Thursday, June 29, 2006

Photos of Muriel Spark's Edinburgh

In anticipation of the commencement tomorrow of the Slaves of Golconda discussion of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, here are a few photos from my recent trip to Edinburgh.

“I was born in Edinburgh, at 160 Bruntsfield Place, the Morningside District, in 1918.” (Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae)

“From where I lived the school was a ten-minute walk through avenues of tall trees.” (Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae)

“I spent twelve years at Gillespie’s, the most formative years of my life, and in many ways the most fortunate for a future writer.” (Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae)

“They were crossing the meadows, a gusty expanse of common land, glaring green under the snowy sky. Their destination was the Old Town, for Miss Brodie had said they should see where history had been lived; and their route had brought them to the Middle Meadow Walk.” (Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

“They approached the Old Town which none of the girls had properly seen before, because none of their parents was so historically minded as to be moved to conduct their daughters into the reeking network of slums which the Old Town constituted in those years.”(Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

For my thoughts on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, click here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Harry Potter Imperatives

I’ve been following the Harry Potter Must Die/Harry Potter Must Live debate with mounting irritation. I get the fun of the fan speculation about what will happen in the final volume and I have no problem with J.K. Rowling catering to that by dropping a few hints. But I’m frankly appalled at literary folk issuing imperatives to Rowling, particularly when the spectre of “letting down her fans” is invoked. She’s the author. It’s her book. Let her write the damn thing the way she thinks it ought to be written. We can chew over our responses to what she’s done after we’ve read it. I realize that much of the commentary is intended to be in fun. But even in jest the idea of prescribing how an author ought to proceed with a work-in-progress raises my hackles.

Virginia Woolf on the Responsibilities of Readers

Virginia Woolf on the Responsibilities of Readers:

[I]f to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

From Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?” (1926).

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Anne or Emily?

I’m back home from the L.M. Montgomery conference but I’ve got plenty left to say about it. So expect a few more posts on the subject over the next couple of days, beginning with this one.

The second keynote speech of the conference, “Anne, Emily and the Finnish Women,” was delivered by Suvi Ahola and Satu Koskimies. They spoke about an anthology of Finnish reading experiences of Montgomery’s Anne and Emily books that they had co-edited titled The Girls of New Moon and Green Gables. Montgomery’s books have been widely read in Finnish translation since the 1920s and the call for contributions to the anthology elicited a vast array of responses. All but one of the contributors are female, but in other respects they are a diverse lot. They range in age from eleven to eighty; some are academics but most are general readers; the majority are employed as teachers or writers but many other occupations are represented as well.

The anthology sounds fascinating and I wish that it was available in English. Even apart from the Montgomery connection, I love the idea of such a book devoted to exploring reading experiences. I was very interested in the discussion of the translation of Montgomery’s books into Finnish and also of their translation into Finnish culture. But I was struck when the contents of the anthology were described by the extent to which I, and others in attendance at the conference, could relate to the responses of this group of Finnish women to Mongomery’s books.

Many of those who answered the call for contributions, and readers of the anthology once it was published, responded with gratitude to the legitimation that the project offered. Some had been a bit ashamed of their deep connection to, and particularly their continued adult reading of, these books classified as being for children. It was reassuring to them be “given permission” to continue to enjoy the books, to have them validated as “good literature” and even “world literature.”

Linked to the foregoing is the conflicted relationship many readers had to the books, trying to reconcile their wholesale love for the books as children with their adult responses to many aspects of them that they could no longer accept. Did their continued fondness for the books signal a reactionary nostalgia? How could this be reconciled with their identities as 21st century Finnish feminists? Ultimately, for many, the point at which their lives as 21st century Finnish women intersected with those of Montgomery's turn-of-the-last-century Canadian characters was in the continued need to make difficult choices in relation to love, marriage, children, and career ambitions.

One pervasive feature of the anthology which elicited chuckles of recognition from the audience when described to us was the passionate identification of contributors with either Anne or Emily, but almost never both. If you were a Montgomery fan as a child, which was it for you? Anne or Emily? I was an Emily girl myself. I strongly identified with her literary ambitions, but also with her pride, her independence, and her reserve. It was Emily’s early efforts to get her poems and stories published that first emboldened me to send mine away to magazines. Oddly, though, I have not revisited the Emily books as an adult. Getting back to the point about the conflicted relationships we may have as adults with books we loved as children, I’m not sure whether I fear that the books will have lost their power for me or that they will have retained it. I think perhaps now I’m prepared to venture back into them and find out.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Adele Wiseman on Aiming High

Adele Wiseman on aiming high:

In my own work, which has for me the force of a vocation, to aim for other than the highest would be not only self-destructive but worse, boring. To aim for and miss the highest is only failure. Not to aim for the highest is betrayal.

From “Memoirs of a Book-Molesting Childhood” (1987).

