Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Nick Mount on a Literature’s Beginnings

Nick Mount on a literature’s beginnings:

All literatures have three beginnings. A literature’s first beginning is the moment of its emergence, often in quasi- or extra-literary forms: oral celebrations of gods and heroes, chronicles of distant legend or current crop conditions, narratives of exploration and travel (or captivity and slavery), and so on. Its second beginning is marked by its writers’ self-conscious recognition of themselves as writers (rather than, say, explorers who write), and of their membership in or connection to a community of others who share that recognition. Much more so than the first, this second beginning depends upon the existence of those who will produce, distribute, and consume the literature — conventionally, the publisher, the bookseller, and the reader, though it hasn’t always been so, and occasionally modern communities of writers have found substitutes for one or more of these functions. Because of its dependence upon a market, a literature’s second beginning is most clearly announced by the professionalization of its writers, by the moment at which they begin to earn their living from, or mostly from, their writing. Finally, a literature undergoes its third beginning when it receives critical or institutional recognition as a literature, that is, as a discrete body of writing, with its own history and its own set of works and characteristics. In its actual life any literature is far too internally disparate and too interwoven with other literatures to admit such definition. When we say ‘a literature,’ what we really mean is an object that exists only in perception, an object whose birth was simultaneous with its recognition and that survives only in restatements of that recognition…

From Nick Mount, When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2005).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fictitious Reading Series 8

The eighth instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series will take place on Sunday, November 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 John Degen and Jennifer LoveGrove. The evening will include readings by John and Jennifer, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will host, and I’ll conduct the interview.

John Degen is the author of two books of poetry, Animal Life in Bucharest and Killing Things. His first novel, The Uninvited Guest, was recently published by Nightwood Editions. The first chapter is available to be read online at the Globe and Mail. John is the former editor/publisher of ink magazine, and he writes political commentary for This Magazine. He lives in Toronto where he is the executive director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada.

Jennifer LoveGrove is the author of two books of poetry, The Dagger Between Her Teeth and I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel. Her fiction has been published in Taddle Creek. She is currently at work on a novel with the working title Watch How We Walk. Jennifer lives in Toronto where she is the editor/publisher of wayward armadillo press and of the literary zine dig.

For more information on the series, see the Fictitious website.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Scattered Post on a Scattered Day

Nowhere on my voluminous "To Do" list was there an imperative to re-read Betsy and the Great World, my favourite instalment in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series. But I spent part of today doing just that. Nothing calms me in times of stress as effectively as revisiting a book that is essentially an old friend. Today, Betsy and the Great World did the trick.

For those of you not initiated into the cult of Betsy-Tacy, I offer up an excerpt from the first chapter which nicely sets up the rest of the book. As far as background goes, this particular scene takes place in the summer of 1913, Julia is Betsy’s older sister, Margaret her younger sister, and Tacy her best friend.

     "Don’t think," Mr. Ray continued, "that Mamma and I haven’t seen which way the wind was blowing. You haven’t been happy, Betsy, and we’ve known it."
     Betsy didn’t speak.
     "You’re going to be a writer," he proceeded thoughtfully. "No doubt about that! You’ve been writing all your life. And you’ve worked harder this summer at that story you’re writing than you’ve worked for all your professors put together. What’s the name of it anyway?"
     "'Emma Middleton Cuts Cross Country,'" Betsy replied. "It's about a little dressmaker, like the one who made my Junior Ball dress. She gets disgusted with everything and walks out and makes a new start."
     "Sounds good," said Mr. Ray, nodding sagely, although he never read stories, except Betsy’s. "You certainly write like a whiz. Do you remember the letter Dr. Sanford wrote you about your story in the college magazine?"
     Betsy nodded, moist-eyed.
     "I was very proud of that letter," Mr. Ray said, which made her tears spill over for it seemed to her that she had given him very little reason to be proud of her lately. He put down his cigar.
     "You're going to be a writer," he repeated, "and you need more education. That’s plain. But college isn’t the only place to get an education. I have a 'snoggestion.'" That was what Mr. Ray always called a particularly good suggestion. "I've sounded Mamma out and she approves. How would you like a year abroad?"
     "But, Papa!" Betsy had thrown her arms around him, frankly crying now. "What a glo-glo-glorious snoggestion! I've always planned to go. But I never thought of you sending me. I thought I’d earn the money myself some day."
     "Oh, I don’t think it would cost so much more than a year at the U!" said Mr. Ray. "You'd have to go in a modest way, of course. But Julia had two trips abroad. You’re entitled to one, too. Maybe when Margaret goes, Mamma and I will go along."
     "Would I ... would I go to school over there?"
     "You don't seem to be getting what you need out of a school. But judging by our experience with Julia, you learn a lot just from traveling in Europe ... seeing the art galleries, learning the languages and all that stuff. You could go on a guided tour like Julia did."
     "No, Papa!" Betsy knelt beside him, her hands on his knee. "Guided tours are all right for some people, but not for a writer. I ought to stay in just two or three places. Really live in them, learn them. Then if I want to mention London, for example, in a story, I would know the names of the streets and how they run and the buildings and the atmosphere of the city. I could move a character around in London just as though it were Minneapolis. I don’t want to hurry from place to place with a party the way Julia did."
     Her father looked perplexed.
     "But it doesn’t seem safe, Betsy. You're only twenty-one. You know how much confidence Mamma and I have in you, but we wouldn't want you living in those big foreign cities all alone."
     "Maybe we could pick out cities where I know someone ... or you do, or Julia."
     "Maybe. I’ll talk it over with your mother."
     So Betsy dashed off to Tacy’s apartment and they talked, talked about the wonderful trip.
     "I’m just going to travel around like Paragot," Betsy said, referring to a character in William J. Locke’s novel, The Beloved Vagabond, a favourite with both of them.

