The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Friday, May 19, 2006


Superstores vs. Independents: Is Tyler Cowan being a Coward?

In a recent post on Slate, Tyler Cowan writes about Laura J. Miller's book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. But while Cowan's piece is ostensibly a review, it is in fact something else, and the fact that it is something else is telling: instead of giving Miller's book the detailed analysis it deserves, Cowan instead uses it as a platform to advance his own theories and opinions.

Miller's book is about the decline of independent bookstores as they are replaced by book superstores. Cowan, however, doesn't see anything wrong with this development, since he feels that there is a snobbish mystique that surrounds the independents:

Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case. There are similar phenomena in the world of indie music fans ("Top 40 has to be bad") and indie cinema, which rebels against stars and big-budget special effects. In each case the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy to segregate, often artificially, one part of the market from the rest.

Cowan's statement that "the indie label is a deliberate marketing ploy" is categorical. But Cowan, who works as a professor of economics at George Mason University and should know better, doesn't offer any proof. He simply makes the claim in absolute terms and then quickly finishes his sentence with the rhetorically slippery qualification that this ploy is used "often artificially". (What would the alternative be? That deliberate marketing ploys are used "naturally"? "spontaneously"? "accidentally"?)

Unsurprisingly, given this opening, Cowan continues throughout the article to mix things up. He does this because the article is not so much an attempt to discover complicated truths about the current situation among booksellers, but an idealogical attack on the independents and a defense of the superstores. The superstores are better, Cowan thinks, because they can achieve scale-of-economy efficiencies the independents can't.

But when it comes to providing simple access to the products you want, the superstores often do a better job of it than the small stores do: Borders and Barnes & Noble negotiate bigger discounts from publishers and have superior computer-driven inventory systems. The superstores' scale allows them to carry many more titles, usually several times more, than do most of the independents; so if you're looking for Arabic poetry you have a better chance of finding it at Barnes & Noble than at your local community bookstore.

In short, the superstores provide lower prices and better selection. So what's to worry?

This species of argument is hard to counter. After all, the evidence that is readily available (that is, the impression many people have) seems to confirm Cowan's point of view. But Cowan is not talking about the long-term. He is only talking about the here-and-now. And the problem with the demise of the independents -- apart from the demise of the owners of the independents -- is its long-term effects. An appropriate analogy is the large amount of corporate consolidation that took place among major book publishers in the 1980s and '90s.

(By and large, that period of consolidation led to tragic results. One result -- a result that the publishers never mentioned at the time -- has been the complete walling off of the major houses from emerging writers who are not represented by an established agent. The adjective in that last phrase is key: it is the established agents who can really help a writer's career, but there is such a small number of them (and a smaller number still of those willing to look at unsolicited work) that, if nothing else, an enormous bottleneck has been created. The process of having one's manunscript read by a major publisher has slowed, not sped up. This sort of situation is inherently unhealthy, and, over time, is likely to have a deleterious effect on literary publishing ... a field of endeavour that isn't presently in need of any further complications.)

If we move from this analogy to a prediction about superstore book retailing itself, the most likely long-term effect of superstores dominating the market will be an exacerbation of the present trend of favouring a few titles at the expense of the rest. This favouring is done by ordering larger numbers of certain titles, putting them on more central display, and generally doing an aggressive job of promoting them while letting the other titles languish on the less-visited shelves.

As I understand the workings of book retailing, these marketing tactics are usually bought and paid for by the publishers. But this only proves it is the big houses -- with their big money -- that have the likeliest odds of succeeding. Therefore, when we think of the long term, the big publishing houses -- which, recall, are now strangling the chances of unagented writers -- will also create a situation in which their titles eat up even more of overall sales than they already do.

It needs to be emphasized here that the book market is not a perfectly level playing field and never has been. (This is one obvious reason why writers and agents prefer doing business with the big houses.) Instead, what is at issue is the degree to which corporate publishers and booksellers dominate. If they dominate too much, the result will be a vicious cycle that makes a mockery of one of the cultural advantages the book trade still has over the movie or TV industry: wider choice. And choice, supposedly, is a virtue in Cowan's scheme of things.


Like many idealogues, Cowan is aware of the weaknesses of his argument but does not wish to deal with them in an intellectually rigorous way. Instead, he presents them in an apparently fair-minded manner, but then, almost as quickly, sidesteps them. When discussing the question of whether all this consolidation of bookselling in corporate hands might have a downside, he writes:

Clearly, though, what Miller and others fear is that the culture of literacy that indie bookstores help cultivate and nurture—the eccentric interests, the peculiar niches—will be lost in the routinized world of the superstore.

Cowan's response is as predictable as it is flawed. The internet, of course, will be the savior of "eccentric interests" and "peculiar niches":

Amazon reader reviews, blogs such as Bookslut, and eBay—the world's largest book auction market—all are flourishing and are doing so outside the reach of the major corporate booksellers. Print-on-demand technologies and self-publishing are booming. Along with Google and other search engines, they will allow niche titles to persist in our memories for a long time to come. This is the flip side of the same computerization that elevated Wal-Mart and Borders: Information technology brings more voices into book evaluation and supply.

Note the placement of the first and second sentence of this paragraph. While it is true that the internet has enabled the development of readers' reviews, blogs and e-tailing, the second sentence is simply misleading. Print-on-demand (POD) publishing is "booming" because it is an accessible form of photocopying and semi-professionally binding one's work. Similarly, self-publishing is doing well because -- well, because it's always done well ... at least, in the sense that a certain percentage of aspiring writers have always taken this route.

In other words, the success of self-publishing has had more to do with the success of those who print the books.
A more nuanced argument would have discussed not POD and self-published books, but their market. It would have asked: is this market getting bigger? If so, how much? And are the books selling? How much? And to whom? But Cowan doesn't ask these questions because he isn't interested in the details. However, it is knowledge of the details that are essential to making sense of the POD and self-publishing phenomenon. Instead, by saying this area of the book industry is "booming", Cowan is content to imply it is an effective means for writers wishing professional success. Nothing, though, could be further from the truth. Both POD and self-publishing are options that still have lightyears to go before they reach that stage. At best, POD and self-publishing only make sense as part of a larger career strategy.

