Canada's great literary generation...and other fictions
Greetings. First things first, This past Thursday I was happy to receive my copy of my next book in the mail. After sharing a picture of it with the photographer who allowed me to use her photo last night, I feel comfortable sharing a picture of the book with the world today. I know that I've already shared a jpeg of the layout, but having the physical copy of the book and sharing it feels special.
I was explaining to a friend on Thursday, the story behind why this book means so much. Around 6 years ago I was dumped by a woman who wanted me to get a normal job and stop writing. I had a choice: Find a proper job, and crawl back, or write. I spent the next 6 weeks writing the first draft of this book. It took 6 years, being short-listed for a publisher's competition and a significant re-write (changing it from a 3rd person to a series of 1st person narratives) to get it published, but here it is.
The launch is April 29th at the In the Soil Festival.
Recently, a couple things have come up online that I wanted to address. The first, a Facebook Group I'm on is currently debating whether it's worth submitting to competitions/publishers who ask for entry/reading fees. The second, is the weird comments of an editor for an anthology that I'm a part of.
The first, is easy. Is it worth paying a fee to submit to publishers/competitions? In short, yes. But I have a number of caveats.
1/ Set a price limit: There are competitions that simply charge too much for the potential reward. certain submission tools charge publishers a fee. That should be a part of your calculation. However, if there are no cash prizes at, or over, $500 I refuse to pay more than $25 for a submission.
2/ Read the publisher/ past competition winners: If you don't like the writing tied to the publisher/competition, what is the likelihood you're going to win?
3/ Check the diversity of past winners/finalists: This is a big one for me. It consistently bares out, no matter who the judges of a competition are: If past long lists/short lists/ finalists lack diversity, it's a waste of my money to enter. I've been fooled every time I've seen a competition/publisher bring in a 'diverse' judge. History is history. The times I feel I've wasted my money consistently, are when I break from this rule because I see a familiar type of face as a judge.
I know some people only enter competitions/submit manuscripts if they get feedback, but to me that's a fool's errand. Way too many times, the "feedback" I've received from judges, is a list of excuses why they picked their friend over me. When the feedback doesn't make sense, and what you sent them is either: 1/ Already published at a more prestigious place -- Or 2/ Get's published/ short listed in a more prestigious competition/publication literally days later with no editing...when this happens multiple times...you realize that feedback only helps if the judges take their jobs seriously.
As someone who has judged literary competitions (okay, maybe just one) myself, even when a judge is serious, a judge's notes are rarely a place to get insight anyway. As a judge, I'm trying to rule something in, or out. Looking at something as a judge, and looking at a piece of writing as an editor working with an individual writer are two different things. Without talking to an editor as well, even the most nurturing judge's comments will not aid you.
Speaking of judge and editor comments. Sometimes, it's best if they kept their thoughts to themselves. I literally only submit to these things if I receive a request. It definitely sounds elitist of me, but I quickly realized that writing to please a book publisher, and writing to please a literary journal editor, or anthology editor are two completely different things. I want to write books, so I spend my time concentrating on manuscripts.
Recently I've had a couple exceptions. The first, I was asked to submit poetry to an anthology about cancer. I don't know if what I sent will get accepted, but unfortunately, there's a lot of inspiration in my family on that subject. I actually was quite pleased with my submission. I'm not skilled at writing for anthologies, but the experience putting those poems down was worth it for me.
The second was an anthology being published by a US publisher that is meant to showcase Canadian poetry (the editor is also Canadian). The only reason I submitted, was because I was allowed to submit previously published work. The first red flag for me, was when the editor selected the two safest poems that I sent him. None of the poems from my collection that was short-listed for the Trillium Book Prize for Poetry were selected. The second red flag, was when I was informed that selected authors will have to pay if they want a copy of the anthology. Why was I told this after I submitted? That didn't sit right with me. Lastly, the editor started sending all the contributors these emails that mentioned that there were people who refused to submit work who would have made the anthology better, and also mentioned a past great generation of Canadian poets. Where do I start?
As an editor you have three choices if you're not satisfied with an anthology that you're working on:
1/ Walk away from it
2/ Work with contributors until the work is up to your standards
3/ Do neither, and keep your dissatisfaction to yourself.
No one wants to know how the cake is made. Does it taste good? Did it rise properly? Was proper hygiene used? That's all the consumer cares. Maybe if they have allergies, or are vegans there's a few more questions, but no one cares how early the baker woke up, the exact measurement of ingredients, etc.
Maybe, MAYBE there have been better individual authors in Canada's literati than now, but this is by far the deepest, most diverse, and I would argue, the best period of Canadian literature. If you disagree, you're reading the wrong books, and going to the wrong reading series. If every literary event you go to, the majority of the audience is in their 60's (and older) adjust what you are doing. At my favorite literary events, in Toronto, I'm often the oldest person (I'm 40), surrounded by inspiring writers who are diverse in every way possible -- from race, sexual orientation to the mediums they use to share their work. We live in a period where some of the best writing can be found in zines, online fanfic, self publishing AND traditional publishing.
If you're not paying attention to how distribution of literature is changing, how can you judge the current generation of writers? Furthermore, other than the odd Austin Clarke, has there ever been a period in Canada's literature where so many of it's proclaimed authors look like the multiculturalism that Canada celebrates? From CBC Canada Reads, to every important literary award in Canada each year introducing new diverse names to Canadian readers, our literature finally is beginning to share the multiculturalism that Canada is supposed to champion.
Of course the argument is that quality trumps quantity. However, the standards that writers of color have to meet to even get published is significantly higher than our counterparts. It's not that more of us are getting published to fit some sort of quota. More of us are getting published because we are raising the quality of work being published. That's why so many of the writers of color who are getting published are also getting on literary shortlists. Not only are we improving the quality of work being published, we are also (most importantly) changing the Can Lit narrative.
For far too long Can Lit has been nothing more than an offshoot of US literature. Whether it was profs shoving the Black Mountain poets down students' throats, championing the beats, or the influx of US authors during the Vietnam War who have their imprint all over things like the League of Canadian Poets and other institutions that were meant to narrow what Can Lit could be. It's only now that authors of color have a strong enough influence that we have freedoms our counterparts always had .
With these new freedoms we can decide: Do we wish to take an academic route, heavily influenced by American ideals of literature, or will we walk our own paths? My writing is influenced by literature from the US, UK, Caribbean, Africa folklore, Japanese Manga, Korean film... Yes the US is an influence. But you know what's not an influence? A Western academic way of learning literature. Even if I eventually decide to get an MFA, my first 4 books were crafted from the lessons which I taught myself outside a traditional academic structure.
That option now exists for writers of color. It used to be that we had to conform to an academic narrative. Now there are other options. Those who have come before us sacrificed so that we could have a multitude of options and as more authors of color seek different, new ways to learn their craft, Canada's literature will finally start to truly be multicultural at every aspect. Through those new perspectives of learning, and the high standards that new perspectives are often forced to exceed to be accepted, that's where the next wave of world-class Canadian authors is being birthed.
This is Can Lit's greatest generation. However, what's coming up behind us could potentially be revolutionary to what we call Can Lit.