The more things change

August 17, 2010 by · 18 Comments 

I can’t see that this novel will do well at all. It’s really too quaint. It’s not great enough or profound enough to transcend its own familiar weariness as a story of a gawky young farm boy’s struggle to distinguish between goodness and evil and his growth from that experience. Ross is either making a genuine effort to revive a played-out genre or he is more hopelessly out of touch with reality than I can believe. This has a strong whiff of the urban novel of the thirties about it. Its uncomplicated innocence and serious tone by way of James Farrell; its theatricality most evident in the characters of Charley and Mad by way of the gangster movies, its excessive naturalism (“we had pork chops and chocolate pie”); and its sentimental ending; all this is reminiscent of another time.

– Richard B. Wright, from a reader’s report on Whir of Gold by Sinclair Ross, dated May 1966

Wright was working for Macmillan when he prepared the reader’s report that contains the above excerpt. (It is reprinted in the new book “Collecting Stamps Would Have Been More Fun”: Canadian Publishing and the Correspondence of Sinclair Ross, 1933–1986.) What strikes me most upon reading it in 2010 is how au courant it all sounds. The phrases Wright uses in his description of Ross’s book – “too quaint”; “familiar weariness”; “uncomplicated innocence”; “serious tone”; “excessive naturalism”; “sentimental ending” – could easily be applied to any number of CanLit novels being published today (including, ironically, Wright’s own).

That rasping sound you hear is CanLit creaking in its own, dessicated skin.


18 Responses to “The more things change”
  1. Panic says:

    It’s so funny, how you always complain about the same thing. About how tired and dull you find Can Lit, how it never changes, or there aren’t enough Canadian authors doing what you want them to do. Dessicated skin? Good grief. Is it as tragic as all that?

    Shit, Coupland isn’t writing about living among the trees, but you hate him too. It’s as if being Canadian, for you, is the first strike, and a Canadian author somehow needs to woo you into liking them. Most fail. It makes me tired. You needn’t blindly cheerlead for Can Lit, but… wow.

    Same post about sameness, different day.

    Is that ironic?

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    If I complain about the sclerotic nature of much CanLit, it’s because I know we can do better. See, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

    Or even, for that matter, here, here, here, and here.

    However, none of this seems to make a dent in what passes for the best of the best as far as the broad mainstream of CanLit is concerned.

    If I repeat myself, it’s because I’m congnizant of the truth in Gide’s comment that “everything has been said before, but since no one listens, we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.”

  3. Panic says:

    Assuming your opinion is the “right” one, of course.

  4. Now all we need is for someone to complain every time Steven complains.

  5. Kerry Clare says:

    Okay, a few things (and I think I’ll write a blog post about this). Wright is writing about a book by a guy who was born in 1908. Twenty years before Wright’s report, Ross *had* written a book that was startlingly different than what had been published in Canada before (and I know everyone hates that book too, but I think it’s unfair. It’s a challenging and innovative novel). Ross probably *was* out of touch, and I’ve never heard of Whir of Gold, so Wright was probably right, but it’s interesting that he’d (and you now?) would focus on this unremarkable novel while so many fascinating things were going on in Canadian Literature in 1966 (which was the year Margaret Laurence’s wonderful A Jest of God won the GG. And now we’re meant to find Laurence dull too of course. It’s all been done, but we forget there was a time when it hadn’t been).

    “The more things change” or don’t, indeed. I had the same reaction when I read about Deacon and his attacks on LM Montgomery. Except what doesn’t seem to change, in my opinion, are the critics, who moan and whinge, all the while really wonderful things are going on right under their noses, while they’re probably missing the point.

  6. And then there’s the critics of the critics, who seem only to read the critics’ condemnations, whilst ignoring their celebrations. It’s not that the critics are missing the point, it’s that the point, as presented by our more influential institutions, tends to be rather dull. And this should be pointed out, however little it might change things.

  7. Andrew S says:

    Just as we can’t have a vibrant literature without vibrant literary criticism, we can’t have vibrant criticism without vibrant critical criticism. And just as we can’t…. etc.

  8. Nathan says:

    Kerry – it’s a reader’s report. Wright HAD to focus on that particular book, by definition. Asking that he look for more sterling examples of 1966-era books would be like sending a researcher to assess a polluted lake and having him report back that there are lots of other lovely creeks and rivers in the area.

    Nice catch, Beattie, though of course it just confirms once again (another played-out melody coming here) that CanLit’s finest have no problem offering harsh opinions of their colleague’s work, it’s just that they’d rather offer them in private. In public, it’s one big happy family, and boo to any cranky, upstart critic (who is probably motivated by nothing other than envy) who points out that this is not a “golden age.”

