TO suggest that Canada should produce a literature, the English writer G. K. Chesterton quipped in 1910, "is like saying that Canada must soon grow a mustache."
Well, it's more than 80 years later. This year's Booker Prize co-winner, Michael Ondaatje, is the first Canadian to receive England's most coveted literary award (with British novelist Barry Unsworth).
Canadian writers Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, and Mordecai Richler are internationally celebrated authors, who can cast their shadows with the best of them. Younger Canadian writers, successive waves of immigrants, and newly vocal native voices are experimenting with a range of styles and subjects, publishing more books than ever before and exporting a larger portion of their literature to other countries.
In recent months, Canadians have been addressing philosophically difficult issues of federalism and questioning the future of the country itself. But the internationalization of Canada's literature continues, aided in part, by Toronto's year-round Harbourfront Reading Series and the annual International Festival of Authors.
The latter omnibus event, which this year showcased more than 70 authors, poets, and biographers in a nine-day run of readings, included prize-winner Ondaatje, Atwood, W. O. Mitchell, Susan Sontag, Douglas Adams, T. Obinkaram Echewa, Rita Dove, Ken Kesey, Martha Gellhorn, Josef Skvorecky, Annie Dillard, and William Golding (who finished reading a short essay about what the next thousand years of history might reveal shortly before the Blue Jays beat the Braves).
Although Harbourfront actively promotes both Canadian and foreign authors, the International Festival raises the question of how a national literature acquires an international reputation. Can a show-and-tell festival - even the world's largest such affair, as this one is - influence a nation's literary profile? For pragmatists who believe that the creation of a poem or novel is a lonesome act of individual endeavor and fantasy but that the production of literature is a contact sport, the answer is "yes. "
Harbourfront's Reading Series and its International Festival can't establish or sustain the literary longevity of authors, but they do affect their visibility, and in an increasingly media-centered world, visibility often presages influence.
Ted Mumford, editor-in-chief of "Quill & Quire," the national publishing industry tabloid, credits the festival with "helping Canadian authors interface more with foreign writers" and, through their informal agenting, with publishers in other countries.
Guy Vanderhaege, a Saskatchewan writer who won the Canadian Governor-General's Award for Fiction in 1982 for his first collection of stories, "Man Descending," and whose first novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1984, notes that the social aspect of the festival is as important as the public forum Harbourfront provides, since it "puts you in touch with writers you're only slightly familiar with," in his case with Gianni Celati, an Italian novelist and translator, who shares an interest in native cultures.
Greg Gatenby, Harbourfront's ambitious literary impresario (a published poet and author of two books on whales), pairs foreign authors with Canadians, and lesser-known writers with internationally established literary lions, in an effort to introduce audiences to new writers and offset the vicissitudes of reputation and transcontinental literary drift.
Asked how the International Festival has bolstered Toronto's literary scene, Mr. Gatenby (who sometimes chides audiences that "too often, in Canada, we think of hometown as ho-hum") replies immediately that it has increased foreign and domestic respect for the city's culture and that an "entire generation of writers have now grown up in the Toronto area who just presume that they should be plugged into a whole network of world publishing."
In an effort to counter the self-effacing ambitions frequently attributed to Canadian writers - perhaps best voiced by a character in Mordecai Richler's 1963 novel, "The Incomparable Atuk," who observed, "I'm world-famous ... all over Canada" - Harbourfront has consistently promoted emerging talents.
Writers like Dionne Brand, Nino Ricci, Brian Fawcett, Barbara Gowdy, and Neil Bissoondath have found a receptive podium at Harbourfront in the early stages of their careers. Over the course of its 19-year-old Reading Series and its 13 International Festivals, Harbourfront has hosted some 800 Canadian authors.
For the past several years, an awards ceremony and a gala tribute to a living Canadian author have been added to the International Festival, increasing its domestic status. This year's jubilee spotlighted Judith Merril, a feminist and a pioneer of women's science fiction writing since the 1940s, when the genre was controlled by men. Alberto Manguel, an anthologist and seasoned critic whose first novel was recently published in Canada, took home the Harbourfront Festival Prize: $15,000 in cash and office equipment, given to a writer in mid-career.
The International Festival has also fed Toronto's regional and national arts media. "Imprints," a Television Ontario literary show, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and radio programs like CBC's "Writers & Co." and "Arts Tonight" have relied on Harbourfront to draw international authors like Doris Lessing, John Cheever, Robert Creeley, Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, Mary McCarthy, Derek Walcott, and Nadine Gordimer to the city and into their offices and studios.
Recognizing the media's interest in Harbourfront's programming, Stan Lipsey, the producer-director of "Imprints," explains that Gatenby has "created a season in this country for writers: mid-October."
Media coverage and the support of publishers (19 door prizes of $500 in books were given away during the festival) have enhanced Harbourfront's profile and delivered new readers to Canadian and foreign authors.
All this helps confirm Toronto on the international literary circuit and consolidates the emerging conviction that what's good for the international community of belles-lettres is good for Canada - especially when it takes place on Canadian soil.