31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 28: Jim Shepard on history, ambition, and unconventional beach reading

May 28, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Jim Shepard (photo by Barry Goldstein)

Jim Shepard (photo by Barry Goldstein)

“My wife has said about me that I’m the only person she knows who would take a history of the guillotine to the beach.”

American novelist and short story writer Jim Shepard’s choice of beach reading says quite a bit about the kind of author he is. It also testifies to the twin poles that animate his fiction.

Shepard is possessed of a voracious, roving imagination that seems equally at home on the killing fields of the French Revolution or the Second World War and onstage with The Who. So capacious is his imaginative empathy that he is capable of projecting himself inside the Hindenburg and offering a cogent explanation for what caused the famous disaster, all while telling a tender love story featuring two homosexual engineers and transforming the whole thing into a metaphor for the twentieth century’s failed aspirations in the areas of national and technological mastery.

But the fact that Shepard would read about the guillotine on the beach is equally significant. He feels comfortable writing about the heaviest of themes – the Holocaust, the Columbine school massacre – one moment, but the next will find him telling a story about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. From the point of view of the creature. Or doing a story about mental illness, filtered through the eyes of a narrator who, as a boy in the 1960s, was obsessed with collecting Topps’ Mars Attacks! trading cards.

“You’ve probably put your finger on how my own personal aesthetic works,” says Shepard about the short story “Mars Attacks.” “I don’t sit down at my desk and say, it’s time to tackle mental illness. What I’m doing is going, you know what would be great? To write about those cards. And that’s my way of talking myself into dealing with difficult emotional issues.”

If there is a unifying theme to Shepard’s diverse output, it can probably be found in the realm of “difficult emotional issues,” particularly those that manifest in extreme situations.

Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, locates itself at the centre of one of the most extreme places in history: the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazis. It takes up the story of Janusz Korczak, the Jewish doctor and educational reformer who set up an orphanage inside the walls of the Jewish ghetto. Importantly for Shepard, however, Korczak is not the novel’s protagonist, but rather a secondary figure. The protagonist is the eponymous Aron, a child who learns to live by his wits – smuggling, colluding, and doing pretty much anything he has to in order to survive – before winding up in the care of the saintly Korczak.

“I was dealing with the kind of figure that normally doesn’t get narrated,” Shepard says of his approach to the novel. “One of the insidious things about a lot of Holocaust narratives is the way they choose figures that are quite extraordinary.”

Book_of_Aron_Jim_ShepardShepard cites Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank as books that fall into this category, and offers a tacit rebuke to critics such as Geraldine Brooks, whose recent New York Times review of The Book of Aron questioned why the story wasn’t narrated from Korczak’s perspective. Reading Frank’s diary, Shepard posits, it’s impossible not to be astounded by the intelligence and empathic rumination that infuses the writing of such a young girl. “And it’s one short step from that to, you know, the Holocaust was a terrible thing because it killed Anne Frank,” Shepard says. “I thought, what about those people nobody valued, what about those people who got swept away. And, you know, all those people in the background of all the newsreels. I very much like that worm’s eye view, that sense that nobody cares about my protagonist but me.”

Brooks also points out that in order for Shepard to inhabit Aron’s consciousness, he must forgo numerous writerly flourishes, such as lush vocabulary and metaphor. She suggests this is a risky proposition for an author, but it is in fact simply another characteristic of Shepard’s writing. For all its diversity in terms of subject, Shepard’s fiction – be it novels or stories – is notable for its concision, its ruthless paring away of anything extraneous. “I’m really attracted to leanness,” Shepard says, while at the same time acknowledging, “I don’t think that’s a mainstream, readerly pleasure.”

Shepard suggests that Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winner, All the Light We Cannot See, offers an example of a book that resides at the other end of the spectrum from The Book of Aron. “Tony’s book is 500, 600 pages, and it reads pretty quickly, and readers feel like, I got my money’s worth there. [Whereas] mine is a shuttered, streamlined little thing.”

While Shepard’s attachment to sparseness is apparently engrained in his makeup, he is cognizant of the mainstream limitations inherent in this approach. “I recognize that in fact it’s not what I would call a good business decision,” he says. “I think the big canvas not only attracts more readers, but it feels self-consciously more important. It’s big in both senses of the word.”

