by T.F. Rigelhof

ISBN 9781897151754 | 6" x 9" | HC | $32
Categories:Non-Fiction - Essays/Letters

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Hooked on Canadian Books (Preview)
Getting Hooked on Canadian Books
READING BY ASSOCIATION: Kompatibilität and Novels of Friendship
ANNALS OF OUR LIT I: Shelving Books
Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (2006)
Zoe Whittall, Bottle Rocket Hearts (2007)
Heather O’Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006) and Christine Pountney, Last Chance Texaco (2000)
Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness (2004)
Gale Zoë Garnett, Visible Amazement (1999)
Trevor Ferguson, Onyx John (1985)
Terry Griggs, Thought You Were Dead (2009)
Elizabeth Ruth, Smoke (2005)
Joan Barfoot, Exit Lines (2008), Luck (2005), Critical Injuries (2001)
Michael Ignatieff, Scar Tissue (1993)
Hugh Hood, Near Water (2000)
Howard Engel, Memory Book (2005)
Brad Smith, Big Man Coming Down the Road (2007), One-Eyed Jacks (2000)
M. T. Kelly, Save Me, Joe Louis (1998), A Dream Like Mine (1987)
John Harris, Small Rain (1989)
Paul Quarrington, Galveston (2004)
Wayne Tefs, Red Rock (1998)
Carol Shields, Swann (1987)
George Elliott Clarke, George & Rue (2005)
ANNALS OF OUR LIT II: Matt Cohen and After
Douglas Coupland, Duet: Microserfs (1995) & JPod (2006)
Russell Smith, The Princess and the Whiskheads (2002)
C. S. Richardson, The End of the Alphabet (2007)
Timothy Taylor, Stanley Park (2001)
Michael Helm, The Projectionist (1997)
Michael Winter, Duet: This All Happened (2000)
The Big Why (2004); The Architects Are Here (2007)
Lisa Moore, Alligator (2005)
Trevor Cole, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life (2004)
Ray Robertson, Moody Food (2002), Gently Down the Stream (2005)
Bruce MacDonald, Coureurs De Bois (2007)
Ian McGillis, A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry (2002)
ANNALS OF OUR LIT III: Stephen Marche, “CanLit hates youth, says young author”
READING AND COMING TO TERMS WITH THE PAST: Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Novels of Knowledge
Daniel Poliquin’s A Secret Between Us (2007)
Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road (2005)
Jane Urquhart, The Stone Carvers (2001)
Wayne Johnston, Duet: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998) & The Custodian of Paradise (2006); The Navigator of New York (2002)
David Adams Richards, The Friends of Meager Fortune (2006), River of the Brokenhearted (2003); Trilogy: Nights Below Station Street (1988), Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) & For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993)
Terrence Heath, Casualties (2005)
Josef Skvoreck´y, The Engineer of Human Souls (1984)
Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version (1997), Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989)
Emma Richler, Feed My Dear Dogs (2005)
Rick Salutin, The Womanizer (2002)
Keath Fraser, Popular Anatomy (1995)
Darren Greer, Still Life with June (2003)
Darren Greer’s Strange Ghosts (2006)
Colin McAdam, Some Great Thing (2004)
André Alexis, Asylum (2008)
Austin Clarke: The Polished Hoe (2002), More (2008)
Tomson Highway, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998)
Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water (1993)
Brian Moore, Black Robe (1985)
Fred Stenson, Lightning (2003)
Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing (2002), The Englishman’s Boy (1996)
ANNALS OF OUR LIT VI: Two Atlases — Noah Richler’s Quest
This Is My Country, What’s Yours? (2006)
Don Akenson, At Face Value (1990), An Irish History of Civilization (2005)
Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock (2006)
ANNALS OF OURLIT VII: A Night at Quincy’s; Midnight at Banff Hot Springs
Carole Corbeil, Voice-Over (1992), In the Wings (1997)
Catherine Bush, Minus Time (1993), Claire’s Head (2004/6)
Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach (2000), Blood Sports (2006)
Caroline Adderson, Sitting Practice (2003)
Lynn Coady, Mean Boy (2006)
Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault (2008), Open Arms (2001)
Donna Morrissey, Downhill Chance (2002), and Duet: Sylvanus Now (2005) & What They Wanted (2008)
Mary Lawson, Crow Lake (2002)
Frances Itani, Deafening (2003)
Susan Swan, The Wives of Bath (1993)
Janice Kulyk Keefer, Thieves (2004), The Ladies’ Lending Library (2006)
Jean McNeil, Private View (2002)
Diane Schoemperlen, In the Language of Love (1994)
Gail Scott, Heroine (1987)
Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl (2002)
