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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Intellectual freedom: Survival is design, not chance

Here's what I told Write! Canada Friday night (June 13, 2008) - and got a standing ovation.

My plenary talk was originally billed as "My journey as a writer", but I have more sense than to suppose that many people are interested in my* journey as a writer. I talked about what their journey is likely to feature. So ... here goes:

Most of us are here to examine our own journeys as writers — a wise approach, considering how much time, trouble, and expense we undergo to get a berth at Write! Canada.

I would invite all here tonight to look at the publishing climate we face when we go home on Saturday.

If I focus on books, that is because I am primarily an author of books, but also because books tend to drive the publishing industry. People are far more likely to write articles about books than they are to write books about articles. ( Mark Steyn could prove me wrong if convicted by the Candian Cangaroo Court, but for that see below.)

Similarly, books generate TV, radio, films, even theme songs. So no slight is intended if I talk about what I know best. Book industry challenges and changes will feed into other industries. If you are in another media industry altogether, perhaps you can help me understand what those changes entail for you.

Next: Question One: Why become a writer now, when it is so difficult?

All linked for your convenience:

Question One: Why become a writer now, when it is so difficult? If you are not crazy, let's talk.

Question Two: "Can I get an agent?" Well, why do you want one?

Question Three: Will there still be books twenty years from now? Perhaps, but will anyone care about them?

Question Four: Will people still want to read in the digital age? That is, will they still want to learn new ideas?

Question Five: And so now ... among the ruins?

Question Six: What is the biggest problem we Canadian Christian writers face today? Intellectual freedom!

Question Seven: But what about our achievements? Surely we have at least some achievements? Yes, we do!

*I wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old and was unfit for any other calling. My journey has been, essentially, a hack's ad hoc survival strategies. I may as well sketch out the landscape in which I survive. (Fifty years later, I am still a hack so I must call some shots right. And so now listen.)

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie:

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Question One: Why become a writer now, when it is so difficult?

You have chosen to become a writer in the most difficult period for getting started that I have personally experienced. The Seventies—when I got started — was a time of warm, bubbly expansion. Today is a time of severe, icy contraction.

You have probably heard that CBA Canada (the Christian book retailers of Canada) is no more, and that Blessings has also closed many stores. A recent article in ChristianWeek speaks of the four-store chain "Christian Publications" closing on a "high note".

But closing on a high note is still closing, right?

Basically, at the end of the day, the whole industry is changing. That is changing the way we work and the way we reach people, and the changes are happening quickly.

Behind this public news, there is — as we all know — other news, industry news. For example, most of us know that it is much more difficult than it used to be to get a book published without an agent.

Question Two: "Can I get an agent?"

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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Question Two: "Can I get an agent?"

The book publishing market is increasingly restricted to people who approach a publisher with a guaranteed existing audience.

If you don't have an audience, you must find one. Securing an audience in advance has become a key task for the writer today.

Now, this is part of the theme of my long-running Continuing Class —five sessions on how to survive as a freelance writer. (They change the name of the course every year, but I always think of it as Freelance Survival 101.)

If you— no doubt wisely—signed up for one of our other excellent Continuing classes (it's very hard to go wrong here!), let me summarize my thoughts on literary agents briefly:

The literary agent wants the same thing from us as a real estate agent: A salable product and reasonable expectations. One difference, however, is that everyone wants to live in a house but not everyone wants to buy a book.

So we must work hard to convince a literary agent that we are actually bringing the publisher a market.

I have occasionally run into writers who hope that their agent will build them a career—for a modest percentage of the soon-to-be-banked millions. That's about as realistic as expecting a real estate agent to build us a new house, for a modest percentage of its subsequent resale value.

Life never works that way. Just as we must bring a salable house to the real estate agent, we must bring a market to the literary agent. Then she in turn markets our market to publishers.

Neither the agent nor the publisher is, strictly speaking, asking, Is this a good book? That's too vague. Good for whom, and for what?

The main thing the publisher needs to know is, should we assume the costs of publishing and marketing this book?

