The CanLit Firestorm

After the Steven Galloway controversy, Canadian literature may never be the same

Illustration by Ulza

Earlier this year, Briarpatch magazine announced that Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road and The Orenda, would be judging its annual literary contest, Writing in the Margins. Last Friday, the magazine suddenly walked away from the agreement. “Our writing contest has been, and must continue to be, a safe place for emerging writers to submit courageous stories,” the editors wrote in a short online missive.

Briarpatch is one of the country’s most respected lefty publications. It emerged among Regina welfare-rights activists and came of age during the uranium-mining protests in the ’70s. Boyden is an award-winning novelist and activist who’s spoken out about everything from environmental policy to missing and murdered Indigenous women. He has Anishinabe ancestry, and his novels are credited with bringing Indigenous experiences to a mainstream Canadian audience. As recently as two weeks ago, it was impossible to imagine a world in which Boyden and Briarpatch were anything other than allies.

The event that precipitated the split? The now well-known open letter, written by Boyden, signed by eighty-nine CanLit luminaries, and supported online by the hashtag #UBCaccountable. The letter demanded that the University of British Columbia launch “an independent investigation” into the firing of Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo and The Confabulist, and former chair of the school’s creative-writing program.

The facts of the Galloway case, to the extent that we know them, have been reported in every national publication, including this one. In 2015, Galloway faced allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and bullying, and the university suspended him in order to launch an investigation. Boyden’s letter condemned the university for casting a “cloud of suspicion over Professor Galloway” and creating “the impression that he was in some way a danger to the university community.”

This document has ripped through the scene, turning peers against one another and cementing what feels like an irreparable generational rift. The once quiet precincts of CanLit are suddenly more rancorous than they’ve been in decades. A community that once seemed harmonious is now splintering into political factions. Neither side can come around to the other’s way of seeing things, and both are enraged. At stake are questions about transparency, the rights of accusers, and the responsibility that a literary community has toward its members—not just the celebrities but the un-famous people, too.

From the ’70s until about two weeks ago, CanLit seemed to operate under a broadly progressive consensus. The community wasn’t perfectly cohesive, but it was about as cohesive as any national literary movement could be. And yes, there were Red Tories or small-c conservatives in the mix, but there were few certifiable Right Wingers.

Along with David Suzuki and the NDP, CanLit was the moral conscience of the nation. That’s not to say it was didactic (although, really, sometimes it was) but just that people wrote with a sense of ethical purpose, and readers appreciated their commitment. From Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, to the dystopian feminism of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to the social-realist theatre of Michel Tremblay and Judith Thompson, this was literature that asked you to engage. It reminded you that somewhere—perhaps across mountains, prairies, and lakes of calving ice—there were people whose lives you should care about.

Most importantly, CanLit had heroes—powerful, established heroes, whose reigns lasted decades. If you’re my age (nearly thirty-two), then Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje have been dominant for longer than you’ve been alive. These people had moral clout. When, in 2015, Ondaatje boycotted a gala of the PEN American Center, we all took an interest in his reasoning. Whenever Atwood took a stance—against free trade or Stephen Harper or artificial turf outside the University of Toronto—we praised her temerity.

Right now, though, it feels as if we’re witnessing the Fall of the House of Atwood. In the past week, she’s gotten so many angry tweets that, for a short period, she stopped responding. Other people who signed Boyden’s letter—Ondaatje, Madeleine Thien, Yann Martel—have come under intense fire, too. The letter, supposedly intended as an act of leadership, has been interpreted instead as a self-serving power play. Suddenly, CanLit’s inner circle is looking less like moral trailblazers and more like an establishment—an institution with its own internal values and interests to defend.

For those who follow a high number of Canadian writers on Twitter, the online mood feels less like CanLit 2016 and more like Paris 1968. It’s not just a matter of Briarpatch breaking up with Boyden. It’s a matter of CanLit breaking up with itself.

Boyden’s letter is many things: a plea, a political intervention, and a monumentally insensitive blunder. It blasted the UBC administration for failing to disclose its final reason for dismissal, although, since Galloway did not hold public office, it’s unclear as to why they should be obliged to do so. (That reason remained unknown until yesterday, when Galloway disclosed that he’d been fired for having a two-year affair with a student—a breach of contract and an obvious conflict-of-interest.) The letter also noted that the administration didn’t collaborate with law enforcement. “No criminal charges were laid against Professor Galloway at the time,” it said. “None has been laid since.”

