27 Thoughts About CanLit

By Pasha Malla

1. On February 14 and 15, 2014, the Canada Council for the Arts hosted its first-ever National Forum on the Literary Arts in Montreal. Some 250-odd people from various sectors of the publishing industry—editors, writers, publishers, agents, librarians, spoken word poets, etc.—converged in the basement of a McGill student residence to bilingually address the future of literature in this country. Participants were not remunerated for their time, although travel, hotels, and some dubiously palatable catering were provided by the Council.

2. Almost a full calendar year later, I am being paid $100 to write down some thoughts inspired by those two days in February. Sound fiscal reasoning would dictate a commensurate amount of work—say four hours, total, between research, writing, editing and invoicing. That seems fair: $25/hour is the same rate I made a decade ago as a nonprofit fundraiser, and friends of mine with comparable educations make $15/hour (barista), $43/hour (teacher) and $400/hour (something duplicitous with stocks.)

3. Yet, as background for this piece, I have already spent about ten hours reading Tolstoy’s What Is Art? and No Culture, No Future, a book by the Canada Council for the Arts’ Director and CEO, Simon Brault, as well as several blog-posts, op-eds and essays online. Plus a few minutes just now getting the dog out of the way, sitting down, and firing up my computer. So I’m already down to less than minimum wage, and I’ve barely started thinking my way into what I might write.

4. The Canada Council organized the Forum to address “the widely shared observation that the world of literature and publishing is far from immune to the upheavals caused by the digital age we live in;” the goal was, simply enough, “to work towards a positive vision for the future of Canadian literature.” A worthy project to be sure. Yet, from my own jaded perspective, to align 250 delegates under a singular “vision,” positive or otherwise, suggested more the stuff of self-help seminars or corporate team-building than an attempt to consolidate the multivalent realms of the publishing industry—from aesthetic to economic, personal to corporate. I did, though, assume that having so many people in one room who share a passion for literature would make for some good conversations.

5. What happened, however, was closer to a 250-person choir in simultaneous competition to be the lone soloist. The roughly 400 takeaway points included: the calamitous loss of our independent bookstores; “the digital revolution;” the potential for libraries to operate as community hubs; the dearth of outlets for literary criticism; the lack of respect for the timeless art of spoken word poetry; the lousy food; and then there was some guy from Ottawa who told heartwarming, possibly rehearsed stories in both official languages about his unique relationship with books, and in private confided to me he’d not been able to tolerate living in Toronto’s east end “what with all the Indians.” In a similar vein, when I commented in my working group at the overwhelming whiteness of the delegation, and wondered if it was a fair representation of the country at large, I was told that I “need to get out of Toronto more.” So. Some diversity of thinking. As you might imagine, the result at times was nothing short of a total goddamn clusterfuck.

6. I realize that I’m being unfair. Over those two days I certainly learned a lot, especially about the business-end of publishing, and met a bunch of nice people. The Forum was a well-intended attempt at fostering dialogue around some key issues facing writers and publishers in this country. And it’s possible that the Canada Council’s administrators will be able to distill the cacophony of feedback into something useful (though the promised report of Spring 2014 has yet to emerge). I do think, however, that it would be disingenuous not to convey my overall mood during and after those two days in February. And that was, mostly: dismay.

7. Part of the reason for this dismay is that there seems to exist a tacit, unchallenged compact among those of us who work in the literary arts that we are all on the side of good: writing and reading are innately good, as it is good to be a writer or bookseller or librarian or publicist, provided that the dissemination of literature is the end result. Under that tautological mantle, every attendee of the Forum, myself included, was invested in a project of salvation: society needs the goodness of literature and it’s up to us to make it happen! But why is literature good? What is it good for? What is its role? Its purpose? Its scope? Its worth? And then, to negate all these questions entirely: should we even be trying to quantify something that might exist in its purest form beyond value—that is, not as a commercial object (the book), but as an ontological category? (And if that’s the case, what the hell do we do about anything then?!)

