Jan 11, 2014

Shteyngart may be half right

U.S. writer Gary Shteyngart ruffled literary feathers in the land of the beaver and maple leaf recently when he essentially called Canada’s writing establishment wimps. In one paragraph in a story at vulture.com, he said:

“I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is."

The prize he referred to is the Giller, Canada’s most prestigious literary prize. In Canada, mainstream writers (a.k.a. writers with publishers) can qualify for provincial or federal grants for book writing and related research. (He exaggerated the number of books.)

Missing in the debate Shteyngart set off is the fact that thousands of Canadian authors excluded from the grant world take risks with every book or story. Government grants, the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s prize are reserved for writers who have publishers. (In fact, those incentives seem more designed to promote the mostly foreign-owned publishing industry than Canadian writers.) 

There are thousands of self-published writers who take chances with their work because they must to get noticed in a jungle of competing work. If Shteyngart is correct to any degree, it is about the establishment, not the indies.

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