Green Books Campaign: Can’tLit

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

Can’tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine by Richard Rosenbaum, ed.

ECW Press, 2009

Printed on FSC-certified paper, Ancient Forest Friendly Paper

I was an admirer of Canadian Literature (CanLit) long before I came to Canada, counting Clara Callan, Unless, A Fine Balance, and about a hundred other Canadian books amongst my favorites. Back then, I didn’t think of these novels as particularly Canadian; if asked what they had in common, I’d have said: their desire to probe delicately at the stuff of our daily lives, to reveal small truths with wry humor, and to write measured, gentlemanly prose that never sought to dazzle, but worked hard at staying in the background.

Since moving to Canada (from England), my access to CanLit has broadened, but my initial perception of Canadian writing hasn’t altered materially. Inevitably, when I’ve looked for edgy work, I’ve always looked outside the country. Canadian writing is notable for many things, but not for unconventional writing eager to take risks.  The very qualities that appeal sometimes seem to limit it–CanLit can seem to willfully circumscribe itself by an unwonted insistence on gravitas and sedateness. Of course there are exceptions (the wonderful and woefully under-appreciated Elyse Friedman comes to mind), but in general, avant-garde writing appears to have few champions in this country.

All this leads to the book I’m writing about: Can’tLit, an anthology showcasing some of the best fiction published in Broken Pencil, a journal devoted to independent arts. The title is an unequivocal statement that the literary climate of Canada does not encourage edgy experimental writing. Hal Niedzviecki, fiction editor of Broken Pencil, writes in his foreword that the magazine publishes “only the most desperate writing, only the stuff that got kicked out of the house before limping over to our office with no place else to go. […] These stories are outcasts. They don’t fit into traditional CanLit…” And assistant fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum says, “You may have noticed that the writing we tend to prize most highly here [in Canada…] is the cold, dull, pastoral, stuff. Little girls growing up in small towns or old women dying in them. The stuff written by people named Margaret.” He adds that “there is a need for [] sharp, offensive urban fiction, for all that all-around weird shit, in the otherwise mostly bland and soulless field of the Canadian literary scene.”

Despite the hyperbole (OTT!), despite Rosenbaum’s low regard for the Margarets  (I wept over The Stone Angel, not being forced to read it in high school and all), I’m sympathetic to his cause. The raison d’etre for this book in essence is CanLit’s insiderism, its refusal to acknowledge or legitimize writing and writers who aren’t easy to label.  Let me stick my neck out and say it: I agree that it is pretty tough for an outsider to break into the Canadian publishing scene, for the gate-keepers of CanLit sometimes appear to welcome new blood only if it matches their type. The notable exception is small presses and progressive magazines, most of  which genuinely encourage new writers and new writing. And with this campaign, I now know of another such venue–the very cool ECW Press, which published this book.

The obvious issue with reviewing a book like Can’tLit is that an excess of edge can be fatal to one’s reading pleasure, like a repast consisting solely of amuse bouches. I got around that problem by reading no more than three stories a day. The pieces vary in widely in length–some two hundred words, and some ten times that. And even as they vary in length, they vary in quality. Neidzviecki warns in his foreword that a few of the stories “might even be badly written”, and he is spot-on. Inasmuch as this assessment depends more heavily than usual on the reviewer’s personal taste, some of the pieces simply try too hard, like a teenager who swears because he thinks it’s shocking. Dude, an overuse of Caps Lock and references to sex don’t make a piece edgy.

But there are some stunners here; the editors of Canada’s finest lit. mags. were apparently  afflicted with collective myopia. There’s “Gynecomastia”, a story about a flat-chested girl acquiring a boyfriend with man-boobs. “Sickness” is memorable as much for its compassion as its perfect execution. There’s  “Natural Selection”, about a relationship featuring eccentric but uneasily familiar characters. There’s angst in these stories, but there’s playfulness too, and the writers are obviously beckoning to the readers to join in the game. Can’tLit makes it clear that there is no dearth of Canadian writers willing to push the boundaries of what words can do. Broken Pencil and ECW Press: for championing the weird, the uncomfortable, the unknown, and the obscure, and all on green paper, I want to buy you a large alcoholic beverage each. Tell me when and where.


Random Bookish Stuff #2

Sloughing off my dealings with ethically-challenged magazines and focusing on my upcoming reviews.

1. My review of TOK 5, a collection of stories and poems about immigrant Toronto, will appear in the forthcoming issue of This, a progressive Canadian magazine. Contributors to the anthology include M.G.Vassanji, Emma Donoghue, Shyam Selvadurai, Nalo Hopkinson, and several talented newbies. TOK 5 is published by Diaspora Dialogues, an organization which “supports the creation and presentation of new fiction, poetry and drama that reflect the complexity of the city [Toronto] through the eyes of its richly diverse writers. Publishing and mentoring activities, as well as a monthly multidisciplinary performance festival, help encourage the creation of a literature that is vibrant and inclusive, while bringing these works to a wide audience.”

What’s not to love?

2. The thing about books is that they’re made from mashed-up trees.  Eco-Libris is running a campaign to promote green books by reviewing “books printed on recycled paper or FSC-certified paper. [Their] goal is to use the power of the internet and social media to promote “green” books and increase the awareness of both readers and publishers to the way books can be printed printed in an eco-friendly manner.” so, on Nov. 10, “200 bloggers will take a stand to support books printed on environmental paper by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 such books.”

I’m happy to be part of that multitude, and I’ll be reviewing Can’t Lit (ECW Press), a collection of edgy Canadian short stories. Yes, edgy can appear in the same sentence as CanLit, except the latter’s then called Can’t Lit. See?

3. I’m going to be reviewing Fauna by Alyssa York for Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.  From the publisher’s site: “The wide ravine that bisects the city is home to countless species of urban wildlife, including human waifs and strays. When Edal Jones can’t cope with the casual cruelty she encounters in her job as a federal wildlife officer, she finds herself drawn to a beacon of solace nestled in the valley under the unlikely banner of an auto-wrecker’s yard. Guy Howell, the handsome proprietor, offers sanctuary to animals and people alike: a half-starved hawk and a brood of orphaned raccoon kits, a young soldier whose spirit failed him during his first tour of duty, a teenage runaway and her massive black dog. Guy is well versed in the delicate workings of damaged beings, and he might just stand a chance at mending Edal’s heart.”

Damn, I wish they hadn’t made a point of mentioning Howell’s handsomeness. I suspect the book is a lot better than this sappy summary would have us believe.

4. I’m about a third into, and thus far enjoying, Aatish Taseer’s novel The Temple-Goers, a book firmly set in Delhi, a city I’ve spent much time in and mostly dislike. From the publisher: “A young man returns home to Delhi after several years abroad and resumes his place among the city’s cosmopolitan elite – a world of fashion designers, media moguls and the idle rich. But everything around him has changed – new roads, new restaurants, new money, new crime – everything, that is, except for the people, who are the same, only maybe slightly worse. Then he meets Aakash, a charismatic and unpredictable young man on the make, who introduces him to the squalid underside of this sprawling city. Together they get drunk and work out, visit temples and a prostitute, and our narrator finds himself disturbingly attracted to Aakash’s world. ”

I’m deleting the rest of the summary because it includes a spoiler. Whoever wrote it was really idiotic inconsiderate.

5. Just finished reading Laila Lalami’s beautifully-written Secret Son. From the publisher: “Youssef el-Mekki, a young man of nineteen, is living with his mother in the slums of Casablanca when he discovers that the father he believed to be dead is, in fact, alive and eager to befriend and support him. Leaving his mother behind, Youssef assumes a life he could only dream of: a famous and influential father, his own penthouse apartment, and all the luxuries associated with his new status. His future appears assured until an abrupt reversal of fortune sends him back to the streets and his childhood friends, where a fringe Islamic group, known simply as the Party, has set up its headquarters. ”

Before I write my review, I want to re-read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education–the two books seem intimately connected, and I suspect my piece would be incomplete otherwise.

6. I want to review about 10 other books before the year ends. So, starting today,  I’m not accepting any unsolicited requests for book reviews till next year. Please write to me in Jan. 2011 if you want me to consider reviewing your work.

7. Women’s Web is running a contest for blog posts on your fave female character in fiction.  Easy-peasy, and there are prizes! Visit their site for more information.