Introducing: Atlantic Canada Reads

May 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Chad Pelley is the Newfoundland-based author of Away from Everywhere, a book that has been on yr. humble correspondent’s to-read list for several months now. He’s also the brains behind Salty Ink, a literary site devoted to Atlantic Canadian writers and writing. In the latter capacity, he’s inaugurated a program called Atlantic Canada Reads, modelled on the CBC’s annual literary smackdown, Canada Reads, and the National Post‘s upstart alternative, Canada Also Reads. Pelley’s asking people to e-mail him with suggestions for an Atlantic Canadian book of fiction they’d like to defend. He’ll narrow the submissions down to a longlist that will be revealed on June 1, followed by a “well-rounded” shortlist with accompanying essays from the selected books’ defenders beginning June 14. The winner by popular vote will be announced on Canada Day (July 1 for all you non-Canuks out there).

TSR caught up with Pelley to discuss the impetus behind this newest variation on the Canada Reads template.

TSR: Why an Atlantic Canadian version of Canada (Also) Reads?

Chad Pelley: The simple answer: Salty Ink’s niche, or mandate, is to promote Atlantic Canadian fiction and poetry. Hence Atlantic Canada reads. The goal here is simply to have fun promoting books. As for why I played off the popular Canada Reads competition, especially since The Afterword recently played off the same competition with Canada Also Reads … I thought the title was catchy. I could be accused of ripping off two great competitions, but I really see it as a nod to CBC and The Afterword. Salty Ink is young, having only been launched in November, and given its esoteric niche, doesn’t have the readership those other places have. Atlantic Canada Reads will grab more attention than a similar but differently titled competition.

TSR: How have you been influenced by Atlantic Canadian writers?

CP: I’m a writer myself, who wasn’t entirely aware of this this influence until my debut novel came out in 2009. I did quite a few radio shows and interviews, and every time I was asked about influences, I realized it was consistently a Newfoundland author, if not an Atlantic Canadian. There is such a diversity of style, delivery, and subject matter coming out of here. I consider myself a “best of collection” of my favourite books (but by no means as “good” as these authors). I like the sentence-level evocative elegance of Lisa Moore’s writing, I like Michael and Kathleen Winter’s attention to detail, I admire Kenneth J. Harvey’s versatility in style and story and his trademark graceful grittiness, I like Jessica Grant’s fresh, unique stories and how she delivers them, I like how Michael Crummey constructs a novel, I’m floored at what Amy Jones does with narrative structure … and I could keep going and going. I like how David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children was like getting your heart stomped on, it was that engaging.

TSR: Do you think these kinds of competitions/lists (e.g. Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor J. Adams’ book Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books) have literary legitimacy? Should literature be considered a contest, or is the merit of these endeavours simply in bringing attention to work that might otherwise get overlooked?

CP: I think the notion of competitions and awards is fundamentally absurd – how can you really compare two works of fiction? On what grounds? And every judge, no matter how objective, has a bias. But competitions are a good form of promotion nonetheless. And recognition. I can’t speak for others, but in my case, everything Salty Ink does is intended to be all for fun in the name of book promotion. As an “emerging” writer, I am well aware how important promotion and word of mouth are in this industry. The stat is that someone needs to hear about a book seven to 11 times before they’ll buy it. Salty Ink is just trying to be one or two of those influential mentions.

Why Canada Also Reads has restored my faith, or, the one in which yr. humble correspondent shoots himself in the foot

March 5, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Ever have one of those weeks that just get you down? I mean down, man, like wanting-to-crush-jagged-shards-of-glass-into-your-eyes down? That’s the week that I’ve just endured. It happens to all of us, I realize, but there are times at which I feel in my bones that the Philistines will always prevail, that quality of thought and craft count for nothing, and that there’s no point in carrying on trying to make some small difference in my little corner of the world.

