canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Educating the Clients - Readers

by Michael Bryson

Once upon a time I sat in on a meeting of the I.T. Group of a major corporation. The question of the day was: "How do we get our clients to understand our needs?" The I.T. Group's clients expected more from the Group than the Group was able to provide. The Group asked itself: "How do we educate our clients so that they work with us to get quality results? If our customers would only allow us to do our work the way we like to do it, they wouldn't be calling back us later to fix what we didn't have time to prepare in the first place."

For months after this meeting I wondered if there was a way to apply the questions raised by the I.T. Group to my own field: the production of literary fiction. Like the group of frustrated I.T. Artists (bear with me), I had often wondered if there was a way to educate my clients (readers, editors, critics), so that I could be more free to produce my own kind of quality results. The relationship between corporate clients and a bunch of computer techies may seem a long way away from the relationship of writer, reader and critic, but the issues are strikingly similar. In the same way that corporate clients tend to see short-term needs while their I.T. Professionals are focused on longer-term goals, readers, critics, booksellers and publishers often have their eye on short-term pleasure or simply the bottom line while writers like to think they are flirting with immortality.

A recent book review by Andrew Pyper (Globe and Mail, Sept. 18, 1999) of Michael Turner's new novel, The Pornographer's Poem, provides a useful example of this gap in perception and purpose. Turner, of course, is the Vancouver-based writer who has blossomed in the 1990s as the author of novels like American Whiskey Bar and the poetry collection (later movie) Hard Core Logo. He is widely recognized as one of the most daring (read "experimental") Canadian writers to emerge this decade. Pyper brings to his review the short-term point of view of the corporate client. The final sentence of his opening paragraph reads: "Narrative pleasure in even the best experimental writing can sometimes underwhelm the intellectual cargo of its formal intent."

For Pyper, reading experimental prose is like a "wrestling match between 'straight story' and 'pure idea'." Pyper's use of the term "narrative pleasure" is a hint about the assumptions he brings to reviewing (and his own fiction, like the recent popular novel, Lost Girls). Another hint is the false conflict he sets up between "story" and "idea". Contrary to the assumption in Pyper's argument, stories and ideas are rarely, if ever, separated. Stories have been embodying ideas for millennia. In fact, it could easily be said the stories with the deepest ideas are the ones that survive the sands of time, while "narrative pleasure" reeks of Hollywood blockbusters, special effects, manipulative music scores, and plotting rigged to trigger the heartstrings of the sentimental.

As playwright Tom Stoppard recently wrote in The New York Times Review of Books (Sept. 23, 1999): "When it comes to mystery stories I am with Edmund Wilson - 'Who cares who killed Peter Akroyd?'"

Novelist Douglas Glover takes this argument to another level in his essay in the summer issue of the Canadian literary journal, The New Quarterly. Glover talks about "two kinds of writers". One group follows the critic Percy Lubbock, who wrote an influential book called The Craft of Fiction in 1921. The other group follows novelist E.M. Forester, who published an influential book called Aspects of the Novel in 1927. If this sounds like an esoteric tangent, please remember that this essay began with questions about how to "educate our clients."

Educating clients (that is, readers and, in particular, critics) is exactly Glover's goal. He provides a prescient example of how his novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., was misread by critics who knew how to read like Lubbock and were less sure what to do with a product that more closely followed the values of Forester. Writers like to be understood, not to have their work woefully misread, as was Glover's experience. Unfortunately, the literary education of generations of readers has been malformed by parents, schoolteachers, talk show hosts and book reviewers in the popular press, all of whom are well meaning but too often strangers to literature.

For example, anyone who follows the advice of Oprah's Book Club (and millions do) would think Anton Chekhov a crank when he said literature doesn't provide answers, only the right questions. And who can make sense of the quip by Ezra Pound (also a crank) that art that stays news is art in which the question "what does it mean?" has no correct answer? From almost the first time we pick up a book, we are asked to paraphrase its narrative content. "What does it mean?" is a question commonly dropped from the lips of caregivers. Another is even more prevalent in every reader's early years: "What is the moral of the story?"

These are symptoms of a mis-education that has been perpetuated in our homes, schools and newspapers. The good news is corrective forces exist. Clients, as the I.T. Group learned, can be educated with persistence and a proper plan. The first step is to resist over simplistic notions like Pyper's separation of "story" and "idea."

As Tom Stoppard wrote in his article in The New York Time Review of Books: "Every narrative has, at least, a capacity to suggest a metanarrative, and art that 'works' is highly suggestive in this sense, as though the story were really a metaphor for an idea that has to be almost tricked out of hiding into the audience's consciousness."

Do you know what that means? Any idea?






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