Back in December, The Globe published a review of The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age and From Literature to Biterature that caught our eye. Seeing that the reviewer, Adam Hammond, both had a book forthcoming and was currently at the UofG, we got in touch about doing an event. Hammond's book, Literature in the Digital Age: A Critical Introduction isn't due until 2015, so we put a pin it. Some time later, Hammond got back in touch about a roundtable discussion he was moderating about the health of literature in the digital age, with The Edge of the Precipice at its centre. The--take a breath--Michael Ridley Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities, Hammond commutes between Guelph and Toronto and we were able to squeeze in a bit of chat about digital humanities and the upsides of a digital climate that's so often accused of being literature's antagonist.
Explain Digital Humanities.
The old term for Digital Humanities was Humanities Computing, which was unsexy, which is why it's been replaced. But it does give you a better sense of what it was originally about. How you can use computers to analyze literature, or how you use computers to analyze history. The term was coined in 2004. Someone was editing a book and were like, "Ugh. Humanities Computing. This is not gonna sell. Let's do Digital Humanities." Because it's a broad term that doesn't mean just one thing, I think it's opened a lot of doors.
I just came from this talk by an historian, Ian Milligan from Waterloo. His argument is historians don't like using computers, and they don't like programming. But you can't do a history of, say, the 90's without being able to work with internet material, because there's so much of it. He works on GeoCities. Literally. Those GeoCities websites for him are a really important historical resource. And you can't just read every GeoCities website, so you need to come up with ways to crunch the numbers to find out what they're interested in, and searching through them to find some particular thing. For me it's an obvious thing. Of course people who are interested in the humanities will increasingly need to use computers.
A lot of the stuff I work on is modernist literature. Roughly 1880 to 1950, so that's not stuff that's being produced digitally. But once you have it digitized you can do more interesting stuff with it. For instance, I co-wrote this academic book called Modernism: Keywords. There we were looking at the words these writers were most interested in debating. We started out this project by sitting down and talking about what words these writers like to use the most, like maybe "avant garde," maybe "manifesto." And then we would try to find those words in the books, but we couldn't find them anywhere. Where are we going to find usages? So we went on different electronic archives. That's the nice thing about digitizing. You can easily search for words. And we would find that we couldn't find any text that used "avant garde," or "manifesto." One of the discoveries we made is that people in English didn't use those words in that period. We would have just thought we weren't looking hard enough, but we managed to show, in a definitive way, that those words weren't used. Or we were looking to find usages of the word "modernist," which we had a hunch wasn't used a lot in the period, that it was something scholars came up with retrospectively. And sure enough we didn't find many. But we did find an advertisement for towels in Cosmopolitan that was like, "Get these as a wedding gift. They're a sign of modernism and true refinement." That was amazing. We would never have found that if we didn't have this digitized archive. It was a good example to show that at that time the word don't mean what it means today. It's weird that I had this very word-based project, but it was a good digital humanities project in that we couldn't have done it right if we didn't have access to all these archives.
We have an idea for a second volume, and what I'd like to do for that is get this huge number of modernist texts, like a couple of terabits worth, and there's an algorithm that can go through that and tell you what are the clusters of interest. So instead of us coming up with the terms, it will be interesting to have them come up automatically, and see if we're looking for the right terms.
So is it fair to say that maybe literature isn't being killed by the digital age, but being recalibrated by it?
In Digital Humanities you have to already like and accept literature as an important thing before you can invest all this time. But will this kind of approach get people interested in literature?
I made an online edition of The Waste Land that broke it into voices, and for me that's something that could help someone understand that poem. You could read that poem and just be like, "I have no idea." But the key to enjoying it is understanding that it's a series of monologues that are pieced together. So maybe the website will make it more accessible.
Traditionally scholars have published in print journals and no one reads them. With digital, it's easier to get access to scholarly journals--doesn't mean a lot of everyday people are reading scholarly journals--but the fact that maybe scholars can reach a bigger audience of enthusiasts online... You might not have known that anyone out there actually liked the thing you're interested in, but then you find out that there are thousands of people, this weird niche. So I think it's helping to connect people who love literature.
Also, the tone of academic writing is starting to come down a little bit, I think. People are more interested in reaching an audience because they're starting to understand that the audience isn't just other scholars. I really like writing about literary subjects for a non-academic audience. And I think that's becoming a lot easier.
