canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Essay: The ‘Two Solitudes’ Illusion

Reflections on the role of Toronto in the nation's literary culture

by Shane Neilson

In Labrador, I exist at a combined edge: the eastern margin of the continent, and the far reaches of Canadian literary culture. Happy Valley - at 7800 souls, the largest agglomeration of people for thousands of square kilometres- possesses no magazines available for sale in boulevard coffee shops; in fact, there are no boulevard coffee shops. There isn’t even a bookstore. The weekend edition of the Globe and Mail is the only locally available print-based option to obtain exposure to a discussion about books. Printed in Halifax, the Globe irregularly arrives by plane at the airstrip. Waylaid by weather and other links in the chain required for successful delivery, I am often thwarted in the search for a literary forum.

The vast unpopulated silence of the Labrador interior is a unique home for a writer because of its corollary quietude with respect to books. The clichéd vacuum needed for a writer’s sense of isolation is taken to an extreme here; there is no opt-out ease of the proximal rural citizen, who can drive a quick half-hour to an amenity-rich metropolis, or who can tune in to the omnipresent media jumble emanating from a larger elsewhere. Unlike the rest of urban and big-R rural Canada, remote Canada lacks an umbilical attachment to Toronto, the one city that gestates, judges, and disseminates most of the country’s art. Thus the bibliophile in remote Canada is geographically granted the gift of objectivity: detached from the dominant stories and scandals happening elsewhere, he possess the perspective to assess the tensions polarizing, in cultural terms, the capital of Toronto and its rebellious suburbs. I like to think of myself as one of these privileged people.

Toronto features the largest number of writers, libraries, and bookstores per Canadian capita. Her writers are the most acknowledged, her libraries the most varied, and her bookstores the most gargantuan. More books are published in Toronto in a year than in the rest of the country; the same is true for column inches devoted to bookchat, book reviews, and celebrity author gossip. The book industry rag, Quill and Quire, is based in Toronto, as is Canada’s premier literary event, the Harbourfront Festival of Writers. Toronto publishes the aforementioned "national" edition of the Globe and Mail with its weekly books section. It also is home to a plurality of small- and medium-circulation literary periodicals, including the Literary Review of Canada and Books in Canada, the two best commentators on Canadian literature. The fact that both are published in Toronto and possess "Canada" in their titles isn’t just ironical. It seems as if the god of national literatures benighted Hogtown as the holy bastion of our northern collective faith in book creation and parabook opinion.

Yet Capital Toronto is the recipient of criticism commensurate with its blessings. As the only Canadian location that has amounted a self-perpetuating artistic mass, that is to say an aggregate locus of public and critics who have the power to bestow livelihood-propagating momentum, Toronto’s benevolence cultivates resentment amongst writers ungraced by the city’s magnanimity. Suburbanites revolt against the oppressive edict of the Capital as they understand it: live here, and be successful. They watch a "first fiction" phalanx of Toronto authors incite a moronic, communicable "buzz" in Capital newspapers and periodicals; they watch yet another average writer publish yet another average novel (in follow-up to his last); in time, they begin to wonder if Toronto is just a blasphemous joke, as if the place existed only to insult their art, suppressing Suburban quality as a threat to Capital-sanctioned aesthetics (and also to its market monopoly). It does no good to placate such writers by inviting them to join the festivities, to share in Toronto’s bounty; they sniff and refuse, resistant to the Capital’s assimilative methods out of stubborn principle.

However, the relationship between the Capital and the Suburbs is more complicated than a simple equation of indifference on one hand and jealousy on the other. The Suburban writer’s hatred is not limited to Toronto. Deep within himself, he covets the media exposure granted as geographical right to standard-caliber Capital writers. He reads and resents both the books and the parasitic book-reviewing periodicals issued forth from southern Ontario mimeographs, for they are nearly all that he can read; he is frustrated by his hometown bookshop’s late delivery system and lack of selection, envying Toronto its superior catalogue. In so hating Toronto, he objects to more than a name: he resents the professional opportunity the city offers, as well as its panoply of books and readers. In feeling this way, he alerts the non-partisan to something quite contradictory: the radical Suburbanite hates Toronto less than he hates himself for wanting to move there.

Who can blame the Suburbanite for such cognitive dissonance? He looks for his own books, essays and poems on the newsstand, and usually cannot find them; he watches equivalent talents emigrate to Toronto and achieve inflated fame. The malaise of elapsed time, of erosive diminishment nags at his sense of professional accomplishment; fame tarries for only so long. This knowledge creates great internal dissent within the Suburbanite. His petulant ego never disengages his smirking principles, and this battle is the cause of his distress- the principled careerist is both locked in place and ready to bolt!

