By Jean Baird | December 18, 2011

When Gordon Lockheed’s response to the publishing industry questions raised in my early reports was posted on dooneyscafe.com, it summarized some of the larger issues facing book publishing and book-selling:

So what are the big questions and answers being skirted here, the ones beyond the immediate situation? Are we approaching some sort of cultural Armageddon that will wipe out our book publishing industry while transforming Chapters/Indigo into a purveyor of cultural bric-a-brac and scented candles in which a few novels aimed at the diminishing stock of novel-reading little old ladies occupy a small corner of the stores? I hope not, but personally, I can’t see any way past the Chapters/Indigo mess for either publishers or writers.

At the macroscale what has happened is partly the result of the evolution of consumer capitalism and partly the product of technological changes in media, which together have reduced both the number of readers and altered the attentional choices (and perhaps, capacity) of the average citizen by creating alternative, and largely emotion-based reception and transmission devices for information. Yet another cause, perhaps particularly in Canada, is weakening government resolve. Governments across the West have decided their mandate is to act primarily as a component of the economic system and a cheerleader for the corporate sector, and now merely seek to serve those purposes—whatever they happen to be aimed at at any given moment. We can also lay some blame on the disintegration of our education systems, which has taught the young little more than how to have a nice day filled with consumer preferences and emotionally-authenticated opinions for several decades, and has transformed our higher education system into a job-training pipeline for the corporate sector, for which knowledge is simply another form of merchandise.

But behind that is the most difficult question of all, one that we have neither experience with, or any perceivable will to answer: what happens to a society that loses the technical ability to analyze and mediate its own activities?  Because that will be the consequence of the collapse of book reading, which is the primary platform for this depth of analysis in contemporary civilization, and the ground of the political and intellectual discourse required to keep the cognitive equipment operational.

McLuhan’s multi-disciplinary committees within the Global Village have failed woefully to do anything to head off this unforeseen scenario. The academic world has degenerated into ideological gang warfare, translating “multi-disciplinary” to “inter-disciplinary”, which is little more than shoals of ambitious professors vying for jargon supremacy.  Newspapers, trying to compete with the Internet and television, have imposed limits on most reportage to 800 words or less, thus obviating any serious analysis of issues. And television, likewise following McLuhan’s lead, has news anchors pestering flood victims and the like for some sort of expression of their feelings. And then there’s the Internet, where unargued opinion and unresearched blogging has supplanted research and analysis.

The trouble is real and profound, and it ain’t going away anytime soon.

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I wonder if similar concerns and discussion are happening with other art forms, in other areas of the humanities? When I was teaching at university and Mike Harris was slashing education spending, unless you were in science or business, there was a lot of discussion about the humanities being at risk in academia.

In late October 2010 SUNY Albany’s President announced that several departments in the Humanities at that institution were to be eliminated. What follows is an open letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany

Dear President Philip,

Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can’t really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn’t disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I’m through, you will at least understand why.

 Just 30 days ago, on October 1st, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that ‘there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.’ Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure – in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.

Let’s examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I’m sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn’t have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn’t required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

Then there’s the question of whether the state legislature’s inaction gave you no other choice. I’m sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian – and authoritarian – solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I’m not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing ‘unfortunate’, but pleaded that there was a ‘limited availability of appropriate large venue options.’ I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.

It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

And do you really think even those faculty and administrators who may applaud your tough-minded stance (partly, I’m sure, in relief that they didn’t get the axe themselves) are still going to be on your side in the future? I’m reminded of the fable by Aesop of the Travelers and the Bear: two men were walking together through the woods, when a bear rushed out at them. One of the travelers happened to be in front, and he grabbed the branch of a tree, climbed up, and hid himself in the leaves. The other, being too far behind, threw himself flat down on the ground, with his face in the dust. The bear came up to him, put his muzzle close to the man’s ear, and sniffed and sniffed. But at last with a growl the bear slouched off, for bears will not touch dead meat. Then the fellow in the tree came down to his companion, and, laughing, said ‘What was it that the bear whispered to you?’ ‘He told me,’ said the other man, ‘Never to trust a friend who deserts you in a pinch.’

