CanLit for Cynics: Q&A with Alex Good
I’m pretty cynical about CanLit lately. When I noticed that carte blanche, a Quebec-based literary journal, was running a “Who Needs CanLit” series on their blog, I knew I had to get in on it.
One of the books I drew on was Revolutions by Alex Good, a collection of essays that leaves no CanLit heavyweight unscathed. Have a peek at my essay over at carte blanche, then read on below for my full conversation with Alex Good, who may actually be more cynical than me.
Many thanks to Mr. Good and the fine folks at Biblioasis who put me in touch with him! And stay tuned for my Q&A with poet, novelist, and YouTube star Peter Unwin later this week.
Reading in Bed: I enjoyed your takedowns of Douglas Coupland and David Adams Richards, even though they are two of my favourite authors. Do you have any favourite living Canadian authors? Any author that you’ve read all the way through, and loved?
Alex Good: I think Coupland and Richards have written some good books, and they’re both important authors in terms of the influence they’ve had. But I think they got lazy. I get the sense that Coupland just doesn’t care anymore, at least about writing fiction, while Richards has almost become a caricature. Nevertheless, I think they’re still worth reading. I’d just recommend being selective.
While I was quite critical of a lot of writers in Revolutions, there are plenty of Canadian books and authors I love. In my second Giller essay I remarked that I thought that a lot of the books on the long list were really very good. I liked the winner, Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing, though I would have given the prize to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, which I thought was excellent.
Off the top of my head, I think C. P. Boyko, Anakana Schofield, and Chris Eaton are all really talented. I loved Sharon English’s Zero Gravity and have been waiting (a while now!) for her next. I thought Nino Ricci’s Sleep was great, and couldn’t understand why it didn’t get better reviews. People seemed to really hate the narrator (the same problem Messud’s book had). Russell Smith, I enjoy pretty much anything by him. Evie Christie’s Bourgeois Empire. Alice Petersen’s All the Voices Cry. K. D. Miller’s All Saints. Douglas Glover is one of our best all-around writers. Mark Anthony Jarman. Barbara Gowdy is very good, though I didn’t like her new one, Little Sister, all that much.
Or shift focus just to genre fiction. If you like poetic, surrealistic tales of violence and horror, Tony Burgess is hard to beat. Fifty years from now he may be the Canadian writer from this period with the greatest following, enjoying a sort of afterlife akin to Lovecraft’s. Stranger things have happened. Sticking with the whole dark fantasy and SF genre, I like a lot of the stuff that comes out from ChiZine. David Nickle’s Monstrous Affections was the first starred review I ever gave in Quill & Quire, and his Eutopia is a terrific horror novel. Brent Hayward’s Filaria is an amazing SF story, as is Robert Boyczuk’s Nexus: Ascension (his Horror Story and Other Horror Stories is also very good). Craig Davidson’s The Troop is a horror classic, though it’s another one that requires a strong stomach. I really think Canadian horror writing should be getting more attention. But then, you could say that about a lot of writing these days.
I could go on and on. I know I’m leaving a lot of names out, for which I’ll offer a blanket apology. But there’s so much. Just in my own hometown of Guelph there are a couple of local authors who have written really good recent novels: Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family and John Jantunen’s A Desolate Splendor. And this is only fiction I’ve been talking about. Canadian poetry right now might be in even stronger shape, though I’m no authority on that subject. I’ve just been blown away by some of the poetry I’ve read in the last decade or so. I wonder if there’s any connection there with the fact that we have so many great poetry critics currently active. I’m also leaving out graphic novels, though there are a host of terrific Canadians leading the way there too who are among our most accomplished storytellers. Joe Ollman, for example. I would have been delighted to see Seth’s George Sprott win a GG or a Giller but I don’t know if it was even in the running.
RIB: I loved your Giller chapters: the close reading of the long list, Giller People, Giller Books, Giller Bait. So great. If you could judge any literary prize (Canadian or not) what would you judge? Or, if judging doesn’t appeal to you, if you could create your own literary prize, what criteria would you use?
AG: Ten years ago I ran a bunch of what I called “transparent juries” on my website. Basically I got a bunch of authors together to discuss an award’s shortlist. For several years we did this for the GG poetry award. We only did one for the Giller shortlist in 2006 because it was too much work for everyone. But that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see. Make the deliberations open and let the public in on these discussions. Maybe that would play out a bit too much like Canada Reads (which wasn’t around back when I was doing this), still, it would be interesting to see what sorts of considerations go into picking a winner. I’m not sure everyone would come out of the process looking good though.
RIB: What was it like to see several major CanLit scandals explode shortly before and after Revolutions came out? Are you disappointed you didn’t get to address them? Are you writing another book?
To be honest, I think the scandals are kind of depressing. The only time the media seems to pay any attention to Canadian writing is when they get to run these juicy, click-bait headlines that draw lots of eyeballs. Such stories encourage snap moral judgments, and get people worked up a lot more than a review of a new novel will. There are, for example, more people who can at least pretend to care about Joseph Boyden’s heritage than will ever read anything by him – and he’s a bestselling author! The National Post was running a couple of columns a day, for a week, on the Niedzviecki mess, and the CBC wasn’t far behind. Meanwhile, it keeps getting harder and harder for new writers to even get noticed. I mean, I understand how it all works, but still.