Cowan concludes his piece with a nicely phrased description of ways a reader might find his or her way around the corporatization of bookselling:

If you don't like the superstores, it is easy enough to expand your viewing horizons through other means. Just go to new sections of your superstore (the best popular book on geology, gardening, or basketball is very good, whether or not you like the topic). Stoop or stretch to slightly uncomfortable levels. Use the stool. Peruse books randomly. Look at other peoples' discard piles. Spend more time in public libraries, which offer many of the best features of indie bookshops, including informed staff, diversity, and offbeat titles.

But it's too little, too late. Cowan's piece, ultimately, is an apologia for the corporate status quo. As such, it seems to have been seduced by its own rhetorical smoothness. Cowan might have served the cause of book-selling better by spending more time considering its complex realities. Above all, he might have viewed the current drift toward its corporatization with a larger dose of skepticism. He might have shown more courage.

(For an interesting discussion of Cowan's piece, see Dan Green's post and comments section on the topic.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dickens' treatment

Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post:

But I've got some helpful tips [for reading]. Follow these procedures and before you know it, you will be a Serious Reader again, capable of talking intelligently about not only the novels of Dickens but also about his poems, screenplays, TV scripts and record-album liner notes.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


If you want to see the past installments of "Truth Marathon", click here.


Paul has just locked his bike outside his house, on the porch. But then, thinking better of it, he takes the bike inside and leaves it in the hall.

He walks quickly upstairs, still happy and energetic.

His shared house actually is more of a shared apartment: it comprises the second and third stories of a narrow row-house situated on a busy street. He and three roommates occupy the upper floors. His landlord lives downstairs.

Paul and his roommates have a shared kitchen and bathroom. It, like the house, is narrow and cramped. It looks, for some reason, like the interior of an old ship: this isn't merely a result of its small size, but also a charactertistic of the walls -- they are painted a glossy, utilitarian white, and are uneven, like steel plates that have been exposed to repeated stress. But Paul looks at home here.

He takes off the backpack hes been wearing and takes out some food: whole grain bread, shrink wrapped chicken legs, some apples, celery, and a bottle of flax seed oil. Clearly, hes a healthy eater.

He fills a pot with water and sets it on the stove, which he turns to high. Then he opens the fridge and pulls out some potatoes. He washes and peels them, puts them in the water, and turns on the oven and begins washing and seasoning the chicken legs.

SFX: door slamming downstairs.

Paul continues cooking.

SFX: Footsteps ascending slowly, tiredly.

A young man around Pauls age enters. He is East Indian. He has a slim build, quiet manner, and strikingly handsome face: a hawklike nose, strong chin, and high cheekbones.

YOUNG MAN: Hey, Paul.

PAUL: [not really turning] Oh hey, Ramish.

RAMISH: Whats up?

PAUL: Nothing.

RAMISH: [looking over Pauls shoulder] Mmm. Chicken legs. Looks good.

PAUL: Yep. Cheap n delicious.


RAMISH: Did Rudy tell you about the rat?

PAUL: What rat?

RAMISH: the rat that was in the kitchen yesterday.

PAUL: Uh, no. He seems to have forgotten to mention it.

RAMISH: Yeah, well I got home last night and when I was coming up the stairs I heard this weird sound. Like paper being scrunched or something. It was pretty loud. I thought it was you. But then, when I walk into the kitchen, right on the shelf, right by Denise’s stuff, was this rat.

Paul turns to look at Ramish squarely.

PAUL: You cant be serious.

RAMISH: I am! A big honkin rat! It wasnt like the mice we had last winter. It looked like a cat. A small, evil cat, with a rats head, rats tail and little scratchy rat's legs.

PAUL: [looking at his food, clearly losing his appetite] Swell. Theres always something.

RAMISH: Rudy says hell get an exterminator next weekend.

PAUL: I sure hope so.

RAMISH: I mean, the weekend after this. Says he can get a discount from a friend of his.

Paul doesnt respond. He simply looks at his chicken. He seems undecided. Then, with an angry gesture, he grabs some cellophane wrap from a cupboard over the sink and wraps his food up.

RAMISH: Whassa matter? It wont come when were here.

PAUL: Ill stick to potatoes tonight.


Paul is on the phone.

Intercut, Paul and his mother.

PAULS MOTHER: Was the apartment okay?

PAUL: What apartment?

PAUL'S MOTHER: Dad's, of course!

PAUL: Yeah, it was fine.

PAULS MOTHER: How about the flooring?

PAUL: Parquet.

PAULS MOTHER: Cheap parquet?

PAUL: Parquet, mom. Medium range, not-too-shitty parquet. Its public housing.

PAULS MOTHER: Okay, okay. How about the water?

PAUL: Good.

PAULS MOTHER: Sounds wonderful, then! I talked to Esther Gomez today shes the one Ive been dealing with and she says your father can move in next month. Thats pretty soon, actually. Hell have to get cracking on packing. [beat] Maybe you could help him.

PAUL: Hes a grown man. He can do it himself.

PAULS MOTHER: I know, I know! But you know how he is. He loves to disappoint people. I just dont want any last minute wrinkles.

PAUL: By the way, the super told me something about Dad signing forms. You know about that?

PAULS MOTHER: What forms?

PAUL: I dont know. Forms. Dads gotta sign them to make it all legal. Like a lease, I guess.

PAULS MOTHER: What was the supers name?

PAUL: [reaching for wallet] Just a sec. Ive got his card here.


Paul is in his room. He is sitting upright on his bed while watching the news on a small black-and-white TV and sipping a beer.

SFX: A strange sound from far away. Paper being crumpled.

Paul, hearing this, sits up.

SFX: More noise.

Paul gets gingerly off his bed. He takes a final swig from his beer, then turns the bottle around in his hand so he can hold it like a weapon. Thinking better of this, he opens a drawer to a storage box at the foot of his bed, puts down the beer, and pulls out a hammer.

