Archive for December, 2007

Warts and halos – Why bad guys hog the limelight

Here’s a quick test. What fictional work did the character Clarice Starling appear in? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

While you’re chewing on that, consider the new research published in the journal Nature that suggests infants 6-10 months old already distinguish — and prefer — helpful as opposed to unhelpful characters. New York Times writer Eric Nagourney gave this story a great lede:

Did that mean Square push that poor Circle down the hill? Yes – and Baby isn’t about to forget it, either.

In a study that suggests that people may begin evaluating one another for trustworthiness even earlier than believed, researchers showed infants a demonstration in which different shapes played the good guy or the bad guy. Then the infants were allowed to choose one to play with.

The good guy won almost every time.

It makes sense that we would be programmed at a deep level to pay attention to who’s naughty and nice – it’s a matter of survival. If creeps and bums populate the environment, then we’d better know whom to run from, and whom to run to.

This may also partly explain why we’re more interested in reading and writing about twisted, mean, bitter, degenerate, weak, vindictive, evil or otherwise deeply flawed characters than we are about the good, humane, strong and decent sorts. The good guys are pretty much unchanging and, although it’s important to have them as allies, we don’t need to keep tabs on them the same way we do the badasses.

So while the name ‘Clarice Starling’ might ring only faint bells, the name ‘Hannibal Lecter’ is likely to make you sit up a little straighter. They were both characters in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, but the epicurean mass murderer rightly commands our greater attention.

I guess in one sense this is a colossal case of stating the painfully obvious; of course the character and motivations of a psychopathic cannabalistic serial killer are more interesting than those of a hard-working gumshoe, even when she’s played by Jodie Foster.

The really bad guys, thankfully – and despite what television news, detective fiction and manipulative conservative politicians would have you believe – are relatively rare. But our genes do compel us to remain hyper-vigilant to potential sources of danger, just as they have since our days in the crib.

One consequence of that fixation is a dearth of textured portrayals of good characters. Perhaps I’m misquoting Robertson Davies (or misattributing), but I think he remarked that most writers can conjure up one or two convincing bad guys, but very few can do a credible good guy.

Here’s a challenge: name as many interesting, fully developed and compelling good guys (and of course, gals) from the world of fiction that you can. Exclude two-dimensional comic book heroes, detectives, superheroes, obvious tropes, stock characters, Harry Potter, George Bailey, Ned Flanders, Forrest Gump, formulaic Heroic journeyers, and anything ressembling a Hobbit. Try it off the top of your head before you go browsing your bookshelves. Perhaps someone like an Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or a Wilbur Larch from The Cider House Rules would fit the bill.

I’m betting you’ll struggle as much as I did.

Amuse bouche*: John

Forget all the trappings — manger, wise men, shepherds watching over their flock by night — here is the shortest of the Christmas stories, from the Gospel of John:

“And the word became flesh and lived among us….”

Merry Christmas.

Greg

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia

The protracted death rattle of books and reading

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More gloomy news from the intensive-care bedside of the book, where it appears last rites may soon be in order — again.

As the article in the Dec. 24, 2007, New Yorker puts it, we may be slipping into an age when reading becomes an “increasingly arcane hobby.”

“Twilight of the Books,” written by Caleb Crain, contains a number of interesting and gloomy figures.

…In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

…More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability….

…Between 1982 and 2002, the percentage of Americans who read literature declined not only in every age group but in every generation-even in those moving from youth into middle age, which is often considered the most fertile time of life for reading. We are reading less as we age, and we are reading less than people who were our age ten or twenty years ago….

…Some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby….

Crain notes that “the Internet, happily, does not so far seem to be antagonistic to literacy,” although that could change “if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.

Perhaps not the cheeriest note on which to end the year. Quick! Slip another book — or three, or 10 — under the tree.

Amuse bouche*: Lorrie Moore

Here is a strong opening from a short story by Lorrie Moore called “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

self-help.jpg11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is just a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.

‘Oh well,’ said Bob, getting up off the floor. ‘Now I’m just a thing of her kittenish past.’

That’s the way with Bob. He’ll say to the cat, ‘You be a good girl now, honey,’ and then just shrug, go back downstairs to his apartment, play jagged creepy jazz, drink wine, stare out at the wintry scalp of the mountain.

There are a couple of things conspiring here to quicken a reader’s interest:

  • A dated, diary-like entry, but with a curious use of the second-person perspective, which comes with all those imperatives — “Understand…,” “Recall….”
  • Strong imagery, such as “Guttural as a German chanteuse,” “familiar and furry as mold…,” “wintry scalp of the mountain”
  • And some well-observed details about cats: “a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend.”

The first sentence also begs the question — Why does the narrator need help, anyway? The diary device promises privileged, inside information and narrows the gap between writer and reader. At the same time, the unique prism of the second-person perspective filters the speaker’s voice into a weird and compelling light.

