Sense of a happy ending for Barnes

October 19, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

“I didn’t want to go to my grave and get a Beryl,” said Julian Barnes yesterday, after accepting the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. After three previous kicks at the can (Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur and George), Barnes can now rest easy, knowing that he does not share the fate of his late compatriot, Beryl Bainbridge, who was nominated for the lucrative literary award five times and never won. Bainbridge was “honoured” posthumously by a “Best of Beryl” award, given to a title selected from a shortlist of the author’s previously nominated books. (Chosen by the public, the winner was Master Georgie.)

“Beryl was a very gracious non-winner,” said Ion Trewin, who administers the Man Booker Prize. The same could not always have been said about Barnes, who once referred to the prize as “posh bingo.” Although Barnes claims his view of the prize has not changed, he told the Guardian that winning the award was an indication this year’s jury were “the wisest heads in literary Christendom.”

Not everyone shares Barnes’s high opinion of this year’s jury. The 2011 Booker shortlist created quite a stir among British literature aficionados for being too populist in spirit and composition. Sarah Crown, for example, pointed to what she called the “unBookerishness” of this year’s shortlisted titles:

Where last year we had Damon Galgut’s auto-fictive travel-novel, In a Strange Room, and Tom McCarthy’s post-structuralist, anti-humanist discourse on language and technology, C, this year, we have a Moscow murder mystery, an offbeat Western and a novel featuring a talking pigeon.

And this, it seems, was absolutely the plan. On announcing the shortlist, chair of judges Dame Stella Rimington said “We were looking for enjoyable books. I think they are readable books.” Fellow-judge Chris Mullin echoed the sentiment, saying “What people said to me when it was announced I would be on the judging panel was, ‘I hope you choose something readable this year.’ That for me was such a big factor. They had to zip along.”

From a purely economic standpoint, it would appear that Dame Stella and her fellow jurors have discovered a winning formula: this year’s crop of Booker shortlisters is the highest-selling group in the prize’s history, with that Moscow murder mystery, A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops, the undisputed heavyweight at the cash register.

Begging to differ, however, is Jeanette Winterson, who took the opportunity to reiterate her objection to what she calls “printed television.” In a piece for the Guardian, Winterson, an unabashed advocate of challenging writing, lays out the case for literature that is more concerned with language than with plot or setting:

Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.

The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. James Joyce is hard work. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read. Schools teach language-friendly versions of Shakespeare.

Ali Smith’s There But For The is a wonderful, word-playful novel, ignored by the judges this year because it doesn’t fit their idea of “readable.” It is better than anything on their list. Why? It expands what language can do and what fiction can do, and when a reader collides with that unruly exuberance, he or she has to shift perspective. That is what literature is supposed to do.

Winterson’s test for what constitutes literature – “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?” – seems like a good one, but it’s also notable, in the excerpt above, that she chooses to put the word “readable” in quotation marks.* The wholesale separation of writing that is challenging and writing that is readable seems a false dichotomy. I could answer Winterson’s question in the affirmative about any number of books that are – in my opinion, at least – compulsively readable. This is one reason (among several) I was a bit taken aback when Rabindranath Maharaj, one of the jurors for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, suggested that the authors shortlisted for that prize are “innovative in the sense that their books are more accessible – it’s more reader-friendly in many ways.” Novels that are “reader-friendly” are not necessarily the same as novels that are easy or facile, which is the suggestion too often floated in these discussions. (Indeed, Winterson points out that the most “unreadable” novels she’s encountered recently are Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels.)

Julian Barnes, for instance, has a history of writing books that I consider very “reader-friendly,” yet they are also challenging works of literature. Now that he’s finally been honoured by the Man Booker Prize, I suppose I should get down to reading his latest.

*Sorry, Winterson’s British: inverted commas.

How to make it as a writer: be a man

January 6, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

The shortlist for the Charles Taylor Prize was released yesterday, and it consists of four books:

  • The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son by Ian Brown
  • Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000 by John English
  • René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin
  • The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Life of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte

Now, if you’re like me, the first thing you’ll notice about this list is that all four books are written by men. Not only that: all four books are written by men writing about men. The authors are all white, all of a certain age, and in all but one case (Brown’s) the books’ subjects are dead white guys.

This is particularly noticeable coming so soon after Publishers Weekly released its list of the ten best books of 2009, not one of which was written by a woman. Much was made of the longlist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which contained 12 names, only two of which were men. Both made it onto the shortlist, and one of them (Linden MacIntyre) went on to win the award. Indeed, in Giller’s 16-year history, the prize has gone to a woman only five times, and there have been only four female honourees (Alice Munro won twice). In a December 30 op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Julianna Baggott points out that there were only two women in Amazon’s top ten for 2009, and four in the top 20.