Slowly, cautiously, Paul makes his way down the hall toward the kitchen.

SFX: The strange sound is louder.

Paul enters the kitchen.

He looks around.



A hallway.

The hallway is packed with students: smiling, happy, noisy students, all talking at once and calling out to each other.

Paul makes his way against the flow of pedestrian traffic. He wants to get to the teachers room.


Marty is there, as is Sarah, the teacher that Jae-ok maladroitly tried to hit on when he was put up to it by Luis.

MARTY: [loudly] Hey, dude. Whats up?

PAUL: [not making eye contact] Not much.

SARAH: [in an easy, friendly tone] How is your class?

PAUL: [looking at her, clearly touched by something in her voice] Good. Its good these days.


SARAH: You know, one of your students told me youre very kind.

PAUL: Oh yeah?

SARAH: Yes. Shes a quiet Korean girl. I guess she confided in me because Im a kyopo. Her names Sun-hee.

PAUL: Oh, sure, I know Sun-hee.

MARTY: Yeah, Ill bet you do!

SARAH: [amused] Oh, come on, Marty. Shes just a sweet, innocent person. [beat] Not the type youd understand at all.

MARTY: Thanks.

Paul looks at Sarah with more interest. He's clearly attracted to her, but his facial expression now also displays admiration which is, in a sense, another, more subtle kind of attraction.

SARAH: [picking up her teaching materials] Anyway, gotta go!

She leaves.

MARTY: Yeah, Id better get back to class. Friggin brats. Id like to electrocute em today.

He leaves.

Paul hovers by the phone. When he figures the coast is clear, he picks up the handset and dials.

PAUL: Its me.

PAULS MOTHER: [O.S.] Hi, dear. I talked to Esther again this morning. Theyd like it very much if we could bring your father to do the documents this evening. The office closes at seven, so we have time. And it cant be tomorrow because its a civic holiday. And we need to get everything processes before next Wednesday.

PAUL: Whats the rush?

PAULS MOTHER: We have to move quickly, dear. These units are hard to come by. Your father had to wait more than two years.

PAUL: Okay, okay, I got it. So can I just tell him where to go?

PAULS MOTHER: Why dont you go with him, dear? It would make it a lot simpler.

PAUL: Not for me, it wouldnt.

PAULS MOTHER: You know what Im saying.

PAUL: Mom, look. I appreciate everything youve done. You deserve a medal considering youre not even married to the guy. But Im so bushed. Im tired. And youve got a car. Cant you pick him up? [quickly] Just to bring him there.

Beat. A few teachers enter the room. Paul, meanwhile, has the expression on his face of someone expecting an axe to fall.

PAULS MOTHER: [with studied reasonableness] Ive got to manage the store until 5:00 and Im way out in Markham. Youre on Yonge Street. You can get to Sherbourne much more easily, and you remember the public housing, dont you? Its just over on Church.

PAUL: Yeah, but


PAUL: Im on my bike.

PAULS MOTHER: [laughing] I didnt expect you to double him.

PAUL: [looking over his shoulder, now aware of other teachers in the room half-listening to his conversation] Thats not the point.

PAULS MOTHER: Then what is? He can walk, cant he? Or take a taxi. [Grudging beat] Ill pay.

PAUL: [sighs] Okay. Fine. See you then.

Paul hangs up. Jennifer enters.

JENNIFER: Oh there you are! Youre the only one I havent seen yet! Did you hear? About the meeting this aft?

PAUL: Sorry, what?

JENNIFER: [laughing in a you-know-how-things-are-around-here way] I didnt know myself until 10 this morning. Peter wants to have, you know, one of his [making quote marks with her fingers] brain-storming sessions. It just came out of the blue.

PAUL: Youre not serious.

JENNIFER: No, no, its a joke. Of course Im serious!

PAUL: [pinching the bridge of his nose; a headache is coming on] What time?

JENNIFER: Just after youre finished. Five-oh-five.

Paul swears under his breath.

JENNIFER: Thats not a problem, is it?

PAUL: Well, Ive got this thing.

JENNIFER: [unconvincingly] Well, if you're busy, I guess you just can't.

PAUL: [suddenly anxious that he's making a bad impression] Uh, never mind. Thats okay. Ill be there. But Ill just get the basic, okay. I cant stay for more than 20 minutes, okay?

JENNIFER: Oh, well be done by then Im sure!

PAUL: Great.

Jennifer grins and sits down in front of her computer screen.

PAUL looks the photocopy machine, as if hes trying to think of what he needs to do next. His expression is unfocussed, helpless.


Most of the teachers are already in seats. Then a youngish guy with a white, unbuttoned shirt and sunglasses hanging from the front of his shirt enters. He looks tanned and relaxed.

GUY: Hey, everyone!

VARIOUS: [unenthusiastically] Hey, Peter.

PETER: Thanks for coming on such short notice. [Smiles.] Look, there are a bunch of things Id like to discuss today: a new bonus scheme, brainstorming for teaching ideas, that sort of thing. But the most important thing is, well [salespersons chuckle] Im in a bit of a pickle. Theres an agent I deal with in Seoul. And he can get me correction, he claims he can get me -- 200 Korean students for next semester. Thats bulk. And these are quality students. Theyre from Yonsei, a really class operation. But Im going to have to ask sort of a favor of you.

[beat. All look down.]

PETER: Its nothing drastic. But the guys got big ideas about himself. Thinks he some kind of professor or something. And he wants what he calls a statement of purpose from the school. Says it should be 3 pages, minimum. And, um, Im sort of busy. But I’ll need this by Friday. Is there anyone here whos good with words? Anyone whos a quick study? I just need someone to volunteer to whip this off.

A TEACHER: [with bratty smile] What about Lucille?

LUCILLE: [to bratty teacher] Thanks, Leslie.

LESLIE: [same smile] Just trying to help.

PETER: [judiciously] We cant ask Lucille. Shes busy with orientation.


LUCILLE: Maybe Sarah could do it.

Several teachers looks first at Lucille, then Sarah.

SARAH: Why me?

