Sunday 13 November 2011

The Boys Of Summer : Summer Literary Seminars (2010)

[Encore presentation of an article originally published on The Rover June 18, 2010. Includes comments...]

Maybe we are, as Hanna Rosin argues in the current Atlantic, facing “The End of Men,” but I’m happy to announce that men are still alive and well and gazing into their (creative) navels here in Montreal. See the Summer Literary Seminars which kicked off earlier in the week at Concordia University.

At a cool two grand for tuition alone, the event is a little steep for my bank account, but I relish the opportunity to attend the free sessions this combination workshop/conference/bacchanal, brainchild of the redoubtably energetic Mikhail Iossel, has on offer. It’s the equivalent of mini literary festival. After over a decade of SLS St. Petersburg, Russia, Iossel, now professor of creative writing at Concordia, has expanded to Montreal.

Monday morning, I heard Joel Yanofsky speak about Mordecai Richler and Sherry Simon on language and translation. Fascinating stuff, if a little short on detail. (Asked by a Torontonian how many Montreal Anglos there are, Simon refused to hazard a response: “It depends on who you ask,” she kept saying. “It’s all so political.” Spoken like a true academic.)

Then post-modern fabulist Robert Coover delivered a pretty dreary lecture on a Brown University project he participates in called CAVE: Computer Audio Visual Environment. Basically, a 3D immersion in sound, image and text.

Which had me thinking: if this is the future, writing is already dead.

Thursday, Joel Yanofsky offered a second lecture, “Confessions of a Literary Stalker.” Mostly about Mordecai and Joel Yanofsky and Yann Martel and Joel Yanofsky—okay, let’s face it, Joel Yanofsky basically writes about people who have talked with Joel Yanofsky (that’s why it’s called personal writing)!

And, to be sure, Yanofsky is clever and self-deprecatingly amusing enough to carry it off. Describing the process that led to his becoming obsessed with Richler, Yanofsky started off with his foray into teaching grade 7 and 8 students 30 hours-worth of personal writing. He asked them to write about something they were expert at, but quickly discovered the kids preferred their peers’ stories about things they had flubbed, as opposed to aced. (Remember, “if it’s happy, it’s not literature.”) Which sat very well with a belief of Yanofsky’s crystallized in an interview with Brian Moore some years back. Moore had been inspired by some other writer’s first novel, a novel “so bad, it inspired him to write his own.”

The bad novel, which Moore would never name, turned out, according to William Weintraub, to be Mordecai Richler’s “The Acrobats.”

Proof that “We do what we do for all the wrong reasons,” according to Yanofsky, meaning writers are partly (wholly?) motivated by envy and the art of one-up-manship. Yanofsky went on to discuss what writers desire most deeply—“to make a splash. And we’ll settle for a little one if we can’t make a big one.” Writing as pissing contest (piss splashes, doesn’t it?). Or as male display behaviour. My terms, of course.

During the course of the Yanofsky entertainment—and, there’s no denying, fun to listen to he is—his discourse was peppered with allusions to a number of other illustrious writers: Orwell, David Gilmour, Martin Amis (who apparently expressed some concern about Yanofsky’s mental health), Kingsley Amis, E.M. Forster, Henry James, Ingmar Bergman, Nicholson Baker, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Mark Harris, Paul Theroux (followed immediately by V.S. Naipaul, needless to say), J.D. Salinger, Jeff Dyer, D.H. Lawrence, Guy Vanderhaeghe, James Joyce, (noticing a pattern yet, by any chance? Anyone? Anyone??), and finally, Yann Martel. Since Yanofsky’s writing is a hybrid of stand-up and confessional, we were treated to the tale of his totally cringe-worthy episode on the eve of the awarding of the Booker for “Life of Pi,” a novel, Yanofsky admitted, he hadn’t bothered to finish and apparently was invited to dis live on television immediately following the Booker announcement—“I could either be bitter and envious or a suck-up,” Yanofsky said. “Those were my choices.”

I love listening to Yanofsky—I’ve read all of his books, two-thirds of them years before I’d met him. But he apparently doesn’t seem to consider a single woman writer from Canada worth mentioning.

To bend over backward in the fairness department, Carole Shields’ name did come up, but only in the context of the Booker shortlist.

