Claiming Space: CanLit redux

image of bookshelves lit by a line of soft lightbulbs

Rayanne Haines represents so much of what’s wonderful about the writing community: she’s an acclaimed poet, a bestselling romance author, a powerhouse of a creative woman, and, as Executive Director of the Edmonton Poetry Festival, a hard-working community builder and advocate for inclusion. Rayanne personifies that we are, each of us, so much more than just the one thing we’ve published or the one thing we’re currently creating.

A few months ago, Rayanne asked to include my thoughts on CanLit for an upcoming piece she was writing for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta members magazine, WestWord. She sent me an interesting list of questions and I did my best to articulate my thoughts.

CanLit, for those who don’t follow the local literary scene, is short for Canadian Literature. In keeping with the size of this country, CanLit encompasses a huge range of written works. Recently, CanLit has become something of a tug-of-war: those in the establishment (and those who’ve benefited from it though they may not have helped build it) versus those looking to re-examine, expand, and reinvigorate what CanLit is. We’re in a conversation about the questions of gatekeepers, invisible biases, marginalizations–and, of course, so much more.

Right. So back to the interview with Rayanne.

I’ve learned to ask that I be permitted to publish my replies in their entirety. For any number of reasons, including length and editorial framing, it’s rare that my portion of a given interview will be fully published. (Here’s an earlier example.) So, with Rayanne’s support, here’s my interview with her in full:

RH: First, can you provide me with a one or two paragraph statement about yourself as a writer so I can make sure I’m using the language you prefer when referring to your literary contributions?

SGW: I am a writer, editor, speaker, and community organizer. I write short stories and novels in the crime writing and speculative fiction genres. My work has been short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing. I speak on the craft of writing and editing, as well as on the business of being an author, and have done so at conferences, conventions, festivals, and workshops across Canada. I’ve been a mentor with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta. I’ve been a volunteer and Board member with several literary organizations; have chaired and programmed writers’ conferences; and have organized many public events with multiple authors across Western Canada.

RH: You’ve done a tremendous amount of work in the province to promote the entire writing community rather than “just” the crime genre. What drives you to do this?

SGW: Thanks for the acknowledgement! I know there’s a debate in some circles about what “genre” or “literary” means, but for me, if we’re writers, we’re part of the same writing community. Supporting and encouraging one another comes with being a community member. Sometimes, I can do this by organizing events, etc. At other times, it might be boosting on social media or making connections between people or showing up at literary events. I think that being a part of something, whether it’s a larger community or a single event, includes contributing something of use for everyone’s benefit. I feel lucky to be able to do what I can and that others have found it useful.

RH: The past few years have brought waves of discussion to the forefront around CanLit’s lack of diversity and the changes the writing community sees as vitally necessary. Historically and at its most basic, CanLit has been described as literature written by Canadians (though they don’t necessarily have to be living in Canada) that has a cultural impact on Canadians. How do you think this does or does not miss the mark when we are looking at diversity? As a female writer of colour do you feel the industry as a whole is moving in the right direction, why or why not?

SGW: What constitutes “literature”? Who is “Canadian”? What merits “cultural impact”? Most importantly: who gets to decide the answers to these questions? 

The historic gatekeepers of CanLit—the publishers, editors, agents, owners—are part of a monoculture, one in which, because of their privilege, they believe(d) represents the whole reading public. With the appearance of more and more industry professionals outside of that monoculture, the conversation has moved to diversity. Well-meaning advocates push for diversity without fully understanding that diversity is often just optics, or tokenism. 

In other words, one garbanzo bean in a bowl of navy beans does not diversity make. We call that an anomaly. Some argue we should have some kidney beans, some pinto beans, maybe even some black beans in the bowl, just to be fair; that’s what diversity has come to mean.

As a WOC who participates in the Canadian writing/publishing community, I advocate for inclusion. Inclusion in the publishing industry looks like people from many different communities working as publishing executives, as editors, agents, and booksellers. Inclusion means decision-makers, or gatekeepers, are from multiple backgrounds, and bring their varied lived experiences as members of historically marginalized communities, to judge the merits of what gets published or not. They encourage writers of all communities to submit work and they know that the reading public is just as varied as they are.

