Monday, February 9, 2015

My Quill and Quire review of The Green Hotel, by Jesse Gilmour ...

... is now posted to the Q&Q website. Jesse Gilmour is the son of novelist David Gilmour, and The Green Hotel is his debut novel. Actually, it's a novella, as this book clocks in at just 120 pages. And while I did find the first 30 or 35 pages really spun their wheels - a high proportion, considering how short the book is - things do pick up after that and this tale turns into a taut, gripping one about a son's complicated relationship with his dad. A daring debut to say the least.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Publication: Front&Centre magazine #29

Yesterday held some mixed emotions as I received my contributor's copy of issue 29 of Front&Centre magazine, which contains my short story "In the Middle." Happiness, obviously, over having the story out in the world. (As you may recall, the journal accepted the piece almost exactly a year ago.) But sadness, too, to read editor Matthew Firth's editorial and hear that he is shutting down the journal: the next issue, #30, will be its last.

Front&Centre has been around for nearly 15 years and has published a number of "dirty realism" authors that I've admired. I myself had a couple of rejections from them, including a near-miss for my short story "Itaewon" (It made the penultimate cut.) So I'm very glad to have "In the Middle," a story about a Toronto hit man who travels to Quebec City for a meeting with a two-bit rube from PEI, included in its pages. Anyway, go pick up a copy while you still can. And yes, both "In the Middle" and "Itaewon" are included in this spring's short story collection, The Secrets Men Keep.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare

… What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?

These are the first lines out of the mouth of Caius Martius, the doomed anti-hero of Shakespeare’s late play, Coriolanus. This aphoristic insult is directed at a group of Rome’s plebeians, a rabble who envy and despise the soldier Martius, and who see him as a chief threat to their existence. This barb struck me as both brilliantly comic (thinking, as I was, of so many people on Twitter who I often feel need to hear these very words) and deeply caustic, summing up so much of the mood of this dark and ingenious play.

Coriolanus, which is a title Martius takes on after a particular victory on the battlefront, is called Shakespeare’s most political play. In Martius, we see a hardened, battle-scarred warrior being wheedled and browbeat by his domineering mother and various advisors to take on the role of a politician. He is ill-suited for the job, especially when he must prostrate himself in front of the loathed plebeians and their representative tribunes in Rome in order to gain their favour. Martius cannot shake the cunning from either his words or his deeds, and soon finds himself expelled from Rome and teaming up with his own sworn enemy, Aufidious of the Volscians. What ensues is a desperate mother’s plea for peace, a double cross, and, in true tragic fashion, a surprising and brutal death.

I first got interested in this play after seeing the Ralph Fiennes’ film version a few years ago, which sets the action of the story in a contemporary period. There is a deeply primal pulse to this play, a commentary on the animalistic side of masculinity and the need to strike a balance between diplomacy and one’s deepest held convictions and rages. Needless to say, it struck a number of cords for me. Now, having read the play itself, I can say without a doubt that this obscure and rarely staged Shakespeare play is my absolute favourite. Coriolanus’ inability to hold his tongue, to put on airs of compliance in front of those he despites for the greater good, and to navigate his desperately complex relationship with his mother, Volumnia, makes this play a raucous tour de force.

And for all of the story’s darkness, Shakespeare leavens many moments with wry wit and biting humour. I grew deeply invested in the relationship between Coriolanus and Meneius, his oldest and most trustworthy advisor, even as the latter’s comic alcoholism pivots much of the action towards tragedy. There are a number of delightful “near misses” in this play whereby Martius could have saved himself from disaster. And I was with him every step of the way as he made the decisions that helped to seal his fate. A riveting and deeply provocative masterpiece. Go read it if you haven’t already.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

More love for The Secrets Men Keep

Coming on the heels of yesterday's news that a review of The Secrets Men Keep appeared in the latest issue of Publishers Weekly, I'm also stoked to see the book included in the 49th Shelf's 10 Short Story Collections You Should Be Reading This Spring. It's great to see the book included with such illustrious company, including collections by Mark Anthony Jarman, Priscila Uppal, Russell Smith, and others. Wee!