Next up were Jon Paul Fiorentino and David McGimpsey, discussing contemporary Montreal literature, and moderated by Alessandro Porco (who graduated from Concordia’s writing program and now teaches in Buffalo). Some time was spent examining the definition of “Montreal writer”: those born and raised here who have stayed or left, those who moved here and stayed, those who moved here and left (e.g. post-degree), those who took a wrong turn on the 401 and wrote a suicide note, etc. Turns out that, by the panel’s standards, just about anyone who dallied in Montreal for more than five minutes (long enough to ingest a poutine or take a flyer on a Bixi) is entitled to moniker himself “a Montreal writer.” Though why someone who spent a couple of years in a degree program and then high-tailed it ASAP would want to be considered a Montreal writer is anyone’s guess.

You will perhaps be pleased to learn Montreal writing is also now moving past the era of Leonard Cohen, and that reading Richler is no longer de rigueur (McGimpsey mentioned this as though it was a good thing). At least, during this segment, which sounded more like an ad for Concordia’s creative writing program than anything else, a couple of women’s names were actually—amazingly!—uttered: Heather O’Neill’s name twice, Zoe Whittall once.

At least McGimpsey was man enough to mention the mass exodus of Anglos in the years that followed the first election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976, and made reference to the political situation between French and English, which is, episodically, fractious.

Later in the day, an actual woman—Alana Cox—was due to “own the podium,” as we Canadians like to say. At least, she was to be part of a discussion on the state of Canadian publishing. But I had had enough. Between them, Yanofsky, Fiorentino and McGimpsey had clearly established that writing in Montreal is a boys club anon—if not an old boys club—and I decided to leave the auditorium to attend to an episode of the vapours.

Beverly Akerman is a Pushcart-nominated Montreal writer (born and always lived here variety). Nineteen of her stories are published or in press, one of them a finalist for the Hoffer Award/Best New Writing 2011. Her unpublished collection “The Meaning of Children” just won the David Adams Richards Prize.

The Summer Literary Seminar’s free panels and lectures continue through June 27.

For more on women and writing in Montreal and Canada, check out:


Comments (8)

The irony here Bev is that men are not the readers of fiction. I had one literary agent recently tell me that she thought she would have a hard time shopping my MANuscript around because she couldn't imagine the ladies of the book club recommending it to each other.
1 reply · active less than 1 minute ago
that should have read WRITE and CONSUME most fiction...seems i need my own personal copy editor...
i bet women read and consume most fiction--and i'm talking commercial, genre and literary. yes, maybe we should start calling them WOMANuscripts.
Cynthia Hartwig's avatar

Cynthia Hartwig · 72 weeks ago

Hi Bev. I didn't see your comments on the Rover until this evening (Friday) after doing a Mordecai Richler move of shit stirring on the SLS Facebook page where I decried the lack of female participation at SLS. You ain't seen the half of it. 2 women, Sina Queyras and Elizabeth Bachinsky, were workshop leaders along with 8 men (Kevin Canty, Padgett Powell, Martin Estrada, Patrick Leroux, Louis Sachar, Josip Novakovich, Chuck Klosterman, Mac Wellman). Seventeen women either read or presented at the 2-week long seminar while over thirty men presented. Mike Spry had the gall on Facebook to say that he's never heard such a complaint and cited the fact that most of the volunteers who do the work of SLS (all unpaid!) are women. Does the emperor have no clothes? I will say one weird thing happened, though. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes commentary from the women attendees at SLS about the sexist programming, especially when the little boys club of Klosterman, Fiorentino, Gimpsey, Orti, and some volunteer wannabe named Gonzalo read work that celebrated either banging or bonging. However, when I raised the issue on Facebook, no women commented in public. They were happy to complain in private but silent in a public forum. Maybe they're afraid the little scraps the boys club throws them will not be offered if they misbehave. I don't care. Yanofsky came across as an enlightened man by comparison.
Jon Paul Fiorentino's avatar

Jon Paul Fiorentino · 72 weeks ago

Hello, Beverly

I originally was not going to post this, but it's been eating away at me since your article was published. I sent it to you privately, but received no response:

The picture you paint of the new Montreal writing discussion is inaccurate. The point I was trying to make is that there are many wonderful books that have been written IN Montreal, by writers who may or may not view themselves as Montreal writers. Although I feel that my contribution to the discussion was regrettably terse and inarticulate -- I am not a morning person -- I did mention quite a few new 'Montreal' women writers: Katrina Best, Kate Hall, Sachiko Murakami (who is now Toronto-based, but whose fantastic book of poetry, The Invisibility Exhibit, is a book concerning the poetics of Vancouver and it could only have been written in Montreal), Zoe Whittall, and yes, Heather O'Neill. It occurs to me know that I spoke of the work of Sina Queyras as well -- how she is ours now and we are so lucky to have her, but how she can't be pinned down with a civic label. I also mentioned Montreal scholar Karis Shearer, whose absence from the panel was definitely felt and whose work on new conceptions of literary feminism is, in my opinion, essential -- see the "New Feminisms" issue of Matrix Magazine for a glimpse of what she is up to. So that's Best, Hall, Murakami, Whittall, O'Neill, and Shearer. The men I mentioned were the late Robert Allen, Louis Dudek, George Bowering (through an anecdote told to me by Karis Shearer), Jason Camlot, and Nick McArthur. This was, I remind you, a brief and obviously incomplete discussion of what's happening right now in Montreal writing.

