Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Out here on the uncharted spiral arm of the great golden Horseshoe, I've just got wind of all of the ugliness going down recently in certain parts of the Toronto literary scene, and in particular, some ad hominem nastiness.

I have always appreciated the enthusiasm, creativity, commitment, intelligence, and lively centre that the Toronto scene has represented for me since I first moved to Toronto and enrolled at York University when I was 17.

Heck, in my first creative writing class I had Kevin Connolly, Jason Sherman, Julia Steinecke, and Cathy Steadman. And, oh yeah, bpNichol was teaching. Stu Ross was over at the school paper typesetting while having discussions with people. Frank Davey, in my second year, suggested that I head down with a little chapbook I'd made to the forerunner of "The Toronto Small Press Fair," which was called "Meet the Presses" and which Nick Power and Stu Ross had organized. It was a discovery of community for me. Of writers who became my peers and who inspired me. Of writers who introduced me to worlds of writing, publishing, and ideas. There was lots of writers whose writing I didn't really like. I had lots of discussions, but I don't remember anything being nasty, bilious, or vitriolic.

The goal of criticism is to be insightful not spiteful. It is to inspire more informed and better writing. It is to open up the possibilities and to engage the issues. Arguments should be won through intelligent discussion. And I don't buy the idea that anyone, no matter how brilliant or convinced of their correctness, should consider themselves the arbitor of "objective" quality. It doesn't exist.

This doesn't mean that everything is entirely relative. One can articulate one's preferences, one's strongly held aesthetics. The discussion doesn't have to be namby-pamby, where everyone gets blandly patted on the back. But what has to be implicit is everyone's right to respect, to their own right to try to create what they value, to their own right to succeed or fail as best as they can.

Hurtful, boorish, bullying behaviour isn't the same as clear-eyed, forthright, articulate, and courageous criticism. I'm objectively sure of that.

One can "pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps." One can also "hang oneself."

But I don't believe in pariahs. Even if someone want to be. It's just not helpful. For anyone.


Once, when my wife was pregnant, she went to see the Doctor. The doctor examined her and then he pronounced, "Dear, you've got an infection in your woman's parts."
"Oh," my wife exclaimed. "You mean my brain?"


Razovsky said...

Excellent post, Gary. From pro-respect to anti-pariah.


rox. said...

"insiteful not spiteful." spot on. thanks for the estute universal critical perspective. last but not least, thanks for reminding us of the importance of community and the potential for healing, growth, and inclusion. buddhaful.

dfb said...

i meant to respond to this earlier but i’ve been busy, killing puppies. but as i remember there was a reading at “meet the presses” where the reader was heckled off the stage
by stu's hero Jim Smith (so it was ok). heckled right out the room, the guy packed up and left, and there was lots of little fights and name calling too.

but there was a difference too, people stood behind there books, literally. you made it you stood behind the fucking table. no grant presses with jobs and a big diversity in style and quality of stapler

but still mostly white and mostly male

gary barwin said...


I don't remember the Jim Smith incident or the other stuff -- but I can certainly believe those kind of incidents occurred. Few communities are without discord. Still, at least in my memory and experience, the whole venture was almost completely positive.

You make an excellent point about "people standing behind their books." Things function very differently when people are face to face and/or within a particular social context as opposed to blogs, emails, and listserves.

This also connects to your other point. You're also right about "Meet the Presses" being mostly white and mostly male, at least as I recollect it. There were certainly women that were a very important part of it, but I think there was a predominance of white males. My impression of The Toronto Small Press Fair is that it isn't so now, particularily with regard to women. It'd be interested to see some stats/anecdotal accounts of the Fair and "the scene."

You've been killing puppies? Cool. I've a puppy farm and we seem to have a surplus.