|Hayden Trenholm Writer||
I know I’m three weeks late but in my defence let me remind you that it is Chinese New Year – time for Rabbits to become Dragons. Not a bad metaphor for the year just past.
Last year, I experienced both highs and lows but generally I feel I’m at a better place today than I was a year ago – not a bad result given the laws of thermodynamics and the inevitable effects of entropy.
Let’s start with some statistics: I started 35 books and finished 34 of them. The best was Room by
Emma Donahue, followed by Robert J. Sawyer’s Wonder (made sweeter by being dedicated to my wife and me). I read six books and countless articles on Paris between the wars – research for my new novel – ranging from good to excellent. I learned a great deal but I’m not finished yet. I also
watched 45 movies though I turned six of them off before the end. An even dozen were seen in movie theatres – the most in quite a few years. The best of the bunch: Hugo and The King’s Speech, though Midnight in Paris was a close third – Woody’s best in a decade. My best video
experience was Paris, je t’aime, a quirky little film anthology. I also watched a lot of TV on DVD – notably The Big Bang Theory, Stargate Universe and British shows, Sherlock and Being Human.
I saw several great concerts – mostly at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, including Paco De Lucia, Elvis Costello and Robert Plant. Joshua Redmond was also excellent. On the down side, I didn’t go to live theatre even once – perhaps for the first time in almost thirty years. I went to three SF
My writing career took several odd turns as well. I didn’t publish a novel or even a single short story – my first dry year since 2003. Still, my novel, Stealing Home, was nominated for both the Sunburst and the Aurora Award and my short story, The Burden of Fire, published in Neo-Opsis Magazine in 2010 won the Aurora for best short fiction. These were my 8th nominations and second win. Despite the lack of publications, I was plenty busy as a writer. I conceived and researched a new series of mysteries set in Paris between the wars and wrote the first/second drafts of the first book. It is out to first readers and I will write a fresh draft this spring. My research included a six-day solo trip to Paris in October and I have another eight day visit planned in June. This time Liz gets to come. It looks like my Ottawa French lessons are finally paying off. At the end of the year, I took on a fresh challenge when Bundoran Press hired me to edit their new anthology, Blood and Water, due out in August, 2012. And I managed to write four short stories as well, all currently in the mail or in revision.
My writing group, the East Block Irregulars, had some changes and some big successes this year.
Founding member, Derek Künsken, sold his third story to Asimov’s become SFWA eligible, while Matt Moore and Marie Bilodeau were both Aurora nominees. Another long time member, Peter Atwood, left Ottawa for a year in China but remains a full-fledged if inactive member. We welcomed
Geoff Gander and Agnes Cadieux to our ranks. We strongly encourage each other to keep writing and submitting and actively critique each other’s work. And we have loads of fun, too.
On a personal note, Liz and I moved from The Place That Shall Not Be Named to a lovely downtown condo. We are poorer but much happier. We became grandparents for the second time and Liz started a new job (and developed asthma). And we both were successful at our diet – though our plan to lose years rather than pounds seems to have fallen by the way-side.
Of course the year was not all about me. We had the astounding rise and untimely death of Jack Layton, the long-sought majority of Steven Harper (rabbits to dragons indeed), financial crisis part 2, the Arab spring, Canadian climate cowardice, pipeline battles and Republican turmoil – notably the rise and fall and rise of Newt Gingrich. And of course the usual round of marriages, deaths, shootings, election triumphs and losses, books
and movies rise and fall (a few perhaps destined to be classics but not nearly
so many as the media hipsters think).
Gosh, can 2012 possibly match that?
Forgive me followers for I have not opined; it’s been over a year since my last blog session. Thank you, thanks very much – I’m in town until next Tuesday. Try the jumbo shrimp.
The hardest thing about (re-)starting a blog is coming up with a timely topic. There have been no shortage of political developments since November 2010 and I’ve even had a few new writing adventures. E-books appear to have turned the corner and become the last big thing. Heck, I even have a second grandson to brag about, not to mention countless exciting trips here, there and
I guess I’ll have to make this a regular thing – along with Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook. As Leslie Winkle might say – ‘call me.’
Maybe the best place to start is to say why I stopped and why I’m back. Unlike smoking or collecting Christmas music, quitting a blog is remarkably easy. It requires a conscious decision to blog, you have to go someplace special to do it, and there is some effort involved – blood, sweat and tears even if only occasionally in the literal sense. Yes, blogging is like going to the gym – you know you should and you feel good after but it doesn’t take much to keep you away.
So it wasn’t you dear followers – if any of you are still there – it was me. When I started to blog, I could find nothing to say. And when I was full of outrage, insight and wit, I was often away from a keyboard (or too full of wine to properly use one).
So what has changed?
New year – new attitude. Don’t get me wrong, this is not the result of a resolution. As a friend of mine used to say: Goals are for hockey players.
