The new Canadian Notes & Queries is out, once again with a cool cover by Seth: the best-looking litmag in Canada. Perhaps the best-looking magazine in Canada, period, although the good-looking guy on the cover of The New Quarterly makes for stiff competition….
But I digress. The new CNQ is out, and it’s The Gender Issue, with lots of articles on gender-related things by the likes of Nicole Dixon, Kerry Clare, Steven Beattie, Amanda Jernigan, and so on.
There’s even a thing called “Mine Clearance for Dummies,” on the challenge of approaching pornography in fiction, by some guy called … oh, hey, that’s me! Whaddaya know. Well, maybe that piece is more properly described as a complaint concerning the schoolyard quality of our public discourse, and a suggestion that fiction is uniquely qualified to expand our understanding. Sounds interesting. Maybe I should read it.
The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud. 9781554470785.
A horse, long of face, its hooves clattering on the cobbles that overlay the bones of settlers long dead, of child victims of diptheria and German measles, its long face hanging from the arch of its long neck, walks into a bar.
And the bartender says, why so ineffably sad? And we all weep.
This is a joke, as told by a poet-novelist. And The Sentimentalists is a novel, as told by a poet-novelist: over-written, over long even at a mere 216 pages, and, thanks to the Giller Prize, over-praised.
It starts well. Skibsrud has an ear and an attention for the rhythm of a sentence, and the first 20 pages or so are rich and evocative. It seems well done. But with those 20 pages done, with the scene set and the actors introduced, one expects the novel to go somewhere, to do something. It does not. Instead, it drifts about, rather aimlessly, talking about itself. And the middle sags.
Those sentences soon seem too rich in commas, too wordy, too long; Skibsrud is using entirely too many words to say very little:
On those occasions, what I had feared most was only that the space I had felt in me so palpably then might remain all my life in the unbearably empty state in which it had arrived. So to find that, on the contrary, it could disappear completely — and without a trace — without ever having been filled; that it could be compressed so soundly within a body that inside would remain only the mechanical procedures of the lungs and the heart, was a great surprise.
Uh, what occasions were those?
At night, I lay up in Owen’s old bedroom where I had slept so many nights as a child and felt nothing at all, except for the static hum of electricity from the floors below. A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before. When, in that very room, I had harboured in me an expectation of a world so vast, and of such incomparable beauty, that I could feel it loosening the muscles of my throat; a disturbance of which I could hardly endure.
Ah, yes. Those occasions. I know them well.
This ceases to be a question of style, and becomes a matter of substance, or more properly, of its lack. Reading these sentences, their vague language, their aversion to the concrete and particular, is rather like attempting to read braille through oven mitts: you’re certain something’s there, but you’re damned if you can figure out what. And if the chief joy of this book is to be found in its language, you wonder why you need 200 pages of it; it is like listening to a symphony that consists solely of a pianist repeatedly hitting the same note.
It is not only in its lack of movement that the novel sags. It is also packed with redundancies. Things disappear both completely and without a trace. The narrator harbours in her expectations, as if there is some other place one might harbour them. The garden shed, perhaps? Where is the poet’s attention to language, the economy and force of the poetic line? Adrift in the stagnant middle of this narrative, senses muffled, it begins to seem that one is reading page after page of filler. The novel takes a full 100 pages to get up and get moving.
Even 60 pages in, we know nothing of the characters. And this seems to be Skibsrud’s point, that we cannot see inside of other people. But neither do we have any concrete sense of their outer lives. Nobody does anything; nobody says anything — dialogue, through the first half of the novel, is often reported indirectly. The narrator may tell us that her father laughs, but we never understand why. We never hear the joke.
Indeed, we never hear any jokes; one thing the reader will not find herein is a laugh, or even a smile. The horse walks into the bar and we all are ineffably sad, though we know not why, and we hope, or think, that the emptiness at the very centre of our hearts will one day soon be filled with the expectations that we keep hanging beside the hedge trimmer out in the garden shed. But it will not be so, for life is ineffably sad.
And here is the crux of it: novels of this ilk flout the narrative building code by ignoring such load-bearing beams as character and plot. They dramatize nothing; indeed, they place themselves above such concerns, lumping together drama and melodrama. They labour to convince us that they are more literary than literature itself. But The Sentimentalists, in its continual tone of sadness, falls prey to melodrama’s cousin, sentimentality. We do not live our lives in a fog of sadness. To pretend that we can, to repeatedly strike this same note for 200 pages, is emotional masturbation. Having thrown away the tools by which emotional effects are earned — the stuff of drama — the novel strikes desperately at that same sad note. And all that sadness, like the joke about the horse, is without force. The Sentimentalists grasps to make us sad because it fails to understand the truth: without joy, there can be no heartbreak.
