Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Writers At The Table, Approach With Caution
About a mile down the road from my house is Stone Orchard, the farm where Timothy Findley penned the bulk of his work. Findley was a significant star in the Can-Lit canopy from the 70s to the 90s, the first, brightest and possibly only age in which such a canopy could be said to exist. Being in the vanguard of the generation that came out of the closet, Findley had a unique perspective which he brought to bear on a remarkable breadth of social and personal nerve-centres. If you're curious, check out The Wars or Not Wanted On The Voyage.
Anyway, Stone Orchard was home to some lavish parties. So much of an artist's public and fiscal success relies not just on the quality of work, but also (and often primarily) on who knows who. Some artsy-types insinuate themselves deeply into a scene by throwing Gatsby-like dos. Not just artsy types, mind you: business types do this also. “Tiff” and his partner Bill Whitehead were in the business of art, and could be relied upon to host a fab shindig that invitees would never dream of turning down.
Margaret Atwood was a fixture, as were Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence. After that I imagine the party list usually read like a Canada Who's Who: Robertson Davies, Carol Shields, Northrop Frye, Peter Gzowski. Leaven the firmly established with a few gorgeous up-and-comers, and keep the linens fresh, sort of thing.
I've always been under the impression that these folks generally stayed on very good terms. They didn't review each other's work, but actively promoted it. If a reviewer got a bit uppity about someone's new novel, it wasn't uncommon for the gang to circle the wagons and open fire on the dismal nit who spoke out of turn.
Put that many writers in the same room, however, and you might as well be stuffing cats into a sack. There had to be some friction. Just take a gander at Evan Hughes' delicious portrayal of the most recent group of writers to take on and take over the American Lit-Scene. Mary Karr, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and the now inescapable David Foster Wallace are as fine a group of friends and lovers as those who drank and quarreled in Gertrude Stein's Parisian flat, with rivalries and snipes that echo into today.
It all gets me wondering. The scene-makers that gathered at Stone Orchard may have been Canadian, but they were ambitious, sensitive and prickly nonetheless. The parties took place during the free-for-all 70s, and conspicuously closed in the early 90s, when AIDS finally crashed the scene. Surely things got a bit thorny inside Stone Orchard, no? Revealing a little of the rancor and bloodletting that comes naturally to competing egos might go some distance to keep that age of Canadian letters from receding so quickly into the darkness.