However, 2011 had its share of trials and tribulations. It also had a number of real breakthroughs, professionally on several fronts and personally as well. I’ve decided that 2012 is a good time to translate all my dreams into reality. With the Mayan apocalypse pending (which I refuse to dignify with a hyperlink), I’m running out of time.
My own personal apocalypse may be a little farther off but, believe it or not, I expect to retire in six or seven years. Though I won’t be plunging into the abyss any time soon, I should soon be able to see it on the horizon. Neat – no more dentists; no more back pain. Given my somewhat dissolute life –graduate school, 12 years in the arts during my (supposedly) most financially productive years and a general failure to settle down – retirement will be more pewter-coloured than golden. Que sera, sera.
So, my goals this year are simple. Increase my income now so I can ensure my security (yes, I still do believe in that word despite how twisted it has become since the ‘spooks’ got a hold of it) for the future. And find a way to transition successfully from part-time writer and full-time policy wonk to full-time author and part-time grumpy old man.
My revenue plans are my own affair but as to the rest:
I’ve got a new mystery novel I’m in the process of having critiqued so I can begin marketing this spring. And I’ve started work on the sequel. Set in Paris. Which justifies going there. Again.
I’ve an old SF novel I am furiously re-writing to have ready at the same time.
I’m editing a collection of short stories for Bundoran Press– both for the fun of it and to put another arrow in my quiver.
I’m beginning the process of finding an agent – not easy but I’m getting good advice.
And I’m going to 5 conventions this year to help me market myself and my projects.
And I’m Facebooking, Linking, Tweeting, and yes, blogging! Watch for me here or over at http://eastblockirregulars.wordpress.com/with other members of my writing group. I may not manage once a week – but I’m aiming for more than once a month.
I’ve had my schedule for SFContario for some time – but I’ve just been too busy to get it posted.
SFContario is the new science fiction convention being held in Toronto November 19-21, 2010. Hope to see you there.
Sat. 10 AM – Ballroom BC
Short stories and Novellas; Where’s the love? Sure, we say we love reading shorter works, but it’s the novels that sell, and awards for
shorter fiction tend to go to successful novelists. Why don’t short stories and novellas get more respect? (Stephanie Bedwell-Grime(M), Leah Bobet, Michael Swanwick, Hayden Trenholm)
Sat. 11 AM – Essex Hallway Autograph session
Sat. 1 PM – Courtyard
Keeping the Science in Science Fiction The technology of a story is critical to any work of science fiction. How does a writer keep the science believable and interesting in order to maintain the enthusiasm of the reader? How do you make unrealistic science, FTL drives, time travel etc., believable to the reader without reversing the polarity of the tachyon beam and rerouting it through the deflector dish? (Dr. Alex Pantaleev, Robert Sawyer(M), Alison Sinclair, Hayden Trenholm, Robert Charles Wilson)
Sat. 3 PM – Ballroom BC
Exposition versus Character At a Clarion workshop, Michael Swanwick said "All writing is about finding the correct balance between dinosaurs and sodomy," referring to the balance between science (setting/exposition) and fiction (characters and plot). John Campbell argued that too much character got in the way of the science. Was he right? How should authors balance these aspects of a story? Has this changed over the history of science fiction? (Ed Greenwood, Violette Malan, Robert Sawyer. Caro Soles, Hayden Trenholm (M))
Sun. 11 AM – Ballroom A
Writing the Future A lot of people seem to think the future will be like the past but with better gadgets. How do you create a credible near future (up to 50 years from now)? What things are likely to change and what will stay the same? Technological and scientific change are important but they aren't the whole story. How do you incorporate probable or possible changes in the environment, economy and politics, culture and social mores into a believable future? (Madeline Ashby, Ira Nayman, Dr Alex Pantaleev, Hayden Trenholm(M), Robert Charles Wilson)
Sun. 1 PM – Gardenview Reading from Stealing Home
A while ago, I read a book that by all accounts should have been a great success. It was filled with fascinating ideas cleverly expressed, likeable and lively characters, a strong narrative and so on. The book has garnered many positive reviews, been nominated for some significant awards and appears to be selling well. I’ve read a number of books by the same author and generally enjoyed them all, some more than others, of course, but still I was surprised at how flat this one seemed, how little emotional or even intellectual response it generated in me.
It took me a while to figure out why. In fact, it took another book, this one so unrelentingly bleak I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. (I did skip ahead to the final chapter – I was not wrong in my assessment; it never got any better.) But I’ll focus on the first novel I mentioned.
It was so relentlessly optimistic, and having heard the writer talk about it, deliberately so, that its brightness washed out all the shades and shadows fiction needs to function effectively. Even the antagonists weren’t evil, merely misguided, and there was no problem, no matter how serious, that couldn’t be solved by rational discourse.
