Sunday, February 24, 2008

Michael Bryson

Michael Bryson of The Danforth Review:

1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

I would say that literature is like Christianity. If it isn’t being persecuted, it isn’t doing its job. I know that’s probably an odd and possibly provocative statement, but I can’t agree with a bald statement that “literature is in trouble.” At the same time, I wouldn’t agree that “death of literature” is a “simple exaggeration” either. Literature has always been a sub-culture. I’m not sure video games are any more a risk to literature than television or nuclear weapons. Apparently 9/11 was a pretty big threat to literature, though, because sales of fiction fell dramatically as everyone started reading nonfiction frantically to understand what the hell was going on.

2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the novel be considered the prime example of it?

In absolutely no way should the novel be considered the prime example of literature. Literature has three major genres: poetry, short story and novel. But then there is also the novella. And, of course, the essay. What is literature, anyway? I would prefer a definition along the lines of “a mode of thinking.” What kind of mode of thinking? A mode of thinking that filters experienced reality through the imagination and acknowledges that life is a mystery never to be fully untangled. One goes to literature for insight into the mystery. The mystery is perpetually unfolding. If the mystery disappeared, literature would then be dead. Video games won’t kill literature. An end to curiosity would, but I believe humans are innately curious.

3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion. Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?

Prizes do convey the message that “this book is worth reading.” At least, according to the jury who awarded the prize. However, it’s a leap to suggest that because there are prizes, people lose their ability to “think in a critically complex fashion.” Does the existence of the Oscars mean people stop thinking about which movies they “like”? That said, while people may know which movies they like, does that mean they can think critically about them? Of course not. Critical thinking is a learned activity. Most people don’t learn it. They don’t care to. And that’s okay. For them, prizes can tell them what to read. For the critical readers out there, the prizes are a distraction from the real conversations they have with each other about what books they have been awed by recently, which ones they recommend reading and which ones they recommend avoiding. In short, prizes are irrelevant to literature, but good for the book trade.

4. The publishing industry has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?

I’m not sure what you’re talking about here. Sounds more 1996 than 2006. Or rather, I’m not sure anything has really changed, except as I said after 9/11 it’s a fact that fiction sales fell and nonfiction sales rose. Also, the big publishers have become bigger and focused more on the bottom line than they did, say, when William Faulkner was about to lose money on virtually every book he ever wrote. So, I’m not sure there’s a “recent years” phenomena. In Canada, the small presses were put under tremendous pressure in the late 1990s by Chapters. But that had nothing to do with agents and marketing people. I think the business as a whole is more complex than this question suggests.

5. As well, should the Canadian cultural nationalism of the 1970s make a comeback? Do we need a "National Culture Policy" that will put more Canadian books front and center in bookstores?


6. Last summer, Douglas Coupland published an article in the New York Times criticizing Canadian literature for having too many books set in rural rather than urban settings. Is he right?

I’m not sure he was saying that. I read that article and I think he was trying to be deliberately provocative. And also funny. But he also didn’t make his point very well, in my opinion. What I think he was trying to say is, Canadian writers too often repeat our cultural stereotypes and don’t take the risk to write about the modern, multi-media, globalized cultural reality that we live in. Yes, there are still books being published that read like they were written by Alice Munro in 1970. We don’t need more books like that. We need people daring to tell the truth about life right now. Coupland attempts to do that. For that, he deserves credit. I think he wishes more people took up that challenge.

7. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?

If by “squeezed out” you mean “disappear from the face of the earth,” then no. But of course there is a risk that someone will write something brilliant and it will never be read by anyone. But that risk has always existed. Dr. Suess was rejected by 20+ publishers before his first book was taken. We can all be glad that he kept trying. Are agents less able to choose and champion talent? Maybe. I’m sure agents would say they look for talent, because it means they’re likely to have a longer and more productive relationship with the author. Do publishers care about “the best new literary voices”? The publishers who only speak to agents probably have a limited view of the type of author they want. The small presses, for example, still have open submissions policies, and this is where the new literary voices almost invariably begin their careers.

8. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?

You seem to be asking here if small presses can compete with large presses. You might as well as why have the New York Yankees won so many pennants in the past decade. Because size matters. Budgets matter. On the other hand, do small houses have a fair chance of winning an audience? Yes, with qualifications. Like I said, the small presses are known as the breeding ground for new writers, who nearly inevitably jump to the larger presses later. The small presses have smaller audiences, but it’s probably true that they also have more dedicated, knowledgeable audiences. Can specialty stores compete with Wal Mart? No. But they don’t have to. They have different clients.

9. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?

Just right.

10. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

I think it was Roberto Eco who said the book will persist because it is a perfect technology, like the glass. I tend to agree. The book form isn’t going to change substantially. Audio books are more like radio plays. E-books are … sorry, I don’t know anyone with an e-book.

