Banned Books Week: Richard Crouse raises a little hell

October 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s Banned Books Week in the United States, which seems an appropriate occasion to highlight Toronto film critic Richard Crouse’s new volume, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils. Crouse’s book has itself not been banned (at least, not yet), but it deals with one of the most notorious cases of censorship in film history.

Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils, focuses on a series of alleged demonic possessions of Ursuline nuns that took place in the French town of Loudon in 1634. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, the film immediately ran afoul of both British censors and Warner Brothers, the American studio that financed it. (Crouse points out that this is one of the only times in history a studio has actively suppressed one of its own properties.)

The lethal combination of violence, sex, and religion made the film a target for queasy censors, who subjected the movie to an increasingly invasive series of cuts and deletions. (Film director Joe Dante called The Devils “the incredible shrinking movie,” because every time it was shown, something else went missing.) Specific bones of contention included Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave, uttering the word “cunt” (Crouse quotes John Trevelyan, one of the more progressive members of the British Board of Film Censors in 1971, as telling Russell, “It’s taken me ten years of fighting just to get [the word] ‘fuck’ accepted. The British public isn’t ready yet for cunt”); the climactic torture and burning at the stake of the Oliver Reed character, Father Urbain Grandier; and – most infamously – an orgy scene featuring a group of very naked nuns and a life-size Catholic crucifix. Of that scene, Crouse writes that a preview screening in Mayfair “made many of the censors want to wash their eyes out with soap.”

What made this all the more remarkable was that Russell was not some hack exploitation director: by 1970, he had already had a storied career at the BBC, and had been nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love. But Russell, who died in 2011, had a cinematic sensibility that was sui generis, combining baroque elements with an undeniable affinity for trash. (Other Russell films of note include an adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, the William Hurt sci-fi vehicle Altered States, and the late-period genre pieces The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic.) And while the years 1970–’71 saw the release of two other X-rated Warner Brothers picutres – the crime drama Performance, co-directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring a debut film actor named Mick Jagger, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange – the studio refused to release The Devils uncut.

Indeed, Warner Brothers was so skittish that it took out ads in a number of American publications warning the public about the content of even the heavily censored domestic release. Crouse writes:

The Devils is not a film for everyone,” screamed the header of a July 19, 1971, quarter-page ad in New York magazine. “It is a true story, carefully documented, historically accurate – a serious work by a distinguished filmmaker. As such it is likely to be hailed as a masterpiece by many. But because it is explicit and highly graphic in depicting the bizarre events that occurred in France in 1634, others will find it visually shocking and deeply disturbing.

“We feel a responsibility to alert you to this. It is our hope that only the audience that will appreciate The Devils will come to see it.”

So nervous was Warner Brothers about the film’s content that – in what must be a unique moment in film history – it actively campaigned to limit the audience that saw the film.

Crouse details the making of The Devils, including its writing, casting, and shooting, and includes comment from editor Michael Bradsell and quotes from the film’s designer, a then-unknown named Derek Jarman.

But Raising Hell is perhaps most valuable in putting The Devils in context, and attempting to explain, to the greatest extent possible, why it came in for censure when other boundary-pushing fare of the time – from upscale Oscar-nominated films such as Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist to low-budget exploitation such as I Spit on Your Grave – did not. (The answer, unsurprisingly, has much to do with the attitude of The Devils toward the institution of the Catholic Church.) But despite quoting an online rumour that the social conservatism of current Warner Brothers president and CEO Alan Horn is responsible for the continued suppression of the film’s most controversial content, Crouse stops short of explaining why the director’s cut of The Devils remains locked in a studio vault, while other, equally incendiary films (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, for example, or Takeshi Miike’s Visitor Q, or Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) are widely available on DVD.

Nevertheless, Crouse’s book is a fascinating look at a film that very few people have seen, and even fewer have seen as its director intended. Raising Hell is a case study in what transpires when religion and art collide, and it should be read as a cautionary tale in the current climate of culture wars and clashes of civilizations.


Anyone in Toronto who would like to hear the author talk about Raising Hell and the controversy surrounding The Devils should come out to the book’s official launch tonight, beginning at 7:00 p.m. at No One Writes to the Colonel.

