Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Wildly Disappointed by The Picture of Dorian Gray

It was an odd experience reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time at this late date. I know that I’ve never read it before, but I kept feeling as if I had. It was all so familiar: the beauty-for-its-own-sake aesthetic, the clever device of the portrait that ages in place of its subject, and all those rapid-fire aphorisms piling on top of one another. I had to check my impulse to take Wilde to task for using clichés and remind myself that he was the wag that coined them.

How, then, to push aside all that was so familiar to me, and approach the novel as something fresh? I couldn’t do it and I soon realized that I didn’t want to. For the bits that have become familiar even to those that haven’t read the book are the best bits. If they’re pushed aside, all that’s left is cardboard characters, atrociously florid descriptive passages, and clunky dialogue.

Let me elaborate. First, the characters. I found it difficult to get worked up about Dorian Gray’s descent into vice. Even at the beginning I didn’t see him as perfectly innocent or charmingly naïve but rather as vapid and petulant. Good looks notwithstanding, there didn’t seem to be much there to spoil. Basil Hallward is a nice enough fellow, but his pining after beauty/Dorian quickly grows tedious. Of the main characters, Lord Henry interests me the most. His philosophy is intriguing and his wit fairly dances on the page. But before long I wearied of him as well. There are too many clever aphorisms one after another; they often seem to be thrown in simply because they're good lines rather than to advance the plot or the reader's understanding of Lord Henry's character. On that last point, part of the problem is that the barrage of aphorisms don’t belong solely to Lord Henry. They are also spoken by the third person narrator, Mr. Erskine, and occasionally some dutchess or other at dinner, but always in the same tone and with the same sensibility. This has the effect of watering down the uniqueness of Lord Henry’s voice thereby robbing the novel to some degree of one of its best features.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the clever lines. I won’t pause to list my favourites here, but I will point you to a post at So Many Books where Stefanie has listed eight great lines that she marked just in the first eleven pages of the novel. The problem is that although there are indeed a plethora of great lines worthy of copying down, these are counterbalanced by many cringe-inducing passages of description. For example, this:

As he thought of it, a sharp pang of pain struck through him like a knife and made each delicate fibre of his nature quiver. His eyes deepened into amethyst, and across them came a mist of tears. He felt as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart.

Or this:

His finely chiselled nostrils quivered, and some hidden nerve shook the scarlet of his lips and left them trembling.

Or this:

Her flowerlike lips touched the withered cheek and warmed its frost.

It’s not a long novel, but passages like these make it hard slogging.

And the dialogue. How could an accomplished playwright like Wilde pen such dreadful dialogue? The dinner party scenes are quite good. But in those scenes involving only two or three people, a prime example being the scene in which Basil first introduces Lord Henry to Dorian, they all seem to take turns declaiming lengthy soliloquies rather than speaking back and forth to one another. Who would have the patience to participate in such a conversation? Surely even Lord Henry, witty though he is, would have to let someone else get a word in edgewise every now and again.

I admire Oscar Wilde enormously for his wit, his style, and his reckless courage. I love his plays. I wanted to love The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I didn’t. I don’t think that the novel is Wilde’s forte. Ultimately, it strikes me as a fascinating idea that just wasn't very well executed.

Stop by the MetaxuCafé forum for links to other bloggers’ posts about The Picture of Dorian Gray and to join in a discussion about the book.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Voices on the Radio

Margaret Atwood’s The Tent is an odd and unsettling little book. It’s a collection of very short prose pieces that defy classification. They’re not short stories. The publisher’s catalogue refers to them as essays, but that’s not right either. I’m inclined to call them monologues or, in a couple of instances, dialogues. I tilt toward these descriptors because, although Atwood’s characteristic precision with language is amply in evidence here, these pieces rarely conjured up visual images for me. Reading the book, I felt as if I was sitting in the dark listening to voices on the radio, voices that alternately lulled me and spooked me.