Pretty much everybody agrees that UBC mishandled the Galloway case. In an effort to encourage complainants to come forward, the university appeared to offer confidentiality, only to withdraw that offer retroactively. They refused, initially, to inform Galloway of the charges against him but made insinuations about those charges, which inevitably went on the public record. In the end, they fired him without severance.

On Twitter, Atwood emerged as the letter’s most outspoken proponent. In response to a tweet asking if she cared “about victims of sexual violence” she wrote, “I care about them very much + have known many. But #ubcaccountable process was deeply flawed.” To another angry tweet, she responded “if you had been treated [the way Galloway was] by a university I’d be there for you, despite the pile-on I would doubtless get.” She has argued that the letter is meant to defend not Galloway but the principle of due process.

Other people see things differently. If the letter isn’t about Galloway, they wonder, why is his name all over it, even in the title? A petition with hundreds of signatures notes that “the open letter expresses great concern for Steven Galloway and no concern for the women who came forward.”

There’s also the top-down way in which the letter was circulated. In his quest for signatures, Boyden ran through a rolodex of distinguished Canadians, making the letter seem more like a flexing of institutional muscle than an attempt at consensus building. Read through the A-list names at the bottom—Ondaatje, Thien, Jane Urquhart, Rawi Hage, Yann Martel, Lisa Moore—and it’s hard not to feel that CanLit’s luminaries are closing ranks to protect one of their own. As Zoe S.C. Todd, an anthropology professor at Carleton University, tweeted, “Imagine being a young writer in Canada. Imagine being sexually harassed. Imagine seeing the top writers in the country sign that letter.” (Several signatories, including Miriam Toews and Sheila Heti, have since rescinded their support. Others have stood by their decision but apologized for the letter’s insensitive tone. )

As for Boyden’s assertion that the justice system might’ve somehow remedied things? Many public responses can be summed up in two short sentences: Come on, man. Did you not follow the Ghomeshi case?

Three years ago, before the Galloway or Ghomeshi cases, I read a popular article in The Hairpin describing a relationship between a literature student and an abusive professor. For people wanting to understand the public mood right now, it’s the best place to start. The author, Emma Healey, described not just her own experiences but those of her peers—people who, like her, enrolled in creative-writing departments or literary residencies and found themselves fending off advances, some blatant, some cryptic, from older male instructors.

“The men in stories like this always have just enough power, in their little worlds and in ours,” writes Healey, “that to confront them would be to court an ordeal, to invite others to question our own memories and motives. It’s always more trouble than it’s worth. If you don’t have hard proof, if you don’t have a police report, then what do you have?”

Perhaps Galloway doesn’t perfectly embody the lecherous type that Healey talks about, but he’s done things that should give his defenders pause. As reporting in this publication and others reveals, he was a professor who loved attention, made uncomfortable sexual jokes, and regularly invited students to drink with him. (That last thing is hardly a capital offense, but neither is it normal conduct in other professional settings). Worse, Galloway sometimes turned on people harshly, insulted them online, and once slapped a student in a bar in front of her peers. And while the university decided that, according to its criteria, there was insufficient evidence to fire him for assault, bullying, or harassment, many in the #BelieveWomen movement caution that such findings are hardly proof of innocence. For Galloway’s critics, it’s incredible that Boyden, Atwood, and others would rush to the barricades to defend this guy.

Online, the most wrenching things to witness are the fans criticizing—or sometimes denouncing—people they once admired. In a series of tweets to author Susan Swan, writer and editor Meghan Bell introduced herself by saying “I’m a fan of your work (this is a tweet-your-idols moment for me).” Then, after inquiring as to why Swan signed the open letter, she asked, “Can you not understand the hurt?”

And in a letter to Atwood, Julie S. Lalonde, author of the blog Yellow Manteau, described how, at age seventeen, reading The Handmaid’s Tale changed her life. “I was a budding activist, a totally-feminist-but-didn’t-know-it-yet spunky teenager and my teacher saw that in me,” she writes. “So, when you lost the plot this week and signed onto an open letter with so-many-Canadian-authors-that-fill-my-bookcase, it was downright shocking . . . This felt like the ultimate betrayal.” Lalonde signed her letter “a former fan.”

