Between spurts of productive work on my latest just-keep-swimming short writing project, I indulged my bad habit of listlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed. The Canadian literary community – for all you normal folks out there – is ravenous for controversy. We love and hate to have a focal point for cheeky, gleefully indignant tweets and blogs. This winter, controversy flared up around comments 2012 Giller Prize judge Gary Shteyngart made while drinking with a reporter in New York City. He said something about Can-Lit lacking risk-takers. His now notorious explanation was that Canadian writers “all get grants” and therefore “they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”
Now, anyone who follows this blog knows I came to be a working writer through unconventional channels. I don’t have an MFA from any of the creative writing programmes where Canada’s up-and-coming literary talent is usually hot-housed. I live in a rural area where the local literary fiction circle includes me and my lovely neighbour. I have never worked in publishing. And, I have never received any grant money. No arts council – certainly not the faraway Ontario Arts Council – has ever funded my work.
In the spirit of Can-Lit-Da’s relentless self-reflection, I considered what Shteyngart’s comments (which he later joked should be taken in the context of his “drunken stupor”) say about me.
For one thing, there isn’t much room in his comments for me. I disprove his over-generalization. I wrote a manuscript and sold it to a traditional literary publishing house without applying for, let alone getting, a government grant. Maybe I can ignore everything Shteyngart said and join the cheerleaders tweeting titles of great, “risky” Canadian books which may not have been (but probably were) written by grant recipients.
Or, I could feel robbed. How fair is it that I work in a country that seems to have an international reputation for being glutted with arts grants of which I’ve never been paid my share?
Or, I could embrace Shteyngart’s assumption that writing needs to be somewhat staid in order to get the bureaucratic rubber-stamping of a government grant. I could try to spin my grant-free-working-writer status as a sign that my stuff must be subversive and edgy — the kind of thing lucidly drunk, chatty New York City hipsters might find interesting.
There might be a bit of support for the third option – the fun, cocky, unlikely option. We haven’t had a bad review of my novel but we’ve seen it described over and over again with words like “odd, strange, surprising” or “unusual.” I knew when I was writing the book that it was peculiar and I had to keep writing it that way regardless. And now — if Shteyngart is right — I have the distinction of writing it without a grant and thereby proving what a weirdo I am. I should revel in that, I guess. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with it. There could be a whole lot right with it.
Yeah, all this reasoning is a bit of a stretch.
I don’t know if what I do is at all risky. Frankly, it’s 2014 and I’m not even sure I’d recognize a new literary risk if I saw one. And I can’t deduce a risk by whether there’s anything entered on the grants line of an income tax form. Like most people, I just write what I want to write, whether anyone wants to pay for it or not.