“The best thing about Plato was his good style. He liked to invent systems, but he was too fine and artist to trust his systems fully. Now I’ve come to hate systems. I hate your pet system, I hate Fascism, and I hate the system that exists. But I suppose there must be some system and I’ll take any system that leaves me alone to get on with my work.” — Francis Cornish on the mindset of an Artist.
Roberston Davies must have been a fascinating person. I’ve only read one other novel of his, Fifth Business, in Canadian high school. From my small amount of research though, Davies appears to be pretty hung up on the extraordinary story of the un-extraordinary. How wonderful. How Exciting. How Canadian–and I say that with zero disdain.
Fifth Business is a book, that centres around a supporting character in the grander story of something else. Hence that name, Fifth Business, which is a theatrical term, common in operatic story structure. It refers to a role which is supporting and important for propelling the plot, but secondary to the hero and heroine’s role in the story.
What’s Bred in the Bone is a variation on that theme. The hero, is at the surface, simply an old art collector and miser. When we look closer, we find that Francis Cornish’s life was carefully crafted and destined to make an impact on the world, long after his death. Little did anyone know what a portrait of greatness could look like.
This is my first Retro Review Post. The name is probably obvious, but I’ll just say that Retro Reviews are reviews of old books that randomly come to me by word of mouth or pushy book-lenders. This week’s Retro Review is a book that I found in the free pile in my friend’s building’s laundry room.
I don’t read every book that I find in a free pile, but when three of my friends randomly came into possession of the same book, we decided to read it together. Here’s what I thought:
The thing that will strike the reader most about The Shipping News is not the story itself, but the atmosphere of the book. I am desperate to go to Newfoundland now, just desperate.
I would rather go to Newfoundland and eat flipper pie, work for a local newspaper full of typos and drive a boat to work than live in Manhattan and work for the New York Times. That’s how well E. Annie Proulx has convinced me of this world and the way she does it is so ultra clever.
We begin with a man named Quoyle who, in the outside world, is soggy and loathsome. I wasn’t sure I could go through with this novel to begin with because I didn’t know that I wanted to spend that much time with such a pathetic, self-victimizing, paragraph of depression as him. He’s everything that a person hopes that they are not. You don’t want to know too much about him because you don’t want it to rub off on you.
Some artists find creative fortitude in depression. Some people make themselves upset on purpose in order to produce the sad self-reflection that devastation can bring about. These artists have offered up their insides to the world. Lovely people like Joni Mitchell, Hemmingway, Joan Didion, Paul Simon and Chopin wrote break-up songs and love letters that created a shared space for the human experience.
It’s important to be where you are and to appreciate being alive enough to feel big feelings and then to use those insights to open your mind to better empathize with our collective human experience.
I wish I was one of those people, brave enough to dance with my own demons, but I’m often not. I thrive on momentum and inspiration. And though I know that the down and dark parts have to be experienced, that they won’t go without a fight, I am not prone to embracing them. I try to avoid them.
Remember when film cameras were being replaced with digital cameras? I distinctly recall feeling super uncomfortable about that. I’d had digital cameras in my house since they started (my mom worked for a dot-com before the bubble burst). Our first one was a bulky device that took giant photos and saved them directly to a floppy disc that I could then insert into my computer to upload six photos, which took twenty minutes. The idea that those intangible cumbersome ideas of pictures would replace the thrill of pointing, clicking and waiting for your film to develop was such a bummer.
That sickening bout of nostalgia was quickly relieved, however, as cameras got better rapidly and the making and sharing of photography became practically free. I can’t imagine that there are any practically minded people out there that are still mourning the reign of the film camera.
***Remember: there will always be purists and nothing is ever really gone forever.
Only children actually want to be artists – children, rich people, and boring people who are afraid of being exposed as boring people. Most of us grow up, and either learn that we aren’t interested/talented/crazy, and we move on because we are intelligent/responsible/hungry. The rest of us are either rich people/children/boring or reluctant artists. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be an artist, I wanted to be an astronaut. And I often blame my mom for my not becoming one. She refused to send me away to Space Camp. But really, I was never going to be an astronaut. She knew from the start what I was.
Artist is a nebulous term that I don’t have a definition for exactly, but so far as I understand, here are some of the symptoms:
Don’t make friends with writers. I am a writer and I have a bunch of friends. I’m not bragging, I’m just telling it like it is. The fact is, I think I should have fewer friends.
My friends are nice friends. They love me and tell me that I am talented and they go to my readings and proofread my atrocious grammar and spelling. They are there for me when I need to quit my job, again and again. They validate my unjustifiable laziness and unsuccessfulness. They do this for me because I encourage it and I am entertainingly embarrassing at parties.
Little do they know that I’m a whining, way less than prolific, self-righteous, know-it-all with a Goddess-complex (maybe they do know this and wonder why I keep coming around).
It happens from time to time that a tortured artist toils and bleeds for her craft, only to die before it means anything to anyone. It also happens that an artist toils and bleeds for her craft and no one reads or cares about her work, dead or alive. But hopefully, the artist is dead by then and, presumably, doesn’t care.
No one likes to think about these things, but it’s true. Sometimes, the thing you love doesn’t love you back. Just like a girlfriend who doesn’t love you back, it so happens that, a person can follow his “bliss” (just as Joseph Campbell tells him to), and nothing comes of it. Sometimes people get hit by Mack trucks. It’s not personal, it’s physics.
So, in the mean time (the space between being a raging success and the Mack truck), you’ll probably need to get a job. You’ll want a job for the moneys that keep writers in mac laptops, gluten-free muffins and five-dollar lattes. But, what should a writer do? Isn’t a job selling out?
Today I caught a Sunday matinée of Prometheus — a heavily criticized film that is meant to be something of a pre-Alien movie. I’m just going to come right out and say that I thought it was fine. I don’t know if I thought that because so many big block busting sci-fi films have let me down so spectacularly or because it actually was fine (please direct all of your well-composed thoughts to the contrary to someone who hasn’t thought of them already). It made me think about my beloved science fiction genre (or Speculative fiction, if you please) and I realized that I haven’t yet posted about my heart, my genre, my raison d’écrire.
I’ve never understood why people feel better about themselves when they tell me that they only read non-fiction. It’s as if they think of themselves as less silly than the rest of us “dreamers” or “artists”. Whenever someone tells me that, I am immediately offended. It’s as if they’ve just told me to get a real job.
Much to the horror of some of my colleagues, I have been known to say that I don’t believe in Non-Fiction. And even though, all of my super serious, seriously funny, and extremely adventurous NF writer friends have already written me off, I have to say, I love Non-Fiction genre books. I do. Does that sound like a contradiction? No, I guess it doesn’t. It sounds like a semantics argument. It’s always about semantics, isn’t it?
Before I left on my trip to the CCWWP in Toronto, people asked me, “What exactly do you do at a writer’s conference?” Though I made things up, I didn’t actually know.
I figured we’d talk about the state of the publishing industry or the fate of the Creative Writing Program in Canada. There would definitely be lots of talk about the frontiers of poetry. Believe me, no one really wants to hear about the theoretical frontiers of poetry (even poetry lovers, like me), but people love to tell you about them.