So here is the final and true answer to the question of whether you can get an agent:

Of course you can. Get yourself an audience, and you will almost certainly find an agent who is interested in you.

The key change, in other words, is that marketing your idea must start long before you write the book.

But now let's look at some of the other changes in the industry, and how they will affect us:

Some of what I am about to say is not what you might hear in a truly somnolent after-dinner speech, but then you didn't spend all that money and do all that preparation and go to all that trouble to come to Write! Canada just to hear sit here and hear that expensive sludge, did you?

Or am I going to tell you? - as many industry pundits do - "Never mind the grim statistics about the book store closings, the slaughter of the mid list and such—the book is immortal, and people will always want to read!"

No, I am most certainly not. The people who say that doubtless believe it, but historically, it is not true. And to survive this maelstrom, we need to get correct bearings.

Question Three: Will there still be books?

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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Question Three: Will there still be books?

Well, think of the scroll. When books first appeared, people probably said that the scroll would survive—after all, it was immortal, like the book is today.

To this day, scrolls are still featured in ceremonies and portrayed in artwork. You can see representations of the Dead Sea Scrolls in museums. You can buy chintzy little scrolls with Scripture verses on them, to infest your friends' knick knack shelves.

But—if you told those same friends that you were going to write a scroll, they would think you were doing some kind of decorative craft.

Books obliterated scrolls for practical purposes. Books better served the existing need. In the same way, e-books, Kindle, and other technologies yet to come could well obliterate the paper book within the next couple of decades. Remaining books will be ceremonial items and decor.

The worst of them will become prop under the short leg of the table (but that always happened to really bad books).

But it is not merely the paper that disappears. As a longtime editor, I know well that many features of books are constraints imposed by the need to work with paper. These constraints are meaningless in a digital world. They must necessarily disappear, though perhaps not right away.

None of this should much concern the writer because none of it means that we cannot—in principle—get our ideas across.

Question Four: Will people still want to read? That is, will they still want to learn new ideas?

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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Question Four: Will people still want to read? That is, will they still want to learn new ideas?

A bigger question— the one that I think is really much more important—is, will people still want to read?

By reading I mean the kind of intellectual effort that the book and the scroll catered to (as do audio CDs, dramatic readings, and dramatizations that are faithful to the text).

I mean prolonged exposure to a complex and significant idea.

You see, the other popular piece of after-dinner punditry that I want to challenge tonight is: "People will always want to read."

Will they?

Usually, when I hear something like that, I ask myself a simple question: Has it always been so? A thing that has always so will likely continue to be. It's a bet you can accept.

But that is not the case with reading, I am afraid.

The habit of reading as a normal activity for ordinary people is relatively recent. Yes, at one time books had to be copied by hand and only rich people could own them.

But that's only half the picture. We tend not to notice the other half.

The other half is that - for the most part - for thousands of years after writing was invented, most people were not rioting in the streets because they lacked access to books.

They were happy with ballads, lays, and old wives' tales, with stained glass windows and statues, with street drama and mystery plays, and with oral tradition in the various branches of knowledge that were considered important.

When the Bible became a focus of religious fervor, the only book most families owned was a Bible. And that was the only book they thought they needed to own.

There is considerable virtue in such a view, but if followed today it would extinguish the career of almost everyone in this room.

Next: Question Five: And so now ... ?

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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Question Five: And so now ... ?

The habit of both learning and amusing oneself by reading books came into existence during a historical period. It could go out of existence during a historical period too. This may be one of those periods.

There have been such periods in the past, for a variety of reasons. More people read during the Roman Empire (ended about 400 AD) than during the later centuries of the Dark Ages in Europe (ended about 1100 AD)—when, at one point apparently, most of the key manuscripts were hidden on an island off of Ireland. (That's why Ireland was call the "land of saints and scholars.")

Today's challenges are the opposite of the challenges we faced during the Dark Ages: Information and entertainment proliferate almost faster than the advertising can be booked for them. When consumers can download feature films to cell phones or play elaborate story-based games based on those films, will books seem simply too static to attract any significant number of people?


What worries me more is that ours has become a culture of simple answers and instant gratification. And the opportunities to bypass the book—and the prolonged concentration it requires—proliferate.