Karen McLaughlin, From This Distance (2009)
ANNALS OF OURLIT VIII: Henry James and the Half-Life of Too Many Novels
Barbara Gowdy, Helpless (2007), The Romantic (2003), The White Bone (1998), Mister Sandman (1995)
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), The Penelopiad (2005); Duet: Oryx and Crake (2003) & The Year of the Flood (2009)
ANNALS OF OURLIT IX: Brian Fawcett’s Gender Wars (1994)
ANNALS OF OURLIT X: Cross-Dressing the Bible
Nino Ricci’s Testament (2002) & Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984)
Nino Ricci, Lives of the Saints (1990)
Keith Maillard, Gloria (1999)
“MIDNIGHT AT THE OASIS”: Reading Novels of Joy and Redemption
ANNALS OF OURLIT XI: Pico Iyer, Alberto Manguel, Neil Bissoondath, and Three Global Villages on Two Legs
Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
Neil Bissoondath, The Soul of All Great Designs (2008)
Alberto Manguel, News from a Foreign Country Came (1991)
Liam Durcan, García’s Heart (2007)
Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden (2001)
Kevin Patterson, Consumption (2006)
Yann Martel, Life of Pi (2001), The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (1993)
Nancy Huston, Plainsong (1993)
ANNALS OF OURLIT XII: What is Canadian in Our Literature and Who Qualifies as a Canadian Author?
ANNALS OF OURLIT XIII: Travellers and Fellow Travellers
Peter Oliva, The City of Yes (1999), Drowning in Darkness (1993)
Steven Heighton, The Shadow Boxer (2000), Afterlands (2005)
Wayson Choy, Duet: The Jade Peony (1996) & All That Matters (2004)
Darcy Tamayose, Odori (2007)
Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes (2007), Any Known Blood (1999), Some Great Thing (1992)
Ann Charney, Rousseau’s Garden (2001), Distantly Related to Freud (2008)
Kate Taylor, Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen (2003)
Priscila Uppal, To Whom It May Concern (2008)
Anita Rau Badami, The Hero’s Walk (2000), Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? (2006)
Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms at Night (1996)
Shauna Singh Baldwin, The Tiger Claw (2004)
Madeleine Thien, Certainty (2006)
M. G. Vassanji, No New Land (1991)
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance (1995)
Rabindranath Maharaj, Homer in Flight (1997)
Rawi Hage, Cockroach (2008), DeNiro’s Game (2006)
CHÈRE KARINE: A Letter to a Québécoise Friend in Search of the Canada She Knows She Doesn’t Know

This book is written from one reader to another — to as many others as possible — in the hope that enough copies will be bought and circulated so that you who read privately and you who participate in reading clubs will find reader-friendly approaches to recent Canadian novels in English that expand the narratives of your own lives — yielding diversion, solace, perspective, comfort, counsel, and insight along your meanders from first paragraphs to last.
Although I’ve been a college teacher of humanities throughout my working life (specializing in ancient writings from various religious traditions), have reviewed many books of several kinds for a number of newspapers and magazines (notably as a Contributing Reviewer to The Globe and Mail’s “Books” over the past decade), and written both fiction and non-fiction with “critical success,” I am first, last, and always a reader of contemporary fiction — especially Canadian novels.
In their end-of-the-twentieth-century introduction to The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 (which includes a dozen by Canadians), Carmen Callil and Colm Tóibín assert that the books they chose are “sources of entertainment and enjoyment as satisfying as any Hollywood movie, football match, computer game or rock video.” My modest claim is that there isn’t a novel singled out for inclusion in my book that I wouldn’t buy — full price — to add to the pleasures of days spent occasionally at cinemas or more often in front of the television watching news, hockey, soccer, documentaries, Masterpiece Theater, and forever listening to jazz, the classics, opera, the McGarrigles (with and without the Wainwrights), Steve Earle, Tom Waits, and eating generally fresh, generally home-cooked food in a well-loved home. For most contemporary readers much of the time, the reading of fiction includes and encompasses the rest of life’s realities but rarely obliterates them for more than a couple of uninterrupted hours at a time — even though reading a book, neurological researchers at the University of Groningen claim, can be as thrilling as a real-life event.
