Saturday, November 12, 2011

Steven Heighton

Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing
by Steven Heighton
ECW, 2011

Stealing from William Blake, W.H. Auden wrote (and abandoned) a slim book in 1939 that was eventually published and titled (after Blake's line) The Prolific and the Devourer.

I first came upon it in the late-1990s, shortly after a new paperback edition came out, and it dazzled me. One of my subterranean interests is learning about the moments of transition of individual artists. Think, for example, about Picasso and his different periods. Bob Dylan and the great variety of his career. Ditto: Shakespeare. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Margaret Atwood. Susan Sontag. Joan Didion. The Beatles (who did it all in seven years!).

The Prolific and the Devourer captures Auden on the cusp, or in the middle of, a great transition. WWII was imminent. Socialism was fading. Auden commitment to Christ beginning (renewing?). Full of aphorisms and deeply personal (internal) conflicts, The Prolific and the Devourer is a tremendous portrait of a deep soul undergoing change and grappling with what it means.

(According to Blake, the prolific are the creative, and the devourers the bureaucratic. Or as the back cover says: "In Auden's interpretation, the Prolific are those who produce: the farmer, the skilled worker, the scientist, the cook, the innkeeper, the doctor, the teacher, the athlete, the artist. The Devourers are the politicians who depend on what is already produced for their well being. The strongest and most bitter energies of the book are directed against the idea that art should serve a political cause.")

Thus, shortly later (or contemporaneously), Auden wrote September 1, 1939.

Oh, it's alright ma (I'm only bleeding).

Anyway, Steven Heighton's new book, Workbook: Memos and Dispatches on Writing, isn't like Auden's book. It doesn't capture an artist in transition. But it is also like Auden's book. It is a portrait of an artist. It synthesizes the energies of an engaged and deep-thinking writer into a slim volume that is highly readable, though dense, and well worth reading and contemplating.

At 74 pages (dedicated to John Lavery), the book had better be intense (I know you know what I mean); and it is.

Here's a direct quote from an interview with SH about the book:

OB: You also tackle the waning culture of professional literary criticism and the rising trend of writers reviewing one another in Workbook. Do you think it is possible for writers to review one another in an unbiased manner?

SH: Yes, so long as the writers in question aren’t friends or antagonists. If they are, an unbiased review is pretty much out of the question. That’s just human nature.

Of course, all reviews are biased on some level, but your question seems to be referring to personal, collegial, competitive biases, which are different from, say, intellectual or ideological ones.

OB: Workbook is refreshing in its focus on the writing process, rather than career-centric advice. How do you avoid getting too wrapped up in the business side of things?

SH: I’m not above that stuff, it’s just that the business side of things dismays me, so avoiding it is a breeze, like avoiding creamed corn, Coors Lite or reality TV shows. As for dispensing “career-centric” advice on the use of social networking to promote one’s work, avoiding that, too, comes easily, since my knowledge of the subject is nil: I don’t use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. In fact, they all sound really useful, but — as I argue in "Given to Inspiration,” one of the essays in Workbook — a writer needs to be cautious about overextending his or her already stretched attention span and “expending [more time] as a compliant, efficient functionary — earnest secretary to [one’s] own little career.”

OB: How different would Workbook have been if you wrote it ten years ago? Has your view on any of these subjects changed over the years?

SH: I doubt it would have been very different if I’d written it ten years ago. But fifteen or twenty? Here are a few lines (from “Memos to a Younger Self”) that would not have been in that earlier version — and their conjectural absence will give you an idea of the kind of material an earlier Workbook might have contained: “Squash the temptation to accentuate, poeticize, or wallow in the difficulties of the writing life, which are probably not much worse than the particular difficulties of other professions and trades. Take a tradesman’s practical approach to your development: quietly apprentice yourself to language and the craft, then start filling up your toolbox, item by item, year by year.” 

I quote this at length because I want to accentuate the notion of transition. Heighton, note, says that he doubts that what he has written would have been different 10 years ago. But 15 or 20? This is both encouraging and discouraging to me. I like artists that change a lot (Dylan) over artists who remain clustered around a stable identity (most others). (Though, let's argue; is this true? Is this fair?)

Part of me would would prefer him to say, My thoughts are always a-changing; I'm always alert to alternative interpretations and perspectives. But where is the grounding in that? Where is the argument? If literature is a lover's quarrel, what's the point? One must take a stand. All the world's a stage. Perform.

And Heighton, in this book, takes stands.

He is in favour, as the interview above indicates, of judicious (non-ideological) reviews (and I hope this counts as one).

"Complaint," he writes, "is not criticism."

He instructs us as follows:

Good reviews appreciate books on the level of execution, aesthetic integrity, and achievement. Mediocre reviewers judge books by the degree to which they "identify with" or like the main characters. Bad reviewers like only what they can imagine writing themselves and lash out at anything they can't understand or which threatens their vision.

This is commonsenseical, but it begs for rebuttal. What is "aesthetic integrity"? What is "achievement"? What, even, is "level of excecution"? The brevity of the book, on these questions, leaves a hungry wake.

Also, a literary polemic that takes a point of view and takes a shot at defining and defending a (type of) "literature" is not necessarily a "bad review" or unwelcome. The spectrum of literary critical achievement, I would argue, is broad and accommodating of multiple approaches. To be blunt, I have heard people disparage Carmine Starnino's criticism because it is "negative" without allowing any acknowledgement that he goes to pains to promote a particular critical framework. One can admire the sophistication of the framework (and the insights derived from the framework) without also buying into the framework hook, line and sinker.

I would argue (and I think Starnino would, too) that it is the clash of frameworks that is the point of critical dialogue. It is the point of criticism. The sophisticated reader acknowledges multiple frameworks. As in politics, the point ought to be the continuation of the dialogue; not the dominance or absolute commitment to any one point of view.

George W. Bush's "You're with us or you're against us" has no place in literature, or criticism. Or politics, for that matter.

But, now, where am I going with this? Is Heighton some kind of neo-critic? Is he exclusionary? Absolutist?

No, I don't think Heighton is a neo-critic or an absolutionist. He a believer in dreamscapes and roads less traveled. He believes in aiming high and warns of the danger of careerism.

He knows how to wear Al Purdy's shirt.

Let me say clearly, I enjoyed this book. I recommend it. I'm trying to define my argument with it, which is mild.

I started this review by mentioning my interest in artists in transition. I don't know if Heighton is in transition. I hope so. I wish he had told us more about his changes.

Change came, and is a-coming.

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