Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dr. That and the Death of Who

I have just deleted my extensive collection pertaining to ‘that,’ the usurper. ‘Who’ as a relative pronoun is dead. I’ve been gathering the most egregious examples of its passing for the last few weeks. This morning, however, the ever-fastidious Russell Smith gives ‘that’ his imprimatur in a Globe and Mail column about asking guests to pitch in with dinner. If Smith has gone over, then my list of CBC newswriters, Maclean’s scribes, and scripted politicians is redundant. In the abject spirit of surrender, I quote Mr. Smith: “The separate kitchen is really only useful for those with servants that can cook and bring out food …” I can hear my mother whispering urgently from the celestial wings, “who, who, who, Mr. Smith.” Russell Smith is a brilliant short story writer and, as Inger Ash Wolfe, an intriguing mystery novelist. If ‘that’ is good enough for him, then ‘who’ must be laid to rest with my mother’s other obsessions about the abuses of ‘I’ as an object and the pluralization of ‘there’s.’ Who am I to disagree? Or, should it be, “that’s me who disagrees,” Mom? There’s two choices, eh. And no, it shouldn't be "the Death of Whom" in my title!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Everybody Drinks, Nobody Thinks

A reviewer paid me a gratifying compliment recently by suggesting the relationship between Miranda and Morgan in my mysteries is akin to Hammett's Nick and Nora in “The Thin Man” series. It turns out there isn't a series, just one novel stretched beyond recognition in a succession of movies. Like Hammett's best known work, The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Thin Man (1934) is familiar as a cultural icon, but I had never read either so I thought I'd give them a try.

Dashiell Hammett's characters are "louche." I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence because it feels right, but I had to look it up to be sure it meant "appealingly decadent." Everybody drinks. Nobody thinks. They smoke. They sleep in late, and around, with a dismaying lack of vigour. The men are effete, the tough guys included. They giggle about getting tight and they gossip. Women are girls, the bright ones like baubles. The obsessive use of slang mires the plots in another era and threatens to asphyxiate them.

Hammett captured or even helped to create the zeitgeist of his time. Times change and his writing seems louche. It's worth remembering how profoundly important Hammett is in the history of the mystery genre, especially its American version. We owe him, readers and writers, alike. But that doesn’t mean we have to read him: there are so many writers out there, so many recent novels worth reading. Unlike the canonical ‘literary’ texts, the foundational works in genre writing aren’t essential reading to appreciate what’s being written now.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Judging the Judges

One of the mysteries that has interested me most over the years has been the absurd and elusive criteria for selecting judges for book awards in this country. Thomas Hodd has written a superb essay, published in The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, January 5th, in which he boldly argues just this. Check it out.

Before taking up writing mysteries as a suitable vocation for a retiring fellow like myself, I taught Canadian literature for decades and toiled in academe as a literary critic. I was in the business of exercising taste and judgement to illuminate literary quality. There are scholars and there are critics: scholars don’t judge but critics do.

There are critics and reviewers. Reviewers express opinions. Critics make judgements based on an informed sensibility and educated imagination. Some reviewers are good critics, some critics are good reviewers. Critics are accountable, at least to themselves. That’s why they make good judges.

I have yet to see a literary critic, whose life work is grounded in cultural and literary context, on the list of Giller judges or Governor General’s Award judges. Instead, we have writers, their friends, and apparently ‘representative’ readers. If you traced the connections among winners and judges over the years, you might be appalled, or at least embarrassed. If you interviewed representative readers, and asked for their criteria, apart from the fact that they read quite a bit, or about the depth of their knowledge or the breadth of their critical awareness, you’d generally feel insulted.

Consider the recent bleating of Victoria Glendinning. How is this person in any way qualified to make an informed and educated judgement when she is neither informed nor educated in relation to the works being judged (see my blog below re Glendinning).

Consider Justin Trudeau a few years back, championing Wayne Johnston on “Canada Reads,” capitulating to the spokesperson for Hubert Aquin. Why? For political expediency. I doubt Trudeau had read Prochain Episode. I’m bloody well sure, listening to him, he didn’t understand it either as a work of literature or for its anarchist political exhortations.

Isn’t it about time the experts were called in. Writers are the worst of all possible judges. If they could explain what it is about art that makes it work, they’d be essayists. If they knew their own minds, they’d probably be lawyers. If they exercised good taste and judgement they’d be teachers. Do you want brain surgery done by someone who has had deep thoughts, someone who has had numerous cranial invasions, or by a trained surgeon?

Gloria Glendinning, How Quaint

I'm re-posting this from early October. It seems to have been dumped (gremlins, not censorship), and my blog later today will refer back to it:

It is irritating enough to endure the condescension of a British writer who knows virtually nothing about Canadian culture, but when that writer is Victoria Glenndining, a novelist, biographer, and critic of note, who otherwise commands considerable respect, it is sad. She was, after all, educated at Oxford and many of us weren’t. For those not up on the international furor, Glendinning recently served on the Giller Prize jury and subsequently, in The Financial Times, September 12, showed clearly why she should have graciously declined. As a mystery writer, I don’t expect ever to be subject to her judgement, literary or otherwise. As an ex-critic specializing in Canadian literature, a cultural theorist of modest achievement, and the author of several obscure books of postmodern metafiction, written while I was still harbouring “literary” pretentions, I am indifferent to the whingeing twaddle of a disaffected elderly twit. But, I really do resent stupidity, especially when I as a Canadian am its victim. Ignorance is one thing but an utter absence of civility and common sense is another. It is abusive.

Glendinning thinks we use funny words like “eavestrough” and “toque, “ and we sit in funny devices we have the temerity to call Muskoka chairs (pause for laughter). Our writers write about “families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.” The Americans, who are, of course, exactly like us, “do not bang on so about their heritage and antecedents.” We have a tendency to author “unbelievably dreadful” novels, many of which come from, and worse still, are set in, funny sounding places like “Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. That’s maybe because small publishers too are now subsided, and they proliferate.” (Damned profligate Canadians!) “If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.”

And if you know nothing about Canadian cultural history but still want to comment on it, you may get your graceless tripe published in The Financial Times. Apparently all it takes is a degree from Oxford and a reputation of sorts.