The Best Kind of People. Zoe Whittall.

Whittall, Zoe. The Best Kind of People. Anansi, Toronto, 2016. F;9/17.

Overvalued ideas is a psychiatric term referring to the kind of thing that drives eating disorders. We all have them, although most of the time they don’t do much harm. But I think our culture tends to – not so much overvalue, as – fear not-adequately-valuing certain ideas. And a few books I’ve read recently including this one appear to make use of that (see also The Association of Small Bombs). I understand that this may be nothing more than an overvalued idea of mine, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

This novel read for me like a John Grisham thriller. Its style was thriller style and its appeal was plot complexity. Turning pages was driven by wanting to find out what was going to happen, along with some carefully-muted sex interest. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of fiction. I take holidays from “serious” literary stories and novels when I can’t find anything that looks interesting, and then Grisham, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Karin Slaughter are available and meet for me the same need I satisfy when I watch Designated Survivor or Homeland on TV.

But this thing was short-listed for the prestigious serious-fiction Canadian Giller prize. Here’s the citation the jury published about it:

…urgent and timely, nuanced and brave. This gripping story challenges how we hear women and girls, and dissects the self-hypnosis and fear that prevent us from speaking disruptive truth. With subversive precision and solid veracity, Whittall calls into question pervasive forms of silence and acquiescence.

This doesn’t say anything about Best Kind of People‘s literary value: character, charm, readability, vivid imagination at work (consider Lolita if you can’t think of anything on the subject of this novel with literary value). The Giller citation praises the author’s bravery for subversively challenging a disruptive truth. That “truth”: wealthy, privileged, respected, socially-revered middle-aged men get away with fucking 13-year-old girls because everybody is afraid of challenging them.

Now it may be that this kind of thing goes on all the time, and I agree with everyone else that when it does it is horrifying. And, by the way, I think the Holocaust was one of the worst things in human history, that illness is dreadful and is often not properly handled, that terrorism is a serious problem, and that racism is alive, well, and hideously unfair. I completely believe all these things are undeniable and important.

I just don’t want mediocre literature, film, journalism, music, even pop celebrity to be elevated to serious credibility for no other reason than that it focuses on one of these culturally highly-valued ideas, and because it believes it can shame critics out of being critical. “What? You don’t take (sexual abuse, cancer, cigarette smoking, etc.) seriously?” And again please don’t get me wrong, these ideas have terrifyingly immense importance. But when critics and prize juries are afraid they might be accused of not paying enough attention to currently magnetic topics and as a result express bad opinions about the value of bad creative work, then there is a perversity of the critical process and what I would call an over-valuation going on.

As an example of what I’m talking about, take a look at my reviews of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, and Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge to get a sense of my valuation of the Holocaust.

I suggest you also read this allegedly urgent and timely book and see if you understand what I mean about its literary value. A lot may depend on your experience of sexual abuse of young teenagers, and how you feel about small-town economic, class, and cultural dynamics. It’s an exciting read, but belongs in my opinion on the shelf with other prurient thrillers, not on the Giller shortlist.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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