Notes toward a Cognac Topic
Over a 48-hour period, writers Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (Perfecting, Goose Lane Editions) and Antanas Sileika (Woman in Bronze, Random House Canada) interviewed each other about Canadian writing, historical fiction and writing from a "place of urgency." The interview was conducted via email.
I've been looking forward to talking to you about some of the reasons why we write ever since I was slightly shaken by reading Rasskazy, an anthology of new Russian writing edited by Mikhail Iossel of Montreal and Jeff Parker of Toronto.
It so happened that I read that volume of stories immediately after reading Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksander Hemon.
The contrast between the two volumes could not have been greater, and they made me ruminate on how people write in Europe, in Russia and in English Canada, and from there to how I write and you write and what fiction writing is for anyway.
These are broad subjects, the kind I call cognac topics because they call for a bottle and a whole evening stretching before us. But my stamina for cognac is not what it once was, time is short, and I know of no cafe that would serve us all night, so here is the second-best, notes toward a cognac topic.
The European anthology I mentioned above was full of metafictions, as noted by Zadie Smith in her introduction, but metafiction is not quite enough of a description – the anthology contained unstable forms where essays bled into fiction and authors bled into characters and the fantastic met the realistic.
There is nothing much new about this – the children of Kafka and Borges have multiplied far more than the children of Mann and Kundera.
Rasskazy, the Russian collection, was vastly different. The stories in this collection explored the brutality of war or the purpose of life and displayed a certain amount of wry humour. They were realistic and traditional, and their value lay not in their literary style but in their themes.
It's not as if we can explain this characteristic, this realism, by attributing it to the Soviet system. The writers are fairly young, with most born in the seventies and many in the eighties, and the "old" Soviet Union collapsed almost twenty years ago. Editor Iossel says that Russia is a semi-dictatorship now and all electronic media are strongly controlled by the government, but that same government finds print beneath contempt and so writers can say whatever they want. As well, Iossel claims, the looming threat of unfreedom makes Russian writers long for freedom, paradoxically empowering them, or at least empowering their work.
Obviously, no writer thinks of herself exclusively as part of a movement, as an exemplar of a trend. Writers think of themselves as individuals, but we need to stick to generalities here, trying to find underlying meaning, if possible.
Rasskazy awakened me to my own writing and writing in Canada. Closer to home, it's harder to make generalizations because I know the topography so much better. I see the forest better when looking at Europe or Russia, but I see the trees when I look at Canada.
Still, even among the trees, I think I discern a few shapes. One thing we can say for certain is that there is a lyrical strain in English Canadian prose in writers such as Michael Ondaatje and Elizabeth Hay. Is it possible to say more than that? Maybe a little bit more. When we set Canada beside Europe, we can see similarities. Sheila Heti or Lee Henderson could fit in with the Europeans.
But who could fit in with the Russians? I can't think of anyone, really, unless maybe Jane Urquhart in The Stone Carvers.
Does that mean we don't care about moral issues, the big questions, in Canadian writing? That's not exactly true because issues of rights come up frequently – racism, sexism, homophobia are all addressed in our fiction.
Maybe we just have different problems from those of the Russians, and so we speak of other things. But what are those other things? Do we even speak of moral issues or are we primarily interested in aesthetics? Is our fiction essentially immigrant fiction now? Or have we moved into commercial fiction in this country?
I think the latter is undeniable. I used to review small press fiction in the eighties and early nineties, and I can say for certain we do not see as many of the kind of novels I used to see then, endless rewritings of Who Has Seen the Wind.
To me, 1994 was a watershed year. Russell Smith's How Insensitive appeared that year, and suddenly we had a Martin Amis-type writer, the kind of creature we hadn't seen before. It used to be all steel-toed boots and Hudson Bay Jackets, and suddenly it was good suits, wit and fine wine.
In the nineties, Canadian writing took off worldwide, and suddenly writers such as Ondaatje, Urquhart, Gowdy and others were making important international inroads. Rohinton Mistry was our Dickens. Literary agents proliferated and so did their deals. If up to that point we had been building a nation of Canadian literature, by the nineties we had globalized.