Unfortunately, the mythical power imbued upon the Capital is overstated, as is the general neglect ascribed to the Suburbs. The reason why the Capital/Suburb dichotomy maintains such power in the framing of discussion between central and peripheral writers is because these myths serve two symmetrical ends- that (a) Torontonians believe that without their city’s blessing, the unknown writer cannot be loved by the larger world; and (b) the obscure writer overtly ignores Toronto’s kingmaking power out of spite, comforting himself that his own minimal fame does not derive from matters of substance, but rather the silly criterion of place of residence. Both sides use their mirror-image illusions as a defense against objective evaluation. There can be no argument with someone who blames Toronto for their dissatisfactions, nor can there be an argument with someone who uses one’s lack of fame as a justification for lack of fame.

The endpoint of such a relationship, typical in such cases of misperception, isn’t compromise. The Suburbanite recognizes that the Capital eventually wins out because of one implacable fact: Toronto culture masquerades as Canada so often it becomes a proxy Canada. Toronto naturally views itself as important; outside of Toronto, in the rest of Canada, there is a Torontonian benchmark against which to measure oneself. Toronto insinuates itself into every Canadian household by means of television and print media so pervasively that, in a manner of speaking, it is a dominant microcosm, a potent homogenizing force. To many, then, making it in the Capital means automatic Suburban sales; not achieving universal success means not achieving success in Toronto. The largely one-way flow of media adulation down the Capital to Suburb conduit is chiefly responsible for reinforcing the Suburbanite’s sense of futility.

This futility is exacerbated by the dominant tide of information flowing from the Capital, but there are satellite sub-Capitals that act to buttress local talent and provide small-wattage broadcasts for their municipal citizens. Vancouver is home to Douglas Coupland, Lynn Coady, and George Bowering, to name only three; Montreal has the Solway school; Edmonton and Calgary war for prairie supremacy. Quebec is a separate entity altogether, protected by a language not widely employed outside the province, but nevertheless it suffers from a parallel phenomenon: the desire for homegrown talent to succeed in France’s much larger market.

Each of these cities acts as a gravitational centre for regional writers, who leave villages and towns to congregate and thrive in the sub-Capitals, where the provincial universities are situated. The difficulty is that these literary outposts lack the power to familiarize other outposts with their artists; only Toronto has the promotional ability to do this.

As a mutually insulating relationship, Capitalists and Suburbanites both benefit from their separation of psychological state. Writers who reside in Toronto reap its centralized benefits of scale: more publishing houses, more readers, media exposure, and blurbing of friends in a clique-mobility project. Toronto promotes its own, largely as a function of proximity. Extra-Torontonians similarly erect an antiestablishment tent for the promotion of one another. Writers outside the One City adopt a rebellious guise, presenting themselves as fringe martyrs of the craft. Nearby regional presses are willing to accept them, giving voice to Suburban dissent. Each strategy, though geographically oppositional, has a strange symmetry: Toronto residents have a higher chance of being published by a Toronto press for the same reason a writer living in Fredericton has a shot at appearing in print courtesy of Goose Lane Publishers.

The similarity in these methods of publication contrasts with a potential disparity in their respective effects. This differential lies in the manifest economic and cultural inequality between the Capital and the Suburbs. There is a life in Toronto not found elsewhere: a profusion of readings, of launches, a milieu of people writing, reading, and critiquing books that transfers momentum to Capital inhabitants. Writers outside Toronto fight a countervailing inertia, a public indifference. Thus a capital writer theoretically has access to a larger audience, but if Toronto has not anointed him with a contract from a large publishing house, the capital writer may languish in the same way –for the same reasons!- a Suburbanite does. Small presses flourish in Toronto just as elsewhere. It stands to reason that there are many Capital writers suffering Suburban Syndrome, and this fact lessens the force of the Capital/Suburban argument.

The thermals of immolated principle have carried countless fortune-seeking authors towards the Capital, but only a select group of transplanted Suburbanites can make any claims to significance. David Adams Richards is one of these. Despite winning a Governor-General’s award in 1989, both he and his rural Mirimichi were straightjacket-midlist in reputation and sales until he moved to Toronto. Shortly thereafter, a few of his manuscripts were optioned for film rights by Toronto production houses; a year later, he basked in the attention paid to his GG-winning nonfiction title Lines on the Water. This success was followed by his next work of fiction, Mercy Among the Children, which garnered the newer, more glamorous Giller prize and elevated his stature. After decades of toil in his native New Brunswick, Richards’ audience was limited to his geographical base; by trading Newcastle for the Capital, Richards exchanged the imaginative terrain of his novels for the promotional vistas of Toronto’s executive boardrooms. The view was less obstructed there.

Wayne Johnston is another case in point; he wrote several fine novels before trading obscurity for Capital residency. After arrival, he gained renown for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, but his reputation really solidified with the post-migrant Baltimore’s Mansion, a memoir about his sacrificed home of Newfoundland.

