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Literature in the Air
by Keith Nickson

BARBARA FRUM didn't always get it right. In the early 1980s, the late CBC TV anchor interviewed Norman Mailer on "The Journal." It seems that even the no-nonsense Frum couldn't resist an invitation to chat with Norman about his tome of the moment. Norman, you see, makes good TV. He can be witty, boorish, provocative, and charming. Typically, when Mailer is asked about his adventures-- threatening to whip out his weenie in front of enraged feminists, trying to punch Gore Vidal's lights out--he actually defends them.

On paper, the match looked promising. Frum, a veteran of counter-punching contests with Polish generals, versus Mailer, a respected bruiser in both his literary and personal life. Well, in a word, Frum gushed. She also giggled, sweet-talked, and got chummy with Mailer. The legendary toughness vanished; she became a child in Mailer's palm. It was embarrassing.

This image stuck with me and evolved into a question: why are the broadcast media so soft on writers, so uncritical of their work? I put this query to Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBC Stereo's "Writers & Company." " I've been known to do my share of gushing, too," says Wachtel. "The tendency is to think that reviews are where you criticize the book and that interviews are where you give a platform to the writer .... I wouldn't invite a writer on to attack their work."

Peter Kavanagh, books producer for CBC Radio's "Morningside," says that a broadcaster's job is to mediate between the writer and the audience not to promote his own opinions. "You're knowledgeable about books....Why would it matter to you if Barbara Frum thought Norman Mailer was a good writer? Frum was not a book critic. 'The Journal' assembles people to criticize books."

Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC Stereo's "The Arts Tonight," seeks to create "an atmosphere of trust....This is still a community that needs to be nurtured." Rogers then admits, "There's still a part of me that's ga-ga over the process of writing .... I'm in awe of people who do publish."

LAST FALL, in a doughnut shop on Toronto's Spadina Avenue, I made a naive pitch to this magazine about a piece on the broadcast media's gutless -- or was it uncritical? -- treatment of literature. The CBC's "The Arts Tonight," "Writers & Company," and "Morningside," and TVOntario's "Imprint" were the four programs we settled on as the main players on the national scene. Over the past season I've absorbed as many of these shows as a man with a family and a full-time job could handle. I would grab my portable radio during "Eureka's Castle" -- my children's last shot of TV before bed -- and press it against my ear to hear Shelagh Rogers on "The Arts Tonight." When "Imprint" aired, my wife would growl, with increasing intensity as the season wore on, "Can't you just write that story already?"

As I made my way to CBC Stereo's Toronto headquarters, I mulled over a comment made by a friend: "Eleanor I Wachtel's a real intellectual," he had said. Of all the producers and hosts I interviewed, Wachtel alone has a solid track record in the editing and reviewing of literature. In the mid-'70s she helped edit the West Coast literary journal Room of One's Own, and since then she has been a contributing editor for Books in Canada, as well as a theatre critic and book reviewer for magazines, newspapers, and various CBC Radio programs.

I'll admit I'm partial to Wachtel's on air personality. She's warm, incisive, and has a wonderful voice for radio. While she admits to an eclectic taste in writers, her commitment to women authors dates back to the mid-'70s. In fact, Wachtel tells me, about half of the writers interviewed this past season on "Writers & Company" were women. When I discover that only two people Wachtel and the producer, Sandra Rabinovitch choose which writers to invite on the program, I'm astonished. "How do you decide who goes on air?" I ask.

Wachtel: Well, who do you like to read?

BiC: Gordimer, Carver, Ondaatje, John Hawkes, John Banville...

Wachtel: It's like that. You put together a wish list. Nadine Gordimer, for example, was someone I'd always wanted to interview. She was in Johannesburg. So a CBC reporter went to her house and held a microphone in front of her face and I talked to her on the phone.

BiC: Can it be nailed down any further?

Wachtel: I'm eclectic. I like Southern writers, British writers ... some of the women like Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald. I'm interested in novels of psychological realism.

BiC: Postmodernists?

Wachtel: Who would you call postmodern right now?

BiC: Calvino, Hawkes, Barth, Garcia Marquez..

Wachtel: There's not a single woman on the list.