A neat and polite monster

April 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room. Steve Lillebuen; $29.99 cloth 978-0-771-5033-6, 338 pp., McClelland & Stewart

In 2006, as part of its Midnight Madness program, the Toronto International Film Festival screened a fascinating – and highly disturbing – documentary called S&Man (pronounced “sandman”), about the world of underground horror films. Opening with a clip from Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 film Peeping Tom, a movie Slate‘s Chuck Bowen calls an “exploration of moviegoing as ultimate voyeuristic fulfillment of untapped, queasy desires,”  S&Man investigates the often uncomfortable relationship between horror films and voyeurism, with particular focus on a vicious subgenre of cinema verité mock-snuff movies: stuff that generally gets circulated online and at specialty conventions, and goes way beyond familiar notions of so-called “torture porn.” Over the course of the movie, director J.T. Petty interviews three such filmmakers: the improbably named Bill Zebub, Fred Vogel, and Eric Rost, the creepiest of the bunch, who is promoting a series of highly realistic stalk-and-slash films called S&Man. Just how willing the participants in his films are becomes a central question in Petty’s own movie.

What is most disturbing about the film in retrospect is the way it willfully blurs the line between fiction and reality, calling into question the very notions of reliability and truthfulness audiences have come to expect of documentaries. “A lot of what attracted me to doing a documentary,” Petty has said, “was how overtly manipulative and fictional they are, and how little audiences seem to be willing to see this. S&Man is easily the most dishonest movie I’ve made so far.” It is precisely this dishonesty that makes Petty’s film such a fascinating artifact of our post-postmodern age. The distance between what is presented as fact and what is actually going on provides S&Man its ironic bedrock, but also hints at the idea that our traditional understanding of representation may be fallible, that nothing is what it seems and the truth is a moveable feast.

Petty employs elements of unstable, shifting irony to examine the ways fiction and reality blur into one another, but what horrors might transpire if the safety valve of irony were removed, if the line between fantasy and the physical, moral world disappeared completely within the labyrinth of an extremely disturbed mind?

These, in part, are the questions that persist throughout journalist Steve Lillebuen’s book-length examination of convicted murderer Mark Twitchell, an aspiring filmmaker in Edmonton who became internationally infamous in the media when he was branded the “Dexter killer” as a result of his obsession with the television series about the eponymous Miami blood spatter expert who moonlights as a serial killer.

On October 10, 2008, posing as a woman on an Internet dating site, Twitchell lured Johnny Altinger, a lonely, 38-year-old Edmonton man, to a rented garage where he bludgeoned and stabbed him to death, then dismembered the corpse over the course of a bloody Thanksgiving weekend. What is remarkable about this – other than the evident savagery and inhumanity of the acts themselves – is that only two weeks earlier, Twitchell and a small crew had used the same garage as the set for a low-budget, eight-minute short movie called House of Cards. The plot of the movie? As Lillebuen describes it, the film “would feature a cop-turned-serial-killer whose own moral code would see him lure cheating husbands off dating websites with fake female profiles.” The killer in House of Cards was meant to be a variation on Dexter Morgan, the serial killer played by Michael C. Hall in the Showtime series based on Jeff Lindsay’s novels.

Both Dexter and Twitchell are of necessity pathological liars, and Lillebuen goes to some lengths to illustrate the way in which the two figures overlap in Twitchell’s warped mind. He quotes a passage from one of Lindsay’s books:

Being careful meant building a careful life, too. Compartmentalize. Socialize. Imitate life.

All of which I had done, so very carefully. I was a near perfect hologram. Above suspicion, beyond reproach, and beneath contempt. A neat and polite monster, the boy next door.

Elsewhere, Lillebuen quotes Twitchell himself as having written, “Anyone can turn out to be a psycho without being overtly obvious about it.” (Lillebuen underscores the parallelism in these two passages by including them as epigraphs to the book.) The extent to which Twitchell did not merely absorb the Dexter persona, but actually took steps to become the character is illustrated by a Facebook page Twitchell created under the fictional killer’s name. He began to refer to himself in the third person, including status updates that read, “Dexter is crouching killer, nervous father” and “Dexter is patiently waiting for his next victi … uh, play date buddy,” updates that received enthusiastic and encouraging responses from other rabid fans of the show. Well before Altinger’s murder, Twitchell wrote on his own Facebook page, “Mark has way too much in common with Dexter Morgan.”