At first, I thought the problem lay in my own perceptions and biases. Perhaps I take too dark a view of human nature to be able to enjoy the pleasure of these characters as they inexorably ‘made the world a better place.’ Trouble is – I’m not what most people would call a pessimist. Quite the opposite, in fact. I really believe that love conquers all, that adversity brings out our best qualities and the highest human virtue – kindness – is also the one most frequently expressed.
Yet, stories need a degree of darkness if only to provide contrast to the light. Take ‘Twelfth Night,’ arguably one of Shakespeare’s best comedies (okay, it’s mostly me who argues that). The play begins with a devastating shipwreck – there is apparently only a single survivor, a young woman cast up on the shore of a foreign land. Her last memory is of watching her twin brother drown. For her own protection she disguises herself as a young man and soon falls in love with a man who has become so cynical about romance that he has rejected love as foolishness. Not exactly a great start for the inevitable happy ending (Aside: A Shakespearean comedy ends in a wedding; a tragedy, in a funeral). It is only Viola’s struggle against adversity – callow servants, double dealing officers, spiteful lovers, death itself – that makes her final triumph so satisfying.
Fiction is neither real life nor is it life as we would wish it. Fiction is both a distillation, and therefore concentration, of life and at the same time, a simplification of how life really happens. Oh, sure, there are lots of post-modern novels that try to replicate the ordinary – with all of its inconsistencies, ambiguities and lack of resolution – but who wants to read that crap anyway.
In the past, I’ve mentioned Italo Calvino’s unfinished “Memos for the Next Millenium,” which outlined the values in literature for the 21st Century. They were: Lightness (as opposed to heaviness, rather than darkness); Quickness; Exactitude; Visibility; Multiplicity and Consistency. He believed good literature contained all of these and great literature balanced all of them. To those values, I would humbly add – Brightness and Shadow.
Writers love reviews. We particularly like glowing reviews from people we don’t know but we’re pretty happy with positive reviews by friends, acquaintances and colleagues. And, as perverse as it may seem, we even like bad reviews (at least some one is noticing us!) though we don’t tend to link to them on Facebook or post them on our web-sites.
I was inspired to think about reviews because of a particularly tepid one of my most recent short story. My first response was how can he call me a beginner!?! Doesn’t he know who I am?!? Probably not. The telling statement in the review comes early; the story “didn’t quite connect for me.” And that is the essence of all reviews – in my opinion this is a great/good/average/mediocre/horrible story. And generally any given story or novel may get reviews that cover the whole range. Certainly that has been my experience.
But other than the ego boost or deflation, do reviews matter? Getting a review certainly seem to make a difference. One study of reviews in the New York Times shows that, within the limits of a difficult methodology, good reviews seem to make a significant difference – causing a 63% spike in sales in the week after the review. Bad reviews make a difference too – they lead to a 34% increase in sales. Just getting a review in the NY Times is good for book sales. Positive is better but negative doesn’t hurt. The evidence from other analysis suggests that any review in a widely circulated and/or highly respected forum has the same impact. Think Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly (though apparently not when it comes to being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize).
If you think about it, it makes sense. There are huge numbers of books published every week and only a few get reviewed. For book buyers, it may well be as this blogger puts it that we just don’t have memory space to remember bad reviews. But when we read a good review from a respected source, we flag it as worth having. My own reviewer of choice? The Economist. For the most part, the reviewers there clearly identify their own biases and the review clearly reflects them. I compare my thinking to theirs and make my decision accordingly. I’ve found a number of books that I really enjoyed as a result.
For me, books fall into three categories – books I’ll buy no matter what (a new Tim Winton or Robert J. Sawyer), books I will never buy (Stephanie Myers is but one of a very long list) and books of which I have little or no opinion or information. A review will at least tell me whether the book falls into my general likes (well-crafted plots with strong positive characters, historical mysteries, medium-hard SF) or dislikes (allegorical wanders in the literary woods, most horror, epic fantasy) and give me some indication of whether the book is any good.
Since my default position is almost always not to buy a book, a really good review might occasionally make me take a chance while a bad review is not going to change the default. Unless, of course, I really hate the views of that particular book reviewer.
But what about the other potential value of book or story reviews? Are they any good as criticism? Obviously, they aren’t going to change the book or story that got reviewed – someone already paid me and put it in print. Nor in fact are they likely to change the way I write. After more than 20 years of putting words together, I pretty much know what I want to say and how I want to say it.
I will take advice from editors who want to buy my work (though I don’t do everything they ask) and I listen closely to writers and first readers whom I know and whose opinions I trust. In that context, do the 50 to 500 words of comments from an anonymous reviewer impact my decisions about what and how I write? Not bloody likely.