Pleasures and thrills are not the only considerations — we read novels to open our eyes to possible experiences beyond our own situations in time and place and judge them, and in judging, judge ourselves and our times. For three centuries, quiet reading of books dominated leisure hours of the literate until inexpensive sheet music and modest pianos, motion pictures, and Edison’s phonograph, radio, LP records, network television, and ultimately the contemporary flood of digitalized electronica proved more impulsive and compelling.
But, as American novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick notes in The Din in the Head (2006), “the encyclopedic triumphs of communications technology — is an act equal in practicality to a wooden leg; it will support your standing in the world, but there is no blood in it.”
There is blood in this book — gusto, passion, zest, good humour, and fellow feeling are the forces driving it. Hooked on Canadian Books is a celebration of novels written in English by Canadian writers that made a difference in this reader’s life and have the power to do the same for you. These authors are engaged and engaging: they employ whatever abilities at their command to make their works readable and they want to be read seriously even when they’re at their funniest. Who doesn’t? If you think every author writes in the expectation of being bought and read by people serious enough about their lives to pay retail prices for books as readily as they open wallets for fine wines, fresh organic produce, superior restaurant meals, full screen movies, and cds more sonically alive than mp3 downloads, you’re mistaken. Some writers write to be studied rather than read, taught rather than enjoyed, and count success not in sales and readers but in tenure-track points for themselves and friends within academia. On my desk, there’s a yellowing, much-creased Xerox of a column clipped from Vanity Fair of February 1986 titled “Tilting at Fame: How to be a well-known unread author” in which James Atlas, Saul Bellow’s biographer, lays out the steps necessary to becoming a Famous American Writer everyone has heard of and nobody bothers to read. Stripped of name-dropping, barbed asides, and briefly put, Atlas says that once you’ve proclaimed yourself to be a writer and chosen your own life — growing up in Brooklyn or the South or on a farm, falling in love, falling out of love, falling in and out of love again and again as you progress through school, college and graduate school, marriage, divorce, remarriage — as your primary subject matter, you must always insist that your writing is metaphorical not autobiographical; you enrol in a creative writing program and write short stories until an editor asks you for the novel and then you write one the size of your life; you collect blurbs from your instructors and from fellow students who got published before you did; you spend a lot of time choosing your picture for the dust jacket and writing the accompanying bio; you use your “best” reviews to get a job teaching creative writing; you assiduously apply for grants, attend writers’ colonies, conferences, book launches, and give interviews on any literary topic that has “buzz”; you always insist on how difficult it is to write well and how dedicated you are to doing just that; you become a public character based on your preferred sexual and substance addictions; you form a claque with a half dozen other writers and review one another’s books; you travel abroad at other people’s expense; you remember to write another book every few years; you become a supporter of imprisoned writers everywhere and a mentor to young writers at home; and then, you’re a Famous American Writer. I keep Atlas’s satirical shrug on my desk as a warning against taking any writer’s academy-approved reputation too seriously. Nobody’s reputation (nor sales figures) got their book or books into my book nor kept them out. Nor did my friendships with authors — noted where necessary: this is a book for readers of books not their makers and marketers. I did, however, regretfully omit a wry social commentary masked as a mystery — Buried on Sunday (1987) by E. O. Phillips — a current bestseller about a woman who becomes Montreal’s first female doctor — The Heart Specialist (2009) by Claire Holden Rothman — and William Weintraub’s droll account of coming-of-age in the dying days of the age of burlesque — Crazy About Lili (2006) — because their authors have been such near neighbours for so many years that their fictions are too inextricably entwined with who we are when we’re not writing for me to be able to strike the balanced viewpoints I hope I’ve achieved elsewhere. There are winter days when I wake up to such a high, blue sky this neighbourhood feels closer to Saskatchewan than to Peel and Ste-Catherine and Robert Currie of Moose Jaw seems more like the man next door than the man next door.
Bob Currie, whose achievements are many, is a distinguished lifetime poet who occasionally writes fictions, including the novel Teaching Mr. Cutler (2002): Brad Cutler risks everything to become a teacher and all, really, that this retired teacher has to say about Bob’s absolutely authentic account of life in the classroom is that every teacher reading this book really ought to read his novel whenever they start to forget what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
In the mid-eighties, the Canadian literary world was headed in the same direction as the American, but we did things somewhat differently than James Atlas “prescribes”:
"The standard pattern is easily constructed. A Canadian writer, wellknown or not so well-known, is awarded a generous grant to write a particular book; when it is finished, a publisher is provided with a subvention to assist with the costs of printing and distribution — and as often as not the writer in question is then awarded an additional grant for a cross-country tour to help publicize it. And we may add to all this the patent fact that a significant percentage of the eventual readers will be part of the university community, itself largely governmentsupported."
So wrote W. J. Keith, Professor Emeritus of English at University College, University of Toronto, in his “Polemical Conclusion” to the revised 2006 edition of his Canadian Literature in English (originally published in 1985). For Professor Keith, this “basic pattern has changed little” in the ensuing decades. I beg to differ: the first decade of the twenty-first century and final years of the twentieth altered the shape of our fiction in significant ways that weights this book to more frequent astonishments in the last ten years than in the preceding fifteen. I confine my disagreements with W. J. Keith and other commentators to the “Annals of OurLit” that open, close, or interrupt chapters. I strongly recommend Professor Keith’s work as a guide to what is worth reading before 1984 and as a guiding spirit to reading for pleasure:
"Despite the trendy popularity of the phrase “the pleasures of the text” a few years ago, “pleasure” is a word that does not occur regularly in contemporary literary discussion.... I read literature unashamedly for pleasure — not the “fun” so distressingly flaunted by bureaucratic committees of adult education, but pleasure."
When it comes to Canadian fiction published over the past quarter century, some actually think I’ve read everything: I haven’t — no one could because there are more novels published year after year than ordinary readers can imagine. I’ve done the necessary reading: In order to report with reasonable accuracy on any human phenomena, you have to study a thousand and some “samples” of the “population.” The better the sampling technique, the higher the level of probability — that’s “the margin of error” pollsters must note as a variable — but the “thousand and some samples” is a constant whether you’re investigating vodka consumption in Russia or the musical preferences of anglo listeners to CBC Radio’s “New 2” in Montreal (a case where an accurate “sample” would likely exceed the total “population”). And if it’s true, as Malcolm Gladwell insists, that you have to put in 10,000 hours of dedicated work to become expert at anything, I’ve done the time. How I came to read something new in Canadian fiction every week for more than twenty years as an avocation rather than a paying occupation is a story worth telling so the opening chapter has much to do with two remarkable women and the institutions they operated — Judith Mappin and her fiercely independent bookstore, The Double Hook, and Norah Bryant, the Chief Librarian at Westmount Public Library from 1962 until her retirement in 1982. If our literature has any hope of mirroring our rainbow-hued Canadian selves, of keeping us from becoming consumers unattached to the places we live, it can’t do it with chain bookstores that are “educentres” and libraries that are “infocentres” modeled on Wal-Mart and Wikipedia.
“The novel can do simply everything,” Henry James wrote in his essay “The Future of the Novel” over a hundred years ago: James was stating a fact about the form — “its elasticity is infinite” — and issuing a challenge to would-be novelists to be as “various and vivid” as life itself. Between 1984 and 2009, Canadian novelists attempted many, many things. The failure rate among them is high but that has always been the case wherever novels are widely published. Noting the “contagion” of failed novels in his own time, James placed the blame on the mediocrity of writers, the laxness of readers, and the timidity of editors. He condemned an aversion to risk-taking on all sides and, specifically, the failure of both Anglo-American writers and readers to embrace adult life and examine sexual relations in straightforward ways. He placed much blame on editors and their publishers for fastening on female adolescents as their “ideal” readers. The reshaping of Canadian fiction lies with a surprising number of our novelists successfully addressing “ideal readers” who are adults willing to examine and embrace lives that acknowledge sexual relationships but move beyond physiological encounters into less “romantic” realms of friendship, knowledge, joy, and comfort with variety and vividness and into realms of love and religion more tentatively.
The ways by which the novels recommended within the pages of this book examine, explore, elaborate, and explicate these fundamental aspects of humans becoming more human are loosely catalogued: “Reading by Association” highlights novels of friendship (and enmity); “Reading and Coming to Terms with the Past” underscores knowledge (and ignorance); “Reading Some of ‘the Talented Women Who Write Today’” stresses love (and hate), comfort (and discomfort); joy (and sorrow), comfort (and distress) are stressed in “Midnight at the Oasis” but the best of the better novels are without frontiers and their placements are marriages of convenience. My sense of which few of the many matters most is the subject of “Chère Karine: A Letter to a Québécoise Friend in Search of the Canada She Knows She Doesn’t Know.”
Chronology plays little part in any of this — except occasionally in terms of an individual author’s development. Every book, whatever its date of publication, is new to those who have not yet read it and — in the cases of the best of them — is an altered, renewed experience the second or third or tenth time around. D. H. Lawrence wrote in Apocalypse (1931), his final book and one that I’m not tired of rereading — forty-two years after first discovering it:
"Owing to the flood of shallow books which really are exhausted in one reading, the modern mind tends to think every book is the same, finished in one reading. But it is not so.... The real joy of a book lies in reading it over and over again, and always finding it different, coming upon another meaning, another level of meaning ... we are so overwhelmed by the quantities of books, that we hardly realize any more that a book can be valuable, valuable like a jewel, or a lovely picture, into which you can look deeper and deeper."
For me, “reading” a novel means any of at least a half dozen things, three of which are reflected in the phrase “good, better, and the best.” Some novels are so familiar in characters, so predictable in plot, so sentimental in spirit, so unwilling to embrace adult life and complex relationships, so innocent of politics, so intellectually blinkered that spending even an hour zipping through them is a waste of forty-five minutes. I have “read” my way through too many such hours but sometimes, the fifteen minutes that yielded pleasure led my eyes back and forth for another hour or two, gathering consciousness of a place and the conditions under which people live that are unfamiliar but ring true: Canada has a lot of geography beyond rocks and trees and lakes and trees and rocks and a diversity of communities beyond hardscrabble farms and down-at-heel villages and one-whore-multiple-idiot towns. Even so, far less cosmopolitanism entered Canadian fiction than entered its music, dance, theatre, or painting until the mid-eighties. Reading, at other times, means testing such rapid dismissals of the seemingly vapid against the opinion of another reader I genuinely respect by going back to a scanned book a second time in the normal way, beginning to end at a more ordinary speed. I’m willing to be proven wrong and can admit to being wrong when I am but, more often than not, my first impression holds and such books are remembered only for quirky settings.
To be “good” reading, a book must insist on being read, beginning to end, in one or two or three gulps. Opening a good novel should be something like picking up a child who needs to tell you — parent, guardian, or sitter — a tale. You hold it firmly and affectionately. You give it undivided attention, accommodate its insistence, and tolerate its inconvenience until you can’t keep your eyes open or your stomach from growling or your employer from wondering where you are. As soon as possible, you take it up again until you can finally put it and yourself to rest. A “better” book makes you stop after fifty pages and start afresh immediately — or sometimes days, sometimes weeks later. Better novels impose new rhythms on your reading, alter your expectations of what a story can be, temper your steel, and ultimately win you over to their own complexities — in short, they surprise you. This is the kind of novel that makes you lose yourself in its incidents, has you jumping forward because the suspense is unbearable and flipping back because you want to give yourself another shot of an exchange, an insight, a moment thrumming with life. Sometimes, you catch yourself rereading passages several times and even saying them aloud in empty rooms because the words are so light and nimble. This is the kind of novel that insists on being shared with your journal, if you keep one, and with friends who, you think, must read it. The “best” novel is one that can be read over and over again because there is something that lies behind the words and between the words, as complicated an array of tones and shadows and illuminating colours as a Turner landscape or a Mahler symphony that changes and changes and changes again as vision and hearing become heightened as age advances. Or, as D. H. Lawrence writes, such rarities have “power to move us, and move us differently; so long as we find it different every time we read it ... always finding it different, coming upon another meaning, another level of meaning.”
Is this all that aesthetic judgments come down to — the intensities of subjective reaction? No, of course not: reading and writing about novels as a professional reviewer, I’ve learned much from many editors and more from other reviewers, especially the cold-eyed but capacious humanity of the late Anthony Burgess, an author too closely associated with A Clockwork Orange and too little remembered for the Malay trilogy that first brought him to attention, the quartet of Enderby novels, Nothing Like the Sun, at least a half dozen more of his many books, and his masterpiece Earthly Powers. In his “Introduction” to 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (1984), lover of wordplay that Burgess is, he notes that “BOOK can be taken as an acronym standing for Box of Organized Knowledge” and that the novel “is a box from which characters and events are waiting to emerge at the raising of a lid.” Once opened, he asks, what sort of organized knowledge emerges, what fictional truths jump out? First, most certainly, is a sense of gradation in human affairs, a lack of absolutes — even those the author might personally espouse. “Create your characters, give them a time and a place to exist in, and leave the plot to them.” Burgess advises fellow novelists:
"imposing of action on them is very difficult, since action must spring out of the temperament with which you have endowed them. At best there will be a compromise between the narrative line you have dreamed up and the course of action preferred by the characters.... [A]ction is there to illustrate character; it is the character that counts."
