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Lies That Writers Tell Themselves

And Americans who tell more than Canadians.

Crawford Kilian 7 Nov

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He has published 22 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in 1967-68 and was an instructor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. He is interested in books, online media, public health and environmental and climate issues.

Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and received a bachelor of arts from Columbia University in 1962 and a master's from Simon Fraser University in 1972. He served in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1965, and became a naturalized Canadian in 1973 after moving to Vancouver in 1967. One of his favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

He lives in North Vancouver. Find him on Twitter @Crof or visit his health blog at H5N1.

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When I went to see Capote the other day, I half-expected the kind of bogus vision of the writer's life that I attacked here last year in "Lies the Movies Taught Me": a romantic dream of money, fame, sex and hardly any work.

Instead, Capote showed a vision of lies that writers tell themselves, and, in particular, American writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that the test of genius is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's head at the same time and still function. He was one of a whole string of such geniuses.

The lie started with Horatio Alger, if not earlier: the vision of the poor outsider who, through Luck and Pluck, Helping Himself, would be Brave and Bold and therefore Bound to Rise.

A Culture of Optimism

Alger's dime novels built a culture of optimism. Nineteenth-century America was a pretty squalid place for most people and especially for the poor. In dramatizing their dream of upward social mobility, Alger offered his readers both blessing and curse: If they did rise, it was thanks to their own merits and character. If they failed to rise, it was their own damn fault.

Without that prospect of success, working-class Americans might have become as seriously socialist as their European cousins, who were under no illusions about their future. And middle-class Americans, with no dream but holding their own, might have embraced fascism as Jack London expected them to in his prophetic novel The Iron Heel.

Yet London was himself a dupe of the American dream of success. He had risen bravely and boldly from the oyster pirates of San Francisco Bay to become a world-famous and extremely rich author.

Even as he flayed the American dream in his novels, London embodied it in his life. Hard work led to success: a thousand words a day became 51 books and hundreds of articles. And then he died at 40.

The Jack London Syndrome

Jack London defined a kind of syndrome for generations of American male novelists (and screenwriters): come from an impoverished group of outsiders, attack the social values of the insiders, grow rich enough to become an insider, and destroy yourself.

World War I intensified American writers' criticism of the dream. Hemingway gave us inept semi-soldiers like Frederick Henry and mutilated veterans like Jake Barnes. Scott Fitzgerald gave us Gatsby, the ideal Alger hero, who rises from nowhere, makes notes to himself for self-improvement and ends up dead in a swimming pool.

William Faulkner showed a southern culture driven not by noble values, but by the screams and tantrums of an idiot child. Sinclair Lewis sneered at Babbitt and his unthinking endorsement of the American dream.

Of course, alcohol and depression plagued these writers, not to mention "lesser" authors like Dashiell Hammett. Having published a string of brilliant crime novels, Hammett fell silent. He did jail time for his political views, but as a writer, he died young.

Middle-Class Outsiders

The syndrome began with London, a working-class kid and then moved up the social scale a bit to the middle class-but the outsider middle class of the hinterlands, of the Midwest and the South. In the 1930s, it moved to the ethnic outsiders: first the Jews like Budd Schulberg and then the blacks like Ralph Ellison.

It also included writers on the far left, who often overlapped with the ethnic writers. Schulberg was only one of many Reds who ended up with movie contracts and swimming pools. They too toppled into disaster: either they named names or ended up on the blacklist. Alcoholism ruined stool pigeons and Stalinists alike.

In the 1950s, Beats like Jack Kerouac made a fortune as outsiders; some, like Ginsberg, avoided the self-destructive part of the pattern, but Kerouac did not.

By the 1960s, when Truman Capote and James Baldwin came into their own, it was the turn of the gays. And as Capote makes clear, he used his outsider status to make himself an insider, a wielder of power even as he condemned the excessive power of the state. As outsider and insider alike, he ruined himself with alcohol.

Obviously, not every great literary American male writer has followed the pattern, but enough have done so to make us wonder about those who did not. Gore Vidal is both a social critic and a gay, yet he continues at 80 to damn and blast America with the gusto of youth. Perhaps it's because he was born an insider and chose to move outside. Tom Wolfe is in his 70s and is another survivor, but perhaps it's because he started late in fiction.

The Jack London syndrome seems to have faded in recent years. I think it was Philip Roth, who in the 1970s, complained no satirist could match in fiction what America could produce in fact. Maybe that's why social criticism has dropped from the literary scene. Or perhaps it's just that women, who seem immune to the syndrome, have dominated American fiction for a generation or more.

Why No Canadians?

Strikingly, the London pattern has rarely, if ever, surfaced in Canadian literature. We've had our self-destructive writers, like Malcolm Lowry, but he really had little to say about social problems. He was a critic, mostly, of the alcohol that killed him. Besides, he was a Brit, a kind of modern remittance man, without the remittance.

Canadian male writers have ranted against Canadian social ills and carried on doing so into great old age, like Farley Mowat, Morley Callaghan and Earle Birney. Canadian male authors have been hard drinkers, panting womanizers and sometimes plain nasty. But they've kept their wits and their powers, just like their female colleagues.

Perhaps it's a matter of scale. American fiction, once Mark Twain freed it from its colonial deference to English literature, was determined to be the biggest and best, ready to go into the ring with Tolstoy, if need be. American society was both an inviting target and an impossible one; how could you criticize such a huge and gaudy success?

So the American geniuses found that they actually couldn't hold two opposing ideas and still function. But Canadians, who have exchanged one colonial literary master for another, seem both less ambitious and more successful. They satirize both themselves and their American cousins, but they don't lie to themselves that their work will lead inexorably to movie sales and interviews with Oprah. At best, they hope for a Canada Council grant, or a writer-in-residence gig at some tolerable university.

No one will ever make a movie called Coupland or Richler and invite us to contemplate the corruption of a social prophet. And it's probably just as well.

Crawford Kilian has published 11 novels and hopes to publish one or two more, preferably without destroying himself in the process.  [Tyee]

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