I don’t mean to. I believe the essence of good writing is not popularity or an elusive sense of the high brow. If I can put it in a literary phrase that is low brow at best, I believe that good writing the best way to say the best thing. I would argue that any form of literature can be high art in the moment, from Twitter prose to Miltonian epic. As a reviewer, I always try to judge a piece for what it is, rather than what I wish it was. To do anything else would be hypocrisy on my part, though I’m struck by J.R.R. Tolkien’s backhanded concession to reviewers of The Lord of the Rings:
“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer” (Foreword to Fellowship of the Ring).
Despite my grand ideas for literary equality, however, I still harbour in my heart a secret “best of” genre list—a literary hierarchy that betrays my anti-bourgeois principles.
In this secret prejudice, the highest of all forms of literature is poetry. Perhaps this is because poetry remains elusive to me, both as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, it takes me ten or twelve pages to find my way in Milton or Shakespeare or even Dante. I love them, but it takes a few minutes for my screen-droopy eyes to slow down and read the words. I blame TV.
And when I do read poetry, I must take it in small bites. My great loves—Herbert, Donne, Isaiah, and the contemporary literary poets—I must read slowly, a poem at a time, so they remain at my bedside for months on end. Only Shakespeare and the Greeks can I take in great gulps—though of course I am there for the story as much as the lyric. If I had to make my living as a poetry reviewer I would be very poor, and soon exposed as the fraud I am. After all, I cannot stomach Blake, and reading the Romans—Ovid and Virgil especially—is like a sort of Chinese water torture. But Blake is the worst, like having to reread those dark, emo poems from the 60s and 70s that I tried to forget in my youth. Hopefully the film Running With Scissors put that nonsense to bed for good, and there will be no more runs on black turtlenecks on the nights of poetry readings.
As a writer, too, poetry is a challenge. I never tell anyone that I write poetry, and probably never will. My snatches of poetry are moments when I am trying to capture something when prose seems too obvious, like the picture would be over-exposed if I told it straight out using nouns and verbs in their proper grammatical order. My poetry remains hidden—literally, not figuratively—having been scratched onto the white spaces of church bulletins or the clean side of restaurant napkins or the margins of books I borrowed. Later, I transfer them to my journal by an inelegant hand and they are finally forgotten. I’ve published two poems, and would be fine if I never publish one again. I tried reading one aloud once at an open mic night. It was a serious poem about self-doubt and the shining ray of hope within that doubt. After a few words, people were laughing, apparently won over by my untamed hilarity. I finished the poem, the sound guy played “Suicide is Painless”—the theme song of M.A.S.H.—and I left the stage and hung up my black turtleneck forever.
Perhaps it’s best if I don’t talk about poetry.
The second rung on my ladder of literature is the personal essay. This may surprise some folk, but I am powerfully moved by essayists of the last one hundred years. I am critically ignorant of the history of this genre, which probably adds to its mystique for me. It appears to me as if creative nonfiction emerged immaculately conceived out of the hospital room of WWI. G.K. Chesterton, Anne Lamott, Frederick Beuchner, Annie Dillard, Marilyn Robinson—I need only run my fingers along the covers of their stories as I walk past my bookshelf in order to remember their work. In these I am probably influenced by my literature prof, Maxine Hancock, an important Canadian spiritual essayist in her own right. I may also add some of Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis’ essays, though I appreciate them more for their fiction. Maya Angelou I could add, too, though everything she writes is a kind of poetry. I think of Kathleen Norris and Frank McCourt, though each of these cheat out of the genre. And I cannot forget Christopher Hitchens, America’s greatest British author of the last generation. Alas, I have let my subscription to Vanity Fair lapse.
My own entrée into this genre did not begin well. Professor Hancock anonymously read out bits of one of my personal essays in class to give examples of what a person should not do when writing. Still, I wrote a lot in that class, and one of my essays eventually found its way to Geez magazine. Not long after, I was contacted by the high profile alternative magazine The Utne Reader to reprint my piece. Of course I agree. They paid $100—nearly twice what Geez had paid for first run—though I must admit I wished they had liked another one of my essays. They reprinted my overly-revealing article, “On Being Fat and Running,” reaching an audience of a quarter of million in print and many more online with my misshapen confessions.
I even got fan letters from this article. Two of them, actually. The first told me how much she liked my article and asked how I got started in my career as an elite writer. That was an awkward response. The second also complimented me on my work and suggested politely that I might consider something known as “The Lazy Guy’s Diet,” which I could order on his personal website.
Awesome start to a career in personal essay writing, don’t you think?
Well, I have stuck with it. The Pilgrim in Narnia blog is an attempt to hone that skill, and I maintain a local fatherhood column, which includes some good work. So it is coming along. Unlike poetry, when I get this figured out, I will let others know. Feel free to send fan mail then. Money too, if you have extra (note above my literary income thus far).
