Archive for the ‘johanna skibsrud’ Category

Sentimental indeed

November 24, 2010 4 comments

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.

Categories: johanna skibsrud, reviews

Filthy lucre

November 10, 2010 5 comments

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.”