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CanLit: Genre Fiction

Posted by on 01 Feb 2014 | Tagged as: Books

One of my favourite young(ish) contemporary authors, Gary Shteyngart, recently caused a wave of consternation when he suggested that Canadian authors, for the most part, are loath to take risks because they want to qualify for grant funding. The customary hand-wringing ensued. Shteyngart has some legitimacy on this topic, having read more Canadian novels than many of us ever will as one of the judges of the Giller Prize in 2012, when Will Ferguson won for 419. (I still haven’t read it, but have some interest in reading it, which I can’t say about any of the other nominees that year — including Alex Ohlin’s Inside, which this excoriating review convinced me never to pick up.)

I’m sympathetic to Shteyngart. When I go into a bookstore and pick up a Canadian fiction title, I almost always put it back on the table because it sounds dreary and well-intentioned. I skim the book review sections in the Globe and the Star every weekend, and am only occasionally moved by a review to pick up any of the Canadian novels reviewed. My theory is  that mainstream CanLit can best be understood as a genre. There are different streams of the genre: historical CanLit, immigrant memory CanLit, meaningful small-town insight CanLit, novels-by-poets (shudder) CanLit, where every word has been worked over far, far too long  — but there is an underlying serious, diligent feeling to it all, which, as in all genre fiction, you either warm to, or you don’t.

(An aside: this morning on CBC radio I heard the description of the 5 new Canada Reads books. My favourite: one described as “a love letter to the Canadian wilderness, with gender issues”. Could there be anything more Canadian?)

I rarely read science fiction or fantasy, not because there aren’t good writers or good books, but because the underlying premise isn’t of great interest to me, and I use my reading time for other things. I really like well-written, but not ponderous, contemporary fiction about people who could (but don’t) exist, and there’s not a lot of that in the CanLit genre. Russell Smith, Lynn Coady, and others are able to publish that sort of book from time to time, and Alice Munro is one of the best. Adding foreign judges to the Giller jury sometime in the late 2000s has led to more contemporary and even humorous books making the cut.


We < heart > our libraries

Posted by on 24 Jul 2009 | Tagged as: Books, Toronto

Bloor-GladstoneFrom the Fans of Toronto Public Library’s blog post on the renovated Bloor-Gladstone branch:


I have finally been able to put my finger on a thought that has half-occurred to me on my now-numerous visits to renovated libraries. Here’s a slogan to get you started: “Your tax dollars at work!” TPL keeps getting awarded modest increases in budget, even as it carries out budgetary trimming here and there, because we want to reward something that’s already working.

But what I’ve really been ruminating on is this idea. We live in a city that is otherwise so wedded to mediocrity it becomes indistinguishable from outright championing of mediocrity. Nonetheless, we build giant palaces to every form of learning, all free of charge and open to everybody. What we do here is we build palaces of learning. Ninety-nine of them. And when they wear out, we fix them. We throw good money after good because we think libraries are that important – which they are.

Toronto really does do a great job with libraries (see also: Runnymede branch, Jane-Dundas, Lillian H. Smith….). It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Metro Ref.

The value of cynicism, and defunding the left

Posted by on 08 Dec 2008 | Tagged as: Books, Current Events

I’ve long thought that Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and One Market Under God, editor of the late, much-lamented The Baffler, and current WSJ columnist, was my psychic twin. Here, from his latest book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, comes the proof:

Now, I’m the kind of guy who believes there is a wholesome quality to cynicism. I think it’s healthy to laugh at the powerful and the at the rococo fantasies they dream up in order to rationalize their exalted place in the world. One of my favourite books is a 1931 compilation called Oh Yeah? made up entirely of optimistic quotations from the great economists and bankers of that era, interrupted every now and then with charts and headlines about the ongoing disaster in Wall Street.

I must find a copy — or start drafting my proposal for Oh Yeah – 2008 Edition.

This little gem from a later chapter, on Moral Majority founder Howard Phillips’ imperative to “defund the left,” might sound just a little familiar after these last couple of weeks:

As political entrepreneurship goes, this was something new: a plan to systematically destroy or redirect the income of the other side.
In explaining his “defund the left” approach, Phillips was fond of quoting a Thomas Jefferson pronouncement — “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propogation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrranical” — the idea being that by spending tax dollars on programs conservatives disliked, the government was violating basic American rights.

