Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Image of Canadian Authors

So today the Globe and Mail posted a series of answers made by Canadian authors to the question: Is This Country Supportive of its Authors? You should check out the answers, especially if you're Canadian because it does fill you with a sense of pride. Also two of my most awesome friends (Lesley Livingston and Tish Cohen) were asked to contribute their thoughts, so that's just cool too - you know, the fact that I know cool people :) .

But then a few people posted in the comments section talking about how much they didn't like Canadian writing. One person said that he/she was waiting for the day "when the writers in Canada finally produced something worth reading" and another commented that "the reason many Canadians don't want to read Canadian authors is because people feel down and depressed after doing so . . ." and that "living in the cold is no excuse for depressing writing. It's as if a Cdn. writer who isn't perpetually depressed and grumpy doesn't qualify for grants. "Another said "why would anyone slog through the extreme dullness of most Canadian fiction?"

So I decided to respond to these posters. You can read my responses over at the newspaper's site but basically I just said something along the lines of "uh, I know a lot of Canadian authors, and many of them write happy upbeat stuff. Also there's more Canadian fiction out there than just this supposedly depressing lit fic, and how can you judge all us authors based on reading only a very select few?"

I then added a list of awesome Canadian authors I knew, who write in many different genres and styles. This is that list (and I apologise for it not being entirely comprehensive, it was a spur of the moment response):

Guy Gavriel Kay
Robert J Sawyer
Danielle Younge-Ullman
Arthur Slade
RJ Anderson
Caitlin Sweet
Rob Weston
Kelley Armstrong
Vincent Lam
Peter Watts
Julie Czerneda
Robert Munsch
Gordon Korman
Erin Bow
Robert Wiersema

(I should add that this list came after I asked whether a particular poster had actually read any of the authors interviewed for the article and was used to augment that list of authors - that's why you'll see a lack of say Lesley and Tish's names in the list, as well as big wigs like Margaret Atwood etc)

But I realised in answering these absurd generalisations about Canadian authors that there was another point to be made. And so I made it. In a follow up post:

"Having now responded twice to people posting in the comments section about the state of Canadian lit and what kinds of books Canadians write, I felt a need to post an actual post on what these posters represent.

You see, the idea that there is only one genre in Canadian writing (depressing lit fic) is very frustrating to me as I am very familiar with many Canadian authors who write many different genres (myself included), but I think it might be very well worth having a conversation as to WHY that's the image Canadian writing has with its own people. Why when there are Canadian authors who write every genre and style imaginable, does Canadian writing get pigeonholed as only one thing? And maybe this conversation can help answer the question of this article as to the supportive nature of Canada of its writers. Possibly this reputation suggests that Canada tends to be more supportive of a certain kind of writer, and less so of others, if people only consider Canadian authors to write one kind of thing.

I would never say that Canada doesn't support authors, and I myself have benefited from its generous support, but that isn't to say that there can't be room for improvement and, further, that maybe we should take a serious look at the nature of that support when the reputation of our writers does not accurately reflect the diversity of our writers.

For example, in a list created by one of Canada's largest national papers there was a remarkable lack of genre and children's writers. There was also a remarkable lack of ethnic diversity. Certainly not done on purpose, but interesting to note it having been done nonetheless."

And now . . . through the marvel of blogging . . . I expand on that thought . . .

The question I think isn't if Canada is supportive of writers - Canada is one of the most supportive countries of authors. In fact, we are a country where one only tends to get famous once one leaves it (ie: like with actors, musicians etc), unless one is an author. Authors are lauded in this country and can become bonafide superstars here. And I think that's wonderful.

But in a casual article for the Globe and Mail we see how the support tends to be distributed, even if it is totally by accident: a lack of children's, genre, and minority authors.

And this is reflected on a larger scale as well.

We see the work of our children's authors ignored in favour of this Canadian lit fic. A perfect example can be found this past year when the TD Canadian Children's Literature Awards - which hands out several monetary awards with the top being $25 000 - was almost completely ignored by the mainstream media in favour of the Scotiabank Giller Awards which honours literary fiction (with a larger award, $50 000 - but when you factor in the other prizes given out at the TD event, the amount spent on both genres is about equal). When it comes to the Giller awards, every year the nominees are interviewed separately in televised specials, then sometimes even in a group special, AND THEN the evening was televised itself. Oh. And both events? Happened on the same night. I can honestly tell you I have no idea why one gets all the attention and the other none. If the money wasn't the same, maybe . . . but . . . it's not even that.

Okay. I can tell you. It's because Adult Lit Fic is seen as more worthy of attention than Children' Fic.

We see genre authors time and time again seek agents outside this country because selling genre to Canadian publishers is very difficult. We see how genre fiction (SF/Fantasy) has had to create its own series of awards here in Canada because otherwise such authors with international acclaim don't get recognised.

We see minority authors constantly struggling not only to be heard, but also to be considered worth being read as simply an author first, visible minority second (and yes, while I notice the lack in the article in the paper, I do also notice a lack in my own list, something which I will work hard to remedy). And the same of course goes for sexual diversity.

