Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ego and the Imagination

It’s a great day to have something in common with Margaret Atwood—a dystopia that’s been published this season in Canada and that hasn’t been nominated for any of the major awards. Oddly enough, it was just after 8am Pacific time this morning—just after I’d heard on the CBC national news who the finalists for this year’s GG's Awards were—that it struck home for me just how inconsequential all these awards really are. Funny how some incidental piece of news can spur a significant realization of that sort.

More generally, it’s a funny thing with awards. No matter how much one may tell oneself that they’re not really important—how often great books miss out completely, how often horrible books win, etc. etc.—it’s hard not to pay attention. That’s true for both readers and writers, but for readers it’s a matter purely of information and attention, whereas for writers, of course, it’s also a matter of ego. In my own case I have eternally in front of me a reminder of how deeply awards don’t matter in the end—my father’s winning the 1964 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for his novel The Deserter. Dad also won a (to my mind richly deserved) GG for poetry, but The Deserter is a difficult and I would say not very satisfactory novel—I think my mother was right to diagnose among its various flaws an excess of ego showing through. But no one cares now; The Deserter today is largely forgotten, while a novel that didn’t win that same year—Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel—remains arguably the finest of all Canadian novels.

How to get beyond ego is to my mind a vitally important question for novelists—no doubt for dramatists too. You can write great poetry showing off your ego; it’s a lot harder to do so and write fiction or drama that doesn’t come across as self-conscious—or just self-centred. On the whole, successful novels have to be able to convey an understanding of and sympathy for other creatures—pointedly, here, I won’t say other humans. And to do that requires a forgetting of the self, at least while the writing process is underway. For me at least, the great stylistic trick that facilitates such a forgetting in fiction is what academics term free indirect discourse (also known as colored narrative). It’s writing in the third person that takes on the coloring of different points of view—essentially through omitting such phrases as “he thought that” or “it seemed to her that…”. It sounds like a small thing, but such writing seems to me to do far more than allow for faster shifts from one point of view to another in fiction; I think it can also provide to the reader a much stronger and more direct sense of the feelings of different characters. Just as important, for me at least, is how it affects the creative process; I’m sure that using colored narrative allowed me far more easily to lose myself in the characters of Animals than I would have been able to otherwise—and allowed me to stay lost for pages at a time.

(It’s vitally important, of course, not to have the CBC on in the background at such times; otherwise even the least self centred of us runs the risk of getting distracted by news of yet more awards he or she hasn’t been nominated for!)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Animals and progress; Coming events in Toronto, Nanaimo, Victoria, Montreal, Calgary

Many thanks to everyone who came out for the first two events connected with the book—Vancouver Sept. 22 (with Angus Taylor) and Calgary this past Thursday (with Jack MacIntosh). Topics discussed at the Calgary event included the implications of drawing dividing lines between human and non-human animals, and whether there is a realistic chance of ever eliminating the factory farming of non-human animals. On that one I’m guardedly optimistic. Two hundred years ago we North Americans lived in a world in which slavery was legal (in Canada as well as the United States), and in which women could not vote and had few legal rights of any sort. Even a generation ago it was unimaginable to most of us that gay marriage might become legal. Progress may be slow but it is possible.

There was an interesting column in yesterday’s Globe by Margaret Wente on how much greener she and her husband have become by moving downtown. She quotes environmentalist David Owen on how “urban density, more than any other factor, is the key to sustainability.” The same notion is advanced by Steven Johnson in his extraordinarily wide-ranging and interesting 2006 book, Ghost Map—and, to me at least, it makes a lot of sense. For sustainable living we need greater density of humans in human spaces (so we can get to what we need by walking or taking public transit). Conversely, we need far less density of non-human animals in hog enclosures and feedlots for cattle. The greater risks to animal health caused by overcrowding, the greater risks of some of their diseases being passed along to human animals, the difficulty of dealing safely with the vast amounts of excrement produced, the overuse of antibiotics that becomes necessary to the everyday functioning of these operations--all these put the larger environment at risk. Wente has clearly re-thought a number of environmental issues recently, and hats off to her for that. Maybe she will also come round before long to the realization that the fight against the factory farming of non-human animals is not only a struggle to eliminate unspeakable cruelty; it's also part of the struggle for environmental sustainability.

Several more Animals events are now confirmed for later this season, including a Montreal launch (with Claude Lalumiere) and a Calgary event at the Plaza Theatre (with Linden MacIntyre):

Upcoming Events:

Wednesday, October 28, Toronto
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Thomas Hurka (Philosophy Dept., University of Toronto)
Location: Clinton's, 693 Bloor St. W at Clinton St. (one block east of the Christie subway station)
Time: 7-9 pm

Tuesday, November 3, Nanaimo
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Angus Taylor (Philosophy Dept., University of Victoria, author of Animals and Ethics)
Location: Vancouver Island University, Building 355 (Liberal Studies, First Nations Studies), Room 211
Time: 4-6 pm

Thursday, November 5, Victoria
Book Launch / Discussion Forum ("We Are What We Eat") Don LePan with Angus Taylor (Philosophy Dept., University of Victoria, author of Animals and Ethics) and Nicole Shukin (English Dept., University of Victoria, author of Animal Capital)
Location: University of Victoria, Room to be announced
Time: 4-6 pm

Thursday, November 19, Montreal
Book Launch Don LePan with Claude Lalumiere (author of the just-published collection of short fiction Objects of Worship)
Location: to be announced
Time: to be announced

Sunday, December 6, Calgary
Book Launch Don LePan with Linden MacIntyre (author of the just-published novel The Bishop’s Man)
Location: Plaza Theatre (hosted by Pages-on-Kensington Books)
Time: 11am-1pm