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Secrets Men Keep gets its first review!

And it's a beauty! Publishers Weekly in the U.S. is out of the gate first with this lovely advance review. The writer says: "Offering sly comic pokes and affable satire, this memorable collection of 13 stories frequently highlights the significant gap between the empire-building ambitions of men and their humdrum and hemmed-in middle-management realities." Very pleased to see this here, especially since it is, ahem, the second positive review a book of mine has gotten in PW in six months. Anyway, check out the full review here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Upcoming event: Hamilton, ON

I'm super stoked to announce my first public event of 2015: I'll be reading from Sad Peninsula at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton on the evening of February 11. Regular followers of this blog know that I make an annual journey to Hamilton to do a classroom event at McMaster University, and my inimitable contacts there have worked to arrange this event, which will be open to the general public. So if you live in the area and you're free that night, please come out. I would love to see you.

Here are the details:

When: Wednesday, February 11, 2015.
What time: 6:30 pm.
Where: Westdale Secondary School. 700 Main Street West, Hamilton, ON.
Join the Facebook event.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, by Jonathan Rose

Whither the Great Books? In 2015, such a question is supposed to raise both problematic and programmatic issues among proper-thinking readers. How come the capitalization? Where are your quote marks of irony? Who deems what gets counted as a Great Book? Why their choices and not someone else’s? And, most severely, doesn’t the exultation of certain books simply reinforce and privilege one type of voice while silencing others? Great Books are supposed to be passé; we’d all be better off if we embraced more “diverse” fare that teems with many different voices, and had no need for outdated notions of so-called “classic” literature.

If this kind of thinking causes you some unease, as it does me, you probably like to have your beliefs in the importance of Great Books reinforced every now and then. Certainly you could do a lot worse than Jonathan Rose’s expansive, door-stopper of a study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Over 500+ pages, Rose explores and dissects the reading habits of miners, millgirls, clerks, factory workers and others to reveal what role literature played in the development of their minds. The result is less a sociological opus and more a cri de coeur for classic literature itself. Rose, an unapologetic conservative, pulls no punches when attacking the claims against Great Books often levied by today’s cadre of academics who wield their theories like hatchets designed to mow down tall poppies.

Indeed, Intellectual Life grounds itself in two unique but interconnected thesis statements, aimed to discredit much of the thinking behind these theories. The first is that today’s literary criticism often treats readers as empty vessels waiting to be filled with whatever biases or prejudices the Great Books preach, failing to take into account how real readers responded to the books they read. Rose, through painstaking historical and sociological research, reveals that, far from being lemmings willing to buy whatever racist, sexist, imperialist views the Great Books conveyed, the working class read these tomes with far more nuance. Second, the erroneous notion that Great Books are the domain of only the most elitist class of society. This has never been the case. And Rose puts it:

The question of whether Dickens, Conrad, or penny dreadfuls reinforced or subverted patriarchy, imperialism, or class hierarchies has become an obsession in academics, literature departments and cultural studies programs. Although literary criticism has been narrowed and impoverished by this fixation, the question is a legitimate one, and it is addressed (alongside other issues) in this book. The failure of political criticism, as it is actually practiced, is methodological: with some exceptions, it ignores actual readers … If the dominant class defines high culture, then how do we explain the passionate pursuit of knowledge by proletarian autodidacts, not to mention the pervasive philistinism of the British aristocracy?

While Rose’s focus is on the British working classes of the 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, there is much truth in this passage for a reader in 2015. By ignoring the impact of literature on actual readers, academics are given a pass of convenience to impose whatever political discourse on a work of high or low literature they wish. Furthermore, to say that Great Books are only read by the elite is absurd. No matter the mix of people at a cocktail party, it’s usually the one-percenter CEO who is the poorest-read person in the room.  

