Kate Cayley beats out heavy hitters to win the Trillium Book Award

June 18, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

How-You-Were-Born-Kate-CayleyThe $20,000 Trillium Book Award, given annually to the best book in any genre by an Ontario author, is one of my favourite Canadian awards, because it is always so defiantly individual. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the 2009 jury that awarded the prize to Pasha Malla’s first story collection, The Withdrawal Method.) Whereas other awards often risk appearing formulaic, the Trillium seems focused entirely on merit and damn the torpedoes: recent winners have included Phil Hall (a poet) and Hannah Moskovitch (a playwright).

This year, Kate Cayley beat out established authors Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, and Thomas King to take the award for her debut, the story collection How You Were Born. The fact the prize went to a work of short fiction makes me happy for reasons that go without saying. (Also for the record: I was a fan of Atwood’s collection Stone Mattress.)

Beyond that, Cayley’s book is published by the small literary house Pedlar Press. (Pedlar is based in St. John’s, but Cayley is a resident of Toronto.) There is a myth that large multinationals are responsible for publishing only tired, mainstream, run-of-the-mill books, whereas small houses produce nothing but brilliant work that withers due to lack of attention and readers. While neither is true in all cases, the last part of that – the lack of attention for books from smaller houses – is an unfortunate reality, so it is nice to see an independent regional publisher receive some consideration.

Whether such consideration is merited in this case is something I (shamefacedly) can’t attest to, not having read Cayley’s book (see above re: lack of attention to work from smaller presses, even on the part of people who should know better). That I now plan to search it out probably also flies in the face of my frequent criticisms of award culture; it would appear that awards really do help to sell books, for better or for worse.

The jury that awarded Cayley the prize was comprised of poet Helen Guri, novelist Cordelia Strube, and novelist James Grainger.

Other winners:

The Trillium also awarded its poetry prize last night, to Brecken Hancock’s well-received debut Broom Broom, a suite of unflinchingly dark poems published by Toronto’s Coach House Books. The $10,000 poetry prize is awarded annually (it alternates between English- and French-language titles) for a first, second, or third book of poetry.

Michel Dallaire won the French-language prize for his novel Violoncelle pour lune d’automne, and Micheline Marchand won the French-language children’s award for her book Mauvaise Mine. Both books were published by Les Éditions L’Interligne.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 7: “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

May 7, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From Stone Mattress: Nine Tales

Stone_Mattress_Margaret_AtwoodThe issue of the Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine that hit newsstands on April 2, 2015, featured a cover profile of Canadian writer Andrew Pyper, who had just published his seventh novel, The Damned. The profile began in an odd way. Susan G. Cole, NOW Magazine’s books and entertainment editor, led by essentially slamming Pyper for writing what amounts to a ghost story: “Andrew Pyper pisses me off. Really, I just want to shake him. He’s one of the best writers we have: vivid images, page-turning narratives, complex characters. He writes so exquisitely, you wish he’d just settle in and write a conventional novel. Do us a favour – get real and stop wasting your time on genre fiction.”

This distinction – between genre fiction and what Cole refers to as “conventional novel[s]” – continues to hang around, like a particularly nasty chest cold, though it is getting harder and harder to draw as more and more writers insist on eliding it. Colson Whitehead’s most recent book, Zone One, is a zombie novel, as is All-Day Breakfast, the latest from Canadian writer Adam Lewis Schroeder, who has to this point confined himself to the apparently more respectable genre of historical fiction. (Cole singles out Helen Humphreys for praise as the kind of writer she wishes Pyper would emulate, apparently unwilling to admit that historical fiction itself represents genre writing.)

Never mind that Pyper has forged a lucrative career over the better part of three decades by insisting on the artificiality of exactly these barriers. Suggesting that writers who practice their craft in the areas of genre fiction are “wasting [their] time” immediately discounts at least some of the output of such diverse figures as Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, John le Carré, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elmore Leonard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan.

Not to mention Margaret Atwood. Pyper actually does reference Atwood in response to Cole, a comment Cole calls “provocative.” But it isn’t provocation: it’s a simple fact. Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, is The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist work of dystopian speculative fiction. Her recently completed MaddAddam trilogy of novels also constitutes spec-fic, this time with a healthy dose of environmentalism added to the mix. And the author’s upcoming novel, The Heart Goes Last, is also set in the near future.

