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There is a fantastic essay over at the New Yorker called “An Answer to the Novel’s Detractors.” It’s a sort of rebuttal to the many recent writers who appear to have grown exhausted/exasperated with conventional fiction, a group that includes a couple of writers I admire greatly, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Waldman’s essay takes issue with David Shields’ book Reality Hunger, which I admit I have not read. Her essay is by no means a polemic, or even a severe critique; it could be read, in some respects, as a call-to-arms for novelists to recognize the particular attributes that makes novels unique, and to deploy them skillfully, and to not lean on the many tired devices that can make narrative seem manipulative. (She is in agreement with Shields’ list of these tired devices, coincidence, eavesdropping, melodramatic reversals, kindly benefactors, cruel wills, to which Waldman adds “the revelation of long-buried family secrets”).

I really liked the way she set up her essay, suggesting a few ways in which contemporary fiction might be in trouble:

The novel form isn’t the reason so much contemporary fiction seems uninspired; for that, we’d do better to consider other causes, of which there are plenty: an emphasis on documenting social conditions and modernity over the study of individual characters, a post-Freudian tendency to lean on secondhand psychoanalytic ideas as a cover for incomprehension or shallowness, a corrosive commitment to niceness at the expense of the kind of social and moral judgments that used to be at the novel’s center, MFA programs, to name just a few possibilities.

I admit I got a quiet thrill out of reading “corrosive commitment to niceness.” There’s an awful lot of this  lately. I don’t know so much about the USA (Waldman’s home is Brooklyn) but in Canada the idea is endemic that books have to be good for us, have to grapple with social problems, build bridges between communities, etc. I’ve often believed that Canada would be about the worst place to be a talented reactionary fiction writer, and yet we must concede that such a writer might be pretty worthwhile reading, not exclusively because he or she would most certainly trouble the rather milquetoast consensus that’s emerged among our nation’s liberal left-leaning taste-makers. (I say this as an unreformed leftie!)

Waldman also  shows why good narrative is typically not ideological, and shouldn’t comfort us or confirm our worldviews, but rather, “baffle” us:

The novel’s tendency to work against generalization is not limited to political or social biases. When novel characters sound like mouthpieces for the author’s overarching theories about human motivation or psychology, even the least sophisticated readers recognize this intuitively as bad. And so novels don’t usually offer up simple theories about human nature—for those, one must look to self-help books. In this sense, good fiction doesn’t tend to console but rather to complicate, to baffle our desire for easy explanation, to give us not what we want but what we suspect is more meaningful, more akin to the complexity we encounter in life.

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Since 2014 is wrapping up, I thought I’d look back on some of the books I read this year that truly stuck with me. One of them is Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. It was such a refreshing and original journey into the male psyche.

Some more highlights from 2014:

Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard. My first Bernhard experience most certainly won’t be the last. The Austrian misanthrope’s 1985 novel is cruel, hilarious, and unexpectedly life affirming at the end.

The Freedom in American Songs. Kathleen Winter is one of my favourite short story writers since I discovered (very belatedly) Mavis Gallant. I haven’t even started on her novels or memoirs yet! Lots to look forward to.

How Should a Person Be, Sheila Heti. I read this for a second time and was just as impressed as the first time. There’s no plot, nor does there need to be. Just an examination of some of the most important questions of our times!

My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I now believe the hype!

Brighton Rock, Graham Greene. While promoting my own book in Edmonton, I publicly disclosed on the radio that I had never read Graham Greene. Embarrassing. Ran out, bought this, remedied my shortcoming. This is a mean, bleak book. I was hooked.

A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov. Just brilliant. I raved about it here.

Some Extremely Boring Drives, Marguerite Pigeon. Fellow NeWest’er.

Here are the books I am reading next:

On Beauty, Zadie Smith (currently reading)
North East, Wendy McGrath
Boundless, Kathleen Winter
In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
10:04, Ben Lerner
419, Will Ferguson
My Struggle, Book 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Us Conductors, Sean Michaels

It’ll be a good finish to 2014, a strong start to 2015, hopefully!