So, ours is a market— small or great—for people willing to sit and think, and be challenged.

Good fiction, for example, reveals complex personalities, and good non-fiction unpacks complex topics.

Complex, by the way, doesn't mean boring or hard to understand. It means material that cannot just be turned into wrapping paper themes without losing something in translation.

It means ideas that you didn't grow up with, that are not second nature, that don't seem "obvious." So you must pay attention in order to understand.

Put simply: If your book can be turned into wrapping paper without losing anything in translation, the card and party industry offers an exciting career for you.

So yes, I do believe that we face, for the present, a difficult and shrinking market, and I am not here to try to tell you otherwise. However, there are some reasonable grounds for hope.

First, complexity is usually an acquired taste.

The four year old who thinks that candy floss is the most wonderful food product ever invented may mature into a gardener who seeks just the right balsamic vinegar to complement her heritage tomatoes. We learn to appreciate complexity as we mature.

With diligence, a good writer can still find and cultivate readers and hearers. But it is going to be a lot of work, and the writer must face challenges that didn't exist in the past—and acquire skills that were not necessary in the past.

Next: Question Six: What is the biggest problem we Canadian writers face today?

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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Question Six: What is the biggest problem we Canadian Christian writers face today?

The climate of opinion we face is currently very challenging.

As many here must know, one of our best-known Canadian writers, Mark Steyn, and our historic national magazine, Maclean's have been charged with hate crimes, as have other notables.

I have read Mark Steyn's Maclean's article, and, while some might wish to contest various matters in it, the notion that it constitutes hate is ... a wakeup call to every one of us.

Time doesn't permit me to go into the Levant case or the Boisson case, or any number of similar cases. But the pattern is clear: The most serious challenge in Canada today is intellectual freedom.

Increasingly, under our 14 human rights commissions and tribunals, governments and their appointed minders restrict what we can say, think, or do supposedly in our own interests - but certainly in theirs! It is their government job, right? And the more they restrict, the bigger their job.

And— make no mistake—they attract, in the Christian community, individuals who are glad to help do the minding. So far as I can see, the current government supports this situation, and will do its best to keep it in place.

But I do have one thing to say on my own account: I find it frustrating when Christians say, oh, well you know, Jesus promised us that we would suffer persecution. You know, Matthew 24:9 and all that.

To which all I can say is ... just a minute!

We live in what is supposed to be a free and democratic society that offers freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.

Our Constitution dates back only to 1981 and most of us in this room tonight were alive when we agreed that freedom of thought, conscience, and belief is what we did want. And it is what most Canadians want today. But it is slowly being eroded by the "human rights" system, which I call the "human" face of fascism—because that is precisely what it is.

[cries of Preach it! Sister! interrupted the talk at one point - I think here.]

As David Warren wrote in his Wednesday column in the Ottawa Citizen (June 11, 2008),

As free speech disappears in Canada, one looks for instance not at the more celebrated cases of Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, but at the much less publicized fate of e.g. Rev. Stephen Boisson, convicted by an Alberta kangaroo court (“human rights tribunal”) last November for publicly expressing the Christian and Biblical view of homosexuality, on the say-so of an anti-Christian activist from his home town.

Rev. Boisson has now been ordered to desist from communicating his views on this subject “in newspapers, by email, on the radio, in public speeches, or on the Internet” so long as he should live. He has been ordered to pay compensation to Darren Lund, the anti-Christian activist in question, and further to make a public recantation of beliefs he still holds.

Here I want to say only: None of this is the persecution Christ promised! This is merely the logical and predictable result of our moral laziness and inattention to the overall drift of our politics— for which we Christians bear considerable responsibility.

It is true that those who seek to undermine intellectual freedom in Canada aim very frequently at Christians — disproportionately perhaps, but not only, at us. As I have said elsewhere, it is their own power over society that these commissions are consolidating. The point isn't to privilege, say, Muslims over Christians but to give the "human" face of fascism the right to control what media dare publish.

I have even heard Christians suggest that we Christians can use these illiberal and possibly corrupt systems to our own advantage - "to get a little of our own back". No we can't and we shouldn't — but again, that is a discussion for another venue.

What I want to stress tonight is this: To call the hardships we face - when we behave so foolishly as to allow this to happen in what was once a free and democratic society - the persecution promised in Matthew is to betray the tens of thousands who died on active service in World War II (when Canada was firmly on the side of democracy).

Last week my father, a World War II veteran, phoned to ask me what was happening — why is Mark Steyn facing charges? And what about Rev. Boisson and Ezra Levant? Why is Maclean's facing charges? He reminded me that he had fought in the war, and the general idea was that these things would not happen here.

Today in many countries across the world people risk their lives — Christians, yes, but Muslims and Buddhists too — for responsible, representative, and democratic government. And here we are, just throwing it away.

And when we do that, we have no right to say "This is the persecution Jesus promised."

No. This is the fate of the sluggard in Proverbs:

30 I went past the field of the sluggard,
past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;

31 thorns had come up everywhere,
the ground was covered with weeds, ...
(Proverbs 24: 30-31, NIV)

Believe me, when the persecution of Matthew comes, the way we will know is that it won't be happening because we ourselves have just been asleep at the switch.

Next: Question Seven: But what about our achievements? Surely we have at least some achievements?

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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Question Seven: But what about our achievements? Surely we have at least some achievements?

Let me take a moment to celebrate a big achievement.

Today, The Word Guild - surely the first professional Christian writers' organization in Canada, exists — and it didn't exist a decade ago.

I know all too well how much work it has been for the small but growing army of dedicated volunteers, but to my mind it is our biggest achievement as Canadian Christian writers to date. I personally believe that our pioneer grandmothers NJ Lindquist and Wendy Nelles should receive the Order of Canada for their achievement in forging this organization.

Another big achievement is the growing professionalism of Canadian Christian writers. It has been quite some time since I have run into either a genuine Luddite who believes that the Underwood typewriter is a sacred amulet or a person who believes that the Holy Spirit dictates everything she writes (if so, how could I, as a mere writing instructor, possibly presume to assist her and why on earth is she seeking my advice?).

More and more of the writers in my own classes surprise, challenge, and delight me with their professionalism! They understand that writing is a craft and a business as well as a ministry and they are dedicated to learning the skills to make all three legs of the stool (craft, business, ministry) support their career.

Lastly, about my own journey as a writer? Well, after all that, there is not much to tell and probably less you want to hear.

Anyway, you just heard most of it. I wanted to be a writer ever since I was eight years old. But I grew up and learned the hard way how tough that is.

Because I wouldn't give up, I have lived through all the stuff I am talking about, and have learned to adapt.

And my best teachers have always been other writers, especially Christian writers, and that is what I feel privileged to try to pass on.

But now, I want to hear from you!! What have you learned? What would you like to celebrate? What do you hope for? And what has this edition of Write! Canada caused you to change?

Above all, What will you do differently when you go home?

So on that note, please speak up!!

Back to top: Survival is design, not chance

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, coming to Canada as the Expelled movie, read:

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Advance screening of Ben Stein's controversial Expelled film at the Varsity theatre in Toronto

I have been invited to an advance screening of Expelled (the widely denounced #5 political documentary about the attempts to silence the intelligent design guys) on Thursday, June 26, at 7:00pm at The Varsity Theatre - 55 Bloor St. West in Toronto. The film opens the following Friday June 27 (or Saturday June 28) at the Cineplex Odeon.

I wonder who will picket or try to crash? (There was a big hoo-haw over the screening at the Mall of the Americas when "raving atheist" biologist PZ Myers got ejected by line producer Mark Mathis.) Perhaps I will recognize some prominent local figures strutting importantly on the sidewalk.

Picketers please note, there is a wide sidewalk, and plenty of coffee shops nearby. The restrooms in the Cumberland Terrace are usually pretty clean too.

Be reassured, picketers! The government-funded Nanny Monster is always right, and she says that neither the universe nor life forms show evidence of design, despite the evidence. And in our random universe, the biggest Monster should rule, and that is She.

She said it. You believe it. That settles it. Now get out there and give the legacy media some good photo ops, will you? Most of you are supported by my tax dollars, among other things, and I deserve something for that. Don't look too ragged, or people won't believe that you are as important as you believe yourselves to be.

Insufficiently Nannied? Then see clips from the film here.

I understand that somewhere or other, a helpline is available for anyone who - on learning information that is new to them - has Doubts. You can contact this worthy enterprise through

From the invite,
In the film, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," author, former presidential speechwriter, economist, lawyer and actor Ben Stein examines the attempts of scientists to challenge the idea of Darwinism only to be expelled from the academic community.
More, from the presser:

Controversial feature documentary starring Ben Stein - opens across Canada - Friday, June 27, 2008

In a controversial new satirical documentary, author, former presidential speechwriter, economist, lawyer and actor Ben Stein travels the world, looking to some of the best scientific minds of our generation for the answer to the biggest question facing all Canadians and Americans today:

Are we still free to disagree about the meaning of life?

Or has the whole issue already been decided…
while most of us weren’t looking?

Toronto) June 3, 2008 — It’s a movie that Ferris Bueller would take the day off to go see. What freedom-loving student wouldn’t be outraged to discover that his high school science teacher is teaching a theory as indisputable fact, and that university professors oppose any fellow scientists who dare question the prevailing system of belief? This isn’t the latest Hollywood comedy; it’s a disturbing new documentary that will shock anyone who thinks all scientists are free to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.
If you are from the legacy media and want to see the film before harrumphing that it is false, all utterly false (just like Mark Steyn "isn't" really a good writer):

Toronto Press Screenings:

Friday, June 6 10:00am Scotiabank Theatre (259 Richmond St W)
Monday, June 9 10:30am Scotiabank Theatr (259 Richmond St W)
Friday, June 13 10:00am Varsity Cinemas (55 Bloor St W, 2nd Floor)
Monday, June 16 10:30am Varsity Cinemas (55 Bloor St W, 2nd Floor)
Thursday, June 26 07:00pm Varsity Cinemas (55 Bloor St W, 2nd Floor)
I expect you should contact V Kelly & Associates 416-466-9799, for a press pass.

See also:

The Expelled film (#5 in political documentaries) is coming to 50 screens in Canada, ... plus a surprise in two in store for Americans (Expelled haters, take heed)!

Canadian radio bureau chief: Yes, the campaign to suppress free speech in Canada does affect the United States

Oh no, Ono!: Expelled (the film about the intelligent design guys) can still be shown

"Expelled film screens in Canada June 28 2008

Recently, there was a special screening for Members of Parliament.

If you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, read:

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Yes, the campaign against intellectual freedom in Canada DOES affect the United States

At MercatorNet Brian Lilley, Ottawa Bureau Chief of Astral Media Radio, writes

Speaking with Mark Steyn at an event in Ottawa, I explained my sacking of Rome theory; that these small battles against free speech in nations such as Britain and Canada were like the battles that led up to the sacking of Rome. Those battles weakened the Empire and eventually led to the fall of Rome itself. Steyn agreed. America, he says, is foolish to think that it can and will prevail as the one outpost of free speech if all the other Western nations fall. Already campus speech codes, hate speech laws, historic revisionism and multiculturalism have left Americans unsure of what is acceptable to say, think or write. If the trends in Canada and Britain continue, people in America may soon be asking if what they want to say, think or write is legal.
Lilley introduces "libel tourism" - you need to know about that if you are a writer.

Go here ("A Shadow falls across Canada ...") and here ("Misreading the 'human' face of fascism") for my own posts on how to understand the current campaign to suppress free speech on behalf of the "human right" not to be offended.

Friday night, I got a standing ovation for my plenary talk that featured intellectual freedom at Write! Canada, and I will post that talk later.

By the way, I don't know if anyone noticed that I have installed PayPal. If you would like to help me continue to afford to maintain blogs, please consider using the PayPal button now and then. Reading news that interests you may be free to you, but research and writing it is not free to me.

Also, if you want to know why there is an intelligent design controversy, read:

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