Saturday, December 31, 2005

Year End Tally

This is the first year that I have consistently kept a book journal. I did so simply so that I would remember which books I’d read and thus be in a position to recommend the best of them. The exercise has yielded much more than that. Like Sandra at Book World, I find in mulling over my record that it challenges some of my preconceptions about myself as a reader. Of course, there is always the possibility that the very act of keeping a record exerted an influence over what I chose to read.

I read 109 books this year. Of these, 70 were fiction and 39 were non-fiction. The fiction was pretty evenly divided between literary fiction, mysteries and YA/children’s novels. One-quarter of the literary fiction titles were short story collections; the rest were novels. The non-fiction spanned a range of topics: biography, memoir, literary criticism, writing and publishing, essays, history, and sociology.

Looking at the dates on which I finished each book, I note that I read nearly half of these books in the first three months of the year. This is not altogether surprising. I was on sabbatical for the first half of the year, and the deadline for submission of my own book manuscript didn’t yet loom large. But I think that the major force that slowed my reading was beginning this blog back in June. I said in my first post that this is precisely the effect I was after. I hoped that writing about what I was reading would compel me to linger a bit over each book and take the time to appreciate the author’s craft. The experiment has worked.

But there were surprises. The first thing that struck me is how many of the books on my list are recent ones. One-third of them were published in 2005. Half of them were published in either 2004 or 2005. I’ve always read more contemporary fiction than classic stuff, but I’ve never been one to race out to the bookstore to line up for new releases. I think that I can link this development to blogging as well. Since I became a regular reader of various litblogs, I hear about and seek out new books much sooner. A positive review by a blogger whose opinions I respect will pique my interest. Or a debate about the merits of a new book will prompt me to read it so that I can join in the conversation.

The second surprise is related to the first. I think of myself as an avid re-reader, someone who frequently revisits old favourites. Yet only six of my 109 books were re-reads. And only three of these were re-reads of old favourites. The others were second reads of new books which I was sufficiently taken with to go back through them immediately in order to figure out exactly how the authors achieved what they achieved.

The most important fact to emerge from my book journal is that I read a lot of good books over the course of the year. Most months I read at least one book that I felt wildly enthusiastic about, and several others which I found very thought-provoking in spite of (or in some instances because of) their flaws. I’ll roll out my ten favourites from 2005 in my next post.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Genre Confusion Redux

In "The Best of 2005 Books" twelve of Newsday’s regular reviewers offer up their personal favourites from the past year.

In her segment, Claire Dederer singles out Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot for praise, describing it as “an adept follow-up to The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing.” A few sentences later she prefaces another of her fiction recommendations thus: “And despite the fact that I generally detest linked story collections, I was charmed by Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl.”

Did Dederer not notice that both The Wonder Spot and The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing are linked story collections? It would appear that half of her top fiction picks for 2005 as well as at least one favourite from a previous year are linked short story collections. How does that square with a general detestation of the form? It’s no wonder that short stories are such a tough sell when even people who like them think that they don’t like them.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Banville's Sea of Words

John Banville, The Sea (Knopf, 2005).

After the stark, minimalist fictions I’ve been reading of late, Banville was a shock to my system. To begin with, the lushness and density of the language was overwhelming. But then I gave myself up to it. I stopped trying to note down particularly beautiful sentences and arresting images -- there were too many -- and just luxuriated in the sea of words.

I recall that in the post-Booker backlash more than one critic poked fun at Banville for his “love affair with the thesaurus.” Certainly I came across quite a few words that I didn’t know before. To which I say: so what? I’m quite happy to have my vocabulary expanded through reading a novel. Is the language pretentious? Sometimes, but so sometimes is the narrator. That’s part of the point. The voice -- both the attention to detail and the choice of words -- is exactly right for this narrator, an aging art historian who has spent much of his life trying to transcend his class origins.

In the first half of the novel it seemed as if detail was accumulating almost haphazardly. I was swept along by the words, enjoying the ride, but with no sense of where it was leading. In the second half, a complex structure began to reveal itself. The narrative steadily layered and looped back on itself. There were shifts in the narrator’s tone marking the progression of his grief and an increase in his drinking. His eye for detail began to seem more fallible and the bit of suspense emanating from the story beneath the story was heightened thereby propelling the novel to its conclusion.

By the end I was in awe of Banville’s capacity to exert such complete yet subtle control over this riot of words. I borrowed this novel from the library but I feel that I must go out and buy a copy for myself immediately. It's a book that demands re-reading.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Here's another passage from Ted Bishop's Riding with Rilke to which I can relate all too well:

The real problem though is that I can't write unless I'm playing hooky. I never skipped school, was a dutiful student, yet when it comes to writing if you give me a studio, unlimited time, and one thing to work on, I'll dither. But if I have something else to do, I'll work like mad on the forbidden one, the adulterous project.

