by David Solway
Long ago, in another life, I belonged to the Union of Canadian Writers and was a member in good standing of PEN Canada. I’m can’t recall why I originally joined these guilds since I generally shun collectives of any sort. I believe I may have responded to an invitation or the urging of friends, not wanting to seem churlish. I never threw in my lot with what would have been my natural home, the League of Canadian Poets, an outfit that arranged for readings across the country and facilitated the distribution of grants and perks to its members.
With respect to the Union, I attended a couple of meetings, which I found somewhat off-putting for all the trade talk, affected posturing and conversational bromides that dominated the proceedings. Literature was the one thing that never seemed to come up. Regarding PEN, I discovered its agenda was pro-Palestinian and perforce anti-Israeli, which I could not accept. In time, I drifted away from these dreary bastions of political correctness.
All this was several years ago but attitudes haven’t changed much in the interim. Canadian writers have for the most part tracked so far left that they have disappeared from the frame of reasoned discourse. An ongoing cause célèbre is the virulent denunciation of Donald Trump and his populist revolution. Most of the poets, novelists, essayists and journalists I know, had they been Americans, would have voted Hillary. Today they would be big fans of Chuck Schumer, Maxine Waters, Cory Booker and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and would certainly have swum a hoped-for Blue Wave in the Congressional elections, as they went Liberal red in Canada.
It saddens me to reflect that our literary community has revealed itself to be a rather undistinguished lot of cultural subscribers -- and it shows in the general insipidity and predictability of the writing. Its members are almost to a man and a woman affiliates of the cultural norms and political trends of our day: pious leftists, LGBTQQIP2SAA supporters, sanctimonious indigenizers, Palestinian sympathizers, apologetic Islamophiles, BDS crusaders, BLM fellow-travelers, anti-white banshees and radical feminists. Take your pick.
Consider the fate of Steven Galloway, a revered professor, an acclaimed author and a stalwart member of the CanLit community, accused of sexual abuse by a lying female complainant and a posse of her friends. As they say, the Left eats its own. Although exonerated by an independent inquiry of all charges against him, he has lost everything: job, status and solvency. Despite his once-iconic position in Canadian letters, there is no going back.
The situation, apparently, is little different in the U.S., though it still harbors conservative presses, journals and online sites, for which we must be thankful. It is, however, open season on individuals. I’m thinking of my correspondent, the poet Joseph Massey, a victim of the #MeToo movement. Rather frivolous allegations of macho-like behavior in his earlier years have cost him dearly -- Then They Came for the Poets is the title of my wife’s Fiamengo File video on the subject. His fate resembles, in its way, that of Tom Conti’s Gowan McGland in the film Reuben, Reuben. Massey has lost his appointment in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania, been scrubbed by some of his publishers and deleted from the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America.
One thinks too of the controversy raging over Pulitzer Prize author Junot Diaz, accused of sexual misconduct. Diaz has been “cleared” by his host institution MIT, but the stigma remains and will continue to haunt him. The “social justice” hysteria of the times we live in reaps its casualties.
One wonders how Dylan Thomas, a compulsive womanizer, might have fared these days. Shelley would have been “disappeared.” Byron would have been rotting in a cell. Shakespeare would have found himself in court for slandering his Dark Lady in Sonnet 144 as “a woman colored ill” and “my female evil,” for willing his wife his “second best bed” (which The Telegraph and its cited scholars bizarrely regard as an “act of love”), and for maligning the female sex in Cymbeline as “a woman’s fitness comes by fits.” (Indeed, Shakespeare has already surrendered pride of place at UPenn to black feminist poet Audre Lorde.) As the journal New Pop News asks, “What do you do with a host of classic-but-problematic writers whose lives or art would today be considered beyond acceptable bounds?”
I can sympathize with Galloway, Massey and Diaz, not having fared any better with my quondam colleagues today than I did, lo!, those many years ago. The most disturbing flap involved a short manifesto on music and politics I had completed, originally solicited by an editor at a small Canadian publishing company. It was already in press and set to appear when the publisher (an indifferent poet to boot), who had obviously left the preparation process in the hands of the editor, suddenly twigged to a section in which I denounced thugs like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown memorialized by the execrable hard-rock band Stick To Your Guns.