I first learned that fable, and its valuable lesson for life, in a freshman classics course. Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable – and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a Classics department, which now, of course, you don’t.

As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I’ll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world’s number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn’t – well, I’m sure you get the picture.

I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.

I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh’). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly ‘dead’ subjects. From your biography, you don’t actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

One of the things I do now is write a monthly column on science and society. I’ve done it for over 10 years, and I’m pleased to say some people seem to like it. If I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with a few insightful observations, I can assure you they are entirely due to my background in the humanities and my love of the arts.

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part – a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don’t have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you’re that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That’s how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don’t try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned.

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it’s performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I’m sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don’t, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It’s awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That’s the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Disrespectfully yours,

Gregory A Petsko

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It is worth noting that in August 2003, Pontecorvo’s masterpiece film “The Battle of Algiers” made the news after the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon offered a screening of the film, regarding it as a useful illustration of the problems faced in Iraq. A flyer for the screening read:

“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”

Ah, stories and art as propaganda.

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1993 Jury: Lord Gowrie, a Conservative Party politician for some years, including a period in the British Cabinet, and was later Chairman of Sotheby’s and of the Arts Council of England; he has also published poetry. Professor Gillian Beer, now Dame Beer, a literary critic, specialty Victorian literature. Anne Chisholm, biographer and critic. Nicholas Clee, is the joint editor of the book industry newsletter BookBrunch and the author of Eclipse. Olivier Todd, writer and French journalist.

Michael Ignatieff—Scar Tissue VPL

This novel received great reviews when it was published, all of them deserved. The book is an examination of loss, grief and acceptance. The first-person narrator watches his mother drift into dementia and his father struggle to cope. The father dies first; his two sons are left to cope with the mother.

I was deeply moved by this book. It was the first Booker novel in a while I’ve had trouble putting down. Perhaps it is because the book touched my own grieving, and acknowledgement that you must grieve in your own way, in your own time. But it would be dismissive to say it was only the personal connection. This is a powerful book. Articulate and well written, deeply philosophical, recognizing both intellect and feeling but also exploring the lines between. Everything is complicated and nuanced. Nothing is easy or quick. I was impressed by the thoroughness of argument but also the concise nature of the book.

It is also an examination of stories, the telling and recording of stories. It’s about words. The book affirms the power of fiction.

Scar Tissue is the work of a powerful and uncompromising intellectual. Perhaps that is why Ignatieff is so challenged by politics where fast, knee-jerk sound bytes seem to be the current method of running for office, and running the country.

Carol Shields—The Stone Diaries VPL

Guest report from Frank Davey:

I included The Stone Diaries in a graduate course in postmodern Canadian literature at Western in 1994. I didn’t mention to the students that it had been a Booker winner – didn’t want to prejudice them against it. And today I don’t know if any of them knew. I still think of the Booker mostly as a sign of commercial ambition and, for Canadian books, of necessarily minimized reference to Canada. I hadn’t paid much attention to Shields before. Most Canadianists at the time thought of her as a Readers Digest version of Alice Munro – Munro without complexity or covert critical intelligence. Somewhat later in Paris, after her much-publicized death, there was Carol Shields conference. I enjoy being in France, but I was as much tempted to go as I would have been to attend an exhibition of Hallmark artists. I also regretted her early death, but not the empathetic narratives which accompanied it and reiterated the predominantly humanistic readings that had been given to her fiction.

 But The Stone Diaries did seem a good text with which to begin a study of postmodernism. Its postmodernist devices were laid over an otherwise mundane chronological narrative with such obviousness and awkwardness: suggestions of indeterminacy were laid over a narrative that otherwise seemed to assume an omniscient narrator; coy hints of genre ambiguity – hints that the story might rest on actual diaries, be ‘faction’ rather than fiction, or perhaps even be autobiography – were inserted into a text published as “a novel.” In this regard it could be read not only as Alice Munro for dummies but as Daphne Marlatt or Gail Scott for them as well, whose novels the course would be looking at subsequently. Or perhaps as a watered-down version of bpNichol’s novel Andy (1969) or of David McFadden’s intermixing of poems and family photos in Letters from the Earth to the Earth (1968). Not that I am suggesting that Shields might have read many of these.

