Sheila Heti hardly endears herself to me in her Open Book Toronto interview with Nathaniel G. Moore by suggesting, essentially, that all novelists save her are peddling boring, unreadable crap. But when not giving full rein to the most pretentious impulses of her overdeveloped ego,* she manages to redeem herself with this:
I overheard a conversation on the bus yesterday between two men in their late thirties; working-class men talking about women. One man, clearly in love with his girlfriend, asked the other man, who also was newly in a relationship, “Are you going to move in together?” He was really eager and excited to know. The second man said, “No no, I like to take it slow.” The first man, almost sounding humiliated and contrite and as if putting on an act, agreed, “Cheryl and I are taking it slow too, you can’t move in too soon. Life is short, and you can’t take it so seriously — especially when it comes to women.” But it was so clear that this man was a romantic and wanted to move in with his girl and take it all very seriously. That kind of romantic, hopeful tenderness — where can men find models for that in this culture?
That recalls Russell Smith’s assertion that men are the true romantics, that women are far more cold-blooded and pragmatic about their relationships. Which suggests, I think, that men don’t actually need models for that. I agree with Smith on this point; I think it’s how men are, notwithstanding our culture’s demand that we pretend otherwise.
* In case you’re wondering, I’ve decided to abandon my recent attempts to be nice to people.
Bravo to Russell Smith for his essay in The Globe & Mail on sex in fiction, and in particular for saying what nobody else ever seems to say about the obnoxious Bad Sex in Fiction Award:
…the Brits give a lot of press to their annual Bad Sex In Fiction Awards, a mean-spirited exercise in playground mockery and repression. It could only come from the Brits, such a powerful dismissal; indeed, the Bad Sex Awards were founded by Auberon Waugh, a political and social conservative, whose stated rationale was “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. In other words, it wasn’t bad sex writing he was opposed to, it was any sex writing; sex scenes themselves were tasteless and redundant.
I’d like to add that Auberon Waugh remains chiefly notable, in my mind, for being stupid enough to shoot himself in the chest with a Browning M1919 machine gun while an officer in Cyprus. This, he achieved by grasping and shaking the barrel jacket, frustrated at the gun’s erratic behaviour. Anyone with a good understanding of the internal workings of that weapon would recognize this as beyond dumb, and Waugh’s survival as a failure of natural selection.
But I digress. Smith’s essay is very good, although I object to his preference for the word “pornographic”; that word, thanks to contemporary pornography, carries all kinds of connotations that go beyond the sexual and tip, frankly, towards the pathological. One only has to consider the subtexts of contemporary mainstream porn to see that for literature to become more pornographic, as Smith suggests, it would also necessarily have to become stupid and misogynistic. Let’s stick with “erotic”; there’s nothing wrong with that word.
Anyway, I guess this means I’ll have to read Girl Crazy, in breach of the Literary Non-Proliferation Treaty imposed on me by the authorities following the Great Puppy Purchase of 2010.
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.
A few days ago, I took aim at an old piece by Stephen Henighan, which proposed that the disappearance of Canadian spelling was evidence of a culture in decline. Is spelling an important token of our culture, asked I? Does it matter? Do we not have more important fish to fry?
We do, as shown by Russell Smith in the Globe, who asks if Canadian writers should de-Canuckify their settings to make their books palatable to an American (and international) audience. And this leads quickly to a related question: should we de-Canuckify our language? And by doing so, are we treating our readers like infants?
This question has to be close to Smith’s heart, given that he’s a novelist of our urban present in a (supposed) nation of novelists of a sepia-toned past. If you take our time and place for your setting, then one of the things that you do, whether you intend to or not, is to record our culture as it stands. Mordecai Richler once said that a novelist is obligated to be an honest witness to his time and place. At some level, if you address the present, you address the way we live and the way we talk.
I confess, therefore, to a certain amount of irritation when I read a Canadian writer who, for example, uses “soda” for what we in Canada generally call pop — if by “a certain amount of irritation” you mean, as I do, an irrational, slavering rage in which I rend pages from the book’s very heart with my savage teeth as strong men quail before me and rabid dogs flee in terror.
Are we really to believe that American readers will be confused by the word “pop?” We shouldn’t be, as the best data available on the subject suggest that “soda” is not, in fact, the “American” idiom, but is instead the New York and California idiom.
(Yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my spare time worrying about. Why do you ask?)
Which leads us to a question of how culture is defined. Given that most of the “cultural” output of the United States — most of the books, most of the movies, most of the television, and all of the issues of The New Yorker — originate from New York and California, this serves to illustrate the point. Our popular notion of American usage is more often and not shaped by those movies, TV shows, and books.
Which suggests, in turn, the importance of cleaving to Richler’s dictum, of being honest witness to your time and place.
If you don’t, there’s the risk that I’ll bite you in the leg.