Literary Boroughs #52: Toronto, Ontario

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the fifty-second post on Toronto, Ontario, by Stevie Howell. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Photo credit: Paul Bica (license)

Although Toronto’s unofficial slogan is “Toronto the Good,” this city often catches flak from the rest of the country for considering itself the centre of the (Canadian) world. That tension is especially true when it comes to writers and book publishing, as Toronto happens to be home to the bulk of awards and is host of literary lions.

Resident Writers:

World heavyweight authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje have long made Toronto home, as does the US ex-pat bestselling author John Irving. Younger breakout writers include Sheila Heti and Alix Ohlin. Plenty of poets make Toronto home, too, including Ken Babstock, Matthew Tierney, and Michael Lista. Toronto features prominently as a character in books by many of these writers. But let’s be honest—Toronto really makes its living as an extra in American feature films.

Where to Learn:

The question, really, is where not to learn? In one of the most diverse cities in the world, there is a workshop or class for every writing flavor and ambition. The Humber School for Writers offers a summer intensive as well as a year-round distance education one-on-one program. University of Toronto runs an ever-changing selection of continuing education courses led by prominent writers. For youngish (16-29 year old) aspiring writers, there’s the Toronto Street Writers; and for the experimental set, there’s the Toronto New School of Writing.

Where to find reading material:

Toronto has North America’s most used library system, which is great—though sometimes not so great when there are 87 waiting holds for 3 copies of a single book. (You can finish an undergraduate degree in English Lit before you will get your hands on a 2-week loan of a David Foster Wallace book).

Like many North American cities, Toronto’s book retailing industry has been trounced by big-box retail and urban redevelopment. Bookstores that often provided the much needed “third space” making neighbourhoods livable have ended up priced out of the ever-increasing retail price per square foot market. Some of Toronto’s best holdouts include the ever ephemeral and eclectic Monkey’s Paw, Another Story Bookshop (a progressive bookshop with excellent kids’ material), A Different Booklist (afrocentric/multicultural booksellers), and The Beguiling, a premier destination for all things comic and graphic novel. Two general bookstore chains still standing, and very popular, are the stalwart Book City and the upstart Type Books. BMV is great for used books and remainders and the regular surprise.

Where to get published:

A number of prestigious, national magazines and journals are published out of Toronto, including Brick, The Walrus, and the publishing industry bible Quill and Quire. Being the institutions they are, it isn’t simple to get published in their pages. Other options include the Toronto Review of Books, The Toronto QuarterlyThe Puritan (online), and local independent print magazines such as Shameless and Worn Journal.

Where to Write:

Hats off to anyone who can write in public these days—studies have shown how difficult it is to concentrate while listening to one side of a cellphone conversation, which occurs in epidemic proportions in every corner of our fair city. That said, Balzacs Coffee Roasters features a romantic Parisian feel and a literary namesake—as well as the bird-friendly “Atwood Blend.” The Only on Danforth is chilled out enough to put pen to paper and plays ample homage to the greats in many art forms. They also offer both coffee and beer, so you can pick whichever fuel works in your wordsmith engine. Toronto Islands, an off-shore protected green space that’s a mere 10-minute ferry away from the densest part of downtown, is our best gem, and is a perfect muse for those who need space and quiet to think.

Events/Festivals:

There are a number of vibrant reading series in Toronto at which you can find everything from established novelists and poets to spoken word and open mic, such as Rowers Pub Reading Series, Pivot, Livewords, and the Artbar. The Harbourfront Reading Series hosts a mix of Canadian and international names year round, and also hosts the annual International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in the fall. Once a year, Toronto hosts the shortlist reading for the Griffin Poetry Prize—at $12 a ticket, you get to hear readings by some of the world’s pre-eminent writers. Toronto’s small press fair, Meet the Presses, runs once a year and it’s a great place to find books from small and independent publishers. Also occurring in the fall is the annual Word on the Street festival, in which publishers, bookstores, and authors take to retailing in the open air streets and parks of the city. It draws tens of thousands of visitors.

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