We (by which I mean “I”) haven’t been too active around here recently, thanks to one thing or another, but a couple of things have happened:
I ranted and raved about Canada Reads in the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries, which you should rush out and buy immediately:
It is difficult to decide which was the greater travesty: that one of the Canada Reads panelists, Debbie Travis, could not muster the mental resources to finish one of the books, or that the winning book, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, was so outrageously bad that her failure to finish it vindicates her.
Okay, if you don’t want to buy the magazine (boo, hiss), you can read it here.
I reviewed David Adams Richards’s new book, Facing The Hunter, for the National Post:
Everything rural is good: Farming does not convert wildlife habitat into empty fields, no one ever drained a wetland for the sake of another field and farm runoff never hurt our water quality. Everything urban is bad; indeed, the indefensible in hunting — trophy hunting, hubristic excesses and overkill — is the work of urban hunters. All ills owe to “urban culture,” “urban ideas” and “urban sentiment.” Herein is a drinking game: Down a shot for each repetition, and you will soon be plastered. But you will be no closer to understanding, for Richards does not explore the ideas with which he takes issue. He simply writes them off as “urban” and moves on.
Since nobody actually buys newspapers, you can read that here.
I know that I said a couple of things, and that 3 > 2, but anyway … new projects are afoot here at the Banjaxed Institute of Writing Stuff About Things. Expect to read about North America’s gun culture. On that note, I leave you with this, hoping you’re well stocked up on canned goods and ammunition:
It is often argued, and always by critics, that we cannot have great literature without great criticism. If this is true, then it follows that we cannot have great criticism unless we have great criticism of that criticism. Thus, this review of a review.
One might hope that a book review would provide the reader with insight into the book under review. One would frequently be disappointed. In place of insight, we too often get nothing more than debris from the collision between the book and the reviewer’s prejudices, or worse, the reviewer’s sense of how he would have written the book if only he weren’t a lazy little dipshit of few redeeming qualities whose greatest contribution to our literature thus far has been a glowing, if semi-literate, review of a book by Terry Fallis. And so it is with Hubert O’Hearn’s review of Marina Endicott’s new novel, an effort that does little to advance the form, nor, indeed, to advance anything at all.
O’Hearn’s review suffers first from stupidity. Reviewers everywhere, allow me to offer you a tip: do not double up your lead by slamming the book with two paragraphs of insult, and then follow up by complaining that you were unable to keep track of which character was younger through some three hundred pages of reading. Your inability to keep track of even the most trivial detail will mark you as a buffoon whose ability to read the more subtle variations of character is surely in question. If you are unable to grasp that the character whose name commences with “B” is younger than the character whose name commences with “C,” the reader may well question whether the problem lies with the book, or with the reviewer.
Above all, O’Hearn wishes that Endicott had not written her book, but had written his instead. It’s a common mistake among those who haven’t quite gotten down to the real work of writing their own: how nice it would be to have someone else drop your book in your lap! And when they fail to do so, the disappointment!
And so O’Hearn complains that Endicott has not used her three sisters in the manner he would use three siblings, if only he were to get off his lazy ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott did not give Swain’s Rats and Cats the importance O’Hearn would have accorded them, if only he were to get off his ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott has not concerned herself with the audience, which O’Hearn surely would, if only, etc. The failure of her book, apparently, is that it is her book, and not O’Hearn’s, a point underscored by his continual complaint that she wastes her material.
O’Hearn also complains about the quality of Endicott’s writing, in a paragraph that leaves one muttering, “Physician, go fuck thyself”:
But really— scudding? Slow-flurrying? In trying to write, shall we say, ‘in period’ Endicott throws in clunky phrasing that brings to mind nothing other than The New Yorker and Wolcott Gibbs’ famous description of Time magazine’s style: ‘Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.’ One other point— Groucho actually was from that period, and he sure never talked like that, nor did Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice or, hell, anyone who ever drew a living breath.
Notice the wordiness (‘shall we say,’ ‘nothing other than’), his missing comma, his comma splice, his brutal misuse of the em-dash, and the tin ear that leads us from Time magazine style to Groucho Marx through that clumsy “one other point.” This man cannot write.
I am reminded of Jim Harrison’s complaint that he can’t give a damn about a critic who hasn’t written a good book: if your own stuff is no good, who the fuck cares what you have to say? Harrison is wrong here, in that one can be a superb critic without being a competent novelist, but he still has a point: who cares what you have to say about how other people write, if you can’t yourself write an acceptable English sentence? In O’Hearn’s one paragraph I find three errors of punctuation, not to mention a solid dose of the “clunky phrasing” he so derides.
But worse than any of this is the evident glee O’Hearn finds in kicking around someone who has put two more novels out to face the critics than he himself has managed. Reading O’Hearn’s disclaimer (“I’m not enjoying writing this”), complete with emphatic italics, I find myself muttering that the lady doth protest too much. There is the double lead, his sarcastic complaint that the non-sequential names “must have seemed writerly and symbolic,” and his attempt at a final witticism. A reviewer who does not enjoy savaging a book discards sarcasm. To be savage and to pretend one would rather not is dishonest, or, in more precise terms, chickenshit.
Books deserve to be reviewed well, and The Winnipeg Review usually rises to a better level.
I can’t comment on whether The Little Shadows is a good book. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, on the other hand, it’s the kind of book club fiction I so despise. But I can’t help but feel that, having read a review, I should have some sense of which it is. I don’t. O’Hearn, as a reviewer, is a failure. He has provided me with some sense of his pettiness, but no sense of its object.
It occurs to me only recently that I may be guilty of holding back my views on the Giller Prize’s unaccountably short-sighted and tone deaf decision to allow the public to vote one title onto their longlist via the moronic “Reader’s Choice” poll organized by their “broadcast partner,” CBC Books, an organization that appears to be dedicated to enlarging its audience through the destruction of Canadian culture.
So let me now be clear: I was not entirely certain this was a good idea.
Yesterday’s longlist, complete with Readers’ Choice pick Extensions, by Myrna Dey, vindicates that view. I find two serious problems with this book’s place on the longlist: the pungent odor of fish attending its selection, and the poor quality of the writing. In short, as certain outspoken critics warned us might happen, a bad book now appears on the Giller longlist by dint of an effort to stuff the ballot box.
I was prepared to argue that Myrna Dey’s sudden, eleventh hour surge to the top of the poll suggested a concerted campaign, rather than genuine reader interest. I was prepared to use LibraryThing (two copies) and GoodReads (4 copies) as indices of the book’s actual sales (apparently, very small), and then argue the improbability of an essentially unknown book inspiring such an outpouring of affection from the few people who read it as to propel it to the top of the pile. Yes, I was prepared to gather all my evidence and lay out the argument … but then Myrna Dey told the Toronto Star that she credits “a vast network of friends and a Facebook campaign by her daughter in Edmonton with pushing her over the top.”
Elana Rabinovitch started backing away from the Readers’ Choice almost as soon as it was announced, by hinting that it may not happen next year. It hardly credits the Giller Prize when an author, quoted in one of the country’s largest newspapers, openly admits that a spot on the longlist belongs to whoever can organize the most effective Facebook campaign. It is no longer necessary to argue that the Readers’ Choice cheapens the longlist; it has happened. And it is telling that not one of the top ten Readers’ Choice titles made the jury’s longlist.
The Globe & Mail and the National Post, to their credit, have mostly ignored the Readers’ Choice selection. There’s no point in jumping to cover what is ultimately the product of a Facebook campaign. But others have given it more space. Quill & Quire fawningly pretends that Facebook really had little to do with it. The CBC, predictably, wants us to know about the contest they administered. And the Star made the Readers’ Choice their headline and wrapped all their coverage around it.
