The second half of Alex Good’s and my Afterword piece is up, this time focusing on writers we feel have been unjustly neglected:
We chose also to focus on underrated authors because it’s important to bear in mind that there is a huge wealth of worthwhile literature being written in this country. Unfortunately, the vast majority of it flies under the radar due to limited marketing budgets, the increasingly poisonous blockbuster mentality that is infecting publishing, and an overwhelming number of books being published. With such a deluge of material, consumers need guidance; where better to look than award winners and well-regarded books? But, the overinflation of certain reputations tends to crowd out others that are equally (if not infinitely more) worthy of attention.
With one exception, the authors on this list don’t have the same recognition factor as those on the previous list (and the one exception is notorious for all the wrong reasons). However, while they are heterogeneous in style, subject, and approach, they share in common a vivacity and willingness to push the boundaries of language and form. And they make reading a joy, not a chore, which is something sorely lacking from much of our fiction these days.
As with the first half, the criticisms came fast and furious. The authors are all old(er). Many of them were discovered and/or edited by John Metcalf. There are no French Canadians. Many of them have appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries, a publication with which both Good and I are associated (which would kind of indicate that we admire them already, but never mind).
All perfectly true, but what strikes me – as struck me with the (much more predictable) criticisms yesterday – is that none of these things have anything to do with the books themselves. No one is suggesting that Ray Smith or Diane Schoemperlen are not proficient writers. No, it’s that they’re too old. Or too white. Or not French Canadian. All of which completely misses the point.
Yes, some of the writers are of a certain age. It strikes me that the older and more prolific a good writer gets without achieving recognition, the more claim that person has to being underrated. Yes, many of the writers on the list have been edited by John Metcalf. This only goes to prove how essential he has been in discovering the finest literary talent this country has seen in the past 40 years. It never ceases to amaze me that people want to attack him for this. He should be praised, not vilified. (And, on the subject of proving André Alexis correct, which is another criticism that has been lobbed at us, I would point out that Alexis was writing about Metcalf the critic, not Metcalf the editor.)
But the bottom line is that when we set out to create this list, we really didn’t take into consideration anything other than the quality of a given author’s writing. Call us crazy. We did not set out to make a political statement, to keep or lose friends (although that may indeed be an unintended consequence of this little endeavour), or to boost egos. We set out to highlight what we authentically feel is some of the best and least heralded writing in this country. The fact that no one is commenting on the writing itself is indicative of how unfamiliar it actually is, which kind of proves our point.
UPDATE: Over at Sans Everything, Jeet Heer (one of the best literary critics this country has) makes a very good point:
I think the accolade “underrated” should more properly given to writers who have composed excellent stories and novels but whose names are unknown even to most readers of quality literature. I’m thinking here of K.D. Miller, Mike Barnes, Mary Borsky, Cynthia Flood, Ann Copeland, and Terry Griggs. They’ve all written first rate fiction, yet their names barely register in literary discussions. Any list of underrated Canadian writers should include them. If I were doing the list, I would have taken out writers like Smith and Glover, who are superb but get widely reviewed and discussed, to make room for K.D. Miller and company.
I (we?) stand by the inclusion of Smith and Glover, but nevertheless acknowledge the fact that the list of underrated Canadian writers could, conceivably, go on and on.
The ever-vigilant Nathan Whitlock pointed out that my essay “Fuck Books,” which appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries more than a year ago, but has been given new life thanks to a mention in a Maclean’s blog post by Paul Wells, has been tapped for Geist magazine’s Findings section. The folks at Geist have lovingly combed through the essay, in which I complain about the, er, high-falutin’ stylistic shenanigans perpetrated by CanLit icons Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels, and have extracted a list of high-falutin’ stylistic shenanigans perpetrated by yr. humble correspondent in the course of making his argument.
This is actually pretty funny, and echoes a comment made by Britt Gullick in a post over at Pickle Me This. Now, Whitlock (who really should have trademarked the term “fuck books”) always advises me, “If two or more people tell you you’re drunk, it’s time to sit down.” And so, I must admit that there is a certain irony in using frankly elevated language to critique the elevated writing of others. All I would say in my defence is that nowhere in the essay do I suggest that I am against the deployment of big words. What I’m against is the inappropriate deployment of big words: their use in an ineffective context, a condescending manner, or as a veil to disguise the fact that a writer has little of substance to say.
I’d also point out that the phrase “the oatmeal of world literature” isn’t mine, it’s Stephen Marche’s. But it’s still a good line.
My review of Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Year of the Flood (just out in trade paper), is online at the Canadian Notes & Queries website. A taste:
In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, Atwood asserts that Wells referred to his tales as “scientific romances,” but only because the specific generic classification science fiction had yet to be coined. About Doctor Moreau, Atwood writes:
There are several interpretations of the term “science.” If it implies the known and the possible, then Wells’s scientific romances are by no means scientific: he paid little attention to such boundaries. As Jules Verne remarked with displeasure, “Il invente!” (“He makes it up!”). The “science” part of these tales is embedded instead in a world-view that derived from Wells’s study of Darwinian principles under Huxley, and has to do with the grand concern that engrossed him throughout his career: the nature of man. This too may account for his veering between extreme Utopianism (if man is the result of evolution, not of Divine creation, surely he can evolve yet further?) and the deepest pessimism (if man derived from the animals and is akin to them, rather than to the angels, surely he might slide back the way he came?). The Island of Doctor Moreau belongs to the debit side of the Wellsian account book.
Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood also belong to the debit side of the account book, in that they chronicle the latter days of a species – homo sapiens – that seems hell-bent on returning to a pre-evolutionary state along a road that is ironically paved by our own ingenuity: we are involved in the wholesale pursuit of the very technologies that will serve as the instruments of our destruction. Although The Year of the Flood is ultimately a more hopeful book than its predecessor, there is nevertheless a strain of “the deepest pessimism” running through it.
My review of Lawrence Hill’s 2009 Canada Reads winner, The Book of Negroes, is online at the Canadian Notes and Queries site, for anyone who’s interested. Here’s a taste:
When The Book of Negroes won the 2009 edition of Canada Reads, CBC Radio’s annual Survivor-like literary elimination contest, broadcaster Avi Lewis, who was championing the book, referred to author Lawrence Hill’s “titanic task” in taking on the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century and refracting it through the life of one woman, Aminata Diallo, an African girl who is kidnapped as a child and shipped to the Thirteen Colonies where she is sold into slavery. It is likely that Lewis didn’t intend the obvious pop cultural association that accrues to his particular choice of words in this instance, but in fact Hill’s book shares much in common with James Cameron’s Academy Award-winning film about the great twentieth-century nautical disaster. The Book of Negroes and Titanic both view historical events through a fictional lens, employing a panoramic background, and filtering their respective narratives through the personal journeys of specific, individual characters. But more importantly, both cleave to a populist sensibility, avoiding difficult moral questions in favour of stock figures and situations, and providing a fictional experience that, notwithstanding the tragic nature of their historical backdrops, is comfortably familiar to a mass audience.
Also, for anyone who’s interested, yr. humble correspondent is scheduled to appear on Mary Ito’s Fresh Air radio program on CBC Radio One tomorrow morning at 7:30 to talk about the year in books. Normally I wouldn’t be up at such a godforsaken hour on a Saturday morning, but they asked so nicely I couldn’t refuse.