All posts filed under: Literature

Identity but Not as a Straitjacket

Identity can enrich and also limit a writer’s repertoire. Who she is and where he comes from matter, but should not be an end in itself. In particular, works of art born out of identity politics may seem like significant artistic statements when they are made, but may quickly become dated. What lasts is where the personal becomes universal. In pursuing these points, I shall contrast the lives and works of the African-American writers Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, then go on to discuss the experiences I had co-editing a 1090 page anthology of Australian poetry, when my co-editor and I serendipitously discovered the work of a poet Tricia Dearborn. *   *   * The African-American writer Richard Wright has been credited with helping to change race relations in the United States. This is not a small achievement. Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first novel by an African-American to be selected by the Book of the Month Club. The following year his play of the same name opened on Broadway with Orson Welles directing. …

The Dishonesty of #MeToo in Canada’s Literary Scene

When I was a less experienced teacher, I made a big mistake. Students were composing essays in a computer lab, and one young man thought he would be clever. Instead of writing, he spent his time shopping for an online essay. A flash of his parents’ gold card near the end of the class is what alerted me. He let his trick be known to the students around him and a bustle of barely repressed giggles and furtive looks ensued. When he came to the front of the class to hand it in, I handed it back and then pointed to the door. I said, loudly and firmly, “This is unacceptable and I’d like you to get out of my sight.” The class went silent and I was momentarily thrilled that I’d spoken so bluntly. However, I changed my mind when that silence persisted until the end of term. Without meaning to, I’d intimidated every other student in the room, none of whom, as far as I could tell, was cheating. I’d made classroom discussions difficult, …

Buy Banned Books

What is lost when we insist that literature be ‘authentic’ and that some portrayals – even journalistic narratives – may only be authored by their real life counterparts? If the latter half of the 20th century witnessed the death of the author, then the social media age hails its return as a mutant zombie. Increasingly, we are living in a time in which the written word not only cannot stand on its own merits, it must not. If this sounds alarmist, consider one of the recent controversies surrounding the question of who should be allowed to write what. While it follows an increasingly familiar and depressing pattern, the incident also represents a Rubicon-crossing moment in social media age censorship. The book in question is an American YA (Young Adult) novel entitled American Heart, and the author is a white, non-Muslim named Laura Moriarty. Released this week, the story portrays a dystopian future America in which Muslims are being rounded up and thrown into detention centres. Within this nightmare is the Huckleberry-esque journey of a 15-year-old white Midwestern …

Margaret Atwood: Tried on Social Media, Convicted by the Press

The struggling economics of news organisations these days means that it’s cheap to report debates and controversies taking place on social media and so these rows, especially when they involve well-known people, get more prominent coverage in newspapers and news bulletins than they deserve. Recent reports have focused on the savaging Canadian author Margaret Atwood has received on social media for an article she authored in which she claimed that the #MeToo campaign was a symptom of a broken legal system. Referring to a case in which a Canadian academic lost his job after allegations of sexual harassment, she claimed that the campaign has become a “witch hunt” in which the idea of due process – that people must be presumed innocent until found guilty under the law, is being threatened by mob rule by which an anonymous allegation (usually of some kind of sexual misconduct) is enough to unleash a reputation-destroying avalanche of negative comments. It begs the question of what the role of social media should be in modern public debates. Scholars have …

Making a Stand for Cultural Universalism

Earlier this year, I spoke at a panel discussion in New York City to mark the unveiling of Quebec—an enormous 9’ by 10’ painting that aspires to capture the full sweep of French Canadian history on one canvas, from Samuel de Champlain to the modern age of indigenous activism. The American artist, Adam Miller, grew up in the Pacific northwest, and studied the great masters in Florence. The evening’s featured speaker was Donald Kuspit, an eminent Jewish art critic who briefly lived in Quebec, but otherwise has little connection to the largely Catholic society of French Canada. He described Quebec as a luminous postmodern take on the Baroque—a style that took definitive expression in the works of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens—and praised Miller for channelling influences adapted from the book of Genesis, imagery of the dead Christ, and Sandro Botticelli’s 15th century masterpiece, Adoration of the Magi. Which is to say, Quebec is very much part of that great cultural mash-up we call Western culture. And if Miller—who does not speak French—had engaged in …

Resisting the Postmodern Ascendancy: An Interview with Ernest Suarez

The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) is an academic association which meets at its annual conference (until now in the United States) to discuss literary matters. It is attended by a broad range of literary types: university professors, novelists, and poets, not to mention school teachers. In addition to the excellent quality of the academic endeavors conducted at its conferences, what makes the association noteworthy is that it has an appealing contrarian quality. It was set up to counter what its founders saw as a negative trend in the study of literature, which emerged over the course of the 1970s and ‘80s. The Association describes its own history as follows: In 1994, a group of professors of literature, critics, and imaginative writers, tired of lamenting the overly politicized debate about literary study in the academy, joined together to create a different kind of organization, one aimed at combating this intellectual partisanship. The founders represented many unique perspectives and literatures from ancient to modern, but shared a common exasperation with the narrow theoretical …

Haruki Murakami, Poet of Loneliness

Do you ever want to take a walk? Not around the neighbourhood. Not around the park. Not around the city. Nothing planned. Nothing orderly. A walk with a beginning but no middle and no end. That is the fate of many characters in the novels of Japan’s Haruki Murakami. It is also his appeal. The reader goes for a walk: starting somewhere familiar and going somewhere strange. There is much one could dislike about Murakami’s books. The prose can be cliche-ridden. The tropes can seem cloying. The characters and plots can seem predictable. While he has been consistently popular, Murakami’s critical reception has been mixed. “Falling out of love with Murakami” was the title of one essay in the Guardian. His popularity, indeed, exposes him to cynicism as his fans can be among the most cultlike in literature: whimsical “Harukists” who love his most formulaic elements and bemoan his annual failure to win the Nobel Prize. One could easily imagine a satire of his books. A single man lives alone, cooking miso soup and listening to the Beatles. He …