Imagine my elation, then, to dial up The Afterword and read Jacob McArthur Mooney’s defence of his chosen title for Canada Also Reads, Leon Rooke’s story collection, The Last Shot. “What I’d like is for this to be a slightly more imaginative country,” Mooney writes, and if he had seen fit to leave it there, that would have been enough for me. (Honestly, Jake, you had me at “imaginative.”) But it ain’t enough for Mooney:

What I’d like is a reading (and reviewing) culture that values the wildchilds, the impossibility merchants, and the avant-garde as partners in a community of bibliophiles that sees a vibrant and replenishing fringe as necessary to a vibrant and replenishing middle. Our imaginative country is well-represented by artists we export from other literary genres (including speculative fiction, with folks like John Clute and William Gibson, who shares Rooke’s status as an American-born Canadian-by-choice) and in other art forms, from our spacey rock ’n’ roll to our visceral cinematic imaginers at the fringe (David Cronenberg) and centre (James Cameron) of international film. Maybe we already have an imaginative country, and we just need one that’s willing to own that imagination. Luckily for us, this is a cause that can actually be helped in a literary popularity contest. It gives us an opportunity to say what we already know to be true. That this is an imaginative country worth exploring. And that the people who have mapped its limits deserve to be remembered.

Amen, brother, amen. I’m even willing to forgive the reference to James Cameron. And though it may seem foolish to endorse the ideas of someone who is in putative competition with me, Canada Also Reads never seemed to be about which of the eight titles comes out on top. It’s more about remembering people who have mapped the limits of our imagination. Thanks for the reminder, and for restoring a little bit of my faith.

Canada Also Reads begins

March 1, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Over at the National Post‘s blog, The Afterword, the Canada Also Reads shadow program, meant as a compliment to CBC’s unbelievably boring official Canada Reads 2010, is underway. This week, The Afterword will feature two essays per day, each one defending a particular title. The climax occurs next Monday, when the eight defenders will participate in a live roundtable discussion about the selected books.

To kick things off today, blogger John Mutford offers a spirited defence of his chosen title, Steve Zipp’s 2007 novel Yellowknife:

Despite the strong Canadian setting, Yellowknife owes more to Mikhail Bulgakov than Alice Munro. Once readers give up on the notion of typical CanLit (which has all the thrills of a station wagon crossing the prairies), they come to embrace Zipp’s  eclectic and energetic style. By gosh, a book can be smart and funny at the same time, it can be experimental and readable, it can be exciting.

And, not to be outdone, yr. humble correspondent chimes in with a defence of his title, Mark Anthony Jarman’s 2008 short story collection My White Planet:

Poet and literary critic Zachariah Wells once defined the short story as a poem with an unhealthy affinity for the right-hand margin. This description is especially appropriate to the work of Mark Anthony Jarman. The pieces in My White Planet more closely resemble prose poems than traditional Chekhovian stories; conventional notions of character and plot are less important than the jazzy, jangling music of Jarman’s language.

The rest of my incontrovertible defence of Jarman’s work is up at The Afterword. In the meantime, here’s my Quill & Quire review, which reiterates and expands on some of the essay’s key points:

Mark Anthony Jarman’s new collection of stories is something of a rarity in Canadian short fiction. It does not follow the tried-and-true template of the traditional Chekhovian story, which prizes naturalism and a familiar narrative arc. Rather, Jarman’s stories more closely resemble the postmodern collages of Donald Barthelme.

Jarman’s focus is not on story in the traditional sense, and although a handful of the selections in the book do end with a character reaching a kind of epiphany, the author’s core interest resides elsewhere – specifically, in the delirious and courageous use of language to create startling effects.

The 14 stories in My White Planet display an author who is positively word-drunk, delighting in twisting language into bizarre shapes, pushing and straining to test its resilience and its torque. There is a palpable giddiness to many of these stories; Jarman writes like a free jazz musician riffing on a central theme, or like a Beat poet jiving to the rhythms of his prose: “They climb up sheepish and angry because they’re not from a ghetto. By not being deprived, they’ve been deprived. O to be born in a ghetto, to get jiggy with the rats and the rasta players.”

Throughout, Jarman’s imagination is robustly catholic, incorporating references from high culture and pop culture, often in playful juxtaposition. The title of the story “Fables of the Deconstruction” is a sly, Derridaesque pun on the name of an R.E.M. album, and its epigraph is from Francis Bacon. Nods to indie rock bands Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Calexico rub shoulders with allusions to Machiavelli and Othello.