In hosting this discussion do you actually hope to get to the bottom of whether or not literature is dying?
I personally don't think that literature's dying. But who I am to say? I like the idea that people feel like maybe books, the carriers of literature, are somehow threatened now. That they're being replaced, that there's this other thing, these eReaders coming along. I just think that people appreciate them more, and are paying attention to books in ways that they have not. They're no longer something that's taken for granted. It's like, "They could be gone, so I'm really gonna focus on it."
When I started teaching this class called "The Digital Text" at U of T, I really thought all my undergraduate students were gonna be super into video games and new forms of interactive literature and do all their readings on iPads. As it turns out, you've never met a more conservative, book-loving group of people, who are vocally anti-digitial. I don't know if that was an anomaly, but for me it was an eye-opener. And for me, I really like books, kind of curmudgeonly. I knew wasn't going to like eReaders, for instance. But I got some anyway, just to do a little test, and I just don't like them. For me it reinforced how much I like books. I think it's had that effect on a lot of people.
Something I'm interested in talking about is whether literature's becoming more important. Is it more exciting to people these days, is it more cherished? Its become more of a special experience.
It's hard to imagine a seventeen year old kid who can barely grow a beard walking around with On the Road on an e-reader. Why read On the Road if you can't shove it into your back pocket and be seen reading it in your school cafeteria?
Yeah, it's a book that you need to be seen reading, in that slacker-y way. It's part of a whole complex.
I think it's easy to say that young people today don't like X, Y, and Z, but I'm constantly surprised, staring at the books people read. People are still reading, and they're reading cool books.
I wanted give the session that title to draw people out, but personally I don't think literature is dying. Of course, a lot of people would disagree with me. But even if the numbers of so-called serious readers are declining, I think something's more interesting, or self-conscious about what it means to read. Maybe since it's harder to concentrate, which I do think is happening--my own attention span is shortening and I'm finding it harder to focus on literature--something about that is still instructive. It might tell you about all the way that everyday life is trying to keep you distracted. If it's that hard, there must be something going on.
And this strife is so new, too. It's only been within the last twenty years that life has become such a gauntlet of distractions. Everyone's still acclimating to it, deciding whether or not this is how they want to live their lives.
I think so. And I think literature has become this go-to litmus test. If you're writing an article about how the internet is making people stupid, you always go to reading, how it's harder to read, how you can't concentrate for long times. Whether we're transitioning to this new way of thinking, I don't know. But there's something about literature where it's the activity that seems like you get the changes that are happening in the culture the most.
Check out, for free, "Is Literature Dying in the Digital Age" Thursday, March 27th, from 3 til 5 at the Library Academic Town Square. Panelists include Andrew Hood, Drew Nelles, Dorothy Odartey-Wellington, Michael Ridley, Paul Socken, and Alana Wilcox. And get this: Light refreshments provided. To prepare yourself, do swing by the store and pick up a copy of the Socken edited The Edge of the Precipice.
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
"How Eunice Got Her baby" was included in the The Journey Prize Stories 19. What did it mean for you have your work included in that national showcase?
Inclusion was important to me, as I recall it now, for several reasons. It bound me tightly and forever to one of the magazines I most admired, since my youth, The Fiddlehead, who had chosen to submit it for consideration. It was favourably reviewed by David Bezmogis (Natasha), who I respect as a short-story writer. The director Ana Valine read the story only because it was there and chose to film it (well, a version of it) for the Canadian Film Centre. It served as a reminder to stick with previously-rejected stories (the same "Eunice"), that there would be a kindred spirit somewhere else who would understand or smile. Also it was a pat on the back. And a puzzle too because several other stories had been forwarded for consideration by other magazines, yet did not make the cut.
What's the earliest story in the collection? Was there a moment that you began thinking about these stories as a collection? From the background you provided for "Eunice" in the anthology, I get the idea that these characters have been gestating for some time.
The earliest story I wrote at all was "Mistaken Point" but I've sat on it all these years (about 10). The earliest stories that were published were "Squid", "Sculpin", and "Telescope", also "Burin", which won prizes in poetry contests despite being written as stories. The first traditional story of some length to be published was "Fog", in the Dalhousie Review, acceptance of which was actually more important than the Journey Prize story because it was the first sign that anyone outside of my family cared. My wife Cheryl and I have thought of the stories as a collection for some time, but this grouping was put together by Cheryl and fits well as a unit and has not been together before. As for gestation, one story just moved into the next without much thinking, so I guess "gestating", being thoughtless and natural, is a good term.
