Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Dear Noah Richler,

I am honoured that you consider me worthy of critique. A month or two ago, in the Toronto Star, you spent a substantial portion of your review of A Complicated Kindness talking about a literary essay I wrote for the Spring books section of the National Post

Toews' new novel, Bigge goes on, "serves to illustrate the conundrum many younger Canadian authors face — how to mash up our literary tradition of rural geography with the urban nation we have become."

This, frankly, is the sort of self-regarding metropolitan article that gives Toronto a bad name — with none of the "edge" Bigge thinks is missing in CanLit. (Bigge did not mention Colin MacAdam's novel of Ottawa bureaucrats and developers, Some Great Thing, certainly one of the best reads of the year so far — "urban" and full of vigour — but no reviewer can be abreast of everything)

I’m flattered, of course. But perhaps you should focus your energy on acquainting yourself with a crazy new medium called the Internet. Colin McAdam is the author of Some Great Thing. Also, in your article, you state that James Wood is the literary editor of The New Republic. Actually, it’s Leon Wieseltier, and it took me five seconds with Google to discover this. What happened? Did you write your review on an airplane? In longhand? On the back of an airsickness bag?

Oh well. You’ve never been a details man, Noah. You’re good at dropping names, but less proficient at spelling them correctly. I recommend you petition McClelland & Stewart to hire an extra fact-checker for your upcoming book A Literary Atlas Of Canada. Lest you think me nasty, consider this: if I was incubating any malice toward you, I wouldn’t make such a helpful suggestion. Indeed, I take your attempt to besmirch my good name with a milligram of sodium. This kind of literary catfight, is, after all, a sign of progress in the hermetic world of Canadian letters. Indeed, if I continue to work hard and write provocative essays, perhaps I can look forward to a Trudeau denigrating me someday. Then I’d know I’ve really made it.

But enough bickering. As you called me a "bright fella" in your article, it behooves me to reply in kind. Mistakes aside, I was impressed with your column – it was very focused, unlike the overlong, meandering, and often confusing lumps of prose you microwaved each week when you were books columnist at the National Post. I guess losing your Post column must have served as something of a wake-up call, as it appears you have discovered a little writing secret we pros like to call a second draft.

Still, I’m confused about something in your Toews review. You wrote:

Really, the urban landscape is just like any of the "rural" others Bigge implies are boring subjects for young authors. Deciding that we are an "urban nation" or that Prairie subjects are by definition stultifying is actually parochial.

That wasn’t the point I was trying to make in my essay, but that’s OK. I quote the above passage because in it, you suggest that setting is irrelevant. Which makes sense. A good book is a good book, regardless of setting. And yet, a few paragraphs later, you write that:

I am one of Smith's readers who would be relieved if some of that seriousness was finding its way into fiction about more than nightclubs.

Now I’m confused. A minute ago you said setting doesn’t matter. But now you’re dismissing fiction set in a nightclub (unless, I assume, said nightclub is filled with Mennonites). Please, I beg you, make up your mind.

In the meantime, it seems only fair to leave the last word with Russell Smith, who called you a "ninny" in his column back in early May. I realize I have failed to mentioned this often enough, so I’ll say it now: Russell Smith is a fantastic fiction writer. I have re-read Noise and How Insensitive because they are so damn good. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, his satire has teeth and there is nary a wheat field in sight. (Yes, his fairy tale book was stinky but these things happen.) Anyway, here is Russell Smith, from The Notebooks (Random House, 2002):

The most passionate stories can happen in suburbs and minivans. You don’t need to be in the Holocaust and it doesn’t have to be foreign or depressed. It doesn’t have to be a family saga, a history that goes back generations to a disaster in the nineteenth century, or whatever. I think that there’s a gothic tendency in Canadian fiction of the nationalist era. I think that that’s what this group you’ve assembled represents: it’s a leaving behind of cultural nationalism. That fiction no longer has to be about the land. The land actually influences us very little here, you know. We live in cities like everyone else in the world.

Ryan Bigge

P.S. I think you’re a ninny too.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Dead Walrus Bounce (With Hickeys)

I'm back from Montreal. I still haven't completed my Montreal blog, which is makes me feel lame beyond belief. Soon. As well, I think I'm going to cut back on blog postings here -- perhaps once a week or so during the summer, and wind the whole blog down in early September and try something different. Today, I offer some excerpts from items you might have missed...

Josey Vogels, writing in her My Messy Bedroom column (Hour, April 29th, 2004), quoted from an article I wrote for The Peak, the SFU student newspaper, many years ago. This, from the Vogels article:

While tons has been written on the history of kissing - one theory goes that kissing started among cave people who licked each other's faces for the salt - very little has been recorded on the history of hickeys.

I did find one article that quotes Oliver Kralhein, a guy from somewhere in New York who has been studying hickeys since 1965 and published a zine on the topic for over two decades.

In the article by Canadian journalist Ryan Bigge, Kralhein says his research suggests that hickeys have been around since the dawn of time


According to Bigge's article, even Robert De Niro, John Tesh and Cher have permanently marked themselves with decorative hickeys. And back in the mid-90s, the rap group Funky See, Funky Do released a song with the following lyrics:

"A kiss is fine but it don't always last/That's why I got a hickey of your name on my ass/That may seem strange and a little bit fruity/But every time I say your name I think of booty."

For those wondering about the veracity of my hickey article, well, read the whole thing here and decide for yourself.

Moving right along. From the July 2004 Toronto Life, Robert Fulford writing about The Walrus in an article entitled Tusk Force:

Having started out with the promise of long-term security, the magazine instead proved astonishingly unstable. Moreover, the articles in the first five issues, whatever their other qualities, contain little that’s original or challenging; they suggest, on the contrary, that among Canadian writers new ideas are thin on the ground.


This is a magazine that performs better around the edges than at the core. Put another way, it succeeds most when it appears to try least. With some exceptions, the longish articles, the pieces that take up six or eight pages, have been badly managed lumps of prose, compilations of unremarkable facts and obvious ideas, put together without skill or wit.

And this, while very old news, is still worth checking out -- excerpts from an article on Frank magazine by Jowita Bydlowska in the Ryerson Review of Journalism:

"Dead cat bounce" is a term used in stock markets to describe the final, futile upsurge of a declining stock. In Frank's case it was the freakish spike in sales after Taylor published his first issue, number 414, in October 2003. Since that one brief, floating moment, the gossipy cat has been in free fall.


The dreary newsstand sales confirmed a lack of interest in Frank when Taylor developed his dead-cat chart in December.


Five issues into the new Frank, Taylor was obsessing over his "Trends in Circulation" chart where the long painful descent of the dead cat was marked.


The cat began falling around 1996 when Frank was successfully sued for $75,000 by a Quebec judge for suggesting he slept with a key witness at a trial over which he presided.


It was difficult not to quietly root for him. Besides, dead cats can bounce at least twice, and cats have nine lives.