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On the latest set of rules for writing—Canadian version


In Canada there are two national newspapers. One, The National Post, runs a section called Afterword. On 28 March 2013 Chad Pelley, an award-winning Newfoundland author lately responsible for the novel Every Little Thing, offered readers a glimpse into his experiences as a writer, as well as rules. He doesn’t call them rules, and is careful to use that word only once (about others), but his commentary is filled with the words should and must. These are the sorts of words found in legislation, and that’s fitting, as he’s offering a bill for writers. Don’t you just think John Gardner when you hear about rules? It’s not as bad as that because Chad isn’t Gardner, but it still does make the heart sink.

Chad’s well known. While we’ve never met, we’ve talked via email. His Salty Ink blog, a niche for Newfoundland writing that also extends out to cover Atlantic Canada, is popular and useful. Based on our private correspondence he’d never come out and call another writer lousy, and he liked diversity. His first book, Away from Everywhere, was shortlisted for an award and is now being made into movie material.

When I came upon Chad’s rules in the Post I thought he’d be discussing guidelines for himself that he had assembled over the last few years and now was sharing with a larger audience. However, what I read surprised me disagreeably.

To do justice to his thought I’ll follow the article’s format. Normally, quotes would be offered, but the Post charges for what others would consider fair usage. (You can read about that subject here.) I’ll summarize, and readers are invited to open two screens. The article is available here.


Chad’s introduction tells us that readers are like children. Apparently, to make it as a writer (to make money as a writer) you have to appeal to the adult-child who wants a new toy that you almost guarantee he’ll love. (The article is not so nuanced that it speaks to either the unwelcome childishness implicit in such readers or the inclination on the part of some to enable that kind of behaviour.) For a long time writing has been a commodity as well as an art, but we’re about to learn just how much it is more a commodity than art, to Chad, as we read.

The first section is about how to open a novel, and gives advice, with the first use of should, that a reader must be hooked on the first page by the characters and the species of novel in hand. A writer is expected, and encouraged, to accost readers, and to take their copy of his book away after they’ve taken in the first page to see if any of them burn to continue reading. Chad uses the example of annoying a person on a Toronto subway. Now, I’ve not travelled that subway much, but I did use the Tube in London for almost three years, and one of the least smart things to do is aggravate another passenger. Flick knives were common, as were drunks and unruly soccer fans. The example is unworldly advice emanating from a lifetime in subway-free Newfoundland.

The main point is that a reader must want to know more after that first page. Anything less is a failure on the writer’s part. One could wonder if ADD and ADHD are present. (Who can say what a reader’s mind is like, really?) Authors who take time to build up atmosphere, systems or a world—let’s say, Marcel Proust and Henry James, William Gaddis and Joseph McElroy—are dicks for not being more exciting right away. And what did their books ever do for anyone? Exactly. No instant gratification there. In addition, Chad insists there can only be two characters, at least in the beginning. Goodbye, future Tolstoys and Stendhals!

The next section deals with making sure things occur at a lively pace. Adventure must be found on page one, line one. Marcel talking about sleep in the first pages of In Search of Lost Time—what a waste. Readers want to be fast-fed undercooked matter, and Chad is outside the pen, pitchfork at hand, wheelbarrow filled with bloody meat, ready to heave. To be hip, says Chad, though he doesn’t use that word, you have to remember that Darwin made the survival of the fittest the key to life, and he applies that to contemporary writers. We owe it to the reader to move ahead quickly, and not pause or linger. This way we can make readers like us (and thereby earn more money).

The person who wrote a work of fiction based on 99 ways to tell the same anecdote (how did that book ever make it and that author achieve renown?) invented an art object using previously known materials. Darwin named something he found, and invented his theory. That’s an important difference (important to pedants only, perhaps) that bears noting. In this section Chad invents his first straw man, the writers/readers—why don’t we just use the word people?—who don’t prefer action right off and who do not require that there be a struggle between two engaging characters on the first page, or at any time. What does that make us, in Chad’s eyes? Well, the slow-moving Other. We have not changed with the times, and we are clinging to dead notions of what makes a novel a good novel. Now, I enjoy a quick hit of action every now and then, but to insist on a steady diet of that, or anything, is ridiculous. And to say writers who don’t write like that are out of touch, or are to be mocked, is, like a riot, an ugly thing, as Mel Brooks has it in Young Frankenstein. We don’t know where this mixture of straw man, otherness and condescension is going, but this early on things don’t look promising.

