Monday, February 22, 2010

Reader's Diary #583- Stacey May Fowles: Three-Legged Dog


I need to get something off my chest before I begin. Stacey May Fowles is NOT the "First Lady of Canadian Fiction" any more than I am the King of Canadian Blogs. Where did she get that title? I sure hope it wasn't Fowles herself because an arbitrary title of grandeur doesn't make it truth. And seriously, shouldn't Fowles have to pay a lot more dues than she has to get such a nickname? Not Margaret Atwood, not Margaret Laurence, not Carol Shields, not Alice Munro, but Stacey May Fowles? Even putting the question of a certain lack of popularity aside, she's published just two novels. Two.

Where does this rant come from? Stacey May Fowles has a book in the National Post's Canada Also Reads, and, as you may have heard, I'm a panelist (defending Steve Zipp's Yellowknife). As you may not have heard, we will not really be debating the other books as much as we will be defending our own. I only found out that I was a panelist on February 9th. We are not being given the other 7 books to read (actually the Workhorsery was kind enough to send me a free copy of Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates) and even if we had, few of us would have the time to cram in 7 novels in less than a month. But I'd still like to know a little something about the competition. I'm now relying on short stories to get a feel for their writing.

Back in January of '08 I read Mark Antony Jarman's "the Cougar." I had misgivings about it as I struggled to decide whether or not his style was unique in an experimental way or in a "I'm just trying to be cool" sort of way.

In February of '08 I read Leon Rooke's "Yellow House." I found it to be "relentless" and I remember how I didn't expect to enjoy a story with ample doses of magical realism, yet I did.

In February of '09 I read Jessica Grant's "Humanesque" and found it confusing but fun.

With their unique voices, I expect these three to be stiff competition come March.

So, I move on to try and familiarize myself with the others. Stacey May Fowles' novel Fear of Fighting is also a Canada Also Reads contender, being defended by Zoe Whittal. I found Fowles' short story "Three-Legged Dog" at the Lies With Occasional Truth website, which has the brainless audacity to call itself "The World's Greatest Fiction Magazine." (Remind you of anyone else's silly title?)

There's a psychology experiment I once read that goes a little something like this: subjects are shown faces from which to pick the most beautiful eyes, nose, lips, chin and so on. Next, the best features are all used to create a composite face. Finally, subjects are shown all the faces again, plus the composite face, and asked to pick their favourite overall face. Researchers are surprised to learn that the composite face is rarely chosen. However, most of the general population are less than shocked. We know that there is such a thing as too perfect. We know that so called imperfections are what keeps things interesting.

However, the narrator in Fowles' "Three-Legged Dog" seems to think this is unique to her and waxes on and on about it, crossing the line from navel-gazing to superiority complex as the story moves slowly forward. The first two thirds of the story is basically an extended and implied boast. An argument can be made that she takes the taste for the flawed to an extreme, but her incessant "look at how interesting I am" is annoying rather than charming. There is a suggestion of growth, of a realization, towards the end, but at that point I stopped caring.

I hope the narrator is not indicative of Fowles herself, and especially not of her other writing. Then again, if she's the competition, maybe I do.

I would like to say that I admire Fowles' for giving free ebook copies of Fear of Fighting away on her website until April.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

25 comments:

August said...

I think the title is tongue-in-cheek, and I can't see Miss Stacy May giving it to herself. I haven't read any of her short works, but Be Good was a very strong first effort. Fear of Fighting has been lost in the black hole that is my coffee table for about a year now, but I rescued it last week, so if I get through the 5 books I have left to read in the 16 days, I'll give it a shot right away.

John Mutford said...

August: If you Google her name and that title, you'll see that it wasn't a one time deal and it very often accompanies her author bio, so even if she didn't give herself that name, she supports it. As for it being tongue in cheek, what's the joke? That she's somewhat obscure and the title is having fun with that? If so, you have to admit, the joke gets old.

Regardless, none of that (her title or my problem with it) suggests that she isn't, in fact, a great writer. Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. If I was to base it solely on this short story (which I wouldn't do), I'd say isn't. However, I'm pleased to hear that you enjoyed Be Good.

carolsnotebook said...

I've never read anything by Fowles and I don't think I'll be a hurry to.

I read Chicxublub by Boyle.

http://carolsnotebook.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/chicxulub-by-t-coraghessan-boyle/

Margot at Joyfully Retired said...

I've never read Ms. Fowles' work either but now you have me curious. I like your idea of trying short stories to assess an author's work. I tried a new-to-me mystery writer's short story this week. I will probably skip her books based on it.

You can find it here.

Chris said...

Um, I hadn't heard of her until now, so I'd say she's not. She'd have some pretty big shoes to fill if she really was to claim that title.

August said...

Somewhat obscure? She's the publisher of a small but influential magazine (Shameless) and director of circulation for the Walrus, and though she's only written two novels, she's edited one other and is pretty heavily involved in the literary community in other ways--just not very much online. She's not Margaret Atwood, but she's not exactly a brand new voice either.

I couldn't tell you what the joke is (could be a Neal Pollock kind of thing--he's far from obscure, but all his press statements and bios have always been self-aggrandizing in some exaggeratedly ironic way), but the more I've gotten to know about her over the last couple years--still haven't met her yet, though--there's no way I can believe she's serious. I think you're reading way too much into it.

August said...

Er, the book she edited wasn't a novel. I suck at proof-reading my comments.

But her work has also been included in at least five other anthologies of stories and essays. You and I just aren't her demographic (she'd probably be a much bigger name for you if you were, say, an urban teenage girl looking for Canadian writing about feminism and sexual identity).

raidergirl3 said...

I think we've found your problem John.

JoAnn said...

