Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stand up for the Writers Festival

photo by Pearl Pirie
I worked the Writers Festival again this fall (last week, October 20-25.) Since I had to leave the team last winter, it's been a bit of a comfort that they can still bring me back for the week of the Festival to deal with driving and some logistics help and general backstageiness. Really, I feel like even if I had a regular nine to five job I would bank up my personal days to take that week off and work for the Festival.

Every time I do, I remember how exhausting it is, how hectic, and how very, very cool. By a few days in I'm fighting fatigue but still managing to sit in on events, come up to the hospitality suite afterward to talk to people, and get myself home in time to wake up early and do it all over again...

And then there are the amazing guests and the conversations that happen on stage. One evening I walked in to the back of a jammed room and on the stage were Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi and Miriam Toews. I stopped for a moment: sure, I knew about the session, but the full weight of the names in it hadn't quite hit me until I saw them up there chatting with Mike Blouin. The session about love with Kevin Chong, Ann Enright and David Gilmour was about as good an onstage as I've seen.

I have huge admiration for the Festival team for pulling this thing together season after season with the resources and manpower they've got. But that's the thing. They do this - two nationally recognized and acclaimed Festivals a year - with a grand total of three full time staff, a few temporary contracts, and a part-time position. IFOA has thirteen people listed as staff on their website. Vancouver International Writers Festival has twenty. And do note - those festivals run once a year only.

Do you see a bit of a disparity here? What's going on? Twice a year, the Ottawa Writers Festival team pull minor (and not so minor) miracles off; with a fraction - literally a fraction - of the staff and funding of other festivals across the country. In what way is this fair, or appropriate for the capital of the country and a city that has produced some of Canada's finest writers?

I'm adding my voice here to those of people like rob mclennan and Amanda Earl, who have written, on a regular basis, about the mystifying lack of support Ottawa seems to get for the arts. I hear, every Festival, that the literary community in Ottawa can't really imagine the year without the Festivals, how much they look forward to them each spring and fall, how impressed they are with the work that Sean and Neil and Kira and Leslie have been doing to put the Festival together for fifteen years now. Every so often I hear someone talk about how amazing it is that they do what they do with what they have - but not nearly often enough. This is our Festival, and I think we need to stand up for it. Be proud of it.

I think there needs to be more noise made in support of the Festival. People who go, as members of the audience or as participants on stage, and who enjoy it - especially the members of the literary community with some name recognition - should write letters of support (send them to whoever you like, but cc the Festival; they use them in applications for funding.) David Gilmour did, a few years ago, and there was response. If they can do what they do with the funding and manpower they have now, just imagine what they'd be capable of if they were given funding commensurate with the work they do. Funding equal to what other festivals get.

Because this last Festival was really great., by any measure. I can only imagine how good it would be if, like VIWF, they had the staff to make it even greater.

(Incidentally, do you know who's still coming to town through the Writers Festival this fall? Wade Davis, Niall Ferguson, and Steven Pinker. Yeah.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It's that time of year again: The ottawa small press fair is nearly upon us!

The New Quarterly's table at the book fair...
For a lot of people, there’s something deeply satisfying about browsing through tables loaded with stuff you just can’t find anywhere else.  There’s just something cool about it: you think of flipping through vinyl at a record store looking for that rare find, or being part of the 'in crowd' before the rest of the world catches on to the next big thing.

And then there are people who love small presses because, face it, almost every writer starts in a small magazine, or with a chapbook, or even by publishing themselves. (For example, H.P. Lovecraft, the famed horror writer and author of The Call of Cthulhu, was a prolific self-publisher of small press chapbooks, newspapers and journals, under a multitude of pen names.) All those different forms of the small-to-micro-press lover will be in attendance at the fall edition of the Ottawa Small Press Fair on November 5th.

Started in 1994 by Ottawa poet rob mclennan and his colleague James Spyker, the Small Press Fair has evolved and grown over the last 17 years. Spyker is no longer involved with the fair, but it has been faithfully nurtured by mclennan and has steadily grown in popularity. As a university poet many (many) moons ago, I remember bringing the hand-photocopied and stapled books I’d produced for the Carleton English Literature Society to the fair, and later attending with Dusty Owl Press: our biggest publication was the novella Tattoo This Madness In, by Montreal writer Daniel Allen Cox, who went on to garner nominations for the Lambda Award for his novels Krakow Melt and Shuck, and for the ReLit Award for Shuck. Which just goes to show, you never know what future award winner’s work may be on the tables at the small press fair.

