Torontoist serializes seasonal story

December 17, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The New Yorker has shitcanned eliminated its fall fiction special issue, but on this side of the 49th Parallel, the Torontoist website is going in the opposite direction. Beginning today, and continuing every day until Christmas eve, they’re serializing a story called “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” by Robert J. Wiersema, author of the novel Before I Wake and the novella The World More Full of Weeping.

Yesterday, the books editor at the Torontoist (he of the Bukowski-baiting Lori Lansens review) posted a note about the project along with an introduction from the author, in which Wiersema lays out his rationale for producing a Christmastime ghost story:

At first glance, there’s something a little counter-intuitive about a Christmas ghost story. After all, isn’t the season all about births and rebirths (depending on which point on the Christian/Pagan trapeze you occupy)? Well, yes.

And yet …

There’s a long history of ghosts and Christmas. One need look no further than what is perhaps the best known Christmas tale, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which has not one but four ghosts (don’t forget poor Marley.) And on the other end of the spectrum one of the best known ghost stories – Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – which is deliberately framed as “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be.”

Literary algebra: The commercial + the literary = the not-quite

December 16, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Ever since commercial fiction has outsold its literary counterpart (which, for those who are unsure, means always), people have argued about what exactly constitutes “literary” fiction. How esoteric/highbrow/impenetrable does a work of fiction have to be to qualify as a “literary” novel? My colleague and buddy Nathan Whitlock has charged into this minefield with characteristic abandon in a recent column for Maisonneuve magazine. Whitlock kicks off his argument by pointing to a review of Lori Lansens’ novel The Wife’s Tale, commissioned by yours truly for Quill & Quire (where Whitlock and yr. humble correspondent share a pod-like cubicle) and written by James Grainger.

Now, I consider Grainger to be one of the sharpest critics in this country, but his review – which was generally positive – nevertheless roused the ire of Lansens’ agent, Denise Bukowski, who accused the reviewer of getting his facts wrong (the review erroneously stated that Oprah Winfrey had optioned the film rights to Lansens’ first novel, Rush Home Road)* and, more egregiously, of committing what Whitlock refers to as the “Sin of Distinction”: “after listing some of the authors who had been picked either for Oprah’s Book Club or … the U.K.’s Richard and Judy Book Club, Bukowski fought back against Grainger’s ‘patronizing’ notion that Lansens was working within chosen boundaries.” Whitlock summarizes the whole farrago this way:

This dust-up was a visible manifestation of a larger problem dogging Canadian publishing: the semi-utopian belief that literature is a garden that not only welcomes all comers (true enough), but contains no hedges or fences, is equally accessible from corner to corner, is blind to difference and immune to personal bias. Authors of all stripes mingle freely, and woe to him who suggests there are fundamental differences between what they write and for whom it’s intended.

The temptation to conflate various kinds of novels that are in fact distinct in execution and intended audience, Whitlock contends, should be avoided; critics need to “be more discerning” in “understanding (or perhaps admitting) that fiction comes in many forms” and they must be “unequivocal about what a given book is, and … catholic enough in their professional tastes to fairly assess diverse authorial intentions.” By describing the commercial aspects of Lansens’ novel, Grainger was simply performing one aspect of the critic’s job: situating the work within a particular category or tradition. Where Bukowski erred was in assuming that this implied any kind of value judgment.

Whitlock puts his finger on the reason a certain kind of middlebrow novel holds sway over CanLit these days: the dominant trend favours a kind of hybrid novel – what he refers to as the “Not-Quite Novel” – the literary equivalent of Dr. Moreau’s man-beasts: books that are “too thorny and/or sober to entertain, yet too conventional and broad to last.” The result of this artificial generic enjambment is novels like The Book of Negroes: ambitious tales about weighty subjects told in a manner that is straightforward and unchallenging. By refusing to completely embrace one aspect or the other – the commercial or the literary – the novel ends up doing justice to neither.

If I have any difficulty with Whitlock’s argument, it would reside in my feeling that he goes too far in pursuing an overly rigid dichotomy between “commercial” novels – those “big-plot, lots-o’-story books” – and “literary” ones (by which I take it he means difficult, more stylistically adventurous books that eschew story in favour of character development and syntactical pyrotechnics). The implication seems to be that “thorny and/or sober” books can’t entertain, while “conventional and broad” books don’t endure. What, then, is one to do with Dickens (who has been called the Shakespeare of the novel), whose writing was enormously commercial in the author’s own day, yet endures down to the present? (Whitlock covers himself here, referring at one point to “the strange things that time and distance can do to artistic categories,” but this admission seems to take a bit of the sting out of his argument.) How does one account for a book like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah pick that is unequivocally a “big-plot, lots-o’-story” novel, but seems to have a certain amount of staying power (first released in 1996, this month it was selected as one of the five contenders for the 2010 edition of Canada Reads)? And since Whitlock himself brings up Steven Galloway, how are we to categorize that author’s 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo? It’s a story-driven book, but it also has frankly “literary” properties: a weighty subject (the Siege of Sarajevo), well-drawn characters, and evident attention to the prose on a line-by-line basis. (Whitlock might characterize this as a hybrid, or a Not-Quite Novel, but I consider it to be generally better than that.)

Recent years have seen a retreat from the kind of obscurantist anti-novel that began in the Modernist era and found its apogee in the French nouveau roman as practiced by authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet. In its stead, we are witnessing a resurgence – and newfound critical acceptance – of novels that privilege story over technical experiment – witness the critical accolades being heaped upon Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. King is a self-admitted commercial writer, and it’s unlikely the broad spectrum of his readers would be entertained by, say, the prolix digressions and postmodern approach of David Foster Wallace (despite the fact that, to a certain sensibility, Wallace is giddily entertaining). This, of course, is Whitlock’s point: different writers employ different styles and appeal to different audiences. But I wonder whether the broad categories he sets out may in fact be somewhat more permeable than he seems to suggest they are.

*It was Whoopi Goldberg. What idiot was in charge of fact checking that? … Oh. My bad.