How Insensitive by Russell Smith. Porcupine’s Quill, 258 pp. 0-88984-143-8.
I’m late to the party on this one; the book was published in 1994, and thanks to my usual literary time warp, I’m only reading it now. But it raises some questions that are interesting enough to post here, not least of which is whether Smith would like to forget ever having that hairstyle. I’ll bet he’s glad this edition’s out of print.
I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me.
How Insensitive, as it follows the travails of a young man in the big city, wandering drunkenly from one party to the next, meeting models, and so on, all in the early 1990s, reminded me strongly of Jay McInerney. Except that, I hasten to add, it reminded me of Jay McInerney when Jay McInerney was good. That is, the McInerney of Bright Lights, Big City, not the disappointing McInerney of Brightness Falls and then The Good Life.
I hasten to that particular clarification because, unlike the later McInerney, whose pages are clogged with exposition and whose prose is often simply mundane, Russell Smith’s sentences crackle along. His dialogue is good and he never succumbs to the urge to go back and explain things for the sake of the dopey reader. How Insensitive is sharp and funny, and its nomination for the GG was well deserved.
So I find myself wondering why McInerney became a big success, while Smith remains, in the class photo of Canadian novelists, in the second row, behind Atwood and Ondaatje and all the other popular kids, but in front of Whatshername and Whothehellisthat. It’s certainly not for lack of a good book.
I could chew on that one for a good long while. Is international success (Atwood, Ondaatje, Munro) a prerequisite to being invited to all the best parties? Does this usually spring from domestic success, as in the case of Annabel Lyon or Rawi Hage, who got shortlisted for everything in sight, or Joseph Boyden? And if the big awards are, in fact, the kingmakers of Canadian literature, then why do they continually elude funny books, books with contemporary settings, and so on? Do Canadian readers not like these things?
The questions that come to mind, then, are the same old questions.
The answer may be simpler. How Insensitive is, in Canlit, an outsider book, because Canlit prizes the outsider. Cape Breton, with approximately 0.5 % of the Canadian population, provides some 37.94 % of our literary settings; the remainder are provided by the likes of Moose Factory, Neepawa, and Dungannon. Canlit is all about the marginalized, and How Insensitive is not.
Oh, sure, Smith tries to fit in, by making Ted Owen a Maritimer by way of Montreal, and therefore an outsider in Toronto, but the fact remains that this is a novel about a straight white male in Toronto, who commits the terrible crime of insensitivity to the plight of cattle and thus falls afoul of right-thinking Canadians everywhere, or at least, right-thinking Canadians on the editorial board of a little magazine.
One of the things Smith’s satire exposes, I think, is Canlit’s distaste for satire. In short, this is a novel, at some level, about itself.
Something always happens to spoil my morning. Today, it was an article in The Globe & Mail, suggesting that we should do away with the old, crusty idea of teaching students literature, and just let them read, well, whatever the heck they want to.
For the past three years, Dr. Ivey has been involved with a project at a Virginia school in which 300 Grade 8 English students were allowed full choice over their reading with few strings or work attached, other than classroom discussions about shared themes and small group conversations if several students had read the same book. The goal was to get every student engaged in reading – the kind that you do in your own free time.
Why are we moving the reading we do on our own time into the classroom? Because, I suppose, we don’t read on our own time otherwise. So it would make sense to get the kids reading, but the thing that puzzles me is, exactly how are you going to develop literacy beyond the basic level without discussing the book? And how are you going to discuss the book if everyone’s reading a different book?
There’s a distressing overtone to this article. The suggestion is that simply reading is good enough. Dr. Ivey herself confuses the goals of any decent English curriculum:
And to those who argue in favour of a common base of knowledge through class-assigned novels, she scoffs: “The experience of being assigned a book is extremely common. Having knowledge of [that book] is rare.”
But the point of high-school English is not to make sure everyone can quote Hamlet, as this article continually suggests. It’s to make sure that students have the literacy skills to understand Hamlet, and anything else they may read in the future, including half-witted lifestyle articles in The Globe & Mail. The aim of teaching literature at the high-school level is not to teach literature itself, but to teach students how to read it.
We don’t let math students solve the equations they want to solve. We don’t let chemistry students run the experiments they want to run. We don’t do these things because we want these students to learn a set of principles. But with literature, we throw up our hands and say, what the hell; let the universities teach principles to those who want to learn them.
This is important. If fiction becomes a game for people with MA’s, fiction is doomed. The audience that literary fiction should engage includes literate, educated people with degrees in things like aquatic ecology and mechanical engineering—literate, educated people who haven’t taken an English course since high school. Our schools can’t throw up their hands and leave it up to the universities.