The subject matter and tone of the stories are similarly wide-ranging, from the bleak opener, “Night March in the Territory,” which follows a group of soldiers on a trek through unmapped American territory, to “Kingdoms and Knowledge,” which follows a Canadian citizen as he navigates his way through London, England, while tending to his mother who is suffering in an Alzheimer’s ward there. And “A Nation Plays Chopsticks,” about an old-timers hockey league, may be the finest explanation for Canadians’ love affair with the game that I’ve ever read.

The stories in this collection may not be to everybody’s taste. Weighing in at just over 200 pages, the book is a quick read, but not easily digested. Some of the stories are more accessible than others, but the collection as a whole exemplifies Wallace Stevens’ comment that poetry should “resist the intelligence, almost successfully.” In these stories, many of which resemble prose poems, Jarman has taken that dictum to heart, and the results are challenging and surprising.

Stay tuned for more updates about Canada Also Reads, as well as the annual play-by-play of the official Canada Reads debates, which will be hosted here by Alex Good and myself the week of March 8-12.

Canada Also Reads

February 12, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

So, between deadlines in my day job, the ongoing tawdry spectacle of the Toronto City Hall sex scandal, and John Mayer’s dick, my attention has been elsewhere recently, as you might have surmised from the sparse posts going up around these parts.

But, fear not: yr. humble correspondent has not been idle. Behind-the-scenes work has been ongoing on a variety of fronts, one of which you may already be aware of: I’m marching into battle as a member of the National Post‘s Canada Also Reads panel. This is a cool idea on the part of the guys who run the Post‘s Afterword blog. Like many of us, they were disappointed by the lack of surprises in this year’s official Canada Reads list, and they decided to inaugurate a shadow competition, featuring books that had flown under the radar and deserved more attention. I have the honour of defending Mark Anthony Jarman’s stellar 2008 story collection My White Planet, which somehow came and went without the flurry of accolades it so richly deserved.

It’s got some stiff competition, though. There are seven other books on the list, being defended by some pretty powerful advocates. The Afterword’s shortlist in full:

• Writer and critic Steven W. Beattie defends My White Planet by Mark Anthony Jarman (Thomas Allen Publishers)
• Author Tish Cohen (Inside Out Girl, Town House) defends The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (HarperCollins Canada)
• Singer/songwriter Andy Maize (Skydiggers) defends Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (McClelland & Stewart)
• Poet Jacob McArthur Mooney (The New Layman’s Almanac) defends The Last Shot by Leon Rooke (Thomas Allen Publishers)
• Blogger John Mutford defends Yellowknife by Steve Zipp (Res Telluris)
• Author Lisa Pasold (Rats of Las Vegas) defends You and The Pirates by Jocelyne Allens (The Workhorsery)
• Author Neil Smith (Bang Crunch) defends Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (Knopf Canada)
• Author Zoe Whittall (Holding Still for as Long as Possible) defends Fear of Fighting by Stacey May Fowles (Invisible Publishing)

While I’m admittedly biased, I think this list is far more interesting than the CBC’s official list. Today on the Canada Reads website, Flannery, the CBC’s blogger, discusses the joys of reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees for the first time, experiencing the twists and turns of the plot without prior knowledge of where the story would take her. For me, this is exactly the problem with the 2010 Canada Reads lineup: pace blogger Flannery, the list has very little that’s surprising at all. Fall on Your Knees is a known quantity, a book that has already been given the Oprah Book Club seal of approval. Similarly, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X has lent its name to an entire demographic, and its language is pervasive in our culture (does anyone out there not know what a “McJob” is?). Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, this country’s richest and most visible prize for fiction. The Post‘s list, by contrast, contains books I’ve never even heard of before, and I find that refreshing.

Stay tuned for further discussion of Canada Also Reads in general, and My White Planet in particular. And yes, once again yr. humble correspondent will provide a play-by-play commentary on the official Canada Reads debates, which run March 8–12. We’ll see if we can entice Alex Good back to participate as well.

More soon.