I am sure the 1926 Newbery committee had nothing but good intentions and honestly considered this book to be broadening and educational for children. However, in the Age of Information, we do expect our information to be more reliable and authoritative than that provided by Chrisman (unless, of course, we subscribe to any Rupert Murdoch-owned news publications or channels). The bar for those writing about a culture not their own is much higher now, and rightfully so. We don't need misinformation and misrepresentations that purport to be truth clouding people's minds and self-perpetuating until they create generations of misguided citizens, especially when those who have absorbed misinformation about an issue tend to cling to their beliefs and refuse to entertain the possibility that what they believe to be true is not actually true after all, even when presented with evidence.

Not that I'm comparing Chrisman's book to, say, the anti-vaccination campaign launched by a certain few educationally challenged celebrities. I doubt that Shen of the Sea has done China's relations with the rest of the world any measurable level of harm. The book at least represents Chinese culture as being interesting and worthy of the attention of outsiders. I can't speak to the accuracy of the information about Chinese culture, though I will say I found Chrisman's use of Chinese names that read as jokes in English (i.e., Ah Mee, Ah Fun, Hai Lo) and certain other comic touches to be cringeworthy. There is also definitely a dearth of female characters. They are always supporting characters even when the tale is named for them, they seldom speak or do anything of note, and they all fit into one of a few archetypes: beautiful, desirable maiden or princess; nagging or silently suffering wife, or witch. To be fair, the same could be said of many old folktales.

But as careful as I've been to temper my criticisms of this book with mitigating factors, I doubt I'd ever give or recommend this book to a child. Shen of the Sea may have been the best English-language children's book about Chinese culture available in 1926 but, happily, these days we have better options.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Why the Future of Publishing May Involve Rotten Tomatoes

One of the paradoxes of our time is that while people often claim that publishing is in its death throes, it’s never been easier to get published. We live in an age in which it’s possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to make their book (or music, art, or video/film) available for the whole world to see. That is, theoretically. Because as wonderful as it is to think that talented, creative people are guaranteed a way to publish their work for the world to enjoy, that there will be no brilliant novels languishing unknown in a drawer because their authors couldn’t get closer to being published than a publishing house’s slush pile, as those who have self-published any of their work know, it’s damn near impossible to get anything approaching a reasonable audience to look at whatever they’ve produced. What people mean when they claim publishing is dying is that the traditional publishing model is on its way out. And perhaps it is. Perhaps we are moving towards a publishing business model that will be almost exclusively author-driven and involves the author hiring whatever level of editing, production, and marketing services he or she can afford... which means that, as most authors won’t be able to afford to sink any money into a such a risky venture, most publishing will be a modest, do-it-yourself affair with correspondingly modest readership and financial results.

One of the dangers of this outcome is that almost all of our writers and artists will become dilettantes who are expected to produce work for the rest of us to enjoy in whatever time is left after working a day job (not to mention doing the housekeeping, spending time with their romantic partners, raising their kids, exercising, seeing their friends etc.), and all in return for driblets of money that may not pay for much more than the cost of the internet connection required to publish their work. How many books will even the most talented and committed writer produce under such circumstances before deciding it just isn’t worthwhile, or even possible, to keep at it anymore? This rather heart-rending article from author Christopher Pierznik, "What Happens When (Virtually) No One Buys Your Book", paints a vivid picture of the kind of scenario I am thinking of. Pierznik is keeping on because he finds writing too rewarding to give it up, but many gifted writers won’t.

The other serious drawback to self-publishing is that, as so very many people have the same few artistic goals and so very few have the taste, skill, and talent required to produce anything really worthwhile, we’re all getting swamped by a sea of self-published material that is mediocre or worse, with no feasible way to find the high-calibre creative work. Who's going to read all those thousands of wretched self-published books on Amazon to find the occasional scattered gems among them? Self-publishers are always told that they have to market themselves, but the truth is that many very accomplished self-published writers and artists do knock themselves out trying to promote their work and still aren’t developing much of an audience. If anything, increased individual self-marketing efforts on the part of the self-published legion only makes matters worse, because it means more people yelling into the void and more people tuning it out. No one really trusts or even wants to have to see or listen to these amateurish promotional efforts. After all, as the old saying goes, self-praise is no recommends, and a self-published author’s mother’s glowing Amazon customer review of his or her self-published novel is even less reliable, not to mention more piteous.

The truth is that, as our society so often does, we’re asking too much of those who are the most burdened by a common problem, and it’s both unfair and unrealistic for us to do so as the issue is systemic and in most cases can’t be resolved by even the most Herculean individual efforts. What we need to do as a society, whether we’re creators or consumers of art, is to figure out how to make it possible for the cream of our artistic efforts to rise to the top where it can be readily found (and one hopes, purchased) by those who will appreciate it. We need to develop reliable and efficient ways to find the best and most worthwhile of self-published, and for that matter, traditionally published materials.