The third section discusses Chad’s schooling. Not his time at university, but his experience of being the man, or maybe De Man, at all-female book club discussions of his first novel. That Away From Everywhere received such devoted attention must be pleasing, and what author doesn’t imagine, if only for a moment, a group of people passionately devoted to discussing his work? You’d have to have a heart like a turnip not to feel good for Chad. Unfortunately, he’s unaware that it turns out to be a mixed blessing, for he has allowed himself to think that an environment where his first book provokes argument (another example of should arises here) is the perfect crucible in which to forge his next book. Instead of being an active agent of his own imagination, he has let himself become putty in the grip of a coffee klatch focus group. They express consumer demand, and Chad, like any mammal, wants to outlast the dinosaur writers. His anxiety to survive is palpable. (His attention to book clubs may announce a trend, and should not be seen as a surprise. Is a kowtowing to their demands and likes not an extension of a kind of groveling at times apparent in the lengthy thanks fiction writers have taken, in recent years, to appending to the last page or two of their books? That may come from the “it takes a village to raise…” view of how books come to be, but usually only one name appears on the cover. Villages raise idiots, too.)

Chad then moves to the connection between writers and readers. First, if such a thing exists—they’re two people with very different views of the world—it would be based on the persona of the writer and the ambassador the reader sends forth to make an initial impression, to use Chris Rock’s words out of context. How solid is that exchange of idea and feelings? Second, if it did exist it would be ephemeral, and change from book to book, or as each got older.

None of that is what Chad says. He believes a writer has to (he puts in a must) offer emotions and feely things to readers. The works of Nicholas Sparks, Stephen King, Lisa Moore and Jodi Picoult are filled with attempts at emotional bonding with readers, as their large fan bases attest to, and there’s no shortage of other names one could put forth who do the same. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, in my opinion. There are many books that take entirely separate roads. Those that, say, view ideas as exciting, and that connect to people in a way that offers a delight that’s not so emotionally obvious, are not even visible to Chad. (Robert Musil, David Markson and Oulipians come to mind as examples.) In Conversations with Julian Barnes, the English author has this to say about emotions: “Well yes, but I think there is a lot of emotion in ideas… When we talk about a novel provoking emotions, we tend to think of the emotions that have to do with our amatory life. I think that books can be emotionally exciting in many different ways.” Since Chad uses the reference to a romantic encounter, and not a lecture, I’m inclined to think he’s more in the camp of Picoult than of Musil.

The next passage passes on what Chad learned from another Newfoundland writer named Michael Crummey. (Popular in Canada, Crummey’s been reviewed in the States and England.) Briefly, adjectives and adverbs were placed under a shadow. Chad replaces a flat line with an agglomeration of similes and metaphors. The new material isn’t good, it’s just dull in a shinier way, if you’ll allow that to stand. If people followed this advice we’d never be reading future Herman Melvilles or Thomas Pynchons.

The penultimate section deals with the sad group of people Chad knows who are unable to finish books. No explanation given for them, but Chad’s nailed down his reason: he wants to see how things are going to be set out, and without that he feels lost. He seems to find the excitement of discovery too nerve-wracking, or maybe just pesky. (Imagine if Darwin had thought like that.) What’s the point of a novel when it could be a manual? Chad prefers to tantalize readers with hints of what’s to come. I wish him well with this strict approach. For those who prefer not to know what’s going to happen, it won’t be much of a draw.

The final section deals with how each chapter in a book is automatically better if it provides mini-wows, and of course, fits into a larger structure. (Serialization of novels in the 19th century did this so it’s not a new idea.) That way each one feels like a short story to the reader. Or a sequence of appetizers that’ll fool you into thinking, when you’re done, you’ve had a full meal. Okay, Chad definitely doesn’t say that. He does, however, bring on the last straw men, dogmatic people who call themselves scholars and critics, and editors whose minds are deep in a bygone age. I’ll put words in their mouths that spring from the tenor of the article: “Too much is going on in your book. I can’t keep track! You should have a longueur or two so I, and the reader, can catch our breath.” Readers, Chad tells us, don’t mind the hectic nature of his books, or books like his, at all. They’re the people Chad has in mind, and he only wants to give them satisfaction. In exchange for their approval, and their money.


