canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Empty Café
By Michael Hoffman 
1st Books, 2002

Review by Mark Sampson 

It's always difficult approaching books published by vanity presses with an open mind. These presses, more insidious now thanks to the Internet, are little companies that wannabe authors pay to publish their manuscripts for them. It's hard to speak to the message without judging the medium, since the texts these hack machines churn out are almost always awful--swimming in unspeakably bad prose, typographical errors, poor grammar and shoddy construction. The Empty Café, by Michael Hoffman, is no exception. This collection of short stories contains so much stumbling incompetence that it's almost unreadable. With the exception of the last two pieces, these "stories" wouldn't keep a real publisher reading beyond the first paragraph. 

You know your job as a reviewer will be tough when you have to copyedit the book as you're reading it. The Empty Café is riddled with extraneous language, poor grammar, unbearable cliches, repetitive phrases and other redundancies. Hoffman almost never uses three well-chosen words when twelve poor ones will do. Here is an example of a passage about growing old--taken from a piece of dialogue no less--that is just mired in wordiness: 

"What for? Well, in purely general terms, as a man who loves life the approach of death naturally upsets me. More specifically, however hale and hearty I seem, and indeed am, from a medical point of view (so far as I know), I must face the fact that my best work is behind me and does not measure up to the hopes I once had for myself." (114) 

That's just the beginning. The ineptitude of this collection's nonsensical plots and poor pacing is matched by Hoffman's repeated inability to use proper punctuation. And his characters, from journalists and academics to teachers and a rock star, are so wooden that it practically felt like the pages were petrifying in my hands as I read them. 

Of this collection's near endless list of weaknesses, its dialogue has to rank number one. The exchanges between characters are choked with needless plot exposition and poor phrasing, and regularly take these jarring left turns that shatter the illusion of real people speaking. It's almost as if Hoffman has never heard two people have a conversation before. Nearly every character speaks with the same lexicon, the same cadence. What's worse, many characters' interior thoughts are also bracketed by quote marks, which makes for muddy reading indeed. (These passages would be better off in italics, but the text is devoid of that perk; it made me wonder if Hoffman had to pay extra for them.) Whether in dialogue or internally, many of these thoughts come off as inchoate blather; some of the startling revelations the text proffers are, for example, that the laws of physics apply to Bangkok, and "Gaucheness has its place in our lives, like body odor." (62) 

Two stories stand out as particularly bad. "Jeremy Grafic's Brother" has a rather curious narrator: While Rick Grafic claims to be a well-established and published academic, an expert on the works of Herodotus, he can't seem to tell his story without poor grammar. He makes reference to "my wife and me", to his brother Jeremy being "taller than me." He sounds more like a Sweet Valley bimbo than a scholar. And in the story "Father and Son", we're given nothing more than talking heads--cardboard characters going through the motions of a short story with a theme about murder and conscience that was done to deeath by Dostoyevsky more than a century ago. 

The only competent stories in The Empty Café are the last two--the title piece and a novella called "Solitude". These would pass as decent first drafts, and with a little care and lots of editing could become something more. The characters have a pulse; the plots have a shade of hope. "Solitude" in particular has set up some interesting relationship dynamics, even if the story itself sinks under the weight of needless literary name-dropping. For all of its burgeoning insight into human psychology, the piece seems to exist for the sole purpose of proving conclusively that its author can read tough books. It would be so much better if Hoffman just stuck to his story and dumped all the sentences proving how smart he is. 

The very concept of a sentence remains the ultimate problem with The Empty Café (indicative of vanity press publishing): It doesn't contain the kind of crackling sentences that make up sterling, well-edited prose. A good sentence is the basic unit of expression, the most fundamental part of writing, and is something Hoffman has yet to master. He can have all the weepy melodrama and obscure references to Dostoyevsky he wants; but if the writing doesn't work at the level of the sentence, what the heck is he doing? 

Those who use vanity presses will inevitably argue that they are necessary entities, due to a worldwide conspiracy (of which I am no doubt a part) among critics, editors and publishers looking to suppress a certain kind of writing. To this, I can only wholeheartedly agree. There is and ought to be a conspiracy to keep from the light of day such shoddy, self-serving drivel as The Empty Café--drivel that would never make it off even the least discriminating of slush piles. 

Mark Sampson worked as a journalist and editor in Halifax, Nova Scotia before moving to Winnipeg in 2000, where he is completing an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Manitoba. 







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.