The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

In her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman points to all the various campaigns that have been launched recently to make reading appear fun, then asks why, if reading is so much fun to begin with, people have to work so hard and spend so much money to promote its pleasures to a reluctant public. In North America, publishers, libraries, and governments invest much time and effort (not to mention dollars) on campaigns with names like “Get Caught Reading,” “Live with Books,” and “Books Change Lives.” Each year, the CBC holds an annual week-long “battle of the books” – Canada Reads – which pits five works of CanLit in a Survivor-style elimination contest featuring celebrity panellists. And Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch repeatedly reiterates that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, readers can buy all five Giller shortlisted books. Pace Brottman, the juries have all spoken, and they are unanimous: reading is an enjoyable, enlightening, and engrossing activity.

So why do I feel so depressed at the moment?

I have now finished two of the five books shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, and am well into a third. (Relax: roundups are coming.) And my verdict at the midway point is as dispiriting as it is surprising: I don’t want to read any more. Not these books, nor anything else. The first three Giller contenders have managed to do something I never would have thought possible: robbed me of my delight in reading.

It’s not that the three books (okay, two and a half) I’ve read so far are badly written, or devoid of interest on the level of technique or story. But they all have one thing in common: whether it’s Linden MacIntyre’s sombre meditation on the horrors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Echlin’s painful recapitulation of the Cambodian genocide, or Annabel Lyon’s ardent history lessons about life in ancient Macedon, the first three Giller contenders are defiantly serious, ponderous books about weighty subjects and heavy themes. And they are all devoid of one signal quality: joy.

Now, you will argue that sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are not joyful subjects, and you would be absolutely right. However, I am reminded of John Updike’s comment about Nabokov: he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Nabokov, no doubt, treated some very dark subject matter in his fiction, but that never prevented him from delighting in the ecstasy of writing, which in turn bled over into the ecstasy of reading.

The enduring writers of the 19th and 20th centuries – Dostoevesky, Woolf, Beckett, O’Connor, Greene, Faulkner, Chekhov, and Joyce among them – all dealt with weighty subjects and posed difficult moral questions, but no matter how depressing their themes became, the experience of reading them was never itself depressing. In a similar vein, 21st century international writers like Saramago, Houellebecq, Murakami, Bolaño, and McCarthy have traced our modern, technologically obsessed malaise in a climate of post-9/11 anomic alienation without themselves becoming forces of alienation. The same cannot be said of the current Giller crop, at least three of which are sober, earnest, and seem intent on proving their literary and intellectual worth at the expense of a reader’s engagement.

What is a reader, looking for the highest achievement in Canadian writing and handed The Bishop’s Man, The Disappeared, and The Golden Mean, to do? Each book has merits, to be sure, but the cumulative effect of reading them is to inculcate the idea that our prestige fiction is portentous, plodding, and grim, filled with dirt and grime and death, and devoid of the vigour and verve that makes the best writing come alive. Any one of these books on its own might be tolerable. Together, they have put me off reading.


13 Responses to “The sombreness of the long-distance reader”
  1. Kerry says:

    Have you got anyone to blame but yourself though? Surely you were expecting this? If the picks are the middlebrow, depressing crop you say they are, why do you concern yourself with the prize at all? Also, please post a list of books in which that joy can be found– I like it very much when you post about the stuff you like.

    Finally, I recently interviewed a writer who was in the midst of Lyon’s book and loving it. I never wanted to read it, but she sparked my interest. Now you’ve zapped it again. Interesting, how differently we all find the books we come to.

  2. Blork says:

    Your problem is obvious — you let others decide what you should read instead of deciding for yourself. To Hell with the Giller list; go to a bookstore and find some books that interest *you,* then read them. Forget about lists, or “required reading.” Read what you want to read, and you’ll get your joy back.

  3. Alex says:

    Wow. And you still have the Anne Michaels to look forward to!

    The Giller list is bad medicine. As Russell Smith said a couple of years ago, dreadfully earnest books that are supposed to be good for you but that nobody can bear to read.

    We’ve been here before Steve. Even your comment on Echlin’s book being another backward-looking romance fits perfectly with what I said about the 2007 Giller list in CNQ (an essay that I remember ending by saying that nothing was ever going to change).

    Whenever I get down about the new stuff, I fall back on the classics or genre fiction or non-fiction. Like Kerry says, you’re doing this to yourself. And I have to say I can’t sympathize too much with someone who would read Echlin’s book three times just to assure yourself of how bad it is. You have to get tougher than that.