There were other things I liked about The Stone Diaries. I liked its portrayal of the porous US Canadian border of pre-World War II. The portrayal of Manitoba as closer culturally to Minnesota than to other parts of Canada reminded me of BC’s historical relationship to the US west coast, of Toronto’s to Buffalo and Detroit, Quebec’s to Vermont, Halifax’s to Boston, although I found the characters’ superficial and careless understandings of citizenship annoying. As is so often in Shields, the portrayal is evocative but the novelist’s implied understanding of it seems uncritical. I liked its use of photographs and the challenge to ekphasis that they constituted. I liked the concept, that is, although I didn’t like the imprecision of their effect. Umberto Eco would include photographs much more effectively to hint at autobiography in 2004 in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.  Also intriguing in Shield’s novel was the fate of the failed artist, stone carver Cuyler Goodwill. He is carving at the height of the Art Deco period in North America, a period which left much greater art works than The Stone Diaries, including Vancouver’s Marine Building, Burrard Bridge, and Lions Gate Bridge, but there is little indication in the novel that anyone, include him or the narrator, has insight into its aesthetics. That art is reduced to an “ugly piece of backyard sculpture” that awaits a wrecking ball – arguably a pomo reference to the novel we are reading: a novel that has a relationship to historical postmodernist art similar to that of Cuyler’s backyard pyramid to historical Art Deco. I suspect that Booker jurors could have had minimal awareness of North American architectural Art Deco, and have missed that reference.


            There is a possibility I suppose that I am misreading a work of attempted self-satire. With simplistic chapter titles – “Birth,”: “Childhood, “Marriage,” “Love,” Motherhood” – Shields does overdetermine the elements of predictability and superficiality in her events and characters, even while also contrasting these with utterly unpredictable events such as Mercy’s birth or Harold’s semi-suicidal death in the town of “Corps”  when drunkenly surprised by his bride’s sneeze. This is a novel whose central character Daisy aims above all to be “moving right along. And along and along. The way she’s done all her life, Numbly. Without thinking.” Who leaves behind descendants whose greatest ambition is to retire in bourgeois comfort to Florida. Could Shields have been trying to mock such ambitions? Like Munro does? Of course The Stone Diary chapter titles could also be merely devices to foreground its genre gestures to being a diary. I can’t tell.  It can be difficult to create art out of boredom. John Cage did it well though. Call this John Cage for Canadian readers in Florida.


I agree with Frank that there are things in this novel to admire, but Shields is no Munro. And the monotonous domestic detail, egad.

She sat down at her aging Mac computer to write her report. She didn’t really need to write anything since a reader had agreed to do a guest report, but her Scottish protestant upbringing obliged her to say a little something, at the very least. The keys on the computer looked smudged. She made a mental note to get the cleaner out from under the sink, where all the household cleaning materials were kept, even though these days the cleaning ladies brought their own supplies. A movement out the window caught her eye. That darn squirrel was after the spring bulbs she had just planted. Perhaps she didn’t put in enough bone meal, or the bone meal isn’t as good since Mad Cow disease swept the UK and the media. Wasn’t there something about that problem in the recent newsletter from the local plant shop? She’d ask Bob next time she walked through the nursery on the way to the video store.

David Malouf—Remembering Babylon VPL

Gemmy, a lad from the British slums finds himself at 12 as a cabin boy, and then is cast off on the coast of Australia where he is taken in by an aboriginal tribe. He lives with them for 16 years until a new Scottish settlement draws him to his white roots. But Gemmy has learned about the land from the aboriginals and although he tries to tell the whites the language of the place, except for the socially inept pastor, they can’t understand. Malouf uses a shifting narrative voice, often retelling an event from the perspective of another character. This device underlines the cultural divide, and the inability of the community to see beyond its own whiteness. The family that takes Gemmy in finds itself an object of those fears, and even after Gemmy disappears they find they have been affected for the rest of their lives.

