Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Nathan Whitlock -- novelist, critic (Quill and Quire)

Nathan Whitlock, author of the upcoming novel "A Week of This" and review editor at Quill and Quire:

1. CBT: Large Canadian publishing houses are now mimicking large American publishing houses by adopting a "no unsolicited manuscripts" policy. In other words, a writer must have an agent to have an editor at a large Canadian house even consider a book proposal. Is this fair or even rational, given that Canada has a disproportionately small number of literary agents? (We only have roughly a dozen individuals or agencies that a writer would find desirable to work with, compared to the hundreds the U.S. possesses. On top of this, a no unsoliciteds policy is not an inevitable result of 21st Century corporate impatience; both France and Britain have large houses that will at least consider unsoliciteds.) In short, are large Canadian publishers walling themselves off, and making it effectively impossible for lesser-known writers to gain even the most fleeting access to them?

NW: Yes and no. The reality is that most big houses, despite official policy, often have some low-ranking employee or intern giving the slush-pile a once over. The other reality is that, as many people have pointed out, most slush is just that: thick, brown, mush that just clogs everything up.

There is also the reality that, in Canada, it is very nearly impossible to not get published if you have any talent at all. Granted, you may be doing it for nothing or next to nothing, and you may end up publishing with a press that prints 500 copies of your book and lets them all sit in un-opened boxes in the publisher's mom's garage, but you can still get published, and with that published book comes a certain amount of automatic recognition (in some circles) that an ambitious author can build on. It all sounds grasping and tawdry, but that's how it happens, usually. With a published book, you have a better chance at nabbing freelance writing gigs, where you can get the attention of magazine and newspaper editors, who may be able to recommend you to more reputable (not necessarily larger) presses for your next book.

So yes, big presses cut themselves off from raw talent by not checking the slush pile often enough, but raw talent can get published elsewhere, and a lot of what passes for raw talent is merely raw, as in sewage.

2. CBT: In this interview series, R. M. Vaughan has commented that Canada needs a strengthened tradition of publishing genre fiction; by implication, our culture generally -- high and low (I think it would be fair to say Vaughan is self-consciously a high-brow writer) -- would benefit. Judy Stoffman, on the other hand, has argued that Canadians simply don't go for genre fiction. Who do you agree with more?

NW: Canadians DO go for genre fiction -- they just keep getting told they don't. If you look at the actual bestseller listings from BookNet Canada any week of the year, you'll find that most of it is genre fiction, broadly defined. There is a surprising amount of Canadian literary fiction on those lists, which is great, but even there, the fiction that sells a lot often does so for reasons other than a mass appreciation for fine language.

Plus, I tend to argue that middlebrow literary fiction is itself a kind of genre, with the same cliches and expectations and hungry (and often less discerning) readership. And that's fine, as long as it doesn't get confused with real literature, as it does in just about every weekend book section in the country.

3. CBT: A lot of American literary magazines have a forceful online presence: they offer complete short stories to be read, they allow for online submissions. Canadian lit magazines (with a few exceptions, such as The Danforth Review) don't. A survey of the online presence of Canadian lit mags shows that they do not have much (or any) of their content online, and do not allow email submissions. They seem, to put it bluntly, behind the times. Should Canadian literary magazines be more pro-active in taking advantage of the internet? And given that a strong internet presence requires more labour, should they get Canada Council funding specifically for this?

NW: Yes, and yes. With the accompanying proviso that free and online does not necessarily mean sloppy. That stuff needs to be edited and editorially considered, too, if it wants to be taken seriously. Otherwise, why do it? This doesn't just mean eliminate typos, but also eliminate sloppy thinking and work that is just a sloppy imitation of what you could find more professionally done elsewhere. Some online magazines recognize this part, and consequently offer things only they can.

4. CBT: Should Canadian movie makers/TV producers work in much closer concert with novelists? Would all forms of fictional narrative benefit if there were this kind of integration between media?

NW: Possibly. Novelists would get more money, which, speaking as one who will soon join their ranks, would be nice. I would say, though, that one problem these movie maker/author collaborations have had when they do occur, is that the movie makers, not all that well-read in CanLit, often approach some "big names" -- authors who get a lot of press and who are published by big publishers and who produce fat, impressive-looking novels that contain the barest of stories being smothered by a lot of dull, literary fat. We have a number of highly regarded mystery authors, for example, as well as horror writers, who could probably come up with a better movie -- or at least better dialogue -- than someone writing about lonely spinsters and symbolically oversignificant caches of letters found in symbolically oversignificant attics.