BiC (moving right along): So "Writers & Company" is really your literary sensibility on the air?

Wachtel: The conjunction of chance and my sensibility...

For the most part, Wachtel's show focuses on international writers with an established reputation. The show takes advantage of CBC studios around the world and also uses National Public Radio facilities in the United States. "We can talk to virtually any writer who writes in English or who can speak English," says Wachtel.

Wachtel's self-confessed strategy, "to challenge writers in a friendly sort of way," paid off with Julian Barnes last fall. In a half-hour conversation centred on his novel Talking It Over, Wachtel used good humour, tenaciousness, and intelligence to pursue Barnes's attitude to love. Wachtel felt that Barnes's previous novel, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, described the "great transformative power of love." She then argued that Talking It Over presented a more "bleak and cynical view."

"I wanted to know how he reconciled the two (views on love)," recalls Wachtel. "Barnes continued to insist that the new novel didn't present a bleak picture of love. But I just kept quoting different parts until he said, 'Well, you know, maybe you're right. 'That's fun to do. I never really said, 'I didn't like your book.' "

0NE AFTERNOON in early January, I'm sitting in a Toronto studio beside Richard Handler, literary producer for "The Arts Tonight." We listen as the show's small press critic, Antanas Sileika, delivers three reviews to Shelagh Rogers. Handler stops the taping after one review, because Sileika is rushing his delivery. He takes some water to Sileika and tells him to slow down, relax. The tape rolls again and Sileika resumes his highly animated talk. Rogers asks a question and Handler finds it confusing. The tape pauses...

"It's a performance," says Handler. "Shelagh gets a basic script and then responds to Antanas's performance. It's theatre as journalism. It's radio, not a literary journal." Handler sends Sileika 10 small press books each month and allows him to choose three for review. Handler then acts as the editor. Over the phone, he revises two drafts of Sileika's script. In this case, Rogers has not read the books and gives centre stage to the reviewer. Sileika is paid for his work, says Handler, and so the onus is on him to provide a good performance.

Every weekday evening, "The Arts Tonight" tries to do the impossible: provide coverage of theatre, music, film, literature, architecture, and more in just 30 minutes. The show aims to review first novels, works of poetry, regional books, and small-press books by Canadians. Because the show is a nightly one, the focus is on the book as news event.

Handler, who clearly feels overwhelmed by the task, mostly chooses the books covered. In conversation, Handler is earnest, intense, and rarely smiles. "It's a daily program, I can't stress that enough," he says. "We have deadlines to meet, lots of material to go through. I make decisions about books faster than I'd like to ... I have to make a decision after reading 30 pages -- on page 31, maybe it's suddenly not good."

Handler battles for airtime on the show with four other producers. Handler, says Rogers, is a "friendly dictator" when it comes to deciding what books or writers go on the air. Over the course of the past season, it seemed that literature was losing ground to coverage of music, film, and theatre disciplines that readily lend themselves to the performance demands of the CBC Stereo network. Rogers cautiously concurs: "That's a fair perception," she says.

On December 9, Rogers discusses the American humorist Garrison Keillor with Eleanor Wachtel. The 10-minute segment includes an interview and a reading by the author. I ask Rogers: why spend so much time on an American lightweight promoting his newest best seller? Rogers is candid: "That's a tough question for me to answer. Not to shun any responsibility, but I don't make those decisions. However ... he's good value. He's a good talker. I know that day we had four Canadian writers on tape sitting on the shelf that could have gone on .... However, I'm sure the decision was made because of the texture of the show. Eleanor and I in conversation are always very friendly." Handler bristles at my attitude towards Keillor. "He's not a lightweight, he's seriously reviewed. Both as a radio performer and as a writer, we have no embarrassment featuring him on the program."

Rogers is at her best when talking to first-time writers. High-profile writers such as Hugh Hood in an interview broadcast last December tend to make her giggle and gush. But when her guest is Larry Warwaruk, a western writer with a first novel to promote, Rogers is just about perfect. On April 1, an interview and a reading from his book, Rope of Time, last a hill 10 minutes. Rogers is enthusiastic, Warwaruk responds to the warmth, and we end up with some illuminating, unpretentious book chat.

