Every year a small press called Tightrope Books publishes an anthology called Best Canadian Essays, in which articles that were published in magazines are collected. For the past eight years this series has been overseen by the poet Chris Doda; he engages a new guest editor every time to make the selections. This year the guest editor is the philosopher Mark Kingwell, who writes in his introduction something rather scandalous: “I am not much fetched by personal-voice narratives unless there is some underlying logic to my being there in the first place. … I don’t pay a lot of attention to bio lines or bio notes. … I want to hear intelligence, wit and suppleness of expression.”
One of these very essays continues this bold idea – that “what an essay is about is less important than how it is written” – even more explicitly: “The Future Is the Period at the End of a Sentence” by Peter Babiak is a rant against his students’ linguistic laziness and a furious paean to the power of the perfect sentence. Babiak dismisses “creative expression” as “easy” – it’s grammar, he says, that is “the deep structure of language … the root of all that they dream, think, say and write.”
This kind of aestheticism is, as they say, “problematic” these days, as the aesthetic itself is notoriously divisive, and of course one’s bio is important to prove one’s level of privilege. The idea that elegant and playful writing is better writing privileges those with a certain kind of education, who have the luxury of detachment and defavours (or “erases” as the overwrought contemporary scholarly jargon has it) the true and powerful experiences of the marginalized. Surely a story that exposes an injustice or gives voice to the oppressed is more important than something clever and entertaining?
The thing is, once one is addicted to the stylish one can take little pleasure in the lumpy, no matter how serious the subject matter. The serious is done no favours by an earnest style. Furthermore, to say that this aesthetic interest occurs only in conservative or privileged educational systems is to suggest that writers who do not come from privilege are incapable of being witty, and that is rather condescending.
I don’t think this argument is so present in other countries – especially in Europe, where being clever or funny or even maintaining a certain stylish hauteur is not seen as a moral liability. This is Canada, where we still reward the virtuous over the witty. The vast majority of Canadian novels and short stories lack wit, and they rarely experiment with style that is highly economical or even faintly oblique. There are still so many awkward expository passages that are so obviously an authorial point of view (“They had first settled here in 1956, before the New Families Act of 1958 drove down commodity prices …”), so many clichés (“They had grown up in crippling poverty,” “She felt frozen with fear,” “He had a chiselled jaw”), so many redundant dialogue tags (“'Don’t go in there,’ she warned”), so many exclamation marks!
In fiction, I look for great sentences above all else. And in Canadian fiction these are difficult to find. Publishers are still rewarding lifeless novel-writing if they feel a story is “important.”
The award nominations this year were, on the other hand, pretty good at picking good line-by-line writing.
I think of Patrick deWitt’s gleefully preposterous dialogue: “The customs agent was flummoxed. He asked Malcolm, ‘She is sick, monsieur?’ / ‘She isn’t sick.’ / ‘She does not die?’ / ‘Never.’ / ‘She must not die here,’ the customs agent warned Malcolm. / ‘She’ll die somewhere else,’ Malcolm promised. / The customs agent looked back at Frances. ‘No dying in France.’ He stamped their passports and waved them on.”
I think of Kathy Page’s clever descriptions: “… a tangle of stockings of various thicknesses and similar hues, which looked like the cast-off skins of a large nest of beige and tan snakes.”
Sheila Heti’s febrile and poetic philosophizing: “I resent the spectacle of all this breeding, which I see as a turning-away from the living – an insufficient love for the rest of us, we billions of orphans already living.”
Lisa Moore’s vernacular-inflected stream-of-consciousness: “And your co-worker with his sunrise hair, the winding rosebush tattoo tucking under the sleeve of his employee-issue Shoe Emporium T-shirt, still high from whatever all-nighter and foxy eyes, whose grandmother was the leading expert in cold-water sea cucumbers, no joke, at the Marine Institute and who [Marty] is not even bi but straight-up gay for gosh sakes, like definitely that end of the spectrum, according to him. Sea cucumbers.”
Paige Cooper’s minimalist satire, as spare as haiku: “She gave me a piece of black leather with words stamped in serif. Surgeon. Sensei. Colonist. I left her bill, which was insane, on Moe’s desk.”
Writers like this can make any story interesting, even if it is implausible or frivolous.
So my plea for the new year is: Can we publish more of the stylish, please, and fewer of the workhorses?