Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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"drowning other people's kittens"

In the July/August issue of the Literary Review of Canada, University of Toronto scholar Linda Hutcheon has one of the most balanced, insightful and thorough assessments of the state of modern book (and arts) reviewing that I've encountered. It is well worth a scan for anyone who values such things — I know there are three or four of us left.

Writes Hutcheon: If we are seeking opinions to adopt or confirmation of our own “taste” or simply information, the vast expansion of reviewing that has come with electronic technology has been a boon. If reviews function for us as consumer reports, then the more perspectives we have, preferably by people like ourselves, the better. Those (often anonymous) reviewing websites, including and its ilk, serve this function well. But if we want reviews to teach us, if we want to learn more about a book, a film, a wine—its context, its particular qualities and forms—we might well want to know that the reviewer has more (or different) expertise and background knowledge than we do.

"At four, I open the whiskey and get hammered."

A short but nonetheless humorous interview with novelist Steve Hely appears on the New Yorker website. Hely’s new novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, has just been published. Be sure to read right to the bottom of the interview, where Hely describes his, er, rather clichéd daily writing ritual. Then pop right back here and compare and contrast with my next posting below, about Gay Talese and his writing ritual.

"I have an ascot and sweaters. I have a scarf."

If I didn't know better, I'd say that Steve Hely's description of his writing day (see one up) is a parody of Gay Talese's (apparently legit) description of his own writing day, as it appears in a lengthy interview in this summer's Paris review. The renowned author apparently goes to the third floor of his house each morning, puts on a suit and tie, then descends to his office in the basement where he changes into a sweater and ascot. Yup, you read that right, an ascot. Lord the obstacles some writers place in their own path.

"Childhood is a branch of cartography."

Novelist Michael Chabon provides an entertaining and thoughtful essay on what he calls the "Wilderness of Childhood" in an essay over at the New York Review of books. Chabon laments the relative loss of liberty experienced by today's children as compared to those of ye olden days. Chabon is in his mid-forties, as am I, and it wrung true with me to read his descriptions of how, back in the 1960s and 70s, kids used to run practically wild in the forests and streets of suburban North America without parental supervision. Today, of course, paranoia is rampant, and that, argues Chabon, may end up having a detrimental effect on kids.

Writes Chabon: The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

“Pornography or a literary masterpiece?”

Speaking of “ye olden days”, the Telegraph has an article about the 60th anniversary of the British publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which also happens to be the 90th birthday of co-founder George Weidenfeld. (Nigel Nicolson died in 2004.) The article, by Ion Trewin, a retired editor in chief of W&N, points out that, as well as books by other great writers (Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Edna O’Brien), W&N was the first commercial house to publish Nabokov’s Lolita — though only after receiving assurances from the then Tory government that they would not be prosecuted for publishing “obscenity”.

Writes Trewin: [A copy] was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, daring him, as it were, to prosecute....word reached Weidenfeld in a telephone call at the Ritz, where the firm was toasting the book’s publication, that the Conservative government would not prosecute. Lolita was the firm’s first bestseller, selling more than 200,000 copies in hardback.

"crotch", "sac", "fiscal", "gusset", "nappy", "gutted", "rectum", "gash", "pustule"

A few weeks back, the Guardian's book blog asked readers what their least favourite words are. They write this week that: "the response was extraordinary - 1,500 posts in a week." Now they want to know their readers' favourite words. Fair enough, though as a writer, the idea of choosing a favourite, or least favourite, word seems absurd to me, akin to asking a mechanic which socket wrench is his favourite. "Oh, come now, don’t you just love the #14 wrench so much more than the #10 wrench. How could you not?" Words are utilitarian to me. You use the right one for the job. "Pustule", to me, is just as delicious as "lavender".

“...he improvised a pulley system to hoist the glass to his lip.”

Finally this week, The Australian has a fascinating essay by Barry Oakley about Malcolm Lowry and the writing of Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano. Most know that Lowry was an alcoholic (the disease killed him at age 47), but to read exactly the extent to which Lowry suffered, it is hard to believe he got any writing done at all, let alone produced one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. I’m not one for the myth of the drunk author. Certainly, there have been a small few that could do it, but I think most writers who have tried to write while soused will agree that the by-product is, generally, spew. Lowry may have been an exception to the rule.

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.

Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page