Rogers will only "take the gloves off 'when she interviews an experienced writer like Robert Bly. "I find it very difficult to be critical of a writer, because I'm not a critic, I'm the host," she says. "I see the program as a dinner party or salon, and I say, 'Why don't you come and meet Morley Torgov?' Nobody wants to hear a screaming harpie at 6:30 at night. I think I can go farther in my interviews when someone is not defensive."

AS WITH "The Arts Tonight," CBC Radio's "Morningside" features panels of writers or critics and one-on-one interviews with authors -- mostly Canadian. With 15 hours of air time a week devoted to current affairs, there's always lots of space for books. "Some weeks we've done five books, the average is three to five a week," says the show's books producer, Peter Kavanagh.

Love him, hate him, or tolerate him, the program's host, Peter Gzowski, is a kind of Everyman of the airwaves. He's also a veteran author, as Kavanagh is quick to point out. "We have a host who is an author himself, a leading proponent of literacy in this country who has a personal love of books."

"Morningside" does some things superbly. An interview with Ronald Wright this past spring is, in Kavanagh's phrase, "good radio." Gzowski asks brief questions and Wright tells fascinating anecdotes about Aztec civilization. Wright effortlessly meets the performance standards required for a 20 minute interview segment. On one April morning, Gzowski explores the appropriation of voice issue for the first hour. Gzowski sets the stage by interviewing a spokesperson for the Canada Council. He then invites a cross country panel, including Neil Bissoondath, Lenore Keeshig Tobias, and Rudy Wiebe, to debate the issue. Here, "Morningside" conveys the sense of a diverse national culture, one found nowhere else in radioland.

Still, this is good radio carefully packaged for a mainstream national audience of millions of listeners. It is not highbrow radio of the sort found on CBC Radio's "Ideas" program, for example. And it is not freewheeling, spontaneous radio. Book chat on "Morningside" is designed to stimulate the "audience" -- a word that frequently punctuates Kavanagh's comments. By a wide margin, Kavanagh uses this word more than anyone else I interviewed. Some samples: "Our audience is always writing us letters .... We try to anticipate their taste .... Hosts asks questions that audiences want to hear answered .... Book people are a much smaller group than our audience," and so on.

By most standards, "Morningside" does a good job of "reflecting Canadians back to themselves," as Kavanagh puts it. He makes no apology for a lack of critical rigour in the treatment of books. "I think your premise is correct," he says, "that broadcasting is not critical of literature. But I suspect that broadcasting never told you it would be. Fundamentally, it's more important that a conversation take place and enough information is placed on the table for the listener to make a decision about the author."

Kavanagh, formerly a producer at "The Journal," admits to wondering if hosts enjoy the books they are discussing. "When I listen to Daniel Richler, Eleanor Wachtel, Shelagh Rogers, or Peter, there is a little voice inside me saying, 'So, did you like the book?' But it's a minor frustration."

At a recent press reception, I observed Daniel Richter, novelist and host of TVOntario's weekly book show, "Imprint." In a crowd of conservatively dressed book people, Richter stood out. He looked like a late-'70s English punk: spiky hair, black leather jacket with silver trimmings, blue jeans rolled at the cuff, and holding it all up, a pair of black stomping boots. In one hand was a pint of beer. When announcements were made from the dais, Richter stomped one foot in support.

Richter's role-playing -- as the hip, streetwise writer who's out to challenge established notions about literature -- also comes across on "Imprint." The show tries to push beyond convention by exploring rap music, Harlequin romances, books turned into films -- in short, anything that emerges from the written word. The show aims to be provocative, says the producer director Stan Lipsey, who speaks in rapid-fire sound bites and seldom stops moving. "Literature is not safe, leather-bound copies of Dostoyevsky. It's alive, provocative, and hopefully dangerous. We're going to stir people up. It's not just about the epiphanies of middle class, white life in small-town Ontario." Lipsey, a veteran television producer, was hired by Richter to revamp the show after a disastrous opening season.

