Friday, October 28, 2005

Anxiety of Influence

I have long struggled with questions related to borrowing and imitation in writing, both as a writer and as a reader. I once took a poetry class in which one week I brought a poem to class for critique, and the next week, one of my classmates brought in a poem which was just a rearrangement of my poem, essentially the same lines in a different order. The professor thought this was brilliant. Clearly for him it was one of those spontaneous teaching moments of which professors dream. I was incensed. I continued to attend the class, but I was never really present there again. In retrospect I wish that I had been able to learn something from seeing my poem taken apart and put back together like that. But I couldn’t let go of a feeling of violation. It wasn’t so much the use that my classmate had made of my work that distressed me as the professor’s willingness to regard the rearranged poem as a brand new work authored by somebody else. I’m quite cagey now about sharing work in progress.

On the flip side, I’m careful about what I read when I’m writing. I have no doubt that much of what I’ve read in the past influences what and how I write now. This is a good thing; I fully embrace the idea that the best way for writers to improve their craft is to read good writing. But I try to make sure that I avoid reading work that's too close to what I’m trying to do while I’m actually in the midst of writing. For example, a lot of great novels and short story collections that feature teenaged protagonists have come out in the last couple of years. I haven’t yet read any of them because I didn’t want those teenage voices in my head while I was completing my latest collection of stories many of which are told through a first-person teenaged narrator. Now that my collection has gone off to the publisher, I’m looking forward to delving into those books.

As a reader, I’m a bit ambivalent about all of this. Based on the feelings I articulated above about having my own work borrowed, you would think I’d frown on the practice. Sometimes I do, but not always. For example, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series is one of my favourite mystery series and it’s founded on a wholesale borrowing of the character of Sherlock Holmes. King deals with Holmes in a way that makes him her own character but is nonetheless respectful of Conan Doyle’s creation. It’s a difficult line to walk but King walks it with grace. In a similar vein, I think that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea – a re-telling of the story of Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife from Jane Eyre – is a brilliant novel.

Imitation is also a complex matter. At what point does homage tip into cheap knock-off? Several years ago, I read a well-reviewed first collection of short stories and was astonished by the extent to which the author mimicked Lorrie Moore’s distinctive style. I felt indignant, as if something had been taken from me as well as from Moore, and I haven't read anything by that author since.

This train of thought was triggered by a Theodore Roethke essay that I read on the subway on my way to work this morning. The essay is titled “How to Write Like Somebody Else” and it appears in On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (edited by Ralph J. Mills Jr.). In it, Roethke acknowledges how fraught the question of influence is for young writers:

In a shrewd justification of the referential poem, or less charitably, the poem which is an anthology of other men’s effects, Eliot said, “Bad poets imitate; good poets steal.” In other words, take what you will with authority and see that you give it another, or even better life, in the new context.

All true, but in some ways a terrifying remark for the beginning writer, who is often neither bad nor good, but simply, as yet unformed. He isn’t sure whether he is a thief or a fake.

But ultimately Roethke wholeheartedly endorses imitation:

Imitation, conscious imitation, is one of the great methods, perhaps the method of learning to write. The ancients, the Elizabethans, knew this, profited by it, and were not disturbed. As a son of Ben, Herrick more than once rewrote Jonson, who, in turn, drew heavily on the classics. And so on. The poems are not less good for this: the final triumph is what the language does, not what the poet can do, or display. The poet’s ultimate loyalty – the phrase belongs to Stanley Kunitz – is to the poem. […] The paradoxical thing, as R.P. Blackmur said of some of the young in the 'thirties, is that the most original poets are the most imitative. The remark is profound: if a writer has something to say, it will come through. The very fact that he has the support of a tradition, or an older writer, will enable him to be more himself – or more than himself.

In a time when the romantic notion of the inspired poet still has considerable credence, true “imitation” takes a certain courage. One dares to stand up to a great style, to compete with papa.

I came full circle this afternoon when I attended a panel discussion on “Feminist Approaches to Law and Economy.” One of the panelists, Carys Craig, presented a feminist critique of copyright law. She argued for a copyright law founded on a relational theory of authorship which protects creative expression as communication rather than as private property.