8. My sense is that we agree that books are “good” because they might, potentially, offer a counterpoint to or refuge from life in these here modern times. But can the literary arts offer respite from the ills of the digital/late-capitalist age if they are accommodating, even being subsumed by, those very ills?  How can we “only connect” if contemporary writers are not just reflecting or uncritically incorporating the tropes of the broader culture into their work, but limiting their work to tropistic responses—that is, like so many sick plants, bending desperately toward the light? (I’m thinking here of the notion of modernizing literature with technology—some sort of Book 2.0 that permits readers to make choices and shape the story, which I’m pretty sure already exists in both lo-fi, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure formats and this other $30 billion industry called “video games.”)

9. Is a book somehow innately good just because it’s not an app? How does reading a book that extols the virtues of, say, Pol Pot, or regurgitates the same old vacuous narrative and thematic clichés (“unlikely friendships,” “the power of the human spirit,” “World War Two,” etc.) in lazy, insipid sentences, or seems a deliberate ploy to win a prize, qualify as best practices over watching The Wire on your iPad? Is a book still good even if it’s a bad book?

10. “We must ask ourselves these questions,” writes Simon Brault in No Culture, No Future, “to avoid sinking into the deluded numbness of magical thinking or into the paralysis provoked by cynicism and dishonesty.”

11. Writing in the Guardian, Will Self claims, “In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour.” (I was under the impression that at some point around 1923, when sound began to accompany moving pictures, the monopoly on the public imagination was claimed by film and television, supplanted in turn in the early twenty-first century by virtual narratives, largely of the self.) Anyway, there’s some truth to the diagnosis that the literary arts have become a peripheral activity—but can they then, from a subaltern or liminal position, offer a “good” antidote to or refuge from the “bad” aspects of mainstream culture? Should writers actively examine, resist or refute the status quo? Or should books merely serve documentary purposes for posterity? Obviously literature can do all these things, or nothing at all. But which of these activities might the Canada Council support? But, then, also: let’s not ignore the irony of receiving funding from the state in order to write against it.

12. Early in the Forum I got up and, despite my better instincts, asked whether books can offer a site of resistance; people clapped, inexplicably enough, for what was an honest question and not a statement of fact.

13. I suppose the reward for participating in a conference on the literary arts, or writing a piece such as this, is supposed to be that the work feels significant. Many people suffer through jobs that do not matter to them, longing to be doing something else with their lives, something personally fulfilling and meaningful. As such I should be grateful that I was even invited to Montreal, as I should be grateful that the kind folks at the Winnipeg Review have agreed to publish some of my thoughts and opinions, or that I have the privilege to type up these thoughts and opinions at all.

14. I am now down to about $9.50/hour.

15. Chances are that you have paid nothing to read this. Perhaps you believe in the utopian ideal of the Internet as creative commons, wherein all information should be complimentary and accessible to everyone. Perhaps you don’t think of these things consciously, but every time you encounter a pay-wall you flee to freer climes. Consider this, friend: if that is how much you value writing online, I probably should have read nothing before beginning this piece and just started typing. But, regardless of pay, a writer often feels a responsibility to put things into the world in an informed way. (Personally, I’m a raging neurotic consumed with the thunderous immensity of my own ignorance and worry that everything I type is the work of a dilettante.) So I read those books by Tolstoy and Brault—and wasted valuable, unpaid man-hours during which I could have been working with greater haste and heedlessness and, as such, making more money. The current lot of the freelancer is that it often pays better to write poorly—or at least to produce quick work that can be easily consumed—than it does to try to write with a modicum of care and/or consideration.

16. One could argue that this has been the artist’s lot since the beginning of time: picture the cave-painter toiling among the stalagmites versus some other homo blithely slapping handprints over the doorway with one eye on the mammoth-traps. But in Canada we are blessed with institutions capable of righting certain cultural wrongs (viz., the wrongs of a capitalist marketplace that often favours a nifty, disposable product over a slower, considered process). Few things inspire in me even a faint glimmer of patriotism, but the fact that staunchly anti-commercial publishers like Arsenal Pulp, BookThug and Gaspereau are bolstered by grants warms my otherwise cold, seditious heart. Yet our ruling party has aligned itself so insidiously with the free market that, to me at least, to receive money from a branch of that government sometimes feels like a huge moral compromise.

