Archive for July, 2010

Kevin Frayer: Afghan National Army

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

More interesting work from Kevin Frayer cropped up yesterday at The Guardian: a series of 10 frank black-and-white portraits of Afghan National Army soldiers based in the southwest.

What’s significant about these soldiers is that none of them are actually from the southwest, a detail that has MSNBC (where the same photos are shown, in smaller scale) calling them “foreigners.” It’s jarring to consider that, in ethnically divided Afghanistan, you can be an Afghan and yet a foreigner in your own country.

For some, these photos will serve as further proof that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless, that the West can never win. But the truth, I think, is more complex. Neither the existing government nor the Taliban actually enjoys much support in the south-west, at least according to the only opinion polls available. The Taliban never controlled the country, either. In fact, Afghanistan has been continually at war with itself for thirty years, for reasons that have, for the most part, absolutely nothing to do with the lives of most of the people caught up in the war zone. This war was on before we got there, and it will continue after we leave. It’s not that the West can never win; no one can, least of all the Afghan people.

Among Frayer’s portraits, I like the two soldiers hiding behind their sunglasses best of all. Those sunglasses, both as barrier between the soldier and his environment, and a symbol of Western cool, make explicit the gulf that lies between Afghanistan’s warlords and the bulk of the people they claim to represent.

On the shortcomings of polls

July 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Globe & Mail online poll:

What in your opinion is the most likely reason Lonely Planet has named Montreal the second-happiest place in the world?

“They’ve never actually been there” is not among the options, so I couldn’t vote.

Categories: Uncategorized

In which the real world comes knocking

July 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I have found myself recently underneath the sofa cushions, where I must have fallen when someone suddenly stood up. I also found myself clarifying my fond belief that fiction ought to be of the here and now.

Like most such beliefs, it’s based partly on carefully thought out ideas, and partly on what I like. Partly, it’s a question of what fiction is for, other than being for nothing in particular beyond itself. I have this notion that one of the things we do as writers is to record the language and the ideas of our time, and the best way to do that, it seems to me, is to address the present.

I’m well aware that historical fiction can address the present, but for the most part, it tells us such shocking things as that, for example, it was a good thing that women got the vote. I don’t think that wallowing in the challenges of the past does much to address the challenges of the present, although it does serve to keep old sloganeers in work.

Neither am I keen on dystopias. The nice thing about creating a dystopia, as a writer, is that nobody can come along and tell you that you’ve got it wrong. You risk creating a kind of cartoon world in your own head, a world that answers to nothing but your own ideas and prejudices. You risk, in short, becoming the fictioneering equivalent of a newspaper columnist or talk-radio host.

If fiction is to succeed, it needs ambiguity and nuance. You don’t get that unless you’re willing to admit that the world in your head is incomplete. If you write about the here and now, the real world should come knocking every once in a while to remind you that there are more things in heaven and earth, skippy, than you’ve dreamed up over a cold beer.

So along comes Margaret Atwood, in an interview at the Globe & Mail:

What is the draw for you to return not only to this dystopian future but to dystopias in general, as you did with The Handmaid’s Tale?

I’ve been involved with this for a long time [as a reader and student] and finally felt I was able to tackle it when I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I finally felt I was able to write a book in this genre without falling into a lot of the traps of that kind of writing.

Presumably, one of those traps is turning into a talk-radio host. And one of the strengths of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is surely in the running for Best Canadian Dystopian Novel, is that it allows for nuance, even if there isn’t much ambiguity. Consider its reflection on “freedom from” vs. “freedom to.”

And then along comes news of The Extinction Club, by Jeffrey Moore, a novel set in the here and now of Moore’s simplistic imaginings:

Blood spilled in the Laurentian forests of Quebec has left a stain, and it’s spreading. The mountain lion, red wine caribou, bald eagle, wolf and wolverine have already been wiped out, or nearly, and now hunters are turning their attention to the lucrative—and illegal—black bear market.

Enter Nile Nightingale, a troubled man on the run who arrives in search of a rustic refuge, an off-the-map place where life is quieter, slower. He thinks he’s found it in the form of a run-down country church for sale. Until, that is, he stumbles upon something in its snow-covered graveyard, something that shouldn’t be there: a bleeding burlap sack, bound with red Christmas ribbon.

Inside is the slashed and beaten body of fourteen-year-old Céleste Jonquères, whose testimony put the hunters’ leader, a man who’s killed more animals than a hundred winters, behind bars.

Amazingly, this novel seems to be aimed at adults—people having sufficient life experience to suspect that Danger Bay wasn’t the real world—rather than at the YA market.

