Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some of my best friends are paranoid writers

Here we go again: Stephen Henighan has responded to some of the people who responded in an over-the-top way to his over-the-top Giller rant of last year.

In a column in Geist entitled "Witch Hunt"– there's that famous Henighan restraint and sense of proportion! – the man kicks back against those (such as Lisa Moore and Michael Redhill) who would call him racist:
Redhill’s cynical invocation of racism belittles the pain caused by racist acts, just as people who liken everyone they disagree with to Adolf Hitler banalize the monstrous reality of Nazism. An observer of colour would be justified in finding ridiculous the spectacle of three overprivileged white people such as Moore, Redhill and me squabbling over who is a racist. We may all claim our own forms of marginalization—Redhill is Jewish, Moore a Newfoundlander, and I am an immigrant—but none of us has to contend with the distrustful stare on the street, or the nervous hostility of the attendant at the drugstore counter, that are the daily currency of, for example, Canadians of Afro-Caribbean descent. All three of us draw on the European cultural tradition whose development fed on the wealth Europe accumulated by classifying the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world as subhuman in order to colonize them. It would be suicidally foolish to repudiate the European cultural heritage; it would be naïve, however, not to recognize that racism is fatally interwoven into that heritage. The issue is not that some white people are racist and others aren’t. We are all the inheritors of a culture drenched in racist assumptions. The question is: to what extent can we examine these assumptions, explore and analyze the ways that interracial interactions play themselves out in our multiracial society, and, in this way, understand and better appreciate the multicoloured patchwork of our daily lives?
This is all very perceptive and true. Race in Canada is a discussion that rarely gets beyond the level of a high school social studies class, and while this ends with some of that same whiff of chalk dust about it (or is it now the squeak of the dry-erase marker?), he at least aims initially for something a little more clear-eyed and grown-up.

It's almost easy to forget the comment that started all this hullabaloo:
In an instant Vincent Lam, in contrast to previous “multicultural” Giller winners Vassanji, Rohinton Mistry and Austin Clarke—all of them relative loners, none of them born or raised in Canada, none of them able to boast an exemplary interracial marriage such as that between Lam and his Anglo-Greek-descended wife—became a member of the Family Compact and a potential teddy bear. [Emphasis added.]
And who wrote that again? Oh right.

Now, as I try to always make clear, I usually have a lot of sympathy for what Henighan is trying to get at. There is a literary establishment in Canada that is always looking for some appropriate new recruit to be plucked up and absorbed, as there are also many fresh-faced recruits waving their hands frantically in the air and hoping to be picked, like it's Let's Make a Deal and Ondaatje is a bearded Monty Hall. That is just about self-evident. The sheer number of low-selling, undistinctive writers who all the same bob along on the warm gases of award jury seats, creative writing positions, peer-reviewed grants, plum editing jobs, and writing retreats is proof of that. It's annoying, and occasionally more than that, but it's also understandable and human. It's exactly like political patronage – one time in ten it genuinely is a case of the right person for the job being close at hand; the other nine times, well....

(And, just in case anyone from the establishment is reading this, I'm right here for the plucking. I'm housebroken, I've read some Proust, and though I don't know a lot about wine, I'm willing to learn.)

What Henighan repeatedly does with his poorly aimed jeremiads, however, is reveal the limits of his understanding as to how this establishment works. There is obviously a great deal of spite and vanity and simple greed, yes, but there's also a lot of dumb blundering and good intentions gone awry.

As James G pointed out here in comments a few months ago, the fact that Atwood – the scourge of right-wing philistines and art-hating greedocrats, the first with the fuming editorial in the Globe about how the poor, literary pigeons must be rescued from the miserable, bean-counting fatcats, the one who stood up against the forces of avian destruction with nothing but a gym bag full of specially made delicacies – would put her image and her Can(Lit)adarm at the service of Chapters/Indigo and Conrad Black – and nobody even bats an eye – reveals just how dimly self-aware and ineffective this establishment really is, and how pointless it is to butt heads with it. After all, if they knew what they were doing, the books would be selling better and/or having a larger cultural impact and the literature as a whole really would be enjoying that Golden Age we kept hearing about a few years ago (though less and less these days).

Come to think of it, maybe Henighan is the perfect foil for this group, matching their clumsiness and lack of self awareness every step of the way.

Every literary culture gets the critic it deserves, I guess.

1 comment:

Peter Norman said...

Of the responses I've seen to this dust-up, yours is the most balanced, cogent and witty. Glad to have come across it.