Tuesday, November 07, 2006

More tales from the city

(Updated below.)

Following up on the post below, and on the discussion that broke out on Bookninja yesterday, I wanted to quote this, from Northrop Frye’s The Modern Century:
To the modern imagination the city becomes increasingly something hideous and nightmarish.... No longer a community, it seems more like a community turned inside out, with its expressways taking its thousands of self-enclosed nomadic units into a headlong flight into greater solitude, ants in the body of a dying dragon, breathing its polluted air and passing its polluted water. The map still shows us self-contained cities like Hamilton and Toronto, but experience presents us with an urban sprawl which ignores national boundaries and buries a vast area of beautiful and fertile land in a tomb of concrete.

Note that Frye does not go on to say, “so writers should write about something more pleasant.”

If this is your reality, you write about it. The idea that Toronto, or any city, has to measure up to certain standards of beauty or soulfulness before it can be deemed fiction-worthy is absurd.

It is similar to the idea that historical settings are inherently more tempting to a writer because the past is more interesting than the present. As if it were up to reality to make itself interesting enough to catch a writer’s eye. As if fiction were a kind of red-light district, where themes and settings come out to coo and stroke the arms of bored writers.

We do have writers who write about Toronto, as Catherine Bush says on Bookninja, and as gets pointed out in Marchand’s column, and Bush is right that a large part of the problem lies in a lack of critical receptivity, predicated by a lack of real engagement with literature as a living entity. There is too much writing about fiction that positions it as a kind of genteel pursuit, removed from the hustle-bustle and hurly-burly of everyday life as lived by most of us. Writers – even young, so-called experimental writers – are as guilty of this as your average book reviewer.

(And, to be clear, this is not a prescriptive argument – I’m not saying that if you have a Toronto address, you must therefore write about Toronto. The imagination goes where it will. But the prejudice exists, among readers and writers, that Toronto is not interesting enough for fiction.)

[UPDATE: Following up on a point Steven makes in the comments, it baffles me why so many writers would admit to such a failure of imagination.

When a writer says the city has no mythology, all I can think of is, "that's your job."

The dirty little secret, of course, is that genre writers tend to be way out ahead of their literary peers in sniffing out the reality of their city. (Or their times, for that matter.) Mystery, thriller, and sci-fi writers tend to see shifting, unmapped contemporary reality as the artistic challenge it is, and rush out to meet it. Not always elegantly or cleverly or even with any kind of lasting effect, but at the same time, cities and eras often get imaginatively mapped out by the more garish and non-genteel writers within them, Dickens being the supreme example.]


Steven W. Beattie said...

There's a certain chicken-and-egg mentality that seems to plague writers and readers who talk about Toronto as not being interesting enough to sustain works of fiction. They bemoan the fact that Toronto lacks a mythology, but don't take the next step, which would be to imagine the mythology that would be created as a result of a vibrant literary representation of the city.

As for material, Toronto provides a cornucopia of subjects both large (alleged terrorist cells operating within our borders, Boxing Day shootings by gangs that catch innocent victims in the crossfire, hate crimes targeting homosexuals, Jews, and other minorities) and small(er) (urban sprawl, multicultural neighbourhoods, graft among municipal politicians) that should provide more than enough fodder for any novelist's imagination.

ognir.rrats said...

"...Dickens being the supreme example."

To say nothing of Alexandre Dumas, who gave us such transcendent superheroes as Edmond Dantès, the Musketeers, and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne.

What has Sheila Heti given us, aside from a dumpling?

Finn Harvor said...

Nathan: Your commentary on Marchand's piece is very good. But I'm somewhat skeptical that much will change. Of course, there are the obvious reasons such as the decline in sales of lit fiction and the unending cultural hurricane that blows from south of the border. But some of the blame lies with the Canadian literary establishment itself. It's simply too insular, and too unreceptive (in actuality) to new ideas.

If you'll pardon the tub-thumping, I've been shopping around two manuscripts for a while, and what I've found is that Canadian publisher/agents are especially closed off from anything that hasn't already proven itself. Of course, this mentality is true everywhere these days since we live very much in an age of the Deal. But the point is, Canadians in positions of cultural power can't *afford* to be insular. And yet they are. (And one of my manuscripts -- for something I call a screenplay-novel -- is an idea whose time, I believe, has come. Yet while I get kind email rejection thingies, I can't even accomplish the small feat of having someone actually *read* it and judge for themselves.)

Apologies again for this example -- the self-promotion being the 21st C. writer in me, the apology being the Canadian. Incidentally, if you're curious my blog site is www.screen-novel.blogspot.com. Good luck with your own work.