Why is it that there are no other citable instances of grindstone writers who toil in the Suburbs, erect a substantial body of work before moving to Toronto, and upon arrival in the Capital gain long-awaited fame? Yet there are legions of lesser talents who, in acknowledgement of the Richards/Johnston literary precedent and the Capital migration myth, perceive the move as inevitable in order to benefit from Capital membership. The difficult truth peripheral writers must comfront is this: there is no hard evidence that membership will neccasrily solve the legitimate problems of writing from a distance. A legion of writers could depart the Suburban vacuum, motivated by fame, and never be heard from again; only the huge sucking sound of successful instances is registered, like with Johnston and Richards. In exceptional cases, where an author truly has "outgrown" his hometown and is suffering from neglect proportional to his talent, there is a clear financial and reputational benefit to make the move. Yet I know of no additional examples of such persons. How many authors moved to Toronto, only to languish there? Many more than the migrant few who moved and satisfied their literary ambitions.

To modify Hugh MacLennan’s political construct, this phenomenon of Capital-Suburb misperception is the literary equivalent of the clichéd anomie between English and French Canada, our original ‘Two Solitudes.’. English and French Canada play at being separate nations while actually existing as part of a dynamic whole; English and French Canada are both aware of the economic disparity that favours the former. Language is a charged element; English is felt to be assimilative, and French a rebellious affirmation of indigenous culture. The existence of both means heterogeneity, multiple ways of doing things. Similarly, the Suburbs ascribe a tyrannical omnipotence to the Capital; the Capital offers a smothering invitation to prosperity to the Suburbs, because the Capital is represented as the breadbasket of Canadian literature, the land of literary opportunity. The Suburbs resent the greater prosperity offered by the Capital, and this quickly turns to self-hatred. Like McLennan’s language-charged prototype, the current literary ‘Two Solitudes’ construct of the Capital and the Suburbs is an illusion in which both sides appear to be far apart in their dispositions and assumptions, but by definition, both sides are talking to one another, and both are saying the same thing. Writers move to Toronto because they have been listening, seduced by the capital migration myth. For their part, Torontonians know that the best Canadian writers live in the city.

The easy divisibility of writing in Canada –the Capital versus the Suburbs- is symptomatic of our former colonial state. Early in our history, we compared our writing to that of the U.K.; we graduated to American literature, drawing the object of our comparisons geographically closer; now we further this trend to its logical conclusion by comparing our regional literatures to one dominant, central literature. Ironically, our evolutionary destiny was involution.

A colony is insecure in relation to the mother culture’s ancient traditions. In time, the colony gains enough confidence to look elsewhere for its relative insecurities. Eventually, the colony loses the extroversion of youth and becomes introspective, evaluating all of its many parts, deconstructing the whole into dominant and subordinate components. In this way, Canadians risk taking postcolonialism to an extreme by? becoming an island where? the debate about Canadian Literature is dominated by voices from and about the island’s capital. The inevitable outmigration of an island’s rural citizens towards the dominant capital to find employment is analogous to the literary situation in Canada.

There is no sense in faulting Toronto for its size. As Canada’s largest city, it naturally has the greatest number of writers living within its limits. There may be fault to be found in proportional terms, however; of the scores of writers living in the city, a minority are native Capitalists. The Suburbs are overwhelmingly home to Suburban writers, but not vice versa. When a country institutes a regimen of migration for fame, it has a problem- for that country allows regional correspondents to be absorbed by the city for no good reason. Writers come to Toronto, not vice versa, and they mostly make the misguided journey because they are seduced by the illusion of instant success.

I write this in a basement bungalow in Goose Bay. Toronto’s tentacles are unavoidable even here, although sometimes the message is lost for a few moments. The major advantage of Labrador is that, during episodic transmission interruptions, one can reflect upon the lost broadcast and consider its siren song instead of lamenting its periodic absence; one can evaluate the likelihood of future complicity in the Capital/Suburban dichotomy. For a book to reach me, a bookstore would first have to be constructed in Goose Bay (a risky financial proposition). Then a book-buying public must spontaneously develop in anticipation of the improbable grand opening. Though Toronto can trumpet an author, it can’t single-handedly create a literate audience. I mean to say: Toronto imposes itself as much as I seek it out. Always there is the promiscuity of the city, willing to fraternize with a good reader, but in Goose Bay, there are few readers, no bookstore, and little literary culture. In short, Toronto’s message as disseminated in Goose Bay reaches converts only.

My consumption of imported Toronto paraphernalia is a prelude to eventual migration; weekend Globe anticipation is a prodromal symptom. Years from now, born of neglect and in a firestorm of ego, I’ll travel to Toronto, expecting recompense. Like the nomadic legion preceding me, I’ll hate the necessity of the trip, and I’ll hate myself for making it. I’ll expect the city’s adulatory embrace while worrying if it will be forthcoming. My antennae will cease to be primarily receptive in function- they will broadcast their own sound waves amongst the city’s media morass. I tell myself: if I go, then an audience will come. But I won’t go now, of course. I’d never move to Toronto.

Shane Neilson is one of TDR's poetry editors.






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