Books

Increasing their word power

Authors and readers flock to literary love-ins

DIANE TURBIDE November 3 1997
Books

Increasing their word power

Authors and readers flock to literary love-ins

DIANE TURBIDE November 3 1997

Increasing their word power

Authors and readers flock to literary love-ins

DIANE TURBIDE

DALE EISLER

Books

It was a young writer’s dream come true— or, potentially, his worst nightmare. Andrew Pyper was scheduled to read from his short-story collection, Kiss Me—right before Michael Ondaatje. The setting was the September writers festival in Eden Mills, a bucolic village 75 km west of Toronto, where 36 authors and about 5,000 book-lovers mingled in the meadows and cornfields and on the lawn of a converted grain mill to hear fiction and poetry read aloud. Pyper was keenly aware that he was in danger of being eclipsed by a literary superstar. “It was the equivalent of opening for the Rolling Stones,” recalls 29-year-old Pyper. “There were at least 500 people at the reading, but they’d come to see Michael Ondaatje, not me.” Impulsively, he grabbed his camera and took it up onstage with him. “I told the audience, ‘This is as good as it gets. I’m going to take a picture of you.’ People threw up their hands and cheered. It looked like a mini-rock festival.” Pyper signed and sold 60 books that day, and got a flirtatious suggestion from an attractive young woman. “I asked her how I should inscribe her copy and she said, Well, a marriage proposal would be nice.’ ” They settled on a more neutral dedication.

Autumn in Canada now means an army of fiction writers and poets crisscrossing the country and tripping over each other at readings—everything from half-day events in community halls to extravaganzas in major centres lasting a week or longer. Of course, other countries celebrate the spoken word as well. But in Europe, writers festivals tend to be smaller affairs, while in the United States most readings take place in bookstores or on university campuses. Canada, however, with more than 40 author gatherings a year, can lay claim to being the country of the literary gabfest. In the past two weeks, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg each staged readings, panel discussions and lectures over several days for people willing to pay up to $20 to hear local and foreign authors. The 18th instalment of the Toronto International Festival of Authors, the country’s granddaddy of literary gatherings, began on Oct. 22 and will have showcased about 60 authors in more than 100 sessions by the time it winds down on Nov. 1. Earlier this year, besides the ninth annual Eden Mills event and the 15th writers festival in Sechelt, B.C., Ottawa and Moose Jaw, Sask., both enjoyed newly created celebrations of the word. And in November, Montreal’s 20th Salon du Livre, part festival and part book fair, will feature francophone writers. Aside from those events, most cities have regular university or bookstore-sponsored author readings.

While festivals rely heavily on corporate sponsorship, Sue Stewart, program officer at Ottawa’s Canada Council for the Arts, notes that applications to cover travel expenses and honoraria for authors have increased dramatically over the past few years. ‘We’ve even got a request,” she says, “from music festival organizers in a B.C. fishing village to help them set up a reading component.”

All these literary love-ins are occurring at a time when conventional wisdom holds that the word is dead while the image is paramount, that North America is becoming increasingly illiterate. All this at a time when government support for the arts has declined precipitously. There is anecdotal evidence, however, that while book sales are flat overall in Canada, fiction is on an upswing. And the proliferation of festivals has even provoked infighting among organizers. Earlier this year, Toronto festival artistic director Greg Gatenby stirred up controversy by demanding that authors featured at his event not read elsewhere for a specific period. The feud, which continues to simmer, shows how popular readings have become. What exactly is going on?

Guy Vanderhaeghe, winner of last year's Governor General’s Literary Award for The Englishman’s Boy, thinks the international buzz about the country’s writers is helping to fuel the enthusiasm. “Names like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro and Carol Shields have created a huge amount of pride,” says the 46-yearold Saskatoon novelist, who recently launched the British edition of The Englishman’s Boy. “And there’s now a generation of people who have studied Canadian literature in school and university.” What’s more, he adds, Canada’s artistic climate is unusual. ‘We don’t have a highly developed pop culture, and writers have a much higher profile, comparatively speaking, than in other countries. I can’t think of a comparable figure in the United States who has the kind of presence of an Atwood or a Richler.”

