Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The National Forum on the Literary Arts: Too Few Knights, Two Growing Dragons.

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The National Forum on the Literary Arts: Too Few Knights, Two Growing Dragons.

In any evaluation, the view contains the viewer in both meanings of the word contain: it includes the viewer; it limits the viewer. It is with these caveats that I can finally bring myself to evaluate The Canada Council Forum on the Literary Arts, held last month in Montreal.

The Forum assembled a wide range of stakeholders who would not normally have time, reason, or opportunity to be together. Some 200 folks — authors, publishers, agents, bloggers, editors, reviewers — met to discuss the future of Canadian Creation, Production, Dissemination and Sustainability. Everyone agreed that the simple act of sharing perspectives was a welcome introduction to a larger conversation. As a first-time author, however, I’m not qualified to speak from any viewpoint but my own. I’ve spent the past month struggling for words to best explain the following, four views that contain and contained me.

  1. After 23 years as an English and Drama teacher, I welcome the Forum’s call to build better links between educators, writers and publishers, but despair at the teacher-bashing that too often accompanied it. Many participants didn’t seem to know that classroom teachers have zero say over what books get bought, that today’s book budgets barely cover repairs and replacements. There is only one way to get new Canadian books into schools: we need new Ministry funding, dedicated and tracked new funding that principals cannot dump in the block budget and spend on the football team. Simply put, English teachers would love to teach more Canadian authors, but new curriculum without new funding is as impotent as Arthur without Excalibur.
  2. I am 58 years old. Impotence is not a theoretical question. Back in the day, my peeps, feminists from the '70s, equated power with numbers. We had to. We faced a country telling us sexism was all in our heads; we faced our own doubts. So we counted. And we’re still counting. ‘Whose voice gets heard?” remains central to Canadian identity. From some 500 applicants, the Council clearly endeavored to invite 200, to empower both official languages, both sexes, and all regions fairly. Did it do so? Yes and no. They listed 117 English speakers: 39 men and 78 women, and 90 French speakers: 50 men and 40 women. I have no idea why women accounted for two-thirds of the English contingent and less than half of the French. And beyond numbers, equity requires fair practice. I’m still wondering why no attempts at moderation were made when in each of the four plenary sessions, men and French speakers hogged the microphone far beyond their numbers. In one session, I counted 15 men and 2 women, 11 of the 17 from Quebec. I heard few northern, rural, or indigenous voices. No one identified as representing seniors, new Canadians, or the LGBT community. In a dearth of prairie voices, bumper stickers from my days in Alberta flashed before my eyes: Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark. Why didn’t someone, anyone, stand up and suggest something as simple as alternating male and female voices, French and English speakers? What does it mean when even this crowd of well-educated, politically-savvy professionals who champion equity in all aspects of Canadian culture, couldn’t practice fair representation themselves? What does it mean that no one asked us to do so?
  3. Why didn’t I stand up? I’m disabled, and I’m ashamed to say it silenced me. The Council did an outstanding job providing assistance with accommodation and travel logistics. My table was uniformly kind and helpful. But someone has to say it: at any conference, ableism is systemic. People on crutches or scooters cannot do a coffee line or a buffet without assistance. I can’t race to a microphone. I can’t stand in line for ten minutes. I can’t drop my crutch to reach up with two hands to unhook the mic set over my head, and certainly can’t stay standing as I speak. There were no roving wireless mics and when my astute facilitator asked if I wanted one hunted down, I said no thank you. I self-censored. I self-silenced. The vast majority, including me, sat still for things we shouldn’t have. We ceded a disproportionate voice to the able-bodied, the aggressive, the male and the French-speaking. What does it say that in 2014, I needed a month to screw up the courage to face the backlash I fear for admitting my own silence?
  4. And you don’t need to be an old lefty to know that hierarchical form produces hierarchical content: in this case, a disturbingly blind reiteration of High Art vs. Low Art. Historically, the male artist and his upper-class patrons maintained power by claiming their painting and sculpture were High Art, but arts like pottery or embroidery, made by women and artisans, were Low Art, inferior by definition. Some defendants of the High Art of Can Lit spoke as if we weren’t in crisis, as if their ivory tower was not besieged by change. Some seemed stuck in past entitlements, as if Canadian content de facto deserved life-long government patronage, as if all would be solved by the “reinvention” of their traditional patrons: independent bookstores. So many speakers demanded to be saved by someone else. Too few speakers saw themselves as combatants, as knights of the next decade. Too few strategized about how they would battle the growing dragons of ebooks and Amazon. It seemed beneath High Art to discuss either. It was entirely acceptable, however, to call on others to re-value/re-fund “professional publishers, writers and reviewers” to “counter the internet’s amateur publishers, writers and reviewers.” While no one wants internet democratization to result in the de-professionalization of writing, it is blind snobbery to dismiss the internet as the Low Art of amateurs. Ignoring a dragon doesn’t extinguish his fire. Stick your head in the sand and he gets a clean shot at your elevated rear end.

So did the Forum’s round tables pull swords from stones and equip us to seek Canada’s e-future? No, but that’s an ever-evolving task. We did list plenty of priorities. If most of the quests we recommended were set for knights other than ourselves, my view is admittedly skewed by too many teacher conferences which produced equally earnest recommendations — also on huge sheets of chart paper — that vanished as quickly as Camelot. While I don’t envy anyone the job of prioritizing the umpteen priorities we prioritized, I truly look forward to the Forum’s report. I welcome a collective vision and hope it leads to collective action. Until then, this view contains this viewer: too few knights, two growing dragons.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer grew up in and near Toronto and spent summers in Ontario’s cottage country, just north of Fenelon Falls. In her 23 years as a drama/English teacher, Dorothy taught in a Mennonite colony, a four-room schoolhouse in rural Alberta and an adult learning centre attached to a prison. She coaches for the Canadian Improv Games. When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books) is her first novel. She lives in Toronto.