- Reading Differently, Writing the City
In 1990, Marianna Torgovnick wrote an essay on "Experimental Critical Writing that impressed my youngish mind with her eloquently expressed desire to write in a new voice outside of the safe armour of academic prose, "writing as a person with feelings, histories, and desires—as well as information and knowledge" (10). Torgovnick wanted to do more than simply write for a "fairly narrow circle of critics": she wanted to be read by a larger audience. To court her readers, she would risk a "writerly writing " that would "take more chances than the standard scholarly style allows," a "more direct and personal" writing (10).
Such a combination of the personal and the critical always existed in the lyric poetics of certain writers that I clung to both inside and outside the classroom as an undergraduate and graduate student—those essays by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Hugh Kenner, and Guy Davenport that I fancied as a greenhorn poet-disciple of the American projectivist writers. But here was Marianna Torgovnick, a freshly tenured professor leading by example, resisting the deadening effects of prof-speak and the constraints of institutional discourse. And Torgovnick's most recent book, one of her five to date, is The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, and it [End Page 13] combines intimate eyewitness accounts of the aftermath of the attack on the New York World Trade Center towers, personal photographs, historical analysis, explorations of films and novels, and visits to European cities to research the profoundly persistent influence of World War II on contemporary life. I begin with Torgovnick's exemplary essay and book because these demonstrate the readerly and writerly dexterity that can be achieved by an English Department scholar who has resisted conventional disciplinary constraints on how we read and write.
There are many ways to wiggle out of the disciplinary straitjackets that we weave for ourselves, and I understand that the consistent complaint of many of the respondents on the previous 2007 ACCUTE panel on "Why Should I Write Like That?" (especially Heather Murray, Kit Dobson, Len Findlay, and Julia Creet) was the problem of disciplinary constraints on writing. Most of us read and write well beyond the conventions of the old-fashioned literary-critical essay (however indefinable this Chimera might be), and most of us will concede that reading practices are as various as writing practices. I want to take this occasion, nevertheless, to engage in some shameless self-promotion of how I compel my students to read both closely and outside the boundaries of conventional literary texts and criticism, and to write outside the norms of conventional scholarship. Like Torgovnick, I want to foster forms of writing that are not merely vehicles for information but songs of experiential grappling with the personal and the everyday. I attempt to do this in various English courses but perhaps most pointedly and recently with fifty-six students in a senior undergraduate course at UBC titled "Reading and Writing 'Vancouver.' " This is a course (I flatter myself to think) that required a more proprioceptive and extratextual engagement with urban cultural life than simply reading the same old literature and doing the same old close analysis.
What does "reading" Vancouver entail in this course? It means more than just deciphering the structural play of text and image in Doug Coupland's City of Glass, more than analyzing the elegant prose style of Madeleine Thien's Simple Recipes, or excavating the regional history and culinary protocols of Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park. Reading here includes looking at the commercial signage on Granville Street and scrutinizing the clothing styles of the urban flâneurs. Reading includes smelling the produce and baked goods on Keefer Street, listening to the prattle of gossip on a bus meandering down Hastings, scuffing the salt-scurfed planking with your heels on a Steveston waterfront pier. It means interrogating the privileged social positioning of the narrators in Coupland's City of Glass or in the short fiction of Ethel Wilson. Reading here includes thinking [End Page 14] about the self-reflexive gestures in Fred Herzog's 1950s...