And though it would be difficult to deny the evident ambition in Shepard’s range of output and his ability to inhabit an apparently endless variety of different characters convincingly, this is not the kind of ambition that calls attention to itself and wins prizes. “I’d be miserable if I didn’t think my work was ambitious,” Shepard says. “I think my work is extraordinarily ambitious, but I think you have to be a certain kind of reader to understand that. When you get a 700-page novel that is explicitly talking about the rights of man, even falling down the stairs you would think this is an ambitious book. So, it’s much more signposted.”

Those signposts don’t exist in the realm of short fiction, which is a genre Shepard continues returning to, in part because of his affinity for leanness, and in part because he enjoys “the guerilla aspect” of the form. “There’s a lot of what I call furniture moving in novel writing that I get quite impatient with. I love the idea that you hit the ground running.”

Of course, the very fact the writer hits the ground running, covers a brief distance, then stops is precisely one of the aspects of the short form that turns readers off. Shepard readily acknowledges that readers feel they don’t have time with a short story to make the kind of emotional investment that a novel affords, which is one reason stories are paradoxically unpopular in an age of constant distraction and short attention spans.

“One of the other things that’s operating that I think publishers forget,” Shepard continues, “is short stories seem very close in the reader’s mind to medicine. It’s very close to poetry. Or Literature with a capital ‘L.’ [Readers] think, this is going to be a little bit more oblique, this is going to be a little bit more difficult, a little bit more modernist, and I’m going to feel a little stupid, maybe, and who needs it?”

Like_You'd_Understand_Anyway_Jim_ShepardThat said, one other signature facet of Shepard’s writing – the novels and, especially, the stories – is a staunch refusal to dumb itself down, a tactic that seems almost counterintuitive in our current anti-intellectual climate. “I always trust my readers to infer way more than other writers do,” Shepard says.

That is a large investment of trust, given the relative difficulty of Shepard’s fiction. It feels in some ways as though the title of the author’s National Book Award–nominated 2007 story collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a rebuke to the culture at large. “One of my students told her mother that I had a new collection out,” Shepard recalls. “And her mother said, ‘Oh, what’s it called? Maybe I’ll get it.’ And the student said, ‘Like You’d Understand, Anyway.‘ And the mother said, ‘Well, I might!'”

Yet for all its intellectual rigour, for all the evident research and erudition that goes into the work, it is the emotional connection that sparks Shepard’s fiction. Absent that emotional trigger, the author says he would not be able to find a way into the work. Returning to Shepard’s preferred beach reading, it is not the history of the French Terror itself, horrendously compelling though it may be, that provokes a story. It is always something much more specific, and more resonant.

In the case of “Sans Farine,” which is included in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, it was a detail about a hereditary executioner – “That already interests me: how do you get that job? How did a family end up with that?” – who complained to one of the French monarchs that his clothes were wearing out too quickly on account of all the blood they were becoming saturated with. “And I thought, what kind of a person complains about that? And in what way? The idea that you would be so good at self-pity that even as a mass murderer, you would think that you were the one beset … That I felt like I could relate to emotionally.”

The kind of miniaturism contained in this attitude is not to suggest that even Shepard is immune to feeling intimidated by the scope of his ongoing project. “The hubris involved with what I’m doing a lot of the time is fairly staggering,” Shepard says. “To me, anyway.” One of the reasons the author gives for defaulting to the first person in the majority of his work is that it is one way of tackling the hubris head on. “I was trying to write years ago about Aeschylus and I was trying to do so in a detached third person and it was a miserable failure. And finally I got so upset with myself that I thought, you know what, just head on: if you can’t finish a sentence that begins, ‘I am Aeschylus,’ then you should just stop doing it.”

The big chill: freedom of expression, self-censorship, and the limits of speech

January 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Last week was not a good one for freedom of speech.

The week began with the release of a survey conducted by the PEN American Center focusing on the effect that mass government surveillance has had on writers around the world. Titled Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, and conducted between August 28 and October 15, 2014, the survey found that writers from around the globe have engaged in a program of self-censorship as a result, in part, of revelations by former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden regarding the extent to which the American government has been spying on its own citizens in the wake of 9/11.

