image: Jane Eaton Hamilton, The hail of fire: maple tree, 2018
This was woodpeckers! Probably trying to eat the gloomy scale!
So, this thing. I was at a holiday party for a bunch of Vancouver publishers recently, and told a new writer that I had really enjoyed her book. The blood drained from her face. I am clumsy sometimes, and very shy. I thought I’d hurt her somehow until she said that not one other writer had ever mentioned her book, published, I think, a year earlier. That broke my heart. My god, Canadians, for all we say we’re friendly and welcoming, we are a shallow and parsimonious bunch.
Please, let’s support each other. Let’s be fulsome and giving in our praise.
How is it possible that this really good writer with her first really good book with good reviews had never heard from a single one of us? I’m sure many many of us read her. What is wrong with us? If that was you, it would break your fucking heart, wouldn’t it? If that was you, you’d be crushed. You might even be suicidal. Is that actually the point, that we crush each other?
I increasingly believe as I get older that the act of creating a book is akin to a secular miracle. Even when the seams show in yours (and they will), I will still consider it a remarkable achievement. It is. I mean, how do we do it, continue to do it, against the forces arrayed and pressing for our failure? I’m not talking to cis white men, here, where everything lines up to favour them (altho of course I understand there can still be considerable obstacles), because I choose not to read cis white men, for the most part, wanting to put my energy into writers I find more intriguing, but to the marginalized: POC, WOC esp, the disabled, the queer, the trans, the penurious, the traumatized. We all make breakfast. We look after kids. We go to work. We vacuum. We change beds. We deal with email and social media feeds. We pay or wish we could pay bills. We fret. We love. We worry. We grieve for our lost loved ones. We deal with addiction, or mental health issues, or cancer, or death. We take our kids and pets and selves to the doctor. Our bones ache. Our jaws ache. Our hips ache. That knee? It hurts. But still, we put words on the page. Sometimes, we hate the words we put on the page. Sometimes we love the words we put on the page. We put the words we put on the page into the world that really doesn’t care very much for 99% of us as people or authors. We speak and we say, Hey! We matter. I am here. Count me in.
What a brave and foolhardy occupation.
What older writers know is this: You will probably “fail” according to whatever your standard of that is. But failure is actually not that bad, and, in its way, is even liberating. Remember when you wrote your first book without any pressure? It’s like that again. That sophomore book production thing really sucks eggs. When you’re older, and you are already a proven mediocrity, you’re free … and you rise to surpass your own expectations.
Older writers really understand that we’re all in this together.
Sometimes young or new writers think that CanLit is a fierce competition, that they have to knock someone down a peg or two, or off their pedestal, to make room for their own work. Believe me, we published writers with multiple books don’t really need you to tell us our literary flaws; we’ve had decades to flaunt them. Guess what? You have just as many. They may be different ones, but you have them. Listen up. I’m telling you what I’ve learned, kids: I am not a perfect writer. You are not a perfect writer. But even so, there is a big enough pie if we support each other. We can remake Canlit in our image/s so that this will always be true.
And until it is, we can at least promise each other to do what’s free: and that is to offer up a compliment or three here and there, or some stars on Goodreads or Amazon. You know how long that takes? Stars with no review? Like, once you’re logged in, maybe three seconds? Or to say, “I really admired this book?” Fifteen seconds.
Here’s what I ask: Lift a writer today. I don’t care who you choose. You choose the writer you want to lift. But make it somebody who isn’t already being lifted by the system, okay? Lift Indigenous writers in 2018, or trans writers, or disabled writers. Lift only womxn authors. You choose. The fine writer Marnie Woodrow and I talked about this once for queer writers, and it never really got off the ground because of busy-ness. But maybe it still can. Maybe we could do it on the first of every month, every time we pay our rent or mortgage. Make kindness to other writers a habit.
To quote Jen Pastiloff, “don’t be an asshole” to other writers. Don’t be a literary asshole, all right?
I tell you sincerely: I love your book for being its perfectly imperfect self. I love the wild life and the heartbeat and the longing you poured into it. I wish with all my heart that it could bring you the relief you want and crave and need … the admiration of your peers, money to pay your rent and put food on the table, the way clear to another book, prizes and awards. I wish this for you, because this is what you deserve after your efforts. I’m sorry when it doesn’t happen, when your career seems to coast even though you’ve worked like a dog.
But even if it didn’t go that well when you published, or you were a one-book wonder and Canlit’s attention wandered after that first book, we still need your talent and your skill and your vitality and your yearning and your vulnerability and your trauma and your stories and your fierce fucking fighting power.
At the same time, I wish we would stop with the cult of awards. We’ve gotten narrow and lazy, only responding to the same five or ten books in a season when there are delights galore if we look a little more widely. And a season is only a breath. Those good books are still there the next season when publishing churns out more.