Rose pledges his own allegiance to a more Arnoldian theory of literature, to the prismatic, aesthetic, mind-opening strength of reading Great Books, and the inherent value of solitary, individual and autodidact education. He posits that “promiscuous reading” is a way to both bring about a crisis of identity in the reader and provide him with the means to deal with it. This kind of experience was paramount in lifting the working-class person to a higher plane of self-awareness. As Rose puts it, “the Arnoldian ideal addressed one of the most basic intellectual hungers of the working-class student: the need to understand how his individual life fitted into the larger society.” True, some of these revelations came from reading the penny dreadfuls and local scandal sheets, but Intellectual Life builds a convincing case that many working class people turned to and reveled in what we still refer to today as canonical literature.

Which itself is an awkward term. Rose acknowledges that “[t]hough canons can be changed, canonization is inevitable,” and later points out that what gets counted as part of a traditional canon is less a matter of politics and more a matter of time and inclination, which had less impact on a general readership. As he puts it:

A generation of literary theorists might argue that there is an irrepressible conflict between “canonical” and “nontraditional” literature, that the great books somehow “marginalize” or “silence” oppressed peoples; but to Dent and Rhys that would have been absurd, contrary to everything they knew about working-class readers. “Canon wars” are purely a campus phenomenon, the result of an academic economy of scarcity. If an English faculty is allowed only one new hire, they may have to decide between a Miltonist and a Caribbeanist; and they can only add Zora Neale Hurston to a survey course by bumping someone else, in which case Dr. Johnson may seem a fitting target. But this is an internal professional controversy, irrelevant (if not slightly comic) to general readers, who have time for both Johnson and Hurston.

From looking at the lending records of miners’ libraries to examining the unpublished memoirs of working-class laborers from around Britain, Rose paints a gripping portrait of this exact kind of general readership. There is something invigorating in his descriptions of weavers setting up books to read on their looms, of shop-floor workers discussing Shakespeare and Immanuel Kant on their breaks, and the young, upwardly mobile office clerks sneaking out for a lunch-time classical music performance or a lazy afternoon at the library. Rose has a great deal of fun bashing the Bloomsbury group – especially E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, two unrepentant snobs who wore their classism on their sleeves – for failing to see and embrace the intellectual vitality of this class of people. “Forster could not believe,” he writes, “that a clerk might be genuinely thrilled by literature. (That prejudice is not dead among academics even today.)"

Of course, all of this heady autodidact reading prompted many in the working (and clerking) classes to begin producing their own literature, which they did in abundance. There was an explosion in literacy following Britain’s Education Act of 1870, resulting in a boom of print journalism, and many working-class people with a flare for words – with the help of evening classes and mutual improvement societies – found it relatively easy to make the transition to writing articles, opinion pieces and even whole novels. Their efforts have not really survived, thanks mostly, Rose points out, to the relentless classism of modernists and the political biases of today’s academics. “If the Great Proletarian Author was never found, it was not because there were no candidates for the role. The difficulty was that leftist intellectuals were looking for a modernist in overalls, and that combination was hard to find.”

While the working class finds a huge advocate in Rose, there are times when Intellectual Life slides a bit offside in its descriptions of or theories about these individuals. There is an entire chapter, for example, that details how many in the newly literate working classes had a difficult time telling the difference between fact and fiction. Rose tells a story of one worker who “[a]ttending a performance of The Merchant of Venice … was so gripped by Portia’s judgment that he leaped from the box and assaulted Shylock,” and another of a woman who read the entirety of Tom Jones and thought every word of it was true. While these tales are no doubt accurately rendered, I think there may be a missing component to their telling. Rather than merely casting some working-class readers as naïve rubes unable to tell the difference between a “true” story and one that is made up, Rose might have reminded his readers that fiction itself – especially early prototypes of the novel –  often blurred these lines. Indeed, Moll Flanders, Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and other early entrants into the novel genre were originally presented to readers as “true” stories.

