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How not to write

August 10, 2011 1 comment

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.

Categories: leon rooke, writing

Shameless theft of some better ideas than mine

August 5, 2011 Leave a comment

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.”

Harrison interjects:

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:

OLSON JOHNSON

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?

Yet more ado about prizes

August 3, 2011 Leave a comment
Categories: awards

Much ado about prizes

August 3, 2011 5 comments

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.

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