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?


Ruth Seeley said...

I'm thinking we can easily predict who's going to make the most underrated list tomorrow. Let me see: Rawi Hage (agree); Zoe Whittall (disagree); Shyam Selvadurai (disagree); Katherine Govier (disagree); Paul Quarrington (agree); Evelyn Lau (meh); Rohinton Mistry (agree). And somehow I doubt very much that folks like Jack Hodgins and Barbara Gowdy are going to make the list at all.

Of course, when someone doesn't bother to define what underrated and overrated actually mean, perhaps their opinion isn't really worth reading. Are we talking: shouldn't have got a movie deal? Don't deserve to make a living from their writing? Sold too many books? Ended up on too many Canadian/contemporary lit courses? It's certainly not worth reading over and over and over again in every mainstream media outlet that covers books (Walrus, Q&Q, Canadian Notes and Review, now National Post).

Panic said...

Of course, when someone doesn't bother to define what underrated and overrated actually mean, perhaps their opinion isn't really worth reading
I took it to mean "Lots and lots of people read this author but I am personally annoyed by their writing."

Basically my blog-screed against Jodi Picoult, but published in a national paper.

Ruth Seeley said...

Ha well if you feel your blood pressure is low one day, give Ann Brashares a try - she makes Jodi sound like Shakespeare. ;)

Steven W. Beattie said...

I would disagree (obviously) that such lists have no value. They are not even close to nuanced criticism, but they do get people talking (as we've seen), and I think any opportunity to reconsider our cultural preconceptions is a good thing. We're too often dominated by a kind of soporific complacency, and it take the rhetorical equivalent of a shotgun blast to wake us up. Yes, our piece was deliberately provocative. But, it's got people talking, so I think it had the desired effect.

Steven W. Beattie said...

" ... and it TAKES the rhetorical equivalent of a shotgun blast ..."

One day I'll learn to proof my comments BEFORE hitting send.

Panic said...

but they do get people talking (as we've seen),
Eh, I'm not sure that really justifies things. Example -- and this is the first thing that popped into my head -- Phelps, and his "God Hates Fags" signs at military funerals, gets people talking about gay rights and homophobia, but should he be doing that? No, he should not. I'm not at all comparing the two things (because how weird would that comparison be?), but just "getting people talking" isn't enough of a reason to do something.

and I think any opportunity to reconsider our cultural preconceptions is a good thing.
Sure, but I don't think the list did that. I think everyone just got re-entrenched in their own ideas. You did it yourself making the list, I did it with my rebuttal, & on. Most of talk I saw was not that anyone had changed their minds, or reconsidered. The just continued to like, or not, as usual.

Did you think it would change anyone's mind?

Steven W. Beattie said...

I had naive hopes that it might. Or that someone might say: "Hm. I've never read Caroline Adderson's short stories. Maybe I'll give them a shot." And, believe it or not, I have had one or two responses of that sort. Which does my heart good.

As for the retrenchment of ideas, yes, I see that happening all the time. But, in my own case, particularly since this was accomplished in tandem with someone else (and we had to be in agreement), it was an opportunity to consider some things from a perspective other than my usual default perch (although it probably didn't come out that way in the end). You would be amazed by the names we threw out for the underrated list before settling on those ten. So, it worked for me. And maybe -- MAYBE -- for one or two others as well.

Panic said...

You've changed what you're talking about. We were discussing the overrated list. Did you think that list would change anyone's mind?

I did say in this post that underrated/undiscovered lists are definitely beneficial, and my beef was never with that.

Ruth Seeley said...

@Panic - yes, an under-rated list is always beneficial, because not even the most avid reader can keep up with everything, and sometimes you need a little nudge to try an author you haven't read before. I know I'm eternally grateful to Steven for giving me precisely that sort of nudge towards Rawi Hage with his enthusiasm for his work. I didn't, of course, JUST take his word for it - I checked other reviewers, read an interview or two with Hage, gave him bonus points because he was a House of Anansi author, and I was lucky enough to find the book in my local bookstore so I could also read a few paragraphs. Then I bought DeNiro's Game, loved it, and have added Cockroach to my must-read list.

The problem with an over-rated list is that you have to be not only scrupulously fair when putting it together, you really do have to establish criteria that make sense, and sadly the over-rated list didn't do that (not by a long shot).

And I'd love to follow you on Twitter but I can't find you there, Panic - I'm @ruthseeley. :)

Panic said...

Hi Ruth,
I'll add you shortly! :)