Notes on the Incestuous and Monocultural Nexus of the Literati
This piece initially started as a response to Mark Medley’s story “How Liz Howard went from studying science to the Griffin Prize shortlist” published on May 31 in The Globe and Mail. Then, as it often goes when we write, my mind was asking, or rather pushing me, to go further and explore other issues related to the literary scene in Canada, and to a certain extent, also around the world. So here I go—and I ask that you kindly hear me, consider the thoughts that come to my being, as I live and love, as I think and write and read myself and others. As I walk the world trying to understand its mysteries, its beauty and ugliness, its otherness—straddling identities, languages, reading different literary tongues that show me the vastness and complexity of life, of being, of seeing…
In “How Liz Howard went from studying science to the Griffin Prize shortlist” Medley reveals to us Liz Howard’s touching journey to the Griffin Prize shortlist (she is now the actual winner of the prestigious prize). It is a nice and touching story and I enjoyed reading Howard’s humane voyage from her humble beginnings, her struggles with choosing a path in life, to her own realization that writing was her true call (despite the societal pressure to do otherwise). However, I think Medley missed to point out something quite crucial here: the incestuous nature of the publishing industry in Canada where we have creative writing Professors, who in this case, also happened to be acclaimed poets, referring their own students to publishing houses, thus facilitating the process of getting published. As Medley writes:
About two years ago, Liz Howard received an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Dionne Brand. An award-winning poet and novelist, Brand had recently been tasked with helping to relaunch McClelland & Stewart’s poetry program, and she wondered if Howard, whom she had taught creative writing at the University of Guelph, had a manuscript ready to submit.
In a world where it is almost impossible to get an answer from a publisher (if you are a ‘no one’), this ‘aid’ goes a long way: it seems to actually be the way. The manuscript was very well received by McClelland & Stewart and within a week of submitting it, Howard was offered a publishing contract. All in all, a very swift and efficient process.
This incestuous nexus in the literary world is a well-known problem in Canada—and in fact it is becoming an issue in much of the world—though it is not discussed intelligently, complexly, honestly or openly very often, at least not in public circles or forums where it ought to be discussed such as national newspapers that devote sections to books and literature. Such incestuous nexus seriously compromises the integrity of writers, the awarding of literary prizes, the diversity in writing and the overall writing industry. Professor Sarah Brouillette from Carleton University addresses this matter in a very insightful and multiplex way in her article “On Some Recent Worrying over World Literature’s Commodity Status” published in 2014 in the Maple Tree Literary Supplement. She discusses how, increasingly, publishing houses are linked to University creative writing programs, editors, agents, literary council boards, etc., all forming a literary connected global ‘elite’ (a nexus) that decides what good literature is, how and what gets to be circulated and who gets the accolades. Other critics of the literary industry have pointed out similar problems and Brouillette makes note of several in her text:
Increasingly written by authors employed by universities, world literature “has become an empty vessel for the occasional self-ratification of the global elite.” It is “like a Davos summit,” they maintain, “where experts, national delegates, and celebrities discuss, calmly and collegially, between sips of bottled water, the terrific problems of a humanity whose predicament they appear to have escaped”… [As n+1 notes] ‘It has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. It has its prizes: the Nobel, of course, but more powerful and snazzier is the Man Booker, and the Man Booker International. Its political arm is PEN. And it has a social calendar full of literary festivals, which bring global elites into contact with the glittering stars of World Lit.’… [S]candals about who gets to benefit from the celebration of a given work are willingly orchestrated and anticipated by writers, marketing departments, agents, editors, et cetera.
As Brouillette continues to argue, quoting theorists such as Emily Apter, Rebecca Walkowitz and the anti-establishment literary magazine n+1, this nexus of connected literary elite, creates a monoculture in writing, where we often see the same type of writing (literal, plot-driven, minimalist, etc.) that tends to erase difference and privileges certain global languages (mostly English though languages like Mandarin, Spanish, and French, are also important):
[This] writing is “born-translated,” in Rebecca Walkowitz’s terms, in that works of contemporary world literature “anticipate their own future in several literary geographies” (174). It wants to be read across borders, it wants to be included in lucrative international translation rights deals, it wants to be understood by people all around the world—people with the requisite cultural capital, that is—and it wants to be adapted for film. Complexities of style and language are deemphasized; the writing is flat; plot dominates.