It’s a bewildering piece Chad has come out with, the work of a newly fledged writer eager to appear as someone moving from the amateur level to that of the seasoned professional. Lessons he explicitly mentions are nestled, seemingly without his knowledge, amidst less pleasant ones that are a type of dark matter filling the space of the pulpit he’s been given. Unlike on his inclusive website, in the Post Chad comes across as driving unnecessary wedges between writers. He won’t name anyone who is one of the Others because that’s not in his nature, yet putting up anonymous and weightless adversaries within the scholarly and/or critical community, who he can safely label as old-fashioned and useless at nabbing a reader’s attention, guts his article. He could have been bold as well as laying down diktats. Instead, we get the latter only.

Reading the major review outlets (shrinking and monotonous as they are, especially in Canada), as with this piece—and what provokes my writing about Chad’s rules—I get the impression that those authors, some of whom are named above, who create loveable characters, whose emphasis on plot downplays the other technical features of writing, whose ranks include the famous, the well-known and the lesser-known, whose works are omnipresent in airports, libraries and what remains of the book section in chain bookstores, whose numbers are tremendous and whose quantity of output is staggering, are regarded as endangered creatures, and that their enemy appears to be, if you accept the criticism of Dale Peck and similar-minded critics, those who prefer to emphasize formal devices, structure, language and other concerns, and who like to take their time. They have names too: Mark Danielewski, Davis Schneiderman, Ben Marcus and the Canadian writer-musician Lee Thompson. But what do the multitude have to fear from the few? And who said there had to be only a few ways to think and conceive of writing in the republic of letters?

In the end, for me, Chad’s article is an unwitting confession. If he had stuck to what he had learned for himself he’d have done fine, but his lessons amount to a prescriptive and conservative-minded approach that’s bizarre to see in someone so young. It lacks humility, and charity. While it’s natural for a young writer to slay his elders, and to be so giddy with literary success that he would make heedless statements, it’s another thing for that person to shadow box with abstract figures and criticize colleagues who approach matters in their own ways. When every writer’s pursuit of artistic expression, as well as a livelihood, is precarious, I don’t see the point in being divisive, nor do I comprehend Chad’s impulse to deny the vast diversity of tastes found in the writing, and reading, from his home province, Canada and the world.

It’s a likely bet Chad would not be too proud to be unembarrassed when called on this poor display, but as what he said can’t be backed away from with ease, it’s likely that for that reason I expect he’ll call what he wrote a simple opinion piece, and nothing more. But it is much more, and it’s negative. This he and his editor did not see or, if they did, saw and chose to ignore. His rules come with the imprimatur of a national newspaper. Yet I hope Chad is going through a temporary mood of intolerance, for the article is not at all like he portrays himself on his website.

  • Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

27 thoughts on “On the latest set of rules for writing—Canadian version

  1. This spurred a vigorous conversation at our little writers’ gathering yesterday. The verdict: never wear a suit of bacon to a dog kennel.

  2. I simply cannot understand why anyone who writes would want to circumscribe creativity and reduce it to a set of rules (not to mention awful ones, at that). Oh of course there’s the clarion call of the mass market, and many editors who do have very fixed notions of what will sell. But the publishing industry is also aware that it is impossible to predict with certainty what will provide long lasting pleasure for readers (or even immediate gratification). And only accountants think that every reader wants to read the same book over and over. Thank goodness for your incisive critique of this kind of ghastly writing by numbers. No good will ever come of it.

    1. Litlove, I don’t know the reasons behind Chad’s views beyond what he set down, and they seem insufficient to explain his impulse to put such rules in plain view. Maybe some future piece he writes will get to that matter. Thanks for your comment; you are dead on about the “clarion call.”

  3. Jeff, I’m quite surprised by your reaction here.
    I never said these were rules. I said these are some things I have learned from writing two novels, that I apply to my own writing. Mine. If we all followed the same rules, we’d all write the same book, and CanLit would be pretty boring for it. Also, your presumptions here might reveal more about you than me. You’re also putting words in my mouth. I didn’t say “readers are like children.” I said readers know what they want from a book, and they’re unhappy if they don’t get it. I won’t go on any longer here, I could contest yourevery sentence. It’s your blog so I won’t do that, at the risk of sounding defensive. You’re entitled to your opinions, but you should know your assessment of the article and my intent, are miles apart. You’re slaying me for things you think I said, and making me sound like, to quote you, “a newly fledged writer eager to appear as someone moving from the amateur level to that of the seasoned professional.” If you knew me, heard the interviews I do, you’d know I say I have as much to learn about writing as anyone, and I knock myself more than critics do. live, on air, and at festivals. If you read the suite of guest posts on The National Post, you’d see they’re all meant to be funny and personal (as in about my writing – not how you ought to conduct yours). Also, I’m entitled to my opinions as a reader, and stand by what I posted for that reason. That’s the thing with opinions: we all have them, and you and I disagree on many things, and neither of us are wrong. If you knew me, you’d not put such slanderous words in my mouth, like implying that I think we should all be selling out and writing to appeal to mass markets, instead of focusing on the art of writing. I spend years revising my fiction, and I truly don’t care who likes it. You’re making a lot of assumptions here. I’m quite surprised by it. Most people saw the humour in the article, and didn’t take it in the Thou Shalt manner you did. This passed through 2 editors, each laughed. You, however, took it all out of context and ranted. It’s an article I wrote, on an iPhone, in an airpot, in ten minutes, that you’ve taken more more seriously than I. I’m allowed to state some things I’ve decided to do with MY writing. I would NEVER tell someone else how they ought to do THEIR writing. Sorry it could be read that way.