Tonight in Waterloo is the launch of the Fall issue of The New Quarterly, which will feature a screening of In The Wake Of The Flood (a documentary about Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood book tour), a show of Alan Dayton’s portraits of Canadian writers, and readings from me and some others. All this goes down at the Princess Twin, 46 King Street, in Waterloo, from 7:00 to 9:30. Admission is $10.
That there above picture would be the cover of said issue, which, incidentally, is a picture of yours truly. Taken by yours truly in a Colorado Springs hotel room with an adjoining door, through which I inadvertently learned many intimate details of my neighbours that evening, who were married, but not to each other, and making good use of their time. That’s probably more information than you really wanted, but it’s only a fraction of that I received. It became necessary to find distractions.
That issue also has an excerpt from Combat Camera and an interview with me, which you can read online at TNQ‘s website. Clearly, this is the finest magazine in Canada. And lest you think it’s all about me, there are also stories by Jessica Westhead and others, the winners of the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest, the winners of the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest (including Kerry Clare), a piece by Giller nominee Sarah Selecky, a bunch a poems, and colour plates of Alan Dayton’s portraits, including such literary luminaries as K.D. Miller, Steven Heighton, Russell Smith, Terry Griggs, Rebecca Rosenblum, my editor John Metcalf, and me. Yes, it is all about me.
You should definitely buy a copy.
I am dismayed by this Giller jury fuss, as I am dismayed by the ongoing media attempts to elevate Gaspereau’s production delays to the level of “a scandal.” It’s a pity to have this much controversy surrounding the Giller Prize in this year, of all years, because this year’s shortlist was so exciting and, well, so good — and also because the Giller Prize organizers have arguably done more to prevent and correct jury problems than the organizers of any of our other major prizes.
Fortunately, the general reader is much more interested in how difficult it is to find copies of The Sentimentalists than in some skullduggery involving foreign rights sales. There’s no suggestion, as yet, that Ali Smith engineered Skibrud’s win. Fellow juror Michael Enright has also praised the book warmly, and it would seem it won on its own merits. So it’s a story about an agent profiting from inside information, a charge Ali Smith vehemently denies. Boring.
The international jury is the smartest move the Giller ever made. An international jury puts paid to the complaints that the Giller is a lifetime achievement award for established writers (which, in its early years, it seemed to be), that it is skewed towards big houses, and that it is driven by who knows whom. Consider this year’s Writers’ Trust fiction prize, where both Michael and Kathleen Winter made a shortlist while their close friend Lisa Moore sat on the jury; regardless of how it really happened, the appearance of impropriety is unavoidable. This year’s GG fiction shortlist is boring and clearly reflects regional biases. Yet the Giller shortlist, selected by a jury that did not include a Canadian writer, included two debut novels, two first books, and only one established writer.
And some people hated it. The assumption seems to be that, well, if the Giller lacks big names, it must be a bad year for fiction. The Globe & Mail‘s panel of performing dunces declared that none of the shortlist books really deserved to win, being as they were the “promising early drafts” of “beginners” whose work amounted to little more than “crude chainsaw sculpture.” And there was a great deal of whining about availability of books even at the shortlist stage, and frowns of concern over the ability of small presses to meet demand.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the titles were absent from Chapters/Indigo’s shelves because the chain wasn’t ordering them. Pride of place in the big box store still went to the big-name books whose big-name publishers paid for said space, and the few copies of the shortlist books they had were buried back in the stacks. Our local independent — in London, Ontario, we have only one, Oxford Bookshop — had all five titles, including The Sentimentalists; Chapters had only three of the five, and only carried The Matter With Morris in any quantity until shortly before the prize announcement.
The reality of Canadian bookselling is in conflict with the reality of Canadian publishing. If this year’s list was dominated by independents, it may be because the multinationals are unwilling, nowadays, to take a risk on interesting work by unknown writers. If the big houses are more comfortable sitting back and letting the small presses turn up the talent, it should hardly surprise us when that talent starts to scoop up the awards nominations. And the possibility that small presses could begin routinely snapping up major awards has to frighten both the big houses and Chapters/Indigo.
But in a sense, Skibsrud’s win combined with Gaspereau’s firm commitment to their philosophy has been a gift to the big players. Frustrated readers are saying that this year’s Giller is turning into a debacle, reflecting the expectation that books should be on the shelves on the morning of 10 November. The message, unjustified as it is, is that small presses can’t do it. Whether that message will stick remains to be seen.