Unfortunately, Richter is often out of his depth when tackling the "safe" writers who tend to dominate the program. When Gay Talese appeared in March, Richter asked the tired question (I paraphrase): Is your new book, Unto the Sorts, a way to win back some respect after the controversy surrounding Thy Neighbour's Wife? (Talese's book on sex in America). Talese eloquently dismissed the question and controlled the remainder of the interview. To close, Richter praised the descriptions of Italian life but lamented the lack of "bosomy" images like those found in a Fellini movie. Talese leaped on Richter's error: Fellini is from Rimini in the north and I write about the south, he said; it's a totally different world.

When I mention the sex-panel segment that "Imprint" ran last fall, Lipsey is ready for swordplay. "Oh yes, we're still getting letters about it. Most of them saying, Thank goodness you did it." The panel -- featuring a gay performance artist, an American novelist, a Harlequin romance editor, and a Canadian novelist -- wrestled with the question of how sexuality is being treated in 199 1. Richter failed to provide any literary context, such as a preliminary discussion of sexuality in the works of Hardy, Lawrence, Miller, Anais Nin, Philip Roth, and so on. In his readings, the gay artist proceeded to shock the audience with explicit descriptions of sexual acts that were, shall we say, non-literary. Lipsey had his own views, which centred on the freedom of speech issue:

Lipsey: I'm sorry if you didn't think it was too contextual. The gays are the ones who are pushing the limits of writing. It was not merely for titillation ... no way. We weren't going to back off from any of the language used.

BiC: I felt the gay writer just wanted to shock people.

Lipsey: And he did!

BiC: Is it part of your mandate to shock?

Lipsey: Oh no, no. We're not "The Shirley Show." But we want to stir people out of their complacency, yes.

When things go well on "Imprint," they go very well. An opening interview with the filmmaker David Cronenberg this spring was fascinating stuff. M. T. Kelly's mini-documentary on Margaret Atwood worked because of the evident warmth between the two writers. It helped that the camera seemed to like Kelly. In her debate with John Metcalf over the subsidizing of literature, Susan Crean of the Writers' Union was an articulate, rigorous winner who was a pleasure to watch.

The jokes about "Dimprint" that were common in its first season seem to be fading. The show, recently picked up in three western provinces, now has an audience of about 1oo,ooo. In Lipsey's opinion, at least, "Imprint" has finally earned some respect. "This year it feels like a success," he says. "People talk about it. The jokes about 'Dimprint' are left over from the first year. We've turned that around. We are not a stupid show."

AFTER ALL my watching and listening I concluded that broadcastland needs more people with some background in literature. Instead, we seem to have experienced broadcasters and producers who have turned to literature after learning their trade in current affairs. For them, books and their authors are merely the newest material to be packaged for a mainstream audience. Even if the hosts are veterans in the arts field, too often they are puppets in the hands of producers who are more concerned with performance standards than challenging debate.

Of all these programs, "Writers & Company," which is probably the least expensive to produce, is the most stimulating and has the most credibility, because its host knows something about literature. It's reassuring, somehow, that Wachtel actually studied literature at McGill early in her career, reviewed and edited literature for many years, and then went into broadcasting. Unfortunately, the show's Sunday afternoon time slot makes Wachtel inaccessible to those of us with active family lives. If "Morningside" can be repeated nightly, why not schedule repeats of "Writers & Company"? (And on this topic, "The Arts Tonight" desperately needs a daily one-hour slot to achieve its ambitions.)

As my research went on, I realized that most of the book chat on radio and TV isn't meant for the, ahem, serious book lover like myself. As Lipsey said of "Imprint," "The people we're aiming at are not in publishing, not the publicists, not the columnists. We're going after readers, as broadly as we can get them without compromising our ideals." Kavanagh was blunter: "Book people don't need us; attempting to communicate with that group would verge on redundancy."

Lipsey is right when he says that all novelists do not deserve the "John Simon approach with the sledgehammer." Nor do we need the gushing that mars so much book chat. The Canadian writing community is no longer a "little plant that has to be nurtured," in Lipsey's phrase. I question the media's insistence that critics and hosts must be separate beasts. Hosts choose to be critical on occasion, so why not do it more often? I, for one, think our writers can handle it.


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