Show me a book an author has written about her own writer's block, and I'll show you a book with a happy ending. To make sure, though, Jan Wong spells it out in the subtitle of her self-published opus. She calls her book Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness.
I'm not reviewing Wong's book as I haven't read it; I only read an excerpt that appeared in these pages yesterday. Fussy, I know. Wong's long-running "lunch with" column in The Globe and Mail offered reviews of celebrities based on a shared meal, and excerpts may tell at least as much about books as lunches do about people. Still, she won't blame me for not reviewing a book I haven't read. Ms. Wong strikes me as someone who tolerates old-fashioned standards unless they cramp her style.
What's her style? It's several notches above gutter journalism -- well, one or two, anyway. I've described it some years ago as "gotcha" journalism; a variety of yellow journalism with moral overtones to disguise its odour. It's journalism that provokes the news it reports, drives the events it purports to follow and participates in whatever it analyzes, until reporter and pundit are elevated (or reduced, if you prefer) from spectators to players. A polite term for it may be participatory journalism.
Until she transferred her gifts to the bigger endeavours of "gotcha" journalism, lunching on minor celebrities had been Ms. Wong's stock-in-trade. To take one's midday meal with aspiring actors, politicians, or talk-show hosts, some of whom may salt their vichyssoise before tasting it, then write frank (read: nasty) pieces about the experience, is a tough job but somebody has to do it. Ms. Wong did.
There was life before lunch, though. As she candidly outlines in her 1997 memoir Red China Blues, when Ms. Wong was 19, she travelled to China. During her quest for her roots, she participated in the Cultural Revolution. "May God forgive me; I don't think they ever will," she wrote about people she had denounced.
Like many disillusioned ex-participants in genuine evil, Ms. Wong must have felt her experience qualified her to embark on expeditions of moral oversight. At any rate, she did. She lit up in no-smoking areas to see if the law is enforced and scattered wallets around to see how many finders view themselves as keepers. Participatory journalism is heady stuff at the high end, where it may be nominated for a National Newspaper Award -- e.g., when Wong went undercover as a maid, possibly drawing on her experience as a snitch for the Great Helmsman to enrich Western traditions of investigative reporting.
It looked as though she could continue as an ex-Maoist Miss Manners of moral media arbitrage forever, when out of the blue, just as the title of her book suggests, she ran into a taboo. It was a shock. She didn't know taboos existed in Canadian society, especially for politically correct Montreal-born Quebecers of Chinese extraction. When it happened, it was traumatic.
In 2006, assigned to cover the latest school shooting in Montreal, a rampage at the entrance of Westmount's Dawson College, in which a man named Kimveer Singh Gill killed one victim and injured 19 others, Wong included a speculative paragraph in her front-page story for The Globe and Mail. Her remarks suggested that an ethnic bias against immigrants in the French-speaking province somehow contributed, not just to Gill's outrage, but to two previous ones as well: The 1989 École Polytechnique massacre by Marc Lepine and the 1992 Concordia shooting spree by Valery Fabrikant.
"In all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine," Wong wrote. "Elsewhere, to talk of racial 'purity' is repugnant. Not in Quebec."
It was an absurd remark, to be sure -- but how was it more absurd than blaming males, misogyny, and firearms for the École Polytechnique massacre? Yet those assessments became media clichés and virtual government positions in the years following the tragedy. Wong may have wanted to be similarly provocative by blaming the rage of Dawson College's young Asian killer on Quebec's ethno-politics -- after all, journalists don't get front-page real estate by urging madmen to take their pills. It never occurred to Wong that she had kicked a sacred cow.
She had, though, and the startled bovine promptly turned into a mad cow, impossible to calm or appease. Taboo, dear, meet Ms. Wong; Ms. Wong, meet taboo. The same Canadian society that easily forgave her Mao would draw the line at the cow.
The question isn't how absurd a speculation may be, but how does the Zeitgeist see it? Absurdly fingering maleness or firearms as being responsible for Lepine's massacre results in candlelight vigils and firearm registries, but absurdly fingering French ethnocentricity for murderous rampages results in vituperation from readers and condemnation from politicians, with editors and publishers running for cover. Out of the blue? Maybe not. Welcome to the age of identity politics.