I, too, saw God through mud,–
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
Merry it was to laugh there–
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
I, too, have dropped off fear–
Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
And sailed my spirit surging light and clear,
Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn;
And witnessed exultation–
Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
Seraphic for an hour; though they were foul.
I have made fellowships–
Untold of happy lovers in old song.
For love is not the binding of fair lips
With the soft silk of eyes that look and long,
By Joy, whose ribbon slips,–
But wound with wars hard wire whose stakes are strong;
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong.
I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.
Nevertheless, except you share
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,
You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.
I was pleased to see Johanna Skibsrud take the Giller last night. I’m one of those lucky people with a first printing of The Sentimentalists, which I’m reading now. And I’m liking it. Better than Annabel, though not better than Light Lifting. But if Alexander MacLeod couldn’t win, I’m happy to see Skibsrud take it.
I’m happy to see it because it’s a good book, and also because it’s a chance for a small press, Gaspereau, to get some attention for the quality of their publishing program. Small presses do the literary grunt work in this country. They pound the ground and flush the new talent out of cover. And then, too often, bigger presses and agents leap into the game, and the small press is back to pounding the ground. They take the risks that agents and big houses do not; they’re the ones willing to take a dive on a new writer. They deserve the recognition.
Furthermore, Gaspereau makes beautiful books.
So my concern over the mess Johanna Skibsrud now finds herself in is not “shit talk about Gaspereau.” The fact is that Gaspereau is fully capable of meeting the normal demand for their books. And Andrew Steeves’ refusal to change his ways when the book was shortlisted was no big deal; the demand for a shortlist book is only a few thousand copies.
But winning … that places you in exceptional circumstances. Winning the Giller is not business as usual. Not for anyone, multinationals included. And this is where Gaspereau is making a serious mistake.
A lot of fuss is being made over booksellers and readers, and whether they’ll be able to get the book. Let me say this: I don’t give a shit about booksellers or readers here. They’re not on my team. Today, I only care about writers.
A writer gets one shot at something like this. At 27.95 and 10% royalty, with the Giller likely to move 75,000 copies, Johanna Skibsrud is looking at a $209,625 payday. But that demand has a time limit; much of it will be gone by Christmas, as frustrated readers buy something else. And next year will see another Must Read. This is a limited-time offer, whatever the feel-good promises that readers will wait, and you have to call now.
Meanwhile, Gaspereau can print only 1,000 copies a week. That’s 6,000 before Christmas; Skibsrud’s take, $16,770, I’m guessing about 20% of what she’d otherwise expect.
Filthy lucre! Writers, artists, we’re not supposed to care about money — we’re supposed to care about art. We’re supposed to love beautiful, hand-crafted books of the sort Gaspereau publishes. We’re not supposed to let the promise of $209,625 sway us from our path of purity. Skibsrud gently says that the business end is not up to her; she just wants readers!
(And she wants her fucking book fucking printed, although not in precisely those words.)
Filthy lucre? Bullshit. Money matters. Money is what lets you keep working at writing, which business is, for the most part, a money-loser. Money pays off the debts you rack up. It pays the mortgage and buys the groceries. This is why writers have day jobs, even when they pretend that they don’t, or understanding spouses with good jobs. And you get one shot at a payday like this one. One shot.
You would hope your partners would understand. Writers should view publishers as partners, a view that the big houses seem to discourage. You sign on with a publisher because you look for the services they provide: editing, printing, publicity and so on. They take the financial risks, and they make the decisions that create those risks, such as just how big the print run should be. You work together, in good faith, to make the book a success. You owe each other this. You are on the same team. And in the small press world, the relationship is personal.
Andrew Steeves at Gaspereau has said that he knows he can meet demand by outsourcing production, but he won’t. He has stuck by his principles, which is admirable. He has said a great deal about the art of making fine books, but I note there’s one subject on which he’s been silent: doing right by your authors. In sticking to “business as usual” in the face of the Giller hype, Steeves is sticking it to market forces and commercial interests for which he has no respect. And Skibsrud’s interests have become collateral damage.
Forget filthy lucre, awards, contracts, and all the rest. Business is personal, and there is one cardinal rule: don’t forget your friends.
UPDATE: I originally attributed “shit talk about Gaspereau” to Stacey May Fowles (and misspelt her name). She did say this, but not with reference to me. I removed the attribution and apologize for “Stacy.”
Every once in a while, you read a piece that is so insightful, so original, so ground-breaking, that after you have finished and pulled your head away from the page, the world looks somehow different, brighter, more filled with wonder.
And, every once in a while, you read a piece that is so blinkered, so ill-informed, so narrow in its view, that after you have dragged your eyes away from the verbal wreckage, to find that the world looks as bleak and bereft of possibility as ever, you arrive at a new understanding of just why we’re doomed to suffer its continual banality.