Friday, June 23, 2006

Reading Well in Charlottetown

I had a happy browse this evening in The Reading Well Bookstore. Tucked away in an historic building on Water Street, it offers an eclectic mix of new and used books with an emphasis on works by local authors. The selection is excellent and the ambiance everything one hopes for in an indie bookstore. There were at least ten books that I wanted, but I exercised a bit of restraint and came away with just two: The Ego is Always at the Wheel: Bagatelles by Delmore Schwartz, and The Diary of James Schuyler.

I find Delmore Schwartz’s work to be wildly uneven. His “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is possibly the best short story I've ever read. His “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” is one of my all-time favourite poems. Others of his stories and poems leave me indifferent. But if he's that good when he's good, it's easy to overlook the dross. The Ego is Always at the Wheel is a collection of short personal essays that were collected together and published as a book only after his death. In the foreword, editor Robert Phillips describes them as “light-hearted and mocking views of the poet himself, of the literary world, and of the world-at-large.” I anticipate that there will be at least a few gems among them.

The Diary of James Schuyler is a book that I persist in thinking I already own despite the fact that I can never find it on my bookshelves. I suspect that the day I bought Schuyler's Collected Poems I almost bought the diary as well, then in a moment of misplaced economy left it behind at the till. In any event, I definitely have a copy now. If it proves to be a duplicate, I’m quite sure that one of my pals will gladly take it off my hands.

It occurs to me that putting these together with last week’s purchase of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, I’m on a bit of a prose-by-poets binge.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Taking Off the Rose-Coloured Glasses

This morning’s keynote address by Margaret Anne Doody was wonderful. Anyone who has read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals, particularly the later ones, knows that she was not all sweetness and light. The journals reveal the many difficult, sometimes tragic, events that she endured over the course of her life. They also reveal some disquieting attitudes that she held and disturbing behaviour that she engaged in. When I saw that the title of Doody’s address was “Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Darker Side” I expected a biographical angle.

Not so. Doody focused squarely on Montgomery’s fiction. It’s true that Montgomery created the terminally optimistic Anne, that she was given to rapturous descriptions of nature, and that she acceded to the romantic convention of a happy ending every time. But there is much more going on in her books, not just under the surface but right out in the open. Doody pointed out that Montgomery’s books are rife with murder, suicide, alcoholism, poverty, child abuse, and psychological torment. Montgomery’s characters commonly exhibit malice, cruelty, jealousy, and obsession. “Emotional incest” is one of her key themes. Doody provided many choice quotations to back up these assertions and we all nodded (and sometimes laughed — plenty of black humour in Montgomery) in recognition.

Why then is Montgomery persistently dismissed as a writer who viewed the world “through rose-coloured glasses”? It’s quite clear from the foregoing that she held few illusions about the ills of the world and that she generally did not shield her characters from them. Perhaps it’s the readers who are wearing the rose-coloured glasses, particularly if our impressions of Montgomery’s work are mediated by nostalgia about our childhood reading or by sanitized television and movie versions of her heroines. I recommend taking off the rose-coloured glasses and giving her fiction another look.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Different Side of L.M. Montgomery

The house in the photo above is the one on which L.M. Montgomery modelled Green Gables, and I’m off to Prince Edward Island to have another look at it. Of course, there’s much more to PEI than its association with Montgomery and her creations. It’s the birthplace of at least one other literary giant: Milton Acorn, known throughout Canada as “the people’s poet.” Many talented contemporary Canadian writers make their home there, for example, J.J. Steinfeld. It’s even home to one of my favourite fictional poets, young Lawrence Campbell, narrator of Lynn Coady’s excellent novel Mean Boy. And outside the literary realm, there’s that whole cradle of Canadian confederation business.

However, Montgomery is the draw for me this time around. Over the next couple of days I’ll be attending a conference titled Storm and Dissonance: L.M. Montgomery and Conflict. I look forward to hearing presentations with such tantalizing titles as “The Darker Side of L.M. Montgomery,” and “Projecting Dissonance: The Real and Virtual Landscapes in Anne of Green Gables and Dracula.” And to making a presentation of my own which marks a bit of a departure in my academic work.

Time and internet access permitting, I’ll check in with occasional bulletins from the conference. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an entry from Montgomery’s journals, dated February 1922, to whet your appetite. This is hardly scandalous, but perhaps not what you expected from the author of Anne of Green Gables:

[Captain Smith] was here both Saturday and Sunday nights and we spent both evenings talking of a thousand subjects. It is such a delight to have a real conversation with a companion of intellect and sympathy. Captain Smith is one of the few people I have met with whom I can discuss with absolute frankness, any and every subject, even the delicate ones of sex. Sex is to men and women one of the most vital subjects in the world—perhaps the most vital subject since our total existence is based on and centres around it. Yet with how few, even of women, can this vital subject be frankly and intelligently discussed. It is so overlaid with conventions, inhibitions and taboos that it is almost impossible for anyone to see it as it really is.

(From The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume III: 1921-1929.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Small Press Spotlight

There was a lot of talk at the BookExpo Canada Conference about the branding of books and the branding of authors. But there appeared to be general agreement among the various panellists that, at this point in time, the branding of publishers is a dead end.