I appreciate Atwood’s willingness to experiment but I found the results to be rather uneven. When the pieces work, they're very powerful. Most interesting to me were the ones in which Atwood turns stories and the very idea of story inside out. She employs a wry, dark humour very effectively to this end. For example, of the would-be hero and heroine of “Three Novels I Won’t Write Soon,” the narrator says:

Chris and Amanda are very likeable. They have straight teeth, trim waists, clean socks, and the best of intentions. They don’t belong in a book like that, and if they stray into it by accident they won’t come out of it alive.

Other standouts are “Orphan Stories” and “Horatio’s Version.”

But in other pieces, for example “Chicken Little Goes Too Far” and “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation,” the humour struck me as too broad, almost slapstick, the parody too easy. Voice alone isn’t enough to carry these pieces; they just never rose up off the page for me.

There are flashes of brilliance in The Tent but ultimately, as a whole, the collection left me unsatisfied.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fictitious Reading Series 3

Fiction fans in the Toronto area, take note. The third instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series will take place on Sunday, February 26th at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street). This month’s featured writers are Lee Gowan and Hal Niedzviecki. The evening will include readings by Lee and Hal, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will host and I will conduct the interview.

Lee Gowan is the author of three books of fiction, including the Trillium short-listed Make Believe Love and, most recently, The Last Cowboy. His screenplay Paris or Somewhere was nominated for a Gemini. He teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. The Globe and Mail described The Last Cowboy as “an engaging book that is at once funny, poignant and a razor-sharp image of that most tender and terrible of entities: the family” while The National Post lauded it for "resist[ing] sentiment and simplicity” and “restor[ing] the rural West’s complexity.”

Hal Niedzviecki is the author of six books including the novels Lurvy: a farmer’s almanac, Ditch, and, most recently, The Program. He is co-founder of Broken Pencil, the magazine of zine culture and the independent arts, and of the annual Canzine festival of Underground Culture. The Globe and Mail pronounced The Program “fascinating,” “quite strange” and “original in every way” while Now Magazine praised its “soulful, beautifully written moments.”

Come out to see these writers read on Sunday night! And if that’s geographically impossible, check out their books.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Returning to My Notebook

In Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, Iain Banks adds an extra layer to the narrative by not just writing about his pilgrimage to distilleries all across Scotland, but also writing about writing about his pilgrimage. At the outset he notes that Raw Spirit is his first non-fiction book, and at intervals throughout the text he shares with the reader the process of putting the book together.

Here’s an excerpt from an aside on note taking:

Taking notes; this is not like me. I usually just remember stuff, or very occasionally jot briefly in my diary if I happen to have it on me, or scribble something in the margin of my telephone list or CD list. Long ago in my wallet I used to carry a tiny notebook which I’d made myself; it was smaller than some stamps I’ve seen -- I can write very small -- but that was back when I was about twenty or so and having loads of ideas all the time; now I’m officially a boring old bastard of nearly 50 I don’t have the same number of ideas these days and so have no pressing need to have a notebook always to hand (mind you, quality not quantity; a lot of those so-called ideas back then were just god-awful puns).

At present I fall somewhere in between Banks’s two poles, both in age and in note-taking practices.

I used to carry a notebook with me everywhere. I eased into it with the diaries that I kept intermittently beginning around the age of ten. These were small books with glossy covers and the words “My Diary” embossed on them in gold, curlicued letters. There were only a few lines allotted for each day’s entry which I invariably found to be either too much or not enough. I graduated to small, hardbound volumes with blank pages, but despite the increased freedom these afforded for skipping days or elaborating on particularly significant ones, I hadn’t yet moved from keeping a diary to keeping a notebook.

