Monday, April 28, 2014

Narrative in the time of YouTube

We go to events like the Saskatchewan Book Awards in part to see which stories are connecting with the jurors; this year we can be grateful for skilful and gifted authors who brought First Nations stories, issues, and experiences home to us.  But there's another reward:  if you listen carefully to people's thank yous, you recognize that there aren't simply stories in the books, but behind the books.  Paul Wilson thanks his daughters for being his cheerleaders as he takes the award for best poetry with Invisible Library.  Lisa Bird Wilson acknowledges a whole network of people for their help and encouragement.  James Daschuk, whose ground-breaking Clearing the Plains won 5 awards, four for the author and one for the publisher, revealed that the book took him ten years. We're all grateful for his dogged commitment to this important book.

In contrast, in the weekend Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente reports that it took less than an hour after an out-of-context video clip of Tom Flanagan hit YouTube for him to be denounced by the PMO, the University of Calgary, the CBC, and the Wildrose Party.  The issue, as I understand it, was that he had attempted to draw a distinction between the people who abuse children in order to make pornography and those who watch it.  (I'm not sure it's a distinction I can make:  were there no market for child pornography, would pornographers be less likely to abuse children?  I can't answer that question.) Based on the clip, people came to the conclusion that he was "okay with child pornography." As Jonathan Haidt tells us in The Righteous Mind, right-wing politics tends to concern itself with the distinction between purity and impurity, and child pornography--and other sexual issues they highlight like premarital sex, homosexuality, or abortion--certainly fall into the impure camp.  But an hour? No one asks him about the context or about what he actually meant?  How silly of me:  what he meant didn't matter.  

By way of temporal contrast, Ian Brown wrote a wonderful, thoughtful essay on the experience of reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical My Struggle, a book which has taken Norway by storm. In a country with 5 million people, half a million copies have been sold of a work that will eventually weigh in at 3,500 pages.  Employers declare Knausgaard-free days because everyone is talking about a work that seems to record a life with near-obsessive fidelity to detail, to the texture of everyday life.  Knausgaard, even in translation, seems quotidian and banal, as well as insightful and philosophical as he contemplates the paintings of Constable on a sleepless night, and wonders what he needs to do with his life. Brown writes "Those are the questions of an artist trying to make his art come alive.  But they're the same questions every sensate person asks him or herself in the middle of the night:  what, precisely, makes me feel unapologetically alert and alive?  What will I remember as I die?  Is it this? ....In the days before the world went digital--and I say this not as a complaint, simply as an observation, because I live in the digital world as much as anyone--in pre-digital times, events and people and objects and sensations established their importance slowly.  They earned their place in our memories.  Today on a smart-phone--such an ironic name!--everything claims to be important at once, and so nothing is important.  You remember very little of it.  Then you wonder why your life feels so empty."

Tomorrow morning, I will turn in my final set of marks.  I will still have some responsibilities as Graduate Chair, but for the most part, I can now turn to writing.  What had already changed profoundly for me is my experience of time.  My writing isn't a race with a clock that will give me four months to think and write and not a moment more.  I watch the birds out my kitchen window while I make dinner.  My mind takes detours to other places and other times, bringing memories that I allow to simply unfold.  Between the marking for my CanLit class and the final evaluation of my creative writing students' carefully-chosen portfolios, I gave myself a day to work on a poem that has been knocking around in my brain for a couple of weeks.  It was heavenly to stare at a computer screen for several hours, moving a word, shifting a line, struggling for a metaphor. How little, physically, I actually did, besides petting Sheba, who was feeling cuddly. How far my mind wandered as I tried to write an honest poem about tenderness--a feeling that lends itself to so easily to sentimentality yet seems to me an integral part of the human connection.  I had seen it just that afternoon at the RSO Government House Concert as an older couple arrived a little late and had to sit apart. The gentleman, his hand on his wife's back, guided her tenderly to the closer seat of the two. At the same time, though, my contemplation on tenderness made me realize that it doesn't happen in hurry and noise. It needs to make its own quietness, to keep its own pace.

As I think of returning to Soul Weather, a return that is at least six months away, Thursday's slow work and Sunday's reading and concert create an inner conflict.  What does one want to do with narrative in the age of YouTube or in a time when a Pit Bull mauling a child becomes news? (However horrifying and tragic, is it news, or are we being offered something else altogether?)  What I am trying to do in this novel is to surprise readers, something I think most of us take delight in.  My thoughts immediately turn to the eponymous Philomena's delight in the plot twists of the romance novels she read:  "I didn't see that coming!" The characters must experience enough difficulty and enough conflict to engage the reader's interest in their fate.  At the same time, even Woolf was unsure that traditional plots laden with conflict and crisis, spinning into denouement, reflected our lives.  Hence she wrote three novels, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts, that record the events of single days as a means of being true to reality but finding a moment of enough emotional compression and tension to engage the reader. Last night, while I was sleepless, I thought improbably about the similarity of the pace of Neil Gaiman's brief novel, The Ocean in the End of the Lane, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings:  how each of them offer places of respite and reflection amidst the dangers.  

And there, in that odd juxtaposition of Woolf, Gaiman, and Tolkien, is the answer to my anxiety about what we expect of novels.  One finds the right form that mediates between drama and reflection, speed and stillness.   

1 comment:

  1. NOT TRUE THIS IS PR BS see here re So much that the government declared "Knausgaard free" days throughout