Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Which of These Authors Are Not Like the Others?

In the April 24-30, 2003 edition of Now weekly is an advertisement from the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association. (See also: the Summer 2003 issue of Toronto art mag Lola). The text of the ad is as follows:

Atwood. Coupland. Davies. Heti. Ondaatje. Quarrington.

We have our own library.
We have our own magazines.

Look for this icon.

OK, did you notice something strange in that list of authors? Nope, it isn’t that four of the six are men, whereas equal opportunism would dictate a 50/50 split between male and female writers. Is it that Coupland is a Vancouver-based writer, while the others are all Ontario-based? Nope, that ain’t it either.

Here, perhaps this chart will help elucidate.

Author          Number of Citations in the Toronto Public Library Catalogue

Atwood:                  310
Coupland:                 32
Davies:                   159
Heti:                         1
Ondaatje:                114
Quarrington:              34

Understand what I’m talking about now? Sheila Heti has done some amazing things in her short time on earth. I can’t name another 26-year-old in Toronto with a book published by McSweeney’s, a successful monthly lecture series (that earned a brief mention in the New Yorker when she took it on the road) and fiction published in Toronto Life, among other places. I understand she’s currently working on a musical of sorts, along with a novel. In short, a very talented individual.

But something isn’t right here, and it’s worth mentioning. Is Sheila Heti such a monster talent that the reading public -- after only one book of short stories -- recognize her by her last name, as we might a Hollywood actor or a famous musician or athlete? I severely doubt it. The Middle Stories wasn’t a best-seller (although it is now on the syllabus of some university English classes). Still, it did very well, and earned a tugboatload of publicity when it was published in the Spring of 2001, but there are at least 30 other authors who could have been inserted in her place.

I would love to know how the names for this campaign were chosen. Perhaps they were chosen at random, and these are the six names that were drawn from a hat. Realistically, some behind-the-scenes machinations led to her name being inserted. What that is, we may never know. Perhaps her literary agent pulled some strings. Perhaps she is friends with someone at the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association. Perhaps Martha Sharpe at House of Anansi knows people who know people. Insert your own conspiracy theory here.

What we do know is that a certain injustice is occurring here – I can think of a few Toronto authors who must have ground their teeth when they spotted that ad, especially those who have published, say, more than one book.

As for me, I’m less concerned about the wacko process that led to her name being sandwiched between Robertson Davies and Michael Ondaatje, and more interested in the pressure and expectations this sort of thing generates. The next youngest author in that list, Coupland, is either 40 or 41. What if -- and this is only an if -- Heti doesn’t deliver on her early promise? I doubt that will be the case, but this sort of juxtaposition, at the very least, means we the literary public are allowed to demand a hell of a lot from her next book(s). Or at least, that’s the conclusion I reach when I see such a list.