After a day’s ruminations bookended by Roethke and a feminist theory of copyright, I’m left wondering if I’m attached to the idea of creative ownership in a way that compromises both my writing and my politics.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Story Cycle and the Novel

Earlier this month in The Globe and Mail, Jonathan Bennett gave Tim Winton’s new book, The Turning, a rave review. I haven’t yet read the book but I’m very much looking forward to it. The Turning is a collection of linked short stories and here’s what Bennett had to say about Winton’s choice to tell the protagonist’s tale through linked stories rather than a novel:

I suppose Winton could have turned Vic’s life into a novel, but I’m glad he didn’t. The short-story form allowed him to better explore Vic through radically different points of view and over decades. While a looser strategy, here it really worked. Besides, Vic is not the kind of innately -- and deeply sympathetic -- central character that a novel usually requires. Still, we’ve seen Vic’s sort before in Winton’s novels. He bears a resemblance to Dirt Music’s Luther Fox, who was not, somehow, quite as engaging as the novel he found himself in. Yet, in the stories of The Turning, Vic emerges as a great character. Without the responsibility of a novel resting on his back, Vic elegantly demonstrates how difficult it can be to be human, decent, and alive to those who love us.

It just goes to show how different novels and stories really are. And that, in certain cases, stories are the preferred mode.

All too often, reviewers treat collections of linked short stories as failed novels. Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning will know how little patience I have for this approach. What a pleasure then to read a review in which the merits of the story cycle form are discussed.

Against this backdrop, imagine my surprise when I recently came across an essay I wrote for a long ago Canadian Literature course in which I’d argued (quite persuasively, I might add) that Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House ought to be regarded as a novel rather than a short story collection. Here’s what I wrote in my introductory paragraph:

Many critics such as Henry James, Anthony Burgess, and Percy Lubbock have written extensively on the distinction between the form of the novel and the form of the short story. It is generally agreed that in the short story a character is revealed through a single incident while in a novel the character is exposed more gradually in a variety of situations. Thus the reader is able to pursue the protagonist and observe his or her development in a way that is severely limited by the confines of the short story. Another unifying force more often present in a novel than in a collection of short stories is a consistent narrative voice. A third factor that can cause a fragmentary work to coalesce into a novel is the use of a pervasive theme and recurring symbols. Margaret Laurence’s collection A Bird in the House displays all of these unifying elements. Therefore, although each of the stories can stand on its own, as a collection, A Bird in the House can be considered a novel.

From my current vantage point as a champion of the story cycle, this is rank heresy. I wonder if I truly thought of A Bird in the House as a novel or if I made the case simply because that was the assigned essay topic.

In any event, I feel I’m due for a re-exploration of the story cycle. I’m going to begin with my recently acquired copy of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio which I’m told is an excellent early example of a story cycle that is primarily unified by place rather than by character. I definitely want to revisit old favourites such as A Bird in the House and Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? And, on Bennett’s recommendation, I will hasten to pick up a copy of The Turning. Any other story cycles, particularly contemporary ones, that I ought to add to my list?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Seducing the Reader

In an essay titled “The Seduction of the Text,” Francine du Plessix Gray outlines four central principles that she communicates to students in her writing classes. She captured my interest immediately with the first two. Here are a few sentences on each:

Keep Your Sentences Erotic: “[T]hink of each word as a potential spouse or lover… We can only avoid bromides and platitudes by combating the embrace of all words that are too long married, by struggling against any form of verbal missionary positions.”

Create a Pact of Trust: “Erotic strategies […] remain central to the covenant of trust that must be forged between reader and author, for it is very similar to the relationship evolved by happy lovers. These two kinds of pacts share the same trait: In order not to be tediously predictable, a good writer, like a good lover, must create a pact of trust with the object of his/her seduction that remains qualified, paradoxically, by a good measure of uncertainty, mystery, and surprise.”

(From Marie Arana, ed., The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work (2003) at 7.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Book Sale Finds

I set off this afternoon fully intending to go to the gym but somehow found myself at a big library book sale instead. There was significant weight lifting involved regardless when the time came to haul my purchases home. I came away with lots of fodder for future instalments in my "reading about writing" series, and enough books by Neil Gunn, Alice Munro, and Muriel Spark to elevate each of them into my more-than-four-books-by-or-about pantheon.

Here’s a list of what I bought:

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim;
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio;
Melissa Bank, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing;
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales;
Dorthea Brande, Becoming a Writer (Foreword by John Gardner);
Sophy Burnham, For Writers Only;
John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?;
Clieshbotham the Younger, The Old Scots Tongue;
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel;
Neil M. Gunn, Butcher’s Broom;
Neil M. Gunn, The Well at the World’s End;
Jill Krementz, The Writer’s Desk (Introduction by John Updike);
David Lodge, The Practice of Writing;
Milton Lomask, The Biographer’s Craft;
Alice Munro, Runaway;
Theodore Roethke, On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (edited with an introduction by Ralph J. Mills Jr.);
William Sloane, The Craft of Writing;
Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington;
Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means;
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie;
Stephen Spender, The Making of a Poem.

A smashing success if the goal was to acquire many excellent and interesting books at extraordinarily low prices, a stupendous failure if the goal was to resist temptation with tight budget and overflowing bookshelves firmly in mind. I’m going to go with the former.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Writing Live

Here’s an odd and interesting thing.