    1. I think all I meant in my comment here, is you’re entitled to your reaction to my article, but not to make such unfounded stabs at my character — who I am as a person and writer. I know me more than you know me. Having words jammed in my mouth, or reading about people telling the world the kind of person or artist I am is very disheartening, especially when they’re dead wrong. I love writing, but having to deal with this kind of stuff chips away at the thing I love. Must say. No hard feeling, though. You made some good points.

  4. Chad, hi. Thanks for engaging in a debate about ideas on writing.

    I’d like to make one correction. You say this is my blog. Actually, it’s my blog post. The blog is Big Other’s, to which I occasionally contribute. Don’t want the fine folks behind it or connected to it to be dragged in here.

    You raise three points that are worth pursuing. (And we can pursue them, and any others, via email, if you prefer that to a public forum.)

    Remember all those arguments you witnessed in the book club about your first book? If everyone agreed about what you wrote, then the discussion would have been less lively. Why wouldn’t an article provoke the same sort of discussion? Since no writer can determine a reader’s reaction, the hope we might hold of having our intentions completely apprehended by everyone is a lost cause. There’s a comment above yours by someone else who also doesn’t find what you said funny. But you’ve been told that it is by people who find it to be so. That’s a matter of taste, then.

    You indicate your writing process: “It’s an article I wrote, on an iPhone, in an airpot, in ten minutes, that you’ve taken more more seriously than I.” (Are you undercutting the effort behind your writing or disavowing what you wrote?) I doubt I took it more seriously; but yes, I took it more seriously than you in ways you didn’t see coming and can’t agree with. That’s the writing life, no? You can’t guarantee that the entire readership of a national newspaper received your intention intact. (If you could, that would be an awesome superpower.) To this reader the humour is impossible to find. There’s nothing self-deprecating in the article. And thanks to your comment here, how am I to regard the bit about Crummey? What’s going on in that part? I thought I knew, but now I don’t. It sounds earnest, but that would mean your article isn’t funny only. Right?

    Lastly, you think I was rough or “slanderous” by straying into remarks on your personal character. I did say how surprised I was by the change from Salty Ink Chad (supportive, booster, non-critical) to Post Chad (disparaging of straw men, the language of must and should), and that I regretted the shift. Maybe you simply need to be careful when writing non-fiction. But there’s really no warranty behind the Authorial Persona Protection Ring. In the toothless critical writing often found in Canadian outlets, where, at worst, we’d be gummed to death, my remarks had a few teeth. If you’ve been offended, then I hope your books never get a negative review in outlets like London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the TLS. There, things are much rougher.

  5. What a fascinating piece of writing, Jeff.

    This is the best sentence that I have read in a very long time:

    “Reading the major review outlets (shrinking and monotonous as they are, especially in Canada), as with this piece—and what provokes my writing about Chad’s rules—I get the impression that those authors, some of whom are named above, who create loveable characters, whose emphasis on plot downplays the other technical features of writing, whose ranks include the famous, the well-known and the lesser-known, whose works are omnipresent in airports, libraries and what remains of the book section in chain bookstores, whose numbers are tremendous and whose quantity of output is staggering, are regarded as endangered creatures, and that their enemy appears to be, if you accept the criticism of Dale Peck and similar-minded critics, those who prefer to emphasize formal devices, structure, language and other concerns, and who like to take their time.”

    I need to reread Chad’s piece and then, with both screens open, consider again what you’ve written here before I make any sort of comment but I will say this: you cut with a very fine blade.

    Thanks for writing and sharing this.

