Swann by Carol Shields
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?
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.