I don’t claim to have the wholesale solution to this structural problem, but I do think that part of the answer is that we need critics and filters. We need reasonably objective and non-vested people with educated tastes to do the time-consuming work of sifting through the mass of what’s out there and to highlight the best of it for the rest of us. And then, as this task will take an army of critics, we need systems, or filters, to amalgamate all these critical opinions. It’s an enormous and historically unprecedented privilege to have access to the sheer mass of books, movies, art, and music that many of us do, but the excess of it all is overwhelming. In a time of cultural overabundance, those who can devise filters to streamline choice for the audience and make it easier to find the good stuff will be providing a useful and gratefully received service, and if they can also find a way to monetize the service, they’ll do very well for themselves.

You can probably think of filters of your own that you use, not only for entertainment purposes, but for other, more mundane services. is one that comes to my mind. If you’re not familiar with HomeStars, it’s an online directory of contractors with accompanying consumer reviews and an aggregate rating system. I find it an invaluable tool for finding reliable and affordable tradespeople to work on my house. The aggregate experience of ten or more people who have employed a contractor gives me very reliable data on the quality of the contractor’s service, as a single friend’s recommendation might not. Then there’s, which is a community web site where the users link to the best and most interesting materials on the web for all to enjoy and discuss (and the moderators keep the site’s quality high by deleting whatever posts don’t measure up to MeFi standards). Whenever I want to find fascinating online news coverage or in-depth articles or fun websites to read, I can always find some on Metafilter’s front page. When there are an estimated more than one billion websites out there all vying for my attention, this is a real time saver.

In my own small way, I’ve created one specialized filter of sorts by authoring a knitting blog, on which I review the latest patterns from sixteen different knitting magazines and the occasional book of knitting designs. I write articles on knitting-related topics as well, but it is my reviews that are the raison d'ĂȘtre and main draw of the site. Knitters who wish to buy new patterns can either check out all the preview pictures on sixteen different websites several times a year... or they can just read my website. Quite a number of my readers have told me that I’ve saved them a lot of time and money and made it easier for them to find, select, and buy knitting patterns they’re happy with. Alas, nice as it is to hear that my site is as useful to my readers as I hoped to make it, I’ve yet to figure out how to effectually monetize it.

But after thinking over all the means and systems I use to find creative work to enjoy, I submit that the best existing model we have of this kind of critical filter is the one that we have for movies: Rotten Before I began using Rotten Tomatoes to help me select movies to view, I did things like relying on recommendations from friends or individual movie critics, or checking out the IMDB pages of actors I admired to see if they’d done anything I hadn’t seen and cared to see. I found these methods frustratingly ineffective, as though I were using a single fishing hook and a short line to trawl a vast ocean for a good catch. Sure, sometimes I did manage to snag something good, half by chance, but I often couldn’t find anything that appealed to me, or if I did manage to come up with something that seemed that it might be good and watch it, it sucked. Rotten Tomatoes was a revelation. Whether I’m in the mood for a classic horror movie or a contemporary comedy or a documentary, I can pull up lists of the top-rated movies of any genre and/or of any year and pick something to suit in just a few minutes. Or I can vet a movie I’ve heard of and decide whether it’s worth watching. And if I don’t care to watch a popular movie but wish to know enough about it to be able to discuss it intelligently or to understand all the media references to it, it’s easy to find a few good reviews for it via Rotten Tomatoes. Because the ratings are calculated by aggregating the opinions of dozens of professional and semi-professional critics, they are a very reliable indicator of the quality of a movie. While I don’t necessarily love every movie with a “Certified Fresh” Rotten Tomatoes rating, I always find them worth watching. I’ve found and watched so many excellent movies via Rotten Tomatoes that I am certain I would never even have heard of in any other manner.

We need the equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, or possibly a few of them, for every artistic field of endeavour. There is not an equivalent for books. Yes, there is, but it isn’t what I wish it was. At present its rating system is entirely dependent on user reviews, and user reviews aren’t reliable. They are too easily gamed, for one thing, with authors prodding (or guilting, as the case may be) their spouses, family members, and friends into writing good reviews for them, or even writing reviews of their own work themselves. Then too, even when user reviews are sincere and impartial, the opinions expressed in them often lack any real discernment or value. To be clear, I’m not saying all user reviews are worthless. I’ve read many that were intelligent, insightful, and well-written, but such a high proportion of user reviews are of such poor quality that a rating system that depends on user reviews isn’t reliable as a meter of artistic excellence. Consequently, though Good Reads has value as a place for readers to enjoy cataloguing and commenting on their reading materials, it isn’t as effective a tool for helping its users to find the best books as Rotten Tomatoes is for helping its users to find good movies and TV shows. Amazon also relies on user reviews, as does IMDB. Both sites have a lot of utility in their own ways, but neither site is what I would call a really effective or efficient means to find good books or movies.