11. In a review of Kenneth Harvey's Inside and Matthew Firth's Suburban Pornography in The Danforth Review, you draw a distinction between "CanLit" and "GritLit". Are there other kinds of lit that also need encouraging in Canada? For example, Philip Marchand has recently argued that Toronto still lacks a great novel. (And the same could be said for many other Canadian cities.) And R. M. Vaughan argues we need to be more accepting of genre literature. Do we need more of many kinds of "lit"? CityLit, GenreLit, etc.? In short, does Canadian literature still have a tendency to be too rigid in its thinking of what "good writing" is?

This goes back to my comments in response to question #6: Yes, Canadian literature is too dependent on certain dominant tropes, particularly a kind of lyrical realism that seemed to articulate Canada’s small-town conservative culture in the post WWII era so well that many of our writers and readers have taken the subjectivity of that position as an objective view of reality. Canada hasn’t produced writers like J.G. Ballard, for example. Well, we have. But they tend to be film makers. David Cronenberg, for example. There are experimental writers, and always have been, in Canada. But they haven’t been held up as examples of “good writing” or even seen as legitimate challengers to the leading team. Our experimental writers languish on the margins, which are smaller in Canada, because our culture and population are smaller, and so spread out coast to coast.

About different labels for different types of literature, I can’t say this interests me really. What I would like to see is a more open-minded reading public to all kinds of writing. CanLit, to go back to Coupland’s point, was so strongly defined in nationalistic terms in the 1970s, that writing that articulate elements of life other than nationality were diminished in the public imagination. This is a distortion that needs to be corrected.

12. In the same review, you also mention other exponents of the kind of writing about life on the margins that Firth is in favour of. For example, authors who have produced great work such as David Adams Richards, Daniel Jones, Milton Acorn. Is part of the problem that this sort of literature gets produced but then gets forgotten by those who shape the CanLit canon?


13. Lit-blogging has become a huge phenomenon. Yet Canada has proportionately few lit-blogs compared to the United States, even taking into account the difference in population. And there is often a cliquey quality to many Canadian blogs; people not responding to link requests, and otherwise engaging in petty, passive-aggressive behaviour. Are Canadians too passive about taking advantage of the possibilities blogging offers? Are we too laid back for our own good?

This is an interesting question that raises a couple of different issues. I would link it to the previous question and suggest that part of the reason why certain books are forgotten is because they are only celebrated within the cliques. There is a kind of tribal behaviour that keeps broader alliances from being formed. Which is a shame and detrimental to everyone in the long run. On the other hand, I’m not sure that Lit-blogging is the solution to the problem. I’m not a big blogger myself, and find that many blogs – literary or otherwise – foment an anti-literary attitude. I said earlier that literature was a mode of thinking. It might also be a habit of mind. Blogging seems to encourage a kind of sarcasm, a kind of aggressive I-know-better-than-you subjectivity, which isn’t what I would call “entering into the mystery of life.” So, being laid back and not into blogs might speak to the strength of our literary culture, not the weakness of it. About the Internet in general, however, I’m more optimistic. It’s a great tool for linking people, sharing ideas and inspiration and generally providing opportunities for “oh-that’s-interesting” moments.

14. Editors of small presses and literary journals tend to be taken for granted. Yet there is a strong argument for saying they stand out as real heroes of contemporary literature; they actually read work by unknowns -- a habit the major publishers and agents have, generally speaking, fallen out of. Do editors of small presses and small magazines deserve higher status within the cosmology of literature? Are they currently under-appreciated?

Absolutely. But then again, if you follow my theory about the best readers being like the specialty store shoppers, then it’s probably true that the editors are appreciated by the people who are best able to appreciate them. Minor hockey league coaches are under-appreciated by the general public compared to the NHL, but those deep in hockey know that one without the other wouldn’t exist.

Bio: Michael Bryson is the author of two short story collections: Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press, 1999) and Only a Lower Paradise (Boheme Press, 2000). He is also the founding editor and publisher of the online literary magazine, His story "Six Million Million Miles" appeared in 05: Best Canadian Stories (Oberon Press, 2005). His website is


  1. Good interview Finn. Thanks. I think Michael is much too dismissive of lit blogs. There are many well written, thoughtful sites where interesting exchange thrives. Much more so than in any Canadian daily newspaper for example.

  2. Nigel: thanks for the feedback. Yes, there are lots of good blogs out there, and it's often the comments threads that really make them lively. Of course, as you know, comments threads are a double-edged sword, and it can get a bit personal and nasty at times. But the general vitality of lit-blogs makes it all worthwhile.

    (Just as an aside, I'm starting to think the term "lit-blog" is becoming a bit outdated, since it allows a particular kind of print journalist to look down his/her nose at what's online without giving it fair consideration. Maybe we need a new term: "literary sites". No, that won't do it ... might get reduced, 21st C. style, to "lites". In any event, new terminology is necessary.)

  3. Anonymous11:17 pm

    Audio books are here to stay . I am in love with them . Not only its interesting to hear voices , you can enjoy them while moving. I hear audio books all the time in my car . One of my friend is so crazy about audio books . He takes long routes to get back to his home . You can find some cheaper audio book library online .