Now. I'm not saying there isn't support here in Canada for all these kinds of authors, as Lesley herself said in the comments section to that article, the Forest of Reading Awards is a marvelous way to bring authors to children, and Canadian Children's Book Centre sent me on a book tour to the other side of this country, so clearly there is support for children's fiction for example.

But perception matters. Visibility matters. On a much bigger scale, seeing what is happening in countries half way around the world compels us to action far more than just hearing about it. We need to SEE children's lit and genre and minority authors. We need to see them respected and not considered a sub-section of writing, but a worthy (and not needing a qualifier) form of writing. No "this is good . . . for a [insert kid's, fantasy etc ] book".


We need "this is a good book". Full stop.

As a slight tangent to my point - we also need to stop defining Canadian literature as books set in Canada. Because even if Canadian authors set their work someplace else, they still bring their history of growing up Canadian, their unique perspective, to their writing. I consider myself a Canadian writer though and through and have only one identifiable Canadian character in my novels (so far). This doesn't mean I don't write with my Canadian upbringing informing every part of my work. Especially that whole Canadian sense of humour thing.

My point is . . . Canadian writing is seriously fantastic. And the diversity in the writing is seriously fantastic. And we need to change our reputation, not with the rest of the world, which is actually a pretty wonderful reputation. But with Canadians.

While we're at it . . . can we also change the reputation that a literary piece of fiction that might not be all happy go lucky can't still be highly entertaining and wonderful thing to read? Because I like a good literary work as much as the next person, and there is some beautiful stuff out there that shouldn't just be shoved to the side as "typical depressing Canadian lit fic".

Also . . . what's wrong with depressing Canadian lit fic? Sometimes that's exactly what you're in the mood to read.

Is all I'm saying.


Karen said...

Fantastic response, Adrienne. You bring up so many valid points I'd have to just repeat your whole post to agree with them.

I wonder if part of the problem with the process in this country is that major newspapers don't acknowledge anything other than "Literature," as defined by Atwood et al? Where are the bestselling lists for genre works? For teen and children's books? Half the time, Canadians think Canadian writing is boring because they don't *know* who the Canadian authors are. You know how it goes: "I love Arthur Slade's books. He's Canadian? Really? I didn't know that."

The media needs to step up to the plate on this one and make sure Canadians know who their writers are.

Krista D. Ball said...

Wonderful! I blame school for the mentality that Canadian literature = depressing and wrist-slashingly dull. I'm an author and, I've got to tell you, I even believed this when I was younger!

I agree with Karen that too many people assume Canadian will be like Atwood or Finley. It isn't.

There are so many great Canadian authors. Adrienne lists a lot of the best known ones, but for every Tanya Huff or Rob Sawyer, there is a dozen more very small guys who are also awesome. We even have some top notch publishers here in Canada. I'm so fortunate to have been published by one of them.

Peter said...

Terrific post! I simply couldn't have said it better.

Corey said...

Bravo, well put. I have had so many people say to my face, "I never read Canadian literature." So deeply inane a pose demands a response as measured as yours. I usually just curse bitterly.

Corey Redekop said...

Bravo, well put. I have had so many people say to my face, "I never read Canadian literature." So deeply inane a pose demands a response as measured as yours. I usually just curse bitterly.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that even at Chapters, where they often have a section highlighted as Canadian authors, that section is normally comprised only of lit fic. I can't remember ever seeing a Robert Sawyer, Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay, Nalo Hopkinson etc.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of a little comic Kate Beaton did a while back. (Now there's a noteworthy author.)


Talli Roland said...

Great response! As a Canadian author (albeit an ex-pat one), I agree it's a very narrow-minded perception that Canadian authors only write one sort of novel.

Like any population, variety exists - and a great variety, at that.

Adrienne said...

Thanks everyone so much for your responses.

And I totally agree that in general the issue is one of a lack of media support, and also a lack of the big box bookstores here identifying other kinds of Canadian work as Canadian (take Lesley Livingston as an example, when Indigo actually did nominate her work as "Best Canadian Read" she got all these excited responses from Canadian teens saying, "I didn't know you were Canadian, awesome!" - so it does have a very positive effect).

Anonymous said...

Lesley's Canadian? :D

Barbara Galler-Smith said...

That was indeed exceedingly well said. Thank you!

Tiferet said...

I would be very surprised if Gordon Korman's books ever left anyone feeling low!

marta said...

First, a friend of mine is a Canadian author--Ami McKay--she wrote The Birth House--and from what I've seen from here in Texas she's received a ton of support. More support than America gives. Because of Ami I learned of that Canada Reads show/contest...I don't know what to call it but it is hard to imagine a show like that in America with a competition over best book. I'm jealous of the support Canadian authors seem to get!

Second, why does anyone make a judgment about where an author is from. I wouldn't even be able to tell you what a Canadian author is...I've never thought of it, anymore than I waste time wondering what an American author is or a Japanese author or a South African author. I wonder how these people who go around dissing Canadian authors would feel if someone put them in a category and jumped to conclusions about them.

Is the book good? That's all I need to know.