In 2001, Robert Olen Butler launched a project titled “Inside Creative Writing.” Over the course of three weeks, Butler wrote a story while the world (okay, whoever tuned in on television or via the Internet) watched. Viewers were able to peer over Butler’s shoulder as he wrote, witnessing the creation of a story from the ground up in real time. In advance of the first broadcast, Butler described the project as follows:

It […] involves the sharing of a fully elaborated, moment-to-moment act of personal intimacy formerly found only behind the veil of private life -- the act of creating a piece of literary fiction. I will begin with a simple concept for a story, and with no other preparation, I will create the story in real-time on the Internet. You will see every creative decision, down to the most delicate comma, as it is made on the page. Every misbegotten, awkward sentence, every bad word choice, every conceptual dead end will be shared and worked over and revised and rewritten before your eyes. I will work for about an hour every night, Sunday through Friday, and after each session I will entertain as many emailed questions as I can in half an hour or so. I will be miked and I will occasionally try to offer some running, oral commentary on my process and my choices as I work.

The sessions have been archived online along with a copy of the completed story. They can be accessed here. I only recently became aware of the project through Butler’s book on writing, and I haven’t yet watched the sessions. However, I’m intrigued by the concept and I’m excited by the potential that the archived sessions hold as a teaching tool. If nothing else, they should demystify the creative process for those who believe that stories arrive fully formed on the wings of inspiration.

At the same time, I’m glad there’s no camera trained on my own writing desk. These days, I fear that it would capture far too many shots of an empty chair while I wander off downstairs for another cup of tea or to flip through the channels. Note to self: watching Book TV doesn’t count as writing. Of course, neither does watching Butler write, but I’m sure there’s something to be learned from this rare intimate glimpse into another writer’s process.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ten Formative Books: Part II

This is a continuation of Thursday’s post on formative books. The challenge, issued by Mental Multivitamin, was to compile “a list of ten books that reveals something about you […] ten books above all others that have shaped or even defined you.” Below are items six through ten on my list.

6. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French:
It was the mid-1980s, but I was dressing like a hippie, listening to a lot of Janis Joplin, and reading feminist tracts from the early 70s by the likes of Robin Morgan, Kate Millett, and Germaine Greer. I was nostalgic for a cultural moment I had never experienced. I think that I was seeking political community in those books. Eventually I found my political community at the campus women’s centre. But until then, the book that brought the origins and the progress of second wave feminism most vividly to life for me was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

7. Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco:
While I was getting political sustenance from 1970s feminism, I was getting literary inspiration from the expatriate writers of 1920s Paris. I immersed myself in memoirs, biographies, literary histories and criticism, novels, stories, and poems (just a sampling: Kay Boyle & Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together; Morley Callaghan, That Summer in Paris; Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast; Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank; Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation; Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday; Djuna Barnes, Nightwood; Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight). I could describe several of those books as formative, but Glassco’s memoirs had a particular impact on me. I fancied myself a poet then and I fear I was overly earnest about it. Glassco’s irreverent memoir of the two years that he spent on the fringes of that celebrated expatriate community cut through a lot of literary pretensions including my own. I realized that I had rather more in common with the eighteen-year-old John Glassco who drank more than he wrote in Paris than I did with the more famous literary luminaries with whom he hung about. At the same time, it was reassuring to know that Glassco had eventually buckled down and made a name for himself as a poet, as well as transforming the experiences of his dissolute youth in Paris into a very entertaining book.

8. The Manticore by Robertson Davies:
I’ve always appreciated the gateways that Davies’ novels provide into disparate fields of knowledge whether Arthurian legends, the mysteries of the tarot, or the mechanics of art restoration. What could be distracting digressions in the work of a lesser writer almost always prove to be of integral importance and of consuming interest in a Davies’ novel. I’m a fan of all of Davies work but I have a particular fondness for The Manticore because it generated my fascination with Jungian psychology.