We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile and infelicitous, so that only by the fiercest stoicism, a supreme resolution and force of will, and by felling, clearing, sowing with the seeds we have brought with us, and by importing sheep, cattle, rabbits, even the very birds of the air, can it be shaped and made habitable. It is habitable already. I think of our early settlers, starving on these shores in the midst of plenty they did not recognize, in a blessed nature of flesh, fowl, fruit that was all around them and which they could not, with their English eyes, perceive, since the very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls our senses to other forms, even the most obvious. We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there.

Caryl Phillips—Crossing the River VPL

Another historical novel about the slave trade using endless letters and journal entries as the narrative device. This post-modernist approach is getting old, let me tell you.

There are several distinct sections in this book with a short piece at front and back acting as bookends. The front piece and back piece are from a large omniscient voice. The book begins: “A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children. I remember. I led them (two boys and a girl) along a weary path, until we reached the places where the mud flats are populated with crabs and gulls.” The sections between the bookends are lives of these children, not literally but lives of example.

1830s. Nash, given freedom by his American master, goes to Africa as a Christian-educated minister to bring the word of God to the natives of Liberia. He goes native.

Late C19th. Martha’s daughter and husband are sold, dispersing the family and Martha heads to California. This section particularly falls into the category: alternative views of history. This is not the wild west of Bill Hickock or Hollywood.

1940s. Travis, a US GI stationed in Yorkshire meets a lonely young woman, and they conceive a child. When the young mother learns Travis has died she is persuaded to give up her mixed-blood child for adoption. Years later, the son returns to find his mother.

The final 21/2-page section explains through the large omnipotent voice, again, that he is listening “as the many-tongued chorus of the common memory begins again to swell.” This last section is pretty heavy-handed. Shouldn’t an attentive reader have figured out that is the whole purpose of the rest of the book? “Survivors all”

Phillips was one of the Hot Young Writers in the UK in the early 90s.

Category: Alternative View of History

Tibor FischerUnder the Frog UBC

After 58 rejection letters, Polygon press in Edinburgh published the novel which established Fischer’s career and put him on the world stage.

The book won a Betty Trask award, “awarded to a writer under the age of 35 for a first novel. The author must be a Commonwealth citizen, and the work must be of a romantic or traditional nature, i.e. not experimental.” Nino Ricci received this award in 1991 for Lives of Saints. Well, neither Fischer nor Ricci won the £10,000 prize. They received an “award”: £3,000 and £1,500 respectively. In other words, you must be careful to distinguish between “prize” and “award.” It’s a way of getting around “4th place in the 1992 Betty Trask competition.”

Under the Frog has been much praised as a brilliant presentation of Hungarian life under communism. The bookjacket claims it is “very witty and very sad.” It’s also very hard to follow. Gyuri and Pataki belong to a traveling basketball team. Twelve patchwork sections tell about their friends, womanizing, drinking and dreams of escaping to the West. And it is a patchwork, not a coherent narrative. It would probably help to know a lot of the history of that time.

Often the writing is self-conscious, sometimes simply preposterous.

“Gyuri thought he knew the whole Makkai, childless widower, glum scholar, whose erudition was a handicap, as if he were chained to the decomposing carcass of an elephant. The smile made Gyuri realize that there were whole departments of Makkai he had never glimpsed; it was like turning a dusty vase stationed on top of a wardrobe for years to discover the reverse has an unseen design.”


“He had unrolled as much of the answer to question one as he could, when a glance to his left established that his gaze had a direct flight path to the left breast of the young lady there; either she had forgotten to do up her blouse or the buttons didn’t feel like working but light was taking off from untextiled skin and crashlanding into Gyuri’s retinas.”

The text is littered with unnecessary, showy works; sesquipedalian, manumittance, mulierosity, stultiloquence. And then there’s the contrived noun-verbs, ozymandiased or frankensteined.

