December 1, 2011




This was the first CBC Radio Studio One Book Club session I’d attended and, furthermore, I’ll admit, I’d never previously listened to sessions broadcast on the radio.  (I regularly listen to other CBC radio shows, but the Book Club is never on when I’m listening to the radio.  Now I have an iPad, I suppose I could download the podcasts.)  I thought the session would be virtually indistinguishable from a ‘reading’ by an author, or authors–of which I’ve attended several.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Only a very small part of the session consisted of a reading, by just one of the two authors who were the guests for the session.  The rest of the session consisted of the very capable CBC moderator, Sheryl MacKay, asking the authors questions and, since there were two of them, the authors asking each other questions.  Some time was reserved at the end for a couple of questions from audience members, of which there about 200 in total. 

If William Gibson had been the only guest, I probably wouldn’t have bothered attending.  It’s not because I don’t sufficiently enjoy his work, or sufficiently appreciate his cultural contributions.  I had read his 2003 book, Pattern Recognition, less than two years before, and gave it a “Bravo!” in my reading diary.  (I give very few books that rating.)  I loved the central character Cayce Pollard, a professional tracker of ‘cool’, and the story about Cayce trying to track down the maker of a mysterious film that was being released in installments on the Internet, and the book’s insights about Internet culture in general.  I wasn’t as impressed by Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), that I remember reading years ago, lying in the sun on the beach at English Bay–but it probably would have helped if I had read the two books that preceded this book in the trilogy of which it was a part before reading this one.  (Also, English Bay in the summertime was just too sunny for this dark novel.)  I also knew that, in one of his early short stories, Gibson had coined the term ‘cyberspace’, and has been credited with establishing the conceptual foundations for the growth of the World Wide Web.  But I felt no compulsion to see him in person–especially since I mistakenly believed this Book Club was, basically speaking, just a reading.  Besides, Gibson now lives in Vancouver (he’s originally from the United States), so there were likely to be other opportunities to see him in person, if I ever felt so inclined.

For me, Sarah Salway, a British writer of experimental fiction, and a writing buddy of Gibson (Gibson was in attendance to, in effect, present Salway to listeners of CBC radio) was the big draw–even though I’d never heard of her before receiving an email from CBC with information about this Book Club.  Although Salway has published three interesting novels, and several short stories, her fictional writing wasn’t enough to draw me to what I assumed was essentially a reading.  (A reading by even Gibson, who’d written one of the most interesting books I’d read in years, wouldn’t have done the trick.)  The real reason I wanted to attend this Book Club was that, as I read in her bio on the CBC website, Salway then held (and may still hold) a position at the London School of Economics, helping students with their academic writing.  Because Salway used experimental forms in her own published work, I was very curious to know if she encouraged her students to use experimental forms in their academic writing, or, if she didn’t go quite that far (she taught at LSE, that had its standards to maintain), if she would at least have some interesting thoughts about academic writing in the current, postmodern, age.  If it seemed appropriate, I planned on asking her a question or two in this regard at the end, after the ‘reading’.

To be better prepared to ask Salway a question or two if the occasion arose, and just to better follow the proceedings, in the week leading up to the Book Club, I read two of her books, Getting the Picture (2010), written largely in the form of letters, and Tell Me Everything (2007), which includes interesting shifts in the perspective of the central character. (There wasn’t time enough that week for Salway’s third novel, the ABCs of Love (2004), written in the form of an alphabet book, although I read it soon after the session, on my iPad.)  During that hectic week, I also very quickly read Gibson’s Spook Country (2007)–which was interesting, but not as interesting as Pattern Recognition

As I was to realize listening to the discussion amongst Salway, Gibson and the Book Club moderator, if Salway is a revolutionary within academe, she isn’t letting on–at least not in a public forum such as the CBC Book Club.  When she was asked, by MacKay I think, why she used in her novels the experimental forms she used, she replied that she had been inspired by the “puzzle books” of her childhood.  Maybe that was one inspiration, but surely there were others.  It was actually Gibson who seemed the most interested of the two in the philosophical underpinnings of unconventional forms of writing. (He mentioned books he’d read by authors besides Salway that used unconventional forms, and commented that he greatly enjoyed reading this kind of work.)  I didn’t bother asking either Salway or Gibson the questions I had prepared about academic writing–although perhaps I would have, if there had been fewer audience members who jumped in before me with their questions.

Although I was disappointed to discover that Salway probably didn’t share my views about academic writing, an unexpected plus for me in attending this session was that, through the informal discussion that comprised most of the session, I learned not only that both Salway and Gibson are very active on-line, but also some of the ways that they use the Internet in their professional lives.  For example, Gibson explained that he and Salway met on-line, when Salway was the first person to ‘friend’ him–or is it ‘follow’ him–when he started to experiment with Twitter.  Also, in her capacity as a writing teacher, Salway sends out Tweets, or Twitters, or whatever they are, that include suggested writing exercises for writers and would-be writers.  Even Gibson receives them, and he mentioned he does some of these exercises, for inspiration when he needs it.  I found this kind of discussion much more interesting than listing to authors read pages from their work, which usually speaks for itself.

There was some discussion about gardening, too.  Salway mentioned that she is currently doing research about “jardins fous”–crazy, over-the-top, gardens–which she may use for a book. Gibson talked about some examples with which he was familiar.  (There was no discussion of tomatoes, as such. )


“THE SUNDAY EDITION”: October 25th, 2010

You suggested in yesterday’s program that declining government support in Britain and other countries, including Canada, for university programs in the humanities and social sciences was due simply to financial interests.  There seem to be other factors.  The humanities and social sciences in Western universities have been in trouble for a long time, since at least the late ’70s when I was completing an undergraduate degree in the humanities at McGill.  The problem has been the philosophical shift in these countries towards a postmodern outlook, which has been especially prevalent among younger people. including those of typical student age who have passed through our universities since the late ’70s.

University programs in the humanities and social sciences as they have traditionally operated are simply inconsistent with a postmodern perspective.  A postmodernist may still have a strong appreciation for the humanities and social sciences, in a general sense, yet believe that these subjects don’t belong in a university setting, in which the relative ranking of students is a paramount activity.

The early university graduates who went through their university programs with perspectives that were fundamentally inconsistent with those programs (possibly to earn the credits they required to be accepted into professional programs such as law) are now old enough to be in positions of authority, including in the political arena.  Perhaps it has not been the insensitivity of politicians towards the humanities and social sciences that has led them to make cuts in university humanities and social sciences programs but, rather, their sensitivity to the humanities and social sciences within a postmodern context–combined with financial exigencies.

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