September 14th 2018

Today, The Globe and Mail published a piece (for subscribers only) by Russell Smith called “CanLit versus its scholars.” In it, Smith discusses two subjects related to writing in Canada. The first, that bestselling Canadian author Iain Reid didn’t attend a university creative writing program; the second, the upcoming Canadian Literature Symposium at Carleton University (initiated by Jennifer Blair and Jody Mason) calling for papers that “analyze the literary cultures of Canada / of Indigenous nations within the boundaries of Canada in relation to past and present institutions.”

Of his reader, Smith asks these questions:

Smith employs the words “monstrously” and “epidemic” rhetorically, since nowhere will you find them in the actual conference description. He uses “monstrously” to qualify “oppressive,” a form of which you will find in the conference description, as Blair and Mason pose their own question: “If social oppression is linked to structural inequalities, how have the local, regional, national, and global institutions that have mediated the literary in Canada entrenched or resisted those inequalities?”

Smith’s use of the words “monstrously” and “epidemic” is a deflecting tactic. The question of the conference is by all accounts levelheaded. Various social and economic stats of women, LGBTQIA folks and BIPOC show us every day that oppression does indeed exist.¬†Certainly Smith isn’t arguing against that?

By overblowing the question of the conference, he makes the questioners themselves appear melodramatic, or even hysterical, and therefore easy to dismiss. We’ve seen it before, and I’m sure we’ll see it again.

Smith employs a similar rhetorical device when he calls it a “ludicrous hyperbole” for Blair and Mason to describe Canada’s schools of creative writing as having “entrenched cultures of sexual violence.”

A ludicrous hyperbole? But how can that be, when in fact two of Canada’s most famed writing schools (University of British Columbia and Concordia) have in the last two years either terminated or suspended professors facing allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment?

Maybe it’s the word “entrenched” with which Smith takes issue. One meaning of the word is “difficult to change.” If Smith thinks it’s easy to change the culture that allows sexual violence to occur within creative writing schools, I’m here to tell him, it is not. Ironically, the Globe and Mail giving platform to his opinion that so recklessly diminishes the complaints of victims is proof of that.

Smith ends his piece with a declarative statement: “The scholars of Canadian Literature are not very interested in books.”

How he knows this with such grave certainty, I’m not sure. Maybe he has access to each of their bookshelves and reading habits. Maybe he is privy to their conversations at book clubs. Maybe he follows them to bookstores. Maybe he can see into their heart of hearts. Maybe he knows something I don’t: that one’s interest in dismantling structural barriers to publishing has an inverse relationship to one’s interest in books.

Or maybe he just thinks that every conference should be about people who look and write like him. Oh, and Iain Reid, I guess?