Oct 21, 2014 - Literary, Politics

Swans Talks Literature and Politics at the Sino-Canada Literary Forum

Organized by the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo, at Renison University College, October 25, 2014

sino-canada
Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and Our Environment

On October 25, 2014, I’m talking at the University of Waterloo which is hosting an international literary symposium entitled “A Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and our Environment”.

The main theme of the symposium will be an exploration of the intersection of literature and environment in Chinese and Canadian literature. Topics of discussion include literature and the urban environment, a sense of place and space in literature, writing about nature and the role of faith and beliefs in literature.

I will be speaking about the political environment in Canada and how it affects our literature. Since Stephen Harper became our prime minister in 2006, our federal government has drastically reduced funding to the arts.

There are no longer funds for Canadian writers to travel to other countries. Before Harper, our Canadian consulates promoted Canadian culture abroad by bringing in Canadian writers and artists. These programs helped Canadian writers grow audiences in foreign countries and successfully introduced now world famous writers like Margaret Atwood to new readers, and filmmakers like David Cronenberg to new viewers. That sort of helpful boost to artists is a vital part of any nation’s cultural identity but it is no longer happening here because Harper cut 11.4 million dollars to these programs in 2007. The result? Stats Canada says that for every dollar invested in the arts we get eight dollars back. So the cuts that Harper made actually cost Canada approximately $90 million dollars in potential arts revenue.

One of the reasons for these kind of cuts is the Harper government’s attitude to art and culture. Primarily, our current government sees literature as entertainment rather than art, and it is interested in writers competing like manufacturers in the global marketplace, making profits so they don’t need government support. Competing like business entrepreneurs, in other words but without the same level of support that many businesses get from our current government. Just as our Ministry of Natural Resources benefits the oil industry by researching oil fields, and just as the flow through tax credit encourages Canadians to develop risky mines, cultural funding abroad used to help the arts contribute to the economy. But no more.

How realistic is this approach for a small country like Canada, a country that used to have a proud national literature? The answer: our media mostly tells our readers about a tiny sprinkling of Canadian bestsellers, the ones that manage to get sales and marketing support from multinationals, huge publishing conglomerates which flood the Canadian market with their own foreign books.

I doubt if any other country in the English-speaking world is so welcoming of books from other nations.  Partly it’s because Canadians speak English and we live next door to the second largest economic power in the world. (China is now the first.) I can’t imagine the United States government allowing their country to be a dumping ground for foreign books at the expense of American literature.

What is so terrible about competing in the global marketplace? At least, a few Canadian books manage to penetrate it and these books can have great financial success. That’s true. But those books are mostly genre books like psychological thrillers. Books on difficult subjects, or books that tell Canadian readers about their own lives may be less common now.

And even when a Canadian thriller does well our bookstore chain Indigo still prefers to flog American books of the same type. For instance, Indigo continues to give display preference to the US bestseller Gone Girl by Gilligan Flynn while downplaying The Silent Wife, a psychological thriller by Canadian writer A.S.A. Harrison whose novel has been a huge commercial hit all over the world and is currently number four on the Globe and Mail best seller list.

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Oct 18, 2014 - Literary

Why We Should Stop Worrying about Taxes and Figure Out the Best Way to Spend Them

Joe Cressy photo

I was struck by something Joe Cressy said last night at an informal gathering at the house of my friends, architect Robert Chang and writer Karen Connelly. Joe is pictured above with his wife Nina. He is a candidate for Ward 20 in our city election and last night he told us how he was being portrayed in some of the media as “a tax and spend” guy–as if he was going into politics to empty our pockets until we don’t have a sou left to our names.

Then he laughed. And that’s what’s great about Joe Cressy. He has the confidence to see how bogus the tax and spend criticism is.

Taxes are inevitable, he pointed out. We need them for our schools and our roads and transit system and for child care and clean air and water. We can’t avoid taxes so the important issue is how wisely we spend them. Government spending is not a social evil, in other words. It’s how we take care of ourselves and our communities. It is, in fact, the foundation of democracy, and we need to spend our tax money well so a city like Toronto can be a creative, prosperous place to live.

I like someone who says the truth when it needs to be said. For too long, it feels like Torontonians (myself included) have dwelt inside a bubble of magical thinking, expecting our roads and schools to be good and not wanting to pay for the things that make them that way. Well, time to grow up, huh? Let’s stop being swayed by accusations of government over spending and examine how it can be done better.

The other thing I liked about Joe Cressy’s views on Toronto is his belief in our waterfront. Right now the number one thing tourists come to see in Toronto is the Eaton Centre. Number two is our waterfront. “Wouldn’t it be great,” Joe asked. “If our waterfront was number one?”

Yes, wouldn’t it? And that means not expanding the island airport so planes dominate our harbour. Joe says the Billy Bishop expansion plans will harm the wonderful rebuilding of the waterfront that is going on right now. More planes will make it harder than it already is to enjoy the new promenades and civic spaces.

