Friday, March 31, 2006

Trapped in My House

I was sorry to miss the inaugural Test Reading on Wednesday night but it couldn’t be helped. I was literally trapped in my house. What began on Tuesday morning as the apparently minor inconvenience of a blocked drain quickly morphed into a full sewer line replacement. By Wednesday evening, there was an eight-foot trench where my front steps used to be. No problem, I thought, I’ll exit through the back door and down the driveway that runs along the side of the house. But alas, not content simply to block our front door, the workmen had put the dirt that came out of the eight-foot trench in a towering heap that extended from one side of the driveway to the other. I was game to clamber over it in daylight with all my faculties about me, but I didn’t like my chances of making the return journey in the dark fortified by a few of the cheap beers rumoured to be on offer at the reading venue.

I gather that I missed a very interesting evening. You can read brief reports here and here. Fortunately all is not lost. Recordings of the readings will soon be made available on the series website. It won’t be the same as being there, of course, but it beats missing out on the event entirely.

On the subject of the joys of home ownership, I recently picked up a copy of House: A Memoir by Michael Ruhlman. My interest was piqued by a rave review from Our Girl in Chicago at About Last Night. I enjoy unconventional memoirs and I thought that this one would have particular appeal for me given that I recently took the plunge and bought a house myself. It was undeniably engaging and well written but I couldn’t finish it. I gave up when I started having nightmares about all of the things that went wrong with Ruhlman’s house going wrong with mine. For the same reason, I can no longer bear to watch Holmes on Homes. I’m a house hypochondriac. Perhaps I’ll wait a few years and in the meantime check out Ruhlman’s writing on a different topic.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Poetry and Power Games

Lynn Coady, Mean Boy (Doubleday Canada, 2006).

Mean Boy is set at Westcock University, a fictional campus in the fictional town of Timperly, New Brunswick, in the mid-1970s. Its focus is Jim Arsenault, the poet-professor who runs the newly established creative writing program at Westcock, idol to his students and bane of the administration’s existence. The administration’s denial of his application for tenure, and the rallying round of his students, sets the plot in motion.

Here’s a run down of the key players:

Jim Arsenault is a charismatic, egomaniacal, alcoholic poet. The narrator describes him thus: “The thing about Jim is, he’s a man. More than that—a guy. He is the new breed of poet. He doesn’t fluff himself up, doesn’t wear jewellery or turtlenecks… Jim doesn’t even wear sports jackets, let alone a tie. Work shirts and jeans. Often he comes to class ‘straight from the woods,’ he tells us. He’s big on the woods. Or ‘straight from working on my roof.’ Or his porch.”

Larry Campbell, the narrator, is a second-year student who is completely in Jim’s thrall. He’s full of romantic notions about “real poets” and “artistic friendships.” He sees poetry as an escape from the family that he loves but is ashamed of and a life spent working in the family business, a motor-hotel and mini-putt on Prince Edward Island.

Sherri Ann Mitten writes poems about desire that make her male classmates squirm. Bubbly and blonde (“with her yellow curls going everywhere like a doll or a crazed cheerleader”), she is, in Larry’s view, the antithesis of what “girl poets” should look like.

Claude is a cosmopolitan character who has been to New York and San Francisco. He wears black turtlenecks, writes villanelles, and ultimately becomes enamoured with language poetry.

Todd, “all flailing limbs and pissed off energy,” writes rhyming poetry about industrial accidents. Unlike Larry, he’s proud of his working-class roots.

Chuck Slaughter is a jock and a bully. He’s not in the creative writing class and has no interest in poetry but has inexplicably been befriended by Jim. He has referred to Larry as “fuckwit” since their first acquaintance. To Larry’s mind: “He is not particularly interesting aside from his horrific size and his ability to maim on the football field.”

These are all recognizable types and Coady makes great sport of them. The satire is biting and hilarious. I particularly relished Larry’s internal dialogue during meetings of the creative writing class which made quite clear that the comments of the students had little to do with the work under discussion and everything to do with jockeying for position and currying favour with Jim. The student poems which are quoted in the novel are perfectly evocative of the undergraduate creative writing experience (for example, “The Ass of My Head”—Larry’s “first drug induced effort”).