  4. DGM says:

    The Giller prize, like the Oscars and the Emmys, are not designed to reward excellence, but to promote product. There is a certain type of book that gets onto the Giller list and — as Steven, Alex and many, many others have pointed out repeatedly — its the sort of novel that is easier to respect for its intentions than to actually read. Genre fiction, generally speaking, has to be enjoyable, because it doesn’t sell or get read otherwise. There are no high-profile prizes (at least in Canada) to pimp out the top choices.

    If the Giller committee wants to reach beyond its audience of true believers to those who actually want to read and support Canadian literature, they have to nominate some books that go beyond faux poetics and historic settings. Of course, that is assuming that those who put together the Giller awards are actually interested in winning new audience members. For now it sure seems like they’re quite happy with the status quo.

  5. Oh my! Alex is right – quick, grab something you like! My cure for everything is Guy Gavriel Kay. His books, I mean.

  6. Finn Harvor says:

    It’s been repeatedly observed the majors dominate the fiction shortlists in any give year.

    What is the role of the majors and their manuscript vetting policies in all this? Is there a linkage between a literary culture dominated by companies whose acquisition editors have become walled off and insulated, and the well-remarked-upon tediousness of many of the titles that nevertheless receive media attention and sell well, and therefore guarantee further years of work that lacks, to use a phrase that was once applied to Simone de Beauvior, the salt of recklessness that makes art sting?

    The ms. vetting policies of the majors aren’t the subject of sustained, critical discussion in Canada. They should be. Like it or not, winning a prize has now become one of contemporary writing’s royal roads to success. And the majors dominate the prizes.

    Is anyone going to take a stand against the majors’ acutely insulated attitude? Is anyone going to insist they tear down the walls they’ve built around themselves? Just wondering.

  7. Andrew S says:

    The Giller is indeed about moving product, and the reason we get this historical focus is that it appeals to book clubs. Book clubs, like it or not, are a big factor in what sells.

    And book clubs want their literary novels to:
    (1) bear the Good Housekeeping Seal of Literary Approval (i.e. the Giller Prize), so that members don’t have to get into sticky and demanding debates about whether the book is actually good,
    (2) achieve further literary credibility by being sufficiently tedious to remind us that, in high school, Serious Reading was a chore,
    (3) avoid really difficult language, and
    (4) have an exotic setting, so that people have something accessible to natter on about without actually having to do any of that close reading stuff.

  8. patricia says:

    Ditto what Kerry said – I’d like to see some more joy back in this blog. Step away from the lists and the awards, and get back to talking about the books that get you excited about writing. Life is too short to be reading sober, earnest, depressing books.

  9. Finn Harvor says:

    “I’d like to see some more joy back in this blog”

    There is no joy in post-Muddernville, that’s part of the problem……………………………

    And wasn’t Steven’s original point that he wanted to experience joy as a reader, not express it as a critic? It seems to me the distinction is worth making, because it doesn’t necessarily follow that any season’s list will automatically yield great — i.e., joy-triggering — writing.

    A wee dram o’ experimentation might be in order here; readerly joy is such a subjective experience. (I personally got it from Daniel Jones’ relentlessly bleak *1978*.) Maybe CanLit doesn’t need more joy full-stop, maybe it needs more risk-taking, more brilliance.

    Something vivid and new from an established Canadian publisher … now *that* would be a reason to smile.

  10. Remember when Rawi Hage was nominated for everything under the sun, way back in the mists of time? Now those books are not depressing to read, for all their bloody grimness.

  11. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “And wasn’t Steven’s original point that he wanted to experience joy as a reader, not express it as a critic?”

    Precisely, Finn, thank you. And as Zach mentions, Hage’s books are ecstatically written (in the sense Updike used to describe Nabokov), and so they can be read ecstatically. They are depressing, but the same way Crime and Punishment is depressing: thematically, not experientially.

  12. DGM says:

    Seconding the Rawi Hage recommendation. DeNiro’s Game was a terrific read, even though the subject matter was grim as hell.

  13. DGM says:

    I know that this thread is pretty much dead, but I saw this article on the Giller nominees and it made me laugh. The discussion in the article is all chipper and rah-rah-CanLit, while the comments thread (so far) is a string of snarky putdowns about not only this years’ nominees, but the Gillers in general: