Book Review: The Dilettantes – A Comic Novel

By February 3, 2014Books

A Comic Novel about the Student Paper at SFU, review by Eric Spalding

I was curious to read The Dilettantes because it deals with two topics of interest to me: journalism and Simon Fraser University. This novel focusses on SFU—and its student paper, The Peak—during the 2008-2009 school year.

The main character, Alex Belmont, is in his final year of undergraduate studies. He devotes many hours to the student paper, where he is an editor. Two important secondary characters are Tracy Shaw, a copy editor at the same paper, and Duncan Holtz, a young actor who decides to return to SFU following a career setback.

The author gives these characters a variety of challenges. Alex is unlucky with women, and spends a lot of time wishing he were better able to strike up conversations with female students on campus.

Alex is also concerned about a free commuter paper, the Metro, becoming available on campus. He worries that this new arrival will draw advertising dollars away from The Peak. Up until now, on the Burnaby Mountain campus, the student paper’s “only rivals [have been] a sporadically published newsletter by and for business students called The Buzz!, and a pamphlet written in Mandarin that, despite impressive distribution numbers, not one person [has] ever been seen reading” (p. 34).

With regard to this storyline, I did not realize until well into the novel that many of the student paper’s editors received a salary. I thought that they were mostly volunteers, so I wondered why Alex was so preoccupied. After all, although it is sad to lose a volunteering opportunity, it is not usually a life-altering experience. But in fact Alex and his fellow editors stand to lose a much-needed source of income.
As for Tracy, the copy editor, she wants to break up with her annoying live-in boyfriend, only she’s not sure how to go about it. And Duncan, the actor, is running for President of the Student Society. These three characters’ stories converge when Alex, with Tracy’s assistance, decides to report on Duncan’s unorthodox campaign.

As an SFU alumnus, I thought that author Michael Hingston was effective in capturing what it’s like to be a student on Burnaby Mountain. Even though I was there long before 2008, I could relate to many of the situations. For instance, one of the opening scenes takes place during a poster sale at Convocation Mall. I shopped at such a sale at this very location twenty-one years before. Indeed, in early September 1987, I bought a René Magritte reproduction and a Mark Rothko one that stayed on my bedroom wall for the next eight months.

Hingston, moreover, includes a map of SFU on the endpaper of the book. This map highlights where major scenes take place, from Shell House (a student residence on the western edge of the campus) to Cornerstone (a coffee shop on the eastern edge).

With regard to journalism, there isn’t a whole lot to learn. The Peak’s offices are more of a setting for whimsical interactions than a model for how to run a student paper. For instance, early on in the book, the author presents an editorial meeting that is amusing because the participants cannot stay on topic. They set out to address the Metro threat but end up talking about crossword puzzles, King Tut and Geraldo Rivera without actually formulating any kind of plan. Throughout the book, Hingston sets a humorous tone, evocative for me of workplace sitcoms like The Office, but with many f-words added.
On the whole, I felt that there was a lack of narrative tension in the novel, as the stakes seemed low for most of the protagonists. At the same time, I appreciated the humour. I also thought that The Dilettantes was effective at conveying a sense of what it is like to be an undergrad trying to navigate the challenges of university life.

Michael Hingston, The Dilettantes (Calgary: Freehand Books, 2013), 269 pages.

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