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Book Reviews Sweet Lechery shows us why Jeet Heer became one of Canada’s leading public intellectuals

Reading Sweet Lechery, one realizes why Jeet Heer has found a second life online

Chris Graham/The Globe and Mail

Title
Sweet Lechery
Author
Jeet Heer
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
The Porcupine’s Quill
Pages
231 pages
Price
$24.95
Year
2014

Claiming that someone is good at using social media feels a little disingenuous – the kind of fake compliment reserved for only the most tenuous of LinkedIn connections. Nevertheless, Jeet Heer is very good at social media. More specifically, in the 21/2 years Heer has been using Twitter, he's built up an international audience of more than 15,000 by bending the medium to his purposes, and in the process established himself as one of the country's foremost – or at least most visible – public intellectuals.

Heer's "Twitter essays," as he calls them, are multipart riffs on culture, politics and the many unlikely connections between the two. (If you're feeling inspired, last year he published a kind of how-to guide in this very newspaper.) Heer's mini-essays pack so much into such small spaces that when they first came to the attention of Atlantic staff writer Ta-Nehisi Coates – no Twitter slouch himself – he responded, incredulously: "WHO ARE YOU????!!???"

Here in Canada, Heer is at least as well known for his day job as a journalist. I first came to associate his name with comics and CanLit, his reviews of which were always playful, erudite and thorough. Thanks to social media, I've realized that last descriptor in particular is an understatement: In one Twitter essay, Heer claimed to prepare for a book review by reading 11 other titles – three of the subject's previous works as well as eight by his "influences" – all for an article that paid $25. Upon reading the final piece, Heer's editor generously offered to double his fee.

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Heer, who divides his time between Toronto and Regina, has written and edited other books. But Sweet Lechery is the first collection of his previously published reviews, profiles and essays. They span the past decade or so, with venues ranging from both national newspapers in Canada to American magazines, such as The New Republic and the online-only Los Angeles Review of Books. The collection is divided into categories that will come as no surprise to anyone who follows Heer's work, either on- or offline: culture, books, right-wing politics, science fiction and comics.

The introduction sets the stage. Heer writes, with an air of surety, "Books are work, essays are play," only to then immediately double back and list some of the many exceptions to his own rule. "Yet if my adage fails as a universal law," he adds, "it rings true as a personal credo." This move is intentional. Heer subscribes to the original meaning of the word essay, from the French essayer: to try. Even if a given piece ultimately misses the mark, it's the continuing process of interrogating and revising one's thinking, which Heer neatly demonstrates in his own opening paragraph, that really counts in the end. As Samuel Beckett famously put it: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better" – advice that Heer himself will pass on to Life of Pi author Yann Martel later on.

Among critics, Heer is unusually well-suited to having his reviews collected in book form. The daily churn of the newspaper world means that most reviews disappear within 24 hours; yet, Heer takes pleasure in doing more research than is required, and adding careful context that most readers will never even notice, all in the name of a sturdier piece of prose. That's even clearer in his magazine writing: When Heer is given room to really follow his nose on a topic, be it the surprisingly robust tradition of cannibalism in CanLit or the glut of neocon novelists hiding in plain sight within the administration of George W. Bush, readers will come away equal parts delighted and informed.

And because each piece is centred on a subject that is not Heer himself, it takes a collection like this to really get an overall sense of him as a reader and critic. We also get to witness how his tastes change with time. Often this is subtle. We learn in a Canadian Notes & Queries essay from 2009, for instance, that Heer has long been distrustful of literary pastiches, such as those written by Michael Chabon, arguing that "the novels they've produced lack either the unpretentious, light-hearted thrills of sincere pulp fiction or the emotional intensity of genuine literature." In that piece, Heer admits that a collection of Leon Rooke stories has finally convinced him otherwise, and it appears to be a seamless conversion. By 2013, while reviewing Lisa Moore's Caught, Heer now writes that "some of the most interesting writing of our time takes place at the intersection between genre and literature." Among the other "notable examples" he provides? Michael Chabon.

Reading Sweet Lechery, one realizes even more clearly why Heer has found a second life online. Not on staff at any single newspaper or magazine, Heer has found a remarkable range of professional outlets for his writing over the years; when inspiration strikes, he seems to have a knack for knowing which editor might be open to 1,000 words on it. Yet, the pieces in the collection also hint at those that weren't published – the many related threads or against-the-grain takes that, for whatever reason, Heer couldn't get into print. In the past, that must have been frustrating. Today, however, he's able to fire up Twitter and let those B-sides and addendums loose in real time, to an audience that's only growing larger.

Is it surprising that a writer dedicated to long-form thinking has found unexpected success in a medium defined by its strict character limit? Not really. As anyone who does both will tell you, writing tweets flexes a very different muscle than traditional journalism does. Sometimes engaging with people on social media sharpens or challenges your stance on a given topic. Sometimes it's just a goof. Sometimes one type of writing helps recharge the batteries of the other, and sometimes they fuel one another outright: Heer himself recently admitted that the success of his tweets was one reason Sweet Lechery was assembled in the first place.

Despite the breadth of his interests, Heer does circle back to some tried-and-true reference points. A piece about Françoise Mouly, art editor for The New Yorker, reminds one that Heer wrote a biography of Mouly last year for Coach House Books. The closing essay is about the Canadian cartoonist and designer Seth, who just so happens to have designed Sweet Lechery, too (his typography is unmistakable, from the cover text to the dingbats).

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Perhaps the most frequently recurring name, however, is Guy Davenport, the American art and literary critic, author, translator and – as Heer points out – underrated illustrator. The title of Heer's collection is a quote from one of Davenport's short stories; the full phrase refers to "the sweet lechery of an inquiring mind." Indeed, the true pleasure of Heer's work comes from spending time with such a mind. Most readers and writers I know imagine one day having both the time and focus to live the way Heer appears to: sitting surrounded by stacks of essays, magazines, books and comics, and then devouring, and slowly digesting, each one in turn. Then picking up their phones and opening Twitter.

Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.

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