9. Capital, Volume 1 by Karl Marx:
My graduate supervisor insisted that I read volume one of Capital. I was deeply engaged with a number of theorists who were deeply engaged with Marx, but I had read very little of his work for myself. Just the odd bit of early Marx in connection with undergraduate sociology courses. Go back to the original, my supervisor exhorted, and make up your own mind about what he had to say. It took me a good six months to read it, though most of that time was taken up with procrastination rather than with actual reading. I stalled very near the beginning when faced with the equations that are meant to illuminate the function of the commodity. I’m not good with numbers and those equations scared me. I tried to trick myself into it by, for example, embarking on long train journeys with nothing but Marx's tome to read. On one trip to New York, my travelling companion made great sport of the fact that she caught me reading the safety instruction booklet in the pocket of the seat in front of me in order to avoid resorting to Capital. I’m not sure what turned it around, but the day I finally made it past the equations I was hooked. Marx’s theories fascinated me and his prose had the grand sweep of a nineteenth century novel. I couldn’t put it down. Reading volume one of Capital was undoubtedly a formative experience on at least two counts. First, although I have my quarrels with Marx and with various strains of Marxist theory, I continue to find his work enormously interesting and useful. Second, it got me past a sense of intimidation that I hadn’t even realized I felt. On some level, I must have felt that I needed an expert to guide me through the work of the great theorists rather than having the confidence to dive in on my own. I have thoroughly internalized the lesson about always going back to the original rather than relying on secondary sources. And in nearly every case (Lacan and Derrida are notable exceptions), I have found the original text to be more lucid and compelling than second-hand accounts by experts in the field.

10. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara by Brad Gooch:
In the early 90’s, I came to terms with the fact that I’m not much of a poet. I abandoned the pursuit and focussed my literary efforts exclusively on fiction. This turned out to be a wise course of action. My first collection of short stories was published shortly thereafter. But when I abandoned writing poetry, I also abandoned reading poetry. It wasn’t intentional; it just happened. City Poet brought me back to poetry. It reconnected me with my love of Frank O’Hara’s work, and also got me interested in the work of other poets in his circle. I dusted off my copy of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, and I went out and bought collections by Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery. Gooch’s detailed consideration of O’Hara’s links with various visual artists and his work at the Museum of Modern Art also provoked me to think about broad connections between writing and visual art and about personal connections between my fiction and my experiments with photography. Finally, because Gooch does such a beautiful job of depicting O’Hara as part of an artistic community, the book got me thinking a lot about the literary communities in which I have participated, what I take from them and what I have to contribute.

That’s my current list of ten formative books. If someone asks me the same question next month, I might come up with a different list. There are many other books from my past that I could have included. And there are always new ones to add. This year, at least two books have produced epiphanies (one I wrote about in a previous post, the other I will get around to writing about eventually). Of course, you may think I’ve cheated in that I've mentioned many other books within my discussions of some of the listed items. That’s a reflection of the way I read though. When I get excited about an author, I race out to find their complete works, then I look for a biography or some critical commentary, and those sources often propel me into a quest to learn about some of the other people in that writer’s circle and to seek out their work, and so on. Is anybody else out there prone to this kind of reading immersion?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Ten Formative Books: Part I

Last month, Mental Multivitamin issued a challenge to bloggers to compile “a list of ten books that reveals something about you […] ten books above all others that have shaped or even defined you.” Several have taken up the challenge, or offered their own twist on it, and I have read their lists with interest while thinking about what to include on my own (see: So Many Books, Book World, This Space, and Beggars of Azure).

It’s been an interesting exercise to ponder the books that have shaped me, and a great challenge to narrow the list down to ten. I’ve rambled on at some length about when and why I read each one and about their enduring influence on me. This makes for a rather unwieldy post, so I’m breaking it up into two: part one today, and part two shortly thereafter. I’ve listed the books chronologically, that is, in the order that I encountered and embraced them. The first five books take me up to the age of eighteen.

1. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery:
I was ten-years-old and living in Edinburgh. My dad was on sabbatical and we had decamped to Scotland for the duration. I loved Edinburgh but I was homesick. I chose Anne of Green Gables from the library shelf because it was a Canadian book. In fact, the book’s Prince Edward Island setting has more in common with the Scottish landscape I then inhabited than with the prairies that I had left behind. Nevertheless, if I didn’t recognize Prince Edward Island, I recognized Anne. Here was a girl with an imagination, who loved words, who had academic aspirations, and who wrote stories. Over time, I came to regard Anne as a bit too saccharine for me, and I never quite recovered from her adult abandonment of her literary aspirations. Emily Byrd Starr (from Montgomery’s Emily series) proved a more enduring writer role model. But it began with Anne.

2. Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace:
I love every instalment in Maud Hart Lovelace’s ten book Betsy-Tacy series so it was difficult to pick just one for this list. There’s Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown in which 12-year-old Betsy makes her first visit to her town's brand new Carnegie library and learns that she has to read good books if she wants to write them. There’s Heaven to Betsy at the end of which 14-year-old Betsy concludes that if she abandons her writing altogether for the social whirl of her new high school friends, her talent might wither. And there’s Betsy in Spite of Herself in which the recurring theme is “to thine own self be true.” But I’ve settled on Betsy and the Great World in which 21-year-old Betsy leaves behind her Minnesota home to spend a year alone in Europe. By this stage in the series, she’s sold a few stories and she’s beginning to find her voice as a writer. She sets off from Boston harbour in January of 1914 in search of adventure and story material. Betsy’s journey in this book, both literal and emotional, was a great source of inspiration to me. As a world traveller, an independent woman, and a writer increasingly dedicated to her craft, Betsy was a heroine to emulate.

3. Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe:
Man Descending was the first book of short stories I ever read. It was my final year of high school, and in the years leading up to it I’d read the odd short story from the literary anthologies that served as texts for English class. But Man Descending was my first sustained exposure and what a great place it was to begin. Vanderhaeghe is a brilliant writer and reading his stories sparked my lifelong love of the short story form. The fact that Vanderhaeghe is from Saskatchewan and set many of his stories there gave his work added impact for me. It was a clear demonstration that world-class writing could and did happen right there at home. I was inspired and encouraged.

4. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy:
Immediately after high school graduation, I spent a month in Britain. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was my constant companion throughout the trip. I read very quickly so I must have read it several times over the course of that month. I was a very nervous traveller when I was young, but on that trip, as we moved from place to place, from the home of one set of relatives to another in disorienting fashion, my regular retreats into Tess’s world anchored me. I’m not sure that I can recall entering into a book as fully as I did into that one either before or since. There was also something extraordinary about viewing the English landscape through Hardy’s lens. We started off in southwest England, in the heart of Hardy country, and while the landscape made the book more authentic, the book somehow simultaneously made the landscape more authentic.

5. The Comforters by Muriel Spark:
I stole this book from my brother. It was required reading for a class he was taking on “The Modern British Novel.” I don’t think I made off with it until after he’d written the final exam; I hope not. I was immediately drawn into The Comforters by Spark’s wit and the sharpness of her use of language. But it was the meta-fictional aspect of the book that really dazzled me. The protagonist, Caroline Rose, suspects that she is a character in a novel. She hears voices narrating her experience accompanied by the clacking of a typewriter. She begins to copy it all down in a notebook. Is she the author of a novel or a character in one? The Comforters provoked me to think more deeply than I ever had before about how a novel is constructed.

To be continued…

I’ll list the final five in my next post.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Reading about Writing 3

Each of these books was written by a successful author. Each was recommended to me by at least one person whose judgement I trust. I gave up on each one about fifty pages in. There are, of course, good books and bad books about writing. But when it comes to the question of how useful a particular book about writing is to an individual reader, there’s more to it than a straightforward good-bad dichotomy. Much depends on who the book is aimed at and whether or not that meshes with what sort of writing the reader does and with the stage that the reader is at in his or her writing career. None of these books was a good match for me.

Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove Press, 2005).

This book is comprised of transcripts of Butler’s lectures to the students in his graduate fiction course (recorded and edited by Janet Burroway). I’ve never heard Butler speak, but I get the impression that he's a very charismatic lecturer. It may be that I would have found his message more powerful had I heard it live rather than reading it in this form.

Butler characterizes his class as writing “boot camp.” He begins by telling his students that everything they have written up to that point is likely hopelessly flawed. They’ve been going about writing the wrong way and he can help them to change.

But you’ve got to open up and listen to me about this. If you’re not prepared to do that, if you’re not prepared to open your sensibilities -- and, incidentally, your minds -- to what I’m going to tell you and to the implications for the work you have done and will do, then it is best that you and I part ways now.

This is a very crafty opening. The logic of it lays any failure at the feet of the students. If Butler’s method doesn’t work for them, it’s their fault for not being sufficiently open. I immediately felt myself becoming recalcitrant. I should have accepted Butler’s invitation to part ways then and there.

Here are a few excerpts that get at the heart of Butler’s method:

Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.


The crucial awareness you must keep is this: do not will the work. Do not write until it’s coming from your unconscious. If you have the itch to write before inspiration has visited you, spend that time meditating in your unconscious.


A word about writer’s block here. I think writer’s block probably suggests that you have an artist’s instinct. Bad writers never get blocked. Writers who write from their heads and are comfortable doing that -- they always have some garbage to put down. […] I think most writers who get blocked do so because some important part of them knows that they’ve got to get to the unconscious. But they’re not getting there; they’re thinking too much, so there’s nothing there.

I agree that good writing doesn’t come purely from the intellect. But I'm not prepared to abandon the intellect altogether in favour of emotion. I want the two working in tandem. I get the part about daring to go places that scare you. But I’m not interested in writing exclusively from a trance state. Frankly, Butler’s new age rhetoric about writing from the white-hot core of my being is like fingernails on a blackboard to me.

This stuff might be gold for a writer with a different sensibility and a different writing practice, but it’s not for me.

Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers (Quill, 1994).

