More than Hope Floats, you know…

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: The foolish speak from the stomach, the clever from the tongue, the wise from the rectum, for they alone know where their shit comes from.

I’ve found myself thinking about my little Canadian Literature experiment of late, and what it means to belong to a culture as fractured and compartmentalized as ours. (I find it spooky that some of you, quite independently, have been thinking the same thing!) First and foremost, the idea was to write a genre piece, a work that conformed to the expectations of a certain audience of readers: ‘an extended meditation on the quotidian minutae of post-colonial, prairie/urban, gay/straight Canadian life.’ Second, the idea was to write something that would genuinely challenge those readers, something that took all the rhetoric about originality and criticism seriously–not because I thought this would win me a spot on the best-seller lists (there’s nothing people rationalize quite so fiercely as their sense of alienation)–but because I thought this would be an oh-so clever way to demonstrate my point: ‘literature’ is simply another generic cult of apology, distinguished only by the extent of its hypocrisy and social pretensions. I tried to lay out the chasm between writing about ‘everyday life’ and writing for it.

I literally wrote the thing as a way to spit in the literary eye. I wanted to show this particular group of readers what it’s like to be dragged across alien conceptual ground, the way the mind reflexively balks and dismisses, no matter how ‘open’ it claims to be. I wanted to show them what it’s like to have their values pinned to the page, how ‘social commentary’ becomes indistinguishable from aristocratic derision when you find yourself on the wrong side of the rifle’s scope.

I wanted to show them why so many people hate them–I mean literally despise, to the point of closing themselves to all intellectual discourse. I wanted to show them all the cultural damage they had done… How, despite all their rhetoric to the contrary, they effectively stuff ever more votes into the pockets of conservative demagogues.

Light, Time, and Gravity was supposed to be my version of Run, Updike, Run, by Harry Angstrom.

These were all the things I wanted to ‘show,’ all the while knowing they would not be seen. I assumed, for instance, that people would simply frown and mutter when the philosophy became too deep. As one person literally told me, “If I can’t follow it (with my impressive IQ and years of education), then there’s something wrong with it.” Literary readers, as a rule, I think, don’t want to be challenged so much as read things they think other people would be challenged by–which is to say, read something that makes them feel special. “I don’t get it,” carries the ring of condemnation no matter where you stand on the genre colour wheel. I assumed, in other words, that the things that made the book challenging and original would be the things that literary readers would see as flaws, that I would have to endlessly argue with any potential editor to keep them in the published draft.

The only way to make something like this work, I decided, was to release it within a certain kind of interpretative frame, one provided by ‘authorial reputation.’ I used to always be amazed by teaching, how all I had to do was stand in front of a chalkboard and this room full of people would open themselves ideological tinkering, if not outright rewiring. That they would let an ass like me fuck with their worldview. An authorial reputation, I think, provides a similar kind of sanction: if you’re notorious for being provocative, then people are more likely to see your provocations as provocations, rather than lapses in aesthetic judgement, or even worse, evidence of overweening pretension. I like to think I’ve witnessed this first hand as the reviews of The Prince of Nothing slowly accumulate across the web. In the beginning, more than a few reviewers were quick to condemn me as a poser and pseudo-intellectual. Now, not so much.

But our culture has become frightfully compartmentalized. The web, which was supposed to blow open the doors of culture–to ‘flatten everything’–seems to have had the opposite effect. Since we’re hardwired to reflexively seek out affirmation and confirmation, rendering everything equally available has meant our paths of least resistence no longer take us across unfamiliar territory. We can get what we want and need without taking detours through things we didn’t realize we wanted or needed. We can make an expedient bastion out of our parochial tastes.

As a fantasy writer first and foremost, I knew my reputation was nonexistent in the literary world. To them, I’m just another commercial shill, if I was anyone at all. Given the deafening silence with which the review community has greeted Disciple of the Dog, I’m starting to suspect that this isn’t likely to change any time soon. To think I was worried about a feminist backlash! Yeesh, talk about vanity. Cookbooks are getting more attention, for chrissakes!

So what the hell do I do with Light, Time, and Gravity now? Sit on it in perpetual perpetuity? Damn the torpedoes and release it through some small press? Use a pseudonym–perhaps create a faux-literary superstar and play a joke on the world?

Maybe I should just stick to writing pop songs…