In Lillebuen’s depiction, Twitchell appears at times completely self-aware, at others utterly oblivious. He acknowledges that he probably fits the clinical profile of a psychopath, but seems genuinely perturbed when he is caught in a lie. And some of his lies are so outrageous, it’s a wonder anyone ever bought them in the first place. Following the murder, Twitchell managed to convince one of his filmmaking buddies to store Altinger’s car in his driveway by telling him that he bought the car for forty dollars from a stranger he met in a gas station parking lot. The elaborate and contradictory stories he tells the police during questioning make them instantly suspicious, but their inability to locate Altinger’s remains puts them in doubt of being able to secure a first-degree murder conviction.

Lillebuen does a solid job of unravelling the knotted coils of Twitchell’s personality, separating the hideous fact from the dark fiction and showing how the two merged in the killer’s disturbed mind. He does not allow the book to devolve into an easy condemnation of violent art, and indeed goes to great lengths to show the craven way in which Twitchell’s defence lawyers attempted to cast his own damning writings – including an extraordinary document entitled “S.K. Confessions,” which the police retrieved from the hard drive on Twitchell’s computer – as the creations of a filmmaker who was in some way aping Petty’s approach by attempting to elide the distinction between what was real and what was part of his fictional cinematic world. These parts of the book are the strongest, and there are extended passages from “S.K. Confessions” describing Altinger’s dismemberment that are staggering and frankly difficult to read.

Less effective are Lillebuen’s attempts to dramatize events, such as the confrontations between Twitchell and his then-wife as she grows ever more suspicious about his actions and the flimsy excuses he uses to cover them up. There is also an extended sequence involving a struggle between Twitchell and a putative first victim – who ended up escaping with his life – that is overwritten and melodramatic.

Although the focus of the book is on Twitchell, Lillebuen also includes scenes told from the perspective of detectives investigating the case and Altinger himself. This proves to be a good idea, as it helps mitigate material that would otherwise have been, in Conrad’s words, “too dark – too dark altogether.”

If S&Man is, at least in part, about the tricky business of separating fantasy from reality, The Devil’s Cinema examines what happens when that line gets obliterated entirely. “Reading Dexter will not make you a killer,” wrote Jeff Lindsay in an opinion piece for The Huffington Post, which Lillebuen quotes in his epilogue. “If you are not already capable of killing another human being in a cold, cruel, deliberate way, no book ever written will make you capable of doing so. There are no magic words that will turn you into a psychopath.” While acknowledging the difficulty of comprehending the “smoke-filled labyrinth” that is Mark Twitchell’s psyche, Lillebuen quotes a snippet of the killer’s writing that indicates an awareness of the morality of actions taken in the world, as opposed to those dramatized by dark fantasists: “There is no key. No root cause … There’s no school bully, or impressionably gory movies, or video game violence, or Showtime television series to point the finger at. It is what it is and I am what I am.”

“How do I alleviate my aloneness?”

March 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

“[Anne Frank] was adept at self-examination and felt that people would benefit if at the end of each day ‘they were to review their own behaviour.’ Her attempt to better understand herself was inextricably linked to her development as a writer and to her status as an adolescent. For a child, the struggle to become unique, to assert individuality, has yet to acquire urgency. For the adult, that struggle may have ended in acquiescence – certainly in compromise. But for the adolescent the effort takes on a life or death seriousness. Not only is identity at stake; uniqueness carries its flip side: aloneness. The child can ease aloneness through play; the adult, through work. But the adolescent cannot escape facing the difficult questions: How do I nurture and protect my distinctiveness? How do I overcome my self-consciousness? How do I alleviate my aloneness?”

– “Anne Frank and the Search for Self,” from What the Furies Bring by Kenneth Sherman

Monday morning criticism: Woolf, Carpenter

March 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Good Monday morning. In the news today, support for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives remains steady even in the face of allegations that party workers engaged in a campaign of voter suppression during the 2011 election; allegations of fraud also persist in Russia’s weekend election, which resulted in 63% support for incumbent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; and the U.S. seems determined to turn the possibility of war with Iran into an election issue.

