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January 10, 2012

On literary debate, and Stephen Henighan's When Words Deny the World

Whatever I was expecting from Stephen Henighan’s essay collection When Words Deny the World, I had not considered inspiration. But at its best, Henighan’s book made me want to be a better writer, to dare to root my stories in Canadian places, to consider the loss inherent in Canadian authors’ fixation on situating their books in foreign lands (and I’ve been there. Living abroad can infect a writers’ brain. Henighan, with his Latin-American stories, has been there too). It didn’t make me want to take back the chesterfield (as Caroline Adderson dared to do in her novel The Sky Is Falling), because that would be unnatural– “chesterfield” has never been part of my vocabulary, and sometimes I think Henighan is dreaming of a Canadianness that has forever been elusive. But he has made me aware of the peculiarities of being a Canadian writer, as distinct from a British or American one, and what it means to our language and to our literature to be marginalized by two nations we share a common language with.

And I get it now, I do, that debate about Canadianness and the Giller from last Fall, which was so offensive to some, but just seemed foolish to me– who cared where a novel is situated, is what I thought. A story is a story. And I still believe it, what a story is, and I’ve no wish to denigrate the celebrated Canadian novel that takes place in 1930s’ Germany, but I now have a better understanding of the importance of having novels that take place in the here and now. (Perusing my list of books read, I see no shortage of “here”, but a deficiency of “now”. Though where do we draw the line with this? Where does “now” officially begin? And, as I stated in my review of Big Town: A Novel of Africville, the past can actually give a whole lot of insight into the present. Which is not a new idea, I realize, but this review was a great opportunity to make the connection explicitly clear.)

Henighan’s collection failed to resonate with me precisely where I knew it would, however: when he calls for debate, moans about lack of debate, prescribes debate, and tries to debate. Because I don’t like debate, I don’t do debate. Conflict of any kind upsets me, which could be an indication that I’m feeble-minded, but at the same time, I know that readiness to debate is hardly a virtue. I don’t know that debate is useful.

Because this is what debate does, see, it simplifies things. It gives opponents the comforting illusion that there are only two sides after all and, even more absurdly, that one of these sides is right. (I say this kind of thing and get called a relativist. One time in which I got called this quite a bit was around the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and we all know how well that went.) Debate renders the world into miniature, it turns real-life issues, serious matters, into a game, a question of logistics. And there are people who get off on it. It’s like war is. These things happen not to any particular end, but because there are people for whom it’s a pastime.

Nobody listens when they’re debating, nobody learns. Instead of listening and learning, there is plotting from clever rebuttal to the next, and it’s a closed cycle. Nothing happens. The kind of people who care enough to engage in debate are people so entrenched in their own beliefs that they’ll never change their minds.

And beliefs is exactly what it is. I’ve never been so much a relativist as I’ve been lately, ever since I joined a book club of remarkably intelligent women who’ve never once managed to arrive at a consensus on what a good book was (except the time we read Light Lifting. I’ve actually only heard of one person ever who didn’t like Light Lifting, and anyway, she was an idiot). Every month we meet and I walk in there with an idea of why the book does or doesn’t work, and I come up with all kinds of theories, arguments and points to underline my assessment, and my co-members show up in much the same fashion, but we rarely agree. And though it pains me to say it (because I really really loved Megan Williams story collection Saving Rome), I’m never any more right than the rest of them are.

By this, I maintain that “good literature” is relative. No one has ever been able to define it for me otherwise. Every time a critic speaks on any side, no matter how clever his argument and how couched in theory it is (and theory is also a simplifier), the argument stripped down is always, “I want more of the kind of books I like to read/write. I want books that reflect my background, and my reality. And I want those books to be celebrated too.” Of course, I don’t wholly believe this myself. I have my own conception of what great literature is, but I’ll also accept that yours is slightly different, even if I think mine is superior. We all think that.

Debate with an awareness of relativity could possibly be useful. At least it is at my book club where we listen to and are challenged by one another. None of us are so assured of the absolute rightness of our respective positions, though I don’t imagine that anybody actually is ever. Unless they’re deluded. There’s got to be that element of doubt that keeps the mind open. But debate requires a certain posturing, that you pretend that doubt doesn’t exist. It requires you to be fired up by your own self-importance.

Debating becomes less about reality than skewing facts to fit the argument. Or about deliberately misreading books so they’ll seem to say the things you want them to say to suit your purposes. Then you propose that the reason Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma wasn’t a commercial success outside of Canada was because it took place in a Canadian city (and oh my, anyone who’s read that novel could tell you that’s not why). Or you decide that John Berger and Jakob Beer are remarkably similar names, which means something. So that you end up proclaiming that only Wayne Grady and David Adams Richards are writing novels that reflect the way we live today (or at least how we lived in the 1990s. Perhaps things were more Grady/Richards-like then, and I’ve just forgotten). So that you forget that you’ve forgotten to include women writers in your canon. And your definition of “debate” begins to include you railing against curly haired women who look good in photos, and misreading/simplifying the work of Carol Shields to fit into a box called “Conservative Family Values”, and calling people names like Wasp, conservative, and bourgeoisie, all to suit some grandiose theory whose concoction began with a publisher who didn’t like your book once. (Or apparently did like it, but…)

See how quickly civility dissolves? Debate is a negative feedback loop. This is petty. We do it because it’s easy, and it’s momentarily satisfying, but real life goes deeper than that. This kind of discourse denies the world’s complexity, and that of literature too.

The alternative? Write an essay like Henighan’s “A Language for the Americas,” which posits that Canadian writers should use Latin-American writers’ use of language as an example for how to build a language of their own, an essay which, in the process of its arguments, inspires readers to pick up the works discussed, and think of their own language differently. An essay that takes us somewhere. Or what about a project like the Salon de Refuses. Or when you dissect a flawed novel in a national newspaper, do so on its own terms, rather than using someone’s art as an opportunity to extend an argument you’ve been having with nobody in national newspapers’ review pages for decades. Or find a way to write about the novels that aren’t flawed (please!), to celebate the writers who are doing it right and should be setting an example for the rest of us.

Debating for debate’s sake is all fine and well, but it will take a deeper and more meaningful engagement with reading, writing and literature to make our literature better.

8 thoughts on “On literary debate, and Stephen Henighan's When Words Deny the World”

  1. HB says:

    Hear, hear Ms Clare!

  2. patricia says:

    Yes!! So refreshing to read this, Kerry. And this brilliant essay can be applied to all the idiotic negative bickering going on all over the world. It is so tiresome and not in the least bit constructive. But this post? This post is brilliant.

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you!!

  3. Zach says:

    Kerry, I think in your zeal to prove that debate simplifies things, you’ve simplified the notion of debate. The idea of having “debate” is not the same thing as having _a_ debate. What you are engaged in here is, in fact, debate, so you can’t hate it all that much.

    1. Kerry says:

      Piffle. I absolutely refuse to engage with you Zach. 😉

  4. Mike B. says:

    Well, all I can say is that I’m glad I told you I liked “Light Lifting”…! In any event, I see little in her to debate with you, particularly your assessment of Coupland (boo), and Shields (yay).

  5. Nico says:

    Now I want to read this book. Ordered!

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