I think the Canadian publishing industry has great intentions, but, to use another metaphor, steering large ships in new directions takes a lot of energy to accomplish. I think we’re still in the momentum-building stage, the stage where we’re fighting complacency and inertia. Frankly, we’re still arguing for a new direction on some decks, amidst cries of the ship’s imminent demise. The people who think CanLit is being attacked are only correct in that the traditional, historical make-up of CanLit is changing into something other than what these people are used to—and have benefited most from. 

But I believe we’ll get there. It’s inevitable. There are too many of us pushing for a new direction, and working hard for inclusion of marginalized voices and perspectives, and on our terms.

RH: You are very vocal about the need to see more diversity in CanLit and also in the crime writing genre. Do you see any overlap? I’m thinking specifically along the lines of, if one area of literature is slow to change does movement in another help?

SGW: I think any movement in any area of the industry helps. It creates an opening for more conversation and examination of the status-quo. It shows people who might have formerly chosen to be quiet that there’s space for the conversation now and going forward.

As far as the crime writing community in particular, I know there are allies advocating for inclusion and pointing out inequities in the system, but they do seem few and far between. Whether I attend crime writing or literary conference and festivals, etc., the overwhelming majority of attendees and authors aren’t from marginalized communities. Not surprisingly, the same goes for the organizing committees of these events. So I’d have to say that’s a disappointing overlap, though there seem to be more voices raised for the necessity of inclusion in CanLit circles than in crime writing ones, at present.

RH: Your Lola Starke series of novels and of the Crescent City short stories are written in the tradition of the hard-boiled detective genre, with magic and ghosts thrown in for good measure. (I love this concept!) Have you ever felt pressured to write more “literary” work?  

SGW: I’ve never felt pressured, per se, though I did take a stab at writing THE masterwork of Canadian Literature, about 15 years ago. I think it’s expected of every English Lit grad. As you can imagine with anything involving stabbing, it was keenly painful and involved an unsightly amount of blood (and sweat, and tears).

I consider “literary” another genre, with its own unique tradition of tropes and themes and craft. When and if I feel inspired to write “literary,” it will likely be categorized as magic realism. (Is that still the parlance? Or did that die in the 90s..?) I always seem to gravitate to magic and the inexplicable. There’s such poetry in the unexplained.

RH: At the 2018 Edmonton Public Library Thinker Series, Neil Gaiman stated, when asked what writers could do to be successful, “Don’t do what I’ve done. Pick a style and stick with it.” While clearly being facetious, as his multiple bestselling, yet vastly different books attest to his success, over and over writers are told to write to Brand. And if they plan to write in multiple genres they should do so under a pen name so as not to confuse the reader. Do you write under a pen name? Why or why not? 

SGW: Yes, I write under a pen name—but not because of branding. I wanted to honour my father, who passed away in 2000, so I chose to publish with my maiden name (oh how quaint a term thatis), and I chose to use initials instead of “Sandra” in order to include names that are also meaningful to me.

I don’t agree with the argument regarding multiple pen names for multiple genres, or really, with any argument that reduces the intelligence of my readers to such a degree. I’m certain that anyone who picks up a book with my name on it will also read the blurb about that book. It will be clear to them whether or not that particular book will be of interest to them. At which point, they’re free to choose to take a chance on a new-to-me genre or on a new-to-them author or to put that book down altogether. We all know the maxim that no book is pleasing to everyone. I think that’s true even with how our existing fans may view any of our own new works. 

Also, if a reader associates my name with only one kind of genre and therefore discounts my “non-genre” book entirely, that’s okay too. I might catch their interest a different time or even not at all. I can’t control things like that, so I don’t sweat it.

In terms of differentiating between the genres I publish in, that’s what book covers are for. Covers signal the book’s genre at a glance. Cover design is an art/science that all marketing departments (and self-published authors) are well-attuned to, if not necessarily always successful at…

But as to Neil Gaiman’s example, I think it’s worth saying that he had the opportunity to build his career over many years, with the leeway to explore different genres and media. He’s become a well-established author with a huge name recognition factor worldwide on the basis of those earlier years. The publishing industry now is quite different than from when he started. I think few large publishers right now are willing to give you multi-book deals based on your promise that no two of your books will be the same, unless and until you’re already a huge success.