The kind of writing I secretly place third in the literary lineup is a genre I have no real name for. It is called “literary fiction” in settings where bacon is wrapped around tiny molluscs, which are then balanced on a miniature plate while one sips red wine during a discussion of “serious” fiction. Most of these books I have never read, and many of the authors are completely new to me. But I smile, and nod, pretending to have something pressing to say about—ah, here is where I could get into trouble. I could name some “literary fiction” chart-topper (I must stop using air quotes there), but of course I would immediately offend the sensibilities of some brilliant reader who knows what real literary fiction is. Alas, I do not. I just tag along to these parties for the hors d’oeuvre (see my article in Utne) and the “first drink free” (notice the use of French there, offset, unfortunately, by more gratuitous quotations marks). Despite my literary genre lurker status, in the end I shout “Amen!” to B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto” (2001) in—ahem—The Atlantic, where he proclaimed that,
“what we are getting today is a remarkably crude form of affectation: a prose so repetitive, so elementary in its syntax, and so numbing in its overuse of wordplay that it often demands less concentration than the average ‘genre’ novel. Even today’s obscurity is easy—the sort of gibberish that stops all thought dead in its tracks”
Or let me put it in the most overt terms possible: I don’t like Toni Morrison’s books. There. I said it. And if I want misogyny I don’t have to read John Updike. I’ll just go back to the automotive industry where I spent five years of my life, thank you very much.
Yet, here is my hypocrisy.
I was recently invited to submit my work to writer-in-residence, Michael Crummey—one of Atlantic Canada’s leading authors (he even has a Wikipedia page, which is big for our sea-soaked corner of the world). I glibly sent in the first two chapters of a children’s novel about the mishaps of a serious young girl, hoping for some helpful critique. Like every aspiring author, I was secretly hoping that he would offer me the keys to the publishing kingdom—or at least show me the secret door.
Then, days before the critique, I decided to read some of his work. It was complex, beautifully written, intricately laced with symbolism. It was a lovely, evocative book, like he was able to capture colour with a lead pencil. As I read, I wished that I could take back my submission and give him something else—anything other than the fiction that I had designed to be simple, clear, humorous, and delightful. His books were anything but delightful, though they were a delight to read.
So I came to his office cowering, and it was quickly evident that there was not much that he could offer me by way of critique. So I spent the interview asking him the essential questions of a writer’s life: where he works, what are his writing habits, and what sort of tea he drinks at his desk.
Now, it is okay that I write differently than Crummey—or Morrison, or Updike—and not just because that fancy-schmancy Atlantic writer said I could. My work is good, and not part of a lower genre of “non-literary fiction”—whatever that would mean. But still I have this strange, “literary fiction” longing—a sort of air quote lust, perhaps. The truth is this: I would pee my pants if I was nominated for a Man Booker, Neustadt, or Giller prize. The simple truth, however, is that those prizes aren’t typically offered to writers who would write about peeing their pants on a public blog. That would not be “literary fiction,” of course.
My writing hierarchy falls apart at this point, because it is the point that I jump in with both feet. I place value on high fantasy, children’s literature, and intelligent prose. Science fiction, graphic novels, and pop fiction follow in a line. But these works bring me to the edge of a steep cliff, and there is a great body of work on the rocks below, including Wal-mart flyers, self-help books, “Christian” romance literature, fan fiction, cell phone novels (yes, they exist), and anything that has a love triangle between a vampire, a werewolf, and an emo teenager who should get a part-time job to occupy some of her time.
My secret prejudices are, I think, tremendously revealing of a strange kind of wincing self-consciousness I have about my own reading and writing. The reality is that I prefer Newberry books to the most recent bacon-wrapped “Oh! Haven’t you read So and So!” litterati best of. I prefer faerie tales to whatever obscure “bracing tale of human courage” comes recommended after the first free drink is gone. And I would prefer to write these kinds of stories over anything else. Perhaps it is best that I launched “my career as an elite writer” with an article where I talk about my “gasping, flushed, sweaty, large-man-bobbing-on-the-treadmill, heart-pounding-in-a-rattling-rib-cage kind of exercise.” It’s hard to put on airs when you are just doing your best to suck some of it in.
So, here’s to ditching the literary hierarchy altogether. Here’s to simply reading and writing what we love, regardless of its literary or social cachet (see that use of French again?). Let’s all raise a bacon-wrapped scallop—or kosher alternative—in salute to those well-written blogs, magazine articles, memoirs, pulp fiction pieces, and Seussian poetry collections that we all love. After all, we can’t get bacon grease all over the library`s “literary fiction” copy and the fronts of our black turtlenecks. It just wouldn’t do.