    We become better writers when we are challenged by our peers.

  6. What a fascinating piece of writing, Jeff.

    This is the best sentence that I have read in a very long time:

    “Reading the major review outlets (shrinking and monotonous as they are, especially in Canada), as with this piece—and what provokes my writing about Chad’s rules—I get the impression that those authors, some of whom are named above, who create loveable characters, whose emphasis on plot downplays the other technical features of writing, whose ranks include the famous, the well-known and the lesser-known, whose works are omnipresent in airports, libraries and what remains of the book section in chain bookstores, whose numbers are tremendous and whose quantity of output is staggering, are regarded as endangered creatures, and that their enemy appears to be, if you accept the criticism of Dale Peck and similar-minded critics, those who prefer to emphasize formal devices, structure, language and other concerns, and who like to take their time.”

    I need to reread Chad’s piece and then, with both screens open, consider again what you’ve written here before I make any sort of comment but I will say this: you cut with a very fine blade.

    Thanks for writing and sharing this.

    We become better writers when we are challenged by our peers.

  7. Thanks, Sean, that’s appreciated. If you look around Big Other, you’ll find many other posts that you would like and find stimulating.

  8. I don’t mind a negative review — they’re just someone’s opinion on my book. In this month’s Quill & Quire, Mark Sampson gave me the most venoumous review in the history of Canadian reviews. Rolled off my back. He’s entitled to his opinion since the read and knows the book. What I can’t swallow, or deem justifiable, is someone who doesn’t know me telling the world I’m an arrogant upstart telling the world how to write books, when I can show you one dozen interviews in which I claim to know nothing about how to write a book, and it’s still a learning process for me. I’m quite outspoken about how I’m still learning the craft myself. The article title was “Some Things I’ve learning from Writing Two Novels,” as in, what I will apply to my OWN writing. You might be right that it sounded like I meant everyone ought to read them as rules, but, it was not my intention. I have to be careful what I say in a public forum, for sure — I am always getting misinterpretted. Likewise, you ought to be cautious when doling out opinion as fact.

  9. … and did you take offense to the 101 other “Writing Rules” posts on the internet, or just mine? Again, no hard feelings on my end, just trying to explain my reaction, to your reaction, to my article.

    1. Appreciate your comments, Chad, as always. I think we agree you need to be more careful, and that your words will likely be interpreted differently than you would like, no matter how careful you become.They can also, of course, be misinterpreted.

      As to your question — one can’t read everything.

  10. Three thoughts:

    1) I think that part of Jeff’s concern is with the clarity and accuracy of the language that you chose to deploy in the piece, Chad. He’s calling you out on the details, I think. Literature and/or expression of any kind is always open to interpretation… so Jeff offered an interpretation. I would say, quite respectfully, that the language that you chose to use in this piece left a lot of room for just this kind of response. You should take it as a compliment that Jeff cares enough to craft this post because silence would have been far worse.

    2) I stopped reading the Afterword Guest Editor pieces a while back. So few writers do anything interesting with the space and it has often become little more than link bait. The links being shared by friends and colleagues who are the guaranteed audience anyway. The Afterword GE pieces are often merely lukewarm marketing copy for an author or book. Every once in a while someone like Jeff may come along and pokes it with a stick to test whether the corpse is indeed just that.

    3) It is telling that the only critical or engaged discussion of your piece is happening here at BigOther, a website that doesn’t even have an ‘About’ page.

    The Afterword piece has been shared on FB 63 times, mentioned/tweeted/retweeted on twitter 18 times, and commented on zero times.

    It took someone who cares enough about words – and whom I believe genuinely cares about you and your work, Chad – to take his own time to compose a response to your article and publish it here before anything interesting was discussed.

    What does that tell you?

    Have a great week gentlemen. Good discussion. I’m going for breakfast now.

  11. Hey there, Sean.

    1.) If a plumber or surgeon spoke of their approach to getting the job done, I’m not sure they’d be subject to such heated criticism for explaining how they’ve chosen to tend to their crafts. I could be wrong, but we’re all a bit precious about literature. My friend’s a teacher, and no one’s ever outside her door, scrutinizing her method of instruction. I guess I’m a little testy that’s part of expressing some opinions as a writer.