I also think you have misrepresented David's point about having to read Richler. His point was, that it's entirely conceivable for a "Montreal writer" to have great literary success without having read Richler. It is not desirable, but it is reality. I think we both even agreed that this hypothetical writer would obviously be well served, and a better writer for having read Richler. But much like I know certain poets who haven't read Shakespeare's sonnet sequence and still manage to "thrive" as practitioners, I know there are "Montreal writers" who haven't read Richler. It's not cool but it is a condition in the real world. If you looked closely, you may have noticed that David was holding a copy of Barney's Version throughout the discussion.

It's sad to note, also, you get the name wrong of the "actual woman" you mention. Alana Cox was not at SLS. Alana Wilcox did participate and is a tireless editor and publisher with a dedication to women's writing. She is the English language editor of Gail Scott and Nicole Brossard -- two of my favourite Montreal writers.

I am the proud publisher and/or editor of books by Angela Carr, Zoe Whittall, Melissa Thompson, Sarah Dowling, Chandra Mayor, Kim Minkus, Sarah Steinberg, Anne Stone, and Katrina Best. As the editor of Matrix, I am proud of the many women writers we have published over its 35 years and most recently in issues like our "New Feminisms" issue, edited by Melanie Bell and Karis Shearer. It's one of my personal favourites. A quick look at David's work at Joyland and Punchy reveals an impressive list of women writers, including you!

In the end, I would have done some things differently on that panel you attended. There were some regrettable omissions, and some poorly phrased sentiments and ruminations on my part. But I think it's unfair to characterize that panel as having participated in some sort of boys' club mentality.
1. Alana "Cox" was clearly a typo, for which I apologize. Looking at it more closely, I see it may have been what my Mom would call a Freudian slip...given the wider subject under discussion.

2. Most of the women writers you cited were tossed off from a list of theses in an appendix of a book by Jason Camlot, as I recall.

3. Cynthia Hartwig (thanks so much for your comment!! And please, FB me!) proves you have a problem over at Mission Control, Houston.

4. Until women can stand up for themselves in public, as Cynthia points out, things will never change.

5. And, while I have your attention, what would a Montreal-based winner of the Litpop contest win?
Jon Paul Fiorentino's avatar

Jon Paul Fiorentino · 71 weeks ago

Hi Beverly,

2. three of the seven women writers I mentioned appear in the theses appendix of Language Acts -- a great book about Quebec Anglo poetry since 1976, edited by Jason Camlot and Todd Swift. and i used that as a starting point for a discussion about books composed in Montreal vs. Montreal books... something i discussed at length. like Sachiko's poetic sensibility in her book about Vancouver's missing women (The Invisibility Exhibit) has been informed greatly by living in Montreal and being part of our community...

5. a Montreal based writer would receive an additional stipend. the accommodations could still be used. there's nothing like a vacation in Montreal!
Hi Jon Paul

What I wrote was my perception of the event. I didn't answer your FB message because I didn't think I had to justify or explain myself: what I saw and described are pretty clear, I think. SLS invited the public and I was grateful for the opportunity. I came as an open minded observer but I sat there over a couple of days, my eyebrows rising higher and higher. Put any spin on it you feel is required, what I wrote is my perception (though I will say it was the way others of the female persuasion who were there saw it, also). SLS is noticeably Y-chromosome-centric, as my piece and Cynthia Hartwig's comments make clear. You can tell me that some of your best friends are women (and what's wrong with the "old" feminism, by the way?) until the cows come home. Doesn't change a thing.

And all the (unpaid) interns were female? There's a word for that, I think. Perhaps it's harem.

Consider yourself lucky I didn't write the second installment on Trice & Treisman--"The Ladies of Summer," I would have called it. I especially loved Deborah's response to the question about whether she thought the quality of the submissions she was seeing had improved over the past decade or so, what with the deluge of newly minted MFAs and all.

"Hmm," she said. "How can I put this without offending anyone?" Oopsy!


  1. In 2017, this discussion takes on a whole new meaning. Thanks for reposting.

  2. Er, that would be 2018! Darn you, New Year!