Esprit de l’escalier, the Steven Heighton edition

November 26, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

Earlier this year, I published an essay in Canadian Notes and Queries with the somewhat adversarial title “Fuck Books.” In it, I expended about 3,000 words gassing on about the prevalence of a certain kind of pseudo-poetic, lyrical fiction that seems to dominate the literary discourse in this country. Two writers in particular – Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje – took it on the chin in that piece. (Of course, that essay was written before I read The Winter Vault, Michaels’ follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Fugitive Pieces; although my feelings about the latter novel remain unchanged, regular readers of this site may recall my surprise at how much I liked The Winter Vault.)

In the wake of the CNQ essay’s appearance, critics (myself and others) pointed out that not all poetic fiction is created equal. This is something that came to mind last night as I was dipping into the poet Robyn Sarah’s essay collection Little Eurekas. I came across a dialogue that Sarah had with Steven Heighton in the pages of another journal, The New Quarterly. The subject of the “paired talks” was “The Poet’s Hand in the Short Story,” and had I read it prior to writing my own essay, I might have reconsidered, since Heighton says almost everything I wanted to say, but in a much more concise and cogent manner:

To put things another way: while a literary novelist strives to get every sentence right, and a short story writer struggles with every word, a poet is actually attentive at the level of the syllable – attentive to every syllable’s length, stress, latent or overt music, onomatopoeic potential and so on. Over the course of a text, the meanings developed and/or stories conveyed are not separable from this interplay of syllables any more than the externals of a galaxy are independent of the microscopic dance of its atoms. Which is simply to say that poets strive to build texts from the micro-level upwards.

When it works, this molecular construction, this radical aptness of diction, leads to writing that feels layered, textured, mysterious, complex, and symphonic; where it fails, the results feel fussy, showy, effortful, pretentious, or, worst of all, static – a bevy of pretty phrases standing around preening and admiring themselves.

One way for the poet-writing-fiction to avoid this kind of vain stasis is to spin a compelling story – as does Cormac McCarthy – because poetic writing that leads narratively nowhere feels (at least to me) self-indulgent and idle, while similar writing that relates, or embodies, a good story simply adds to the text’s resonance and force. So lucky readers of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth get to savour both a compelling yarn and a bravura verbal performance.

The idea of a “compelling yarn” married to “a bravura verbal performance” is what John Barth was referring to in talking about the desirable combination of algebra and fire in fiction:

Let “algebra” stand for formal ingenuity and “fire” for what touches our emotions. … Formal virtuosity itself can of course be breathtaking, but much algebra and little or no fire makes for mere gee-whizzery, like Queneau’s Exercises in Style and A Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets. Much fire and little or no algebra, on the other hand, makes for heartfelt muddles – no examples needed. What most of us want from literature most of the time is what has been called passionate virtuosity …

Perhaps the fact that passionate virtuosity, the satisfying combination of a “radical aptness of diction” and a compelling story, is so rare is actually a blessing, for it makes the experience of encountering them that much more potent.

Lost in the narrows

September 11, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Barbara Kay and Lev Grossman seem cut from the same cloth. Both of them, in their own ways, disdain what they perceive as “difficult” novels. Kay, whom some of you may recall took issue with a generally laudatory (or, in Kay’s own words, “gushy”) assessment of Lisa Moore’s second novel, February, recently published a column in the National Post decrying Canadian literature that she claims is “dying in beauty.” For Kay, Moore is, “like so many others of her sensitive, creativeworkshopped-to-death ilk, a writer’s writer privileging an artistic, leisured rendering of memory and feeling over prole-friendly dialogue, action and, above all, plot.”

In this, she echoes Grossman, whom she name-checks in her article, and who, in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, criticized the modernists for neglecting plot and inculcating the idea that literature has to be difficult in order to be valuable:

The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did. One of the things they broke was plot.

To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the Boy’s Own war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in The Mill on the Floss and spat out The Sound and the Fury.

Grossman takes issue with the “discipline of the conventional literary novel,” which partakes of “a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience,” and asks, “Isn’t it time we made our peace with plot?”

Both Kay and Grossman are rehearsing the distinction that Jonathan Franzen draws (in his 2002 essay, “Mr. Difficult”) between the “Status model” of fiction and the “Contract model.” The Status model is premised upon the idea that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” According to the Status model “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.” In the Contract model, by contrast, the writer offers “words out of which the reader creates a pleasant experience.” For adherents of Contract, “difficulty is a sign of trouble,” which “may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community: of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity or his literary-club membership ahead of the audience’s legitimate desire for connection.”

Obviously, both Kay and Grossman are Contract adherents. Kay holds little truck with novels that are “dying in beauty,” novels in which the technique or the language is an end in itself. Similarly, Grossman approves of Cormac McCarthy’s late-career digression into genre fiction, and applauds the normally prolix Thomas Pynchon for writing a straightforward hard-boiled crime novel. Where both of their arguments fail, however, is in their implicit assumption that “difficult” writing – writing that demands to be appreciated on its own terms – and pleasure are mutually exclusive. Franzen, himself an admitted Contract person, acknowledges this stumbling block when he adumbrates the extreme end of Contract thinking:

Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation. If the local symphony plays too much twentieth-century music, you cancel your subscription. You’re the consumer; you rule.

The only problem being that nowhere is it written that the consumer of fiction actually does rule, at least not in the way that Kay and Grossman would have it. If a reader runs up against a “difficult” book, or a book that doesn’t play by conventional rules or act in the way the reader thinks it is supposed to act, perhaps the fault lies not with the obstreperousness of the writer, but with the narrow prejudices of the reader. A reader who assumes that plot-driven novels are the only kind that can give pleasure will not be won over by books like Century by Ray Smith, in which the main source of pleasure is revelling in the author’s technical mastery. Nor will they gravitate toward McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where what happens is infinitely less important than the author’s exuberance in the uses and possibilities of language.

In her assessment of February, Kay locates “[t]wo feeble points of what-happens-next ‘tension,'” and the dismissive quotation marks around the final word indicate that for Kay, even these two moments were pallid and underwhelming. But as a writer, Moore has never been all that interested in conventional approaches to things like plot or suspense. For Moore, language has always been more important than plot; the tension in Moore’s writing exists in the technique itself. To not recognize this says more about the narrowness of a reader than about the inherent pleasurability of Moore’s writing.

Ultimately, both Kay and Grossman suffer from an artificially proscribed view of the pleasures literature has to offer. For them, a novel is only enjoyable if it does what they want it to do (which is, finally, to behave like other novels they’ve enjoyed in the past). Such a reader will never be able to derive pleasure from books like Ulysses or Wise Blood or Hopscotch, because these are novels that demand to be met on their own terms. In order to find pleasure in them, readers must abandon their preconceptions and open themselves to an experience that is unfamiliar, foreign, and, yes, possibly even difficult. They are novels that require work, but their rewards are commensurate with the effort a sympathetic reader is willing to put into them.

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.