Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fortress of nerd-dom

When did novelists and poets become such dullards?

I have nothing against literary festivals. In fact I've even participated in a few myself. But there I was reading the newspaper, scrolling through the lineup of the upcoming local litfest, and feeling completely uninspired. Don't get me wrong, there are some great writers coming from all over the world who have written some fantastic books, some of which I've even found the time to read. But it was the personalities that failed to attract and get me excited. If I'm going to pay good money to go hear an author speak or read or opinionate, he/she better be worth the expense. They'd better be as surprising and inspiring and entertaining as any performer I'd want to see or hear. Musicians, for example, know that they better have a great show because in the digital era live performance is how they make their living. What happened to the days when novelists and poets had to sing for their supper? Staring at the newspaper, my mind suddenly began to wax nostalgic for an era, even I can recall, when novelists and poets actually had personalities.

But did writers ever really have to sing for their supper? Maybe it was only the mediocre writers who had to pound the pavement to drum up an audience. Actually it was the exact opposite. There was a time when writers understood that it was part and parcel of the job, and the best most renowned writers, from Oscar Wilde to Dickens to Mark Twain to Walt Whitman, were relentless at it. They embraced public performance, understanding that it was an essential component of what they did. And they were as well known for their stage appearances as their writing. Later, television was a boon to writers and some novelists were masters of the medium. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal come to mind, both of whom had feuds with William F. Buckley and each other, stirring controversy with wit and verbal swordsmanship. 

In Canada we had poet Irving Layton,  Leonard Cohen's mentor of whom he famously said "I taught Irving how to dress and he taught me how to live forever." Layton appeared regularly on CBC's show Fighting Words together with other author-guests like novelists Robertson Davies and Hugh Garner and poet Earle Birney. But of his cohort, it was Layton who perfected the image of the celebrity-writer persona with his verbal stridency. A bit later Layton was matched by Mordecai Richler who seemed to have a particular gift for offending, and embraced the role.

No doubt, over the last few decades, the chill of political correctness, on the one hand, and the ubiquitousness of media and pervasiveness of opinionating 'talking-heads' on the other hand, have mitigated against the importance of the public intellectual. But more than that, maybe novelists in particular have simply given up. With everyone trying to get attention for one endeavour or another, selling their wares on a variety of platforms and being more outlandish in the process, the nerds have simply decided to retire to their laptops in their fortresses of nerd-dom. They are content to write their novels and not get noticed because they know that in the crowded marketplace of attention-seeking, they don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of competing. Could Mailer or Layton compete nowadays, in the era of media stars like Kim Kardashian? It's an intriguing question to ponder. Not too long ago the late Christopher Hitchens showed how adept a writer could be at courting controversy, leveraging media attention with articulateness and wit to his advantage. Were he speaking at this year's litfest I'd at least be tempted to shell out the bucks to hear him. Alas Hitchens is gone, and anyway he wasn't a novelist, which was my main point. The last novelist I can think of who garnered significant media-hype for his public appearances was Salman Rushdie and it took a fatwa calling for his murder and ten years of hiding to drum up public enthusiasm. I guess my biggest concern is not about boring novelists after all. Turns out to be boring audiences who, I fear, wouldn't know the difference between Kim Kardashian's booty and Irving Layton's intellectual bravado, or rather they'd prefer a public showing of the former over the latter. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Gum ThiefThe Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My second Coupland in as many months, the other novel being Microserfs,and for a time I thought I'd become addicted to his style of writing, his keen observations, and his dark humour. I love Coupland's thoughtfulness, his playfulness, his cleverness, the layering of voices that conveys the texture of ordinary contemporary life; it's the modus operandi of a performance/conceptual artist as much as a writer. And I guess where it can also feel a bit plotlessly redundant is when you realize that the voices are all really, at base, the same voice, conveying facets of the same essential message about alienation with the same ironic tone. In the case of Microserfs the voices belong to a group of Silicon Valley computer programmers. In The Gum Thief the voices belong to unremarkable losers, principally Roger a divorced mid-forties man and Bethany a mid twenties Goth girl, both working at Staples, and wondering, as David Byrne sang, "How did I get here?" Other voices in the mix belong to Bethany's mom Dee Dee, Roger's Ex Joan, and characters from Roger's novel manuscript in progress "Glove Pond." It's a mash-up, where fiction meets fact meets fiction, that ultimately goes nowhere, sort of like the characters. Still, Coupland has a way with a phrase and metaphor that uncannily captures a sense of what consumer/voyeuristic/empty culture feels like, and for that alone, and the fact that he's got a great sense of humour, makes reading The Gum Thief worth the effort.      

