All posts filed under: Literature

R.M. Vaughan (1965–2020): A Beautiful Mind Silently Extinguished in a Time of Fear

We were extremely close for about five years. He was my confidante and my support system. We were best friends. Never lovers—though many thought we were. It was a dark time for me, and I needed him. Canadian gay writer Richard Murray Vaughan (1965–2020) was found dead by police in Fredericton, New Brunswick on October 23rd—10 days after being reported missing. No foul play is suspected. This is in part a remembrance of R.M. (as he was widely known, including to his friends), but also a reminder that the campaign against COVID-19 can create its own kind of harm. I don’t pretend that this essay is one Richard would have authored (though he did write about COVID-19 and mental health shortly before his death). He and I were different men and different writers. But I do think my old friend would have agreed with at least some of what I have to say. I met Richard when he entered my office at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—142 George Street, Toronto—in 1991. Initially we talked about …

My Own Private Chateau—Pauline Réage’s ‘Story of O’ Revisited

I’m sitting on a plane and I’m feeling increasingly excited. I’m flushed. My heart rate is up, and I can’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit. My agitation isn’t caused by any nervousness about flying, nor by any fears of contracting COVID-19 during the flight. My disquiet has been triggered by the book I’m reading. The sensations it arouses almost overwhelm me. I find I have to pause every few paragraphs, close the slim volume, and rest it on my lap in order to regain some sense of personal composure. Fiction usually transports my imagination away from myself, but this book is accomplishing the opposite: I feel increasingly aware of my body as I read it, as though being immersed in fiction has drawn me into a moment of privacy with myself. It feels somehow unseemly for the public world of the airplane to intrude on my private sensations. I have to put the book down frequently in order to remind myself that it is no act of indecency for the happy family …

George Orwell, Henry Miller, and the ‘Dirty-Handkerchief Side of Life’

I. In December 1936, George Orwell was on his way to Spain to join the Republican side in the fight against fascism. On the way, he stopped in Paris where he met with Henry Miller in his Montparnasse studio. As D. J. Taylor notes in Orwell: The Life, Miller’s friend Alfred Perlès was present for the meeting, and he recalled an encounter that perfectly captured the seemingly antithetical worldviews of the two men. Miller thought Orwell’s decision to fight in Spain was absurd—as Taylor puts it (summarizing Perlès’s account of Miller’s attitude): “Wasn’t he more use to the world alive than dead? Orwell replied ‘earnestly and humbly’ that in extraordinary times there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice.” Miller then offered his corduroy jacket as a “contribution to the Republican war effort,” but he “tactfully refrained from adding that Orwell would have been welcome to the jacket even if he had been fighting for Franco.” “Watching the two of them together,” Taylor writes, “Perlès was struck by the sharp contrast in personality and temperament, …

The Misguided Campaign Against Journalistic Objectivity

Locked down in a northern Ontario cottage over the summer, I found myself listening to CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, an eclectic three-hour weekly morning show hosted, until his recent retirement, by veteran journalist and broadcaster Michael Enright. On this particular Sunday in July, guest host Anthony Germain interviewed Candis Callison, a University of British Columbia professor who teaches in both UBC’s Journalism department and its Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. The subject of conversation was her recently published book, co-authored with fellow UBC professor Mary Lynn Young, Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities. “Objectivity is ‘the view from nowhere’ and potentially harmful,” announced CBC headline-writers when the interview was aired. “Is objectivity an outmoded value in journalism?” Later, it was asserted that “more and more people, including many journalists, are questioning the sanctity of objectivity—especially when the arbiters of what’s objective truth and what’s opinion are largely the mostly-white, mostly-male people who run most newsrooms. [Prof. Callison] argues that objectivity in journalism is illusory and that it reaffirms the outlook of a white male-dominated world.” Prof. …

Inside Story—A Review

A review of Inside Story by Martin Amis. Knopf, 560 pages. (October 2020) As literature’s cultural relevance washes out on the high tide of digital media, self-absorption becomes the order of the day. Those who can still be bothered to write “serious” books aren’t interested in telling other people’s stories. They want to tell their own. And in the age of profiles and self-promotion, it’s not surprising that auto-fiction—or what I like to call the ME novel—is the literary genre with the most purchase. ME writing, while centuries old, has exploded in the last decade: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (to name a few in fiction); Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering (for non-fiction novels)—while other excesses, like blog novels and memoirs written by 28-year-olds have even managed to find their way to audiences. Now Martin Amis’s new novel Inside Story joins this club of “life writing” (a genre he describes as “rather dubious”). Inside Story is a ME …