Consisting of data from 772 respondents – writers, editors, translators, publishers, journalists, and others – from fifty countries, the PEN survey found that “[l]evels of concern about government surveillance in democratic countries are now nearly as high as in non-democratic states with long legacies of pervasive state surveillance,” and that “levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democratic countries … match, or even exceed, levels reported by U.S. writers.” In the so-called “Five Eyes” countries – America and those that actively share intelligence with U.S. authorities (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) – fully eighty-four percent of respondents claim to be at least somewhat worried about government surveillance in their own countries. Forty percent of respondents from Five Eyes countries and twenty-eight percent of those from Western Europe admitted avoiding certain topics in their writing or speech as a result.

This is significant because, as the report points out, writers are like the canary in the coalmine where democratic freedoms are concerned. “Because freedom of expression is so central to writers’ craft, they may be considered particularly sensitive to encroachments on their rights to communicate, obtain, and impart information and voice their ideas and opinions. But the freedoms that writers rely on daily are the underpinnings of all free societies.”

The PEN report was released on January 5. Two days later, gunmen burst into the boardroom of the satirical Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing ten journalists, apparently as revenge for the publication of offensive images of the Prophet Mohammed. By week’s end, Paris had endured three full days of terror, and twenty people – including the three suspects implicated in the Charlie Hebdo massacre – were dead.

The Paris shootings sparked global condemnation, though not all commentators were supportive of Charlie Hebdo‘s particular brand of satire, which seeks to ridicule and belittle not just Muslims, but any religion or political institution that claims authority over others. Writing in The New York Times, David Brooks criticized the puerility of Charlie Hebdo‘s “deliberately offensive” humour and pointed out that “there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.”

Free speech is, of course, an easy concept to defend when it is speech someone agrees with. The acid test involves one’s willingness to defend speech one finds personally offensive, hurtful, or disagreeable. I may not agree with what Ann Coulter says, but I will defend to the death her right to say it: not exactly the heights of Enlightenment rationalism, but an important concept to bear in mind nevertheless.

The Charlie Hebdo killings throw a light on some very difficult questions about the limits of free expression in a democratic society. Does the right to express oneself extend to the right to engage in deliberately hateful, racist, or derogatory speech targeting identifiable individuals or groups? If we assume that the Charlie Hebdo journalists have an unfettered right to express themselves in any way they wish, must we also extend this right to, say, the thirteen members of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who posted rabidly misogynistic comments about female classmates on a private Facebook group, resulting in suspensions for the perpetrators and damage to the university’s reputation in the national media? Where does my freedom of expression end, and your sense of security begin?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the online hacker collective Anonymous has threatened to shut down jihadist websites; this, some would argue, is an appropriate response to last week’s atrocities. It is also a pretty obvious encroachment on the speech rights of a group certain people have deemed dangerous or unworthy of the protections extended to others.

These are the very issues brought up by Snowden’s revelation of the extent to which the N.S.A. has been responsible for collecting information on U.S. citizens. The ability to engage in the kind of broad, warrantless surveillance Snowden demonstrated can’t help but have a chilling effect, and the danger is that this effect will get exacerbated in the fallout from the Paris killings. Here in Canada, the Conservative government is already making rumblings about using the Paris attack as an excuse to beef up domestic surveillance activities, something that was already on the table as a result of an assault by a lone gunman on Parliament in Ottawa last October.

This is a response everyone who prizes democratic ideals should be very concerned about. It would be all too easy to use last week’s violence as an excuse to further erode the privacy and freedoms of citizens in the name of keeping people safe. That would be a mistake. Quoted in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Farhad Khosrokhavar, an authority on radical Islam, says, “The question is whether European societies would like to be free, and live more dangerously because they can’t arrest everyone, or whether they want less freedom and more security.” An essential aspect of this freedom involves the unfettered ability of writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types to express themselves without fear of reprisal, either from masked murderers or institutional instruments.

“What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behaviour is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring,” writes Glenn Greenwald in No Place to Hide, his book about Edward Snowden and the N.S.A.’s domestic spying program. “[I]f you believe you are always being watched and judged, you are not really a free individual.”

It doesn’t really matter who does the watching and judging: governments, religious leaders, or lone gunmen intent on avenging some perceived slight or historical wrong. If the effect is to prevent the free exchange of ideas, to increase the impulse toward self-censorship, and to silence dissent, then we all lose.

