Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Ken Sparling

Breaking every rule

Will Ken Sparling’s experimental anti-novels find an audience?

By Micah Toub

Ken Sparling will tell you that money and fame don’t matter, that big publishing deals don’t mean a thing next to writing what he believes in, writing exactly how he wants to write. It’s the kind of line that makes you chuckle and roll your eyes; of course he cares, you think. The Richmond Hill, Ontario-based author has just released his fourth book – For Those Whom God Has Blessed With Fingers came out in September with Toronto’s tiny Pedlar Press – and surely he must secretly hope for that six-figure advance just like everyone else.

But Sparling’s actions, and his work, suggest that he really doesn’t value those things. In a market ruled by long, historical fiction tomes, he keeps putting out slim, fragmented – some might call them postmodern – anti-narrative “novels.” In fact, Sparling may just be one of the least careerist authors working in Canada today.

Consider his second book, Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt, which he began self-publishing on a made-to-order basis in 2000. Sparling printed the pages at home, had his wife sew the signatures, and then duct-taped it all together inside of the bindings of retired library books whose pages he’d removed. For a cover, he used pictures his two children had drawn. So far, he’s sold about 70 copies at $30 each. It’s been a while since he’s received an order, but Sparling says he’s ready to go at any time if one should come in.

Self-publishing is not a new or unique way for an indie author to work, but what makes Sparling’s case unusual is that four years earlier, in 1996, his first book, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, was published by Knopf U.S., one of the world’s most prestigious literary publishers. But if anything, that taste of mainstream success seemed to scare him off. “I didn’t enjoy the experience particularly,” Sparling says of being published by Knopf. “I didn’t hate it. It was just nothing. There was no experience – it was like shopping at Wal-Mart.” His mentor, the infamous New York editor and writer Gordon Lish, had been fired from Knopf in the middle of the editing process, and after that, Sparling felt invisible. “They did it, they made the book as they agreed to, but they didn’t do anything else,” he says. It was enough of a disappointment for Sparling to give up on publishing altogether, at least for a time.

The road to Knopf began in the early 1990s, when Sparling submitted work to the Toronto literary journal Blood & Aphorisms, run at the time by Sam Hiyate and Tim Paleczny. Hiyate took to Sparling’s work, published several of his stories, and then a few years later made him a B&A fiction editor. Around that time, in 1994, Hiyate also suggested that Sparling send his stories to Lish’s literary magazine, The Quarterly. Sparling was already writing very short stories, but Lish – known for his ruthless cutting – made Sparling’s work even sparer. “Lish had this huge, maybe misplaced confidence,” Sparling says. “He would just take out what he didn’t like as he went through it the first time.” Some authors later complained about Lish’s invasiveness, but Sparling liked the leaner prose, and adopted the style that was formed during their relationship.

All three of Sparling’s published books – which also include an untitled novel released by Pedlar Press two years ago – are made up entirely of short non-linear sections, some of them just one sentence long. Although variations on the same characters – a man and his family – do appear throughout all the books, the writing is ordered more to create emotional or tonal juxtapositions than to form a cohesive narrative about their lives. “It’s sort of musical in the way that music is about rhythm and structure,” Sparling explains. Some of the material – philosophical reflections on God, death, or the meaning of words – seems to have no connection to the characters at all.

As such, Sparling’s been criticized (including in a 2003 Q&Q review) for being frustratingly minimalist and for shying away from telling an intelligible, plot-driven story. “It’s what I have to do in the end, or what I enjoy doing,” Sparling says of his style. “I’m trying to find a way to keep starting fresh again. Not get pinned down.” After his first book with Knopf, Sparling admits he tried to capitalize on his success and write a more traditional story, something that could be marketed by a big press, “but I was disgusted with trying to write something an agent would read, and with trying to play that game.” Reflecting on the book he eventually wrote instead – the self-published Hush Up – he says, “There’d be parts I’d read and think, ‘People aren’t going to like this.’ And then I’d think, ‘Fuck ’em,’ and leave it in there anyway.” He says he’s lightened up since then, realizing the pressure came from himself more than anyone, but he still continues writing in his signature style because “it’s the way I see the world.”

While he has his detractors, Sparling is not short of supporters in the Canadian literary scene. One of those is Toronto author Derek McCormack, who edited Sparling’s last two books for Pedlar Press. The two originally met under reversed circumstances, when Sparling was editing McCormack’s first book, the short-story collection Dark Rides, for Hiyate’s Gutter Press in 1995. “When I gave him the manuscript it was 40,000 words,” says McCormack. “It was 12,000 when he gave it back to me and I loved it.” Sparling seems to have learned from Lish; according to McCormack, he excised all the “connective crap,” leaving in only the sections that he really liked. “I started to adopt the style as soon as I saw what he did.”

When Sparling was working on Hush Up, McCormack encouraged him to submit the manuscript to Beth Follett, publisher of Pedlar Press. At that point, Sparling wasn’t ready to go back to conventional publishing, but for his third book, he decided to give it a shot, and Pedlar released the untitled novel in 2003. “He didn’t want to have an author photo, or an explanation on the back,” Follett remembers. On top of that, he also didn’t want anything on the front cover at all. In the end, the only text on the outside of the book is the publisher’s logo and Sparling’s name, printed in small caps on the spine. In order to give the book some “literary weight,” Follett decided to publish it in hardcover, something she’d never done before, and which she says doubled the cost.

In contrast to his off-putting experience with Knopf, Sparling seems to have found the perfect home with Pedlar. “[Follett] is willing to take risks, and doesn’t seem bent on becoming successful in a standard sense,” he says. “If I had the opportunity to go with a press that would market my books more, I don’t know if I would. I hope I wouldn’t.”

Still, Pedlar Press printed only 800 copies each of Sparling’s last two books, and one wonders whether there’ll ever be another editor like Lish, someone who can bring unconventional writing to a larger audience. Follett, for one, is skeptical. “Not in the current climate,” she says. “In the past, it was all right to let a bestseller carry an experimental work, but now [big publishers] have a lot of pressure for each book to make a profit.”

Sparling himself seems unconcerned, at least for now. Supporting himself and his family – he has two young sons – with a full-time marketing position at the Toronto Reference Library, he’s happy to write what he pleases, even if it means he’ll never get an agent or a big publishing deal, or live easily off of royalties. “If I ever met an agent who seemed to want to work with me – not for me, or for the book, or for the money – I might be tempted,” he says. “But I consider it good fortune that no agent has yet taken an interest.”