Sunday, September 28, 2008
Over at the Thin Air blog, HOT AIR, there's a short and sweet interview with Lorna Jackson about Cold-cocked, Flirt, reading, writing and interviews in general. Another opportunity to plug one of the most enjoyably dark and off-the-wall collections we've had a chance to be part of at Biblioasis (Flirt: The Interviews), and a very fine writer. Flirt should still be available on any bookstore shelf worthy of the name in the country; Cold-cocked may not be quite as easy to find, but as hockey season starts again -- spent Thursday eve watching the Windsor Spitfires, ranked number one at the moment in the country, demolish the Sarnia Sting, with Emerson, and I expect there's a lot more OHL events in our future -- this is certainly worth digging up if you failed to last season.
The interview with Lorna can be found here:
Saturday, September 27, 2008
I know many Thirsty readers don't pay much attention to book reviews any longer. We have reasons to be suspect of them; we're wearily cynical, too many times burned. Even as a publisher and editor, my own distrust of them has robbed some of the joy I feel when a book I've published and loved gets such favourable attention. But that wouldn't be fair to this one: rarely does a first book of short stories get such universal and far-ranging praise (with some of it yet to come). Caroline Adderson has told me that she thinks this book would be a prize-contender (if prizes were not such a crapshoot); John Metcalf, who co-edited ONCE alongside Leon Rooke, has suggested Rebecca among the top handful of writers he has ever worked with. (Think about that: over 40 years he's worked with everyone from Adderson to Winter (both Kathleen and Michael), with some Gallants and Heightons and Munros and Smiths clogging up the centre of that list. So that alone is pretty high praise, and reason alone to part with the 19.95 this particularly under-priced collection costs.)
This is not Bertelsman-lucre market manipulation; Biblioasis has no lucre (though we're accepting donations, and if things continue the way they have been will likely be found quite soon on a street corner near you), and not much more ability to influence and manipulate. What we're seeing here is smart people responding enthusiastically to an important young writer at the start of her career. So: go read her. Go buy her book: drink three pints less this weekend if you must and give your money to a worthy bookseller near you. Borrow her book from a library or a friend. Test-drive her: she has fiction -- the brilliant Massacre Day -- in this month's Maissonneuve, there's three stories in the current New Quarterly, a story published on the CNQ website, another -- not in the collection -- on Emily Schultz's story website Joyland, another coming out in Rampike, and more I almost certainly don't know about. She's everywhere right now, because she's just that good. (She also won that little in-house thing called the Metcalf-Rooke Award. The previous two winners, Patricia Young and Kathleen Winter, were pretty fine as well, evidence that John and Leon know what they are talking about.)
Anyway: the review.
Once is enough
September 27, 2008
By Rebecca Rosenblum
Biblioasis, 210 pages, $19.95
No less a devoted book nurturer and legendary curmudgeon than John Metcalf has penned (he's known for penning, with bottled ink) the following blurb for Rebecca Rosenblum's fictional debut: "Fiercely original, her stories force us into a new experiencing of life ... her work dazzles me." To still be dazzled, after half a lifetime dispensing tough love in the nursery of Canadian fiction, is the sort of consummation devoutly wished by every lit-crit toiler.
Knowing Metcalf's taste - discerning, cerebral, wildly unpredictable - I plunged into Once with a somewhat wary eagerness. In the opening story, ContEd, Isobel escapes her incorrigible ex in Montreal for a waitressing job in Toronto. Squeezing in a nighttime tax course, she ponders the geeky charms of her instructor. Will he serve for a rebound?
Plot is the least of this intricate story. What matters, tickling the sense memory, is the prickling pleasure of Isobel's tired feet freed to the air at bedtime; the sugary baklava stuck to its crumpled carton; the florid, chewing face of the tax teacher as he negotiates a wad of honey and nuts.
Rosenblum builds and subtly rounds off a story arc, but the sustaining life humming all through this tale comes straight from the sensory input. In Isobel's word-picture ramble, Rosenblum's meanings arrive on the reader's intuitions. Her art remains veiled. The quotidian is rarely so riveting.
Chilly Girl has the same fix on external reality, the same whimsy-tinged take on its central character's inner life. A girl goes to a party at a pristine icebox of a condo, where a tanned man in linen lends her his socks before raising her temperature on the dance floor. Oddly, in only one short sentence do we enter the thoughts of a second character, and a quite minor one. It felt like a misstep, but one of the charms of this writing is the sense that each detail is a clue to larger meanings.
Solidarity/Who is Christine? is less about Christine than about the dangerous magnetic pull she exerts on young Lynn. A driver's licence offers Lynn, at 16, the first solid experience of "being singular." The familiar coming-of-age content is borne along on Rosenblum's uniquely shimmering form. For me, there are mild echoes of 2003 Booker winner DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, minus the author's intent to dazzle. Rosenblum's prose feels refreshingly apart from intent. Her characters unfold as they will, or as they chance to.
In Massacre Day, a burned-out teacher sleeps in, missing her morning class. On her kitchen TV, she watches the news of a faraway school massacre: "the death-toll, then the five-day forecast. She had no one to tell, so she didn't know how she felt." Gradually, we get inside her response. Her numbness, her immobilizing sense of inadequacy, seem a reasonable way to feel. Then we witness her acknowledgment of what's underneath - and it's chilling.
The House on Elsbeth presents two women and a man who share an intimate threesome in a rental house. A few oddities in this tale feel inadvertent, such as being told that "lightning rents the world." Lightning rends, but I don't see how it can rent, even in a farfetched poetical sense. It also hard to accept that when a lightning strike rends the air perhaps 20 feet from our trio, killing or injuring their neighbour, none exhibits any sign of physical or mental trauma in the ensuing seconds, but only respectful curiosity. And why does this lightning strike "into the corn," when there is no mention of corn anywhere else in the story?
