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Archive for August, 2008

August 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Better Stories need to be hung on Salon Walls

 

Here is the full text of the article that ran over at Steven Beattie’s The Shakespeherean Rag on August 26, 2008 as part of a series on the Canadian Short Story: 

How ironic that John Metcalf, in his CNQ essay “Thinking about Penguins,” would call out Jane Urquhart’s inability to weigh relative merit; say of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories
“[it] flatly does not represent the best in Canadian short fiction”;
and accuse its editor of favouring friends at the expense of quality.

Ironic because after a blaze of bombast and insult (Urquhart
“trills,” and is variously called “appallingly arrogant,” ignorant,
naive, and dim about short-story development and history), Metcalf does
the very same thing, championing stories that are truly awful, and
criticizing those that offer genuine delight. It is he who has the
weight problem. Short of possible friendship, I can see no reason why
Hugh Hood’s gruelingly uninspired “Getting to Williamstown” deserves
even one syllable of praise. It stinks.

I have over the past several years enjoyed and respected Metcalf’s
stiff, name-naming critiques of various sacred Canadian literary cows.
Though I continue to enjoy his writing and agree with much of what he
has said in the past about work he dislikes, after reading examples
from authors he cites here as great, I must seriously question his
critical judgment. In one breath Metcalf accuses Urquhart of including
the inferior in her collection, in the next he lauds, and calls for the
inclusion of, stories that, in my opinion, are equally as poor. In
fact, none of the stories he calls worthy are as good as the Penguin
collection’s “Constance,” by Virgil Burnett.

***

The experience last week of reading a small selection of Canadian
short stories confirms in me both the belief that great writing is
exceedingly rare, and the suspicion that current discussion around
Urquhart’s book, though welcome, is largely hollow: akin to time spent
trying to decide each morning which pair of identically coloured,
equally drab grey wool socks to wear under the pant leg.
This Salon des Refusés exercise, laudable as it is in its intent to
critique what passes for excellence in the Canadian short story, fails
in its execution; fails to present alternatives that are discernibly
better than what is “officially” on display. In so doing it smacks of
the petty and personal.

***

After corresponding with Dan Wells, editor of CNQ, and
receiving an invitation from Steven Beattie to contribute to his Salon
des Refusés discussion, I decided, based on Metcalf’s aforementioned
essay, to read and compare six short stories, three from Urquhart’s
collection: “Ring Around October,” by Adrienne Poy (Clarkson),
“Constance,” by Virgil Burnett, “Dog Monday’s Vigil,” by Lucy Maud
Montgomery; three from the Salon des Refusés: “In Lower Town,” by
Norman Levine, “Meditations on Starch,” by Clark Blaise, “Getting to
Williamstown,” by Hugh Hood.

Much as I may have wished otherwise, of the six stories cited above I can only in clear conscience glow about one: “Constance.”

This story is far from what Metcalf calls an “awful” “[s]econd-hand
Gothic Gormenghast fantasy”; Burnett’s fable sings with clever
phraseology, good humour, and tongue-in-cheek magical realism. It’s
memorable, amusing, and charming; entertaining both for its style and
its story. Unlike the unfortunate, predictable, and paralyzingly dull
efforts of Poy and Hugh Hood, there is real pleasure to be experienced
in its reading. Here are some particularly choice cuts: “Except for the
fact of her marriage to an octogenarian, nothing about Constance
suggested that she was fashioned for a passionless life.” “He thought
nothing of keeping his opponents waiting fully armed and mounted in the
hot sun while he dawdled over his weapons or adjusted his elaborate
plumage.” “… Roscelin felt his resistance to her beauty weaken and
crumble, as if some temple in his brains had been exploded to dust by
the advent of a new and superior religion.” “… her crowded mind
rejected the quiet challenge of the page.” “Like greedy carp worrying
bread crusts in a pond, the mob closed around the prisoners …”

The story smiles wide with amusing description reminiscent of
Cervantes, and skips to a cheerful Márquezian cadence. In his haste to
condemn, the dour Metcalf seems to miss Burnett’s humorous intent,
demanding, “Give me … a break.” Well, “Constance” does provide a break.
A break from the tired meal served by Metcalf’s favoured writer, Hugh
Hood.