Kevin Smokler, in a presentation titled “Brand New World,” offered some reasons for this. He listed trust as the key ingredient of a successful brand and asserted that trust can’t be created from the top down. Contemporary readers don’t trust that a book is a good one simply because an established publisher says so. Indeed, just as in politics, in the contemporary marketplace there’s a general attitude of suspicion toward large institutions and their pronouncements. Readers are much more likely to trust word-of-mouth recommendations from unofficial sources than to accept the word from on high.

Carol Fitzgerald took a similar line. In a breakout session, she asked what the success of The Da Vinci Code had done for Doubleday. Certainly it was good for their bottom line, but had it raised their profile? Apparently, most readers, even devoted fans of the book, when asked couldn’t name the publisher.

At least as far as large, mainstream publishers are concerned, I think I’m inclined to agree. Consumers trust them to the extent that they’re more likely to assume a baseline level of quality in a book from an established publisher than to take a chance on a self-published book. But I don’t think that there are many readers who, in trying to decide which of two books to purchase, will make their selection based on the fact that they prefer Random House to HarperCollins. Indeed, in an industry rife with takeovers and mergers, often two apparently distinct publishers turn out to be part of the same company anyway.

But I don’t think that the same is true of small/indie presses. By definition, small presses have small publishing programs. With discrete, carefully chosen lists, it’s possible for presses to maintain consistency both in quality and in editorial vision. Certainly there are a number of small presses whose books so consistently impress me that I’m willing to pick up any book that bears one of their logos on its spine and give it a chance regardless of whether I’ve heard anything about the book or the author.

This is something that small presses could capitalize on more. Indeed, I think that this is precisely what a number of enterprising small/indie presses are doing with the introduction of subscription programs, for example, BookThug in Canada, and soft skull and clear cut press in the U.S.

With all of this in mind, I’m launching a new feature on this blog called “Small Press Spotlight.” At least once per month, I’ll shine the spotlight on a different small/indie press whose books I think deserve your attention. I’ll tell you a bit about the history of the press and, where editors are willing to talk to me, its editorial vision. Then I’ll highlight three or four recent titles that have convinced me that any book the press publishes is worth a look.

Watch for the first instalment of “Small Press Spotlight” next week. The first few that I’ve got lined up focus on Canadian small presses that I’ve long known and loved. I’m always willing to be seduced by a new press though, so if there’s one out there whose books you think I ought to be reading and writing about, please let me know in the comments section or via the Email address on the sidebar.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Interviews of Bloggers at Box of Books

Ella of Box of Books is away on vacation, but she did some advance work to ensure that her blog would keep buzzing in her absence. She interviewed several fellow litbloggers and will post those interviews, one per day, beginning today and continuing until July 1st. The first interview is of me. Click here to read it, and keep checking back at Box of Books for the others. Over the next two weeks I expect to learn more about some of my favourite litbloggers and perhaps to encounter some new ones.

Diana Athill on Jean Rhys

Diana Athill on Jean Rhys:

My own experience and their evidence leave me convinced that Jean Rhys allowed no piece of writing to leave her hands until it was finished except for the very smallest details. An example of her perfectionism; some five years after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea she said to me out of the blue: ‘There is one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you. Why did you let me publish that book?’ Here a gloss is necessary. She was a writer addressing her editor — a writer hampered by unusually beautiful manners. For ‘let me publish’ you must read ‘badger me into publishing’ — an unfair accusation as it happens. I was indignant when I asked her what on earth she meant. ‘It was not finished,’ she said coldly. She then pointed out the existence in the book of two unnecessary words. One was ‘then’, the other ‘quite’.

From the Foreword to Jean Rhys, Smile Please: an unfinished autobiography (1979).

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Rules for Fictitious Places

It seems an appropriate follow-up to yesterday's post to quote David Lodge on the implied rules governing the use of fictitious settings:

Fictitious place names are, of course, one of the novelist’s most transparent devices for incorporating fact into fiction. The elaborately coded topography of Hardy’s Wessex, for instance, or Arnold Bennett’s Five Towns, is not designed to deceive anybody as to the real locations of their novels, but to avoid the logical contradiction, and perhaps legal risks, of putting fictional characters in places that at a given time were occupied by historical individuals. The implied rules governing this matter cast an interesting though indeterminate light on the relations of fact to fiction in a novel. You can invent an imaginary London street, but you cannot have a capital of England that is not London. You can have an imaginary Oxford or Cambridge College, but it would seem awkward, to say the least, to have an ancient English university that was not Oxford or Cambridge. You can site a university in a city that doesn’t actually have one [...] You can, it seems, have a provincial city or town with a fictional name (Middlemarch, Casterbridge, Rummidge) occupying the same geographical space as an actual city or town, and closely resembling the original in every respect except inhabitants.

(From “Fact and Fiction in the Novel” in The Practice of Writing (1996).)