This interview between Hayden Trenholm and Matthew Johnson was conducted in the summer of 2009 – prior to the release of our novels at the 2009 WorldCon – but was never published. Some of the details are a little dated but the essence remains true. Matthew and I decided to post it on both our blogs.
H: Matt, you've had a fair degree of success as a short story writer, with stories in Asimov's and some foreign language sales as well. Now, you have a novel, Fall From Earth. Other than the fact that it's 'longer,' how would you describe the difference between writing short stories and novels?
M: For me the biggest difference between novels and short stories is that novels need to have a much more solid structure, and they take a lot more rewriting. It's rare for me to do substantial rewrites of a short story, but of the three books I've written the first two have had at least four major drafts each and the third is due for a heavy overhaul as well.
H: That's interesting. My experience with novels and short stories is almost the exact opposite. I seldom get a short piece right on the first go and often have to go through three or even four drafts and, even then, I often don't get it the way I want it. Novels, on the other hand, are often single draft affairs, with relatively minor re-writes in the second (and usually final) draft. I've written six so far -- with Steel Whispers the third to be published -- and none have had major overhauls. I suspect it's because I spend a very long time plotting, doing background notes on character and theme and just thinking about it (often as much as a year or two) before I write a word. Then, my process is to start each day with a quick re-write of the previous day's work. What were the origins of Fall From Earth?
M: Fall From Earth actually started out as a plan for a TV series. I was doing work developing series ideas for a producer in Montreal -- I got as far as writing the series bible for one of them -- and one of the ideas I worked on was for a CGI cartoon about a prison planet. It never panned out, but I liked the basic idea and the three seasons I had planned became the three main parts of Fall From Earth. At the same time I was starting to get interested in Chinese history and philosophy, both through a course I was taking and Larry Gonick's brilliant Cartoon History of the Universe, and so that found its way into the book as well, and turned the somewhat generic TV series idea into something a lot more interesting.
H: Without giving away too much, what is the story and what makes it ''a lot more interesting" than what it started as?
M: Fall From Earth became more interesting for two main reasons. The first was that when I started to integrate Chinese history and philosophy it gave the background a lot more character and consistency. The government in the book has basically the same problem that China had in the imperial period, which is that with a far-flung territory and poor communications it's always fighting the tendency to fly apart (which is where the book's title comes from.) So I had the Borderless Empire apply the same tenets as the Chinese historically did, based on the writings of Han Fei who advocated swift and brutal reprisals for any wrongdoing. Of course, when the penalty for hoarding grain is the same as the penalty for rebellion, you're going to wind up with frequent revolts -- which is what happened historically in China and what happens in the book.
The other reason was that when the concept changed from being a TV series to a novel I reimagined the characters and they became a lot more nuanced and a lot less clichéd; as a result the story itself changed significantly. Originally the plot would have been what Shi Jin, the main character, thinks it will be at the beginning of the book -- a rebel taking advantage of her exile to organize another rebellion. That thread is still there, but as the story goes on becomes a lot more about what you're willing to sacrifice in order to win. A lot of the other characters changed, too, the most dramatic being the one who started as a posthuman cyborg warrior and wound up a priest who uses his implants to get closer to God!
When you wrote Defining Diana, did you already have in mind the idea that you would do a sequel? What themes, plot threads or characters made you keen to revisit that world?
H: Oddly enough, Defining Diana was originally written as a prequel to one of my as-yet-unpublished novels called La Suena -- a long cyber-punk tale inspired by The Grapes of Wrath. I wanted a bridge between the present and the very different and dystopic world I had created. There are only two characters from La Suena in Defining Diana, neither of them major. I wrote Defining Diana as a stand alone noir detective with no idea that there would be a second or in fact, the third, which I'm working on now. But the character of Frank Steele was appealing as were the talkative cyborgs (called The Borg) and there were enough loose ends to inspire a second book. The theme of Defining Diana was the self and Steel Whispers deals with family. The third book, Stealing Home, will tackle community.
M: Did you find it constraining to be working in the past of an already established novel, or have you been making changes to La Suena as you write these two books?
H: Writing a prequel does create certain restraints but it is also quite liberating. A certain amount of the form and structure is already set for you but then you get to play around within that. However, Steel Whispers, and the book I'm now working on, Stealing Home, had and have their own demands and have taken the story in different ways so I will need to make major changes in La Suena as a result. The real question will be whether I want to tackle that re-write or get to work on the three other ideas I have for novels.
Matthew, You mentioned some of your influences. In terms of fiction, who do you read and why? Who would you say have been the biggest influences on your own writing?
M: In terms of favourite authors and influences, the biggest shadow over this book is definitely John M. Ford, whose books include The Dragon Waiting, Growing Up Weightless and the best Star Trek novel ever, The Final Reflection. A lot of people called Ford a writer's writer and it's sad that he never got the wide acclaim he really deserved. Otherwise, people I follow eagerly include Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, Tim Powers, Maureen McHugh, and many others. The last SF novel I read was Robert Charles Wilson's Axis and I'm looking forward to reading his Julian Comstock and Jo Walton's Half a Crown. What are your influences?
