Jane Austen, computer algorithms, and the enduring importance of the literary expert

February 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

To the literary critic’s toolbox, which includes concepts such as mimesis, irony, and the unreliable narrator, it might soon be necessary to add stylometry and culturomics. The former refers to a quantitative analysis of a writer’s vocabulary, syntax, and lexicon, and the latter refers to a similar quantitative analysis undertaken in the area of the humanities. What is significant about both is that they are handled by a computer running sophisticated algorithms like the kind used by Google or Amazon.

A recent New York Times article points to the way these computer algorithms were employed to determine that Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott are the two most influential writers of the 19th century. The study, undertaken by Matthew L. Jockers, found that Austen and Scott “had the greatest effect on other authors, in terms of writing style and themes.” To some extent, it is unsurprising that the authors of romantic social comedy on the one hand and mass-appeal adventure stories on the other should be influential: these are still the kinds of novels that dominate bestseller lists today. (It is important to note that when people talk about their affection for Jane Austen, it is usually Pride and Prejudice they’re thinking of, not Northanger Abbey.)

Here’s the NYT on Jockers’ project:

He based his conclusion on an analysis of 3,592 works published from 1780 to 1900. It was a lot of digging, and a computer did it.

The study, which involved statistical parsing and aggregation of thousands of novels, made other striking observations. For example, Austen’s works cluster tightly together in style and theme, while those of George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans) range more broadly, and more closely resemble the patterns of male writers. Using similar criteria, Harriet Beecher Stowe was 20 years ahead of her time, said Mr. Jockers, whose research will soon be published in a book, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Illinois Press).

While not claiming to know what “the patterns of male writers” means precisely, this is interesting information, “an intriguing sign that Big Data technology is steadily pushing beyond the Internet industry and scientific research into seemingly foreign fields like the social sciences and the humanities.” It is probably overstating the case, however, to compare (as the NYT goes on to do) a statistical algorithmic literary analysis to the impact of the microscope or the telescope.

In any literary endeavour, statistics will only get you part way. Human beings are still needed to effect a more nuanced investigation into literary history and the traditions that inform it, something the NYT article points out: “Quantitative tools in the humanities and the social sciences, as in other fields, are most powerful when they are controlled by an intelligent human. Experts with deep knowledge of a subject are needed to ask the right questions and to recognize the shortcomings of statistical models.”

While unarguably true, this is not good news in a world that seems to devalue the role of “experts with deep knowledge of a subject.” In an editor’s note in The Walrus, John Macfarlane bemoans exactly this problem, noting that in the digital age, expert analysis has been forced to take a back seat to popular opinion:

A people’s choice award was once a consolation prize for not winning something more estimable, like an Oscar or an Emmy, but in the age of Facebook and Twitter popularity rules.

This egalitarian impulse is the cultural assertion of the neo-liberal belief – itself increasingly popular – that the market should determine nearly anything. But more alarming is the flip side: a growing disrespect for knowledge and expertise. In contemporary North America, one person’s opinion is as good as the next, no matter how uninformed.

Popularity is paramount, as Macfarlane notes, and frequently in matters that don’t carry a whole lot of substance or import. More people in 2013 are likely to vote for the winner of So You Think You Can Dance? than are likely to vote in a federal election. And when people who do vote are asked what quality most attracts them in a potential leader, the answer is frequently, “The person I’d most like to have a beer with.” While conviviality and approachability are certainly admirable traits, it is devoutly to be hoped that substantial intellect and sober judgment would be more desirable attributes.

There isn’t much in the current culture to bolster such hope, however, and certainly not in the literary sphere. Substantial book review sections are shrinking or disappearing for want of readers, who would rather give a quick thumbs up or thumbs down to a book on Goodreads than work through 1,500 words of carefully crafted analysis by a knowledgeable critic like James Wood or Rohan Maitzen. While computers are busy counting the number of times authors use certain words, and making quantitative judgments about their relative influence as a result, it would be good if we did not forget the importance of having human experts capable of parsing the data and placing it into a broader, deeper context.

“To the madness that is Serbia!”

January 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Song of Kosovo. Chris Gudgeon; $29.95 cloth 978-0-86492-679-1, 320 pp., Goose Lane Editions

Song of KosovoWhen people think of war in the context of CanLit, it is typically the First World War that comes to mind. But lately, a group of writers has been finding inspiration in the Bosnian war of the 1990s and the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Jim Bartley’s Drina Bridge, and Lesleyanne Ryan’s Braco have all mined the area and its turbulent recent history for material. Significantly, however, each of these authors has chosen to treat their subject in a style that is more or less naturalistic; realism and a strict fidelity to the historical record are the orders of the day.

Chris Gudgeon takes a different approach in his galloping, galumphing novel about the toll that the Milosovic regime, and NATO’s response to it, takes on one family. While Gudgeon does not entirely disavow naturalism, he marries it to an approach that is, in part, frankly absurdist, as befits a place with such a tumultuous history and mythology.

In Gudgeon’s conception, the two are never very far removed. Myth informs Serbia’s history as directly as it informs the experience of the novel’s protagonist, Zavida Zankovic, a young Serbian man who exists by dealing drugs and other contraband on the black market before being abducted and forced into military service.

Zavida is frequently visited by the ghost of Milos Obilic, a warrior who fought in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, “the pivotal, albeit highly mythologized, moment of Serbian history.” After slaying the Ottoman leader, Sultan Murad I, on the field of battle, Obilic himself was killed, though as Gudgeon recounts it, he was not merely decapitated: “They cut Obilic’s body to ribbons, fed most of him to the dogs, and paraded his head and massive genitals on top of spiked standards.” Describing Obilic’s importance to Serbia, Zavida puts it this way: “Everyone’s shit stinks after three days, as we Serbs say, and Obilic’s shit is the grandest, warmest, vilest pile of crap of all.”

Zavida’s insistence on the centrality of myth to the Serbian experience extends to his description of his pious mother, whom he compares to the Kosovo Maiden, “famous for wandering the battlefields of Kosovo in search of her betrothed.” The Kosovo Maiden, Zavida avers, is “a fixture in the popular imagination … rivalled only perhaps by the velvet Christ and those poker-playing dogs.”

Humour is an antidote to the degradation and violence that the Serbian people are heir to, first at the hands of Milosovic, then at the mercy of NATO’s bombs. “To the madness that is Serbia!” is a toast that is invoked in a tavern before the first bombs begin to fall. During the bombing, as NATO B-52s alternate their lethal payloads with packages of CDs and propaganda leaflets, Zavida asserts, “I’m really beginning to like this war.” At another point, the planes drop bags of condoms printed with the word “democracy”: “I handed the package to Tristina. ‘Bill Clinton sends his regards.'” The humour Zavida and his fellow Serbs engage in is frequently tinged with the kind of virile machismo that runs through the culture. “The Americans would never attack,” one line of reasoning goes. “Their President, after all, liked jazz music and fornication. He was practically a Serb.”

But the humour and mythology that serve as coping mechanisms are ultimately ineffective at keeping the violence of history at bay, and Gudgeon is adept at showing the extent to which this violence is not only quotidian, but also bears the qualities of rank absurdism. In one instance, a group of men continue drinking in a tavern as the bombs fall, only gradually coming to realize that one of their number has had the top of his head sheared off by a piece of shrapnel.

“History is a blanket we wrap ourselves in,” Zavida’s father says at one point. “It warms us at night but offers no real protection against bullets or fear.” The fear of constant, random violence is an important motivating factor in the Serbian psyche, Gudgeon shows; actions that may on the surface appear utterly irrational carry a strange kind of logic in a world that has abandoned all reason or predictability. Zavida’s father, an alchemist who quite clearly suffers from bipolar disorder, creates a public spectacle when he builds a bonfire out of a collection of books and proceeds to immolate them and, potentially, himself as well. In a place so beaten down by the depredations of history, the impulse to eradicate the historical record in a purgative fire seems almost understandable.

“How ‘true’ is this story?” Gudgeon asks in the novel’s opening pages. “That is, what elements of this story embrace a verifiable, measurable, and shared reality, and what elements are fabrications, the work of a semi-deranged mind, a prankster, a literary poseur?” His answer, ultimately, is that it doesn’t matter. What the author has created is not a work of documentary realism, but rather a collection of sense impressions of a country and a people undergoing catastrophic suffering. But Song of Kosovo is not a nihilistic book. By rejecting the dictates of strict reportage and producing instead an impressionistic work that combines history, myth, and legend, Gudgeon has written something that cleaves closer to emotional reality than naturalism ever could. The novel is tough, mordantly funny, but, above all, honest.

A walk on the wild side: the hard-boiled world of Lawrence Block

January 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Lawrence Block; $16.50 paper 978-0-316-12731-8, 340 pp., Mulholland Books

Getting Off. Lawrence Block; $17.95 paper 978-0-85768-582-7, 336 pp., Hard Case Crime

A Drop of the Hard StuffIn any survey of American hard-boiled crime fiction, certain names naturally stand out. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, of course. James M. Cain. Jim Thompson. James Ellroy. Lawrence Block does not have quite the same literary cachet, although as a craftsperson, he can write circles around most of the hacks in the business. But for my money, Block’s series of novels featuring former New York City cop, unlicensed private investigator, and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder are among the best – and most consistently strong – in the genre. They are undeniably dark books – they make the NYC of Law & Order look like a playground – and tinged with a plaintive melancholy that gets more and more pronounced as the series progresses.

And these are inescapably series novels: they are best read in order, and as a piece. Characters recur, disappear and reappear over the course of several books, and the shadow of Scudder’s memory grows longer and more nuanced with each successive entry.

That said, Block’s latest Scudder mystery, 2011’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is something of an outlier, in that it operates more as a standalone than certain other series installments and, although it is chronological in order, it flashes back to an earlier period in Scudder’s life, just after he quit drinking.

To effect this, Block employs a framing strategy that opens with the now long-sober Scudder sitting in a bar chatting with his friend (and series regular) Mick Ballou. (Though Scudder is sober, the milieu in which he operates is saturated with booze; he still frequents his old stomping grounds to meet contacts and glean information, although he restricts his intake to club soda and coffee.) Their discussion turns reflective, and Scudder begins to reminisce about a kid he knew in school, Jack Ellery. Scudder and Ellery had grown up together in the Bronx, but their paths diverged in later years, the former becoming an NYC cop and the latter turning to a life of petty crime. The first of four times Scudder encounters Ellery as an adult is behind a one-way mirror; Ellery has been arrested for robbery and put in a line-up, but the cops are forced to let him go when the witness flubs the ID. The last time Scudder sees Ellery, his erstwhile schoolmate is on a slab in the morgue.

Scudder had run into Ellery at an AA meeting, after which Ellery had confided that he was having difficulty with the program’s ninth step, making amends to those he had wronged. As a not-terribly-successful career criminal, Ellery had run afoul of numerous people, at least one of whom still held a grudge: the third time Scudder and Ellery encounter each other, the latter’s face has been beaten to a pulp.

After Ellery’s death, his sponsor, Greg Stillman, approaches Scudder and asks for help. Stillman is a self-confessed “Step Nazi” – a sponsor who demands rigid adherence to the steps toward recovery – and is wracked with guilt over the thought that Ellery was killed while trying to make amends to someone in his past. The list Ellery compiled of the people he had wronged (in accordance with Step Eight of the twelve) has five names on it: these become the five principal suspects in his demise.

Scudder’s investigation takes him on a tour of some of the seedier sections of New York, and the flashback method of storytelling allows Block to draw contrasts between the city as it was in the 1980s and the way it is now. (One of the great joys of the Matthew Scudder books is watching the city grow and evolve alongside the protagonist. Hell’s Kitchen becomes Clinton, but the name change doesn’t prove to be the prophylactic against crime city planners might have hoped for.) The part of New York that Scudder frequents – its decrepit church basements and dive bars, its walk-ups and cop shops – has always been as much of a character as any of the humans in Block’s novels; the author and his detective inhabit a locale that lives and breathes and seethes and changes. The Scudder novels may not be approved by the New York City tourist board, but they provide a provocative and uneasy glimpse into the dark side of the city that never sleeps.

One of the dangers of the series has always been that Scudder’s sobriety teeters on the edge of becoming formulaic, and there are moments in A Drop of the Hard Stuff when the narrative tilts over that edge. Writers as diverse as Nick Tosches and James Frey have pointed out that by insisting on attendance at a minimum of one meeting per day in the first year sober, encouraging recovering alcoholics to admit powerlessness over their disease and devote themselves to the program in perpetuity, AA merely replaces one addiction with another. And like any addiction, on one level, the repetition of meetings, confessions, handing out chips, and reflection about the difficulties of staying sober can become somewhat monotonous. A Drop of the Hard Stuff takes place toward the end of Scudder’s first year without drink, and Block does a good job of dramatizing the temptations to stray from the path of sobriety, and the dangers involved in giving in. But over the course of more than 300 pages, the endless cycle of meetings does become a bit wearisome.

Block is a staggeringly prolific author who has been writing the Scudder series since 1975. In 1994, he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. It would be unsurprising if, after all that time and all those books, he didn’t begin to repeat himself, even occasionally. Despite A Drop of the Hard Stuff‘s plot, which takes a spare whodunnit formula and turns it inside out, and an ending that subverts the reader’s expectations quite neatly, there is the sense that much of this territory has been trod in earlier series installments. Newcomers to the series might enjoy the book more as a standalone introduction, though those of us who have missed Scudder are likely glad just to have him back, if not at the very top of his game.

Getting OffIn any event, A Drop of the Hard Stuff stands head and shoulders above Getting Off, the other novel Block published in 2011, this one under Hard Case Crime’s imprint of hard-boiled and pulp thrillers. Written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson and subtitled A Novel of Sex and Violence, Getting Off is deliberately, almost defiantly, in the pulp mode. The book chimes with the Scudder novel in numerous ways, many of them more noticeable if the two are read back-to-back. In both novels, characters use the overly twee phrase “di dah di dah di dah” as a kind of verbal placeholder. And both novels feature a central character checking names off a list.

In this case, the character was born Katherine Anne Tolliver, but has gone by so many different aliases in adulthood she has lost track of them all. Katherine has a pattern when it comes to men: she picks up anonymous strangers in bars, has sex with them, then kills them and moves on, often stealing whatever money her victim has in his wallet. She does this, we come to understand, as a means of expunging the memory of her father, who sexually abused her as a child and adolescent. Five men have managed to walk away from sexual encounters with her; when she realizes the psychic scars this leaves her with, she determines to track them down and finish the job.

If this premise is in any way offensive to a reader’s sensibilities, that reader is advised to give this novel a wide berth. Block plays with the pulp convention of the femme fatale, but pushes it into territory James M. Cain and Jim Thompson could never have dreamt of. There is an instance of phone sex coupled with necrophilia, and one of Katherine’s marks turns out to be a veteran of the Iraq war who was horribly injured by a roadside bomb while on duty. There is something almost commendable about Block’s willingness to push his scenario to its extreme outer reaches, but the sense of discomfort is heightened by the book’s pulp nature: the sensationalism in the novel is an end in itself, which renders the entire enterprise creepy and squirm-inducing at best.

This is particularly true for the sex, which is plentiful and explicit. It is not, however, particularly well handled. Erotica and horror are the two most difficult genres for an author to pull off, because if either is done badly, it becomes unintentionally funny. There is a lot of unintentional laughter in Getting Off, particularly with regard to Katherine’s phone conversations with Rita, a woman she encountered as a landlord during one of her brief stays, and has since developed an attraction to. Their dialogues, which involve everything from mutual masturbation to threesomes to butt plugs to sex with Mormons, are highly self-conscious and absurd, and almost succeed in stopping the book in its tracks.

On one hand, it’s hard not to admire Block’s willingness to wallow in the depths of the pulp mode, to begin with the tropes and conventions of the lurid paperbacks that used to be stocked on wire spin-racks in drugstores in the 1940s and ’50s, then to inject them with liberal doses of explicit sex and violence. (Anyone liable to slag Block for trying to cash in on the E.L. James-inspired clamour for all things naughty should note that Block’s novel appeared the year before Fifty Shades of Grey became a publishing phenomenon.) But the book is too bloated and the sex too ill-handled for it to appear as anything more than a minor work in the career of one of America’s best living crime novelists.

“I am fine with being marginal”: Poet and essayist Catherine Owen

January 10, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Catherine OwenVancouver poet and musician Catherine Owen is the author of nine books of poetry. She has also published numerous chapbooks, and her work has appeared in various publications and anthologies. She has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the B.C. Book Prize, and the ReLit Award, among others. She has also played bass in the metal bands Inhuman and Helgrind, and, currently, Medea.

In 2012, Owen published two books. Trobairitz (Anvil Press) is a collection of linked poems focusing on the confluence of the medieval troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, and 21st-century metal music. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak and Wynn) is a collection of essays that explores Owen’s artistic inspirations (including two pieces on the genesis of Trobairitz), as well as travel essays, reviews, and criticism.

The following e-mail interview was conducted over the holidays at the close of 2012.


Where did your interest in the culture of troubadours and trobairitz come from? What made you decide to structure an entire suite of poems around this 12th-century genre?

I must say first that the word “decide” is interesting here. I think it was more a convergence of forces that overwhelmed me utterly and compelled the eventual book: meeting a man who had the power to imaginatively replicate a medieval troubadour and who was also concurrently a metalhead, and encountering the trobairitz in 2006’s In Fine Form, a poetry anthology edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, within a footnote for the villanelle form, which was created by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel.

I had been playing in the metal scene from 2001 and yet had felt incapable of writing poetry about its complex mélange of energies. Once I began researching trobairitzes I began to see parallels between both the rebellious impetus behind many troubadour forms/modes (those opposing organized religion, for instance) and metal culture, and between the way women and men construct and deconstruct themselves on gendered terms within these scenes and eras.

Poems continued to flow throughout the period where I read everything I could find on the medieval world, courted the muse-man, played local clubs, and went to the south of France in a futile yet stirring quest for traces of these itinerant and ephemeral poet-singers. Gradually, over six or more years, Trobairitz manifested its weird blend of musics.

TrobairitzOne aspect that both the medieval context and the metal genre share in common is a fairly evident sexism. In the former, women had to battle to find a place (and voice) of their own, and in the latter, as you point out in Trobairitz, women are often forced into a role as erotic objects for men. (This tension is particularly evident in the poem “Tenso: Between the Comtessa de Dia and Senhal Fohlia, circa 1186,” a dialogue that has been played out in one version or another in many discussions of CanLit circa 2012–13.) How entrenched do these gender roles remain today, in both writing and metal? Have you noticed signs of cultural change that would better allow women artists to be accepted for their art on a level playing field with men, or does their presence continue to amount to mere tokenism?

Perhaps it was the jarring distinction I initially experienced in the difference between being a woman writer and being a female metal musician that provoked Trobairitz. I was raised in a fairly androgynous fashion – at least until adolescent hormones kidnapped me – and as a writer/intellectual I had never actually felt any particular sexism.

The metal scene however is a different beast. The genre is still mostly shaped by mid- to lower-class males who tend to draw their inspiration from certain sources of aggression. Some of these derive from the economic system, some from imagery in video games/horror films and some, yes, from their resistance to the female gender, whether in the abstract or specific.

Many women don’t seem to need this outlet of fast, intense, ear-ripping-off music, whether due to conditioning or hormones. Thus, I don’t think that women will ever achieve gender parity with men in the metal scene. The numbers can’t really be equivalent.

However, more and more women are creating and performing metal, and though a lot continue to be defined by their sexualized image, many have transcended this superficiality (which still persists in being an aesthetic aspect of the genre for both male and female musicians, as does youth).

With any liminalized group though, the “club” mode tends to predominate and if the overtly rich, women, non-Caucasian, or homosexuals became too visible a part of the scene, there would be an outcry, undoubtedly. It’s a fierce, unyielding kind of music that can be picky about whom it admits/acknowledges. So why did it call to me at twelve years old? I can only reveal that it must have been a fusion of my Catholic upbringing, my classical violin training, and my innate desire to be other.

CatalystsIn Catalysts, you identify three specific muses who have influenced your writing: the Viennese painter Egon Schiele, the poet Robinson Jeffers, and an ex-partner who committed suicide. How important were these figures in shaping your artistic vision?

Crucial. Egon Schiele was my first real muse. He lunged at me from the shelf of a Burnaby library in the mid-1990s, in the form of his book of Impressionist poems/paintings called I, Eternal Child,  and I was smitten. The path was laid out: research madly, become absorbed completely, and write endlessly.

Robinson Jeffers I found through the vast reading I undertook on environmental theorists for my book on extinct species, The Wrecks of Eden, which was published in 2002. I became obsessed by his lyrics, then life, then eventually, his epic poems set on the Carmel coastline, pieces imbued with his philosophy of Inhumanism. I even wrote a thesis on him.

Frank, the muse of Cusp/detritus, ran his eyes into mine in the summer of 2000 and, long after he died in 2003, gave me poems through the mind of schizophrenia, ineffable love, and music.

There have been other muses – the pioneer photographer, Mattie Gunterman, for instance, and, currently, the Fraser River – but these three represent the first five years of realizing art would be pretty much everything to me. They were dark, moving, troubled, engaged, ruptured, and powerful figures who let me in. Then let me in again.

Elsewhere in Catalysts, you write: “Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form.” But you also point out that many of the short cuts poets take these days result from the distractibility of an audience in thrall to multiple screens, channels of advertising, and consumption. Is a return to a focus on diction, musicality, and form sufficient to counter the other cultural forces that seem to be conspiring to further marginalize poetry in our culture?

I don’t think poetry has to counter or compete with these cultural forces. The solution is certainly not to try to be like any one of them, turn all our poems into videos or games, say, never mind prose-texts.

I do believe that a combination on one side of an academic takeover in which the “teachable” poem becomes the poem that is written, and on the other side the pseudo-popularization of so-called poetry within avenues like the slam is responsible in part for the diminished power of true and diverse poetry. And there are too many writers and not enough readers, certainly not sufficient book buyers.

Further, the publishing scene is glutted by MFA products who seem to use their book publication as merely another addition to their CV, caring little whether it is sold, lacking interest in touring it, and being indifferent to much but cachet. It’s frankly incredibly boring.

In terms of my hopes for resurgence – not of poetry getting to the masses, but of poetry thoroughly becoming a vocation again for the few (as it always is) – they would be related to the composition of poems that attend to the means by which we work with heightened language: obsession with words, intensity of approach to form, and a prioritizing of what sings in the blood and thus is memorable.

Orality within the textual.

I am fine with being marginal. But I am not happy with poets themselves writing with numb ears and seeming content to let their makings descend into an abyss of the banal. Sure, I can be grandiose. But it keeps me waking up – the poem, the chance magic of it.

Shortcuts: a new National Post column on short fiction

January 4, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Longtime readers of TSR will be familiar with my affinity for short fiction, and my oft-repeated contention that Canada ranks as one of the most fertile literary fields for this particular genre. Yet, despite boasting a wealth of talent, the reading public seems to shy away from short fiction for reasons that continue to elude me.

In a post for the cultural website Lemon Hound early last fall, I bemoaned the lack of attention stories and collections of short fiction receive in this country:

[There exists] a general perception that short stories are considered, by publishers and readers alike, the redheaded stepchildren of CanLit. This is frankly baffling, especially considering the pedigree short fiction has in this country. Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro are both Canadian short-fiction writers (though, granted, the former hasn’t lived here for over fifty years), and I defy anyone to name a stronger living practitioner of the form. Beyond those two, a partial list of top-rank Canadian short-story writers past and present should be enough to make most readers sit up and take notice: Norman Levine, Clark Blaise, Mark Anthony Jarman, Caroline Adderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Bill Gaston, Sharon English, Andrew Hood, Matthew Shaw, Carol Windley, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Zsuzsi Gartner, Steven Heighton, Donald Ward, Gloria Sawai, Alexander MacLeod, Michael Christie, Terry Griggs, Ray Smith. Some of these writers alternate between short fiction and novels, but the strength of their shorter works is comparable to the best of what is being produced anywhere in the world.

Yet time and again I’ve heard readers complain they don’t enjoy short stories, which are too difficult, or not long enough to really immerse oneself in and get to know the characters. This latter objection has always struck me at best as obviously wrong, and at worst little more than a lazier way of expressing the former. But publishers know their market, and by and large avoid publishing collections they know will not make much of a dent at the cash register.

Although this general disdain is frustrating, I’ve been trying to do my bit to spotlight the form, via the annual 31 Days of Stories on this site, and in writing for the National Post, Quill & Quire, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. (When I was asked to choose my favourite books from 2012 for Quill, three-fifths of them were short-story collections.)

Wide World in Celebration and SorrowSo when Mark Medley, the Books editor at the National Post, e-mailed to ask if I’d be interested in undertaking a monthly column dedicated to Canadian short fiction, it took me all of about five seconds to say yes.

Called “Shortcuts,” the column debuts today on the Post‘s Afterword blog. It features a double review of two veterans of the CanLit trenches: Leon Rooke and Seán Virgo. Here’s a taste of the inaugural column:

Over the course of a writing career spanning the last four-and-a-half decades, and employing influences that run the gamut from Italian Renaissance art to the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner, Leon Rooke has determinedly been crafting one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of work in this country. If the house of CanLit has many mansions, Rooke’s is the one with the gargoyles on the turret.

This devotion to a ruggedly individual literary vision (it should come as no surprise that Rooke was born and raised in the United States – Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to be precise) results in writing that will, depending upon one’s temperament and pioneer spirit, appear bracingly original or frustratingly oblique. In any event, it is probably not incorrect to refer to Rooke’s fiction as an acquired taste. Once the taste has been acquired, however, devotees have learned to relish it, hungrily devouring each new work – and they run the gamut from novellas to poems to stage and radio plays – if for no other reason than to discover what unexpected combination of flavours the author will attempt to pull off next.

I’m very grateful to Mark and the Post for providing the opportunity to shine a light on short fiction in Canada, and am looking forward to what is sure to be provocative, challenging, and entertaining reading in the months ahead. I hope you’ll join me.

New reviews online: Spencer Gordon, Carol Shaben Terence Dickinson, and Cary Fagan

January 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Kicking off 2013, I’ve got a quartet of new Quill & Quire reviews online, including a fabulously rare review of a novel for children.

First up is a stellar debut story collection from Spencer Gordon. If you haven’t already checked this one out, I’d strongly urge you to do so.

Cosmo, Spencer Gordon

Gordon demonstrates a refreshing willingness to test the plasticity of language and structure. “Frankie + Hilary + Romeo + Abigail + Helen: An Intermission,” which reads like a mash-up of David Foster Wallace and American Psycho–vintage Bret Easton Ellis, is an interrogation of boredom in the context of a society that has become so enthralled by the notion of celebrity that a mere litany of irrelevant facts about people in the public eye can be thought to carry some kind of deeper meaning.

This is not to suggest Gordon is incapable of being straightforward when it suits him. Two of the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection – “Wide and Blue and Empty,” about a mother’s attempt to connect with her grown son, and “Last Words,” about a man in his sixties trying to come to terms with the squandered potential of his life in the wake of a cancer diagnosis – are perfectly traditional short stories, rendered all the more potent for their lack of stylistic pyrotechnics.

Next is a Jon Krakauer-esque non-fiction book about the 1984 plane crash that killed the leader of the provincial opposition in Alberta, and the four men who survived.

Into the Abyss

On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Wapiti 402, a 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft bound for the town of Grande Prairie, crashed in the wilderness of Northern Alberta, killing six passengers, including Grant Notley, the leader of the provincial opposition NDP. Four people survived: Erik Vogel, the pilot; RCMP constable Scott Deschamps; Paul Archambault, the prisoner Deschamps was escorting from Kamloops to Grande Prairie on an outstanding warrant; and Larry Shaben, minister for housing and utilities in the Alberta provincial government. The four men spent a harrowing night fighting the elements and struggling to stay alive while waiting to be rescued.

National Magazine Award winner Carol Shaben – Larry’s daughter – reconstructs the events leading up to the crash, the night on the mountain, and the way the survivors’ lives were changed as a result.

Third is a gorgeously illustrated book of photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, accompanied by fascinating text about the various celestial bodies and galaxies.

Hubble's Universe

Terence Dickinson, the editor of SkyNews magazine and author of NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, has compiled a visually breathtaking array of Hubble’s images in an extraordinary new volume.

Accessible but never condescending, Dickinson’s text describes the makeup of celestial objects from brown dwarfs to blue supergiants, and cogently explains Hubble’s major breakthroughs (such as allowing scientists to determine with greater accuracy the rate at which the universe is expanding).

And finally, the first book in a new series for young readers, written by the indefatigable Cary Fagan.

The Boy in the Box, Cary Fagan

There are no clear-cut villains in this novel: the school bully reveals unexpected dimensions, as does the young magician, Franklin, whose resistance to accepting Sullivan as a member of the group turns out to be born of jealousy. Even Mistress Melville, the most frankly malevolent of the troupe, helps Sullivan find a hook for his juggling act (albeit out of selfish motives).

Nor is Fagan content to restrict himself to a single register. Young readers may giggle at the two police officers named Spoonitch and Forka, but will likely miss the joke in the fact that Mintz father and son are named Gilbert and Sullivan.

Laughter in the dark

January 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. Rudolph Herzog, Jefferson Chase, trans.; $16.95 paper 978-1-61219-130-0, 250 pp., Melville House Publishing

Dead Funny“A guy goes to the dentist, who says, ‘Open your mouth, please.’ The guy answers, ‘No way. I don’t even know you.'”

It is difficult to imagine how dangerous it was to tell that joke – so seemingly innocuous from a 2013 perspective – to a German audience during the years the Third Reich held power. The cabaret performer responsible for the quip, Werner Finck, had every reason to be wary of the Nazis’ “cultural inspectors,” having already spent six weeks in the Esterwegen concentration camp as a result of his public performances. Following his release, the popular German comedian and actor found work at the Cabaret of Comedians in Berlin, an establishment run by a man “known for toeing the party line,” but was forced to temper his act to ensure that his political humour was not overly explicit; his audiences became adept at reading between the lines of Finck’s comedy, and the performer himself referred to working at “half throttle.”

By 1939, the relatively liberal attitude the Nazis adopted toward critical humour during their early years in power (at least prior to the Reichstag fire in February of 1933) had disappeared, and Joseph Goebbels, who headed the Ministry of Propaganda, was on the verge of cracking down hard on transgressors. As Rudolph Herzog writes in his intriguing book: “Goebbels, determined not to be flouted again by his rival Göring, was preparing a renewed attack on Finck within the General Staff. ‘Political jokes will be eradicated, ripped out by the very roots,’ Goebbels noted in his diary.”

Humour, of course, has various registers and uses: it can be harmless or cutting; it can be employed to let off steam or to underscore hypocrisy and cupidity. It did not help matters that the Nazis’ response to humour they found too critical or subversive was applied so arbitrarily: punishment ran the gamut from imprisonment in Dachau to – in extreme cases – execution. Finck was lucky as a result of his fame and the timely intercession of an actress who was also an erstwhile consort of Hermann Göring. Others did not fare so well. Erich Ohser, who was responsible for satirical political cartoons depicting, among other things, “a man out for a walk in the snow urinating in the form of a swastika,” was arrested for making seditious remarks to a friend; Ohser committed suicide, and his friend was sentenced to death.

Herzog, the son of noted documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, details the diverse ways various levels of society employed humour in the Third Reich, from professional cabaret performers to ordinary citizens to the government itself, with its officially sanctioned propaganda cinema that served, in part, to foment anti-Jewish sentiment. The Nazi campaign against the Jews, Herzog argues, was aided by the kind of anti-Semitic banter that was allowed to spread like wildfire throughout German society: “There were even jokes that laughed at anti-Jewish violence, and these were told not just by hardcore Nazi party supporters, but also by hordes of willing opportunists and March violets.”

On the other side of the coin, Herzog points out that persecuted Jewish Europeans also engaged in humour – although of an understandably darker, more mordant variety – as a coping mechanism. The author records a scathing joke about unequal food rations under the Nazis: “Our occupiers know a lot about nutrition. They’ve scientifically determined that Germans need 2,500 calories a day to survive, while Poles require only 600 and Jews just 150.”

The final section of Herzog’s book addresses what is arguably the most distressing question in the context of humour and the Nazis: is it ever permissible to laugh about the Holocaust? Guilt over Nazi atrocities is pervasive in German society even today, but Herzog points out that anti-Semitism persisted even after the war was over. He quotes the three “unwritten rules” about depictions of the Holocaust attributed to American scholar Terrence Des Pres:

  1. The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.
  2. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
  3. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.

“But by the end of the 1960s,” Herzog writes, “the American comedian-director Mel Brooks would break all the rules – written and unwritten – of historical piety.” It is possible that Brooks managed to get away with his 1968 farce, The Producers, complete with its comedic centrepiece, the fictional Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, because the director was himself Jewish. Elsewhere in his book, Herzog points to movies shot outside Germany during the Third Reich – Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be – as comedic works that successfully satirized Nazi fascism and its attendant persecution of European Jews, and he is complimentary toward the Oscar-winning 1997 Roberto Benigni film La Vita e Bella. Interestingly, he ignores any mention of the notorious unreleased Jerry Lewis vehicle The Day the Clown Cried.

In sum, Dead Funny is a fascinating examination of an aspect of German history that is often overlooked. Herzog debunks the myth that humour was absent altogether under the Third Reich, and in so doing also explodes the notion that the German people were ignorant of the crimes being committed by Hitler and his cronies. For cultural enthusiasts and students of the Second World War, the book provides a disturbing glimpse into life under the Nazi regime, and the bitter comedy that simultaneously helped foster and sabotage it.

Nicole Dixon review, holiday party guests

December 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

High Water Mark, DixonMy review of Nicole Dixon’s short-story collection, High-Water Mark, is online at the National Post‘s Afterword blog. The review has already come in for criticism on Twitter as a result of my invocation of what the poet Jacob McArthur Mooney feels is a hoary CanLit cliché.

Here’s the offending paragraph:

Dixon is uninterested in the kind of lyrical historical romance that was, for some time, the default CanLit setting. Her stories are abrasive and direct, marrying a fierce intelligence with a febrile style that refuses to shy away from profanity or explicit sex. There is a toughness to these stories that testifies to a refreshing honesty, a refusal on Dixon’s part to paper over the more nettlesome aspects of her material, opting rather to face it head-on in all its painful messiness. High-Water Mark is kitchen-sink realism filtered through a storm-tossed East Coast sensibility. And it is chock full of allusiveness and implication.

Twitter controversy aside, I thought Dixon’s book was a bit of alright.

In other news, Toronto-based poet Sachiko Murakami, this month’s writer in residence at Open Book: Toronto, asked me to choose a guest list for an imaginary literary holiday party. You can see my response, along with those of poets David McGimpsey and Alessandro Porco, on the Open Book site.

Make mine a double (double): Dougals Hunter on Tim Hortons’ rise to coffee superstardom

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time. Douglas Hunter; $33.99 cloth 978-1-44340-673-4, 382 pp., HarperCollins Canada

Double Double, Douglas HunterThe year 2004 is remarkable in the history of the Tim Hortons chain of coffee shops/eateries. That was the year the term “double-double,” referring to customers’ preferred method of ordering Tim’s signature blend of coffee (two creams, two sugars), first appeared in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. At the time, Katherine Barber, the dictionary’s editor, told the CBC that the criteria for including the term in what had become the go-to reference book for the Canadian lexicon required ensuring it had penetrated the culture fairly broadly: “‘We had to determine if it was used only in Tim Hortons doughnut shops or more widely,’ Barber said. ‘We found evidence in The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Hamilton Spectator, and the book Men with Brooms, based on the curling movie.'”

National Business Book Award winner Douglas Hunter mentions the dictionary milestone only once, in passing, in Double Double, his new volume on the history of the company that, in one sense at least, has become indelibly associated with the Canadian identity for many people. “Tim’s is routinely said to have inspired the Canadian ‘double double,'” Hunter writes, “although when the editors of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary recently tried to verify this, they couldn’t nail down an indisputable source.”

Hunter makes this observation at the beginning of a chapter titled “The 100 percent: Tim Hortons Becomes the Inclusive Canadian Experience,” in which he floats the argument that the perception of Tim Hortons as the location of choice for hardworking, average Canadians – as opposed to, say, Starbucks, which caters to effete, latte-swilling elites – is largely chimerical, at least from the perspective of corporate governance. Hunter references a York University marketing professor who contends that the Tim Hortons brand is built around the idea of inclusion, not exclusion: “[A] rich businessperson and the unemployed worker can both walk down the street carrying a Tim Hortons coffee and feel comfortable,” Hunter writes. “That’s a unique brand proposition that Tim Hortons does not want to harm. Tim Hortons has always been about the 100 percent.”

While this may be true in terms of branding tactics at head office, it is clearly less true for the politicians who seem to feel it a necessary part of a campaign to appear in a Tim Hortons outlet, holding a steaming cup of java, as a means of forging a connection with Joe and Jane Average Canadian (whom Hunter opposes to “Richard or Rachelle Pretentious Internationalist, frequenter of Starbucks and espouser of non-working-family values”). So essential has this image (or myth) become that Stephen Harper, who does not drink coffee, made a point of pausing in a 2009 address to sip from a Tim Hortons coffee cup (the cup contained hot chocolate). Michael Ignatieff, a tea drinker, also went out of his way to court the Tim Hortons vote during the federal election of 2011. When the Toronto Star‘s Susan Delacourt snapped a shot of a Starbucks coffee cup on a table in Ignatieff’s campaign bus, social media lit up. “‘The Conservative bloggers went wild,’ [Delacourt] recalled. ‘It was, “The elite, latte-drinking Iggy is revealed.”‘ She thinks the image was retweeted more than 500 times.” (The offending beverage belonged to Zsusanna Zsohar, Ignatieff’s wife.)

The process by which Tim Hortons became an iconic part of the Canadian landscape is Hunter’s focus in Double Double. He touches on many key aspects of the corporation’s development, beginning with its inception as a side project for the store’s eponymous NHL defenceman, who was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967, the last time the team won a Stanley Cup. The major historical points are enumerated: Horton’s partnership with Ron Joyce; the (apparently alcohol-fuelled) fatal car crash in 1974; Lori Horton’s lawsuit claiming she was duped when she sold her half of the company to Joyce; the company’s IPO and attempt to break into the market south of the 49th parallel. Casting his net broadly, Hunter necessarily sacrifices depth of penetration, but there is much interesting information on offer. The chapters on branding and marketing strategy are particularly interesting, especially in addressing the way the chain positions itself in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. (Hunter contends that the Tim Hortons/Starbucks rivalry is overstated: McDonald’s is actually the larger threat to Tim’s bottom line. And the observation that Tim Hortons is seen as a coffee supplier in Canada but a doughnut purveyor in the States is a fascinating insight into the divergent psyches of the two countries.)

But the resolute focus on the corporate aspect of the story means that the other side of the story – the one involving the millions of people who daily consume the products that Tim’s offers – largely goes missing. The book’s subtitle promises to explain how “Tim Hortons became a Canadian way of life,” but Hunter does this from the viewpoint of the brand, not that of the commuter standing in line every morning to get his or her caffeine fix before heading into work. Hunter deftly explains corporate endeavours to entice customers during each discrete “day part,” and examines the company’s attempts to broaden its customer base by offering more nutritious menu fare and European-style frothy beverages, but apart from quoting a few posts on the Tim Hortons Facebook page, the voices of the people who actually consume the products being sold are never heard. As a result, we get the company’s MBA-influenced attitude toward consumer psychology, but aren’t permitted to assess that psychology first-hand.

Similarly, Hunter includes quotes and references to a plethora of CEOs, consultants, politicians, and marketing professionals, but does not allow sufficient space for the one group that could arguably provide the most unvarnished ground-level perspective of all: front-line employees in the chain’s stores – the shift workers and part-timers who actually pour the coffee and toast the bagels day in and day out. It is possible that many of these people, working within a corporate culture that maintains rigorous control over its brand image, would be reluctant to talk, or might be less than forthcoming about grievances or problems within the company, but the absence of their voices altogether renders the company portrait somewhat one-sided and incomplete.

New reviews online: Annabel Lyon, Shelley A. Leedahl, Nina Bunjevac

December 11, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Three new Quill reviews are now online, one each of a novel, a story collection, and a work of graphica. Guess which one I liked best?

The novel is the sequel to Annabel Lyon’s enormously successful 2009 book, The Golden Mean.

The Sweet Girl returns readers to the world of ancient Greece that served as the setting for Lyon’s previous novel, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award winner The Golden Mean. When Alexander the Great, once his student, dies, Aritstotle and his family are forced to flee the city for the garrison town of Chalcis. When Aristotle himself dies, Pythias is left on her own to find a place in a world that does not accommodate her independence, and seems intent on corrupting her.

The novel presents a detailed and carefully wrought milieu that feels at once true to its time and startling in the ways it resonates with our modern world. Pythias’s experiences are never far removed from the matter of her gender, and it is telling that the only place her wit is permitted to flourish is in the ad hoc brothel where she provides sexual services to prominent town citizens.

The collection is the new release from Shelley A. Leedahl.

When cracking open a new collection of short fiction, it’s not encouraging to discover the following sentence fewer than 10 pages in: “Playing cards trumped all else in our family.” This kind of affected punning is frequently a sign of desperation on the part of a writer; for a reader, encountering this sentence so early on results in a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Fortunately, this instance of self-conscious prose is not entirely indicative of the stories in B.C. writer Shelley A. Leedahl’s 10th book.

The dozen stories in Listen, Honey centre on relationships – familial and romantic – most of which are decidedly dysfunctional. In “The Song of the Dog,” a couple tries to replace their beloved deceased canine (improbably named Elton John), resulting in friction when the new pet turns out to be a “holy terror.” The high-school senior in “Rabun County” simultaneously negotiates a romantic relationship with one of her teachers and the implications of her mentally challenged sister’s unwanted pregnancy. And in the title story, a wayward son listens to a succession of voicemail messages left by his lonely and inconsolable mother.

And the work of graphica is a startling collection of comics from Toronto resident Nina Bunjevac.

Bunjevac’s narratives explore displacement and urban ennui, with a distinctly Eastern European sensibility (the author credits Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev as an influence). In “Opportunity Presents Itself,” a Balkan woman is brought to America by her venal uncle. Hoping for a new life, what she finds is closer to hell on earth. In the collection’s centrepiece, a character named Zorka Petrovic (who resembles a female version of R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat), becomes pregnant with a male stripper’s child. Her abject loneliness and longing for some form of basic companionship is heartbreaking.

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