Reading Tom Wharton


After reading some truly dire Canadian fiction, I think it’s worth turning my attention to a Canadian author I’ve enjoyed reading. Thomas Wharton is a writer out of Edmonton who I was vaguely aware of during undergrad because he taught creative writing courses at the University of Alberta. I never took a creative writing course, and it was a long time before I got round to pick up one of Wharton’s books. Which is a shame, because based on the two novels of his I’ve read, taking a class with him would have been worth it.

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Shortly after I discovered Bear (1976) by Marian Engel existed it became a minor internet meme. It surprises me this didn’t happen earlier—Bear is the kind of strange book the internet gravitates towards. It’s about a dreary, unfulfilled urbanite archivist named Lou who leaves Toronto when she gets an assignment to catalogue the books in a 19th-century house somewhere in northern Ontario; when she gets there, she finds out the previous owner kept a pet bear who the neighbours still feed.

Then she has sex with it.

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Exclusionary Arts

Today I was going to draw a visual guide to Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), the truly awful (and Governor General Award-winning) novel about, um, a woman who has sexual relationship with a bear, but recent news has soured me on the idea. Why? This is the Acknowledgements page for Bear:

The author acknowledges with thanks the Canada Council and the Arts and the Arts Council of Ontario, who provided funds while this book was in progress.

Today I learned that the Canada Council for the Arts has cut funding for Canada’s premiere speculative fiction magazine On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic.

I’m well aware that this is an unfair juxtaposition. A bear sex novel getting a grant nearly forty years ago doesn’t have any bearing on what gets funded now.

And yet it still makes me sad. I guess that helps balance out the anger.

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For a long time I was only familiar with The Story of Sinuhe from Mika Waltari’s historical novel The Egyptian (1945), which I read when I was 12 years old. Having now read the source material, the strangest part is that The Egyptian is historical fiction based on historical fiction. Like The Report of Wen-Amon, the events in The Story of Sinuhe are at least fictionalized if not outright imaginary. The supposed autobiographical account takes place in the early 20th century BCE, the earliest manuscript dates from about two hundred years later. Taking that as somewhere near the date of composition, it’s like a novelist today writing a story set in the Victorian era. Judging from the various copies floating around, it was extremely popular, an ancient Egyptian bestseller.

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Like this.

Last month, I announced that my serial novella collection Zeppelins are What Dreams are Made of was picked up by a small press. Yesterday, I learned that small press was closing, the contract is void, and all rights to the collection have reverted back to me. Since the publication process stalled before I even received an advance, the situation is like I never sold the novellas at all. A slate wiped clean.

So what now?

That’s the problem, really: I’m not sure. Since I wrote the first story in 2010, I’ve submitted it to various magazines. I had a few near-misses where editors held onto it (sometimes for quite some time) but ultimately didn’t accept it. Even that first story is over 7000 words long, meaning it’s too lengthy for most sff magazines. If I had sold that story, the rest in the series probably wouldn’t have followed: you just don’t see serial characters that much anymore. Continue Reading »

As an undergrad in history, I was often warned about reading modern attitudes into people of the past. Yet still I come across those unlikely texts that feel intimately familiar despite being composed in a world so distant in worldview and knowledge than our own. Notably, there’s The Report of Wen-Amon, a papyrus manuscript composed some three thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. Wen-Amon was a priest at the temple of Amon in Karnak, ordered by the high priest Herihor to travel to Phoenicia and obtain cedar wood for a holy barge at the beginning of the eleventh century BCE. The Report is Wen-Amon’s first-person account of his misadventures on the way to Byblos and back, which feels in equal parts Kafkaesque and Douglas Adams-y. He sets out with the gifts required to gain passage through the various kingdoms in Phoenicia, but when he lands at his first port of call, one of his crewmates steals most of the treasures and jumps ship. Wen-Amon tries to get compensation from the King of Dor since the theft took place in his harbour, but the king insists that Wen-Amon is mistaken–since the thief wasn’t one of the king’s citizens, he’s not responsible for repayment. The best he can do is let Wen-Amon stick around while the guardsmen try to find the thief. After nine days pass without any luck, Wen-Amon gets fed up and sails away. Swap out the ship for a plane and the king for a customs official and you have a pretty common story of international travel and theft.

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Guibert de Nogent

The Deeds of God through the Franks is either staggeringly inept or fiendishly brilliant.

It’s hard to determine which, though.

I am convinced that Guibert de Nogent counts among the oddest writers of the twelfth century. He was not a famed intellect in his lifetime, or for a long time after it; but he wrote a lot, including histories, theological treatises and his best-known work, the Memoirs, and he had a small following devoted enough that his works were copied and recopied and survived. Only his Latin style was famously twisty and difficult, probably deliberately so, and his works, even at the time, were considered…weird. Interest in him increased with scholars in the 80s like Colin Morris turning to the Memoirs as a shining example of the twelfth century “discovery of the individual.” Those scholars, largely, glossed over the actual contents, which include bizarre episodes like the story of the man who ate his own semen, Guibert’s encounters with demons and the Devil, a historical account that has little if anything to do with Guibert taking up the latter half of the manuscript, and a set of unrelated tales taking up the end. The Memoirs are open, Guibert introduces threads and themes but never resolves them, his writing shifts between circular and disjointed, punctuated by a singular sense of humour that I’d best describe as “dark.”

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