Margaret Atwood to leave unread manuscript for posterity as part of The Future Library project

September 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

When one thinks of a futurist, one likely pictures a bespectacled tech-industry CEO or a scientist toiling away in an obscure nuclear laboratory. One probably doesn’t think of a Man Booker Prize–winning novelist. But Margaret Atwood has long had one eye on the future, and now she’s backing that up with a new piece of writing that, if all goes according to plan, no one but her will read for the next hundred years.

According to Alison Flood in the Guardian, Atwood has teamed with the Scottish artist Katie Paterson on what is being called The Future Library project: a sealed archive of manuscripts – one per year for the next century – that will be kept in Oslo until the various works are printed in the year 2114.

From the Guardian:

Atwood has just been named as the first contributor to an astonishing new public artwork. The Future Library project, conceived by the award-winning young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, began, quietly, this summer, with the planting of a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo. It will slowly unfold over the next century. Every year until 2114, one writer will be invited to contribute a new text to the collection, and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.

What is remarkable about this project – from all perspectives – is its optimism. Its very premise presumes that humans a) will still be reading books in the year 2114; b) will still be reading books on paper (take that, Jeff Bezos); c) will not, in the interim, have so ravished the planet that it will have been rendered uninhabitable; and d) will not have otherwise killed themselves off, or been killed off, by war, hubris, pestilence, famine, or the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

But futurists are inherently optimistic and, despite frequent criticisms as to her bitter anger (especially regarding that half of the human population in possession of an XY chromosome), Atwood has always been a peculiarly optimistic writer. (Satirists are almost by definition optimists, because they presume that human beings are capable of change.)

Indeed, there is much in The Future Library project that would seem to appeal to Atwood, not least the environmental aspect involved in the planting of one thousand trees. There is also the historical element tied in to the presence of a printing press, which will be added to the library to print the books when the project culminates; that piece of technology may in fact be an obsolete antique by 2114. And there is an undeniable element of faith: both Atwood and Paterson will have shuffled off this mortal coil before the project wraps up, so neither will be alive to see the work they have seeded bloom. “Sometimes it does hit me,” Paterson says in the Guardian, “Oh my God, if I live to ninety, what will it be like then? It’s very exciting as an artist.”

My own favourite part of Atwood’s response to this project involves her stated “pleasure” in the prospect of not being around when her work is finally read. “You don’t have to be around for the part when if it’s a good review the publisher takes credit for it and if it’s a bad review it’s all your fault.”

The Snark: a metaphor

October 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

The first intercontinental missile deployed by the United States, the Snark, had wings, a jet engine, and a range of about six thousand miles. It was a great-looking missile, sleek and futuristic, painted a fiery red. But the Snark soon became legendary for landing nowhere near its target. During one test launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, a Snark that was supposed to fly no farther than Puerto Rico just kept on going, despite repeated attempts by range safety to make it self-destruct. When the slow-moving missile passed Puerto Rico, fighter planes were scrambled to shoot it down, but they couldn’t find it. The Snark eventually ran out of fuel and crashed somewhere in the Amazonian rain forests of Brazil.

– Eric Schlosser, in Command and Control, writing either a description of a particularly recalcitrant make of ICBM, or an extended metaphor for book reviewing

Narrowness, curiosity, and the Gilmour Effect

September 26, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

David_Gilmour“When that review came out,” David Gilmour told National Post books editor Mark Medley in 2011, referring to a review of his Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel A Perfect Night to Go to China, “I went out looking for him.” The “him” in question was novelist and critic André Alexis, who had given Gilmour’s novel a less-than-stellar write-up. “I thought, ‘I’m going to beat the living shit out of this guy, and I don’t give a fuck what happens – this guy is going down.’ Because I know that that is a piece of personal vitriol. China was a beautiful book. Nobody but a guy who had a chip on his shoulder, or had some problem with chicks or something, would come after me for this book.”