As for the rest of the stories, I agree that Adrienne Poy
(Clarkson)’s piece is the worst in a poor pack. It’s a confused mess, a
coming-of-age saga in which it isn’t quite clear if anyone comes; an
unbeautiful adolescent effort, by an aspiring twenty-two-year-old
writer, which unbelievably won some kind of Maclean’s magazine award. Why this frustratingly inept story made it into a book that purports to represent Canada’s best is beyond me.

Norman Levine’s “In Lower Town,” found in The New Quarterly
#107, is better. At least its prose is poetic, and there’s music in the
writing; but ultimately, despite Michael Winter’s inspired defence of
the piece in the same issue of the magazine, it remains a blank-faced
slog. Dull. Boring, even as it tempts us with sex, a topic evidently
used to make the point that immigrants can act differently outside
their own milieu. It’s poorly handled, with a spray of crude comments
about impotence and group sex left hanging incomplete in the air. The
message, if there is one, voices the immigrant’s desire to tear down
reminders of the past, to leave it behind and start new, in contrast
with their children’s nostalgia for the past, and a wish to preserve it.

Despite emotional appeal, music, and the skilled drawing of life in
early Bytown, this story remains dull and predictable. I found the
writing uninspired; which, according to Michael Winter, makes me a
reader in want of “vats of liver.” One who doesn’t “get” Levine’s
“sophisticated and extremely subtle mode of storytelling.” Though
Levine may “flirt with banality,” his effect, according to Winter,
apparently “attacks the reader below a conscious level.”

Winter’s essay is, in fact, better reading than any of the six short
stories under review. It offers an excellent summary of how to create
movement in fiction, and interesting insights into the techniques of
story writing, techniques which, though deftly applied, are overlooked
by most of Levine’s readers. The problem here is that while the
analysis is astute, it confers excellence where it is not warranted.
Levine may use a lot of good technique, but the end result is a failure
to hold interest. He doesn’t just “flirt” with banality, he engages it
in a full-blown affair. His effects aren’t just below the conscious
level, they are incomprehensibly buried.

Clark Blaise’s “Meditations on Starch,” though uneven, is probably
the best of the Refusés cited. Potatoes, Corn, and Rice serve to
trigger memories of mother, 1930s Europe, India, family, and Freud.
Blaise calls mashed “[b]utter-topped, cream-coloured bins of heroic
self-indulgence, inviting a finger-dip the way a full can of white
enamel compels a brush.” I like this. “Heroic” could go, but still, a
nice comparison. He then ruins it by going into overkill, describing
the first lick of a Dairy Queen cone, “the roughened vanilla from a
freshly opened tub, the drowning in concentrated carbohydrate where
fats and starches come together in snowy concupiscence.”

Capitalizing on the mystique of Kafka and Freud, Blaise’s flashbacks
to Prague and Germany hold my interest, despite the use of embarrassing
alliteration: “the germ of genius”; his mother the “Degas of Dresden”;
and odd reference to Freud as “a foolish little man, racist and
chauvinist, with bad science to justify it.” The story also contains
reflections on how “science and music and literature can be so
advanced, and do nothing to influence a political culture in its
infancy” and on “the imbalance of what we are capable of feeling,
thinking, and what we have inflicted.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s dog story jerks tears, and helps fulfill a
Penguin mandate that calls for representation of the entire twentieth
century’s Canadian short story output. As such I’d say it isn’t out of
place in Urquhart’s collection. Hugh Hood’s “Getting to Williamstown,”
regardless of what Metcalf has to say about religion, gems,
originality, and recognition, is so excruciatingly boring I’m afraid
that I can’t even bring myself to write about it, for fear of falling
asleep.

***

CNQ and TNQ should be commended for going after
Penguin as they have in their latest issues. This kind of exercise is
valuable. It has the potential to both help define and produce literary
excellence in Canada. It is a shame however, in this instance, that
better stories — better than the ones I read, at least — weren’t hung
on the walls of the Salon. Maybe next time.

