Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Canada's Next Top Writer

Michelle Olsen has an article in the National Post...It's a bullshit article. But she traces an obscure online writing contest to the bright lights, big city concept of Canada's Next Top Writer. That'd be a reality show--based on the Next Top Model franchise--that would pit Canada's best aspiring writers against each other in a battle to be named the next Michael Winter/Lisa Moore.

It's a good idea, but let's consider how I found the Olsen story: It was linked to this post. Oh, I get a laugh out of that. Ask a hundred Canadians to name one Canadian writer, and half'll end up telling you, "Oh...You know...The one on the broom."

Although, as a PhD candidate who focuses on Canadian literature, I'm not supposed to buy the story that the CanLit scene is throttled by a few elites who control the content/form of Canadian fiction...Jesus Christ, it's true.

And let me tell you something else: Those elites went camping last year. They went way up north, set up at their site, and realized that they'd forgotten to bring matches or a lighter. Well, they needed a fire. There was no question about that. One took out a wooden dildo and dropped her pants. Within two minutes they were spit-roasting an elk.

And I'm not Everyman; I've actually met these people. I could tell you stories about Douglas Gibson's tenure at M&S that would piss you off to no end. Do people really think that Canada doesn't have its John Irving--a guy who, if he isn't the greatest stylist, can actually tell a story that people'll enjoy reading? Canadian Irving exists, but he didn't go to school with John Metcalf's daughter. I promise you that you'll never read his name in print.

This conversation inevitably gets back to Mordecai Richler, who was really our best "popular" writer. Richler's first two books weren't good enough for an extended "It's a Small World" cruise, yet he somehow managed to get his later, better works in print. Though I wouldn't want to make any wild guesses, it seems increasingly likely that he, at one point, blew Jack McClelland. In my scenario McClelland, who must have had either a small or crooked penis, publishes Richler as part of some blackmail programme. How else do you explain how and why M&S turned down Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, yet broke their arms securing the rights to Leonard Gulben's The White, White Canoe of Churchill, Manitoba: A Comedy?

The Canadian writing business is funny. People don't read Canadian writing; I just met an American PhD who couldn't name a Canadian author. I said, "Atwood?" and she gave me a blank stare.

"Who's Atwood?" she asked.

"A very famous--The most famous Canadian writer."

"Is she any good?"

"Better than Michael Chabon's sister."

But, fuck it, let's consider Olsen's idea for a minute. We've got five Canadian writers looking to win a publishing deal with a Canadian house. What do they look like? They're all thin, all dressed in corduroy. Hopefully none writes about ninjas or vampires. We put them in a room and tell them to come up with a story based on the sentence, "The lamb lies in the tall grass."

Two hours later we open the door. In marches Atwood. She reads the five entries, then exits the room. The door is shut, locked from the outside, and a guard turns on the "showers."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Margaret Atwood Museum In Red Hat, New Mexico

I got an email from a man named John Coolbaugh. John found this site through Google, and he was pretty much pissed off at the slant of many of my posts.

"Why do you have to pick on Margaret Atwood?" John asked. "Is it because she has so much talent and success, and you have nothing?"

Yes. The answer is Yes. Margaret Atwood does have a lot of talent; she does have a lot of money. Not many people could've insinuated themselves into Ken Thomson's will quite like she did. No Jews--that's for sure.

But let's take a look at what John has. John runs the world's first and only Margaret Atwood museum. He runs it alone, out in the desert, and he considers himself one of Atwood's biggest fans. John told me this in his email, and I'm just relaying it to you.

I Googled "Coolbaugh 'and' Atwood," and found nothing. So right now I can only go on John's word. But why would anyone lie about a thing like that? If you say you've got a Margaret Atwood museum, chances are you've got at least a shrine. Maybe a few pictures and the shopping cart she uses to haul her empty wine bottles back to the Rosedale LCBO. But you've got something. And if people are coming to visit...well, that's a museum.

So I asked John why he'd decided on Atwood. He said, "I just love her smile."

I asked him what the Atwood museum looks like; what kind of exhibits does it have; how many people visit.