We need to improve the way English courses are taught. But declaring that we’ll be happy as long as the kids are reading surely isn’t the solution.
… there is still something disturbing in my landscapes, because there’s something quite dark in me. It would be stupid to think you could get away with 30 or 40 years of photographing wars and death and that once you finish all the bad dreams will be done and dusted. There may not be humans in my images but there is still danger in these fields. My pictures reflect something about me. And I print them dark because my thoughts are dark.
There’s a battleground inside all of us I think. I have seen a lot of human suffering but that doesn’t mean I am a terrible miserable old man. I think I’m just surrounded by ghosts.
That’s one of several comments from Don McCullin, quoted at Ciara Leeming’s blog.
McCullin is fascinating because, unlike James Nachtwey, he doesn’t seem to have any real answers to the ethical dilemmas of his work as a war photographer. He suggests, quite candidly, that his war photography was futile, that it served no purpose, and that it wasn’t worth the risk and sacrifice. He inhabits a landscape of regret, which one is tempted to see in his dark and brooding winter landscapes. But despite this, he never did destroy his negatives, and he’s been energetically promoting his new book, Shaped by War, and his show at the Imperial War Museum North.
If I can be permitted to stroke my goatee and indulge in the kind of amateur psychoanalysis that I normally deride, perhaps his reaction is partly motivated by his own frank admission that wars, for him, were a thrill. It’s hard to maintain a stance of humanitarian concern when you admit to being an adrenalin junkie. That’s a neat explanation, but a facile one. McCullin has also said, repeatedly, that his negatives call up ghosts; it’s unlikely that anyone could photograph war, as he did, for any period of time without being troubled by it.
McCullin may just be more honest in discussing his feelings than others.
I finally got the film scanner working, despite the lack of drivers for Windows 7. (The solution was a third-party application called Vuescan.)
In the basement, to my surprise, I found a bottle of Edwal Hypo Eliminator which, based on the date scribbled on the big glass bottle of working solution, dates to 2004. I’m betting this stuff is no good anymore. But I’m surprised, because I can’t remember ever having used any kind of hypo eliminator.
Anyways, I’ve got film, I’ve got chemicals, I’ve got the scanner working … I’ve just about got this thing nailed. All I need now is some kind of, you know, subject.
It’s not a lost art. Not yet, anyway.
Got back from Montreal and decided the time had come to get down to working on some black-and-white photography. I haven’t shot any B&W in about five years, and having certain plans for this fall, I thought it might be a good idea to blow the dust and cobwebs off my memory of how to process this stuff, and especially of how to get decent scans of B&W negatives, a problem I’ve never really solved to my satisfaction.
The bottle of HC-110 I dug out of the basement had a uniform pink colour, as might be expected, so it was off to find new chemicals. My new bottle of HC-110 has an expiry date of November, 2006, but the colour looks good. (Rest assured, I apply a slightly higher level of care where food is concerned.)
To my surprise, I can’t get Tri-X Pan. The explanation is that the Kodak distributor is imposing minimum order quantities that can’t be met, so it’s Neopan 400 instead. Seems I’ll be switching to Ilford chemicals and Fuji film from here on in. It’s hard to be a creature of habit these days.
Now I just need a subject worth photographing.
I’ll be out of here at zero dark stupid tomorrow, bound for my least favorite place in the world.
There does happen to be a used bookstore in the neighborhood, which has coughed up some interesting finds in the past, but I won’t be getting there this trip. Besides, I have been placed under a book-buying moratorium because of the puppy.
So instead, I will contemplate the anonymity of hotel rooms and the extraordinary ability of the Montreal Canadiens to blow a two-goal lead in the last two minutes of the stinking game. And then lose the damn thing in the shootout.
… is the title of Jim Marshall’s now out-of-print book, a collection of his photographs of 1960s musicians. He died last night, aged 74.
A few months back, I read some Globe & Mail thing about an army captain whose job it is to arrange for the return and funerals of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and I found myself reaching for my notebook, thinking, there’s some kind of story in that.
Then I snatched my hand back, walked down the hall to the bathroom, splashed cold water in my face and looked up, my hands shaking, at the frightened visage staring back from my mirror.
“Man,” said I, “you sure dodged a bullet on that one.”
I had realized, as my hand hovered over my notebook, that 10,000 others were reaching for their own notebooks, all of them preparing to write thick, humourless novels with titles like The Temporary Vault or The Maker of Arrangements, written in hushed and “poetic” prose of the sort that one intones seriously, drawing out the wooooords so that their meaning sinks into one’s sooooul, and that no-one in any of these books would ever smile, or laugh, least of all the reader.
As should be clear from the foregoing, I hate books like that.