Happily, the lapses only slightly distract from the tale's merits, one of which is the narrative voice: a first-person plural "we" that shifts smoothly into third-person reportage from the inner lives of the three players, in an eerie kind of empathetic oneness. We never know which "we" is doing the telling.
It's a fascinating tease from a writer who's intent on probing the mysteries of self and other through the related mysteries of fiction. Metcalf has it right. Rosenblum's work impels us to a fresh experiencing of life.
Friday, September 26, 2008
from somewhere else on Hot Air, this comment:
But if there’s one thing you should take from this blog post, savvy readers, it’s that you must immediately seek out Rebecca Rosenblum and Pasha Malla. Both authors were new to my consciousness and you can trust that I will be following their careers.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
A second early review of the Idler's Glossary, this one in Toro:
A book to cosy up to this fall, and to locate strategically for choice toilet reading, is Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell's compact but chock full The Idler's Glossary. Think of it as a dictionary for the manifold varieties of sloth we humans have invented, enjoy, and in many instances deride. It includes a somewhat whimsical essay by philosopher Mark Kingwell – “Idling Toward Heaven: The Last Defence You Will Ever Need” – and Glenn's glossary proper, a witty though incomplete compendium of idler-specific words and phrases, everything from “couch potato” and “lotus-eater” to more obscure terms like “sinecurist”:
“For as long as bureaucracies have existed, there have been people eager to obtain offices and positions that require little or no work. However, although a sinecure is preferable (for obvious reasons) to a job that’s demanding, a sinecurist is a bird in a gilded cage: She may become too complacent to fly, even if the cage door is left open.” (p. 102).
I call this dictionary “incomplete” because Glenn has left out one of the more colourful and perhaps even popular terms for sloth: Dog-fucking. If you’ve ever worked a unionized job, you’ve likely met a few dog-fuckers, or have even fucked the dog yourself. Nevertheless despite the glaring (to me) omission, I found The Idler’s Glossary funny, informative, and not out of place on any bookshelf, or in any bathroom.
Pasha Malla, Rebecca Rosenblum and (I believe) Charlene Diehl at Thin Air last eve. Photo courtesy of Ariel Gordon. I spoke with Ariel this morn, and she said the event went swimmingly!
By Nigel Beale. Yes, the very same. And he likes us! He really likes us! Or, at least, he likes Mark's/Josh's/Seth's Idler's Glossary.
Here's a taste:
Mark Kingwell’s splendidly informative, substantial introductory essay tells us much about the multifarious benefits that accrue to those who idle; it alone makes The Idler’s Glossary worth reading.No respite, we are told, can be had from boredom just by exciting a new desire to replace the absent one. The solution, quite simply, lies in idling. Its genius resides not, however, in the avoidance of work — for the idler isn’t, contrary to what you may think, lazy — but rather in the construction of a value system entirely independent of work.
The whole review can be found here:
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The title of your new memoir is The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. I wonder if you could start by explaining this a bit, with perhaps particular emphasis paid to your rather interesting subtitle?
For a few months the manuscript had another title, and only three sections instead of four. I thought it was finished. When I was surprised by the events, and then the writing, of the last section, I realized that its title, "The Lily Pond", had to be the title of the whole book, since it encapsulates so many of the themes and images explored throughout. But a book just called "The Lily Pond" could be mistaken for a manual on aquatic gardening or a study of Monet--hence the subtitle. It came from me asking myself a simple question: What is the book about? What are its main and recurrent elements? It's about madness, an old-fashioned term which I usually prefer to the more modern "bipolar disorder". Madness covers a huge range of extreme states: from craziness/mental illness to fiery creative passion to overmastering love and obsession. I think this scope makes it a more humane term, but also a more accurate one. The book is also about memory. This might be considered redundant: isn't a memoir by definition about memory? No. All memoirs draw on memory, but this one actively explores how memory may be lost or damaged (through illness and its treatments), how and to what extent it may be recovered, and how a coherent life story may be maintained even in the absence of reliable memory. The book is also about myth(s). It draws on world mythologies to make some of its points, but in a broader sense, it questions the daily myths of illness and wellness by which we know ourselves and others. How do these myths damage, limit, nourish, reveal? Can they be changed? Lastly, it is a story of metamorphosis: of altered states wrought by illness and confusion, but also by recovery and understanding. It is about the paradox of accepting radical ongoing transformation as the foundation of life and sanity.
Plus, I like the alliteration of those five "M"s. They sound like murmuring.
I like your use of madness as well. It seems more fitting, human, less clinical. Madness' shape more diaphanous, perhaps, than bi-polar or schizophrenic, more human. More true to life. There's nothing contained about it. It also seems to me that this is a book, in some ways, you have been working toward for quite a while. Your other books -- some of your stories, your poetry, perhaps most especially your first novel, The Syllabus -- have grappled with the subjects of madness, of memory (and forgetting), of metamorphosis. Especially M., the hero of The Syllabus. You describe memory in The Lily Pond as a Turner fogscape. Can you briefly explain?