    1B.) The Internet is full of “So and So’s Rules for Writing.” People read them for what they are, something that particular writer has chosen to live by as s/he sits to write.Sure, we’re allowed to discuss those rules. Have opinions on them. But to call a guy arrogant or out of line to mention some of the feedback he’s amassed? What’s it adding to the conversation, besides implying I’m not worthy of writing such an article? As for “Silence would have been worse,” I’m not sure how to take that. Do you mean everyone’s thinking what Jeff said? I was referred to this article by someone who reacted to this post the same way I did: flabbergasted.

    2.) I find The Afterword Guest posts to be the most interesting pieces in Canadian book coverage. Most papers and magazines do such a dry job covering books that it’s nice to hear right from the author on their work or motivations. The reviews, m’eh. Why do I care what some critic I dunno thought? And what’s exciting about reading a review for a book I haven’t read? A guest post is a direct connection to the writer, and the best way to form an opinion on their book, often. For me. But that’s a bit of a tangent. Point being, I find the Globe and all those places very dry in their books section. Hence my enjoying guests posts around the web. They’re intended to be “lukewarm marketing copy for an author or book,” and I think it’s great The Afterword give authors a soapbox for a week, to tell us about their book or motivations as a writer. God knows it’s hard to stand out in a country that releases 100 books in a two-month spring window. I don’t believe they’re the link bait you see them as. The response to my first guest post was quite significant, including emails from people I don’t know from people I didn’t know, so it was certainly good exposure in letting readers know of another new novel (http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/03/25/chad-pelley-how-michael-winter-ruined-my-life-by-making-it-better/)

    3.) Telling of what? If you take a look through The Afterword, no one ever leaves comments anywhere — be it reviews, guest posts, news pieces. Discussion of articles tends to happen on Facebook or Twitter now, if at all. But mainly, What was there to discuss at the end of the post? Why are we acting like every article warrants discussion? I stated a few things I’ve gathered, and employ to novels I write. It wasn’t meant to be snarky, authoritative, or gospel. I can see now how you see it that way, and I can say that’s beside the point. I’m not saying you’re wrong to react to my article, I’m saying it was presumptuous of Jeff to paint me as “a newly fledged writer eager to appear as someone moving from the amateur level to that of the seasoned professional,” and as someone trying to appeal to mass markets and all that. If I was the man this article paints me as — I wouldn’t revere my fellow Canadian writers’ work so much that I’d blog about them out of sheer enthusiasm for how exciting their work is, and, I wouldn’t write the plotless and commercially un-viable fiction I write,m if I was an advocate for catering to “the adult-child who wants a new toy that you almost guarantee he’ll love.”

    As for why I don’t name people by name when I disagree with them, it’s an ethical choice I needn’t be called out on. I’m in the camp of not seeing the merit in that. There’s a lot of books worth talking about, a lot of positive vibe in CanLit, and why waste space and breath thinking that playing Enfant Terrible is a noble contribution to Canadian literature? It just leads to media space being devoted to bickering, instead of covering a new book someone worked on for 3 years.

    Mainly — I respect you both immensely, but can’t rap my head around such a lengthy chat on a silly guest post I wrote as the part 4 of a suite of posts I thoguht were personal and light-hearted. Didn’t see thsi coming. I can see where you’re coming from, and agree opinions are subject to more opinions, but I was not playing some prophet telling the world how to write. And I’m starting to see how artists get a little jaded on doing what they love, when doing what you love makes you subject to people painting a false portrait of you in print. Like I said, teachers, dentists: why do they get to do what they do without everyone making such a fuss about them? I’m probably canning Salty Ink, and retreating from opinions columns, yet, to be a cliche recluse.

    1. Hi there, Chad. Interesting discussion. If you feel that you’d like to carry it on personally, as I said above –“You raise three points that are worth pursuing. (And we can pursue them, and any others, via email, if you prefer that to a public forum.)”–feel free to write me direct.

      I’ve avoided dentists I heard do bad work; and there are sites that rate teachers and professors. They do receive scrutiny; it just may be in a different venue and of a different kind.

      All the best.

  12. Hey Chad,

    You get full marks for fight. Which is awesome and too rare. I will reply in more detail tomorrow as I am too busy watching the Leafs spit the bit on tv right now.

    One should never mix literature and hockey.

    Love your reply. Great conversation. Have a great night, more manana.

  13. Hi Chad

    Due to the Leafs sucking so badly I decided to reply now rather than later. In keeping with our format I have responded inline with your comments above:


    My father was a teacher and middle school principal in the Hamilton Board of Education and he had a much different experience with student’s parents during his career. Not only in his own work but in representing the teachers that he was responsible for. My understanding is that teachers are often criticized fairly by overbearing parents but that may be something that is unique to the demographics of southern Ontario. Regardless, I see Jeff piece as a contribution to the bigger discussion of writers, national newspapers, and these types of opinion pieces. You don’t have to agree with him and you may take offence but it’s a compliment that someone cares enough to articulate a critical respond in my opinion.