In fact, the further on Atwood gets in her career, the less interested she appears to be in writing what Cole dismisses as “conventional” fiction. In his review of Atwood’s 2014 story collection, Stone Mattress, the critic Jeet Heer noticed this tendency, positing that before The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood “spent her main energies mastering and exhausting the possibilities of realism,” while thereafter “realism would become a minor chord” in the author’s work.

Atwood herself notes that the pieces in Stone Mattress are not stories at all but, as the subtitle attests, “tales.” This is not an arbitrary distinction. Atwood is deliberately staking out a position outside the confines of social realism, aligning herself instead with tellers of fabulous tales – Scheherazade and the Ancient Mariner, or Robertson Davies, whom Atwood quotes as saying, “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale.”

None of the nine entries in Stone Mattress constitutes a work of realism; “Lusus Naturae,” commissioned for Michael Chabon’s anthology McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, is an all-out allegorical fairy tale.

In terms of genre, the title story could reasonably be considered a work of noir fiction – it is a revenge tale, albeit told from a feminist perspective that is typical of its author. Its central figure, Verna, is a murderer. Or, to be more precise, she is what is colloquially known in crime novels as a “black widow”: a woman who marries men in a series and bumps them off one by one. Verna is careful to note that all of her victims die of natural causes, she merely helps them along, by leaving a double dose of medicine at bedtime, or offering “tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire,” such as unhealthy food or too much booze. She entices them into sexual congress, knowing full well that their hearts or their arteries won’t be able to take it. Viagra, Verna says, is “a revolutionary breakthrough but so troubling to the blood pressure.”

Also on display here is Atwood’s unique brand of acidic humour, something critics – most of them men – have castigated her for, but an aspect of her writing that devotees recognize and appreciate. It is a strain of humour that stretches back at least as far as the 1971 poetry collection Power Politics, which includes the brilliant four-liner “You Fit into Me”: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye // a fish hook / an open eye.”

Sure, there is a strong element of nastiness in all this, but the viciousness is rarely misplaced in Atwood’s work. Consider what sets Verna off on her homicidal career: when she was a teenager, she was date raped, an experience that left her pregnant and a pariah. More than fifty years on, Verna encounters her rapist on an Arctic cruise; he doesn’t recognize her and tries to hit on her, she responds by forging a plan to kill him.

Verna’s plot to kill her assailant is also pure Atwood: the cruise ship is to make an unexpected stop at an area replete with stromatolites, “the very first preserved form of life on this planet.” A scientist explains to the vacationers: “The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome.” One such fossilized cushion becomes the weapon with which Verna bludgeons her rapist to death, following which she carries the rock back on board the ship for the other passengers to admire and, not incidentally, get their DNA on. “She’d read a lot of crime novels,” we are told.

Atwood, too, has clearly read a lot of crime novels, to say nothing of novels in any number of other genres. Though some devout science fiction aficionados have charged Atwood with being an interloper – a literary writer merely pretending an affinity for so-called lower genres – Heer points out that “[t]his accusation is refuted not only by the sheer volume of Atwood’s genre output, but also by the way sensationalistic plots have manifestly invigorated her work.” Atwood’s affinity for genre writing is evident in the joy she seems to glean from it. And why shouldn’t this be the case? It’s all a form of storytelling, after all. How could anyone presume that this was somehow a waste of time?

Margaret Atwood to leave unread manuscript for posterity as part of The Future Library project

September 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

When one thinks of a futurist, one likely pictures a bespectacled tech-industry CEO or a scientist toiling away in an obscure nuclear laboratory. One probably doesn’t think of a Man Booker Prize–winning novelist. But Margaret Atwood has long had one eye on the future, and now she’s backing that up with a new piece of writing that, if all goes according to plan, no one but her will read for the next hundred years.

According to Alison Flood in the Guardian, Atwood has teamed with the Scottish artist Katie Paterson on what is being called The Future Library project: a sealed archive of manuscripts – one per year for the next century – that will be kept in Oslo until the various works are printed in the year 2114.

From the Guardian:

Atwood has just been named as the first contributor to an astonishing new public artwork. The Future Library project, conceived by the award-winning young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, began, quietly, this summer, with the planting of a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo. It will slowly unfold over the next century. Every year until 2114, one writer will be invited to contribute a new text to the collection, and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.