Having worked for outdoor magazines for over a decade, I know a lot of hunters. None of them resemble the sadists of Moore’s imagination, although those people do, no doubt, exist. Moore, who insists that everything is based on “actual practices in the wild,” seems to be more concerned with actual fantasies in his own head than with getting at the reality of human cruelty, alongside the parallel reality that we do need to eat.

But maybe the actual novel is more nuanced. Let’s check today’s review in the Globe: “In addition to didacticism and caricatured villains, the novel is also too blessed by convenience.”

Guess not. Indeed, the best thing Darryl Whetter can find to say about the novel is this:

His is not another plotless Canadian novel, nor is it merely one gun-filled chase through the woods after another. These gun chases are punctuated with compelling ideas, such as precocious Céleste’s theory that if penis enlargement became medically viable, violence, including violence toward animals, would decrease.

Darryl, I don’t know what the limitations of your reading have been, but that’s not a “compelling idea.” It’s a cliche.

Reality, it seems, never came knocking for Moore. But it came knocking today for me: perhaps my notion that writing about the here and now keeps you honest is a load of hooey. Perhaps you’re only as honest as yourself.

In which I flee the country…

July 19, 2010 1 comment

… having overpowered my captors when they came to pour my daily ration of thin gruel through the slot in the door. I am now safe in a foreign country that, for security reasons, I cannot name, but which is known for its wonderful tea parties and the refined quality of its public discourse. But my captors have a long reach, and longer memories, and although, for now, they are distracted by The Bachelorette, if I am ever to return to the wilds of Ontario, I better wrestle this damn essay down to length.

There is no justice. I mean, if Conrad Black can get bail, I oughta be able to.

I did take the opportunity, while stowed away in the back of that cattle truck what brung me here, to finish the new CNQ, which is a thing of beauty, or was until I got cattle shit all over it. These are the risks of the writing life.

Douglas Glover’s piece on Alice Munro’s “Menetsetung” is worth the price of admission all on its own, and Ryan Bigge has confirmed all my suspicions about Anne Michaels. I am saving the Rebecca Rosenblum story for an appropriate time.

I found Alex Good’s piece especially thought provoking.

My initial reaction was irritation: Good opens with a straw man, complaining that Haruki Murakami presents the short story as a “somehow less important, inferior literary form” in certain quoted remarks. In fact, Murakami does nothing of the kind; he simply contrasts the short story with the novel, and observes (among other things) that the short story makes a wonderful laboratory for the novelist. This does not imply that the story is inferior; on the contrary, it implies that the novel is a lousy laboratory. Which it is.

Laboratories are where experimentation happens, and the novel takes too damn long to write. Short stories, on the other hand, reward risk, and you don’t get anywhere without taking risks.

Good does go on to make a trenchant point about MFA programs, however. The typical writer’s career path in this country proceeds from the MFA program to the small magazines, thence to a small press that publishes a story collection, and onwards to glory with the big fat advance from the major publisher. This is, as Good points out, the inevitable result of what he calls “the fiction economy.”

Considering this, I began to wonder if the complaint that the short story is seen as a minor form isn’t a straw man generally. I have seen only one writer (Jane Uquhardt) say such a thing; everyone else nods and says that short stories are harder than anything (which is, of course, the prevailing orthodoxy of writing courses). I think the problem isn’t that we view the short story as a minor form, but that we view it as a commercially difficult one. So we can hardly be surprised that writers want to find greener pastures.

I think two points can be made here: that the declining sales of short story collections may result from the fact that most short story collections are first collections by writers who intend to move to the novel. Not all first collections are brilliant; many are not. One need only consider the little magazines to understand that not all short stories are good. Canada’s fiction economy fails not only because it pushes people to write novels; it fails, also, because publishing short stories is viewed as an obligation.

Secondly, it may be that so many of our novels are, in Good’s words, “startlingly dull and conventional” because their authors are trained as short story writers rather than as novelists. That short stories are not simply shorter novels is a truism; it’s equally valid to point out that novels are not simply long stories. It is wrong to think that, having learned to write short stories, you can write a novel simply by injecting more air.

Each form makes its own demands, and we may gravitate to the things that work best for us. Alice Munro has said she can’t write a novel, which she hardly needs to. Jim Harrison has said he can’t write short stories, and most of his readers would agree he is at his best in the novella.

Perhaps Canlit has too many poet-novelists, and too many short-storyist–novelists. Perhaps we need, you know, novelist-novelists.

As for making the short story commercially viable … I just speculate speculations.

What boys like

July 18, 2010 1 comment

No, this has nothing to do with the short story collection by Amy Jones.

