January 8, 2018
At first I wasn’t quite sure why The Walrus essay “The Case Against Reading Everything” angered me. I didn’t have to read it—pure lit-clickbait I’m usually willing to ignore. But despite muting CanLit in my social media feeds and conversations, it kept popping up. So I read it—1076 words which argued, in part, that the “problem with telling young writers to fan out across genres and forms is that it doesn’t help them find a voice. If anything, it’s antivoice [sic]. Learning the craft of writing isn’t about hopping texts like hyperlinks. It’s about devotion and obsession.” CanLit is often authoritative about craft and critique in this way, warning scribes from Cape Spear to Long Beach that Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t worthy of your words, that critics need not be personal in their essays, that “digital distraction is bad for creativity”—as if there was a recipe for craft.
The essay scolded every sucker with a pen, because in CanLit opinion is never enough, and this effort was drenched in its hubris and dogma. Don’t read widely, don’t be inspired by cereal boxes or New York Times wedding announcements, know who Alan Furst is and use that knowledge as a weapon. Belittle anyone whose methods differ. And it was awful: prescriptive in how we should write, read, and teach. Another old-white-mansplaining of literature—an irony not lost on me now. I tweeted an essay in response. Some people liked it. And for a moment I felt some measure of vindication.
But neither The Walrus nor the author replied. Nobody hit back. I wanted someone to care that I was yelling. It had been a long time since anyone had cared about my writing, even something as trite as a Twitter essay. It had been a long time since I cared. I had given up on CanLit years earlier when I stopped writing, stopped checking Giller and Griffin shortlists, defriended poets, unfollowed editors and agents, forgot what Quill & Quire was. There was a very good reason for leaving CanLit, but I was afraid to say it out loud. I wasn’t angry at the author. Or The Walrus. They’re just appendages of a community of misogyny, toxic masculinity, and privilege which perpetuates an at best flawed and at worst criminal culture of cronyism, bullying, abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. And I was angry at myself for being a willing participant.
Understand: CanLit is a monster.
In 2004 I was accepted into Concordia University’s undergraduate creative writing program. Early on I was fortunate to have professors and classmates who took interest in my writing, and I was exposed to new, exciting, and diverse writers. I found a community, and while traversing its periphery I was excited at the possibility of a career in and around the arts. But the further I enveloped myself in CanLit, the more something seemed amiss.
In those early days I did everything that was asked of me, in hopes of being accepted. I went to every reading and open mic. I ran errands for journals and presses. I sat behind folding tables at book fairs. I hosted events. I put in my time, not because I especially wanted to, but because I believed I had to. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get ahead, I wouldn’t ever be a writer. There is a hierarchy in CanLit, and like most hierarchies its tiers are rigidly intractable. But as a newcomer, you’re fooled. A properly bound book on an Indigo shelf seems like an achievement, the title of professor appears earned. Managing editor sounds like a job that has a salary.
The community is an exploitation of falsity perpetuated by incest. Grants, awards, and jobs are rewards of nepotism, as are publishing contracts and glowing book reviews. The benefactors of the system are masters at manipulating its deceitful apparition to bend the naïve to their service; abusive friendships and relationships, careers and creative writing departments are built on it. CanLit is plagued by Small Pond Syndrome, a disease which presents symptoms such as inflated ego and hubris brought on by falsely constructed success. A disease I was all too happy to contract.
My first job in CanLit was at a well-known journal. I was excited to be part of a community I still believed in. Finally, I thought, my hard work was paying off. While curating my first issue, I received the following email from a writer whom I had rejected for publication:
I would have expected more than a form letter for a longstanding contributing editor of [redacted], at the least. I was pbeing [sic] published in [redacted] ten years ago, pal.
The good luck bit was a bit much - who are you anyway?
I remember leaning back in my cramped, back issue-stuffed magazine office—stunned. I did not know who the writer was, but he thought he was someone. In CanLit male entitlement is born of its insulated confines, where awards are a fetish of elitism; where book section best-of lists fail to qualify agendas populated by nationalist tokenism; where ego rarely dares tread below the 49th parallel or across any significant body of water; where too often book contracts are traded for abandon. Mediocrity is fêted with such embarrassing frequency it corrodes not only quality, but character. And legacies are built on it.