What is remarkable about this project – from all perspectives – is its optimism. Its very premise presumes that humans a) will still be reading books in the year 2114; b) will still be reading books on paper (take that, Jeff Bezos); c) will not, in the interim, have so ravished the planet that it will have been rendered uninhabitable; and d) will not have otherwise killed themselves off, or been killed off, by war, hubris, pestilence, famine, or the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

But futurists are inherently optimistic and, despite frequent criticisms as to her bitter anger (especially regarding that half of the human population in possession of an XY chromosome), Atwood has always been a peculiarly optimistic writer. (Satirists are almost by definition optimists, because they presume that human beings are capable of change.)

Indeed, there is much in The Future Library project that would seem to appeal to Atwood, not least the environmental aspect involved in the planting of one thousand trees. There is also the historical element tied in to the presence of a printing press, which will be added to the library to print the books when the project culminates; that piece of technology may in fact be an obsolete antique by 2114. And there is an undeniable element of faith: both Atwood and Paterson will have shuffled off this mortal coil before the project wraps up, so neither will be alive to see the work they have seeded bloom. “Sometimes it does hit me,” Paterson says in the Guardian, “Oh my God, if I live to ninety, what will it be like then? It’s very exciting as an artist.”

My own favourite part of Atwood’s response to this project involves her stated “pleasure” in the prospect of not being around when her work is finally read. “You don’t have to be around for the part when if it’s a good review the publisher takes credit for it and if it’s a bad review it’s all your fault.”

Surprise inclusions, omissons characterize this year’s Giller shortlist

October 8, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoLeave it to Margaret Atwood to confound expectations.

If you’d asked me (or, likely, pretty much any literary observer) prior to this morning, I’d have said the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize was Joseph Boyden, for his third novel, The Orenda. A staggeringly ambitious book about Europeans’ first contact with Native Canadians and the collision of ideologies and cultures that led – for better or worse – to the creation of this country, Boyden’s story appeared as the quintessential Giller novel. Compared to Herodotus by Charles Foran in The Globe and Mail, called “a classic” by the National Post and “a magnificent literary beast” by Quill & Quire, The Orenda seemed like the book to beat this year for the most lucrative fiction prize in Canada.

At the announcement of the Giller shortlist this morning in Toronto, when it became apparent that Boyden’s novel did not make the cut, an audible gasp permeated the room.

Atwood and her fellow jurors – former Giller winner Esi Edugyan and American novelist Jonathan Lethem – culled from a longlist of thirteen titles a shortlist that is as surprising as it is intriguing. Only two of this year’s shortlisted authors – Lisa Moore and Lynn Coady – have been previous Giller finalists. Heavy hitters such as Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, and Claire Messud were left off the list of five contenders for the $50,000 prize. In their place are a genre thriller set in postwar Vienna, a story about the fallout from two brothers’ conflicted history, and a violent tale about a cop and a criminal in Niagara Falls.

The finalists for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize are:

  • Dennis Bock, Going Home Again (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Lynn Coady, Hellgoing (House of Anansi Press)
  • Craig Davidson, Cataract City (Doubleday Canada)
  • Lisa Moore, Caught (House of Anansi Press)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Crooked Maid (HarperCollins Canada)

Anansi is the only wholly owned Canadian press to feature on the shortlist. With two titles, this brings Anansi’s total nominations, over the twenty-year history of the prize, to thirteen. Thirteen in the year 2013 seems auspicious, but even if you’re not superstitious, at first blush this appears to be Lisa Moore’s year. She’s been nominated twice before – for her story collection Open and her first novel, Alligator – and this book, about an escaped drug runner who embarks on one last score, seems like the perfect confluence of accessible genre thriller and literary sensibility to nab the prize.

At the shortlist announcement, it was made explicit that the jury chose the five finalists at the same time they settled on the thirteen-book longlist – this was, arguably, a preventative strike against those who might have surmised that the jury changed its mind about David Gilmour’s longlisted novel, Extraordinary, after the controversy surrounding the author’s comments on a Random House–sponsored website last month.

What is clear is that this year’s Giller jury privileges books with strong narratives over more technically or stylistically innovative works. This year’s Giller shortlist comprises reader-friendly, plot-oriented fiction – stories told, as the jury statement that accompanied the longlist put it, in “remarkably familiar ways.” However, the books on this year’s shortlist – to say nothing of the shortlist itself – are not without surprise or interest, and observers will be paying close attention when the winner is announced at a gala dinner in Toronto on November 5.