H: Quite a few writers have influenced me. Robert Sawyer has taught me a lot about the process of being a writer -- more through osmosis than any formal way. I've tried, in my own limited way, to take the same rigorous approach to research and to strong storytelling and the same professional approach to the business side of the job. Rob always has strong thematic elements in his books and that has inspired and encouraged me. The three other SF writers who have had a big influence on me are Joe Haldeman, Connie Willis and CJ Cherryh. I've been fortunate enough to take workshops from both Joe and Connie. And there are a ton of SF writers I read and enjoy. But I also have a lot of non-SF influences -- Hemingway, first and foremost, but also Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Chinua Achebe, Tim Winton, Barry Unsworth and most recently Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. Several of these bridge the gap between the speculative genres and the more traditional literary. And, of course, Dashiel Hammett and the other noir stylists.
You have a job and a young family, Matt. How do you find time to write? How are you able to balance those other demands on your time? Are you happy with the current balance or do you aspire to be a full-time writer?
M: Right now I don't find a lot of time to write. Since my son Leo was born last August my writing life has largely been on hold, and if I hadn't had to revise Fall From Earth for publication and do work on my second novel, Fire In Your Heart, for an agent I probably wouldn't have done any writing at all in the last year outside from work.
I'm lucky that my current job, at the Media Awareness Network, provides me with an opportunity to do a fair bit of writing -- I design lessons and activities for teachers as well as writing a blog that gets 40-50,000 views a month and designing computer games -- but compared to the ten years I spent teaching high school before I started there it's much harder to find time to do my own work. I don't think I'd like to write full-time though, as I have strong tendencies towards being a hermit; when I used to write in the summer I'd often go a full week without talking to anyone but my wife Megan.
You've had a great run at the Aurora Awards recently, winning the English Short Form award last year for "Like Water in the Desert" and getting nominated (at least) for Defining Diana in the English Long Form category this year. How has that affected your writing career?
H: Getting nominated for and then finally winning the Aurora last year has been a great experience. It is always nice to get some recognition from your work. But, of course, this doesn't happen by accident. In order for people to nominate my work, they have to know it exists. So the biggest impact for me has been as result of building an audience, going to SF conventions, meeting people and exposing them to my work. In the end, that's why we write, isn't it? You can write the best stuff in the world but if no-one reads it, what's the point? And, I think, winning a few awards demonstrates to editors who might buy your work that you are professional and that your work has a certain value. I'm hopeful that, if I can win an Aurora for Defining Diana, especially in the context of the World Science Fiction Convention, this will expose me to a whole new audience. You said that you have other novels in draft form. Are those the projects you are working on now or has a new idea grabbed hold? On the business side of writing, do you have an agent or have you been looking for one?
M: I am looking for an agent, and as I mentioned above Fire In Your Heart has been sitting with one for a little under a year now. He asked for fairly extensive rewrites of the first sixty pages, so I hope that's a good sign! I actually did rewrites through the whole manuscript based on his comments, so whether he winds up taking it or not it'll be a better book as a result. My third book -- actually two novels, the first two parts of a projected four-part series -- is at the first draft stage and in need of rewriting, but I'm tempted right now to leave it fallow for a while and start on a different book I've just recently started planning. It's always more fun to start something new, but for me it's also easier to do the early part of writing in little bits of time than the later part; I need a solid block of time to do any significant rewriting.
Hayden, you mentioned a lot of "mainstream" and literary influences before. How did you come to choose to write SF? From your perspective, what does it offer you as a writer that other genres don't?
H: They say you should write what you know. I'd add that you should write what you love. I was a voracious reader as a kid but I was also fascinated by science. My ambition from the age of ten was to be a scientist and, in fact, my first degree is in Chemistry. So naturally I was drawn to science fiction and, to some extent, fantasy. I even went to my first SF convention in about 1980. I wrote sporadically from a young age but really didn't get the writing bug until I was heavily involved in community theatre in my 30s. Naturally, the first thing I wrote were plays but pretty soon I was trying my hand at literary short fiction. I even got a few published. But even then they always contained a fantastical element -- magic realism, for example. MY first novel, A Circle of Birds, was a literary work but was partly set in the future. Eventually, I realized that SF was my proper place as a writer. I think what I like about it is that it offers so many options. You can do everything that you can do in mainstream storytelling but you can do it with a twist. And in particular you can explore how changes in technology, politics or culture can change people.
Matthew, how do you see all your diverse experiences coming together in your future writing? Having just become a grandfather (without ever actually having my own children), I know that babies can change your worldview, so, in particular, do you think being a father will change your writing?