I hate books like that because they are so busy being hushed and respectful that they forget the real world. In the real world, people in difficult situations make jokes, and laugh, and smile. Humour is often absent in novels that beg to be taken seriously, as if anyone who smiles can’t possibly be dealing in weighty matters. But humour is often very serious.
Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
Yesterday, a single sentence in a comment left by Benjamin Chesterton stopped me in my tracks: “As one observer pointed out in Nachtweys pictures you never see a patient smile.”
Whoever that observer was, he sure was perceptive. I stopped to think: can I remember a single Nachtwey photo in which someone is smiling?
Yes. I remember one. No; two.
The question arises: why do dour, humourless novels annoy me as misrepresentations, while Nachtwey’s relentlessly negative photography does not?
I could chew on that for some time without finding the answer. Perhaps it’s because of the difference in the media: photographs are inherently superficial, are bounded by their frames and restricted to the single moment of their capture, while long fiction has room to (and should) expand, reach out and drag in all kinds of contradictory nuance. The frames in fiction are entirely artificial and self-imposed.
There is also the question of interpretation. A photograph of a doctor laughing, in Nachtwey’s essay, would suggest callousness rather than humanity.
But does no patient ever smile at the doctor? Perhaps not the far-gone cases, but surely this happens. So what we have are photographs of a disease, and of people dying of a disease, but no photographs of people living with a disease.
A point to Mr. Chesterton, then.
This morning I’m going to link to this wonderful Wall Street Journal piece by Thomas McGuane for no better reason than because I’ve just put a deposit on a gorgeous Welsh springer spaniel pup. And also because it seems to me that, having a bird dog of this quality, I now need a shotgun.
Fair warning: if you think new parents are annoying with the baby photos and all, you haven’t seen me with a dog.
James Nachtwey’s work on extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB, which I blogged about previously, has attracted its share of critics. This is nothing new, of course. Nachtwey has always attracted his share of critics, ranging from those who accuse him of exploiting the suffering of his subjects to make a buck to a recent chorus of voices complaining that his subjects should speak for themselves. Some of those critics say interesting and intelligent things. Others do not.
A typical example of these complaints surfaces at the duckrabbit blog:
Are we really supposed to believe its difficult for someone of Nachtwey’s talents to show people being cured of TB?
Roughly one in twelve hundred people will die after becoming infected with TB, that means the other eleven hundred and ninety nine will survive. (although far less in countries in which Nachtwey photographed)
I’m no statistician but something about that number tells me that you wouldn’t have to search very far to find an alternative ending to the last image presented on the blog (or at least in the preceding photographs something to balance it out). No question though that if I was the editor of Lens I would have used this photo. Why? Because this is a story about death and dieing [sic] and loss and pretty much that’s all the viewer sees.
The first suggestion they’re making here, of course, is that Nachtwey’s subject, XDR TB, isn’t really a matter of death and dying, and that he’s dishonestly misrepresenting what TB is really like. He has, the post snidely suggests, an “unflinching commitment to the dark end of this story,” not to its reality.
Except that Nachtwey’s story isn’t about TB, with it’s low mortality rate; it’s about XDR TB, which has mortality rates of 50% or higher. And the high mortality rate of XDR TB is exacerbated by its association with HIV infection in Africa, where one study found that “XDR TB was rapidly and almost uniformly fatal.”
You don’t have to be a statistician to understand that this is, in fact, a story about death and dying; high school mathematics will help, but all you really need is the ability to use something called “Google.” I understand it’s all the rage these days.
Benjamin Chesterton at duckrabbit may be suffering from Google fatigue because attention to mere facts might detract from his broader point, which he expounds on at length in a post at Nieman Storyboard: he’s suspicious of our ability to tell the stories of others, and would rather see them tell their own. Nachtwey is the avatar of the traditional approach, the photojournalist who lets the pictures, rather than their subjects, speak — and as such, he’s the tall poppy at which Chesterton hacks.
In fairness to Chesterton, there is nothing wrong with his preferred approach, and he makes a number of good points, particularly about the importance of context and of accurate captions.
But this is not a game of absolutes. The right approach for one story or project is not the right approach for another. Chesterton’s point of view, I’d suggest, is more that of a producer of publicity pieces than of a journalistic storyteller — which is entirely the right point of view for someone working for Medecins sans Frontiers.
A broader problem is the implication that the kind of work Nachtwey is doing is inappropriate, which is dragged in with a reference to Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story.” And it’s certainly true that our view of the developing world as a pit of misery is informed primarily by journalism that focuses on suffering, as it’s true that the perspectives of local photographers may often be more accurate and valuable than those of photographers who parachute in.
But journalists cover stories. “City prospers in relative peace” is not a story. Stories are about problems, and this is not going to change.
Would it be better if no one told us about XDR TB at all?