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The view from table
19 - The National Forum on the Literary
Arts, hosted by the Canada Council for the Arts, February 14-15, 2014,
In 1927 poet F. R. Scott wrote a strange and dyspeptic poem
about what happens when literary types meet. In The Canadian Authors Meet he characterises them as puppets that
“percolate self-unction” and who only meet to plan “More ways to set the
selfsame welkin ringing.”
I’m not sure what Scott would have made of this gathering
had he somehow managed to time travel and spend 2 days with these writers,
publishers, editors, storytellers, agents, librarians, academics, and bureaucrats
from all across Canada. If there was any “unction” in the room I think it would
be closer to the kind that Catholics call “extreme” - as in the blessing formerly
known as “the last rites” that are typically given when someone is failing
fast. (Publishers call these "last rights" but that's another story...) Twice in plenary sessions, participants heard a solemn warning about
imminent demise. “We are in a crisis… the potential loss of what we have to
offer: the place of literature within our culture. It’s the loss of our base -
readers, our profession, writers, and publishers. We have to face this major
crisis.” That was the perspective shared on two occasions by the Patsy Aldana,
the doyenne of Canadian children’s publishing. She was applauded both time.
In many ways, though, her comments were seen by some as the thundering
of the old guard in a room where the energy and commentary had already gone
digital with a new generation of innovative publishing professionals. For many
members of the digitally comfortable group the forum was a place to frame the
issue of “crisis” as more of an opportunity to reinvent every link in the chain
of literary production and dissemination. Along the way, everyone in the room,
regardless of their stance or history, was being challenged to rethink the
purpose, the what, and the how of all the things we do in the name of writing
and publishing. One intervener challenged participants to put the language of a
cultural industry to one side and to contemplate our work as a mission to
create literature “as a space for social justice.”
Canada’s publishing industry is, without question, seriously
in trouble in both of Canada’s official languages, with failing bookstores, the
voraciousness of Indigo/Archambault/Amazon and an economic model that is unstable
if not completely unsustainable. (Is there any other business model where
“returns” are a fundamental component of the marketplace?) This was the
perilous common ground shared by everyone in the room. English language and
French language participants alike continued to surprise each other with the
familiarity of what was being said. The more we spoke and listened to each
other the clearer it became that we are all caught up in the midst of a major
industrial/cultural shift where “business as usual” stopped being an option
more than a decade ago.
Before we arrived at the forum we were asked to think about
our work in four thematic areas.
For the 2-day forum we were grouped in a large room with 25
tables, each with 10 participants, one of whom was a member of the planning
committee for the event and had been designated as a facilitator. After an hour
of focused table conversation and prioritization for each of these four themes,
the facilitators left the room to prepare two summary documents, one in English
and the other in French. A spokesperson then presented these summaries to the
entire group with simultaneous translation. The Canada Council for the Arts
will create a final report on all the flip charts, stick-it notes, summaries, trends,
issues, and priorities that were so vital to these discussion and plenary sessions.
In between these four facilitated sessions we heard keynote
presentations. Richard Nash from Byliner, a U.S. based digital subscription
reading service, gave his keynote from the departure lounge at La Guardia
Airport in New York via the Internet because his plane had been cancelled because
of bad weather. Using a digital intermediary was very appropriate given his
online experience and his topic, The
Business of Literature and the Algorithms of Culture. He provided a
compressed history of the changing role of the writer from “trained scribal
labourer” to “inventor of genius” to “industrial participant” in a business
that innovates only on the supply but not the demand side of the commercial equation.
He stressed that greater problems arise in situations of excess rather from
situations of shortage (Too many books and publishers). His final comment was a
challenge to those in the traditional publishing industries to see our business
as that of supporting culture (in all its digital excesses) rather than as a
business for the selling of objects. “That’s not the end.”
On the second day, CBC/Radio Canada’s director general for
regional services, Patricia Pleszczynska, gave a keynote about the public
broadcaster’s role in the support of the written and spoken word and with the
goal of attracting more and more audiences on all platforms – on-air and
online. She was unfailingly diplomatic in a room that was of the opinion that
CBC/Radio Canada has achieved higher ratings at the expense of serious critical
content and with a shift in focus to a celebrity driven, life-style approach.