Big whoop

Posted by on 22 Sep 2008 | Tagged as: Books

…is among the words new to the OED this month.

A colourful and ironic expression of dismissiveness in the face of the unimpressive or ordinary, this North American colloquialism reverses the expectations one might have on first meeting the term, of unnecessary hyperbole and excessive celebration.

How I love the OED.

From the WSJ, not about Wall Street

Posted by on 22 Sep 2008 | Tagged as: Books, Stuff

From the back page of the WSJ last week, buried under all the financial meltdown news, a thoughtful and evocative piece, if sad in the context, which has been reproduced in a few other places:

Strangely fascinated by fire

Posted by on 07 Aug 2008 | Tagged as: Books

From Mrs. Simcoe’s diary:

Saturday July 7, 1792

“I walked this evening in a wood lately set on fire by some unextinguished fires being left by some persons who had encamped there, which in dry weather often communicates to the trees. Perhaps you have no idea of the pleasure of walking in a burning wood, but I found it so great that I think I shall have some woods set on fire for my evening walks. The smoke arising from it keeps the mosquitoes at a distance, and when the fire has caught the hollow trunk of a lofty tree, the flame issuing from the top has a fine effect. In some trees where but a small flame appears it looks like stars as the evening grows dark, and the flare and smoke, interspread in different masses of dark woods, has a very picturesque appearance.”

It was Glaukos who spoke first, dude…

Posted by on 09 Mar 2008 | Tagged as: Books, Humour, Media

Here’s an entertaining and very weird website, with a whole new take on the Iliad. I ran across it in a review, in New York Magazine, of a book called Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From the Wild Web, by one Sarah Boxer (review also linked below).

best typo ever

Posted by on 02 Mar 2008 | Tagged as: Books, Small people

This *almost* makes you wonder whether it was planted by a disgruntled soon-to-be-ex-employee…

Spotted on the title page of an (otherwise perfectly good) kids’ book in the Corgi Pups series:

“Series Reading Consultant: Prue Goodwin, Lecturer in Literacy and Children’s Books, Univeristy of Reading”

Served up on a platter

Posted by on 26 Apr 2007 | Tagged as: Books

I’ve always loathed Heather Mallick, once of the Globe and Mail Focus section, now plying her wares with and the CBC online. When she was still with the Globe I would begin each weekend composing a never-written letter to the editor in my head over breakfast, often bookended with a blood-boiling stop by Cross Country Checkup late Sunday afternoon. I’ve since discovered yoga.

So I got great pleasure out of the stylish pan of Mallick’s new book, Cake or Death, in last Saturday’s paper. It’s rare to see an actual all-out bad review in the Canadian literary world, but Christine Sismondo didn’t shy away from the task. Here’s the point where the review really gets going:

The rest of the book… I wouldn’t read to my dog.

Mallick thinks she is making fun of the world in a clever way. She’s never clever, and is so bigoted and unpleasant that her columns just can’t be amusing.

Sismondo zeroes in on the real issue with Mallick:

In fact, it’s a little terrifying to have somebody who claims to speak for the left be so utterly hateful to anybody who can’t afford to snub Marriott hotels for their declasse placement of the coffee machine, fly first class and shop at Holt Renfrew.

The best thing about the review? Its length. Sismondo could have stopped there — but I’m so glad she didn’t:

If ugliness and hypocrisy were the worst of the faults of this collection, it might be salvageable (at least for other rabid Canadians who thoughtlessly put down lower-middle and working-class Americans for sport).

And the final blow, a classic example of damning with faint praise:

But where Mallick deserves to be chastised for her pointless, rambling, boring essays, she deserves to be praised for her occasional clarity and self-awareness. For example, in one essay she admits to being an appalling combinatin of socialist and snob. Appalling, maybe. Snob, for sure. Two out of three ain’t bad.

Looking for books not to read?

Posted by on 17 Apr 2007 | Tagged as: Books, Humour

This may be helpful. (Hat tip to aldaily and Chronicle article, also worth looking at.)

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