I know you'll be at Anticipation in Montreal for our mutual book launch. Have you spent much time at SF conventions? How do you think the relationship with fans affects an SF writer's career?
M: I think all the different kinds of writing I've done have probably influenced me in different ways. Like you my first pro and semi-pro work was in the theatre (though even then I was writing mostly SF) and I spent most of my twenties writing TV and comic book scripts, so I have a similar tendency to fall back on dialogue. It's definitely been a journey for me to let the other elements of a piece do their part, so I was particularly tickled when a reviewer recently complimented specifically on my use of setting. As for game design, I've read so many bad books that were clearly influenced by gaming that for me it's become a sort of negative test -- if something sounds like it would make a good game, it probably wouldn't make a good story. (That being said, one of the plot twists in Fall From Earth was inspired by an old board game called Web and Starship.)
I don't doubt that being a father has changed and will continue to change my writing, since it's changed my life more than anything since I met Megan. Like many writers, a lot of my work is autobiographical at its heart -- even if I don't always realize it at the time -- and fatherhood has definitely worked its way into my stories.
Conventions and socializing are probably the weak point in my writing career. The last con I went to was the Chicago Comicon sometime back in the mid-Nineties, when I was launching a comic I had written (from a publisher who went out of business right before publishing it) and I've only ever met one of all the editors who've bought my stories. That's something I definitely have to remedy now that Fall From Earth is out.
It seems there is a fad this month for columns listing the most overrated writers in America, England and Canada. At least in Canada, the columnists followed up with the most underrated writers. The criteria for overrated is pretty simple – they sell reasonably well, win prestigious awards and are feted by national media and critics. To be underrated it appears all that is required is that you’ve toiled in obscurity. I like to think I’m reasonably well read; certainly I’ve read all three of the English writers mentioned and eight of the ten Canadians (and know the other two by reputation). I even had read the work of three of the underrated Canadians (though I have to admit I never heard of the other seven). The American list was a bit surprising – I’d only read one of the writers and never heard of the other nine. Don’t travel in the right circles, I guess. Oh, yeah, I have no idea who the column writers are either – other than what was said about them in the journals that published their views.
All lists are subjective. In some cases, I agree with the assessments of the various writers’ over- or underrated-ness; in a lot of cases I don’t. I’m sure the columnists are infinitely more qualified to judge literary merit than I am – at least one of them has a Ph.D. in literary criticism for goodness sake. (Though I do recall a Nobel laureate in physics once saying about a colleague’s fascination with UFOs – a Ph.D. is not an inoculation against foolishness.) Still, the tone of all the pieces does have a smidge of “why do people pay attention to them instead of me?” or perhaps just: “That will teach you to snub me at a literary gala!” My own feeling is that history will judge these things not newspaper columnists or even professors.
Having said all that, here is my list of ten writers who are neither over or underrated – merely rated by me as great. Half are dead; the rest are alive and still producing. I have excluded anyone I know personally. Since that includes a lot of SF writers, I’ve purposely left all SF writers off the list. And I’ve only included writers who write in English or for whom translations are readily available.
William Shakespeare: the author of some of the greatest plays in the English language, the work of Shakespeare has been attributed to a variety of other writers – mostly members of the aristocracy (who says the class system is dead in England?). King Lear is a model of how to construct a play; Twelfth Night, a masterpiece of comedy that explores the full range of humour. I’ve been lucky enough to act in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably as the Roman Emperor in Titus Andronicus and over the years I’ve seen about ten performed (and read most of the others).
Ernest Hemingway: winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Hemingway evokes strong emotions among many people – especially those who haven’t read him. In some respects, Hemingway’s public persona was a cover for a surprisingly sensitive and troubled writer. Among my favourites: his early novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and his short story collection, Men Without Women. (“Hills Like White Elephants” exemplifies Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing – nine-tenths submerged.) A Moveable Feast means we’ll always have Paris and the unfinished Islands in the Stream is as good a text for learning how to write as any available (Hint: compare the three parts of the novel to see how Hem went from rough to polished drafts.)
Tennessee Williams: my first in-depth exposure to theatre as an adult came from portraying Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Since then I’ve added The Glass Menagerie, A Street Car Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana to my favourites. Though his talent faded as the years went by, his ability to portray the tortured soul never left him.
Italo Calvino died too young at the age of 62 while giving a series of lectures on literature in New York. Six Memos for the Next Millennium – though left incomplete by his death -- are valuable to any serious writer. The Baron in the Trees, Cosmicomics, Mr. Palomar and If on a winter’s night, a traveler... all exemplify the values he extols in the Memos.
Chinua Achebe: Achebe’s first novel “Things Fall Apart” remains one of the most important novels in African literature. Though his subsequent fiction output has been sparse (five novels and a couple of short story collections), he continues at age 80 to produce poetry and literary criticism and non-fiction.
