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The Nobel Prize in…Lyrics?

Image result for totally confused reader

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Thanks, Will (wink, wink).

Just because you love a person’s work, doesn’t mean you get to change the rules when categorizing it. While some are ecstatic that the world is becoming less rigid in its definition of people and objects – some choose not to be identified by a male or female pronoun and God only knows what the meaning of an American Republican is anymore, for example – there are benefits to having structure, namely, the ability to form logical thoughts and opinions which can then be communicated to others without detailed explanation.

Which brings us to Mr. Zimmerman and his winning of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature today. I’d heard that his name was being kicked around for years, but never actually thought he’d win the award. Guess I was wrong.

I suppose the conundrum I’m faced with (and don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Bob Dylan’s music just as much as the next person) comes more from a linguistic approach.

The word “literature” is defined as:

noun

1.

writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
2.

the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.:

the literature of England.
3.

the writings dealing with a particular subject:

the literature of ornithology.
4.

the profession of a writer or author.
5.

literary work or production.
6.

any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills:

literature describing company products.

 

In a broader sense, the word “literature” can technically include any type of writing on a particular subject, like the literature of supply-side economics.

Does that mean that Robert Mundell should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – and not Economics as he was – in 1999? I mean, Mundell did, after all, write extensively on the subject of supply-side economics.

Speaking of which, at least the “Economics” Nobel has gone through 12 name changes since its introduction in 1969, so it’s already admitting the award is for, roughly translated, someone who talks/writes about things with the word “economy” or “economics” in it.

If the higher-ups at Nobel, Inc. were comfortable introducing a new prize category in 1969, long after the inventor of TNT’s death, then why not just introduce a Nobel Prize for Music? Like soccer, it’s a universally binding force that has a tremendous impact on the world, right?

Now, granted, the Swedish Academy (which awards the Literature Prize) has made some pretty stellar decisions in the past. They’ve overlooked little-known and obscure people in the field of literature before, such as Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain. In 1974, after discounting writers that included Saul Bellow, Graham Greene and Vladimir Nabokov, they shrewdly gave the award to literary rock stars Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Sorry, what’s that? No, no, no. They’re not members of ABBA; they were members of the Swedish Academy that very same year.

Barf.

If I were a betting man, which I am, then I’d put my money on Bob Dylan being a fine choice for the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, which I won’t.

Do you not see something inherently wrong with that last statement?

As a curling colleague of mine and upstanding man of letters said to me this morning, “I’d rather an obscure Lithuanian rapper have won the award.”

Yes, indeed, something is most definitely awry in the state of Den…err…Sweden.

 

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Does Alcohol + Writing = Genius x Calamity ÷ The X Factor?

What do Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Hunter S. Thompson, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler, and O. Henry all share in common?

They were all alcoholics at one time, many of them for life, some of whom actually died as a direct result of their affliction.

Frighteningly enough, the above list only represents some of the greatest names in English literature over the past 150 years. This raises another alarming question: Is a grossly unhealthy dependence on alcohol necessary to become a great and prolific writer? Should writers follow Hemingway’s advice when he once mused, “Write drunk; edit sober”? While a humorous, pithy, and catchy suggestion, was Papa onto something?

Fortunately, the answer is a resounding NO!

Just ask Stephen King, who since quitting drugs and drinking has produced arguably his best work; David Mitchell, who’s an insanely responsible person and health nut; Murakami Haruki, who quit smoking and left his heavy whiskey-drinking days behind long ago at his former Tokyo bar and now takes solace in jogging, not the bottle. I’m pretty sure Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are on the straight and narrow, too. Then there’s Isaac Asimov, Anne Rice, and Stephenie Meyer, each famous as a writer for different reasons, but all of whom are teetotalers (abstinent from alcohol).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been binge-watching Intervention Canada, an intense documentary that spends a few days following drug and/or alcohol addicts (and by “addict” I mean so far gone in most cases that it’s actually difficult to watch sometimes) before facilitating an intervention and offering treatment at many of Canada’s top treatment facilities. (Sidebar here: is it just me or are all the best rehab centres in Canada located in British Columbia?)

While watching an episode of IC a few days ago, I was struck by the courage one young woman summoned up when coming to grips with her demons, so I decided to write it down:

“I do not know what it is to be brave. And I do not know what the word bravery means to other people. What I do know is that strength is brought about by confidence. What I do know is that hardship fosters understanding. I believe kindness and thoughtfulness are the keys to ensuring a successful life. As I move forward, and embark on a new life, a life free of alcohol, free of pain, a life free of poison, I take to heart what the word bravery might actually mean.”