When I began my book blog, I thought that one of the benefits would be the injection of a bit of discipline into my writing life. In fact, I think the blog has often served as the forbidden project. I can't help but note that over the holidays when I felt less pressure to write other things I didn't blog either.

Of course I don't just blog to procrastinate. And it seems that I also procrastinate about blogging. I've now missed the agreed upon date to post my thoughts on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold by more than a week. I had read the book and thought about the book before December 18th, but somehow didn't manage to collect my thoughts into a blog post on the appointed day. I will chime in on that discussion soon, I promise.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Reading, Writing and the Road

Today this passage from Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books jumped out at me:

Different modes of travel demand different books. On an airplane I seem to need more action, something like a Martin Cruz Smith thriller. On a motorcycle, at the end of the day I want something with the quiet, intense focus of Carol Shields. […] One summer in Europe I carted around Don Quixote, bored and suspecting that the famous windmill scene gets all the attention because it is only thirty pages in and everyone gives up after that. But I became enchanted with Cervantes and his writing of the book more than with the Don and his adventures, or rather they merged, and the novel’s leisurely journey calmed my own. Sometimes when I’m travelling I begin to feel like a gigantic open nerve on the verge of overload, and that if I see/smell/touch/taste/hear one more thing I’ll explode and all my sensory impressions will be splattered across the landscape. It helps to write (which is why you always see travellers hunched in a scribbling frenzy over their journals or blazing away at the keyboards in internet cafés), but the right book creates a space, orders the cosmos for you, and you look up from it ready again to take in more.

It struck me that my recent spate of slim, intense volumes has something to do with the amount of reading I’ve been doing on the subway. They’re the right size and weight for carrying about but they’re dense enough for me to get a lot out of them even if I can only manage a few pages between transfer points.

When I go away on a real trip, I spend considerably more time agonizing over what books to pack than I do over which clothes and other sundries to bring. It’s a tricky business, making sure that I have enough reading material to carry me through without completely overloading my suitcase. I choose a range of books and make sure to include a few that will bear re-reading. Of course when I arrive at my destination I stock up on a few more as soon as I find a bookstore, thereby rendering all the aforementioned agonizing unnecessary and completely overloading my suitcase for the trip home.

I can very much relate to Bishop’s point about the right book somehow providing order and clarity in the chaos of travel. I don’t write much while travelling though which is a bit odd given that I’m always scribbling away at home. My tendency is to wait until I’ve processed the experience sufficiently to commit it to paper, by which time I may be on to the next place, or already back home. I've had to discipline myself to write while on the road to properly preserve the details.

How do you choose which books to travel with? Do you write while on the road?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

An Inside View of a Life Unravelling

Before now, I’d never given David Gilmour’s fiction a chance. For many years, Gilmour was a fixture on CBC television’s arts beat and I found his media persona -- a species of hard-living ladies’ man -- rather off-putting. His early fiction appeared to be very much in sync with that media persona and so didn’t capture my interest. I flipped through his books in the bookstore or in the library, but never took one home. I realize that the media persona may not be an accurate reflection of the man himself and, even if it is, that I don’t have to like a person to like the fiction that they create. Still, there are a lot of books in the world, and sometimes the flimsiest of reasons is enough to make me choose one book over another.

But when Gilmour’s latest novel, A Perfect Night to Go to China, won the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, friends whose opinions I respect, who often like the same books I do, who rarely get excited about what writer wins what prestigious literary award, got very excited. They pronounced it a brave and brilliant choice. I went out and got myself a copy of the book.

At the beginning of the novel, Roman is at home with his six-year old son Simon. His wife M. is out of the country on a business trip. After he’s put Simon to bed for the night, Roman hears strains of music coming from the bar on the corner of his street. It’s only a block away, within sight of his house. Roman steps out. Fifteen minutes and two quick beers later, he returns home to find the front door of his house open and his son gone.

Throughout the rest of the novel, Roman grapples with the loss of his son and with his guilt for letting it happen. I’m not sure how anyone musters the resources to cope with this kind of tragedy. Roman, an utterly self-absorbed character, is perhaps even less equipped for it than most. The story is told in the first person in spare, clean, evocative prose. The reader gets an inside view of a life, and a mind, unraveling without any histrionics. The effect is fascinating, chilling, and heart-breaking.

A Perfect Night to Go to China is an astonishing, powerful book. I highly, highly recommend it.

Monday, December 12, 2005

One Hundredth Book

I’ve been keeping a book journal this year for the first time ever. Last night, I logged the title of my 99th book read so far this year. Suddenly, the choice of what to read next took on undue significance. Surely my 100th book of the year should be something special? This is silly for a number of reasons, not least of which the fact that I’ve got four or five half-read books lying around and chances are that one of those will end up being the 100th book finished rather than something new that I start today.

Still, despite being a generally logical person, I’m a bit superstitious about numbers. For example, when I draw up a grocery list, if it has thirteen items on it, I’ll take one off or add another one. I can’t help but feel that my 100th read of the year should be a worthy book. The trick is being able to gauge in advance whether a book will be a worthy one.

What should I opt for? John Banville’s The Sea which I have been so eagerly anticipating? Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad or Jeanette Winterson’s The Weight both of which I’m even keener to check out after reading Caroline Alexander’s assessment of them in the NYTBR this weekend? Gutted, a first book of poems by Evie Christie whose reading at her launch last week blew me away? Ted Bishop’s Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcyles and Books the description of which is sufficiently intriguing that I suspect it will be one of my best non-fiction reads this year, if I manage to read it this year?

In the end, I think it will be Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is the selection for a virtual book club proposed by Quillhill and joined by Ella, Stefanie, Susan, Sylvia, and Maryann, and no doubt others like me who have been slow to announce their participation. The date to post about the book is fast approaching (December 18th) so I'd better get started. And I suspect that I can’t go wrong with this one as my 100th book. Though if I really want the numbers to align, perhaps it ought to have been One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, December 10, 2005

New Colour Scheme

I've been experimenting with the colour scheme of my blog in an attempt to make the text easier to read. Let me know what you think.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Light Relief

I’ve read some weighty books of late. Not literally weighty -- rather, spare works which proved powerful, intense, sometimes devastating. I will post on them once I’ve had a proper chance to mull each one over, but in the meantime I’ve been feeling the need for a little light relief. Thus yesterday was the perfect moment to find Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels awaiting me on the library hold shelf.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) had more than 50 books published and played all manner of important roles in American literary life throughout his lifetime. Yet somehow I’d never heard of him until first Quillhill and then Ella waxed eloquent about him on their blogs (Necessary Acts of Devotion and Box of Books respectively). I’m very glad to have finally made his acquaintance. Parnassus on Wheels is a thoroughly delightful book.

The year is 1915. Our heroine is Helen McGill, a thirty-nine year old spinster who assists her brother Andrew in the running of his New England farm. Andrew is a literary man, however, and since his books have become successful, his attention to the farm and his appreciation of the work that Helen does have diminished considerably. Helen takes pride in her domestic accomplishments but she doesn’t like being saddled with all the work and she doesn’t like being taken for granted. Enter our unlikely hero. Roger Mifflin rolls into the farmyard in the “Parnassus on Wheels” of the title: a travelling bookshop. He’s been travelling around the countryside evangelizing about literature but he’s ready to pack it in to write a book of his own. He’s seeking a buyer for the Parnassus and he thought that Andrew would be a likely candidate. In an uncharacteristically impulsive moment, Helen makes the purchase herself. She rationalizes that she’s simply trying to prevent Andrew from doing the same and disappearing from the farm once and for all. But it soon becomes apparent that the seemingly settled Helen is out for a bit of adventure. In the travelling book trade, she finds it.

Just to give you a bit of the flavour of the book, here’s Roger Mifflin on the power of books:

“Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue -- you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night -- there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean."

And Helen on the sudden change in her life:

Since the morning of the day before my whole life had twisted out of its accustomed orbit. I had spent four hundred dollars of my savings; I had sold about thirteen dollars’ worth of books; I had precipitated a fight and met a philosopher. Not only that, I was dimly beginning to evolve a new philosophy of my own.

Parnassus on Wheels serves up adventure and romance in witty fashion with a heartening message about the power of good books underlying it all. Based on this book, I’d judge Christopher Morley a master of lively diversion. I mean this as sincere praise. While books deemed “light reading” may be easy on the reader, there’s no reason to presume that they’re easy on the author. It’s hard work to produce an effective bit of light reading and it’s a real injustice that the skill of writers of comedic work is so often underestimated.

I’ve got the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, lined up ready to go.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Another Banner Haul

Another banner haul from the hold shelf at the library:

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad;
John Banville, The Sea;
John Berger, This is Where We Meet;
Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels;
Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop;
Annie Proulx, Close Range: Wyoming Stories; and,
Ricardo Sternberg, The Invention of Honey.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Showing by Telling

James Salter, Last Night: Stories (Knopf, 2005).

“Show, don’t tell,” is a cardinal rule of fiction writing. If you enrol in a creative writing class, this is likely the first bit of advice with which your instructor will pummel you. It’s a good rule, particularly for beginning writers. But I’ve found that many of the best writers are brilliant tellers. James Salter is a brilliant teller.

In most of the stories in Salter’s latest collection, Last Night, very little happens. They are comprised of brief sketches of scenes and snatches of dialogue. The entire story may unfold within the confines of a single dinner party, or a few hours of after-dinner drinks on a girls’ night out. To begin with, it seems like it’s just surface detail. But the details are so carefully chosen, so sharply delineated, that they serve to excavate all that lies beneath. The inner workings of characters, of relationships, of a whole complex world, are thereby revealed.

Much of what Salter does here exemplifies the phrase “telling detail.” For example, he sets the scene in the first story, “Comet,” with these lines: “Philip married Adele on a day in June. It was cloudy and the wind was blowing. Later the sun came out. It had been a while since Adele had married and she wore white…” In “My Lord You,” we see the host of a dinner party “mutter[ing] in profile” and are told: “He seldom looked at anyone.” A drunken guest who’s just arrived late to that party is described thus: “The irrational flickered from him.”

Two particular strengths of these stories are the dialogue and the endings. The dialogue is short and sharp and revealing. Again and again, a few lines of missed-communication dialogue lay bare whole relationships between characters. More than once, the ending of a story surprised me, yet at the same time I felt that the story couldn’t have ended any other way. Salter’s last lines are frequently devastating and perfect, echoing and amplifying everything that has gone before.

I had a few quibbles with Last Night. Salter eschews quotation marks, opting to use dashes instead to indicate dialogue. I found this practice distracting and sometimes confusing. A few repetitions from story to story also distracted me momentarily:

1. Women’s long legs and beautiful backs: Surely other features could have been used to denote female beauty on occasion?

2. Characters whom “everybody liked:” This worked for me as a shorthand descriptor for a certain type of man once, but not twice or a third time.

3. Caviar: Caviar was only on the menu in two stories, but it was two of the first three stories which led me to wonder into what alien world I'd stumbled. That said, it was quickly apparent that the truths that lie beneath this glittering facade resonate far beyond the rarefied existence of Salter's wealthy and sophisticated characters.

As soon as I finished reading Last Night, I flipped back to the start and began again. These are very short short stories but there’s so much roiling beneath the surface that, satisfying though the book is the first time through, it demands re-reading. Last Night is a brilliant book.

Monday, November 28, 2005

New Toronto Reading Series

This week marks the launch of a new reading series in Toronto co-organized and co-hosted by Stuart Ross and me. We surveyed Toronto’s literary landscape and noted that while there is an abundance of poetry reading series, there are fewer opportunities for fiction writers to present their work in person. So, The Fictitious Reading Series was born.

Our first event will take place on Sunday, December 4th at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t The Rosedale Library (483 Church Street). The featured readers are Heather Birrell and Harold Johnson.

Heather Birrell is the author of the excellent short story collection I know you are but what am I? which was lauded in Books in Canada as “a series of witty, well wrought, yet deliberately off-kilter stories that […] shed far more light on the absurd conundrums of Canadian-ness than your average award-winning intergenerational family saga.”

Harold Johnson’s first book, Billy Tinker, was praised in the University of Toronto Quarterly in the following terms: “Johnson delivers a fully realized life in the earnest depiction of Billy, a large angry labourer who confronts the world with an oddly endearing mix of grace and rage. […] Billy Tinker bears not a trace of sentimentality or cliché, and I hope Johnson continues to write him more fully into a world of longer fictions.” Johnson's new novel Back Track takes place in the same northern Saskatchewan setting but introduces a new cast of characters. The novel is an original blend of social realism, Cree mythology, and murder mystery.

If you are in the Toronto area, please come out to see these fabulous writers on Sunday night. And please spread the word to anyone who you think might like to attend. If you are not able to attend, I highly recommend that you read these writers’ books.

Beginning in January, readings in The Fictitious Reading Series will take place on the last Sunday of each month at a location soon to be announced. Let me know if you would like to be included in an e-mail list for notification of future events.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

O'Hara on Poetry and Form

From Frank O'Hara's "Personism: A Manifesto":

As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.

(The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara, edited by Donald Allen, Vintage Books, 1974 at p. xiii.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Modern Myth

In the introduction to A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong asserts:

Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented. In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people to make sense of their lives but also revealed regions of the human mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. It was an early form of psychology. The stories of gods or heroes descending into the underworld, threading through labyrinths and fighting with monsters, brought to light the mysterious workings of the psyche, showing people how to cope with their own interior crises.

A few sentences on, she follows with this:

There is never a single orthodox version of a myth. As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth. In this short history of mythology, we shall see that every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions.

I wonder, are we truly experiencing an unprecedented alienation from myth in the modern world? Or are we simply “tell[ing] our stories differently,” perhaps using new mediums to do so thereby making it difficult to recognize them as akin to traditional myths?

This train of thought brought to mind one of my favourite episodes of Northern Exposure. In it, Native American shaman Leonard Quinhagak embarks on a research project. He seeks to expand his practice by learning some of the healing stories of white culture. He wants to tap into the “white unconscious.” He interviews several residents of the town of Cicely but when he asks for stories all that his interviewees can come up with are urban myths: a beehive hairdo infested with spiders, or an amorous couple in a parked car set upon by an assailant with a hook for a hand. Stories, Leonard says, which are for teenagers and which don’t appear to have any healing properties at all. He nearly abandons his project. But then he happens on Ed Chigliak (shaman-in-training and aspiring filmmaker). Ed describes a recent crises in his life with reference to the plot of the movie Citizen Kane. When pressed by Leonard, Ed reveals that he has watched the movie several times and he articulates things that he has learned from it that he has been able to apply in his own life. Leonard concludes that perhaps the healing stories of mainstream American culture can be found in movies.

I don’t think of movies as the sole repository of modern myth, but some seem to serve the functions that Armstrong associates with myth. Perhaps modern myths are disseminated in a myriad of ways and different people are able to access them in different guises.

Then again, perhaps this fragmentation (within cultures, not just across them) undermines the sense of universality required to elevate particular stories to myths. It has been argued that the proliferation of television channels has made it difficult for us even to come together over water cooler conversation. On the day that the most recent Harry Potter book was released, I remember feeling quite awed at the idea of millions of people reading the same book at the same moment. There seemed to me to be some magic in that. But that is a very rare occurrence. If we seldom share cultural touchstones in fragmented modern societies, what are the prospects for enduring myths?

What do you think? Are we hopelessly alienated from myth? If not, where would you locate modern myths?

I'm curious to see how Armstrong addresses this question in the final chapter of A Short History of Myth (“The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000)”). I will read on.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ashbery on O'Hara

Tonight I arrived home to the happy sight of a parcel of books awaiting me on the porch. The one among them that I anticipated most eagerly was John Ashbery’s Selected Prose which I ordered after reading a tantalizing review of it in the Guardian. In the Preface, Ashbery describes the collection as “the assembled results of an activity that has always been something more than a hobby, if less than a calling.” The book is comprised of an array of short pieces that span several decades and cover a broad range of subjects. I expect to zigzag through it in random fashion rather than to methodically read it cover to cover. I turned first to a piece that Ashbery wrote on Frank O’Hara shortly after O’Hara’s death in 1966. Here's an excerpt:

Like most truly original artists today, when tradition menaces the individual talent in ways undreamed of by T.S. Eliot, O’Hara and his achievement are caught between opposing power blocs. “Too hip for the squares and too square for the hips” is a category of oblivion which increasingly threatens any artist who dares to take his own way, regardless of mass public and journalistic approval. And how could it be otherwise in a supremely tribal civilization like ours, where even artists feel compelled to band together in marauding packs, where the loyalty-oath mentality has pervaded outer Bohemia, and where Grove Press subway posters invite the lumpenproletariat to “join the Underground Generation,” as though this were as simple a matter as joining the Pepsi Generation, which it probably is. Whatever it is, join it; you can examine it later and neutralize it, if necessary, from within.

Frank O’Hara’s poetry has no program and therefore cannot be joined. It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Vietnam or in favor of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age: in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe.

(John Ashbery, Selected Prose, edited by Eugene Richie, University of Michigan Press, 2004 at p. 81.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Reading Writers' Lives

Ella at Box of Books recently wrote:

It should probably be mentioned that I have a bad habit of avoiding facts about my favorite authors’ lives. For instance, I adore Agatha Christie, but reading about her mental breakdown just made me sad. I dig Shakespeare, but have no desire to argue about whether or not he squinted. In short, I am an all-fiction, no-biography kind of reader.

I don’t think it’s a bad habit to avoid facts about favourite writers’ lives. The work is the most important thing. But I am very much a biography kind of reader, and Ella’s post got me thinking about what it is that I seek in biographies of writers.

The primary reason that I read biographies of writers is to gain new insight into their work. I don’t expect to gain such insight by identifying sources of their material in the details of their lives. I believe that most writers incorporate aspects of their experience into their work, but where it came from is much less important than what they do with it. It’s the “what they do with it” part that interests me or, more broadly, how they do it. I want to learn as much as I can about writers’ creative processes. Who were their influences? How did they approach their work? Under what conditions was the work produced? I’m more interested in who they were reading than in who they were sleeping with. Of course, they may have been reading the same people they were sleeping with, and who they were sleeping with may well have had an impact on the conditions under which they worked. There’s plenty of overlap. But the bottom line for me is that a good biography of a writer maintains a focus on the work.

Of course I’m often disappointed. One example that stands out for me as an acute disappointment is James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence published in 1997. It was the first full-length biography of Laurence and as a long-time admirer of her work I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

Alas it proved telling that King titled his book “the life of” rather than “the life and work of” Margaret Laurence. King’s grand revelation was that Laurence’s death in January 1987 had been a result of suicide rather than lung cancer as was reported at the time. She had terminal cancer but chose to end her life rather than put herself and her family through the final stages of the disease. King begins and ends his book with the suicide and in between tells an unremitting story of loss and suffering. He dwells on Laurence’s insecurity and on her alcoholism. His analysis is unabashedly psychological and his tone often struck me as condescending. He sought to reveal the real woman behind the literary icon but in so doing I felt that he diminished her work rather than illuminating it. I’m not suggesting that the facts of her alcoholism and her suicide should have been suppressed, but I don’t think that they should have been foregrounded in a way that consigned her work to the shadows. Frankly, the book made me angry.

But King’s book on Laurence is a rare example of a biography that I would rather not have read. I get something of value out of most of the biographies of writers that I read even when I don’t consider them unremitting successes. And over the years I've encountered many fabulous biographies full of insights in which I have revelled.

Last week I bought two biographies for which I have high hopes. The first, not incidentally, is another biography of Laurence. It's written by Donez Xiques and is promisingly titled Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer. I don’t expect this biography to serve as a corrective to King’s as Xiques has opted not to treat the whole life but rather to focus on the early years of Laurence’s writing career. But given that I know very little about Laurence's life or her work during that period, I anticipate learning something new about one of my favourite writers. And the following passage from the preface leads me to believe that I will find Xiques’s approach to her subject congenial:

[Previous biographies] have not focused exclusively on telling the remarkable story of Margaret Laurence’s efforts to develop her voice as a writer and of her dedication to the craft of writing, as this one does. I have not appropriated scenes or characters from Laurence’s novels. I do not attempt to construct the story of her life from the fragments of her fiction, as if that were some sort of semi-transparent account of her personal life. Although it is a truism that all literature is in some sense autobiographical, in my opinion, searching for a one-to-one correspondence is merely a distraction. I believe that with creative people, such as artists, writers, and composers, the source of their creativity, whether inspired by real events or persons, frequently transcends and transforms any purely personal material.

The second is Julia Briggs new biography of Virginia Woolf, titled Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. I have confidence in Briggs as biographer based on her excellent biography of E. Nesbit titled A Woman of Passion. And, in the preface to her new book on Woolf, Briggs makes clear that her emphasis is squarely on the work:

My account is inspired by Woolf’s own interest in the process of writing, as well as by a corresponding unease with accounts that (like Orlando’s biographer) concentrate too narrowly on her social life, and so underestimate the centrality of her art -- the main source of her interest for us. Woolf was evidently a highly sociable person, with a fascinating and gifted circle of family and friends, an engaging companion, and an entrancing aunt, yet it was what she did when she was alone, walking or sitting at her desk, for which we now remember her. While the story of her inner life cannot be told (except as another fiction), it is possible to track down a number of the factors that brought her books into being, by following the genesis and process of their writing as reflected in the surviving drafts, and supplementing these with the accounts she gave to friends, or confided to her diary as aids to reconstruction. My aim, ultimately, is to lead readers back to her work with a fresh sense of what they might find there.

It will likely be some time before I get to either of these books but, when I do, I will report back on whether or not my hopes for them were warranted.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

How I Read Poetry

When flipping back through my book journal recently, I noted that there isn’t a single poetry title in my list of books read so far in 2005. This is not because I don’t read poetry. I can tell you, just off the top of my head, that this year I’ve read poems by Sandra Alland, W.H. Auden, Ken Babstock, Jonathan Bennett, Roo Borson, Raymond Carver, Kevin Connolly, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, H.D., August Kleinzahler, Dennis Lee, Philip Levine, Tim Lilburn, Jennifer LoveGrove, Frank O’Hara, Theodore Roethke, Stuart Ross, Stevie Smith, Paul Vermeersch, and William Carlos Williams.

But I only list books that I’ve read cover to cover in my book journal. And, for me, with a book of poetry there’s no identifiable beginning or end point. I dip into a collection wherever I like. With a brand new book, I’ll look at the table of contents and flip first to the poems with titles that intrigue me. If I’ve heard the author read from the book, I’ll start with poems that I recognize, to see if I experience them differently on the page. With old favourites, I gravitate towards old favourites. I treat my shelves of poetry books like one big anthology. I read most of the poetry books that I buy in their entirety eventually, but it could take years. And with the ones I borrow from the library, I may never make my way all the way through.

This has always seemed a reasonable approach to me, particularly with “selected” and “collected” works. But it has occurred to me that with many poetry books I’m likely missing something by not paying attention to the overall structure. After all, I pay close attention to the structure of novels and short story collections, not just to their component parts. And I have an idea from conversations with poet friends of how much time and thought they and their editors put into decisions about what goes in and what is left out, what order the poems appear in, whether the book will be divided into sections and what sections, and so on. It’s a shame to think of all that effort being wasted on me. So, before the year is out, I resolve to give a few poetry collections the cover to cover treatment, and see what difference it makes to my understanding and appreciation of the poems.

Fellow readers, how do you approach a book of poems?

And poets, how would you like your books to be read?

Monday, November 14, 2005

It's Raining Books

SFP at Pages Turned asked today why the books one puts on hold at the library always seem to arrive all at once. I found myself pondering the same question when I wandered into the library this afternoon and found ten (!) books waiting for me on the hold shelf:

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong;
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes;
Death in the Age of Steam by Mel Bradshaw;
Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis;
Mouthing the Words by Camilla Gibb;
Making It Up by Penelope Lively;
Open: Stories by Lisa Moore;
13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley;
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit; and,
Golden Apples by Eudora Welty.

I’m not sure where to begin. Probably with Arthur and George as a courtesy to the 512 library patrons that are still waiting for it in the hold queue...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Savouring the Sunday Reviews

I thoroughly enjoyed my ritual Sunday morning perusal of The New York Times Book Review today. A few of the reviews even made me laugh out loud. I’ve said before that given a choice between “a fair review of a worthy book” and “a good piece,” I’d opt for the former every time. But each of these reviews demonstrates to me that it’s possible to be both funny and fair, to be entertaining and critically astute at the same time. Here are some excerpts.

David Orr on Good Poems for Hard Times (Selected and Introduced by Garrison Keillor, Viking, 2005): "The most obvious problem with Good Poems for Hard Times is that it proposes that 'the meaning of poetry is to give courage.' That is not the meaning of poetry; that is the meaning of Scotch. The meaning of poetry is poetry." For the full review click here.

Ada Calhoun on Diana Souhami’s Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks (St. Martin’s Press, 2005): "Reading about [Natalie Barney’s] insatiable appetite for culture and sex is enough to make even a prolific and promiscuous woman reader wonder if she should get out more." For the full review click here.

Gary Kamiya on Kevin Chong’s Neil Young Nation: A Quest, an Obsession (and a True Story) (Greystone Books, 2005): "Chong, who fell under Young’s spell at age 13 or 14, proclaims, with atypical grandiosity, that 'Neil Young saved my life.' Yet it seems more like Young saved him from being a dork which is not exactly the same thing." For the full review click here.

There wasn’t much danger that I’d pick up Good Poems for Hard Times regardless of what Orr had to say about it. I gather that it does indeed include some good poems. But the organizing concept has a chicken-soup-for-the-soul quality about it that makes me cringe. I have already ordered a copy of Wild Girls. Given my longstanding interest in literary Paris in the twenties, I would likely have done so without Calhoun’s endorsement. However, though the book has apparently been available in Canada for some time, I hadn’t heard about it until I read Calhoun’s review. On the potential of Neil Young Nation I remain ambivalent. I'm a fan of unusual travelogues and also of Neil Young but I’m not convinced that Chong’s book is one I would enjoy.

All in all, my lazy morning with the newspaper feels like time well spent.

[For those who are not regular readers of Sarah Weinman's excellent blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, she does a "Weekend Update" every Sunday in which she provides a round up of the contents of the weekend book pages from various newspapers around the world. Her primary focus is on crime fiction, but even if your literary interests lie elsewhere, she casts a wide net. It's well worth checking out. Here's the link to this week's "Weekend Update."]

Saturday, November 12, 2005

James Salter on Short Stories

I bought a copy of The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (edited by Vendela Vida, Believer Books, 2005) today. It contains a series of lengthy interviews "between much admired writers and the writers they admire," several which have previously appeared in the Believer magazine, others which appear in print here for the first time. Since I’m not a regular reader of Believer, they’re all new to me. A quick scan of the table of contents was all it took to convince me to snap it up. Among others, I look forward to reading Zadie Smith in conversation with Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem in conversation with Paul Auster, and Dave Eggers in conversation with Joan Didion.

But I began with Dan Pope’s interview of James Salter, since I just finished Salter’s latest collection of short stories, titled Last Night, and was dazzled by it. (I’ll post a full review of Last Night soon.) The Pope-Salter interview is marvellous, though it must have been a rather trying experience for Pope. Salter resisted nearly every question but revealed a great deal all the same. Here’s what he had to say about short stories:

No one I know of has ever been able to definitively say what a short story is or should be, what distinguishes it from an anecdote or an account -- Mishima’s “Patriotism” is an account but with a power that dismisses definitions -- or a piece of description. I like stories that keep you reading until the line that makes it a story, as in, say, Carver’s “Night School” when [the narrator’s wife] says, “That’s only writing…. Being betrayed by somebody in your own family, there’s a real nightmare for you.” Suddenly all of it, solid, with a click like steel, falls into place.

I must note here that Salter's own stories frequently contain similarly perfect and devastating lines.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Pleasure of Chasing After the Story

Alligator is Lisa Moore’s first novel and it follows upon two critically acclaimed short story collections. Alligator has received rave reviews from many but has been criticized by some for lack of a central narrative focus and unresolved storylines. It has been short-listed for this year’s Giller Prize, often described as Canada’s most prestigious fiction award, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow evening.

In a recent CBC interview, Moore had some very interesting things to say about fiction writing and form. Here's her response to a question about whether she has “an avant-garde streak:”

I want to break the parameters of what the reader expects is coming. So, if we’re talking about any given sentence, I want the sentence to end in a way that the reader is not expecting. I want the paragraph to end and begin and be something the reader is not expecting. But also be inevitable. If there is a golden rule, that’s it. If the reader knows where you’re going, there’s no point in reading that sentence; they’ll just skip it.

It’s not for the sake of being avant-garde that I want it to be unexpected. It’s because I think a real engagement with a book means that the reader has to chase after the story. Their imagination has to be working, and it’s the energy that’s expended by the imagination at work that is the pleasure of reading. If they know what’s happening, then there’s no pleasure.

Another topic addressed in the interview that is a continuing preoccupation of mine is the formal distinction between short stories and novels. Click here for the rest of the interview.

Making Bad Poems Evocative

Here's another intriguing passage from Roethke, this time from an essay titled "Some Remarks on Rhythm:"

It's nonsense, of course, to think that memorableness in poetry comes solely from rhetorical devices, or the following of certain sound patterns, or the contrapunctual rhythmical effects. We all know that poetry is shot through with appeals to the unconsciousness, to the fears and desires that go far back into our childhood, into the imagination of the race. And we know that some words, like hill, plow, mother, window, bird, fish, are so drenched with human association, they sometimes can make even bad poems evocative.

(Theodore Roethke, On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (edited by Ralph J. Mills Jr.), 1965 at 80.)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Heart of a Poet

Last week, the first episode of Heart of a Poet aired on BookTV. If all I’d had to go on was the title, I wouldn’t have bothered to tune in. “Heart of a Poet” suggests syrupy Hallmark verse to me rather than poetry worth reading. However, I know some of the poets to be profiled in the series and I attended a few of the readings that were filmed for it, so I was sure that there would be more to it than the title suggests. I was not disappointed.

The series synopsis indicates that each episode will profile “the life, inspiration and performances of a working Canadian poet.” The first episode focussed on Christian Bök. This is a logical start given his catapult to prominence in 2002 when he won that year’s Griffin Poetry Prize. For those not familiar with the Canadian poetry scene, the Griffin Prize is one of the richest poetry prizes in the world. There is a Canadian component and an international component, and each year $80,000 (raised to $100,000 in 2005) in prize money is split between the two. In 2002, Bök won the Canadian prize for Eunoia, a book containing five chapters each of which employs only one vowel. The book has since gone into several print runs, at last count totalling an astonishing 16,000 copies. (The usual print run for a small press poetry title in Canada is 500 copies, and few require even a second printing.)

I was surprised by Bök’s Griffin win. I heard him read from Eunoia a couple of times while it was in progress and I understood the buzz surrounding it, but it never once occurred to me to think of it as poetry. Confining each chapter to words containing only one of the vowels certainly produces dramatic sonic effects but everything else about the book says prose to me. Are there any poets out there familiar with the work who can help me to understand why it’s categorized as poetry rather than prose? (I know, I know. I'm obsessed with genre boundaries.)

The Bök episode of Heart of a Poet included an interview conducted by series host Angela Rawlings, as well as interviews with his editor and with other writers about his work, and several clips of live performances. I suspect that Rawlings is going to be one of the best things about the series. She’s an accomplished poet herself and her knowledge of, interest in, and enthusiasm for good poetry was evident in her interaction with Bök.

I’m not sure that the episode actually got to the heart of Bök’s work. It did shed some light on the influence that various experimental writers have had on him and on the “technical virtuosity” for which he aims. But I came away feeling that I still hadn’t got past the surface. As ever, I'm fascinated by the ideas behind Bök’s work but I'm not particularly engaged by the final product. However, listening to the clips of what various interviewees had to say about Eunoia did make me wonder again what it is that I’m missing. I’ve resolved to give it another look. So chalk one up for Heart of a Poet as I’m sure that leading viewers to the work of the subjects is chief among the goals of the series.

Tune in to BookTV on Wednesday evening for the next episode of Heart of a Poet, this one devoted to the fabulous Sandra Alland.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Anxiety of Influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But ultimately Roethke wholeheartedly endorses imitation:

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Story Cycle and the Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 24, 2005

Seducing the Reader

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Book Sale Finds

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

Here’s a list of what I bought:

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Writing Live

Here’s an odd and interesting thing.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ten Formative Books: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Ten Formative Books: Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

Monday, October 10, 2005

Reading about Writing 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Campus Novel as Social History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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