Unpacking "Quirky": A CanLit Round Table

Throughout March we've been celebrating the weird and wonderful side of CanLit, the one-of-a-kinders, the eccentrics and oddballs. And when you start thinking about these ideas, the word "quirky" comes up a lot, a word much enamoured by marketers and critics alike. But what does quirky really mean? What are its politics? Who gets to be quirky? What is quirky's hidden edge? 

With the aim of addressing this questions, we enlisted four Canadian writers whose work we love—and whose books have also been called quirky. And together, they go about unpacking the term. 

*****

49th Shelf: What does “quirky” mean to you? When critics or readers refer to a book as “quirky,” what are they trying to say?

Dawn Dumont: Quirky means a slender girl with short hair who wears distinctive eyeglasses and owns an umbrella that cost more than most people’s bikes. She also works at Starbucks and writes poetry about leaving said umbrella on trains. Basically Emma Stone.

In the writer world, quirky strikes me as a dismissive term like “cute” or “rabid.”  Still I’d rather read a book that was characterized as “quirky” rather than as a “definitive tome.”

Lenore Rowntree: To me "quirky" means something slightly offbeat, a little whimsical, sort of fun. A friend of mine who is a voracious but sometimes jaded reader thinks people use "quirky" to describe any book that isn't a romance or a mystery, or doesn't have a werewolf or a zombie in it. I'm less jaded, but I do think it's sometimes used when a person doesn't really know what to say about a book. And I wonder when critics use it, if it's because they over-used the term "edgy" in the past ten years.

Brian Francis: For me, quirky is like weird’s first cousin. You’ll find both of them sitting in the corner at a house party, but quirky will inevitably attract attention at some point during the night, mostly for doing Carol Channing impressions or talking about how croquet deserves a comeback. No one will want to talk to weird. When readers or critics refer to something as “quirky”, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can feel like the work is being minimalized. Like the book is something you pet, rather than something to consider and explore. 

For me, quirky is like weird’s first cousin. You’ll find both of them sitting in the corner at a house party, but quirky will inevitably attract attention at some point during the night, mostly for doing Carol Channing impressions or talking about how croquet deserves a comeback.

Brian Francis

Missy Marston: It strikes me that a quirk is a very small thing, a very minor deviation from the mainstream. Something just slightly off. If there is a continuum of experiment or risk-taking, “quirky” is at one end and “ground-breaking” is at the other. 

49th Shelf: Do you self-define your work as “quirky”? Is there a reason you might want to avoid the term? And if not, what do you like about it? Is “quirky” something to aspire to? 

Lenore Rowntree: I do not self-define as quirky. I don't think a writer can self-define that way. If you set out intentionally to be quirky then you actually are being something else; maybe you're being a performance artist, maybe a metafictionalist (is there such a word?), maybe you're just being a self-important artiste. But you definitely are not being quirky. Nothing makes me accidentally/on-purpose want to glue my hands together more than to be told to clap along at a concert. Clapping should be spontaneous or it doesn't work for me. I think I'd feel the same way if I was told, or if I told myself, to write quirkily. Quirky has to include some element of spontaneity. 

Brian Francis: I don’t think people (writers or otherwise) can self-define themselves (or their writing) as quirky. It’s a definition placed on you by someone else. So I don’t define my work as quirky, although I understand why people would label my book Fruit that way. I do find “quirky” patronizing at times. It can belittle difference, or package it up with a cute, polka-dot bow without the acknowledgement that difference is often painful. Or that the person may not want to be packaged. I don’t know anyone who aspires to be quirky and, if they do, they’re probably not quirky. Quirky isn’t something you strive towards. It’s something you either are or you aren’t. 

Missy Marston: I feel like I have never used the word, “quirky” to describe anything. It doesn’t feel like my word. However, almost every person who wrote something about my first book, The Love Monster, referred to it as quirky. It was alarmingly consistent and seemed like it was being used positively. I think it was because of the subject matter (divorced woman saved by alien) and the lightness of the tone in treating heavy subjects. That’s my guess. 

Dawn Dumont: I feel like I’m too chubby and too brown to be quirky. Though I would certainly like to try to be quirky one day—maybe if I could give up full fat lattes and potato chips.

Probably my work doesn’t fall into the quirky category—Indigenous comedy with strong female protagonists. Although to people who come from reserves, this wouldn’t be seen as unusual as all. Funny females who can tell you off and make you laugh at the same time are the norm there. 

Probably my work doesn’t fall into the quirky category—Indigenous comedy with strong female protagonists. Although to people who come from reserves, this wouldn’t be seen as unusual as all. Funny females who can tell you off and make you laugh at the same time are the norm there. 

