Last week I attended a wonderful talk, which is part of the Literature Matters series taking place at U of T. Host Smaro Kamboureli invited poet Karen Solie and author Esi Edugyan to deliver speeches on their respective crafts. I honestly couldn’t be happier that events like this are hosted here.
Edugyan’s speech particularly resonated with me for two reasons: I couldn’t write a poem to save my life and I’m a firm believer in respecting an author’s wishes to maintain anonymity. I also consider myself more of a fiction/non-fiction writer than anything else. (Though, I call myself a journalist to adults asking about my job).
Before I dive into her overall speech, I need to mention Edugyan’s captivating delivery of her words. Never have I heard someone speak so calmly and slowly while preserving their hold over the audience. She spoke with such grace and insight. In addition to her enchanting speaking voice, Edugyan spoke of several things that matched my opinions on writing and its place in the world.
She spoke of Elena Ferrante, famed Italian author who has published several works under this pseudonym since her debut in 1992. Investigative journalist Claudio Gatti published an article that revealed her true identity to the public. He claimed that he was doing the public a service by providing this information to them.
It was at this point in Edugyan’s speech that I really started to think about the level of respect that writers are shown. Famed author Thomas Pynchon is well-known for his reclusiveness. He even played himself in an episode of The Simpsons, which respected his anonymity by placing a paper bag with a question mark over his face throughout the episode. When I was growing up, I was obsessed with Lemony Snicket’s series, A Series of Unfortunate Events. (I still am, let’s be real.) But, I obviously had no idea what his real name was. I’ve never met him, even though I’ve had the opportunity. I felt this overwhelming sense of betrayal when I read my first article a few years ago that revealed his real name. There’s something to be said for the power of anonymity.
Though, Gatti’s stunt proved to be a representation of how little respect authors are often given. Now, I understand that in Gatti’s mind, he probably thought that he was doing the people a service. As a journalist, your duty is to bring information to the people. But in my opinion, Gatti’s decision was a tasteless, misguided one.
Similar comments were also mentioned during Solie’s speech. She brought up the fact that she advises students to take up a trade while in school. She added that people seem to be more excited for the plumber than the poet. There was this underlying message that some professions take precedence over others.
I can’t even get people to take me seriously when I tell them that I would rather dedicate myself to novel-writing than I would to journalism. Even when I came to this university, I wanted to write creatively rather than at a newspaper. However, as I’ve mentioned in other editorials, this campus is seriously lacking in creative writing opportunities, so The Medium craved my hunger and has been for years. But, I digress.
My point is that the writer, especially the young writer, doesn’t seem to get as much credit as they’re due. Solie brought up several interesting, albeit depressing, points about the life of a poet. They have at least a second job. Their presence probably isn’t as widely-praised as it ought to be. I wholeheartedly believe that “editor-in-chief” earns more acceptance than “short story writer.”
Of course, an EIC, communications specialist, social media manager, editor, etc., do a lot of hard work. My days are packed to the brim, week after week, and it has been even before I officially took this job. Though there is something to be said for the writer who spends their time researching to ensure that their words accurately represent a time period that they weren’t a part of. Edugyan did this with her most recent novel, Half-Blood Blues. I’ve had to do this for stories no longer than 1,000 words. There’s also something to be said for the writer who spends the majority of the day in their head plotting a story that means something to them. The writers who worry themselves into writer’s block. Those who, despite any negativity or reality of the profession, will follow through with what they believe they were destined for.
In December, The Medium wrote a profile on Dr. Daniel Wright, who had won the Polyani Prize for his research in Victorian political creativity within Victorian novels and poems. Wright was quoted as saying, “The thing which is especially nice about this particular award is that it recognizes humanities scholars— so scholars of literature, alongside researchers in physics, economics, and medicine. These are fields that literary scholars don’t often get to be recognized alongside. So I think it’s a really great award for just acknowledging the importance of research in literature to the life of this province.” I thought this was such an insightful quote that exposed how humanities scholars often don’t share the limelight with other “top-notch” scholars from a more respected program. To see Wright accomplish so much was incredible, and I appreciated him speaking for us humanities majors.
I’m not too sure that I need to make a case for why writing is important. For why art in general is important. I could spend days defending the writers of this world, regardless of where they choose to focus their talent. I also think that many of us would be able to defend the importance of art and why it shouldn’t take a backseat to other professions or programs in university. Now, I know that I literally just said that I don’t need to make a case for why writing is important, but I honestly can’t just let it go without saying my piece about it.
The fitting title of the discussions, “Literature Matters” lets many know that literature holds a place in this world, as it has for years. The novelist, the poet, the short story writer all share the stage. Their wishes should be respected just the same as a doctor or a politician (Trump notwithstanding). To pick up a novel and to immerse yourself entirely in its pages and messages is a unique feeling. Words have such a hold on the reader and have earned their place. George R.R. Martin famously said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
Karen Solie and Esi Edugyan are just two of the powerful women writers in the field of literature who can speak to its importance and their impact on their readers. But this series has opened the doors for students to come in and listen to those who have contributed to the world of literature. It’s opened the door for students to enlighten themselves on exactly why literature matters.