As you know, I run a writing school, and in that place we concentrate on craft. At the school, we tend not to ask why or what and instead focus on how. In effect, there is no judgment of the work coming in, just an attempt to make it better.
But in my own writing, I don't want simply to write something well. In short, I do not want to make merely an aesthetic statement. The what and the why are important to me. I happen to be working on a novel that lies closer to the Russian model than the European or Canadian ones (unless I include certain Canadian writers such as Wayne Johnston). Yet I'm aware of the dangers of polemic, of earnestness, of some kind of desire for a new spin on "socialist" realism.
I suppose I'm asking you what you write about and why. Do these sorts of questions come up for you? Are we writers because we are born with pens in our hands and seek out our themes and styles, or do the themes and styles make us into writers? I mean you, really. The question is somewhat general, but also personal.
I blush at the sketchiness of my overview above. I'm not really much of a theoretician. I just wonder about writing and its purpose. I'm wondering what you make of all this.
There is nothing like coming off the publicity of a novel to ask the question of why one writes, and so I have lately been asking it of myself fervently and regularly. And it is only when I read the work of other writers I admire that I find the answer, and that answer inevitably is: We need to take more risks. Which can also be translated to the more personal: I need to find my place of urgency.
I thought it was interesting that you categorised the pieces in Rasskazy as "realistic and traditional." I agree there was that, but there was also metafiction (German Sadulaev’s "Why The Sky Doesn’t Fall," a gruelling recounting of death and destruction by a ghost who also happens to be a writer, maybe the only true ghost writer prosaically formulated!), experiment (Marianna Geide’s "The Pleshcheyev Lake Monster," which may be one of the strangest stories ever told), fantasy (Vadim Kalinin’s "The Unbelievable and Tragic History of Misha Shtrikov and His Cruel Wife," which recounts the payment Misha’s wife extracts from him when she catches him cheating on her with a man), as well as the various dirty realism and realism stories you mention.
I too was shaken.
It occurred to me that the stories lacked the sort of form we typically expect from story. They didn’t always come round or delineate theme. They were frayed and raw. The theme was delivered through the immersion of reading the piece. It’s a dark book in this way, and the pain accumulates story to story. And as I read them I had a similar reaction to the one I have had recently reading the stories of Yoko Ogawa (particularly the story "The Dormitory") and the novels of Kenzeburo Oë, Lynda Barry’s Cruddy, Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game — that is that the work tends to feel delivered by some urgency, some need to be told.
Of course, in the case of Russia, theirs (I imagine) is a direct cultural engagement with the changes that country has been undergoing, and in the case of Hage, again, a cultural haunting. With Barry, there is something similar and in some ways even more disturbing lurching (this could happen in the USA? — why, it’s right in our backyard...) The work of Oë and Ogawa feel crystalline — transmitted from the gods via the writer. I look upon this writing and gasp, “How the fuck?” and “Why can’t I?” and then finally “Well, I’m not going deep enough. Where is my urgency? Where on the page do I start caring?”
There was an article by Ian Brown in the Globe this weekend about the Olympics in which a quip from Bruce Kidd, the dean of the faculty of education and health at The University of Toronto stood out for me: “High Performance sport has become so podium focused that it has become impermeable to the curriculum of Olympism.”
Just change "sport" for "fiction writing" and "Olympism" to "Literature." I do not know exactly what the curriculum of fiction might be in Canada, but I feel that perhaps the focus should shift back in that direction, whatever it may be. Fiction should be manifesting from rocks we writers dare turn over, from what ugliness we can shine light on and therefore, by the recreation, make something meaningful.
Of course as many risks as we may want to take as writers, we have to consider the gate-keepers in all this, we have to ask ourselves what will be publishable in our country.
Here is something. I recently was awarded a writing grant on the basis of a very graphic story called "Yuri of The Park," in which two strangers — a young Canadian widow and an immensely overweight former Russian soldier have wild sex in High Park while each ruminating on their separate grievances. I have been unable to place it for publication and am quite sure it will be a sticking point with most book publishers when the time comes for that. My point is that a jury of writers awarded that grant. Writers get risk. Publishers avoid it. They look at stats, they look at the author profile, they check the market, etc. They are businesses in dire need of survival. I understand that. And I worry that their survival interferes with whatever important ugliness, whatever wood lice may be uncovered in our best writing. It’s not so much a dumbing down as it is a highly literate and brilliantly executed prose we present, isn't it? But quite often risk-averse. (I will admit here that I do not understand why there need be a disconnect between commerciality and risky writing. I believe that readers enjoy books that challenge and delight them. I hear this, anyhow, from book clubs and hockey mums!).
