Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Writing to Express Yourself

Here's another snippet from George Bowering:

When I asked my daughter's elementary school teacher why she was doing "creative writing" instead of grammar, the teacher said it was so that the children could express themselves. I immediately went to work on that kid. If she was going to go around expressing herself she would never be anything more than an elementary school poet, I reasoned. I let her express herself, sure enough. Scream as loud as you want, Precious, I said, these walls are soundproofed. She turned out to be a pretty good poet and a better short story writer. Never would have got past elementary school if she'd been satisfied to express herself.

No one is interested in a recitation of your dreams, and other people are not curious about the patterns or deeper meanings of your vomit or other excreta. If you are so intent on getting all your internal external, it is going to be pretty well the same stuff all your life.

(Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing (Raincoast, 2005) at pp. 136-137.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Form and Content

I’ve been dipping into the essays in George Bowering’s new collection, Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing (Raincoast, 2005). It’s a diverse collection that ricochets between political rants and literary analyses. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but Bowering often elects to focus on one or the other rather than intertwining the two. I have found myself skimming over the pieces on national identity. For the most part, they strike me as rather heavy-handed, replete with stereotypes about central Canada and tired discourse about relations between the centre and the periphery. No doubt as a young, alienated westerner I would have thrilled to such rhetoric, but having now experienced both geographic spaces, I yearn for a more complex and nuanced analysis than Bowering provides here.

Bowering is most interesting when he's squarely addressing literary matters whether in broad terms (for example, ruminating on groups of poets “working with each other, or against each other,” or on reasons to become a poet) or with a narrower focus (close readings of texts by individual writers such as Kroetsch, Atwood, Ondaatje, Acorn, and Purdy). It is Bowering’s preoccupation with form that links these pieces together. Indeed, this preoccupation links the whole collection together, as Bowering is always playing with the essay form regardless of the topic on which he chooses to focus. He notes in the preface that he regards essays as “improvisations made of writing” and he makes good on the promise of experimentation that is implicit in this definition.

Here are a couple of passages from the first essay in Left Hook which convey a bit of the flavour of the collection:

Of course when it comes to writing, maybe especially when it comes to the writing of fiction, there is no such thing as “content,” as opposed to form or even allied with form. What is there to contain? If a realist writer tells you that her characters “took on a life of their own,” how can they be said to be contained? There is no content in a book of fiction.


I do not want, as a reader or writer, to extirpate description and character altogether. I just want readers to notice the writing. Ethel Wilson said that the most important thing in a story is the sentence. She was kind of a realist, but she loved form. Loved it. If you notice the writing and the writing is good, you will love it. You might also notice in the moment of loving that the reader is the focus of the fictional act.

At his best, Bowering as essayist is playful, provocative, and insightful. I look forward to reading more.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Collections within the Collection

Inspired by Bookworld (who was in turn inspired by Golden Rule Jones), I’m posting a list of collections (four or more books by or about the same author) within my book collection. My list definitely doesn’t provide an accurate reflection of my literary enthusiasms. As Golden Rule Jones notes of his own list, the parameters of the exercise dictate that favourite authors who wrote only one or two books are left out. As well, because of limited cash and shelf space, I have often immersed myself in the work of a favourite author courtesy of the library. For example, like Bookworld, I read a lot of Thomas Hardy as a teenager but since I checked his novels out of the library rather than buying them, Hardy makes only a token appearance on my bookshelf. There are also some authors listed here whose work I am no longer particularly keen on, but even then I have a great deal of trouble letting books go. Finally, the single author focus means that my fabulous collections relating to groups of writers (the Beats, the New York School poets, the Lost Generation, the Bloomsbury group) are barely represented here.

That said, here’s my list:

Lucy Maud Montgomery - 34
Enid Blyton - 20
Maud Hart Lovelace - 16
Margaret Atwood - 11
C.S. Lewis - 11
L. Frank Baum - 10
Michel Foucault - 10
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) - 9
P.L. Travers - 9
Laura Ingalls Wilder - 9
Madeleine L’Engle - 8
E. Nesbit - 8
Virginia Woolf - 8
Susan Cooper - 7
Lorna Crozier - 7
Elizabeth Enright - 7
J.R. Tolkien - 7
Beverly Cleary - 6
Robertson Davies - 6
Mary McCarthy - 6
Sylvia Plath - 6
J.K. Rowling - 6
Louisa May Alcott - 5
Lloyd Alexander - 5
Sigmund Freud - 5
Margaret Laurence - 5
Edna St. Vincent Millay - 5
Anais Nin - 5
Robert Louis Stevenson - 5
Noel Streatfield - 5
Kay Boyle - 4
Di Brandt - 4
Elizabeth Barrett Browning - 4
Emily Dickinson - 4
Carl Jung - 4
Don Kerr - 4
Patrick Lane - 4
Robert Lowell - 4
Dorothy Parker - 4
Jean Rhys - 4
Stuart Ross - 4
Delmore Schwartz - 4

I’m not surprised by the number of children’s authors who appear on the list. I’ve made it a project recently to acquire copies of my childhood favourites and many of those are series of books. I am surprised by the fact that, within the adult books, poets keep pace with fiction writers. There are only a few theorists, but that's because most of my theory books are in my office at work and so aren't included in this tally. Golden Rule Jones and This Space both comment on the dearth of women authors on their lists. My list tilts decidedly in the other direction with twenty-eight women out of a list of forty-two.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Organizing with Index Cards

I’m getting organized. I make this claim often and it never comes to pass. But this time I think I’m really on to something.

Back in April, I read an article on organization in the Globe & Mail that directed me to the 43 Folders blog. There, Merlin Mann extols the virtues of the Hipster PDA, a low-tech organizational system built from a stack of 3" x 5" index cards and a paper clip. I’m not fond of electronic gadgets, so this system struck me as a highly promising route out of my usual chaos.

I bought stacks of index cards then promptly forgot about them. As with previous organizational efforts, my failure to follow through rendered the proposed solution part the problem. The unused index cards became more clutter to clear.

Happily, I’ve now come up with a use for the index cards.

Those who have read my introductory post know that this blog grew out of a pen and paper book journal. I’ve continued to maintain both journal and blog. The former is simply a dated list of books I’ve finished reading whereas the latter is a forum for more detailed ruminations about the most thought-provoking of those books. Lately, I’ve been wishing that I’d structured the book journal differently so as to keep track of all of the books I’ve started and not just the ones I’ve finished. I’ve also been thinking that I’d like to be a bit more organized about the whole blog undertaking. Enter the index cards.

Here’s my new system. When I begin reading a book, I write out the title, author and publication date at the top of an index card. Thereafter, I use the index card as a bookmark. I keep a pen at the ready and, if moved to do so, make notes on the index card as I read. When I finish the book (or finish with the book if I decide not to persevere to the end), I put the card in a file box. The file box becomes my new more complete pen and paper book journal, and the cards with notes on them become the basis for blog posts.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to the system. It certainly makes me feel more organized, which is no small thing. Whether it generates more or better blog posts remains to be seen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Reading about Writing 2

Pat Walsh, 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never be Published and 14 Reasons Why it Just Might (Penguin Books, 2005).

In the early pages of 78 Reasons, Pat Walsh provides a statistical wake-up call to writers aspiring to publication:

Of the roughly four thousand submissions our publishing house receives a year -- unsolicited and unagented -- at least half reek of bad writing and sorry story lines. Another thousand significantly lack in one area or the other. The next eight hundred are not horrid, just not good enough -- mediocre efforts, rife with clichés and tired plots. Of the two hundred left, I would say a hundred and fifty have some real merit but are a good idea badly executed or a bad idea nicely realized. From the fifty remaining, forty are heartbreakers -- almost but not quite there. In some way, that is difficult to explain other than to say it usually manifests itself when a reader puts down the manuscript and is not excited about picking it back up. Or they fall apart at a crucial stage in a way that is difficult or impossible to fix. The remaining ten are very good and a few of them are exceptional.

He terms this the “crap-to-gem ratio.”

Alas rejection letters are unlikely to enlighten writers as to why their manuscripts fall within the crap category rather than among the gems:

Editors and agents do not give blunt advice and criticism very often. It does not do any good, because the writer almost always reacts defensively and stops listening. Criticizing someone’s writing in a candid way is an awkward endeavor. Nobody wants to hear it, even those who consider themselves thick-skinned. So instead, we wilt and temper our strong opinions down to polite suggestive remarks that may even be mistaken for praise.

In 78 Reasons, Walsh dispenses with the niceties and provides some brutally honest advice in precisely the form his title promises: a list of 78 reasons why your book may not be published and 14 reasons why it might. It’s a dumb title but a smart book. It’s also a funny book, as exemplified in the first reason why your book may never be published: “Because you have not written it.”

Walsh insists that his is a book about publishing rather than a book about writing. It is designed for the writer who has already produced a complete manuscript but is having trouble selling it. Nevertheless, more than a quarter of the book (reasons 2 through 25) is devoted to identifying problems within your manuscript and as such certainly qualifies as writing advice. I didn’t find much new here as far as content goes, but the tone is distinctly different from the sort cheerleading that is often to be found in writing handbooks. Walsh’s message is very straightforward. If your manuscript is not generating interest, it is likely because it’s not good enough. What should you do about that? Make it better.

In reasons 26 through 78, Walsh offers a wealth of inside information on how to navigate the publishing industry. He provides illuminating sections on the roles of agents and editors, the perils of self-publishing, and the truth about the slush pile.

The final section of the book, “14 reasons why it just might,” basically rehashes the highlights of what has gone before but gives them a positive tilt. These are the “dos” on the flipside of the “don’ts” previously articulated. Even here Walsh remains relentlessly realistic.

78 Reasons is a bracing read. It should prove very useful to Walsh's intended audience of writers who have completed a manuscript but are struggling to capture the interest of agents and publishers. Unfortunately, I suspect, those who most need Walsh’s advice are the ones least likely to recognize that need.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

In Praise of Independent Bookstores

An independent bookstore opened in my neighbourhood last week. This seems such an extraordinary occurrence in today’s book market that I didn’t quite dare to believe it when the “Opening Soon” sign went up. The front window was covered in brown paper, but there was one corner where the paper curled up offering a glimpse of the renovations going on inside. All summer I stopped every time I walked past and peered in wistfully. What sort of bookstore would it be? When would it open? Would it ever open? Finally I went off on holiday and when I returned, voila, there it was, doors flung open with a wealth of books inside to browse and buy.

I’ve made frequent references in this blog to borrowing books from the library. But make no mistake, I buy plenty of books too. And I have to admit, I’m promiscuous about it; I’ll buy almost anywhere. I buy online: out of print childhood favourites on ebay and abebooks, obscure local history pamphlets from small British presses, and new books I can’t find anywhere else on amazon. I frequent several second-hand bookstores where I’ve often discovered books that I didn’t realize I wanted or needed until I pulled them off the shelf. And yes, I will buy at the closest big box store, particularly if I suddenly decide at 9 pm on a Wednesday that there’s a book I can’t do without for a moment longer. But for shiny new books, I prefer to spend my money at independents and what a joy now to be able to meander just a few blocks from my house and find some fabulous, unexpected gem in the new bookstore.

It’s long been a fantasy of mine to have my own bookstore. (Clearly I’m not alone in this -- see Book World and Bookish.) But I have no head for business and I understand that it’s never been tougher to prosper in the bookselling business than it is now. So I’ll content myself with doing my bit to keep other people’s bookstores afloat and with living the bookseller’s life vicariously through evocative memoirs like Betsy Burton’s The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller.

Burton’s book is organized rather like a bookstore, with thematic sections to browse: fiction, crime fiction, poetry, western literature, and children’s books. Each of these sections is replete with praise for beloved books, lists of recommended titles, and tales of successful author visits as well as of occasional readings gone wrong. Much illuminating inside information about the book business is interwoven throughout. Burton writes with refreshing candour about the many challenges, large and small, that she has faced in the nearly thirty years that her Salt Lake City store, The King’s English, has thus far been in business: difficult business partnerships, the odd larcenous employee, censorship in all its guises, and simply surviving as an independent in today’s corporate landscape. Shining through on every page is Burton’s deep love of books and her passionate commitment to a lifetime’s work of matchmaking each reader with exactly the right books.

Reading Burton’s book has strengthened my resolve to shop independent, and I suspect that the new bookstore up the street will be the chief beneficiary.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Campus Satire

It occurred to me recently that I’ve read more about Randall Jarrell than I’ve read of Randall Jarrell. This is just wrong, so I’ve set about rectifying the situation. I have a weakness for campus novels, so I’m beginning with Pictures from an Institution. This pithy description (excerpted from the NYTBR) appears on the back cover: “This is a searching novel about a mean lady novelist writing a mean novel about a college where she is spending a year teaching creative writing.” It sounds so promising but in the early going I’m a bit disappointed. There are some wickedly funny bits, but so far it reads more like a satirical essay than a satirical novel. I suppose satire always has a distancing effect, but I’d still like to be able to enter into the fictional world more fully than the narrative has allowed thus far. I will persevere though. In the meantime, here’s a passage that made me chuckle:

But Dwight Robbins; President Robbins, that is; the President, that is -- the President interested Gertrude. She realized, suddenly, that she was no longer between novels. She looked at the President as a weary, way-worn diamond-prospector looks at a vein of blue volcanic clay; she said to herself, rather coarsely -- Gertrude was nothing if not coarse: “Why girl, that Rift’s loaded.” How can we expect novelists to be moral, when their trade forces them to treat every end they meet as no more than an imperfect means to a novel?

Suddenly the committee meeting that I’m scheduled to attend tomorrow seems less of an obligation than an opportunity…

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Taking the Sting Out of Reviews

In the foreword to his collection of essays and reviews, The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis writes:

You hope to get more relaxed and confident over time; and you should certainly get (or seem to get) kinder, simply by avoiding the stuff you are unlikely to warm to. Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember […] Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting well into middle age. I have often wondered why this spectacle seems so undignified. Now I know: it’s mutton dressed as lamb. (xv)

Putting aside the irony of Amis using a clichéd phrase like “mutton dressed as lamb” in the foreword to a book titled The War Against Cliché, the above paragraph has given me something to ponder. I’m reading it against the backdrop of the recent debate sparked by an article in which Jack Shafer opined: “The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces.” A number of litbloggers disagreed (see, for example, Conversational Reading and The Reading Experience). It won’t surprise readers of this blog to hear that given a choice between a fair review of a worthy book and a “good piece,” I’d opt for the former. But the former doesn’t have to exclude the latter. Can’t we have both at once? Are the reviews of the kinder, gentler Martin Amis any less interesting to read than his youthful pronouncements? I’ll have to work my way through his collection chronologically to find out.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Golden Age of Editing

Last month, in an article in the Guardian, Blake Morrison expressed nostalgia for a “golden age of editing” and lamented the decline of editing in the contemporary publishing industry. I was interested in what Morrison had to say, but also puzzled by it. Much of the article is devoted to a discussion of the invisibility of editors and the consequent difficulty in measuring the contribution that they make to any given work. So how then can Morrison assert with any degree of certainty either that there once was a golden age of editing, or that the practice of editing is now in decline? It would appear to be difficult to gather sufficient evidence to support either contention.

On the point about the contemporary decline of editing, Morrison’s evidence is anecdotal. He, a novelist friend, and one of his graduate students, speculate that the intense collaborative editing process of yore no longer occurs in Britain. He has read about a literary conference at which writers and editors complained that modern day editors don’t have the time to edit. My own evidence is also anecdotal. I have certainly read books that I thought would have benefited from some judicious pruning. I too have heard writers complain about their editors. However, they complain about over-zealous editing, not about a lack of editing. Or they complain about editorial requests that are motivated by commercial interests rather than concern for the integrity of their work (no doubt an in-house editor would feel these motivations are consistent with one another rather than antagonistic, but writers often seem to feel otherwise). I also have heard many writers speak fondly and respectfully of their editors and of the contribution that those editors make to the final work. I am prepared to believe that changes in the publishing industry have changed editing practices, but I won’t be persuaded on the basis of purely anecdotal evidence.

Morrison makes a stronger case for “the golden age of editing” that he describes. Concrete evidence of the roles played by the editors of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is available thanks to the preservation of letters and original typescripts. But there are still a couple of holes in Morrison’s argument. First, it’s debatable whether the intensive editing that Morrison favours in fact improved the texts that he discusses. Dan Green (of The Reading Experience) asserts that this sort of highly interventionist editing may not improve the literary quality of the text (Sons and Lovers) and that, in some cases, it may do more harm than good (Thomas Wolfe’s oeuvre).

Second, even if we could agree that intensive editing is desirable, Morrison doesn’t give us any reason to suppose that this model of editing was the rule rather than the exception during the time period that he discusses (he identifies the years 1912 to 1925 as “the golden age of editing”). I suspect that were all of the books published during that time period available to me, I would be just as likely to find one that strikes me as poorly edited as I am when faced with a shelf of contemporary titles. But since poorly written and under-edited volumes are unlikely to have survived alongside The Great Gatsby, they may not be available to serve as a point of comparison.

Morrison recommends Stet, Diana Athill’s memoir of her nearly fifty years as editor and later also partner at André Deutsch, as an unusually informative and revealing account of the editing process. Athill enters the picture well after the close of Morrison’s brief “golden age of editing” but she is nevertheless part of the “then” to which the “now” of contemporary publishing is forever being compared. I picked up Stet thinking that I might gain some insight from it into the foregoing debate about editing.

Athill’s book is an engaging memoir that provides an inside perspective on the rise and fall of one particular publisher and on several decades of publishing history. But I wouldn’t say that it is particularly revealing about the editing process. Athill’s emphasis is on the role of the editor in ensuring that a manuscript is produced despite substance abuse, mental illness, and marital discord, rather than on the role of the editor in shaping that manuscript. No doubt this emphasis reflects Athill’s publishing savvy as to what readers are interested in rather than the day-to-day realities of her life as an editor. But even when Athill directly discusses the nuts and bolts of editing, the practice she describes is a long way removed from the interventionist editing style that Morrison lauds in his golden age editors.

Athill recounts only one instance of highly interventionist editing: “It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained (a good deal more satisfying than the minor tinkering involved when editing a competent writer)” (37-38). She makes clear that this was a rare occurrence and I suspect that the title concerned has since slipped into obscurity. On the whole, Athill, who has been described as one of the best editors in London, demonstrates a lighter touch. Here are the two “editorial ground-rules” that she observed throughout her career: “It was a rule with me that I must not overdo such tinkerings: it must always be the author’s voice that was heard, not mine, even if that meant retaining something that I didn’t much like. And of course it was an absolute rule with all of us that no change of any kind could be made without the author’s approval” (60).

I am inclined to believe that there have always been a few very good editors, many competent editors, and some bad ones, and that the value of the contribution that an editor makes to any given work likely rests on matching up the right editor with the right author. As to whether there have been any grand shifts in editorial practice in recent decades, I’m still not sure. Next up in my quest to understand the history of editing is A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. I will report in after I’ve read it.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Coming Out: A First YA Novel

David LaRochelle, Absolutely, Positively Not (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005).

David LaRochelle has written many books for children, but Absolutely, Positively Not is his first novel aimed at young adults. It tells the story of Steven Denarski who, over the course of his sophomore year in high school in a small Minnesota town, recognizes and comes to terms with the fact that he’s gay. I liked the book but not as much as I expected that I would. My thoughts on various aspects of the book are outlined below.

Narrative Voice: Steven serves as first person narrator, and I didn’t find his voice altogether convincing as a teenage voice, particularly in the early chapters. Admittedly, he isn’t supposed to be a very hip teenager, but he sometimes sounded to me more like an adult’s idea of a teenager than an actual teenager. These instances jarred me out of the narrative, but there were fewer of them as I got further into the book.

Humour: For the most part, the humour of the book is a real strength. When I was in high school, books depicting gay teenagers were few and far between. The odd ones that I came across, even if they purported to be sympathetic, were very serious, capital “I” issue books that were relentlessly bleak. The gentle humour with which Steven’s struggle with his sexual identity is treated here is refreshing and, frankly, strikes me as a real mark of social progress. That is not to say that the book downplays the difficulty or the dangers of Steven’s situation. The isolation that he feels in his hockey mad town is very effectively rendered. On the whole, LaRochelle achieves a nice balance between humour and seriousness.

However, there were a couple of key moments in the book when the humour was far too over-the-top for me. I’m thinking particularly of the scene in which Steven avoids taking a girl to the school dance by taking a pet Golden Retriever as his date. In a recent interview, the author revealed that this scene was actually the genesis of the whole book. It began as a humorous short story and, when it was well received, LaRochelle decided to expand it into a novel. This was an illuminating detail for me. I can see how the story might have served as a bridge between LaRochelle’s earlier works and this one. But while the subject matter brings it into teenage territory, the type of humour seems better tailored to children. It’s just not sophisticated enough for a teenaged audience. Regardless of its status as the seed of the novel, this scene ought to have been excised from the final version.

Stereotypes: Some of the best parts of the book come from the upending of stereotypes. Steven (and the reader along with him) is often surprised by the actions and reactions of various characters. In particular, there are some lovely unexpected moments in Steven’s interactions with his parents. But in some of the worst parts, stereotypes are actively employed. I was particularly disappointed that Steven’s best friend Rachel repeatedly came off as a cardboard rendition of a misguided liberal rather than as a real person. She could have been so much more complex and interesting.

Sex: Steven’s sexual fantasies are not so graphic as to overwhelm the emotional story, but they're not overly sanitized either. Again, LaRochelle achieves a nice balance here.

Overall: Absolutely, Positively Not is uneven to begin with, and it has a few serious flaws. But ultimately it offers up a good story told with gentle humour and poignancy.