I’ve given some thought to the pros and cons of fictitious versus existing settings in connection with my own work. Initially, the idea of creating a fictitious city seemed enormously liberating. Just plunking things down wherever you need them. Not waking up in the middle of the night just after you’ve sent your story off to a magazine realizing that there’s no way that your character could have turned left onto Fourth Avenue since Fourth Avenue is a one way street that runs in the other direction.

But on further reflection it seems an extraordinary amount of work to create a whole city from scratch. Creating a coherent plot is difficult enough without having to create a coherent geography as well. I have enormous admiration for writers who are able to pull this off. The ultimate example is J.R.R. Tolkien who didn't just create a coherent geography for Lord of the Rings but also the various languages spoken by the characters that inhabited it. Of course, one doesn’t have to go to such lengths to create a fictional city located in an existing geographical space. But the prospect daunts me nonetheless. Even when my setting is an actual city that I know well, I have to consult a map to get the details right. I’m not sure that I’ve got the sort of spacial imagination that is required to map out a whole city of my own. I suspect that, at least as far as my realist fictions are concerned, I’ll stick to actual cities with the odd fictional street, university, restaurant, or bar dotting the landscape.

When one departs realism, of course, Lodge's rules no longer apply. For example, in an alternate history, you certainly can have a capital of England that's not London. However, the challenges associated with the creation of fictitious places remain.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Entering into Fiction

I’ve just embarked on a reread of Jane of Lantern Hill, one of my favourite Lucy Maud Montgomery novels, and find myself wondering again in which Toronto neighbourhood the fictional Gay Street is located. Sixty Gay, the house in which Jane Stuart grows up, is described as follows:

It was a huge, castellated structure of brick, with a pillared entrance porch, high, arched Georgian windows, and towers and turrets wherever a tower or turret could be wedged in. It was surrounded by a high iron fence with wrought-iron gates.

There was a time when “Gay Street was the last word in streets and 60 Gay […] one of the finest ‘mansions’ in Toronto.” But by the 1930s, Gay Street has fallen out of fashion, barely qualifying as “shabby genteel.” Sixty Gay is flanked on one side by a boarding house, and on the other by “the unceasing clatter and clang of Bloor, which was especially noisy and busy where Gay Street joined it.” The old Adams house that once stood on the opposite corner has been torn down and a “new white-and-red filling station built in its place.” No one can understand why Jane’s grandmother persists in living at 60 Gay when she’s got “oodles of money and could afford to buy one of those lovely new houses in Forest Hill or in the Kingsway.”

When I first moved to Toronto I lived in the Annex, not far off Bloor. It occurred to me that Gay Street could have been modelled after one of the Annex streets that runs up to Bloor and I confess that I kept an eye out for those wrought-iron gates and that white-and-red filling station as I explored the neighbourhood. I never found a likely looking corner, but even if Gay Street was modelled after a real street, both the filling station and Jane’s grandmother’s forbidding ‘mansion’ might well have disappeared by now.

A couple of years ago on a visit to PEI, I made a similar fruitless search for the lighthouse that I’d read had been the model for Captain Jim’s light in Anne’s House of Dreams. And those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I recently took great pleasure in following in the footsteps of Miss Jean Brodie and her girls across the Middle Meadow Walk and up into Edinburgh’s Old Town.

What is it that prompts me to seek out the actual places in which favourite fictions are set? I’m not one of those readers that digs about in literary biographies hoping to find that a cherished novel is based on a true story. I’m perfectly content with the fictional status of my fiction. Yet somehow it’s meaningful to me to stand in the actual place where the thing that didn’t happen happened.

Perhaps it has to do with wanting to more fully enter into a book that has captivated me. When an author aims for and achieves verisimilitude, although I know that the events of the book never happened I feel as if they did. Particularly with childhood favourites, I may even feel as if I saw them happen or as if I took part in them myself. Entering into the physical space where the book is set is a literal way of inhabiting the story, and the experience may, when one turns to the book again, serve to extend or heighten what John Gardner calls “the fictional dream.”

Henry James on the Novelist's Responsibility

Henry James on the novelist's responsibility:

The execution belongs to the author alone; it is what is most personal to him, and we measure him by that. The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant—no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes.

From Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” (1884).

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bookstore Luck

Given the stack of tantalizing review copies that I brought home from BookExpo Canada, you might think that I’d give bookstores a bye this week. You’d be wrong. I passed two in my travels yesterday and I seem to be constitutionally incapable of passing a bookstore without stopping in. No luck in the first store. But in the second, tucked away in the poetry section, there was a pristine copy of W.H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, a book that I had just that morning resolved to acquire. And a few shelves down, there was Gilbert Sorrentino’s New and Selected Poems 1958-1998. So thoroughly convinced am I by those who have sung the praises of all things Sorrentino that I would have bought that one in any event. But if there had been any doubt, the first poem to which I flipped the book open would have sealed the deal. I couldn’t resist a poem titled “The Poet Tires of Those Who Disparage His City” which begins:

I speak now, tell you a bright truth:
This is a bitter city.
All the poets in disguise, as if
They lived here.