That shift occurred in my teens when I traded in those neat volumes for cheap, spiral-bound notebooks. I’d read somewhere that opting for cheap notebooks was a good way of banishing one’s inner censor. It worked. Writing in a book with pages that could easily be torn out and thrown away liberated me to write down whatever came into my head without regard for propriety or narrative coherence. It liberated me to write the crap that I had to write through to get to the good stuff. I’d still sometimes begin as if composing a diary entry, but then spin off into fiction. In retrospect, I think that this is how I learned to write fiction. It was an epiphany for me when I first recognized that I didn’t have to make it all up, that grounding my stories in real details gave them the sense of reality that I was striving to evoke.

Eventually I gravitated back to the hardbound books, this time in a larger size. They no longer have an intimidating aura of permanence for me. I like the heft of them and I find the wide, blank pages inviting. I choose ones with covers that inspire me: reproductions of paintings that I like, or simply colours, patterns, and textures that please me. Sometimes when I’m experiencing a block, a new notebook provides a fresh start and gets me rolling again. It’s a psychological game but it works. Once filled, these notebooks are eclectic compendiums of thoughts, ideas, lists, quotations, research notes, and partial first drafts, with the odd newspaper clipping or photograph stuck between the pages. They’re the raw material that I work from.

But last year, rather abruptly, I stopped carrying a notebook with me. It’s partly because the deadline for my short story manuscript was then looming and my focus was on doing final revisions on the computer rather than capturing wisps of ideas for future projects. I think that starting this blog also had something to do with it. Notes about what I’m reading and thinking that I once jotted down in my notebook now frequently go directly into the computer as fodder for blog posts.

I still live in fear of losing good ideas. But I walk everywhere and I got tired of lugging a heavy notebook around. I could have just substituted a smaller notebook, but instead I made the switch to index cards. I thought that they would do just as well. Indeed, I thought that they might do better. Rather than cramming all sorts of disparate things into a single notebook, I could use a fresh index card for each new idea and organize them into coherent bundles later.

Reflecting on it now, I’m sure that I was wrong. The index cards work beautifully for notes relating to discrete undertakings like book reviews and blog posts. But I miss my notebooks. Looking back over some of them, I see that one of the most interesting things about them is the way that apparently disparate ideas weave together over time in their pages. Sometimes it’s the odd juxtapositions that provide a spark for a story rather than the individual blocks of content. At best, my stacks of index cards are only a pale reflection of the depth and the chaos and the weirdness of my notebooks.

So I’m going back to carrying a notebook. The only question is whether I should pick up where I left off with the last one (a big book with a leather cover in a lovely shade of green) and see where that takes me, or make a fresh start with a new notebook. Perhaps a moleskine with a discrete black cover, unlined pages, and one of those accordion envelopes in the back where I can tuck away the index cards that I will continue to use to jot down ideas for book reviews and blog posts...

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Music for Writing

I recently watched an episode of The Writing Life which featured crime novelist Peter Robinson. I’m a fan of Robinson’s Inspector Banks series and I found the program most interesting. There was one facet that particularly caught my attention. While speaking about his writing process, Robinson clicked on his computer to display an iPod playlist of the songs he listened to while working on his most recent novel (the soon to be released Piece of My Heart). He explained that since part of the novel is set in 1969 he’d put together a compilation of songs that were popular that year and listened to them while he wrote. It wasn’t that he intended to explicitly reference the songs in the novel (though I imagine at least a few will garner mention), but that listening to the songs helped him to better capture the spirit of that time.

On reflection, I realized that I similarly use music to enhance my writing. For example, when I was working on a series of stories featuring teenage narrators, I listened to a compilation of the songs that I had listened to as a teenager. The songs themselves weren’t necessarily relevant to the stories given that my narrators didn’t all grow up in the same decade that I did. Yet it invariably helped to listen to those songs. I think that because those songs so viscerally evoke for me what it felt like to be that age, I was better able to write in a teenage voice after listening to them. More recently, while working on a long piece that is essentially a Scottish ghost story, I listened to the excellent CD Folk ’n’ Hell: Fiery New Music From Scotland over and over again. Somehow that blend of contemporary and traditional Scottish music matched up perfectly with the mood and sense of place that I was striving to create in the story.

