Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Pleasures of Ugly

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The Pleasures of Ugly

When it comes to art and aesthetics, I've always been drawn to the grotesque.

The 'black paintings' of Francisco Goya. The twisted saints and holy sinners of Flannery O'Connor's Southern Gothic nightmare vision. Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. Two clowns on a desolate stage, waiting for someone called Godot. The jerky mannerisms and crooked landscapes of German Expressionist cinema. The bluesy, alcohol-soaked growl-rock of Tom Waits. Lucian Freud's naked bodies. Gargoyles and mascots. Blemishes and birthmarks. Carnivals, punk rock, and pornography.

Ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone's sense of aesthetics is unique. In many ways, beauty and ugliness are interchangeable concepts. One person's muse is another person's demon.

There is a long intellectual tradition that associates beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil, as well as a scientific tradition that views ugliness as a physical rather than moral flaw. These notions are simplistic and outdated, if not downright absurd. Aristotle answered "No" to the question of whether an ugly man can ever be truly happy, but Kate Fridkis, blogger at Eat the Damn Cake, recently published an article with The Huffington Post called "Why I like Feeling Ugly Sometimes". It's an empowering endorsement of ugliness that flies right in the face of Aristotle's ridiculous assumption. (You can read it HERE.)

Ugliness has its own kind of beauty. Often what is strange or incongruous in something, or someone, is the very thing that captivates us. Sir Francis Bacon said it best: "There is no exquisite beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." I wanted to play with this idea in Poison Shy. When the protagonist, Brandon, meets his femme fatale, Melanie Blaxley, he is drawn to the very things that are the most repellent about her -- her vulgarity, her promiscuity, her bed bug-bitten legs -- which raises the question of whether he finds those things repellent at all.

As human beings, we slow down to observe traffic accidents, crowd around crime scenes, capture the awesome power of natural disasters on film, and voluntarily watch horror movies.

What repulses us is also quite often what lures us in.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Stacey Madden

Stacey Madden holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. He lives in Toronto. Poison Shy (ECW Press) is his first novel.

Go to Stacey Madden’s Author Page