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.