The novelist who doesn’t allow this to happen, who insists on preaching, on being didactic, on seeing himself (and outside the realm of the “romance” and Ayn Rand, it is generally the male of the species who does this) as “a kind of small God of the Calvinists,” and is able to predict what is going to happen on his final page is the maker of bad novels, novels that create no surprises, leave nothing new behind. Burgess (who titled his autobiography Big God and Little Wilson) continues:
"It is the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will.... As novels are about the ways in which human beings behave, they tend to imply a judgement of behaviour, which means that the novel is what the symphony or painting or sculpture is not — namely, a form steeped in morality.... The strength of a novel, however, owes nothing to its confirmation of what conventional morality has already told us. Rather a novel will question convention and suggest to us that the making of moral judgements is difficult. This can be called the higher morality."
Such higher morality is much misunderstood. Does anyone read or even remember John Gardner any longer? Google gives priority to two others of the same name and Wikipedia requests more critical information than it dispenses. But between 1971 and 1979, few American novelists were more popular or prolific. After his third novel, Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster as foul-mouthed mommy’s boy, brought him massive sales and acclaim in 1971, Gardner further enlarged his readership and reputation with The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) and October Light (1976). There were four other novels in these eight years (including the unjustly neglected Mickelson’s Ghosts), two books of children’s stories, a biography of Chaucer and a book about Chaucer’s poetry in 1977, and then a flood of mainstream media attention and a collapse of relations within New York’s publishing industry when he published On Moral Fiction in 1978. Diagnosed with colon cancer while writing it, he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982 but not before publishing four further novels that disappeared from bookstores much too soon. On Moral Fiction argued that fiction should aspire to discover those human values great artists beginning with Homer have always regarded as universally sustaining — friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Gardner regarded as “moral” (and Burgess agreed) fiction “that attempts to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out what best promotes human fulfillment; and it does so ... by the kind of analysis of characters and the things they do that bring both writer and reader to understanding, sympathy, and love for human possibility”:
"The traditional view is that art is moral; it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game — or so a troll might say — because only a clown with sawdust brains would take our side and eagerly join in."
Gardner felt few of his contemporaries were moral in this sense, indulging in “winking, mugging despair” or trendy nihilism in which they did not honestly believe. Gore Vidal famously called Gardner the “late apostle to the lowbrows, a sort of Christian evangelical who saw Heaven as a paradigmatic American university.” But he wasn’t that — not at all — even if he was rather humourless. His two books on the craft of writing fiction — The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist — published posthumously in 1983 — enhance the craft, smooth the rhythms, and develop the continuity of the fictive dream. His books were touched by the redemptive power of art. As are Anthony Burgess’s. For Burgess, as for Gardner, the rules of thumb to a good novel are:
• It never forgets that a novel is about characters — human beings individually, socially, and en masse.
• It operates within temporal and spatial laws of human probability (allowing characters the time it takes for real people to do whatever they’re doing and puts them in places in which people can actually do these things and gives them the kinds of bodies that respond to these actions more or less as actual bodies do).
• It doesn’t try to get all the details down because there has to be a balance between a journalist’s quest for particulars and a philosopher’s digging into underlying reality.
• Its speech is lifelike without being transcription.
• It eschews superdeligorgeous verbosity (to be hyperspondulically explicit) unless such loquacity is necessary to a character.
• It moulds the storyline into a parabola ending in a resolution; some meticulously qualified understanding and assertion.
Because good novels can only be made by artists who subsume themselves to their work, they transcend the intelligence and decency of their makers. That’s what makes them “lifes best businesse” as Richard Whitlock noted three and a half centuries ago in Zootomia, or, Observations on the present Manners of the English: Briefly anatomizing the Living by the Dead:
"They are for company, the best Friends; in doubts, Counsellours; in Damps Comforters: Times Prospective, the home Travellers Ship, or Horse, the busie mans best Recreation, the Opiate of Idle wearinsesse, the Mindes best Ordinary, Natures Garden, and Seed-plot of Immortality."
Whitlock preferred them to doctors, lawyers, and priests. Me too.
Westmount 2010