Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne

Oh, how does one sum up the world’s kookiest, most prank-laden novel in a few hundred words? Reading Laurence Sterne’s magnum opus Tristram Shandy, published in nine volumes beginning in 1759, brought me both immediate rewards and long-term contemplations. The immediate reward of slogging through this near 600-page “fictional memoir” (as they were referred to back then) is the recognition of how much fun Laurence had taking the piss out of a literary form that was still very much in its infancy. (Depending where you start counting from – Daniel Defoe, in my case, or even earlier – the English novel was most likely less than a century old.) It’s refreshing to see that one doesn’t have to wait until 1960 before encountering an “experimental novel”.

Oh, and the experiments and trickery come fast and furious in this text. Despite the book being labeled “life and opinions”, Mr. Shandy divulges very little of himself or his positions on issues of the day. Instead, Laurence’s protagonist gives us rich portraits of his father, his uncle “Toby” (why the quote marks, at nearly every reference?) as well as the characters Yorick, Dr. Slop and Tristham’s mother. The book discusses everything from obstetrics and the nature of war to the size of noses and less-mentionable body parts. The text is full of malapropism, bawdy humour, self-censorship, nonsensical Latin phrases, and fart jokes. The biggest prank, I think, is the outright removal of an entire chapter (Volume IV Chapter XXIV), made even more jarringly hilarious because the book has been paginated in such a way that the excluded chapter looks like a printer’s error. Needless to say, Laurence has a “Ha ha, I fooled you!” moment at the beginning of chapter XXV over these 10 missing pages.

The influences on Tristham Shandy are obvious right from the start: Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the picaresque energy of the text; and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel for the sexual and scatological humour. Tristham Shandy would go on to have a huge impact on novelists of subsequent centuries – everyone from Flaubert and Proust to Joyce and Robbe-Grillet. But make no mistake that Tristham Shandy stands on its own as a singular phenomenon. There is nothing quite like it.

So what is the novel about, anyway? Oh, it’s about birth and death and war and the state of Europe at the time. It’s a play on the father/son/uncle dynamic of Hamlet and it’s also quite a bit of hilarious nonsense. Is it still relevant to a contemporary reader? Well, yes. There’s lots here that lingers in the mind. Let me quote just one passage and see if it conjures for you, as it did for me, something odious about living in the 21st century. From Volume VI Chapter XXXII:

I am not insensible, brother Shandy, that when a man, whose profession is arms, wishes, as I have done, for war – it has an ill aspect of the world; – and that, how just and right soever his motives and intentions may be, - he stands in an easy posture in vindicating himself from private views of doing it.

For this cause, if a soldier is a prudent man, which he may be, without being a jot the less brave, he will be sure not to utter his wish in the hearing of an enemy; for say what he will, an enemy will not believe him.

The literary references and linguistic approaches may seem arcane, but the pulse that throbs inside Tristham Shandy still has quite a bit of relevance for today.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A product of his time?

I read something yesterday in the UK Guardian that reminded me of the Retro Reading Challenge that I ran earlier in the year on this blog. (A challenge for which I haven't yet received all the entries - I'm looking at you, Kerry Clare and Amy Jones!) Literary journalist Alison Flood has written a thoughtful article on her attempts to read The Complete Chronicles of Conan, by Robert E. Howard. Yes, we're talking about that Conan, portrayed by Governor Arnold in two films back in the 1980s. Flood doesn't manage to get through the entire Conan oeuvre, but she describes the stories she does finish as "pure pulp fiction, and all the more enjoyable for being unashamedly so." She digs the melodrama for what it is and enjoys the preposterously fantastical plot lines as they rollick through the text. She makes comparisons to the work of Jane Gaskell, who was a guilty pleasure of Flood's childhood reading years.

But inevitably, Flood points out what jars so drastically for a contemporary reader with the Conan books: their thinly veiled attitudes toward race and gender. Texas-based Howard wrote his stories during the 1920s and `30s (he committed suicide in 1936 at age 30) and was by all accounts an unapologetic racist. His attitude toward blacks, and toward women for that matter, manifested itself in the prose of his Conan books: the darker the skin, the more evil the villains; the light the skin, the more beautiful the women. Flood points out that many contemporary readers forgive Howard for this bigotry because he was, after all, a "product of his time"; and besides, he wrote pulp-fiction "sword and sorcerer" stories directed mostly at teenage boys, most of whom couldn't recognize subtext if it clobbered them over the head.