And I bought in.
And it worked.
I published three books, undeservedly. Not that I’m not proud of them, but they were able to find their way into bookstores because I coddled some outsized egos. I sat at the right tables, drank with people who could get my little poems out into the world, smoked with people who could get my fiction bound and sold to the masses because they themselves had drunk and sat and smoked. And like everyone else, I wore these publications as hard-earned accomplishments and not as a transactional reward for preserving the cultural and institutional privilege of an undeserving few.
And my character rotted.
Pretty soon I was suffering from Small Pond Syndrome myself, and reveling in my own mediocrity. I thought I was moving up. When my first book was shortlisted for a prize, I was elated. This was a moment for me, beyond the celebration of a good workshop or open mic night applause. My dad bought me a jacket. I bought nice shoes which I would wear to step into the next level of a community I aspired to. The two other writers on the list were well-regarded through the false lens of CanLit. At the ceremony, I went up to introduce myself, nervous and proud in my new suit. One of the writers ignored me; the eventual winner shook my hand and said, “You know, I had never even heard of your book until the list came out.” When he took to the stage to accept his award, he was quick to congratulate the other nominee then listed several books that should have been nominated instead of mine. I was crushed.
Within the dynamic of CanLit the established own the aspiring. My books were lazily edited by men more interested in my ability to stay up late and drink on Tuesdays than my writing. Their lack of commitment to the work kept me below them on the CanLit food chain. My books had been published by small presses, not only as my reward for serfdom, but to feed the entitlement of the editors and to supply the raw grist for their grant-funded small presses/vanity projects. I had propped up the hierarchy and been duly rewarded. But that hierarchy was still rigid, and I was far from being an equal.
And as I attempted to move towards a life in CanLit, the level of animus that confronted me increased exponentially. During graduate school (also at Concordia) I was lucky enough to be invited to a dinner for a visiting American writer who was one of my literary heroes. This was supposed to be a seminal juncture—a first Thanksgiving dinner at the adult table. The visiting writer was kind enough to have looked me up, and asked me about my writing, about my thesis. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. Unfortunately, three of my professors had also been invited to dinner. One of them—who had tenure and influence despite publishing less than most of their students and who ordered a bottle of red wine instead of food—dismissed and insulted me in front someone I greatly admired, who took it upon himself to interrupt her indecency. One of the other two profs—also tenured, who did not have a published book despite teaching creative writing—was actively indifferent to the behavior.
But as a cis white male writer, that’s the most I’ve ever had to deal with: a bruised ego, frustration with the system, the pettiness of man and not the vulgarity of men. What I have endured is nothing—a fraction of a fraction of nothing compared to what women in CanLit endure within the power structure that enables and allows men to abuse their entitlement.
That bears repeating: What I have endured is nothing—a fraction of a fraction of what women in CanLit endure.
Institutional CanLit isn’t about art; it’s about hierarchy and power. And as with any hierarchy, it survives by attaching itself to and perpetuating existing inequalities—race, sexuality, and gender. Aspiring writers are constantly reminded of their place, their owing benefactors for every poem edited, book published, or attention given. For men, this exhibits in demand for respect and attribution. For women, it often manifests as sexual predation.
Upon completing my studies, I worked at a literary non-profit organization running small writing programs. Another Concordia professor—a friend, well-published writer, and publisher of my first book—who was dating a student in the department (not unusual, or even prohibited, at Concordia) had his girlfriend email me asking for an internship. I replied that I was uncomfortable with the power dynamic of their relationship, and thought it best she didn’t work with me. The professor called me, berated me for daring to not exercise his power and community weight, and threatened to find ways to embarrass me publicly, embarrass the organization.