The publisher considered my remarks politically offensive and insisted that I revise the passage in question. I found his intervention inappropriate, craven and poorly informed, and pulled the manifesto from his catalogue. This unpleasantness proved a godsend, for two reasons: I would not have wanted to be associated with a politically correct press, and it gave me the opportunity to thicken up a plaquette into book form, under the title Reflections on Music, Poetry & Politics.
The issue was compounded by the fact that the editor had already submitted the offending portion of the manuscript as an article to The Fiddlehead, a New Brunswick-based literary journal. It stayed up for about a day. A disclaimer quickly appeared:
As editor of The Fiddlehead I apologize for authorizing the posting on our blog of an excerpt from the book Reflections on Music by David Solway submitted by Anstruther Press. A passage from this excerpt displays an insensitivity to racial issues pertaining to African Americans and a failure to understand systemic racism in contemporary America. This post has been removed from our blog.
What followed this blogpology was predictable. As a freshly minted systemic racist, I was now in disgrace. Presto! my friends were no longer my friends, most having already hung a left to sunnier climes. Literary collaborators were now, well, collaborators. Correspondence dried up. My recently released poetry volume Installations plummeted into a dead silence. Disinvitations to read in various venues around the country arrived like unwelcome guests. No reviews appeared. A harmless article on translation was scrapped by another journal because I had compared translation to the higher transvestism, which somehow made me a male chauvinist and a transphobe as well as a systemic racist.
It soon became clear that I would be lucky to find a Canadian publisher for my work and to this day I have found only one, which for all I know may be temporary. I write mainly for the American conservative press, an institution lacking in this country. So I suspect the numerus clausus will remain in force and my days as a Canadian writer have effectively come to an end. But then, this is literary Canada and its ukase is to be expected.
Generally speaking, then, our writers no longer challenge the fashions and superstitions of the day, they defer to them. Our writing culture has for the most part continued its descent into the politically correct dementia of our historical moment, the latest instance being the pronominal madness that has swept through the universities and entered the larger society. We now live in a world of zhis, zhers, zims and eims. It is no surprise that the current office administrator of the Writers’ Union, Valerie Laws, signs off a communiqué with the parenthetical tag “(she/her/herself).” Such silliness has become pro forma, and I fear not even the polemical power of a Jordan Peterson can resist it. The problem is not only legally compelled speech, as Peterson says, but socially compelled compliance.
Of course, I have no intention of apologizing for my heinous crimes and earning absolution from a band of literary hypocrites. Apologies are for wimps. Nor do I regret my non grata status. To adapt the inimitable Groucho, I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would not have me as a member. And I certainly wouldn’t want to belong to a disreputable club, no matter how advantageous, that would have me as a member. In any case, the holier-than-thou priggishness and political timidity that have overtaken CanLit are undeniable signs of intellectual weakness and moral cowardice. Why be part of it?
First published in PJ Media.
My condolences on all this, Mr. Solway. I too am part of what used to be Canada. Over the years I have had the experience of "relating" to the Canadian "artsy" crowd, as a participant in the worlds of photography and general art in which I found myself, but not, thankfully, as part of my struggle to make a living within its hallowed entrails. I will (thankfully I'm sure) spare the readers of the boring detail of this "relating" but suffice it to say that a less independently thinking bunch I have seldom seen, and this was 'way before the forces of political correctness took almost complete control. Which is why I have always been an enthusiastic subscriber to Groucho's original quote. There are some of us around who, being of reasonably sound mind and body (as well as being retired from the work-force), strongly support Dr. Peterson in all he says and does. The only option we "oldies" have, as we are generally not "household names," is to take the opportunity to meet the self-righteous hypocrites you describe face-on whenever this opportunity arises. What this undertaking means is that we will undoubtedly lose our honoured membership in the "friendship club". Too bad. Let me again refer to Groucho's original quote.
When pressed by a personal pronoun fanatic, insist that your own personal pronoun is: My Lord and Master. Negotiate from that position if you wish.
As Epictetus put it, our reputation is not under our control and so it is merely an indifferent. Those who do put value on their reputation are slaves who lack virtue. Virtue, in the sense Epictetus and other stoics mean it, is excellence of character.
My definition of the Canadian literati (with apologies to O.W.): the unspeakable in pursuit of the unreadable.