What is Good Writing?

typewriter

BECAUSE I KNOW that some of my readers are also writers, I post an occasional essay on writing. If the topic of writing bores you, here’s my essay on Anna Hazare and Gandhi for your consideration. Or perhaps you might enjoy this essay about Disney. For the rest of you, here are my thoughts on good writing.

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The Roundtable Podcast 58

Week of 28.12.2013

2013

Thousands across eastern Canada still in the dark | Stephen Harper thanks ‘brave men and women in uniform’ in annual Christmas message | Canada departs Afghanistan in 100 days | Featured Article: The Corporate “Free Speech” Racket – How corporations are using the First Amendment to destroy government regulation | Associated Press announces Top 10 stories of 2013 | Music: Ian and Sylvia, “Got No More Home Than A Dog” | Edward Snowden says government surveillance now far worse than George Orwell’s 1984 envisioned | Activists clear to come home after Russian charges dropped | Wisconsin Has So Much Cheese They’re Using it to De-Ice the Roads | Botched circumcision allegations against Quebec doctor grow | 27 Things to Leave Behind in 2014

Download entire podcast (320 kbps mp3) | Visit The Roundtable on Facebook.

What difference does it make what Michael Ignatieff says?

Michael Ignatieff

In his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell observed that “if one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible.” By his reckoning, nationalism is a matter of sentiment mixed with a desire for power and prestige; “swayed by partisan feelings … there is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed.”

There are several passages that Barbara Kay may have had in mind when she concluded, in her essay “Michael Ignatieff hands Quebec separatists an unexpected gift,” that “Professor Ignatieff has just cheerfully thrown us all under a bus for the pleasure of adding colour to an international interview. Orwell was right about intellectuals.” One concerns war propaganda that he noticed being spread about by academics. Observing the credulity of certain intellectuals, the author of Animal Farm and 1984 dryly observed that (I am citing this from memory) some notions are so absurd that only an educated person could believe them. There is also a passage, again from “Notes on Nationalism,” which comes to mind: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe [these follies]: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

It’s dangerous for any writer to quote Orwell, more dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism, and most dangerous to cite Notes on Nationalism in an article about nationalism. I know what I’m talking about: I lived nearly a decade in Quebec, and in that time I absorbed the lesson that a rational, dispassionate discussion of separatism in Canada is a rarity. Orwell’s essay is saturated with the cautionary observation that in such matters “no unbiased outlook is possible” and that the best one can hope for is an “essentially moral effort” to struggle against our own loves and hatreds.

I labour this point because, having listened to the Ignatieff interview , I was surprised at how measured it was, when juxtaposed with the partisan reactions. It is objectively true that Canada, since 1980, has undergone political decentralization. It is furthermore objectively true that fiscal and monetary policies uniquely bind Quebec to the federation. Less certain are Ignatieff’s claims that the two solitudes have nothing to say to one another, and that Canada is on a path logically tending to separation, but what affront is there in considering these possibilities as possibilities?

Only the affront to sentiment, and the power-and-prestige contests with which readers of Orwell are well familiar, stand in the way. Accordingly, Heritage Minister James Moore attacked Ignatieff’s statements as “arrogant, irresponsible and narcissistic,” while NDP leader Thomas Mulcair noted his own opportunity to pander, accusing the Liberals of obstructing his party’s past efforts “to give real meaning” to the recognition of Quebec nationhood. (More note should have been taken of this loaded declaration.) The Quebec premier, stumbling in the polls, reassured federalists while invoking the destructive intentions of the PQ leader, Pauline Marois. Soon everyone had their partisan speaking points on the podium, each declaiming over the others. Could it really be that there are only two solitudes in this country?

Kay’s central assertion that the former Liberal leader had “just handed [the] separatists a metaphorical bunker buster,” may have fallen short of the truth. By the time the sunlight had arrived to Canada’s shore, everyone was armed. The fury however overlooked the inadmissable fact that no one much cares what Mr. Ignatieff thinks and says. During the last federal campaign I had argued that this was a shame, and that the Liberal leader was himself largely responsible for it. Despite having thought a good deal about topics like war, foreign policy, nationalism, and terrorism — and despite having written numerous books on these and other topics — Michael Ignatieff dishonestly campaigned as if he were the down-home, plaid-and-ballcap type he most clearly is not. As a result, he bored everyone even more than he might have had he actually talked ideas. But for the purposes of nationalism, his not-so-outrageous speculations had to be dangerous and potent. The man who proved himself capable of sinking a political party had to be seen as capable of sinking a country also. This is a case of folly, the swallowing of which I don’t recommend. If Mr. Ignatieff possessed the power to direct the fate of a nation, he would not now be back at his other day job, leaving behind the also-rans of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Remembering Christopher Hitchens

I FIRST CAME across the writer Christopher Hitchens when he was a young Socialist contributing his “Minority Report” to the Nation. Very much yet in his soixante-huitard, Trotskyist phase, if not in possession any longer of his Socialist International card, he reminded me of my favourite writer, George Orwell.

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How Writers Write

THERE IS an enormous store of narrative concerning the working habits of authors, much of it interesting and in my case consumed with amusement but skepticism also.

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How Different are Anna Hazare and Mohandas Gandhi?

IN RECENT days, critics of the so-called anti-corruption activist and Lokpal Bill agitator, Anna Hazare, have contested the notion that a Gandhi-like leader today walks among us. A National Post article, “Gandhian lookalike good for the messiah business, bad for democracy,” summarizes the efforts to refute the analogy. The question arises however: is Hazare really that different from the man with whom he so eagerly connects himself?

