Saturday, February 28, 2009

There's no life like it

A.L. Kennedy on the writing life:
But I do try to tell other people what it will come to – hence my occasional visits to Warwick University and its creative writing students. They want to write, they have application and vigour, they've all come on since I read them last and yet ... it would be unfair not to remind them of how horrible their futures may become. If they're unsuccessful, they'll be clattering through a global Depression with a skill no one requires, a writing demon gnawing at their spine to be expressed and a delicately-nurtured sensitivity that will only make their predicaments seem worse – and yet somehow of no interest to anyone else. If they're successful, they still may not make a living, will travel more than a drug mule, may be so emotionally preoccupied that they fail to notice entire relationships, will have to deal with media demands no sane person would want to understand and may well wear far too much black.
Writers always overdo the self-pity bit – I try to keep in mind Mordecai Richler's frequent admonition that we volunteered, and weren't drafted. But given that I am currently re-immersing myself in a novel-in-progress (which is a little like lowering yourself into a pond full of stagnant water in March at six in the morning while wearing clothes made entirely out of wool), I'm in a particularly "I can't go on, I'll go on" kind of mood.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Wish I had me some money, I'd buy me some better luck"

Sign o' the times: the front shelves of a big grocery store near me, which usually feature seasonal candy and the like, are right now loaded up with no-name macaroni and cheese, canned meat, cheap condiments, and budget tuna.

Thank god publishing's still in good shape...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Musick to read by

There hasn't been much about my novel 'round these parts, and that's because, well, what's to say? In about two months, it will have been a year since the poor thing was let loose on the world. Work continues, in fits and starts, on novel #2, which will have very little in common with the first – except that it will also be about boring, unlikeable people who go through small, unremarkable routines against a drab background. With any luck, it will at least be funnier.

That's all by way of a preface to my telling you that Alex Lukashevsky, who composed and performed music both at my launch and at my appearance at Word on the Street (and who was recently given the tribute treatment by Final Fantasy – see below), has posted the piece he performed on his myspace page. Click on "Dumbdowneden Suite" – then listen to the other songs.

In particular, listen to "Horsetail Feathers," which, in addition to being a great song and one of my favourites of his (my kids love it, too, and do the "ah hoo's" when it comes on in the car), is one of the songs Final Fantasy did the full-orchestra number on. Not only that, he made a video. And it's... well... have a look – eye of the beholder and all that:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The end of history (or maybe just historical novels) - UPDATED

I don't agree with everything Walter Benn Michaels writes* in this Bookforum essay about the effect of the economic crash on literature, but I'm definitely with him on this:

In 1987, the year Beloved appeared, the top tenth of the American population made about 38 percent of the nation’s income. (The bottom fifth made about 3.8 percent.) That top figure was substantially up from the relatively egalitarian numbers that prevailed from the end of World War II until the late 1970s, but that rise was nothing compared with the jump that has taken place since: In 2006, according to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top tenth earned about half of all the money made in America, more even than in 1928, till then the highest figure of the century. The bottom quintile got 3.4 percent.

For a great many Americans, in other words, the boom has been the problem, not the crash. But the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was. And in the past few years, as the actual Holocaust has begun to show the first signs of brand fatigue, enterprising writers like Roth (in The Plot Against America) and Chabon (in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) have boldly moved beyond bad things that happened in the past to bad things that didn’t happen in the past: a Nazi takeover of the United States and the exile of a whole society of Eastern European Jews to Alaska.
You can hear the creak of the hobbyhorse and the sharpening of the axe throughout the essay, and linking literature so directly to the economic realities can easily lead to a stiff-backed form of literary marxism, one that makes its point by cherry-picking this or that award winner or bestseller and letting it stand in for the entire realm of contemporary literature.

But all the same, those links do exist – not that you'd know it from the way fiction gets written about in most book sections, where a breezily post-historical drawing room tone of pure aesthetic appreciation (something that has never existed) tends to reign.

Later, he dubs the memoir a "Thatcherite genre," which is a little sweeping, but hard to dispute.

Not that you can't dispute it, and that's the point. There is nothing to dispute in bland appreciation of books, because there is nothing there in the first place.

* for example, this:
You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing ('a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren') than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.
No you don't, and to say you do is just lazy Russell Smithism. Brand names can reinforce a point about character or setting, but to say they alone nail down both is the equivalent of those high school English tables of symbols where the colour blue always means "God" or something. In the not-very-distant future – indeed, if not already – people will read those descriptions and wonder whether the character is supposed to be seen as haute or gauche.

