A collage of book covers. Photo Credit: Ontario Culture Days

Ontario Reads: Punching Above Our Literary Weight

May 17, 2021

Photo Credit: Ontario Culture Days

By: Li Robbins

Who would have guessed a cross-country radio “battle of the books” would become a long-running phenomenon? Well, it certainly has, with CBC’s Canada Reads (external site) turning twenty this year. The annual celebrity “championing” of books inspires vigorous debate and a so-called Canada Reads bump, with sales of shortlisted books spiking.

Over the past two decades, Canada Reads-winning books have included stories hinging on the construction of a viaduct and a water treatment plant (Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (Penguin Random House site)); talking canines (André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs (CH books site)); hijinks on parliament hill (Terry Fallis’s The Best Laid Plans (Penguin Random House site)); and life as a queer refugee in Canada (Samra Habib’s memoir We Have Always Been Here (Penguin Random House site)). What the above victorious writers have in common is that they’ve all made Ontario their home. Ontario is also home to two-thirds of Canada’s book publishing industry. And, while the ultimate impact of the pandemic on publishing is still a question mark, there’s no doubt about the strength of Ontario’s authors.

“I think we punch above our weight,” says Emily Donaldson, book critic for the Globe and Mail and editor of Canadian Notes & Queries (external site). “Canada was chosen to be Guest of Honour at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade book fair, on the combined strength of our marquee writers — the Atwoods, the Ondaatjes — and the new crop of more diverse ones, people like David Chariandy, Téa Mutonji, and Zalika Reid-Benta.”

This year also saw Ontario-based writers Dionne Brand and Canisia Lubrin win two of eight Windham Campbell Prizes, awarded annually by Yale University and one of the richest literary prizes in the world. As well, poet Souvankham Thammavongsa’s first book of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife (Penguin Random House site), has been nominated for multiple international awards on top of winning Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2020.

The broadening of the publishing field to include newer and more diverse authors is something Saffron Beckwith says is increasingly embraced by teachers and librarians. Beckwith is one of the leaders of a group of publishers called Dewey Divas and Dudes (external site), who joined forces in 2002 to help get some of the “hidden gems” on publishers’ lists into schools and libraries.

“Teachers and librarians are really excited about the increasing number of books by BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] creators and subject matter,” says Beckwith. “The demand has always been there, and it has increased substantially in the past two years. It’s great that Ontario publishers are meeting that need.”

Once upon a time CanLit leaned heavily on small town and rural settings, primarily seen through the eyes of English Canadian “settler” culture. But while there’s still great fiction being written about rural Ontario experiences (Donaldson cites Mary Lawson’s novels as one example) there’s been a definite shift from farm to city.

Steven Beattie, a freelancer and books blogger at That Shakespearean Rag (external site), points to the vibrancy of Toronto neighbourhood Scarborough as a current urban “locus for really interesting writers and writing.” Beattie, who was also reviews editor for industry publication Quill & Quire (external site) from 2008 to February 2021, cautions against assuming it’s a brand new “trend” though. He recalls an online event with 2020 Trillium Book Award (English) winner Téa Mutonji (Shut Up You’re Pretty (Arsenal Pulp site)), where she pointed out that great writers have been based in Scarborough for some time — it’s just that readers and publishers have caught up. Perhaps there’s a similar backstory to the increasingly widespread appreciation of Indigenous writers, for instance, authors such as Waubgeshig Rice, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Cherie Dimaline, to name just a few.

“Certainly in the past five to seven years a flourishing of previously marginalized literature and Indigenous writing has really blown up,” says Beattie. “Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s work, for example, is important in the way her work has positioned Indigenous writing in this province from a specifically Anishinaabe voice and perspective. And as a thought leader she’s very important.”

Beattie, a three-time Trillium Book Award juror, (the prize specifically focusses on Ontario writers), says one thing that hasn’t changed over time is the quality that Ontario writers possess.

“There’s a really strong wealth of talent and a strong writing community in Ontario,” says Beattie. “The range of what writers are producing has always been impressive and is only getting more impressive as we go forward. And that’s across genres. Take poetry, for example. It flies under the radar because it doesn’t sell a lot, but the work of Ontario poets is out of this world.”

Beattie also notes that Ontario is home to Nobel Prize in Literature winner Alice Munro, whom he credits with creating a subgenre known as “Southern Ontario Gothic” (aided and abetted by other notables such as Margaret Atwood). More recently true crime has been having “a moment,” says Donaldson, and for the past half-decade there’s been a movement towards dystopian and speculative fiction, sometimes from authors previously known best for literary fiction.

“Michael Redhill comes to mind,” says Donaldson. “And of course Margaret Atwood made the transition some years ago. Waubgeshig Rice falls in this category, too, with his Moon of the Crusted Snow (ECW Press site), as does Catherine Hernandez’s recent Crosshairs (Harper Collins Canada site), Michael Christie’s Greenwood (Penguin Random House site), and Liz Harmer’s The Amateurs (Penguin Random House site).”

Like most cultural industries book publishing in Ontario has had to adapt to a more virtual existence during the course of the pandemic. In the case of publishing, it would seem to have successfully made the transition. Beattie says while there was an initial wobble, the spring of 2021 has seen no fall-off in terms of the number of books being published in the province. And although most of the Ontario Book Publishers Association’s forty-eight members are located in Toronto (a notable exception being the much-praised Windsor-based Biblioasis), you could view that as a strength. As Beckwith notes, “the Toronto Arts Council does a fantastic of supporting creators and publishers.”

So, were there to be an “Ontario Reads,” which authors would our bibliophiles-slash-Ontario-books-experts champion to the world at large? Here are their picks for three established and three emerging “must-read” Ontario authors.

Emily Donaldson

Established: Alice Munro (“You can’t ever go wrong with her”); Rachel Cusk (“love her too”); graphic novelist Seth

Emerging: Souvankham Thammavongsa, Paige Cooper, David Chariandy

Steven Beattie
Established: Alice Munro (“Still the gold standard”); André Alexis (“Erudite, intelligent, entertaining, and beguiling”); A.F. Moritz (“Among the finest living poets in English”)

Emerging: Téa Mutonji, Canisia Lubrin, Kevin Hardcastle

Saffron Beckwith

Established: Robert Munsch (“For kids — hello The Paper Bag Princess” (Robert Munsch site)) Esi Edugyan (“What a talent”) Desmond Cole (“For adult nonfiction read The Skin We’re In” (Penguin Random House site))

Emerging: Catherine Hernandez, Casey Plett, Zalika Reid-Benta

Li Robbins (X.com) is a freelance writer and editor.