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Bill Hicks and the Comedy of Wishing Things Were Otherwise

bill-hicks

THE TRAILER FOR Matt Harlock’s and Paul Thomas’s 2009 documentary film “The Bill Hicks Story” begins with a quotation attributed by Charles Walker to George Orwell in a 2000 book called My Few Wise Words of Wisdom: In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

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The Compulsion to Write (pt. 2)

In his essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell identifies the following: 1. Sheer Egoism (“desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc”), 2. Aesthetic enthusiasm (“perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their arrangement”) 3. Historical impulse (“desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity”), and 4. Political purpose (“desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”). Knowing that I would be writing this essay, I tried to improve upon this list, but to no success. There is only one conceivable addition, approaching the matter as a male heterosexual writer: 5. To bed women. Continue reading “The Compulsion to Write (pt. 2)”

The Compulsion to Write (pt. 1)

Illustration by Anthony Russo

I was eight years old and urinating in the bathroom of my parents’ Central Avenue house when the precise words manifesting a desire to fill my life with writing first came into my conscious mind. Why this thought occurred to me at so late a date, I am unable to say. Continue reading “The Compulsion to Write (pt. 1)”

(Big) Business As Usual

[Originally published in ASH Magaine, Volume Four Number Three, Summer 1997.]

Now and then I find myself in a philosophical mood, pondering the evolution of this creature called ASH. I think it’s a healthy activity, the more so since I’m inclined these days not to take the magazine too seriously. I’d like to leave behind me a respectable corpus when I at long last turn my attention elsewhere, but I know also that ASH is likely never to attain a status beyond the obscurity common to small publications.

I confess this disappoints me — and not merely for its humbling effect on the ego. You see, I had a conversation once with a business-minded fellow, who maintained that the market should decide the outcome in all matters. He noted the widespread reliance of Canadian magazines on government funding (ASH is an exception) and wondered aloud: Why sustain a magazine read by so few that it needs taxpayers’ money just to survive? Indeed. I must say the logic, bolstered by economic concepts such as “utility maximization,” seemed to me to be solid. But when I drew out its implications and followed them to their conclusions, I was left with a rather troubling picture.

The image I had in my mind was of a culture that could never have enough movie celebrities, rock stars, elite athletes, arms traders, investment bankers, futures speculators, and corporate lawyers: for their market value is, it appears, without limit. As for, say, motherhood (that sacred job which is praised to the skies at appropriate occasions by businessmen and politicians), well, it has no market value whatsoever; and nearly the same is true of all the so-called “caring” professions and the many wage-labour jobs which have long sustained our privileged standard of living. Think about it: much that we might reasonably claim dignifies and enriches life, much which makes this world more than merely bearable, is practically valueless, economically speaking. Remember Mike Harris’s contempt, oft-expressed in the 1995 Ontario election campaign, for welfare mothers, who don’t do anything? Such contempt is one of the free market’s proud accomplishments, and a remarkable accomplishment it is.

I suspect my business-minded acquaintance is now pleased. His vision of an efficient, competitive, rational, growth-centred world has triumphed, and we shall live for many years to come its social and ecological consequences. The New World Order has its bureaucracy (the economists, policy experts, and investment gurus who now make regular appearances on the evening news and the bestseller lists), its constitution (the General Agreement on Trade and Tarrifs), and its Bill of Rights (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment). The message for the masses is also vaguely familiar: believe, submit, and you’ll be rewarded in a future life.

Perhaps the market knows best in some matters — magazines, for instance. In any case, I’m inclined these days to keep ASH going, if only that it might be a voice crying in the market wilderness. It’s an obscure voice, as I’ve already acknowledged, and so there’s little hope ASH might counter effectively the fallacious claims of the economic experts who dominate the landscape. The very attempt risks the pomposity and the intolerable self-righteousness that usually attend those who are convinced they’re on a mission from God. So much, you might then say, for not taking ASH too seriously.

Self-righteousness isn’t the only temptation to which the dissenters are susceptible, as the global economic empire discloses what appears to many to be a heartless agenda. Have you noticed the abundance of books in the last few years with the phrase “The End Of” in their titles? All about us, the horsemen are assuming the saddle in gleeful anticipation of the apocalypse. Unfortunately for them, there’s no end in sight. It’s (big) business as usual.

Not long ago I read George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, a book that makes me wonder why Orwell is represented in the school curricula by Animal Farm and 1984. Wigan Pier is really two books in one: the first half describes in horrific detail the lives of U.K. miners during the 1930s, and the second half is a scathing look at the people who propose to improve matters by adopting socialism. Orwell of course considered himself a socialist, but his temperament was such that he could never settle into a dogmatic understanding of human affairs. The possessor of a keen, sceptical mind, Orwell had the habit of bringing into his work troubling details — such as his observation that many a would-be “bourgeois Socialist” of his day was at heart an “old Etonian”:

Perhaps once, out of sheer bravado, he has smoked a cigar with the band on, but it would be almost physically impossible for him to put pieces of cheese into his mouth on the point of his knife, or to sit indoors with his cap on, or even to drink his tea out of the saucer. … It can only be because in his heart he feels that proletarian manners are disgusting.

Wigan Pier is full of such scandal, much of it delivered at the author’s expense. Orwell could be, and often was, indignant in the face of injustice, but I’ve yet to catch him indulging in self-righteous cant or doom-saying. It’s this balanced cast of mind that strikes me as Orwell’s greatest contribution to the dissenters’ canon, a contribution well worth recalling.

As it has turned out, Orwell’s works have thus far escaped obscurity. It would be silly to hope for the same outcome in the case of ASH, but that isn’t the point. In the here and now, there’s plenty of Orwellian work to be done — and after all, I’ve only said I’d like to leave a respectable corpus.