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2006 11 07
How to Read and Write Great Toronto Literature

"Our city awaits its great novelist," wrote literary critic Philip Marchand in "What's Toronto's Story", a multiple-page article appearing in Sunday's Toronto Star. Describing Toronto's literary terrain as "undeveloped propert[y]", Marchand invokes a variety of theories purporting to explain the nascent state of Toronto literature and advances a few pet hypotheses of his own.

Toronto, Marchand writes, was not the birthplace of sufficient numbers of novelists to have lodged in their imagination, and/or "is just too bloody big and amorphous", and/or elicits an apologetic reflex so great that, as penance, writers don't describe life here, and/or is the victim of a kind of national and/or publishing and/or readers' and/or critics' consipracy, and/or has not yet managed to produce a sufficiently "big immigrant novel about Toronto" that would appeal to local and international audiences, and/or remains too preoccupied with its own nineteenth century past, and/or has not achieved the kind of satirical brilliance needed for Toronto to produce its own Pope or Dryden. To construct these views, Marchand quotes novelists David Adams Richards, Barbara Gowdy, Antanas Sileika, Russell Smith, the late Matt Cohen, Andrew Pyper, Sheila Heti, and Shyam Selvadurai (these last three via comments made to Toronto Life magazine), as well as writer and critic John Metcalf, and me, via my work for the Imagining Toronto project.

My difficulty with these claims is not that they are wholly inaccurate but that they evade an inescapable reality: Toronto literature, even great Toronto literature, already exists. We might need more of it, and we certainly need to read and remember more of it, but speaking as if Toronto literature doesn't exist requires an increasingly ludicrous shuffling of the story. Writers, characters, plots, points of view, settings, tropes, even readers, are sucked deep into some kind of literary black hole from which there appears to be no escape. Having already told Marchand I was "inclined to blame literary arbiters", I'm going to state, more pointedly now, that this black hole appears to swirl most powerfully around the literary critics themselves who go to such great lengths to deny the existence of Toronto literature. If there is a conspiracy against Toronto literature, it might be traced to such critics.

It seems to me that Marchand's ability to harness the comments of eight authors who live in and/or write about Toronto is alone sufficient to refute the claim that Toronto literature remains undeveloped. I will add that it might have been worth Marchand's while to interview some of the many writers who have made Toronto a principal setting for much of their work -- novelists whose work Marchand mentions in his article -- such as Catherine Bush, Nalo Hopkinson, and Darren O'Donnell. Indeed, Darren O'Donnell's Your Secrets Sleep With Me and Nalo Hopkinson's award-winning Brown Girl in the Ring might be seen as examples of the very 'epic' Toronto fiction whose absence Marchand laments, novels dealing with the great themes of immigration, identity, clash of cultures, the city's character and significance that Marchand avers are essential ingredients in any "great" novel.

"Greatness", of course, is a controversial concept. Marchand holds that the best Toronto literature is satirical because "[s]atire captures the grotesque, the compulsive, the moralistic, the pretentious -- the very atmosphere, in short, of Toronto circa 2006". My first thought upon reading this statement was that writers who project their bitterness upon literary landscapes are unable ever to transcend them; something, I believe, that must be one prerequisite for literary greatness. Moreover, if literary greatness may be reduced (at least in the medium term) to sales, prizes, international readership, and remaining in print, then the very Toronto novels Marchand excludes -- Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, Timothy Findley's Headhunter (itself incidentally a high satire of Toronto) -- must be considered great. But if 'greatness' is a title that may be bestowed upon writers only by the self-elect, then it is no wonder that Toronto literature seems doomed.

I'd like to propose a radical solution to the seemingly intractable problem of determining whether Toronto literature exists. My solution: I suggest people in the business -- writers, literary critics, teachers, researchers -- actually read some of it. The advice given traditionally to aspiring writers, to read and read some more, seems especially instructive here. It seems to me that a person who has not immersed oneself thoroughly in Toronto literature, who has not practically bathed in it, cannot truly be said to be qualified to write about it, or perhaps even to write it in the first place.

How does one go about doing this, when commentators continually deny that any meaningful Toronto literature exists? Well, you could always do what I've done: in the past year or so I've read only Toronto literature, amassing a library of hundreds of Toronto titles, and taking those same titles on the subway, into my teaching at York, to dinner parties, and, yes, into the bathtub with me. I'm in the middle of writing a manuscript about Toronto literature (and also have a couple of my own Toronto stories on the go), and in the process of doing so, have discovered some crucial entry points into the city's literature.

Here are three of them.

1. Gwendolyn MacEwen (whose name is, rather unfortunately, misspelled in Marchand's article) was, perhaps, the first writer to mythologize Toronto successfully. Her story anthologies, Noman (1972) and Noman's Land (1985), narrate a Toronto whose very buildings are "alive, shivering, with bones and sinews and tendons", its voices "unreal in the high air" of rapid city-building. In her later work, MacEwen suggests that some of these efforts -- including the construction of the CN Tower -- reflect the city's profound loneliness. MacEwen's sense of the city's loneliness is echoed movingly in Darren O'Donnell's 2004 Toronto novel Your Secrets Sleep With Me: O'Donnell writes,
it's an ugly beautiful city; a shy city; a city that has a hard time saying hello to acquaintances. A sad city. A lonely city.
Echoes of MacEwen appear in other Toronto works, too. In "Sunlight at Sherbourne and Bloor", a famous poem published posthumously in Afterworlds (1987), MacEwen writes,
the present is the logical outcome
Of all points in the past, and that building going up across the street has been going up forever. Everything we do now contains the seeds of its own unfolding. The bridge eases across the deep ravine.
A similar sentiment may be traced in Anne Michaels' well-known Toronto novel Fugitive Pieces as well as in her poetry. Michaels writes,
There is no city that does not dream
from its foundations. The lost lake
crumbling in the hands of brickmakers,
the floor of the ravine where light lies broken
with the memory of rivers. All the winters
stored in that geologic
garden. Dinosaurs sleep in the subway
at Bloor and Shaw, a bed of bones under the rumbling track.

2. bpNichol. In an article appearing in Spacing magazine, I described the late Toronto poet bpNichol's Martyrology series as "a poetic pilgrimage ... serving as a kind of guidebook, a skeleton key to the city and its parables." Toronto Poet and academic Stephen Cain makes a similar point at greater length and depth in an essay shortly to be published in The State of the Arts: Culture in Toronto (Coach House Books, launching November 26th). Cain argues that Nichol's work may be read as a kind of psychogeography of Toronto, particularly the Annex neighbourhood where so much Toronto literature has been written and set. In my own reading, I have found traces of Nichol's influence in Katherine Govier's well-known story collection, Fables of Brunswick Avenue, in Catherine Bush's excellent, gripping, Minus Time, and even in the late, lost Daniel Jones' Toronto punk novel, 1978.

3. Maggie Helwig's fantastic "The Other Goldberg Variations" (a long poem published in Talking Prophet Blues in 1989) is written ostensibly as an homage to Toronto's genius pianist Glenn Gould, but simultaneously offers a literary score to Toronto, tracing the city's muse and music along its streets, alleys, valleys, and memories. Writing perhaps of the reclusive Gould but also of our collective desire for solitude, she comments,
that I could walk seventeen miles through a ravine
in the heart of Toronto, and never
directly see the city
is of some comfort.
Helwig writes also of the city's "skeletal music", subtly referencing, perhaps, MacEwen's descriptions of Toronto's buildings as alive, like concrete totems. There is something epic about Helwig's poem, a tone that transcends the physical city and invokes, perhaps, the kind of "music from elsewhere" that Margaret Atwood describes in The Robber Bride.

It is not by accident that the three 'entry' points' indicated above are provided by Toronto writers who are known primarily as poets. Poetry does something prose often struggles with: it distills essential experiences and meanings into compact texts, texts that may subsequently be unfolded into rich and more lengthy extrapolations of their themes. And it is no surprise, either, that both MacEwen and Helwig have also enjoyed success in their prose works. And the lesson from this? Not that we should necessarily value poetric inscriptions of Toronto above other ways of writing the city, but that we owe these (and many other) writers, the city, and ourselves the small duty of reading and remembering their work. Certainly we should not dismiss the very possibility that great Toronto literature exists without even reading them.

As Maggie Helwig writes about Gould/Toronto,
Many things are perfect only in memory.
This is the result of intractable commitment.
I have a conception that lacks all possible
means of reproduction. But
I praise the human voice.
And so. If we are to appreciate Toronto literature, or even acknowledge its existence, we too might share in this "intractable commitment" to reading and remembering the city's literature. And in doing so we too might learn how to praise the human voice.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 11/07 at 12:04 PM

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