To cap it off, the fellow at the till was so caught up in my glee over these finds that he gave me a break on the sales tax. That’s two more fine books added to my collection thanks to the recommendations of discerning litbloggers.

Dangerous Reading

Valancy made up her mind that, if the rain held up in the afternoon, she would go up to the library and get another of John Foster’s books. Valancy was never allowed to read novels, but John Foster’s books were not novels. They were “nature books”—so the librarian told Mrs. Frederick Stirling—“all about the woods and birds and bugs and things like that, you know.” So Valancy was allowed to read them—under protest, for it was only too evident that she enjoyed them too much. It was permissible, even laudable, to read to improve your mind and your religion, but a book that was enjoyable was dangerous.

From L.M. Montgomery, The Blue Castle (1926).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

W.H. Auden on the Function of the Critic

There’s a wonderful post up at Booklad on W.H. Auden with a particular focus on his collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand. Given that I’ve been mulling over John Updike’s six rules of reviewing, the passage that Booklad quotes from Auden’s essay “on critics” immediately caught my attention:

What is the function of the critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of art of which I was hitherto unaware
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4) Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making"
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

More to think about when contemplating one’s reviewing/book blogging practice… Now that Booklad has introduced me to The Dyer's Hand of which I was hitherto unaware, I will immediately set about tracking down a copy.

So long as I’m singing Booklad’s praises, I encourage you also to have a look at his post on how to buy books on the internet. It’s essentially an insider’s guide to getting value for your money when purchasing second-hand books online. Eye-opening, and very helpful. Thanks Booklad!

P.L. Travers on Not Writing for Children

A query from a journalist about her “general ideas on literature for children, [her] aims and purposes, and what led [her] to the field,” provoked the following response from P.L. Travers:

I told him that it was a strong belief of mine that I didn’t write for children at all, that the idea simply didn’t enter my head. I am bound to assume, of course, that there is such a field—I hear about it so often—but I wonder if it is a valid one or whether it has not been created less by writers than by publishers and booksellers. I am always astonished when I see books labeled for “From 5 to 7” or “From 9 to 12” because who is to know what child will be moved by what book and at what age? Who is to be the judge?


These matters, I submit, have nothing to do with the label “From 5 to 7”; they have nothing to do with age at all, unless they refer to all ages. Nor have they anything to do with that other label, “Literature for Children,” which suggests that this is something different from literature in general, something that pens off both child and author from the mainstream of writing. This seems to me hard both on children and on literature. For if it is literature at all, it can’t help being all one river and you put into it, according to age, a small foot or a large one. When mine was a small foot, I seem to remember that I was grateful for books that did not speak to my childishness, books that treated me with respect, that spread out the story just as it was—Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for instance—and left me to deal with the matter as well as I could.

From P.L.Travers, “I Never Wrote for Children” (1978); reprinted in Ellen Dooling Draper & Jenny Koralek, eds., Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P.L. Travers Creator of Mary Poppins (1999).

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Rules for Reviewing

John Updike’s six rules for reviewing, first published in the introduction to his prose collection Picked Up Pieces in 1975, were reproduced last week at Critical Mass. (Thanks to Matt Bell for the link.)

Given the very interesting discussion of negative reviews that unfolded recently on a couple of my favourite blogs (see this post at Eve’s Alexandria, and this one at Of Books and Bicycles), I thought it worth linking to Updike’s rules here.

On the whole, they strike me as sensible guidelines. I particularly appreciate rule #2: “Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.” Though I must confess that I don’t always adhere to this rule when confronted with the tight word limits of print publications. I have found the lack of space constraints to be a definite advantage of reviewing on this blog.

This thought, together with the aforementioned discussion of negative reviews, has me mulling the question of whether the rules are the same whether one is reviewing books on personal blogs or in newspapers and magazines. There are some basic ground rules that are definitely the same for me regardless of venue. The first is to review the work, not the author. The second is to provide support for positive or negative statements about the book, preferably in the form of quotations from the text.

But distinctions have developed between the style that I adopt in the occasional reviews that I do for other publications and the book talk that I engage in on this blog. That phrase, “book talk,” gets at the heart of one of the distinctions. While I do post a number of formally conventional reviews here, quite often my thoughts on a book are woven into a broader discussion. And even in the reviews that appear in a conventional form, I’m apt to take a more personal tone on blog that I would elsewhere. In an early post, I wrote that my goal here is simply to work out my own responses to the books that I read and, in so doing, to figure out what I can take from them as a writer and as a reader. Adhering to this goal can make for a much more partial and subjective account than a paid review in a newspaper or magazine demands.

Other distinctions: I would never dream of reviewing a book for another publication without finishing the book first. But, given the ongoing nature of blogging, I’m quite likely to post my thoughts about a book in instalments as I work my way through it. Also, I might write on blog about the factors that led me to abandon a given book before finishing it. Finally, I would regard it as a conflict of interest to review a book by a friend for another publication and I wouldn’t accept such an assignment. Here, I wouldn’t hesitate to talk up books by friends if I think that their books are fabulous, though I would certainly be up front about my connection to the author.

