This week marks the 13th edition of Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, one of Canada's premiere literary events. It will feature more than 200 writers, local and international (including legendary scribe and political warrior gore Vidal), who will read from their own works, engage in live discussions and answer questions from the public, in French, English and five other languages.
At the same time, Montreal writers have been international award-winning successes over the past several years - Yann Martel, Heather O'Neill, Rawi Hage and Louise Penny, to name but four.
But underlying the celebrations of the written word and the prizes there's a sense of some bitterness among Montreal's anglo lit community. It seems old complexes die hard. Is the argument that Montreal's anglo-lit community is unfairly overlooked or marginalized a valid one? Or is this another instance where certain stereotypical attributes - writers are whiners, just as they drink to procrastinate - are proved true? Or is this just another case of perceived Torontocentrism that seems to permeate all things Canadian?
A recent book by none other than Blue Met founder Linda Leith documents such long-standing and ongoing grievances in a coherent, cogent, tome. In her memoir, Writing in a Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis, Leith illustrates in meticulous detail how the rise of both Canadian and Quebec nationalism meant that Quebec writers working in English got squeezed out of the equation. "When people running festivals or putting together anthologies thought of Quebec," Leith says, "they thought of people writing in French."
In the late 1980s, Leith conducted extensive interviews with academics, journalists and critics - many Quebec-based - about English writers in Quebec. "They were in total disbelief at the question," she recalls now. "It was a staggering response. No one could come up with a good answer. The only name that would come up repeatedly was Mordecai Richler, and sometimes Trevor Ferguson." She adds: "As a reviewer, if you said you had read a Quebec book by an English writer that was really good, people would look at you with pity." This was Leith's overriding reason for starting the Blue Met Festival.
The last actual report gauging such sentiments was in 2005, when the Quebec Writers' Federation (launched specifically to help bolster the profiles of the province's anglo writers) hired author Mary Soderstrom to investigate. The report concluded that because of a "lack of brand recognition, Quebec's English-minority writers have a profile in the rest of Canada that is much lower than their accomplishments merit." But has anything changed? Six years later, QWF executive director Lori Schubert confirms that many in Montreal's anglo-lit milieu still feel the same way. "I hear that complaint a lot," she says.
While Schubert acknowledges that things have improved drastically for Montreal's anglo scribes, she says it's not due to changes in the rest of Canada, but rather the milieu's shift to "going international, getting noticed in the U.S. and Europe," rather than relying on Toronto publishers and media. Heather O'Neill's 2006 debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, for example, was released first by a U.S. publisher, to huge critical acclaim and recognition.
Lauded Montreal mystery novelist Louise Penny faced what she describes as "epic amounts of rejection" by Toronto publishers before her debut novel, Still Life, was simultaneously published in the United States and Britain to huge sales and multiple awards. "The Canadian publishers kept telling me that a mystery novel set in Canada would never work," Penny says, still sounding mystified. "It was heartbreaking. I was actually ready to give up and stick the manuscript under the bed, but then it took off internationally."
As to whether Montreal anglo writers get overlooked by the Toronto-based CanLit establishment, Penny is blunt: "I don't know, but I feel spectacularly lucky that I don't have to worry about the Canadian establishment."
Members of Toronto's publishing community have a different take. They say these sentiments are heard from across the country. "I guess I'm of the bah, humbug camp," says Martha Magor Webb, a literary agent (and Montreal native) with Toronto agent Anne McDermid & Associates. "We've seen some very well-recognized writers come out of Montreal recently. Given that it's a small community, number-wise, I think they have been very well represented. This sentiment is not specific to Montreal. I think writers who live outside of Toronto see those who do live here as somehow more plugged in socially. People in Vancouver and rural Ontario tend to feel they're missing out too."
"I've never heard of any conscious resistance to Quebec writers," says Lynn Henry, publishing director of Toronto-based Doubleday Canada. "Honestly, I don't think it's about handing out business cards at a cocktail party. It's about the quality of what comes across our desks. I worked with Rawi Hage at House of Anansi, for example."
But Marianne Ackerman, author of several books and founder of The Rover, a website dedicated to Montreal culture, insists that "Toronto has written off anglo Montreal. Why do publishers so rarely bring their authors here, when Montreal is arguably Canada's third-largest market for English-language books?" She offers up her own variation on the philosophical question: "If a tree falls in Montreal and nobody in Toronto looks up, did it really fall?"
Montreal poet and critic Katia Grubisic argues that the debate is "very much generational. Given the advent of electronic media, boundaries are blurred or even erased altogether. My generation wasn't born when Irving Layton was writing. I think there's a tendency for some to look back at that era, when Montreal's economy was huge and its writers were inventing modernity, with great longing. We're never going to have that back. When things aren't going well for writers, it's easy to find things to blame. I think posterity will take care of the pantheon."
Noah Richler, author of 2007's This is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, says Montreal's anglo writers are stricken with something: chronic grumbling and whining syndrome. "A huge amount of attention and envy has come Montreal's way. It's a great city to be a writer in. Do they realize how expensive it is to live in Toronto?"
Richler recalls a visit to Montreal more than a decade ago, when he was books editor for the National Post. "I would occasionally have a pub night out with my writers in Toronto. I tried the same thing in Montreal with remarkably different results. We went to a well-known anglo part of town to have some drinks. I think they viewed this as some sort of commercial imperialism. I thought I was in a parody of something; the room was full of bitter sourpusses. I kept thinking they should drink more. Eventually, I fled my own pub night and escaped to a francophone part of the city."
Ackerman says she had adopted a new sense of realism about the situation of anglo artists in Quebec: "We can no longer claim attention from Toronto any more than we might expect attention from, say, Chicago. Nobody whines about not getting phone calls or media coverage from Chicago … the temptation now is for Quebec anglo artists to write off Toronto."
Whether the ongoing complaints of a number of Montreal anglo writers are warranted, these grievances will get a room full of scribes complaining, so the perception of being collectively overlooked is definitely there. But finding empirical evidence is tricky, so the question remains: Is there a collective blind spot on the part of Toronto publishers or is this simply a Napoleonic complex?
Grubisic argues that being marginalized goes with the life of a writer, and that being connected to an establishment is always elusive for creative individuals.
"Being a poet, I basically feel on the margins wherever I go. People have the perception that writers in Toronto are having more fun, because that's where the parties are. But writing is hard no matter where you live."
The 13th annual Blue Metropolitan Literary Festival runs from April 27 to May 1. bluemetropolis.org