Thursday, November 24, 2011

Grumpy Old Men (On Richler and Sendak)

At my Jewish high school in Montreal, Mordecai Richler, of course, was a bit of a hero. Whether or not he liked it, and even though he relentlessly lampooned the Jewish community, he was still one of ours. February at our school was public speaking month. So, every February, the teachers compiled and distributed a list of quotations to all of us groaning, gawky teenagers – possible speech topics from which we were to choose. Each year, not unexpectedly, writing from Richler’s books was excavated and placed completely out of context on this public speaking list. Richler’s “memorable quotes” could be read alongside pieces of wisdom from the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.
A recurring favourite was a piece of dialogue lifted from a scene in Duddy Kravitz. Drunk Aunt Ida tells Duddy: “The human personality is like an iceberg. Nine tenths of it remains submerged.” Of course, our teachers chose this quote because it’s something all teenagers feel: misunderstood.  So, predictably, each year, earnest speeches of the you-don’t-know-me variety proliferated. We applauded our classmates and felt better about ourselves.

We had no idea where these words came from, so neatly pared down and packaged as generic “inspirational quote.” We didn’t know, but our teachers did. They knew that Duddy, by way of response, thought, Ver gerharget! or drop dead

They were making fun of us.

Appropriately, of course, because Richler was famous for making fun. The fragile teenage psyche certainly didn’t escape his mockery. He also ridiculed Pierre Trudeau, the Jewish community, the Church, the Montreal police, and other writers. Byron was a "sicko," Dylan Thomas "a schnorrer born" (that's a sponger, for those of you who'd like to add another Yiddish word to your vocabulary and help keep a dying language alive - alas! alas!).  Celebrated writers in general are "outrageous liars, philanderers, drunks, druggies, unsuitable babysitters, plagiarists, psychopaths, cowards, indifferent dads or moms and bad credit risks." He also gently mocked his friends, his family, and above all, himself. Have you read Barney’s Version?  (Have you at least seen the movie? I missed the one weekend it played in Fredericton because I was occupied complaining about how the local cinema never shows the good movies. But my friend Jacob went to high school with the lady who plays Barney’s daughter and I saw her at a bar one time. Just saying.)

Richler has been on my mind because another of my favourite curmudgeons, Maurice Sendak, has recently released a new book, Bumble-Ardy, and he’s had a lot of publicity. He's a popular interview subject because he makes these crabby pronouncements that the interviewer imagines will get her readers all hot and lathered and sending outraged e-mails. For instance, he tells The Guardian's Emma Brockes, of Salman Rushdie, "He's detestable. I called up the Ayatollah, nobody knows that." Brockes notes that Rushdie once gave Sendak a terrible review in The New York Times, and he's nursed the grudge ever since. So, you see, it’s really about him. Are they narcissists? Sure, but that is part of the game. The thing about Sendak and Richler is, they give offense, but with such a strong sense of self-mockery that it's hard to stay angry. My favourite moment in the Brockes interview is when Sendak says of his dog, an Alsatian called Herman, "He's German.” After a beat, he adds, “He doesn't know I'm Jewish." This kind of sweet self-effacement covers all manner of sins. Sendak pokes fun, and if you're not laughing, well, then, you're a tedious thing, aren't you?

I love these writers because their writing is iconoclastic. Sendak says that he refuses “to cater to the bull — of innocence”: the children in his books are as “ferocious, inventive and troublesome as they are in real life.” Richler just had everybody wringing their hands. I love these writers because their utter irreverence is so calculated. They are smart, incisive, funny, and totally uncompromising.

The knowledge that the author of Where the Wild Things Are is an irate (but mostly loveable) man comforts me. It gives me hope that I, too, could someday tread a little less lightly in my writing. I’ve had Richler and Sendak on the brain because, as I make progress on my thesis (honest, Ross!), I’m beginning to realize how much I censor myself. Instead of saying what I mean, I find myself writing into an idea(l). I try to be nice, or sparse, or pretty, when really, I would like my writing to be more like theirs – uncompromising, just a little. 