But ultimately the genius of the book lies in the extent to which Coady is able to delve beneath these stereotypical surfaces. Over the course of the novel, Larry’s preconceptions are challenged and many of his illusions shattered. Coady provides not just laughs but deep insights into the individual characters and into the complex power relations that are at play here.

The existence of divisions and hierarchies among poets and different types of poetry is a growing preoccupation for Larry over the course of the novel. Many of the characters decry the marginalization of Maritime poets by the Canadian literary establishment, and of working-class poets by ivory-tower academics. For his part, Jim handily divides Canadian poets into two lists, separated by a line of chalk down the middle of the blackboard. On one side are the “Hucksters” (Toronto poets) and on the other “The Real Thing” (poets from the east coast, the west coast, the prairies): “He handed out the work of the Real Thing writers but said that to inflict the Hucksters on us would be contamination.” Larry’s vision of the purity and unity of the poetry world is further shaken when one of his classmates communicates his enthusiasm for various schools of experimental poetry that don't fit on the grid:

Movements. It reminds me of the way Gramma Campbell used to discuss her bowels after every meal. I don’t want there to be movements when it comes to poetry. It’s hard enough to figure out Hucksterism versus the Real Thing, just trying to write a line that’s any good.

While Coady very effectively skewers various literary targets, she never diminishes the value of poetry or of creative aspirations in the process. An exchange between Larry and Dermot Schofield, a Toronto poet who visits Westcock to give a reading, gets to the heart of things:

“It’s all part of the game,” he tells me.
“Game?” I say. “Poetry?”
“Not poetry,” he says. “What you’re talking about. Being reviewed, acknowledged, known. Not writing poetry, but being a poet.”

It’s “being a poet” that Coady takes the piss out of here, not writing poetry.

I found Mean Boy wildly entertaining much of the time, but I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it exactly. Larry is so self-conscious, so ill at ease, that it was sometimes downright uncomfortable to be in his company. However, it’s quite likely that my discomfort is rooted in the fact that I was once a pretentious teenage poet and, even at his worst, I could relate to Larry dismayingly well.

Lynn Coady is an enormously talented writer and Mean Boy is a fascinating novel.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Is Crime Fiction Inherently Reactionary?

In the course of some musings about genre fiction over at The Sharp Side, Ellis had this to say about crime fiction:

But there’s a problem with crime fiction, which is that the form is inherently reactionary. Crime fiction is about a disturbance to the established order. The hero or heroine restores the existing state of things. Crime fiction celebrates the restoration. Crime fiction celebrates stasis. It projects comforting fantasies of justice in the world. Hence the ubiquity of crime drama on television.

I certainly find much television crime drama to be reactionary. I often find myself gnashing my teeth over shows like Law & Order where the accused always seems to be presumed guilty and that presumption of guilt is used to justify police brutality and all manner of unethical conduct on the part of other players in the justice system.

But what of crime fiction? There’s no question that some crime fiction is reactionary, but is it fair to say that the form is inherently reactionary? I agree with Ellis about the projection of “comforting fantasies of justice in the world.” In almost all crime fiction the villain is unmasked and punished in the end. I sometimes opt to read it for this very reason. Occasionally someone takes me to task for describing as “comfort reads” books in which multiple murders occur, and I explain that what’s comforting about them is that everything comes out right in the end.

But coming out right in the end is not necessarily equivalent to “restor[ing] the existing state of things.” In an unjust world, coming out right in the end might mean a drastic change from the existing state of things. I think that there are lots of ways in which crime fiction can be subversive rather than reactionary. Let me offer up just one example.

Incompetence and corruption on the part of societal authorities is a mainstay of crime fiction. Thus, even if the goal is to set things right, those authorities are rarely trusted to do the job. In contrast to the standard Law & Order scenario that I describe above, the police are frequently depicted pursuing and arresting the wrong person; in fact, they often point a finger at the hero or heroine at some point in the investigation. It’s up to this renegade figure to make sure that the authorities get it right. In a cozy, that figure is likely to be a bumbling amateur sleuth, in a P.I. novel, a lone wolf private investigator. Even in a police procedural, the police officer at the centre of the tale is usually something of a maverick, at odds with the higher-ups and willing to break rules when necessary.