I would like to see Goodreads take their user services to the next level by featuring links to professional, or at least semi-professional, book reviews and setting up an aggregate rating system based on them, as Rotten Tomatoes does with movie reviews, and I’d like to see each area of the arts get equally effective filters. It won’t make the world less noisy and it won’t mean every gifted artist will succeed in finding an audience, but perhaps such filters will give both artists and audiences a fighting chance of cutting through the clamour and finding each other.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Crispin, a Kid on a Quest. You Know, Like Many of the Other Newbery Medal Characters.

In the Newbery Medal winner for 2003, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avilife for Crispin, a boy of thirteen living in England in 1376 A.D, is as it's often said of existence in medieval times: nasty, brutish, and short. He and his mother Asta are peasants, cottars without land of their own, who make a meager living working the Lord Furnival's fields in the little village of Stromford. Crispin has been told that his father died in the last widespread plague. The other village children shun and taunt him for reasons he can't fathom. Then Crispin's mother dies, upon which turn of events Crispin's circumstances become even more nasty and brutal and his life expectancy even more uncertain.

Lord Furnival's steward, John Ayecliffe, first shows up at Asta's funeral demanding that Crispin surrender his ox as death tax, which will mean starvation for Crispin. Then Crispin is seen observing a secret meeting between Ayecliffe and a cloaked stranger in the woods, after which Ayecliffe accuses Crispin of whatever crimes conveniently suggest themselves and puts a price on his head. Crispin receives some hints as to his family history from his few friends and, provided with a little bread and his mother's leaden cross, flees the village for the nearest city as his friends advise, though they aren't exactly sure where any of England's cities are because they’ve never seen them personally. Various adventures ensue, the first and most important of which is that Crispin meets Orson Hrothgar, otherwise known as Bear. Bear is a travelling performer who can sing and dance and juggle balls. He is also adept at smoke and mirror-style political intrigue, and at frightening the wits out of a particularly unsophisticated thirteen-year-old boy.

Haven't we already seen this book in the Newbery list? Let’s see, boy is thrown on his own resources by the death of his strong-willed, yet physically frail and poverty-stricken mother, and he has some keepsake left to him by his mother that turns out to have an unsuspected significance relating to his mysterious antecedents. Oh, and he's embroiled in larger political and military turmoil. No, wait, that's Johnny Tremain, the Newbery-winning book from 1944. And Bud, Not Buddy, the Newbery winner from 2000, which I have read but haven't reviewed yet.

Child on his or her own is a very common theme in children's literature. It's classic wish fulfillment, both a child's greatest fear and worst nightmare. Heaven knows a kid can't have spine-chilling adventures, much less embark on some very important quest, with a parent looking over his or her shoulder and saying it's bedtime or homework time or that it isn't safe to do this or that. And another common theme in kid lit is "mysterious parentage", which taps into another common childhood fantasy, that of belonging to another family, one more exciting and significant, or perhaps just less problematic, than one's own. Tie these themes together, put your adolescent hero or heroine in an exotic and/or historical setting, and it makes for an exciting book for a kid. Hell, I'm 38 and I read Crispin in two sittings on a single day.

Suspenseful as Crispin is, some of the plot twists are contrived to the point that they're an eye roller. I found Ayecliffe's vendetta against Crispin to be rather awkwardly developed. Crispin is a threat to Ayecliffe because of who he is, yet Ayecliffe only sets a price on Crispin's head once Crispin has seen him talking to another man in the woods, though Crispin has neither seen nor heard anything that is incriminating. The kind village priest who helps Crispin, Father Quinel, tells Crispin to hide in the woods for another day and then come back to the church for food and for some information about his mother and himself. Crispin asks why Father Quinel can't do the Big Reveal right then, and the priest tells him it's better and safer to learn such things just before he leaves the village for good. Of course fate in the form of an evil and power-hungry steward intervenes, and Crispin doesn't hear the revelations. Though we do eventually learn what Father Quinel had to tell Crispin, we never learn Father Quinel's reason for delaying the reveal. I suspect the motivations for the delay on both John Ayecliffe's and Father Quinel's parts are really Avi's and have to do with creating suspense. And of course this is an important element in an adventure novel, but so is devising a credible course of action for your characters so that they seem like actual people rather than marionettes whose strings show all too plainly. These trumped-up behaviours reminded me of Dave Barry's parody of The DaVinci Code:
Handsome yet unmarried historian Hugh Heckman stood in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., squinting through the bulletproof glass at the U.S. Constitution. Suddenly, he made an amazing discovery. "My God!" he said, out loud. "This is incredible! Soon I will say what it is."

