Baby literary snobbery

Being a kid was frustrating.

Specifically, I’m thinking of those tween years, you know, when you’re 11 or 12 and it just seems like it’s taking forever to grow up. And all you want to do is to grow up. To make decisions about what you’ll eat and what your room looks like and what you’ll wear and what you’ll do when you come home from school and if you can find somewhere less soul-destroying to be all day than in elementary school.

This was the year that I was still in a cheery little girl’s room, two painted peach walls, 2 wallpapered with a peach tulip pattern. I hated the colour peach (still do), but my parents told me it was staying, so it stayed. I plastered the walls around my bed with posters of the [original] 90210 cast, animals, and anything else I could rip out of Teen Beat or Tiger Beat or whatever crap was the cool teen magazine to read. I didn’t want to be a kid anymore. I wanted to be a grown-up, with imagined freedoms and infinite knowledge. I wanted to boundaries of my everyday life to be a little less confining.

I couldn’t do much about my room, or the parental rules, or even what I was learning in school. But I could choose what I read. And that was the year I became a literary snob.

I had no idea what literature meant. To be frank, I’m not sure the word was in my vernacular. But I knew I was sick of reading kid books. I was sick of reading about other kids who were stuck in my situation, where they did what their parents told them to (or didn’t, and suffered the consequences), ate what their parents fed them (or didn’t, and suffered the consequences), went to school when their parents sent them (or didn’t, and suffered the consequences), and so forth (suffer the consequences!).

I was going to only read ‘grown-up’ books. That was my 11-year-old stand.

As adults, we know that ‘grown-up’ books is an impossible genre to categorize. It basically means everything that’s not meant for children and young adults, though in recent years, ‘grown-ups’ seem to read YA fiction more voraciously than said YAs. But when I was in the infancy of my literary snobbery, ‘grown-up’ books meant books about grown-ups. Or semi-grown-ups.

And so I started reading like a fiend, trying to figure out what a grown-up book was. I dabbled in V.C. Andrews for a while. Thick glossy tomes with mature themes. My step-mom called them crap, but bless their souls, she and my father never censored what I read. In fact, I remember my father buying me, as a gift, the latest in the series I was enthralled with. I did my sixth grade book report on V.C. Andrews’ Secrets of the Morning, which to me, was a grown-up book. There were secrets. There was sex. The main character’s parents lived in another state. It was awesome.

I fell into Stephen King as my classmates also began to push their reading boundaries. The girl who sat directly across from me for a time in Grade 6 was doing her book report on Misery. Our desks abutted each other, and through the busy day of 11-year-old girls, the surface contents of our desks would meld, crossing boundaries, the whole thing turning into an entropic heap of books and papers. And one day, I picked up that copy of Misery that had drifted over to my desk.

I’d love to tell you that it was a Eureka! moment. A love-at-first-sight-where-have-you-been-all-my-life epiphany of a moment. But it was just some mental cataloguing: this is also a grown-up book. Cool.

As adults, we might look back on this literary snobbery in its infancy, and call it misguided. In fact, I often do, in my moments where I’m feeling a little bit off about genre fiction (which I’ve corrected for the most part, due largely to this splendid interview: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5653/the-art-of-fiction-no-189-stephen-king). The impulse to call something misguided has to come from somewhere. Literary snobbery does not exist in a vacuum.

I make no qualms about it. I am a snob when it comes to fiction. I expect a lot out of my books.

When I was a kid, rejecting kid books, was I already a lit snob? Probably not. But these stories didn’t grab me anymore. I just didn’t care, couldn’t care anymore. But why did I care about a girl who gets knocked up by her music teacher, or a writer who is bedridden and at the hands of his Biggest Fan?

One theory is that fiction is used to push the boundaries of our everyday realities. Most good fiction is nothing more than a relatable story that goes to some point beyond what actually occurs in our lives.

For example, I recently read King’s The Tommyknockers. Now, here’s a relatable story: you’re walking your dog in the woods and you trip. You don’t trip over a tree root, or a loose rock, or your own feet. No. You tripped over something. Some thing. But what is it?

At this point, we’re all in. It’s pretty easy to imagine going for a walk in the woods with one’s dog. Relatable.