In other news, here’s Rohan Maitzen on Virginia Woolf’s criticism:

Woolf’s criticism … (and let’s, after all, concede her the term) is full of life and vitality. It is not criticism meant for cataloguing according to Library of Congress rules; it is not criticism as scholarship. It offers us no nuggets of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of our notebooks. Though definite, it is never definitive: its pronouncements are really provocations, at least to me – reading it, I simmer with questions and challenges and counter-examples, along with admiration for the lambent play of Woolf’s mind across her subjects. From the Oresteia to Ulysses, from the Paston letters to Gissing’s New Grub Street: Woolf seems able to talk with ease and wit about anything. Her criticism stimulates us to participate in the conversation with her, though not quite as equals – for there’s nothing common at all about the cultivation or polish of her writing.

And, for those who missed it over the weekend, here’s a National Post review of Matt Lennox’s debut novel, The Carpenter, written by a somewhat less estimable critic than Woolf:

If CanLit has a predominant colour, that colour is grey. The grey of storm clouds and winter; of factory smoke stacks and car exhaust; of woodsmoke and cigarette ash. The grey of memory made manifest in old black-and-white photographs. And, not least important for Matt Lennox’s debut novel, the grey of moral relativism. “There was always the grey,” Lennox writes late in his novel, “and in the grey was where the truth often resided.”

This observation, placed in the head of retired cop Stan Maitland, is somewhat ironic, given that the forces advocating for black-and-white interpretations of events and individuals in the novel tend to be institutional: cops, the court, the Church. True, there is a criminal element that is fairly straightforward in its villainy, but these characters are more a means to an end than anything else, the end being an exploration of the forces that conspire to make an essentially good man do some very, very bad things.

“He’s unnecessary, and he’s an evil”

February 17, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

“Only a little less superfluous than the agent and almost as successful, unlike certain others among Hollywood’s middlemen (the publicity man and the columnist, for instance), the producer is not a necessary evil. He’s unnecessary, and he’s an evil … In England, a producer is a man who stages a play; on Broadway, he is the man who finances a play; in Hollywood, he is the man who interferes with a movie … A producer has no equivalent in any other craft or profession, which is one of the good things about any other craft or profession.” – Orson Welles, quoted in Shoot It! Hollywood Inc. and the Rising of Independent Film by David Spaner

“I love it when there’s no redemption”: A conversation with Liz Worth

February 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

“I’ve always been a very emotional person.”

When she makes this statement, over a cup of black coffee at a café in downtown Toronto, Liz Worth appears the very antithesis of emotional. Composed and self-spoken, Worth does not exude the kind of in-your-face attitude that spawned the Toronto punk movement she chronicled in her oral history, Treat Me Like Dirt, or the searing intensity of the poems in her first full-length collection, Amphetamine Heart. She is thoughtful, pausing before speaking as if to choose precisely the correct words.

And yet she responds to questions with an honesty that is disarming, if somewhat unsurprising given the rawness of the material in Amphetamine Heart. “When alternating between vivisection / and vaginal secretions / to determine what will satisfy your / open sores faster,” she writes in “Internal Dialogue,” “take note of discolouration / versus saturation.”

“A lot of the poems in Amphetamine Heart are physical and emotional,” she says, arguably understating the case. The experience of reading the collection, which is shot through with images of injury and anxiety, boozecans and remnants of stale cigarettes (or, as Worth puts it in “Asymmetry,” “the swamp rot of this / gin and tonic mouth”), is uncomfortable, verging on voyeuristic. For this, Worth is unapologetic. “The intention,” she insists, “was never for anyone to sit there and say, ‘Oh wow, this is brightening my day.'”

Indeed, Worth is an unabashed advocate of art that disturbs its recipients. “The works that you remember are the ones that you have to put down for a while because they get too heavy or too strange or too graphic.” She admits to reading Poe at a young age: “If you’re younger, Poe is fun poetry to get into. If you’re twelve years old, it’s the kind of thing you’d pick up.” And she seems happiest, or most satisfied, when confronted with art that is in some way unsettling. “I love it when the characters die,” she says. “I love it when there’s no redemption.”

The poems in Amphetamine Heart grew out of a particular time in Worth’s twenties, something she readily admits: “There were a lot of things that were all coming to a head for me when I was writing … I don’t know whether this book could have been written five years down the road.”

Nor does she know if she could have written it had she been sleeping well at the time. “Sleeping problems dominated me so much” during the period leading up to writing Amphetamine Heart, she says. “I was preoccupied with them, I was worried all day about whether I would be able to sleep. Lots of good things came out of that insomnia, and ended up in the work.” (The book is dedicated to “my old friend insomnia.”)

