David Bradford was the only poet among this year’s Delegates, his work having appeared in Prairie Fire, Vallum, Poetry Is Dead, The Capilano Review, The Unpublished City (Book*hug, 2017) and more. In attending a variety of Festival events about poetry, prose and prizes, David saw an opportunity to reflect on the bargain between authors and readers.
By David Bradford
I got stuck on a not-very-new thought at the Man Booker 50th Anniversary event—namely that it’s easy to forget how much of what we decide might be the canon is shaped by what we discard. It’s shaped around what each of us readers seek out and recommend but also what we ignore or disavow. It’s shaped by what is raved about or panned in review, as well as what isn’t reviewed at all, and what makes the longlist or shortlist or is promptly overlooked altogether. It’s shaped by who we decide gets our support and who doesn’t.
Then again, when challenged by Lewis DeSoto about the grand canon-building premise of awards such as the Man Booker, Marlon James quipped, “Well, I don’t want to be poor.” And I certainly couldn’t blame him. James has been a recipient of the award and DeSoto a finalist, and no one wants the kind of Booker support they’ve benefited from withheld; no one wants Marlon James to be poor. Everyone in the Fleck Dance Theatre, not least of all writers, could relate; DeSoto laughed, and I laughed in the audience along with everyone else.
But when pressed about it again later, James reminded us the Man Booker has always only been an award for “the best book by a major publisher,” complete with the limitations that entails. That is, there’s much, much more out there, much of it a whole other kind of good, which isn’t the sort to ever quite shine through to the Booker, or to garner that kind of support. That is, there’s much, by this award and the likes, being ignored—and authors and might-be canons saddling the consequences—as if by rote.
The reminder, for me, was a welcome one, and one to take personally, as a reader. It was also an oft-echoed notion at this year’s Festival: with each book, an author’s personal little miracles cobbled together, pretty much always with difficulty, for us to stumble upon. The stumble being our necessary end of the bargain.
It’s what Dionne Brand referred to as efforts toward attentiveness, “a kind of conversation,” a thinking into the world. And what Anne Michaels was on about, in her performance of Railtracks, when she pleaded, “Bring a bit of your earth to me.” What Ondjaki called, from the moment the author sits down, “already lying to yourself,” for his and the reader’s sake. Or the way Jane Urquhart put the novel to DeSoto, James, and Roddy Doyle: it’s “someone’s heart in our hands.” Something at once in motion and vital, fragile and fleshed, and calling us to complete attention. “Something not to be used,” as Hoa Nguyen emphasized, “but essential.” What we are asked to attempt with every book. And at either end of the conversation. A desperate kind of gamble.
It’s put upon us to keep in mind there is a certain care we might want to take to make sure more of those gambles makes it into our reach. I felt much more of that care at this year’s Festival. Enough to know I could do with more of it myself—enough to know I’ve done my fair share of overlooking and missing out. If a literary festival is in any one business, it’s that one. Or, as James put it, simply enough, “If the positive is more people are reading, then I’m all for it.” As long as what they’re reading is more people.