Torontoist Reads: Literary Toronto's Insecurity Complex
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Torontoist Reads: Literary Toronto’s Insecurity Complex

2006_7_26shyam.jpgDoes Toronto’s literary scene have a massive insecurity complex? Judging from the three panelists to Toronto Life’s recent fiction roundtable the answer would have to be yes.
Panelists Sheila Heti, Shyam Selvadurai (pictured here) and Andrew Pyper, all very good authors, ooze self-doubt through the first part of the panel (the second should be appearing on the Toronto Life website soon). It’s not that they don’t think they’re capable writers, it’s an insecurity about Toronto and its place in Canadian Literature
“I’m reading up on other urban fiction in Canada. And some other cities have a much clearer presence in the world. Like Vancouver, for instance…. The mountains and the sea—or the east end, which is so awful—are so strongly present. The fiction in Winnipeg, for its part, is so dominated by class lines, the train yards and so on. But Toronto is just so amorphous. Everybody does their own little thing,” Selvadurai said.

Selvadurai’s inability to pin down the Toronto “presence” isn’t a bad thing. It’s a sign of a maturing city with a large, polymorphous writing community. Toronto, after all, is a city that can support a Dionne Brand and Camilla Gibb, as well as a David Bezmozgis and a Michael Ondaatje. Not to mention the three very different writers that Toronto Life called upon for this panel. Try to think of the literary presence of any other large English speaking city (London, New York, Chicago) and you’ll see the same “amorphous” quality.
Then comes Andrew Pyper’s guarded observation that “there’s a reluctance in our fiction to engage Toronto directly as a place. There are plenty of exceptions to this, so I have to footnote this generalization. But there’s almost an apologetic reflex to set stories elsewhere so as to not upset fellow Canadians,” he said
“I think Toronto is always looking outward; it’s almost embarrassed to look inward. It’s self-conscious about its “bigness,” its “richness,” and whatever else it’s number one at. I think we do look outside and travel outside. We can’t wait to set a book anywhere but here,” he adds.
If Toronto authors have a “reluctance in our fiction to engage Toronto directly as a place” then they’ve got a funny way of showing it. Torontoist has read or know of more than half-a-dozen books in the last year or so that engage this city, or parts of it directly. Over at Reading Toronto, York Professor Amy Lavender Harris is working on a project and a York University course to discuss Toronto literature and if put on the spot we could come up with a dozen books that explore Toronto.
Like we’ve said before Toronto novelists set our stories elsewhere not because of some misguided politeness to other Canadians but because we’re a cosmopolitan, internationally-minded city.
Torontoist does agree with Pyper’s observation that the city does suffer from a self-consciousness about its “bigness” and “richness.” Toronto doesn’t have and doesn’t need that annoying brash swagger that infects cities when it suddenly finds itself in the spotlight.
What Toronto’s literary scene needs is a shift in attitude away from crippling insecurity, and self-doubt to a scene that quietly, but assuredly acknowledges that we’re pretty damn good at this writing thing, whether the novel is set in Cabbagetown or Cairo.
Photo from TO Life website by Liz Ikiriko