Given this context, is is perhaps to be expected that the volume contains material that is fraught; what is remarkable about many of the poems in the collection is the commingling of pleasure and pain. “Second Guessing,” for example, begins with an image that is at once startling and mordantly humorous: “From this side of the door / the sounds of dry heaves / are the same as orgasms.” When asked about the affinity between pleasure and pain, Worth pauses for thought before responding. “We do a lot of things that seem really fun or seem to make us happy, but in time are damaging or there’s going to be a huge comedown,” she says, and offers as an example binge drinking. “There is pleasure in pain, and that’s just on a regular weekend.”

The word “regular” is significant for a punk aficionado who grew up in Alderwood, a neighbourhood nestled in the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. “Alderwood is like everywhere else,” Worth says, “where you see people who have a lot of money, and people who have no money. And then everybody else. It’s very mixed. Which I think a lot of people don’t expect when you talk about the suburbs.”

The mix of industrial and residential landscape was also influential on the young Worth’s burgeoning aesthetic. “Just looking out my bedroom window every day and seeing these little factories where people were working on assembly lines and shipping things out and everything, that really influenced the things that I was thinking about and I incorporated that into my writing.”

Worth disavows the stereotypical idea of suburbia as a field of cookie-cutter houses, strip malls, and auto-body shops. Like the David Lynch of Blue Velvet, she locates a whole world of intrigue and drama roiling beneath the polite, well-kept surface, a world she asserts can be every bit as fascinating as that of the self-conscious bohemians downtown. “I’ve often found that in some ways downtown scenes or urban scenes that people kind of associate with things that are edgy and dangerous or progressive often aren’t all that interesting.”

This kind of cultural snobbery, Worth suggests, can result in a blindness to the contours of society as it actually exists outside a self-enclosed, proscribed area.

“If you look at Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, they are not representative of how the rest of the country thinks or operates at all.” In industrial cities like Sudbury or small towns across Canada, Worth points out, the people “are not thinking about the sociology of music, they’re not thinking poetry, they’re not thinking literature.”

“If you spend enough time in Toronto,” she goes on, “you create a bubble and you forget.”

While Worth is careful to ensure that she remains cognizant of the fabric of life outside Canada’s largest city, it is clear that Toronto – or at least, a particular version of it – inhabits her down to her bones. Treat Me Like Dirt, Worth’s first full-length book (following the chapbook Eleven: Eleven), is an encyclopedic oral history of the early days of punk music in and around Toronto in the years between 1977 and 1981. In fact, Worth ran into initial difficulty finding someone to take on Treat Me Like Dirt, in part because there was a sense that it was too Toronto-centric. “That book was really hard to get published,” she says. “I shopped it a lot and a lot of people came back and said, ‘We don’t see a market for it, we don’t think we can sell it, we think it’s too Toronto.'”

The one person who was willing to take a chance on it was Roger Alfonso, former manager of the Diodes, one of the bands profiled in the book. Alfonso had since started an indie music label called Bongo Beat, and he expressed an interest in publishing Worth’s manuscript. “He pressed me along the way as I was interviewing him,” Worth says. “He said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to put it out, if you’re serious about this, keep me in mind.’ When it was done, I sent it to Ralph and he liked it.” The book was a success, and was later picked up by its current publisher, ECW Press.

“It’s in its fourth printing now,” says Worth. “After the book did so well, it was easy.”

Indeed, Treat Me Like Dirt was something of a trailblazer given the initial reluctance to touch anything dealing with punk in Toronto. “Since [Treat Me Like Dirt‘s initial publication], there have been two other books about Toronto punk rock. There was Don Pyle’s Trouble in the Camera Club, and that came out with ECW as well, and then Dirty, Drunk and Punk, about the BFGs, which Jennifer Morton put out. Now it seems like it’s getting easier to publish Toronto punk, because there’s obviously an interest.”

Certainly it remains a subject of abiding interest to Worth, who was deeply invested in the material from the beginning. “I didn’t really put myself into that book at all,” she says, “[but] that book would never have happened if I wasn’t really, really, really in love with the subject.”

Worth’s introduction to punk came as a result of her affinity for popular music in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Radio and MuchMusic were so different from what they are now,” she says. “They actually played different songs every day. MuchMusic still played music videos. That was the biggest way that me and my friends would get our music. You could sit down in front of the TV for a couple of hours and watch videos and you might actually find a band that you liked.” One such session led to Worth’s punk rock road to Damascus moment: “I remember seeing the Ramones’ video for ‘Pet Sematary,’ the song that they did for the movie, and that was the first time I’d heard the Ramones.”