UPDATE: A post on the Giller Prize’s Facebook page indicates that, contrary to the impression given at the shortlist announcement, the jury chose the shortlist “approximately one week after the longlist was announced.” The post goes on to stipulate, “This jury’s timing was unique to their particular judging process, which differs from every other Giller Prize jury and from other literary award juries and judging processes.”

And they’re off: the fall award season begins

September 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Early September marks – for better or worse – the start of literary awards season, and the first indicators of the frenzy to come are already being noted.

Man_Booker_Prize_logoYesterday, the jury for the Man Booker Prize – which comprises chair Robert Macfarlane and jurors Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Natalie Haynes, Martha Kearney, and Stuart Kelly – released the shortlist for the 2013 award. The six books on the shortlist include two by Canadians: Eleanor Catton’s sophomore novel The Luminaries, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. The other nominees are NoViolet Bulawayo for her debut novel We Need New Names, Jim Crace for The Harvest, Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland, and Colm Tóibín for The Testament of Mary.

The official Man Booker announcement calls the shortlist “the most diverse in recent memory,” and there is some validity to this. Catton, the youngest nominee in the history of the prize, was born in London, Ontario, and lives in New Zealand. American-born Ozeki resides in British Columbia. Bulawayo is the first shortlisted author from Zimbabwe. Only two of the authors – Crace and Tóibín – have been nominated for the prize previously. The longest book on the list (Catton’s) is 848 pages; at 104 pages, the shortest (Tóibín’s) is virtually a novella. Catton’s novel is set in 1866 New Zealand; Bulawayo’s in contemporary Zimbabwe; and Tóibín’s in biblical times.

Calling the list “fiendishly difficult to categorise,” the official announcement continues:

It is clear that the perennial complaint that fiction is too safe and unadventurous is a ridiculous one; [the shortlist] shows that the novel remains a multi-faceted thing; that writing and inspiration knows no geographical borders; that diaspora tales are a powerful strand in imaginative thinking; and that human voices, in all their diversity, drive fiction.

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoHere in Canada, some are thinking that the fall award season will amount to a showdown between two heavyweights: Catton, and Joseph Boyden, for his third novel, The Orenda. This will begin to come clear next Monday, when the Scotiabank Giller Prize unveils its longlist. This year marks the Giller’s 20th anniversary, and for the first time, the longlist is being unveiled outside Toronto, at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. (Lest anyone fret that Toronto’s status as the centre of the universe might be in jeopardy, the shortlist announcement and the gala dinner to crown the victor both take place here.)

This year, for the first time in the history of Canadian literary prizes (so far as I am aware), the Giller jury will appear in public to speak about the process of settling on the longlist. The event, called “Behind the Curtain,” will take place on October 7 at the Manulife Centre branch of Indigo Books and Music (located in – yes – Toronto). Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s Q, will interview this year’s Giller jurors, novelists Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan, and Jonathan Lethem. According to a press release, they will discuss “the longlist, the upcoming shortlist, and what’s it like to read close to 150 books to make their decisions.”

Because this event takes place before even the shortlist is announced, the jury will necessarily be curtailed in what they are able to say, but this is nevertheless an interesting development. It does not represent going behind the curtain, so much as cracking the curtain slightly to peer inside, but it does offer some small glimpse into a process that has historically been shrouded in secrecy. It’s not likely that any of this year’s jurors will go so far as former juror Victoria Glendinning, who took to print to declaim that most of the CanLit she read was frankly mediocre, but the discussion could prove to be an interesting one, depending upon how free the jurors feel to be honest.

Margaret Atwood, Judy Rebick, and the iTunesification of literature

March 7, 2012 by · 4 Comments 

Are we witnessing the iTunesification of literature?

Over the past two days, news broke that two heavyweights on the CanLit scene are releasing new work online, in the increasingly popular “single” format, as spearheaded by companies such as Amazon and Byliner.

Yesterday, Penguin Canada announced that activist and author Judy Rebick has launched a new e-book entitled Occupy This!, about the Occupy Wall Street movement, a grassroots uprising the author finds as significant as the social revolution of the 1960s. The 74-page book is available through online retailers such as Kobo, or direct through the Penguin Canada website.

Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most Internet savvy canonical author, has released a new short story, entitled “I’m Starved for You,” via the San Francisco–based digital publisher Byliner.

