The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston takes place at a university’s student newspaper, and, as a frequent contributor to my university’s newspaper, I was instantly intrigued. As I read more about the book, I became suspicious of the coincidences I encountered; the cover blurb described a “west coast campus” and a student paper also called The Peak. Turns out it was referring to the very same paper you’re holding now.
The Dilettantes follows fourth-year students and Peak editors Alex and Tracy as they near the end of their degrees at SFU. The main conflict arises when the free daily paper, Metro, gets approved for on-campus distribution. Alex, as Features editor, is distraught and convinced that the arrival of Metro will sink The Peak. To add insult to injury, Metro’s sole correspondent seems to get the scoop on all campus gossip, including a Hollywood star returning to university.
Sprinkled throughout are snapshots of life as a university student and a 20-something in the 21st century. Alex grapples with his cynicism and lack of sex life, Tracy flounders after the end of a long-term relationship, and we get a glimpse of some of the behind-the-scenes drama at The Peak offices.
As the characters walked around campus — from coffeeshop to bookstore, classroom to tutorial, rez to library — I could distinctly picture the routes in my mind. The descriptions of Arthur Erickson’s architecture, encounters with film crews on campus, and the bumpy bus ride up the hill felt all too familiar.
You’ve built something up [as an editor] but it’s not like a workplace — the subsequent person can just change it, or may not even know your process exists.”
Michael Hingston, author and former Peak editor
I swelled with a bit of pride reading about the campus, but noted that readers who haven’t attended SFU would be able to easily follow Hingston’s colourful prose. Although the commentary on the state of the university and an apathetic student population was predictable, it was well done.
These fourth-year characters feel incredibly authentic because Hingston wrote exactly what he saw firsthand, “I have been writing [the manuscript] since my final years at SFU,” explains Hingston. “I started taking notes on observations and routes, and how people interacted.”
The novel takes place in the recent past, during 2008-09, which neatly coincides with when Hingston graduated from SFU with an English Honours degree. He was also a contributor, editor, and columnist at The Peak during his undergraduate career. His experience and research have created a precise snapshot of university workings, including student government elections and production night on Fridays at the paper.
The book itself is lovely and includes fictionalized course outlines, a map of the Burnaby campus, and even text message screenshots. Hingston’s wit is paired well with the campus tale of Peak vs. Metro, and includes feuding clubs, broken hearts, and Pub Night hookups. With hidden tidbits of The Peak and SFU that would slip by most readers — such as playing with the paper’s tagline — The Dilettantes is an enjoyable read.
One of the characters, Alex, is cynical of other students and resistant to change, yet recognizes his aloof attitude as cold and unapproachable. Alex eventually realizes he needs to “pass the torch,” which Hingston says is unique to a student paper. “You’ve built something up [as an editor] but it’s not like a workplace — the subsequent person can just change it, or may not even know your process exists.”
Talking about inspiration, Hingston says that he did channel parts of himself in obvious ways, but moved away from the original influences over time. “I only attended Burnaby campus, and it was an interesting and isolated space,” he says. The film crews, so-called “commuter campus” status, and the inferiority complex between SFU and UBC all piqued his interest. “I thought it would be a cool backdrop for a campus novel, and I don’t think a student paper has been done before, at least not a Canadian campus.”
The Dilettantes is officially available as of September 10, 2013, but copies can also be ordered directly from Hingston who will not only autograph them, but also write a behind-the-scenes tidbit within the pages. Each comment is unique and Hingston says he’s lost count but has not repeated any.
When pressed for some of the insider information, Hingston mentions the character Steve, an editor at the paper, who creates anagrams of his own name instead of recruiting real contributors. Steve was based on an actual editorial incident while Hingston was at the paper, but they didn’t figure it out until after the editor was gone.