Though there is a cast of characters, the East Coast is arguably the main character in How Loveta Got Her Baby. Could you talk a little bit about your time spent out East? When did you begin to set stories there? Is there any pressure on you to accurately portray the place and the people?
I began to set my stories there as soon as I started writing anything of significance. It's an overwhelming place (as you probably know).
As for accurate portrayal, yes there's pressure but if you look at The Parabolist, set in Toronto, my tendency there was to exaggerate just enough to make the eventual humanity touching. There's a similar bent to some of these stories.
All the critics said that Toronto was the main character in the novel, so it looks like I'm hung up on place. Yet it's not done in highly decorative prose, just the odd simple sentence here and there, for the most part.
There are narrative threads running throughout these stories. Why tell these stories in collected stories instead of a novel?
These stories are told as stories rather than a novel because it never occurred to me to do otherwise when I was writing them. It did occur to me later that they could be "novelized", but by then I was well into a new complete novel set in St John's (finished!) and the stories had such integrity and sweetness and sorrow that they demanded not to be touched. We took them directly to Breakwater Books, where they were accepted for publication by James Langer (poet, Anansi). We couldn't be happier.
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Nicholas Ruddok’s new book made me want to go back and read Mistry’s Tales From Firozsha Baag, Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. How Loveta Got Her Baby is in good company with these classics.
These books are all—for lack of a better, or maybe pre-existing term—“community collections.” “Connected stories”—short stories with shared characters and through-lines—doesn’t quite do justice to the way Ruddock’s and the abovementioned doozies tell a larger, social narrative with the use of smaller, personal stories. All of these books are about the uniqueness of place as much as the uniqueness of people, and how a place all at once defines and is defined by those who live their lives there.
A collection of East Coast towns is the setting of How Loveta Got Her Baby, combing to make a community full of schemers and strugglers and bumblers—which may bring to mind Cannery Row’s Mack and the boys—but also warm, supportive, and content folk. All taking place in the same area, these stories and characters—whether up to monkeyshine or ignominy—are limned with a very special intimacy and understanding unique to tight communities. Having ancillary characters in earlier stories become the focus of a later story, they can’t help but become rounder, richer, and real in a way that can be so tricky to achieve in fiction.
Not beholden to a novel’s grander narrative arc, community collections, when they’re well done—as How Loveta Got Her Baby most certainly is—tell a story about life that comes closest to representing the real deal. Told mostly in the third person, there are a slim few uses of a first person narrator of these incidents, suggesting—stay with me—that The Community is witnessing these lives as they unfold. It’s The Community As Narrator that gathers these lives together into some coherent, meaningful story about what it means to be alive in that time and place.
You don’t see community collections as much as you used to. This has nothing to do with antiquation, I don’t think. Loveta is a happy sign of the genre’s health, and this April will see the release of a collection by first time author Anna Leventhal, Sweet Affliction, full of stories set in an alternate, futuristic Montreal that similarly bodes well. Maybe the dearth of real life communities has hobbled the genre. We rarely stay long enough in a place to contribute to the story and meaning of it. The wealth of life and experience that accrues through How Loveta Got Her Baby will surely make you either appreciate the community you’re a member of or make you wistful for your lack of one.
Join us in the eBar for the launch of How Loveta Got Her Baby Thursday March 20 at 7:30pm. The evening will feature DJ Guelph and Jessy Bell Smith.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Line for line, Lorrie Moore might be one of the funniest fiction writers on this continent. If you haven't read her, think Nabokov meets Sedaris with a pinch of punchy Marx Brothers. Should that sound terrible to you, forget I said anything and just read her--you'll love it, whatever it's a mix of. But take away the humour--the malleability of language, the awkwardness and ugliness of social conventions, the almost slapsticky inability of most people to fulfill the expectations of love and happiness--and she might seem unreadably dour and dark. The presiding tone of Lorrie Moore can be summed up pretty well with this line from Like Life's "The Jewish Hunter:" "Nothing's a joke with me. It just all comes out like one."