Not saying that all the movies made should be mysteries, thrillers, and horrors (not that that would be a bad thing), but that a genre writer might have a better sense of plotting and pace than someone more concerned with limning the ineffable. (I should say here that I very rarely read genre fiction, and then only when paid to, so I'm not going all Stephen King here -- I just think that, as a medium, film is more conducive to the adaptation genre work than more literary work. Which is why The Godfather and The Exorcist and Seven will last longer than any Merchant-Ivory film. Even Apocalypse Now is as much a noir thriller as it is Heart of Darkness.)

5. CBT: Do we, like the U.S., over-rely on MFA programs as "farm teams" for writers? The MFA model leaves a lot to be desired: instead of uniformly focussing on fostering talent, the classes are on occasion hot-houses of favouritism, cliquishness and brown-nosing. And the MFA model has no real tradition to justify its contemporary prevalence: from the 19th to mid-20th Century, during the height of the literary novel's popularity, the idea that one could "become" a writer by going to a university and taking courses in it would have been considered not only laughable but pathetic and wrong-headed.

Does the MFA model need a revolution? Yes, emerging writers need mentorship, and yes, working writers need a day job. But is the current model lending MFA programs too much power in terms of determining who eventually gets published, and are there other, alternative systems you can think of?

NW: This question could be called "leading the witness." MFA programs are the alternative system, as far as I'm concerned. I think their importance is overstated, though they are at least partly responsible for the cult of competence that has CanLit in its grip at the moment. Real writers will do what they do, inside or outside of that system.

6. CBT: Thinking of movies: do we need a strengthened screen quota -- that is, a law obligating theatres to show Canadian content x number of days every year ... "x" being more than they do now?

NW: I think we need better movies, at least. How that comes about, I have absolutely no idea. I have often tried to get a screenwriter friend of mine to explain the complexities of Telefilm funding, and it always ends up sounding like some satirical sub-Kakfka bit by George Saunderson or a skit by Stephen Frye and Hugh Laurie, with every stage of conception subject to new rules, new funding.

7. CBT: Implicit in many of the posts at your lit-blog "tk" is the idea that criticism matters; that honest, tough-minded criticism is necessary to keep a nation's literature from sinking into mediocrity. First, is this a fair description of your thinking on the issue? And is there currently a lack of sufficient good-quality criticism in Canada?

NW: Yes. And yes.

8. CBT: You recently took Yann Martel to task over his over-the-top rhetorical style in an article he wrote for the Globe about his current campaign to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the hopes of lobbying the government to increase funding for the Canada Council. Agreeing that Martel's writing style was conspicuously overblown ("Repent! Repent!" etc.), is it not nevertheless the case that he's fighting a good cause and should be cut a bit of slack? Or is this an overly Canadian response, and, given some of Martel's more questionable assertions ("Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic"), is it not healthy that writers are occasionally sharp with each other?

NW: Inasmuch as Martel is not doing any harm -- or any good -- I am happy to let him send Harper's office another Penguin Classic every couple of weeks. I hope some underpaid intern there is having a good read, or at least selling them in the Byward Market for cash.

I don't see any problem with writers being sharp with each other. Stephen Henighan, to his everlasting credit, has said some very sharp -- in both senses of the word -- things about his CanLit peers. He has also said some ridiculous things, and has had some sharp things said back because of it. That is as it should be, and it makes the whole enterprise more fun, more exciting, and more of interest to people who love books but hate the earnest, trembling, passive culture that seems to come along with books.

(In case it needs to be said, I can't stand Stephen Harper, but his reading habits are the last thing I'm worried about. My worry is that he has read TOO much -- Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu, Kissinger - while many of his opponents seem to not understand the first thing about politics or strategy or the country they are seeking to lead.)

10. CBT: Martel's strategy for influencing Stephen Harper is to mail a book to the Prime Minister's Office every two weeks in the hopes the PMO will eventually relent and grant him a meeting. However, when one goes to the site Martel has built to promote his campaign, one notices a curious thing: although the whole point of Martel's project (apart from promoting "stillness") is to assist Canadian writing, there is very little actual CanCon at his site. That is, none of the the novels he's chosen so far (with the exception of "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept") are by Canadians. And none of them -- not one -- is set in Canada.

Similarly, Rick Groen, in a recent piece in the Globe entitled "Books Still Win" (July 13) waxes enthusiastic about the "life" that the literary novel still possesses and then primarily uses ... American and British examples.

What's going on here? Canadian culture has had a long history of de facto or subtle colonization. But are we now at the stage where we are colonizing *ourselves*? That, in effect, we are not even aware of when we undercut our own own culture?

NW: Possibly. But then again, you can find "stillness" anywhere, can't you?

