Dying in beauty

What is the state of Canadian literature? For many readers and authors, the answer is "flourishing and rich." For others, it's "floundering and forgettable." In a week-long series, National Post contributors are considering our national book scene and giving their own takes on the present, and future, of the native industry and art.

At a horse show years ago, watching what seemed like a ribbon-worthy dressage test, I overheard a professional trainer of German provenance mutter, "Sie sterbt in Schonheit." My high school German kicked in, and I then saw what I hadn't before. The rider was indeed "dying in beauty." The performance was pretty to watch, but offered no sense of the exciting coiled power you see in the great rider-horse partnerships.

"Dying in beauty" is too good an image to waste on equestrians. In July I wrote a column excoriating Giller-prize nominee Lisa Moore's new novel, February, without having read it, simply on the basis of clues from an interview she gave to an admiring reporter. I predicted it would be well written, but fall into a numbingly familiar pattern of CanLit fiction: "Me, me, me and my extraordinary capacity for sadness. Welcome to the unrelenting self-regard of CanLit, where it's all about nobly suffering women or feminized men."

Several readers admonished me for unfairly pre-judging the novel. Coincidentally Moore's editor sent me not only the Moore novel, but the publishing house of Anansi's entire CanLit list of 2009 authors. Duly chastened, I packed them all up for my vacation.

Five of the novels I was sent and that I read some of -- by authors Gil Adamson, Rawi Hage (two), Bill Gaston and Peter Behrens -- are beautifully written, and seem to have vivid plots, but take place elsewhere (Ireland, Lebanon) and/or in the distant past. That's one

CanLit premise: Nothing happening in our present history outside the self -- say, oh, I dunno, how about the real-life story of a brilliant, creative, Canada-changing newspaper baron brought low by circumstances and a tragically flawed character -- seems worthy of fictional treatment to Canadian novelists.

I then read February, which does take place in Canada, and ostensibly in the present (although it makes heavy use of the flashback, a now wearisomely belaboured vehicle), with critical attention.

I can report in good conscience I have no apologies to make for my pre-emptive "review." Like so many other Canadian novels, February is indeed dying in beauty, and it is worth a few paragraphs to explain why, because it is so representative of what the Canadian fiction publishing industry -- itself highly feminized by comparison to 40 years ago -- seems to like, and typical of what wins or is at least nominated for awards here.

Moore is an enormously talented writer, but like so many others of her sensitive, creativeworkshopped-to-death ilk, a writer's writer privileging an artistic, leisured rendering of memory and feeling over prole-friendly dialogue, action and, above all, plot.

Two feeble points of whath a p p e n s-next "tension" present themselves: Will the early-widowed, now middle-aged protagon -ist Helen ever find a new sexual partner? (She does.) Will son John commit to fatherhood of a child conceived with a stranger during an impulsive week-long sex binge? (After 300 dragged-out pages avoiding an answer to this question, you won't care, trust me.) For every meagrely-dispensed line of dialogue there are three pages of self-indulgent reverie. 

The ostensible inspiration for this novel of "outport angst" was an oil rig disaster, but the dead offstage husband (whose claim to manly singularity seems to have been his ability to make his wife "come and come and come") may as well have died in a car crash for all Helen's interest in that tragedy beyond her own stage-management of his last moments. This novel's heart is a woman endlessly describing in lyrical, highly polished prose how tired and yearning and horny she is. Art imitating reading: February is 99% writerly foreplay, 1% readerly orgasm. I'm not asking for Moby Dick, but surely a country of this size, prosperity and cultural maturity should demand more than that of its most-cosseted novelists.

I noticed in their bios that none of these Anansi writers, except Rawi Hage ( "curator"), seems to have any other job but writing. Can they be living off the proceeds of novels? More likely, as American poet Karl Shapiro wrote of his peers, they "are treated kindly in bohemian zoos; mysterious stipends drift their ways." When you live off grants and stipends and prizes, you start writing for bureaucrats, academics, theorists and literary elites, not for flesh and blood readers.

Speaking of actual readers -- you and me, not the Giller judges -- in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Good books don't have to be hard," critic Lev Grossman asserts that the 21st century will see the reawakening of the plot-driven novel after its long, reader-unfriendly Modernist sleep. He warns us that adults alienated by elitist fare are turning to teenage books "where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged." Sales of young adult books are up 30.7% this year, according to the Association of American Publishers. Adult hardcovers are down 17.8%.

Grossman prophecies: "The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap... The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader... Lyricism is on the wane... From a hieratic, hermetic art object the novel is blooming into something more casual and open: a literature of pleasure."

A literature of pleasure for the reader rather than just the writer: a revolutionary concept! Are you listening, Canadian publishers? Don't be left behind. CanLit needs fewer writers-in-residence dying in beauty and more writers-with-audience thriving in plot.