Dawn Dumont

49th Shelf: While I know that some writers hate the term being applied to their work, the question of who “gets” to be quirky is an interesting one. It seems that predominantly white writers get called “quirky,” and Indigenous writers and writers of colour, not so much. Why do you think this is the case? 

Dawn Dumont: Just in terms of numbers—there are more white writers out there. Quirky then become another way to distinguish between one writer or another.

Quirky also feels like a choice, like you could be “normal” if you just tried. Being a minority or a writer of colour is not a choice so perhaps people are more careful with the labels.

Here’s a question—are Gordon Korman and Douglas Coupland considered quirky? What about David Sedaris? Cuz those writers all seem to epitomize quirky to me—taking the oddball into cool territory.

Am I quirky to others? I cannot tell. As a member of the other, I always have a hard time figuring out how people see me. Yesterday I noticed that people were giving me shade at a Walmart. And I couldn’t figure it out because normally people just ignore me. But I think most women were put off by the fact that I was wearing makeup at 9:30 a.m. but I was only doing that because I watched a bunch of makeup how to videos the night before and I hadn’t washed my face.

Missy Marston: Yeah. Quirky definitely strikes me as an elfin, Zooey Deschanel kind of thing. Why? I guess long held prejudices have led to the use of certain words to describe certain kinds of people without bothering to think about their accuracy. In short, a kind of linguistic laziness rooted in racism and sexism. 

Lenore Rowntree: I haven't thought much about who gets to be called "quirky" other than writers who actually produce quirky work. I would have said that being Indigenous or a writer of colour has nothing to do with it, except when I tried googling to look for writers who've been called quirky, I admit I didn’t find many in that category. I think there are some quirky pieces that writers like Tomson Highway, Drew Hayden Taylor and Paul Beatty have produced, so I don't know why that is. I did find one article that said André Alexis' fiction is quirky.   

Brian Francis: I think that Indigenous writers and writers of colour are often stopped at being Indigenous or of colour. You can write a black character, but your character can’t be black and a hoarder. You can write an Indigenous character, but he can’t be Indigenous and a magician. You can only be the one thing that makes you most different. At least, in the eyes of some white readers and a predominantly white publishing industry. And that sucks.

49th Shelf: Do you think “quirky” is gendered?

Brian Francis: No, but in novels, quirky girls always find someone to love them by the end of the book. And sometimes, quirky girls are called “plucky.” No one ever calls a guy plucky. 

Lenore Rowntree: I notice that all the writers I came up with in my previous answer are men. And certainly lots of well-known male authors—J.D. Salinger, Tom Robbins, Dave Eggers—have been called quirky, and before that (although the term back in the day might have been "idiosyncratic") writers like William Blake and Thomas Wolfe were also described that way. Now lots of female writers are described as quirky too, but I wonder if it means the same thing when a woman's writing is called "quirky." It was considered a badge of honour in the 1980s when Tama Janowitz's Slaves of New York was labelled ''quirky" because it was thought to be in the same league as Jay Mcinnerney's Bright Lights, Big City. But without the male comparison would it have been so flattering? Is a man's quirky writing somehow muscular and lithely intelligent? Is a woman's quirky a little sillier, a bit weaker? I hope not. I'm thinking Emily Dickinson back in the day was considered "idiosyncratic," and people are still trying to decipher her quirkiness, so that's got to be a good thing.

I'm thinking Emily Dickinson back in the day was considered "idiosyncratic," and people are still trying to decipher her quirkiness, so that's got to be a good thing.

Lenore Rowntree

Dawn Dumont: It feels like a word targeted at women—like chick lit. Men are not quirky even though they have the crazy beards and the man buns and dreadlocks and dreadlocks corded into man buns. Men can do anything and there’s rarely judgement attached to it. Or at least, they aren’t slapped into a category that limits them. As a comedian, I used to love making jokes about sex—because I was a sexually active single female when I was doing comedy. But I stopped referring to sex, because after my sets, the male comedians would jump on stage afterwards and say things like, “that was Dawn, a slut.” Or worse, follow it up with a joke so disgusting that it would destroy both my desire to write jokes and my sex drive. 

Missy Marston: I would love to see some stats. My guess is that the term is 100 times more likely to be applied to women’s writing than men’s. It is something you call the little sister but would never dare to call the big brother. Your big brother’s so quirky! Doesn’t work. Your little sister’s so quirky! Sounds right. 

49th Shelf: I’m curious about connections between “quirky” and mental illness. Do these connections exist in your work? 

