October 28, 2008

Bill Gaston; Patrick Lane; The Vancouver Writers' Festival.

I meander too much on this blog. The blame shall be placed on its pretentious title.

Most of the reading I do these days is either for class or to improve my own writing. Case in point: Bill Gaston. I read through a collection of his short stories last summer, called Mount Appetite. The man writes strange, affecting pieces, often with haunting endings. I'm now working through his latest collection, Gargoyles, and having a similar experience. When I read, I wait for oh shit moments, where the writer captures an image, or sets up a scene, or uses the right combination of words in such a way as to deny any possible improvement. I get that with Gaston, though not in every one of his stories. But it's frequent enough for me to want to read more, and often. So many lines of his prose seem to sing from the page, and he avoids the sentimental--which is huge.

This brings me to the Writers' Festival in Vancouver, which finished up this past Sunday. I attended a lecture/reading called Poets Turned Novelists with Patrick Lane, Anne Simpson, and Daphne Marlatt, all of whom have new books out. I'll give these authors credit, they're a lot more subtle about promoting their work than other authors whose readings I've attended. Lane was hilarious. He dropped the F-bomb once, got big laughs, and then decided to use it as often as possible. The laughs didn't quite sustain, but it was a typical male thing to do--and I dug that. What I really liked about the reading was the general agreement that it's a moot point to draw lines between so called literary genres. Yes, there are physical differences between poetry and fiction, but they overlap so often, and in such complicated ways, the distinction becomes unnecessary. Writers don't make the distinctions as much as critics do. It's easier to dissect something when it's contained within a box.

Each author read from their work, but only Lane stuck out to me--because he avoided being sentimental. In his opening remarks, he talked about the ever-popular phrase write what you know, something all students are bombarded with. We tend to misinterpret this statement as meaning what we know in the immediate, physical sense. He suggested it goes beyond that to every fantasy, day-dream, unfulfilled goal, failure we've ever experience. It also extends to every book we've read, every scrap of phrasing we've tried to steal and keep for our own. That's what reading is really, it's a way for us to take something not of ourselves and somehow take ownership of it. Anyways, his reading was from the perspective of an infant ghost, a wandering spirit trying to understand infanticide. Blew me away.

Have I mentioned I meander a lot?


Anonymous said...

How would you define sentimental?

Harry Tournemille said...

In this context, I define it as a sort of "romanticizing" of a character or setting or circumstance. Usually it's induced by commentary; the author feeling unable to rely on the scene itself to convey meaning so he/she adds lines of commentary to nudge the reader in a certain direction.

In film, I think of Big Fish as a great example. The entire film gets run over by this overly sentimental narrator. Rather than the scenes speaking for themselves--something they were more than capable of doing--the audience is coerced by constant narration into how or what to feel. Totally ruined the film for me.

Make sense?