Looking back, looking ahead

January 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s the first day of 2011 and perusing the Internets, I notice a bunch of literary types looking back and making resolutions about moving forward. The Globe and Mail recently published a list of thirty writers’ choices for their favourite books from 2010. Contributors include Alison Pick, Charlotte Gray, André Alexis, and Karen Solie; the resulting list is predictably eclectic and intriguing. Over at Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare has put together a list of worthy books she read last year that were not published in calendar year 2010. Jessa Crispin reflects on how a slim volume about Coco Chanel set the tone and the path for her entire reading experience in 2010. And The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Yardley confesses disappointment in the fiction of 2010 (and the state of American literature in general).

Looking ahead to the coming year, The Los Angeles Times‘ book blog, Jacket Copy, provides a list of 37 resolutions by writers, critics, and bloggers. The contributors variously vow to ignore Goodreads, to be more engaged with Goodreads, to read Infinite Jest, to finish reading Infinite Jest, and to drink less. Of the group, the resolution closest to my heart is that of writer and bookseller Emma Straub:

In 2011, I’m going to challenge myself more as a reader. More nonfiction! More esoteric subjects! I want to give myself the chance to say, you know, that really wasn’t for me, and the chance to be surprised by loving something unexpected.

This dovetails with something Stephen Burn says in his contribution to The New York Timesseries of essays about why, in 2011, criticism still matters:

I sometimes fear that a narrow artistic palette can be mistaken for critical standards, and I believe it’s past time to dispense with prejudices about character, emotivity, and realism that hardened during the 19th century: a strongly realist character-based novel isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t the only thing. A contemporary novel offers an opportunity to measure fiction’s mutating forms – to note, perhaps, the dominance of time as a thematic obsession in works of the last 20 years, or the emergence of the family epic, with its generational conflicts, as it becomes perhaps the signature subgenre of the American novel today. Equally, critics might overhaul their sense of a static literary past and think instead of the novel actively engaging with its forebears.

The entire series is well worth reading, but perhaps I’ll give the last word about criticism to Kate Roiphe, and wish you all a very happy and prosperous 2011:

If the critic has to compete with the seductions of Facebook, with shrewdly written television, with culturally relevant movies – with, in short, every bright thing that flies to the surface of the iPhone – that’s all the more reason for him to write dramatically, vividly, beautifully, to have, as Alfred Kazin wrote in 1960, a “sense of the age in his bones.” The critic could take all of this healthy competition, the challenge of dwindling review pages, the slash in pay, as a sign to be better, to be irreplaceable, to transcend.

In which I get found out

August 9, 2010 by · 7 Comments 

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.

One from the vaults: Carrie Snyder’s Hair Hat

January 25, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Some of you may recall my feeling of déjà vu upon hearing the lineup for this year’s edition of Canada Reads. It seems I’m not the only one who found the list this year a tad uninspiring. Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This was so disappointed at the lack of unexpected choices on this year’s roster that she set up her own “shadow” program, which she’s calling Canada Reads 2010: Independently. She recruited five literary folks – including yr. humble correspondent – to offer competing suggestions for “book recommendations out of nowhere, books I’d never pick up otherwise, that challenge my sensibilities, and that I might just fall in love with.”

The first book she read was Ray Smith’s Century, which was recommended by Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells. Since Kerry has set up her program as a competition, and given that I chose another book entirely for her to read, it’s probably not wise for me to admit this (although regular readers of this site will already be well aware of it), but I greatly admire Smith’s novel.

The second book Kerry tackled, selected for her by one Patricia Storms, is a collection of linked short stories by Carrie Snyder called Hair Hat. In my checkered past, when I was reviewing for the now-defunct Books in Canada, one of the books that fell into my lap was Hair Hat. My BiC review is reprinted below. I’d be interested to return to Snyder’s text and find out whether my reaction has changed at all; Kerry’s review gives me the opportunity to dig out my copy and do just that. In the meantime, here is my response circa 2004. (Hair Hat is not currently available in stores, but if either Kerry’s or my own review piques your interest, the author has copies of the book for sale through her website.)


Carrie Snyder’s volume of 11 stories is linked by the presence of a mysterious figure whose hair is sculpted into the shape of a hat. This nameless figure keeps cropping up – on a beach, in a donut shop, returning a lost wallet – but remains a peripheral figure, as though inhabiting the blurred edges of a photograph. Until, that is, the penultimate story in the collection, when the Hair Hat Man is brought front and centre.

Before becoming the focus of attention, he wanders aimlessly into and out of the lives of a seemingly disparate group of characters: a young girl consumed with guilt over her complicity in the drowning death of her best friend; a mother taking her two children on a day trip to the beach; a female graduate student who flirts openly at a bar in the presence of her boyfriend.

The connections between the characters are occasionally self-evident: the young girl with the drowned friend in the opening story, “Yellow Cherries,” reappears in “Comfort,” which tells the same story from the point of view of the girl’s Aunt Lucy. When the Hair Hat Man shows up at Lucy’s farm, he recognizes the girl as his daughter’s best friend in school; the two girls appear together in the collection’s final story, “Chosen.”

But there are less readily apparent connections running throughout Hair Hat. Absence dominates these stories: the characters in Snyder’s collection are all, in one way or another, missing something. The young girl in “Yellow Cherries” is haunted by the absence of her dead friend. The mother in “Tumbleweed” suspects her husband of being unfaithful, but engages in a program of avoidance and denial, and the husband himself remains absent throughout, never actually appearing in the story. The daughter in “The Apartment” loses her wallet, and in “Third Dog,” the titular canine, symbolic of a kind of malevolent destiny, hovers over the entire story, but never appears in it. The central absence in the collection afflicts the Hair Hat Man himself – it is no accident that the story in which he finally appears in the foreground is titled “Missing.” The way these characters deal with loss – both physical and spiritual – provides the thread that weaves these stories together, lending them a subtle thematic cohesion.

Hair Hat is not, however, simply a collection of short fiction thematically unified by a concern with absence and loss or an examination of the specific responses and repercussions these states have on a particular group of characters. The book is avowedly a collection of linked stories, and it is the very linking device – the presence of the Hair Hat Man himself – that ultimately sinks the collection.

Unlike Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?, Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, or Michael Winter’s One Last Good Look – linked story collections which are actually variations on the traditional Bildungsroman – Snyder’s stories are yoked together in a way that is highly artificial and intrusive. Snyder’s preferred mode of storytelling is mimetic naturalism of the “kitchen sink” variety, but the eccentrically coiffed interloper who keeps reappearing seems for most of the book’s duration like a cartoonish figure; he feels out of place and is distracting for the reader. Even when we are finally made privy to the Hair Hat Man’s story, his essential ludicrousness is inescapable. The longing and loss that his story insists on is overwhelmed by the reader’s curiosity about how he sleeps and what kind of styling mousse he uses.

It is clear that the author intends the Hair Hat Man’s unorthodox appearance to act as a catalyst of sorts for the other characters in the book, a means of dragging them out of the ordinariness of their lives and forcing their situations into sharper relief. Here is Lucy’s reaction to the Hair Hat Man in “Comfort”: “His presence, his hair hat, were uncalled for, an accident, a misfortune, a blemish on an otherwise clean, calculated day that should have held nothing but the ordinary reminders and warnings.” But even this feels forced and heavy handed, and is insufficient to make the character seem like anything other than an artificial authorial imposition binding together stories that would have been better left discrete.