    Silence is always worse. When someone, one of your peers, feels compelled to take time from their day to craft a considered response then I think that one should take that as a compliment.

    I certainly do not mean that everyone is thinking like Jeff. I mean to say that Jeff is thinking like Jeff. It’s a specific thing. Many other people likely have different opinions on the piece. Many people probably loved it. Jeff thought that there was something to be added to the discussion so he contributed. That is all.


    I love the Afterword. Mark and his team to a great job of injecting life and style into a typically boring national conversation about books and they should be applauded for their efforts. I did stop reading the GE pieces for the reasons that I stated. I have likely missed out on great pieces of writing but that is also something that has come with changes to my own personal life and how I spend my time these days. I have retired a bit from the conversation over the past little while probably to my detriment. I did not say that all pieces are the same. I know that your piece on Michael was well received and rightly so.


    Why doesn’t your post warrant discussion. Would you prefer that readers accept everything without comment? Is that the point? I think that people should respond to things that they’re passionate about and they should make use of their own channels to do so.

    When I asked ‘What does that tell you’ I was implying that your article got several ‘soft shares’ – i.e. people pushing content around the internet to their channels without adding to it in any meaningful way. They shared it but didn’t really contribute to it. Jeff did. You don’t agree with his response. That is fine but he did take the time, he does present several decent points. He may have crafted his response in such a way as to poke at some soft tissue but I think that was part of his intent. He wanted to provoke a response and he did.

    And here we are.

    I don’t think that Jeff was bickering by writing his post but one could be forgiven for feeling that it has descended to that point now.

    I personally have recused myself from many of these conversation over the past year or so for various reasons and there is something to be said for taking a break from the waves of endless chatter on the web about this stuff.

    But I think that Jeff wants something better, something more specific, something with more ambition than what you provided. I think that is the point of his piece. You can take umbrage with that at your leisure but at least he cares enough to say so.

    I also feel that this is an ‘east coast pride’ type of situation. Atlantic writers are rightfully proud of their work and their community and Jeff took this opportunity to stand up and say something. He did it artfully, he did it with humour, and maybe he cut a little close to the bone here and there, but I think that he did it respectfully.

    I like what I see here. This conversation shows us that Atlantic writers are serious about their craft and that their willing to demand some accountability in the public discourse.

    You do good work, Chad. I hope one day that we will be able to host you at the Real Vancouver Writers’ Series. I can’t wait for your next book.

    I don’t think that this is a situation that requires one to become jaded. I think that this is a gift. It obviously doesn’t feel like it at the moment but I think over time it may appear that way.

    All the best,


  14. That was supposed to read ‘unfairly’ in the first response re: teachers and parents. Sorry for the confusion.

  15. Hah, I like that we’ve even got a format going here ;)
    As always, Cranbury, you win this debate as you’d win any debate. I’ve been stubborn and slow to learn that every time I open my mouth, I’m subject to misinterpretation or at least reaction. Daily, even on Facebook, I crack jokes no one gets. And, as an oddball tick, I have this notion that opinions are stand-alone things, that they needn’t oppose each other in a way that implies one’s more right. Also, I’ve got ultra-thick skin, and could care a less what people think of my work, or, an article I wrote, I guess I’m hung up here on my character coming into question. Feels below the belt and rooted in assumption. I think that’s why there’s lawsuits filed under slander. But I’m over that now, as this won’t be the last time, nor was it the first time this month.

    As for the post, sure, it warranted discussion, in terms of contradicting what was said. Jeff made some good points. But dragging my character into it, that’s my issue. The connotation that I’m some young upstart slaying my elders and thinking I’ve got fiction all figured out, when I’m on the record in multiple interviews, contradicting Jeff’s unfounded words with hard evidence that I call my first two books trial runs and learning experiences. so again — I love conversation about pieces, but not when it gets personal, or presumptuous (and I’m not just talking about Jeff here — I also respect Beattie at The Quill immensely, but question why he’d run a review that let a critic presume I run Salty Ink to kiss peoples’ assess and gain favour with them — that’s sloppy, presumptuous journalism)

    Lastly, Jeff, you keep inviting me to a private conversation. Sorry if that’s what you would have preferred. But, you started it publicly and I’m a heart-on-my-sleeve kind of guy, so why not keep the conversation open here, for the reasons Sean outlines.

