By John Last
The question, "Have you read any good books lately?" can be a useful conversation-starter. Or it can be an excuse to display one's erudition. I hope it's the former, but even when it is, much depends on the meaning of "good" in the context of the subsequent conversation. Let's say that "good" means thought-provoking, well-written, cogently argued, witty, a useful contribution to discussions about the human condition, or some combination of some or all of these and other qualities. It can also be used as one criterion to identify classes of fiction, to distinguish literary fiction from Harlequin romances, whodunnits, westerns, Young Adult fiction, science fiction, etc.
Serious literary critics focus their attention on serious, or what is often described as "literary fiction." They rarely define what they mean by this term, but many could probably parry the question with the same rejoinder offered by a judge who had to assess a literary work accused of being pornographic. Asked to define pornography, he replied that he could not define it, but could recognize it when he saw it. In the same way, I like to think I can identify literary fiction, and offer convincing examples, although I'd be hard pressed to define it.
From time to time I've flirted with the question, or tried to answer it in posts on my blog. Here is another attempt. Consider three currently popular authors, P D James, John le Carre, Alexander McCall Smith. Are their works literary fiction? All have been interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel. I regard being interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel as one of the indicators that a writer creates literary fiction. I regard the works of P.D. James, John le Carre and Alexander McCall Smith as literary fiction. The first two are on many other people’s lists; Alexander McCall Smith is on my list because he is a philosopher-ethicist, and rather frequently he smuggles tricky ethical problems into his otherwise light-hearted stories.
Eleanor Wachtel is one of the brightest stars in CBC's excellent firmament. Years ago I used to make sure I had no other commitments from 3-4 pm on Sunday afternoons so I could tune the radio to CBC Radio One and listen "live" as her conversations with writers came over the air. I rarely do this now, because these interviews are available as podcasts, and many of the best ones have been published in books: Writers and Company, More Writers and Company, Original Minds, and most recently, The Best of Writers and Company, published a few months ago.
If you love books and reading, and want to get better acquainted with some of the best living writers, dip into any of these collections. No. I defy you just to dip in. You won't be able to stop until you've read the entire collection. Several of the writers she has interviewed have volunteered the opinion that they have never encountered an interviewer as good as Eleanor Wachtel. On the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend, she reprised her interview with Nuala O'Failan, the most Irish of modern Irish writers who, at any rate in this interview, demonstrated the uniquely Irish combination of hilarious, high-spirited comedy and heart-breaking personal tragedy. Her family history illustrates by example the common Irish tragedy of family social pathology, inability to form and sustain loving relationships with other members of the family. Alcohol dependence plays a role too, as does the distraction of precarious employment. Eleanor Wachtel captured all this and much more in a 50-minute interview.
That interview isn't among the 15 in The Best of Writers and Company. Perhaps Nuala O'Failan doesn't rate high enough on the scale of excellence (which raises another interesting and useful question: Is it possible to "rate" the excellence of literary works on a linear scale? I don't believe it is).
The subjects of Eleanor Wachtel’s 15 best interviews include Nobel Laureates, Booker Prize winners and other literary luminaries, promising young comers, and writers who are interesting for various other reasons. They include Jonathan Franzen, Doris Lessing, J M Coetzee, Hilary Mantel, Orhan Pamuk, Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, and others. I’ve named some of the authors she has interviewed. She has also visited countries and regions of the world where she has interviewed representative authors whose interviews I particularly enjoyed, but all are worth reading. In correspondence with her I’ve suggested that she could do more of these regional clusters, and I hope she will.
If there are readers of Ottawa Review of Books who are not yet acquainted with these collections of interviews, I encourage you to get acquainted. Eleanor Wachtel is without doubt one of Canada’s leading literary luminaries. She will bring you into close contact with some of the most interesting writers now plying their art and craft.