But luckily for us, we don’t have to go through what ensues in this book. We get to use this piece of fiction as a way to explore what could happen, to push the boundaries of our own lives.  The way the author treats the events in his/her stories determines the type of fiction; the way we select types of fiction determines how far we get to push said boundaries.

But how and why does this tie into literary snobbishness? Or me as a baby LS?

Perhaps a literary snob is just someone who expects their fiction to push boundaries in a certain way. I realise that ‘a certain way’ can mean so many things, which is why fiction is so subjective. Mostly, when we think about the LS, we think of someone who loftily claims they never read genre fiction, that they only read classics — could it be that this person is expecting their fiction to push their boundaries in terms of critical thinking? Or you know, a total poseur (it happens).

But let’s face it. When I was 11 years old, I wasn’t into critical thinking. The boundaries I was looking to push were the typically taboo: sex and violence. Baby literary snobbery at its best.

Books This Post:

  • Secrets of the Morning, V.C. Andrews.
  • Misery, The Tommyknockers, Stephen King.

Decisions ne’er to be made

In my last post, I took a stand. I was going to choose 17 books I absolutely had to — HAD TO — read in the next little while (weeks? months? years? … I don’t know, I didn’t get that far.).

I think I chose four and then succumbed to that great muddler, Indecision.

I am basically one of the most indecisive people I know.

Sometimes it’s because things don’t really matter. Does it really matter if we meet at the Starbucks near my house or yours? Does it really matter what’s on my pizza (so long as there’s no green peppers)? Does it really matter if we go to the bank then the library then the mall, or should we go bank-mall-library? It doesn’t!

Other times, it’s because I want it all. The reason I have to order last in a restaurant? Because it is so darned difficult to just pick one dinner from a menu — it all just sounds so tasty. My shopping problem? Honestly, I don’t know why I should have to decide on a wash when it comes to jeans — I should probably buy them all. That library rule I referenced in my last post (url), the one where I was only allowed a maximum of ten books at a time? That was because I wanted ALL THE BOOKS. Seriously. I currently have 16 items on loan from my public library. Please don’t tell my dad.

At the age of eleven, I knew I couldn’t decide on any less than 30 books. At age 35, I seem to think that 17 is an appropriate number … and yet I can’t decide which 17 they should be. So, Gentle Reader, I chose 42 books randomly from The Big List (in general, ones that have been there for years) and you can make a decision for me by selecting 17 of these.

If only life were this simple.

Applied Calculus and the Seventeen Books That I’d Like To Finally Read

I pulled out some calculus recently and applied it to life. Yeah, I did. To all of those high school math teachers out there that spend their days trying to convince their students that learning limits and functions are a good use of their time, there is hope. I did it.

How? you might ask.

Well, I was trying to explain to someone how I will never read all of the books on my ‘To Read’ list. Thanks to Goodreads, I know that this list sits in the neighbourhood of 488 books (at the time of writing this). There’s pros and cons to the ease with which Goodreads gives me this info: on the plus side, I know how many there are; the minus is that I guarantee you that I can add five books to that list by the time you finish reading this paragraph.

For those of you who don’t use Goodreads (for whatever reason), it’s sort of like Netflix for books. The site generates little sidebars that say “Because you read Quesadillas, a few similar books:” and then shows 18 different books, with cover art. I can then hover over each cover to generate a bubble where I can read a synopsis, and, should I choose to, click the “Want to Read” button that appears at the bottom.

(Side note: I really liked Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos. I’ll describe it as a surrealistic foray into life in poverty-stricken Mexico in the ’80’s. A quick little read, and a delight.)

Now, some people are super picky about what they read. They painstakingly put each book through a series of tests before committing to it. I envy these people. I see a book in front of me and chances are, I want to read it. I have to read it. I actually remember that my dad had to institute a rule for me at the library when I was a kid: no more than 10 books at a time. Seriously. And I remember I would sometimes try to bargain with him to get that 11th or 12th book in.

When it comes to books, I am nothing short of gluttonous.

So, how does calculus come into this? On the day in question, I was telling some co-workers that I will never actually be able to read every book I want to before I die. I was asked how many books I had on the ‘To Read’ list and I answered, “Close to 500.”
“But you’ll read 500 books before you die.”
“Yes, but …” I paused. “The list is constantly growing.”
“Like, by how much?”
I thought about it. “On average, I probably add five books to the list for every one book I finish.”

