- Reading Writers Reading: Canadian Authors' Reflections
Photographs of writers have always had a particular appeal. Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, whose careers coincided with the first century of photography, were among the most photographed men of their time. More recently we have seen the publication of coffee-table books on writers' homes and even their desks.
Now Danielle Schaub has given us Reading Writers Reading, a book of her photographs of Canadian authors, accompanied by each writer's thoughts on the subject of reading. Ms Schaub, who teaches Canadian literature in Israel, has been reading, thinking about, and photographing her subjects for many years. Her dedication shows in the loving care expended on the collection and presentation of these images, many of which are deceptively candid. [End Page 415]
In text accompanying their photographs, each author comments on the nature of his or her relationship to reading. This is a grand subject, and most authors would have no trouble writing a full-length essay about it. But like all grand subjects, it resists treatment in a few meagre paragraphs. Only poetry can handle such subjects with that degree of concision.
Michael Ondaatje deftly ignores the problem by choosing instead to write about a family photograph, while Margaret Atwood acquits herself with a lovely poem about the signer who translates her words for deaf people.
In city after cityin an area of darkness behind my headstands a woman dressed in black.
The poem conveys a vivid sense of words themselves as the brightly lit signs by which we translate our personal areas of darkness for each other.
Schaub photographed most of her subjects at literary festivals, which may account for the occasional stilted tone in the text, whether precious or grandiose. 'I read to hold another human being close,' one author begins. Really? Does that describe the experience of reading Poe, or Plath, or Martin Amis? Other statements strike one as blatant falsehoods: 'I never learned to read,' Aritha van Herk informs us. 'I picked up print . . . and instantly related to the crawling black ant shapes, as if they were breath.'
Most of the authors discuss reading in the usual sense, the act of perceiving and understanding the written word, and they are passionate about the joy it has brought them. A few, perhaps responding to the festival setting, comment on the public readings authors are called upon to give. This is shop talk, but the market for writers' shop talk is brisk. Greg Hollingshead gives fledgling authors a pep talk for facing this showbiz aspect of literature, revealing that he used to fear not only making a fool of himself onstage, he feared choosing to.
But back to the photographs. Any author's photo must compete with the tradition of the jacket photograph, and jacket photos are more likely to offer congruence with an author's work. You may not like Jerry Bauer's full-length portraits or Marion Ettlinger's sculptural close-ups, but such images have been vetted by their subjects and so convey authorial choice. Schaub's informal portraits do not, and results are often ambiguous if not contradictory – sometimes in pleasing ways, sometimes not. Hollingshead, a Governor General's Award–winning novelist and short story writer, here presents a slightly roguish appearance, and yet he looks upward and out of frame as if consulting a conveniently located muse. Catherine Gildiner's high contrast image has impact, but it [End Page 416] is also the antithesis of her wry humour. Madeleine Thien leans into her pen, scrawling with great urgency. Caught up in creative fervour? Actually, she's signing someone's book.
CanLit scholars will find much to enjoy in these pictures, from Michael Ondaatje's dandelion burst of grey hair to the look of astonishment on Marie-Sissi Labre'che's pretty face. But once again it's Atwood who claims our attention. The veteran novelist, poet, and essayist leans her cheek on one hand and gazes out of frame, appearing at first glance uncharacteristically dreamy. But in fact she is listening to another...