This leads us to the second problem. Is it any good? Quill & Quire, unaccountably, reviewed this one with kid gloves — and I have to say that I normally see no point picking on a small-press debut that is unlikely to go anywhere. But when a book gets on the Giller longlist, and particularly when it gets there via the controversial Readers’ Choice, we have to be critical. And, based on the first thirty pages published online by NeWest Press, Extensions got a free ride from Q&Q.
Nothing in the first thirty pages suggests that the book is worthy of any award. The dialogue is weak, devoid of any subtext. We frequently get two beats of dialogue, followed by a paragraph of exposition. The characters are almost completely lacking in personality. There is no fire in this writing, no energy, no particular beauty. The writing never commands notice — unless it’s for an unfortunate sentence like “Macy had fallen asleep on Gail’s knee, and she rose carefully to slip into the house with her.”
The first thirty pages teem with the kind of bad writing habits around which creative writing classes are built. Dialogue is repeatedly used for exposition (“I winced that Gail had to work in the ‘Constable,’” the narrator tells us; rest assured, your reader winced, too). Lines are tagged with such words as “Monty grinned.” The dialogue lacks tension or any sense of dramatic purpose. Scenes lack conflict or drive. Arabella’s friends are all perfect. And the exposition … the exposition….
If it hardly credits the Giller that a book can be pushed onto the longlist via a Facebook campaign, it credits the prize less that the book thus nominated is so demonstrably weak. And it should disturb us all that this book, by dint of being the Readers’ Choice, receives so much attention. One hopes that the people who organized this farce will be similarly disturbed.
Recently I pulled Leon Rooke’s The Last Shot off my shelf, and noticed little red page flags sticking out of it. Most curious. How did those get there? I must have stuck them there, for some reason. So I promptly investigated them to see if I could figure out why.
This was pretty easy. They marked stories that I liked. All except one, which just marked a page. But scanning quickly down the page, I found why the flag was there. The reason looked like this:
In Prissy’s estimation Ganger was a boy of weirdly morbid and demented disposition. He was gravely barbecued in the belfry.
That sentence. Ganger is barbecued in the belfry — and not lightly grilled, mind you, but gravely barbecued. That’s a sentence I wish I’d written.
I was thinking about that sentence and it struck me that this wonderful sentence manages, using only seven words, to break three rules much touted by that industry which purports to teach people how to write. That is, it tells, rather than shows; it uses one of those dreaded adverbs; and it is based on a hackneyed phrase, a worn-out metaphor, a cliché. And this should tell you that something is deeply wrong with the “how to write” manuals and the writing workshops, rather than the sentence in question.
So the lesson of the day, I suppose, is that you can follow all the standard writing advice, and write the same way everyone else does, or you can rewrite the rulebook to your own ends.
I recently hit on a bunch of things written or said by other people, which speak to my notion that fiction has to be engaged with the world. Being too lazy to write my own defence of that notion, I’m just going to quote those things and pretend I’ve published a manifesto.
First, from Benjamin Woodard’s review of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting at Raintaxi:
Not once does “Miracle Mile” drag. Instead, it unfolds with such skill and proficiency that one forgets on occasion that the story is a work of fiction, and that MacLeod didn’t conduct interviews with a series of men and women and transcribe their lives onto paper.
This sense of engagement is a thread that keeps Light Lifting consistently admirable.
Next, Thomas McGuane speaking at an event in Lansing, Michigan, touches on this notion of transcribing lives:
Frank O’Connor was asked about the relationship between journalism and literature and he said that much of fiction is really journalism, but in the case of a great writer, like Chekhov, it’s 99 percent journalism. And that’s kind of a challenging remark, but there’s something to that. I mean, if you look at the best of Updike, it’s perilously close to some kind of photo-realistic journalism.
Jim Harrison, responding to McGuane:
It’s fun to read Dostoevsky’s notebooks because you see how much of his fiction was sort of veiled journalism. He would get obsessed about a news item. He thought he’d found a new theme in European literature (this was 1868) because a girl in St. Petersburg had committed suicide and left a note saying she committed suicide because she was bored.