I haven’t read anything else by Moore, but after reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I plan to.   

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia

The clerisy: alive and well — and blogging!

So who has the right to parse or praise prose, and in ways that may influence the impressionable minds of other readers? Not just any Tom, Dick or Harris. Or so it would seem, judging from some of the sermonizing going on in the blogosphere.

pool.jpgA recent review in The New Republic of Gail Pool’s book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, has helped reopen a hoary skirmish between those who see themselves as The Sacred and Professional Guardians of Literary Standards, and the rest of the unlettered rabble of pretenders who dare to express their views on what they read. James Wolcott is the reviewer and here is a teaser from his review, Critical Condition:

Long before bloggers became synonymous with damp mold and scurrilous moldaway-4.jpginvective, book reviewers were cast as the pox carriers and bottom feeders of the word business, tattooed with the rep of being bitter, envious parasites, cunning predators, or charter members of the Dunciad. They tore the iridescent wings off Romantic poets for sport, and crouched in the hills like hyenas waiting for Hemingway to falter. Insidious by nature, they fluff up authors’ reputations in order to fatten them up for the sacrificial kill: the young slain for failing to live up to their early promise, their distinguished elders dragged by their whiskers into the lair of the spider-queen, Michiko Kakutani, to be eaten. Even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reviewer is considered suspect, a discount knockoff of a real writer.

It’s a lively and enjoyable bit of analysis that has rightly received worldwide Web circulation, as has Pool and reviews of her book, including 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 – let’s just say ‘dozens’ of blog posts. Meanwhile, Pool’s hand-wringing thesis (and this is admittedly a rather flip abridgment based on the Wolcott review) appears to be:

  • Given that book reviews are declining in quality
  • And given that book sections are decreasing in size
  • And given that the internet is a cesspit of craven and shabby reviewing

We should therefore…

  • Establish some sort of professional code of conduct that lays out better ways to pick books to be reviewed, reward reviewers, and develop technical competence.

Fair enough. But it’s always seemed to me that the heart of this particular scrap is less about the ‘How?’ of reviewing books, and more about the ‘Who?’

Academia has long asserted its robed and mortared authority as Keeper of the Canon, albeit often without consensus and mired in its own protracted internecine convulsions. Literary criticism ain’t for the faint of heart. The multi-tiered mainstream media — from the New York Times to Your Town Times — also claim proprietorship as upholders of literary standards, but with varying impact and credibility. And of course at the bottom of the totem pole — well beneath the dirt-line, in fact — are we bloggers. Wolcott exhumes a passage from a New York Sun item on book bloggers written back in the spring of this year by Adam Kirsch:

In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can’t, blog.

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Bloggers, with their suspect motives and outsized chips on their sloped little shoulders, simply can’t be trusted. And in some cases that may be true. But might it also be possible — and not just 99-monkeys-typing possible — that professional critics may have their own motives for attempting to discredit a class of laypeople that’s been stealing some of the limelight to which they were formerly accustomed? I mean, have you heard?! Even mainstream media outlets have institutionalized blogging! Understandably, nervousness about the influence of bloggers is widespread and more than a few professional print reviewers are circling the wagons.

But perhaps an idea like that just makes me a conspiracy theorist.

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At the end of the day the whole debate is really a bit silly and assumes the reader has little intelligence and few critical faculties of her own — both when it comes to reading books, and reading reviews of books. Most of us in the reading trenches have been at this for more than a page or two now and we’ve honed our intuitions when it comes to books and book reviews.

davies.jpegThe late great Robertson Davies, one of Canada’s finest exports of the 20th Century, weighed in on the whole business of writers, readers and reviewers in his 1960 essay, “A Call to the Clerisy,” which is in his book, A Voice from the Attic: Essays in the Art of Reading. I think he still says it best and would in fact applaud the efforts of the book-blogging community today.

It is particularly displeasing to hear professional critics using the term ‘layman’ to describe people who are amateurs and patrons of those arts with which they are themselves professionally concerned. The fact that the critic gets money for knowing something, and giving public expression to his opinion, does not entitle him to consider the amateur, who may be as well informed and sensitive as himself, an outsider. Admitting that there are triflers hanging to the skirts of the arts[,] it is generally true that we are all, critics and amateurs alike, members of a group which meets on a reasonably equal footing. The critics have their special tastes and firm opinions and are in some cases, more experienced and sensitive than any but the most devoted of amateurs. But they should never assume that it is so; they, of all people should know the humility which art imposes and avoid the harlotry of a cheap professionalism.

Hear, hear.

