Saturday, February 25, 2006

Culture 1, Hipsters 0

Two recent articles, one exclusive to print, worth checking out. The first is in n + 1, a New York journal and is called
Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop and is by Mark Greif.

I think the discussion of Radiohead is sharp, especially when Greif observes that Radiohead found its voice and purpose when it stopped trying to articulate its frustration with modernity through its lyrics (the Fake Plastic Trees of The Bends), and instead found a way to evoke dread and suspicion with the plastic hassle through aural textures. Still, what delights me so much about this article is not the Radiohead analysis (I’m sure a dozen music-crits have already jabbed cigarette burns throughout his musical conjecturing, but that is a game I find both boring and difficult to play) but Greif’s brave and refreshing decision to describe the limitations of pop as it applies to politics. Check this out:

The more I try to categorize why Radiohead’s music works as it does, and by extension how pop works, the more it seems clear that the effect of pop on our beliefs and actions is not really to create either one. Pop does, though, I think, allow you to retain certain things you’ve already thought, without your necessarily having been able to articulate them, and to preserve certain feelings you have only intermittent access to, in a different form, music with lyrics, in which the cognitive and emotional are less divided. I think songs allow you to steel yourself or loosen yourself into certain kinds of actions, though they don’t start anything. And the particular songs and bands you like dictate the beliefs you can preserve and reactivate, and the actions you can prepare – and which songs and careers will shape your inchoate private experience depends on an alchemy of your experience and the art itself. Pop is neither a mirror nor a Rorschach blot, into which you look and see only yourself; nor is it a lecture, an interpretable poem, or an act of simply determinate speech. It teaches something, but only by stimulating and preserving things that you must have had inaugurated elsewhere. Or it prepares the ground for these discoveries elsewhere – often knowledge you might never otherwise have really “known,” except as it could be rehearsed by you, then repeatedly reactivated for you, in this medium.

This was, for me, an incredible blast of oxygen. I don’t care if he is right or wrong, but unlike so many other cultural critics, he actually has the courage to sketch the political boundaries of his object of study. Summarizing Grief’s 17-page article, is tough, so all I can say is find a copy and read it.

The second article can be found in the March edition of Harper’s. Many folks make snoozing sounds when referring to this magazine, and lately I understand why. That said, there is always something good in Harper’s.


In an attempt to prove my point, I ask you to take a look at the first part of Bill Wasik’s article about flash mobs. Wasik, it turns out, invented the flash mob as an experiment in social psychology. His article mocks the conformity of hipsters, the Strokes, and Wasik hammers away at a number of other worthwhile targets, including the Ford Fusion. His inclusion of Howard Dean didn’t quite work, and I started to sigh when he began to discuss the Milgram experiments, until he did something new with the ol’ shock generator by claiming that:

Stanley Milgram deserves recognition, I believe, as one of the crucial artists of the preceding century.

Here is a good tip for any essayist: if you evoke an overused person or idea from the past, please put a new gloss on it. Otherwise I will stop reading. And so will many others.

Finally, I like Wasik’s attack on McSweeney’s:

Like the Strokes, McSweeney’s promised a cultural watershed for hipsters while making no demands on them. Readers accustomed to a choice between low entertainment and serious literature did not, with this journal, have to make such a choice at all. […] Almost none of the young writers could deploy McSweeney’s style to anywhere near the effect that Eggers, a genuinely affecting writer, could; one suspects that most would have been better (if less well known) writers today if the journal had never existed.

Class dismissed. Be sure to have read both articles for next week.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Cleverly Obtuse Title Utilizing Pun Goes Here

Nathan Sellyn’s debut fiction collection Indigenous Beasts comes out next month. I was flipping through the Raincoast Spring 2006 catalogue today and his book caught my eye. The cover looks sharp, and my bet is that the fiction inside is none-too-shabby.

However, I cannot help but notice that the bottom left corner of the cover image printed in the catalogue contains the following text:

“This is an amazing quote saying Nate is the Next Big Thing.”

(Full PDF here.)

I will buy five copies of his book if the final, printed book cover actually says that.

Snakes on a Plane

The amount of debate in the blogoblog about my book review -- in which I suggested what’s-her-name is the worst writer of Generation Why -- took me by surprise.

As someone who doesn’t spend nearly as much time as he should reading local blogs, I have been very impressed by the intelligence and level of debate floating around the internets. I am also very humbled by the dedication many bloggers have, in terms of their publishing schedule.

Habermas would be proud.

What I found most interesting was that by the time a print media response to the book review hit stands on Thursday, February 16 (that would the day I discovered I was Mr. Warren Kinsella's chew toy), the various elements of the issue had already been very thoroughly and thoughtfully debated and digested online. Blogs rule OK!

I did not think for a moment that anyone would waste ink and pulp on the issue. One or two blog postings, maybe. A short paragraph in Frank, perhaps. But not this.

The incident just made its way into Now, in their Upfront section. I feel as though I have been scalded with lukewarm water. This new (and I hope final) wave of commentary appears to be the result of the Star’s clarification on Sunday (February 19), which explained that I was not an unbiased, objective reviewer. This should have been made explicit in the original review, as many people have pointed out. There was a miscommunication between my editor and myself regarding the conflict of interest, which I regret.

