Saturday, January 28, 2006

Type Cast 2

A literary agent of my acquaintance (ok, ok, my literary agent) told me a revealing story about how Canadian literary culture is perceived outside of Canada. While at a European book fair, he was approached by a Finnish publisher who, like any good Finn, was already loaded by 4pm.

“A Canadian!”, the publisher bellowed. “Tell me please why all your books are about middle class ladies who don’t have any problems?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, drunk or sober. If one more press release passes my desk promoting yet another earnest Canadian novel about the sad lives of three generations of bookish, overly sensitive women looking for love in the suburbs of Saskatoon, or, worse yet, in 19th century Newfoundland, I’m going to swear off Canadian fiction altogether and only read bathroom books with funny pictures of cats.

I just can’t take it anymore – enough with the naturalism, the kitchen sink kitsch. Why are so many Canadian books afraid of story, of plot, of action?

Of course, I have a theory (Nietzsche used to console himself with thoughts of suicide, I have my beloved theories) – Canadian fiction is stuck in its own past. When the CanLit Renaissance took place, forty or fifty years back, almost everyone who wrote also taught at a university. At the time, pop culture was considered unworthy of the halls of academe. Literary naturalism and realist fictions were privileged over speculative or fantastic fictions, because, it was thought, only children and half-wits liked to read about monsters and space ships.

Now you can get a doctorate for studying books about space ships and monsters, but the literary scene in Canada is still married to the idea that realistic narratives are more important and more literary (and therefore of a higher grade of writing) than speculative narratives. Add to this elitist ideology the marketing mantra, prevalent in Canadian publishing circles, that women read fiction and men read non-fiction (a foolish and sexist notion), and you get an annual flood in the Canadian fiction lists of so-called “women’s books” – interchangeable novels set in the domestic arena that deal with realistically-portrayed family crises.

If these marketing schemes are true, it must also be true that women don’t want to be entertained and prefer instead to be empathetic, to have a little cry underneath their reading lights. Whoever thought that up has never met my fun loving lady pals.

An interesting case in point is the recent reception in our presses of George R. R. Martin’s delightful and wildly entertaining A Feast For Crows. Martin is the dominant name in fantasy fiction today, with around 3 million books sold to date. His books are sprawling epics depicting battles between knights and witches and thieves and priests, set in landscapes dotted with menacing mountains, treacherous swamps, and mysterious forests full of hungry wildlife. Every page of A Feast For Crows is full of life, action, sex and head chopping, and Martin’s extensive cast of lurid characters rivals that of any of the Russian pot boilers you were forced to read in school.

Yet, when A Feast For Crows came out this fall and instantly climbed to our national bestseller lists, the Canadian book press almost wholly ignored its arrival. After some searching of major newspaper archives, I found two articles about Martin himself, but no proper reviews of the novel. In terms of sales, public profile, and popularity, Martin rivals even our top purveyors of tea and torment fiction. Why the cold shoulder?

Chris Szego, manager of the Bakka-Phoenix bookstore, a shop specializing in speculative fiction, has an interesting theory.

“The modernist movement is still dominant in literary culture, especially the post-WW2 idea that a fiction is worthless unless everything ends badly. But a lot of science fiction and fantasy literature doesn’t end this way, because the books are based on the conflict of good vs. evil, and end with the triumph of good.”

“In Canada, we have the added problem that there is an established preoccupation with landscape in our writing. So, if you’re making up a landscape, creating a fantasy space, it’s supposed that the writing can’t really be worth anything. Furthermore, the powerhouse publishers of genre fiction are not located in Canada, and that means that when it comes to treating genre fiction with the same respect as realist fiction, there’s another layer of distance, a perception in our media that speculative fiction is an American thing.”

Szego has a few choice words for us newspaper types too.

“No offence, but the truth is most papers do a poor job with books in general, and are constantly cutting the space for book reviews. So, when its decided what gets review space, the modernist view of what’s worthy is applied – i.e. realist fiction. Newspapers don’t review what people buy, but what they think people should buy.”


“Well, look at it this way,” Szego offers as a consolation, “genre writers don’t really have to care about reviews– they’re too busy selling books.”