LUCILLE: Well, youre from Seoul, arent you?

SARAH: My mom was. We left when I was pretty young.

LUCILLE: I dont know. I just thought you could give a Korean touch to it.

SARAH: I really dont know what Id have to say. Im a terrible writer.

PAUL: [loudly] Okay, are there any writers here? Youre all teachers, right? Some of you must know how to write. [He laughs at his witticism] Maybe someone could work with Sarah.

Sarah looks at Lucille, then around the room. She clearly feels a little trapped.

PAUL: [slowly, mechanically, his arm begins to raise] I will.

Peter looks at him.

PETER: Sorry, whats your name again?

PAUL: Paul.

PETER: Paul! Right! Great!

Sarah glances at Paul with gratitude and smiles. Its a very beautiful smile the sort of smile that penetrates a mans heart.

Paul smiles back. But just as he does, he notices Marty also looking at him, giving him a knowing smirk.


Paul and Sarah are talking in the hall.

SARAH: Thanks so much for saying youd help me.

PAUL: Its no problem. How should we arrange it?

SARAH: [shrugs]

PAUL: Maybe we could use one of the staff computers after work.

SARAH: Sure. That sounds good. How about tomorrow?

PAUL: [smiling, almost as if hes scored a date] Ill see you.



Paul is escorting his father to a taxi.

PAULS FATHER: Im happy where I am.

PAUL: You know what weve got in our house? Our-not-so-different-from-your-house house?

PAULS FATHER: [a little disoriented by this remark] Pardon?

PAUL: Weve got rats, dad. Fucking rats. Get yourself a nice apartment.

They get into the cab.

PAUL: The Richardson Co-op. Sherbourne just south of Bloor.

The cabbie gives a second look to both Paul and his father. The car pulls into the traffic.

PAULS FATHER: Im happy where I am.

PAUL: Yeah. Well, now youre going to be happier. Mom and I worry about you in that place. Its a dump.

PAULS FATHER: All my files are there.

PAUL: Theyre just files. You can move them.


PAULS FATHER: something might happen.

PAUL: Whaddaya mean?

PAULS FATHER: I might lose something valuable. Ive spent years collected that. Every piece counts.

PAUL: Dad, theyre clippings! A) Youre not going to lose anything. And b), even if you do, its replaceable.

PAULS FATHER: I might be one of the few people on the planet who has this information. You dont realize the stakes that are involved.

PAUL: [turning away, under his breath] Oh, for Petes sake.

PAULS FATHER: [getting into a state] You dont get the big picture, do you son? Faulkner said it best: the past isnt dead; sometimes it isnt even past.

PAUL: [still looking out car window] Okay.

PAULS FATHER: If they can lie about Pearl Harbor, they can lie about anything. Think about that! Think about it in the current political context

PAUL: Bush lied. Everyone knows that already.

PAULS FATHER: No, no, you dont see. Every situation is different, but the patterns are similar. Even Bush getting caught fibbing about WMDs isnt the real story. The real story is that the [he makes finger quotation marks] "Long War on Terror" is just a mask for something else. Do you honestly think the American government is stupid enough to just focus on a bunch of underfunded and suicidal celibates? This isnt about Islam at all! It’s about a New American Empire!

PAUL: I thought we had an American Empire already.

PAULS FATHER: This is newer.


Paul, his father, his mother, and Frank Doucette are walking around the small but essentially nice apartment. Paul walks to the window and looks outside.

PAULS MOTHER: This is wonderful! Dont you think so, Jerry?

PAULS FATHER: [shuffling, mistrustful of his new surroundings] How much?

PAULS MOTHER: You dont worry about that! Its no problem! Your checks will cover it! Just dont spend too much on [laughs] tea!

FRANK DOUCETTE: Lady? You or your husband --

PAULS MOTHER: [quickly] Ex-husband!

FRANK DOUCETTE: [raising an eyebrow] One of you are gonna hafta sign this. [He holds a clipboard with a document.] Paul's mother walks to the super and takes the clip-board from him. As she's busy doing this, Paul's father, in the background, begins to shuffle toward the door.

PAUL: [turning to all] This isn't so bad, you know. [Spotting father leaving] Uh, Pops, where you headed?

PAULS MOTHER: [seeing Paul's father as he exits the apartment] Jerry! Paul rushes forward and takes his father by the arm just as the latter tries to run (as fast as he can) down the hall.

PAUL: Dad. Come on. You can't do this.

PAULS FATHER: [looking down at his shoes, like a petulant little boy] I don't like it. Too much light.

Paul looks up at his mother and the super, who are regarding them with a mixture of perplexity and rage.


Paul's father is waiting a few meters away by the elevators. The super has already gone.

PAULS MOTHER: [pulling Paul aside and whispering to him sharply] Your father is going to be the death of me!!



If you want to see the past installments of "Truth Marathon", click here.


Paul exits. He's dressed in his work clothes. He starts walking down the porch steps quickly and energetically. But then he turns and looks at his bike. It's repaired now and locked to the porch's railing.

Paul hesitates. After a moment of thought, he quickly goes back into his house. He emerges a second later with a bicycle helmet. He puts it on and unlocks his bike.


Several people are milling around, making photocopies, chatting. Paul is at the phone.


SFX: soft ringing. ELECTRONIC VOICE: You have … one … message.

SFX: Beep!

PAUL’S MOTHER: [tape] Hi honey. It’s me. Could you call me when you have time?

Paul hangs up and redials. PAUL'S MOTHER [O.S.]: Hello? PAUL: Oh, hey mom.

INTERCUT. PAUL AND HIS MOTHER. PAUL’S MOTHER: Oh, hi dear! Thanks for calling back.

PAUL: Yeah. No sweat. What's up?

PAUL’S MOTHER: I have wonderful news! I talked to the social housing people yesterday, and they told me that your father can get a real apartment!

PAUL: Great.

PAUL'S MOTHER: Yes, isn't it? It's geared-to-income, so his cheques will be sufficient.

PAUL: Sounds good. Where is it?

PAUL'S MOTHER: Just off Church Street. A little south of Bloor.