We were all quiet while we thought about this. And then, it hit me. This list grows exponentially, taking on more and more titles and never really losing any. I grabbed a whiteboard marker and tried to draw the curve representing the number of books on the list as it steadily marches on toward infinity. “It’s like in calculus, where n approaches infinity — n is the number of books I want to read — over time, t! And there’s some function, f(n), that defines how I keep adding the books even as I read them … but I don’t remember how to do that …”

This episode secured my place as the champion nerd of our workplace. But hey, it is what it is, and it really did seem like a practical application of all the calculus I slogged through in my late teens and early twenties (of which I’ve forgotten 99.7% of it. Sigh.).

Just before starting this post, I was scrolling through the never-ending ‘To Read’ list, trying to decide if I can put some sort of order to it, to decide what I really wanted to read, what I sort of wanted to read, what I just felt like I should read … and then I thought, “What are the 17 books that I would’ve wanted to have read most of all?”

Why 17? I don’t know. That’s the number my brain came up with.

Lucas

Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear.

So. The Seventeen Books That I’d Finally Like to Read:

1. Point Counter Point, by Aldous Huxley. I took this book out of the library when I was marathoning Gossip Girl on Netflix. The jacket notes struck me as oddly reminiscent of the show (well, I guess it’d be the other way around since the book predates the show by about 90 years), only, you know, in a satirical Huxley sort of way.

2. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. I have actually read this before but hurriedly and so I feel like it deserves a second go-over. Not to mention that I’ve been reading a bunch of books set during WWII, leading to the inevitable What Ifs.

3. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller. It was banned for 27 years for being obscene & is now hailed as one of the best books of the 20th century. Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever read any Henry Miller.

4. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. This book sounds gothically ultra-creepy, and so, every year, around Halloween, I pull this book out and decide to read it. Somehow, I never do, and eventually retire it to the shelf until the following year.

5. …

Okay, I’ve hit a block. I do not know where else to go with this list. There are simply too many choices, not to mention the stack of seven books that is currently taunting me from my bedside table. Do I add those? Do I presume I’ll finish them by the beginning of January, when they’re due back at the library? How do I decide between these 489 other books (yes, by the time I’m finishing this post, there are now 493 books on the ‘To Read’ list, which I will now just call The Big List.)?

Thoughts?

Books This Post:

  • Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos. (I read the Rosalind Harvey translation.)
  • Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley.
  • The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick.
  • Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller.
  • The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins.

Why is it considered the height of literary genius when certain windbags puke on a page? [Part Two]

(Preface: I wrote this back in May & forgot to publish it. & actually forgot to finish it. Oops! Apologies if anyone was waiting with bated breath. I also sincerely hope that it’s not too disjointed.)

A little while back, I conducted a completely unscientific and not very well-controlled survey on Facebook regarding people’s favourite colours. Results were varied: purple seemed to be the forerunner, with 32 per cent of the vote; blue followed with 23 per cent; those from the red family had 14 percent; green, nine per cent. Various others, including soup (I told you, very uncontrolled study), ranked in at four-ish per cent each. So. Who was right? What is the best, most favourite colour?

Okay, if you see the ridiculousness of the above question, you get my point. There is no right answer. There is no best colour. Just like there is no best book. It is absolutely and utterly subjective.

When people get up on their high horse and start telling others what they should be reading, it’s about as ridiculous as if they were to argue with you that green is really the only colour that matters (or orange, or pink, or teal). And yet, we’re all guilty of doing this. Or are we?

This story caught my interest: at a New Hampshire high school, students have been reading Jodi Picoult’s ‘controversial’ novel Nineteen Minutes. One girl’s father, feeling this material is inappropriate for his daughter’s age group, has protested to the point that he was arrested and forcibly removed from a school board meeting.

Instantly, people figuratively rallied around Picoult: copies of the book were checked out of libraries, flew off book shelves; teachers around the country Tweeted that they were going to include this book in their curriculum. A lot of words were bandied about citing the brilliance of this book.