UPDATE: Thought I'd pull out this earlier rant about historical fiction from way, way back in 2006, when we were younger, more alive, more open to possibilities, more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with bellies more full of piss and vinegar, etc.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Before I forget, Mr President, did you know our Governor General is black?"

Ensuring we continue to be seen as the dorky, approval-seeking irrelevancies we are, Peter Mansbridge wrapped up his exclusive interview with Barack Obama thus:
Q: I'm down to my last minute. A couple of quickies on Canada -- your sense of the country. I mean, I think -- as you may know, you carry Canada on your belt. (Laughter.) That Blackberry is a Canadian invention.

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.

Q: You've been to Canada once. What's your sense of the country?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, yes, I've been to Canada a couple of times. Most recently it was to visit my brother-in-law's family who was from Burlington right outside of Toronto. Look, I think that Canada is one of the most impressive countries in the world, the way it has managed a diverse population, a migrant economy. You know, the natural beauty of Canada is extraordinary. Obviously there is enormous kinship between the United States and Canada, and the ties that bind our two countries together are things that are very important to us.

And, you know, one of the things that I think has been striking about Canada is that in the midst of this enormous economic crisis, I think Canada has shown itself to be a pretty good manager of the financial system in the economy in ways that we haven't always been here in the United States. And I think that's important for us to take note of, that it's possible for us to have a vibrant banking sector, for example, without taking some of the wild risks that have resulted in so much trouble on Wall Street.

Q: Appreciate this very much. You still haven't seen your first hockey game.

THE PRESIDENT: I'm looking forward to making it happen at some point.

Q: Mr. President, thank you very much.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
What? No mention of Feist? Seth Rogen? The Canadarm?

I like to think that, at the end of this interview, Mansbridge leaned in for a dap, and was denied.

Monday, February 16, 2009

MIA now officially a MILF

From The Guardian:

MIA gave birth to a baby boy this week, having gone into labour just hours after appearing at the Grammy awards.

"SUNDAY NITE I CAME HOME FROM THE GRAMMYS STILL IN THE MOOD TO PARTY," she explained on her MySpace blog this weekend. "I coulda easily gone out but I went home instead. Lucky I did! Coz my early stage labour kicked in around 2am."

(That's right: MILF jokes.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

If it pees, it ledes

John Barber opens his Globe column about the controversial new Canada Prize for the Arts and Creativity thus:
David Pecaut stuck in his thumb, pulled out a plum, and said sorry so profusely you'd think he had peed in the pudding instead.
If only he had followed that up with "What was intended as a golden shower for Canada's arts sector has turned into a pissing match."

(That's right: pee pee jokes.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

[Insert pun here]

I have an editor friend (hello, Gary) who has a troubling propensity for inserting puns everywhere they can be inserted – and a few places they really shouldn't. Everything he touches editorially becomes lousy with kneeslappers.

But not even he, at his worst, would give a review of a new translation of Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov's 19th-century comic novel of sloth and torpitude, a title like "Sofa, So Good."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Belated thanks

"If I say that Henry Green taught me how to write it implies that I learned, and it is not a business one learns – unlearns, rather, the premature certainties and used ecstasies unravelling as one goes, with each day new blank paper to confront." – John Updike
Ingrate that I am, I had forgotten, until I read the obituary in The Economist, that it was Updike's writing about Henry Green that led me to that writer – who remains a favourite, as well as that other tricky thing, an "influence."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't laugh at this blog, for your own sake

Reality, not content with constantly outstripping satire, has begun actually stripping it. And beating it.

From the Daily Mail:

A British ‘resident’ held at Guantanamo Bay was identified as a terrorist after confessing he had visited a ‘joke’ website on how to build a nuclear weapon, it was revealed last night.

Binyam Mohamed, a former UK asylum seeker, admitted to having read the ‘instructions’ after allegedly being beaten, hung up by his wrists for a week and having a gun held to his head in a Pakistani jail.

It was this confession that apparently convinced the CIA that they were holding a top Al Qaeda terrorist.

But The Mail on Sunday can reveal that the offending article – called How To Build An H-Bomb – was first published in a US satirical magazine and later placed on a series of websites.