PAUL: Oh, that's sort of a scuzzy area, isn't it?


PAUL: Well, yeah. Don't they shoot crackheads down there? Or maybe it's the crackheads doing the shooting.

PAUL'S MOTHER: Well, in any case, it's ... central.

PAUL: Yeah, I guess it is. What's it like?

PAUL'S MOTHER: You mean, inside?

PAUL: Yeah.

PAUL'S MOTHER: I'm not sure. [beat] They tell me it's clean.

PAUL: "Clean."

PAUL'S MOTHER: [with more animation] Maybe you could whip over and take a look at it!

PAUL: [regretting he ever brought it up] What? Me?

PAUL'S MOTHER: Who else? You're closer. And you're a better judge of what Dad likes anyway.

PAUL: Ohh, jeez, ma, I'm --. You know, I'm busy.

PAUL'S MOTHER: We're all busy, Paul. That's modern life.

PAUL: [looking at watch] Today is rough... I ....

PAUL'S MOTHER: Have you got something planned?

PAUL: Yeah. A lot to do. I'm really swamped.

PAUL'S MOTHER: Well, not today then. How about tomorrow?

PAUL: [mumbling] Shi.... Okay. Gimme the address.


Paul is walking along the street. It's central to the city and cars stream up and down it steadily. There are pedestrians on the sidewalk, and they stream up and down, too. Paul is clearly more interested in the latter, especially the young women who occasionally pass him with a quick glance.

He stops outside a second hand bookstore. He glances at the various titles propped in front of the dusty window -- battered, discarded objects that have been spruced up to look attractive, like paupers in their Sunday best.


Apart from Paul and a clerk, the bookstore seems empty.

Paul is looking at an illustrated history book about Italy during the Renaissance. He
pores over its pictures and reads captions and passages of text as if he's consumed by them. But then, a moment later, he puts the book back on its shelf and wanders to the back of the store.

There are more people here -- men, all of them. And there are more publications -- most of them magazines. And all of them about sex.

Paul dawdles here. He's clearly interested and he glances at the covers of the magazines with the sort of look that a person uses when they're sneaking a peek. But he seems to be going through an internal struggle, and as he puts his weight on one leg as he mindlessly steps closer to the magazines, just as quickly he steps back: monk avoiding temptation.


Medium shot of Paul in a parkette. He has a Big Gulp in his hands and is eating a small hamburger. He looks toward the big street -- the people, its life.

Long shot. Paul is still sitting. Still looking. Still alone.


SFX: Delighted screaming.

The camera pulls back. Paul's students are all gathered in a chaotic group in front of his whiteboard. They're divided (loosely) into two groups and playing a word game; while one student writes words that start with a specified letter -- for example, snow, smile, sun -- others on his team screech out suggestions.

Paul stands to one side, smiling and looking at the second hand on his watch.

STUDENTS ON TEAM "A": Soft! Sugar! Smile!

STUDENT WHO IS WRITING FOR TEAM "A": [a Mexican male] Already "smile".


STUDENTS ON TEAM "B": Moon! Make! Marble!

STUDENT WHO IS WRITING FOR TEAM "A": [a Polish female] How spell "marble"?

PAUL: Okay ... stop! Everybody, stop!

STUDENTS ON TEAM "A": Sad! Sick! Sex!

PAUL: [raising his voice to be heard across the din] Okay! I said stop!

The students, all elated, step back from the whiteboard.

PAUL: [stepping forward and counting the words the students have spelled correctly] Okay. "A" Team.... One, two, three, four.......

SFX: Knocking on the classroom's open door.

Paul turns and sees Lucille.

LUCILLE: What's all the noise?

PAUL: [suddenly nervous] Oh, sorry, I didn't realize we were being so loud.

LUCILLE: [smiling] No, it's great. Just make sure the door stays shut when you're doing games though, okay?

PAUL: [chastised] Yeah. Sure.


LUCILLE: You're doing a good job, Paul. I've been noticing.

Paul is clearly pleasantly surprised by the compliment. However, he is speechless. And then, still smiling with obvious approval, Lucille retreats to the hall.


Paul is on the phone. We just hear his side of the conversation.

PAUL: Mom? Yeah, I'm going as soon as I can. Where is it again?... What? Did I talk to Dad? Yeah, I spoke to him last night. He's like, whatever.... What? Next week? Oh, next month. That's when the housing people say Dad can move in? Okay, good. Yup, yup.... No, it'll be good. I'll just check it out.... Yeah, I'll call you tonight.


Paul is on his bike. He gets off it and locks it to a parking meter.

He looks up at the buildings.They are a chalky white, and, although they've clearly seen better days, they seem to be in reasonable repair.

Around him are lots of people -- some single but also many families. The single people are a wide range of ages, racial types, and, given the hostile body language of some of them, degrees of criminal intent. The families, however, are mainly young and have a trustworthy, law-abiding look to them. Almost all of them are, as we say nowadays, of colour. They are from Sri Lanka, India, China, Taiwan, and many other countries far across the globe. Many of them seem happy together.


Paul enters.

PAUL: I'm looking for Frank Doucette.

A portly man in an open-necked white shirt: Yeah, you got him.


The apartment is small but clean. It has a nice bright view of a courtyard 20 stories below.

PAUL: [peering into kitchen and bathroom] Yeah. Looks good.... How's the water pressure?


Paul walks into the bathroom. The camera doesn't follow him. INstead, we hear the tap get turned on.


PAUL: [over the sound] Yeah. It's good.


Paul and Frank Doucette are talking.

PAUL: So how does it work? My dad can move in next month?

FRANK: Yeah. But he's gotta come here first. Sign some papers.

PAUL: Okay. Sure. No sweat.


Paul is getting on his bike.
He's whistling, he's so happy.

Monday, May 08, 2006


If you want to see the past installments of "Truth Marathon", click here.

RECAP: Paul has had a hard week: he is struggling to undo the damage from the terrible first impression he made on his boss at a new job, and his talkative, obsessive father is becoming manic again.