And off she goes, setting forth from Boston on the S.S. Columbic in January 1914 and spending time in Munich, Venice, Paris, and London until the start of WWI cuts her travels short.

I’ve been meaning to read The Beloved Vagabond ever since I saw it referenced in Betsy and the Great World, but decades on I still haven’t gotten round to it. One book often leads me to another in my non-fiction reading; this is particularly true of literary biographies. But, though I often intend to, I can’t think of too many instances when I’ve taken up the book recommendations of fictional characters. Have you ever read a book simply because you read a reference to it in another book? Which ones?

I’m off to put a copy of The Beloved Vagabond on hold at the library. I’ll keep you posted as to how it measures up after a couple of decades of anticipation...

[Illustrations from Betsy and the Great World are by Vera Neville.]

Friday, November 17, 2006

Samuel Delany on Doubt and the Writing Process

Samuel Delany on doubt and the writing process:

     A unique process begins when the writer lowers the pen to put words on paper—or taps out letters on to the page with typewriter keys. Certainly writers think about and plan stories beforehand; and certainly, after writing a few stories, you may plan them or think about them in a more complex way. But even this increased complexity is likely to grow out of the process of which I’m speaking. The fact is almost everyone thinks about stories. Many even get to the point of planning them. But the place where the writer’s experience differs from everyone else’s is during the writing process itself. What makes this process unique has directly to do with the doubting.
     You picture the beginning of a story. (Anyone can do that.) You try to describe it. (And anyone can try.) Your mind offers up a word, or three, or a dozen. (It’s not much different from what happens when you write a friend in a letter what you did yesterday morning.) You write the words down, the first, the second, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh—suddenly you doubt.
     You sense clutter, or thinness, or cliché.
     You are now on the verge of a process that happens only in the actual writing of a text.
     If the word you doubted is among those already written down, you can cross it out. If it’s among the words you’re about to write, you can say to yourself, “No, not that one,” and either go on without it, or wait for some alternative to come. The act of refusing to put down words, or crossing out words already down, while you concentrate on the vision you are writing about, makes new words come. What’s more, when you refuse language your mind offers up, something happens to the next batch offered. The words are not the same ones that would have come if you hadn’t doubted.
     The differences will probably have little or nothing to do with your plot, or the overall story shape—though they might. There will probably be much to reject among the new batch too. But making these changes the moment they are perceived keeps the tale curving inward toward its own energy. When you make the corrections at the time, the next words that come up will be richer—richer both in things to accept and to reject.

(From Samuel R. Delany, “Of Doubts and Dreams” in About Writing: 7 essays, 4 letters, and 5 interviews (2006).)

I have sometimes thought that my compulsion to revise as I go is a flaw in my writing process, that I ought to train myself to draft now and revise later and thereby become more prolific. Delany’s marvellous essay on doubt as a crucial part of the writing process suggests otherwise. I’m really struck by his idea that revising as you go doesn’t only change what you’ve already written; it changes what you will write next, and changes it for the better. Rather than slowing you down, it takes you in a new direction. Perhaps it’s time to put more faith in my doubt…

Monday, November 13, 2006

Next Up at the Short Story Discussion Group

Next up at the short story discussion group is Katherine Mansfield’s "At the Bay", a story set in her native New Zealand that was first published in 1921.