This strong anti-authoritarian streak doesn’t sit well with blanket assertions about the reactionary character of crime fiction. The genre is much more complex and interesting, much more versatile than that.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Giving up on a Mystery Series

There was a discussion recently on Dorothy-L about what causes a reader to give up on a once favourite mystery series. I’ve just finished reading Steeplechase, Jane Langton’s latest Homer Kelly mystery, and I’m afraid that I’m ready to throw in the towel on this series. The last couple of instalments have been disappointing and this one is the thinnest of the lot. Homer has become a caricature of himself, and his wife Mary seems to be merely an excuse for Homer to talk out loud. The two of them are here reduced to a very flimsy structure upon which to hang the historical tale that is at the centre of the book. There is a great deal of interesting detail in that historical tale and I found it quite compelling toward the end. (Once I managed to straighten out all the characters with H names that is -- to have Horatio, Horace, Hector, and Homer all wandering about one novel struck me as unnecessarily confusing.) But the connection between it and the present day adventures of Homer and Mary is very tenuous. I loved the early books in this series -- the fascinating literary connections and the wonderful evocations of Harvard, Cambridge, Concord, and that whole area of New England. I miss the old Homer who was a real character rather than a compilation of blustery, annoying tics, and the old Mary who was a strong-willed woman with a mind of her own rather than just Homer’s sidekick. Steeplechase is the eighteenth book in this series. I recommend the first twelve without hesitation; thereafter, go at your own risk.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Fictitious Reading Series 4

The fourth instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series is fast approaching. It will take place on Sunday, March 26th at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street, Toronto). This month’s featured writers are Clint Burnham and Elyse Friedman. The evening will include readings by Clint and Elyse, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will conduct the interview and I will serve as host.

Clint Burnham is a Vancouver writer and teacher. He is the author of several books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction including Airborne Photo and Buddyland. Of his new novel, Smoke Show, the Calgary Herald said: "His ear for conversation is impeccable and often hilarious, as quintessentially low-brow Canuck as a squashed Kokanee can...What makes this book work is its spaciousness, creating a kind of post-modern mad-lib where the reader supplies the narrative connective tissue, not unlike an actual overheard conversation.”

Elyse Friedman is a Toronto writer. She is the author of two novels, a book of poetry, and several feature-length film scripts. Her first novel, Then Again, was short-listed for the 2000 Trillium Award. In a review of her second novel, Waking Beauty, Now Magazine said: “Think Kafka's Metamorphosis meets Extreme Makeover as interpreted by Robert Altman and you have an idea how brilliant Friedman is.” Elyse is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Come out on Sunday night to hear these excellent writers read from their work!

The Toronto Writers' Centre

There was an article in the Globe and Mail this past weekend about the Toronto Writers' Centre, a new venture which is set to open on May 1st:

The Toronto Writers' Centre aims to provide a communal space where writers can pen (or, more accurately, laptop) their latest work, network with other writers and just plain, old get out of the house.

For a one time initiation fee of $107.00 and a monthly fee of $175.00, members gain access to “a 2,600 square foot, air-conditioned, writing haven, divided into a Quiet Room, Lounge and Kitchen.” The Quiet Room contains 30 work spaces, each outfitted with desk, chair, lamp and other electrical outlets, while the Lounge is given over to relaxation, conversation with fellow writers, and occasional readings and seminars.

It’s modelled after similar facilities in other cities such as The Writers Room in New York.

This sounds extremely appealing to me. I have the good fortune to have a pleasant work space at home, but I can’t help but think that getting out of my pajamas and heading downtown to an office of sorts would help me to be more disciplined about work on my novel-in-progress. I also imagine that it would be stimulating and encouraging to work in the midst of other writers like that. I expect that the centre will develop the sort of communal creative energy that I've thrived on at the short-term writing retreats I’ve attended in the past.

