Monday, April 29, 2013


Quite a while ago B. R. Myers published "A Reader's Manifesto" in The Atlantic. It was perfect and said many things I was thinking. I'm reminded of it now after reading two recent books by Don DeLillo: Falling Man and Point Omega.

One of the things Myers pointed out is that the best writers know the syntax, vocabulary, imagery, and metaphor has a relationship to the content of the scene. As he points out, writers that are for some reason praised for their style often neglect this relationship, using their overdone, so-called "poetic," prose at every point of the book, regardless of what's being described.

While reading these two DeLillo books I kept waiting for some reason to care about any of the characters, or even to have some way to differentiate between them. They all speak the same. The dialogue would fit in a Kids in the Hall sketch mocking a black and white artsy film that intimidates its viewers into accepting it as "art" or else revealing themselves as stupid among their friends.

One of the things he does over and over is restate things. It is a common technique in prose that wants to be considered literary: say something, then insert a comma and say it again in different, but still unremarkable, words. For instance, a charcter has not just "accepted his secrets," but also "yielded to his mystery." Everything is said over and over again, and not just in different ways, but sometimes exactly the same sentence, as when the main male character, Keith, is considering telling his wife about an affair. Twelve small paragraphs in a row begin with the sentence "He would tell her about Florence," then describe a different possible outcome. All of this comes to the conclusion that things would be better for him once he revealed the secret because he could stop leading a double life. The double life is a cliche, but is the cliche made fresh by its description: "It was the way to stop being double in himself, trailing the taut shadow of what is unsaid."?

There are so many instances of this affected figurative language in these two books. Does this illuminate in some way? How does taut apply to shadow? How does what is unsaid mean more by being compared to a shadow?

Anyway, there are so many things to dislike in the writing. It's pretty poor. But it gives me hope in some ways, since much of what passes for literary in CanLit is accused of the same thing. At least it's not a national or a regional problem. But can we not stop it?

I meant to write more, but the baby cries.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Kingston Trio and Teaching Poetry

This is an odd time for me. I've finished a draft of my current novel, The Whole Show, and am waiting to begin editing on the novel that comes out in the fall, Listen All You Bullets. It feels like there's nothing to work on right now, though I know there always is.

The shift from long work to short is difficult sometimes, and this seems to be one of those times. My reading is all over the place, too. I just got Peter Campion's first book in the mail, Other People. It's quite good. I became a fan of Campion before I'd read his poetry because of his response to a paper presented by Tony Hoagland at the AWP in Boston, which I wrote of previously.

Anyway, what is interesting so far is how Campion's poetry seems in no way to argue overtly for his stance (probably because it's one of many positions, whereas Hoagland's stance seems to be his one position and in his last book each poem in some way argues for it).

I am thinking, for instance, of a poem in which a middle-class African American family encounters a foreign maid in an upscale hotel. The poem seems to argue that racism is all over, or maybe that it has nothing to do with race, that everything is about class. Whatever it argues, the reason it fails is because the speaker's position is not critiqued in any way. The tone is patronizing because the white speaker constructs this scene to show two marginalized groups (the individuals are meant to stand for their group) acting poorly toward one another. It seems to be a rationalization of discrimination: "See, it's natural! They do it too!"

It is the worst kind of poetry to me, the kind that wants to teach you a lesson, but the lesson has been accepted long ago. It's what I hate about most historical fiction, especially what I know of Canadian historical fiction: it takes a story from history and tells it from the point of view of some marginalized person. There is never any doubt about the marginalization being morally wrong, because now, safely in the 21st century, we know that slavery is wrong, for instance. It is a soporific and causes readers to ignore what is wrong right here and right now. It's also a bit odd sometimes to see the pleasure a writer seems to get in describing indignities and horrors, and alarming to see the pleasure readers get in the depiction of the same.

And all the while, the writer and the reader are at a safe historical distance and in agreement from the start. In Hoagland's poem, the reader and the writer are safely excluded because they are white and the characters are not; they have dealt with their historical racism and are living in a post-race world and they only hope the others will follow their lead.

It's like that old Kingston Trio song with a chorus something like "They don't do things like that anymore, do they?" (In the song it's ironic, of course.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

from Alain Robbe-Grillet

First rough point: I write to destroy, by describing them exactly, the nocturnal monsters that threaten to invade my waking life. But--second point--all reality is indescribable, and I know it instinctively: consciousness is structured like our language [. . .] not so the world or the unconscious [. . .] Literature is, then--third position--the pursuit of an impossible representation. Knowing this, what can I do?

from Ghosts in the Mirror: A Romanesque