The fair usually contains exhibitors with poetry books, novels, cookbooks, posters, t-shirts, graphic novels, comic books, magazines, scraps of paper, gum-ball machines with poems, 2x4s with text, etc; vendors at previous events have included Bywords, Dusty Owl, Chaudiere Books, above/ground press, Room 302 Books, The Puritan, The Ottawa Arts Review, Buschek Books, The Grunge Papers, Broken Jaw Press, BookThug, Proper Tales Press, and others. It’s a great place to pick up brand-new literature at a bargain price, to discover your new favorite local artist, and to meet others in the literary community. Besides, you get to poke through piles of bleeding-edge, cool, local writing!

The small press fair’s fall edition will be held on November 5th at the Jack Purcell Community Centre, room 203, on Jack Purcell Lane (just off Elgin Street), from 11:00 to 5:00 pm (and if you stick around till 5:00, there’s usually a traditional mass-exodus to the James Street Pub for drinks and bookish conversation afterward.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

SF and Atwood and me

This weekend my dad sent me a link to this article from the Globe on Margaret Atwood, and then this morning on Q Jian Ghomeshi interviewed her about her new book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. I saw the book on the new release shelf during my shift at Perfect Books last week, too, and meant to take a look at it, but then wound up busy with other things.

These recent interviews have been making me think, again, about Atwood and SF (and, as my dad said, more favorably.) But there's still something about her take on speculative fiction versus science fiction that bugs me. In her interview on Q today, she said, again, that she defends that distinction because she doesn't want someone to pick up a book expecting one thing - rayguns and aliens, for example - and get something else - say, Winston Smith or Offred.

Well, why not? I've picked up books expecting a YA fantasy and actually gotten adult magical realism. And vice versa. And I've been fine with that. Lots of people pick up what looks like a mystery and get a crime thriller. When I opened Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, I was expecting fantasy/horror, and in fact got more or less realistic fiction. (Except for the weird bit with the alien cars.) The owner of Perfect Books picked up David Gilmour's latest book expecting it to be like other Gilmour books he'd read, and it wasn't. I don't see what Atwood's aversion to people reading something unexpected is.

Unless - and I think this is why I'm uncomfortable with her argument - she's implying that one is more valid, or worthwhile, or important. Because really, her distinction - that science fiction deals with things that are unlikely to happen, while speculative fiction deals with things that could possibly come to pass - also carries that implication; that the one is entertainment only, and the other has more intellectual or philosophical value.

But I don't see that H. G. Wells talking about the ultimate division of the human race into indolent rulers and troglodyte workers is less of a comment about our social structures than Winston Smith being watched by his television and controlled by fascism. It's just that one has a scientifically improbable time machine and the other takes place in the future without the intervention of a narrative gadget. Neil Gaiman said that all SF was playing 'let's pretend,' and that you can go higher and see further by playing 'let's pretend.' Let's pretend that England is invaded by an absolutely destructive enemy. What would the mass exodus of London look like? That's what I feel The War of the Worlds is actually about. Not octopoid aliens in metal capsules. They're just the reason for the collapse of order (remember, Wells was writing well before the kind of absolute destruction the 20th century brought us was even imaginable.) Same for the zombies in World War Z. What's scary is the description - the believeable description - of the fall of our infrastructures, our social orders, our security, and the ways in which the end could sneak up while we're all going about our daily business. Lemonade sellers around the crater where the killer aliens have landed. A protagonist who can really do nothing but run and hide and hope to survive.

Or let's pretend that there is an androgynous society out there. What would that look like? Let's pretend that America is taken over by a radical fundamentalist theocracy and women lose all the rights they've fought for for centuries. Let's pretend that there's a way to live permanently on a submarine, completely self-sufficient and cut off from the rest of the world. How would you do that? The Enterprise, the TARDIS and the Stargate aren't the point of the story: they're a means of getting to the story. The Dispossessed takes place on another planet, yes, and the people in it are not human. That doesn't mean that it isn't a game of 'let's pretend someone actually created an anarchist society: what would that look like? Would it work?'

But hey, that's just me, and far be it from me to argue with Margaret Atwood of all people. Having read and heard some of what she has to say about this latest collection, I certainly feel like I understand more of why she says the things she says about speculative and science fiction. I like that she goes back far enough to distinguish "novels" from "romances." (Novels being 'realistic' and romances being 'fantastic.') I like that she's even bringing back "romance" in its old definition; that is, a wonder tale. Frankenstein was called "a scientific romance," right? But then to go back to "romances" and "wonder tales" and claim a strict division from thenceforward between probable and improbable settings ...  it still feels to me like there's a value judgement buried under that.