The raw numbers seem to point to an ingrained institutional sexism, which is odd for an industry supported by women (who statistically consume more books than men) and powered by women (who make up the vast majority of influential acquisitions editors in Canada – think Louise Dennys, Ellen Seligman, Iris Tupholme, Nicole Winstanley, Alana Wilcox, Lynn Henry, Anne Collins, etc.). Baggott does not limit her analysis to a recapitulation of the numbers; instead, she attempts to settle on an explanation as to why books by men get trumpeted more often and more loudly than books by women:

I often hear people exclaiming that they’re astonished that a particular book was written by a man. They seem stunned by the notion that a man could write with emotional intelligence and honesty about our human frailties.

Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman.

So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.

What’s interesting, however, in the Publishers Weekly list is that the books are not only written by men but also have male themes, overwhelmingly. In fact, the list flashes like a slide show of the terrain I was trying to cover in my graduate thesis, when I wrote all things manly – war, boyhood, adventure.

The idea that “men get points for simply showing up on the page” is fatuous, especially given that many novelists, such as Henry James, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marcel Proust, who historically trafficked in books of deep – not to say extreme – psychological depth, were possessed of a Y chromosome. I hardly think that James, Dostoevsky, or Proust are given points “for simply showing up on the page.” In a similar vein (since we’re speaking anecdotally), I’ve never heard anyone say of Kazuo Ishiguro’s extraordinary 2005 novel Never Let Me Go (a mainstay of the ubiquitous “Best of the Decade” lists that have been cropping up in the last few months), “That’s a terrific novel. I can’t believe it was written by a man.” Most people I’m aware of (both male and female) would stop after the first of those two utterances.

What’s more interesting is Baggott’s theory that women get passed over because they don’t write about masculine themes – war, boyhood, and adventure. One 2009 novel written by a woman – Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean – features all three, and was nominated for the Giller, the Governor General’s Award, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award (it won the last of these). By contrast, Bonnie Burnard’s highly anticipated second novel, Suddenly, also published in 2009, is about three women whose lifelong friendship is changed when one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It wasn’t nominated for any major awards. Does this have to do with the respective themes these two authors chose?

It’s tempting to say yes, until you realize that one of the four female Giller Prize recipients is Bonnie Burnard, who took the award in 1999 for her debut novel, A Good House. Set in the aftermath of World War II, that novel is about three generations of an ordinary family. In other words, Burnard’s first novel contains none of the themes Baggott specified, yet it went on to win this country’s richest prize for English-language fiction. Is it possible, then, that her follow-up was passed over for award consideration not because of its subject matter, the gender of its author, or an institutionalized sexism, but because it simply wasn’t as good as other novels from the past year?

Perhaps. Of course, one book is too small a sample size to be statistically significant. So we can look at the five books by females out of 16 Giller Prize winners since 1994, as well as the number of women over the same period who have won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction (five), the Man Booker Prize (six), the Pulitzer Prize (six), and the National Book Award (six). The largest of these numbers – six – accounts for 37.5% of the total winners of any given prize for the period.

If the numbers don’t lie, and if Baggott’s explanations are unsatisfactory to explain them, where do we go from here? Writing in the Norfolk Books Examiner, Lydia Netzer engages with Baggott’s analysis and comes up with three possibilities to explain the exclusion of women from the Publishers Weekly list:

1. The list is sexist, purposefully oppressing women. The solution in this case would be, I guess, to burn down the list. Make a new list. Get those bastards. This seems kind of weak and paranoid.

2. The list is false, reflecting a lame and lingering cultural bias that is on its way out. The solution is to wait. After all, we didn’t count the black writers, or the South American writers. It will all come around, given more time. I guess this is what I would like to believe.

The third possibility is more alarming than the others, because it is the simplest explanation, and therefore the most viable:

3. The list is right. The things that women write about are neither culturally nor historically significant, and the books that women write are not the best books.

It is this last hypothesis that Netzer ends up endorsing: “The lesson of the [PW] list is that nobody’s going to do us any favors. We’re not going to get prizes just for showing up and writing our little books.” If women want to get their books on the major prize lists and roundups of the year’s best, they need to “address the important stuff, the big stuff: death, war, sex, adventure, as it pertains to women and men.” Which brings us full circle to Baggott’s idea of “masculine” themes – i.e., the big stuff, the earth-shattering warp and woof of history.

Except that one of the women writers Netzer mentions as being historically relevant is Virginia Woolf, who didn’t exactly write about “adventure.” On the contrary, Mrs. Dalloway is the prototypical domestic novel, focusing on the title character’s preparations for a dinner party. (Yes, this is the crassest of oversimplifications, but I’m attempting to make a point.) The novel is resolutely interior, yet it has been heralded as a modernist classic. Another classic from the early 20th century, this one written by a man, takes up similar quotidian themes. James Joyce’s Ulysses is not about war or adventure, it’s about two gents who wander around Dublin while one of them gets cuckolded. It would appear the whole focus on “masculine” subject matter is a bit of a non-starter, then as now.