The character of Bear is quite well drawn. The man is an enigma and his repeated sleight-of-hand behaviours obscure both his motives and his actual beliefs, convincing not only Crispin but even the adult reader (er, this one, anyway). While Crispin is slower to catch on to Bear's misdirections than the reader is, Bear is a complex character who plays his cards close to his tunic and there's enough in play that I finished the book thinking there was still probably more to Bear than had been revealed. This is fortunate as there are two more Crispin books, Crispin: At the Edge of the Worldand Crispin: The End of Timeand Avi needed to save some plot twists for those books.

I did really enjoy that Orson Hrothgar’s nickname Bear is a clever classical allusion. The name Orson is derived from Latin and means "little bear". There is a fifteenth-century romance about twin brothers, Valentine and Orson, based on a fourteenth century chanson de geste which tells the tale of how Orson was raised from infancy by bears while Valentine is given a knight's upbringing at court. The Valentine and Orson story is not directly referenced, but it is a nice meta reference bonus for the adult reader who catches it. And Bear is indeed very much the wild man of the woods that his literary namesake was, as he is huge, loud, aggressive, and has cast aside many of the sociopolitical norms of his time to be what could only be considered a dangerous radical and freethinker by fourteenth-century terms.

The historical setting does seem to be well researched, and the psychology of the characters is probably about as authentic as is possible. Avi does as well as any author could in creating a medieval mindset with its implicit belief in God and the devil, fear of hell, reverence for the priesthood, and some truly creative religiously themed oaths, my favourite of which was, "By the bowels of Christ". Even the most dastardly character in the book is compelled to at least partially respect the binding effect of swearing a vow before God. Crispin does seem to be a little too concerned with his self-esteem in a way that I suspect isn't period appropriate, but then Avi had to make Crispin a boy contemporary readers could relate to.

Relatively minor nitpicks aside, I’d have to say that Crispin is definitely a quite solidly enjoyable book that is exciting, well-written, and rich in accurate period detail, if it does feel a little boilerplate as to its plot. But then I must remember that this is a book that is written primarily for kids, not for an adult who's gotten a little sated on "kid on a quest" books.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Etsy's Unique and Handmade Problems

If I’m going to write about Etsy, I should probably begin by saying that up until this past spring, I loved Etsy. Etsy was, if not in exactly in my blood, so often on my mind that it seemed to be nestled among my neurons. Before a recent job loss, I was on Etsy nearly daily doing searches and making sure no one else had bought any of the items I had favourited. I just can’t tell you much it meant to me that I, a super-picky and budget-minded and so-seriously-retro-that-I’m-anachronistic shopper who comes home empty-handed from most of her trips to the Eaton Centre, could type a few search terms on Etsy and then browse through pages of items that are at least in the ball park of what I want. Between March 2010 and March 2012, I made 79 purchases on Etsy. Etsy helped me rebuild my jewelry collection after it was wiped out by a burglary (my second, sigh) in January 2010. Etsy made it possible for me to have a mostly non-cheesy collection of swan items. Etsy helped me find very specific gifts for assorted gift-giving occasions. Etsy helped me find affordable Art Nouveau antiques for my 1912-built house. Etsy has an enormous selection of goods, many of which are at very reasonable prices, and a legion of talented, hard-working, honest, and professional sellers.

But for all its good points, Etsy has its flaws, which range from slightly annoying to the truly ugly, and when one of its failings manifested itself in an outright fiasco this past April, I became unwilling to shop there any longer.

Etsy claims to be an online marketplace strictly for hand-crafted and vintage goods. Their site policy states that vendors can only sell items that are either substantially handmade by the seller, craft supplies, or vintage items, which according to their policy must be at least 20 years old. It is, on paper, a great policy which has allowed them to corner a niche in the marketplace. Unfortunately Etsy does not make an honest effort to enforce the policy. The site is rife with mass-produced goods that are available at much lower prices on eBay and Amazon.

I was trying to give Etsy the benefit of the doubt that they were at least attempting to enforce their policy and finding it beyond their capabilities, until this past April. On April 20th Etsy posted an interview with a featured seller, Mariana Schechter, owner of Etsy shop Ecologica, who claimed she designs and makes handmade furniture from salvaged wood. She said in the interview that, “So many designers and craftspeople eventually mass produce their products. Mass production makes it easier to sustain bigger profit margins, but it takes away from the individuality of each item”, and added, “There is something personal and unique that occurs when you craft something with your hands.”