The fees will be beyond the means of many a struggling writer, but they are considerably more affordable than the rent on a downtown office.

Is there anyone out there who has taken advantage of such communal writing spaces in other cities? Was it worth the money?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Criss Cross

Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins is a lovely children’s novel -- funny, moving, and beautifully written. It focuses on a group of fourteen-year-old friends as they move through a spring and summer in their hometown of Seldem. There’s Debbie who wishes that something different would happen to her, something good, soon. There’s Hector who’s learning to play the guitar, dabbling in song writing, and trying to get up the courage to approach a girl in his guitar class that he has a crush on. There’s Lenny whose voracious reading of science books has translated into a mechanical ability that has him headed toward vocational school instead of university.

These characters don’t undergo any grand traumas in the course of the book, just the subtle-on-the-outside, major-on-the-inside sort of shifts that are apt to occur in an adolescent summer. Kids who have been friends all their lives find themselves drifting in different directions as they develop new interests and identities. The boys and the girls suddenly recognize one other as boys and girls, not so much in a sexual attraction sense as in a socially awkward sense. Everything begins to change.

The “Criss Cross” of the title is the name of a radio show that Debbie, Hector, Lenny, and friends gather to listen to every week:

Hanging out in the truck listening to the radio show got to be a regular thing. It wasn’t an official plan, but almost every Saturday night through the spring, and then the summer, they all showed up and sat there in the parked truck in Lenny’s driveway with the radio on.

The phrase “criss cross” also gestures at a broader theme of the book, the interwoven lives of these teenagers as they move away from one other and back again. It hints at missed communication among and between them, their parents, and other people that matter in their lives. Here’s a passage in which Debbie wishes but fails to confide in her mother:

Her mother had no way of knowing that this would have been a good time to tell her daughter that she had once known a boy who went away… They might have talked then about how that felt, and what you did next. But their secrets inadvertently sidestepped each other, unaware, like blindfolded elephants crossing the tiny room.

Finally, the phrase “criss cross" connects with the novel’s innovative structure. The book is comprised of short sections that shift between the perspectives of the various characters. Some of these sections are conventionally written, while others are in the form of dialogues, song lyrics, and split-screen columns simultaneously offering two points of view on the same events. The text is peppered with illustrations scrapbook-style: drawings, photos, diagrams, and comic strips.

The structure of the novel combined with the lyrical language used throughout give it a whimsical quality, but ultimately the characters are so fully drawn, so fallible and real, that it retains a sense of solidity as well. I loved this book. It seems to me to be fully deserving of the 2006 Newbery Medal that it was awarded as this year's most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

The flyleaf indicates that Criss Cross is aimed at children ages ten and up. There’s an innocence about it that certainly makes it appropriate for readers younger than the fourteen-year-old protagonists. But there’s also a subtlety to the writing that I suspect might be better appreciated by children older than ten. I’ll try it out on my soon to be twelve-year-old niece and see if she likes it as well as I do.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Rereading and Rewriting

Frank O’Connor on rereading and rewriting:

The writer should never forget that he is also a reader, though a prejudiced one, and if he cannot read his own work a dozen times he can scarcely expect a reader to look at it twice. Likewise, what bores him after the sixth reading is quite liable to bore a reader at the first, and what pleases him after the twelfth may please the reader at the second. Most of my stories have been rewritten a dozen times, a few of them fifty times.

From The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (Melville House Publishing, 2004) at 211.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Small Press Titles in the Mainstream Press

There’s an excellent piece by Robert Wiersema titled "Small Presses, Big Ambitions" in the book section of today’s Globe and Mail. It’s a triple review that Wiersema begins with this statement:

These three books serve as a reminder of the relevance of Canada’s small presses, of writers and editors willing to push the envelope of form and content in the shadows of the mainstream.

The three books under review are So It Won’t Go Away by John Lent (Thistledown Press), Jackytar by Douglas Gosse (Jesperson Publishing), and Smoke Show by Clint Burnham (Arsenal Pulp Press).