Antanas, I’d love to hear what you have to say about historical fiction. Lee Henderson’s The Man Game did something to the genre that made everything all right for me. I am always wary of the notion that London 1855 will tell me something essential about Kandahar 2010. I tend to come away thinking, why not just set the damn thing in Kandahar 2010?
The word risk keeps coming up in what you say, and I want to chew on that for a minute.
On the one hand, writers in their rooms risk very little, I mean in the obvious sense. On the other hand, I understand what you are saying, and I think writers are becoming more and more risk-averse in this country. One bad set of sales figures may be enough to get a writer kicked off a publisher's list. Therefore, the writer who wants to be read keeps guessing what the publisher wants to see and becomes a kind of collaborator in pandering.
If Czeslaw Milosz, in his Captive Mind, demonstrated that some writers will do anything – including collaborating with tyrannical regimes – in order to get published, we can say that in this age of commercialization, many writers will do anything to stay popular with their publishers and their readers.
And I thought it wasn't possible to sell out anymore. Maybe it is.
Poets can't sell out. Nobody is buying. They can do whatever they want. Fiction writers have more temptations.
I said in my first letter that I thought it was easier to be pure when no one was buying Canadian fiction back in the early days in the sixties and seventies. Now it's harder. The right kind of Canadian fiction is still being bought and that is commercial fiction.
All of this touches me personally, because as the years have gone on, I find my material more and more in Eastern Europe, a place whose stories are not known at all in the West. It's an obscure place for us, but if the universe can be found in a grain of sand, it can also be found in a provincial Lithuanian town in 1946.
And my next novel will be written as historical fiction.
The phrase is fraught in this country, where there are two schools on the issue. The detractors usually have the upper hand in this debate, saying that historical fiction is gauzily romantic. Incidentally, I once asked a German literary audience if they thought historical fiction was silly, and they looked at me like I was an idiot for posing the question. I think most continental Europeans would react the same way.
But I am perplexed by the attack on historical fiction in Canada, which is really just an attack on a certain kind of romantic writing. War and Peace was a historical novel, written many decades after the fact. Barry Unsworth's The Songs of Kings (a personal favourite of mine which perhaps no other person has read, at last none that I know) and his Sacred Hunger were historical novels. The same is true of Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba and Shirley Hazard's The Great Fire.
What's the big deal about historical fiction, I mean the dislike of it? I know many people liked The Man Game, but I was somewhat ambivalent. It was closer to urban fantasy and historical science fiction than historical fiction, pure and simple.
I suppose my urgency comes with the interwar period and slightly later. I don't think we know what happened on the other side or Europe. We lived with Churchill's narrative for many decades, but I think a new narrative is being written, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives from over there. Historians are not read much more than poets. Therefore, the writer of historical fiction, someone like me with access to the material, can step in as long as someone in Canada doesn't mug him for writing the "wrong" kind of fiction.
As to the podium in Canadian literature, it has indeed become true that not to win a prize is somehow shameful, unless the win-less book is a bestseller.
I'm not sure I like that kind of literary world. It leads to the atmosphere of Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glen Ross. In the second play, you may remember, first prize for best sales record is a Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.
In my case, I say again, my passion lies in telling the stories of Eastern Europe in a fictional way so that the simple triumphalism of WW 2 and afterwards is smudged a little. I loved reading the late W. G. Sebald for the very reason that he was doing something similar.
I have wandered. I have digressed. I suppose I am saying that my passion lies with the narratives I want to write and not quite so much with the language. That desire makes me less literary than some. But so be it.
Where does your sense of urgency lie in your writing?