Of course this all sounded beautifully in line with the Etsy mandate, until April 21st, when a website called exposed and proved Schechter to be a wholesale importer whose supposedly handmade goods are entirely factory-made and shipped to her by a company called All From Boats, based in Indonesia.

On April 22, a full day after the news broke, a coffee table from the Ecologica was among the handpicked items on the front page, and after a week or so of internet sturm und drang (read: Etsy and Regretsy and Metafilter threads of punishing length), Etsy took the official stance that Schechter’s business qualifies as a “collective” under their guidelines, and scolded their users for being meanies.

On June 5th, it was discovered that the Ecologica Malibu shop had been closed. Etsy will not say why. My own best guess is that Schechter closed her own shop because she wasn’t making many sales and/or had finally figured out she was never going to get any respect from the Etsy community again. But the kicker is Etsy has not removed the Featured Seller article about Schechter. Etsy's shameless disregard of their own site policy is stunning. My suspicion is that Schechter’s import business paid them for the featured seller spot. If that is the case, Etsy can’t remove it without breach of contract.

All this brou-ha-ha over Schechter was simply an especially dramatic boiling over of problems that have been bubbling for a long time.

Etsy has long failed to set any sort of threshold as to the quality of the goods for sale on its site. There are people on Etsy selling—or trying to sell—rusted tin cans, pieces of scrap wood, filthy and damaged old toys, and other items that are neither handmade nor vintage. An item’s presence in Etsy's vintage or handmade categories is in no way an assurance that the item is actually vintage or handmade. There are "vintage" Blackberries for sale, as well as many other less obviously new and mass-produced goods. I’ve certainly been taken. A necklace I once bought from the vintage category was no more vintage than my 2012 daytimer because I saw the necklace—and matching earrings!—at a kiosk in the mall the week after my necklace arrived in the mail. There are also many copyright infringments. And even when items for sale are described honestly, it can be very difficult and time consuming for a buyer to find a specific desired item because the search functionality is so crude.

All of these problems hurt sellers who are trying to sell genuinely handcrafted or vintage goods. They can’t charge prices that are competitive with those charged for mass-produced goods, their goods are hard to find among the sea of mass-produced offerings, and the customers they are trying to reach are being driven away from Etsy entirely because it’s not offering the kind of merchandise it claims.

Even before the Mariana Schechter debacle, Etsy wasn’t making any discernible effort to weed out the outright crap and site policy violations. Items flagged as violating site policy remained in place. Worse, Etsy sometimes even promotes such items by featuring them on their front page collections of "handpicked items". These handpicked items, incidentally, are clearly selected to suit a colour scheme or topical theme, not on their own intrinsic merit, with the result that while the photo collections make the front page look pretty, the practical value of it to buyers is vanishingly slight and vendors who are selling garbage but who can take artistic product shots get bonus traffic to their shops, while vendors with much better wares do not.

I was glad to see Etsy has at least retired one of their more useless features, the "You might like" recommendations. I found them so absurdly off the mark as to be completely useless. Why on earth would Etsy think I might like a Simplicity clown costume pattern or a book on how to draw Woody the Woodpecker? Is it because I searched on Etsy for a skort pattern and a clown costume seemed like the next logical step? Or were they hoping in some oblique way to warn me away from that slippery slope?

As if all this weren't bad enough, by far the most disturbing feature of their business practices is their treatment of Etsy sellers. I have read accounts of former sellers whose listings or entire shops were closed arbitrarily and without warning by Etsy, leaving the sellers with no way retrieve their product images and descriptions, without any refund of listing fees that were supposed keep their goods visible and available for sale for several months, and worst of all with no way to contact their buyers and arrange for the delivery of the goods they’ve paid for. Etsy also seems to offer very little protection or assistance for buyers who are running into problems with dishonest sellers.

And another very serious Etsy business misstep, one which exacerbates all their other problems, is their refusal to allow any dissent on their site and their heels-dug-in refusal to respond constructively, or even, sometimes, lucidly, to customer and vendor complaints. On one occasion, when an Etsy member asked in the forums why there was a crumbling old brick among the featured products on the front page, a moderator simple told her not to call out in the forums.

When a reseller shamelessly posted in the forums asking for tips on how to sell her "handmade" notebooks and another Etsy user politely replied that, though her notebooks were very pretty, she couldn't sell her notebooks on Etsy because they are not handmade but mass-produced, the commenter was told not to call out in the forums.