The discussion begins tomorrow, Tuesday, November 14th. Participants are invited to begin posting their thoughts on the story at A Curious Singularity then. If you’re not yet a member of the short story discussion group and you would like to join, please e-mail me. Of course, anyone can contribute through the comments sections of the posts without officially joining the group.

I look forward to the discussion.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Early Reading Meme

I’ve decided to have a go at creating a meme. I’ve been re-reading some childhood favourites lately and thinking a lot about the process of becoming a reader, so I’m taking early reading experiences as my subject. Herewith are my questions and my answers:

1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?

I learned to read when I was four. I was then in the habit of following my older brother everywhere and copying everything that he did. He was in first grade and reading, so I pestered my mom until she taught me how. No doubt much to my brother’s relief, I spent a lot less time following him around thereafter. I was too busy reading.

2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?

There was a tattered copy of Grimm’s fairytales with a soft yellow cover from which my mom read to us when we were very young. That was likely the first one. But it was quickly followed by the acquisition of a whole set of hardcover “I Can Read” books which ranged from very basic read-aloud books to beginning chapter books. In the former category, my particular favourites were Hop on Pop, One Fish Two Fish, Are You My Mother?, and Put Me in the Zoo. In the latter category, the one I liked best was an abridged version of Heidi. In the photo posted above, that’s me as a child curled up in the armchair reading Heidi. I can’t make out the title of the book my brother is reading. The Grimm’s fairytale book has since disappeared. But I believe that all those “I Can Read” books are now part of my nieces’ collection.

Early favourite check-outs from the library were Munro Leaf’s Wee Gillis and M. Lindman’s books about Swedish triplets Snip, Snap and Snurr, and Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?

The first books that I recall buying with my own money were Enid Blyton’s “St. Clare’s” and “Malory Towers” boarding school series. I was ten-years-old and we were on a caravan trip in the north of Scotland. I’d read a few books from each series at my cousin’s before we set off, and I was elated to find a complete set of both in a small shop about a half-hour walk from the campground where we were staying. I had saved up several weeks of allowance money and I promptly spent the lot on them. I remember my brother making fun of me when I realized that the shop owner had given me too much change and I insisted on walking all the way back to the store to return the excess. I was quite sure that the boarding school code of honour embodied in the books required no less of me.

4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?

I was a compulsive re-reader as a child which makes it a bit difficult to identify which of my many re-reads that I re-read most often. I think it’s a toss up between the high school books in Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne and Emily books.

5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?

I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind just after I turned twelve and was completely captivated by it. I lugged an enormous hard cover library copy of it with me everywhere all summer: to the pool, to summer camp, on a weekend trip to a friend’s cabin. It’s a wonder it made it back to the library in one piece.

6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?

As a child I read the odd book with a magical element to it: books by E. Nesbit, P.L. Travers, and L. Frank Baum. But I generally preferred realistic books and I had the idea fixed in my head that I didn’t like to read fantasy. Although I loved series books, I skipped right past Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series on the library shelf without so much as reading the full jacket copy descriptions. Since Tolkien is a particular favourite of my dad’s and my brother’s, I tried several times to read The Hobbit. But I found Gollum repellent and I never made it beyond his first appearance in the book. I never even attempted The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It was Harry Potter that turned this around for me. A couple of years ago, several participants in a children’s literature list-serv of which I’m a member raved so eloquently about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books that I decided to find out what all the fuss was about. Four books in the series had already been published by then, and I was so taken with the first that I promptly went out and bought the set and read the rest in rapid succession. Somehow, this experience broke through my mental block about the whole fantasy genre. Thereafter I read with pleasure all the classic fantasy series that I’d spurned as a child including the Prydain Chronicles, the Dark is Rising series, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve since gone on to explore several marvellous contemporary children’s fantasy books by the likes of Phillip Pullman, Diana Wynne Jones, and Terry Pratchett.

The Harry Potter books have been credited with getting reluctant child readers to read. I can testify to the fact that they also got this avid adult reader but reluctant fantasy reader to embrace a genre the charms of which had previously escaped me.

Consider yourselves tagged! I want to hear all about the early reading that set you on the path to becoming the reader that you are today.

