Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The first people to censor Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 novel American Psycho – one of the most controversial books published in the last 20 years – were its originating publishers, Simon & Schuster. Ellis had been signed to a substantial advance for the book, but when word started seeping out about the content, which was variously described as superficial, moronic, pointless, and pornographic, Simon & Schuster pulled the plug. Within days Sonny Mehta had signed the book at Random House/Knopf, where it was published under the Vintage imprint in March 1991. It has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since. The U.S. National Organization for Women castigated the novel, saying that it “legitimizes inhuman and savage violence masquerading as sexuality.” Naomi Woolf said that it was “a violation not of obscenity standards, but of women’s civil rights, insofar as it results in conditioning male sexual response to female suffering or degradation.” Canada Customs briefly disallowed shipments of the book across the border and the Defence Department removed copies from a Halifax navy library. One of the most infamous – and patently stupid – claims against the book was that sex killer Paul Bernardo kept a copy of it in his personal library.

Through it all, the critics missed out on the fact that the book is not pornography, but satire. One reason why people are made so uncomfortable may have to do with how closely Ellis mirrors our rabidly consumerist, media saturated, celebrity addicted, narcissistic culture. Patrick Bateman, c’est nous tous.

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From American Psycho:

… where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, or receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire – meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in … this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged …

Like a big book club

July 1, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

In honour of the 142nd anniversary of Canada’s national inferiority complex Canada Day, The New York Times‘ op-ed page today features a clutch of transplanted Canadians, such as Seán Cullen, Bruce McCall, and Kim Cattrall, lamenting the things they miss about their home and native land. (Yr. humble correspondent’s favourite: creative director Lisa Naftolin misses the “u” in colour.) Among those represented is Sarah McNally, the proprietor of the Manhattan branch of Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson Bookstores. McNally cops to missing Winnipeg’s winters (?!?), but she also misses something she refers to as “CanLit”:

I miss the pride and simplicity of a national literature, which probably wouldn’t exist without government support. We even have a name, CanLit, that people use without fearing they’ll sound like nerds. In America we tend toward novels published specifically for one narrowly interpreted demographic. CanLit is an unassuming place, very welcome to immigrant writers, and since it doesn’t dice up readership according to profile there is a national conversation about literature, like a big book club.

It’s true that much American writing is ghettoized – rightly or wrongly – into what McNally refers to as “narrowly interpreted demographic[s]”: think chick lit, think technothrillers, think whatever it is Jodi Picoult writes. In large part, this is a result of the size of America’s population. With 300 million people, there is an authentic mass market in the U.S., unlike here in Canada, with a population one-tenth the size. If we have a more monolithic literary culture, this is largely a matter of necessity, not choice.

But McNally elides the downside of CanLit’s stranglehold on our national literary output: the stultifying sameness of the majority of books that are pumped out of the CanLit mill. We use the term CanLit, not in a nerdy way, but rather as code for a particular kind of book: muted, historical, domestic, naturalistic. CanLit calls to mind sepia tones and boxes of faded photographs, woodsmoke from the back yard and the sound of music held at a distance. CanLit is pretty and precious, eschewing dirt and jagged edges. It is never profane, bawdy, or raunchy.

CanLit is welcoming to immigrant writers, but in a melting-pot fashion that seems more appropriate to an American mythos than that of our vaunted Canadian mosaic. Rohinton Mistry may set his sprawling sagas in Bombay; M.G. Vassanji may set his in Pirbaag. But in their adherence to an historical focus and a naturalistic approach, Mistry and Vassanji might as well have been born in Toronto or Halifax. The metafictional gamesmanship of Shahriar Mandanipour, author of the well-received novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, would not find a comfortable home in the echelons of CanLit. It’s no accident that Mandanipour, an Iranian, has taken up refuge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Montreal or Vancouver. (True, Montreal has Rawi Hage, but back off: I’m trying to make a point here.)

Similarly, America can boast a literary culture in which Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy all sell in good numbers; that diversity of authors and approaches does not exist in our “big book club” north of the 49th parallel. Or rather, it does, but it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of what is usually understood by the term “CanLit.” When most people in this country talk about CanLit, they are referring to Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, not Mark Anthony Jarman, Lisa Foad, and Matt Shaw. (“Who?” I hear you ask. “Exactly,” I respond.)

McNally is correct to isolate CanLit as a national, monolithic catch-all for our literature, the “big book club” that dominates our literary discourse, and more often than not ignores the diversity of output that goes on below the surface of our cultural consciousness. McNally and I differ only as to whether or not this is a good thing.

Happy Canada Day, y’all.