Writing in the Shadow of Doom…

by rsbakker

Feeling even more of a Lunatic in the Wilderness today. I figured I would lay this latest twist out so you can see just how frustrating and capricious this business is. I’m used to bad breaks: My first meetings to discuss the sale of The Darkness That Comes Before were cancelled because of 9/11. The second because of the SARS outbreak. And the financial crisis happened pretty much the instant Chris Weitz found someone willing to invest in the pilot for a cable serialization of The Prince of Nothing. I’ve managed to persevere, nonetheless.

As you know, I’ve been bumming because of the absolute absence of any reviews for Disciple of the Dog. To be blunt, this quite simply means the book is doomed, at least here in Canada. In an effort to deny me any targets for my blamethrower, my agent just contacted me with Penguin’s review-copy mailing list. Apparently all these places received copies: The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The National Post, The Ottawa Citizen, The Winnepeg Free Press, The Edmonton Journal, The Calgary Herald, The Montreal Gazette, The Vancouver Sun, The Chronicle Herald, The Time’s Colonist, The Walrus, and over thirty other different media outlets, including websites.

Now, I appreciate that it’s a numbers game, but when I think of all those review editors and producers each looking at the book, then placing it on the freebee pile with a shrug–all of them!–I realize that I am ruly truly writing in the shadow of doom. There’s a reason why midlist authors seem to linger for only so long before disappearing altogether: the madness of modern media driven culture is that you’re not deemed important unless you are deemed important.

Obviously my name didn’t ring any bells, which is to say, even though all these folks are the gatekeepers of the Canadian writing scene, they know absolutely nothing about me. Now I can understand this happening in a place like America. Whenever my friends or family start lampooning Americans for knowing so little about Canada I always remind them just how monstrously big the USA is: Americans can’t even keep up with what’s going on in their own country, let alone follow events in a country with a smaller economy than California. The media mountain is so much steeper and taller in the US.

But media in Canada are, like, way small, man. Like knolls in a farmer’s field. You would think that out of all those outlets, at least one would wonder whether I was, you know, at least kind of interesting. I guess not.

Compare this situation with the Canada Council for Arts grant application I filled out a couple years ago (on the advice of Rob Sawyer). For years now, I’ve joked about how the vast bulk of ‘Canadian Literature’ can be described as ‘extended meditations on the quotidian minutae of post-colonial, prairie/urban, gay/straight, Canadian life.’ I literally used this as a recipe for pitching a novel, and lo and behold, without so much as a call or a how-do-you-do? I received a cheque for $20,000 in the mail a few months later (and so Light, Time, and Gravity was born).

So, on the one hand, I pitch the status quo on a lark, and I get rewarded with a bunch of taxpayer dough. On the other, I actually do something different, actually try something critical and original, and I’m pretty much ignored, especially by those who make the most noise about being critical and original.

Go figure.

The pigeonhole has no bottom, believe you me. I used to be so naive as to think I could climb out, but now I’m starting to think that it swallows everyone in the end. I wonder about all the other cranks and crackpots out there, about all the other sparks that have been snuffed by relentless inattention. It’s no accident that eulogies are so filled with cliches.

After all, it’s neurophysiology that I’m up against more than any passing cultural bigotry. The brain pigeonholes everything it encounters to better lower its caloric load, to economize. We sort far more than we ponder. Novelty, when we encounter it, is either confused for something old and stupid or comes across as errant noise. Things were this way long before corporations and capital.

So I find myself wondering what I should do. Maybe I should just resign myself to my fate, numb the pain, mellow those revenge fantasies. Become a fatalist.

But then there’s nothing like bitterness to keep that fire scorching your belly. And there’s nothing I fear more than becoming old and complacent. Only the well-groomed don’t have chips on their shoulders.