To conclude, I have a few corrections and comments I would like to make, before never mentioning the whole mess ever again. None of my bulleted points are designed to provoke further debate, since one of the main goals of the review was to encourage everyone to stop talking about her. (I failed big time on that front.) These are observations, not provocations.

* Kinsella, in his February 16 column, suggests that SaumassigeSchreibmaschiene is not a real word. Let me be clear: I consulted with a native German speaker, and I can assure you that SaumassigeSchreibmaschiene is a compound word that translates, roughly, into exactly what I said it does.

* Kinsella mentions a photo on my website where I am wearing black nail polish. That photo was taken five years ago. I will endeavor to update my website appropriately.

* Alex Good, over at Good Reports, strikes me as someone that I would enjoy having a coffee with and discussing his frustrations with book reviewing in Canada. I realize he is not my biggest fan, but that’s OK. I agree with some of his complaints, as they appear to echo Henighan’s sentiments in When Words Deny the World, a book that I like far more than I dislike.

* I was very pleased to see someone mention Andy Lamey’s debilitating book review of Crossing the Distance, a review which ran in issue #56 (1999) of Canadian Notes & Queries. Lamey’s review should be taught in university lit-crit classes – it is simply that good. Dale Peck could learn things from Lamey. If my recent review was considered one-third as good as Lamey’s, I would be happy. (A few blogs suggested it was not even close on that score.)

* As I get older, I find that anonymous (or non-anonymous) critiques and even cheap shots bother me far less. In fact, I was heartened to learn that some people don’t care about either me or her -- or, even better, have no inkling of who either of us are. That is healthy. That is good. That puts things in the proper perspective. As another person commented, this is a topic interesting only to a select group of Toronto media folk who live within a 10 or 15 block radius of each other. Here here.

I can only imagine what I am in for if I ever manage to publish another book. In lieu of a written critique, I envision a photograph of the assigned reviewer urinating on my tome.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What You Should Have Missed...

Bookninja has a thorough summary of the past two days, although it omits the entry. The Quill and Quire blog has a very funny and balanced entry up right now, but their blogging software does not appear to permit direct links to individual article entries. Their entry concludes:

Do these two know each other? Couldn’t McLaren, who has now written of a childless woman, have had sympathy instead of vitriol for the perpetually single Bigge? One thing seems clear: riffling through the discount tables at Pages the other day, In Other Media found copies of Bigge’s book. We can all be somewhat sure that, someday, in that very same spot, will be McLaren’s. So can’t we all just get along?

I would point out that it took four years for my book to end up in the remainder bin. But Quill's geography is quite accurate. Oh, and I'm no longer single.

By the way, if Oprah (or the Canadian equivalent therein) demands it, I will appear on her show and weep on cue.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The First Draft of History Dept.

The Star had the good sense to edit my review of Leah’s new “book.” I’m not being facetious – good editors are like the senate, a repository of sober, second thought.

But lucky for you, dear reader, I lack the good sense to keep the first draft sequestered away in a lock box, and will thus provide for you at no extra charge the original Leah review in all its knives out glory.

The Continuity Girl by Leah McLaren, HarperCollins, 336 pages, $18.95

Many creative writing instructors employ the Sandwich Method when providing student feedback: a slice of praise, followed by the “meat” (the critical suggestions), followed by a final slab of positive reinforcement.


Well … the typesetting in Leah McLaren’s new novel is certainly praiseworthy. The font selected, Electra, is an eye-pleasing serif. Unfortunately, poor Electra has endured unspeakable molestation courtesy of McLaren’s prose:

He owed her this baby, but that was not the only reason he was here in this phoneless phone booth, cock in hand, pumping away (well, okay, more squeezing and pulling, at this point), trying to draft a few million able-bodied DNA servicemen. No, the truth was, he wanted a child as much as she did, but for entirely different reasons. Not for the cutsy clothes and mashed banana stuff, which was as frightening as it was a turnoff, but for the continuation of the larger narrative.

The Continuity Girl illuminates the limitations of my thesaurus. Uber-lousy? Fifth-rate? Super-bad? None of above. There exists no English word that adequately describes the residuum, offal and drek that slosh through the pages of this novel. Even the German word SaumassigeSchreibmaschiene, which roughly translates into “putrid garbage typewriter prose,” fails to convey the stench of this slushpile.

Lacking the tools to adequately assess this book, I am donating my allotted real estate to the other reviewers sharing this page. This strategy will deprive McLaren of the crucial element that sustains her entire oeuvre – attention. Each week that spoiled brat throws an entitlement tantrum in her Globe column, and each week far too many people eavesdrop. Her fishwrap is ostensibly harmless, but this brand extension disguised as a novel is where it ends: the joke isn’t funny anymore, especially at $18.95 plus tax. McLaren is a provocative pool toy that is kept inflated only by the warm air of the chattering classes. Stop reading her SaumassigeSchreibmaschiene, stop talking about her between sips at the water cooler, and she will soon shrivel into nothingness. It’s that simple.

Before I can take my leave, I must provide a final slice for my book review sandwich, but finding another praise-worthy element of The Continuity Girl is the most difficult task this humble reviewer has ever encountered. I finally discovered that which I required in Stephen King’s book On Writing. “One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose,” he writes, explaining that one novel like Valley of the Dolls or Flowers in the Attic “is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.”

If King is correct, then reading Ms. McLaren’s new novel is equivalent to a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.

From Oxford.