Tim Winton: may be the best writer produced by Australia (fans of Peter Carey may differ). His ability to portray the people and environment of western in deeply moving terms is amazing – as is his command of the English Language – Dirt Music, The Riders, Breath. All should command your attention.
Umberto Eco: people either like Eco or they don’t. The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum are immensely complicated and playful and Travels in Hyper Reality is simply ‘unreal.’ He also wrote a great essay a few years ago on how to spot fascists.
J. M. Coetzee: another Nobel Prize winner – this one living. The Life and Times of Michael K is a good place to start. And then keep going. (Of course, the fact we share a middle name probably biases me.)
Margaret Atwood: the only Canadian (and only woman on my list), Ms Atwood isn’t always brilliant (especially when she tries her hand at SF) but she is always close. Even a bad Atwood novel is worth reading just for the skill of her writing; at her best she is as good as they come. The Robber Bride is my personal favourite.
Ezra Pound: what can I say? A fascist, a lousy husband and often a worse friend, Pound was a magnificent poet and one of the founders of modernism. Try Imagist Poems or the Pisan Cantos.
Honourable Mentions: Christopher Marlowe, F. Scott Fitzgerald (for his short stories), James Baldwin, Salman Rushdie, Virginia Wolfe, Michael Chabon, Eugene O’Neill, Robertson Davies, Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath.
I’ll get back to blogging about writing soon but this has been on my mind for some time – even before, in a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Jeffry Simpson criticized the Australian process for choosing political party leaders. The leaders are chosen (and deposed) by the elected MPs. Both Gillard and Abbot – the leaders of the two largest parties – obtained their positions by leading caucus coups. Gillard replaced a sitting Prime Minister in the process. Mr. Simpson seems to view this as somehow less democratic than the Canadian practice of electing leaders by party members although Australians say it makes leaders attentive to caucus opinion at all times and is, therefore, fully democratic.
But is it actually less democratic? Remember in the Westminster system the Prime Minister is the person who can form the government by holding the confidence of the elected MPs. If a Prime Minister doesn’t have the support of his own MPs, how can he have the confidence of Parliament? But there is no system to replace a sitting leader if he doesn’t want to go – at least until the next leadership convention. Michael Ignatieff only become leader of the Liberal party because Stephane Dion agreed to resign. Then it had to be confirmed at the subsequent convention.
It should also be noted that no less an icon than Margaret Thatcher lost her job because of a caucus revolt. She was voted out by sitting MPs and replaced by John Major. More recently, Tony Blair left before he was really ready because of a threatened caucus vote. So Australia (despite its republican leanings) is more in line with the “mother country” than Canada. The Canadian practice of electing party leaders – and therefore Prime Ministers – by party members is a weird blend of British and America processes.
In the USA, presidential and other candidates are selected by each party through the primary process. Every registered voter (who are seldom party members or activists) can vote in the primary of their choice: republicans for republicans, democrats for democrats and independents for either (or in some case both). Tens of millions of Americans vote in primaries to select the candidates for various offices from President on down. And then they vote in the election for the candidate of their choice (who may well be different from the person they supported in the primary). And in the US, Presidents don’t require the support of the Senate or House of Representatives to stay in power and often govern with their direct opposition.
But in Canada, we let our leaders be chosen strictly by party members. In other words, roughly 200,000 political activists (roughly 0.6% of the population) choose all the party leaders (as well as candidates for all the other offices.) Because the leaders can claim to owe their office to aparty members, they can largely ignore the grumblings of discontented MPs who have few options to express their discontent – other than crossing the floor to another party or sitting as an independent, both of which are drastic and politically costly actions. And if that isn’t elitist enough – only about half those activists make political contributions, which means they have a lot of influence over what their parties stand for.
Recently, Alberta Conservatives experimented with letting everybody in the province vote for their leader in a multi-round process similar to American primaries. They wound up with Ed Stelmach – but that wasn’t the worse choice they could have made. I’m not sure if that system would work elsewhere in Canada (remember over 60% of Albertans routinely vote Conservative so the party was pretty sure an actual Conservative would be elected leader) – but it might be worth considering if we ever get around to real electoral reform in this country.
In the meantime, I’m not opposed to letting caucuses choose their own leaders. MPs are elected by a lot more people than party leaders (despite media spin, none of us actually vote for a PM – just for the MPs in our ridings) so it can’t be less democratic than our current system. Imagine what a change it would make in our current PM if he actually had to listen to someone else, even if it was only other Conservatives.
The recent Australian election has me thinking about electoral reform – and why not? Prime Minister Harper himself, on his first visit down under, expressed the view that the Australian Senate was superior to the Canadian one because it was elected. Of course, as his wont, the PM didn’t dig a lot deeper. Otherwise he wouldn’t be so full of praise for the Australian system. Not that it’s a bad system but not one that would warm the hearts of Canada’s Conservatives. Mandatory voting has got to be more intrusive than a mandatory long form census.