Flash forward two years and one could be forgiven for thinking it’s Gilmour, not Alexis, who has “some problem with chicks.” On Wednesday, the Twittersphere was set alight by an installment of Emily M. Keeler’s “Shelf Esteem” series, which appears on the Random House blog Hazlitt. The series involves Keeler interviewing writers, editors, and other literary personalities about the contents of their personal bookshelves. In the course of interviewing Gilmour – whose latest novel, Extraordinary, has been longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize – Keeler noted the author did not have many books by women in his collection. Gilmour, who teaches literature to first- and third-year students at the University of Toronto, responded thusly:

I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

Gilmour explains that he teaches Miller and Roth as a means of distinguishing between pornography and literature (fair enough), then concludes, “I teach only the best.” The clear implication is that “the best” does not, in Gilmour’s opinion, include “books by women” (other than Woolf), books by Canadians, or – bizarrely – books by Chinese authors. (Gilmour later claimed this was meant as a joke: I confess I don’t get it.)

We can argue about what constitutes “the best”: Gilmour identifies Proust, Tolstoy, and Chekhov as the high-water marks of literature, and you’d be hard pressed to find too many serious scholars who would disagree. However, by ignoring women, he is erasing from consideration such canonical writers as Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Lady Murasaki, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Edna O’Brien, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, and Isak Dinesen. By ignoring Canadians (he claims to admire Munro), he is eliding Atwood, Gallant, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Sheila Watson, Norman Levine, Adele Wiseman, Hubert Aquin, Robert Kroetsch, Leon Rooke, Austin Clarke, and Marian Engel. And by ignoring Chinese writers, he is missing out on Mo Yan, Eileen Chang, Ma Jian, Gao Xingjian, and Wang Xiaobo.

What is notable about these lists is how diverse the authors are in terms of style, themes, and subject matter. The most distressing thing about Gilmour’s approach to literature – especially as a teacher – is how narrow it is. Like David Shields, Gilmour seems interested only in writing that reflects his own experience back to him: “I’m a middle-aged writer and I’m very interested in the middle-aged writer’s experience,” he told Medley in a follow-up interview addressing the controversy that had sprung up around the Hazlitt piece. “I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities, but there isn’t a racist or a sexist bone in my body.”

Notwithstanding this protestation, Gilmour refuses to refer to Keeler by name, or even to allow her the designation of “reporter” or “interviewer,” instead repeatedly calling her “this young woman” and suggesting her motivation was “to make a little name for herself.” He also says that he was only paying her partial attention during the interview, distracted as he was by a conversation he was carrying on simultaneously, in French, with a (male) colleague: “I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman.” These remarks certainly testify to a streak of unexamined sexism, but I leave it to others to pursue this line of argument.

Here’s the thing: I like Gilmour’s novels. I liked A Perfect Night to Go to China, I liked Sparrow Nights and An Affair with the Moon and The Perfect Order of Things. I haven’t read Extraordinary yet, but I probably will. I do not agree with Scott Carter’s suggestion that you must be in sympathy with an author’s character or ideologies to appreciate his work. And I have in the past admired Gilmour’s damn-the-torpedoes willingness to say what he thinks and not care whether people like it or not. (When he told Medley in 2011, “Writers don’t wish each other well. They wish each other death and failure,” I couldn’t help but suppose that, on one level, he was absolutely right.) And if, as a personal choice, Gilmour decides he’d rather not read books by women, or Chinese or homosexual writers, that is his prerogative.

But Gilmour is – adamantly and proudly – a university lecturer, charged with forming young minds and forging young sensibilities. This is a large responsibility, and anyone who undertakes it should be intellectually curious enough to at least remain open to the possibility of being surprised by a work of literature that exists outside his usual tastes or reading habits. If nothing else, in order to remain cognizant of the landscape of his chosen subject matter, it would behoove Gilmour to expose himself to the broadest possible array of writers, and to the possibility that what constitutes “the best” in literature doesn’t always equate with “what best reflects my life as I have come to understand it.”

In any event, saying one doesn’t like books by women is somewhat akin to saying one doesn’t like music: the category is so large, so diverse, so heterogeneous, that to paint it all with the same brush is virtually impossible. Willa Cather has as much in common with Renata Adler as Elmore Leonard has with James Joyce. And although, as Jared Bland points out, the Western canon is dominated by dead white men, it is nevertheless possible to admit women authors to the ranks of “the best” without sacrificing any standards of quality or importance. Ask English lit scholars what the finest novel in the language is, and a good number of them might say Middlemarch (nor do you have to enjoy it to recognize its inherent quality – trust me on this one). And there are those (myself included) who would argue that the first novel – Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, which remains in print to this day – was written by a woman, some 600 years before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote.