Although the relationship between punk and poetry may at first seem counterintuitive, Worth points out that the two art forms actually have more in common than might appear at first glance. “Patti Smith was a poet before she was a singer,” Worth says. “A few years after Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch came along, and she always had her hands in spoken word, art. She kind of did it all.” Worth also mentions Bif Naked, who put out a spoken word album in the 1990s. “I read an interview with her and she said that the poetry came first. She never saw herself as someone who would be a singer. She thought she was going to be a dancer. But she was really into poetry and she considers herself a lyricist before anything.”

Contradiction or not, Worth plans to continue writing, albeit at her own pace. She admits to having a novel in the works, but cautions, “You never know how these things will go.” At the moment, she is content to get on with the daily business of living. “Because my writing does come from personal experiences,” she says, “I have to make sure that I keep living my life and not let writing become my life.”

And does that life include remaining in Toronto, or striking out for different, uncharted environs? “When I was younger, I used to have a plan that I was going to move to London, England, by the time I was twenty-five,” she says. Now, however, “It would be really hard for me to leave.” If she were to decide to make a break, she says, “I’m more likely to move to the middle of nowhere than I am to move to another big city.”

Still, she is reluctant to rule anything out entirely. “I think that we’re always changing and evolving, right?”

Canada Reads 2012

February 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Two key moments from today’s Canada Reads 2012 debates, which I offer here without comment.

I should make it clear right now, too, that we’re judging the books, not the authors. Okay, so, the authors are all wonderful people, that doesn’t mean you have to like their books. No one is a bad person just because you didn’t connect with one of their books. That’s sort of a disclaimer at the top of this week because these are non-fiction, and they’re powerful and they’re personal stories. So we all get that we’re debating the books here: nobody’s judging people, nobody’s a bad person for not liking or having some of these books resonate for them.

– Jian Ghomeshi, host


Well, the characters I found least compelling were Dave Bidini, Ken Dryden, Marina Nemat, and Carmen Aguirre.

And in no particular order, I’ll say this: Carmen Aguirre is a bloody terrorist; how we let her into Canada I don’t understand.

Marina Nemat – and it’s known to other prisoners, other prisoners who shared her experience – tells a story that’s not true, and you can tell it’s not true when you read it.

Ken Dryden, bless his delicious soul … Actually, I like him, but the character he portrays is at the most boring time of his life, when he joined the inarticulate to engage in that sport with the sticks and the little rock that they throw around. But at least he’s an attorney today, lovely and handsome as ever.

Dave Bidini, a failed rocker with aspirations of grandeur as a journalist and describes a failing period of his life.

So, take that, y’all! Take that!

– Anne-France Goldwater, panelist, litigator, host of reality-TV series L’Arbitre


“Before he was here, I had a chair”

January 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

The Three Stooges or Voltaire: Ray Robertson on culture, CanLit, and fifteen reasons to live

December 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Don’t try telling Ray Robertson that his latest book, the essay collection Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, is uplifting. “Hopefully you’re joking,” he says caustically.

To be fair, there is a certain irony in characterizing Why Not, which has recently been longlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize (it was also shortlisted for the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction this past fall), as a kind of sunny, self-help guide in the vein of The Book of Awesome or the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Although each of its short chapters is devoted to a different aspect that makes life worth living – subjects include love, art, work, solitude, and intoxication – the book is informed by the clear-eyed assessments of an unrepentant devotee of philosophers from the stoics to the transcendentalists. Robertson is a student of philosophy, and has always been more comfortable in the company of Emerson and Seneca than with the New Age platitudes of Deepak Chopra or Robin Sharma.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the author’s work that his book on the meaning of life concludes with a meditation on death. What might be surprising, however, is to hear Robertson state that, for him, the final chapter is one of the most affirmative in the entire book. “With the other chapters,” he says, “there’s always the downside. So when I talk about intoxication, I talk about how you can go the other way [i.e. become an addict]. Or how you’ve got friends, yes, but they’ll let you down. Or love, but it doesn’t last. But with death, there is always the fact that you’re going to die and I thought that, across the ages, it’s the fragility or ephemerality [of life] that provides the intensity and the supposed longed-for purpose that we often lose track of.”