What about you, fellow bloggers? What do you think of Updike’s rules? Do you disagree with any of them? Would you add any to his list? Is your reviewing practice different on your blog than it would be (or is) elsewhere?

Update: Bud Parr has created a forum for discussion of Updike's six rules for reviewing over at MetaxuCafé. Click on the link and join the conversation!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Robert Lecker on the Up Side of Academic Life

Robert Lecker on the up side of academic life:

A constant parade of energy, discovery, questions, desperation. I realized that the profession I had chosen made me incredibly fortunate. Every year the university would bring me hundreds of new students, each with a story to tell. I never knew what would happen next. Year after year they put me in a classroom with those students and said do what you think is best. They never checked. Over the years I came to understand the heaviness of that responsibility, as well as the opportunity it offered for constant personal renewal, not to mention all kinds of fun.

From Robert Lecker, Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit (2006).

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cool Girls of Children's Literature

Two weeks ago on her blog, Jen Robinson suggested the creation of a list of “cool girls of children’s literature.” Which girls count as cool? Those who are “smart and strong and independent, people who would make good role-models for girls today.” Jen got the ball rolling by naming twelve characters who fit this description then invited input from fellow bloggers aiming for a final list of twenty. In no time she was swamped with suggestions, such is the richness of children’s literature in this respect. She has now posted a final compilation of 200 cool girls of kidlit, with a top twenty based on a bit of informal voting. I didn’t participate in the vote for the top twenty, but I did contribute a number of names to the overall list, including my beloved Betsy Ray of course. Go check out the list! Jen’s done us a real service in putting it together.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Adele Wiseman

I was thrilled to learn, thanks to a review in today’s Globe and Mail, that a biography of Adele Wiseman has recently been published: The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman by Ruth Panofsky.

Reading the review sent me straight to my bookshelves in search of Wiseman’s marvellous essay “Memoirs of a Book-Molesting Childhood.” She covers a lot of ground in the essay, recounting experiences of teachers and librarians as gatekeepers, the myriad ways her older siblings influenced her reading, how it felt to find herself as a Jewish child in a gentile world “so much of a negative presence” in the books she read, and how reading served as training for writing. It’s a tour de force. Here’s an excerpt:

Long before I had reached what was considered, by some arbitrary decision understandable only to librarians, the appropriate age and school grade, I was eager to move up from the downstairs children’s library to the senior library upstairs. Fiercely the librarians barred the ascent. I was not the first, nor no doubt the last who was sinfully precocious in this matter of wanting to read books they considered too old for me. I don’t really believe the librarians knew whether they were protecting us from the books or the books from us. The felt attitude ran something like this: 'Oh no you depraved little creature, we will not let you get your filthy little paws on this certifiably dirty book about real life that’s fit only for adults, who will read it with the avid contempt and disgust it deserves. We’ll keep your nasty little mind pure in spite of you if we have to man the stairs ourselves and fling you back into the world of the Bobbsey Twins where you belong!'

And another:

Unlike many writers I’ve met, I did not write constantly as a child. I kept no diaries, did not try to imitate what I was reading. I absorbed and pondered and dreamed and prepared myself. I put myself through a training with words and the way I felt about them. There were certain words that had such strong feelings attached to them that I had a hard time using them. But I knew that if I was going to be a writer I would have to have the whole world of words at my disposal, in spite of how my upbringing had taught me to feel about them. I could not go on being shocked at the words some people said so easily. So I stood in front of the mirror and practiced saying 'shit' out loud, 'shit Shit SHIT', trying not to cringe inside.

I don’t think I’ve ever read Wiseman’s first and most acclaimed novel, The Sacrifice. But I vividly recall being stunned by her second, Crackpot, when I read it in my late teens. And later being inspired by her non-fiction, Old Woman at Play which is at once a memoir of her mother and a meditation on the creative process, and, of course, the aforementioned Memoirs of a Book Molesting Childhood and Other Essays.

If you are not yet acquainted with Adele Wiseman's work, I urge you to pick up one of her books. She was an uncompromising writer who was way ahead of her time.

The new biography sounds promising. It appears to maintain a resolute focus on the work (a must for me in any literary biography), including, according to the catalogue copy, a “compelling story of the intricate negotiations and complex relationships that exist between authors, editors, and publishers.” I’m off to track down a copy.

BookExpo Canada Conference: Highlights and Lowlights

BookExpo Canada opened yesterday with a one-day conference: Writers to Readers: Linking the Content Creators to the End Users. The essence of the program is well captured in that title. The computer jargon signals an emphasis on connecting writers to readers through technological means. The absence of the word “book” is deliberate. Guest speaker Kevin Smokler’s assertion that the book is only the beginning was very much the party line throughout the day. And it’s no accident that it’s the content creators rather than the content that is to be linked with end users. The focus was on promoting authors more so than the individual works that they produce.