This book is based on a series of Writer’s Digest columns and consequently has a rather scattered quality. Perhaps I should have given in to that and just dipped in anywhere that seemed interesting. Instead, I began at the beginning with part one which is titled “Fiction as a Profession.” Given the prominent mention of profit in the title of Block’s book, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the emphasis here is on making money through writing. Still, this seems the wrong place to begin. Surely the quest to write well should precede the quest to sell one’s writing? I’m sure that Block would answer “yes” to that question, but the structure of his book gives a contrary impression with the opening section given over to discussion of market analysis and the slanting of work to meet editors’ tastes.

The book also comes across as very dated. The most recent edition was published in 1994, but it was originally published in 1981 and I don’t get the sense the content was updated in the interim. For example, in the first chapter, Block writes about the confessions magazines which were known to be the “best and most receptive market” for new writers when he was starting out. I’m pretty sure that those days are long gone. The last time I encountered a confessions magazine was in a dusty stack hidden in the closet of a friend’s cabin circa 1977. Obviously I don’t expect Block to update his experience, but if he’s going to emphasize the importance of researching the market, the inclusion of more current examples would render the book more relevant to contemporary aspiring writers.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner, 2000).

King managed to completely alienate me in the second foreword. Yes, there are three forewords all penned by King himself. And yes, this did make me wonder about his capacity to organize a book. Surely the three forewords could have been rolled into one introduction? But that’s not what alienated me. It was this pronouncement:

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do -- not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.

King’s book, at 288 pages, is longer than every other writing book in my collection. (Here’s a sampling: John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 240 pages; Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 238 pages; Renni Browne & Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 226 pages; Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, 179 pages; Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, 128 pages.) What long, bullshit-filled books about writing constitute King’s “most”? It doesn’t appear that King has done even a preliminary survey of the field that he’s entering into, yet (his self-deprecating “present company included” aside) he's clearly convinced that he can do better than anyone else. King talks bullshit in the guise of eschewing bullshit. This is not an auspicious beginning.

Nevertheless, I persevered a little longer. The book is subtitled “a memoir of the craft” but it isn’t so much that as a memoir followed by a discussion of craft. I haven’t read any of King’s novels because I’m too squeamish for horror fiction. It seems I’m too squeamish for King’s memoir as well. I only got as far as his high school years but there was plenty of blood, vomit and pus in his childhood. Given that King writes horror, I have no trouble imagining the relevance of the experiences that he recounts to his work. But I wish that he had made some of the connections explicit. He simply describes his childhood experiences without analyzing how these experiences influenced his development as a writer. Perhaps King wasn’t being self-deprecating in the second foreword and he really doesn’t understand very much about why he does what he does. I got frustrated with the whole enterprise and gave up before reaching the toolbox section where I’m told that he addresses the nuts and bolts of sentence construction.

Happily, I didn’t spend my hard-earned cash on any of these books. Back to the library they went, unfinished.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Campus Novel as Social History

Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

I practically grew up on a university campus. My family immigrated to Canada when I was very young so that my dad could take up an academic job here. For our first few months in the country, the university put us up in student housing. Hence the many baby pictures that show me toddling across the campus green. I spent the latter part of my teens and most of my twenties as a university student, and ultimately opted to support my fiction writing by way of an academic career. The university is an institution that looms large in my life.

It’s no surprise then that I have a fondness for campus novels or that, once alerted to its existence by this excerpt, I quickly snapped up a copy of Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents. I thought that I would love Showalter’s book. I didn’t. I was often frustrated, occasionally irritated, and, at one point, even enraged by it.

I have never thought of campus novels as constituting a distinct literary genre. I know that the term is now commonly used as a synonym for “type” or “category,” but I persist in thinking of “genre” as being integrally connected with form. To my mind, campus novels are united by setting and subject matter rather than by a set of formal conventions.

Showalter holds a different view. She claims genre status for campus novels and makes it clear that she is not thereby acceding to the criticism of those who find them wearyingly formulaic. Rather, she states:

For English professors, this repetitiveness also means that the novels operate on a set of conventions, themes, tropes, and values. Having read all the novels before gives us some distance on their narrative strategies and turns easy identification into something more intellectual.

This seemed a promising beginning. I was intrigued and ready to be persuaded.

Unfortunately, Showalter largely confines her discussion of that thesis to the introduction, and throughout the rest of the book she focuses more on what the campus novel has to tell its readers about academia than on what she has to say about the form of the campus novel. It seems that in the end she opts for the “easy identification” rather than the “something more intellectual” that her introduction promised. Ultimately, the book is more descriptive than anything else. Perhaps Showalter’s chosen structure, a decade-by-decade round up of campus novels, irrevocably tilts the book in this direction.

