Who’s Playing Doctor to the Physicians of the Soul?
“Poets are the physicians of the soul.”—Irving Layton, Canadian Nobel nominee for literature.
“She wouldn’t react that way to rape—you bet your life she wouldn’t. Along with the rest of her sex she’d lie back and enjoy it”—Irving Layton in private correspondence. Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton (Toronto: Macmillan, 1989), 53.
Canadian Lit likes to think it’s known for being boring, or multicultural, or for surviving in the wilderness. It is hardly known at all, besides by a certain charming Scandinavian institute for Canadian Studies, and those non-Canucks who do know it exists prefer not to think about it. We have heard dull battle cries from other bookish people: “Can Lit isn’t literature”; “Or you could read an actual book” & “Don’t waste your time with that shit”. The Stephen Leacocks, Michael Ondaatjes, Margaret Atwoods, Alice Munros, Anne Carsons, Robertston Davies and Irving Laytons be damned; there’s nothing particularly Canadian about them, they just live north of the 49th. I don’t care to address those suckers of canonization’s long, evil phallus. “Tell us what to read!” they say. “Tell us what set of pseudo-conflicting opinions to harbor,” they murmur through their facile, troubled dreams of greatness. This letter is also not to the children of Canlit, those ‘iconoclasts’ who treat famous poets like demigods, and who worship in a side-chapel of the same institution of thinly-veiled brain-death. Keep your precious feelings, everybody, but leave discussions of taste to snobs who read.
An article came out last year suggesting that part of the reason Canadian lit is as exciting as an all-day hangover is that its politics must fit a certain orthodoxy: pro-women, pro-new-immigrant, pro-working-man, sensitive to Native Issues, a little bit clever—but not too clever—and with some kind of advanced formal slant, if only to justify oneself in public. It was argued that the threat of polite exchange in comments sections would produce a kind of blog-gulag effect, silencing the caustic, brilliant freethinking writers of our dear Siberia-lite. If only that were the problem. If only Canadians—who share with Russians and early Americas a rather helpful and quite justified conviction that we are not the centre of civilization, the apex of culture—if only we got that we’d have to make up for it with work, apprenticeship, and a degree of seriousness that would make many of our local poetry-narcissists faint just thinking about it. Here’s looking at you, Kafein readers. Give a shit.
Censorship is not Can Lit’s biggest problem. Controversy over gendered and politicized reading is real, yes, but reverse-racist, radical-feminist, pro-queer backlash is not postpartum-aborting the national literature.
The nepotism and the buddy-buddy grant & award culture that encourages steady literary production and vacuous ass-kissing has been fully, laudably decried elsewhere I’m sure. As a matter of pure practicality, those minor blights facilitate literary culture and put beer, weed, and smokes into the hands of needy writers for whom beer, weed, and smokes are precious luxuries. In all seriousness, one can’t expect any good writing from a group of people who can’t get together and have a good time. Writing is a lonely, selfish life for a bunch of utterly genius pricks who usually have their heads in their fundaments, and some very thoughtful women with pleasant reading voices who wear too much black. We need to play nice in order to keep going.
Here, finally, is a problem in CanLit, at least the Montreal variety. There are a few reading series: The Atwater Poetry Project, The Yellow Door, Kafein, Argo Presents, Drawn & Quarterly Readings, and those associated with The Matrix magazine, whose name I don’t know because I don’t care. There are also journal launches, book launches, and intermittent readings from the university literary magazines; but I don’t think anybody cares about them, with all due respect to The Veg, Scrivener, etc. We have zine distro’s and Expozine. Montreal writers get together regularly and even cross-pollinate. Exploits, publications and reviews are to be surveilled online. Unlike in the Southland—where it’s all about where you got your MA and who your agent is, or so says my source—Montreal is a petri dish of writing culture. And we have fun.
That brings me back to the beer, weed, and smokes. Some people believe that girls are the natural final touch: beer, weed, smokes and girls are a writer’s God-given lot. What he lacks in money he reaps in beautiful, lost young things just ripe for the taking-home. There’s no substitute for experience, you know. Writing is perfect for young women who want to think they’re sophisticated and mature; and for older men itching to relive youth by fucking it. Montreal has a real problem with this. In undergrad it’s a McGill English TA sleeping with his students while they’re in his class; in the Concordia MA two male and respected-in-Toronto writer-teacher-editors are known to get with their students, and even outside the academy there’s at least one married editor who expects women to fall at his feet and brags about how he’s going to seduce them. The women must behave politely about this, or they’re seen as ideologues for whom everything is a gender-war. Everybody knows, and no one says anything.
Libel protects individuals from invasion into their private lives; but not where that invasion matters to the public or some subset thereof; and in Canlit, where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s business, it sure as hell matters. The culture of sexual cherry-picking among the gate-keepers of Montreal writing makes young women very aware that their merit as readers and writers is constantly undermined. One can be judged for sleeping with what amounts to a professional superior; one can also be judged for thinking such advances distasteful, to the point of being insulting, and for rebuffing them. Being female always matters—and threatens to matter more than what you write and say. There’s no winning. In a small society, where genuine intellectualism about literature is not bursting from the ruelles, Canlit can’t afford to turn a blind eye on the sexualization of young women writers. It can’t afford the culture that tells women that, despite the hope that they’ll be judged on their writing, they’re judged on how fuckable they are—even if it’s not at all—and the men wielding that unseemly power teach the class, headline the reading, and edit the magazine. Not all of them, of course, but the ones who don’t perpetuate it turn a blind eye. I guess it’s not their problem. It’s just a problem for the national literature.
Kit Blayre graduated from CEGEP in 2009. She put out a chapbook called “Cheater Girl” in 2011 and has been published in the zine Ursa. Born in the Birmingham, Kit now lives, writes, and gossips in Montreal.