Monday, September 14, 2009
Stirring the Canlit pot
Barb Kay is at it again, declaring exactly what she feels, doing it eloquently (and pissing a lot of people off in the process.) I won't respond to her essay directly, and I certainly won't comment on a book (or a writer) I've never read. But I will add one observation, which I think is germane to her argument about the type of Canadian writing she is referring to. Listening to Shelagh Rogers' CBC show this past week it suddenly occurred to me that the authors (of Canadian fiction) that she was interviewing were incredibly dull. Shelagh is a 'nice' person and she may be partially to blame for making her guests sound uninteresting because of her interviewing technique which tends to gush. But I blame them too. All they did was talk about their books, their techniques, and what inspired their writing etc. What I want to hear about is not what inspires their writing but what inspires their living! Eleanor Wachtel is a much better interviewer in this regard. I've met a few novelists in my day (and some very 'important' ones, Bellow, Doctorow, Richler among them) and my experience was that the last thing they wanted to talk about was their writing. I'm not naive. I know that the context for an author interview is promotional. Yes, I need to know about the novel being promoted, but not ad nauseum, and please no shop-talk. I'm more likely to go out and buy a book if the writer sounds like an exciting person who has insight and something meaningful to say about life. And here is, I think, where the problem lies; 'living' is synonymous with 'writing' in the age of the professionally-trained novelist. Whereas writing used to be a means to an end - the expression of the tensions and struggles between the aspiration to seek out significance in the travails of daily life (while holding down jobs, trying to make ends meet, supporting a family etc.) - it is now a self-sustaining, self-referencing, end in itself. In the age of professionally-trained creative writers, novels are personal flights of fancy, idea-driven, overly-researched entities and therefore disconnected from common experience and concern. I remember listening to author interviews as a young man and being amazed at the wisdom, breadth of interest, depth of engagement and sensitivity of the writers, and thinking that that is what I wanted to aspire to. Not because these were great writers, but because they were great people who were politically and socially aware and active, and who saw themselves as agents of change, consciousness-raisers, and shit-disturbers. It seems that too many now are dull, self-absorbed and syncophantic, the products of the institutionalization of the creative arts, the laziness of the critics and risk-averse publishing houses and their all-powerful marketing departments. Whether you agree or disagree with Barb Kay's taste in fiction, her opinion is absolutely necessary if there is to be a revitalization of the industry and the art in this country.