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Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing

by Carol Shields; Anne Giardini (ed.); Nicholas Giardini (ed.)

When Carol Shields died in 2003, she left behind a wealth of papers and unpublished material now housed at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. One of Canada’s pre-eminent novelists (the word “beloved” frequently accompanies her name in articles and reviews), Shields also taught creative writing at Toronto’s Humber School for Writers, and was by all accounts a generous and encouraging reader of beginning writers’ work.

indexUnsurprisingly, much of the Ottawa archive features writing and correspondence devoted to the craft of fiction. What elements are necessary in a good novel, story, poem, or play? How does a writer deal with technical considerations of voice, pace, and suspense? Can writing be taught? Also included in the fonds are more general musings about the state of Canadian literature during the time Shields was practising it – roughly, the 1970s through the turn of the millennium. Anne Giardini, Shields’s daughter (and a novelist in her own right), and Anne’s son, Nicholas, have collaborated on a volume that collects representative speeches, papers, notes, and letters comprising a snapshot of what might be considered Shields’s aesthetic philosophy.

Much of Shields’s theoretical approach will be predictable to anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with her fiction. She dislikes what she considers Hemingway’s parsimoniousness regarding extraneous details, preferring Jane Austen’s demonstrated ability to create scenes out of careful accretions of telling particulars. “[W]e all know that extraneous details give shading to character, furnish a scene, contribute to a sense of place and modify the tone of a piece,” Shields asserts, engaging in the very sort of declarative certainty she elsewhere chides in critics such as Northrop Frye. She further dislikes male-authored novels that traffic in grand, sweeping events of history or politics and gravitates instead toward the kind of close psychological scrutiny of everyday characters appearing in what is often dismissively labelled as “domestic fiction” (or, worse, “diaper novels,” in the condescending words of one reviewer Shields references).

That this kind of novel is frequently the product of a woman author is not lost on Shields, and some of the most animating sections in Startle and Illuminate involve an examination of the extent to which women’s voices have been muted or silenced in the history of the canonization of Western literature. While she is quick to decry overbroad readings that imply some kind of monolithic approach, Shields does suggest that women’s writing “is worth paying attention to” in part because it is “present and personal and urgent,” less prone to exaggeration or mythologizing, and home to a wider emotional range than that of many male writers.

Perhaps more unexpected is Shields’s insistence that the interiority of emotional experience be vested in the characters, not their author. In contrast to prevailing trends in 2016 – which are often about the extent to which people are able to see themselves represented in fiction – Shields states that the writer’s focus should be outward, on the other: curiosity about other people, she insists, is an essential aspect of the writer’s makeup. (She confesses to being an inveterate eavesdropper.)

At one point, Shields recounts her love of “story problems” in mathematics: “Mary Brown is sent to the grocer’s for two pounds of cheese at a dollar and a half a pound. How much change will she get back from a $20 bill?” Shields claims complete disinterest in the solution to this problem, but is utterly fascinated by biographical questions about Mary Brown: Why did she need so much cheese? And, is she old enough to be responsible for carrying around $20 in cash?

Because of the way it has been cobbled together, Startle and Illuminate evinces some inevitable repetition, highlighting the author’s particular hobby horses or pet turns of phrase. On more than one occasion, for instance, we are told that Joan Didion writes to figure out what she is thinking and that Alice Munro refers to lived experience as the “starter dough” from which she crafts her fiction. Shields also displays a startling affinity for the word “audacious,” which would perhaps have surprised her, in the same way she expresses surprise when a dental hygienist points out the number of references to teeth in her fiction.

The practical advice contained in the book is by and large less interesting, and in some cases (“Use a thesaurus”) potentially damaging. And the brief selection of letters at the end lack sufficient context to be terribly rewarding. What is valuable, however, is the glimpse this slim volume affords into the creative mind of an author whose work continues to exert an influence on the development of literature in Canada more than a decade after her untimely death.