3: Swann

Swann by Carol Shields

Swann

A few years back I read Shields’s short story compilation Dressing Up for the Carnival (I guess before I started these book posts). It was definitely a remainder table book; I remember picking it up because I kept hearing about Shields, but had never read anything of hers. Maybe I wasn’t sure if I’d like her writing or not?

Here’s the title story in Dressing Up for the Carnival and some reviews (January Magazine and The New York Times).

Anyhow, it turned out I liked Dressing Up for the Carnival more than I expected, so I picked up The Stone Diaries, her Governor General’s Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, on a used-bookstore excursion. It’s still on my to-be-read shelf, but…

I took an English course this summer and the first thing we read was Swann (sometimes titled Swann: A Mystery). Swann is about farmwife Mary Swann and how she is “discovered” and turned into a minor poet worthy of academic analysis. Despite the sometimes-subtitle, Swann is more wry and cutting than mysterious. (There is a mystery, but it’s a rather transparent one.) Although it’s a novel, it’s really a critique of the literary and academic publishing worlds. The book is also kind of experimental—each section is told in a different way. The first section is most novelistic; the final section is written like it’s a screenplay. I think the execution may turn people off (as in this reader review), but I think the choices Shields made were very deliberate and it’s interesting to consider why she made them. Anyhow, I thought Swann was funny (and true), but I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much if I wasn’t an insider, so to speak. Here’s an excerpt.

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