Robertson himself wondered about the inclusion of a chapter on death in what was putatively a life-affirming book, but ultimately decided the subject was unavoidable. “The whole book was based on the idea that you’re going to confront unsavoury truths and affirm life in spite of them,” he says. “It became apparent after a while that there was this spectre hanging over all the other reasons, no matter how affirmative you are or how you try to wring meaning out of this stuff, and I found that it was something that had to be confronted.”

The author of six novels and a collection of literary criticism, Robertson is no stranger to confronting unsavoury truths. In this case, the confrontation was initiated in response to emotional turmoil in his own life. After finishing the first draft of his most recent novel, 2009’s David, Robertson went through a period of malaise that culminated in thoughts of suicide. “It wasn’t despair or a kind of ‘woe is me,'” he says. “It was just a kind of nothingness. What I was frustrated with was this period where nothing could have gone better in a worldly sense. It wasn’t as if I had anything to be depressed about, but I was incapable of appreciating all the wonderful things life had to offer.”

Afflicted with chronic obsessive-compulsive disorder, Robertson found that simple but radical changes in diet helped him recover from his dis-ease. Deleterious products such as processed food, white sugar, and caffeine were out; healthy alternatives like bananas, almonds, turkey, and whole grain breads were in. “I got better essentially through detoxifying,” he says. “I thought that part of my personality was panic attacks and stuff, and that was part of my edgy, intense nature. After forty-three years of that your body kind of tenses for it. Then, after six or seven weeks or so there was a situation where they didn’t come. I thought, ‘Why?’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, it’s chemistry.'”

Although Robertson is adamant that the resulting collection is not intended as a memoir of his illness and recovery, he nonetheless admits to the personal nature of the project: “It’s the closest I’ll come to autobiography.” Consequently, the essays are replete with the author’s thoughts on the things that are closest to him, including abiding concerns such as music and the nature of good art.

And what constitutes good art? In Why Not, Robertson answers the question first by defining what art isn’t: it is not entertainment; it is not an obligation; and above all, it is not culture. The author quotes Simone Weil: “Culture is an instrument wielded by professors to manufacture professors, who when their turn comes will manufacture professors.” Or, as he suggests to me when I bring up the subject of CanLit and the institutional instruments – Canada Council grants, Canada Reads, the Scotiabank Giller Prize – that provide it with oxygen: “When something becomes so aligned with the culture that it becomes simultaneous with it, most likely it’s no longer art.”

For Robertson, culture is often equated with professionalism and competence, which he acknowledges are necessary to create art, but are not nearly sufficient to sustain it. When I suggest that competence is the curse of CanLit, his eyes light up. “Competence is the enemy of excellence,” he says. “Of course you aspire to make it. And you’ve got a pretty nice lifestyle where you get a grant, you’ve got this and you’ve got this, and you’re perfectly set now, but you’re forty-five and you’ve written seven books, you’ve written out your childhood, you don’t have to worry about being published, and there’s this retreat into competence as opposed to that blazing.”

It’s the blazing – or to use Robertson’s preferred term in Why Not, the danger – that separates merely competent work from great art. The writers he admires – he names Barry Hannah, Jack Kerouac, and Thomas McGuane – were all devoted to crafting sentences capable of making a reader sit up an take notice, a quality that often goes missing in a culture that prizes books that are good for you over books that are just plain good. “McGuane and Hannah much more than Kerouac,” says Robertson, “and one book by Carson McCullers, not her whole oeuvre, but The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: that book just blew my mind. That book felt dangerous. How is she able to talk about this sixty-year-old black doctor who’s disappointed in his children? How does she know this? It’s unnerving. As opposed to, here’s a book about how racism is wrong.”

Too often, our culture promotes the latter over the former, in Robertson’s view, leading to a kind of tyranny of mediocrity. “You should stay away from the mediocre. You should have good art or bad art. It should be the Three Stooges or Voltaire.”

And how to counteract the forces of mediocrity? For Robertson, the answer is simple: ignore them. “It’s like every year with the Grammys,” he says, “there are probably a couple of good things, but for the most part, people who care about good music don’t sit around saying, ‘Oh, geez, did Jay-Z win?’ And then, of course, when Steve Earle does win one, it’s twenty years after he was dangerous and making good art, so it’s irrelevant.” But if literary tastemakers were to refuse to pay attention, it might serve to change people’s ideas about what is good and bad. “If there’s this indifference from the intelligentsia, people with taste, I think it would be cathartic,” he suggests. “It’s like trying to change capitalism. To me, I think it’s best to stand outside it and just live your life.”