All of this was rolling around in my head when I had the happy task of interviewing authors Jason Anderson and Alexandra Leggat at the most recent instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series. It was a natural to ask the two of them about connections between music and writing given that they both write songs and play in bands, and that Anderson has spent a good part of his journalism career as a music critic. Both were quick to say that music is an important inspiration for their fiction, but they were polar opposites when it came to the question of how music figures in their writing process. While there are several explicit references to music and to bands in Anderson’s novel Showbiz, he said that he generally writes in silence. Music with lyrics is a particular distraction -- he can’t listen to it while writing without being pulled out of the story he’s writing and into the story of the song. Leggat said that she can’t write without music, and that so far each of her books has had particular CDs connected to it that she listened to over and over again during the writing. The music seeps into the atmosphere of the stories. I was gratified to hear that Steve Earle and Johnny Dowd figured heavily in the writing of her most recent collection of short stories, Meet Me in the Parking Lot, as I’d definitely pegged that one as a collection of dark country ballads.

If this theme of the connections between music and literature intrigues you as much as it does me, you will want to check out the book notes section of the excellent music blog largehearted boy in which authors have created playlists for their recent books. February entries so far include playlists compiled by Lisa Carver for her post-punk memoir Drugs are Nice, Ander Monson for his collection of stories Other Electricities, and the various contributors for The Best American Erotica 2006 edited by Susie Bright. The book notes project is a fascinating and illuminating enterprise.

And now I come full circle. When I went digging around for the appropriate links to include in this post, I stumbled on a playlist for Peter Robinson’s forthcoming novel -- those 1969 songs that he was referring to in the episode of The Writing Life that started me off on this whole train of thought.

How does music figure in your writing or your reading?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Robert Louis Stevenson on Writing a Novel

Anybody can write a short story--a bad one, I mean--who has industry and paper and time enough; but not every one may hope to write even a bad novel. It is the length that kills.

Robert Louis Stevenson, “My First Book: Treasure Island” in The Art of Writing and Other Essays (1905).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Children's Literature Favourites

There’s a children’s literature meme circulating that I can’t resist. Shelly started it, and Kimbofo and Sherry have chimed in. Here are Shelly's questions, and my responses:

What are your three favourite children's series?
1. The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace.
2. The Emily series by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
3. The Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright.

What are your three favourite non-series children's books?
1. Fifteen by Beverly Cleary.
2. The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
3. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (I know there were sequels, but I don’t really remember them, so I’m counting Harriet the Spy as a stand-alone).

What are your three favourite children's book characters?
1. Mary Poppins (from P.L. Travers’ books).
2. Pippi Longstocking (from Astrid Lindgren’s books).
3. Katie John (from Mary Calhoun’s books).

I had a great deal of trouble narrowing my lists down to three in each category. I tried to make things easier by restricting myself to books I first read as a child but even then I had to leave out many much-loved books, especially in the children’s series category. What about Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books? Or L. Frank Baum’s Oz books? Or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books? And all those books that I loved by E. Nesbit, and Noel Streatfeild, and Catherine Woolley? And how could I include Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen among my top three stand-alones, but not include The Luckiest Girl?

If I added in all the fabulous children’s books that I first read as an adult, the task would be downright impossible. There is a whole realm of books that were available when I was a child but that I somehow missed until later. If I counted the best of those, I’d have to add Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, Edward Eager’s Tales of Magic, Alberta Constant’s books about the Miller girls, and pretty much everything Madeleine L'Engle wrote to my list of favourite series. And Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle would unquestionably make my list of top three stand-alones.

And then there are all the great contemporary children’s books that I’ve encountered more recently. Some highlights there would include: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne-Jones, and Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.