Wiersema says of Lent’s So It Won’t Go Away, a collection of connected fictions focussed on three Connelly siblings, that it is impressive and entirely satisfying on a surface level, but that there is also much of interest going on underneath: "The levels of structural play are subtle, but deliberately unsettling, and keep the reader active and involved." In particular, Wiersema notes the moments when an unnamed narrator appears and takes credit for inventing the other characters central to the book:

Interestingly, the creator never creates a position of privilege for himself; his story is as fictive, and as truthful-feeling, as the “bigger, impossible story” of the Connelly siblings, and becomes another strand in the complex and utterly winning tale Lent is spinning.

Douglas Gosse’s Jackytar also engages in this sort of layering. Featuring a novel within a novel, it opens with an author’s note purportedly penned by the main character, Alex Murphy. Wiersema sums up the strengths of this book as follows:

Gosse has a keen command not only of the vernacular of the small Newfoundland community, but of Murphy’s French past, and how those voices are shaped and subsumed by life away from that home. Murphy’s discovery of his own voice, as a writer and a man, is at the heart of Jackytar, and makes for a moving and involving story.

Clint Burnham’s Smoke Show, a novel “rendered almost entirely in dialogue,” is perhaps the least conventional of these three innovative books. Wiersema describes it as “an unsettling marriage of fiction and prose poetry” and as “defiantly anti-narrative, creating instead a haze of moments, experience not depicted but recounted.” It is, he concludes, “a novel, and a lifestyle, in the perpetual present.”

Two of these titles were already on my radar, So It Won’t Go Away because it’s a sequel to Lent’s 1996 collection Monet’s Garden which I loved, and Smoke Show because I’ve got it lined up to read in advance of Burnham’s appearance at The Fictitious Reading Series this month. Now I’m looking forward to reading all three.

Wiersema’s review exemplifies the sort of detailed, thoughtful consideration of small press titles that I’d like to see more of in the mainstream press.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Story in This Magazine

I received my contributor’s copy of the March/April issue of This Magazine in the mail today. One of my short stories and a mini-interview of me appear in it. Neither is available online but if you’d like to read them you can pick up a copy of the print edition at the newsstand. An interesting bit of literary content that you can access online is this article about depictions of East Vancouver in the writing of Eden Robinson and Ivan E. Coyote.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Literary Outlaw

I know John Gardner only through his writing about writing: The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and On Moral Fiction. On that basis, I’d always assumed him to be a stodgy, conservative character. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled across a biography of him subtitled Literary Outlaw, complete with a cover photo of him sporting long hair and a leather jacket. The description on the flyleaf refers to Gardner as “a man of unrestrained energy and blatant contempt for convention,” and “arguably America’s most daring writer.” It promises details of a personal life “as chaotic as his writing was prolific.” Clearly there is much about this man and his work that I have yet to learn. I’ll have to read the biography and some of his fiction and reassess my conception of him. Any Gardner fans out there with a recommendation as to which of his novels I should try first?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

What's Experimental about Experimental Writing?

The term “experimental writing” has been bandied about a lot lately in the literary circles that I frequent. I have to confess that the more often I hear it, the less sure I am of what it means.

In a recent essay, Marc Lowe defines "experimental writing" by way of contrast with "literary fiction," and in so doing entirely conflates the latter with "traditional realism." In his view, contemporary literary fiction requires “believable characters with memorable names and realistically portrayed attributes,” “plots that resolve themselves in a decisive, if blandly predictable, manner,” and “a clear and understandable (i.e. linear and tidy) storyline with a consistent style of narration (no abrupt shifts in tense/time, no blurring of who’s who or what’s what, etc).” Experimental writing, on the other hand, "[does] interesting things with language and/or narrative structure."

I'm sympathetic to Lowe's quest to defend experimental fiction but I barely recognize the literary landscape that he describes. It seems to me that, by virtue of what he excludes and includes, he has defined the term "experimental writing" so broadly as to subsume the bulk of contemporary literary fiction thus accomplishing precisely the opposite of what he set out to do. I’m entirely in agreement with Dan Green on this point:

Fragmentation, chronological displacement, shifts in point of view, and other forms of non-linear storytelling are quite common in contemporary literary fiction, so common that I would say the sort of naively realistic, unswervingly linear narrative Lowe describes is in a distinct minority among the books that appeal to today's literary reader.