The Rebick title is selling for $3.99, and the Atwood is priced at $2.99.

At the beginning of the year, Quill & Quire published an article about the rise of “singles” online publishing, which numerous commentators have suggested could be the salvation of long-form journalism. In the Quill article, Jason McBride writes:

What has become known as the “singles” model – advertising-free, tablet- and smartphone-friendly, book/magazine hybrids designed to be read in one sitting – could be the silver bullet that writers and print media, long beset by declining ad revenue in print and a fickle, penny-pinching market online, have been waiting for. “It’s really a frontier,” says Mark Bryant, the former editor of Outside magazine and one of Byliner’s co-founders.

Bryant likens his company to Random House’s Vintage Contemporaries fiction imprint, and, indeed, the distinctive branding of Byliner Originals, which sport digital “covers” featuring a signature bright yellow and consistent typefaces, appears to be the product of a traditional publisher. Byliner has now published more than a dozen titles by writers such as William T. Vollmann and Ann Patchett, and plans to eventually offer a new Byliner Original, ranging in price from $0.99 to $5.99 (U.S.), almost every week.

Writing in The New York Times, Dwight Gardner calls Amazon’s version of the idea – Kindle Singles – “probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place.” The long-form journalism contained in the singles format, Garner says, hits “the sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books.”

Moreover, Garner points out, there are significant incentives for authors to publish in this format:

For writers, there’s money to be made here. Amazon offers 70 percent of the royalties to its Singles authors. The all-time best-selling Single, a short story titled “Second Son,” by Lee Child, the British-born thriller writer, was originally published by Delacorte Press; it is priced at $1.99 and has sold more than 180,000 copies.

So far Amazon has issued more than 160 Singles, at a rate of 3 per week. It has fairly strict rules for the nonfiction it selects. No excerpts from books. Generally no expanded versions of articles that have appeared elsewhere. Barnes & Noble offers similar material in its Nook Snaps series, and Apple has Quick Reads on its iBookstore, but neither is offering original material.

As an avowed advocate of short fiction, it would be foolish of me to criticize any vehicle that allows for more stories to get disseminated to more readers. And the singles idea is not new: it’s merely a digital version of the kind of long-form journalism once found in general-interest magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. And while the two former publications still regularly feature short fiction, other magazines have been scaling back on their fiction in the last decade, so this new venue seems to be a good way to fill that void.

And yet, I remain conscious of the experience of the music industry in the wake of Apple’s iTunes. All of a sudden, $0.99 singles were in, and full-length albums were, if not out, at least exponentially less popular. The rise of Kindle Singles, Byliner, and a similar initiative launched by The National Post at the end of last year offer bite-sized works of fiction and non-fiction that can, in most cases, be consumed in one sitting. With luck, these newly popular formats will constitute one part of the literary ecosystem, without cannibalizing longer works, such as full-length novels or works of non-fiction.

Philip Roth for Nobel laureate

October 3, 2011 by · 5 Comments 

This post has been updated (October 4, 2011, 8:47 a.m.)

Rumour has it that the mysterious cabal comprising the Swedish Academy will announce this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature later this week, and I’d like to take this opportunity to add my name to The Millions’ endorsement of Philip Roth for the honour.

When Roth published Sabbath’s Theater in 1995, there were those who suggested it was his magnum opus; with Sabbath’s Theater the author had reached the logical culmination of everything he had been working toward and he might thereafter be expected to retire gracefully into the sunset. Two years later, in 1997, Roth published American Pastoral, the first novel in his American Trilogy – a book that not only proved the predictions wrong, but which stands today as the author’s finest achievement and, in my opinion, one of the finest American postwar novels, period. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The third novel in the trilogy, The Human Stain, won the PEN-Faulkner Award, as did Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman, which made the author the only three-time winner in the award’s history (he also won in 1993 for Operation Shylock). In 2006, when The New York Times Book Review unveiled its list of the best American books published in the past twenty-five years, no fewer than six of Roth’s novels made the cut: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.

In 2010, Roth won the Man Booker International Prize, a laurel that did not come without controversy. One of the jurors, Carmen Callil, resigned the jury in protest, saying at the time, “I don’t rate him as a writer at all … Emperor’s clothes: in 20 years’ time will anyone read him?” What I would say in response is simply this: Roth’s very first book, Goodbye Columbus, which won the National Book Award, was published in 1959. His most (in)famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, which appeared on both the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, appeared in 1969. Both remain in print today. (As, indeed, does Roth’s entire backlist.) Roth is the only living writer to have his works included in the canonical Library of America series.