All that, and I’ve barely even touched on the YA category. But I’ll stop there for now. Suffice it to say that I’m a fan of good children’s literature.

What are your favourites?

Many bloggers have chimed in on this one. The list of participants reads like a who’s who of some of the best children’s literature blogs out there. Click over to see the responses posted at Big A little a, Chicken Spaghetti, Once Upon a Story, A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, and Here in the Bonny Glen, and if you’re not already familiar with them hang around to browse these blogs. Each is rich with insightful commentary on children’s books.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Defining Literary Fiction

I am simultaneously obsessed with categories and reluctant to categorize. In grad school, I studied several structuralist theorists and took great pleasure in their grand schemes of classification, even though I didn’t buy into any of them. When I moved on to post-structuralist theorists, I tried to understand their work by constructing the very sorts of typologies that they resisted in every line. Yes, I see the irony in that. Yes, my supervisor made fun of me. But I still think that my Foucault chart was a thing of beauty.

In the literary realm, this fascination most often manifests in my musings on genre, some of which you will find in the archives of this blog: What distinguishes a linked short story collection from a novel? What are the essential differences in form between short stories and novels? Is Christian Bök’s Eunoia a work of poetry or prose?

When it comes to genres defined not just by form but also by content (crime fiction, romance, chick-lit and so on) and their relationship to literary fiction things get very muddy for me. I’ve always resisted the idea that literary fiction is just another genre. If literary fiction is a genre in its own right, what are the formal conventions that unite the works that fall within it? It seems to me to be altogether too broad and amorphous a category to constitute a coherent genre. And, of course, if it’s just another genre, then questions arise about the boundaries between it and other genres. What makes a book fall into the literary fiction category rather than another genre? How can a book be both if we’re dealing with two different genres with distinct formal conventions associated with each?

Yet I continue to use the term “literary fiction,” usually just as a matter of convenience, but sometimes in ways that get me into trouble. For example, I recently praised Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories as a bona fide crossover hit, succeeding brilliantly as both literary fiction and as a mystery novel. A commenter asked me why I classed the book as “literary fiction.” Did I simply mean that it was a well-written mystery novel? Well, no, that’s not what I intended to say. You’ll note that I said nothing about “transcending the genre” as I’m well aware that there’s plenty of excellent writing within the genre and I don’t believe that transcendence is required. But then what did I mean? I found myself scrambling to describe which characteristics of the novel marked it as literary fiction. There I was, stuck in the very quagmire I describe above, trying to define “literary fiction” as if it’s a distinct genre when I don’t actually believe that it is one.

At the Litblog Co-op today, Ed Falco defines “literary fiction” in a way that gets around many of my concerns about the term. I’ve strung together a few excerpts from his post below:

I certainly aspire to being a writer of literary fiction. That answer was easy for me, because I think all good writers, all really good writers, are literary writers. In David Milofsky’s otherwise generous piece on the Litblog Coop, titled “Bloggers nudge literary fiction to the presses,” he defines literary fiction as “those books that champion style above content.” Since I’ve heard so many good and complimentary things about David Milofsky, I’m going to guess that was just a hurried definition tossed off for a newspaper piece––because it’s just not right. […] Purple writing emphasizes style over content. In good writing, in literary writing, style and content happen simultaneously. I’m comfortable calling any fiction that struggles to honestly explore its subjects literary. It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that a book can be a huge commercial success and still be literary? […] The opposite of literary fiction is not commercial fiction, but bad commercial fiction… […] I think we need to guard against literary writing being defined as esoteric or effete. Literary writing, for me, is just another way of saying serious writing, of saying good writing.

Click here to read the whole post.