I would go further and suggest that even contemporary genre fiction (though admittedly crime fiction is the only realm of genre fiction in which I read widely) no longer routinely adheres to the requirements that Lowe lays out for traditional realism.

What, then, is experimental about experimental writing? An obvious answer would be that experimental writing is writing that breaks new ground, that does something that’s never been done before. This sets the bar too high, however, given that there isn’t a great deal of new ground left to break. For example, there’s nothing wholly new at this point about stream of consciousness, or surrealism, or metafiction. All have been done before and done well. Indeed, many writers who embrace the label “experimental” explicitly align themselves with established schools of writing that follow set conventions.

Would it be sufficient to define as experimental work that simply breaks new ground for the writer? Clearly not. If I were to attempt to write a novel in the style of a classic western, it would certainly be an experiment for me. However, if I succeeded, no one would deem the result experimental fiction. If the term “experimental” is to have any meaning in the literary context, it has to attach to the work rather than the writer.

The most interesting definition of “experimental fiction” that I’ve come across thus far is one provided by Douglas Glover in The Enamoured Knight. He defines it in relation to realism, but he doesn’t set up an either/or proposition. He describes a continuum with “strict realist” at one end and “experimental” at the other, with plenty of space for hybrid forms in between:

What seems to be the case with experimental fiction is that it is always written with other, more conventional books or conventional notions of reality in mind; one of the primary effects of experimental work is the denial of expectation, the surprise the reader feels when form is inverted or twists back on itself or is in some other way subverted. Most commonly the experimental artist does this simply by drawing attention to the work of art as a work of art. A painting isn’t about the image it represents; it’s about surface, shape and colour. A book is a book. In this way, oddly enough, the experimental novel is tied to the strict realist novel, the same but opposite, like the right and left hand. They are both committed to a species of honesty, authenticity, or "realism." But the larger novel tradition swears allegiance to verisimilitude while the experimental tradition diminishes the importance of illusion and highlights the reality of the work itself, its materials, tools, and process.

This too is only a partial definition of “experimental writing” but, given what I’m reading and writing these days, it resonates for me.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Logogryph

Thomas Wharton begins The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books with this passage:

In the early years of printing, books were often shipped and sold unbound. The buyer would either bind them later, which was expensive, or leave the pages loose. In this way a reader could add other material, remove leaves or arrange them in any order.

The book, a collection of highly original fictions, reads as if it could have been constructed in this manner. It contains pieces written in the guise of myths, folktales, short stories, poetic fragments, philosophical musings, and academic treatises. There is a whole history of books and of reading to be found within its pages.

In one piece a character falls out of his story and has to make his way on the outside. In another, two bibliophiles are driven mad by one another’s margin notes. In a third, a novel lives up to its jacket copy (“It will live in your imagination”), taking up residence in the reader’s head and thwarting all attempts at eviction. A fourth takes the form of an essay on the contemporary novelists of Atlantis describing their struggle with Atlantean identity in the shadow of influential representations of their island by British authors. A fifth depicts books as architectural features dotting the landscape:

Remains of other novels are few and far between, for obvious reasons. If the pages are not continually consulted, time and tide over a period of years erodes punctuation, and eventually metaphor. With long neglect of readership, the lower regions of the novel become flooded with brackish water, and oblivion eventually undermines the whole structure.

Of course, unlike the ancient books described in the opening passage quoted above, The Logogryph has been bound, and beautifully so. Gaspereau Press makes lovely books, and this one is no exception. But the contents of The Logogryph are linked by more than shared themes and a physical binding. An ongoing story of a family, appropriately named the Weavers, and a young would-be writer who is profoundly influenced by his association with them, threads through the text and ultimately provides it with a surprising unity.

The Logogryph is a brilliant book. I suspect it will stay with me a while, and unlike the book which so abused the hospitality of its reader in Wharton's tale, it will be a most welcome guest.