Writer in Residence

In Praise of … Generosity

By Mark Sampson

I’ve been told I sometimes need to tone it down in the hospitality department when entertaining company at our place. I am told this by my wife, acclaimed novelist and short story writer Rebecca Rosenblum, who often fears for the livers of our guests whenever we host house parties, dinner parties, writing-group workshop sessions, or ad hoc get-togethers with friends. I reluctantly admit I may have gone a bit overboard on the whole “home cocktailing” thing over the last number of years. Rebecca will tell me I don’t always need to offer people an elaborate mixological marvel five seconds after they’ve come in the door. I don’t need to offer them another one the instant their glass is empty. I don’t need to break out the single malts or flaming Sambuca when the hour grows late and people are just trying to put their shoes back on and go home.  

I can’t help it. I come from a long line of people where this level of bonhomie and munificence is just part of their operating system. I was born and raised in rural Prince Edward Island, where “drop in” culture is very much alive and well (as opposed to life here in downtown Toronto, where it often feels like it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere, and more and more people are living in high-rise towers behind buzzer systems or surly concierges). It’s not unusual back home to ask someone to stay for supper even if it’s, you know, one o’clock in the afternoon. I have an aunt who insists that everyone email her in advance their favourite foods whenever she hosts a dinner party so she can have three or four main courses and three or four desserts on offer. I recently read a review of the hit musical Come from Away, the true-story premise for which – about the town of Gander, NL welcoming and caring for some 7,000 stranded airline passengers after the 9/11 attacks – struck me as just common decency. 

I would like to use this, my first column as writer in residence for Open Book, to make a pitch about bringing a similar level of generosity to one’s writing. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a writer of some sort or another, and perhaps you’ve even dabbled with an idea best expressed in the phrase: “I don’t give a damn about the reader.” I sometimes hear fellow authors say this, as if it somehow proves one’s literary bona fides. If this is you, I would ask that you reconsider this notion. I’ve always seen the act of welcoming readers to a piece of my writing – especially a creative work, like a novel, short story or even a poem – in the same light as welcoming people to a party at my home.  

That is to say, I want to go overboard. I want to impress upon them that I’m happy they’re there, that I’ve got big plans for them and have put an incredible amount of thought behind the experiences I want them to have. Readers should gain a sense, not long after they’ve come in the door, that those experiences will be enriching because they’re so rich: rich with a gripping narrative premise, with characters (both primary and secondary; both heroes and villains) full of depth and contradiction and plausible motives; rich with a moral compass that raises more questions than it answers; rich with language that utterly hums with allusions and complexity; and rich with overarching thematic concerns that offer just as much propulsion as any plot twist. For me, the novels and stories I’ve liked the least have always struck me as, well, stingy. They feel lazy and poorly planned out and, worst of all, hermetically sealed. It’s like the reader doesn’t even need to be there.    

So where do we start when it comes to being generous with readers? With such a question, I always reflect back to this interview that author Lynn Coady gave when her 2011 novel, The Antagonist, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In it, Coady tells us that readers owe us nothing, that they aren’t rooting for us, and that it’s our job to win them over. Yes, and yes. This is not to say that there aren’t different types of audiences who come to works with different types of expectations. Obviously, what you give of yourself to a middle-grade reader may be – and probably should be – different than what you’d give of yourself to an adult. But the point is, the onus is on you to figure who your reader is and to win them over. 

Now, all of this comes with a caveat: being generous in your writing doesn’t always mean creating an immediately hospitable terrain. Some of the most generous works are designed to make you feel uncomfortable. The quintessential example of this, of course, is James Joyce’s Ulysses, arguably one of the greatest, if most confounding, novels of all time. There is no doubt that the majority of people who come to that book find its prose and structures unwelcoming, at least initially. But I would argue that it’s also one of the most generous novels ever written. Pick up a copy and flip to a random paragraph. It is clear in virtually any sentence that Joyce is giving you everything he has. Being generous as a writer also means creating opportunities in your work for the reader’s imagination to participate. It means bringing as many details, preoccupations, and points of view to your characters’ worlds as you can. It means raising more questions than you answer, and giving your reader an avenue to see the world in a new way.

Ultimately, generosity means giving as much of yourself as you can on the page, and then giving even more. Again, pull a novel down off your shelf and read any random paragraph. Does the prose simply express something in a basic, pragmatic way? Does it merely take the characters from point A to point B? Or is it a relentless, tireless expression of imaginative bounty, an act of over-the-top generosity? I always like to think that finishing writing a novel should destroy me in some way. By the time I’m done, I want to feel like there’s nothing left of me except eyeballs and skin and a tuft of hair. I’ve given everything I have, everything I am, to you, reader, because you chose to come to my party. The trick, of course, if you want a career as a novelist, is to learn how to take a short break and then do it all over again.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Mark Sampson is the author of the novels Off BookSad Peninsula, and The Slip, as well as a short-story collection, The Secrets men Keep, and a poetry collection, Weathervane. He has published fiction and poetry in literary journals across Canada. Mark lives in Toronto.