Everybody’s Face but Their Own
Satire in an age of surrender
Fear, in the Canadian literary world, is something few people want to talk about, at least openly. When writers gather in private, however, the topic of what they can and cannot say or write in the public sphere is always simmering just under the surface. These days, they are justifiably afraid of putting a foot wrong (for a sample of the reasons why, see Lydia Perovic’s “Cut It Out,” published last month in these pages). It’s a situation that has created some interesting moments for me as I pitch my latest novel, My Camino, to the unsuspecting. When asked what my book is all about, I describe it as a satire of the art world, identity politics, and the culture of political correctness. It’s really about three friends: an African American man, a transgender woman, and an Irish immigrant who strike it big in the New York art scene. The dream quickly sours and the trio, in full retreat, decide to bike the Camino de Santiago, in northwestern Spain, concocting an elaborate revenge fantasy along the way.
“Interesting . . . ” is usually the first response I get. Then, as the wine flows and newly legalized herbs are vaped, the responses get pointier: “Do you really think you can get away with this kind of thing in the era of cancel culture and mob rule?” As the intoxicants do their work, the questions get even balder: “Are you suicidal?” The good news for me is that I’m not. The questions persist, however, causing me to wonder (often at 3:47 a.m.) whether the act of putting a pen to paper is worthwhile anymore. But then the sun comes up (thank you, daylight savings), and with it a renewed urge to speak out about the current censorious cultural atmosphere.
Yes, the fear is real and trepidation commonplace. Canadian media and arts institutions are (officially or unofficially) supporting policies and actions that are being forged through an increasingly dominant culture of political correctness and the ascent of identity politics. Literary culture in Canada is still smouldering from l’affaire Galloway, which has retained its afterglow (the matter is currently before the courts) and which, at its height, saw writers (of all people) trying very hard to silence each other and attempting to brand anyone who argued for due process as ignorant of the facts, or as a potential danger to the community. Even the venerable Margaret Atwood, whose feminist bona fides had been unblemished for decades, was singled out for bullying and put up as a candidate for re-education.
Theoretically, of course, admonitions that move us toward an inclusiveness that recognizes and respects diversity have enormous merit. The notion that the time has come for mainstream culture to welcome into the public discourse formerly marginalized voices (women, Indigenous people, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ community) is a positive development. The emerging issue for writers, as I see it, is figuring out how to navigate a social climate that has been balkanized into an ever-expanding number of political and identity-based categories — each one aggressively policed by a vocal faction of self-appointed activists or guardians. The unwritten code seems to be that it is fine to write about “the other” as long as you do so in an approved way, and as long as your work includes the required victim/survivor narrative and honours, without criticizing, the traditionally marginalized. Months ago, when I began drafting this essay, a group of Ontario-based writers (some of the same mob who led the persecution of the former University of British Columbia professor Steven Galloway) were doing their best to bully the Toronto Public Library into not allowing the feminist Meghan Murphy to speak at a local branch, because she does not share their narrative about transgender people. To their credit, the library and its allies successfully defended free speech, citing both the Canadian Criminal Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (kudos to Vickery Bowles). Those who wanted to shut down Murphy’s appearance cited, of all things, the rules and policies of Twitter. But I digress.
In our current climate, writers should be prepared to self-scourge if they (through an accident of birth) are visible representatives of a privileged group. The so-called progressive world view of modern-day privilege allows for no nuance when it comes to ascribing privilege, especially when it comes to white men. No distinction is made between the privilege enjoyed by the uneducated and impoverished and the privilege flaunted by millionaires with Ivy League educations. The generations of men currently alive are read to be synonymous with all past generations of men. All of us have been mired in privilege since time immemorial.
The categories for the marginalized are equally dehumanizing, leading to public squabbles among minority groups as to which of them can lay claim to suffering the most at the hands of the privileged. For some, emerging debates about cultural appropriation have them asking if they dare eat a curry, braid their hair, play the blues, or wear lederhosen. For others, the world of fiction is suspect, if not deeply problematic.
The situation in Canada has entered the realm of the absurd. In recent years, I served on literary juries that were cleverly rigged (in terms of member selection, judging guidelines, and institutional policies) to ensure that all of the right boxes (diversity, identity, politics) were ticked before any consideration was given to literary excellence. Some big publishers now demand that authors sign morality clauses that will result in the termination of a contract if any past behaviour — subsequently uncovered — casts an author in a negative public light. Rumour has it that writers are actually signing such documents.