Emotionally exhausted, he goes home and collapses. And a week later, all he is concentrating on is succeeding at work.


Paul is gathering up his books and teaching materials. One student, an Asian female, lingers behind.

STUDENT: Teacher.

PAUL: Hm? What is it, Sun-hee?

STUDENT: I …. [she becomes paralyzed with shyness]

PAUL: [tenderly] What’s the matter?

STUDENT: [blushing] I understand –

PAUL: [encouragingly] You understand. Good. That’s good.

STUDENT: No. I understand, no. You speaking. Too fast.



Marty appears at the door and gives it a light knock.

PAUL: Whassup?

Sun-hee looks first at Paul, then at Marty. It’s all a bit much.

STUDENT: Sorry. [She gathers her handbag and books and flees from the room.]

MARTY: What was that all about?

PAUL: [looking at his attendance sheet] Nothing. Just a student needing some help.

MARTY: She looked – I dunno – like, upset.

PAUL: She was shy. She told me I’m speaking too fast.

MARTY: Oh. Oh. I thought maybe she was – uh --.

PAUL: [looking up] “Uh….”

MARTY: You know, coming on to you.


MARTY: [forcefully] Come on, don’t you have that sometimes?

PAUL: [looking down again] No.

MARTY: Well, you’ve just been here a week-and-a-half. Nobody knows you. I mean, the students don’t. You don’t have a reputation.

PAUL: Oh, swell, that’s what I need.

MARTY: Not in a bad way, dude! Just, you know, a reputation.

PAUL: Thanks for clarifying that, Marty.

MARTY: [making a “phssshh” sound under his breath] Okay, okay. [Beat] You mind if I ask you a personal question?

PAUL: [putting away his papers and closing his books] Shoot.

MARTY: You got a girlfriend?

PAUL: [quietly] No.

MARTY: How old are you?

PAUL: [blushing despite himself] 38.

MARTY: [starting] Thirty --?! [Catching himself] You don’t look it.

PAUL: Yeah, well, that’s something I suppose.

MARTY: No, you’re taking me the wrong way. All I’m saying is, you, teacher. Hot chicks, student. You need to be a little more friendly, you know what I mean? Not in a bad way. Just be yourself. You’re a nice guy. So just keep doing that nice guy thing. You’ll have hotties staying after class to ask you questions all the time, believe me.

PAUL: [clearly uncomfortable] Look, I’m not exactly in Lucille’s good books right now. I don’t think that “getting a reputation” as being a little sort of very popular with female students is going to help.

MARTY: Oh, fuck Lucille! She’s a tight-ass! You know Peter, the guy who actually owns this school?The one who hired a rottweiler like Lucille so he could, ah, do other things?

PAUL: Yeah, I met him.

MARTY: He screws students. He’s very specific. He likes Venezualans.

PAUL: [preparing to leave] Good to know. But I think the operative word in that last phrase was “actually owns”.

MARTY: Okay, okay! So he’s a fucking hypocrite! So what! But listen, this is just a lousy institute. It’s not even a real school. It’s just a place where rich kids come so they can drink and cut loose in another country for a few months and tell mommy and daddy they’re “studying”. So what if you have a good time, too?

PAUL: Well, what about you?

MARTY: What about me?

PAUL: How many students are you, ah, giving A+’s to?

MARTY: I was just saying. I didn’t mean every teacher here does that.

PAUL: [bemused] So you’re telling me that you condone sex with students but don’t do it yourself?

MARTY: [flustered] You said it yourself. You gotta be careful. In any case, Canada sucks. The attitude here sucks. It’s just a square place. It gets into everyone for some reason. Now if you’re living in another country, that’s a different story. That’s where the action starts.

PAUL: So what’re you thinking? A job in Montreal?

MARTY: No, dude! I wanna go back to Seoul! I lived there for two years. You wouldn’t believe that place! It’s unreal, man! It’s – I dunno. It’s intense. Anyway, I’m already sending out resumes. Got a couple of good leads. If everything comes together, I’ll be gone in a month. A month, dude!

Paul doesn’t know what to say. Marty glances at him and realizes that he’s blushing once more. Marty, feeling a moment of pity for his new, odd, shy friend, lowers his voice an octave.

MARTY: Why don’t you go? Try something different?

PAUL: I just started here. How can I leave?

MARTY: Lucille doesn’t care.

PAUL: No, Marty. Thanks. But I just can’t. It’s crazy.

MARTY: Well, live large. It’s the only way if you wanna be happy. [beat] If you need any help, I can show you a couple of job search websites.

PAUL: No, fine. Really. I’m okay here. I just gotta – I gotta turn it around with Lucille.

MARTY: Okay, dude. But remember, you heard it here first: Canada sucks. You don’t have to live – oh, what’s the word I’m looking for --? You don’t have to live like a refugee.

Paul looks up at Marty, on the verge of correcting his word choice, but then he just smiles sadly.


The lights are out. The room is very dim. Paul is dialing a phone number.

PAUL: [into handset] Dad? Dad? You there?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Not a golden age, but hopeful enough

Michael Allen on changes in the publishing industry:

My own take on the position is as follows. And I am speaking here, for simplicity, of fiction only.

Yes, once upon a time there were lots of small publishing firms whose editors were interested only in finding good books -- a term which was defined as being the kind of book which they themselves enjoyed. Forty years ago, in the UK, it was possible to break even on a novel by selling about 2,000 copies; and you could usually shift that number to the library market. So the average book would more or less pay its way, and the occasional surprise hit would keep the firm in business. Nobody got rich, but writers could be kept going for half a dozen books or so while their promise was converted into achievement.

That business has been dead -- totally and completely six feet under -- for at least twenty years. The library market has virtually vanished, and all the small firms have been bought up and incorporated into half a dozen big (by publishing standards) firms which are themselves tiny subsidiaries of much bigger (and often foreign-owned) companies -- companies which expect their small publishing sections to make substantial profits. Not publish literature, but make profits.