I’ve read one Picoult novel. It was this one in question. I think I read it back around the time it hit mass-market paperback, around the time when it felt like everyone was telling me “You have to read Jodi Picoult. You’ll love her.”

Since I never, ever learn that when people tell me that I’ll love something, I actually hate it, I read this book. Loathed it. The writing was fine. I would describe it as TV-movie writing. You know, where you can see the TV-movie playing out in your head? Sometimes, I get so bored by these books that I cast the movie in my head.

The story is set in high school. There’s bullies, there’s kids who are picked on. There’s the adults who have no clue as to what’s going on in their kids’ secret lives. And then there’s “an act of violence that forever changes the lives of Sterling’s residents”.

For me, everything was so stock, so clichéd, so done before, that I was in agony trying to get through it (this was years ago, when I thought giving up on a book was akin to forgetting your child in the bank). When someone asked to borrow it, I gave it to her. Please, don’t give it back.

This is my opinion.

Maybe red is the best colour?

When I saw that this was in the curriculum for a high school classroom, I was torn. On one hand, it’s valid for a teacher to want to use literature to open the lines of communication regarding bullying, peer pressure, and school violence. On the other, isn’t there a piece of literature better suited for this?

There we go. Literary snobbery at its best. But I will explain my thought process.

There’s a certain type of fiction that has no trouble selling. Highly accessible, TV-movie novels, usually optioned for a major motion picture. For some reason (possibly because they’re easy), these books are a staple of pleasure readers. Beach reads, by-the-fire reads, call them what you want, but these are the books that most high school kids will come across in the home, and seemingly, if these kids are going to read, this seems like a likely genre for them to stumble across.

Not helping my case am I? Well, let me say this: there is nothing wrong with wanting to read these books. There is nothing wrong with wanting to read highly accessible writing. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with liking the colour orange.

But what I do take issue with is the fact that it is included in a high school curriculum. If this truly is the best book to deal with school violence, bullying, fitting in, and these are topics that the teacher wants to address, great. But is this really, truly, ultimately the best book there is for this purpose?

The teachers one has in high school help to shape reading choices for their students, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The teachers one has in high school have the potential to introduce you to literature you may not otherwise come across. The teachers one has in high school help determine whether one furthers their education in literature, or stop when the province deems this education complete (in my day, not until the end of high school).

So. With that power, with that freedom, wouldn’t you want to find some treasure instead of this tripe?

But then, we come back to my brother’s question. Why am I not swooning over Picoult? Is she not literary windbag enough for my inner pretentious Lit major? Why am I casting about for another book to deal with teen bullying (Cormier’s The Chocolate War), teen violence (Hinton’s The Outsiders), peer pressure (again, Cormier’s The Chocolate War, or really, any book with people in it)?

I’m basically not convinced that Picoult’s is the best book. But possibly it is. Maybe yellow is the best colour?

A lot of the literature we’re exposed to in high school is at the whim of the teacher. I cited in my last post that my brother hated The Catcher in the Rye. I loved the book. I don’t know how my brother’s experience with the book went, but for the most part, English teachers left me alone in class — they knew I’d read the book and do the work. Class sizes were far too large to worry about someone like me.

As an adult, I wish we’d read more Salinger. Specifically, I wish we’d skipped Catcher and maybe read Franny & Zooey instead. Or both. I only recently read this book. It’s filled with all of Salinger’s dry wit and wonderful writing. Franny has a Holden Caulfield-esque breakdown. But here’s the rub, here’s what would convince my brother of Salinger, redeem him as a writer: Zooey tells her to get a grip.

Now, Catcher had a huge influence on my life when I was 16. I mean, let’s face it, as a teenaged girl, anything that reinforced my inner angst was my absolute favourite. Lie on my bed, listen to Nirvana and read Catcher repeatedly? Sign. Me. Up.

But I, as an adult, imagine if we had read F&Z instead. If I’d fallen into angsty empathy with Franny, only to have my face metaphorically slapped by Zooey? How much different would those uneasy teen years have been?

And with this question, I’m taken to Nick Hornby’s version of the chicken and the egg question: “Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?” Because books, like music, change you, influence you. But books, like music, are sought out to fulfill a particular feeling that an individual may be trying to work out at a moment in time for themselves.

