Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Military Secrets

In the same month that I read Louis Hamelin's stunning new novel, LA CONSTELLATION DU LYNX, whose plot dissects the layers of disinformation like bandages wrapping the mummified corpse of Labor Minister Pierre Laporte -- I also learned something else that didn't exactly shock me (I'm much too old for that) although it confirmed what I already sensed:

The RCMP is in charge of vetting judges for the annual Governor General's literary awards.

That's right. Before you can be chosen to decide which Canadians books and authors are deserving of the coveted $20,000 prize,you have to be "liked" by the men and women in funny red uniforms who always get their man ... and who have been implicated in numerous scandals since their early days

Nor was I surprised, because a while back I learned (accidentally, while browsing the Foreword to a novel by Ray Smith) that some of Canada's most powerful literary editors come from military backgrounds, ie the US army, Black Watch Regiment, and RAF.

I find this funny -- not "funny" as in "ROFLMAO" but funny as in "Whoah" -- is there a country in the free world which puts the police and military in charge of culture? Isn't this a policy we would expect from a dictatorship rather than a democracy? Are artists and writers made from the same material as soldiers? And if so, why wasn't I told that back in university when I signed up for my first creative writing seminar in fiction with Malcolm Foster?

Ray Smith's list was only partial, because it was a list of his personal friends who happened to all be ex-military men, as he is himself. I am sure there are plenty of other movers and shakers in the small, small world of Canadian publishing that have clearance from the police and military to mould our thinking. They may not be military types,exactly, but people like Anne Collins of Harper Collins (who played a fairy tale princess in a movie before she worked for Saturday Night and went on to head one of Canada's largest branch plant publishing firms) are clearly also involved in the selection process that ensures the book-buying public reads and knows mainly what our leaders want us to read and know.

I was reminded of the time, back in 1989, when I was asked to give a workshop in Kingston, Ontario, the home of the Governor General's awards and also of an important military base.

In 1989, a Kingston publisher, Quarry Press, had just brought out my first novel, and I was invited to speak at a "fiction conference" they had organized late in November. The conference itself turned out to be a fiction. Four people paid the hefty $900 fee to attend -- they were the "audience." The rest of us -- writers and editors -- were paid to be there. There were so few people in the room, I can name almost all of them: John Metcalf, Leon Rooke, Kent Thompson, Bob Hilderley, Geof Hancock, Charles Foran, David Helwig and his daughter Maggie, Douglas Glover, Diane Schoemperlein, Marilyn Mohr, Wayne Grady, and a few others including Robert Richard who was then head of Writing and Publishing at the Canada Council.

I was asked to talk about the Canadian Urban Novel, and because I am no academic, and had little time to prepare, I decided to improvise on Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. My talk was rambling and wide-ranging. I was not sure it made much sense. I focused on certain "visionary" passages, like the speech by the Old Indian Chief who advises Canadians to "dream their future." No critic that I know of has ever been able to make much sense of Beautiful Losers, so I was in good company. I talked about the effect the book had had on me, in my early twenties in Montreal, because it described a hallucinatory city populated by mental patients, deranged psychiatrists, abused orphans and aboriginal ghosts, lurking under the potholed pavement and decaying financial facades. It was contemporary, aimed at my generation, and long passages from it stuck in my mind as a call to awaken, rise up, take up arms against a secretive enemy. As I explained all this, I watched the faces of my audience, especially of the editors, and noticed they did not look pleased.

Later, some of them actually moved to Montreal -- it was hard not to notice this sudden influx, as they also took up the few positions available in Anglo journalism -- and over the next 5 to 10 years, it was clear they were very busy, networking at the Gazette, gradually turning Montreal's marginal literary scene into a depressing extension of the one in Toronto. Some people like being colonized, and they definitely had their supporters in high places. Soon, Montreal's Anglo elite were throwing their weight behind a literary scene they had ignored back in the days when it was just local, and more authentic.

All that happened 20 years ago - ancient history.

While the official Can Lit scene has moved into town and flourished in the sunlight, those of us who found ourselves more marginalized than ever, went deeper underground and took up research. And what we have learned from all this digging turns out to be very interesting.

One thing we know, that everyone needs to know, is the central role played by military intelligence in the creation of the cultural phenomenon known as Can Lit:
a topic that wold take some time to elaborate.

One thing we know about the military: they don't waste their time on trivia. If they're involved in our national publishing scene, to the point of even vetting competitions, there is a need for them to be there.

There has to be something to hide. And it has to be something big.

Hmm. Let me guess.


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