And from the perspective of the current owners of publishing firms, the problem with publishing is that it is pathetically unsatisfactory as a profit-generating business. (There is lots more about this in my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile). Every serious businessman who has ever looked closely at book publishing, and particularly fiction publishing, has given a snort of derision and hastily passed on.

For those who continue to work in big-time commercial publishing, however, the demands of the job are very simple. You have to sell books.

Whether this view is entirely correct is another issue. But for the most part, it is a necessary antidote to the degree of romanticizing (and mystification) that still surrounds the actual world of publishing.

One point that interests me in particular is the role that libraries used to play. Obviously, if they were buying books -- for example, 2,000 -- that meant lower potential sales, since readers could take the books out on loan. But it also meant that an author, even if relatively unknown, could count on at least having a certain audience. In other words, there was less astronomical success, but also less absolute failure. Although not a golden age, it seems rather enviable now.

TRUTH MARATHON - part five

If you want to see the past installments of "Truth Marathon", click here.

RECAP: After a difficult few days at a new teaching job, Paul has gone to visit his father after work. His father -- genial, unemployed, obsessed -- lives in a rooming house. The two have tea in the kitchen. Then they head upstairs to Paul's father's room where, apparently, his father will tell Paul "something important".


The camera dollies ahead of Paul and his father as they ascend the stairs.

PAULS FATHER: Did you read that story in paper about George on the oil companies?

PAUL: I didnt get a paper today.

PAULS FATHER: Well it was yesterdays paper, actually. It was classic Bush, yessir, classic Dubya. Hes refusing to tax big oil on its windfall, you see. "The Decider" indeed! More like "The Provider" ... [going for the punchline] "The Provider" to Big Business!

PAUL: [not even smiling politely] Hm.

They reach the second floor landing. Pauls father glances at Paul. But Paul looks distant and disengaged. Paul's father frowns.


The two enter.

Inside the room are stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines. There are also several filing cabinets the old, beige metal ones that used to be used throughout the offices of the world. And maybe these cabinets were; that is, maybe they have traveled the world. They certainly have a pre-used look to them.

As well, books line a bookshelf that is built into one wall. There are a wide variety of them. Some are serious a modern history of Lebanon by Robert Fisk, a copy of The Pentagon Papers. Others are cheap, whacky paperbacks: UFO books, Armageddon books.

But above all is row after row of books about Pearl Harbor. They seem almost a library unto themselves, and, wedged between them, are a series of fat file folders with labels affixed to their uneven spines. These labels read: "Roosevelt's plans", "Churchill's motives", "Monitor'g of Japan navy", "Codes". Alongside these is a smaller (though still impressive) collection of books about World War Two, the Great Depression, and -- in a jarring jump to the present -- 9/11.

On a desk that once sat in a school-room sits an old computer. It is pathetically out of date. It has a 5 1/4 inch floppy drive and dot matrix printer.

Next to it is a color TV also quite old. And an equally ancient VCR. Beside the VCR are some tapes. All of these have hand-written labels on the labels.

Finally, on the bed is a slant board. This is a kind of exercise board that allows a person to lie on their back at an angle with their feet higher than their head.

s father looks at his computer.

S FATHER: You know anyone whod know how to fix this?

PAUL: Dad, that system doesn
t need fixing. It needs throwing out.

S FATHER: Horse-feathers! Its electronic inside. That stuff never wears out well, not for a lot longer than youd think. Its just the magnates the Bill Gates and the whatnots. They want you to keep buying new computers! Its greedy and its wasteful.

PAUL: Whatever. [Suddenly somewhat impatient, looking at his watch] Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?

S FATHER: No, no! I can write long-hand. In fact, its better that I do. [Leaning close to Paul] Do you realize computers spy on you?

PAUL: No they don

S FATHER: Yes they do. You told me.

PAUL: That
s only if youre hooked up to the internet. And thats maybe.

S FATHER: [triumphantly] Oh just the internet. Sounds pretty certain-maybe-certain to me!

Paul clears his throat.

S FATHER: [realizing hes being a bore] Look, this is good. Youll like this. [He starts looking through his collection of home-taped video-cassettes.]

PAUL: What is it? A bootleg of Three Days of the Condor?

PAULS FATHER: [not getting it] Pardon?

PAUL: Nothing.

Pauls father clicks on the TV and puts a tape into the VCR. Snow.

PAUL: Your TV doesnt look very healthy, either.

PAULS FATHER: Its fine, its fine! Just wait!

An image appears. Then audio. Its an interview for the BBC.

PAUL: Oh, I know this program. Hard Talk.

PAULS FATHER: Yeah, Hard Crap is what I call it most of the time. But this one is good.

They watch the tape. It is of two men in a studio. One is excitable. The other is extremely composed. The latter is the one being interviewed.

PAUL: [sarcastically, looking at the composed interviewee] Whos the live-wire?

PAULS FATHER: [happy to know a secret] You dont know, do you?

PAUL: Should I?

PAULS FATHER: Hes probably had more direct influence on your life than George Bush ever will.

PAUL: Gosh.

PAULS FATHER: [snorts under his breath]

PAUL: So who is he? He looks like he looks Uncle Bruce.

PAULS FATHER: His names Efraim Halevy.

PAUL: Who?

PAULS FATHER: He was the head of Mossad.

PAUL: [only mildly more interested] Oh.

The two, Paul and his dad, watch the two on the TV set, Efraim Halevy and the interviewer, David Jessel.

Jessel: Tell us a bit about any foreknowledge that Mossad might have had of 9/11.

Halevy: Beforehand, we did not know anything about the changed institutions . [Halevy, realizing hes made a slip of the tongue, catches himself. At this point, the TV camera focused on him starts to slowly zoom in] changed situation. We did not know about that.

PAULS FATHER: [stopping video] Did you hear that?!

PAUL: What?

PAULS FATHER: What he said!!!

PAUL: What? That Mossad wasnt involved?

PAULS FATHER: No! About changed institutions!

PAUL: Sorry?

PAULS FATHER: Here. Let me replay it. [The VCR doesnt work correctly] Shit! [He hits it.]

PAUL: Dad, you gotta do something about your physical plant, here.