Well risk will be something different for a publisher than I expect it will be for me, and my process. I don’t check reader surveys or Amazon or BookScan to determine whether an idea is viable, as I am sure you don’t either, but as I am made to believe most publishers do before making a decision or an offer. I do check a few things: 1. My ongoing and sustainable interest in a topic. This usually involves its being more than one story, with quite disparate elements, almost like point/counterpoint, as I understand that concept – so , for instance, in Perfecting, a religious commune leader in Ontario against a rogue military man in a hotel room in Pakistan. There is always something in the frisson between story elements that excites me; I do not know why, exactly, 2. Whether the idea holds within it a question to which I do not have the immediate answer. 3. Whether the idea, or the images/characters/story inside the idea might hold the interest of others (you can never know this for sure, but one hazards to guess).
I think it is in the 2nd part of this set of checks that my risk sits. I don’t want to be writing a story whose solution is not in some way mysterious to me from the outset. In this way, writing is as much a discovery as reading, although, in many ways much more work for me. I know, for example, that my next novel is a love story but it is an awkward one with strange characters from another culture and my biggest struggle currently is actually committing to it.
How dare I write from the perspective of another culture? That sort of thing. Thinking about this, and I have been for months now, has brought me to another question about Canadian writing. I wonder what you think? I was thinking about the broad spectrum of nationalities under the umbrella "Canada," and how in no way can we be described as a homogenous society any more. In some way, this is our identity — this amalgam of culture – and yet, out of anxiety for voice appropriation (a valid anxiety) I (as a white sixth-generation Canadian) and perhaps other writers feel they ought to be hands off with regard to most other cultures. And yet, here I am mulling over a story I consider to be in some part mine (I thought of it, and I have some real connection to it, as well), and it is as urgent for me as any story ever has been. But I’m scared of it.
And I know I’ll find some way of overcoming that fear, because inside that fear is the risk I need to take to answer this question to myself.
AND having just written that, I must add, and you will see the difficulty, that the more I take the risks presented to me by my own brain and my own thinking habits, the more complicated publication might become for me — I fear sliding off into the unpalatable.
Historical fiction does have that complicated reputation I think, yes. My first knowledge of the historical novel was those well-thumbed gold-embossed pbs with pastel-clad women looking terrified or dishevelled or in love or all three on the covers. So, you see a person gets an idea of what might be in store for them! Of course, seen in this light they are frivolous and Harlequinesque. And I think to some extent this first impression has stuck.
I do see that it can be an interesting way to convey an aspect of history that may be overlooked, and that it may enlighten a reader who may not read history much. And I also know that a well-written historical novel can delight. I have certainly enjoyed a few. I quite enjoyed Katherine Govier’s Creation and Sandra Birdsell’s The Russländer come to mind. And naturally a story that is necessary for the writer will hold that necessity. I think the reason why The Man Game resonated was the amplified play with the form, the audacity of the concept. For me, it was the madness of the project and just the hybrid itself that made me applaud.
Of course, I always end up messing about with the old stories in my own way — with Perfecting, the Parsifal story and various dragon traditions; with The Nettle Spinner, with the old Flemish fairytale of the same name; and now with stories I’m working on, various other older forms and approaches to "telling." So, maybe, I should shut my face about going back in time to find story, right?
And as for a fixation on language in spite of story, I’m not sure that defines literature against fiction. I’m not sure that divides the two. I mean Slaughterhouse-Five strikes me as literature, but I’ve never considered Vonnegut a poet’s writer. I always feel the difference between literature and fiction settles somewhere in the amount of intellectual/emotional work it requires of the reader. But maybe there are other differences, too.
Also, one last thing in what is becoming an over lengthy missive — you mentioned something about reading endless variations of Who Has Seen the Wind in the predate to the newer commercialization in CanLit. So maybe commercialization has activated something important in our writing too. I mean to say, there is variety now, or there has been in the last fifteen/twenty years, no?
This whole letter-writing process, though instigated by an outsider, has turned out to be fascinating to me. I feel as if we are in nineteenth-century Europe and writing to one another across empires as our trains take us to separate destinations and destinies.
I am in the company of writers very often because of my writing school responsibilities, but most of the time we speak of banal things unless something provokes us to muse, as you and I have been doing in this exchange.
