Hypergraffiti

Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Oh Vicky, You Cut Me Deep

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If Canadian literature is your particular obsession, then you probably already know that Victoria Glendinning Did A Bad, Bad Thing. Well, I’m sure she doesn’t think it was a bad thing, but a lot of offended Canadian writers think so.

What this distinguished British author did was agree to serve as a judge for Canada’s most pricey and prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize, which required her to plough her way through about a hundred Canadian novels published in the last year to select the best of the best.  Then she wrote an article in the Financial Times in which she pretty much trashed Canadian literature.  She said that while the books that made the longlist were good, there was a lot of bad writing in Canada, and she implied that it was aided and abetted by the Canada Council and provincial arts councils giving out grants hand-over-fist to undeserving writers, Canadian writers writing “by committee,” i.e. working with writers’ groups and critique groups, and Canadian publishers in such ridiculously obscure places as Newfoundland and Saskatchewan just publishing books, willy-nilly, as if the quaint things people write in such places deserve to read, or something.

Oh, OK, I’m paraphrasing. And I’m bitter.  You may want to read what she actually said rather than my somewhat slanted summary of it.  But there’s no doubt, she’s dissing us. And her comments seemed to be based as much on reading the Acknowledgements at the end of the novels as reading the contents of the novels themselves.

But don’t worry, she had some scathing words for the content as well as for the process. Which is where it gets kind of painful for me as a writer, so I won’t trust myself to paraphrase fairly.  Here’s what Victoria Glendinning actually said about Canadian novels:

“There is a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.”

Oooh! Ouch! Didja catch that? Excise the bit about the Ukraine, and she is clearly describing  By the Rivers of Brooklyn.  In fact she probably just threw in the Ukraine to throw me off track so I wouldn’t notice the vicious personal attack.

The fact is that Victoria Glendinning and I have a bit of a history, although I am so far out of her league and below her radar that I’m sure she doesn’t even remember writing what could at best be described as a “mixed” review of my earlier historical novel, The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson.  As she had not long before written a critically acclaimed (and brilliant — I loved it) biography of Jonathan Swift, I was thrilled she would even stoop to reviewing my little fictional romp through his private life, and she did call my book “ingenious” and “highly readable.”  She also, however, referred to one scene as “so absolutely awful as to be unforgettable,” and as you can imagine I’ve spent the last three years turning that phrase over in my mind, trying to see if there was a nicer way to take that (could she have been referring to what happens in that scene, rather than my writing?)

Anyway you spin it, “So absolutely awful as to be unforgettable” is not the quote you want to pull for a front-cover blurb, is it?

So given that writerly tendency to brood over real and imagined slights, it’s not surprising that I have an alternative reality in my head in which distinguished British author Victoria Glendinning is carrying on a personal vendetta against me, Trudy Morgan-Cole of St. John’s, Newfoundland, or that her scathing comments about the “muddy middle range” of Canadian novelists and our propensity for writing about “families down the generations with multiple points of view” is a thinly veiled attack on By the Rivers of Brooklyn. 

The reality — that Victoria Glendinning has presumably read, or skimmed, two novels of mine in the past four years and barely remembers either of them — is, if anything, more crushing than the bizarre persecution fantasy.

The thing is, I’ve blogged before about my constant struggle to figure out where my writing fits, and where I’d like it to fit, on the continuum of “literary” and “commercial” fiction.  I don’t seriously expect to ever end up on the Giller longlist, but I’d like at least one or two people who’ve read my books to look at the Giller longlist and think, “Trudy Morgan-Cole’s book should’ve been on there!” I want to be a popular, commercial writer whose books people love to read, but I also want people to pause and say, “Hey, that’s really good writing … for a popular novel.”

In other words, Glendinning’s “muddy middle ground” is exactly where I believe my books belong.  It’s just a little devastating to hear someone actually say that.

(I’ll be reading from my muddy-mid-range-multigenerational novel at the Newman Wine Vaults tonight at 7, along with the should-win-a-Giller author Tina Chaulk, so if you feel like doing a little slumming in St. John’s literature, come out and hear us).

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10 thoughts on “Oh Vicky, You Cut Me Deep

  1. I should add that while I’m prepared to throw down, I can’t do it with the class and style of Noah Richler, who published his reply to Ms. Glendinning in the slightly-more-widely-read-than-my-blog Globe and Mail earlier today:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/ill-take-my-canadian-tuque-victoria-you-keep-your-english-fish-pie/article1299026/

    • Interesting blog. Not to worry, I’m reading your novel right now and am fascinated by it. Oh I realize I am just a musician, so what doI know,eh?
      Well for starters, it’s a great read. I was reading 3 other Nfld related books at the same time but have now put them down and am reading each page of BY The Rivers of Brooklyn with fascination, amazement and interest. The characters are real and the life situations for Newfoundlanders abroad and at home are truly revealing. I’ve just started Part two -1944-1957 and look forward to seeing what has happened since the jump from 1932.

      As for old Glendinning, she’ll squirm when she sees your novel someday on the big screen! What is it with these people named Victoria?

  2. Who da boss? Yo TJ! Way to throw down Vicky G! (Sorry, my vocabulary is failing me at this point…but you make some fine points, especially on paranoia. In the meantime, don’t ever underestimate the value of writing a Good Read.)