Written by Barbara Ehrenreich, the publication’s food editor, Rolling Stone journalist Peter Biskind and scientist Michio Kaku, it claims that a nuclear weapon can be made ‘using a bicycle pump’ and with liquid uranium ‘poured into a bucket and swung round’.

Despite its clear satirical bent, the story led the CIA to accuse 30-year-old Mohamed, a caretaker, of plotting a dirty bomb attack, before subjecting him to its ‘extraordinary rendition programme’.

During his eight-year imprisonment, Mohamed has allegedly been flown to secret torture centres in Pakistan, Morocco, an American-run jail known as the Dark Prison near Kabul in Afghanistan and, finally, to Guantanamo Bay.

I suspect that we'll be digging up this kind of awful shit – and worse – for decades to come.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Stepping Razor, Honest Ed

I didn't notice until just the other day that, among the hundreds of framed, signed headshots of old skool actors and such on the walls of Honest Ed's, is a framed, signed headshot of Peter Tosh.

It's down near the toy section, if you're looking.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Fat man denounces fatwa

In the new issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens writes about the "cultural fatwa" that the West has been put under – has put itself under, through self-censorship and preemptive fear – in its dealings with Islamic fundamentalism.
So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table. He never speaks. He doesn’t have to. But he is very well understood. The late playwright Simon Gray was alluding to him when he said that Nicholas Hytner, the head of London’s National Theatre, might put on a play mocking Christianity but never one that questioned Islam. I brushed up against the unacknowledged censor myself when I went on CNN to defend the Danish cartoons and found that, though the network would show the relevant page of the newspaper, it had pixelated the cartoons themselves. And this in an age when the image is everything. The lady anchor did not blush to tell me that the network was obliterating its very stock-in-trade (newsworthy pictures) out of sheer fear.
There's nothing particularly wrong here, and it's hard to go wrong kicking back against the forces of tyranny and the suppression of ideas and art through means both violent and non-. The only real problem is that these expressions of despair of our unwillingness to confront Islamic radicalism head-on must necessarily float on a kind of ahistorical plane where the only thing the West has ever offered the world is the olive branch of free expression, only to have it repeatedly slapped out of our hands and stamped into the dirt by crazed religionists.

Must we always turn the other cheek so? Hitchens asks. The end of his essay is pretty revealing, actually:
But the culture that sustains [Rushdie], and that he helps sustain, has twisted itself into a posture of prior restraint and self-censorship in which the grim, mad edict of a dead theocrat still exerts its chilling force. And, by the way, the next time that Khomeini’s lovely children want to make themselves felt, they will be armed not just with fatwas but with nuclear weapons.
Ah, see? All our timidity and Christ-like notions of cheek-turning and such will only leave us vulnerable to nuclear annihilation at the hands of the ayatollahs!

So what is the answer? Buy war bonds and Rushdie novels? Hitchens makes an implicit connection – pretty explicit, actually – between a war of competing ideologies and a larger geopoltical one. And this is where that complete lack of context gets tricky. After all, all our mushy, relativist ideas of tolerance and accomodation has led to the simultaneous occupation two Muslim countries and the propping up of a dozen utterly corrupt, tyrranical, and not-at-all nice regimes around the Islamic world, some of which will eventually fall, leading to even more tyrranical and not-nice Islamic fundamentalist regimes. I'm not sure the Islamic world can handle any more niceness from us.

Art and ideas is always getting enlisted in this or that ideological or political struggle, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. The point that Hitchens is intentionally eliding is that those who feel the Iranian nuclear threat is an existential one do so for reasons other than a desire for greater literary freedom. In fact, for many of them, shutting writers up and blocking ideas is part of their plan, too.

But then, this isn't the first time Hitchens has gotten in bed with people who represent the very forces he claims to deplore. And once again, just like a fundamentalist, he will justify this in the face of objective reality, and will do so based on the fatal misreading of a book – in his case, George Orwell's Collected Essays.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

One in 112,000...

Just found this in my Inbox:
Dear Mr. Whitlock,
An entry has been prepared about you for inclusion in a forthcoming edition of Contemporary Authors (CA), a reference series that provides information on approximately 112,000 writers in a wide range of media, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism, drama, and screenwriting.
I wonder if I can get someone to buy me a drink for this...

    A very subtle and funny writer - one I've become obsessed with over the past year - in a decidedly Muriel Spark mood. Imagine The Pr...