Publishing to my mind runs very much on replicating past bestsellers rather than on innovation. For writers from marginalized groups, this often means being told readers want only certain kinds of narratives from us: the immigrant experience; coming-of-age-as-queer; overcoming-disability-to-triumph; the pain-of-being-Black/Indigenous/Other; etc. They’re all variations on a theme: how the marginalized can become accepted into the historically-centred culture. Obviously, this narrow framing excludes the full, complex experience of marginalized communities—but it’s how publishing gatekeepers control what gets considered mainstream.

RH: Have you ever felt that you needed to use a pen name because you write genre fiction? Do you publish non-genre under a different name?

SGW: I’ve never felt this need and I don’t see doing so in the future. On an entirely pragmatic level, I don’t have the time and energy to maintain multiple websites and social media accounts for different pen names.

As well, I trust my readers to make their own informed choices on what they’d like to read from me. Of course, I hope that my writing style and my imagination will entice them to follow me to other genres, but I wouldn’t like to try to manipulate readers by pretending to be someone else entirely.

RH: What are your thoughts on “Branding” as an author who writes across the literary spectrum?

SGW: I think branding is very much a part of the business side of being an author, but I don’t see it as false or as some sort of put-on persona, which is what I’ve heard others say about it.

Branding first came to light in mainstream conversation in the context of companies/corporations and marketing/advertising. It’s tied up with commercials and subconscious messaging and with some sketchy ad practices. So, I think when authors talk about branding as individuals, there’s still that underlying belief that we’re selling ourselves out somehow. But that’s what personal and professional boundaries are for: we get to say how much of ourselves we share. And clearly, for each of us, that’s going to be a different set of parameters. As it should be.

I think the best branding for an author is authenticity. No matter what genres or media we create in, our “brand” is really ourselves. When people come out to see us at live events, or when they listen to podcast interviews, or they follow us on social media, etc., they’re interested at some level in who we are as people. Of course, they usually have questions about our process as artists as well as questions about the “author” part of our work (ie., book tours and agents and such), but really, I think they want to connect with us on a human level. So it makes sense for us just to be ourselves—with our boundaries clearly defined.

If we’re our authentic selves, then the choices we make as authors in terms of what we want to write next, or which festivals to attend, or whom to collaborate with, or which anthologies or magazines we submit to—those will all fall naturally within our “brand.” 

RH: Do you see crossovers between what is considered literary fiction, CanLit, and Genre writing? This is certainly something I struggle with when we see writers like Margaret Atwood who built a career of Spec Fic (I would argue Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, are undoubtedly Speculative Fiction/Dystopian), and Neil Gaiman who writes about gods, demons, magic and ghosts, yet who’s NOT considered a genre writer.

SGW: Inherent in this question is a certain unspoken hierarchy about genres. Namely, that genre fiction is somehow lesser-than literary work. I’ve always thought of Gaiman as genre, probably because I discovered his writing in the 80s, when he wrote The Sandman for DC Comics. My hands-down favourite Gaiman novel is The Graveyard Book, which some would classify in the YA genre. To my mind, such classifications have little to do with the quality of the work.

Labels such as literary or science fictionmystery, romance, or Young Adult, are created by marketing departments and publishers as a way to sell books to prospective readers. They’re shorthand to help readers efficiently search for something to read. That’s really all genre labels are: marketing tags.

But what writers write, that can’t be contained by just a label. So, yes, of course, there’s so-called genre crossover. We write what the story requires us to write, and where the characters’ choices lead us. We write with the fervent hope that we’re up to the challenge of translating the jumble of imagery and people in our heads using whatever comparatively meagre alphabet we have at hand. During the writing process, there’s no room for genre tags. There’s only what serves the story.

soft sunlight streaming down through forest greenery

[This post has been edited to correct Rayanne Haines’s title as Executive Director with the Edmonton Poetry Festival.]