Lenore Rowntree: I realize some of the marketing material around my novel, Cluck, used the word "quirky." I don't think I ever used the word myself to describe the novel or my writing, although I have used it to describe my main character Henry.

In the story, Henry lives with a mother who has a mental health issue, and he acquired some quirky habits in order to get along with her and in life. When I read the word "quirky" in the marketing material in relation to the novel, I had no strong reaction one way or another. It felt okay, partly because it was better than having my writing branded as bizarre, eccentric, freaky, surreal or any of the other hard-on-the-head terms that can be used to describe difficult writing. (I try not to be difficult.) But also it was okay because there are some connections between mental health and quirkiness. One of the themes I was intentionally writing to in Cluck (pardon the pun) is the chicken and egg notion of "dysfunction leading to isolation, and isolation leading to dysfunction." So although, I wasn't thinking "quirky" per se when I was writing, I was intentionally writing to some quirky ends. 

It's interesting to me that the non-fiction collection I co-edited and contributed to, Hidden Lives: True Stories From People Who Live With Mental Illness, was not ever called "quirky." I'm not sure why that is. It is still a book about mental health, and some of the contributors have very quirky stories to tell. And it's not because it's non-fiction—David Sedaris writes non-fiction and he wears the quirky label well—I wonder if it's something subconscious, a little below the surface. Perhaps it's the seriousness of the mental health issue getting even more serious when it comes to non-fiction, and so somehow less appropriate for the writing to be described as "quirky."

Missy Marston: I am not sure I have ever written anything that hasn’t touched on mental health: depression (hormone-driven or otherwise), rage, PTSD, suicide. I think this is just because I write about people and if you have more than four characters, it probably comes up in a pretty natural way. Where quirk comes into this, I don’t know. Maybe mental health issues are too grimly normal to fall into the category of quirk. 

I am not sure I have ever written anything that hasn’t touched on mental health: depression, rage, PTSD, suicide. I think this is just because I write about people and if you have more than four characters, it probably comes up in a pretty natural way.

Missy Marston

Brian Francis: I wouldn’t say there’s a connection in my work. Any quirky characters I write tend to be misfits who are expected to squeeze into a space that’s way too small. So the quirkiness stems more from opposing external pressures than internal ones. 

Dawn Dumont: I haven’t tackled mental illness in my work, other than my characters' pathological need to date people who treat them like shit. But I doubt I would paint mental illness with the quirky—“needs to wear a funny hat in public” variety. The mental illness I’ve seen in my community was dangerous, more so because people don’t understand what it is. Anxiety and depression are the two I’ve seen the most.

49th Shelf: It’s funny because the notion of “quirky” suggests lightness, but there are some heavy issues pertinent to this discussion, as our conversation is attesting to. What are quirky’s hidden depths?

Dawn Dumont: Society’s need to ostracize or “other” those who do not fit in. However quirky is a borderline word—it basically says, “look white girl, we’ll tolerate this bullshit for a while—just don’t get too weird.”  

Brian Francis: I remember when I published my second book, Natural Order, I felt self-conscious that it wasn’t funny or “quirky” like Fruit, that I’d disappoint people. But then I’d remind myself that Fruit was a really sad book. Yes, there was humour, but at the heart of it was a story of a boy at the cusp of learning not to like himself. Peter doesn’t see himself as quirky. If he did, he might use it as armour. But he can’t, not at 13. He only wants to assimilate. So the hidden depth of quirky can be how it differentiates and isolates people at critical stages of their development. 

Missy Marston: I guess the reason we are trying to find these depths is that there is something that doesn’t sit right about the word and I think you’ve hit a lot of the possible reasons why in these questions. The language is full of these words that sound like something nice and light but carry something else, something hard to get at. When it comes right down to it, the word is a little bit trivializing. Like “cute.” Any writer would rather be called “daring” or “original” than “quirky” but you have to earn it. I strive to earn a slightly cooler, more serious adjective.

Lenore Rowntree: Mostly, I write to entertain and to tell a good story. I am not just a mental health writer, but when I do write something that has an aspect relating to mental health, one of my objectives is to normalize it and make it less scary with the hope that readers who don't know much about the issue won’t be so afraid of it, might actually come to see the people who live with it as having all the same wants and needs as everyone else but with a bit of an add-on. Yes there are frustrations and setbacks that can come with it, and that's sometimes where the quirkiness comes in too, but it's not all heavy, all the time. So the lightness that comes with the word "quirky" is actually one of its hidden strengths, especially when it's used in relation to writing on a topic like mental health

 49th Shelf: What are some Canadian books and writers, quirky or otherwise, that you’re excited about right now?