17. I bring this up because at this point I have been working for over two hours—less than $8.00/hour, if you’re keeping track. The reason that I can afford to keep going is that I am the beneficiary of funding from the Canada Council. In particularly lean years, such grants have accounted for up to 75% of my income. Conversely, I know many fine writers who have never had the (literal) fortune to receive a grant; much to their puzzlement and rage, their applications are rejected every time. So while government subsidies are a godsend to lucky recipients, they are not accounting for all the fiscal imbalances inherent to being a working writer; simply put, the best writers do not receive funding—the best grant writers do.

18. I invoke the example of digital publishing above because it is a convenient and immediate one: I am writing these words for the Internet and, unless you are magical, you are reading them online. But rather than freelancers lamenting the sad state of affairs, the struggles facing book publishing formed the bulk of our discussions in Montreal. While the correlative between quality and pay is not as stark, there are plenty of pieces you can read (for free) that elucidate literature’s various woes, from the novelist’s fall from an oracular position in the public sphere to the book’s general trend toward bourgeois populism. (See: Canada Reads; ignore: Margaret Atwood.)

19.  Somewhat unrelated side-note: Rue the day when our book culture turns as corporately homogenized as our interpersonal communication, such that “amazon” becomes a verb, e.g.: “I amazoned The Idiot, but I couldn’t get into it because my flying car’s e-reader had trouble pronouncing the names.”

20. Oddly, even perversely, writing itself seems to be in good health, at least if we are to measure it by volume. If the booming enrollments in MFA programs and the budding—some might say depressing—legitimacy of self-publishing are any indication, literature is in no short supply of emerging purveyors. (“Emerging” is such a funny way to describe an artist: like a beautiful butterfly from a cocoon, or a turd from a dog’s butt.) It might have been useful, however, to get 250 people who are directly affected by this stuff to talk about, in a teleological sense, what all these folks are writing for.

21. The Canada Council for the Arts new mandate is “building audiences.” From a literary perspective, this could mean ensuring that children are exposed to books early in life and that an appreciation for writing and reading is fostered through adolescence into adulthood. Despite Simon Brault’s assurances, to me it also encourages aspiring grantees to produce work with mainstream appeal—essentially not to alienate potential readers with avant-garde esotericism. But doesn’t making literary culture more accessible risk capitulation to popular taste? Personally, I need books to escape escapism, which will become impossible the more our literature embodies the aspects of our culture that numb my senses and dull my thoughts.

22. Here’s a Luddite call-to-arms you’re probably sick of: the Internet has done more to alienate people and fracture human relations than to connect us with one another. According to Tolstoy, art’s primary function is to forge community. If we accept that analysis, promoting art in a disconnected culture as a means of true fellowship seems to offer a simple fix. But what then—do we assess books on how well they bring folks together? By that logic, a book with a divided readership would be a lesser work than one that appeals more broadly: Harry Potter would be “better” than a difficult twentieth-century masterwork like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!  Also: isn’t creating a community of book lovers what Goodreads is for anyway?

23. Is it fair to say that books should do anything?

24. Is Will Self correct in predicting that literature will become “confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse”? Is Simon Brault’s project of broadening audiences a valid attempt to avoid such rarefication? (Oddly, it seems the Canada Council’s role has long been the opposite: very few books would exist beyond the bestseller list were it not for government subsidies.) And what about the quality of current public discourse around books, which mainly seems to consist of former Olympians arguing with former sitcom stars as to whether a novel’s characters are likeable enough?

25. That’s about eight hours, now, spent writing this—or eighteen hours, total. One hundred dollars for eighteen hours of work: that’s slightly more than $5.50/hour.

26. You might notice that I’ve asked a lot of questions without offering many answers, and that many of my arguments are contradictory. Forgive me. As Steering Committee member David Caron remarked in a post-Forum open letter, what began last year in Montreal was meant to inspire ongoing conversation. Where that conversation is happening isn’t clear to me; perhaps after sulking my way through that weekend last February I’ve been blacklisted. Here I am, anyway, interrogating myself.

27. I do think books are good—but if they are to continue to be written and published and read, even in a negligible way, they must offer something that other media cannot. Movies will always do a better of showing-not-telling. The Internet will always allow for greater direct involvement and agency. TV will always make more money. And video games, thankfully, will always provide a better venue for murdering nerds. Despite that we can barely begin to guess what new forms of competition for public attention will arise in this new century, “the future of the book” seems to be the only thing anyone wants to talk about these days. Here’s what I want to know: what’s the present of the book? I’d like to talk about it.

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