I like it. I appreciate the way Falco dispenses with the idea that literary and commercial fiction are mutually exclusive categories. And I appreciate the way his definition steers clear of elitist distinctions between literary fiction and various categories of genre fiction. At the same time, I’m not entirely convinced. I can’t help but think that it’s a bit more complicated than this, that even if there isn’t a clear set of formal conventions associated with literary fiction, there are nevertheless certain expectations that readers bring to it that have to do with something other than the quality of the writing. I’d love to hear other views on this as I continue to mull it over.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Boosting Small Presses

In my New Year’s Resolutions post, I resolved to devote more blog space to discussion of Canadian small press books, and also to better acquaint myself with small presses outside of Canada and to search out and read more of their books. In the past month, I’ve assembled and begun working my way through a diverse and tantalizing array of small press books in furtherance of these goals. I’ll soon begin posting reviews.

In the meantime, I’ve been contemplating what it is that made a small press booster out of me. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. I grew up in Saskatchewan where a couple of fine small presses were, and are, an integral part of the literary landscape. There, as everywhere else, big press titles dominated the shelves of the bookstores and libraries, and the book pages of the newspapers. But they were distant entities. The local small presses were part of the community. Indeed, they played a central role in the building of a literary community where I lived. Thanks to them, I’ve always believed that I could create a literary life wherever I am rather than having to escape to some glamorous place to find one. It was the local small presses that got me reading contemporary Canadian fiction and poetry early on.

2. I’m an avid reader and writer of short stories and short stories are primarily the preserve of small presses. There are a few notable exceptions of course. But, for the most part, I credit the small presses, together with the little magazines, for keeping short stories alive. Without them, my reading life would be much poorer, and my own stories might never have seen the light of day.

3. My reading tastes are eclectic. I can appreciate a well-wrought realist narrative, a clever mystery, a magical children’s adventure. All of these things I can get from the big presses. But when I’m after something new, something different, something daring, I look to the small presses. To be sure, sometimes the big presses venture into this territory, but usually with an author that a small press took a chance on first. And of course the small presses also expand the range of well-wrought realist narratives, clever mysteries, and magical children’s adventures available to me.

I’ve followed the example of That Girl Who Writes Stuff and added a list of some of my favourite small presses to my sidebar. Click on the links and check out their catalogues. It’s a mostly Canadian list at present as those are the ones that I know best. Please share your favourites as well. I want to know about more fabulous small presses whose catalogues I should be checking out, and individual small press titles that I should be seeking out to read and review.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Short Stories and Sound Bites

As an avid reader and writer of short stories, I have puzzled over and lamented the apparent decline in popularity of this literary form. Surely, I have often thought, short stories are a perfect match for the modern world. If we lack time and possess limited attention spans, if we’ve grown acclimatised to fast moving media and ever briefer sound bites, shouldn’t our literary tastes run to short stories rather than vast, sprawling novels? Apparently not. We’re told that short stories don’t sell, and bestselling novels grow ever longer. Perhaps, I think hopefully, it’s not that short stories don’t sell, but rather that publishers think they don’t sell and therefore don’t publish or promote them with the vigour that would enable them to rival novels in the marketplace. Then again, perhaps not.

In an article on short stories titled “Brief Encounters,” William Boyd takes a tack that upends my argument. He suggests that the short story is undergoing something of a revival, and not because it suits a sound bite culture but because it is antithetical to it:

However, I feel that there may be a different reason why readers of the short story have never really gone away. And this has nothing to do with its length. The well-written short story is not suited to the soundbite culture: it's too dense, its effects are too complex for easy digestion. If the zeitgeist is influencing this taste then it may be a sign that we are coming to prefer our art in highly concentrated form. Like a multivitamin pill, a good short story can provide a compressed blast of discerning, intellectual pleasure, one no less intense than that delivered by a novel, despite the shorter duration of its consumption. To read a short story like Joyce's "The Dead", Chekhov's "In the Ravine" or Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place", is to be confronted by a fully achieved, complex work of art, either profound or disturbing or darkly comic or moving. The fact that it takes 15 minutes to read is neither here nor there: the potency is manifest and emphatic. Perhaps that's what we are looking for, as readers, more and more these days - a sort of aesthetic daisycutter bomb of a reading experience that does its work with ruthless brevity and concentrated dispatch.