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Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant. Photo

This piece originally appeared in carte blanche, the literary review of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. My sincere thank you to Nicola Danby for editing it.

To me, the longstanding appeal of fiction has always been to escape my limited worldview and enter that of somebody else. Now, I don’t read stories by women to find out what women are like. There’s real life for that. I read stories by women for the same reason I read stories by men. When I say I love the stories of Mavis Gallant, I don’t say so because she is a woman. I say it because she is a great writer, full stop. It’s embarrassing to belabour this point, but I feel I should, because I am a man, and because there is nothing so awful for a man to say than something like, “She’s great. And she’s a woman, too!”

Something rather dreadful like this happened recently on Twitter, when Playboy (who’da thunk a Hugh Heffner production would be so sexist?!) tried to heap praise on the musician Neko Case. The cringe-inducing tweet that Case was “breaking the mold of what women in the music industry should be” elicited more than a cringe from Case—thank God. She replied:

IM NOT A FUCKING “WOMAN IN MUSIC”, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!

It’s in this spirit that I present my list.

1. The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street, by Mavis Gallant
This story, about ex-patriot Canadians in Europe (like many of Gallant’s stories) is probably one of her most famous. It’s the kind of story you can read, not get, read again, not get, and keep not-getting, perhaps for your whole life. Because that’s how Gallant is—so astonishingly life-like are her literary creations that you never, ever feel the authorial temptation to tell you something, explain to you something. No, what you get is messiness, confusion, self-doubt. This story is about an encounter between a male protagonist with a younger woman who is originally from a small-town in Saskatchewan. It’s simple. And it’s not.

2. Dear Life, by Alice Munro
The title story of Alice Munro’s most-recently published collection is a gem, not just for all the many usual reasons that Munro’s fiction is celebrated, but also because it’s such a compelling account of how an author picks over the events of her own life—seeking stories, maybe meanings—and how both the stories and meanings change over the decades. It’s probably not a stretch to say that only a woman of Munro’s extraordinary longevity could pull off this kind of feat.

3. Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield
“Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing, simply.” That’s how much fantastic writing is on offer just in the first line. New Zealand has produced so much more for us to marvel at than the backdrop for the The Lord of the Rings.

4. The Museum of Useless Efforts, by Cristina Peri Rossi
The imagination of the Uruguayan Rossi, is larger than the constraints of earthly reality, if one can make so bold a claim. Her highly experimental fiction is always weird, never dull. I really love this story because it starts with such a wonderful premise—a museum that catalogs all the “useless efforts” in history (“a man tried to fly seven times; some prostitutes attempted to find another job; a woman wanted to paint a picture”)—and it just gets better from there.

5. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The classic story of a descent into madness. It’s made all the more poignant because madness, of course, plays out worse for women than men in the late stages of the nineteenth century, when this was written.

6. The Resplendent Quetzal, by Margaret Atwood
Atwood is possibly the wittiest author Canada’s given the world. Her story from 1977 about tourists in Mexico is a gem.

7. The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin
Intense, fast moving and with a shock ending. Frequently anthologized.

8. Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty
Set in the deep South, by an author who, like Faulkner, was determined to create narrative out of the society immediately around her, this story bursts off the page through the entertaining but also cruel conversation/argument that you get in a close-knit family.

9. How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
This entry on the list is, well, me cheating, because this is not in fact a short story, but rather, a novel excerpt that the magazine n+1 published back in 2010. I was blown away by it and scant months later, bought the full work. Heti is easily one of the best young Canadian authors at work today.

10. In the Tunnel, by Mavis Gallant
I said I loved the stories of Mavis Gallant, so I had to include a second story by her on the list! This one sets a couple of stodgy old Brits in the south of France with a young Canadian guest who is sleeping with somebody she calls Professor Downcast. Brilliant.

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