Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Bald-Headed Hermit

This is one of the funnest books I've ever reviewed. It remains a fixture on my shelf.

[Originally appeared in The Danforth Review]


The Bald-Headed Hermit & The Artichoke: An Erotic Thesaurus
compiled by A.D. Peterkin
Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999

Where would we be without sex? Nonexistant, obviously. More importantly, however, we would be without many of the words which make everyday speech poetic and ripe with extra-linguistic possibilities.

A.D. Peterkin, therefore, has provided a most essential service by compiling a garden's full of literary delights, a listing of all the dirty words you've ever heard of - and dozens more you can add to your vocabulary.

The introduction even includes an invitation to send in your own submissions to be included in subsequent editions, since "erotic slang, like sexuality itself, is in constant, frenetic, celebratory evolution, limited not by technology or actual practice but by sheer imagination."

The first word in the collection is "Abdomen": "A muscular abdomen has become a sexual status symbol and a source of obsession for millions of body-conscious men and women today." Alternatives include: "abs, alvus, Aunt Nelly, bay window, bazoo, front porch and gizzard."

The last word in the collection is "Wife": "Many of the terms for wife listed here show a playful ambivalence about married life - i.e., struggle and strife, awful-wedded wife." Alternatives include: "ball and chain, best piece, better half, block and tackle, chief of staff, lawful blanket, old bubble and partner."

Randomly selected from the middle of the collection (honestly!) is "Masturbation": "The 'hidden vice' is no longer hidden, as this rather lengthy list reveals." Alternatives include: "abuse, arm breaker, auto pilot, bachelor's delight, bananas and cream, blue-vein shuffle, cheesy rollback, cunt-cuddling, finger painting and four sisters on Thumb Street."

Many of the definitions are illustrated with photographs, most of which appear to have been taken in the early 1900s, thus adding a somewhat archaic, lost-in-time tone to the book - which is at odds with the "celebratory" tone of the introduction - suggesting any discussion of sexuality needs to be displaced into "history" before it can be safe, codified, controlled.

But then, is this a book about sexuality, or a book about language, or a book about the marriage of the two? From the above list, the latter must be the choice, though other interpretations are possible - and perhaps more interesting. From Dr. Johnson's first English dictionary in the 18th century down to the current day, every listing of words and definitions includes an implied ideology. The Bald-Headed Hermit is no exception.

What is its ideology? It is something more than celebrating sexuality as normal, natural and complex. It is something more than revealing the abundance of human creativity in relation to sex words.

Upon closer inspection it is perhaps an argument about the central role sexuality plays as inspiration for creative acts.

Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar; at other times, however, a pen is more than just a pen. Words more than words. And the bedroom is the location of elaborate cultural productions....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beginnings & Endings

Ten years ago my first book, Thirteen Shades of Black & White (Turnstone Press, 1999) came out. Let's just say it wasn't a best seller.

I don't often get asked about it, but I did last night, because I met a CEGEP professor from Montreal who recently taught two of my stories to 17 year olds.

Apparently, they quite liked them. And they didn't like the Margaret Atwood story included in the same course pack.

Now Atwood is going to be the first Canadian to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, so I don't mean this as a slag at her. What the professor wanted to know was what else I thought her kids might like. What else her kids, often from working-class backgrounds, might relate to.

I told her I would think about it and get back to her.

Upon reflection, I wondered again why Canadian literature isn't able to connect with the teenage audience. Why it doesn't even try. Why the publishing industry creates "teen-themed" books that startle in their naivete. Especially when compared to the subway advertising we're bombarded with daily. Plus the mass marketing machines of popular movies, music, magazines, iPods, cell phones, etc. Teens live in complicated worlds. Why is teen fiction still so Archie and Jughead-like?

The best readers of Thirteen Shades of Black and White have been teenage girls. Which is not something I could ever have predicted.

For example, "Beginnings & Endings" is the title of the story taught at that CEGEP. It's about a teenage girl runaway who crosses paths with a 30-something man in a coffee shop. They get to know each other a little. They both come away from the experience a little bit changed. Yet nothing much dramatic happens. It's a story about a subtle meeting of two people who are each damaged, each moving cautiously and gently through life.

Of course, there is also sexual tension in the story. Are they going to come together physically? They each have the potential to take advantage of the other, but they don't.

