April 22, 2007

Salvation Through Oprah...

Postured high in lofty realms where God is all sunshine and lollipops, and "Jesus Saves" bumper stickers are both the cause of and solution to all life's problems, another form of religious fervor has bubbled its way into this roiling mess of North American soul searching. In all its greasy, omnipresent power, the manufactured ego-deity of Oprah permeates the media to bless her minions. Her face appears on every issue of her own magazine, her opinion is canonized daily on her television show with bold statements and images, reminding everyone what she does to save the world. People buy into it too, with empty, painful smiles. But surely there must be the occasional suspicious question as to how or why so many nod their heads in perfect, holy agreement.
And of course, how can we forget her book club and its rather gooey mixture of nauseating self-help, flimsy spirituality, and the occasional literary piece, all marked with her name as if she has something to do with their existence. No surprise that I might take exception with that.

The best thing about television is that you can change the channel whenever you want, or just shut the damned thing off. I don't have to spend my afternoons watching Oprah pose for all her camera closeups, reiterating how she spends her money and time saving the souls of (wo)mankind and buying tennis shoes for kids. But I tell you, I almost get an aneurysm when I go into a bookstore and find a sticker bearing her name, pasted across the cover of a book she's had no part in writing. Does her Christ complex give her license to tag everything with her own vacuous approval? What could she possibly have to offer to the literary world?

Right away, I know some of you will jump and and say, "Well dammit Harry, I never would have read East of Eden if it hadn't been for Oprah. Fair enough, but perhaps you could contemplate that statement for a moment. Are you suggesting that your slovenly mind was not intuitive enough to start seeking out good literature on its own? Steinbeck, Faulkner, Morrison... all these great writers' reputations were not enough to compel you to be inquisitive about them? It took the almighty Oprah, someone without any literary background or real education, someone who has nothing to offer but superficial and ultimately meaningless commercialism -- someone you do not even know, to compel you? You would rather concede that you take your cues in life from a network media mogul than your own discernment? Then I wish you would never have read East of Eden at all. Leave all those wonderful books alone. Better yet, maybe you can find a recorded copy of Oprah reading one of those books so you don't have to tire out your poor, poor brain.

Awhile back, Rex Murphy, one of Canada's best critical commentators, wrote a scathing piece on Oprah's book club. Titled The Author Eater, and now found in his book of essays called Points of View, Murphy's article rails against Oprah's book club on two fronts. He observes how she leeches the uniqueness out of good books, making them a byproduct of her "Oprahness", and then marketing them as if they were products of her own ideas. He also comments on the quality of the books in her club, those self-help Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and Chicken Soup for the Soul type books that use smiley-face, booster shots of nonsense to lull the masses into happy, generic slumber. In this instance, I think Rex hits the nail on the head. Celebrity is becoming synonymous with intellectual opinion, an absurd nightmare in its own right. We race to bookshelves to read books because glamorous (at least when they have makeup on) people tell us to. And this hurts both sides of the equation. Established authors now grovel at the accursed throne to get their names mentioned, knowing that the majority of readers base their book choices on coerced popular demand. Who in their right mind would want to be mentioned alongside Deepak Chopra anyways?

Ever get that gnawing feeling that something is wrong with the way people perceive the world? That somehow we are moving further and further away from complex thought and dialogue, away from intimate discussion, towards some weird, mechanized form of interaction? How about how difficult we often find it to articulate our ideas or feelings about something personal and important? Or how about how little rationale we use when forming opinion? You can thank Oprah for this, along with a plethora of other like-minded sycophants out there. She has blended weak entertainment with weak commentary, feeding on the ever growing demographic of people who are comfortable to have others think for them, and packaging her ego and need for attention into a massive pandemic of intellectual apathy. Hurrah.

April 9, 2007

Wrestling the Muse

I woke up early one morning, this past week. I'm not sure if it had to do with whatever dreams were still loitering around, but a memory from childhood crashed into my brain and refused to move on. It wasn't even a memory, really, more a fragmented image, something stark, once forgotten, but now brought to the surface the way the ocean deposits strange and wonderful things on the beach during the night. I lay there, trying not to disturb my pregnant, lightly snoring wife, but I couldn't for the life of me shake the image. Nor could I return to sleep. So, I got up, put my robe on, went downstairs and brewed some green tea. Hot mug in hand, I sat down at my laptop and began to write.

The image itself is personal in many ways, a reference to those strange circumstances that neighbourhood boys find themselves in when no one is looking, innocent enough at first, but always hinting at something more, a self-awareness and awakening. From that image, and whatever fleeting associations I could still make with it, a fictional tale begin to emerge, something honest in its sentiment (at least when referring to the original memory) but well removed from what and how I usually write.

I vaguely remember my wife kissing my cheek as she went out the door to work, and the next time I looked up at the clock it was noon, more than five hours later. Sitting in front of me on my computer screen was the first draft of a short story, and a damn good one at that.

Later on, when I was out in the front garden planting bulbs, I thought about what would have happened if I had ignored the image and just forced myself to go back to sleep. What would I have missed? Would the story have returned at a later time? I doubt it. There have been other occasions where I've felt the muse nudging me in the ribs, waving an image or idea in front of my eyes. On those occasions, I ignored the thought and continued on with whatever I was doing, assuming I would remember later when I was at the computer. That never happened. In fact, I couldn't even conjure up the sentiment associated with the image. Not to say that each of those instances would have resulted in something profound, but there is something to be said for the notion of wasted potential.

Stephen King, whose short stories are often wonderful, mentioned in his book On Writing how he brings a notepad with him wherever he goes, precisely for this reason. You can refer to something you've jotted down and decide it's garbage at a later time, but you cannot revisit an image, thought, or idea that you've allowed to escape your grasp.

I'm not sure if I'm referring to the textbook definition of "muse" here. But, these moments are my muses. They scratch at me when I hear a certain phrase or sentence, witness people interacting in fascinating ways, or not interacting at all. All of it is empirical and I doubt I'm alone with this. Our senses constantly refer back to the archives in our minds, reminding us of things we thought forgotten, certain smells or sounds, words, touches. Most people take them for the nostalgic references they are, enjoying the quick memory but letting it fall away afterwards. For the writer, these moments are much more important. They are intimate glimpses of knowledge, catalysts for future stories and characters.

A part of it is discipline, making yourself take note of those musings that seem important, or at least potentially so. Another part of it is just being willing to listen when the whispers in your ear begin, those images that keep you awake or haunt your thoughts for periods of time. All this has made me wonder whether writer's block really exists, or if it is more a matter of being too distracted to listen. I suppose there are times when the call is too quiet, or infrequent. But we should at the very least be listening for it as often as we can.