Well, that comparison comes specifically from "Two Rooms", the first section of the book, where the period I am trying to remember is the eighteen months I spent on and off (mostly on) a psychiatric ward...when accurate recall was swamped by a perfect storm of memory disruptors: multiple electroshock treatments, phenothiazines and other powerful drugs, and the confusions and distortions of psychosis itself. So the snippets that come back to me are often like those tantalizing gleams in Turner's veils of fog. Sometimes, if I concentrate, more details will come and the object or face, a scene, will solidify and make more sense. And this also happens looking at Turner's paintings. This doesn't mean, though, that the glimpses of things could be anything, are random. I have a sense--a memory trace, I assume--of what is really there, and it has weight, a "rightness" on those occasions when I find it. For example, a year ago, my sister told me of visiting me in the hospital at a time when I was catatonic, just lying on my bed unmoving day after day. And fleeting images of her then came back to me, bits of her face, hands, the hospital wall behind her...and I trusted these. Partly because they had that weight I'm speaking of, a mass that felt like more than fancy...pieces actually dredged up from something sunken...but also because they stayed as bits, fleeting fragments. I think a wish-fulfillment fantasy would have bloomed more completely. This was one of the worst times, memory-wise. Nearly obliterative for those years, but also very destructive of my life up till then, as if a retroactive fog had swallowed much of the past. And then the memory troubles continued forward too, with fog and "gap-outs", as I call them, especially during times of illness. In recent years I have felt much clearer and more certain about remembering my life. Relatively speaking; when I compare notes with other people, they express surprise at how places I've been, books I've read, etc. could vanish so completely. But I've learned a lot of tricks that help: checks and double-checks, ways of reinforcement, and also habits of concentration and reflection to lay down and maintain a stronger memory track. And I've learned to live with the holes. Turner's fog can be unsettling, disquieting...but it also has its gentle and allusive aspect, a richness of suggestion. Whereas easy-to-see could also mean easy-to-dismiss, which is another kind of forgetting. I'm sorry: you asked for "briefly" and this hasn't been. Memory is a raw nerve.
Can you say a few words about the writing of the book?
The story of the book's genesis is told in the book's third section, "Leavetaking", where, with the help of a gifted psychiatrist, I follow, in an almost detective-like fashion, a number of mysterious clues and events that lead me to an answer which is also a course of action: telling my own story, this memoir, for the first time.
One of the key precipitating events, described in the book, was being asked to speak about my life as a writer for a university group. In preparing that talk, I realized that I had not told, even to myself, my own story—or this important aspect of it—in explicit and detailed terms. In my poems and fiction I had alluded to it constantly and tried to illuminate it from various angles. But I had never consciously tried to explore at length, in writing, the meaning for me of my decades of mental illness. This preliminary thinking led me into areas of exploration that were unusable for a short talk to a few strangers but which proved to be the beginnings of this manuscript.
After writing the first three-quarters of it, I sent it to five friends, less to get their judgement on its literary merits than to see if it spoke to them as a "human" story they could relate to. Their enthusiastic and encouraging responses led me to continue the project, eventually writing the last section about my wife's recently-diagnosed illness and, in slow steps, to consider and finally say yes to Dan Wells's offer to publish the book.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
The current issue of Q&Q has a review of Mike Barnes's just released memoir of 30 years of bi-polar disorder, The Lily Pond. It's a thoughtful review by Mark Callanan, someone I'd expect no less of. I've not yet seen the new Q&Q yet, having let me subscription lapse, though a thoughtful person, knowing it would warm my heart, sent it along last eve. So I'll copy it below.
I think this book by Mike an important and brave one. Having a tendency to wallow in the dark waters a touch myself, I've read a lot of these memoirs, and I think it ranks up there with the best of them. This is more Styron than Jamieson, offering no pat solutions or self-congratulatory survivalisms; it is, as Callanan points out, as much as anything an act of recollection, reconstruction, remembering. It's a memoir about memory as much as anything else: despite appearances to the contrary, most are not. It is about the proverbial power of art, the narrative-life-line of mythology.
This spring, when we were putting the finishing editorial touches on The Lily Pond, we received word through our sales manager that if we changed the title to include a direct reference to bi-polar disorder we might be able to swing the all-important table placement at Indigo. I talked this over with mike, who, though leaving it to me, made a very strong case why we should not do so; he'd rather, he argued, stick to the more diaphanous concept of madness. It's a more human, less clinical term. Madness, with all of its varied associations, positive and negative, more closely and humanely captures a life lived with mental illness, with its consequences for the sufferer, the ones who care for him, and those he cares for.
So though The Lily Pond may not be facing you on a table when you enter the local Indigo, it will be on the bookshelves there, and on any other bookstore shelf worthy of the name. So, please, go search it out. In a season that seems swamped with memoirs and novels dealing with bi-polar disorder and mental illness, I think this will be one of the most affecting and important.
The Q&Q review:
Though "oblivion, and states approaching it" may, as Mike Barnes writes in the first of four lengthy essays that make up The Lily Pond, "slide away most determinedly from the very conscious act of writing," they can be apprehended by those diligent (or obsessive) enough to attempt to capture them. Barnes's own protracted state of near-oblivion–some 30 years of fighting bipolar affective disorder, originally misdiagnosed as schizophrenia–is the subject of this, his seventh book.
Barnes, a novelist and short story writer as well as a poet, is adept at moving between the purely narrative–the what and how of his own mental decline (which includes, among other low points, a particularly gruesome suicide attempt)–and the intense imagery of his prose, which is both poetically compelling and evocative of the physical world. The neuroleptic drug Mellaril, for instance, makes his arms swell up into "clubs. Bland bats: long, smooth, round, heavy." Pulling his jeans over swollen thighs means "pushing as if at cart wheels stuck in mud."
Famous artworks provide another means for Barnes to express the workings of his mind. A deeply depressive state is a Turner painting "with walls of solid-seeming whitish or grayish vapor shifting sluggishly, and only the vaguest hint here and there...of what might be a bridge, boat, sun." The "implacable" hunters of Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow embody the author's own figurative trek. Likewise, the numerous underworld narratives of Greek myth inform Barnes's struggle against oblivion–they are a powerful current that runs, like the river Styx, throughout this memoir.
Given Barnes's "general amnesia"–likely the cumulative effect of electroconvulsive therapy, years of debilitating drug courses, and mental illness–The Lily Pond is the ultimate act of recollection. Barnes has imposed continuity on the fragments of his life, and done so in a way that is neither over-determined nor self-satisfied. Perhaps his greatest feat of perception is in recognizing that his struggle is ongoing: he has not been plucked from the underworld river; he has simply discovered–by torturous process of trial and error–how to tread water.
Over at Rose-coloured, Rebecca Rosenblum has some interesting thoughts on public reading. We launched ONCE a week ago Monday at a packed house at the Gladstone, in what was perhaps Biblioasis's most successful launch-to-date. Do to my week-long sojourn in Banff, I have not yet got anything about it up, but will try to rectify that later today. For now, I thought I'd pass over the podium to Rebecca, who will be appearing a couple times this week at Winnipeg's Thin Air Writer's Festival. If you are a Winnipeger, or in the area, please go check her out. I've only heard her read once, but I actually thought that she was pretty darn good.
So: over to Rebecca:
If Rose-coloured is of any practical use, it might be to writers who are or soon will be dealing with stuff like the stuff I'm dealing with. If I can help one writer somewhere not go insane trying to proofread his or her manuscript, my work is probably done. And so, to further that project, I'd like to offer my thoughts on the latest thing I'm trying not to go insane about, which is public readings.
I'm hardly an expert--I counted this morning in the shower and I've done a grand total of seven readings. If you've been to any of them, you know that I am not the world's best reader, but if you've to *several* of them, you know I'm getting better. In addition to those seven incidents, I count as education my considerable time as *audience* for readings, as well as all the time I spend standing on a chair (it helps!) practicing. So maybe, single-didget experience not withstanding, I have a little advice to offer.
The rest can be found here: rebecca-rosenblum.blogspot.com/2008/09/writers-reading.html
Monday, September 22, 2008
Over at CultureCatch there's what I believe is the first review of Bruce Jay Friedman's Three Balconies. There will be many more: Globe, N.Y. Times, Boston Globe, Forward, the Believer, elsewhere. Though this one is a good start.
Let’s Hear It for the Writing GuySeptember 11, 2008 - 17:11 — Ken Krimstein
Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella
by Bruce Jay Friedman (Biblioasis)
Time was serious writers wrote to entertain audiences. Not entertain in the “anything for a laugh” style we’re so accustomed to, but to move, to captivate, to probe, to scare, to inspire, to confuse. From Dickens to Tolstoy to Chandler to O’Connor to Lardner to Dahl to, even, Hemingway, these artists used stories and storytelling to get to people. These days movies, and mostly crappy movies, have taken over this role. Short stories, at least “literary stories,” have become the province of minute movements, domestic dramas often featuring despondent creative writing professors who write literary short stories. Entertaining? Perhaps to a select group of members of the MLA. Of course some masters such as T. C. Boyle can still pop off a whiz-bang, and Stuart Dybek probes inner realms of consciousness, but overall, to be respected, you gotta be boring. Boring.
Into this somber salon bursts Bruce Jay Friedman. Never one for the pieties of literary minimalism, Friedman simply writes like a bastard. I mean this in the best sense. He tells stories, with a unique point of view, that give the reader, no, that take the reader, on a ride. Like a boxer, Friedman assaults you, even when he’s being quiet. His words dance, graze, and sometimes pummel, and when they connect, they do so by planting a smile (more often a smirk) on your lips.
I’ll be blunt. These stories are FUN to read. Is that bad? Well, is Pink Floyd bad because they’re fun to listen to, or is Federer bad because he’s fun to watch?
I’ll let you answer that one.
Friedman came up in an era of superstars, especially in his designated niche. Roth, Bellow, Malamud - big hitters. Despite writing a couple of seminal (pun intended) and critically acclaimed Jewish American Guilt novels, Friedman has possibly suffered because he’s too good of a writer, too flexible, too able to tell stories in any genre. But this is a guy (and if ever there was a writer who deserved that tag, it’s BJF) who grew up editing men’s adventure magazines. A mainstay of Playboy and the glory days of Esquire and Elaine’s, his Harry Towns character is one of the great (to use another Friedmanism) American literary heroes. (Or is he an anti-hero?) Towns, who figures in a few stories in Friedman’s latest delectable collection, is a too honest, too guilty, too sweet, too nasty creature. He is ruled by his ex-wife, his child, and his libido. He could not be a woman. He could only be a certain kind of American man at a certain time, and that’s another way of saying, Towns is so expertly observed and drawn that he is all of us – everyman.
To get back to, or rather, to get to Friedman’s latest book, Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella, it’s a delight. As befits Friedman’s punchy persona, what he calls a novella, his The Great Beau Levyne, would be considered a vignette in a collection by many other contemporary short story writers. No matter. The tale, a rare foray into first person, and with a position of pride at the end of the book, captures a life. Its scope is grand, and it delivers. Many of the other stories in the collection touch on, and master, tactics and techniques ranging from moderately surreal to downright hilarious to Roald Dahlian irony. These are like O’Henry, or Maupassant, or Saki: short, sharp, shocks. Enjoyable, but not confections.
For example, Joined at the Hip is the kind of story Alfred Hitchcock or an HBO-ready version of Rod Serling would have loved to put on their shows. The dark, twisted stinger at the end is not contrived, a difficult task to pull off for that kind of surprise ending story. Instead, the zinger Friedman so expertly builds to resonates like a fable from Aesop. Makes you wonder how Friedman would tackle horror, or an essay or two, or a full-fledged novel.
Not every track in Three Balconies may be to your taste, or a masterpiece. But even on Sgt. Pepper’s, not every song is A Day in the Life. But the whole thing is FUN, and not too shabby when it comes to Art (with a cap “a”) either.
Go ahead, enjoy. It won’t kill you. - Ken Krimstein
Sunday, September 14, 2008
There's another interview with Rebecca Rosenblum over at the blog Pickle Me This that can be found here:
Also, a reminder, that we'll be launching Rebecca's ONCE tomorrow eve in Toronto at the Gladstone Hotel, John Metcalf and Leon Rooke presiding. So, please: come on out!
If you want a copy of the Salon, I suggest you go pick the issues up on the newstand as soon as possible. Indications are both issues will soon be sold out. And though I looked into reprinting it, I don't think it is financially justifiable at this point.
So, the Globe Back Pages, where Martin Levin asked John Metcalf to write on the Salon controversy. I expect we'll see some other Symposium style reaction to this essay on the same page a few weeks hence. Though perhaps not: no one on the Penguin side of things has reacted "officially" or "on the record" thus far (beyond a short initial interview with the anthology editor in Q&Q), and they may continue to choose not to.
I came across a blog yesterday where the writer reviews three collections by Salon writers, at least one of which he'd never read before. A fourth will follow soon. There's been additional evidence others are picking up collections by the Salonists, that this has succeeded in helping people discover these writers for the first time (For my part, Heather Birrell's Impossible to Die in Your Dreams' was a revelation, and I'll be reading more of her very, very soon). Which was the point of all this, in the end. So, whatever else may be said about the Salon as an experiment (and quite a bit has been, both for and against): mission accomplished.
The roar of the canon
It's the controversy that won't die. Jane Urquhart's Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories has generated an uproar in the literary community, not merely over who's excluded (no anthology could contain them all), but, as John Metcalf argues, over what sorts of fiction should matter
September 13, 2008
The current issues of two literary journals, The New Quarterly and CNQ (Canadian Notes and Queries), offer 20 short stories by 20 writers left out of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Both magazines title their issues The Salon des Refusés, in reference to the salon in 1863 that excluded, among other artists, Manet, Fantin-Latour, Pissarro and Whistler. The magazine editors felt that the Penguin anthology presented a distorted view of Canadian achievement in the genre. The Penguin anthology is important because of the cachet attaching to the imprint; the very name Penguin suggests authority, confers significance. This anthology presents Canada to the world; by this anthology, our achievement will be judged. It is a sorry book.
Urquhart, in her introduction, confesses that she had doubts about her qualifications for the job, and further confesses that she was not familiar with Canadian stories, her preferred reading having been novels. It shows. Among the many omissions are Hugh Hood, Norman Levine and Clark Blaise. To leave them out of a Penguin presentation is like omitting Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner from an overview of U.S. short fiction.
Not only does she omit these monumental figures in Canadian short-story history, she also omits so many other, often younger writers, especially, it seems, those stylish innovators who perform with verve and sparkle: Patricia Robertson, Douglas Glover, Mike Barnes, Mark Anthony Jarman, Keath Fraser, Sharon English, Steven Heighton, Russell Smith, Diane Schoemperlen, Mary Borsky, Linda Svendsen, Cynthia Flood, Mary Swan, Patricia Young, Kathleen Winter, Terry Griggs ... As the names pile up, the list becomes, well, risible.
But the anthology is further distorted by the nature of some of Urquhart's inclusions. To include Adrienne Clarkson, Michael Ondaatje and Charles Ritchie - not one a story writer - is to edge toward the utterly bizarre. Too many of the selections indicate want of judgment, unfamiliarity, perhaps, with U.S. and British practice and achievement.
Print Edition - Section Front
The focus of the two magazines is not, however, Jane Urquhart. She is merely collateral damage. The objection embodied in the writing celebrated by the two magazines is to Penguin Canada. Why did Penguin commission a tyro to edit such a weighty book? The answer must be to capitalize on her popularity, to exploit her celebrity. This is vulgar and irresponsible; it is an abdication of Penguin's responsibilities to our literature.
This brouhaha has been commented on by Russell Smith in The Globe and Mail, by Alex Good in the Toronto Star, by Paul Wells in Maclean's and by Adrian Michael Kelly on the CBC radio program Q. The Los Angeles Times is carrying the story on its website. Good wrote, "this 700-page tome has become the flashpoint for one of the sharpest literary debates this country has ever seen."
The point that ought to be made is that these Salon des Refusés magazine issues shouldn't be news at all. Our literature should be in constant turmoil, continual debate, dissent, passionate uproar. If our literature is important to us, its importance should be worth fighting about. Accomplished, demanding literature can only be strengthened and nurtured by austere, honed criticism.
The media interest in the Salon des Refusés has happened because, for the first time since the 1940s in Montreal, CanLit has woken from its habitual placid somnolence. This is the first time the editors of literary magazines have banded together to assert a different aesthetic, a different hierarchy. This is the first time editors and writers have said no! to a canon being imposed by a large and wealthy publisher.
Our pleasure at the attention being paid to the genre is, however, somewhat vitiated by the fact that the media's real interest is in the feuding, the supposed "nastiness" of Dan Wells's critical introduction in CNQ (Tweaking the Beak) and what Russell Smith described as the "stomach-curdling" criticism of my own essay (Thinking About Penguins).
There is, unfortunately, no consensus in Canada about our literature. The difference between commercial entertainment and work of literary value is scarcely understood. Our critics, such as they are, eschew evaluative judgments. Agents and publishing conglomerates dictate and define; publicity budgets are our arbiters. A benighted pedagogue at the University of Toronto actually requires students to read Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees.
Why not Enid Blyton's Fun for the Secret Seven?
It is a world gone mad.
Concerning the short story in Canada, critic Philip Marchand wrote: "There is something both heartening and disheartening about the fact that so much of the strength of Canadian literary culture lies in the short story form. It is heartening because there are now many Canadian writers who are truly proficient in the art - so much so that whatever is enduring in our literature will be more likely found in their work than in over-stuffed prose epics such as Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance or Timothy Findley's The Piano Man's Daughter. ... The disheartening element in the situation, of course, is that few people actually read it."