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone

It is said that children are the best teachers. I have been learning from mine for the past nearly twenty-one years. I had to share my latest education. It came courtesy of my daughter Tamar who had to write an essay for her grade 10 English class on a work of art that was influenced by the social or political context in which it was created. An intriguing assignment from an inspired teacher, I thought, considering that so much of what passes for art these days seems to be insular, self-gazing drivel, more concerned with the promotion of personality than with social conscience. Tamar asked for my help to edit the essay, which was about a song by Nina Simone. Have you ever heard of her? she asked. How the heck did you ever discover Nina Simone? I shot back. Of course I knew of Nina Simone, especially her rendition of I Put a Spell on You. But the song Tamar had uncovered was not one with which I was familiar. And what a song it is. Essential. Tamar still hasn't revealed exactly how she found it. I guess for all those internet naysayers who lament that kids are wasting their time in front of the screen, here's the flip-side. 

With Liner Notes By: Tamar Black-Rotchin 

Picket lines School boycotts
They try to say it's a communist plot 
All I want is equality 
for my sister my brother my people and me
- Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam 
In the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights movement had a major impact on artists. Musicians, writers and poets took the opportunity to express their desire for political equality and social justice, and to give voice to the historical pain and suffering endured by American minorities. One artist who rose to prominence in this context was jazz singer Nina Simone. Simone is an excellent example of an artist who was influenced by the African American struggle for civil rights, and her 1964 song, “Mississippi Goddam” demonstrates how historical events can inspire and motivate protest in the form of art. Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in North Carolina. She was a classically trained musician whose aspirations to be become a concert pianist were thwarted when she was denied admittance to a prestigious music institute reportedly because she was black. According to The Jazz Encyclopedia this event “...heightened her anger over the racism...pervasive in the United States during this period.” Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Simone made a name for herself performing and recording popular music that blended classical and jazz styles. As the quintessentially African American musical style with origins in the historical experience of slavery, jazz became Simone’s principal mode of musical expression. Two events inspired Nina Simone to write Mississippi Goddam. The first was the assassination in 1963 of civil rights activist Medgar Evers by a member of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. In the song, when Simone wails "Everybody knows about Mississippi," this is the event to which she is referring. Evers was a well known activist whose work in the civil rights movement made him a target of opponents. He was shot down in cold blood outside his home on the morning of June 12th, a few hours after US President John F. Kennedy made a nationally televised speech in support of a civil rights act. The Evers murder was a lightning rod for further protest, political engagement and artistic expression by musicians such as Bob Dylan and writers like Eudora Welty who responded to the tragedy with protest works of their own. The second event that inspired Simone’s song was the horrific bombing on September 15th 1963, of The 16th Street Baptist Church by four members of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, which killed four young girls and injured 22 others. The nation was horrified by this event. It was widely considered a turning point in the civil rights movement, and contributed to the support for passage of civil rights legislation in 1964. In the song Simone refers to the bombing when she sings "Alabama's gotten me so upset." Artists like Nina Simone who risk expressing unpopular political views in their work often do so at great personal and professional cost. When it was released in 1964, the recording of Mississippi Goddam was banned in several Southern states with the reason given that the title was religiously objectionable. In a March 1986 interview in Jet magazine Simone declared that although she does not regret her role as a civil rights activist, Mississippi Goddam probably hurt her career. “All of the controversial songs - the industry decided to punish me for and they put a boycott on my records.” Still, it seems to me that a genuine artist must speak honestly above all else. They must use their talents to tell the truth no matter how unpopular that may be. Protest songs have much importance because they convey powerful and purposeful messages to the public, letting the masses know that they are not alone in the hardships that they face and their daily battles for justice and equality. Protest music can bring a sense of unity and harmony to those who are suffering, and most of all, they can be a catalyst to major social change for the better. In this respect Nina Simone is a true hero. As she says in the song:
Lord have mercy on this land of mine 
We all gonna get it in due time