She smiled like a seasoned politician and congratulated everyone in the room
for their commitment and professionalism. Then we had coffee.
At the end of each day’s sessions, Kelly Wilhelm, head of
Policy, Planning and Partnerships at the Canada Council for the Arts gave a
remarkably incisive overview of the things that she had seen and heard as she
walked around the room during all the working sessions. Both times her concise
observations resonated strongly in the room.
On Day One she identified these threads:
The creative explosion that all the participants
are in the midst of
The democratization of culture that is being
driven primarily by technology
An iffy appreciation from the public about the place
and value of creation
New forces in the marketplace that call for the
protection of certain niches
Canada’s literary sector that struggles with
sustainability despite of its renowned abilities to do more with less.
Then she explained how these five threads had an impact on:
Creators - by calling on them to re-imagine a new type of
creative career given the limitations of “just” writing when a more public
performance type of encounter is increasingly important
Gatekeepers (publishers, curators) -who must decide what gets to market and in what form from a bewildering array
Relationships within the publishing
sector/industry -the ecosystem of literary expression in the digital environment. For example
how do publishers and self-published authors collaborate?
The “products” we create - especially as we move from
the production of an object to the staging of an event
The role of the artist - in creating and
responding to this new Canadian literary “scene”
Access and Copyright laws -their need to keep up with the pace of change
A publishing industry that is struggling to
catch up with something - an industry/sector that is not
leading this transition.
This certainly captured the threads that I heard on day one.
Her observations on the dynamic in the room during Day Two
were no less “on the mark.” The overarching image was that of the publishing
industry’s “supply chain” crisis. These
were the six threads she isolated in her attempt at “sense making” as she
described it, given all the things she heard during the sessions day.
The tensions between professional, critical
standards and the push for a more democratized critical voice (professional
critics versus “likes”)
The move toward “smart” dissemination as
publishers try to match audiences with specific works
The industry’s commitment and innovations in
finding and keeping new audiences for the work
The proliferation of new kinds of publishing and
The challenge of finding/keeping adequately
trained human resources in a rapidly changing system
The need for policy, regulation, and funding
that keeps pace with it all
She concluded her summary by
identifying three important themes for follow up, building on three blocks,
Strength, Sustainability, and Research.
Strengths: Building on the evident strengths
represented by the people in the room
Sustainability: Ensuring a balance between a
policy driven and a sales driven industry
Appropriate research and knowledge-sharing on
all fronts so that everyone benefits.
And now we all wait for the “official version” of the Forum.
Back to the F. R. Scott. On the second day of the Forum,
Stuart Ross the poet and who was also at Table 19, circulated a decidedly
non-Scott like poem entitled Poem
Beginning with a Line by Gillian Jerome, with the line
You read in me. I’m glad you read
Equally glad, I think, were the 239 professional colleagues joining
him in that room.
I was joined at Table 19 by JoAnn McCaig of Freehand Books
and Shelf Life Books in Alberta, Suzanne Norman a member of faculty at Simon
Fraser University’s publishing programme, Michael Kusugak a story-teller and
author and originally from Rankin Inlet, Stuart Ross the poet from Cobourg,
Ontario, Julia Kater the publisher/editor of the Montreal Review of Books and
representing the Association of English Language Publishers in Quebec, Judith
Silverthorne the Regina-based author and representative of the Saskatchewan
Writer’s Guild, Joanna Poblocka of the League of Canadian Poets based in
Toronto, Vanessa Moeller of the New Brunswick Arts Board, Jamis Paulson of Winnipeg’s
Turnstone Press, and yours truly. These comments, and observations, however,
are very much my own.
From top to bottom:
1) The Forum is about to start
2) Arash Mohtashami-Maali, Head of Writing and Publishing, Canada Council for the Arts welcomes the participants
3) Richard Nash give his keynote from a departure lounge.
4) Table 19, l to r: Suzanne Norman, Michael Kusugak, Stuart Ross, KPB, Judith Silverthorne, Julia Kater, JoAnne McCaig, Jamis Paulson. (Not in this photo: Vanessa Moeller and Joanna Poblocka)