As you can see, Joe is also down to earth. Intelligent, sincere and honest. Maybe that’s the definition of authenticity.If you want to read more of his views see his recent article in Now, Progressive is not a four-letter word http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=199716

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Oct 14, 2014 - Literary    7 Comments

A Goodbye to Hotel Chelsea

Hotel Chelsea under construction

The Hotel Chelsea, NYC 2014

My old home away from home is no more. The Hotel Chelsea is being gutted for high end condos. Unfortunately, the renovations have destroyed the old suite that used to belong to Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, the famous American novelist from the 1930′s. That Wolfe wrote many of his novels at the Chelsea and I often stayed in his fascinating old room. It had a working fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and wooden Victorian shutters.

Last week I visited my friends at the NYC hotel, the writer Ed Hamilton and his wife Deb. (Yes, a few hold-outs still live on in Chelsea rooms and the hotel’s new owners are obliged to pay for new homes for them.) I had a tour of the building and saw that the contractors have torn down the beautiful wood panels in the hallways. At least the wrought iron staircase was still intact although souvenir collectors have been stealing parts of it.

The hotel is a shell of its former self. I had a peek at its  newly renovated section. The renovated part was totally uninspired and could have been in any apartment building in any old place and not in the Chelsea, the celebrated home to Twentieth Century artists, singers, composers and writers. Many of its tenants gave the former owner Stanley Bard paintings instead of paying rent. Plaques to writers like Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe are by its front door unless the new owner intends to take the plaques down too.

Why do we do this to our historical monuments in North America? You can bet that twenty or thirty years from now, some enterprising soul will try to rebuild the Chelsea in its former glory. As Ed Hamilton says, the sad thing is that it didn’t have to happen.

7 Comments

  • I know exactly how you must feel, Susan. I know how I felt when they converted my home away from home, Sutton Place, into condos. I have not been inside to see what they did to it, and it did not have as long and storied history as the Chelsea, but it had its own place in Toronto’s history.

    • Yes, I also remember Sutton Place at the height of its glamour. It was in fact the most glamorous place to eat and drink in the Sixties in Toronto. So thanks for this.

  • You must remember Mr. Bard. I wrote a chapter of my novella about The Chelsea Hotel circa the late 70′s I was there when Virgil Thompson still lived there and the ghosts of Janis, Sid and many others floated down the staircase, the fabulous staircase. I am glad I have the memories of la recherché du temps perdu and I will never forget staying at the Chelsea Hotel. Every day a movie.

  • It’s all about real estate.

    Just like Yorkville, just like Haigh Hasbury just like like Greenwich Village. Hijacked by capitalism. When anything gets discovered, becomes ‘the thng’, its over. Like Muskoka.

    I remember the day they mass produced tie dye t-shirts The Movement was over.

    Those who value cultural and architectural heritage must protect these treasures. Once they are gone they do not come back.

    Our own Annex is endangered by development. All that is left of Yorkville is the name.

  • Why is it that when you type in a hurry you always make mistakes ? Ha ha ..My English teacher would be horrified by !!!

    • I do remember Stanley Bard. He was very kind to me, a paradox of a man who believed hoteliers should support the making of art. At the same time, I suspect he also liked living in a human beehive where he was the guy in control, the person we all came to with our hand out. He didn’t often disappoint.

      • Stanley was a mensch.

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Oct 6, 2014 - Featured, Literary

Jane Urquhart hops on board the Writers’ Blog Tour

portrait Jane Urquhart

Last week, I tagged Jane Urquhart for the great Writers’ Blog Tour. Thanks to Jane for taking part and giving us a sneak peak into her writing process:

#1. What am I working working on?

I have recently finished a novel, The Night Stages. It is to be published in spring by McClelland and Stewart in Canada and Farrar Straus Giroux in the USA.

#2. How does the novel differ from others of its genre?

Difficult question. I’m not sure. It may be more important to say that it is different than any other novel I myself have written. Admittedly, parts of it are familiar terrain for me, but there is a significant subject in this book that concerns something I have never written about before.

#3. Why do I write what I write?

I am more comfortable in my skin when I know I have an alternative reality to disappear into. I have always day dreamed, and feel very blessed in that I’ve been able to make some use of that day dreaming.

#4. How does my writing process work?

I am always astonished when I finish a book in that I can never remember writing it. This is not to say that I can’t recall characters or landscapes. I mean the physical act of sitting down and typing out the sentences. I am not sure, therefore, what my writing process is. One thing I do know, however, is that it has been a great privilege to be able to spend a good portion of my life doing the two things I like the best: reading and writing.

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Have you heard of the #Writers’ Blog Tour? (Google it, and you’ll see all the various writers on the Tour.) Each writer tagged to join the tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to the posts of writers who came before. Jane’s website is currently under development, so I was happy to share her answers on my blog. To see what I wrote for the tour, check out my blog below.

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