But I read one of the Conan books the summer I was 13 (Conan the Usurper; it was dreadful!) and even then spotted the racist binaries that the stories therein had set up. And the passages that Flood cites are pretty cringe worthy in their own right - both in terms of race and of gender. Sure Howard was a product of his time and a pulp writer, but should that absolve him of the overt choices he made with his writing? Lots of writers are "products of their time": Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Harper Lee. Each of those more literary writers chose to tackle race and/or gender in their work, but did so with sensitivity and a broad perspective. One can write about racists without the work itself being racist (for an excellent example, see Eudora Welty's short story "Where Is the Voice Coming From?") and it's all in the product of the telling. Should we forgive Howard because he wrote what is essentially trash?

What do you think? Should pulp writers get a free pass when it comes to being "products of their time"? Does it matter when the writing is meant to be pure escapism?


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Acceptance: The Quint (Manitoba)

Okay, I also just got confirmation that another poem of mine, entitled "Northumberland Strait", will appear this fall in the online literary journal The Quint, put out by the University College of the North (UCN) in The Pas, Manitoba. The Quint has published some pretty hefty names, including Heather Spears and Dave Margoshes, and I'm very pleased to hear I'll be included in its next issue.

The poetry editor there is Yvonne Trainer, author of several collections of poems including the absolutely remarkable Tom Three Persons (Frontenac House, 2002). Yvonne and I were actually "e-colleauges" years and years ago at The Canadian Literature Archive Website; and while we have never actually met in person, we exchanged many fabulous emails during that time and got along like peas and carrots. She's an incredible poet and you should definitely go check out some of her stuff.

Acceptance: All Rights Reserved (Halifax, NS)

Got word earlier this week that I've had three poems accepted by All Rights Reserved, a literary journal out of Halifax, for its fall issue. ARR has been on my radar for a number of years now and I'm very pleased to hear I'll be included in the next edition.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Yesterday's post republished on Maisonneuve

So my essay from yesterday on arts funding has proven to be quite popular. So popular in fact that Carmine Starnino, editor of Maisonneuve magazine, contacted me out of the blue (we've never met) just hours after I posted it to ask if he could re-publish it on the Maisonneuve blog. I was immensely flattered. You can find it here.

There are probably very few readers of my blog who don't know who Carmine is, but in case you don't: he's an extremely accomplished poet and critic with several books under his belt, and he has won or been shortlisted for a number of major literary awards, including the Governor General's Award for Poetry. If you haven't encountered his stuff yet, you should definitely go check it out.

I was also pleased to see my good buddy Zach Wells give a shout out to this blog when the essay went up. Zach wrote his own passionate piece against arguing for arts funding on economical grounds about three years ago. Zach wisely weaves criticisms of Margaret Atwood into his essay, as she's also been known to argue for arts funding using the language of business. I myself had some jabs at Atwood in the first draft of my own post, but I ended up cutting them because I couldn't get them to flow well enough with my invective against Florida (and the post was getting too dang long as it was).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It’s not the economy, stupid

I spotted this article from Halifax’s Chronicle Herald on my friend Trevor’s Facebook page earlier this week, talking about cultural funding cuts back in Nova Scotia, and I felt compelled to wade in with my $0.02.

The article, written by Andrew David Terris from ARTS NOVA Cultural Research and Consulting, chastises the NDP government’s surprisingly short-sighted decision to reduce the province’s culture budget by $1.1 million. Most core programs will remain unchanged, with nearly half the cuts coming to one-shot initiatives.

I’m totally with Terris when he says that Nova Scotia has one of the worst track records in Canada for investing in arts and culture; it’s probably the chief reason I no longer live in that province. It pisses me off, for obvious reasons, when I hear about governments at any level cutting funding for the arts. But I think what got my dander up about this article is the way that Terris frames the argument for more funding for the cultural industry. Terris loses me when he writes: “Unfortunately, the Nova Scotia government’s ongoing failure to invest in the province’s cultural sector will have serious economic consequences.”

Um, no. As sad as it is to say, the economic contribution of the cultural sector to both Nova Scotia and to Canada at large is negligible – less than 4% of GDP and less than 5% of total employment, according to recent numbers from StatsCan. Even when you factor in sexy, newfangled industries like digital media, bio-tech, nano-tech, etc, the total combined contribution to our country’s economy is still just a fraction of what traditional sectors like natural resources and manufacturing provide. To argue that a government should invest in the arts or the economy is doomed is reckless and specious.