As a reader I was interested and even excited by much of what I heard. As a writer I found it all a bit distressing. This tug-of-war persisted throughout the day. I’m plotting individual posts on a couple of the sessions, but let me begin here with a quick rundown of highlights and lowlights. I’ll start with the negative and end on an up note.


- a breakout session titled “Advanced Website Marketing and Blogging” in which blogs were mentioned only once and very dismissively

- an absurdly skewed panel which promised a debate on the questions “Who Owns Information & Who Gets to Distribute It” and instead served up infomercials for Google Book Search, Digital Text, and MSN’s Windows Live Book Search


- a session titled “What is a Real Best Seller" in which Michael Tamblyn of BookNet Canada managed to fascinate math-phobic me with numbers and pie charts

- Kevin Smokler’s rousing presentation on why branding books is not a soulless enterprise

- Judy Rebick’s impassioned and practical pitch for fostering communities of readers online and off

Details to follow in subsequent posts...

Friday, June 09, 2006

Rick Bass on Reading Fiction

Rick Bass on reading fiction:

Above all, in the reading of good fiction, the reader is called upon not only to believe in the thing being described, but to feel it deeply even while knowing full well on some conscious level going in that it ain’t true—that it’s made up. This is a double stretching, one that can require of the reader’s mind an extraordinary suppleness. I think that almost everyone would posit that this is a good thing.

Rick Bass, “Why the Daily Writing of Fiction Matters” in in Will Blythe, ed., Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (1998).

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Henry James on the Novel's Obligation

Henry James on the novel's obligation:

The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting. That general responsibility rests upon it, but it is the only one I can think of. The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable, and such as can only suffer from being marked out or fenced in by prescription.

From Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” (1884).

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Intended Audience for Diaries and Blogs

Dorothy W. at Of Books and Bicycles has been reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries and, following from them, contemplating parallels and distinctions between diaries and blogs. In her latest post on this topic, she addresses the matter of audience. I began drafting a comment in response and found it quickly expanded into a post of my own.

In my diaries, or journals (that term seems to me to more accurately reflect what they have become), I write exclusively for myself. However, this has not always been the case. I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was ten-years-old and in the very first one there’s a preface addressed to the future reader. Who did I imagine this future reader to be? All those who would be interested in my childhood later when I became a famous writer, of course. Delusions of grandeur! This preface was viciously crossed out and annotated with contemptuous margin notes by my twelve-year-old self.

By then I had reconceived my diary as a private space in which to impart secrets. Yet I still wasn’t writing wholly for myself. You see, I didn’t just embellish my experiences in my adolescent diaries, I made things up. In her comment on Dorothy’s post, litlove wrote of sanitizing her diary in case her mother should read it. If my mother had read my diary, I would have been in serious trouble for things that I hadn’t actually done. Who was I trying to deceive? To my knowledge the only person who ever read those diaries was my summer camp nemesis who did so on the sly. She believed my fictions and tarnished my reputation accordingly. She was definitely not my intended audience, though I did address a few diary entries expressly to her thereafter. I suppose it’s possible that it was just for me, that in my diary I was trying on a tough girl persona that I aspired to at the time. It used to make me squirm to reread those entries but it’s occurred to me since that in fictionalizing myself in that way I was beginning to learn how to write stories. Certainly those diaries are an invaluable resource to me now when I try to tap into the thoughts and emotions of teenage characters in my fiction.

In my late teens I stopped striving for coherent narrative and my diaries became journals. They contain bits of description, philosophical ramblings, quotations that interest or inspire me, lists of books read or to be read, snippets of conversations overheard, broad plot outlines and beginnings of first drafts of stories. This is still the sort of journal that I keep when I keep a journal and there’s no question in my mind that it’s for me alone. It’s a place to work things through and try things out. Something may start in the journal that I later transform into something for public consumption, but the journal itself is just raw material, for my eyes only.

My blog is a different story. From the beginning it was intended for an audience although initially I didn’t realize how broad an audience that could be. I thought that a blog would be a great way to share book recommendations with a few friends. I was amazed and delighted when I belatedly discovered the extent of the litblog universe—so many quality blogs to read and so many avid readers with whom to discuss books and writing. My blog still serves as the forum for book reviews that I originally envisioned, but now the reviews are interspersed with posts that are essentially thoughts-in-progress which I hope will elicit, and I know will benefit from, input from others, and also posts like this one which are responses to other blogger’s posts, my contribution to the ongoing conversation.

There’s plenty of overlap between journals and blogs, but for me there’s no question that the intended audience for each is quite different.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Painter's Journey

I’m in the middle of A Painter’s Journey: 1966-1973 by Barbara Caruso. I came to it with very little context. I know a bit about the work of Caruso’s husband, poet Nelson Ball, and a bit more about the Toronto small press world of the sixties and seventies of which they both were an important part. But I’m not familiar with Caruso’s paintings.