When an Etsy seller was told she can’t sell her Mr. T album in her shop because Etsy had “received a copyright infringement complaint from an agent representing Mr. Chuck Norris” and the seller replied meekly that her listing didn’t mention Mr. Norris in any way, she was told Etsy didn’t have the information to reply to her question and that she must contact Mr. Norris’s representative. Yes, you read that right.

If Etsy wants to be a successful and respected site, much less a community, as its creation of forums and "friend circles" and other social networking-type features seems to indicate, it needs to show respect and consideration for its users by allowing a certain amount of open negotiation and conflict and by having the courtesy to listen and respond to their complaints. And too, they need to understand what a resource their users' suggestions and criticisms and flagging of unacceptable items can be.

Etsy so far seems completely unwilling to allow dissent on the site, and nature's abhorrence of a vacuum is nothing compared to the average internet denizen's refusal to accept a lack of space in which to complain. It didn't take long for some independent venues appear, and there are ways for dissatisfied Etsy users to make themselves heard. If you have problems with Etsy's practices, you can post to the Consumer Affairs site, or to SiteJabber.

Other sites have sprung up to address Etsy’s business practices: Callin’ Out on Etsy; Etsy Bitch; and The Etsy Refugee Society.

Not only is there much to criticize about Etsy's business practices, making fun of Etsy's wares is an end and a pleasure in itself. My friend Jacquilynne launched a web site called "The Good, the Bad, and the Etsy" back in June 2009. She would critique three pieces of Etsy merchandise daily, and usually it happened that one would be a well-crafted item while the other two would be hilariously badly crafted, or perhaps well-made but deeply weird. I fondly remember two of her reviews in particular. In one she referred to a top with a demure, pieced calico front view and half laced-up, half-bare back view as "Amish in the front, Rumspringa in the back". And when reviewing a $1500 needlepoint cushion depicting an erect and graphically detailed penis with the motto, "It won’t suck itself", Jacquilynne headlined her critique with a succinct, "For $1500, It Should".

The Good, the Bad and the Etsy was building momentum nicely when Jacquilynne decided to close it down just two months after its inception because she was receiving death threats from unhinged Etsy sellers who had taken umbrage to her snarking on their crafts. Again, you read that right. Death threats.

As The Good, the Bad, and the Etsy had been posted to the front page of Metafilter and Jacquilynne and I are both members, I initiated a MetaTalk thread to inform the other members of what had happened, and it became a meaty discussion about the value and boundaries of critical discourse. I recommend the thread as interesting reading in its own right.

Jacquilynne clarified her decision to discontinue the blog in the thread:
To be clear, I didn't take the blog down because I felt like I was in danger (internet death threats—ooh scary!), but I was already feeling sort of bad about one person who emailed me and seemed genuinely sad that I'd mocked her item, and I got a couple of threats in a couple of hours, it suddenly all seemed not worth it.
Etsy can’t be held responsible for the behaviour of their sellers off-site, of course, but Jacquilynne’s experience does indicate that one of the site's problems is a faction of Etsy sellers who have neither talent nor the discernment to realize their own lack of ability, and who can't behave like adults when anyone says so.

Of course, I probably don’t have to tell anyone who has read this far about the most successful Etsy complaint and snark blog there is. I couldn’t even get this far through the review without referring to it. Regretsy is owned and operated by the wickedly and incisively satirical April Winchell, and on Regretsy she daily serves up the dregs of Etsy with generous dollops of snark sauce and side orders of pie charts and Photoshop, and has gotten a few book deals in the process. Winchell skewers Etsy for all its flaws and excesses, posts about everything from the serious problems I’ve mentioned to more minor nitpicks such as product shots of food with hairs twined in among the goodies on the plate, unintentionally hilarious misspellings in posters or wall decals offered for sale, poorly made or useless "crafts" such as a necklace that consists of a paperclip on a piece of stiff wire, artwork that is supposed to depict a certain celebrity and looks nothing like said celebrity, hideous and unwearable clothing, vendors who use words that do not actually mean what they seem to think, gratuitous nudity in product shots, and Etsy’s many twee pretensions. Winchell and her many devoted readers sometimes manage to embarrass Etsy’s staff into addressing at least some of its more minor problems. And not incidentally, Winchell and her readers have also raised tens of thousands of dollars for various charitable causes and given specific items, such as new sewing machines, to Etsy vendors in need. The site, which has developed its own culture and momentum, is a lot of fun and also serves the greater public good in a very concrete way. If I didn’t already think the whole "people who make fun of other people's creative work are fat jealous losers who can't do anything worthwhile themselves" was one very dumb canard, I would after seeing what April Winchell has accomplished with Regretsy. Criticism can be fruitful as well as an end in itself.