Scientists and philosophers have long tried to determine what exactly leads to genius. I think the only thing people can agree upon is that there is most definitely a biological factor; some people are simply blessed with a formidable brain. But it’s not all nature, I think. There is most certainly a nurture component – hard work, dedication, and a passion for a particular field of knowledge. At the same time, I feel equally confident saying that crutches like OxyCoton, meth, heroin, crack, whiskey, gin, beer, etc. (ad infinitum) will get a person nowhere, especially an artist like a writer, who already spends enough time alone and possibly dredging up memories and emotions that could sink even the strongest person if not handled with extreme cerebral care.

So if you’re interested in getting started on that story you know you have in you, or perhaps you’re brash enough to want to become a professional writer (ha ha ha ha ha…that’s just dumb and dumbly), do so with a cup of Joe or a mug of herbal tea, preferably in the hours before the sun rises, and you (and your liver) will be grateful for the decision in the years to come.

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On Rejection

Rejection. Just hearing the word sucks big rhino horn. But actually being rejected? That’s more akin to going through self-immolation while walking on a bed of hot coals as someone stabs at your soul with fragments of broken glass.

Or, you know, something like that.

I imagine most people would agree that the harshest form of rejection has to do with love. Who, after all, has the armour/wherewithal/fortitude/bravery to put their heart out there on the proverbial table, only to be told, Thanks, but no thanks. Oh, and by the way, you have bad breath.

I’d answer my own rhetorical question, but I think everybody already knows the answer. However, rejection is not limited to the objects of our desire. After personal relationships, it’s my firm belief that work – in the broadest sense – is a close second when it comes to that evil, three-syllable monster called rejection. To have your brilliant idea shot down at work; to be told you’re not being rehired for a position that still exists at your company; to be turned down by the banks for a loan or line of credit to launch your dream company; to be passed over for promotion again and again ad nauseam.

To be sure, all those scenarios stink worse than a skunk that’s been rolling around in a vat of kimchi and gorging on poutine and Labatt 50. But for artists in any field, I think the sting is, alliteratively speaking,  particularly personal, painful, and pernicious. Why, you ask? I’m so glad you asked! Let me explain.

Last summer, I was honoured to speak to young/emerging writers in the Toronto area at a Diaspora Dialogues Charitable Society  gathering. One of the topics I addressed was rejection. As every artist, whether amateur or professional, understands all too well, just “putting yourself out there” is hard enough; having your final product mocked or scorned or flat-out rejected by others is not exactly the definition of pleasurable or fun. It’s like undressing in plain view for people to judge your physical form. And as we all know from informative documentaries such as Zoolander and The Devil Wears Prada, even the most beautiful of human specimens – runway and SI swimsuit models! – are paranoid about their bodies.

With respect to writing, here’s some food for thought to mow down on:

  • Before Agatha Christie had her first whodunit published, she was rejected by publishers for five long, grueling years. Today, only William Shakespeare has sold more copies of his works.
  • Pearl Buck was told “The American public is not interested in China” by one publisher upon submitting The Good Earth. When it was eventually published, it spent two years on the bestseller list and, in the process, earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • After being rejected by 22 publishers, James Joyce finally got Dubliners published. In its first year, it sold a whopping 379 copies, 120 of which were purchased by the author himself.
  • After being rejected by 25 agents, Audrey Niffenegger took her debut novel to a small publisher in San Francisco. The Time Traveler’s Wife went on to sell 7 million copies, was adapted into a hit movie, and has since been translated into 33 languages.
  • Nicholas Sparks was rejected by 25 agents before his book that on first glance appeared to be a guide to laptop computers found a home. A week later, Time Warner bought the rights to The Notebook for $1 million.

Even the most successful authors, whether looked at commercially or critically, have faced rejection early in their careers. As Jack Canfield – author of the Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul series (and with paltry sales of 500 million copies worldwide) – once put it, “One of life’s fundamental truths states, ‘Ask and you shall receive.’ As kids we get used to asking for things, but somehow we lose this ability in adulthood. We come up with all sorts of excuses and reasons to avoid any possibility of criticism or rejection.”

Being rejected will never be a walk in the park, but it’s the resilient, never-give-up attitude that separates the warriors who succeed from the quitters who will never achieve their dreams. Don’t ever be afraid to put yourself out there and to believe in yourself when everyone else may appear to disagree. Or, as “The Voice” tells Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come.”

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