"Things come together, then the come part." This line appears in my new book The Lizard (Chaudiere Books, 2009). How things start and end is one of my narrative obsessions, appearing in various forms in high percentage of my stories.

I asked the professor if the girls understood the story better than the boys.

"Yes," she said. "But they are more mature at that age."

I'm not sure I agree, but I won't dispute this. All of the students, the professor told me, responded strongly to my stories. Why did I think that was?

On the one hand, I have no idea. On the other, this is the natural audience for the book. In many ways, I wrote the book I wanted to have read when I was a teenager.

I'm now 41, and the stories are still strangely finding new readers.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fiction vs Fiction

[It would please me if readers took the title to refer to Spy vs Spy]

It makes me spinny, the discussion about the place of "popular fiction" within "Canadian literature."

Today I discovered an article William Deverell published in The National Post (September 14, 2009). The article concludes:

The Brits knight their genre writers, the Yanks lionize them, but the Canucks (or at least our persons of letters) continue to treat them like unwashed in-laws tracking mud into the parlour. So sad.

The article begins with a poke at Marian Engle, who once told Deverell:

she occasionally enjoyed the "guilty pleasure" of reading a mystery. That sums up a common notion: A properly brought up Canadian is expected to feel guilty about reading a book that claims no pretension but to entertain. (I didn't feel guilty about reading BEAR.)

Mud in the parlour? Guilt? No pretension but to entertain?

I don't know how to reconcile these thoughts. Why the "sadness" about not being knighted or lionized?

Deverell quotes Andrew Pyper:

I bristle at prejudice. It's a problem in Canada -- constipation about what we call literature, a teetotal-ling Presbyterian reflex, guard the gates against the barbarians. Someone told a lie about literature in Canada early on, someone who prefers books that are morally obvious, quiet, settled. It's a lie that became institutionalized.

At first, this statement couldn't have made less sense to me if it had been written in Greek.
Generally, literature is known for its complexities, often its moral ambiguities. Whereas one turns to "genre writing" for "a book that claims no pretension but to entertain." To mix media, I give you on the one hand, WAITING FOR GODOT. On the other, STAR WARS.

What can Pyper be talking about?

Earlier in his article Deverell notes that Margaret Atwood (our pre-eminent literary lioness) has been won a crime fiction award (as did Carol Shields), yet William Gibson (our pre-eminent literary entertainer) hasn't won a Giller or a Governor General's Award.

Actually, what Deverell writes is that "it is to Canada's utter shame that William Gibson, with his vast trophy case of awards, has not been honoured in this country with a Giller or a G.-G."

Guilt? Shame? Am I detecting a theme? Is this too morally obvious?

Deverell is pissed off, no doubt. And I can agree with his assertion that readers have often been "made to believe that Hugo and Dostoevsky, Maugham and Conrad had not written crime and spy novels."

And yet it is not (just) the entertainment value of these works that have kept them in the hands of readers through the decades.

Deverell's focus also shifts within his article. He begins asking about the state of Canadian literature, quickly reframes his focus on the state of "popular fiction" within Canadian literature, and by the time he gets to the Pyper quote he's arguing that Canadian literature generally is "the cutting edge of blandness."

Actually, that last quote is attributed to Stephen Marche. It is also preceded by a quote from Douglas Coupland: "There is a grimness to CanLit."

Against this backdrop, Pyper's quote makes sense. Crime fiction, we are led to conclude, isn't grim or bland. It is the cutting edge of the anti-Presbyterian.

(Though one suspects the Calvinists would be more impressed with popular fiction's business model, than the economic viability of, say, short story cycles....)

Perhaps crime fiction is even the source from whence true literature springs?

No, Deverell doesn't go that far. He moves on to take a swipe at MFA programs: "too many wannabes are keener in being a writer than in writing." He also calls Ann Beattie "once a best-selling novelist," implies that Beattie's status has sunk because of an "overcapacity" of books, and has not a word to say about the dramatic shifts in the literary marketplace in the past decade: from the rise of internet book selling, to the post-9/11 rise of non-fiction, to other dramatic changes in popular culture (iPods, etc.) that are affecting book-buying habits.

Then he concludes that the Canadian literary culture is "sad."

And all this was generated by a line of thought about books that claim "no pretension but to entertain."