The thing is you can't take away the humour. It's marbled in there with all the dark stuff. The fact that what comes out like a joke isn't a joke never detracts from the fact that it's hilarious. The nearly miraculous trick a Lorrie Moore story plays on the right kind of mind is that the initial funniness will inevitably reveal any level of harshness, but at that point the funny never falters, but mingles with the harshness, to the extent that no matter how dark Moore gets--and maybe her best known story, "People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk," about a mother who "finds a blood clot in the Baby's diaper," is one of the most heartbreaking things you'll ever be unable to stop reading--she is never not funny. Life is terrible, and that's inevitable, and if you can't see the humour in that, you're in very serious trouble.
It's been roughly thirty years since the release of Moore's first collection of stories, Self-Help. Written often in the rhetoric of self-help books--which mostly amounts to the adoption of the Second Person--the advice is hopeless, the situations dire. The weird tight spots a person finds themselves in are partly ungovernable, so the very idea of presenting any sort of pat survival advice is absurd. And this spot, this jam, is often where a Lorrie Moore story takes place.
Here's some advice from "The Kid's Guide to Divorce:" "Put extra salt on the popcorn because your mom'll say that she needs it because the part where Inger Berman almost dies and the camera does tricks to elongate her torso sure gets her every time." And from "How to Be an Other Woman:" "Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie." From "How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes):" "Attend poetry readings alone at the local library. Find you don't really listen well. Stare at your crossed thighs. Think about your mother. Sometimes you confuse her with the first man you ever loved, who ever loved you, who buried his head in the pills of your sweater and said magnificent things like 'Oh god, oh god,' who loved you unconditionally, terrifically, like a mother." Finally (because I just love writing this stuff out) words of wisdom from "How to Become a Writer:" "First, try to be something, anything else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age--say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut. She'll say: 'How about emptying the dishwasher?' Look away. Shove the forks in the drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters."
Moore's first collection helped, along with writers like Amy Hempel and Joy Williams and Mary Gaitskill, to even out the prominence of masculinity in American literature. Rick Moody offers some context ing his introduction to The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel: "I was in my second year of graduate school when Hempel's first collection hit shelves (and along with Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore, it was one of the books that everyone wanted to read at the time). I was exhibiting symptoms of the boredom and impatience with most of the masculine examples of contemporary fiction. I couldn't sympathize, finally, with Ford and McInerney characters. I had never punched another man, nor shot a bird from the sky, nor had I fact-checked among the coke-snorting glitterati. And these narratives by male writers seemed to require complicity with their larger-than-life protagonists. Then came Hempel collection. As with Lorrie Moore, [her stories] were urbane, witty, somber, dazzling, oblique, and quietly, desperately heroic."
I sympathize with Moody's wan sympathy for male writers of the time. I didn't know that I wasn't relating to the authors I was reading until I found Moore in my early 20s. I don't know anyone as smart, funny, or hapless as a Moore character, nor am I that way myself, but there was something so immediately recognizable about these people, something recognizable about the life they were living and how they were living it. She was able to render "the jam" beautiful, profound, and hilarious. There is not much "plot" in a Moore story, but situations and complications, and how compelling the story is comes from the character's response or interpretation.
In thirty years of writing, Moore hasn't made many great leaps. Self-Help is somewhat reliant on the second person trope, and her sophomore book, the novel-in-stories Anagrams, maybe missed the mark a bit in it's attempt to fully explore the relationship of Gerard and Benna by shifting the details of their lives like anagrams, but ultimately is a strong collection when you unbraid it from it's frame. The 1990s were, for Moore, strong and consistent. Two or three of the best books you will ever read came out of this time: Like Life is Moore mastering the short story; Who Will Run The Frog Hospital is Moore perfectly exploring female friendship at novella-length with a prose and structure; Birds of America feels like a victory lap, where Moore not only proves herself as an importantly unique, tuned writer, but finally hits her stride as a collector of her fiction. Birds of America feels gigantic, feels more like a finely curated anthology, and it's confounding that that much life, that much nuance of experience can come from one person.