There is, of course, a reason for the Salon des Refusés issues beyond the desire to castigate Penguin Canada; it is to celebrate what they spurned. What a feast of fiction awaits the reader, wonderful writers you may not have encountered before: the tight passion of Cynthia Flood, the enormous delicacy of Ray Smith, the meditative calm of Steven Heighton, the fragrantly nutty mind of Terry Griggs ... They are all here, worlds awaiting you.
Another 20 come easily to mind, among them Libby Creelman, Susan Kerslake, K. D. Miller, Robyn Sarah, Mary Borsky, Rebecca Rosenblum, all of them building the golden edifice that is the short story in Canada.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Dave: Part of The Believer's agenda as you've expressed it is to turn readers on to books and authors they don't know. So what has editing the magazine turned you on to?
Julavits: A lot of stuff. That's what fabulous about this. For example, Bruce Jay Friedman. Do you know him?
Julavits: It's funny because no one our age has heard of him. Well, Ben has because he's actually a fifty-year-old in a thirty-five-year-old's body. But I gave a reading in what is known here as the "other" Portland: Portland, Maine. Someone asked me a question like this and I mentioned Bruce Jay Friedman. Everybody there because, of course, it was all my parents' friends they'd all heard of him, they'd all read him. It was crazy.
He's from Brooklyn. He wrote a book called The Dick. I think what happened to him and this is according to the essay, which I'm currently editing the character was very racist. Then the question is, Is the author racist? Conflating the ideas in the book with the person who created it. Anatole Boyard, I guess, reviewed it for the Times and just buried him forever and ever. Rest in peace. One of those reviews you don't come back from. But Friedman is someone who has really influenced a lot of people. I guess Woody Allen has put him in his movies, given him cameos. He actually wrote a book that's very much like Portnoy's Complaint, but he did it about five years beforehand. I kind of agree with the thesis that this writer is working on, which is that sometimes when the first person does it, it opens a door, but it's the next person who gets all the credit. Bruce Jay Friedman was a trendsetter in all these ways, but whoever walked those paths next, they're the ones we think of culturally as being the instigators of these things. So he's one.
As it happens, the October issue of the Believer will have a long interview with Bruce. And we've managed to line up a lot more coverage that should break shortly. We'll keep you posted.
For now, here's an interview with Friedman, Vonnegut and Wakefield on Charlie Rose. An oldie, but a good one.
Even better, a podcast by Friedman, as part of a Key West Literary Seminar, entitled "I Lost it At the movies," where he recounts the making of The Heartbreak Kid (the original, not the recent re-adaptation by Ben Stiller) and reads the entire story.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Join in an exciting literary evening with authors Patricia Young (Here Comes the Moonbathers) and Trevor Carolan who will read from and sign their new books, Friday, September 19 at 7:30 p.m. (doors open 7 p.m.) at Red Brick Cafe, 2423 Beacon Avenue. It will be an entertaining evening with music by Mark Bracken, guitarist. Enter the book draw to win a signed copy of writers’ books.
Admission $5. Sponsored by Community Arts Council of Saanich Peninsula. Pick up brochures at Sidney bookstores. For more information call 250-655-4447.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Another launch is fast approaching: our first children's book, Rachel Lebowitz's, Zach Wells's and Eric Orchard's Anything But Hank! We'll be launching on Saturday October 11 at Once Upon a Huckleberry Bush, at 4387 on Main St. in Vancouver.
The whole enterprise of readings speaks to the crucial problem in contemporary literature. Namely, that it is an increasingly marginal activity. Writers accept the invitation to read because, in addition to maybe receiving some much-needed extra cash, it helps bolster the necessary illusion: an audience exists. The invitation itself counts for something, even if one ends up addressing a throng of thirteen. Similarly, the people who attend readings are on some level also aware that the occasion and the writer both need “support,” that by being present they are involved in an altruistic act. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the people who go to readings, at least some of them, are essentially doing the writer a favour, performing an act of piety. It’s no accident that Smith’s drunken patron keeps asking the assembled listeners whether he’s in a bar or a church.
And the whole thing can be found here:
I can now say, after hearing her at Eden Mills, that Rebecca can hold her own and is really a very good reader. I found her fully compelling, and despite the rain and general misery of the listeners, she was able to make us forget for a few minutes that we were soaked through the bone. But, of course, she will not be reading Monday. This IS NOT a Reading Series. Which, for once -- with Leon Rooke and John Metcalf on the stage with her -- is a bloody shame. You should come out anyway.
Monday, September 08, 2008
But we didn't die under the wheels of a semi, and instead arrived in the still-pouring downpour, and sloshed into the, you guessed it, outdoor festival venue. By the time I'd signed in, it was pretty close to my cue to read, but there was of course still time to sneak by the Biblioasis tent and see, for the first time ever, my book.
I knew what it looked like, since I spent three years writing the thing and saw every version of it, and the cover mock-ups, the advanced reading copies, etc. I knew it would be there, since Dan (Wells, Biblioasis publisher) had promised to bring copies. It really should've been a zero-suspense moment, but, um, it was absolutely thrilling. There was *Once*, out in the world, separate from me and all the people who have been working so hard on it--a big stack, looking pretty much perfect, and ready to be taken away and read. Something about the thought that the book is now fully self-contained, that anyone, strangers can read it if they feel like it, is what really hit me at that moment, I think.
Dan put a copy in my hands and hugged me and a photographer took my picture, and someone asked me to sign a copy, and my mentor Leon Rooke suddenly appeared to congratulate me, and I hugged him, and hugged Kerry, and somehow got out from under my umbrella and got wet...
I think, once in a while, something can be exactly as good as you dreamt it would be.