I found this article two days after Linden MacIntyre won the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. His win was reported as a surprise. The "more literary" THE GOLDEN MEAN by Anabel Lyon had been the odds-on favourite.

Does this represent a shift in Canada’s "popular vs literary" fiction debate?

I hope so, if only for the futility it engenders in me.

I would like to see this polarization of categories avoided as much as possible. I don't think we need more "popular fiction" or more "literary fiction." Deverell’s article may, in fact, offer some pathways toward a readers’ covenant. We could certainly use fewer "grim" books. And "bland" and "morally obvious" is to be avoided. Even this literary snob would agree to terms of reference, such as that.

So what is this apparent disagreement about then? Is it more than just "spin"?


Long time readers of mine (okay, I don't have any) will notice that I have changed my tune over the past 20 years. I used to be firmly in the "literary" camp, but I am have drifted to "neutral."

"I am tired of literary log rolling," Douglas Glover told me once.

Me, too!

Also, I'm now married to someone with quite different reading tastes from mine. It was easy to stick to "first principals" when I wasn't married, when I didn't realize what such a negotiation all of life really is. Marriage is a great teacher (but I knew some of that stuff before...).

Which is another way of saying I'm not sure what Pyper means by "prejudice." We all have our assumptions, our tastes, our point of view. Prejudice, per se, isn't a problem. It's only a problem when prejudice is aligned with power and become discrimination.

Is popular fiction discriminated against? Arguably William Gibson deserves better. Deserves another trophy for his already heavily weighted trophy case.

On the other hand, recently I read on Lemon Hound a post (I can't find right now) that noted poetry is more than confession. How true, I remarked to myself.

Fiction is more than entertainment, I must conclude. My prejudice is deep within me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Death of the (Canadian) Novel

[First published in The Danforth Review, 2001]

The year would have been 1990. The Wall had just fallen. The Cold War was over. I was an undergraduate studying English at the University of Waterloo, and one of my professors told me the novel was dead. "It can’t be," I said. "I’m going to write one." I went to meet with him in his office. He called me a "reactionary." (Really!) Flustered, I went home and looked up that label in a dictionary: "one who supports movement in the direction of political conservatism or extreme rightism." Not me, I thought. I was just a confused kid trying to figure out how to write.

Later, I figured out that my professor proclaimed the novel dead he did not mean all novels, just the traditional, realist novel: the form usually associated with the Victorian Era of the mid- and late-19th century; the novels of Dickens, Thackery, and the Bront√ęs. I learned this when I found his argument in a slim volume of essays on Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (subsequently lost), which referred to Ronald Sukenick’s influential 1969 title, THE DEATH OF THE NOVEL. There, Sukenick argued that a new generation of American writers (including Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Gary Geddis) emerged in the post-WWII era. This new generation of writers was suspicious of contemporary politics and the ability of language to represent reality.

Sukenick argued, in other words, that the novel was dead because reality was dead. Reality was unknowable. There was no connection between writing and reality, and the realist novel – and its attendant assumptions – was a sham. The novel’s claim to be a form of reportage was bunk. Journalism was a black art. All narratives were subjective. Every utterance was infused with rhetorical ambiguities, assumptions about the speaker and the audience, and unavoidable political implications. Marx had uncovered hidden forces in the economy. Freud had uncovered hidden forces in the mind. McLuhan had revealed the hidden structure of communications media. Novelists responded to these changes by telling different kinds of stories. American novelist John Hawkes, for example, famously claimed he tried to write without concern for plot, character or setting.

This was a new, and fascinating, argument to me, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard about it before. As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, the strongest literary arguments I encountered had to do with the definition of Canadian literature. What was it? No one seemed to know, but whatever it was it was doing better than ever. It had produced a couple of millionaires. After "coming of age" in the 1960s, it had finally "matured."

In the month or so after my professor called me a reactionary, he confronted his class with the question: "What is writing?" Is it an imitation of dialogue, and therefore a lesser art (which was Plato’s opinion)? Or was it some other thing? A mirror to the world, for example. Or perhaps a kind of lamp, illuminating a transcendent reality, as the Romantics believed. On the other hand, perhaps writing was just a string of arbitrary symbols with no relation to anything but itself, which was the post-modernist position.