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Type Cast 1

Looking back at my university days, I can’t believe that I wrote entire essays on, for instance, Hawthorne’s foot fetish or the “lesbian textile motif” in Willa Cather’s short stories, using a crappy, Sears brand teal plastic typewriter with a bum C key. How did I make it through a single page? And why don’t I have nose cancer from the pails of Wite-Out?

I hated that typewriter and hated typing even more. So when I bought my first adorable little Mac, one of the early “dollhouse” models that looked like an upturned grey bread box, I fell in instant and slavish love. The typewriter met a timely, much deserved death at the end of a hammer. I was tempted to make a kill trophy necklace with the keys.

With all that emotional baggage, I was surprised to find myself completely engrossed by Darren Wershler-Henry’s The Iron Whim, a crazy quilt history of typewriters and typing that tackles everything from the metaphoric importance of machine communications in Stoker’s Dracula to an examination of writing styles typical of authors who typed with one finger.

Wershler-Henry’s writing hops from subject to reference to anecdote in an engagingly frantic way that, appropriately enough, mimics the clacking, find-peck-stab-print action of typing itself. Unlike other composite histories, the kind that trace the social history of, say, paperweights or porridge, The Iron Whim generously lends itself to dipping, dabbling, and random shuffles. This is not a chronology, it’s a scrapbook, and is far more entertaining precisely because it is so loosely constructed.

Some readers may find Wershler-Henry’s fondness for communications philosophy and all theories French and obfusticating a bit tough to love, but such readers need only skip a page or two until they find themselves smack in the middle of another weird and wonderful, plainly told tale of the typewriter’s strange power. With Wershler-Henry, one is never very far from a tasty film reference or lurid allusion to drug-induced pop music, and watching the egghead wrestle the trash queen across the pages is half the fun.

Interviewing Wershler-Henry over the phone is exactly like reading his prose. He speaks faster than a Montreal waitress and moves effortlessly (and without prompting) from the criticism of Walter Benjamin to chair designs by surly Italian futurists. I tried to keep up, but at a failing 18 words per minute typing (keyboarding?) speed, I had to stop periodically for some finger yoga.

The obvious first question: Why write a book about a dead machine?

“I started this book for two reasons”, he begins, avant le deluge.

“I was thinking about bodies and machines and how they work together, especially cyborgs, but then I realized that everybody else was making a book about the same thing. So, I started thinking about writers and machines and how various machines have allowed writers to work – especially how there’s a difference between the way a keyboard works on a computer and how the same keyboard works on a typewriter.”

“The second thing that happened was that once I started telling people about my typewriter project , absolutely everyone, and I mean everyone, starting telling me about the old typewriters in their basements. Everyone seems to have one, but nobody uses them. Typewriters are tokens, people keep them the way 18the century writers kept skulls on their desks. I had to explore this weird nostalgia.”

And they’re kind of cute, I add, feeling suddenly guilty about my past typewriter abuse.

“Typewriters are attractive objects, and there are serious typewriter collectors out there. The typewriter is collected the way photos of Marilyn Monroe are collected, or Ernest Hemingway memorabilia – because typewriters are an icon of the last period of modernism, of a time when there was a direct physical process to writing. Because it was so physical, it’s easy for us to look back at the writing from the typewriter era as being un-alienated, more focused, even pure. Of course, this is an illusion, but we couldn’t see the illusions about typewriting as a kind of mastering act until after typewriters disappeared.”

I mention that I’ve just seen the film Capote, and noticed that whenever the director wants us to feel sympathy for the vile little gnome, he shows tiny Truman in a bare room sitting at a typewriter.

“Of course. Part of the reason that that visual cue works is that typing is a really pure kind of action – you hit a key, you get a letter on a physical page. There is an immediate, viewable, and stable response, and we read that stability as a kind of honest act because cause and effect are instantly manifest.”

Now that he’s cleared up one big mechano-cultural fixation, what’s next ? A book on blenders?

“Im really interested in how we interact with technology – specifically, why our interactions fail. Why does every VCR in the world blink 12:00 and can’t be made to stop? Why does your cell phone have 17 functions you’ve never learned to use? We have a perverse relationship to machines. We devise them to work for us, but the results end up messy and bad.”

The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting

Darren Wershler-Henry

McClelland & Stewart $29.99