I’ll try to avoid recapping any of Winchell's posts here because there's really no equivalent to reading them oneself. There's a lot of scope in making fun of Etsy. Not only is it satisfying to see Etsy outed for its many hypocrisies and legion absurdities, but sometimes some of the offerings on Etsy, while genuinely handmade and well-crafted, are so jaw-droppingly bizarre that Regretsians marvel at and celebrate them rather than making fun of them. April Winchell has had to categorize her many posts. Some of my favourite categories are: Garbage; Compare and Save; Dead Things (and a sub category within Dead Things, Tragicrafting; Not Remotely Handmade; Not Remotely Steampunk; Annoying Descriptions; Peck of the Day (in which Winchell makes fun of the senselessness of the choices for the Handpicked items on the front page); and, for the truly unclassifiable, Don’t Ask Me.

In one favourite Regretsy post of mine, which involved Winchell’s recap of a Etsy "Featured Seller" article on a Etsy vendor named Sartoria, Winchell employed something I’ll describe as a Wank-O-Meter to measure Sartoria's level of fatuous pretension in the article. Spoiler: it's a very high level. Moreover, one can almost smell Sartoria's studio through the computer screen.

While many Etsy vendors are wonderfully good sports about having their items mocked and appreciate the increased traffic and sales that Regretsy always brings their way (after all, purchases are paid for in government tender whether bought in a spirit of irony or while "under the influence" or in sober and sincere appreciation), some aren’t. As in Jacquilynne’s experience, some of the Etsy crafters whose items are mocked on Regretsy don’t seem to have much more maturity, self-control, basic literacy skills, or grasp of what does and does not constitute illegal behaviour than they do esthetic sensibility. Winchell therefore gets her own share of hate mail, which she opportunely turns into fodder for more Regretsy posts in her Mailbag category. My favourite of these letters was a classic from a person who threatens to call a "layer" and get a "crease and desist".

All snark (or most of it) aside, as I see it, Etsy only has two viable ethical options, the first being that Etsy must begin to enforce its own policies, make every effort to close resellers down as efficiently as possible (they would never get them all) and remove any Featured Seller spots involving resellers. And in this case Etsy should also apologize to the community for not doing so earlier, as it has been dishonest to claim to be promoting handmade goods while knowingly allowing resellers on the site.

Alternatively, Etsy should admit they’ve become dependent on resellers to keep the site profitable, and announce that from now on they will be allowing resellers but their products will be strictly labelled and categorized as such. If they have received payment from resellers for Featured Seller spots, they must come clean about that and promise users that from now on paid advertisements will be completely distinct from any editorial content, and promise that they will do their utmost to make sure the handmade categorization can be trusted by all users. They should also apologize to the community for not doing so earlier.

Both of the paths involve making some changes and disclosures and apologizing to the Etsy community. There is no way around that. There are also other changes that need to be made, such as setting some sort of standard for goods offered on Etsy, treating their vendors better, improving the search functionality, allowing honest dissent on the site, and just in general listening to and learning from the criticisms made of Etsy.

But at present I don’t have any reason to believe we’re going to see Etsy make a real effort to clean itself up. And I believe what will happen is that Etsy will slowly decline.

At present Etsy has a reputation for being the go-to site for handmade goods and are valued at more than $600 million according to the The Wall Street Journal, but they can’t coast on an undeserved reputation forever. The Etsy "handmade" brand will become increasingly derided. Etsy will gradually lose their frustrated artisan sellers and their disappointed customers to other sites that offer genuinely handmade goods and treat their users with more respect, such as ArtFire.

Gradually Etsy will become eBay, only smaller, with higher prices and an obviously dishonest, inept management style, and they’ll find out they can’t compete with eBay on those terms. And there’s an ironic justice in this. Etsy has forced their artisans to compete with sellers hawking mass-produced goods labeled as handmade, and they’ll eventually find themselves pitting these "handmade" wares against a juggernaut vendor selling reams of mass-produced goods for far better prices.

That’s my prediction. Of course, I could be wrong, or even if I am right, Etsy may manage to stick around and stay profitable for many years to come, but meanwhile, I have done my bit to protest Etsy's dishonesty and mismanagement by closing my Etsy account, discouraging my father, who is a talented woodworker, from opening an Etsy shop, and by writing and posting two Metafilter posts and this review to let people know exactly what Etsy’s all about. And then too, I keep in mind that there are compensations in Etsy’s continued survival, namely that Regretsy is ying to Etsy’s yang, and that so long as Etsy refuses to mend its ways, Regretsy can go right on trumpeting the fact that Etsy’s ass is showing through its "reclaimed crocheted afghan" pants.