Nevertheless, I’m finding the book fascinating. It’s essentially a transcription of a journal that Caruso kept in her early years as an artist in which she documented her struggle, both material and creative, to establish herself. Many of the entries, particularly the early ones, are brief and factual. But they are very evocative. For example, the fact that she found it worth noting down in July of 1966 that she could buy three pairs of underpants for her husband for $1.77 at Kresges speaks volumes about the financial difficulties that they faced in devoting themselves to art. And one simple sentence (“I am painting.”) says it all in October 1967 after a couple of months in which painting supplies were hard to come by and self-doubt all too plentiful.

Caruso is an avid reader and she kept a running list of the books she was reading throughout those years. She rarely writes about her responses to them but I find the list itself interesting to contemplate (it includes, for example, works by Samuel Beckett, Ford Maddox Ford, Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, William Burroughs, Robert Creeley, John Dos Passos, Allan Watts, and John Barth), and I very much relate to her habit of working her way through several books by the same writer once the first had hooked her (as she did with Mark Twain, Allan Ginsberg, Joseph Conrad, and William Carlos Williams).

The passages in which Caruso explicitly connects her reading and her painting particularly interest me. For example, in November 1966 when she describes a drawing she did which successfully “implies introspection” based on an idea that she got from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Or in December 1967 when she writes:

Last night, I sat in front of my painting reading Victor Coleman’s “October Fragments,” poems (in manuscript) that Victor wrote while he was in Vancouver. It was a good experience; I was drawing a comparison between Victor’s poems and my blue painting.

And of course her reading inspires her writing as well. In August 1970, returning to journal-keeping after nearly two years of silence, she writes:

I feel I should write several pages for a first entry. One should get off to a good airy start. I have the example of Mark Twain whose books I’ve been reading, as well as Paul Klee who rewrote his journals four times. The first is a lesson in extravagance; the second, in restraint.

Caruso writes early on about what she terms “[her] verbal approach” of taking notes on each of her compositions “to clarify [her] thinking.” These notes are at the heart of this book and they provide an extraordinary glimpse into the creative process and the evolution of the aesthetic philosophy of a working artist.

I noted at the outset that I’m not familiar with Caruso’s work, but her detailed notes on various drawing and paintings, and her articulations of the ideas that underlie them, give a good sense of it. Here she is in September 1970 responding to a fellow artist’s criticism of one of her paintings:

Milly looked at my big painting. I think she liked it, although she was critical about the grey shape’s relationship to the red shape. She said that the grey shape couldn’t reach the grey-yellow-green shape through the primaries (red and blue). I have given this much thought and I don’t agree with her objection. It appears that she is reading the colours from top left to top right. There is no need to do that; rather, let the colour direct the eye. The eye travels on the intense colours (green, red, blue, and purple) in an arc; and the grey reaches the grey-yellow-green through the large greyed yellow shape when the eye travels on another (inverted) arc.

And in January 1971, remarking on her changing perceptions of colour:

I have become more and more involved with colour in these last three paintings. The nature, the character, even the “personality” of each colour becomes more complex (or should I say simple?). The experience (my awareness) of colour increases as I go on. I’m a little afraid of over-simplification, but it is the [complexity of] simplification that is exciting.

I’m very keen after reading the descriptions to see Caruso’s work first hand (if anyone knows where in Toronto I can see some of her paintings, please let me know) and also to read her collection of essays Wording the Silent Art.

Caruso’s voice is an honest, uncompromising, funny, smart and deeply thoughtful one. Whatever your artistic medium, whether you situate yourself as a creator or as an audience member, there is much of interest for you in A Painter’s Journey. I’m coming away from it thinking much more deeply and self-consciously about my creative process as a fiction writer. And I’m feeling inspired to resume keeping a journal of my own.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Paul Auster on the Physicality of Fiction

Paul Auster on the physicality of fiction:

Writing is physical for me. I always have the sense that the words are coming out of my body, not just my mind. […] Not only do you write books physically, but you read books physically as well. There’s something about the rhythms of language that correspond to the rhythms of our own bodies. An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can’t be articulated, finding them in his or her body. I think this is what so many people don’t understand about fiction.

From “Jonathan Lethem talks with Paul Auster” in Vendela Vida, ed., The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (2005).

Friday, June 02, 2006

Aldous Huxley on the Vice of Travel

Aldous Huxley on the vice of travel:

With me, travelling is frankly a vice. The temptation to indulge in it is one which I find almost as hard to resist as the temptation to read promiscuously, omnivorously and without purpose. From time to time, it is true, I make a desperate resolution to mend my ways. I sketch out programmes of useful, serious reading; I try to turn my rambling voyages into systematic tours through the history of art and civilization. But without much success. After a little I relapse into my old bad ways. Deplorable weakness! I try to comfort myself with the hope that even my vices may be of some profit to me.

From Aldous Huxley, Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist (1925).

Feminist Read-In

Now this is my kind of political action.