Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Moses, you've got male

A couple of interesting recent posts lamenting the lack of masculine prose in fiction, or is it the end of the traditional image of manhood, or both. Novelist Frank Bill, whose writing I'm not familiar with, asks if masculine writing is dead, by which he seems to mean a certain style of prose that depicts a certain stereotypical kind of manly man, men who've gone from being learned by their fathers and grandfathers, to being babied by their mothers. Being learned from their fathers, to Bill, literally means hunting deer and dressing your kill in the forest. He thinks we've become "girlie-men" in the words of the old SNL skit with Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon playing Hans and Franz, soft, unrugged and unskilled in survival. DG Myers responds that Bill is confusing a romantic ideal of masculinity, what he calls 'reactive masculinity' as brought about by gender-neutralization in American culture, with true manhood, which to his mind means, "Taking care of others .... A man knows in his bones that he is expendable, especially in his bones, and if he is to be indispensable, he must make himself so—by indispensable service to others." What Bill seems to be concerned with is the connection between the image of manhood and a certain style of writing, both of which seem to be on the wane. When we forsake the traditional image we risk losing a robust style of writing that emphasizes the masculine worldview ie. individual struggle (male) over forming and nurturing relationships (female), a desire to master (male) over consensus-building (female), a preoccupation with broad conflicts (male) over domestic ones (female), descriptions of nature's harsh beauty (male) as opposed to its fluid magnificence (female). I sense that both Bill and Myers are on to something, and not just because one time a literary agent who'd read my last novel in manuscript form said that she doubted it could be sold to a publisher because she didn't see the ladies of the book club recommending it to one another. Men, if they read at all, generally like action, sci-fi, books that provide insight into the forces at work in quotidian life (Gladwell, Leavitt), what I call 'mastery'. Literary fiction is increasingly a girl thing. With Passover, and the telling of the story of the liberation from Egypt, I began thinking about the man who is perplexingly hardly mentioned in the Haggadah, and yet who is utterly present in the story: Moses. It's telling that in the mid-20th century DeMille film version, in contrast, Moses is front and center, humble and strong, the quintessence of the manly hero, a survivalist, family-man, rugged and wise, the very figure of a man lamented by Bill. But Moses is also Myers's version of a man, duty-bound, like Swede Levov in Philip Roth's American Pastoral with the "golden gift of responsibility." At last night's seder it was mentioned that the heroes of the Haggadic story are women; Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who rebelled against the Pharaoh's decree to kill the Israelite first born, and Miriam who watched over baby Moses in the basket as it floated down the river, and even the Egyptian princess who plucked him from the Nile and took him into the Pharaoh's house. But I found myself thinking about the absent males, and not just Elijah the Prophet for whom we set a place, but unsung Moses for whom no place is set, and about what that absence might signify in the story of today. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The fiction at the core of literary awards

An interesting piece by author Madeleine Thien in the National Post online in which she talks about her reasons from recently resigning from the jury of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. The proliferation of literary awards in the last couple of decades is undeniable. Having your novel appear on an award shortlist is important for a variety of reasons. To the author it means validation. To the publisher it means additional publicity and attention. To the industry it means potentially increased sales. To the reader it distinguishes a handful of books worth reading from the thousands published every year. The industry needs awards. And as self-published books proliferate in the digital world, they will mean even more to the book-buying public. And yet authors and publishers know how idiosyncratic the nature of awards is. They are clearly hit and miss, as much an expression of the personal tastes and preferences of individual jury members as a recognition of enduring quality. Thien, I think, makes a valuable point when she argues that at the very least the system should not be so opaque. Yes, awards are here to stay. And they owe it to readers who rely on them for their book-reading recommendations to be as open as possible about the selection process. The reality is that it is humanly impossible for a juror of any of the major awards (the ones that every author and publisher wants to win) to meaningfully wade through the scores of novels submitted every year. If, for example, 150 novels are submitted (not unsusual) for a certain prize, that would require each juror to read more than twelve novels per month, if given a year to do it, which is rare. Most jurors have day jobs. I don't know about you, but I'd have to be reading eight hours a day five days a week to cover that territory. Forget about feeding the wife and kids. Therefore, a vetting process must take place, and Thien is arguing that the prize administrators should be open about it. The Amazon.ca First Novel Award, which she won in 2006, comes in for particular criticism from Thien. It is a uniquely important award because is recognizes first-time novelists, is backed by a major book retailer with resources, and is that much more meaningful for authors seeking validation at the very outset of their careers. In the past, when the prize was administered by Books In Canada, the now-defunct literary publication, it was quite transparent about their vetting process. The year that my novel was a finalist (2005) was the last year novelist WP Kinsella chose the finalists. Kinsella was the first novels reviewer for BiC, and arguably no one in the country read more first novels than he did. Still, his tastes were undeniably idiosyncratic. And it struck me as comical to watch the jurors charged with choosing a winner attempt to grapple (comprehend) with Kinsella's eclectic selection. Did the prize recognize the best debut novels of the year? Probably not. Were many worthy books overlooked? Of course. To my mind any vetting process is as good (or bad) as any other. Everyone knows that awards are a crapshoot. For those of us lucky enough - it's mostly about luck - this kind of acknowledgement provides an important boost. In my case, it meant a lot just to know that someone of the stature of WP Kinsella liked my book. The cloaked secrecy of some prizes (The Giller, for example), as Thien points out, in an effort to protect some fictitious image of objectivity is at best nonsense and at worst, a lie. These awards mean too much, in spite of themselves, to be so opaque and disengenious. They owe it to the reading public to be as open as possible. They should trust the public to decide how valuable they really are when it comes to making book purchases.