Saturday, September 26, 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
Last night on the news: two images that speak to each other in a cacaphony of voices I don’t comprehend. Video of Private Jonathan Couturier in a flag draped casket, being brought home from Afghanistan. Jonathan was the 131st Canadian soldier to die in a war he had recently described as a waste. Another image in the news, one of children celebrating the end of Ramadan in Kabul. Only it wasn’t children, it was boys—not a single girl among the jubilant throng of boys, not a single woman in evidence among the men.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
I want to share an astonishing video. It shows art being created in the most ephemeral of media imaginable, tells a complex story with heart-breaking simplicity, and defies those who would limit great art to particular genres or specific contexts. If we could only suspend time without making it meaningless.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
(My response to the escalating and arbitrary divisions between “literature” and “genre” writing, especially in Canada. I promise my next entry will be more chatty.)
The division between so called genre writing and literary writing is arbitrary. Alice in Wonderland is fantasy fiction. Orwell’s Animal Farm is fable; his 1984 is dystopian fiction. Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a horror story; Atwood’s Alias Grace is a mystery. Frankenstein and Dracula are masterpieces of horror, the former speculative and the latter psychological. James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is speculative fiction, Oryx and Crake is science fiction, although Atwood demurs on the facile categorization. Who would presume to deny P.D. James the epithet, ‘literary writer,’ despite her penchant for writing mysteries. Morley Callaghan showed a lifelong fascination with the thematic implications of crime. Michael Ondaatje continues to do so. So do I.
There is good writing and there is bad writing. Some ‘literary’ writing is execrable. I have served on award juries and been the editor of a literary journal generously funded by the Canada Council. I have read some brilliant literary writing by Canadian writers and plodded through a great deal of bad. Some ‘crime’ writing is bad; but some is profoundly well written. To dismiss the good with the bad on the basis of perceived formulaic restrictions is like refusing to buy a house because it has windows, doors, and a roof.
After a career as a literary critic, I have taken up the profession of mystery writer. This means I write mysteries, and these are intended to be no less literary than imaginative works I previously published with the House of Anansi, Cormorant Books, and Turnstone Press, all Canadian literary presses supported by various granting agencies. Recently, Giles Blunt turned from crime writing to publish a ‘literary’ novel. The powerful and poetic language, the psychological depths, the brilliant uses of locale to explore character and develop plot that are present in his mysteries enhance his newest work. Should it be considered less, or his crime novels more? All writing is genre writing of one form or another; all fiction follows certain conventions, subverts others. There are many ways to explore the human condition from a Canadian perspective. Writing about murder is one of them.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Some genre writing, particularly mysteries, are set nowhere, with a few map names thrown in to suggest the contrary. These are often as successful as they are ephemeral. Mysteries that rise above the limitations of genre, where ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ converge, are set in real places, even if the real places are made up. Consider how actual and accessible the settings of Louise Penny’s novels are, and how intrinsically important to plot and character development. The Eastern Townships come alive in her writing as a suitable scene for murder. Ross Pennie’s Hamilton, Giles Blunt’s thinly disguised North Bay, these are locales that extend beyond the edges of the page.
I don’t write as a Canadian writer about a country called Canada. I write about the village of Blair where I grew up, the city of Toronto, where I have lived from time to time, the familiar backroads and country places of Ontario. From my own experience, living, traveling, reading, imagining, I try to locate my fiction as precisely as possible.
I write, in an upcoming mystery, The Gibraltar Coordinates, about Easter Island, which Bev and I have visited several times, and she’s written about in her book Inventing ‘Easter Island,’ and about Baffin Island, where we’ve hiked extensively, described in my book, Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of Arctic Landscape. But I also write about London, New York, Berlin, and other places, not just because I’ve been there but because I hope to connect my readers with the particularities of place that allow for larger themes than genre writing might seem to admit.
Truly engaging fiction is local. Jane Austen knew that. So did Dashiell Hammett. So does Dan Brown. You can’t have big themes without the small details. You can’t generate moving drama, or amusing comedy, or romance, or intrigue, among geographic generalizations and evasions. From the perspective of someone who writes about murder, I hate to think death is ever a small theme, even when explored with wit as a thrilling or amusing diversion.