By Shawn Syms
(originally posted Jan. 30, 2014)
R.M. Vaughan is a man of strong opinions—and someone who has leveraged myriad media to articulate his viewpoints. A veteran critic who’s written about arts and culture for newspapers and magazines across Canada and internationally, he’s also the author of multiple plays, several books of poetry and two novels, and as an independent filmmaker he has more than a dozen credits to his name.
After years of full-time critical writing here in Canada, Vaughan took a year abroad in Germany to begin his latest novel-in-progress, an occult-tinged work set in the sex clubs of contemporary Berlin. He recently returned to Canada to celebrate the release of a new book of collected essays, Compared to Hitler (Tightrope Books). The title illustrates the perils of opinionated commentary in Canada—it refers to the dozen or so times over the past two decades that he’s been compared to Adolf Hitler for expressing a critical opinion on the arts. I recently met with R.M. and we spoke about the new book, his arts writing over the years and a perennial favourite topic, the state of Canadian literature.
There are some lovely turns of phrase throughout Compared to Hitler that are both astute and provocative. One of my favourites: In an essay where you mention Margaret Atwood’s LongPen [the gadget that allows the writer to “sign” a book remotely], you observe that “most of Canlit has been written by robots anyway.” That essay was written almost a decade ago. Does that statement still hold true in your view?
Yes, it’s still true—in fact it’s truer than ever. I can remember having a conversation nine or ten years ago with my friend Andrew Pyper about how Canada has this chronic fear of so-called “genre” writing. Andrew writes these fantastic “mystery” novels—I don’t believe in these modifiers, but the industry insists on applying them. Yet if you think about it, every type of writing is “genre writing,” and what gets praised and awarded and over-rewarded in this country is in fact a genre of writing: the family domestic-trauma novel.
And I would have hoped that by now, given that we have access to limitless amounts of information about writing from all over the world and in any available language, that Canadian publishing would start to reflect the fact that we have really good science fiction writers here, really good horror writers and action-adventure writers, and stop privileging the family trauma novel. But no.
Yes, some of this bitchiness about Canadian literature appears in Compared to Hitler. And two weeks after my book came out there was this author, I forget her name, all over every book page in every newspaper in the country, and it was like her third novel about sad, underemployed people in some shit town that she made up. And the writer lives in Oxford where her husband is a professor, and she hasn’t set foot in Canada in like thirty years. There is a kind of slumming that goes in letters in this country that is repugnant to me. I’m really tired of academics and other over-privileged people writing slumming novels.
The alcoholic underclass abuse novel is a genre in this country—we just happen to have naturalized it as “Canadian literature” and it just won’t go away. I look at who gets awards every fall; everyone once in a while I’m shocked—but most of the time it’s just that really boring book about a sad family in some rural part of the country again. I mean, I’m from a rural part of the country that is deeply sad, and I’m from an uneducated background, and I don’t want to read that.
Surely, it’s not all that bad. Any examples of folks bucking that trend?
Well, I’m a devotee of the work of Derek McCormack. I love Nicole Brossard; I try to read her in both languages and when I can’t understand the French I resort to translations. I like Catherine Bush. I really like the work of Dionne Brand. Lynn Crosbie, Nathaniel G. Moore.
The New Brunswick poet, Ross Leckie, I really like. In fact, there’s a whole gang of great poets who’ve all come out of the same UNB program as I did. They are all named Matt Something-or-other…
Yes, you’re originally from New Brunswick. Any further thoughts on the writing coming out of Atlantic Canada?
Well, one common thing I really hate is when Atlantic Canadian writers do “poverty porn.” There is a school of writing from the Atlantic provinces that is high-realist poverty porn—but then again, that shit sells across the country, so who can blame them for doing it. “Oh ma gahd, tings is awful bad in Newfoundland…” That shit just writes itself. Then on the other hand, there are writers with distinctive voices who come from the region as well. For instance, I love Lynn Coady. I’ve never read a book of hers that I did not find utterly compelling and often hysterically funny.
One common thread in your new book is a focus on social and economic class that I don’t always see in arts writing and cultural commentary.
Well, I don’t think it’s rare at all—I’m just particularly mouthy about it. To be fair, I may be overly obsessed, seeing class narratives in things where they may not even really be there. It’s kind of the chip on my shoulder. But I do think that it plays out. I’ve said a thousand times, you round up any ten successful artists in any discipline, and seven of them come from money. It’s that simple. It’s how we make art in this country. It’s very much a wealthy person’s game.
This book is full of provocative writing about art, culture and life lived interestingly. The essays in Compared to Hitler span over a decade of time and some pretty diverse content. What was the process of assembling it like?
Over the period of a year, I went through old disks, old USB sticks, information that was on old computers that I wasn’t using anymore, and my resume—and just starting sorting through it all. That process was fascinating and tiresome and wonderful, and a little bit alarming because I just forgot just how much I produced when I had a regular gig—I don’t know how I did it. It requires a particular kind of mindset and now that I have been out of it for over a year, it seems alarming that someone could grind out so much copy.