I have to concede that the argument I articulated above is grounded more in wistful hope than in sound analysis, and I find Boyd’s contrary view utterly convincing. Indeed, he has put his finger on exactly what it is that I love about good short stories: “a compressed blast of discerning, intellectual pleasure” that I can experience in the space of a subway ride on my way to work in the morning.

Boyd’s article was published more than a year ago in the Guardian, but I only just discovered it this morning thanks to a link provided on Catch & Release. At the centre of the piece is a typology of short stories that Boyd has created:

I decided it might be worth trying to categorise the short story in a bit more detail, to try to classify its multifarious forms. Looking at collections by other writers, I gradually came to the conclusion that there are seven types of short story, and that within these seven categories almost every kind of short story can be accounted for. Some of them will overlap, or one category will borrow from a seemingly unrelated type, but these denominations seem, by and large, to subsume all the species of the genus. In this diversity we may begin to see what short stories have in common.

Boyd’s seven categories of stories are unconventional and thought-provoking ones that, despite the count of seven, bear no relation to the seven basic plots that one so often hears discussed. They're well worth a look. You can find the article here, and the comments on Catch & Release that alerted me to its existence here.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Your World or Mine?

Arthur Krystal on the effect of the passage of years on the reading experience:

As children, we crossed wide-eyed and trusting into the writer’s world; as adults, we invite the writer into ours and hold him accountable for how he behaves there.

From Arthur Krystal, "Kid Roberts and Me: The Leather Pushers, by H.C. Witwer" in Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) at 68.

Some Baffling Inner Necessity

David Samuels on becoming a reader:

No one becomes a reader except in answer to some baffling inner necessity, of the kind that leads people to turn cartwheels outside the 7-Eleven, jump headlong through a plate-glass window, join the circus, or buy a low-end foreign car when the nearest appropriate auto-repair shop is fifty miles away. With these dramatic examples fresh in your mind, you’ll probably require only a small amount of additional convincing that my little theory -- based on years of painful experience -- is true. Reading requires a loner’s temperament, a high tolerance for silence, and an unhealthy preference for the company of people who are imaginary or dead.

From David Samuels, "Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies: Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger" in Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) at 3.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Sidetracked into Literature

Shakin’ All Over, a documentary about the Canadian music scene of the mid-60s and early-70s, debuted on CBC television on Monday night. It’s based on Before the Gold Rush: Flashbacks to the Dawn of Canadian Sound, a book by Nicholas Jennings. Before the Gold Rush is an excellent book, but the documentary version adds a whole new dimension to the project. Shakin’ All Over features a lot of fabulous archival footage, much of which has never been broadcast before, interwoven with more than sixty contemporary interviews, some with figures from the time reflecting back on their experience, others with a new generation of Canadian musicians paying eloquent tribute to those that went before and to their enduring influence.

Shakin’ All Over features all of the Canadian legends that you would expect to find at its centre: Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Band, Leonard Cohen. But it also devotes considerable time to lesser known or at least more quickly forgotten musicians and bands. The interesting thing to me about the latter category was that even when I didn’t recognize the names and faces, I usually recognized the songs. For example, I didn’t recall the band name “Crowbar,” but their song “Oh What a Feeling” was immediately familiar.

I don’t know if or when Shakin’ All Over will be rebroadcast in Canada or broadcast anywhere else in the world. But apparently a DVD version is in the works, so it should be available to one and all eventually. It’s certainly worth seeking out. In the meantime, let me leave you with one of my favourite archival clips:

Leonard Cohen: “I always thought of myself as a singer and kind of got sidetracked into literature.”

Interviewer: “Can you sing?”

[Cohen smiles and looks down as if concealing a laugh.]

Cohen: “Well, I think that if the song is really good and it's your own, what comes out is music.”