Canada's Most Predictable Punching Bags

The Huffington Post piece on overrated authors didn't make Anis Shivani any friends. Jezebel had a rather good take on the article, with their rebuttal "Literary Critic Hates Vaginas, 'Ghetto Volume'". Similar lists were inevitable. I find these lists to be nothing more than opportunities for critics to unleash a hail of insults on those they deem unworthy, somehow, of praise, sales, and awards, and they do nothing to broaden the reading public's understanding or appreciation of literature. (I do, however, see great value in lists of "underrated authors" who can definitely benefit from exposure.)

Today, we get the Canadian list, co-authored by Steven W. Beattie, and if you read his blog That Shakespearean Rag or his other work at all, there will be absolutely no surprises for you here. The same old complaints about the same old authors appear. How Michaels and Ondaatje* engage in overly complex tricks of language... oh excuse me, I mean "abstruse metaphoric language and self-conscious, sonorous prose." There are complaints about the derivative nature of Can Lit, which is funny in a third-hand copy-cat list, the details of which have been copy/pasted from previous reviews and blog posts, either verbatim or by rote memory.

Predictably, I want to give some love to Douglas Coupland. In the Canadian list we are also treated to complaints about Coupland's use of irony** and pop culture, which is such a throwaway Amazon Review reading of his work. In my discussions of Coupland, I don't pay overmuch attention to these issues. Yes, these are elements of his work, but they're set pieces, not the characters or novel itself. I have always enjoyed how much pop culture Coupland puts in his novels, because that's the world I live in. I pay attention to all aspects of the world around me, not just the highbrow. I don't pretend to live in an ivory tower and I would never want to. That Coupland writes from down on the ground makes his novels work with me, instead of making me work for them. And sometimes that's okay. Every novel doesn't need to be A.S. Byatt.

To miss the attention Coupland pays to human interaction, and the consequences of the lack of that interaction, is to call Coupland "overrated." If you don't see his funny, weird, and often intensely lonely people for the recognizable human beings they are, then you're missing the point entirely. I haven't loved every novel, but when he gets it right -- as in Eleanor Rigby or The Gum Thief -- Coupland can be devastatingly astute about what a commodified culture, overloaded with information, does to our psyche, and how this culture leaves some of us alone, alienated, and clinging to false talismans made of plastic and light.

Edit: I am remiss in not mentioning that Coupland can also be very funny, and has the ability to take our monstrous capitalist productions and turn them into Lego bricks of joy.

To call Coupland "lowbrow" is to be a self-apologist for not giving enough attention to a writer who would certainly do you the favour of close examination, should you appear in his work.

*I don't find him completely unreadable, but I really don't enjoy Ondaatje.
**Is it ironic that the word "lazy" appears in reference to Coupland, when this list is a pastiche of previously published opinions?
Oh, jPod, how sad you make me.
Ondaatje is too snooty! Coupland is not snooty enough! Perhaps Canadian authors could benefit from a Snoot-O-Meter, to help them meet the exacting specifications of the critical establishment?

Open Letter to Jodi Picoult

Dear Ms Picoult,
I agree, the New York Times really, really likes white dudes from Brooklyn. I noticed a while back, and the reviewers there are not real subtle in their idol worship. Further, I'm pretty sure the reviewer of the new Franzen book, Michiko Kakutani, is predisposed to hate female authored books. All this can definitely get pretty annoying.

However, I complain as a reader. You're complaining as a writer, and I have to assume that you're complaining because your reviews have been less than positive. Here's the thing: you're a horrible writer. Your situations are cliche and contrived. Your characters are more than unlikeable, they're hateful and unbelieveable. You seem to be writing to ensure a TV movie option.

You sell a lot of books and I can't figure out why. Maybe all this is unfair of me, since I've only read about 50 pages of one of your novels. I can't remember another book I've hated so much I had to put it down and quit. There are books I don't like, having finished them, but yours was the only one that so disgusted me I had to stop and give it back to the library, lest it contaminate my house further.

So maybe I just don't know enough of your work. But have you read Franzen? He's really, really good. So is Lethem. Some of the Wonderboys the NYT loves aren't all that, but those two? They kinda are. You are not now and will never be in the same league.

I'm annoyed that you co-opted a very valid complaint for your sour grapes. You cheapen and lessen the point. It almost feels like Sarah Palin calling herself a feminist. Right words, wrong people.

Next time the NYT fawns over Tao Lin, though, feel free to lose your shit.


Mind Unchanged

As an avowed grump, I looked forward to reading Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

The first chapter on cancer, and the relentless positivity patients are expected to embrace, is the most convincing. In fact, Ehrenreich has some very interesting things to say about cancer, and her own experience as a patient. She writes that
the rebel cells that have realized that the genome they carry, the genetic essence of me in whatever deranged form has no further chance of normal reproduction in the postmenopausal body we share, so why not just start multiplying like bunnies and hope for a chance to break out?
Ehrenreich goes on to write of studies that show a correlation between positive attitudes and immune system health. However, the Journal of Clinical Oncology notes "the immune system does not appear to recognize cancers within an individual as foreign, because they are actually part of the self." It's an interesting and factual take on cancer, lacking in sensationalistic scare tactics. Cancer is so often seen as something that can be wholly prevented if one just tries hard enough, cutting risk factors, being born with the "right" genes, and even thought away, as Ehrenreich reports. However, to think of a cancer as an organic part of the self is almost a radical approach, though scientifically it's a bit of a no-brainer.

The next chapters, however, are less convincing. Ehrenreich comes out against positive thinking methods involving the rubber band trick (in which you snap a rubber band against your skin when you have a negative thought), and positive thinking and list making to reprogram negative attitudes. While she doesn't mention it by name, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy employs these tactics, and is often successful in treating illnesses like depression. I find Ehrenreich's dismissal of these techniques (and later her supposition that the pharmaceutical industry prompted psychologists to prove their worth with these and other thought exercises) to be a bit heavy-handed. There's a lot of research out there that says we're way, way over-medicated for depression, and I expected some critical analysis of this. Instead, she glosses over medications, and indeed, there's some tacit approval of them.

Ehrenreich also makes some pretty tenuous connections. For example, she seems to be hinting that Positive Thinking practitioners had a part, however small, in the layoffs and corporate restructuring of the 80s and 90s. Seems to me it's more likely that entrepreneurs were taking advantage of a new market. This would actually have seemed more sinister and proved the point that motivational speakers and the like were really just wanting to cash in on a social phenomenon at the expense of people in a difficult situation, rather than having a part in creating hardship.

In her chapter on the rise of positive thinking megachurches that take sin and God out of the equation, Ehrenreich spends a paragraph snarking on the appearance of a couple of the new breed of (very wealthy) preachers. The female of the couple, Victoria, is just back from winning court case in which she was being sued by a stewardess she treated miserably on a flight. Ehrenreich is part of the crowd at the megachurch that day.
I look around cautiously to see how everyone else is reacting to this celebration of a millionaire's court victory over a working woman, who happened in this case the be African American. The crowd, which is about two-thirds black and Latino and appears to contain few people who have ever landed a lucrative book deal or flown first-class, applauds Victoria enthusiastically.
Instead of attempting to explain this phenomenon, which would be well within the scope of the book, Ehrenreich devotes only a couple sentences, almost a literary shake of the head, an "aren't these folks silly" sort of dismissal. There's also a weird point she makes about modern megachurches that I can't shake off: Church buildings used to be built to inspire and be seen as something outside of the mundane world. "Not so the megachurches, which seem bent on camouflaging themselves as suburban banks or school buildings." A look at church architecture in Canada (I can't speak for anywhere else) from the 60s and 70s, across denominations, shows this as a phenomenon of the 20th century, not of any one particular turn of faith, though the megachurches do indeed hold more people, and are less community/neighbourhood sized.

What I find most troubling, is Ehrenreich's "patron at the zoo" way of writing. I did notice this when I read Nickel and Dimed many years ago. Ehrenreich often treats the poor and working class in her books like caged animals, with pity and disdain, instead of understanding. As mentioned above, she looks down on the "black and Latino" congregation of a couple of rich, white preachers, instead of attempting to look at how a supposedly poor group would find solace in the message. (I say "supposedly" because Ehrenreich doesn't mention actually talking to these people, she judges them simply by looking at them.) She finds certain psychologists merely silly or annoying, and makes her personal dislike known, while skimming over facts. This will be the last Ehrenreich I read, because I really can't take her classism (and possible racism!)any longer. Ehrenreich has pretensions of journalism, but her books read like a long, and in this case poorly thought-out, letter to the editor instead.

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In the "things that do not suck" portion of this post, the always amazing Kerry Clare has a great post on the Toronto Women's Bookstore, and her life with feminism over at Pickle Me This.