Monday, September 18, 2006

Don't Look Bock

In the Globe today, Dennis Bock was asked about "criticisms of current Canadian literature for its continued reliance on historical settings."

His reply:

"It's a ridiculous issue. You hear it from people who don't have the capacity to write outside their own experience. There is no Dennis Bock in this novel. For me, it's interesting because it has nothing to do with me; it's purely an imaginative act."

I love these false dichotomies – if you are a novelist, and you're not spending a year at the Reference Library or poring over your grandfather's war letters, you clearly lack the capacity to write outside your own experience.


Your choices are not between writing a novel set half-a-century before your birth and writing one about the erotic adventures of your authorial stand-in (though many reasonably talented novelists managed to go pretty far doing just that).

Bock is doing no better here than the people who say Canadian novelists should set their books in medium-to-large cities because, according to StatsCan figures, most of us live in one.

What is objected to when most people complain about CanLit's rampant archeologism is not the historical settings per se (few complain about, say, Cormac McCarthy for his ol' timey settings), but that these settings and times are too often used to gussy up an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, or as background upon which can be slathered all kinds of lazy cultural prejudices, prejudices that would be immediately obvious and absurd-looking if placed in a contemporary setting.

Historical fiction, when it is not the straight entertainment of a genre writer, but the kind that possesses literary pretensions, is a very often a retreat from the shifting realities and complexities that make writing fiction so difficult. It is so much easier to let research and written history determine the path your fiction will take, than to attempt grappling with the world as it is now, still in the process of becoming.

Serious novelists must strive to write "outside their own experience," or else convert their experiences into something beyond mere autobiography-with-metaphors.

But that does not mean they should therefore write fat, costume-drama novels that bring us the shocking news that war is wrong, men oppress women, rich people oppress poor people, rich countries oppress poor ones, and that (Oooo...) there's more to history than what was in your high school textbook.

In reality, the historical novel is just an enormously successful subset of the middlebrow novel - entertainment dressed up in the language of art that seeks to flatter its upper-middle-class readership's educated prejudices (and, ironically, ends up being not very entertaining). No serious literature was built or sustained on the literary equivalent of Merchant-Ivory films.

And honestly, I have no trouble with people writing or reading the stuff – I really don't, though I do think there is more life to be found in work that is unapologetic about its genre status, that embraces its own limitations – but don't ever confuse it with real art. And please don't make bullshit claims for yourself that only you are doing the work of a true writer.


Steven W. Beattie said...

Hear, hear.

I'm gobsmacked by the notion that there are only two kinds of novels, historical novels and romans a clef, and by the notion that a contemporary author who decides to set a work of fiction in an earlier era somehow has the ability to slough off his twenty-first century self and disappear entirely from the book. I haven't read The Communist's Daughter, so I can't comment on the specific content of the novel, but the notion that there's "no Dennis Bock" in it seems a bit odd to me, unless he had a ghostwriter.

Moreover, the idea that the writing of the book was "purely an imaginative act" seems a tad disingenuous, seeing as Bock's own acknowledgements list five key titles he used as references.

Let me be clear: I am in no way suggesting that Bock should not be allowed to write about any damn thing he wants to write about. Nor am I impugning (or praising) the content of his novel. I haven't read it.

But I am bothered by the assertion that fiction writers who set their works in 2006 lack "the capacity to write outside their own experience." The whole point of writing fiction is attempting to imaginitively cast oneself outside of one's own experience and into another set of experiences; it is arguably harder for writers who choose contemporary settings to do this, since they must strive to make their imagined worlds and lives believable within a context that is immediately verifiable by a reader.

I don't know that much about 1930s China, so Bock could say pretty much whatever he wants about it and I'd be willing to believe it, provided he said it with enough authority. The only way for me to check up on him would be to go to the library and read all the books he did while he was researching his novel.

By contrast, if a writer chooses to set a book in 2006, it's very easy for me to hold the world described in that book up against the real world outside my window for comparison. This puts an added burden on the writer, and my suspicion is that the added burden frightens a lot of people.

The other problem I have with the "continued reliance on historical settings" in CanLit isn't touched upon in Bock's response. Writing fiction that is exclusively set in the past implies that there's nothing interesting or worthwhile to write about in today's world, which seems to me a ludicrous concept on its face.

Some writers might suggest that they are using the past as a means of commenting on our current society (see, for e.g. Shauna Singh Baldwin's novel The Tiger Claw). But if a writer wants to write about war or oppression or imperialism or intolerance, it's clearly not necessary to look to the past to find stories that illustrate these subjects.

Artists have often been thrust into the role of society's moral compass, and for that we can be grateful. But in order for artists to fulfill this role, they must be willing to engage with the world as it is now, with all its uncertainty and muddiness and contradiction. Instead of looking back, they need to look around.

ognir.rrats said...

That was obviously a shot at Grainger.