As I have known for a long time writing in a “difficult” way about “difficult” things is not an easy path. One or the other one can sometimes get away with, but rarely both, especially at the same time. Nevertheless I still do it, and will continue doing it, because that’s the way I write and what I have to say. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to learn; I just don’t plan on turning into anyone else. Unfortunately this doesn’t always go down well, not unexpectedly. The review of my book in the National Post last week made that clear. Nevertheless, I take certain aspects of it as a compliment. Clearly, Something about the Animal got under the reviewer’s skin, rattled him considerably. He also had to concede that I can write. I wish he had not misrepresented certain aspects of the book to potential readers, but on the other hand know that many of them will be perfectly capable of reading between the lines. What matters most is that the book got national coverage, for which I am very grateful, as I am to my publisher for being courageous enough to back me in these challenging economic times. I review fiction myself, and know all too well the challenge of responding to a book one does not relate to. In fact I recently reviewed a novel that I desperately wanted to like but ultimately didn’t. I worked hard with my editor to refashion my response into something I hoped would be useful to the author and potential readers and so it is interesting now to be on “the other side.” Doing so also helped me clarify some moral guidelines: review debut books from a place of intelligent empathy; stay aware of, and where relevant admit to your own limits and prejudices; remain cognizant of the political, economic and literary context surrounding an author and their work, despite the pressure to review in an apparent vacuum. Also, do not use a review to make yourself look good and do not pussy foot around difficult issues. And yes, there’s that word, “difficult,” again, a quality I like to champion, perhaps because sitting with difficulty can be so very rewarding, the opposite of consuming, sleepwalking, or being “entertained.” And aren’t “difficult children” always the most interesting? Not to mention one of my favourite poets, W. S. Graham, and his exquisite poem, “A Note to the Difficult One,” which I always keep close. So take heart, difficult writers of difficult material, there is always someone out there ready to hear.
From A Note To The Difficult One
“This morning I am ready if you are,
To hear you speaking in your new language.
I think I am beginning to have nearly
A way of writing down what it is I think
You say. You enunciate very clearly
Terrible words nearly always just beyond me.
I stand in my vocabulary looking out
Through my window of fine water ready
To translate natural occurrences
Into something beyond any idea
Of pleasure …
This morning I am ready if you are