The Best Kind of CanLit
I guest hosted on CanLit podcast Write Reads earlier this month and we talked about Zoe Whittall’s Giller shortlisted The Best Kind Of People. We recorded on Giller Prize eve, and I said I didn’t think it should win, but I did think it would be a contender on Canada Reads.
I’ve felt bad about the podcast since, hence I haven’t shared it till now. I felt bad because it was a little snobby of me to say this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, doesn’t deserve a prize. I was a bit condescending. But I also felt bad for holding back on the discussion about rape culture. I walked into the recording thinking about Stephen Galloway, and brought him up as soon as we stopped recording. Now everyone’s talking about him and I have to wonder why I didn’t say something sooner.
The Best Kind of People grapples with this. The story concerns George Woodbury, a beloved father and teacher accused of molesting his teenage students. Through the perspectives of his wife and children, the reader must ask themselves tough questions: Why do we stand up for some people and not others? Why do we crave normalcy, no matter the cost? Even if it means the bad guy gets away with it, again and again? Why is it so hard to believe accusers and why is it so hard to prove anything, in a court of law or in the court of public opinion? How am I complicit in perpetuating rape culture? And in a post-Ghomeshi world, why oh why are we so quick to see the accused as one of us, and the accuser as some other type of person: lying, crazy, confused, attention seeking?
If you have no clue what I’m on about, a couple starting points on Stephen Galloway and the allegations against him are below. Galloway is the award-winning author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, and was accused of sexual misconduct against his (adult) students at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
A summary from a few months back
The first open letter from Madeleien Thien, condemning UBC for firing Galloway
The recent open letter from Joseph Boyden, signed by virtually every big CanLit author writing today, also condemning Galloway’s firing
Storify by Zoe Todd summing up the reaction to Boyden’s letter
I follow a lot of CanLit types on Twitter, and I noticed the first subtweets and innuendos months ago. All in support of Galloway. No one seemed to think, even for a second, that the accusations might be true. No one seemed at all concerned about the women (also writers) who came forward.
I thought that I must be missing something. At first it seemed somewhat limited to other Vancouver-area authors, maybe his close personal friends. Then Madeleine Thien weighed in, at the height of the Man Booker shortlist hype. I was mystified that no one was noticing this, no one was calling it out. No one shouting #believewomen.
It took a real (male) heavyweight to get us all taking: Joseph Boyden. Along with a who’s who in CanLit. If you love Canadian fiction, I guarantee one (or more) of your favourite authors signed off on his letter, which condemns UBC’s handling of the case when it comes to Galloway’s firing, but makes little mention of the students who came forward.
Now the social media shaming is rolling along nicely – with the focus on those that signed this letter. Say it ain’t so, Margaret Atwood. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for Boyden to make a statement.
Back to The Best Kind of People – one of my gripes with the end (spoilers!) is that it was not realistic – once the charges against George are dropped, his friends and colleagues just forget about the accusations. They go back to normal. He’s welcomed back to his community. There’s a sense of relief. I thought, what with social media shaming, that doesn’t happen anymore. That kind of dirt sticks. But Galloway proved me wrong. People – in this case, this country’s most prominent writers – have a deep need to believe only the best about their friends, colleagues, role models.
To be clear: I make no judgement about the innocence of guilt of anyone involved in the Galloway case. It sounds like no one was treated right during UBC’s investigation. I’m also not one for hashtag feminism. #believewomen just shifts the burden of proof – a burden that no one has figured out how to deal with when it comes to sexual assault. But why did I wait till now to say something? Till others started shouting it from the rooftops? Was I afraid of being the first, afraid of saying the wrong thing, not staying in my own lane? Or afraid of exposing a literary community I love? I don’t know.
And to be clear about the book: I recommend it. Maybe don’t wait for Canada Reads. Read it now and ask yourself some tough questions, too.
My head must have been in the sand because this is the first I’ve heard about Galloway. Thanks for bringing it up.
I plead guilty of being worried I’ll say the wrong thing.
Here’s the thing – I like to think the best of people. I like to think the University had good intentions when they dealt with it the way they did (and I don’t know the details of all this). I like to think Madeleine Thien had good intentions when writing her letter. I thought, ‘wow they must have been close because she feels pretty strongly about this’. And when you feel strongly about one person’s side, you forget about the people on the other side. And I like to think Joseph Boyden and the authors who signed the letter had good intentions. Do intentions matter? Maybe they don’t. Because I like to think the best of people, I like to think they do, at least to a point. (And because I don’t know the details about what has happened, I really can have no opinion on what’s going on.)
The ending of the book felt completely realistic to me, and I can totally understand why everyone acted the way they did (including Joan). That doesn’t mean I agree with it or think it’s the right thing. But I get why it happens. People are loyal, people are in denial. I don’t think it’s because they’re evil and we should all condemn them. I just think they’re human.
So what do we do about it? How can we make it better for the ones who are not getting heard, or have no one on their side? I have no idea (besides talking about it like we are doing right now). But, please, if I have said the “wrong thing” in this comment, don’t Tweet about it. 🙂
(One thing I can say about anyone who posts strong opinions on Twitter – they’re brave.)
This is a good book – read it!
This whole thing is the worst. I will say that when it first came out, I removed Steven Galloway from my TBR List. I had The Confabulist on there for ages but once this started I was like “right, well I’m not reading that.” My reaction, always, is to believe the women. I hear what you are saying about so-called hashtag feminism but it’s a platform that many feel comfortable using to talk about these things.
I can’t begin to express how very disheartening it is to see all those Canadian lit names on that letter.
I really appreciated this posting. Mostly because when I started writing (and publishing) … I couldn’t believe the things people told me. Like how the key to getting published was attending the parties at conferences. And that I needed to get in so-and-so’s inner circle. And, how I had to put up with the sexual innuendos and wandering hands and too tight hugs. Nuh-uh. Not for me. I didn’t work for fifteen years in the social sector in my day job to just forget about my values so I could get published! And, so I cut off my social circles, which is essentially saying “not interested in getting published”. And everytime I talked about it – I was told, “well, not all circles are like that”. Denial central … sigh.
So, why did you wait to say something? Because of what I just shared with you above. You already know the powerful ideas that exist out there about women who raise the red flag, who question systems and normalized behavior. Powerful ideas that drive gender discrimination. And who’s to blame you? But the point is – you said something now. And that gets others to speak. And that’s beautiful! I will make sure I read the book …thank you for doing a blog posting on it.
Shameless plug, but Stonehouse Publishing in Edmonton is always accepting submissions and publish good books without any gropimg required. Also, I am so out of the loop, I didn’t even know this story was happening. I remember the Gomeshi story and how it was only after a day or two that I remembered that women don’t lie about this stuff, because Joan felt like my friend, and I had a relationship with him of sorts. Maybe that’s part of the equation? When we know the accused and not the accuser? If a female celebrity cam forward, someone we trusted and knew, we might believe her because our sympathies are defaulted to her as the center of the story. And there are WAY more men in our sphere than there are women (another issue…). Also, we just like and trust men more, because we are trained to. Women are vixens…blah blah blah… But that’s all old news