Update: Lots of bloggers are chiming in on this one with some very interesting responses to my questions. Here are links to those that I've come across so far:

a high and hidden place
A Work in Progress
Around the World in 100 books
Big A little a
Cam's Commentary
Critical Mass
Dabbling Dilettante
Dumb Ox Academy
Gray's Academy
Journey Woman
Lady Strathconn's Journal
Lotus Reads
Mommy Brain
My Novel on Toast
Nom de Plume
Of Books and Bicycles
Original Content
Out of a Stormy Sleep
pages turned
Reading Log Blog
So Many Books
Stephen Lang
Terry Teachout
The Bayer Family Blog
The Books of My Numberless Dreams
The Golden Road to Samarqand
The Hobgoblin of Little Minds
The Library Ladder
The Literate Kitten
The Pickards
The Public, The Private, and Everything In Between
Tiger by the Tale
White Thoughts No-One Sees
Written Wyrdd

Friday, November 10, 2006

Review in the Women's Post

My review of Caroline Adderson’s new book Pleased to Meet You appears today in the Women’s Post. It’s an excellent short story collection which I highly recommend. To read my review online, click here.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Projecting Criticism

I’m a hypercritical reader these days. I’m looking at everything with an eye to revision, even when I’ve moved on from my own work to something else. I’ve noted as well that my sharpest criticism is provoked by those facets of the fiction of other writers that reflect the flaws in my own work. I haven’t yet sorted out whether it’s a matter of already being aware of those flaws in my work and thus being particularly alert to their presence in anything else that I read. Or if it’s a matter of being able to identify those flaws elsewhere first as a step along the way toward acknowledging their presence in my work. Either way, although for the moment it has rendered my bedtime reading much less relaxing, this acute form of “reading like a writer” seems to be working for me at this stage in the process.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Paul Auster on the Novel as Meeting Place

Paul Auster on the novel as meeting place:

[W]hen it comes to the state of the novel, to the future of the novel, I feel rather optimistic. Numbers don't count where books are concerned, for there is only one reader, each and every time only one reader. That explains the particular power of the novel and why, in my opinion, it will never die as a form. Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.

For the rest of the speech from which this excerpt comes, click here.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Pooh Corner Turns Forty

I’ve written here before about my fond memories of the library that I frequented as a child. I very vividly recall attending story hour in “Pooh Corner,” a dim, cave-like room that one entered through a door in what appeared to be the trunk of a tree. Well, I’ve just learned that it’s the 40th birthday of Pooh Corner and that I could have attended a variety of homecoming events there today had I been within travelling distance of my hometown. I’m sad to have missed it, but tickled to discover the existence of a Pooh Corner blog which occasionally features old photos of that marvellous place just as I remember it.

For a few more photos, click here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Yet Another Challenge

I know, I know. I just signed on for Kailana’s November challenge, and I haven’t yet reported in on my R.I.P. Autumn Challenge reads. But there’s another challenge in the works at Overdue Books that sounds tailor-made for me. Dubbed the From the Stacks Winter Challenge, the goal is to read "5 books that we have already purchased, have been meaning to get to, [...] and haven't read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays." The time frame is from November 1st to January 30th.

Some of you may remember that one of my resolutions for this year was to read more books from my own collection. I’ve tallied up the numbers and it appears that I’ve made good on it. Of the 109 books I read in 2005, a scant 14 were books from my own collection. Whereas of the 82 books I’ve read so far in 2006, 28 were from my own collection. Upon closer examination, however, I must concede that I’ve adhered to the letter but not the spirit of the resolution. You see 16 of those 28 were new books that I’ve acquired since making the resolution. And of the 12 that remain, 11 were re-reads of old favourites. So only one of the 28 was actually among the tomes languishing unread on my shelves to which I resolved to turn my attention back in January.

The upshot is that I feel honour-bound to join the From the Stacks Winter Challenge, and to revise the terms slightly so as to serve the original goal of my resolution. That is, in addition to being books I already own that I’ve been meaning to but haven’t yet read, my five selections will have to be books that I acquired before 2006. Precisely which five books? I’ll have to think on that a bit more before committing myself, but I expect that the final five will include these three: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Katherine Mansfield’s Letters and Journals.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Revising in My Sleep

I’ve been having a lot of dreams about revising lately. Not stress dreams of the sort from which I wake exhausted feeling as if I’ve worked all night yet accomplished nothing. Rather, dreams from which I wake feeling sharp and invigorated, as though taking time out to sleep hasn’t slowed my momentum in the slightest. Not that I emerge from them with actual fixes in mind for the stories I’m wrestling with in my waking hours. Nevertheless I take the dreams as a reassuring sign that my subconscious is working for me in the endeavour to get my manuscript into final form. The end is in sight.