It’s pretty clear where this kind of thinking is coming from, though. Terris cites an atrociously argued report called Building the Creative Economy in Nova Scotia, which in turn takes most of its ideas from the lunatic urban theories of blowhard Richard Florida. Florida, for those of you who don’t know, is most famous for his ideas around something called the “Creative Class”. He argues in his books and newspaper columns (and on his extremely high-paying speaking tours) that this group of workers – artists, writers, musicians, web designers and other “high bohemians” – are what will drive massive economic development in the “new paradigm” of our future economies. Investing in this Creative Class, the theory goes, will herald in a new era of dynamism, creativity, and sophistication to urban areas, creating a super-charged atmosphere of creativity that will in turn attract bucket-loads of capital and investment.

Utter hogwash. Florida is not an economist but rather an “urban theorist”, and the data and methodologies he uses to argue his ideas have been attacked by academics, journalists and real economists alike. How anyone can believe that art galleries and funky caf├ęs will ever produce more or better-paying jobs than manufacturing and natural resources is beyond me. What Florida spouts is nothing more than yuppie validation, and is not based on reality. The truth remains the same: traditional capital spawns the cultural sector, not the other way around. But a lot of urbane, cosmopolitan creative types buy into Florida’s theories because they see it as a silver bullet for arguing for more cultural funding: after all, if culture is the future of the economy, if it is going to be the engine of tomorrow’s prosperity, then why wouldn’t you invest in it? These people are probably exhausted trying to argue for more cultural funding based on other, non-economical grounds, and Florida tells them exactly what they’ve been waiting to hear.

I am not exhausted. To argue for the arts based on economics is a fool’s errand, and I think Florida’s theories are dangerous. He posits, for example, that cities should be more accepting of gays and lesbians because they will play a huge role in this new super-creative economy. Really? And what if they didn’t? What if someone could prove with an Excel spreadsheet that homosexuality is a net-loss to the economy? Does that mean we should then shepherd in homophobia and intolerance? Of course not. You don’t accept gays and lesbians into your community because they’re good for the economy. You accept them because it’s the right thing to do – because doing so makes ours a more just and humane society.

The exact same thing goes for the arts. I’m a staunch proponent of the traditional argument for cultural funding, which goes somewhat like this:
  1. There is something much more to a healthy society than just a strong, upwardly mobile economy, and
  2. Arts and culture play a vital role in whatever that something is.
That’s it. If you’re an artist, that’s the beach you die on. But when artists themselves – not to mention their hangers on, advocates and lobby groups – stop believing in the inherent truth of point 1 and start seeing everything through the prism of economics, then a whole Pandora’s box opens. Notice, for example, that right-wing pro-business groups here in Canada have started locking their lobbying crosshairs on the traditional humanities departments at our universities. They’re arguing that these hallowed (but, thanks to postmodernists, endemically masochistic) institutions should be “revamped” – i.e. done away with – in order to make way for places to train creative types to work in these kinds of “new economy” jobs that Florida pontificates about. So great: workers will be able to design websites and or curate art galleries, write press releases or use Photoshop without ever getting a grounding in the fundamentals of intellectualism, without learning how to think critically or argue logically. These people are building their houses on sand.

Sadly, I actually believe that traditional arts and culture are a net loss to the economy. Whatever they add to GDP, the arts probably take more away from it in terms of funding and other public support. But you know what, that’s the way it should be. Because there is more to life than just economics. There is something to be said for art for art’s sake. But if creative types themselves don’t believe that anymore, then why should anybody else?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wimbledon gets a poet in residence

I'm not a huge fan of tennis (in those rare times when I actually watch the game on TV, I've been known to yell out Run, ya little bastard! whenever the ball boys go dashing across the court), but I have to admit that the poem at the end of this article is pretty frickin' awesome.

Friday, May 14, 2010

RR launches new website

Just thought I'd let you all know that RR has launched her brand new website and it looks absolutely frickin' fabulous. It's a jazzy combination of a dynamic blog and a more formal static website. I especially like the signature "RR" at the bottom of each post.

