I am in Cincinnati tonight, having spent the week in Colorado Springs, very much on the road again. All next week I’ll be here in Cincinnati, which means I’ll finally learn to spell it, then home for a week, then Toronto for a week, then Halifax and Edmonton to round out the month. The first week in June, I’ll spend in Calgary, and then back to Edmonton for five days. This is my job.
It’s not, in my mind, a particularly hard job, although I know that it would shred some people, just as some other jobs would swiftly shred me. On the upside, my periodic bouts of heavy travel give me time to write. I have no kids and no obligations this week, just a soundproof suite, a bottle of George Dickel’s Tennessee Whisky,* a six-pack of Heineken, and a whole multi-coloured universe of … well, not really.
But I am getting some writing done, and some reading. I re-read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter on the way down to the Springs, carried Rock Springs in my carryon bag but didn’t get to it (next week I will), and am now reading Huey Guagliardo’s Perspectives on Richard Ford. That last is the kind of thing I have to take in small doses, as I am unable to read more than a paragraph or two without getting up and pacing around and responding to it. In any case, I am on something of a Richard Ford kick.
And for that reason, I appreciated Richard Ford’s Guardian thing on “The Writing Life,” which I read this evening. Ford has always taken a hard-nosed approach to the bullshit fooferal that surrounds writing. Asked how one switches gears mentally between writing short stories and writing a novel (he worked simultaneously on The Sportswriter and Rock Springs), he said (I paraphrase), “It’s a job. You do one thing, and then you do another.”
And here is Ford, true to form, simultaneously eschewing talk of art and vocation, and acknowledging that writing isn’t a particularly hard job, as jobs go. He has, I think, a healthy attitude, although writers less successful than Ford might well resent it. Writing is, ultimately, a job, even for those who, like me, have the luxury of writing what we want thanks to another source of income. And it is not a particularly hard job; for all our talk of taking risks, writing is nowhere near as hard or risky as commercial fishing, logging, or patrolling the country around Khandahar. It is, all in all, a pretty cushy gig.
And this is one of the things you find in Ford’s fiction: people are often defined by their work, and Ford respects hard work. Frank Bascombe’s job selling real estate in Independence Day and The Lay of the Land is cushy, and this forms part of his alienation, his disconnect from the hard and concrete. It is interesting that in the Guardian piece, Ford singles out taking tolls on the Jersey turnpike as a hard job, for this is Wade Arcenault’s job in The Sportswriter — and Bascombe sees Wade, sentimentally, as salt of the earth. Rock Springs, similarly, is full of people with hard jobs.
Somebody really ought to write an essay on that one of these days. But it will take somebody less lazy than me.
* I am aware that American whiskey is conventionally spelled with an “e”; in fact, I had this discussion with a certain copy editor of Combat Camera, and gave up because it wasn’t really clear that on some pages, Zane referred to Scotch, and on others, bourbon. Regardless, Dickel’s label is spelled in the manner of Scotch, and it is unavailable in Canada.
Well, I did not read in Ottawa — that was last week — but swung through town on the Alexander MacLeod world tour. And so this morning found me blearily listening to construction noise outside my hotel window. So much for sleeping in.
Yesterday’s event with Anchee Min, Emma Donoghue, and Alexander MacLeod was a great success. Thoroughly entertaining. A good discussion period, during which Anchee Min took over moderating duties from a bemused Michel Blouin (who sensibly went with the flow) to question Donoghue and MacLeod.
The only fly in the ointment was that MacLeod’s book sold out. You always want one copy left over.
Now, on to Kingston.
I came rolling into town the other night (town being Edmonton), down Whyte Avenue with Bob Dylan, Las Vegas NV 2001-08-24 as my soundtrack, only to see Megatunes plastered with signs proclaiming 75% off. Closing.
I first found Megatunes about five years ago, on a previous trip to Edmonton. I stopped in just to check it out and was stunned by their selection. I was playing a lot of bluegrass at the time, and I was hunting for Tony Rice. I don’t remember what I bought that day, but I know that I passed up a copy of The Pizza Tapes (Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice) to get it. I could have spent my way right out of a marriage that day, easily.
Last time I dropped in, earlier this year, the selection was much less impressive.
I suppose time wounds all heels. The march of progress never ceases. You don’t have to hunt down The Pizza Tapes anymore; you just go on iTunes and buy it when the mood strikes you. And I suppose that this is a good thing. This is, after all, how I got a copy.
But I sure am going to miss serendipity.
… 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.
… or perhaps you do. This evening, I find myself in a hotel in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I found the following artifact behind the armchair.
Someone, it appears, is enjoying travel more than I.
I have nothing more to say.
There’s a possibility you’ll actually see some updates on this blog over the next two weeks, as I’ll be physically separated from the puppy to travel to Edmonton and then to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I am dreading the latter, mostly because I’ve never been to Harrisburg before, haven’t seen the hotel they’ve put me in, and generally don’t like going to the States for work. Edmonton, whatever its shortcomings, is familiar.
In the spirit of road trips, even those conducted by aeroplane, go read this one-question interview with Rebecca Rosenblum, on the subject of road-trip stories.
I feel a pretty strong urge to comment on that post, having spun a road trip into about half a novel, but preventing (a) floor-peeing (b) furniture-chewing (c) ankle-biting has been a higher priority in recent days. I’ll probably get around to it this week.
I’ll be out of here at zero dark stupid tomorrow, bound for my least favorite place in the world.
There does happen to be a used bookstore in the neighborhood, which has coughed up some interesting finds in the past, but I won’t be getting there this trip. Besides, I have been placed under a book-buying moratorium because of the puppy.
So instead, I will contemplate the anonymity of hotel rooms and the extraordinary ability of the Montreal Canadiens to blow a two-goal lead in the last two minutes of the stinking game. And then lose the damn thing in the shootout.