I think that question requires an answer closer to the length of a book, to be honest.

11. CBT: Canadian culture has traditionally excelled at documentaries and news programming. Yet in recent years, journalists such as a personal favourite of yours, Mark Steyn, have been given platforms in national media.

Steyn, to put it simply, is a joke. His writing evinces emotional imbalance (for example, his post-Virginia Tech Massacre ruminations on the Marc Lepine Massacre at L'ecole Polytechnique), and he is a light-weight in terms of his understanding of contemporary history (such as his version of what drove Margaret Thatcher to re-take the Falklands). Yet apart from the fact that he has settled in the U.S. (you recently linked to a perceptive article by James Wolcott in which Wolcott referred to Steyn as a "self-hating" Canadian), he seems to be determined to make his voice heard within Canada.... in other words, the bar of journalistic quality in the country will be lowered that much further.

Returning to the question of criticism's role in maintaining a culture's equilibrium and health, are we at a point where we are just not serious enough about who is allowed in print in this country? Antidotes to fundamentally amateurish thinkers like Steyn such as FRANK have been relegated to user-unfriendly pay-per-use internet sites, where their influence is diminished. The CBC has stopped doing biting political satire a la Max Ferguson. And, with a few exceptions, bloggers in Canada apparently just don't care. Could we learn a thing or two from the sharp-tongued commentators of British and U.S. culture and increase the degree of cutting, intelligent comment in our country?

NW: There certainly are a lot of dimwits in Canadian media, but that's a whole other interview. The few Canadian political blogs I have peeked at seem like pale imitations of the big American ones like Eschaton or Daily Kos. In fact, a lot of them use the same language and catch phrases as Eschaton's Atrios, about the same (American) issues. I would love to see more cutting, intelligent comment in this country. It's why, as bad as it can get, I love reading FRANK. The Canadian culture industry seems unable to admit how pathetic we are in so many ways. I would argue (as does Atwood in Survival, in a way), that admitting to that patheticness (pathetictude?) could be something to build on, culturally. A lot of Maritime writers have done it, Mordecai Richler did it, the Trailer Park Boys did it, why can't the rest of us?

12. CBT: When discussing the hegemony of American culture over Canadian, Canadians repeatedly declare that beyond a certain point this is inevitable, and it is so for economic reasons. And while allowing that economic power is a massive factor in all aspects of life, is there not something else at work in the Canadian psyche? Is there not an argument for saying that Canadians (and perhaps here rabid types like Steyn have a point) just don't try as hard as they could?

Consider the example of the lit-blogosphere. Here the argument that American culture reigns supreme because of economic advantage breaks down: blogging is free. Yet the Canadian lit-blogging scene is a pale shadow of its American counterpart. Moreover, speaking anecdotally, on average I tend to find the U.S. bloggers somewhat friendlier and more open to exchanging links, etc. Canadian bloggers (and please keep in mind that there are always exceptions) seem more prone to passivity. Evidence of this is the degree to which Canadian lit-blogs do not link to each other as much as they might in their blog-rolls or posts.

As suggested above, do we need to do more to create our own literary and/or political culture on the internet?

NW: Yes. (Though I will admit I have no links on my own blog, for a lot of semi-professional but possibly trivial reasons. Maybe I should.)

The problem is that such a thing does not occur because we theoretically decide "this must be created" -- it happens because, as I said above, something is getting done in sufficient quantity and numbers that can't be found elsewhere. The political and literary culture on the net is not starving due to a lack of links, but because there's not enough good writing/commentary being done. What needs to be followed is a kind of cultural business model (and I admit I don't do this): find a niche, and pursue it relentlessly. A guy who works on comic books has created a massive archive, with commentary, of the complete evolution of Marvel and DC comic book logos - someone I work with showed me this. I don't even like comic books, but I was impressed. It's the kind of thing that would make a great coffee table book someday. That site probably gets more visitors in one day than all the Canadian lit sites (like mine) who link to this or that eyebrow-raising story about James Frey in the Guardian or wherever. That niche is covered, that audience is getting served. It's why my own site has ever less literary content on it and more and more cheap gags -- five minutes at the Quillblog (which I also blog for) or Bookninja or Goodreports or the Literary Saloon and you're covered, Guardian link-wise.

BIO: Nathan Whitlock is the review editor of Quill & Quire, Canada's publishing magazine. His reviews, non-fiction, and fiction have appeared in the Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, Geist, The Globe and Mail, Toro, Saturday Night, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the inaugural Emerging Artist in Creative Writing Award and the Short Prose for Developing Writers Award, as well as runner-up for the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award. His first novel, A Week of This, will be published in Spring 2008 by ECW Press.

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