    Have a great week, guys. I think we’re all done here.

    P.S – as for East Coast Pride … Salty INk hasn’t been an east coast blog for years. I’ve changed the madate to cover a certain brand of “Fresh Canadian Fiction & Poetry.” As an FYI to those who introduce it.

    RE: Vancouver, I’ve gotten an invite to the Vancouver Writers Fest. Thrilled. Never been to Vancouver, and hear Granville Island is a fine place to be lodged.

    1. Chad, hi again. Respecting that “we’re all done here” even as you add more questions, I’ll try to provide closure while being as brief as possible.

      (1) Conversations about writing are personal because writing is a communicative act between people. You write novels, short stories, blog posts and articles because you want to be heard, and you want to talk about things that you like or that have come to mind. (Now, if you only want to be heard and not engaged with, rebutted, or have your ideas teased out beyond what you imagined them containing, here’s an opportunity to state that clearly.) In writing, some portion of our character is present, either right up front (like in a piece of non-fiction about, say, adopting a child) or as a watermark lying under the prose or poetry. When my book was reviewed there was speculation about what I was like. Was I surprised? No. It’s to be expected.

      (2) “Why do I care what some critic I dunno thought?” you ask (perhaps rhetorically), and then call Mark Sampson’s negative review of your latest book “the most venoumous review in the history of Canadian reviews.” Since you then go on to say, “And what’s exciting about reading a review for a book I haven’t read?,” I find it unclear how you’re able to characterize Mark’s review, while perhaps taking his reputation into your hands (something you are sensitive about, for yourself), so sweepingly. Unless you actually have read a lot of criticism in Canada, though that would seem to contradict reading people you don’t know. It’s a puzzle.

      (3) In your follow-up post, with the question “Why couldn’t Jeff tackle all 8 of my statements…,” you are trying to get me (and anyone else who might write in such a way) to follow loose rules of your choosing. I’d think by now you’d not want to go down that road again, Chad.

      All the best. And may your new book succeed as much as possible.

  16. … to be clear: Here’s my question: Why couldn’t Jeff tackle all 8 of my statements, but contradicting the claims in each statement, and kept the discussion on the topics at hand: “Does a book really need a great opening scene?” or “Do we really need do reconsider adverbs?” Why include assumptions on the kind of man or writer I am? It wasn’t necessary.

  17. Alright everybody, back to your corners. There’s creative work to be done. Dragons to be slain!

  18. 1.) I suppose you’re probably right there.

    2.) Calling it a “venomous review” doesn’t mean I care about what he thought; that’s just observation: line after line he was making scorching remarks and not backing them up. He wasn’t discussing anything, just slamming everything with sweeping statements, hence my calling it venomous: it was not a cerebral dissection, it was a gutting. Mark’s capable of a thoughtful review, but there was nothing thoughtful in his slaying of my novel, nothing I could learn from, the way one can via well-articulated criticism. I mean, he’s entitled to his opinion, but, I’m not sure there’s such thing as a published novel as bad as he claims mine is.

    (also, didn’t mean to insult the integrity of reviews in general. I just question why they’re the primary form of book coverage, or why we trust a critic’s opinion on a book, when their opinion on movies or ice cream or hockey teams is likely different than ours too. There’s still some great critics out there, but, half of the people reviewing books these days are only stating how they felt about the book, and that’s not review. I don’t lump you into this category, FYI. Which is why I even responded to this article. If I didn’t respect your opinion, I wouldn’t have engaged ;)

    3.) No, I meant, you could have reacted to what I said by, say, challenging the notion that adverbs are lazy writing. Instead of calling me pompous to’ve said so. Contradicting my statements (or tastes in literature), without calling character into question.

    Anyway, at the end of the day, I think it’s wonderful we both care enough about fiction to’ve had this friendly — I hope friendly ;) — debate. And you have made some good points Jeff, and taught me a lesson I might someday learn — and that’s not to be so hasty to post things on the web without thinking it through. And to articulate myself a little better in opinion pieces, to avoid confusion or sounding all authoritative, as I seem to have accidentally done here. I do appreciate that.

  19. IN conclusion: if we’d had this conversation around a table, I imagine we’d be laughing and ribbing each other. Hope I haven’t seemed hostile or anything, in the absence of body language ;) <– a man can only use so many emoticons.

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