And perhaps that is actually the answer to my brother’s question. Perhaps it is less about who has written the book. Perhaps it is more about what the book accomplishes in terms of helping clarify certain intangibles that we all deal with in our lives. Perhaps the more believably a ‘windbag’ can ‘puke on a page’, the more ‘literary genius’ it demonstrates. Perhaps it’s just about a feeling that a reader can have at a certain point in time with a certain book.

Perhaps blue is the best colour.

Books This Post:

  • Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult.
  • The Catcher in the RyeFranny & Zooey, J.D. Salinger.
  • The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier.
  • The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton.
  • High Fidelity, Nick Hornby.

Why is it considered the height of literary genius when certain windbags puke on a page? [Part One]

This title comes from a conversation I was having with one of my brothers regarding literature. I gave him a crappy answer, comparing today’s popular fiction to the ‘classics’, mourning the ease with which certain crap is published and celebrated today … and not really answering him at all.

This post will be an attempt to answer him for real.

For as long as I can remember, this brother and I have been polar opposites. I liked strawberry ice cream, he liked chocolate. He liked peanut butter on toast, I liked jam. He is calm in an argument, I get agitated and overexcited. I’ve always liked reading, he’s always liked doing other stuff. Don’t get me wrong, my brother is definitely not some mouth-breathing illiterate, it’s just that given a half hour of free time, he will frequently do something else whereas I will sit down with a book.

Given our differences, it has never surprised me that this brother hates some of the books that I count as my favourites. He is in the camp that loathes The Catcher in the Rye; I, on the other hand, loved it in high school (though as an adult am finally seeing flaws in the protagonist). Even mentioning the name Margaret Atwood sends my brother into a ferocious literary craze; I like her writing, for the most part, when it’s not being crammed down my throat in a CanLit frenzy. One of my favourite writers is Virginia Woolf, who I’m sure would drive said brother nuts with her stream-of-consciousness meanderings, though he admits he’s never read her and thus cannot comment. The book that inspired the above question? Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce. No, I am not tackling this giant tome for a blog post. And said brother has not read it either, but the fact that it is considered the most difficult book in the English language spawned this discussion.

So. The question really is: what makes certain pieces of literature great?

And the answer really is: I don’t know.

I was reading another blog recently about genre fiction. Literary snobs like to look down on genre fiction. “Oh, you’re reading a crime thriller?” the LS will say to me. “I only read The Classics.” I cry for these people. Single glistening tear. And yet I realize in doing this, I have seemingly contradicted myself — didn’t I condone classic literature in my opening paragraph, slamming today’s popular fiction? Yes, but no, not really. Before condemning anything, I read it. So I have read all of the 50 Shades and Twilight books before condemning them. I have discovered a guilty pleasure in Kelley Armstrong and Gillian Flynn novels. I have been wait-listed at the public library for some prizewinners (give a book a Giller and every closet LS will place it on hold). I read voraciously and indiscriminately, casting the shadow of judgement only after reading a book (though I have recently learned the art of giving up on a book — certain stories may start out slow and thus I will persevere, but nothing can forgive poor writing, which, quite frankly, I have no time for anymore).

In my slightly defensive stance above, I mention quite a bit of genre fiction, some good, some bad. Some genre fiction is truly great. My favourite genre fiction happens to be science fiction. And while there is frequent finger pointing to my childhood for this preference, it was actually while I was in university that I discovered how much I really loved science fiction. I was fulfilling requirements for my undergrad degree and needed a genre course, and realized that I could opt out of CanLit/American Lit/Native Lit/et cetera, and take Science Fiction instead.

My fellow undergrads were a little bit stunned (undergrads really are the very worst literary snobs), before deciding that I was taking a bird course. Bird course, indeed. The reading list was intense. The discussion groups were small enough that there was nowhere to hide. The professor was extremely well-versed in her subject matter. The assignments were difficult. I put equal amounts of effort in as I did for third year biochemistry, possibly more, because I finished all of the readings for SF.

Our professor showed us large-scale metaphors, brilliantly turned phrases, incredibly detailed worlds and characters. Introduced us to the Dozois collections (which I still buy sporadically), Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Le Guin, to name a few. She worked us hard. And yet, my friends in whatever course that required them to read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene would ask me scornfully “How is Science Fiction going?”.