While I’d like to believe that Netzer’s second hypothesis is the correct one, my suspicion is that the truth is closer to her first suggestion. It’s probably the case that there is an unconscious sexism afoot in our literary culture, which props up the work of men at the expense of equally worthy books by their female counterparts. There are female writers working today – Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alice Munro, A.L. Kennedy, Barbara Gowdy, Monica Ali, A.M. Homes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Lynn Coady spring immediately to mind, all of them writing about different subjects and in wildly different styles – whose work is easily as good as that of their male contemporaries; they deserve greater recognition than they have historically received.

Are there any world-class CanLit writers?

June 12, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

There’s a bit of a contretemps going on over at Quillblog (which seems these days to be where I’m getting all my material) about an interview that Nigel Beale did with John Metcalf, in which Metcalf defends the utility of negative reviews, even those that resort to invective and insult to make their points. I’ll let that debate simmer away over at Quill; what most interests me in the Beale/Metcalf interview comes later on, when Metcalf turns his attention to the Canadian canon and asks whether Canada can be said to have produced a world-class writer. In Metcalf’s view, this country has produced only one work worthy of being set alongside the best writing from England and the United States: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Beyond that single novel, Metcalf claims, anyone looking for important literary writing must look outside our home and native land:

Anybody with any literary sense whatsoever knows that a really important book of literary fiction comes maybe once every ten years, out of England or the United States and not here, because we don’t have an audience hard enough to exact one.

[ … ]

The Canadian critic’s duty is to be vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States and to compare Canadian output with the best from those two countries. Of course, when you do that, the result is painful. I mean, we’re not even on the same planet.

Metcalf’s detractors will put this down to simply more colonial bitterness from an inveterate curmudgeon and complainer, but this knee-jerk response gives his argument short shrift. One presumes that Metcalf is confining his attention to literature written in English, which is why he singles out Britain and the United States (and not, say, Latin America) as the twin hubs of significant literary output. Were Metcalf to look past Canadian literature written in English, he might be surprised at the wealth of talent coming out of Quebec, even that small percentage that has appeared in translation. (It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to make a case for Marie-Claire Blais’s stature as a world-class author.) And there is a sense that Metcalf is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point: even he admits that Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are important Canadian writers.

Still, his basic contention is worth considering: if one were to build a literary canon of significant books from the past 50 years or so, how many works of Canadian literature would fit comfortably on it? I would suggest, for example, that Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride – arguably Margaret Atwood’s two best novels – are important works in the annals of Canadian writing, but would their lustre not be the least bit diminished were they to be placed alongside the best of Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral)? Or Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)? Or Jeanette Winterson (The Passion, Written on the Body)? In such august company, would Atwood’s novels not come off looking just the slightest bit parochial and twee?

It’s been pointed out that in the chronology of world literatures, Canada’s is a relatively young one. We may indeed now be entering the period of literary development that the States found itself in at the mid-20th century. Still, by that point American literature had produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, not to mention Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Carson McCullers. Where are the Canadian writers to compare with these canonical names? Where in Canada are we to find such technically audacious, philosophically inquisitive, or cosmopolitan writers as José Saramago, Julio Cortàzar, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Alasdair Gray?

In his essay “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” Philip Marchand wrote, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Perhaps this partially explains the experience of a colleague of mine on a trip to France. Speaking about her work in the field of CanLit, she was questioned about important Canadian writers. Atwood’s name drew blank stares. The people she was speaking to had some vague notion of who Michael Ondaatje is, but that was about it. If being world class means being recognized abroad, this anecdotal experience suggests that we’re not doing terribly well.

Metcalf thinks this is because we don’t have a culture of tough criticism, and I for one would be hard pressed to disagree. The culture of boosterism and cheerleading to which we have consigned ourselves precludes us developing “an audience hard enough to exact” a literature that is able to compete with the best of what’s being produced internationally. Even Canadian writers feel this: ask anyone working in the trenches of CanLit about what’s exciting them in literature these days, and they’re more likely to name Joseph O’Neill than Anne Michaels. This is a shame. Where are Canada’s answers to Bolaño and Saramago, to Ali Smith and Haruki Murakami? They don’t exist – yet. But it is only by holding ourselves to the highest literary standards that we may hope to rectify this situation. We need to develop the “hard” audience that Metcalf advocates. We should not hesitate to judge Canadian writing against the best of what is being produced internationally, nor should we hesitate to point out those instances in which our writing comes up wanting.