Robert Wiersema was at the bat yesterday and he told us about his early love of domestic fiction tinged with the fantastic, that Smoky Barnable and TS Garp are his literary heroes and that his forthcoming novel is very male. Up today is Steven W. Beattie - I posed the same questions to him and here's what he had to say:
B: Tell us about yourself!
In addition to working as review editor for Quill and Quire, the trade magazine of the Canadian publishing industry, I also administer the literary site That Shakespearean Rag, which allows me to indulge in enthusiasms that don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of Quill’s specific mandate. I’m currently involved in two Canada Reads shadow panels: The Afterword’s Canada Also Reads panel, and Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads: Independently panel. Both lists, in my opinion, are more interesting than the CBC’s official list this year. (But then, I’m biased …)
In my spare time I enjoy watching gory horror movies and missing deadlines.
B: You're a bit of a fixture in the Canadian literary community so I'm guessing that you were an early and avid reader. What got you reading and what sort of books appealed to you as a boy?
I honestly don’t remember learning to read. It was more like osmosis than a conscious process. I was raised Catholic, and one Sunday I picked up a missal and started reading from it. I’m not sure whether this involved divine intercession, but if it was a sign that I was meant for the priesthood, I missed it completely.
As a kid I went from the Hardy Boys to Agatha Christie novels in fairly short order, then turned to Stephen King when I got to be a bit older.
B: What was the first book that really stuck with you when you were younger and why?
When I was a kid, my family used to rent a cottage for two weeks every summer. My dad would take along a stack of paperbacks with incredibly gaudy covers that looked so cool to a young boy’s eyes. I coveted those books, but my father said they were for grown-ups and I had to stick to stuff that was more appropriate.
One year he picked up the paperback edition of Gorky Parkby Martin Cruz Smith. It had a black cover with red and silver raised type and a silver star, and it looked to me like the best thing ever. I decided that I had to read it, so I went to the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore and bought a copy with my allowance (books were much less expensive in those days). At first my father was angry, but he eventually relented and told me that I could read the book so long as I promised to read every word. Which I did, and have continued to do ever since. So I suppose I owe my career as a critic to my dad.
B: How have your reading habits evolved over the years? You obviously have to read a lot for work but what else dictates your choices?
I read very promiscuously. I don’t plan what I’m going to read next; I go by how I’m feeling at a given time, or what catches my eye in a bookstore. I’m an inveterate book buyer, and I own far more books than I’ll ever read. Occasionally, I’ll go to my bookshelves and pick out a book that I’ve forgotten about and read that; more often, I’ll find myself entranced by something on the new release table at my local indie bookseller, and pick that up. Or something shiny on the shelves themselves. There’s a new edition of J.G. Ballard’s Cocaine Nightsthat I saw at Book City the other day, and I keep thinking that it’s a book I really should read …
B: Do any of your philosophies on life come from the books you've read? If so, do the books tend to be fiction or non-fiction?
My own personal philosophy of life comes from the totality of my experience: the books I’ve read, the people I know, my family, my education, my work, and so on. As these things change, I expect my philosophical approach to the world will change along with them.
I tend to use books as sounding boards to question my preconceptions and my unconscious approaches to life and the world around me. When I read, I’m not looking to be comforted or coddled; the best books are the ones that surprise me, or shock me, or take me somewhere unfamiliar. The best art doesn’t act as a security blanket: it forces its recipient to question her basic assumptions and prejudices. Art that reinforces or encourages complacency is utterly useless.
B: What male protagonists, if any, do you identify with? Female protagonists?
As a teenager, I was supposed to identify with Holden Caulfield, but I really didn’t. I thought he was a whiny, self-absorbed idiot. I guess I still think that, but I also think I understand him a bit better now. In university, I identified very closely with Paul Morel in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, because both he and I shared very conflicted relationships with our respective mothers. I suspect I’d feel differently about Paul were I to reread that book now.
The character I suppose I identify most closely with in literature is Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood(the Catholic thing again). He spends the bulk of the novel trying to deny the person he most essentially is, only to realize that he can’t escape his true nature no matter how badly he wants to.
The female characters I identify with also tend to be the ones who crave escape: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer. All of them created by men, interestingly.
B: Do you tend to read books by male or female authors or does the author's gender matter to you?
Although an author’s gender doesn’t really matter (a good book is a good book, regardless of who writes it), I have to admit that I tend to gravitate toward books written by men. Many of my favourite authors – Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ernest Hemingway, Mordecai Richler – are men who take as their subject masculinity in all its permutations. The women writers I enjoy – Mary Gaitskill, A.M. Homes, Joyce Carol Oates – also tend to focus on subjects that are more often associated with men: violence, deviance, criminality.
B: What do you think of this distinction: books written for men/women versus books written about men/women?
The former seems to me way too narrow. Books written for women tend to have pink covers with wedding rings, stiletto heels, or martini glasses on them, while books written for men feature Navy SEALS with big-ass guns on the cover. This is so reductive as to be absolutely absurd. And let’s face it: this approach is more about target marketing than it is about literature.
I see no reason why men can’t appreciate books about women, provided that they are not simply retreads of Sex and the City featuring a female protagonist who loudly professes her independence while desperately searching for a man to marry (and the perfect pair of Prada pumps). I’m honestly not sure why any women would want to read those kinds of books, which are really little more than conservative consumerist fantasies that serve to reinforce the sociopolitical status quo.
Serious books about women are a different matter. Men should be able to appreciate books by Jane Austen, Alice Munro, or Anne Tyler, just as much as women should be able to appreciate books by Cormac McCarthy or David Adams Richards. While the former may be more domestic, and the latter more cerebral, they are all addressing the human condition in one way or another, and an open-minded reader should be able to find something in all of them to appeal. At least, I hope that this is the case.
Thanks Steven! I may or may not cross-stitch the phrase "art that reinforces or encourages complacency is utterly useless" and hang it in my cubicle. Next you'll be hearing from librarian Brian Harvey but not before I do a run-down of Canada Reads pick The Jade Peony!