Tom Henighan, the Ottawa-based author of Ideas of North: A Guide to Canadian Arts and Culture, believes that the current craze goes beyond mere pride. The Carleton University professor says that publishers’ marketing strategies and the media have glamorized the image of the author. “The writer has become a minor cult figure. In the old days, Robert Graves would give a reading and 25 people would show. Today, when a writer of that stature comes into town, hundreds show up.” Henighan points out that Ondaatje was mobbed by fans in Ottawa last year, mostly because of the film based on his novel The English Patient. “It’s the name, the image, that’s being marketed: ‘Come see the famous Ondaatje or Atwood,’ ” Henighan says. “It’s got very little to do with the intimate experience of reading an author’s books. The name precedes the experience—that’s how our culture works.” Certainly, big names draw. A recent double bill of Mordecai Richler and Ann-Marie MacDonald drew over 1,000 people to a University of Toronto reading, while the next night in the same city, one of the hottest tickets was an onstage interview of Richler by Peter Gzowski at an intimate theatre. But that does not explain the popularity of festivals that feature a mix of big-name and little-known authors. At the inaugural Winnipeg Writers Festival, which attracted some 3,000 people during its six-day run in mid-October, the most popular event was a poetry reading, according to Andris Taskans, artistic director. The session featured three Canadians and two poets from the Philippines and New Zealand. “It surprised us, but a lot of things surprised us,” says Taskans, who also noted that writers Shields, Sharon Butala and Nino Ricci were big draws. ‘We

found from our audience survey and from our festival hotline that a lot of people came out to a reading for the first time. And some came from as far away as Thunder Bay or Kenora.” If first timers are on the increase, festivals still rely on a hard core of passionate readers. Karen Campbell, 33, a Calgary elementary schoolteacher, attended the five-day PanCanadian WordFest, the second such event held in Calgary and Banff (not to be confused with the Banff Mountain Book Festival, which begins on Nov. 5). Campbell, who be longs to two book-discussion clubs, sat in on a session that featured Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, Toronto wordsmith Paul Quarrington and Vancouver writer Michael Turner. Clutching a newly purchased copy of Turner’s American Whiskey Bar, Campbell said she thinks the proliferation of author festivals reflects a growing interest in reading. “There’s a sense of calmness that comes with it. Sinking into a big chair with a good book is an excellent way to relax and explore a range of emotions. And the festivals give people a chance to share that pleasure.”

Gatenby of the Toronto International Festival of Authors and the year-round Harbourfront Reading Series, has been building on that passion for more than two decades. As he proudly announces in his festival brochure, the waterfront site has welcomed more than 2,800 authors (including 12 Nobel laureates) from more than 90 nations. ‘Twenty years ago, the idea that someone would come out and pay money to hear authors read their own work was laughable,” says Gatenby. “Now, we get about 14,000 people just for the festival alone.” The Toronto festival now takes place in five well-appointed venues, a far cry from the event’s origins in a freezing old truck garage, with heavy canvas acting as makeshift walls. “I remember people sitting in parkas as the snow blew in under the door,” says Gatenby. “Once, Irving Layton was reading and ice started to form on the microphone.”

All writers festivals build up a bank of behind-the-scenes gossip and lore. Lawrence Scanlan, an author and arts journalist who interviewed dozens of authors at the Harbourfront fest, recalls stepping into an elevator to encounter a staggering, inebriated male author who asked him where to find the hospitality suite—with its free bar. “I was supposed to interview him at 9 a.m. the next day,” Scanlan recounts. “I introduced myself and reminded him about our interview. Well, there was no way that he was going back to his room. But, you know, he turned up on time, bright, articulate and even cheery. I got a great interview,” Scanlan recalls, laughing. Asked if the festivals translate into sales, publishers give mixed responses. “If you looked at on-site book sales in light of all the time and expense involved in these festivals, then the strictly economical answer is no,” says Penguin Books Canada president Brad Martin. “But you can’t really measure the ripple effect a festival can have.” Simply having writers connecting directly to audiences is beneficial, he notes—for their reputation and their confidence. “At the very least, a reading thrusts the writer into the limelight, and at some point, that will probably generate sales. So, yes, festivals are good for everybody.” Meanwhile, Tim Inkster, publisher of The Porcupine’s Quill, a small literary press based in Erin, Ont., has unqualified enthusiasm. “The first time I went [to Eden Mills] I sold about $75 worth of books,” says Inkster, whose authors include Jane Urquhart, Leon Rooke and Russell Smith. “This year, I sold $2,800 worth.” But the main reason for writers festivals is simply the love of books and reading. “Literature is the only art form that you take naked into bed with you,” says Gatenby. “Good writers have a unique ability to get inside your head. They can articulate things that you may not have even realized you felt. People still come up to me at readings and tell me, ‘You know, that book changed my life. And I’m thrilled to finally see the person who wrote it.’ ”