How did the CanLit consensus fall apart so dramatically? The best explanation is the simplest: Boyden, Atwood, and others took an awful stance, and the community is calling them out. Still, it’s hard not to feel that this moment is part of a larger political one. The tenor is angry, anti-elitist, and strident. It’s the same mood one senses in other liberal enclaves, from newsrooms to left-of-centre political organizations to post-secondary institutions. In university campuses, students schooled on theories of power—Althusser, Foucault—have realized that power isn’t just an abstract idea but a force that plays out in their communities, too. And sometimes it’s wielded unfairly by people with otherwise progressive ideals.

Not all of the signatories to the original open letter were old, and not all of the letter’s critics are young, but this conflict still feels generational. At its heart is a difference of perception. For many of the signatories, Galloway, flaws and all, is a colleague in a bad situation—the kind of person one helps. For the letter’s critics—many of them young people, who, in today’s creative economy, may never have the job stability or income that Galloway enjoyed—the guy comes across as a picture of male entitlement. For them, it’s inexplicable that Atwood and Boyden can’t see things their way.

At stake, too, are questions of what authors owe to their readers. In the future, when authors take political stances, they’d do well to consider the sensitivities of the people who love their work. In every angry tweet to Atwood, in every loud denunciation of Boyden, there’s an implicit message: We expected better from you. In the age of social media, readers are talking back. They don’t feel an obligation to be kind.

Perhaps most tellingly, this moment has the hallmarks of establishment fatigue. Atwood is being characterized as the leader of an old-guard liberal elite, one that’s out of touch with grassroots progressive thought. It’s not clear that her lifelong commitment to literary feminism will ultimately redeem her among her harshest left-wing critics.

In fairness to Galloway’s defenders, the last decade really has put new pressures on university instructors. Today, universities are more willing than before to fire tenured staff. Instructors who don’t have tenure—a group whose ranks seem to grow exponentially—are more vulnerable still. As universities come to see themselves less as public institutions and more as corporations, they increasingly invest in their brands. When instructors damage those brands, there’s a strong incentive to get them out the door. Today, almost all instructors, while fending off complaints of one kind or another, have found themselves worrying about job security. Last weekend, UBC philosophy professor Alan Richardson wrote that “For all its faults, the [Boyden] letter does call for due process.” It isn’t a trivial concern.

Still, Galloway’s story is hardly one of vulnerability or precarious employment. If anything, the university system emboldened him to cross lines. Imagine that Galloway wasn’t a celebrated writer with a tenured position but rather that he was, say, a branch manager at a bank. Imagine that, during a night out drinking, he’d slapped a colleague in front of her peers. Would the bank have fired him by 9 a.m. the next day? Probably. Would eighty-nine powerful people have rushed to his defense? Probably not.

When young writers think of Galloway they think of privilege, and when they think of his accusers they think of the many people who’ve been marginalized after bringing charges of misconduct or abuse. Until Atwood, Boyden, and the rest of the CanLit establishment come to terms with this fact, it’s hard to see how this new rift will heal.

In the once quiet precincts of CanLit, we’re seeing a seismic political shift. An old-guard liberal consensus is crumbling, challenged by a cohort that’s sharper in its political instincts, wary of establishment thinking, and swift to call bullshit on its leaders. And like various debates now happening across universities—over trigger warnings or student safety—this new controversy feels less like a battle between left and right and more like a civil war between people who consider themselves enlightened.

This convulsion may seem unprecedented in Atwood-era CanLit, but it’s not unprecedented in the world. Remember that, five decades ago, the same Quiet Revolution that brought Jean Lesage to power in Quebec then suddenly turned against him and opted for a more stridently sovereigntist agenda. The same liberal consensus that made a hero of John F. Kennedy went on to brand his Democratic successor as an emissary of violent imperialism. When progressive movements turn in on themselves, the fallout is dramatic, and the changes tend to last.

In a recent tweet, University of Toronto literature professor Nick Mount summed up the current moment: “A generation that still believes the system works is bumping up against a generation that doesn’t. Welcome to the ’60s, again.”

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.