Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Campus paper setting for comedy

  • Print

For readers who spent their college years hanging around campus newspapers -- and isn't that everybody? -- this literary debut by Edmonton Journal books columnist Michael Hingston may well be the Great Canadian Comic Novel.

The Dilettantes is a hilarious portrait of an outsider subculture under double existential threat -- the characters are both arts students and would-be print journalists. And like all great comic novels, it's something more. In this case, a story of awakening from a long, irony-covered slumber.

The novel is set in the present day at The Peak, the student newspaper at suburban Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, while the paper is facing cutthroat competition from the free-circulation Metro. (Yes, it's the Vancouver edition of the chain freebie that meets the Kardashian-update needs of Winnipeg bus riders.)

Features editor Alex, facing graduation, wants to save The Peak, and perhaps give his university years a bit of meaning. Beneath his anxiety about the paper is a need to escape the detachment he's been living with, a detachment that grows out of both popular culture and the university's post-modernist intellectual environment.

Much of the plot focuses on what happens when a B.C.-born movie star decides to enrol as an SFU student and begins to attract media attention to the campus. But the plot is secondary to Hingston's distillation of the spirit of his setting.

Hingston captures the competitive joking of a certain kind of campus life perfectly. Here, for example, is a bit of riffing between two Peak editors discussing a letter that called the paper's humour section "the worst thing ever."

In response, they begin to compose a list of worse things: "Hitler. Stalin. Super Cancer. Stalin with a Hitler Mustache. Hitler if he Could Shoot Cancer Out of His of Fingers. Cake that is Part Chocolate, Part Poo. A Machine that Scalps Orphans."

It's a funny list, in part because of the absurdity and in part because of the comic timing, but it also does a lovely job of mocking the tendency of angry writers at campus newspapers to invoke Hitler.

Hingston's descriptions of the political-cultural environment of SFU provide food for thought and fodder for laughs. "Here the trick was caring too much, or pretending to, or trying convince yourself that you did," he writes. "It was a bumper-sticker arms race; it was a prisoner's dilemma, if the prisoner also subscribed to Adbusters."

Or: "He (Alex) majored in humanities, which was kind of like English, only you watched more movies and could write your final essay about a picture of a vase."

The Dilettantes may not resonate with people who never endured staff meetings and production nights or who did labs instead of term papers. But then again, you don't need to have been a history graduate student or would-be comedian to enjoy Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim or Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar.

Hingston has written an elegy for youth and a kick in the pants for his generation and for generations old enough to remember using Exacto knives and beeswax to put the newspaper together.

Winnipeg writer Bob Armstrong is a former editor of the Red River College Reflector and University of Calgary Gauntlet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Key of Bart - Cali For Jets Nation

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Standup- Morning Fog. Horse prances in field by McPhillips Road, north of Winnipeg. 060605.
  • A group of Horese pose for the camera in the early evening light at Southcreek Stables in Stl Norbert Wednessday. Sept  14, 2011 (RUTH BONNEVILLE) / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google