You mean you aren't the King of Canadian Blogs???
I've not read Fowles, but will try a short story. My post is a story by Zora Neale Hurston in honor of Black Histoty Month:
http://lakesidemusing.blogspot.com/2010/02/short-story-monday-eatonville-anthology.html

John Mutford said...

August: I guess somewhat obscure depends on your vantage point. Until Canada Also Reads, and now researching about Fowles, I'd not heard of Shameless. I'd venture to guess most Canadians haven't. And while I have heard of and have read the Walrus, being the director of circulation hardly makes her a household name. Look, I'm not denying that she's accomplished some impressive things, but I stick by the somewhat obscure comment. If not for the "First Lady of Canadian Fiction" bit, I wouldn't have felt the need to even comment in the first place, but there you have it. Am I reading too much into it? Possibly.

August said...

Like I said, John, not our demographic. Shameless is a feminist mag aimed at (mostly urban) teenage girls. It's not a huge magazine, but I haven't come across a newsstand that doesn't carry it in I don't know how long.

She's also the Director of Marketing for the Walrus, but like I said, most of her involvement is offline. (Her name seems to crop up a lot at things like the IFOA, Word on the Street, Eden Mill, Book Camp, etc., but again mostly for things that don't necessarily cater to you or I.)

I suppose you're right that most Canadians don't know who she is, but then most Canadians probably couldn't tell you who Guy Vangerhaeghe is either (or Leon Rooke, for that matter), despite his success. But she has gotten *a lot* of critical/industry/blogger attention in the last year or so, and she seems to me, anyway, to be around the same level of recognition as Brian Joseph Davis and Emily Schultz, perhaps even a notch above.

I just really don't see the source of so much hostility for a promising young up-and-comer and a tiny little journal that is face-smackingly-obviously taking the piss.

John Mutford said...

August: Please don't misread my beef with the title "First Lady of Canadian Fiction" as a beef with Fowles' writing. As for supporting up and coming authors, I do. In case you're forgetting, I'm backing Steve Zipp in Canada Also Reads-- doesn't get much more obscure than that. And please don't take this as a snide comment but I have absolutely no idea what the expression "face-smackingly-obviously taking the piss" means.

August said...

By that phrase I meant: It's incredibly obvious that by using the title "The World's Greatest Fiction Magazine," Lies With Occasional Truth is making fun of the hyperbole and gravitas that most literary journals (who in this country at least, are largely decrepit, humourless, and completely unwilling to take risks) use to advertise themselves and their writers, and is therefore also mocking how seriously they take themselves.

Loni said...

I know it's very late in the day. Is Rabindranath Maharaj obscure? I suppose so, but he's who I read this week. The review of the short story is here:

http://loniseye.blogspot.com/2010/02/escape-to-etobicoke.html

I think a short story is a great way of trying a new author out.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I have yet to read the story, but there certainly is a lot of promoting done on the website.

B.Kienapple said...

This was a brilliant post and set of comments and by brilliant, just to be very clear here, I mean entertaining, just so no one takes offense. :) I'd have to side with John here. Stacy May Fowles is a fairly obscure author in Canada. I've never read any of her work but I'm glad her work is getting representation in Canada Also Reads, if only to add a different dimension to the debate (if, as John notes, there is any).

John Mutford said...

Thanks to everyone for submitting your links and comments this week!

Teddy Rose said...

I haven't read anything by Fowles yet. I sometimes find it hard to judge an author by their short stories if they also write novels. Sometimes authors can be great novelists but fair to poor short story writers. Short stories are a different kind of creative writing.

I did a children's book this week: http://teddyrose.blogspot.com/2010/02/crash-by-mayra-calvani-illustrated-by.html

John Mutford said...

Teddy: That's certainly true, and for that matter, some authors are inconsistent in their short stories. I don't put a lot of stock into it. It's just a very, very rough guide.

Julie Wilson said...

Oh, for the love of dog, that title was a joke from four years ago. But a post that slams an innocent author is forever. I'd seriously delete this, John. Stacey doesn't deserve this showing up in searches.

John Mutford said...

Julie: Even if the joke was made four years ago, it's lived on. And for the last time, I didn't slam the author, I slammed the asinine title she'd been given (joke or not). As for deleting this post, I can't believe your gall. Do I work for Stacey's publicist? I'd delete your comment first.

Sandra said...

An interesting discussion, as always, John. And an informative post. I hadn't heard of Ms Fowles myself before now but then I am not nearly her target audience. Too bad you were forced to defend your opinion, you did say only positive things about the writer herself after all. I look forward to your thoughts on Yellowknife.

Buried In Print said...

I happened upon a copy of Fear of Fighting on the New Books shelf at the library in December, borrowed it and read it in an afternoon between the holidays: I liked it well enough. I've subscribed to The Walrus for years but hadn't made the connection to her as a writer; I also was not aware of "Shameless" but I've just made out a cheque to send a subscription of it to my nieces. I love magazines a-l-m-o-s-t as much as books.

John Mutford said...

It's the post that just won't die! (Wait, is that hyperbole?). Anyway, this is quite funny.

And my rebuttal: "Stacey May Fowles is the First Lady of Canadian Fiction." LWOT's running joke. But it's not just any joke, it's apparently hyperbolic, ironic, satirical AND sarcastic. They pack a lot into 10 words, don't they? With a joke that clever, no wonder they won't let it die.

The funny thing is, I've written many negative reviews over the years, and this one was probably one of my tamest. The response it's gotten has been absurd. I wanted to make a joke about the Stacey May Fowles Mafia, but that's borderline satirical.

B.Kienapple said...

This why Canadian literary reviews are tame because the pool so small and everyone is afraid of offending everyone else.
John's comments are fair and respectful.