I was in my cell, slaving away on this article on pornography, the male gaze, fiction, pro-sex feminism, and our chronic inability to be intelligent, an article that is supposed to top out at 2000 words, but which stubbornly keeps expanding, when I thought I’d take a break from my labours and amuse myself with Google.

Let’s see what we can learn about what boys like, and what girls like.

What girls like

For the record, it’s not difficult to convince me to get a dog. Moving on:

What boys like

Here’s my suggestion: if you want to convince her she’s beautiful, start by not mentioning the implants or the weight loss. I’m just saying.

Categories: gender warfare

A quick update

July 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Scribbled on a scrap of notepaper, hidden in the spine of a book and smuggled past my captors by a sympathetic janitor.

If updates have been few and far between around here, it’s partly because I’ve been locked into a cold, damp cell, where I am being fed thin gruel (laughably called “tender care”) for my efforts, and forced to write an essay concerning pornography, which there is at least some risk that I will soon finish.

On that subject, note the piece on the aptly named feminist porn filmmaker Erika Lust in today’s Grope & Flail, which includes this nugget:

Do you think mainstream porn has changed the way some people are having sex?

I see this as a problem with young people turning to pornography to learn about sex. They aren’t critics of what they are seeing. If this same young man would watch one of my movies, he would get another idea of what sex is all about. We’ve said for years with porn that it doesn’t affect us, that it’s something only a small number of men are watching. But pornography has taken a major step into culture as a discourse that explains femininity and masculinity. I think it’s important that women start to participate in this discourse, because men aren’t going to explain our experience.

That is, of course, the crux of the problem. It’s possible to put it more succinctly, of course.

Categories: on pornography

A metametacritical digression

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

To me, the most memorable scene in the film Pollock is of Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock, in a stairwell, falling down drunk and shouting, “Fuck Picasso.”

That scene neatly summarizes the creative struggle. The anxiety of influence, the difficulty of making it fresh, the struggle to break through and create something new. How do you break through the influence of a Picasso? How do you find the next thing?

The answer to a bad book, it’s often said, is to write a better book. The response to worn out tropes is to move beyond them. Problem is, this is hard. You can struggle for a lifetime and never get there. In fact, you probably will never get there; probably, your efforts will amount to nothing more than another shovel-load on the heap of mediocrity, that muddy middle of art. You will also, in all likelihood, spend some time drunk in a stairwell.

This is why we have criticism. Doing the next thing is hard, but it’s relatively easy to point out that the people doing the next thing aren’t actually doing it at all.

(You may deduce that I’m skeptical of the claim that a healthy literature cannot exist without vigorous criticism. Congratulations, Holmes. Vigorous criticism is a good thing, but it doesn’t get the writing done.)

Of course, most criticism is not vigorous, and this leads to our quarterly lament on the state of criticism. This iteration was kicked off by Andre Alexis, writing in The Walrus, who bemoaned the supposed nastiness of Canadian book reviews, blamed it all on John Metcalf, and suggested a more communal criticism is needed. He didn’t bother to explain what that would look like.

All kinds of discussion followed.

So, now we’ve had the criticism of the criticism. It’s time for the criticism of the criticism of the criticism.

What’s wrong with Canadian criticism? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong with Canadian criticism: more ink is spilled in bemoaning the state of Canadian criticism than in bemoaning the state of the literature itself.

We debate what’s wrong with book reviewing, instead of debating books. We debate general ideas about criticism instead of the specifics of a critique and the text it examines. Instead of (for example) taking John Metcalf to task over his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan, his opponents complain in general terms about the tone of his assessment of, say, Morley Callaghan.

Where are the specifics? Why all this generalized moaning about the state of criticism?

This is not criticism, and it is not serious discussion of criticism. It is idle book chatter.

The only recent book I can think of that spawned any kind of critical debate is Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, which touched off some interesting exchanges concerning how we can write about the Holocaust, whether we can appropriate the experience, and whether the book just plain sucked.

Why is this? I dunno. I just observe the observations, man. I don’t explain ’em.

Kevin Frayer

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Kudos for Canadian photojournalist Kevin Frayer appear on the NYT Lens blog:

Seven months ago, Santiago Lyon, the director of photography at The Associated Press, described Kevin Frayer as a game changer, meaning that “within hours of his arrival on any major story, his photos jump off the screen and immediately give us a competitive edge.” You have only to look at Slide 1 to know that Mr. Frayer is back in Afghanistan.

I think that recognition is well deserved. I first noticed Frayer back in May, 2000, when he was covering the Walkerton crisis. His tightly-cropped photo of five-year-old Tamara Smith clutching her teddy bear as she was wheeled out to the air ambulance ran on the front page of every newspaper I saw. It was the first picture to put a human face on the crisis, and you can see it at CTV’s “Decade of Canada“—it’s the third frame.