Showalter does provide interesting and insightful analyses of individual novels within this structure (her discussions of Mary McCarthy’s Groves of Academe, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections particularly piqued my interest). And in pulling these individual analyses together, Showalter makes more of them than the sum of the parts. Over the past fifty years, she asserts, campus novels have “offered a full social history of the university, as well as a spiritual, political, and psychological guide to the [academic] profession.”

But ultimately Showalter goes too far in treating campus novels as reflections of reality. Throughout the book, she engages in frequent speculation about the actual institutions and people upon which fictional settings and characters are based. I realize that there’s something of a tradition of campus novels as romans à clef, and this sort of speculation can be fun in a gossipy, insider sort of way. The university depicted in A Nest of Singing Birds by Susan Hayley is reputed to have been based on my alma mater, and I admit that I read this novel as an undergraduate primarily to see if I recognized any of my professors in it. But I expect a more sophisticated mode of analysis from Showalter. And I was irritated by her attempts to refute authors’ denials of such rumours.

Having thus conflated various authors with characters in their novels, Showalter then criticizes those authors for the political views of their characters as if those views are their own. She does this even in instances when she’s made a point of mentioning distinctions between the author and character in question. For example, she describes R.B. Martin’s 1970 novel, Deadly Meeting, as depicting an academic world that “is still blind to women, unaware of race, virulently homophobic, and openly anti-Semitic.” She notes that Martin is gay and seems to find this fact inconsistent with his fictional world. But rather than concluding that Martin depicted the academic world of that time period as he saw it and not as he wished it to be, Showalter interprets Martin’s fictional creation as a direct reflection of his own political attitudes: “If I had been able to read this novel in 1966, when I first came to Princeton as a faculty wife trying to finish a dissertation on Victorian women writers, I would have been wiser than to have approached Martin for some scholarly support and advice.” At regular intervals throughout the book, Showalter similarly takes Carolyn Heilbrun to task for the attitudes of Kate Fansler, the protagonist of the mystery series that she wrote under the pseudonym Amanda Cross. Showalter clearly detests Kate Fansler and seems irked that Heilbrun failed to provide women academics with a proper feminist heroine.

Using the conflation of author and character as a jumping-off point for political criticism is a poor substitute for literary analysis. And in taking this tack, Showalter undercuts her larger point. If what she most values about campus novels is their capacity to reflect the reality of the academic world, surely they have to be rife with sexism, racism, homophobia and class prejudice, sometimes even in the person of the protagonist. The university as feminist utopia certainly wouldn’t reflect any campus I’ve encountered.

In the introduction, Showalter describes her book as a “personal take” on campus novels that is not intended to be comprehensive. Indeed, the book is part of a larger series of “personal takes” which is described as follows on the flyleaf: “An occasional series of short books in which noted critics write about the persistent hold particular writers, artists, or cultural phenomena have held on their imaginations.” I find this idea very appealing, but this particular execution of it doesn’t work for me. I have admired and benefited from the insights of previous books by Showalter (for example, The Female Malady and A Literature of Their Own). This one simply doesn’t measure up. I would have preferred Showalter’s rigorous literary analysis to her personal take on the campus novel.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Bookstore Magic

The discussion of independent bookstores continues over at Beggars of Azure. Quillhill eloquently conveys the magic of a great bookstore in this passage:

As many great book readers and lovers have said, books are like people, they are friends. When I walk into a bookstore and find the proprietor has for sale The Great Gatsby in first edition, I immediately have a bond with him. He shares my taste in books. And in reading that book, again and again, returning to it as one would regularly telephone an old friend to keep in touch, I develop a really good relationship with Jay Gatsby and Nick Carroway and Scott Fitzgerald. Their familiarity comforts me, I listen to their stories as a good friend would, and I get excited at the prospect of spending time with them. Even though I may enjoy cookies, or kiwis, or clean clothes, I do not form a relationship with any of them, or the places in which they are found. And so an independent bookstore, as opposed to a retail outlet for publications, becomes like a bar or café, where one goes to congregate with one's friends, meet similar folks, and gossip with the proprietor and patrons about what Salman Rushdie has been working on.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Library Memories

In response to my post about independent bookstores, Quillhill wrote:

What is it that makes independent bookstores special? Why does one remember fondly a used bookstore, but not a library? Why don't we have the same feelings about a laundromat, or a grocery? Can feelings for a place such as a bakery, or a local fruit stand, match those for an independent bookstore? Is it the "independent" or the "book" or something else that makes them so special to so many?

I note that Quillhill is a bookseller, so probably these questions are rhetorical. But he got me thinking.