Literary snobbery at its finest. I told you undergrads were the best at this.

So why, if the calibre of writing that I came across in this SF course was so high, are these novels considered ‘lesser’ than the purported classics? Or, why is it considered the height of literary genius when certain windbags puke on a page?

I will hypothesize that the less accessible a work is, the more highbrow it is considered. I don’t mean accessible in terms of how easy it is to get your hands on it — in this day and age, with a library card and a credit card, you can pretty much get any piece of writing that your little heart desires. No, I’m talking about the work involved in reading it. Most people read for pleasure. Most people want to read a sentence and know what it means, not have to slag through piles of imagery, unpack metaphors, and look up obsolete words before coming to a conclusion as to what the writer may have meant. Most people want to go from A to B to C and they want to understand how they got there.

I mean, honestly, I am often accused of literary snobbery. Frequent literary snobbery. But even at the height of my LS-dom, I still don’t want to come home from a 12-hour shift and try to figure out what this means:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe totauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoord-enenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. (Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce, 1939)

This is so much easier to decipher at the end of a long day:

Then Mohan Kaleer realized, as did Helena Lyakhov at this same moment, that history as men had known it had come to an end. The glittering monsters sailing beyond the clouds, more miles above his head than he dared to guess, made the little cluster of spacecraft up there at Lagrange seem as primitive as log canoes. For a moment that seemed to last forever, Mohan watched, as all the world was watching, while the great ships descended in their overwhelming majesty.

He felt no regrets as the work of a lifetime was swept away. He had labored to take man to the stars, and now the stars — the aloof, indifferent stars — had come to him.

This was the moment when history held its breath, and the present sheared asunder from the past as an iceberg splits from its parent cliffs, and goes sailing out to sea in lonely pride. All that the past ages had achieved was as nothing now; only one thought echoed and re-echoed through Mohan’s brain:

The human race was no longer alone. (Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke, 1953)

So. Since literature is so subjective, some people will prefer to read Joyce, some Clarke. But is one better? Not necessarily. Is one more accessible to the casual reader? Probably. I will note here that SF presents an inherent problem to some people, in that they can’t wrap their heads around the science-y bits (in the above passage, the mere mention of spacecraft will shut some people down). If you are one of those people, I present to you another, non-SF passage to consider for comparison with Joyce:

The sun was setting as he drove across the Park, an hour or two later. He was thinking that he had forgotten something; but what, he did not know. Scene passed over scene; one obliterated another. Now he was crossing the bridge over the Serpentine. The water glowed with sunset light; twisted poles of lamplight lay on the water, and the cab entered the shadow of the trees, and joined the long line of cabs that was streaming towards the Marble Arch. People in evening dress were going to plays and parties. The light became yellower and yellower. The road was beaten to a metallic silver. Everything looked festive.

But I’m going to be late, he thought, for the cab was held up in a block by the Marble Arch. He looked at his watch — it was just on eight-thirty. But eight-thirty means eight-forty-five he thought, as the cab moved on. Indeed as it turned into the square there was a car at the door, and a man getting out. So I’m just on time, he thought, and paid the driver. (The Years, Virginia Woolf, 1937)

To me, this passage, if we say that accessibility is a sliding, continuous scale, lies somewhere in between the Clarke & the Joyce. To me. I will read Woolf when I come home from a long shift at work. I will actually read Woolf during my half hour lunch at work. Same with Clarke. And maybe I’m completely intimidated by Joyce, but I can’t see myself pulling out Finnegan’s Wake in the staff lunchroom and working through it over a sandwich whilst people talk around me. To me, from passages I’ve read, this is an alone book.

Accessibility may not be the only factor at play here, but it definitely is an important one. This includes (but is not limited to) language, metaphors, imagery, themes — if you will, the objective parts of literature. That is to say, you can sit down and make a list: Book A uses difficult/archaic language, is heavy in metaphors and imagery, deals with complex themes; Book B uses moderately easy/contemporary language, has some metaphors, is light in imagery, and the themes are clear-cut and tangible. Book B is more accessible than Book A.

But do you enjoy Book B more? Or Book A? And therein lies the subjective nature of literature, which I’m going to deal with in the next part (this one’s gotten quite long).