Richard Ford expands on the theme:
When I don’t like something, or I read a piece of fiction and I think to myself there’s really something defective about this, what I always say about it is, “This is just made-up stuff.”
It’s not thingy. That’s what I say: it’s not thingy. Nothing, no details are observed, there’s no observation of the attenuations of the kind of emotions people could have.
Now that one is fascinating, going from a standard writing-class insistence on concrete detail to that insistence not only on accurately observed human behaviour — the kind of emotions people could have — but on the attenuations of our emotions. It is not how people might feel, but how those feelings fade and lose force, or perhaps how they are muted in the transmission. “Hills Like White Elephants,” perhaps, is the kind of thing Harrison is driving at, Hemingway’s genius in showing us an iceberg by its tip. And Hemingway, notably, was writing fiction as one might write a newspaper story.
On the subject of concrete detail, of thinginess, I have previously quoted McGuane on this blog, talking about the necessity for a writer to be engaged with the world that his fiction reports on:
I have a primary interest in the world and feel if the ratio of world to word is high, that rightness and concision are honoured, I may safely avoid the often suet-filled oeuvre that characterizes the writer who has no other interests … Any writer can disappear up his own ass in a New York minute. You’ve got to have a life. Otherwise every noun in the book looks like it came off Google.
Which I tied back to John Metcalf, who among many other things is my editor:
The real poetry — the names of materials and tools in the trades. Visit hardware stores.
Speaking to a creative writing class, I defended my digressions into photographic technicalities in Combat Camera on those grounds. It is not necessary for the reader to know what a Tessar is, or what is meant by “fourteen elements in eleven groups.” It is necessary, however, for a story to work from carefully observed detail. If the reader does not understand all those details, that’s fine; we encounter things we don’t understand every single day. Gobbledygook is good.
Consider this wonderful passage of gobbledygook, a ranch hand speaking in McGuane’s Something to be Desired:
This time I’m thinking about, I was trying to prove up on a lease I had over at Kid Royal. And we was getting ready to load out at Deadrock. I had the heeler up front with me, the radio on, when I threw a recap right on the scale. I was with Boyd, and he cusses and dumps a set of dead batteries from his hot shot, throws it in the jockeybox and said he’s got a come-along to get our outfit to dry ground with. This was supposed to be the last of a big run of yearlings. And it turns out we got a five-hole spare for a six-hole rim. I knew right then and there my luck was shot.
This puts me in mind of Blazing Saddles:
Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all in debt to Gabby Johnson for stating what needed to be said. I am particularly glad that these lovely children are here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
Which actually has nothing whatsoever to do with my point. But who can resist Blazing Saddles?
Reading and discussing certain novels, there was an unavoidable sense of arbitrariness, a sense that these books probably would not be much read had they not won the Booker, and that that might not necessarily have been an unsustainable loss to the literary world.
From The Millions.
When the CBC bought the broadcast rights to the Giller Prize, I joked that we would soon see the Giller decided by an online vote. It was one of those jokes one hesitates to make: too snide, uncalled for, adding insult to earlier insult without just cause. Yes, one hesitates — unless, of course, one is me, in which case one snickers and goes right ahead. And then, months later, one finds himself vindicated by the frankly baffling announcement that the public will indeed vote in this year to place one title on the Giller longlist.
Yes, I do have a problem with this. But first things first: before I can argue that vote-ins are a problem, we have to ask why we have prizes in the first place. What are prizes for?
Prizes are for selling books.
The Giller winner will move about 100,000 copies, in a bookselling environment where the average novel sells about 1000 copies, and a debut story collection may move only a few hundred. Most of those copies sell to people who may only read a few serious books each year; if the award did not exist, that money would not be spread over dozens of other titles, but would instead be spent on movie tickets, restaurant meals, or whatever else. Most of the books sold each year are sold just before Christmas, during the awards season, and prizes set the agenda. It is the prizes that define the national shopping list.