At one point, the book was 500 pages long… it was ridiculous. I don’t think I’m that inherently interesting, and also I thought “well, that feels like a tombstone and I don’t want that!” And not everything that you write is gold. So I just started radically cutting it. I took out a lot of the fluffy stuff and art writing that was about shows that were really time- and place specific, or artists who were not particularly well known.
One of the striking characteristics of the art writing that made the cut is just how accessible it is. Visual art and cultural commentary can sometime have an aura of impenetrability surrounding them—but you make it appear that the ability to look harder and deeper at art, and see really interesting things, is something that anyone at all can do.
This notion out there that ordinary people aren’t capable of or qualified to talk about art: It’s a damn lie. It’s not real; it’s something we’re taught, it’s a learned thing. We live in a culture where we all watch pop-music videos, we all listen to contemporary music, we all watch movies and TV—we all engage in popular culture all the time and we all feel completely free to comment on it. By comparison, there is nothing special about art. It’s all on a continuum. After 40 or 50 years of conceptualism, people have been conned into thinking that only the educated elite are permitted to look at, understand and discuss art. If I can in any little way kick at that con game, I’m gonna do it. Because everybody is not only entitled to, but has the ability to comment on what’s in front of them.
Would you say that applies to literature as well? Literary fiction doesn’t seem like a big seller in Canada.
Absolutely. Okay, maybe you can’t read Thomas Mann in the original German, and neither can I. But you can pick up a translation and read it and have something to say about it. Even if you find it incomprehensible, say that. You can read Henry James and say that’s incomprehensible too. That’s a valid critique. Many of James’s contemporaries said the same thing.
Sometime in the 1960s it seems, “culture” became an elite pursuit. Middle-class people in the early part of the 20th century actively went to theatre, bought new novels, went to the movies and were engaged in the culture. And then something happened.
As one critic to another, what are some of the challenges of commenting on art and literature in this country?
When you’re writing about art in Canada, you cannot win. For almost three years I wrote an art column for The Globe and Mail. If I wrote about a very difficult, conceptually driven, opaque art show and therefore had to use some of the language of that show, instantly the comments page would be full of “Hey, we don’t all have PhDs, you jackass.” Conversely, if I wrote about an outsider-art exhibition or something pop-culture-driven, something that people don’t consider “serious,” the page would fill up right away with people saying “When’s the Globe going to get a real art writer—someone who actually knows what real art is.”
I was on a panel in late summer, I had only been back in Canada for about a month and I was asked to be on this panel with some other cultural-commentator types, and we were talking about an exhibition that was on in the city, one that I had mixed feelings about but that I mostly liked. Toward the end of the discussion, a prominent curator in the city stood up in the Q&A portion, and said that the way that I talked critically about culture made me the equivalent of the police officer who shot the kid on the streetcar [Sammy Yatin, an unarmed nineteen-year-old with mental health issues, was fatally shot nine times by a Toronto police officer on a streetcar in summer 2013].
So you can’t win. You just have to pick your voice and go with it. No matter how you write about art in this country, you are going to get shit on for it. So you might as well do in the way that you want to. And I think it also proves that there is no wrong way to discuss art.
At least she didn’t compare you to Hitler!
At least she didn’t compare me to Hitler. But I mean, that is the level of crazy you encounter on a daily basis in the Canadian arts scene. And I think that is tied into the fact that we have made it all so precious. When you make culture seem like it’s the equivalent of, I don’t know, curing cancer, then of course people are going to get hysterical.
You just came back from a year abroad, living in Berlin. How did this influence your perceptions of Canlit or the Canadian cultural establishment?
Canada does sometimes culturally speaking and occasionally in other ways feel like everything is run by a bunch of WASP matrons in North Toronto. I often feel like my audience is supposed to be nice menopausal white ladies with tote bags, and I don’t know them; I don’t what’s right for them. If you go to a play or a “serious music” concert here, you are basically surrounded by these rich older white ladies. The thing that I liked very much about Berlin and about Europe in general is that everybody goes to things; the audience is a lot more diverse.
On the other hand though, the bad part about Europe is that it is so insanely xenophobic. There is almost no space that I could find for people of colour to do or show work, unless it was about them being of colour. There are spaces for people to show queer work but all of the work is about them being queer. The kind of baseline diversity that has been gradually been built up in this country—that still meets a lot of resistance, I know that, I totally understand that most systems are very closed to people outside the mainstream… It’s just at least a little bit better here in Canada, we are up one or two rungs on the ladder, toward the multiculturalist ideal. Europe is nowhere near close.
You’ve worked on a lot of different creative pursuits over the years—from fiction to poetry to video—and you just don’t stop. As a creative person, what keeps you going?
I really get off on finishing things. I hate doing things, but I really like finishing things. That seems to be the main motivation for me. To leave behind an enormous, very long trail of stuff. And I don’t even care if it’s all crap or not, I just need to make things. I get such a high from completion that that’s the reward system that I use: the high that I will get when I have completed something. When I’m in the middle of something, I wish I could say I know what inspiration is, but I don’t. In the middle of things, it doesn’t feel magical or mythical, it doesn’t feel vaguely religious, it just feels like a job.