Postmodernism: Some Corrections and Clarifications

Before I proceed with a brief discussion of postmodernism and its contribution to the 20th century thought, a clarification: contrary to the common view, the “modernism” part of the word “postmodernism” does not denote “modernity.” Such an interpretation is wrong (and also raises the question of why postmodernism had not happened 200 years earlier). The “modernism” part of the word refers to the dominant literary and artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, postmodernism is not what came after the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, Voltaire and Descartes—it is what came after the cubists, the existentialists, Kafka and Joyce. This correction is important for reasons of formal accuracy—but it is also a reminder that postmodernism was neither the first, nor the most important movement to attack the values of Western civilisation. Mannerism did it in the 1520s, followed by baroque, then the gothics and romantics, and, finally, at the turn of the 20th century, the modernists. The latter rebelled on a truly grand scale, negating and annihilating everything that had …

The Dishonest and Misogynistic Hate Campaign Against J.K. Rowling

When J. K. Rowling first outed herself as a gender-critical feminist, my first thought was: If Rowling can be cancelled, anyone can be cancelled. Not only is she one of the best known and best loved authors in the world (the writer of children’s books, for goodness sake), she also has a personal history that ought to make her un-cancellable. This was the mum who escaped an abusive marriage and lived off benefits, writing the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh café while rocking her sleeping baby in a pram. This was the woman who became a billionaire, but then lost her billionaire status by giving away so much money to charity. If anyone was safe, Rowling should have been safe. And it turns out that she was, because despite the best efforts of her critics, she hasn’t yet been truly cancelled. Her latest book, the murder mystery (written under the pen-name Robert Galbraith), was published on Tuesday and, as of Thursday, was number four on Amazon’s bestseller list for all literature and fiction. …

Under the Frog: Why Tibor Fischer’s 1992 Booker-Nominated Novel May Have Found its Moment

In Szeged Hungary, while teaching at the university there, I met a student who read Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog (1992) every single autumn. It was, she said, part of  her annual ritual, and I wasn’t that surprised. A crazy tale of a basketball team in post-war Stalinist Hungary—a time of terror retold with Fischer’s ink-black humour—it’s got something for almost anyone, and it’s rare to find readers happy to sample it just the once. Written following the fall of communism in 1989, a period Fischer covered as a journalist while living in Budapest, it nearly didn’t reach them at all. Under the Frog was rejected by all but two of the UK’s publishers, yet went on to become the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize. It is still Fischer’s most successful—and best known—book. Fischer knew what he was writing about. Under the Frog was based on his Magyar parents, both of them basketball players who, in the wake of the doomed 1956 uprising against the Soviets, fled Hungary for …

Flannery O’Connor and the Ideological War on Literature

On June 15th, Paul Elie—a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a frequent contributor to upscale magazines—published a 3,800-word essay in the New Yorker bluntly accusing the acclaimed Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) of racism. The essay, which has since gone viral, is ostensibly a review of Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, a new book by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, an O’Connor scholar at Fordham University. O’Donnell surveys O’Connor’s two novels, numerous short stories and essays, and voluminous correspondence (most of which was published following her untimely death aged 39 of complications from lupus) and concludes that O’Connor was “a walking contradiction when it came to matters of race.” O’Connor’s dark and mordantly humorous fiction was written as the civil rights movement tore through the South dismantling Jim Crow during the 1950s and 1960s, and it frequently mocks Southern whites for their condescension and rudeness toward blacks. However, O’Donnell also argues that “racism” is the correct description of O’Connor’s privately expressed views about black people in …

In Defence of the Humanities

The Australian government’s recent decision to cut funding for university courses in the arts and humanities was greeted with rapturous delight by many commentators I respect. In addition to encouraging students to pursue “job-friendly” subjects such as STEM and nursing, the move was interpreted as a flip-off to the branch of higher education notorious for placing left-wing indoctrination ahead of scholarship. As much as I agree with the latter point, I cannot bring myself to join the celebrations. To the contrary, I find the Australian government’s decision highly unfortunate. That is because I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities is the finest start in life a young person can get. Or, to be more precise, I firmly believe that a degree in the humanities in its pre-1990s form is the finest start in life a young person can get. So, while I don’t wish to defend what the humanities have become, I still think it’s important to defend what the humanities ought to be. I have a humanities degree in one of the …