Living his life, these days, means coming to grips with the fact that many of the things he values – solitude, for example – are not things that the current zeitgeist tends to promote. But Robertson is sanguine about maintaining a somewhat adversarial relationship with the modern world. “Bertrand Russell lived so long that he actually saw some of the things he had argued for as a contrarian by nature come to pass, and he said it’s a very curious thing to see your enemies embracing your arguments. It’s oddly deflating.”

Instead of being deflated, the experience of writing and promoting Why Not seems to have rejuvenated Robertson and given him the drive to return to what he loves most: writing. “I feel like you have to have the right attitude,” he says, “where you get up in the morning and you think, ‘I want to write about that‘ as opposed to, ‘I want to write.'” And if he’s mellowed a bit in the process, he considers that, too, all for the best. “I think I’m fairly clear about what my agenda is, and that is to make good art as best I can and everything else is secondary. When I was younger, that included my health. And I was mean as a snake, especially when I was trying to get situated [as a writer]. But it doesn’t happen like that anymore and so I feel a bit more human and I think that’s enriched my art a bit.”

You could do worse, I say. “You could do worse,” Robertson laughs. “That’s what you should use as the title for your piece.”

Steven Heighton’s memos on writing and reading

December 13, 2011 by · 4 Comments 

Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing. Steven Heighton; $18.95 paper 978-1-55022-937-0, 80 pp., ECW Press

“We make of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” So said W.B. Yeats, whose tidy observation provides the springboard for Steven Heighton’s little book of musings, or “memos,” as he prefers to call this collection of thoughts on writing, reading, and criticism. The epigrammatic structure of Heighton’s book, reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, results from the author’s sense that fully formed essays are inevitably incomplete; the Hegelian cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will necessarily only lead to the discovery of a second thesis that will begin the process over again, and again, and again ad infinitum. “I grow impatient with the enterprise,” Heighton writes in his foreword, “and yet the alternative would seem to be mendacity through omission, which is akin to propaganda.”

Heighton is not a propagandist; he is a careful and thoughtful writer who uses the short, sharp shots in this book to sketch out an artistic manifesto of sorts, a fractured and meditative riff on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (the young poet, in this case, being a youthful version of Heighton himself). His numbered lists of memos address subjects – insecurity, jealousy, fear, failure – that occupy all writers’ thoughts, whether or not they admit to them. Thus, number eight under the heading “On Criticism”: “The writing life’s cruellest irony: while failure can make you miserable, success won’t make you happy.” In “A Devil’s Dictionary for Writers,” failure is defined as a “phenomenon that allows writers to retain their friends,” and a “writer’s writer” is “one who lives at or below the poverty line.”

These observations are refreshing in their honesty, directness, and humour. Also refreshing is Heighton’s refusal to compromise on the discipline required to write and read well, at one point excoriating lazy readers who are “unwilling or unable to empathize with characters different from themselves.”

Throughout, Heighton is concerned with emphasizing the importance of complexity and nuance, whether he is addressing writers, readers, or critics. Of the last, he quite accurately recognizes that the “bad reviewer’s art involves universalizing, in authoritative, pseudo-objective language, a totally subjective response to a book,” and notes that “you can always criticize at a higher level than you can compose; you can always spot flaws in a classic novel that you could never hope to write yourself.”

Heighton is especially hard on writers who abandon fidelity to an artistic vision in favour of mainstream acceptance and recognition: “Careerist writers don’t confront and relish challenges, they crash into obstacles, which they naturally resent and fear.” He rejects the careerist writer’s definition of success, which is inevitably caught up more in the pursuit of awards and accolades than a focus on artistic purity. He urges readers who are interested in truly significant art to bypass recent award winners and buzz books and turn their attention to those volumes that have stood the test of time, although he also recognizes the “small masterpieces, initially neglected” that “still languish unread.”

If there is a contradiction here, it is one that Heighton would likely embrace. Despite his book’s formal affinity with Kierkegaard’s epigrams, Heighton is not a fan of either/or propositions. He is aware of complexity, and confident enough to allow it free rein.

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