You can read her whole post here:
I am hoping to get pictures up eventually. I made it to Eden Mills with my battery charged, but took three pictures before being told the memory was full. I flipped open the door and ... discovered that the memory card was not in the camera. T'is what happens when you have a 3 year old who believes he is Cecil Beaton.
It should be said, as it has now been reported in several places a tad erroneously, that CNQ and TNQ are not at one another's throats. I spent more than a few minutes with Kim Jernigan, editor of TNQ, and Rosalynn Tyo, Managing Editor, yesterday at the rain-drenched Eden Mills festival, and all is well. I have greater respect for that group and their magazine and their enthusiasm and professionalism and approach than ever: I've learned a hell of a lot from the collaboration about how a professional magazine should be run. There's been a good deal of tension at some points, though a lot of this has been caused by, let us say, outside sources. But I don't believe a harsh word has been uttered between any of us. And though there's certainly been disagreements, both about the salon's objectives and the approaches of our magazines, and the limits of criticism, though there's been impassioned discussion and more than a few hour long late night conversations, this is as it should be. We don't have to get along all of the time, or agree with one another on everything. Our objectives were always slightly different with regards to this Salon, as one would expect of magazines with such differing mandates. And this is what discussion is supposed to be like.
This has not harmed our relationship in any way. It makes a much better story to think so, I realize, and for that reason perhaps I should leave it alone. But it is simply not true.
We'll be launching Rebecca's book in Toronto a week from today, the 15th of September, at the Gladstone Hotel. The first of what promises to be a regular launch for the winner of the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Leon Rooke, John Metcalf and Steven Temple, who has generously donated the $1500.00 prize, will be there. Hope you can be as well.
Event starts at 7:30.
Friday, September 05, 2008
Earlier this summer, in an unusual feat of co-operation, two literary magazines, The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes and Queries, published simultaneous special editions with near-identical covers. The goal was to showcase writers Urquhart left out of her collection last fall, to "tweak the beak" of the mighty Penguin. This jointly curated "Salon des Refusés" — named after a parallel exhibit for artists who were left out of the Paris Salon in 1862 — has become the talk of literary Canada. It has sparked debate, brought unprecedented attention to the two spunky journals at its centre, goosed the sales of Urquhart's own book and led to tension, even among the protest's instigators, over the proper bounds of criticism and dissent.
The juicy literary feud angle has pushed this into the mainstream, and for that, we are grateful. When was the last time short fiction and literary publishing were mainstream news items? But every once-in-a-while it needs be said: that though the Salon is about registering dissent -- and that is as it should be in a healthy literary community -- much more important is the celebration of writers and writing and the short story form. This is not about a feud with Jane Urquhart. We have taken issue with some of the choices she has made as an editor and outlined the
reasons for our disagreement. Nigel Beale is not the only one who disagrees with our choices, and though I've been saying a prayer each night that he is the only book reviewer unable to see the vast difference between Burnett and Levine, this is all well and good. There are many other writers out there who could have been included in this Salon des Refuses. There are several I wince at the thought of not including, and I think Kim feels the same. This Salon needs a salon! Steven Beattie's marathon exercise on his blog, That Shakespherian Rag, shows this as much as anything we did. Work towards claiming your own anthology of the heart. Better you than Penguin.
As Steven Beattie wrote last eve, the important thing here is that people are actually reading and talking about short stories as if they matter. And that can only be a good thing.
Rain or shine. Most years, it has been shine, though last ... boy did it rain. Here's hoping we'll have the former this time out.
Biblioasis authors appearing at the festival this year are Rebecca Rosenblum, who's ONCE will be available for the first time (she's reading, I believe, at 12: 30), and, of course, Leon Rooke. Alexis, Lindsay and myself will be there selling our wares.
If you've never been to Eden Mills and live within four hours of Guelph -- it will take us 3 1/2 to get there Sunday morn -- you should really try to make it. It really is one of the most wonderful literary festivals around, with three outdoor event venues -- four including the kids' -- and a wide range of excellent readers. The festival takes over the entire town, with dozens of publishers selling their wares, great food, and as many as a couple thousand people milling about, excited about books and writing in Canada.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the festival.
There's an article about it here:
The website, with author lists, schedules and directions, can be found here:
Thursday, September 04, 2008
Also on Three Percent, a review of Goran Simic's important collection of short fiction, Yesterday's People. Here's a taste:
In Yesterday’s People, Goran Simić looks at war, and its aftermath, from the ground level. His characters are everyday people who rarely seek to understand, and have no power to influence, the larger forces that have trapped them, either in the war-torn present or long after the war has ended and they have moved halfway around the globe; they’re too busy trying to make sense of their own shattered lives.
The whole review can be found here:
we can expect a new collection of Simic poetry in the next 12 months.
A nice review of our last pre-Salon issue -- the translation issue, still on many newstands, and available direct -- on the University of Rochester international literature/translation website Three Percent. Chad Post comments most favourably on Mike Barnes's fabulous essay Spaceship from Across. It can be found here:
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
We'll be at Eden Mills this Sunday for the unofficial launch of Rebecca's collection -- the first time it will see the light of day and be available to all you anxious Thirsty readers. The official launch is a week later, September 15th, at the Gladstone Hotel, and will involve Leon Rooke, John Metcalf and Steven Temple. And, of course, Rebecca Rosenblum. Hope you can make it out.
You can read the original review on the blog. But as the Globe has a tendency to make these thinks pay to read, we'll just cut and paste the whole thing below.
Again, there's not much to say about Beale's response here. I'm always leery when a person asks us to trust him in the way Beale has. Sort of like being in a used car lot, and being told not to bother kicking the tires, no matter how threadbare they may look. But it seems at least that the Syposium has people talking: I received an email from a bookseller who said a well known writer rushed into the shop at 10 am looking for the book, and he overheard at least three individual conversations about it in his bookshop Saturday. So, as he said, hooray for critical reviewing! Here's to hoping the the Globe contains more of it as we embark on the fall book season.