Sarah Bernstein
Editorial Assistant

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Small Presses, Literary Magazines, and the “big times”

Interesting conversation going on over at Hayden’s Ferry Review on what is the role of the small press (including literary magazines) other than as a stepping stone to the “big times” (major publishers). Seems to me that the big times just got a whole lot bigger and a whole lot smaller in recent times. Bigger in that some writers and their books are getting more exposure and publicity than ever. Smaller in that fewer and fewer writers are getting any type of exposure or support at all in the big-time world. Not surprising since the big-time world's foundations are built on the bottom line.

The small presses meanwhile usually survive with their caps in hand. In these environments, risk is not to be avoided but often to be encouraged. In the case of The Fiddlehead, speaking for myself, my interest lies solely in the writing. While I have no interest in discovering the next big thing, I have great interest in discovering the next best story. Sometimes they arrive that way, and sometimes it means working with a writer to probe it out. That's an end in itself. While small presses and literary magazines are often used as stepping stones, they are more rightly to be considered cornerstones that all other stones ought to be set in reference to.

Gerard Beirne
Fiction Co-editor

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Acclaimed Author Steven Heighton Reading at UNB Fredericton

Poet, novelist, and short-story writer Steven Heighton will be reading from his new novel, Every Lost Country, on Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 at 8 pm in the Alumni Memorial Lounge.

 The novel, Every Lost Country, and the collection of poetry, Patient Frame, were published to acclaim in 2010, and a collection of his writing, entitled Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing, is forthcoming in 2011 from ECW. His most recent novel is the story of Lewis Book, a politically strong-willed doctor, who travels to Nepal with his daughter to join a climbing expedition. When the travellers encounter a group of Tibetan refugees attempting to evade Chinese soldiers, Lewis intervenes. He and Amaris, another member of their expedition, are caught up in the events and captured by the Chinese soldiers. The climbers are forced into dangerous circumstances as they work desperately to help their companions. The novel has recently been optioned for film by Rhombus Media.

Steven Heighton is the author of three novels, Shadow Boxer (2000), Afterlands (2005), and Every Lost Country, as well as five books of poetry, including The Ecstasy of Skeptics (1994), Address Book (2004), and Patient Frame (2010). Heighton has received the National Magazine Award gold medal for poetry and fiction, was a finalist for the Trillium Award and the Governor General's Award for Poetry, and received the K. M. Hunter Award for literature.
Most recently he has received the 2011 P.K. Page Founders' Award for Poetry from the Malahat Review for the poem "Jetlag" which is included in his collection Patient Frame.

The reading is presented by the UNB English Department, the Canada Council for the Arts, the UNB Fredericton Bookstore, & The Fiddlehead journal.

Admission is free and all are welcome to attend.

Monday, November 14, 2011

RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers: Call for Submissions

The Writers Trust of Canada is accepting submissions for RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. To be eligible a submitter must be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, under the age of 35, unpublished in book form and without a book contract, but whose literary work has appeared in at least one independently edited magazine or anthology.

A prize of $5,000 will be awarded to the best collection of short fiction. Two honourable mentions will each receive $1,000 prizes. The deadline for submissions is 30 January 2012.

Submissions should be sent to:
RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers
c/o The Writers' Trust of Canada
90 Richmond Street East, Suite 200
Toronto, Ontario, M5C 1P1

For further information visit or contact:
416-504-8222 ext 242 or

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Breathe, Just Breate

I know, I know: I can hardly believe it either. We have to wait another two months for the next issue of The Fiddlehead?! That’s unbearable! Insurmountable! Simply and indefatigably inconceivable! Woe is us.

