Sunday, November 04, 2007

On Longlists, Stephen Marche (& being Long in the tooth)

Lorna over at Cold-cocked has posted on being long-listed for the BC Award for Canadian Non-fiction. But what she says about Stephen Marche's foot-in-mouth contortioning in the Star and on Q (hope I can find a podcast of that) is much more interesting.

Too tired to go into festival-related matters at the moment: perhaps later tonight or early tomorrow. For now, read Lorna. As usual, she's both stylish, savvy and right.

Not a Winning Game

I’m delighted that Cold-cocked: On Hockey was named last week to the longlist of the British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-fiction. It’s the award’s fourth year, given by the BC Achievement Foundation in recognition of worthy literary non-fiction nationwide. The value went up this year from 25k to 40k making it the most generous non-fiction prize in Canada. (That would buy a lot of deer fence, I’m just saying.)

For writers, it feels better to be on a list than off. And when you’re shunned by prize lists—my books, plenty of times—the typical response is both fight and flight: “Screw the bad jury, anti-creativity culture, youth-centric publishers, all the dirty capitalists,” and then in the resulting midnight bubblebath, “I’m a fat old ugly stupid loser.” So what I have to say is, of course, influenced by the intoxicating fumes of semi-formal recognition.

The fine 31-year-old writer, Stephen Marche, has recently criticized the state of CanLit, specifically the shortlist for the Giller Prize. In an urbane and punchy—and erratic—article in the Toronto Star, and today on CBC Radio’s hip afternoon show, Q, Marche suggests that the Giller list represents all that’s wrong with Canadian writing: the writers are too old, the lit too oatmealy, too reliant on a literary style he believes came into vogue in some bad past decade, too establishment. He wonders, Where on the list are the young edgy writers, the CanLit equivalent of those he saw in Brooklyn where he was working recently? We call it a novel, he says, because it’s supposed to be just that. And he was mean to John Metcalf and Martin Levin, assuming that these men are more problem than solution. (Seems an undeserving nest to shit it: Metcalf has long edited and consoled unconventional writers like me who seem to fit Marche’s preferred formula, and Levin is likely the reason Canada’s newspaper still has a Books section at all and gives writers something to do Saturday morning while scarfing the day’s first tea and apple fritter.)

What’s old? For Marche, 40 might be the cut-off, but then he says, really, it’s more to do with a writer’s sensibility and willingness to ride a skateboard to work. What’s good? Well, the good CanLit is that which is endorsed by Americans before being accepted here. In other words, the Yanks know their art, we don’t because we’re messed up still by pesky post-colonial blah blah. See, the writers of ours the Yanks love—Douglas Copeland, Sheila Heti, etc—haven’t made it to the Gillers. Marche’s logical fallacies are dizzying, his assumptions about excellence and hierarchies worrying, his essentializing and generalizing and prescribing seem cranky and old-fashioned. Cue the bubblebath.

The Giller shortlist may be tepid, and we can and should debate the relative merits of the books on it, but to discover all those boxes he wants to check, Marche need only have looked at the 15 titles on the Giller longlist: young writers and their first books; innovators in form, technique and plot; small presses taking chances (Oops, wait. He didn’t complain about the major publishers taking over the industry and foregoing creative risk-taking because their marketers are making editorial decisions. That was me. Marche is a Penguin man, lucky duck.)

The jury system is the democratic way to decide these things—and come on: it’s now the Scotiabank Giller Prize; it’s not all about art—and as with any other democratic dance, missteps happen. And as in any cultural or social endeavor when elders, based on their lifelong commitment to a mostly thankless pursuit, earn the honor and privilege of mentoring and adjudicating their peers, mistakes are made, or we think they are and then realize, twenty years later, that we didn’t understand as much as we thought we did. Any book reviewer (me, for example) knows how flittery aesthetic judgement can be. But we keep reading and judging because we believe the debate matters, that writers deserve our considered attention, our hardest thinking. Silly old fools.

I feel very lucky to be included on such a great longlist. Many worthy books are not on it (the bad part of longlists: more statistical reasons for self-doubt in those left off). The jury has selected 5 men and 5 women from diverse geographies; some small presses (Goose Lane, Biblioasis, Nightwood), some medium (Anansi, Thomas Allen) some big (Viking, M&S, Knopf); a couple of poets (Tim Bowling and Lorna Goodison) and a rock star (Naomi Klein); literary non-fiction has been allowed a wonderfully broad definition that includes history, biography, religion, memoir. And, yippee, sports.

After listening to Marche this afternoon, I looked at the many Governor General’s Award non-fiction lists over the years, and only three times, I think, has a sports book made that shortlist. Dave Bidini’s brilliant and beautiful Baseballissimo? Nope. In 1983, Ken Dryden’s The Game lost out to a biography of Lord Byng. Aside from really really wanting deer fence, I hope my book’s inclusion on the BC Award list will offer reassurance, consolation and maybe inspiration: keep at it long enough, write how and what thrills you, work so hard your brain smokes, and eventually you may be read a little by nice people, even if you’re a woman with bad knees in her fifties writing about hockey, sheep, Vancouver Island, and war, even if you wrote a book that the medium and large presses ignored, shunned, refused to risk.

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