But none of the awards and recognitions that have been bestowed on Roth adequately testify to the power of his prose, or to the coruscating effect of reading him. What many of his detractors fail to mention is Roth’s apparent inability to write an uninteresting sentence; his blistering irony; his searing intensity.

What critics seem most often to focus on is his putative misogyny, his self-hating Jewishness, and the explicit sex in his novels. Much of the trouble seems to arise out of Roth’s almost defiant recourse to the facts of his autobiography in his fiction. When Roth published I Married a Communist, a novel that centres on a tell-all book by the protagonist’s estranged wife, many people remarked on the fact that Roth’s own ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, had the year before published a tell-all book called Leaving a Doll’s House, about her life with the author. The writer Linda Grant enumerated the similarities between Eve Frame, the wife in Roth’s novel, and Roth’s own recent biography: “Frame is a Jewish actress, so is Bloom. Frame’s second husband is a financier, so was Bloom’s. Eve Frame has a daughter who is a harpist, Bloom’s girl is an opera singer. Ira tells the daughter to move out, Roth did the same. Ira has an affair with the daughter’s best friend; Roth, Bloom alleged, came on to her own daughter’s best friend.” If Roth has a response, it is arguably contained in his novel Exit Ghost, when he has his narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, remark on “the deadly literal-mindedness and vulgarity that attributes everything to its source in a wholly stupid way.”

Regardless, Grant goes on to say that she “would rather read a dozen books of Rothian misogyny (and if there ever was a misogynist, Roth is one) than a single page of Alison Lurie or Carol Shields or Margaret Atwood or E. Annie Proulx,” because in her estimation “Roth may be the last gasp of the novel, the dominating authorial voice with some ideas on how to live and how to live with others: how we are strangers to so many of the details of our own life stories.” Roth’s “dominating authorial voice,” which is inextricably tied up with his power to provoke, is one of the quintessential aspects that gives his work such force. As The Millions accurately points out:

The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced.

Finally, this is probably the source of Roth’s enduring power: his willingness to take his material further than pretty much any other writer around, and if readers don’t enjoy the experience, well, he couldn’t really care less. Because, in the end, it’s the emotional honesty of the work that’s important. It’s a kind of brutal honesty that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But to my reading, it’s unparalleled in modern fiction.

UPDATE: And for those who disagree, there’s always this (via The Lisa Simpson Book Club and the CBC’s Erin Balser):





Atwood, VanSickle, and the silly season

August 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The summer is generally described as the “silly season” in the media: that part of the year, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting,” during which not much happens and any news is frivolous or uninteresting. A propitious time, in other words, for TSR to take a much-needed hiatus.

Unfortunately, life intrudes. The silly season has turned out to be silly indeed, although not in the expected manner.

Anyone who follows municipal politics in Toronto will be familiar with last Thursday’s marathon session at City Hall, during which the council’s executive committee heard from a pantheon of stakeholders who appeared to voice their concerns over possible cuts to city services. Mayor Rob Ford, who won a landslide victory last October by promising to “stop the gravy train” of waste at City Hall, faces a daunting $774-million operating budget deficit, and has been looking for areas to save money (the much heralded “gravy” having failed to materialize). Those areas include garbage collection, public transit, and, perhaps most contentiously, libraries.

It might seem strange that libraries are the most contentious issue on the table, given that police services and public health nurses also face the potential axe, except for the fact that one of Toronto’s most visible and influential citizens, novelist Margaret Atwood, decided to take the fight to Twitter. On Thursday, July 21, Atwood retweeted a message that read, “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell council to keep them public.” There was a link to a petition set up by the Toronto Public Library. Some of Atwood’s 225,200 followers (as of July 21, by the Toronto Star‘s count) took up the challenge, driving so much traffic to the server hosting the petition that it crashed for about 30 minutes. On July 22, Atwood followed up by tweeting: “Here is direct link to the @torontolibrary petition http://t.co/hPNMV8P to stop closure & privatization. Thanks to all, pass it around.”

