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The Ad Men Move on Lhasa: Writing and Culture in a Virtual World

by Steven Heighton

With his new book of essays, award-winning Kingston poet and short story writer Steven Heighton joins the dark, millennial murmurings of writers like Sven Birkerts, whose 1994 Gutenberg Elegies sounded an eloquent warning knell – but not a death knell, not yet – about “the fate of reading in an electronic age.” Heighton, the former editor of the literary magazine Quarry, goes the American critic one better. He is worried about the end of the writer, rather than the end of the reader. In Birkerts’ view, it seems literature is at risk of dying of neglect, in Heighton’s, of self-mutilation.

According to Heighton, glibness, cynicism, anomie, and a claustrophobic and sterile self-consciousness reign at the end of the 20th century, in this “Age of Clowns.” It is an era, he writes, when the culture can produce little important art. “In the Age of Clowns it’s far more difficult for writers to produce anything of deep value, partly because the culture refuses to value anything deeply, partly owing to the climate of futility and despair, and partly because some of the artists themselves are too busy winking at their own reflections, in the ceiling mirrors, during the orgy.”

Lhasa – Lhasa before its corruption by commercialization and tour groups – is Heighton’s metaphor for what is real, for truth and beauty, for true Art in a Disneyfied world of schlock and technological intrusion and commercial fascism and slavish trendiness. Lhasa, the old Lhasa, is a place where it’s still possible to be reverent. This idea of reverence is central to the book. What Heighton would like to see is a reborn respect for reverence in a toxically irreverent age.

Heighton also writes of the absent muse and the lack of the visceral in much Canadian writing. He decries the separation of our minds and bodies – our alienation from ourselves (dare I point out that Douglas Coupland made the same point in the 1995 film Douglas Coupland: Close Personal Friend) – and makes a plea for writing from the heart and the body, not just the head.

While firing the big guns at corporate culture, cybercreeps of all stripes, academia, admen, and malls (with not too much argument from this quarter), Heighton saves some salvos for young, contemporary writers (Heighton himself was born in 1961) who capitulate to electronic pressures with “an opportunistic pimping to ever shorter attention spans.” He views most new literary forms, such as “short slick sectional stories,” as the spawn of high-tech culture, predominantly cerebral and conceptual, rather than creations from the heart.

I would argue that there’s plenty of room at the literary inn, and that somebody has to refract our current world back to us in all its absurd and vulgar splendour, in both its millennial gloom and its giddy faith in some disembodied future. We need those writers who are willing to wrestle the beast of contemporary culture to the ground and irreverently tweak the arrogant nipples perched on its silicon(chip) teats. Writing about, without being co-opted by. Why should the task be left to filmmakers and songwriters and visual artists while literature lingers in the woods? Contemporary fiction writers ought to start picking up the slack, matching style to substance in a struggle to capture the now. This is a concern Birkerts addresses directly, but Heighton does not. (For a truly thorough take on the issue, read the brilliant young American writer David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in his just-published Little, Brown book, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.)

The Giller short list last year is a case in point. All of the books took place entirely in the past, save for a portion of Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. Where is our important literature about the contemporary, urban experience – which is increasingly the reality for the majority of Canadians? Is it just not being written, is the subject matter perceived as annoyingly quotidian, or is what’s being written not good enough, well-wrought enough to merit recognition? There are exceptions, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed, for instance, Cordelia Strube’s recent G.G.-nominated novel, Teaching Pigs to Sing, with its deliciously wry misanthropic humour shielding a hopeful heart. Hers is not a reverent book by Heighton’s standards, but it is far from irrelevant.

Even before I came to the essay subtitled “Religion and Writing in the Age of Career,” even before I arrived at the section within it called “Writer as Priest,” I had formed an image in my mind of a cassocked Heighton performing his literary benedictions in some sacred grove. Yes, I found myself agreeing, writing is a vocation, and yes, art has the power to heal our fractured selves (or, crack us wide open). Although that’s not what it’s for, as he is quick to point out – “art isn’t primarily for anything.” Toward the end of The Admen Move on Lhasa, Heighton writes of learning to read more engagingly to audiences by taking poets like Patrick Friesen, P.K. Page, and Erin Mouré as models, “writers who could make an audience of the most jaded skeptics believe that poetry, like a sense of religious wonder, is still possible, still essential. That life is short and literature matters.”

That life is short and literature matters. I carve it on my heart. Ars longa, vita brevis. I think we’d be hard pressed to find any reader of Heighton’s book, or of Quill & Quire for that matter, who would argue with that sentiment. What are we but a collection of doggedly optimistic book devotees – librarians, booksellers, publishers, editors, and, of course, writers – who, ultimately, place our faith in the value of literature? And so, to take any issue with Heighton, or even criticize his writing style in these essays, is an experience uncomfortably akin to, say, sacking my own quarterback.

Heighton takes a number of pre-emptive strikes against disbelievers by writing things like, “[In the postmodern era] it becomes impossible to stay earnest and reverent about anything without looking like a dupe or a dangerous fanatic,” and, “When the world seems altogether to have shit itself, the earnest and the reverent among us seem like aliens, or imbeciles. Easy targets.” Well, Heighton’s no dupe or fanatic, and neither is he an alien or an imbecile, but he has written a pretentious book. He mythologizes the writing life, writes self-consciously, and uses overblown and abstract language. In contrast to Birkerts, who thoughtfully trashes, for example, hypertext novels by writing about what they are, checking one out, describing the ideological (not just technological) climate that has made them possible, Heighton doesn’t offer convincing evidence of his perceived threats to literature. But, his is also a passionate, honest, and somewhat noble book. Passionate in its pleas, honest in its beliefs, and noble in its sentiments.

It’s also a book Heighton has already in a sense written. His story “Downing’s Fast,” part of the 1995 collection On Earth As It Is, contains in its sweetly aching pages the essence of Heighton’s argument. Ralph Downing is a man who has sold out, abandoned the life of the mind, and literature, for a corporate existence. If Downing had written his book, it would have been demolished by his academic colleagues, “Because it would deal in unfashionable earnest with that silent, roaring edge where things come into being and die. Because it would tug fiercely at the tweedy legs of tranced theorists floating off into ethers of abstraction and it would pull them back down to earth, somewhere out beyond all ideas – to sweet, spontaneous earth, that perfect edge.” (The italics are his.)

“Downing’s Fast” comes from a collection of deeply felt – reverent, and yes, beautifully unfashionable – stories. It is to these I would prefer to turn to learn Heighton’s truths and passions. The best defence of his ideas is contained in these elegant fictions.