(As an aside, I will note that what I am calling accessibility is also subjective; however, for the sake of argument, I’ve tried to slot it as a somewhat objective parameter, or at least build it up out of objective parameters, in order to help clarify these muddy, muddy waters.)

Books This Post:

  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.
  • Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce.
  • Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke.
  • The Years, Virginia Woolf.

RIP, Alistair MacLeod

One of my major pet peeves with social media is the insincerity of it. I’m specifically addressing the shallow mourning that takes place on Facebook whenever a public figure passes. It is especially rampant in, but not limited to, the passing of musicians and movie stars. This is not especially the point of this post, and so I’m really reining myself in here so that I don’t rant.

Monday of this week, I was drinking coffee & scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw that Alistair MacLeod had passed away. I was shocked, I was surprised, I was upset. Quickly, I confirmed that it was true with a trusted news source. Then I was a hypocritical douche and posted the CBC article on my Facebook page, obliging when Facebook asked me to ‘Say something about this …’ by writing some deep and profound blather.

I sound like I don’t stand behind this decision. But I really, truly do. But looking at it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know me well (let’s be honest about who our Facebook friends are), this post made me a hypocritical douche.

The difference is that I really, truly meant what I wrote. The difference is that I am really, truly saddened by the passing of Mr MacLeod.

The difference is that once upon a time, I met him.

In 2002, I was taking a creative writing course at Trent University. Our professor, Orm Mitchell, arranged for a couple of writers to come and speak to us during the year. Mr MacLeod was the first. It was early in the year and in accordance with the course’s structure, we did not have anything fit for him to read. It was more of a chance to hob-nob with someone who did what we wished we could: publish.

Class that night took place at our professor’s house. He and his wife put together a wine-and-cheese type spread. In preparation, we read The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. The session consisted of Mr MacLeod addressing us with some sort of prepared speech. I wish I could remember what he told us specifically, but the gist was “Write what you know; write every day; be prepared for rejection.” Afterward, he answered patiently answered questions: questions about writing the text in question (which incidentally, was published before 75 per cent of us were born — kudos to him for humouring us), the writing process, the publishing process. The publishing process, especially. We all knew how the writing process went, knew too well the coffee growing cold by your right arm whilst you poured your heart into a blinking cursor or clacking typewriter, only to delete the pages, tear them up, dump them into a pile or file which could only be called Horrific Shit. But once in a while, we’d individually hit gold. We wanted to know how to get that gold to the masses.

Calmly, kindly, with a grandfatherly humour, he answered all of our questions. Because we were only twelve students, we luckily didn’t run into too many double-asked questions (you know, the ones that always happen in large groups because someone wasn’t listening), but those that did crop up, he’d carefully reiterate his previously made point.

Looking back, the evening is now a bit of a blur — in my defense, it was twelve years ago. I remember that he was immensely patient, not condescending in the least. I remember that I loved that book of short stories, loved those tales of people in crumbling East Coast towns. I remember wondering where he found those stories, what his story was, who he was in those stories.

I remember during the designated mingling period, over the spread that the Mitchells had put out (a far cry from the student fare I was used to), I was the ultimate dork and asked Mr MacLeod to sign my copy of his book.

As soon as the words escaped my mouth, shame flooded my face. Had I really just been so uncool? Holding a cracker in one hand and the slim volume in another, I risked a glance up at his face, which thankfully did not hold the derision I expected. “You really want me to sign it?” he asked slowly.

I nodded. “If you don’t mind.”

He set down his glass of wine and took the proffered book, pen clipped to the cover. Asked my name. Signed the title page. “Have you read it?”

Again a nod. “Oh, yeah,” I said, aiming toward casual. Looking down at the book, I realized that it looked unread: new for the class, spine uncracked, pages unmolested, a half of a Post-It stuck in at my favourite story. Shame rushed back in; I suddenly felt like a fame whore with an autograph book. Trying to regain credibility, I told him which was my favourite story in the collection. I told him what I liked about it. I beat a hasty retreat with a hasty excuse.

I have never been more excited and embarrassed in my life.

