It feels like a writing exercise: Define the Canadian literary scene without using the words “Canadian” or “literary.” Keep in mind, as you write, that definitions are passé.
Recently, two publications – one online, edited by a 42-year-old man; one in print, edited by a 25-year-old woman – arrived in Toronto. Both publications are well-designed and feel several kinds of new. Both solicit contributions from home and native landers, with few exceptions, and yet neither have that insignificance-in-a-sprawling-landscape quality associated with CanLit. Neither is boring, either.
Hazlitt Magazine is a new, Internet-only “home for writers” funded by Random House Canada and edited by Christopher Frey and his associate, Alexandra Molotkow, 26. Molotkow left the Walrus for Hazlitt: It’s a short walk, but a long metaphor. The Walrus is a not-for-profit institution. Hazlitt, looked at cynically, is big-budget advertorial for a publishing house, the kind of brandlessly brand-building magazine that fashion brands have been making for years.
The Walrus has a reputation for upholding Canada’s old guard, although that’s not wholly deserved. So far, Hazlitt’s roster of regular contributors is strikingly young: 11 out of 26 are under 30, that arbitrary age at which society stops being politely surprised by your success (disclosure time: I’m one of them). The Walrus seems perennially concerned with what it means to be Canadian, while Hazlitt, says Frey, seeks to be un-parochial and not recognizably Canuck. It must be working, because in the first few days, traffic to the website was roughly three-quarters American.
Above all – and by the way, these two publications aren’t suddenly direct competitors, just a good contrast – the Walrus is literary. Hazlitt is “writer-centric.” That’s its tagline for the trend away from the story, toward its teller, that you register half-consciously every time a byline is bigger than the headline. On one side of the Internet – say, Buzzfeed – you have “content,” farmed en masse by bot-like editors. “Content” is what, allegedly, readers find interesting. On the other side – á la The Atlantic online, or Hazlitt – you have “voices,” the highly tweetable columnists you read no matter their subject. (Some of the most successful sites, like the feudal-systemic HuffPo with its unpaid bloggers and marquee columnists, have it both ways.)
Little Brother, a five-by-eight, Toronto-based mag edited by Emily Keeler and launched this month, began as a Tumblr and will now be quarterly in print. It too is Internet-sensible and anti-institutional: “I don’t want it to be called a journal,” says Keeler, who also Tumblrs for The Millions, edits at Joyland, and contributes to other sites, including Hazlitt. “A journal is a dead thing.” As for literary, she tells me: “I think something is literary if the writing is really good. But now literary is a fluid thing, without a set definition, so it’s not the best description [of Little Brother ].”
Literary once denoted the value, intent, and even content of a written work. Now it mostly connotes taste. What’s “literary” is not always “best,” but usually suggests a higher form of artfulness in writing. In the collapse of high and low, it loses meaning, becoming a diffused, vague suggestion of class and classism (kind of like, sorry, “hipster”).
“With a writer-centric, not strictly literary magazine,” says Frey, “you have licence to write about anything: low culture, high culture, and both together. Literary is high culture, but the culture today is a mix of high and low.” In a separate conversation with Molotkow, she adds that literary is more the manner of dealing with a subject than the subject matter itself: “You can take a literary approach to a ‘low’ subject, and the writing doesn’t need to be dry or inaccessible.”
In Little Brother, there’s a great example of this: a clever, riveting essay by Toronto’s Cian Cruise on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the ‘90s Japanese anime show Evangelion. It’s not that the former is high culture and the latter is low culture, as an old person might suspect, but that both are both. Also great is that, while the essay isn’t personal, the first person is used casually, just enough to show where the writer stands in relation to the subject. Many readers seem to think the first person is narcissistic, but it’s more glass than mirror. If we’re going to trust journalism, it has to be transparent, and if writers are going to be successful in the time of new media, they have to be visible in everything they do.
So what’s the new “literary?” Personality, I think. Not that personality is new: think of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion. But in an economy that’s the most saturated, the most precarious, and the least compensated it’s ever been, a writer’s “voice,” or personality, or what used to be a personality and is now a “personal brand,” is more important than ever.
“There are a lot of writers out there,” says Molotkow, “and some very short attention spans, mine included. It’s more important to be interesting: to have a discernible taste and a recognizable sensibility.” These things manifest in a writer’s not only published, but also Tweeted, Instagrammed, and Facebook-statused work. Writers (and suuure, bloggers) are followed across platforms with more interest and fandom than the publications for which they write: I’ll read anything Teju Cole says, or Cat Marnell, or Sheila Heti, anywhere they say it, even on a bathroom wall. (Actually, the more I think about it, the more I only trust writers, never institutions. I subscribe to the New York Times and read it with permanent skepticism, but I believe in, for example, David Carr.)
Personality doesn’t substitute for a good story or good sentences, but it is slowly usurping the notion of “literary,” becoming more valuable than status, identity, or tradition. This is good news for a country where most of us a) prefer humblebragging about not being American to having bonafide pride in place, and b) hold a grudge against our lit tradition that dates back to Grade 11 English with Ms. Robertomeyer. We, as writers, but also as readers, can quit bemoaning Canada’s lack of high-cultural history, because that’s decreasingly relevant. Instead, writers everywhere live by an Internet-borne ability to intertextualize: to reference Proust and Pinterest in a breath, to treat gchats and graffiti and The New Yorker pullquotes with equal gravitas, to be as real about Twitter as we they are about writing for Toronto Life (kidding! Twitter’s realer). The subtext is “this matters because I care.”
Frey and Molotkow say that there’s more young literary talent now than there’s ever been in Toronto, and in Canada. Keeler says there may just be more opportunities for young people to get published, and points out that as personal and sometimes cultural writing has become devalued, older people can’t afford to do it as much.
I hold both views: More opportunities (if not more rewards) mean more competition and better writers with louder, more original voices. In Canada, moot tradition and no fixed identities make writer’s individualities both paramount and more possible. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Sheila Heti, right here, wrote How Should a Person Be? the most original-feeling book I’ve read in my life. It’s surprising, but shouldn’t be, that Americans found it so too. And with Hazlitt, Little Brother and more forging a literary un-tradition, we have all the reasons to heed voices from the nearest room.