  3. But she makes a good point about the process. I, too, have noticed a certain repetition when it comes to the Canadian novels I’ve been reading — you can almost date the publication trends like geographic layers in rock, all clustered together — which is partly why I found your By the Rivers of Brooklyn such a refreshing change . . . it read like a ‘real’ book instead of a CanLit trend-generated, MFA or creative workshop assignment). It’s not the subject matter that’s the problem (multi-generational flashbacks or otherwise), in my opinion, it’s the limited approach dictated by trend (that ‘writing by committee’ approach she mentions). I don’t see that limited approach in your writing, at all.

    We used to plot publishing trends when I was in grad school (it got a lot of discussion as a sad reality to contend with if you wanted to be a writer in Canada). Several of my fellow students were rather dismayed at the lack of opportunity for certain kinds of writers in Canada. Which brings me to where I really disagree with ‘Vicky.’ Unlike Glendinning, I see the plethora of small, regional publishers as a good thing for literature in Canada. I think at the very least it will get us away from the big literary trends and get some good reads out there (possibly even some great ones), like your novel.

  4. Oops . . . meant geologic layers. Obviously I’m not going to qualify for those grants anytime soon. 😀

  5. I didn’t even notice the “geographic layers,” Inkslinger!!

    thanks for the comments, everyone. Inkslinger, I totally agree there are certain trends and fads in publishing — I’m not sure that’s just Canada, though. I feel, and I think a lot of writers do, that Canadian publishers have a bias towards literary fiction that slides a bit to the “pretentious” end of the scale — things that are more likely to win prizes than just be “good reads.” But it’s always tricky to generalize. I’m very lucky to have found a regional publisher who believed in my latest book and I hope they will continue to have faith in my work!!

  6. I agree with her. I’m also Canadian. They keep wheeling out Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen like they are some sort of word deities. The government has no place in the arts and they should stay out of it. Grants are an invitation to be a sponge and it does encourage substandard writing. It’s becoming a welfare system for a select group of people who call themselves writers but are actually hacks.

  7. Val, do you honestly think the system of arts grants we have in Canada encourages MORE substandard writing than a total reliance on the free market would? Allowing books to stand or fall entirely on the basis of how they sell sounds good in theory, but it means that what’s published will pander to the lowest common denominator even more than it does now in the U.S. publishing world.

    Sure, there are lots of people who read and buy good books, but there are lots more who buy, frankly, crap. Of course they have a right to buy and read crap and those who write it have every right to get rich off it, since they’re producing a product that appeals to the majority of readers. But I think there might be a little more to literature than just producing a product with mass appeal. Government arts grants level the very uneven playing field just a tiny, tiny bit in favour of work of literary quality that might not have quite as huge a mass appeal.

    Of course, that’s not to say that people haven’t also used government grants to write bad books. But I’m proud that we do a lot in Canada to encourage literary fiction (to the extent, in fact, that writers of more commercial and genre fiction complain it’s hard to get published in Canada because the publishers don’t get grants to produce those kinds of books, which I guess is another unfairness).

    And in the interests of full disclosure, yes I did get a modest grant from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council to help with the research for By the Rivers of Brooklyn — not nearly enough to qualify as a “welfare system” even for a few months, much less the four years it took to research and write — and yes, I did thank them in the Acknowledgements.

    Victoria Glendinning may have made some valid points, but I agree with Noah Richler that it’s both churlish and British of her to somehow think that it’s wrong to thank people. The ideal of the creative genius locked up in a tower producing brilliant work in isolation with no help and support (which she seems to be suggesting as the ideal) is a romantic Victorian notion which wasn’t a reality then and never has been.

    We can’t go back to the days when writers lived off their wealthy patrons (more’s the pity) but I’m glad to live in a country that considers the arts worth subsidizing and I hope we continue to do so — even if I don’t personally agree on the artistic merit of every single project that has ever received a Canada Council grant.

  8. I love that we live in a country that embraces free discourse and debate and I thank you for responding to my comment Trudy. I don’t agree with you, but that is what makes for lively a discussion between writers and it’s the hallmark of our art form. I don’t have a grant. I clean toilets, floors, dust etc. That is my grant. I belong to a small network of writers who span the globe and not one of us has ever had a grant or applied for a grant. Writers who create without a grant are usually doing so under the harshest of economic circumstances. It has been the observation of many writers and poets I’ve been blessed to know, that those who receive grants are a select group of individuals who have a foot in the door for reasons other than talent. When we get into the area of government money funding a writer and requesting an acknowledgement in the print version of their work, there is an implication of shared ownership that is disturbing. Internationally it also sends a message that Canadian writers are unable to produce with holding Ottawa’s hand all the way to the editor’s office. There are many Canadian writers who have made it without a grant and continue to do so. Once again, thank you for responding to me and I feel this is one area in which we will always disagree.

  9. Interesting debate, Val, and in a way I do admire you for your thoughts and feelings. I had been involved for nine years in a wonderful Learning Through the Arts program that would not have made it except for certain grants from private companies. It allowed me to enter into grades 1 through 6 in about 14 different schools as a song writer. We wrote songs on topics the teacher was covering – planets, dinosaurs, history, even bullying. ( and so much more over 9 years!!) The school board loved the program but just could not afford this. Thank God for grants. Oh by the way, the program is still going on but to a lesser degree because of lack of funds. Furthermore,in 1993 my trio would have never made it to Seoul Korea for an ISME conference and festival without funding. It all helps!

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