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).