PAULS FATHER: [glaring at the VCR] Damn technology. It helps no one, you know, over the long run. Progress is illusionary.

PAUL: Okay. Fine. Well, I think Ill go and catch a subway now because my bike is prone to getting flats.

PAULS FATHER: Here! Here! Its working! [Pauls father replays the one segment of video].

PAUL: [at the end of his rope] Thats great. Look, Dad, you dont know how stressed
out I am. It
s a new job, it didnt get off to the greatest start, I still havent eaten. Id just like to head home .

PAULS FATHER: Paul. Son. Look, I know Im imposing on you. I know that. But humor your screwed-up old dad, would you? This matters. This.

PAUL: Its just two big-shots shooting the shit. Ones a journalist playing gotcha, and the others an intelligence weasel. Whats special about it?

PAULS FATHER: Youd call pre-knowledge of 9/11 not special?

PAUL: [whos clearly heard this before] Yeah, Id call it special. But youve got nothing here.

PAUL'S FATHER: The starting point always looks like a nothing!

PAUL: You're entitled to believe what you want. So am I. So what? The two of us could agree till we're blue in the face. That still wouldn't convince anyone else. You need evidence.

PAUL'S FATHER: What our culture needs today is a shift! A shift in attitude! Sure, we have "freedom of the press". Sure! And still, day after day, we swallow the lies we're fed. Look at the historical record! Look at Pearl Harbor and all the lies that surround that!

PAUL: [in the tired voice of someone who's entered an argument he really knows he shouldn't have] Look, Pops ... a) 9/11 and Pearl Harbor are two different things. And b) no one's ever proved that there were lies about Pearl Harbor in the first place...

PAUL'S FATHER: Because of people! Because they're such ... [searches for an original metaphor] sheep!

PAUL: Well, maybe you 'n' I are sheep, too. So let's just focus on being happy sheep, okay?

PAUL'S FATHER: I'm no sheep. I'm a professional journalist.

PAUL: You freelanced, Dad.

PAULS FATHER: Some of the best journalism ever written has been produced by freelancers. Think of I. F. Stone. [Portentously, Pauls dad reaches for a volume in his bookcase that he knows the precise location of] Ive been telling you for ages to read this book. Its a good start on his material.

PAUL: I don't have the time. Im busy, Dad. You dont know how busy.


PAULS FATHER: [stony-faced in an Im-not-hurt-by-your-insensitivity sort of way] Im boring you.

PAUL: [pleading] Youre not boring me. [Confessing] Okay, you are. Im wiped, okay? I gotta get something to eat and some rest.

PAULS FATHER: This matters, Paul. I know what you think of me. I know what everyone thinks. And maybe I spent too much of my life going in too many directions and not really getting anywhere. Too many causes. Too many ideals. And I wasted a lot of time and energy. You and Mom know about that. It took me a long time to realize politics doesnt really matter so much. But there are times when it does.


Pauls fathers speech has a kind of restrained nobility to it. And Pauls father seems, in some happy corner of his soul, to realize this. But just as soon as he does, the old endorphins, the old addictives that once sent him speeding along pointless highways, start up again. He just cant resist going for melodrama.

PAULS FATHER: [his eyes welling up] Theyre destroying the world, son. Theres never been an age quite like this. Global warming, surveillance cameras and software. Computers that record everything you write. Wars fought for Israel.

PAUL: [upset] Dad, they didnt fight that war for Israel!

PAULS FATHER: They did, son, they did! And thats how Mossad wanted it! Who knows whether they were played or wanted to be played. But playing is what happened!

PAUL: Dad, thats why you dont hold down jobs!

PAULS FATHER: [not getting it] What?!

PAUL: [helplessly] You cant talk that way. Its

PAULS FATHER: [with umbrage] What exactly are you saying here? That Im an anti-semite? Really? Is that it, son? Then explain this: how come I married your mother? Huh? What about that?

PAUL: Mom isnt Jewish, dad! Shes a Polish Catholic!

PAULS FATHER: Her grandfather was Jewish.

PAUL: [tired] And her dad wasnt. Weve been through all this before.

PAULS FATHER: Oh, really? Really? Do you realize that according to Nazi race laws her parents would have been shipped off to a camp if theyd found out?

PAUL: Well, they werent.


SFX: The traffic outside.

PAULS FATHER: [quietly] I loved her. I want you to know that.

PAUL: [looking away] Sure.

PAULS FATHER: [grabbing him by the shoulders and forcing Paul to look into his eyes] No, you listen to me son. I loved her with my heart and soul. Never listen to what she says about all that. You remember that, okay? Its not my fault I got sick. You heard what the doctors said.

Paul: I realize that.


PAUL'S FATHER: And there was the accident.

PAUL: [dryly] I don't think that had anything to do with it.

PAUL'S FATHER: [a little pugnaciously] Oh yeah? Really? What do you know about it?

Paul shrugs.

Paul's father walks across the room to the bookcase. He seems lost in thought. Then he turns with and looks at Paul with a strange glint in his eye, as if now -- at this very moment -- he is saying the thing that matters most.

PAUL'S FATHER: No one knows what's happening, son. It's kept under wraps. But it'll all come to no good. You'll see. There's going to be a wave of destruction like nothing the human race has ever witnessed before: oil war, techno-dictatorship, greenhouse crisis ... you name it, it's all going to converge...

PAUL: [nods]

PAUL'S FATHER: [louder] But we can stop them! Can't you see?! We can put together the pieces ... connect the dots!! It's not hopeless if we all just hang together!!

PAUL: [with zero visible emotion] Yeah, I know, it's important. [Beat.] Look, I really gotta go.


Paul quickly exits. His face remains impassive. But then, once the moment hes shut the door behind him, tears well up in his eyes. He controls himself with difficulty.

Then suddenly, he turns and swings his fist at the brick wall next to the door. Only at the last split-second does he restrain himself.

He steps onto the sidewalk and walks away.


Paul, alone, is running laps, trying to wear off his nervous energy and unhappiness. His face is pale, almost as if his skin itself is exhausted.