And that, indeed, might have been the end of it. Except, you will recall, it was not just any citizen who chose to enter the fray. It was a writer with enough clout to get the attention of Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and right hand on council, who was quoted in the National Post as saying, “I don’t even know her, she could walk by me I wouldn’t have a clue who she is … But she’s not down here, she’s not dealing with the problem. If she did, tell her to go run in the next election, and get democratically elected. And we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

That’s when all hell broke loose. On one side, Atwood’s supporters began howling about the philistines on city council, and on the other, supporters of the Brothers Ford started yelling about entitled elites and their artistic pretensions.

Now, on one level, this is all quite silly. What does it matter, really, if Doug Ford would recognize Atwood on the street? Does this say anything about his relative ability to govern Canada’s largest city? Well, perhaps, if you believe that someone entrusted to such a position should be familiar with the municipality’s more lauded figures. But for the moment, let’s give Ford the benefit of the doubt. What’s more problematic is his evidently dismissive attitude toward Atwood and her concerns, as well as his suggestion that for her to be taken seriously, she must run for public office. This flies in the face of our democratic principles, which are based on the idea that government works for us, not the other way around. It also flies in the face of Rob Ford’s own campaign slogan, “Respect for Taxpayers.” Whatever else Atwood may be, she is a taxpayer. So where is the respect?

To give Doug Ford his due, the (grudging) respect came the following day, when after a storm of criticism, he conceded, “What I was saying is, everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is. But if she were to come up to 98% of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was. But I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input.” The respect came from other quarters with the inauguration of a “Margaret Atwood for mayor” campaign backed by a Facebook page and various venues around the city.

Today, Atwood herself responded, saying, “I am not running for mayor yet. But if it comes to be true that people cannot voice an opinion unless they have been elected, then we are no longer in a democracy.” And here, Atwood has hit on what is decidedly not silly about this whole tempest in a teacup: the way in which our municipal leaders are trampling all over the idea of democracy while pursuing an ideologically driven program of tax cuts and smaller government.

Mayor Ford touted last Thursday’s executive meeting as “something this city has never done,” that is, allow upwards of 300 people to directly voice their concerns. The meeting began at 11:00 a.m., and Ford decreed that it would continue without a break until everyone who had registered to speak got his or her chance. Each speaker was given three minutes to address the executive committee, and the committee was allowed time to question the speakers. If a speaker missed his or her spot in line, he or she was not allowed another chance to speak. What this effectively meant was that a large group of citizens, some undoubtedly with families and other responsibilities, were stuck in City Hall, waiting their turn at the mic, in some cases for hours on end. The meeting finally adjourned after 6:00 a.m. the following morning.

When all was said and done, despite all the hurdles put in their way, some 168 speakers (and singers, and puppeteers) had made their voices heard. One of those was children’s writer Vikki VanSickle, author of Words That Start with B. VanSickle spoke in the wee hours of the morning, around 4:30 a.m. When she was asked about her book, she said, “Words That Start with B. Like budget.” Which prompted the mayor to mutter, “I can think of another ‘b’ word for her.” It was late, the executive committee had been through a gruelling ordeal. But for that, Rob Ford had no one to blame but himself. And his comment was definitely not silly.

You can hear Ford’s version of “respect for taxpayers” at the 0:20 mark in the video below.

The deepest pessimism

August 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Trillium shortlist emphasizes books by women

June 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The shortlist for the 23rd annual Trillium Book Award has been announced, and fully six of the seven nominated titles are by women. This is in stark contrast to the Charles Taylor Prize earlier this year, which featured four middle-aged white dudes as nominees. (One of those white dudes, Ian Brown, who went on to win the Charles Taylor Prize, is the lone male on the Trillium list.) The nominated books tilt toward established houses, and with the exception of Alexandra Legatt and TSR fave Emily Schultz, all the shortlisted authors are established names.

The shortlist is as follows:

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart)
Ian Brown, The Boy in the Moon (Random House Canada)
Alexandra Leggat, Animal (Anvil Press)
Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (McClelland & Stewart)
Emily Schultz, Heaven is Small (House of Anansi Press)
Cordelia Strube, Lemon (Coach House Books)

Only two small presses – Anvil and Coach House – are represented; where the big guns are concerned, M&S is the clear winner with three nominations out of seven.

The full lists of nominees, including French language and poetry nominees, is online here.

The prize, which is administered by the Ontario Media Development Corporation and is open to Ontario residents, carries with it a none-too-shabby purse of $20,000. A public reading by shortlisted authors will take place on June 23 at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon, and the winners will be announced on June 24.

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