Sunday, September 25, 2005

Form and Content

I’ve been dipping into the essays in George Bowering’s new collection, Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing (Raincoast, 2005). It’s a diverse collection that ricochets between political rants and literary analyses. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but Bowering often elects to focus on one or the other rather than intertwining the two. I have found myself skimming over the pieces on national identity. For the most part, they strike me as rather heavy-handed, replete with stereotypes about central Canada and tired discourse about relations between the centre and the periphery. No doubt as a young, alienated westerner I would have thrilled to such rhetoric, but having now experienced both geographic spaces, I yearn for a more complex and nuanced analysis than Bowering provides here.

Bowering is most interesting when he's squarely addressing literary matters whether in broad terms (for example, ruminating on groups of poets “working with each other, or against each other,” or on reasons to become a poet) or with a narrower focus (close readings of texts by individual writers such as Kroetsch, Atwood, Ondaatje, Acorn, and Purdy). It is Bowering’s preoccupation with form that links these pieces together. Indeed, this preoccupation links the whole collection together, as Bowering is always playing with the essay form regardless of the topic on which he chooses to focus. He notes in the preface that he regards essays as “improvisations made of writing” and he makes good on the promise of experimentation that is implicit in this definition.

Here are a couple of passages from the first essay in Left Hook which convey a bit of the flavour of the collection:

Of course when it comes to writing, maybe especially when it comes to the writing of fiction, there is no such thing as “content,” as opposed to form or even allied with form. What is there to contain? If a realist writer tells you that her characters “took on a life of their own,” how can they be said to be contained? There is no content in a book of fiction.


I do not want, as a reader or writer, to extirpate description and character altogether. I just want readers to notice the writing. Ethel Wilson said that the most important thing in a story is the sentence. She was kind of a realist, but she loved form. Loved it. If you notice the writing and the writing is good, you will love it. You might also notice in the moment of loving that the reader is the focus of the fictional act.

At his best, Bowering as essayist is playful, provocative, and insightful. I look forward to reading more.

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