After tiring of twiddling my thumbs and obsessively checking my mail box, I’ve ventured out into the big bad world to find other ways to while away the time. While strolling the aisles at my local bookstore, I ran across a most peculiar invention called the “novel” (pronounced: naahhh-vuuul). From what I can tell, it’s like an issue of The Fiddlehead, except longer and with only one story; strange stuff (this must be one of those silly side projects authors take on as a reprieve from the serious work of writing short stories). One naahh-vuuul in particular caught my eye: White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

I thought White Teeth was a DIY book about dentistry; what I found instead was one of the most nuanced and sophisticated representations of contemporary immigrant life that I’ve read thus far. Commendations on the novel’s thematic triumphs need not be contrived by this humble author as institutions such as The New Yorker, Guardian and Financial Times have safely lionized this text as one of the most celebrated of the past two decades. But the most striking yet undervalued aspect of White Teeth, from my reading, is Smith’s awareness of the constrictions placed upon writing by those reading it – of the insistent and insufferable question demanded ad naseum, “but what does this mean?"

Smith toys with this nagging demand of the salivating critical public when she writes, “Clara Bowden was magnificently tall, black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair plaited in a horseshoe which pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn't. At this moment it was up. It is hard to know whether that was significant.” And that’s it. No rumination on the direction of her hair foreshadowing the direction of her fate, no subliminal message hidden beneath the rough plats of her horseshoe ‘do. And what a fresh breath of air that is.

Don’t misunderstand me: a story must certainly possess artistic merit and thematic gravity to make it memorable, but too often readers (including myself here) ascribe capital M “Meaning” to every single detail, searching for depth where there is none. In this day and age where cultural phenomena such as “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” have become standard forms of public entertainment, it’s understandable why some seek to ascribe significance to every witty turn of the pen – to which Smith’s White Teeth responds with resounding hilarity: for the love of all things literary, just relax.

Sometimes, a writer isn’t trying to educate you. Sometimes, all they want to do is entertain you. So let them.

Christina Cooke
Editorial Assistant

Charlie Rose interview with Zadie Smith Aug. 2000

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Timothy Taylor Reading at UNB Fredericton

Timothy Taylor, Giller-prize nominated author of Stanley Park, will be reading from his new novel, The Blue Light Project, on Tuesday, November 15th at 8 pm in the Alumni Memorial Lounge.

Taylor's new novel, The Blue Light Project, is the story of a hostage taking at a television studio during the filming of a controversial talent show. The only demand of the man armed with explosives  is an interview with a disgraced journalist. As the media circus unfolds, a former olympic gold medalist and a mysterious street artist named Rabbit are drawn into the events that culminate in a dramatic climax that surprises everyone involved.

Timothy Taylor is the author of three novels, including Stanley Park (2001) and Story House (2006), as well as a collection of short-stories, Silent Cruise (2002). Taylor was awarded the Journey Prize in 2000 for his short story "Doves of Townsend," and has been a finalist or runner-up for six other major national fiction prizes in Canada. His non-fiction work has been widely published in magazines and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the National Post, the Vancouver Review, EnRoute Magazine, and a recurring Big Ideas column for the Globe and Mail's Report on Business Magazine.

The reading is presented by the UNB English Department, the Canada Council for the Arts, the UNB Fredericton Bookstore, & The Fiddlehead journal.

Admission is free and all are welcome to attend.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fiddlehead Congratulations

Congratulations to Paul Tyler, winner of this year's Archibald Lampman Award for his first collection of poetry A Short History of Forgetting (Gaspereau Press 2010). Two of his poems, "Somewhere near the end of song" and "Manitoba Maples"were published in The Fiddlehead 241 (Autumn 2009).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Come one, Come All ….. The Fiddlehead Contest closes in One Month!

Only one month remaining to enter The Fiddlehead’s 21st Annual Contest!  There’s a total of $5000 in prize monies to be awarded and the winning entries will be published in The Fiddlehead’s spring 2012 issue.

 Remember the deadline is December 1st (postmarked) and all contestants receive a one-year subscription for each entry. For more details check out our website’s contest submission page.