So prizes are a huge boon to booksellers, an annual golden egg squeezed out of a generous goose. Which books sell does not matter. Books, in the bookseller’s general ledger, are toothpaste; all that really matters is how much you squeeze out of the tube.
But prizes don’t serve anyone else tremendously well. Not publishers (especially small presses), who can’t count on winning; not writers, likewise; and certainly not the readers who, having received a copy of The Sentimentalists for Christmas, find themselves leaving two-star Amazon reviews. The fact that a book wins an award is no guarantee that you will like it, or indeed, that it has any great merit. “Winner of the Giller Prize” means, in reality, nothing more than the collision of three people’s reading tastes, with a certain amount of mud wrestling to follow. It is a terribly arbitrary way to make careers. The prize system, in short, sucks.
But its effects are not entirely pernicious. Prizes bring money to people who need it. Prizes turn unknown writers into reader favorites. They mainline injections of pure cash into the scrawny arms of lucky publishers, and they keep booksellers in business. It’s also worth noting that the people who run and organize prizes have the best intentions.
So prizes are a lousy way to sell books, but they are also the best way we have. We can’t hope for them to be perfect — but we can hope for them to be as fair as possible, and as valuable as possible to everyone involved.
Which leads to the problems with a vote-in system. An online vote is not a fair system, and it diminishes the value of the prize.
People tend to think of a vote as the fairest way of settling matters, but online voting is not voting. An online vote carries with it three problems:
- it favours the politician, the writer or publisher who can use social media to build the biggest base of support. And that support may come from people who would not ordinarily pay any attention to the prize. Consider the organized (and successful) campaign to vote a graphic novel onto Canada Reads — a campaign that appealed to people who had never listened to the show, many of whom did not even live in Canada.
- it favours the established writer. The writer with the most fans stands to win; the debut author will get votes from her mother, boyfriend, and cat. The established writer can rely on fans who haven’t even read her latest book. One of the most valuable functions of prizes — to launch the careers of new and unknown writers — is lost.
- it favours the book with a cult following. This is the most damaging effect of online votes, and bears further examination.
The best example of a cult following making a mockery of literary merit is the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the century, which featured an editors’ list and a readers’ list, established by a public vote.
The editors’ list, predictably, featured the usual suspects: Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Under the Volcano. One would expect the readers’ list to veer more towards the commercially successful, the accessible, the book club favourite, with a smattering of genre; more Steinbeck, less Joyce, and some sci-fi. And indeed, Tolkien is there (as arguably he should be, having created an entire genre), as is Heinlein, and Nevil Shute, and Stephen King. This is all good and well; all we have here is a collision of different standards of merit.
But something strange is going on in the top 10: four novels by the noxious Ayn Rand, and two by L. Ron Hubbard. Both writers take “cult following” to a new level. And clearly, their cult members stuffed the ballot boxes.
Canada Reads also saw this phenomenon at work: Terry Fallis’s The Best Laid Plans, a book so badly written that I would have rejected it in its published form, made it to the top 10 not on its own merits but because its Cinderella metastory — rejected by all the big houses, self-published book wins Major Literary Prize (the Leacock grows in significance in the retelling), is picked up by Idiot Editors who passed it over and achieves greatness! — appeals to that large constituency of people who complain that we need to embrace the new world order and be done with the gatekeepers.
Will this ruin the Giller Prize? Well, not really. Let’s remember that we are talking about only one title on the longlist, with no prospect of getting to the shortlist unless the jury chose it, too. But I am not pleased by the prospect of one spot on that longlist — one resume-padding “longlisted for the Giller Prize” — being taken from some deserving book from a debut author and given to whoever can organize an online vote.
It is notable that the public can’t vote for the winner, or the shortlist, or even for the entire longlist. The prize organizers themselves recognize that this is a lousy way to choose a longlist title. But they have gone ahead and done it — egged on, no doubt, by nasty little creatures at the CBC who measure merit in page hits — in the interest of publicity. It’s silly, and it’s unnecessary. Publicity is the one thing that the Giller Prize doesn’t lack.