For what it’s worth, here is my ranking of the stories by merit:

“Constance,” by Virgil Burnett

***

“Meditations on Starch,” by Clark Blaise
“In Lower Town,” by Norman Levine
“Dog Monday’s Vigil,” by Lucy Maud Montgomery
“Getting to Williamstown,” by Hugh Hood
“Ring Around October,” by Adrienne Poy (Clarkson)

Nigel Beale is a freelance writer/broadcaster who specializes in literary journalism. His work has appeared in, among other places, the Washington Post, the (Manchester) Guardian, Books in Canada and The Quarterly Conversation. In his role as host of The Biblio File
he has interviewed Nobel, Man Booker, IMPAC, and many other Award and
Prize winning authors; plus publishers, booksellers, editors, book
collectors, librarians, conservators, illustrators. He administers the
website Nota Bene Books.

August 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Penguin versus the Salon des Refusés : When Quality is similar, suspect the Extra-Literary

 

Just to reiterate a point made in my essay on Canadian short stories here, I think the Salon des Refuses concept is terrific, and I commend those who devoted it their thought,  effort and attention. My ‘hollow’ ‘personal’ and ‘petty’ criticisms (take this whichever way best suits your fancy) spring mainly from what I see as an inappropriate disparity between John Metcalf’s vehement, rather insulting attack on Jane Urquhart’s selection for Penguin, and the poverty of those stories he claims are so much richer. When such vitriol is spent trying to differentiate the quality of one item from another which is, for the most part, very similar, one cannot help but question intentions, and suspect extra-literary motivation.

August 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Urquhart, Penguin, Salon des Refusés and the dearth of good Canadian Short Stories

Photos by NB

Steven Beattie over at That Shakespeherian Rag recently invited me to contribute to the 31 Days of Short Stories series he’s running throughout the month of August. Here is the start of the essay I sent him. It’s about Jane Urquhart’s Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and the Salon Des Refusés of excluded stories featured in the latest issues of Canadian Notes and Queries (74) and The New Quarterly.

How ironic that John Metcalf in his CNQ essay Thinking about Penguins, would call out Jane Urquhart’s inability to weigh relative merit; say of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories "[it] flatly does not represent the best in Canadian short fiction;" and accuse its editor of favoring friends, at the expense of quality.

Ironic because after a blaze of bombast and insult (Urquhart ‘trills,’ and is variously called ‘appallingly arrogant,’ ignorant, naïve and dim about short story development and history), Metcalf does the very same thing, championing stories that are truly awful, and criticizing those that offer genuine delight. It is he who has the weight problem. Short of possible friendship, I can see no reason why Hugh Hood’s gruelingly uninspired Getting to Williamstown deserves even one syllable of praise. It stinks.

I have over the past several years enjoyed and respected Metcalf’s stiff, name-naming critiques of various sacred Canadian literary cows. Though I continue to enjoy his writing and agree with much of what he has said in the past about work he dislikes, after reading examples from authors he cites here as great, I must seriously question his critical judgment. In one breath Metcalf accuses Urquhart of including the inferior in her collection, in the next he lauds, and calls for the inclusion of stories that, in my opinion, are equally as poor. In fact, none of the stories he calls worthy are as good as the Penguin collection’s Constance by Virgil Burnett.

***

The experience last week of reading a small selection of Canadian short stories confirms in me both the belief that great writing is exceedingly rare, and the suspicion that current discussion around Urquhart’s book, though welcome, is largely hollow: akin to time spent trying to decide each morning which pair of identically coloured, equally drab grey wool socks to wear under the pant leg.

This Salon des Refuses exercise, laudable as it is in its intent to critique what passes for excellence in the Canadian short story, fails in its execution; fails to present alternatives that are discernibly better than what is ‘officially’ on display. In so doing it smacks of the petty and personal.

Read the rest at That Shakespeherian Rag.

August 28th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

How Scummy Book Reviewers Work: Walter Kirn on James Wood’s How Fiction Works

Ill intentioned conjecture and misrepresentation ferment throughout Walter Kirn’s sour mouthful of spit here in the New York Times. Some distasteful excerpts:

"The grosser elements of fiction – story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as "Huckleberry Finn," "On the Road" and Denis Johnson‘s "Jesus’ Son" – intrude not at all on Wood’s presentation, which proceeds in the steady, dark-gowned, unruffled manner of a high-court judge. Wood seems firm in his conviction that accounting for How Fiction Works needn’t involve bewildering digressions into Why Writers Write or Why Readers Read."

In the introduction to his book Wood states his purpose as trying to ask and answer some essential questions about the art of fiction, and notions of the real. By all means disagree with his answers, but don’t attack the work for not including things superfluous to its objectives.

How Fiction Works is an effective argument presented not in the manner of a judge, but in voice of a passionate barrister who postulates that great novels are so because they construct and contain great characters and use telling detail. This is where their power resides. This is what Wood’s book aims to account for. Vernacular, the anarchic or the vulgar, strong plot lines and settings, are not central because the argument is focused elsewhere: greatness involves getting character right; apt detail is what enlivens and persuades. Without these essentials, the rest is ineffectual noise.

"For him, that matter seems settled (Why Writers Write or Why Readers Read). They do it to perfect the union of Wood’s vaunted "artifice and verisimilitude," two virtues he treats as though carved on a stone tablet, and thereby to promote the cause of civilization; not, as is so frequently the case outside the leathery environs of the private library, to escape the constrictions of civilization, redraw its boundaries, decalcify its customs, or revive the writer’s or reader’s own spirits by dancing on its debris."

First of all Wood is attacked for avoiding the topic, then he is accused of having ideas on it that are ‘carved on a stone tablet’ and finally, based on erroneous conjecture, he’s flogged as a reactionary. This is twisted, pathetic criticism.

August 26th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Wicked Quotes from Martin Amis on his Birthday

from London Fields:

Describing the weather: …months, entire seasons sweeping by in less than thirty seconds. And great heat. The clouds sped, and not just laterally either. They seemed to bounce and romp and tumble. Yes, there was definitely something puppyish, something almost
faggy, going on up there, when like plays with like.

…the milky illicit light of a bedroom still in use during the hour before noon.

At eleven o’clock at night – at her place – love was no allegory.

…showing a cleavage you could park your bike in.

from The Information:

 I can’t give up novels." Why not?" Because…because then he would be left with experience, with untranslated and unmediated experience. Because then he would be left with life.

From Wikipedia:

Martin Amis (born August 25, 1949) is an English novelist, essayist and short story writer, the son of writer Kingsley Amis. His works include such novels as London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995). Amis’s raw material is what he sees as the absurdity of the postmodern condition with its grotesque caricatures. He has thus sometimes been portrayed as the undisputed master of what the New York Times has called "the new unpleasantness."[1]

The Guardian writes that "all his critics have noted what Kingsley Amis
complained of as a ‘terrible compulsive vividness in his style … that
constant demonstrating of his command of English’; and it’s true that
the Amis-ness of Amis will be recognisable in any piece before he
reaches his first full stop."

Happy Birthday Martin! 

 

August 25th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

The Importance of Objective Criteria by which to Measure Literary Merit

A fine post by Dan Green over at the Reading Experience containing these insightful remarks:

Literature is "literature" because we have inherited this concept as a way of identifying a certain kind of imaginative writing deemed worthy of consideration in and of itself as something separate from ordinary discourse. The term has always been somewhat unstable (or at least so capacious in meaning that it can accomodate changing tastes and assumptions), but never has it been so completely relative as to mean whatever the "individual" reader wants it to mean, which is to in effect render it meaningless. If we want to hold on to "literature" as a category of writing acknowledged by everyone (or everyone interested in this kind of writing), then we have to also acknowledge that its contents can’t be judged simply through "individual activity."

To suggest that a given poem, story, or novel is especially accomplished or disappointingly weak, according to articulatable standards, is not to rob the reader of his/her "subjective approach" but to provide a context against which the reader might measure his/her own response. To apply critical criteria derived from careful and extensive study of literary history and aesthetic precepts is not to belittle the reader’s own standards but to encourage the reader to engage with that history and those precepts and apply them as well–an activity that will always have a "subjective" character to it.

The experience of reading poems and novels does indeed consist of the reader’s fully attentive encounter with the text, but that encounter is first of all with the author’s aesthetic methods, his/her "making" of the text, in the same way we encounter a painter’s execution on the canvas or the composer’s shaping of sound. Those methods are always themselves informed by the author’s influences and familiarity with the past practices of the form, however, and thus we are returned to literature as a collective, and to that degree objective, endeavor.

