Of Fragile Egos and Unknown Writers

Andrew Pyper (courtesy of Now Magazine)

Hey, remember that anthology of crime fiction set in Toronto, called Toronto Noir? The one that includes my short story, “Midnight Shift”? I just found a couple of interesting references to it. Don Gillmor does a standard review for The Walrus here. And something called “The Rap Sheet” has a fairly scathing commentary about the book here –complete with the head-slapping caveat that the writer hasn’t even read the book yet!

The reviewer refers to the book’s authors list as a bunch of “mostly unknown writers (even by Canadian standards).” That seems to be his main objection to the anthology’s very existence. (I’ve found the same article at a place called The Thrilling Detective Blog, by Kevin Burton Smith, so I assume he’s the author of the piece.)

To be fair, his contention is accurate. No one outside of my family knows who the heck I am –and sometimes even they forget! Also, with the exception of Andrew Pyper, I’d never heard of any of the other contributors. Frankly, the average schmuck has probably never heard of Mr. Pyper, either. It surely doesn’t mean he’s not a good writer. Nor does it mean that the anthology is not a strong one. (I haven’t read the entire thing, but I can attest with all modesty aside that my entry was the weakest of the lot –there are some really interesting stories in this volume, and I wish I’d done a better of job of meeting their standard.)

But then the reviewer goes on to list a litany of contenders he would have preferred –none of whom I’ve heard of, either. John McFetridge? Michael Blair? J.D. Carpenter? Mary Jane Maffini? Rosemary Aubert? John Swan? Marc Strange? Giles Blunt? Who are these people? I’ve never heard their names before.

My ignorance of these names probably says more about my unfamiliarity with the supposed who’s who of the Canadian mystery writing scene than it does about any fame or achievement these men and women might have achieved. After all, I’m just a silly scientist who writes books on the side. The hierarchical world of writing is alien to me; it’s a party to which I’m largely uninvited.

McFetridge, Blair, et al –indeed, maybe even Mr Burton Smith himself– are probably excellent crime writers. I don’t know. I’ve never read them. It doesn’t mean I’m going to dismiss an anthology made by them simply because their names are unfamiliar to me.

It reminds me of another anthology I was part of many years ago: North Of Infinity, a collection of Canadian science fiction. (There’s a blog about the evolving series here.) One reviewer complained that we were all a bunch of unknowns –which was true! But here’s the rub: one of us, a fellow named Robert J. Sawyer, went on to become one of the most celebrated science fiction writers in the world, winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, SF’s greatest honours. So you can never tell. All writers start out as unknowns.

The lesson is this: in terms of fiction writers in Canada, pretty much anyone who’s not Margaret Atwood, Robert Sawyer or Rohinton Mistry is an unknown. To suggest that one list of unknowns is preferable to another list of unknowns because –wait for it– they are less unknown to you and your friends is, I must say, more confusing than my poor monkey brain can handle.

It’s yet one more reason I detest being a writer in Canada. The fragile egos are far too abundant here.