We have to start asking who decides. Who are the arbiters of public morality? Can we believe them when they say they are out to prosecute the public good, or will they turn out to be sanctimonious frauds? Is it really a writer’s civic duty to pursue a democratic utopian vision, as Simon Brault, director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, would have us believe? (See his speech in the Big Thinking lecture series last June: “What Is the Price of Reconciling Freedom and Responsibility in a Changing Democracy?”) Recent shifts toward political populism have many people talking about history and about wanting to be on the right side of it. Many — under the most cursory questioning — reveal a feeble grasp of the vicissitudes of morality as embodied by the past.
The CanLit environment has become toxic to the imagination, which doesn’t like categories and operates on the principle that most people exist in tension between opposites: generous/selfish, honest/dishonest, conformist/nonconformist, and so on. Reality is messy, and people are full of contradictions. Literature and the arts have always been the virtual agora, the meeting place where minds explore what it is to be human, often stepping outside the conventions of the day to criticize as well as to empathize. Rarely is a truly fine writer a dogmatist or a card-carrying party member. Most writers I know see dogma and the party line as the domain of hacks, careerists, and people who can’t think critically. Harold Bloom, steeped as he was in the U.S. culture wars of the 1990s, saw this coming and predicted, perhaps rightly, that politicizing literary culture would destroy it.
Am I overstating the case? I am, somewhat. Yet, in trying to make sense of this moment, in trying to understand the whispers, the anger, and the policing that have been so present in the Canadian literary scene, I am reminded of nothing so much as the strict Catholic atmosphere of my childhood (that would be Ireland of the 1960s and ’70s). This was a time when the parish priest was all-powerful. He bullied from the altar, and anyone who stood up to him faced certain social ostracism. Similarly, an academic friend of mine recently confided that the current paranoid intellectual climate in the West reminds him of growing up under Communism in Eastern Europe.
Writers have to do more than bleat out the platitudes of the establishment while at the same time posing as members of the counterculture. They have to do more than pen entertainments in the hope of being financially rewarded by international publishing conglomerates or by the big-box prize culture. They have to challenge the invisible censor who now sits in all our heads and would like to tell us what we can and cannot say. It was with this thought in mind that I wrote My Camino, mining a satirical vein (not a popular genre in Canada). I deliberately ticked PC boxes and then tried to create characters who displayed a range of thoughts and behaviours that could not be contained within these narrow categories. I also wanted to challenge a culture that more and more values literature and art solely in terms of sales. The same motivation drives me here.
“So how do you think My Camino will be received?” a friend asked at a party last fall. It was late, and we were rummaging for stashed beer under vegetables in the crisper drawer of the fridge. “My guess,” I said, “is that it will be largely ignored. People won’t really know how to react to it in the current climate.”
Full marks to the few reviewers who have engaged with the work, who have appreciated its humour and its satirical intent (one even found it to be joyful). As expected, however, the most common reaction has been silence.
How do I know that the non-reception of my book has anything to do with falling afoul of the politicized literary culture of the moment? The answer is that I don’t know — not that it matters in the context of postmodern truthiness, a culture in which suspicion is proof enough. It’s sufficient that I have been told that My Camino made some people deeply uncomfortable. It’s enough that I could smell the flop sweat in a couple of reviews and even in some of the marketing bumf. The author’s photo on the book jacket was enough to raise the alarm for one reviewer. It used to be that the standard gambit of the lazy reviewer was to offer a synopsis of the book. Today’s lazy critic is more likely to review a work of fiction against the standards of the “progressive” zeitgeist, using it as an occasion to signal his or her position within it.
It could well be that my book sucks (it doesn’t). It could be that all of the review organs have dried up. It could be that I am not on social media and therefore haven’t cultivated the necessary marketing apparatus of the times. It could be that small publishers operate in such a protective climate of government subsidies that they are under no real obligation to sell books in order to survive; the grants will come again next year. The number of titles published in any given year will be the number of tickets the publisher will have in the Literary Prize Lottery. Maybe next year the house will get lucky and a winning book will generate sales, though only if all the boxes are ticked (more trauma porn, anyone?) or avoided — how about another heart-wrenching historical saga steeped in regionalism?
Which makes this short essay what exactly — the whining of the overlooked or a clumsy sales pitch? Well, both, actually: the former in the service of the latter, because leveraging complaint is part of the marketing brief for contemporary writers. They will do well to contextualize their work in a way that offers glimpses into their personal suffering, perhaps in the form of an essay that has a whiff of victimhood about it and that functions, figuratively speaking, as salt in the wound. Self-harm is my right, after all, because I’m Irish and an immigrant and therefore somewhat familiar with the right hook of colonialism and the left hook of my adopted country’s dominant culture, my pasty pelt notwithstanding.
I’m tempted to say we have the literary culture we deserve, but that would be too cynical. Contrary to popular belief, satire is positive in nature; it looks to correct in hopes of something better.