Like you, I write for purposes of discovery, not knowing exactly how my novels will end. But others write differently. Andrew Pyper, Alistair MacLeod and John Irving all head to exact destinations.
On the question of appropriation of voice, I was once concerned about the matter but became unconcerned when the UK writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, spoke here and said he had never heard of "appropriation of voice" before coming to Canada and believed it was a charming sign of Canadian concern and respect for other cultures. I hate sounding charming. After hearing that, I became as exploitive of other cultures as I am of friends and strangers and their stories.
Other duties are calling me away, so this will be my last communication, though I think you should have the last word because I had the first word.
I wanted to mention a great Los Angeles Times article, a link to which you sent me in another email. Here it is:
For those who do not want to go to the essay in detail, its gist is that most writers cannot keep up the struggle to work and publish over the long run of decades unless they do relatively well – most writers who seem promising in their youth give up.
I say to my students that writing is a marathon, not a sprint. In my youth, my fourth novel was the first to be published. It took me a very long time to get into print, and I should add that it is hard staying in print. I have had years lost to manuscripts that I needed to abandon. I can only look with admiration at writers whose output has been greater than mine.
But I am not complaining. It is very hard to keep writing, yet what is the alternative? Doris Lessing once said that writers need to be a little bored to keep on writing. That's why too many good times or bad times take away a writer's ability to produce.
In my case, I find most things slightly boring. TV is good intermittently, and a lot of noisy movies do nothing but cause me anxiety. Travel involves a lot of movement, but half the time I am looking at scenery and the other half I am wondering what to eat – in other words, travel is slightly boring too. I love nature, but nature is indifferent to me, so I can't be out there all the time. I could read for a very long time, but not all the time.
However, when I write novels, I create a world that I can inhabit for years at a time. It evolves, this world, sometimes because I make changes and sometimes because my readers or editors suggest them while I am still in construction. If I complete that world, readers come inside and comment on how it looks to them. Sometimes, the visitors' comments are very odd, especially, as happened to me two days ago, when they are talking about a book that is fresh to them but one that I wrote and inhabited fifteen years ago.
I need a parallel world to the one I inhabit with other human beings. I don't see how I could ever live without it.
I await your final words. Or maybe not final. Maybe we can do that bottle of cognac one day.
In the meantime, thank you for what you have said so far and for provoking my own musings.
I can’t believe you are trying to trick me into admitting that what we are doing here might have any ties to the 19th century! This is email!! This is the interwebs!!! WAY DIFFERENT!!!!
You are right, of course. It is seldom writers talk of writing, but I adore it when it happens. It is one of the single most interesting by-products of writing — writing conversation. I wish more people loved it.
Thank you for that Kazuo Ishiguro comment. I already treasure it, Antanas. It is so intriguing that it was seen as a particularly Canadian charm. I wonder if this worry over appropriation is costing us, as a community, a very valuable conversation about humanity. I say this because when writing a character, the imagination has to come to a place of compassion no matter who that character might be. You cannot write a convincing character without compassion, no matter what the nationality, job description, gender, that person might be. It also occurs to me that if at least some Canadian writers are not writing about what makes Canada Canada, then we are not addressing our essential story. And that, for non-immigrant Canadians, will require touching the untouchable, daring that.
And yes, boredom leads to good ideas. There is a wonderful essay by Richard Ford in which he writes of his consummate laziness and how important that recuperative time is for writers. I often get the inklings of story just when I think I’ll never come up with another idea again. And then one makes something of it, and even that idea is transformed in the translation from mind to matter. It shifts from the brain to the page. I have always thought this was as awful as it is wonderful. And then, as you say, readers read it, and in their brains it is again translated. I have recently been collaborating on a project with an artist who has been taking a story of mine and making it into a graphic story — a cartoon panel story. When I saw the first renderings I almost wept. It was the first time I caught a glimpse of what another human might imagine from my imaginings. I was so grateful to see that.
What a pleasure this has been. Antanas, I have a decent Courvoisier kicking around my kitchen, and you are always welcome. Though I should warn you, I find everything hilarious after about half a glass. I may not be the best conversationalist, but I do silly very thoroughly!