The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, September 17, 2007


By Tamara Lee

Write what you want to read. That old chestnut, lately, does not easily resonate for me in its reverse--Read what you’d like to write--in terms of contemporary Canadian literature.

The other day, a guy I know, who grew up nose-to-book in the back of his family’s used bookstore, who himself now manages a bookstore, stated that he does not ‘read Canadian.’ It’s something I remember from when we were both bookstore clerks at the store he now manages, but it still hit me hard. He pressed on, explaining that the contemporary Canadian stories and novels he’s read, apart from Carol Shields, are pretentious, over-wrought and/or boring. ‘Geist,’ he remarked, ‘puts me to sleep by page 3.’

Feeling defensive, but knowing his tastes run along the lines of novelists like Martin Amis and David Mitchell, I tried but couldn’t think of anyone off-hand who is currently, distinctly, not-boring, not-safe or not-earnest. That is until I remembered that guy named Pasha Malla. Phew. There’s one. ‘Does he write novels?’ Sigh. No, not yet. But I heard a rumour one is forthcoming (and a story collection is due 2008). Nonetheless, my friend told me he’d seek out Pasha’s work, seemed pleased to be proved just a little wrong, even enthusiastic that there could possibly be a new wave of Canadian writers who don’t come off as trying too hard.

These past couple of months, I have been going through a novel-reading dry spell. It’s been mostly memoirs and creative non-fiction, and of the few novels I did pick up, only one was Canadian, Steven Heighton’s ‘The Shadow Boxer.’ I was excited by its first few pages, by its loose and confident humour, its subtle poetry. And then, as if by some Canada-Council mandate, it became suddenly thick with clever and laden with adjectives. I put it aside and picked up a collection of Grace Paley stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love lyrical, magic-filled writing and have been known to dive deep into Marquez and Ondaatje, emerging drenched and fulfilled from all that beauty and poetry. But they seem, now, to represent a sport I am no longer as enthusiastic about as once I was. It could be a phase, or it could be that those are not the kinds of stories I want to tell any more.

It seems I want the sort of unpretentious, gritty, novel (or memoir) told with a bit of humour, of the kind Canadians are not publishing right now. No highbrow academic wit, no neon-poignancy, please. Poignancy ought to be the gentle reward of a well-told tale, not the inspiration for telling it. It should creep up behind you and maybe scare the bejesus out of you, startling you into recognising something (maybe unsavoury) in yourself you didn’t know you believed.

And so what is it about contemporary Canadian novels that seems so earnest, so pining, so needy; yet seemingly so afraid to take brazen risks or to get really messy? Is that really the Canadian truth?

Perhaps this is just a stage in our literary timeline, and it could mean we too will have a reactionary spurt, similar to the one that gave Britain its spate of exciting young writers some 20 years ago-to-now. How long must we wait to get beyond what our wise and wonderful Andrew Tibbetts has called ‘kitchen sink stories’?

But I’m not just talking about short stories. I am talking mainly about Canadian novels that will inspire us to await anxiously for the next one, to want to read the author’s entire backlist, not because we have to, to fulfill our Canadian lit class requirements, but because we are compelled to see what other fascinating and thrilling observations she or he may have.

While Canadian short stories continue to impress, with some exciting work floating around out there by some young (and not so young) writers, I could not contest my friend’s other point (one that made me blush in recognition of my own recent efforts) about the deluge of Canadian linked-story collections seen clogging the remainder bins at our bookstore for years. Could it be our best writers are actually afraid of the novel? Have we somehow frightened our writers into believing that novel-writing is for…gulp…others?

I will return to that previously mentioned abandoned-read soon, I am sure, and hope to confess on this very blog that I was wrong and it’s among my favourite novels, not just favourite Canadian novels. In the meantime, I am embarking on David Mitchell’s ‘Black Swan Green,’ highly recommended by my bookstore pal.

And I will continue to seek out more contemporary Canadian novels that fit my current tastes, because, like my friend, I want to be proved wrong.

(Image credit: Verisimilitude1)


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Maybe because I wasn't born here, I like Canadian books. Or, maybe it's because I'm old and the stuff that's written doesn't appeal as much to younger people. I also prefer short stories to novels, so I don't mind if that's what Canadians write. I didn't find the two Anne-Marie Macdonald books I read pretentious. What did you think of them?

Mon Sep 17, 03:54:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

While I liked Fall on Your Knees quite a bit, I wasn't wowed by it, not enough to seek her second book. Is that a good read? I think Macdonald's was one of the first in a long time to try to break that CanLit dryly-told-tale barrier. That made it especially remarkable.

Hopefully, I didn't come off sounding as though I don't like Canadian novels. Just that there seems to be certain element of 'safe'ness about them; a sort of restraint I can't put my finger on. And that I'm not able to find any that suit my current tastes.

But there does seem to be an awful lot of coming-of-age, my-childhood-was-crap Canadian contemporary novels, but I think that's a first-novel syndrome in general.

Mon Sep 17, 04:18:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I actually preferred The Way the Crow Flies to Fall on Your Knees. You might like Billie Livingston's Cease to Blush (definitely gritty and unpretentious) or Susan Musgrave's Cargo of Orchids (not for the squeamish).

Mon Sep 17, 04:27:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thank, Tricia. I will look for those.

Mon Sep 17, 04:56:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Thanks for this post, Tamara. Very eloquent.

Mon Sep 17, 07:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, Tony. Thanks kind of you to say.

Tue Sep 18, 01:38:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

You KNOW I KNOW how you feel!

Although I can't say that I've liked any novels that much lately, not just Canadian ones. The things I liked about reading novels I'm getting when I rent the DVD of particularly good tv series. Watching "The Wired" seasons one through three, is the best 'novel' I've 'read' in ages.

Since TV series are upping the quality (Sopranos, Big Love, Six Feet, Battlestar Galatica (I'm serious- it's great), Deadwood, Lost, and I MUST say it again- The Wire) they've proven to be good at what novels used to do- give us a BIG story with a wide lens, a big canvas, a whole socio-cultural milieu- characters interacting, history being shaped. What can novels do that other art forms cannot? Well- interior monologue, for one. Voice-overs suck- so we can love a novel like "Catcher in the Rye" because we get so close to Holden. A first-person novel is a voice, not a voice-over.

But the key, is finding someone with a story to tell. We let the most morose character narrate their first-person 'tales' to us, in CanLit. Can't we get some spitfires? I think that's why we like memoirs- a lot of the best books in the past few years, the most moving, the most entertaining, are a great mix of funny and sad. someone is telling their life story passionately, with wisdom and humour. and something has really happened to them. Whether it's horrible or not.

I'm blathering. But YOU know.
Great post, T.

Mon Sep 24, 05:32:00 pm GMT-4  

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