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Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

In the third installment of The Daily’s four-part series on cultural tastemakers in Montreal,

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this strange, nostalgic feeling for early-20th century Paris. I can’t shake the romantic image of writers – Apollinaire, Breton, Proust, and later Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir – chatting fervently in cafés, excited voices shaping what would become some of the most radical and influential aesthetic movements of their time. Something about the idea of a community of writers, drawn together by a philosophical or artistic question, fascinates me.

From a historical perspective, it’s easy to label literary movements like surrealism or existentialism, and to designate their parents – those who set the precedent, who wrote the manifesto – as tastemakers. It’s a lot harder to pin down what’s going on in a given contemporary scene, and to figure out who is calling the shots. Perhaps this is a symptom of our late capitalist society; there is just so much being published today that it is almost impossible to discern any consistent aesthetic. On the other hand, with technology, increased mobility, and the debunking of the “solitary genius” myth, the exchange of ideas and relationships among writers is more common than ever. As such, local lit scenes still seem like the places par excellence for literary movements to emerge.

Take Montreal: for decades poets and novelists have been drawn to the city’s vibrancy and diversity, and, today especially, opportunities abound for young Montreal writers. On any given weekend there are accessible readings going on at venues like Casa del Popolo and le Cagibi; there are too many handmade zines and established lit mags to count; and literary and small presses are active across the city in both English and French. But, as Jon Paul Fiorentino – managing editor of Matrix magazine and owner of Montreal small press Snare Books – puts it, “If Montreal has a literary scene, it’s one that is constantly rebuilding itself because so many prospective participants…are terminal residents. I don’t know if there’s a stable scene, or if it’s a scene that has to continually reestablish itself year after year.”

Fiorentino is only half-joking when he says, of Montreal writers, that most only stay here for a few years – often in their early twenties – before heading “to Toronto to get a real job.” Still, he says “there are quite a few of us lifers that aren’t going anywhere.” Many of the “lifers” that Fiorentino cites are actively involved in keeping the lit scene alive – Andy Brown, another editor at Matrix, runs conundrum press, and Ian Ferrier and Oana Avasilichioaei each produce separate poetry reading series on a monthly basis. With so many constant, experienced figures on the scene, it seems natural that certain aesthetic preferences would dominate. And even without having consciously jumpstarted a radical movement, these writers and editors would potentially have overarching control over who reads at events, what is published, and what works become the flagstones of contemporary literature in Montreal.

However, the only dominant attitude that seems to be coming out of the Montreal lit scene right now is: anything goes. Fiorentino insists that if you’re good, you’ll get published; if you want to participate in a reading, it’s a matter of sending out a few emails, submitting some writing samples, and having an open schedule. Of course, each literary press maintains its own aesthetic mandate, but as Fiorentino says, “If I were to try to graft my idea about what is good poetry onto the scene, it would be very boring. Nobody wants to live in a literary Death Star.”

Perhaps as proof that there aren’t any true tastemakers in the Montreal scene, those with editorial control often look beyond Quebec’s borders for material. While literature from Montreal has classically been marked by the city – think Cohen’s Beautiful Losers or the body of Richler’s work – it seems that these days, whether or not Montreal’s poetry and prose is associated with a strong sense of place, the city’s anglophone literature is increasingly being merged within the larger Canadian scene. Since the individual magazines, presses, and imprints make publishing choices based on their own aesthetic values, a Montreal writer may find that the publisher most aligned with her work is actually located in Vancouver or Toronto. Fiorentino sees this as a positive thing: “Canada is a very very big country,” he says, “and I think it’s good for the literary presses who operate here to publish Canadian writers from coast to coast. I think it’s also healthy for us – as literary artists here – to seek venues outside of the city.”

Fiorentino raises a good point. Although it is nice to imagine a community of writers in aesthetic solidarity, perhaps being nurtured under the wing of some literary guru, the risk is that the scene – and thus the writing – will stagnate. On an island as small as Montreal this risk is particularly high, especially given the already minute anglo literary scene. On the other hand, Montreal’s status as a bilingual city offers the potential for a versatile community of writers to develop. As it is, there are essentially no bilingual publishing houses in Montreal – Francophone writers go to Boréal, l’Hexagone, or l’Oie de Cravan among others, while Montreal’s English language publishing houses include Véhicule Press, conundrum press, and DC Books.

Montreal’s anglo literary scene seems to be doing just fine without tastemakers. But for writers vying to push the boundaries, to form a community that could make a name for this period in our city’s literary history, I think a bilingual approach is the necessary direction to take. And it’s already being done: poet Nathalie Stephens – though she is no longer Montreal-based – writes both bilingual poetry and translations of her own work. Many writers, including Fiorentino, who are not as comfortable in both English and French, eagerly endeavour to have their work translated by professionals. And many of the literary events across the city – Festival Voix d’Amériques being a notable example – aim to include both franco and anglo performers.

People with sway in the lit world may not be tastemakers as the term applies to aesthetic movements. But, I think it is fair to say that those who are active in Montreal’s literary community are tastemakers in a broader sense: as advocates for the appreciation of quality writing. It seems almost beside the point to be an arbiter of taste in a scene that is composed of more writers than readers. When asked about who lit event organizers and publishers are trying to reach, Fiorentino replies, “The goal is always to reach as many people as possible…by any legal means necessary….Everyone who can read, everyone who wants to learn to read – just everyone.” Maybe the only kind of “taste” that has to be established is what’s needed to pick up and open a good book of poetry.