  9. Kerry Clare says:

    I understand that Wright had to focus on the book, but I think that the report doesn’t say what Steven thinks it says. Because who cares about Whir of Gold? 1960s Sinclair Ross was hardly part of a Golden Age, and Wright was right (!), which shows goodness triumphs. Or at least rubbish doesn’t. And I’m not ignoring celebrations; there just aren’t enough of them. Which makes it seem as though critics are precipitatingthe dullness of the point ie reading the boring Gillers every year along with everyone else.

    Anyway, sorry to sound cranky. I am not!

    Plus, all of you are beautiful.

  10. August says:

    “And I’m not ignoring celebrations; there just aren’t enough of them.”

    Remember not too long ago when somebody called Ed Champion out on that, so he actually went through a big list of those critics with a reputation for harshness and negativity and did a statistical breakdown of their reviews? And remember how he found that in every case they published more positive reviews than negative ones? And the number of positive reviews became overwhelming when you included mixed reviews? And that it was just that nobody gave a damn when they published positive reviews? Yeah, those were good times.

  11. Steven W. Beattie says:

    I do note that there are now 10 comments in this thread, but if one scrolls down to the next post, which is a fairly positive review of the new Alissa York novel, there’s nary a one. Interesting.

  12. Nathan says:

    About negative reviews: most magazine and newspapers don’t run book reviews at all. Most media outlets, print or not, don’t cover books in ANY way – unless it’s someone’s miracle flab-burning diet or suchlike. When they do cover serious books, they are usually doing so in cooperation with that book’s publicist, and the coverage is bland and puffy – because, obviously, there’s not much point inviting an author on your show and asking, “How dare you?”

    There are things like Canada Reads, but that’s a small slice. attention-wise.

    Beyond that, the only book presence in the wider world is in the form of bought-and-paid-for ads and things like Heather’s Picks. (Is that sentence redundant?)

    Meaning: pretty much the ONLY time you will see/hear something negative said in public about a particular book is either when your friend says it to you, or your read it in a book review section, which usually runs about 5:1 in terms of bouquets to brickbats – and that’s when they are not entirely brickbat-free by design. (You may also see negative things written on some joker’s book-themed blog, but who reads those?)

    And yet, the feeling (and it is rarely more developed than a “feeling”) is that there are TOO MANY NEGATIVE REVIEWS.

    It’s like saying saying there are too many organic fruit stores around now because there are two in your neighbourhood – whereas in most of the country, you have to drive a few hours just to find food with less radiation exposure and weird chemicals than a superhero origin story.

    (Not sure where that came from. Anyone hungry?)

  13. Kerry Clare says:

    1) I write negative reviews!

    2) but not on my blog, because I don’t write for free about things I hate.

    3) I emailed you my response to the Alissa York article, but perhaps should have commented here. Very good review. I enjoyed it very much. Hooray for celebrations indeed.

  14. Andrew S says:

    Well, I noticed the fairly positive review of Fauna, but I just assumed you were having an off day.

    Seriously, the reason people don’t comment on positive reviews, generally, is that they haven’t read the book. But they feel free to comment on negative reviews, because then you can argue over whether negative reviewing is appropriate.

  15. Nathan says:

    I think there are too many negative comments on blogs.

  16. And then there’s the “at least the book was reviewed” thing. Because if nobody reviews it, nobody is going to know about it. A totally negative review is very rare, in part, I imagine, becaue what editor is going to waste space on one unless it’s someone with an ax to grind reviewing a Big Name.

    A case in pointi: Ezra Klein reviewed my last non-fiction book The Walkable City for Barnes and Noble’s publication and didn’t thnk I’d written the book he thought I should have written. But he didn’t say that until two-thirds of the way through, and I’m sure the very appearance of the review was more important in getting an audience than what he actually wrote.

    The paucity of publiations reviewing fiction makes the situation even more acute.

  17. I feel compelled to point out that, despite the fact I’ve awarded many one star ratings to books, Goodreads has had the consideration to inform me that my average rating is 3.83 (out of five stars). In other words, damn near every tome is a soft four out of five. Guess I’m a sourpuss, eh? And I presume that most people who read so many books do so because it’s the only alternative to throwing a television into a bathtub. Book critics? Avid readers? All a bunch of suicidal loons.

  18. Panic says:

    I think the comment-count issue is a bit disingenuous. This isn’t a review, it’s a larger commentary on the current state of Canadian Literature. That leaves a lot more room for discussion than a singularly focused post.