Let's return to the aforementioned "People Like That Are The Only People Here," and the Mother who found a blood clot in her Baby's diaper. Again, as much as I want to prove to you how wonderful a writer Moore is, I also just love writing out her writing:
"Perhaps, she thinks, she is being punished: too many baby-sitters too early on. ('Come to Mommy! Come to Mommy-Baby-sitter!' she used to say. But it was a joke!) Her life, perhaps, bore too openly the marks and wigs of deepest drag. Her unmotherly thoughts had all been noted: the panicky hope that his nap would last longer than it did; her occasional desire to kiss him passionately on the mouth (to make out with her baby!); her ongoing complaints about the very vocabulary of motherhood, how it degraded the speaker ('Is this a poopie onesie! Yes, it's a very poopie onesie!'). She had, moreover, on three occasions used the formula bottles as flower vases. She twice let the Baby's ears get fudgy with wax. A few afternoons last month, at snacktime, she places a bowl of Cheerios on the floor for him to eat, like a dog. She let him play with the Dustbuster. Just once, before he was born, she said, 'Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.' A joke for God's sake! After he was born, she announced that her life had become a daily sequence of mind-wrecking chores, the same ones over and over again, like a novel by Mrs. Camus. Another joke! These jokes will kill you! She had told too often, and with too much enjoyment, the story of how the Baby had said 'Hi' to his high chair, waved at the lake waves, shouted 'Goody-goody-goody' in what seemed to be a Russian accent, pointed to his eyes and said 'Ice.' And all that nonsensical baby talk: wasn't it a stitch? 'Canonical babbling,' the language experts called it. He recounted whole stories in it--totally made up, she could tell. He embroidered; he fished; he exaggerated. What a card! To friends, she spoke of his eating habits (carrots yes, tuna no). She mentioned, too much, his sidesplitting giggle. Did she have to be so boring? Did she have no consideration for others, for the intellectual demands and courtesies of human society? Would she not even attempt to be more interesting? It was a crime against the human mind not to even try.
"Now her baby, for all these reasons--lack of motherly gratitude, motherly judgement, motherly proportion--will be taken away."
Indeed, these jokes can kill you.
Moore's reputation was cemented with Birds; that thing may be one of the finest books of the century. Of course Moore can't help but go on to write in the shadow of that monument. She may never again write a story as good as "People Like That." But she doesn't have to. Stories that aren't as good as that one--don't forget--are still some of the best pieces of fiction being written right now.
Maybe Bark might seem ropey when compared to the burliness of Birds, and, often concerned with divorce and middle-age, there may be loss of vim and goofiness that sucked in so many early readers. After fifteen years, I think a lot of Moore fans got a bit mopey when they saw only eight stories. But I have two perspectives for you.
For one, if you're a Moore fan, settle down: these eight stories are great, contain the gravitas marbled with levitas, but there're also suggestions of branching (pun maybe intended), such as the "ghost story," "The Juniper Tree." Here we have classic Moore: "Every woman I knew here drank--daily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another. I was the only one of my friends--all of us academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base (or so we imagined it)--who hadn't had something terrible happen yet." The something terrible that does happen is the loss of a friend, the ghost of whom these friends visit, gin in tow, to say goodbye. There's also the common background--rare for a Moore collections--of both post-9/11 political strife/malaise. National and global agitation does not dominate the lives in Bark, but it is there like a refrigerator's hum. The "real world" is often absent from Moore's work, but here it's beginning to seep in, and it'll be interesting to see how Moore will use it further in the future.
Now, on the other hand, it's important to judge Bark as a new reader's introduction to the work of Lorrie Moore. One of my great sorrows as a reader is that I can never not know about my favourite authors; I can never get back that thrill of discovery. Reading Bark, I kept trying to imagine it was my first time reading Moore, and I found myself underlining lines and dogearring pages with the same fervor as I do with new authors. ("Hope is never false. Or it's always false." "'If dolphins tasted good,' he said, 'we wouldn't even know about their language.' That the intelligence of a thing could undermind your appetite for it. That yumminess obscured the mind of the yummy as well as the mind of the yummer. That deliciousness resulted in decapitation. That you could only understand something if you did not desire it." "You could lose someone a little bit but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.") I really can't believe how good Lorrie Moore is, and I'm jealous of those readers who are on the cusp of being exposed to thirty years of some of the best writing ever by a writer who can, time after time, break your heart, but put it back together slightly better than she found it.
It's no joke. I'm so serious about this.
Andrew Hood is the author of the short story collections Pardon Our Monsters and The Cloaca.