Monday, September 15, 2008

Literary snob, c'est moi

I was reading my University of Toronto alumni magazine (Fall 2008) in the office the other day, when I discovered myself quoted in a profile of novelist Andrew Pyper: "He seems more intent on following Grisham than Faulkner."

The quote isn't recent (I haven't read anything by Pyper in nearly a decade and haven't got anything against the man), but you see the dichotomy? On the one hand, millionaire; on the other, Nobel Prize.

I came home and told my wife about my discovery. "I was quoted in the U of T alumni magazine."

"That's great!" she said.

I said, "The article gave me as an example of a literary snob."

She thought this was hilarious. "You?!"

There were pots on the stove. The kids were demanding attention. There was no time to explain that years earlier, before we met, in another century, I cultivated pretentions, hung out in smokey bars, listened to poetry. Discussed Sartre. Or was it Pynchon? Or that prose magician of my own generation, David Foster Wallace?

I was not always the patient, nurturing, earth-father of a family man that you see before you.

[And she wasn't always the pot-minding, laundry-tending super mom who can sweep through six rooms in a single bound to attend to a screaming child either, she would like you to know.]

Yes, I reviewed books. Mea culpa. I had opinions.

What is all of this about?

At the Salon des Refuses launch last month, Dan Wells told an anecdote about Mavis Gallant. When asked by an editor if she would be interested in writing book reviews, she declined, saying: "Nothing good can come of it."

I kind of felt that way when I saw my words bounced back at me. Nothing good has come of them.

[For the record, I've never written anything about Pyper's novel The Trade Mission.]

The article continued:

Pyper can't stand such snobbery, the divisions of writers into people-pleasers and artists. To his mind, too many literary types look down on storytelling, while lauding ponderously written navel-gazing. "The so-called beach reads actually take a lot of work ... as much refinement as, if not more than, 500 pages about gazing out to sea and memories-of-my-grandmother."

Pyper continued: "I'm not a Virginia Woolf, doing spontaneous and poetic noodlings, letting the vibrations of the universe speak to me."

Is this article implying the Faulkner wrote ponderous navel gazing? Does the typical beach read have more refinement than The Lighthouse? Is being compared to John Grisham really all that bad? Who implied that writing a beach read was easy? Is the difficulty of the writing process even relevant?

These latter questions cluster around the subject of this blog (attempts to define literature; whatever that is). The article says Pyper believes too many literary types look down on storytelling. One of them is the editor of Pyper's short story collection, John Metcalf, who has made a career as a sharpened literary advocate for short stories written in prestine prose.

For 40 years Metcalf has been trying to introduce Canadian readers to elegance. In 1982, he told Geoff Hancock, "Critics in Canada don’t have a horror of elegance. They don’t even know its there." He quoted Evelyn Waugh’s Paris Review interview:
I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language. And with this I am obsessed. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.
In response to that quotation, Metcalf said:

Now, that sentence, ‘I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language’ is a statement that many today would have difficulty understanding. They’re so used to the idea of literature being about something or of using literature as something else – as sociology, history, psychology, what have you. The idea that it’s a verbal structure in the sense in which a lyric poem, for example, is a verbal structure, is an idea that’s largely foreign now to most readers of novels – even intelligent readers of novels (Kicking Against The Pricks, 10).
Here is the essence of Metcalf’s project: To inculcate into Canadian letters an aesthetic that takes pleasure in rhetoric. Short stories, he insists, are "performance," not telling of tales. What should concern refined readers is the arrangement of the words.

Is this snobbishness? Maybe so, but snobbishness has an evil opposite, which is a sure killer of literary culture. Populism.

Myself, I think good storytelling is just fine (and Metcalf undervalues it), but literature is more than storytelling. Metcalf's critiques are a welcome reminder of that.

This blog post echoes some of the conflicts at the heart of the Salon des Refuses. Taking sides isn't the point of this post. Keeping the discussion going, and hopefully deepening it, is.

1 comment:

Zachariah Wells said...

Hey, doesn't the Nobel come with a million bucks? Just saying.