I do have fond memories of libraries, particularly of the one that I visited regularly as a child. The Children’s Department was decorated on a Winnie-the-Pooh theme (based on the wonderful drawings by E.H. Shepard, not the Disney version). Story Hour was held in a cave-like room that one entered through what appeared to be a door in the trunk of a tree just like the House at Pooh Corner. There was a plushy blue carpet on the floor and star-shaped lights embedded in the ceiling. I have vivid memories of lying on that carpet looking up at the twinkly lights while listening to the story ladies reading aloud. Out in the main room, one of the walls was just one long window seat with steps leading up to it. Each week I selected my ten books (that was the limit), then perched on the window seat and disappeared into them until my mom and dad came upstairs to collect me. I can even recall the precise places along the shelves where my favourite books were located, the ones that I checked out over and over again.

I can’t claim similar fond feelings for any of the laundromats or grocery stores that I’ve passed through in my life. However, there has been the odd bar or café that I've embraced as a second home. There, it’s all about the ambience of the place -- the décor, the food, and, most importantly, the people.

All of which takes me back to the initial question: Is it the “independent” or the “book” that makes independent bookstores so special to so many? Certainly the books are central. Being in a room full of books generates a paradoxical combination of comfort and excitement that I've only otherwise experienced in a really good relationship. But in a truly great bookstore, the sort that inspires devotion, it’s never just books randomly tossed together. It’s an inventory carefully chosen and arranged in a space permeated by the personalities of those who own and run the store. It’s the books together with the independent character of the store that make for magic.

Anyone else out there with memories of beloved libraries or bookstores to share?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Whose Life is it Anyway?

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography (Princeton University Press, 2005).

In previous books, biographer and literary critic Hermione Lee has analyzed the lives and work of writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Roth, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf. In this collection of essays, Lee seeks to illuminate the art of biography rather than the life of a new subject. In the introduction, she writes:

Virginia Woolf’s Nose presents a variety of case studies where the biographer is faced with gaps and absences and unprovable stories. The aim is to ask, by looking in detail at such examples, how a life can be brought home to us. How do biographers deal with moments of physical shock, with the subject’s secret bodily life, with the mystery of death, and with the aftermath of rumour and reputation? How do they nose out the personality and the life of the writer through the often ambiguous and deceptive evidence of their work? What part do blame, resentment, personal affection, idealisation, judgment and defensiveness have to play in the courtroom drama of life-writing? Where do biographers start from, and how do they know when to stop?

Two dominant themes thread through this collection, linking the four essays it contains. The first has to do with the biographer’s subject as an embodied subject. The biographer’s target is always “a living person in a body, not a smoothed-over figure.” But representing a subject’s bodily life poses serious challenges to biographers. The second theme has to do with multiple versions of a single life, and the battles fought between those who have a stake in which version prevails, be they the subject’s family members, friends, lovers, descendants, literary scholars, biographers, or devoted readers.

These two themes come together very viscerally in the first essay, “Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters,” in which Lee discusses instances where bodily relics have played important roles in the formulation of life stories. She makes tantalizing references to the fate of Yeats’s bones, Einstein’s brain, and Napoleon’s penis, before settling on the story of Shelley’s heart as emblematic of “the contested use of sources, of rival versions and myth-making, in which a body part comes to symbolize the subject’s afterlife.” Apparently Shelley’s heart was all that survived the gruesome fate of his body after his drowning death, and his wife and his friends fought over who should get to keep it. Lee writes: “The battle over possession of Shelley’s heart seems to embody the contest over who should ‘own’ Shelley’s story.” And she illustrates the continuation of that battle between biographers who put forth competing versions of the life and of the story of the heart.

The second essay is the one that gives the collection its title, “Virginia Woolf’s Nose.” The nose in question is not Woolf’s own but rather the prosthetic one that Nicole Kidman donned to play Virginia Woolf in the recent film, The Hours. In this essay, Lee considers the layering of Woolf’s life and work with the fictional version of that life and work presented in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours, and the subsequent film version based on that novel. Lee does a marvellous job of unravelling these narratives and analyzing the responses of a range of constituencies to the various representations of Woolf. As author of a biography of Woolf and of a critical study of her work, of course Lee herself is a stakeholder here. Her candour about that and about her own responses to the novel and the film enrich rather than detract from her analysis.

The collection is rounded out by an essay on Jane Austen’s rumoured fainting spell upon hearing the news of her family’s impending move to Bath, and, finally, an essay on deathbed scenes in biographies. In the former, Lee illuminates the way that competing versions of Jane Austen’s life have affected interpretation of her work. In the latter, Lee demonstrates how shifting conventions in biography have changed the way deathbed scenes are represented. In both essays, Lee sets a series of different portrayals of the same scene side by side by side. This exercise reveals a great deal about the mechanics of biography.

Near the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s Nose, Lee states: “Biography is a process of making up, or making over.” In these essays, Lee offers a fascinating glimpse into that process of making up and making over.