All posts filed under: Literature

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part II: English as a Dead Language

This is the second part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?” Part One can be found here. It would be fair to characterise poetry as dead, at least in English-speaking countries. Right now it might be easier to meet people who write poetry as an emotional outlet than it would be to encounter anyone who regularly buys books of poems or reads verse for pleasure. Amateur poets rarely entertain any reasonable hope of being read by anyone; but nor do ‘professional’ poets, whose readers tend to number in the dozens at best rather than the hundreds. Most of these readers end up being other poets. Poetry occupies a diminished status in ‘high culture.’ Very few educated people under seventy have been compelled to learn poems by heart at school; committing even stray lines of Shakespeare or Shelley to memory has become a rare, eccentric habit. This means that contemporary poets can rely on little or no shared poetic tradition with such readers as they …

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part I: A Cautionary Tale for Writers

This is the first part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?”  Contemporary American literature has been transformed into a university-based activity which is increasingly alien to the needs, desires, or tastes of readers and audiences not directly involved in academic culture. The practices of institutionalised Creative Writing workshops decisively influence the style, form, and format of literary works; intellectual trends in universities determine the worldviews of writers long after they have finished formal studies. Most major professional writers now teach ‘Creative Writing’ in colleges and universities, and this has serious repercussions for literature. Not merely in terms of what is published and circulated, but even with respect to the work that fledgling authors aspire to produce. Literary writing has always been a precarious means of earning a living. The slow collapse of the newspaper and magazine industries since the 1990s has reduced journalism’s potential as a reliable source of regular income for writers. Creative Writing might seem at first glance like an ideal solution …

Why They Hate Margaret Atwood

On March 9, a University of Alberta English professor named Julie Rak headlined a speaking event that was billed as a showdown on the issue of “bad feminism.” A promotional poster done up in a boxing motif included a picture of Rak on one side, and legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood on the other. If you live outside Canada, and recognize Atwood as the author of such renowned feminist works as Cat’s Eye, you might assume that she’d be representing the side of sound feminist doctrine in this metaphorical bout. As literary critic Carmine Starnino once noted, Atwood is the “best-known English-language novelist of contemporary sexual politics.” She more or less invented the modern Anglo Canadian feminist fiction genre, specializing in what Starnino aptly describes as “salty post-Freudian satires on gender inequalities, the oppressiveness of marriage and the historical animosity of women.” In the 1980s, when I studied North American Literature as a high school elective, Atwood was the only writer with two books on our reading list. She also was the youngest writer on …

Incomprehension 501: Intro to Graduate School

Like any responsible book collector, I’m often forced to decide which books deserve a spot in my limited shelf space. During these purges, one type of book always gives me pause. These are the books I acquired during the two years I was a graduate student in comparative literature; books unheard of by most people outside of academia but, to many inside, akin to scripture; books by Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, György Lukács, and Slavoj Žižek, to name just a few from the pantheon. I’ve held on to some thinking one day I might return to graduate school to complete a PhD, and what would a graduate student be without his copy of The Origin of the German Tragic Drama? But with a tenured teaching position, two kids, and a mortgage, I no longer entertain such fantasies. Now I’m free to finally make a confession: I never knew what these books were talking about. The demands of my bourgeois existence grow with each passing year, and I didn’t want this little …

Privilege: a Term That Has Lost Its Utility

Earlier this year, Twitter was on fire with claims that Margaret Atwood was “abusing her privilege”. She had written an op-ed in the Globe and Mail (“Am I a bad feminist?”) in which she compared the immoderate zeal of the Me Too movement to the purity campaigns following other tectonic social revolutions. The movement wasn’t ready for uncharitable comparisons. How dare she equate Me Too’s calls for rough justice with Stalin’s purges? In the Globe and Mail piece Atwood explained why, unlike several other Canadian authors who had buckled under pressure from their detractors, she had declined to remove her signature from an open letter to UBC. Steven Galloway, formerly the Chair of UBC’s creative writing program, had been fired, without severance pay, following a series of complaints of sexual misconduct, despite having been exonerated. Atwood and her fellow writers had protested the opaque process by which Galloway was tried and found wanting by the university. In the wake of Me Too, Atwood’s call for transparency in the case was viewed by many as just …

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 …

Racism, Anti-Racism, and Orientalism at LitHub

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Edward Said’s Orientalism, one of the most influential works of our time, and one of the most ubiquitous: scan the bookshelves of any liberal-arts major, and you likely will find the 1978 book with pride of place alongside such contemporaneous post-colonial classics as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Even those who’ve never opened Orientalism will be familiar with some of its broad themes, especially the idea that Western scholars have systematically denigrated the cultures of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa with insulting stereotypes, depicting the Orient as an exotic “Other” full of backwards, mystical man-children. One sometimes even hears the word used as a verb or gerund — “othering” — as a means to attack arguments perceived to be Eurocentric. The idea of the Other has become a laugh line among conservatives over time. (“Stop Othering me!”) But even right-wing critics should acknowledge that Said’s book offered genuinely valid critiques of the condescending way in which Western writers …