I’ve worked with many Canadian, American, and international writers, editors, publishers, and academics, and the denizens of CanLit are by far the most difficult to deal with, their egos and demands far outweighing their constructed notoriety. [Not all, mind you. Some were lovely, though that list is small and almost entirely female or non-binary.] The male Canadian faculty members were often lecherous, hitting incessantly on writers and other faculty. At a Montreal literary festival one internationally celebrated writer—despite being a Concordia professor—rented a hotel room so that he could entertain young writers away from his house and family. Most of my job involved trying to control the adolescent comportment of established writers, editors, and professors. And I was not very good at my job.
The construct that protects abusive mentor-mentee/prof-student/established-aspiring artist relationships is a template for how CanLit protects its monsters from public indictment. The professors—many further protected by tenure—abuse the power of their position in both academia and literature. A professor/writer harasses a student, and the student remains silent because they need the grade, or the letter of recommendation, or the internship at the prof’s publisher. The publisher enables the professor/writer by continuing to publish them despite the stories of their behaviors circulating widely and in doing so legitimizes their agency and professorship, and often engages in those behaviors themselves. The aspiring writer is silent because they want to be published, or need a job, or are simply afraid—as victims tend to be.
Make no mistake: English departments and publishers are guilty of sustaining this environment. Publishers could end this cycle of abuse by simply refusing to endow those who abuse the agency and legitimacy that they provide. The departments could fire professors, withhold tenure, censure faculties, punish deans. At the very least they could prohibit fifty year-old profs from trying to date twenty year-old students. They all know about profs/writers harassing, abusing, and inappropriately dating students. They all know about drunken nights of misbehavior. They all know of the prevalent lechery of writers.
Even if a student comes forward, nothing is done. English and creative writing departments across Canada and the US knowingly cultivate environments that are criminally unsafe for young women and aspiring writers. If I had a son or daughter who had an interest in writing, I would forbid them from entering a creative writing program. In 2016, at UBC, when students/young writers attempted to confront the monster: CanLit took the monster’s side. UBC Accountable, a cartel of established writers and artists, leant their names and support to an abusive writer/professor and perhaps further silenced victims in departments across the country.
The community of Canadian arts and letters has long preserved a culture of impropriety and abuse that would make Hollywood blush. Truth is, there’s no such thing as a CanLit “community”. It simply does not exist, not in any form that respects or understands the meaning of “community”. What there is instead is a network of heavily subsidized writers, professors, critics, and publishers who engage in campaigns of pamphleteering built on forced volunteerism and a false sense of self-importance. The root of the problem is predation, counterfeit agency, and a substantial sense of entitlement—teachers, mentors, publishers, editors, critics, and writers who manipulate, abuse, and ultimately destroy the aspirations, ambitions, and sometimes lives of young writers in perpetuating that system of entitlement.
As a student at Concordia I was witness to the abuse of power and the normalization of sexualization of students by professors, writers, editors, and publishers. For years, I thought it was normal—that it happened everywhere, across industries and communities. It was not. It is not. Positions of power in CanLit are abused the same way that the Harvey Weinsteins, Kevin Spaceys, Dustin Hoffmans, and Louis CKs did: to subjugate aspiring artists to their every whim. And just as Hollywood protected them, so too do the presses, publishing houses, journals, and English departments that make-up CanLit.
Not only did I protect these men by failing to publicly condemn their abuse out of fear of conflict and misplaced dutifulness, but I participated as well. I abused the small amount of power I had, the crumb of agency bestowed upon me in exchange for propping up ego and hierarchy. I demanded respect and relationships I felt I was owed. I dated women inappropriately younger than me. I treated them poorly.
I thought these men were my mentors, my friends. I trusted their persuasion. I trusted CanLit. I engaged in poor decisions and behavior. I should have known better. I should have protected my peers. I didn’t. And I have to live with that.