Such insights arrive when one reads the Globe & Mail‘s Giller round-table.
All you really need to read is Andrew Gorham’s gormless opening remark:
When the Scotiabank Giller Prize short list was announced last month, I pounced on it and said to myself: “Who? … Who? … Who?” I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I recognized David Bergen’s name….
A sigh of relief? Because you found a name you recognize? Gorham unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag here: his problem with the Giller shortlist has nothing to do with the quality of the books. It’s all about his assumption that if he hasn’t heard of the author, the book can’t be any good. And the round-table discussion proceeds under this assumption. The books are undeserving, because the authors are unknown, and the only reason the books are on the shortlist is because, as Sandra Martin explains, the jury wanted to pick future stars, instead of doing its job, which is to reward established writers:
Judges always want to be star makers, but this prize is about the best work of fiction published this year. If the judges want to pick future winners, they should have an appendix to the short list: writers to watch. And then get back to the business of picking the best novel or collection of short stories.
What Martin never does — because this would involve some intellectual heavy lifting, of which I suspect she’s not capable — is to make any kind of cogent argument that some overlooked book is better than the jury’s choices. Instead, she drops a few established names, which takes us back to the panel’s premise: that books by established writers are automatically more deserving than books by new writers.
And then begin the put-downs. Now, I don’t mind robust criticism, but this is not robust criticism. It is a series of thoughtless dismissive remarks from a group of people who have not done their research. Favouring Winter, for example, John Barber praises her writing about children, noting that for “thirty-somethings” like Skibsrud, Selecky and MacLeod, parenthood is “terra incognita.”
Alexander MacLeod’s three children may be surprised to discover that they do not exist.
If John Barber, books reporter, is habitually this sloppy in his journalism, he might be well advised to find a line of work to which his skills are more suited. Such as, for example, piloting a Dickie Dee cart.
And it continues. Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists is described as a “tiny book,” the suggestion being that a small-press book with a small print run has no place on the Giller shortlist — it is not just the press that’s tiny, but the book itself, the work, the art. Sandra Martin snidely remarks that this novel is “a highly promising … early draft.” Sarah Selecky is “a beginner.” Alexander MacLeod’s writing is “robust but crude chainsaw sculpture,” which, according to Barber, “relies on machine-gun blasts of adjectives.” (I chose a sample page and counted. There were four adjectives. One was in a line of dialogue. A machine gun, this is not.) And finally, neither Selecky’s work, nor MacLeod’s, is “genuinely adult.”
And this leads us to the panel’s notion that, if the Giller can’t go to an established name, it should at least go to the oldest writer in the room: Kathleen Winter.
“Annabel is a book that makes you think no one should be allowed to write novels before the age of 40,” says Barber. Again, the panel is fixated not on the work itself, but on the question of who created it. And leaving aside Barber’s redundant observation that Annabel is a book, a matter of which we are already well aware, many notable novels have been written by writers under 40. Such as, for example, The Sun Also Rises. Not all writers improve with age; some, like Hemingway, deteriorate. To Have and Have Not, anyone?
The two writers who escape the panel’s put-downs are Bergen, who as a former Giller winner belongs on the shortlist, and Winter, who has already published a collection of short stories, boYs, which won the Winterset Award and the Metcalf-Rooke Award. As a past award-winner, apparently, she can be considered established. The two writers who take the most shit here are the small press writers, Skibsrud and MacLeod.
It is not difficult to see what is going on here. We reject the short story collections. We reject the small press writers. We reject the young writers, the first books.
It’s rare that we see such a clear demonstration of how chickenshit arts journalism really is. These people do not like to go out on a limb. They don’t like to consider new work and to make their own judgments. They like those judgments made for them, by awards juries and by best-sellers list.
I’d like to think that the bold choices made by this year’s Giller jury could herald some kind of cultural shift. Prizes as influential as the Giller have a way of defining the culture; the definition of a good book in Canada becomes, over time, the kind of book that wins the Giller. And if Giller juries began routinely putting up shortlists like this year’s, shortlists that pick out five good books without reference to who wrote them, to their author’s past achievements, then I’d like to think we’d start to think of a good book as being something that can sneak up and surprise you, rather than expecting it to be the usually middling mid-to-late-career output of someone whose name we know.
But it seems clear that this will not happen. A good book remains a book by an author we know. And when the Giller jury puts up a shortlist full of surprises, as the Globe‘s panel makes clear, then what we have is a rogue jury that can’t recognize a good book. Nothing will change, not as long as our would-be newspaper of record employs arts reporters who lack the courage to engage with the books themselves.