SYMPOSIUM: THE ART AND CRAFT OF ESSAY WRITING
As Beale's review demonstrates, crustiness combined with historical inaccuracies, questionable summaries and turgid prose soon becomes unconvincing
August 30, 2008
By quoting Dr. Johnson at the beginning and end of his review of my A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, Nigel Beale strikes the pose of a crusty fellow who's not going to put up with any nonsense - particularly, as his disparaging references to Susan Sontag and Naomi Klein make clear, leftist nonsense.
But in order to pull off the crustiness act you need to get your facts straight. As Beale's review demonstrates, crustiness combined with historical inaccuracies, questionable summaries and turgid prose soon becomes unconvincing. When Beale announced on his personal website on June 22 that he was giving my book a bad review in The Globe and Mail, he wrote of the title essay, which particularly irked him, that it "inhabits about a third of the whole [book]." In fact, this essay, which occupies 62 of the 339 pages, inhabits less than one-fifth of the book.
Beale's problems in summarizing what he reads begin here. He describes the essay's closing section as "rambling accusations that Ian McEwan manipulates history." This line refers to one paragraph of a 20-page section; the section's central theme is how, in Atonement, McEwan repudiates Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, arguing for the innate superiority of commercial fiction over that which creates complex artistic effects.
Maybe Beale doesn't get the subject of this essay right because he dislikes what it says. It is very revealing that when he scorns my call for a literary cosmopolitanism rooted in local detail, rejecting the examples of The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight's Children, he is unable to offer contemporary novelistic counter-examples. Instead, he floats the canard that these works aren't relevant to Canadians because they don't focus primarily on immigrants (although all describe marginalized communities and include forms of immigrant experience).
Print Edition - Section Front
Beale then reverts to ideological type, claiming there's "a compelling case for the marketplace determining [literary] quality." So the great novelists of our time are Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling?
Rather than follow this argument through, Beale hides behind a bust of Shakespeare. Leaving aside the vast differences of context between Renaissance drama and contemporary novels, Beale's claim that Shakespeare is great because he is, apparently, a private-sector hero who "went with whatever he could find that would appeal to audiences," sees him once again tailoring history to suit his ideology. The historical Shakespeare belonged to the King's Players, who lived on "the royal patent," the equivalent of a long-term Canada Council Grant. Some private sector!
Beale lapses again when he inaccurately "corrects" me on the translation of Latin American literature in general and Roberto Bolaño in particular. In fact, U.S. publishers do translate less Latin American literature than they used to. The big names of past decades - Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende - continue to appear, but subsequent generations of Latin American writers are less widely translated into English than into European languages. I document this, and the shift has been the subject of academic studies; Beale was obviously too busy writing "B.S." in the margins, as he claims he did frequently, to notice these details.
The first Bolaño novel translated into English, By Night in Chile, was published by Harvill U.K. in February,2003, in a translation by Australian Chris Andrews. In the view of Andrews, and other observers, two articles (one of them mine and included in my book) on Bolaño's untranslated fiction in the London Times Literary Supplement in late 2004 were important to selling U.S. rights to Bolaño's two longest novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2005.
Bolaño's work arrived in English via the Barcelona-London-Melbourne-New York axis. Yet Beale, clinging to American centrality, decrees such contemporary complication of "translation routes" to be impossible. Beale's ideology becomes hostile not merely to the facts contained in my book, but to the factual world. When he claims that racists in East London are simply showing "pride in Englishness," it's time to take a hard look at the moral foundations of his pose of crusty skepticism.
I dislike many of Henighan's essays because they are poorly argued and sloppily constructed
BY NIGEL BEALE
I've never embraced an eel, but after wrestling over several days with Stephen Henighan's slippery rebuttal, I think I have a pretty good idea of what it might feel like.
His complaint is that I don't get my facts straight. Given space limitations, I can only respond to several of his challenges. However, I assure you that all of them are wholly unsubstantiated: The King's Players were established by King James in 1603, after Shakespeare had written many of his greatest plays, including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra; taken significant financial risks; wowed many raucous audiences, and weathered judgment by rotten tomato.
Shakespeare retired a wealthy man. One does not get rich on government arts money, Canada Council grants or otherwise.
Philip Larkin, James Shapiro (in his book 1599) and many others have acknowledged Shakespeare's debt to the free market. C. J. Sisson, for example, in his essay The Theatres and Companies (in A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, Cambridge, 1934), says the necessity of appealing to the pit "saved the Elizabethan drama from becoming over educated and urbanized, and preserved its strength and universality, despite theorizers [and] men of wit and fashion."
Henighan's TLS claim is reminiscent of Al Gore declaring that he invented the Internet. Here's Scott Esposito, a close observer of the Latin American literary scene: "It's simply naive to insist that an essay published in the London Times carried greater force with FSG than the years of work New Directions (an American publisher) did to establish Bolaño in publications like The New Yorker. The fact is that if FSG hadn't published The Savage Detective and 2666, both Dalkey and ND would have gladly taken up either or both."
I do not "disparage" Susan Sontag or Naomi Klein, rather I accuse Henighan of rehashing their original ideas.
Finally, there is no ideology at work in my hostility toward Henighan's book. I dislike a good many of its essays for the simple reason that they are poorly argued and sloppily constructed.
Nigel Beale felt that many of the subjects under discussion in Stephen Henighan's book of essays, A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, deserved to be aired. But he found the book unfocused and inconsistent, and ultimately unconvincing. Henighan feels that Beale's criticism was error-filled and ill-founded.