In the early part of this decade I was part of an online journal that aimed to be the intersection between sports and culture. We used sport as a jumping off point to discuss social issues through essays, fiction, poetry, and art. And it was successful, in its own little way. We were blessed by the generosity of many brilliant artists. It was brought to our attention that a couple of our contributors had been abusive in the literary community. I argued with my co-editors that it wasn’t our job to protect or adjudicate our community, but instead provide a venue for the discussion of its ills. We should’ve used the venue to expose those men—and other men—and create a safe space. We didn’t. And that was a mistake. I should’ve been better. I wasn’t.
I should have been like the author of the 2013 Hairpin essay “Stories Like Passwords,” a brave and honest exploration of a relationship between the aforementioned Concordia professor/writer and one of the young women he dated while the women were students. The Hairpin piece was an attempt to expose Concordia’s toxicity. In it, the writer shared:
“There are a few more things I remember about that evening. I remember how nervous I was, how he laughed and joked with me to put me at ease. I remember his friends rolling their eyes at each other as he bought me another beer. I remember him saying, ‘I’m sorry, you don’t have to drink that, I’m not trying to get you drunk,’ as the waitress put a shot down in front of me. I remember closing that bar, and then the bar upstairs. At some point his friends disappeared. At some point we were on the sidewalk. At some point we were back in my apartment. I remember him saying, ‘you can’t be in my class, you can’t be in my class,’ over and over again.”
I’m ashamed to admit: I was one of the friends rolling his eyes. I was one of the friends who left at some point. I was the friend who rode in his car the next morning, the first day of fall classes, as he bragged about his impropriety. I was the friend who was witness to his habit of dating Concordia students, and while I rebuked him privately I was silent publicly, in an era where public forums are readily available to all.
When the article was sent to me, when I read it and realized I knew the prof, that I was his friend, I should’ve come out in support of the brave young writer, who I did not know well, but well enough to reach out to at best and at least comment on a social media thread as to the validity of her story, of which I could confirm some truths and believe without doubt in others. But I didn’t. Instead, I went to the aid of a friend and walked him around campus, assuring him everything would be okay. That was a mistake.
The piece was followed by an exceptional op-ed in The Globe & Mail:
“If you are a member of this community and didn't know that gendered abuse was rampant before [redacted] broke the dam, perhaps you should ask yourself why the women you know were afraid to tell you. There is an important message here applicable not just to this tiny corner of the arts, but to similar tight-knit communities turned toxic – quite simply, when a woman tells you a man you know is an abuser, trust her.”
At the time I refused to openly acknowledge the prevalence of predation and toxicity. I should’ve contacted the writer of the Globe piece, who I did not know well, but well enough to reach out to at best and at least comment on a social media thread as to the validity of her writing, of which I could confirm some truths and believe without doubt in others. But I didn’t. That was a mistake.
My nightmares are filled with women who were afraid to tell me, women I should have listened to and supported and protected.
To my knowledge the professor is still employed by the university, still publishing, still protected by CanLit and Concordia, as well as litigious actions on his part to silence his accusers. And he is not the only professor abusing his power with students and being protected by our institutions. Another Concordia prof, a well-known writer, would brag openly about dating or sleeping with students. He would attempt to manipulate by buying them drinks, using the pretext of wanting to discuss their craft, overwhelming them with alcohol and smarm, promise them publication and praise, offer them mentorship. If they eschewed his advances he would denigrate them and their writing. This behavior was not unique at Concordia among those with power. That list of offenders is long, and goes back generations.
I was no longer a student at Concordia when the Hairpin and Globe articles were published, but during that time I had use of an office in the English Department, which failed on every level in dealing with the professor, implications, and climate. Female students of the professor who stood by him were vilified. Other profs discussed the texts like gossip in class, but did not openly or publicly condemn their colleague. One burst into my office and berated me for what was believed to be a subtweet directed at them [it was not] in relation to the scandal. They yelled at me in front of my partner, who was a student of theirs. This was an established writer, fearless in confronting me (someone with no power, with nothing to offer) in front of an aspiring writer who later that afternoon would sit in their poetry workshop. They did not burst into the office of the colleague who had dated a student, who was well-known for such behavior, who had been publicly accused of sexual assault. They did not burst into the offices of any other professors known to engage in predatory behavior. They did not burst into the office of the president or dean or chair or provost or ombudsperson.