So, no, I’m not disappointed I didn’t get to address the latest scandals. Being timely just makes you dated. I don’t think I could have said anything about the Galloway affair. As I understand it, the report on the investigation was never made public. Who knows what really happened? I also don’t know anything about Boyden’s ancestry. I said what I thought about The Orenda and that was enough for me.
I did address the appropriation of voice business, albeit a bit indirectly, on my odds-n-ends page. I think it’s really interesting how so much of the opinionating today is going over the same ground that people were arguing about in the ‘90s, but which then lay dormant for a couple of decades. Who, in the year 2000 say, could have imagined a figure like Donald Trump running a (successful!) presidential campaign by raging against the forces of political correctness in 2016? There’s something there that really seems to push a lot of people’s buttons, on both sides of the debate. And of course the media smelled blood and ran with it. But the two sides don’t seem to me to be talking about the same things, meaning they’re really just talking past one another.
Yes, I kind of hope to write another book. I’d like to offer more close readings of what I think are the really great works of Canadian fiction in the twenty-first century. Not the usual suspects. But books of critical essays are a hard sell, and I’ll have to see if it would be economically feasible.
RIB: What do you think about where the major CanLit players landed in the wake of those scandals, particularly UBC Accountable, Boyden, and the appropriation prize? I am struck by how the “Monsters of CanLit” are just fine (Atwood, Ondaatje), while the younger authors are laying low but still making a living (Boyden), and it’s the little guys who end up resigning and apologizing (Hal Niedzviecki).
AG: I’m not surprised by the health of the Monsters of CanLit. As I said in Revolutions, they’re too big to be allowed to fail. There’s just too much invested in them. It’s all a joke, but that’s where we’re at and it’s where we’re still going to be ten years from now.
I can’t comment on the fallout from the UBC Accountable business because I don’t know that much about it. I’m glad Joseph Boyden is still giving talks and working. I’m not a big fan of his writing, but I’ve nothing against his success. It’s so hard for writers to get an audience or achieve any kind of traction today that the success of any author is grounds for at least some optimism. I feel sorry for Hal Niedzviecki. He seems decent enough and I think he’s a smart guy. I thought some of his early books were kind of superficial but I really enjoyed Trees on Mars. I’m sure the last thing he meant to do was offend anyone. But . . . it’s a minefield out there.
RIB: In Revolutions, you mentioned journalists, other authors, and academics as the sources of most literary criticism in Canada. How do you see (or, do you see) book blogs, or Booktube, fitting into the literary criticism landscape? Is there a place for the just-plain-old-reader in criticism?
Bonus question: do you, or did you ever, consider yourself a book blogger?
AG: Goodreports began as what I guess would be considered a book blog, with essays and commentary on the latest book news and author interviews and various other things, all in addition to my reviews. But that was twenty years ago and I wasn’t technically sophisticated enough to grow it. In its latest form it’s just an archive of the reviews I’ve written, so I wouldn’t call myself a book blogger now. I just post my book reviews, and on my other site I post notes on some of the movies I watch. I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep it all going.
I think it was John Leonard, about a dozen years or so ago, who looked around the blighted critical landscape and commented that it was the bloggers who would have to save us. That might have been wishful thinking. I do appreciate all the work bloggers do, and I’m impressed by the quality of a lot of it as well. On the other hand, let’s face it, most blogs don’t reach a wide audience or last that long. It’s hard to keep them going. Meanwhile, what really seems to be dominating the critical or reviewing culture on the Internet is the hive mind. What I mean is stuff like Amazon reviews and GoodReads. Aggregators that take millions of opinions and melt them down into a single score. I don’t see the use of that – the scores all end up in a mushy middle – but it seems to be the way things are headed. Is there still a place for critics? I hope so, but I think it’s likely they’ll just be assimilated.
(Note: John Leonard said this, in 2007: “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.” See more here.)
I really enjoyed your essay. I’ve never been a great CanLit reader, but I keep looking for the weird, edgy stuff that appeals to me. I typically look to independent publishers. I like a lot of the newer stuff coming out of Quebec and some awesome Indigenous writers like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. I do think we have a strong poetry scene but in my experience it is so cliquish that I have stopped going to readings. The more I try to get involved as a writer, the more insular the scene seems. But I suspect that is a common problem elsewhere. I was chatting with an Australian poet on Twitter last night and he said that someone referred to the poetry scene in Sydney like “being in a knife fight in a phone booth.” The CanLit establishment is a variation on that theme.
Thank you! Yes, I’m happy to stay an outsider, haha. Speaking of insular: I’m reading a Giller longlisted book right now, that quotes from a former Giller prize winner… who is on this year’s jury…
Yikes! There is an expression that says: “A person who is wrapped up in themselves makes a very small package.” Might that also apply to CanLit?
I would love to hear more about the books and authors he’s excited about. Is there more of that in his book?
There’s probably more here than in his book, the book is pretty critical. But he did complete read-throughs of two Giller longlists, I think 2006 and 2013, and he did like some of them!
I always love to know what other people like (and don’t like). I’m nosy that way. 🙂
Oh this was such a fun post, I loved every sentence of this. hahah I think it’s good for us to look critically at the can-lit landscape and everything that it does and doesn’t have. I hadn’t heard of this book before but I’d like to take a look at it, biblioasis has some great books!