“Gyuri loved her alert breasts. He loved her runner’s legs (she had dabbled in sprinting) paradisiac containers of aphrodisiac.”

Had those breasts had too much coffee?

And the final sentence of the novel: “Tears, in teams, abseiled down his face.”

If you are interested in UK publishing bitchiness check out Fischer’s scathing attack on Martin Amis: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3594613/Someone-needs-to-have-a-word-with-Amis.html#dsq-content

Roddy Doyle—Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha UBC–WINNER

Fictional Barrytown, again. This time through the eyes of 10-year-old Paddy of the title. The book is remarkable for capturing moments of childhood, things mostly forgotten; pulling tar off the road on hot days, reading with a flashlight under the covers, obliviousness to the happenings of the adult world. But there is no nostalgia in this telling, rather childhood is not a place of innocence but the ongoing excitement and terror of the uninformed. Several times I thought, when I was a child I thought that exact same thing but I never told anyone. How does he know? It is that deep sense of intimacy that carries the book.

From Magill Book Reviews:

Family life largely centers on the television; school seems little more than an endless round of intimidation and humiliation. In the world between, the world of disappearing farms and half-finished building sites, Paddy and the other Barrytown boys play soccer, defend their territory, run through their neighbors’ yards, steal boards and nails, and, in neighboring Bayside, magazines. Mostly they try to belong, though to a group that can only define itself in negative terms, on the basis of someone being excluded. Helpless witness to the breakup of his parents’ marriage, Paddy becomes that someone, his vulnerability like some physical weakness that the others find vaguely threatening. With great sensitivity and without a single misstep, false note, or moment’s condescension, Doyle renders Paddy Clarke’s world in terms of what his young protagonist can see but only dimly and reluctantly understand.

This novel has surety and utter lack of pretentiousness.

I’d got the bike for Christmas, two Christmases before. I woke up. I thought I did. The bedroom door was closing. The bike was leaning against the end of my bed. I was confused. And afraid. The door clicked shut. I stayed in bed. I heard no footsteps outside in the hall. I didn’t try to ride the bike for months after. We didn’t need them. We were better on foot through the fields and sites. I didn’t like it. I didn’t know who’d given it to me. It should never have been in my bedroom. It was a Raleigh, a gold one. It was the right size for me and I didn’t like that either. I wanted a grown-up one, with straight handlebars and brakes that fit properly into my hands with the bars, like Kevin had. My brakes stuck down under the bars. I had to gather them into my hands. When I held the bar and brake together the bike stopped; I couldn’t do that. The only thing I did like was a Manchester United sticker that was in my stocking when I woke up again in the morning. I stuck it on the bar under the saddle.

Gillian Beer from The Guardian

Olivier Todd, the French novelist, shrugged his shoulders at our second judges’ meeting: no lunches with publishers, no approaches from agents, he complained – what an odd English bubble of propriety we were gathered inside. He was joking, but only just. And it is one of the remarkable things about being a Booker judge that no one tempts you with hospitality. You simply sit and read, and talk, and read again, over several months. The pleasure is in the reading, and in the talk. One of the rewards of going to see a new film is the conversation straight after, but reading new novels can be a lonely business. Not in this case. In 1993 I remember impassioned defences of books one of us had grown attached to, but no quarrels, just engrossing talk. Our chair, Grey Gowrie, came up with an ingenious criterion: novels must have “radioactivity” to stay in the running. He meant we must remember them weeks, months later. They mustn’t fade. A self-proving criterion perhaps, but reassuring.

One novel that certainly had that quality and yet just missed the shortlist was Trainspotting and it was in arguing about Irvine Welsh’s book that we came nearest to quarrelling. Getting from long to shortlist was painful, worse than sorting out the winner among that final six. Some wanted the prize to go to David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, while Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River and Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries had strong support as well. But Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the day with its extraordinary technical achievement and its emotional force, taking us inside the voice and experience of a 10-year-old boy in the midst of family break-up.


December 16th 6377 words



  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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