Monday, 25 July 2011

By Way of Sorrow, Indeed

Someone on linked to the lovely slideshow above on YouTube yesterday, saying a friend of his had put it together in celebration of New York's first legal gay marriage ceremonies. I defy anyone to look at the succession of images depicting loving gay couples, contrasted with images of the hatred and bigotry they've faced for so long, and not be moved. The slideshow is set to a song called "By Way of Sorrow", which my Googling tells me is written by Julie Miller and performed by a group called Cry, Cry, Cry, and I cannot imagine a more perfect accompaniment for this video.

As happy as I am for these couples, as thrilled as I am to see that the tide of homophobic bigotry is on the wane, my happiness is veined with sorrow and shame. I feel sorrow that gay people have had to wait so very long for a civil right so many of us have had all our lives, that the U.S. Federal government still does not recognize their marriage, that if they were to merely drive across the state border into New Jersey, their marriage certificate would legally mean nothing, that according to Wikipedia only 4% of the world's population lives in a jurisdiction that offers legal gay marriage, and that gays face discrimination and even violent persecution nearly everywhere on the planet.

The shame I feel relates to my own past. As a Canadian I live in a country that has recognized gay marriage for six years, and I am in no way responsible for what the U.S. or any other country's legislative tardiness in coming to it's senses. The shame is personal rather than political, and is rooted much further back.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. I attended a Christian school and Sunday School and church all my childhood, and had few other social contacts as my family lived on a farm. I'm embarrassed to think how indoctrinated I was at 14 or so, but the reality is that I didn't have much chance to be otherwise. As I attended public high schools, the re-education process began in grade nine and eventually led to my becoming agnostic at age 28 and an atheist at some point in my thirties, but it took many years for life to chip away what had been instilled in me.

At 17, when I was still two-thirds cocooned in a hard shell of patent Christian theology, I fell in love with a close friend who was gay. I didn't know he was gay, of course. If I'd had any real experience at all, I would have known. If I hadn't unconsciously wanted not to know, I would have known. Incidentally, it turns out that my first crush (at 11) and first boyfriend (at 16) were also gay. This is why you'll never hear me claiming to have gaydar, though since this trifecta I have at least, so far as I know, managed to pick straight men to date.

But it wasn't entirely due to my naiveté and wilful disbelief that I didn't know. My friend didn't tell me, and he had girlfriends before and after me. I finally clued in over four years later when I came across evidence through a bizarre chain of circumstances. It was his responsibility to tell me. Had he told me he could have spared me a great deal of pain, and both of us a lot of drama, and maybe we could have saved the relationship we did have that meant so much to us both in those days.

However, he didn't tell me, and in the years since I have recognized that I had a hand in keeping him silent. I remember very clearly, and with many a cringe, that one day on a walk through the park the subject of homosexuality came up and I expounded on what the Bible says about it and quoted the Biblical words "with such do not eat". I may even have shaken a finger at him. There were other incidents when I spoke disparagingly of gays or acted grossed out by what "they" did.

To understand the enormity of this you must know that I was a backward, sensitive teenager completely lacking in confidence or a sense of self-worth. My friend had confidence and self-esteem to burn, and whenever I was around him he cast such an aura of it that he made it possible for me to be wholly and unself-consciously myself while feeling completely accepted and supported. When I was around him we were in a world all our own and nothing anyone else said or did had the power to hurt me. He created that wonderful space for me... and in return I told him he wasn't fit to eat with.

I do keep what I did in perspective. He remained in the closet for a number of years afterward and I very much doubt it was my wagging finger that kept him there. He had a lot of issues that were unrelated to me, and even to being gay, just as I had my own issues that caused me to spend several years looking to him for things it was crystal clear all along that he could not and would not give me. But he was for several years someone I loved more than anyone, he probably suffered a lot over the conflict between who he was and what the world around him expected and allowed him to be, and instead of helping him and giving him the support he always gave me, I gave him one more slap in the face. It is this regret that remains with me to this day, more than fifteen years after all other regrets evaporated when I came to see that I wouldn't have been at all happy paired up with him even if he weren't gay.

And this is partly why, even though I am heterosexual, I am such a passionate supporter of gay rights. I've had intimate experience of how bigotry towards gays and living with lies hurts all of us, even when we're the bigots. Had my friend and I grown up in a time and a place when being gay was accepted as readily as being left-handed and the world offered the same options to a gay teenager as it did to straight kids, we both could have been saved the pain and waste of those years. And then perhaps my journals from my late teens would not be so full of an anguish so raw that to this day, twenty years later, I cannot bear to read them.

So to the newlyweds (including my former friend and his husband who have been maried for what must be close to three years now), I say congratulations, best wishes, and please forgive us all for being so wretchedly slow to give you your rightful place at the table.