Gilmour claims he doesn’t teach women writers because he doesn’t feel “passionately” about them, or about their books, and those who wish to be exposed to these works can go “down the hall.” But it seems odd that someone like Gilmour – a novelist and teacher – who can be assumed to maintain an abiding interest in the human experience in all its forms, should not be able to find among women writers more than one short story by Virginia Woolf that he is able to care passionately about. This seems to indicate a lack of openness on the part of the reader, not a lack of quality or variety among writers. And after all, isn’t one of literature’s functions to expose its recipients to ideas, experiences, and perspectives that are foreign to their own?

It is this narrowness, this blinkered idea of what qualifies as most worthy of our attention, that is troublesome. This is something that, as Canadian novelist Amanda Leduc (yes, she has two strikes against her) points out, is shared by our award culture, which tends to crowd out different voices and approaches in the process of anointing “unknown stories” told in “familiar ways.” In this sense, the Giller Effect and the Gilmour Effect are not all that far removed.

Given the tenor of Gilmour’s comments, it is appropriate to give a woman the last word. Here’s Leduc:

I love books. I believe in books. More importantly, I believe in the fact that books have long lives that transcend any kind of initial attention. And I agree with Gilmour when he says, in the Hazlitt article, that “the shadows on the pages move around” in great literature. Truly good books always do that – you notice different things your second and third and even fourth time around. Great art is never static.

But what happens when the view of great art itself becomes the thing that does not change? As a result of his refusal to read anything by women (or by writers who are Chinese, or Canadian, or whatever), does David Gilmour then, in essence, make himself into that Andy Warhol painting that looks the same on every view? Essentially he’s telling us the same story, here, that we heard in the article in 2011. It’s just a little more pointed, a little more specific. (And backed, apparently, by the University of Toronto.)

“Help me to push myself aside”: Flannery O’Connor’s journals excerpted in The New Yorker

September 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Flannery_O'ConnorAficionados of Flannery O’Connor’s writing will want to pick up the September 16, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, which contains excerpts from a personal journal the author kept during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946. The pieces, addressed “Dear God,” and taking up subjects such as Christian worthiness, faith, hope, and charity, underscore O’Connor’s religiosity – which was an inescapable aspect of all her fiction – as well as her struggles to live as a writer and a practising Catholic.

“Please let Christian principles permeate my writing,” O’Connor says at one point, “and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.”

O’Connor clearly felt conflicted between her desire to be an author – something she associated with ego – and her desire to live for God.  “I do not know you God because I am in the way,” she writes. “Please help me to push myself aside.” She desires to “want” God and, in typical O’Connor fashion, finds an ironic metaphor to describe this want, saying she wishes for it to live “like a cancer” in her. The desire for God, for O’Connor, was a living thing, which she (somewhat surprisingly) contrasts to art:

It is easy for this writing to show a want. There is a want but it is abstract and cold, a dead want that goes well into writing because writing is dead. Writing is dead. Art is dead, dead by nature, not killed by unkindness. I bring my dead want into the place the dead place it shows up most easily, into writing. This has its purpose if by God’s grace it will wake another soul; but it does me no good.

The notion of God’s grace is central to O’Connor’s writing and her thought, as is made abundantly clear in these journal excerpts. She is constantly asking for grace to be bestowed upon her, and identifies the problem in Kafka’s writing as being removed from this grace. “Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord,” she writes, “and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.” She is desirous of heaven and communion with God, both of which require grace to obtain. “Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this,” she says. “I do not mean becoming a nun.”

That last comment is indicative of another typical O’Connor feature that reappears in these journal entries: her wicked humour. She decries “stinking romanticism” and cleverness (intellectuals were one of her key targets in all her fiction), and castigates herself for saying “many too many uncharitable things about people … because they make me look clever.” And yet she has it in her to unleash throwaway zingers that cut pretension and hypocrisy to the bone: “If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over sixty-five.”

“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.

My name is Steven, and I am a copy editor

November 27, 2012 by · 7 Comments 

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.

Towards a kind of aesthetic mysticism

November 1, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

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)

Some kind of monster: Corey Redekop’s unconventional zombie tale

October 31, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

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