Again, the arguments intrigued me. They also undermined my confidence in Canadian literature’s "grown up" status. Northrop Frye had accused Canada’s writers of suffering from a "Garrison Mentality", of taking a defensive stance against the world’s larger artistic influences. But by 1990 it was out of fashion to call Canada a literary backwater. The 1960s had changed all that. The 1960s: when wave after wave of nationalist emotion was sweeping the land, and George Grant was lamenting the nation. For the first time, Canada had its own flag. Trudeau was about to burst on the scene. Then in 1967 (Pierre Burton’s "last good year"), Montreal’s Expo kicked the party into high gear. In the years that followed, the rising nationalist project attracted many literary stars of the era. Margaret Atwood’s SURVIVAL: A THEMATIC GUIDE TO CANADIAN LITERATURE dates from this period. So do the numerous university and college Canlit survey courses. The question "What is Canadian about Canadian literature?" dominated many people’s minds. To find their answers, most followed the thematic approach proposed by Atwood, herself a student of Frye. Canadian literature was born; the Garrision Mentality was defeated. Or so the story went.

The resulting irony, of course, is that at the same time as many Amerian novelists were giving up on realism – or at least challenging its outer boundaries – the strongest movement in Canadian letters was the push to define a nation. Post-modern approaches to literature could not aid in this effort; if fact, they tended to push in the opposite direction, questioning the very existence of reality itself. Thus the significance of post-modernism in Canadian letters has been significantly underplayed. What is Canadian about it? Nothing. Then how can it be of value to Canadian literature? The roots of this conflict continue today, and it has taken on a generational tone, as the younger generation of writers has abandoned the self-imposed duty of the older generation of writers to define and defend the nation. Writers as diverse as Michael Turner, Lynn Crosbie, Hal Niedzviecki, Natalie Caple, and Tony Burgess have brought a renewed sense of urgency to literary writing in Canada, and yet none have won any significant awards.

I started this essay with a story from my undergraduate days as a youngster trying to learn how to write. Let’s go back there for just a moment.

Like many young people, I thought of myself as a writer because I felt a compulsion to mark up blank pages. The decision to write was a recognition of an impulse inside: a recognition of an inner drive, like the drive for food, or sex. I pursued my compulsion the only way I knew how, writing confessional poetry at first, then made-up narratives, blissfully unaware of the aesthetic and political controversies I would soon confront. Such as being called a reactionary because I had named J.D. Salinger as someone whose writing I wanted to emulate. Like Holden Caulfield, the hero of Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, I wanted to attach myself to what was real in the world. I had no place for "phonies." I saw art as a means of transcending the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I had no sense of post-modernism or the writers I would soon come to admire: Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, and Terry Southern. I had just read Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD, and I was filled with Kerouac’s Whitmanesque desire to burn, burn, burn. The novel was dead? Impossible! But I soon learned that in the bi-polar culture war world of the early-1990s sharp lines were being drawn. To many – like my professor – if you questioned the skepticism of the post-modernist position, you stood opposed to the progressive evolution of the 20th century.

And the fact is, I’m sympathetic to this position, as outrageous it sounds (and as ineptly presented as it was by my professor). On the other hand, I believe literature’s greatest gift to the world is the diversity of its riches. The novel is not dead (not even the realistic novel; which will never die). In fact – surprise! – there is little new about post-modernism, except its new schools of jargon and ever finer intellectual abstractions. Everyone from Cervantes, to Spenser, to Laurence Sterne qualify for the pomo All-Star team. The narrative strategies often hailed as the invention of the late-20th century crop of innovative writers have been around for centuries. Milan Kundera makes this explicitly clear in his excellent book-length essay, THE ART OF THE NOVEL.

The history of the novel has more than one line.

Even in Canada.

Kundera connects himself and other pomo writers like Rushdie back through time to the Spanish great Cervantes. The other line connects from Jane Austen, through Charles Dickens and the other Victorians, to today’s realist apologists, perhaps most strongly exemplified by Tom Wolfe and the other New Journalists. Each line is legitimate, strong, vital, interesting, challenging, rich with narrative potential, and a solid breeding ground for rewarding reading experiences.

Why don’t we usually see the history of the novel in Canada this way? The interference of nationalism in the literary process is one reason. Another reason is that there are partisans on both sides who refuse to include the other (my professor is a perfect example). The extent to which we allow this to continue undermines our ability to both understand our literary heritage and forcefully encourage the most innovative of our up-and-comers.