I'm no doubt going to love this site as much as I've loved Rose-coloured. I still remember the first post I ever read and how I was absolutely hooked. Ahh, memories...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Risky writing

I really had to dig Steven Heighton's essay Hooked on esthetic risk that appeared on The National Post's Afterword blog earlier today. If you recall, I touched on the importance of taking risks in writing in my recent review of The Golden Mean, and I found myself agreeing with virtually everything Heighton had to say in his essay today.

If there is one writer in this country who can speak from experience about risk-taking in creative writing, it's Heighton. This is a guy whose work has moved fluidly between novels, short stories and poetry over the last 20 years, and no one could ever accuse him of writing the same book twice. I was pleased to read another Canadian author write so passionately about the need to explore new perspectives, to take on new challenges and write outside of one's points of reference. Heighton says:
Some years ago I realized that it was getting too easy for me to write from the perspective of characters of roughly my age, who shared my library, my stack of CDs, my frame of socio-political reference. Needless to say, that cruise-control ease was no guarantee of quality, or even authenticity. At any rate I was starting to bore myself ... So writing from the point of view of women—the gender I knew less about and, for a number of reasons, found more interesting—seemed an apt gamble on many grounds. Gamble, yes, because transgendered writing of this kind is harder, no question. But harder is good. Extending yourself creatively is good, flying the plane manually again is good, finding new constraints to work within is good.
I was especially heartened to hear a successful writer articulate and stand up for the importance of taking these sorts of risks, considering that one of the two protagonists in my own new (and still very much in-progress) novel is a Korean woman born in 1928. It gives me hope that this sort of thing not only can be done, but should be encouraged.

The only quibble I have with Heighton's essay is that he implies that the "repetitive story syndrome" he's fighting against is limited to middle-aged writers. Not so. I'm often surprised how many young scribblers, especially in this country, simply repurpose the mood, structure, approach or themes from their first book in their second and third books and beyond. Part of it might be the pressures of the book business, part of it might be the bureaucratic pigeonholing that goes on in our various arts administrations, and part of it might be the writer genuinely trying to stake out a long-term "vision" for his or her work. But I'm with Heighton. Doing the same thing (or even a similar thing) book after book after book would bore me silly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why I love A.L. Kennedy

"The days of averagely successful writers being able to earn a living simply by writing have probably gone, if not for good, then for the foreseeable future. The tiny percentage at the top of the iceberg will be OK: everyone else will be cold, or cold and under water, or cold and under water and pale and bloated. This will mean more hours for huge numbers of writers; more work to subsidise the work you want to do, and more risk of falling apart while you push yourself too hard to get that extra inch forward."

Friday, May 7, 2010

For Mothers Day: Great and Memorable Moms in Literature

So Sunday is Mothers Day and I hope you are all doing something special for the moms in your lives. Unfortunately, my own mom lives 1,600 kilometres away on PEI, which has once again made me feel sad and guilty for not being around for her. But I have already assured her that I will be there with her in spirit and I will also be following up on the card I sent with a phone call.

I had plans of doing a great big long post on "Great and Memorable Moms in Literature", but after perusing my shelves for some time I was a bit surprised to realize that I don't actually have a ton of books containing something suitable for this topic. Isn't that a bit depressing? There are of course moms in literature who are memorable for all the wrong reasons - think the crazy mom in Stephen King's Carrie or the self-absorbed mom-poet in Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running with Scissors. But what about simply strong, noble moms doing strong, noble-mom things?

Thankfully, Canadian Literature was able to provide me with at least a few examples. One of my favourite moms in literature is Reta Winters from Carol Shields' exquisite novel Unless. Here's a story of a woman who sees her happy and carefully balanced middle-class life upended when one of her daughters decides to live on a Toronto street corner with a handwritten sign around her neck that reads "GOODNESS", and of how Reta meets that challenge with poise and strength. Margaret Laurence was able to create at least two memorable moms in her work: Morag Gunn, from The Diviners, who struggles to balance the writing life with the obligations of parenthood, and Hagar Shipley from The Stone Angel, who is, well, Hagar Shipley. I also love the caustic, no-nonsense mom that Wayne Johnston creates for his fictionalized Joey Smallwood in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. And of course we cannot forget Alice Munro, who has created countless amazing moms doing countless amazing mom things, both large and small, in many of her short stories.

But I feel like I'm missing a whole slew of other great moms in literature. Surely there are more, and outside of Canadian Literature? So I'll throw it out to you: who are your favourite moms in literature? What moms from books really stick out for you? Leave a comment below.