Writers don’t just hang out alone with their computers or their diaries. Every writer is part of a community. That’s what the anthologies say, right, those big ones you don’t bother carrying around, the Nortons, the all-of-everything twentieth-century kind. That’s what the profs say when you’re in school, and they tell you about the Bloomsbury Group or the Algonquin Round Table, or the Beats or whoever. When you study them, these knots of famous writers and their shared aesthetics seem coherent, obvious, planned. Also, they seem totally unattainable.
Cut to you’re a grownup, and you’re a writer, or you’re trying to be one. And there are writers you’ve had drinks with, who you’ve given readings with. Writers whose work you crush on. And you talk. Mostly you talk shit. Like 70 percent of your conversation might be shit. There’s some book talk. There’s some respect for cultural cred, chutzpah, mettle, sarcasm. This is how you sort out your ideologies: you try them out. You try them on your work. You work. You see what your colleagues are coming up with. You one-up each other. You drunk-dial. You social-incest. You wish you’d never social-incested. You publish each other. And so on, and cheap pitchers and writing festivals and books made and magazines printed. There’s a filial inevitability to it—you don’t really choose each other, you don’t always like each other, you steal each others’ stuff. Maybe none of you are famous, and there’s no overarching name for how you hang, or gossip, but the kinship of shared aesthetics is there. That’s the thing that’s been sorted out. And that’s not just a community, that’s an audience. That’s an audience to whom you are accountable.
And then Summer Literary Seminars steps in and ups the ante. Summer Literary Seminars, or SLS, is an international, travelling literary extravaganza founded by Concordia professor Mikhail Iossel. It has shaped literary communities here in Montreal, and at large, since 1999. SLS is a couple of weeks of intense creative writing workshops set in, as Iossel puts it, “strange cities. We go to places that are challenging by their strangeness. Places that are very strange, like Vilnius, very strange, like Petersburg, very strange, like Nairobi.” And, for the second year in a row, like Montreal.
The program has featured some of today’s best writers—George Saunders, Padgett Powell, Erin Mouré, Gary Schteyngart, Phillip Lopate and Jorie Graham are all alum. This year’s SLS Montreal faculty and guests include Christian Bök, Mary Gaitskill, Johanna Skibsrud, Francine Prose and Miguel Syjuco.
It’s a kind of working vacation for people of like minds. But the best part might be the hanging out, the whole lot of you, an incongruous, international group of writers of various experience jammed together in these strange cities. Storytellers are the best kind of show-offs—maybe it’s in the cadence of their banter. And SLS is a good place to develop your ear.
Apart from working behind the scenes at SLS Montreal both this and last year, I attended SLS St. Petersburg in 2007. While I consider the workshops, seminars and readings to be vital to the program, I’ve often felt that the most valuable part of SLS were those prolonged hangs, and their ensuing discussions. It’s not something there’s any record of—it’s part of the unofficial program. But “The SLS Interviews” featured on Maisonneuve’s website in the coming weeks will showcase, I hope, the generosity, depth and humour of the exchanges that occur over the course of any given session. It’s a great privilege to be provoked by such intelligent, thoughtful, creative people, year after year, session after session.
I hope as many of you who can attend SLS for workshops and readings will do so—and that you’ll join the conversation too.
Montreal’s Summer Literary Seminars take place from June 12 to June 25, 2011. For a schedule of events, or to buy a pass, visit www.sumlitsem.org/montreal/schedule.html.
Related on maisonneuve.org: