Vancouver 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.
One 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.
In 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.
I recently read a 400-page novel (no, I shan’t cop to which one) in which someone was referred to as grabbing “the reigns of power.” The misuse of the word “reigns” in this phrase bothered me inordinately. But I was equally bothered by the degree to which this mistake nagged at me. Here was a work of great ambition, published by a reputable house, and I found myself fixating on four words. Four words out of some 170,000 other, properly deployed and emotionally resonant words. I felt like Hazel Motes’s grandfather in Wise Blood, a preacher who travelled around “with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.” Except instead of Jesus, I had a picayune error in usage lodged in the back of my head.
It was certainly not the first time I’d experienced this feeling. More and more I’m noticing typos and syntactical errors cropping up in professionally edited books from major publishing houses. Misplaced modifiers proliferate the prose of otherwise competent writers, and instances of fuzzy lexical thinking scream out of works of fiction and non-fiction alike. One academic text I recently encountered contained so many errors in the footnotes I had to put the book aside or risk harming myself or others.
Nor is this tendency on my part restricted to professionally edited or published works. When I come across a sidewalk chalkboard with “2-for-1 martini’s” or “half-price nacho’s” written on it, I will surreptitiously erase the errant apostrophe. Walking down the street the other day, I saw a sign advertising the annual “Movember” drive to raise funds for prostate cancer research appended with the phrase, “Support prostate cancer.” I practically went into conniptions.
My name is Steven, and I am a copy editor.
It is no secret that copy editors spend extraordinary amounts of time obsessing over whether a semicolon should really be an em-dash or a period, sweating over agreements between subjects and objects in sentences, and muttering under their breath about the distinctions between “that” and “which,” “effect” and “affect,” “less” and “fewer.” What worries me is the degree to which one can get caught up in these technical matters, to the extent that the joy of reading is ultimately lost. (I was tempted to use the word “impacted” in that last sentence, but the copy editor in me vetoed it.)
So I was pleased to read Yuka Igarashi’s piece about copy-editing the latest issue of Granta, if only because it reassured me that while I may be crazy, at least I’m not alone. Igarashi writes, in part:
There is a danger to copy-editing. You start to read in a different way. You start to see the sentence as machinery. You focus on the gears and levers that connect words to one another; you hunt for the wayward semicolon, the unintentionally ambiguous phrase, the clunky repeated word. You even hope they appear, so you can kill them. You see them when they’re not even there, because you relish slashing your pen across the paper. It gets a little twisted.
As with any kind of technical knowledge or specialization, it is possible to take copy-editing too far, to be ruled by it, to not quite be able to shut it off when it ought to be shut off.
Igarashi goes on to suggest that the diligent care copy editors take with a text does not necessarily preclude an enjoyment of literature, and she’s probably right. But she is also right to point out that time spent professionally editing copy makes you read differently: it makes you more demanding, pickier, more willing to pounce on inconsistencies like the disparate use of the American “toward” and the British “towards” in a single text. These things appear to take on disproportionate weight, which makes the thud when they topple off the written edifice that much more pronounced.
Obviously, writers should take care to ensure that every single word they use is the best one, and is used correctly. However, we are all human, and we will all inadvertently substitute “reign” for “rein” once in a while. The copy editor in me will still get his back up, but I’m working on it. “Half-price nacho’s,” on the other hand, is indefensible.
The writer’s art appears to seek a compensation for the hopelessness or meanness of existence. By some occult method, the writer has connected himself with the feelings and ideal conceptions of which few signs remain in ordinary existence. Some novelists, the naturalists, have staked everything on ordinary existence in their desire to keep their connection with the surrounding world. Many of these have turned themselves into recording instruments at best, and at worst they have sucked up to the crowd, disgustingly. But the majority of modern novelists have followed the standard of Flaubert, the aesthetic standard. The shock caused by the loss of faith, says Professor Heller in The Disinherited Mind, made Burckhardt adopt an aesthetic view of history. If he is right, a sharp sense of disappointment and aestheticism go together. Flaubert complained that the exterior world was “disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing. … I am turning towards a kind of aesthetic mysticism,” he wrote.
– Saul Bellow, “The Sealed Treasure” (1960)
Tom Waits’s voice was once characterized as Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell. This description resonates in an early set piece from Husk, in which the narrator, newly resurrected from the dead, tries to regain control of his vocal chords. The result, we are told, resembles “the sound of orphans being strangled in their cribs.” The moment is typical of author Corey Redekop’s approach in his second novel: it’s utterly macabre, yet simultaneously flat-out hilarious. “There’s a point where everything becomes very funny,” Redekop avers.
Certainly, Husk is not your stereotypical zombie story. First of all, it’s narrated in the first person by a protagonist named Sheldon Funk, a struggling actor who dies a horrible death in the washroom of a moving bus, only to wake up on the slab mid-autopsy. (Restraint is not a quality Redekop indulges in this novel. Sheldon’s death scene, for instance, rivals the suppository sequence from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for its gleeful disgust factor.) But then, Redekop explains, he had no intention of writing a typical zombie novel. “I’ve read a couple of books that have zombies as their protagonists,” he says, “but they were honestly all along the lines of The Walking Dead, so they’re still shambling hordes and somehow this one still has intelligence, but they’re still out there eating people, and they can’t really talk. Which is fine: it’s the classic standard for a reason. It’s not that it doesn’t interest me, it’s just that I don’t think I can write that kind of story.”
Indeed, Husk took several different directions on the road to being written. “I had an idea for a zombie detective novel,” says Redekop, “which I wanted to set in a 1950s, Raymond Chandleresque alternate reality. But I could not get the voice right, and I knew I didn’t want to do it if I couldn’t do it justice.” He eventually abandoned the detective story conceit, although he did retain one element of that manuscript: “The truth is: I liked my first sentence.”
The opening sentence of Husk – “I miss breathing” – sets the tone for what follows. It also nods in the direction of the book’s oddly (for a zombie novel) ruminative quality. But none of what follows was planned in advance, the author claims. “I honestly just decided to follow the character. I didn’t have a preset plan, I didn’t know where the plot was going to go. A lot of it came as a complete surprise to me.”
The surprises included the fact that Sheldon Funk is gay. “I didn’t know he was gay until he killed his lover,” Redekop says matter-of-factly.
The character’s name was less of a surprise, and alludes to the author’s own Mennonite background (Redekop says of Husk, “It’s A Complicated Kindness of zombie novels”). “I’m Mennonite, and I needed a last name. I was playing with the last name of Thiessen, but it just didn’t work right. But then I came across Funk, which is actually a very traditional Mennonite name, and I just thought it really worked for the character.” Redekop adds with a laugh, “I was just trying to please my Mennonite readers.”
Redekop professes fidelity to the classic zombie mythos, and in particular credits the influence of George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. “It was such a milestone,” he says, “and so out of left field. You think it’s going to be a cheap, $10,000 grindhouse film, and then you leave ninety minutes later shaken to your core because he tapped into something incredibly primal.” But despite this influence, Redekop insists that with Husk, he wanted to do something different. “I knew that wherever it was going, I didn’t want it to become a sort of zombie apocalypse novel. It’s not that that’s not interesting, it’s just been done very, very well, and I didn’t want to retell a story that’s already been told.”
One thing Redekop was not worried about was being slotted into a specific genre category. “I’ve been a librarian and I realize you need to categorize things.” That said, it is apparent after a very few pages that Husk is not easily categorizable. “I’ve seen the book in one store classified in the horror section,” Redekop says, “and I don’t think that’s actually accurate. It’s got gore, but I think there’s only one or two scenes that might come across as truly disturbing, and even then I don’t know if I did them all that well. … The book has horror elements, it has comedy elements, and if you had to classify it, you’re certainly going to mention zombies or the undead, because that’s going to attract a certain reader. The only risk is will other people not read it because of that? But that’s valid for every single book out there.”
While Husk may not cleave to the stuffy, middlebrow tastefulness that typifies so much CanLit, Redekop does not feel that its content, or its idiosyncratic approach, places it outside the pantheon, which is in fact much more heterogeneous than many people seem willing to acknowledge. “I know people who have said, ‘I don’t read Canadian literature. I just hate it.’ Well, okay: you’ve obviously never read anything beyond Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.”
Still, the author is not so disingenuous as to assume that all readers will be attracted to his undead character study. As part of his pre-publication publicity endeavours, Redekop created a book trailer that perfectly captures the novel’s darkly comical, yet vaguely unnerving nature.
“I was at my cabin with my extended family and we had a bunch of nieces and nephews there, all twelve and under; they’re all kids, so they’re all loud and screaming all the time. They love to draw, so I had the idea that maybe they could draw me some pictures and maybe I could do something with them.” The “something” Redekop came up with rates as one of the most inspired book trailers of the year. “I wanted to do something that captured how weird the book was, the offbeat nature of it,” he says.
“I think there’s something very wrong about the book. If you get the trailer, you’ll like the book. If you don’t get the trailer, you’re not going to like the book.”
You’ve been warned.
“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”
The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”
The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.
Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”
At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”
The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”
Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”
Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”
Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”
Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”
Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”
He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”
“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.
“Books are here to stay.”
Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.
For ten days each October, the International Festival of Authors gathers some of the most prestigious international literary talent in one place for a series of readings, panel discussions, and author signings. Administered by Authors at Harbourfront Centre, this year marks the Toronto festival’s thirty-third anniversary. This year’s festival kicks off tonight with a PEN Canada benefit featuring a rare appearance by Rohinton Mistry, and continues with readings by the nominees for a quartet of prestigious Canadian literary prizes: the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction; the Governor General’s Literary Award; the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
This year features appearances by international bestsellers Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Harkness, and Richard Ford, along with established and upcoming Canadian talent including Vincent Lam, Sandra Ridley, Linden MacIntyre, and Larissa Andrusyshyn.
With more than 70 different events featuring more than 200 participants, there is always more to do than can possibly be done by any single person attending the festival. But here is a very shortlist of events that have piqued my interest.
Reading/Interview: Lee Child
Lee Child is an international bestselling author of thrillers featuring ex-U.S. military man Jack Reacher. They are the kind of bubble-gum actioners that get snapped up by the bushel by commuters and beach readers, and there’s a film out this December starring Tom Cruise as Reacher. Although Child’s brand of escapist entertainment is not totally my speed, I’m intrigued by the pairing of the author with interviewer Adrienne Clarkson, who seems at first glance a counterintuitive choice. This kind of iconoclastic pairing often makes for the most intriguing conversations.
Saturday, October 20, 2 p.m. Brigantine Room
Reading/Round Table: Roo Borson, Phil Hall, Don McKay, Sadiqa de Meijer
Poetry gets short shrift in this country, selling in even lower numbers than short-story collections. Which is a shame, because Canada features no shortage of strong poets, both veterans and newcomers. Three of the former – Borson, Hall, and McKay – join the winner of this year’s CBC Poetry Prize for a reading and discussion moderated by Garvia Bailey of the Ceeb. For verse enthusiasts, this event should prove enlightening and entertaining.
Saturday, October 20, 4 p.m., Studio Theatre
Reading/Interview: John Ralston Saul
The author of Voltaire’s Bastards is an intimidating public intellectual, and it takes a brave soul to go toe-to-toe with him. Philosopher, professor, and author Mark Kingwell may be one of the few people who can fill the bill. This discussion should be all the more interesting given that Saul’s new book, Dark Diversions, is the author’s first work of fiction in over a decade and a half.
Sunday, October 21, 12 p.m., Fleck Dance Theatre
Round Table: Matt Lennox, Stacey Madden, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, Tanis Rideout
“The novel is dead” seems to be a perennial theme among people who talk about literary matters, but this quintet of young authors, all graduates of the University of Guelph’s well-regarded MFA program would beg to differ. Each writer has a debut novel out this year, and this discussion about breaking into the industry and the challenges facing new writers in a rapidly evolving literary landscape sounds interesting. Novelist Catherine Bush, who administers the Guelph program, moderates.
Sunday, October 21, 4 p.m., Lakeside Terrace
Publishing Keynote Speaker and Interview: Jonathan Galassi
Each year, IFOA sponsors the International Visitors Programme, which offers publishing industry insiders the opportunity to come together for discussion, networking, and socializing. This year’s participants include some international heavy-hitters, such as Virago Press publisher Lennie Goodings and Blue Rider Press president and publisher David Rosenthal. This year’s keynote address, which is open to the public, is presented by Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Galassi will be interviewed by David Kent, president and CEO of HarperCollins Canada.
Monday, October 22, 4:30 p.m., Studio Theatre
Round Table: Marjorie Celona, Anakana Schofield, Rebecca Lee, Leanne Shapton
The women on this panel are unafraid to take risks with their approach to storytelling, employing a variety of forms – from short story to innovative memoir – to explore the idea of narrative. This discussion, titled “Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content,” is moderated by NOW magazine’s Susan G. Cole.
Wednesday, October 24, 8:00 p.m., Lakeside Terrace
Round Table: Deborah Harkness, Alen Mattich, Jo Nesbø, Corey Redekop
Take an historian descended from a line of witches, a secret policeman being targeted by Bosnian thugs in the Yugoslavia of 1991, a hard-boiled Norwegian detective, and a gay actor who just happens to be a zombie, and you’ve pretty much got a recipe for a lively conversation about genre, the supernatural, and the modern novel. Bestselling literary thriller writer Andrew Pyper moderates.
Saturday, October 27, 12 p.m., Brigantine Room
Round Table: Emma Donoghue, Andri Snær Magnason, Alix Ohlin, Cordelia Strube
This group of writers defines the term “iconoclastic,” representing a wide variety of approaches and attitudes to fiction. How do these writers settle on their subjects, styles, narrative voices, and settings? How do these choices affect the stories they tell? I’m moderating this one myself, so feel free to come out and watch me get totally schooled on the art of fiction.
Saturday, October 27, 5:00 p.m., Brigantine Room
Found in Translation: Japan@IFOA
Next to poetry and short fiction, works in translation are among the least-read in Canada, which is baffling to me given our multicultural makeup and a vibrant publishing scene in Quebec. For my money, Japan has produced some of the most fascinating works of world literature in the past decade, so I’m interested to hear the writers on this panel – poet Hiromi Ito, novelist Hiromi Kawakami, and translator Motoyuki Shibata – talk about their work and their approach to writing. York University professor of Japanese literature and film Ted Gossen hosts.
Sunday, October 28, 4:00 p.m., Studio Theatre
More information about these and other IFOA events, as well as location and ticketing information, can be found at the IFOA website.
This is one of the best things I’ve come across in a long, long while.
For the poet and critic Al Alvarez, true appreciation of a work of literature is “not about [gleaning] information, although you may gather information along the way. It’s not about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures.” It’s about listening to a voice “unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communicating with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way.”
Real writers, like one’s real friends, don’t quite sound like anyone else: they can only be who they inimitably are, their single most praiseworthy quality. The reason so many people are boring is because they all tend to sound the same. The same, sadly, can be said for much of what masquerades as literature.
– Ray Robertson, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live
Of course, the more individual a writer’s voice is – the more iconoclastic or idiosyncratic or eccentric – the less familiar, the less comfortable, and therefore less palatable it may appear to a reading public that wants nothing more than cozy reassurances and the reinforcement of well-worn preconceptions. This is arguably one reason why Barry Hannah, one of the most stylistically inventive, linguistically effervescent American writers of the late 20th century, is so woefully underappreciated today. His jazzy prose style and pervading themes – violence, heroism, drinking, sex – echo Hemingway, Kerouac, Burroughs, and other influences, but Hannah’s literary voice is sui generis. As Michael Schaub puts it, “The man wrote the way Django Reinhardt played guitar — you have to experience it to believe it, and even then, you’re not entirely sure how the hell he pulled it off. He was an American original, a bona fide Southern hell-raiser with the voice of a drunk angel, shot full of the world’s best good.”
“Hannah himself,” writes Marianne Wiggins, “… goes out of his way to lead us to believe he is a hard-writing, hard-drinking, hard-balling man,” and a version of this character is on display in “Rat-Faced Auntie,” about Edgar, a jazz trombonist who achieves early fame but succumbs to an alcohol addiction that leaves him destitute and beholden to his “homely and bellicose” rich Auntie Hadley. It is perhaps not necessary to know that the collection in which “Rat-Faced Auntie” first appeared, 1993′s Bats Out of Hell, was the first book Hannah published after giving up drinking – it is never a good idea to identify a writer’s life and work too closely – but this fact does appear to jump out in light of the story’s fixation on the difficulties associated with full recovery from a lifestyle of committed dissolution.
Edgar’s sobriety did curious things to him. For one thing, he had not realized he was tall. His posture was still poor, though, having been curved over in search of the pavement all those years. He had blood and air in him again, and was still a bit high on withdrawal. His face was plumper, unblotched, his hearing and eyesight better. However, he had the impression he looked suddenly older, thrown forward into his forties at thirty-four. He had intimations that he would die soon, and must hurry.
Edgar’s aunt goes out of her way to mock her nephew by comparing him to heroic figures from history who, she says, “drank for good reasons”:
Look at Grant and Churchill with their great works. Look at Poe and Faulkner and Jack London and their masterpieces. Now you’ve got a national curse of drugs and drink, millions of nobodies who never once had a great day or a fine thought. This puny selfism, uff! It seems to me you became a drunkard just for lack of something to do.
Hadley’s assessment is unfair because by the time he arrives to live off her avails, Edgar has had many “a great day” as a trombone player in Peets Lambert’s Big Thunder Hounds. But newly sober and having returned to college to study sociology, Edgar is nevertheless frankly ineffectual, scrambling around for material to fill out a vaguely defined thesis on Chicago’s “bums” and lusting after married faculty members’ wives at parties. He displays none of the heroism of the statesmen or writers his aunt throws in his face as paragons.
Thomas Ærvold Bjerre claims that the story “focuses on heroism and art,” and this is true to some extent. But in its depiction of a washed up ex-musician who is utterly beholden to his odious, hideously ugly aunt for money and validation – she provides him with a BMW motorcycle as a symbol of his ravaged manhood – “Rat-Faced Auntie” is almost a parody of a certain kind of brazen masculinity. Edgar displays a great deal of surface machismo and braggadocio, but he is utterly dependent upon the women in his life – his Auntie Hadley and his girlfriend, Emma Dean. When he and Emma fall into an argument late in the story, she compares him derisively to the soldiers fighting to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army during the first Gulf War: “Our generals, our airmen – they’re men, and you, you don’t have … moxie.” Emma’s complete emasculation of Edgar is achieved with the hurled insult, “You ungrateful bitch!”
Edgar is able to emerge victorious – albeit physically incapacitated – by the story’s close, the power dynamic having shifted precipitously between him on one side and the two women on the other. Edgar finally spurns Emma and agrees to write his aunt’s life story, to which he appends a scabrous title that leaves him “so happy, so profoundly, almost, delirious.” He imagines the book he will compose in terms that could easily describe Barry Hannah’s own writing: “Loud and bright and full of jazz.”
A new policy instituted by PayPal, an offshoot of eBay, has prompted online self-publishing service Smashwords to revise its terms of service and has sparked calls of censorship from a diverse group of organizations representing publishers, writers, and Internet advocates. On February 18, according to a Reuters article reprinted in today’s Globe and Mail, PayPal sent a letter to Smashwords founder Mark Coker indicating that access to PayPal services might be “limited” should Smashwords continue to host writing that featured “obscene” content, including incest, bestiality, “underage erotica,” or “rape-for-titillation.”
In response, on February 24, Coker sent a letter to all “authors, publishers, and literary agents who publish erotica at Smashwords,” redefining what is and is not allowable for publication. According to the letter, prohibiting “underage erotica” is “not a problem” for the administrators of Smashwords, even though a strict reading of this term would disallow Nabokov’s Lolita. Similarly, Coker writes, “We do not want books that contain rape for the purpose of titillation.” This sounds reasonable, although it would arguably prohibit the works of the Marquis de Sade and the pseudonymous erotica of Anne Rice. Bestiality is also a no-brainer, although Coker is quick to clarify that “this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form.” So the Twilight crowd can breathe a sigh of relief. Whether Marian Engle’s novel Bear would pass muster is another matter altogether.
Only when it comes to incest does Coker acknowledge the “slippery slope” that is created when one starts to set artificial boundaries on imaginative works:
The legality of incest is murky. It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers, and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie e-books. The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision. The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.
Meanwhile, the Reuters article indicates that a number of groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the Association of American Publishers have signed a letter protesting PayPal’s new restrictive policies:
PayPal “is now holding free speech hostage by clamping down on sales of certain types of erotica,” the groups said, according to a draft of the letter sent to Reuters. “We strongly object to PayPal functioning as an enforcer of public morality and inhibiting the right to buy and sell constitutionally protected material.”
They are right and they are wrong. The American constitution only protects speech that is infringed by the government; it does not protect speech that is infringed by private enterprise. PayPal is perfectly within its rights to decline any transaction it sees fit. Writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog, Rainey Reitman elucidates this point:
Frankly, we don’t think that PayPal should be using its influence to make moral judgments about what e-books are appropriate for Smashwords readers. As Wendy Kaminer wrote in a forward to Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography: “Speech shouldn’t have to justify itself as nice, socially constructive, or inoffensive in order to be protected. Civil liberty is shaped, in part, by the belief that free expression has normative or inherent value, which means that you have a right to speak regardless of the merits of what you say.”
But having a right to speak is not the same as having a right to be serviced by a popular online payment provider. Just as a bookseller can choose to carry or not a carry [sic] particular books, PayPal can choose to cut off services to e-book publishers that don’t meet its “moral” (if arbitrary and misguided) standards.
When Heather Reisman decided that her chain of Indigo bookstores would no longer carry Mein Kampf, people who wanted to access the book simply went elsewhere. One problem with PayPal’s move is that they are, if not the only game in town, at least the most visible and influential. Their new mantle as moral arbiters of what gets published online may be legally sound, but it sets a dangerous precedent in what should be a free and open marketplace of ideas.
Nowhere in sport, perhaps nowhere in human activity, is the gap between the tryer and the expert so astronomical. Oh, I have thrown 180 at darts – twice in a lifetime. On the snooker table I have brought off violent pots that would have jerked them to their feet in the Sheffield Crucible. As for tennis, I need hardly hype my crosscourt backhand “dink,” which is so widely feared in the parks of North Kensington. But my chances of a chess brilliancy are the “chances” of a lab chimp and a typewriter producing King Lear. Even at the most rarefied level, though, chess has a robust universality. The two Ks start a tournament tomorrow, but they will also be starting something else: scores are to be settled, grudges are to be purged. Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully, they will be hunting each others’ blood. That we can understand.
Here we can identify many of the signatures of Amis’s literary style: the brazen machismo, the colourful jargon (“violent pots”; “my crosscourt backhand ‘dink’”), the rhetorical flourishes (the two chess masters will not just be hunting each others’ blood, they will be hunting it “Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully”).
Now imagine that high literary style applied to classic arcade games.
In 1982, four years before the piece on the rival chess masters appeared, Amis published a little-known volume entitled Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. The cover of this curious guide is quaintly retro from the perspective of 2012: a tanned, earring-bedecked gamer sporting a glistening pompadour and what certainly passed for space-travelling duds in the recent wake of the television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (Google it if you’re too young to remember) leans against a gigantic arcade machine around which a threatening, vaguely electric-looking black form with menacing green eyes glares. The author’s name appears below in the bitmapped font that was au courant at the time for any text designer who wanted to convey a futuristic feel. The book’s introduction is by a young Hollywood wunderkind named Steven Spielberg.
Invasion of the Space Invaders is long out of print, and has been disavowed by its author. In a review of Steven Poole’s 2001 book Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, Nicholas Lezard admits he once suggested to Amis that Invasion of the Space Invaders was the author’s best book, a comment that was met with an expression containing “perhaps more pity in it than contempt.” Regardless, the book has become so storied in certain circles that one of the few copies to be found could command upwards of $400 in 2005.
I learned about Invasion of the Space Invaders from a fascinating article by Mark O’Connell posted at The Millions. O’Connell unearthed a copy of the book in a university library, and provides some excellent commentary about it. The passages O’Connell quotes are painfully funny, but also contain flashes of a filigreed style that can belong only to Amis: “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” The advice on how to win at Pac Man, O’Connell suggests, “might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide,” but the guide to prevailing at Space Invaders – “Rule one: narrow that phalanx” – is “technically correct.”
O’Connell’s piece is really valuable, however, for the way it contextualizes Invasion of the Space Invaders, a book he winkingly refers to as “the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction.” “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” writes Sam Leith in a review of a recent Amis biography; O’Connell’s piece is demonstrative of the truth in that aphorism. He provides a reading of the text at hand, but also opens his discussion outwards to encompass pervading themes and approaches in Amis’s other, more serious, work:
Games and game-playing are, after all, both a presiding motif in Amis’s novels and a fundamental principal [sic] of their construction. His most successful fictions are arranged around antagonisms, rivalries, and hidden maneuvers. London Fields is an elaborate trap-like construction in which three male characters (including a blocked novelist) are manipulated by a female mastermind into bringing about her own murder. The Information is about a failed writer’s increasingly malicious attempts to destroy the career of his more successful friend. The plot of Money is a Nabokovian conceit in which Self winds up the loser through failing to recognize the game. In that novel’s most bluntly metafictional moment, the character called Martin Amis lets Self in on some of the secrets of his trade: “The further down the scale [a character] is, the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.”
Even a great writer’s failed, flawed, or rejected writing can help us better appreciate and understand that writer’s unique significance.