Several months ago author Genni Gunn (Solitaria Signature editions 2010) invited me to attend The Writers’ Union of Canada AGM Onwards conference in Ottawa as a guest panelist. The event was held recently from May 30 – June 1 and my role was to discuss book reviewing with moderator and author/editor Ian LeTourneau, co-panelists writer and broadcaster Nigel Beale and last minute addition best selling author/editor Lawrence Scanlon.
The request to attend came as a shock initially because for all intents and purposes I am the poster child of literary outsiders, lacking the acceptable credentials to be admitted to the union as a member. Although it did appear that I was indeed a peculiar choice, ultimately my presence was quite fitting as certain very positive events unfolded to justify the worth of my involvement.
As an independent writer and publisher I have fought an uphill battle against the armies of traditionalists who still promote the myth that being self-published taints your work as illiterate and defective. Of course this is ludicrous. A great many authors and editors who have embraced all aspects of this new era in writing will attest to the ever increasing numbers of traditionally published authors going lone wolf and doing so quite successfully thank you very much. What an irony that Margaret Atwood, one of the founding members of The Writers’ Union of Canada as well as being the monarch of Canadian literature also self-published early in her writing career. I dare anyone to say her self published work was tainted, illiterate or defective. This bit of literary history was clear and present in my thinking when I applied for membership and hit ‘send’ after accepting Ms. Gunn’s invitation. The result: I was denied. My response: subdued elation. Why? Because my intention all along was to attend as a member of a more expansive and global community of self defining artists, a rapidly growing population of writers who control their own creative content both online and in print. It could accurately be said that there is a maverick streak in those who make their own rules, create their own opportunities and who are in the purest sense, entrepreneurs and visionaries. It was in this spirit that I strode in to the conference as a member of a large pack of radicals known as indie writers, fully prepared to be laughed out of the room but much to my amazement, I wasn’t.
Before I left St. John’s Newfoundland, I had a notebook and pen in my bag ready to make notes prior to jumping into the lions den but when the landing gear hit the tarmac in Ottawa, I still hadn’t written anything in preparation for the discussion. As time passed I wisely decided to go in cold, allowing the words to flow naturally. For me this was a long overdue conversation that desperately needed to happen rather than an onslaught of the usual redundancies said in monotone that you could hear in any debate.
This conference was an opportunity for compromise, agreement and a widening of narrow minds, not for adversarial jousting leading to division. As the conversation evolved I was impressed with the open and fair exchange between myself, Ian LeTourneau, Nigel Beale and Lawrence Scanlon. The success of this situation had everything to do with the level of respect shown to one another from start to finish and without it the hour would have been misery personified.
Let us not kid ourselves, all writers are aware of the lay of the land and that the scenery has changed since the advent of the internet. Of course this is precisely why the entire focus of the ”Onwards’ conference was to explore the future for authors in this brave new world of writing, marketing and selling books. I was however prepared to spar if it got down to the nitty gritty of the ‘us’ against ‘them’ stand off. As I set about sharing my views on book reviewing, my true agenda finally emerged: to showcase this magazine and the work of the artists who display their words and images on our pages.
Obviously it was paramount to keep those attending the talk focused and involved and their interest piqued in the new ground we are breaking for emerging as well as experienced writers, musicians, artists, film makers and photographers. When the discourse concluded I had no doubt I’d done my job well.
Questions from the audience were primarily aimed at the area dealing indie writers, bloggers and electronic self publishing. At the midway point in the question/answer period, the elephant in the middle of the room could no longer be ignored: stagnation. Some things had to be said and I said them, for good or ill. The noticeable lack of youth, visible minorities, women and members of LGBT community of writers was impossible to ignore and the fact that I was the only woman on the panel should have been an indicator that all was not well within TWUC. Certainly, very little before me visually reflected Canada’s multi cultural population and heritage but to merely call it elitist isn’t fully accurate or fair.
More than anything, we are in the throes of a transition both within the different writing communities and in solitude as we ply our trade as individual artists. Books are no longer on paper, they are on Kindle, Kobo, pdf’s and websites. This may indeed be a thorn in the side of those who espouse a dinosaur mentality in this era but it is still a fact. Technology has opened the door wide to more writers and the competition for an audience and readership is fierce, the water muddy and sometimes shark infested. Because of this fear, the sentiment that was constantly being volleyed back and forth during the panel discussion was that online writers, bloggers and self published authors were a threat and an illiterate one at that. At one interval a few individuals made the heated point that bloggers who are not writers should never be allowed to review books, that somehow only writers should review the work of peers. I found this short sighted and quite frankly insulting to the people they are selling their books to:readers/bloggers.
When I stated that we were in the entertainment business and that book reviews were actually ads for books, hell did indeed freeze over, at least it did in that room. However there was and is no denying this reality in 2013 and beyond. Many of the writers who write reviews are clearly threatened by bloggers/readers who write compelling book reviews that rival those of a seasoned professional. For far too long book reviewing has been owned and controlled by writers and to say that it is subjective is an understatement. Not only has it been the main source of publicity for a book but the entire business operates politically, vacillating between incestuous back slapping and jealous savaging. Opening up the critiquing of novels and poetry to readers is not only less corrupt, it is also a boon for any writer who values those they write for, the readers. Personally, as a professional reviewer, I hear the death knell for this area of writing every time I view a book trailer. It is impossible to compete with an entrancing two minute visual synopsis replete with a catchy sound track, no matter how sweeping your prose or concise your wording.
After the audience broke for lunch before attending another panel discussion I had the great fortune to connect with some wonderful writers who have already embraced the next leap we are all making creatively. In the next issue of Tuck three of these writers Poet Susan McMaster, activist/artist Franke James and poet Rona Shaffran will grace our pages and I am honoured to provide a place to share their art.
For any writer to be surrounded by those who share the love of words and a passion for making that which is imaginary real with letters, sentences and paragraphs is validating. At our core, we writers are magicians who perform a sort of mental alchemy and nothing compares to a room filled with refined intellects discussing ideas and concepts that elevate both readers and writers alike. Many thanks and respect to moderator Ian LeTourneau, co-panelists Nigel Beale and Lawrence Scanlon for your balanced and generous dialogue. You have left me with much to ponder. Special thanks to Genni Gunn for placing me precisely where I was supposed to be at exactly the right time. The result of this week of panels and discussions culminated in a ground breaking and history making change at The Writers’ Union of Canada: The members voted to admit self published authors into the fold, finally acknowledging their equality and value. We have indeed moved onward in so many crucial ways. Next year when the TWUC AGM is held here in Newfoundland it will be encouraging to see the vitality that a diverse membership will inject into the conference.