Monday, 28 September 2009

Yes, There's a Lot of Dross Being Published, But That Doesn't Mean Fewer Books Should Be

Much chitchat last week about some snarky remarks about Canadian fiction made by Victoria Glendenning, one of the judges for this year’s Scotiabank Giller prize. I was busy with other things, and didn’t even see Noah Richler’s defence in The Globe and Mail. So to catch up:

At the end of a column for the Financial Times (really?) in which Glendenning comments about Dan Brown’s new book among other things, she heaps scorn on Canadianisms like eavestrough instead of gutter and quaintness like tuque and toque which is not “the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat.” But she also says there are an awful lot of terrible novels being written. “If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian,” she concludes, implying that subsidy programs are supporting much bad writing.

Noah Richler trashed her the next day in The Globe, most severely for being an ungracious guest. Certainly it does seem a little nasty to comment like that before the Giller winners are announced. But she does have a point: a lot of garbage is being published.

I’ve served on a couple of juries over the last few years, and found books whose grammar on the first few pages was so appalling that I threw them in the “No” pile almost immediately. I’ve also been sent books for review which I suspect nobody besides a conscientious reviewer or a close friend of the author could finish.

But how does this differ from the situation in any other country?

Most years I try to give the books on the short lists for the French (not French-Canadian but from France) prizes a quick once-over, and certainly there is a lot of dross among them too. Same thing, I’m sure, in the UK and other countries including the US. The problem is that genius is very thin on the ground, and that very few books are going to live past the decade they were published in.

But that does not mean that fewer books should be published, if only because the writer who produces a flawed novel today may have something really great in prospect. An example is Yann Martel. If you’d only read his brilliant short story collection and his failed first novel Self (awful, awful, awful, in my humble opinion) you’d say: what a talent wasted. And then he wrote The Life of Pi, a truly successful adventure story, in all the senses of the term. Go figure.


Martin Langeland said...

There is also the problem of taste. Many fashionably angst filled characters, though exquisitely written, fail to engage one while sailing to the top of whatever list is required; the marketer's assurance that several people will buy the thing and return the publisher's investment. As my Mother often remarked: "There is no accounting for taste, as the old lady said as she kissed the cow." Mostly this thinking leads to McDonalds. Their ideal is that one of their burgers will taste the same whether bought in Peiping, or Cuzco, or Willoughby, Georgia. We need as many people as feel impelled to do so writing and publishing -- if possible. This creates the new wave the finding of which is so important to the crickets. I favor intellectual anarchy and creative chaos as more fitting to the profligacy of nature. Out of the soup the new dinosaur will emerge! ;-)

Martin Langeland said...

My wife's God Father was the late Stanley Crane, longtime Librarian at the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut. One evening Diana remarked that her present, long forgotten by us but fashionable then and perhaps hallowed in someone's cannon yet, book was a drudgery to finish. Stan, peering over his half glasses remarked like the wise man he was: "Just because someone wrote all those words, and someone else spent all the money to print, bind, publish and market the book -- all that doesn't mean you have to read it."
I observe that many of the educated of the world suffer from a need to slog through everything on offer in the world of fashion. Failure to do so inspires guilt.
Better, thinks I, to develop and follow one's own taste, even if that defies le haute monde.

The Garden Ms. S said...

Thanks for the links to the article and rebuttal. Ms. Glendenning has proved herself to be incredibly lacking in grace.

As someone who does not live in Toronto I can attest that regional small presses are dying all over Canada. How dare she say they are proliferating on Canada Council grants. Apparently she is ignorant of the subject matter to which she speaks.

What an pompous cow.