I’m embarrassed to list Concordia on my CV. My association with its English department and professors has cost me jobs and opportunities—and rightfully so. I have been painted in the broad strokes of the men that have come to define its literary community. I have had conversations with writers and academics in Canada and the US who are aware of Concordia only for its virulent reputation, where it is common for students and faculty to openly socialize and drink heavily, often so close to campus that you can still use the school’s Wi-Fi. As my only intimate post-secondary experience, I always thought it was normal. It wasn’t, and the university’s tacit approval of their faculty’s behavior is dangerous to each cohort that has to entertain the predation and abuse of the environment they have cultivated. And Concordia is not unique. Go to almost any campus, publisher, journal, and press and you’ll find these stories.
The pestilence of Concordia and CanLit, and the depravity of my character, eventually chased me from the city and craft I love. But leaving Montreal and quitting creative writing helped me understand the power structures of those communities, and how I abetted their perpetuation. Perspective and distance may have allowed me the realization of their monstrosity, but a career switch to teaching in prisons and at a small American community college has loaned me the humility to admit my complicity.
This past semester I taught a class of undergraduates for the first time, a cohort of hopeful Connecticuters in their late teens and early twenties. And at no point was I eager to bully them into emboldening my career. There was not a moment where I sexualized them. I didn’t threaten or insult or intimidate them. I didn’t tell them they owed me anything. I felt parental, protective. I wanted nothing more than to provide them a foundation for success, to encourage them to love writing as I do, and to avoid the mistakes I made. And when the semester ended, and they flitted out into the universe, I felt a great sadness. Not just that of a parent watching their kids leave the nest, but for the absence of my parental inclinations in the past. And then I felt angry; at myself, at the assholes who are allowed to indulge in their students as playthings, as tools for their own aspirations and ego and desire, and at the institutions that protect them.
I’m worried that I haven’t been blunt enough, so let me be clear: In my fourteen-year association with Concordia and CanLit I have been witness to and made aware of innumerable instances of unwanted affection, groping, inappropriate remarks, and propositions. When rejected by women, men in positions of power would engage in whisper campaigns denigrating and degrading those who had rejected them. I sat with these men, called them friends, allowed their actions through my inaction. Both Concordia and CanLit have fostered inappropriate behaviors and environments that have permeated throughout the community.
I would like to share more of what I know, but those are not my stories to tell. Two years ago, three years ago, five, ten, I would’ve been afraid to write this essay. But I’m not afraid anymore. And I don’t fear the CanLit monster. The only thing I fear is my cowardice—cowardice that has been complicity. And I don’t matter. All that matters is that I apologize to those I have failed, offer what I know, and lend my support should anyone wish to come forward and share their stories of CanLit, and hold it and its institutions accountable.
Moving back to Montreal at the end of last summer was triggering. It’s one thing to come to terms with my failings, another to realize how far my morality once diverged from my actions. I’ve made some apologies. I’ve rid myself of toxic influences. A few weeks ago I walked away from a regular freelancing job as a cultural critic for a magazine with whom my philosophies had forked. In parting ways I wrote the editor that,
“I believe writing and writers have a duty to the public, and that cultural criticism plays an active role in reconciling social issues and ideological fissures. Personally, I’m making conscious efforts in my work and teaching to recognize my role in perpetuating power structures that are traditionally flawed [...] If we don't address disparities on a micro level, how can we expect change on a macro level?”
Maybe I’ve rediscovered my morality. Maybe teaching has given me a new identification as a writer, a sense of purpose that eluded me while abetting CanLit’s corruption. I have been preaching this dogma to my students, the importance of participating in discourse, and to be fearless in their beliefs—to use the craft to address the wrongs they are witness to. What kind of a teacher, what kind of a writer, what kind of hypocrite, what kind of a fucking person would I be if I espoused those beliefs to malleable young minds and yet remained forever silent about the power structures that have corrupted CanLit and the institutions that feed it?
I’d be a monster.