For those who don’t know, Australia has a modified Westminster-style Parliament just like Canada, that is, a bicameral system with an upper chamber called the Senate and a lower chamber titled the House of Representatives (our Commons). The head of government is currently the Governor-General (though Aussies have strong Republican leanings and have often talked of replacing the office with a President) and the Prime Minister is the head of the government (usually majority) party in the lower house. The Senate, like in Canada, is not a confidence house and can’t defeat the government – though it can defeat government legislation. It also can’t initiate money bills (i.e. raise taxes or directly require the government to spend money). It can lower taxes and it can indirectly result in the government spending money to meet policy goals.
However, it is the method of election that makes Australia significantly different from both Canada and the United Kingdom. The two houses are elected with all of the HR seats and about half of the S but the method of election differs between them. In the lower House 150 members are elected by votes in constituencies. However, the Australian ballot uses a preferential system. That is, each voter marks their ballot by listing their order of preference for each candidate – 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on. If a candidate gets over 50% when the first preferences are counted, he or she is elected. But if no one gets 50%, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and their 2nd place votes are distributed. This continues until one candidate gets over 50%. (Interestingly this is the same way the Hugo and Aurora science fiction awards are determined.) That candidate can then say that more than half the voters prefer him or her to the loser. Preferential voting tends to favour big parties and prevent little ones from winning many or any seats. It generally produces small majorities for one side or the other. This year, for the first time in 70 years, they have a minority, but other than Labour and the Coalition members, there is only one from the Greens and 3 or 4 independents – all former National Party members who rejected the Coalition.
As an example, suppose you were voting in a three party race in Saskatchewan. You prefer the NDP candidate but could live with the Conservative. The Liberal gives you the creeps. You put a 1 beside the NDP candidate and a 2 beside the Conservative. On election night, the first place results are Liberal 40%, Conservative 36%, NDP 24%. In our current first-past-the-post system, the Liberal would win. But suppose ¾ of NDPers feel the way you do. Then, the final tally would be Conservatives 52%, Liberal 48%. The winning candidate would be the one who initially finished second. I use this example because this is pretty well what happened in Australia on a national level. The Coalition (Liberal and National party) got more first place votes than Labour but Labour got more votes than the Coalition preferentially. Hence both parties can (and are) claiming to be the people’s choice.
But what about the Senate you ask. The Australian Senate is elected on proportional representation so that the number of Senators elected (selected from party lists made public before the vote) pretty much reflects the number of first place votes the party got in the election. As a result, the Senate is a much more diverse house. There neither the Labour party nor the Coalition is even close to a majority. The Greens have 16 Senators and the balance of power. And that is the way it usually is with the Australian Senate. Governments may have a majority in the lower house but usually have to negotiate with other parties in the upper Chamber. It has certainly led to some wild political deals and several constitutional crises.
So what would such a system do to Canada? It’s not easy to predict with certainty but one can make some educated guesses. Canada is a very different country than Australia. Though there are certainly regional differences in our antipodal sister, they are not as marked as in Canada. Australia has no equivalent to Quebec – or Alberta for that matter. So over the short term, the impact on the House of Commons would be minor. In Canada, over half of MPs are elected with over 50% of the vote in their ridings – so initially at least those won’t change. Polls show that very few voters who don’t vote Conservative make them their second choice. In Quebec, people who don’t vote BQ in the first place aren’t likely to support them as their second choice.
So, for the first election or two, the Liberals would do considerably better, the Conservatives and BQ somewhat worse and the NDP and Greens would pick up a seat or two. But over the long term, we would tend towards the same system as in Australia. Generally the Liberals and Conservatives would dominate – taking up positions just to the left and right of centre. The other three second-tier parties would eventually be diminished in the House of Commons – though the Bloc might hang around longer that the other two. For a while both the major parties might be stuck having to negotiate with separatists to get their programs through but I think majorities would be the rule.
But the other parties would never go away – because they would all win seats in the Senate. In fact, there would be a proliferation of small regional or national parties all aiming for representation of their own views, not in the House of Commons but in the upper chamber. Based on the last election we would currently have about 39 Conservatives, 28 liberals, 20 NDP, 11 Bloc, 6 Green and maybe one “Other” in the Senate. That assumes the national vote applied – if PR was applied on a provincial or regional basis (reflecting the current purpose of the Senate) those numbers could be quite different. And in the future there might be even more diversity. Wouldn’t that be fun?
I wonder if that is what Steven Harper had in mind.
But, of course, these kinds of changes like any substantive Senate reform would require a constitutional amendment. Good luck with that.
Hayden Trenholm is a playwright and novelist who lives in Ottawa, ON