Note also Frayer’s shots of a Canadian sniper in Afghanistan (frame eight) and a man outside Womens’ College Hostpital during the SARS outbreak (frame 12). The latter may seem to be a mere snapshot at first glance, but notice the careful framing. Frayer has made sure that the signs to each side of his subject are legible, giving the photo context and obviating the need for a caption. It goes to show that, when the easy shots are people wearing facemasks, you can still rise above the crowd.

After missing a homecoming

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Not a homecoming for me, but for someone else. I discovered, by an accident of web surfing, that I’d missed the 2010 Michigan Author Homecoming in Lansing, which featured Benjamin Bush, Philip Caputo and Doug Stanton in a panel discussion called “Writing War: Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam.” Fortunately, it’s all available on video.

If you scroll down that page, you’ll also find information on the 2008 event, which featured Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison in a panel discussion on, well, whatever the hell Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison wanted to talk about. That would have been well worth attending—I like all three of those guys.

And I did attend, driving for three hours in the sweltering heat in a car with banjaxed air conditioning. Admission was free, and the hall’s seating capacity was 600; over 700 showed up, and they were packing them into the aisles. I rolled back across the Canadian border at 11:30 at night and presented to the customs agent my battered passport, which I had accidentally put through the laundry. He eyed it with suspicion, and inspected the information page.

“Sir, do you know the expiry date on this passport?”

“That passport is valid for another half-hour,” I said. “So you better hurry up.”

I do like the Canadian Border Services Agency; they have a sense of humour.

In any case, the Ford-McGuane-Harrison chat is available as a podcast and worth listening to. A nugget:

“What two people do in a room where they are alone together is a real little laboratory for morality, in a sense, because that is where you can really concentrate on what’s right and what’s wrong and who’s lying and who’s not.” — Richard Ford

Proofs of life

July 3, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s too hot to run around in the grass, and the dog is curled on the couch, looking for all the world like a contented comma. And I am working through the page proofs of Combat Camera, which arrived yesterday in a nice, fat package.

The burning question in your mind, gentle reader, must be just how much spittle I have wiped from my monitor in defence of the lowly comma. As it happens, there are 4,518 commas in the manuscript. Two have been added (one of these being my own innovation), three removed, and one turned into a semicolon, which gives us (for the engineers in the audience) a Comma Modification Rate of 0.13 percent. This much strain, the airframe can handle.

Working through the proofs does raise interesting questions of usage, particularly around that old bugbear (bug-bear, bug bear) of hyphenation and compounds. For example, is it “jack off,” or “jack-off?”

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary is no help here. (Is of no help here?) In my book it’s “jack-off” as a noun or adjective (“some little jack-off town in the middle of nowhere”), but “jack off” as a verb. The proof of this comes when you, um, conjugate the verb:

I jack off.

You jack off.

He jacks off.

This clearly doesn’t work if you hyphenate it.

Let me digress to clarify that, when I set out to become a writer, I never envisioned that I would one day discuss this particular point.

To a certain degree hyphenation is just a matter of spelling, and I think spelling is the least important thing for a writer to worry about. And sometimes, messing up the forms is just a matter of sloppiness.

But at other times, it’s a highly personal question of style. I’m finicky enough about punctuation at times to perceive a difference between “fresh water” and “freshwater,” and perhaps even “fresh-water.” These forms sound different; a space is a pause. (Similarly, that semicolon sounds different from a period.)

I recall having that debate with a technical editor, when I was working as a technical writer. I’m not sure how it arose, given that our jobs had nothing to do with water, but I became incensed at his suggestion that the latest AP stylebook (not “style book,” dammit*) gave “freshwater” for both adjective and noun, so it would henceforth be “freshwater.”

“AP is just a bunch of newspaper buffoons who know nothing about water,” I said. “Trout may be freshwater fish, but they live in fresh water.”

“As one word,” said he.

“The only trout that live in ‘freshwater,'” said I, “are those that speak English as a second language.”

This discussion continued for some five minutes, until we were both fired—some policy about workplace violence, or something like that.

Point being, as I insisted to the security guard in the parking lot, this is a highly personal question of how you think the language works. Hyphenation and the coining of compounds reflects your ear, and also how you think the language is developing. “Cell phone” became “cellphone” very rapidly, and “e-mail” has become “email,” but “tow truck” remains good old, mundane “tow truck.”

I know not why.


* “dammit” sounds different from “damn it”; the latter is much more formal. But “dammed” is never a substitute for “damned,” except when discussing the state of the (Ontario) Thames River.

Categories: combat camera, writing