Monday, November 06, 2006

Write about Toronto? Oh please....

Phil Marchand at the Toronto Star has a column up about the peculiar reluctance of Toronto-dwelling writers to embrace it as a setting for their fictions.

It’s an irrefutable fact that most agents and editors prefer novels set in Paris or Moscow or Bombay or Havana or Minsk or anywhere else in the world but Toronto (though you are allowed to have a main character live here or settle here, as long as most of the action is somewhere more exotic). This is simple economics (those books sell) and has nothing to do with literature.

Aside from that, however, the most compelling reason why this happens is given by Barbara Gowdy, who says "You write about where you grew up," and so many Toronto writers did not grow up here. (Hello.) Even that explanation becomes a little thin after a while, however. (I am sneaking up on the place, I swear....)

The most annoying refrain has to be that given by Shyam Selvadurai, Sheila Heti, and John Metcalf in the article, and so many others elsewhere – that Toronto is just not worthy of being written about. It lacks cohesion, a soul, the je ne sais quoi that would make a writer deign to scout it for locations.

“I don't mean to be insulting because you live there,” says Metcalf, “but it's a brutally ugly place."

(Metcalf, it should be pointed out, lives in Ottawa.)

You have to wonder what would it would take to get a writer to drop the perfumed hankie and investigate his own city as a place where real, fiction-worthy human drama takes place. Free wine? Rickshaw rides to the scenes of famous battles? A six-figure contract?

I wasn't around at the turn of the last century, but I'm pretty sure that the Dublin Joyce wrote about obsessively was not exactly a soulful, cultural hotspot in the eyes of the world, or even of its citizens. Neither was Chicago when Bellow started mapping the place out in his novels. (And he wasn’t even born there!)

You would think that living in a large city that was still somewhat unmapped, literary speaking, would be enough to set a writer salivating. That a “brave” writer like Heti can giggle at the very idea of writing about Toronto because “it's not an easily mythologized place" is just pathetic, and just shows how timid and provincial our literary culture is.

1 comment:

radmila said...

What a great post.