Twelve years later, I can’t tell you what he wrote on that title page since the book is in storage in Ontario, awaiting shipment to BC. I can’t remember the name of my favourite story. I can’t even really remember what it was about. But I can tell you about reading it — lying on a double futon in my attic bedroom that was painted ‘Sunny’ yellow. I read by the light of an ugly peach bedside lamp and a halogen floor lamp that my parents had loaned me for the school year. It was snowy outside, night-time in Peterborough, so though I lived facing a major road, traffic was quiet. The story took place in a seaside town. There was a hill in the town and the sky was blue, huge. The main character, or perhaps narrator, walks around the town at some point, maybe looking for someone or something.

Like the talk Mr MacLeod gave us that night, and really, like any small memory lingering in the ol’ dusty recesses, the specifics of the story have faded to impressions and a moment frozen in time.

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be published and have people read my stories. I wanted to write stories that would intrigue the reader. Draw them in. Abduct them.

But I also wanted to write in a way that made people feel. I wanted to leave room for the reader to insert themselves into the story, to come away knowing how it feels to walk up a hill in a seaside town, to look up at the sky, blue and huge. I wanted to write a story that was so well done that, like life, when the memory of events grow hazy some twelve years hence, the reader is still left with a feeling, an impression, a glimmer of that thing that happened all that time ago.

Mr MacLeod did that. And for that I thank him, and wish him a sincere Rest In Peace.

Books This Post:

Spring Reading

Spring has sprung. And that can only mean one thing: Spring Cleaning. Even those of us (read: me) most adamantly opposed to making big lists of chores are faced with — you guessed it — big lists of chores.

I’ve been mainly focusing on the outdoors: mowing the lawn, edging the paths, weeding the flower beds, weeding the vegetable garden, building an herb garden, possibly staining the fence and deck. And could this be the year that I finally annihilate the bamboo that I inherited?

(Seriously, the stuff is everywhere: my lawn, my driveway, my veggie garden, under my fence. I am haunted by bamboo.)

But then there’s the indoors, where I want to clean everything: windows, curtains, ceilings. light bulbs, door frames … and so on. I even found an article on how to detail my washing machine. Yes please! My inner Monica is thrilled!

In between all of these chores and work, I’m still reading. But, I will admit, the quality of my reading materials has lessened a bit. My ongoing literary projects are sliding slowly to the back burner while I tackle the ultimate item on my Spring Cleaning list: Spring Reading.

Let me explain how this idea was born. I live in a small apartment. I have no idea what the square footage is, but it’s probably something like 500-600 square feet, though possibly smaller. Within that space, I have two built-in shelves and one bookcase. Since it’s pretty well known that I love books and love to read, a lot of books come my way. Therefore, that small amount of shelving has rapidly filled up.

It is safe to say that my book collection has reached critical mass.

I had a decision to make. Either I had to get more shelving or I had to decide if I really need all of my books.

Gasp! What? Of course I need all of my books! This was my first reaction. However, there’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding. I had to start thinning, showing some preferential treatment to the greats and the not-so-greats.

I took some baby steps a year and a half ago, and gave away a trilogy. I didn’t just loan it to someone and never get it back. No. I gave it to someone who asked to borrow it, and told her “Keep them. Or pass them on. I’ll never read them again.”

It was painless. It was easy. It felt just fine. It was the Fifty Shades Trilogy, but the fact remains: I gave away books that I knew I would never again read.

And thus, Spring Reading is born. To start, I critically studied my shelves and picked out books that I could probably stand to part with. This took longer than it should have, but this project is in its infancy. These books are now in two stacks by my bed and I am in Phase Two, wherein I read each book one last time, and then give it away.

There’s a small amount of pain that comes with typing that phase. I love books. I love reading them. I love thinking about them. I love rereading them and then thinking about them in different ways. But the point to this project is not to get rid of those books that I read over and over. I’ll still keep my copy of autographed copy of Russell Smith’s Noise. I’ll still keep my well-thumbed copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, replete with notes in pencil on the back cover from my undergrad days. The crumbling copy of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that I got when I was 11? Totally keeping.

I could go on and on. But my point is, I’m keeping those books that make me love books. Spring Reading will just rid me of the ones that are shallow & flat & can only be read one way; the ones that are riddled with ill-chosen synonyms, too many adjectives, editorial errors; the ones that make me shake my head and ask “Who published this crap?”

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.