And in the comments, this from Carolyn, apropos of my listing suggested criteria by which the Booker might be judged, and its hostile reception:

"…the only thing worse than the fallacy of one correct objective approach to art is the idea of a world in which people have given up trying to find it…

Maybe I just wish people would be a little less mean-spirited when discussing art. Among the literary avant-garde, the compulsion to impugn the intelligence or – worse – moral character of people who don’t care for this or that style seems kind of rampant."


I think it is precisely when no common ground, no objective measures are in place to discuss, compare and rank literary works, that the ugly side exposes itself. What else can be said after expression of the purely subjective?I don’t agree with you? I don’t think your methods of evaluation are valid…I don’t think evaluation or assignment of merit is necessary or appropriate? There is no such thing as ‘objective,’ and you’re an idiot to think so…or an idiot to be unaware of the powers that exert themselves over you…a foot soldier, a pawn in an ideological battle that you aren’t equipped to understand…either that or you’re a megalomaniac, an ideologue, a dictator, a fascist…and so the bullshit continues… 

August 25th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Mandalas and the Self

 

As mentioned recently, in the process of moving house I spent a fair amount of time looking through my father’s papers, some of which I’d like to share with readers of this blog. Colin created this personal mandala with a set of felt tipped pens. Not sure exactly what everything symbolizes, however, I do think his effort is a thing of beauty. I love the way he puts shine to the oranges and the red ovals. Hundreds of pointillist-like dots went into the making of this work of art. 

"Jung used the Hindu word mandala (magic circle) to designate a structure of this order (a circle divided into four, representing the Self) which is a symbolic representation of the ‘nuclear atom’  of the human psyche – whose essence we do not know…In Eastern civilizations similar pictures are used to consolidate the inner being, or to enable one to plunge into deep meditation. The contemplation of the mandala is meant to bring an inner peace, a feeling that life again has found its meaning and order." 

from Man and his Symbols

August 24th, 2008 • Posted in On Collecting

‘Found Objects” in Books

Each August I spend time with my daughters at Red Pine Camp on Golden Lake. The girls love it, as do I. Hugely relaxing, and fun to catch up with friends who return each year.  And then there’s the Golden Lake Bookstore.

 

Owner/author Jenifer McVaugh has crafted quite the gig. Six months a year minding the shop, the other six down in Mexico. This year she offered up a real treat.

 

Jenifer has been collecting material found in books she has acquired for her business since 1986. Here are a few ‘finds’ found in her five bounty-filled binders: 

 

An un-cashed insurance cheque for $1158.50; an Air France flight itinerary from the 1940s, 

 

Pressed leaves, of course, 

 

Condoms from ACT UP

 

A note from a nun renouncing her faith at age 70. 

 

Seeds of sundry kinds

 

And perhaps most intriguing of all: an agreement to keep silent about ‘an incident which took place upon the night of xxx of which information would prove embaresing (sic) to the character of xxx.’  What a great kick start for a short story.



There’s definitely fodder here for a very interesting exhibition. Perhaps Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa might be interested…

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 24th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Sunday Salon: Puzzle Grass as Monuments of Unageing Intellect

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

from Yeat’s Sailing to Byzantium

 

August 15th, 2008 • Posted in Authors and Books

Rockin’ Poetry: Wouldn’t it be great if…

 

 Photo from here.

…young Rockers loved great poetry enough to compose music to it…this might just address the concerns of those who lament the passing of learning poetry by heart. Ted Hughes writes in his Letters about how beneficial such memorizing was to his grasping of various new languages. Others have written of how life enriching it is to be able to carry beautiful lines around in their heads as constant companions.

I raise the rockers because last night I took one of my daughters to see Metro Station, Good Charlotte and Boys Like Girls in Montreal. They performed at Metropolis: great venue for watching bands close up. Production values were good. Metro Station was energetic and exciting. The other bands as far as I could tell were self indulgent airheads whose music lacked  melody, complexity, and any genuine emotion. One thing that struck me about the evening: it seemed like every member of the audience knew all the lyrics to every song these bands played. The moment the lead singers stopped and thrust their microphones out toward this undulating mass of cellphone-waving-16 year olds, the words to their songs came rushing back to them, without the loss of even so much as a syllable. 

These kids know how to memorize. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could feed their brains with something really good to dance to.

(Here endeth the old fart’s sermon).