"I get about 40 people a year," he told me. "I have the place in an outbuilding in my backyard. We don't have plumbing out here, so that's where I used to shit. But now it's all different: I've got ten copies of Lady Oracle in there. About the size of the place? I'd say it's twenty feet by twenty. I know: big for a shithouse. But I like to stretch my legs."

John's an American. And you wouldn't think that the world's first Atwood museum would be in New Mexico. You'd think Toronto, Sutton, Sudbury, the Sault, or maybe Hamilton, even. But not Montreal. And sure as hell not south of Oregon. But we're Canadian, and we're insecure, and we can't recognize anything we do as "good." That's why Richler was so famous in New York and Los Angeles. People used to say to each other, "Did you read this Richler? Fuck, it's a good thing the Korean woman who reads to Bellow is blind."

If a guy in the New Mexico desert can build an Atwood museum, then I think Torontonians ought to consider setting aside some space to recognize one of our greatest living writers. But that doesn't mean that Atwood can't have a spot, too. We'll give something on Queen Street; something gritty and real--like Robert Kroetsch's neck.

I make fun of Margaret, but I also respect her as a writer. I can say the things I do because I believe that she is, in fact, a great talent. Surfacing is a great book, and Frank Davey's wrong: I didn't like it better as Heart of Darkness.

But the Atwood museum...You've got to go. Their best-selling souvenir: a big wheel of a twisted-sugar sucker with hair already on it. And how can a good Canadianist ignore that?

Monday, December 1, 2008

They Never Got A Giller

They Never Got A Giller

Last week I was sipping water at the Gillers, trying not to look down Camilla Gibb’s dress. She was wearing something with something else underneath, and at one point she turned around and there was a refrigerator magnet stuck to the fabric just beneath her left breast. I picked it off, and she turned around, chuckling. “Underwire bra?” I said.

“No; American quarters.”

She’s a beautiful woman, and I’ve always enjoyed her writing. Now a Giller staple, her role is to make sure that everyone finds their seat. She also took Alice Munro’s drink order, and was a Copenhagen butter cookie richer for her effort.

I can joke about her, because Camilla and I are great friends. I know that’s strange: you wouldn’t assume that Camilla and a Jewish, twenty-something academic would be friends. But she really likes garlic. We met at a Loblaw’s. She was trying to return a complete set of the New Canadian Library, and I had to tell her, politely, that the express lane was for ten or fewer items only.

Camilla’s skin is flawless, and, with the exception of Joseph Boyden, she has the nicest hair of any Canadian writer. She told me her secret: Hellman’s. “Mayonnaise?” “No, Lillian. I just comb it out every night and leave it on a Polystyrene head.”

But I love the Gillers; I love the atmosphere, the excitement, and the concentration of all that talent. And the fashion. Sears must’ve done well this month. I know they don’t sell evening dresses, but it’s amazing what Margaret Atwood can do with some time and Djanet Sears’s old head scarves.

Looking around at all those terrific artists—Neil Smith, David Chariandy, Marina Endicott—I found myself pointing out winners. A GG winner over here, a Commonwealth winner over there, a W.O. Mitchell winner counting rosary beads under there. And I thought, “You know what, David—a lot of great writers never got a Giller.”

Robert Kroetsch, who said to George Bowering, “Not on the collar, she’ll know,” never got a Giller.

Norman Levine, who said, “Sure, it’ll come out, Mordecai. It’s just pea soup,” never got a Giller.

Margaret Atwood, who whispered to Alice Munro, “Sure, Hage is a great artist, but, Alice, Lam can write prescriptions,” never got a Giller.

Emma Richler, who said to Florence, “Where’d the mezuzahs go?” never got a Giller.

Barbara Gowdy, who said to Jack McClelland, “Do I look like Carol Shields?” never got a Giller.
All Posts On This Site Are Intended As Juvenalian Satire. If They Veer Into Horatian Satire, That's OK Too. Just, Please, Don't Take Them Too Seriously. PhD Students Can't Afford Libel Suits. CUPE Doesn't Cover Court Costs.
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