Following on from my querulous whining on the subject of old age, I noted with satisfaction Robert McCrum’s Guardian piece pointing out that occasionally, people over the age of 40 have succeeded in writing books and poems and things.
And McCrum has a helpful explanation for how such miracles may come to pass:
… these books are invariably love stories, in the broadest sense, inspired by a person or a memory – in Twain’s case, of the Mississippi – for whom the writer calls up one final surge of creative energy.
Ah, yes. I think I’ll call up one final surge of energy and totter off downstairs to brew a pot of tea. If you don’t hear further, assume I expired en route to my desk.
I returned home from Pennsylvania last night to a happy dog and a thick stack of unread mail, which included the new Quill & Quire, containing their fall preview, which they plug as a run-down of “the season’s most notable books.”
And I was pleased to note that, along with the notable books, they included mine. In fact, they did a nice sidebar on it, calling it “a contemporary novel with an edge.”
Naturally, I was very pleased with that treatment.
Then the dog announced that she was not interested in such diversions by nipping me smartly in the ankle.
I’m not so sure about being edgy, though. That is to say, I never set out to be edgy, as some people seem to. The problem with doing that is you get into a race to the edge; if you’re gonna call yourself edgy, you have to be edgier than all the other people who are calling themselves edgy. And if you race to the edge, you risk falling off.
I’m afraid of heights, and therefore never race to the edge.
I’m leaving, on a jet plane—specifically, on a Beech 1900D, powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT-6A turboprops. You can decide whether that’s a “jet plane,” or not. Anyway, the point is, here are a couple of quick links to sustain you.
Random web surfing (which I think should be called “surfage,” pronounced in the French manner, as it sounds more classy) brought me to this old 2005 interview with Don McCullin at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
And the New York Times has a piece on Tim Page and his ongoing search for the remains of his friend, Sean Flynn.
Canada’s national winter sport, as we all well know, is hockey; and Canada’s other national sport is arguing over the definition of “Canadian literature,” a pursuit that is often just as bloody but doesn’t require that one keep track of a small piece of hard rubber.*
Now, I like hockey, but other team sports bore me, so I pay little attention to that other national sport. I’m satisified that “Canadian literature” is simply literature published in, you know, Canada, for a readership of, you know, Canadians, and I feel it’s best to just leave it at that.
I have, however, often felt compelled to observe, from the sidelines, that arguments of this sort are not uniquely Canadian, and are not (as so many people like to think) evidence of the Canadian identity crisis. Americans argue about this kind of thing all the time, except that instead of arguing about whether a book is “American literature,” they argue about whether it’s regional fiction.
There are ongoing dustups in the corners between those who insist on defining work in regional terms, rendering all work published by natives of Mississippi as “southern fiction” to be compared to Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and those who insist they are not interested in regional labels but are part of a larger, international tradition of writing in English.
(See Metcalf, John: What is a Canadian Literature? If these questions are unique to Canada’s supposed identity crisis, why did Richard Ford, in early interviews, invest so much energy in rejecting the “southern writer” label?)
I stumbled on examples of this reading backwards through Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes,** where I found examples of wonderful confusion over just what makes Midwestern fiction so Midwestern. Apparently, regional fiction is in decline, and the question is, why?
I stumbled over to A Commonplace Blog, where D.G. Myers argues that MFA programs have created “a nationalized bureaucracy of writers who … are more loyal to the organizational culture of creative writing, which stretches from coast to coast—and to their own career advancement—than to the locales in which they accidentally find themselves.”
Myers doesn’t explain what makes writing “regional.” It appears that, as he defines it, regional fiction exists when a given writer sets a series of novels (or stories) in a given locale. That is, it appears to be purely a matter of setting. Regionalism is in decline because writers keep changing from one setting to the next (damn their greedy little souls).
This complaint seems academic, not in the sense of having no practical application, but in the sense of “Holy shit, if people won’t settle down and set a bunch of novels in a single location, how the hell are we going to find thesis topics?”
This, I suppose, is how we identify regional concerns. I am reminded of some recent nonsense in The Globe & Mail (also academic in origin) proposing that Canadian literature can be identified by its “Canadian” concerns—a suggestion that inevitably implies we could reject books written by Canadians, for Canadians, as “not Canadian enough.”
Which is clearly silly.
Of course, the problem in Canada has been that “Canlit,” as we know it, arose in the 1960s as part of a broad nationalist movement, a movement that also gave us a new flag, national sports, and Hinterland Who’s Who. (It’s telling that lacrosse was chosen as our national sport, in place of hockey, because the Dutch lay some claim to inventing hockey; never mind that so few Canadians actually play or give a shit about lacrosse. Consider that in terms of parallels to Canlit.) But nowadays, those nationalist concerns have disappeared; Andre Alexis’s protests aside, Margaret Atwood’s Survival seems both irrelevant and goofy. Canada has grown beyond defining itself purely in terms of opposition to what is American. That stuff doesn’t matter anymore.
And from that perspective, I’m left to wonder if the (reported) decline in regionalism in American literature isn’t also more the product of changing times than it is yet another evil side effect of the MFA racket. And furthermore, I’m left to wonder if it’s really a bad thing.
* That sentence contains a semicolon for no other reason than to defy the incorrect prescriptivist nonsense published at The Oatmeal. Persons wishing to argue the point are invited to make fools of themselves in the comments, but are advised first to familiarize themselves with actual English usage by reading (for example) Charles Dickens.
** Readers of copyeditorial bent who insist that, since Athitakis is not plural, the correct form should be Mark Athitakis’s American Fiction Notes should probably take it up with Mr. Athitakis.
I’ll be happy to say I snuck this post in before running off to my son’s soccer game, where I will show my fatherly devotion by spending an hour and a half training the dog. I’m training her to be steady to thrown dummies—which might sound like it has something to do with judo and copyeditors, but I really can’t throw a copyeditor far enough to excite the dog into retrieving it.
Proceed without delay over to The Paris Review, where you can read this:
It ought to go against any writer’s grain when people try to pass off schoolmarmish grammarianism as a concern for style. Style is about getting the maximum effect out of words, eliminating unwanted ambiguities, and writing in such a way that readers see things better—in short, it’s about meaning. Grammarianism, which is to say, an out-of-control prescriptivism, is about doing things “the right way,” or more often, about giving others grief for not having done so.
Among other things.
Why are you still here? I told you to go.
During my recent trip to Edmonton, I underwent what was, for me, a unique experience: I was offered a senior citizens’ discount.
That friendly customer-service smile faded from the salesclerk’s face. Picture, if you will, a jacklit deer.
“I offer it to everyone who looks over forty,” she said.
“I’m not sure I like learning that I look over forty.”
Okay: so there are a few grey hairs. Depending on how you define “few.” And I am barely over forty.
This episode is brought to mind by The New Yorker‘s summer fiction issue, which the dog has not chewed up, and which offers us “20 under 40.”
Yeah, okay. You can see where this is going. There’s a fine line between trenchant commentary and querulous whinging. And I have no idea where that line lies.
The line I can see is the 40-yard line on The New Yorker‘s cover, which seems to imply, through shading, that 40 is the watershed age for a writer. The mass of scribbling writers between 20 and 40 thins out beyond that line, the implication being that if you don’t make it by 40, you’re done—which seems to be the broad cultural assumption that leads not only to “20 under 40” but to, for example, The Globe & Mail‘s continual rehashing of the “top 30 under 30” theme, not only for writers but for the world in general.
And, no doubt, to the habit of offering seniors’ discounts to anyone who looks over 40.
On which note, I admit that I took the discount. I’m not proud.
I am sitting with the uncorrected galley proof for Combat Camera in hand. Well, not literally. The proof copy is on the desk beside my keyboard. But the point is, I have it. Which is pretty cool, as it is the first manifestation of the novel as a concrete, physical object—which is to say, the first concrete, physical evidence that I did not, in fact, waste seven years of my spare time.
And the cooler thing is that now I can actually read my book as a book, instead of on a screen, or as an unruly stack of loose sheets. I can actually sit down and figure out which parts I want to read at, you know, readings, and stuff like that.
It wasn’t until Rebecca Rosenblum said I was being “impressively calm” that it occurred to me that I’m supposed to be freaking out. Apparently (and as an editor, she’d know), this is when I’m supposed to lose my mind. But I’m not.
Now, I do have (as no one at Biblioasis, my publisher, has yet discovered) a highly developed ability to lose my mind. And I do have a prickly attitude towards copy editing, which has in the past led to my sending notes, which, in edited form, looked like this:
Why in the name of blue thundering Jesus Smurf do you keep moving my commas? Is there any reason? Can you not perceive that those sentences have a rhythm, a rhythm that you, with your tin ear and newspaperman’s sensibility, are fucking up in detail? I swear, if you move one more comma without just cause, I will cut it out, photocopy it to a million times its size, fly to British Columbia, and shove it up your ass, paper cuts be damned. Kindly stop moving my commas around. I put them there for a reason.
So, what I’m getting at is, I think I already do a certain amount of self-editing.
It’s not that I hate copy editors; it’s just that they come in several flavours. There are good ones, and merely competent ones. To understand what’s meant by competent, picture a merely competent copy-editor working with Mr. T:
Mr. T: I pity da foo who moves my comma!
Ed: “I pity the fool.”
Mr. T: Foo! Don’t you be messin’ with my aesthetic!
[Sound of breaking limbs.]
Ed: I need anaesthetic.
Mr. T: Foo! You got no aesthetic.
Which is to say, there’s correct language, and then there’s the right language.
I don’t really care about things like spelling, but grammar … the grammar is the language, and the language is the story. You can’t arbitrarily mess with these things.
So why am I so calm?
Maybe because I trust that I won’t encounter a copy-editor with a tin ear and a newspaperman’s sensibility.
Maybe because I’ve done so much magazine writing, in which you send in the manuscript and lose all control of it, so you learn to trust good editing and endure the rest while plotting devious revenge.
Maybe because I’m acutely aware that you can turn a good piece of writing into garbage by messing around with it too much.
Maybe because I’ve been over this thing, and over this thing, and over this thing, and over this thing, and over this thing….
At some point, you know that the sentences have to be right. And anything bigger than sentences … well, at this point, it’s too late anyway. You’re not shoring up structural deficiencies at this late date.
Just don’t look for impressive calm on the release date. I’ll be in the bathroom, throwing up.