Category Archives: colm toibin

On Subsidizing Literature, and Whether It Works

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

One thing I’m picking up this week is that the Canadians really go out of their way to subsidize and promote national literature, to (in my opinion) a much greater extent than is done in the U.S. First and foremost, they have three tiers of public funding for authors–nationally, at the province level, and at the city level–and the money can be good enough to cobble a reasonable living from, between government money and book sales/touring.

This point was somewhat addressed at the Colm Toibin panel I was at yesterday. Talking about the effect (if any) that literature can have on the material world, Toibin voiced the opinion that in the early 20th century in Ireland there was a sizable vacuum in terms of political and national identity, and W.B. Yeats, among others, was able to take the opportunity to shape the Irish consciousness going forward. This occasioned a conversation about the large extent to which Canada encourages a national literature (through things like the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award, the subsidization of authors, and the attempt to build a strong national publishing industry) to help build a national identity.

While there seemed to be general agreement that this was something Canada does, John Bemrose (a Canadian author) argued that in the smaller towns of Canada, American culture is still able to predominate, despite the government efforts. (And, as I’ve been told multiple times, one of the reasons, among others, for this government interest in promoting national literature is the threat from the south.) Bemrose also made the interesting point that culture is a political hot potato and claimed that national politicians have to at least pay lip-service to art and culture in order to get votes from Quebec. Of course, I think that’s a remarkably fresh concept–a politician paying lip service to the arts in search of voters. I can’t imagine the last time a national politician in the U.S. felt the need to do something like that.

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