Davies argues for more influence from what he calls the ‘clerisy,’ which sounds suspiciously like the blogosphere:

voice.jpegWho are the clerisy?…. The clerisy are those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime, but not to kill time; who love books, but do not live by books. As lately as a century ago the clerisy had the power to decide the success or failure of a book, and it could do so now. But the clerisy has been persuaded to abdicate its power by several groups, not themselves malign or consciously unfriendly to literature, which are part of the social and business organization of our time. These groups, though entrenched, are not impregnable; if the clerisy would arouse itself, it could regain its sovereignty in the world of letters. For it is to the clerisy, even yet, that the authors, the publishers, and the booksellers make their principal appeal.

Enough about who has the right to say this or write that — I think I’ll go read another book.

Blessed are the peacemakers

Bravo to Canadian writer Jonathan Garfinkel for giving us Ambivalence– Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide, which is an account of his travels in the Mideast in search of Capital T Truth. Like most books of this type, it recounts much more than just the physical journey — Garfinkel traverses memory, politics and culture, traveling miles from his Zionist-Canadian roots.

ambivalence.jpgThis is a brave effort; one wonders what sort of personal fallout the book is going to create for Garfinkel. Needless to say it’s not going to make it as a ‘Heather’s Pick’ at Chapters-Indigo, and there will be some on the pro-Palestinian side who will criticize him for moving only to a state of ambivalence on the issue — not outrage.

But one shouldn’t underestimate the scope and meaning of such a shift in perspective.

The ideologies and prejudices that get hardwired into us as children are often those to which we cling most tenaciously. We don’t get to choose the time, place or culture into which we’re born, nor do we get much say in our earliest encounters with some of the most influential people in our lives.

These include teachers. Garfinkel borrows from a fiction writer’s toolkit in creating a composite character of just such a dominating and influential personality — Mrs. Blintzkrieg. She haunts and taunts his thinking long after he leaves the grade school Zionist classroom she ruled. She is an effective device, the physical manifestation of childhood indoctrination who pops in and out of the story to express her disappointment in her former student.

“Ah, the Blintzkrieg complex. I suppose what’s most unsettling about her is she makes the questions I ask about Israel feel like the ultimate act of betrayal; critical thought is equal to being a Nazi or a terrorist. The Blintzkrieg-in-the-head: ‘What do you know, you foreigner, you Diaspora Jew? While we stay here and fight your wars – yes, every war we fight in Israel is for all Jews all over the world – you stand back and criticize us. Like a typically spoiled North American liberal’.”

The old tapes keep playing, but Garfinkel continues to seek understanding while confronting the realities of the Israeli Occupation.

There are other effective passages, such as a bit of Hunteresque reportage on some chance meetings with a couple of outsized characters in Jerusalem shortly after he arrives. He also has an eye (and ear) for detail:

“There wasn’t enough room in the old city so many Jews started to live in what is now called Central Jerusalem. In the 1960s and 1970s it was a real artists’ hangout. Now it’s becoming more and more religious. There’s a synagogue on every corner. Walk through the streets and you’ll hear the same prayers sung in myriad ways — the Yemenite wail, the Shlomo Carlbach hippie riff, the Ethiopian chant, the Ashkenaz dirge. The words are mostly the same, but each melody varies so much it’s difficult to imagine it being the same prayer.”

Although Garfinkel has a couple of volumes of poetry to his credit, any traces of stylistic gloss are overshadowed by the weight of the subject matter. Discussions of the Occupation vary only in the different layers of tragedy and suffering they reveal.

I should probably get my own cards on the table: I visited Israel in 2005 with the humanitarian aid agency Canadian Lutheran World Relief and came away appalled at the conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live, shocked at the distortions rampant in the Western media, and saddened by the world’s continuing indifference. (See: ifamericansknew.org.)

As Rabbi Michael Lerner noted in his Globe and Mail review of Ambivalence: “The Jonathan Garfinkels of the world will be increasingly ambivalent about their Jewish identity until a community emerges that can affirm the unity of all being and the oneness of humanity, and abandon its insistence that anyone who cares for Palestinians is either a ‘self-hating Jew’ or an anti-Semite.”

Amen.

And Shalom.

The Apartheid Wall.

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Parity parsed: Greenbacks & overpriced books

If you needed another reason to shop outside the (big) box, McNally Robinson Booksellers have reduced prices on 1,500 titles to par with the American Greenback.

commonloon2.jpgThat’s a small but promising beginning, even if it’s only relevant to a small market in Western Canada (Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg). Despite the muscular performance of the Canadian Loonie, puzzled and frustrated Canadian readers are still getting gouged on book prices, typically paying, for example, $21.95 on a trade paperback that goes for $14.95 (U.S.).

“Parity in pricing! Parity in pricing!” we shout. Well, maybe not shout. We’re Canadian, after all.

Books are one of those things fundamental to personal well-being, as well as the body politic; anytime they’re subjected to potentially restrictive pricing it’s cause for alarm. Taxing books, in my books, borders on the criminal.

No indications of any similar parity plans from the Wal-Mart of Canadian bookstores, Chapters-Indigo. Figures.