Also, there are times when Rose’s conservatism gets the better of him. While he does admit that there were ample quantities of literature, both high and low, that detailed and promoted British imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, he dismisses the affects that reading these materials might have had on working-class consumers. “So housepainter’s son Harry Burton might sing patriotic songs on Empire Days, ‘but it did us no harm because it never went very far,’ and no one knew where the Empire was.” Of course, just because a housepainter was ignorant of the broader scope of British imperialism does not mean that he didn’t benefit directly and indirectly from it. Literature, art and patriotic songs can imbue a culture with subliminal as well as liminal biases. It would have been better for Rose to fall back on his earlier, sturdier argument: that working class people could, by and large, read imperialist stories without being brainwashed by them; they had the intellectual capacity to weigh evidence, form their own perceptions/opinions, and judge the merits and demerits of imperialism on their own terms.

Thankfully, Rose levies this excellent approach in the very best chapter of the book, “Alienation from Marxism,” a tour de force of lively, convincing rhetoric. Here, he shows little patience for Marxism’s heavy-handed, prescriptive, ideologically driven manipulation of workers and their intellectual worlds. He fires his first volley thusly:

[E]arly British Marxists dismissed as “bourgeois” the same canon of English classics that inspired generations of autodidacts, thus alienating the very proletarian intellectuals who might have been the driving force behind a more creative Marxism. Where Marxists defined exploitation in purely economic terms, Labour socialists, brandishing their Everyman’s Library volumes, promised beauty in life, joy in work, a moral vision for politics. Following a long line of radicals and mutual improvers, they proclaimed that knowledge (rather than ownership of the means of production) is power.

In other words, wide, promiscuous reading of the classics by the proletariat helped them to think for themselves, seize more control over and improve their situations, take moral accountability for their actions, and, most importantly, inculcate them in the need to question all ideologies – including the rigid, dehumanizing theories of Marxism. This is why those of the far, radicalized left despised classic literature, and continue to do so: because it can provide readers with a prismatic worldview that makes them less susceptible to easy, vacuum-sealed propaganda. Rose goes further. He says for all of Marxism’s bluster about the working class, few in the target audience actually found its writing compelling or even digestible:

In fact, most workers did have great difficulty reading Marx and Marxists … [T]he Marxists generally and glaringly failed to produce literature accessible to the working classes. If Ross McKibbin is right – that there was no British Marxism because Britain lacked an alienated intelligentsia, but developed a working-class party and trade union movement of the middle classes – that amounts to saying that Marxism is inherently a movement of the educated classes rather than the laboring classes. The latter were effectively and , one could argue, deliberately excluded by the difficulty of Marxist language. Any number of autodidacts registered that complaint.

It’s the “deliberately excluded” part of that quote that hits the nail on the head for me. This feeling of alienation from language might certainly resonate with anyone who has taken a graduate-level, Marxism-inspired critical theory course after having completed – and loved – a Great Books course as an undergrad, as I did. That sense of estrangement only gets compounded should you be a member of the working or clerking class.

Rose’s ultimate rejection of Marxism comes in the form of his ongoing love of autodidactic reading, which remains the backbone of and largest endorsement in this fabulous, spirited book. Of course I would say that, reviewing this tome on a blog called Free Range Reading. But this notion is where Intellectual Life finds its greatest strength: in the way it reminds us of the inherent value of solitary, individualized, unideological, intellectual pursuits. A person’s intellectual life is a garden within himself that he tends to, a place for quiet reflection, for sowing new seeds, and for weeding when necessary. Rose’s book is a much-needed palliative against arguments that say otherwise, a reminder about how Great Books can both disrupt and connect us to our sense of self, and this ultimately makes that garden within us a more enriching place.