Wednesday 23 June 2010

The Boys of Summer

Maybe we are, as Hanna Rosin argues in the current Atlantic, facing “The End of Men,” but I’d like to announce that men are 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 blood, 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, just what this city needs as it girds its loins for the upcoming music and laugh-fests. 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. (Despite repeated requests by a Torontonian that she clarify how many Montreal Anglos and Allos there actually are, Simon refused to answer. “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 that 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 (I guess that’s why it’s called personal writing)! And, to be sure, he 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, Philip Roth, 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 I can't tell you how disappointed I was to discover he apparently doesn’t seem to consider a single woman writer from Canada worth mentioning.

Okay, maybe I can.

To bend over backward in the fairness department, Carole Shields’ name did surface, 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 I had better leave the auditorium and 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:

(a version of this post was originally published on The Rover, Montreal's Online Arts Magazine)