Literary season is on us like a plague. It’s an epidemic of awards nominations, book launches, best-of lists and festivals. The symptoms of this malady are confusing: pleasure for the fans of reading, a mix of ecstasy and sweating anxiety for the authors involved. And I’m sure there’s a small portion of dread available to everyone, even for fans. For they will have to sit through readings.
Those of us in the business mostly dread the release of the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list because of whom it will exclude and thus throw deep into the sludge of eternal obscurity. The recent addition of a long list, released weeks before the short list, creates, paradoxically, additional terror because now that almost every novel released in the fall makes it onto the list, the ignominy of exclusion is even more significant.
It means the judges, who have become, for a brief few months, all-powerful, divine, a trinity of gods, control an entire industry, and hold your future casually between their fingertips before unhesitatingly throwing it aside. If they do throw it aside, they decided for absolute certain that your work was unequivocally, simply bad. Not even good enough for the three-page long list. Your work isn’t even as good as those cryptic short stories from the arrogant community college instructor or the mushy novel from the weepy gardening lady. Your work qualified, against all odds, as the very worst of the year.
The rest of the country and all its media will promptly, unthinkingly agree.
Actually, this year’s long list is quite strong. Perhaps the Giller Prize has finally turned the corner and left behind the bad old days when M.G. Vassanji had to win it every year out of, what, a kind of sympathy? Like the uncle who has to be invited to Christmas dinner every year? (Okay, see, that’s how we all start talking round about now; it turns us into monsters. Imagine a whole hotel ballroom full of people making clever comments like that – it’s the Toronto of your imagination.)
Then there are the festivals. So many festivals: The International Festival of Authors, the biggest and perhaps most influential in the world, wraps Toronto in its boozy grip for 10 tense days in October. Kingston, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver have their equivalents. The Word On The Street, the literacy festival, will clog the arteries of Toronto, Halifax, Saskatoon, Kitchener and Lethbridge. Lethbridge! A whole vast red-leafed country full of hockey and dogsleds and clammy reading tents and folding chairs sinking into the damp ground.
But perhaps you are not familiar with literary festivals, as you have never been forced to attend one. What is a literary festival? Imagine a sort of cross between school and church. There are no actual festivities; what there are is a lot of public readings. This is where you sit and listen to someone reading a very sad story, usually about a genocide. “Boy,” you might think, “have there ever been a lot of genocides!” The point of the literary reading is very simple: It is to remind you of how pleasant fresh air and sunshine are – when you are released from the tent and allowed to breathe them.
No, actually, seriously, what is the point of a literary festival? To get to meet, in the flesh, the great celebrity that is the Canadian writer? That makes no sense. Canadian writers don’t live in gated mansions; you can just talk to them when you see them lining up at the Second Cup. Is it to gain a new understanding of their words, infused by their vocal expressions? I’ve tried this, and it doesn’t work for me, because I can’t pay attention to readings, particularly about genocides, because I am too conscious of the University of Toronto student sitting beside me (the first words of her tattoo are “I AM FREE TO …” Free to what?), but perhaps I am superficial.
I was at a literary festival last weekend and, although I didn’t really listen to any readings, I enjoyed the whole trip, and so can attempt to explain what fun might come out of it. It was the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, a popular and influential one that happens in a beautiful old stone village just outside Toronto. There were some boldface names there – Boyden, Pyper, Winter, McAdam formed the unrepentantly masculine nub of the celebrity – and the audience, despite this bias, was your usual over-50 bunch, plus one or two students from the nearby University of Guelph.
Eden Mills has a stellar literary history, but it remains aesthetically quintessentially Canlitty – it’s a Loyalist town burbling with Birkenstocks. An inedible vegan beet wrap is the highlight of the food tents. Now, you’d think I would be very unhappy in such an environment, and so would I. But sitting at those picnic tables, trying to digest my beets, I overheard a lot of excited and informed conversation about books. There were people – women, all of them, it must be admitted – in their North Face jackets and their Tilley hats, who knew what Emma Donoghue was working on and what Ania Szado’s inspiration was. The whole thing was social – for them and for me – and that’s okay, that’s great; I would drive an hour for this conversation alone.
That’s what it’s about: It’s not about hearing us writers droning on about how sad our childhoods were; it’s about sharing interests. We are not the main attraction: We are the excuse.