John Ruskin attached a tower to his bedroom on his mountainside estate, Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water in Cumbria. Unlike Sackville-West’s, his tower room windowed on all sides, almost a capsule, offered a corner in which to escape from recurring nightmares or to watch the stars.
Going Your Own Way, by Linda Leith
What follows is an excerpt from the keynote talk presented yesterday at the QUESCREN conference Connect and Disconnect: Anglophones, the English Language, and Montreal's Creative Economy.
My essay Writing in the Time of Nationalism (Signature Editions, 2010) follows the postwar history of the English-language literary culture of Quebec in the postwar decades. Focusing on the fiction of the period, the book traces the writers of the golden age of the 1940s and 50s, including Hugh MacLennan and Mavis Gallant — whose advice to young writers was to "go your own way." It then follows the decline in the English-language literary milieu after the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the movement to create an infrastructure to support writing and publishing in English, and the renaissance of the period since 2000.
Infrastructure does not a culture make, let alone a literary revival, but a revival is unlikely to happen without the infrastructure. We need the organizations—the publishers' association AELAQ, the Quebec Writers' Federation (QWF), Blue Metropolis Foundation, and the English-language Arts Network (ELAN). We need publications like Matrix and Maisonneuve and Montreal Review of Books, we need publishers like Véhicule and DC Books as well as newer houses like Baraka Books and Linda Leith Publishing. We need the support of the Canada Council, Heritage, SODEC and the City of Montreal. The Canada Council and Heritage have recently increased their support of Official-language artists and arts organizations in encouraging ways. It would have been good to have that support twenty-five or thirty years ago, but no one's complaining about having it now.
We need more and greater links with the francophone literary milieu, too. The translators have always been key to that vital connection, and today Linda Leith Éditions and Pow! Pow! are two publishers producing books in both English and French.
When we talk of both continuity and change, one of the most promising recent developments is the accomplishment of the Atwater Library, which began life as a Mechanics’ Institute in 1828—the first such institution established in North America—and is today the only one to survive. Now known as the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, it is a beautiful heritage building on Atwater Avenue that has undergone its own revival under the leadership of Lynn Verge and is now the hub of the English-language writing community. It houses the offices of AELAQ and QWF, the Atwater Poetry Project and many different events, workshops, and courses. Its ambitious new programs include the Atwater Wrtiters’ Exhibit (AWE), and in November 2015 the library hosted the AELAQ’s first Pop-up Book Fair. These are steps towards what we hope will in due course become the Atwater Writers’ Museum.
Of course there are issues. There is always more to be done. Some of these are issues that affect writers across the country:
1. Writers working in languages other than French, English and aboriginal languages get short shrift. This is something I have seen first hand with Canadian writers working in Chinese. Such writers are not eligible for translation grants from SODEC. They are eligible for translation grants from the Canada Council, but are considered a lower priority than writers working in French, English, or Aboriginal languages.
2. Writers of the 1940s and 1950s had difficulty making a living, and that was true in 1980 and is true today, despite the best efforts of the arts councils. The reasons for this difficulty have changed, however, and one of the issues in this digital age is the challenge of persuading readers to buy books.
3. Books, magazines and newspapers are shrinking for lack of advertising revenues, with the effect that there is less and less space for book reviews.
4. It is a tremendous challenge to make good books known.Fundraising is even more difficult in writing and publishing than it is in the other arts.
5. There is perennial uncertainty associated with funding from public sources, which makes planning difficult or impossible. Will there be funding for the Atwater Writers’ Museum, for example? Will there even be funding for a second "pop-up" book fair? We don’t know.
Some of these issues are common to Canadian writers across the country--and in many cases internationally. It is both difficult and necessary for books to get the attention of Toronto media. There is still a sense that Toronto will pay attention only once you’ve already made it, ideally in New York or London. That’s still an uphill climb for most Canadian writers.
There are some issues that are unique to Montreal’s Anglophone writers, who are still marginal to the French-language writing and publishing milieu. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given the need that the francophone milieu feels to be protected from the power of the English language.
Montreal’s history is unique, as is its linguistic character, its particular tensions, the stimulation that the young, penniless Irving Layton found as essential as the air he was breathing, a feeling shared by writers and artists here ever since.
But that’s not all. “One of the things that has always struck me about living in this city,” the writer Adam Leith Gollner said in his opening remarks as host of the QWF awards in November 2015, “is the way it can be hard to feel a real sense of belonging here."
Many French don’t feel like they belong to this country; many English don’t consider themselves to be a part of this French society; and countless minority groups feel marginalized here as well. Perhaps one quality that connects all of us is that sense of not belonging. It seems to me that there is something quintessentially Montreal about not really fitting in.
Given my theme of continuity as well as change, I hope you will forgive me for quoting my own son. The text of his introduction to the 2015 gala can be found on the QWF website.
We are fortunate today to have a lively literary community of people who congregate with one another—and with writers who work in French and other languages—at book launches, at the QWF awards gala, at Blue Metropolis, in the Atwater Library, and at all kinds of other venues that are seldom frequented by the old élites. But the isolation that marked us in the 1980s and beyond is not gone. “To be bound together by our outsiderness,” Adam went on to say to the crowd at the QWF gala, “to belong by sharing a sense of not belonging—it’s an interesting way of thinking about identity in Montreal. And it’s doubly interesting for this community of writers, which is, after all, made up of people pursuing their craft in isolation.”
We are more a part of Quebec than ever before, more a part of Canada than at any time since the mid-1960s, at least, and more a part of the world. But we remain marginal. That is both our great weakness and our great strength. Being marginal is tough. It’s hard to go your own way. It was especially hard in the 80s and 90s, discouragingly so. It’s still hard today, even with all the support we now have. There may be bursts of glory—and there are bursts of glory—but that doesn’t make it easy.
What is clear now, as it was not often clear to writers working here in English in the 80s and 90s, is that there are also advantages to going your own way. Mavis Gallant was right all along. Going your own way is what makes originality possible, and it is the great originality of the writing that is its appeal and the secret of its success.
Linda Leith is a Montreal novelist and essayist who created Blue Metropolis Foundation in 1997 and Linda Leith Publishing in 2011.