Salty Ink on The Article That Shook the Country (but shouldn’t have)

Everyone is raging or applauding about Steven Beattie and Alex Good’s bold article — Don’t Believe the Hype: 10 Overrated Canadian Authors — that appeared in The Afterword this week. On it, names like Michael Ondaatje and Yann Martel.

Why all the hoopla over one article?

I don’t like outright attacks — they lack critical merit — but an article like this, co-penned by a man of Beattie’s literary intellect, is entirely important for the very fact that it can cause such uproar. It is the spirit of the article that I am behind: making Canadian readers, critics, and jurors as comfortable with talking poorly of a big name as readily as they would talk poorly of a less established name. Otherwise a writer coasts along on their name and not their literary merit. Not to say I agree with their whole list, just that, at some point, this industry became all about marketing over literary merit, and that creates a disparity between our most acclaimed writers and our finest writers. An article like this — right or wrong — gets people talking. And that takes a lot these days. It takes an article as bold as this.

Sure, their article was harsh, and glossed over the fact that “good literature” is subjective — Ondaatje is brilliant to some and densely impenetrable to others, but those others should be able to say so, without repercussion, shouldn’t they? The point of all of this hoopla over one article is this: No one loses it over a critic calling an established writer subpar unless that writer is someone like Ondaatje. If his next book is crap his next book is crap, and a critic would say so about anyone else. If you grant an iconic writer immunity from criticism it is a disservice to what CanLit is, because what it is to me is a fresh, crisp, ever-evolving thing. But not if we are buying and awarding names over books. Not even when the author earned their reputation, because people in every profession  — boxing, carpentry, politics — know when to retire. (Or when to make a comeback. I am not implying writers whither over time, as most do not. I’d like to think we improve with each book, as I certainly hope to.) Besides, a writer without a thick skin is in the wrong profession anyway, and, a writer who thinks s/he is great, too great for criticism, is done evolving and getting better. And is therefore done.

Back on track here: I know people who think Ondaatje is a literary Jesus … yet they’ve read one, if that, of his books. Where does that mentality come from? It comes from an industry more preoccupied with marketing than literary merit. And fair enough, we all want books to sell, but not if selling names over selling stellar writing stunts CanLit’s evolution and becomes the difference between who its key players are and who they ought to be. Now. Not then. Take Amy Jones’s What Boys Like, for example. It did as much for the evolution of CanLit in 2009 as any other book, but if an article had of called it crap and over rated, would the country have dropped its jaw and lost its mind? No. It wouldn’t have. That’s my point. Everyone should be equally susceptible to criticism, but the reaction to this article means they’re not. That is not good for Canadian literature. I like David Adams Richards, when someone says there’s no story in CanLit anymore, I throw a copy of Mercy Among the Children in their lap. But it is okay by me that these two don’t like the guy. In fact, they’ve earned my respect for expressing the bold opinion.

Steven W. Beattie is not God, Michael Ondaatje is not God, and no one is going to write a book that everyone likes. The important thing is that it remains okay for people to say what they want, despite who they are saying it about, because that is what keeps literature diverse. It is healthy that big-named authors be as susceptible to slander as lesser known or emerging authors, and it is a good sign no one can agree who the best and worst writers are: because what a lame and stagnant thing CanLit would be if we could all agree about that.

Cowardly disclaimer: I am not endorsing Beattie and Good’s list or the nature of their comments, just applauding the spirit behind it.

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