Missy Marston: I will be re-reading Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Lady’s Man, fondly, sentimentally, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Anne Carson’s Float. She is a beast. Nobody would dare call her work quirky.  

Brian Francis: I love Neil Smith, author of Boo! and Bang Crunch. He’s one of the most original people I know. And his stories have big hearts. I also like Anakana Schofield because it seems like she doesn’t give a flying fig. To write Martin John, I thought that was really brave. She wasn’t going after the popular vote with that one, or that character. I have a lot of respect for someone who is not only a writer, but also an artist and stays true to her vision. Plus, it’s hard to go wrong with a name like Anakana.

Lenore Rowntree: Kevin Chong, Kathy Page, Ray Robertson, Deborah Willis, Leon Rooke, Keith Maillard, John Metcalf, Michael Kenyon, and Eden Robinson to name just a few. Each is doing their own thing without being self-conscious about it. To adopt an older term, they're idiosyncratic, and more. They're all good storytellers. I'd like to end by paying tribute to some of the Canadian writers that influenced me when I was younger in ways beyond just my writing life—early Margaret Atwood, early Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Marian Engel, Robert Kroetsch, W.P. Kinsella and everything Margaret Laurence ever wrote. 

Dawn Dumont: Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster is on my list and I just finished Augie Merasty’s devastating book, The Education of Augie Merasty. I cannot believe there are such cruel people in this world who would hurt children. But there are and the Canadian government and churches conspired to gather them together and put little children into their care. Maybe this is why I cannot be quirky—that everything I am and will write will be tinged with that sadness that drags airy Amelie-type quirkiness down to the ground.

Maybe this is why I cannot be quirky—that everything I am and will write will be tinged with that sadness that drags airy Amelie-type quirkiness down to the ground.

Dawn Dumont

**

Book Cover Glass Beads

Dawn Dumont is a columnist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, the Regina Leader-Post, and Eagle Feather News, and is the author of two books, Rose’s Run (2014) and Nobody Cries At Bingo (2011). She has previously written for the Edmonton Journal and CBC Radio, and has worked as a stand-up comic making people laugh at clubs across North America including New York’s Comic Strip, the Comedy Club, the Improv, and Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s and the Laugh Resort. She lives in Saskatoon. Her latest book is Glass Beads, which will be published in May. 

*

Book Cover Natural ORder

Brian Francis is the author of two critically acclaimed novels. His most recent, Natural Order, was selected by the Toronto Star, Kobo and Georgia Straight as a Best Book of 2011. The book was shortlisted for the 2012 Ontario Library Association Evergreen Award. His first novel, Fruit, was a 2009 Canada Reads finalist and was selected as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title. His fiction has also appeared in 07: Best Canadian Stories. Francis teaches creative writing as part of the International Festival of Authors, writes a monthly advice column, "Ask the Agony Editor," for Quill and Quire magazine and is a regular contributor to CBC Radio's The Next Chapter. He lives in Toronto.

*

Book Cover The Love Monster

Missy Marston's novel, The Love Monster, was the winner of the 2013 Ottawa Book Award for English Fiction, a finalist for the CBC 2013 Bookie Awards and for the Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers' Choice. She has been called “an irreverent Canadian” by Commentary Magazine and “weird, funny and moving” by The Globe and Mail.

*

Book Cover Cluck

Lenore Rowntree lives beside the heron rookery in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in several publications including GeistRoom, The New Quarterly, Other Voices, Exile Quarterly, The Tyee, Poet to Poet Anthology, and The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology 2010. Her self-illustrated book of children’s poems, Love Letters, received a gold medal from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards in 2007. Her play, The Woods at Tender Creek, was produced at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (The Cultch) in 2010. She is a co-editor and contributor to the anthology, Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness and her collection of short stories, Dovetail Joint, was published in 2015 by Quadra Books. Her debut novel is Cluck

March 20, 2017
Books mentioned in this post
Fruit

Fruit

A Novel About a Boy and His Nipples
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Audiobook
tagged : coming of age
More Info
Cluck

Cluck

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : psychological
More Info
Hidden Lives

Hidden Lives

True Stories from People Who Live with Mental Illness
edited by Lenore Rowntree & Andrew Boden
foreword by Gabor Mate
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
More Info
Natural Order

Natural Order

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged :
More Info
Boo

Boo

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
More Info
The Education of Augie Merasty

The Education of Augie Merasty

A Residential School Memoir
edition:Hardcover
More Info
comments powered by Disqus

X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...