Most of the culture journalists in Toronto have now had their say about Greg Gatenby’s defenestration as director of Toronto’s Harbourfront International Festival of Authors. Some of what has been written, like Philip Marchand’s piece in the August 2nd Toronto Star, is thought provoking, and a few have been hilariously self-serving, like Ray Conlogue’s same day attempted knee-capping of Martin Knelman in The Globe and Mail, in which he opines that “ I, too, am abrasive, and rejoice in Gatenby’s sandpaper personality”. Having one’s lips permanently glued to the behind of anything French Canadian or multicultural is probably better described as sheep-like than “abrasive”, and since that’s where one normally finds Conlogue, it had me wondering. In any case, the consensus on Gatenby seems to go something like this: 1.) Gatenby was a highly-skilled impresario and organizer, but he was also an egomaniac; alternately charming, abusive, democratically solicitous of foreign fiction writers and unproductively territorial about his festival. Occasionally he was all of these at once, and it pissed off a lot of people. 2.) It was his drive and personality that built the Harbourfront festival, but he built it on the model of the Roman Empire. 3.) Whatever is, is right. Let’s move on.
I don’t disagree with these conclusions except maybe in emphasis. I happened to like Greg Gatenby as a person, probably because I never engaged with him one way or the other. I thought his infamous injunction about other readings was absurd, and ignored it on several occasions. He chided me about this once, but didn’t, as far as I can tell, do anything about it, likely because I haven’t written conventional fiction. Over the five readings I did at Harbourfront over the years, I managed to rate the before-reading dinner four times. I can testify that Gatenby was indeed a remarkable raconteur, and since I don’t do author ego unless there’s an idea at stake, each time I sat back and let him perform. But I did note that his stories were always about writers and what they do. He didn’t turn the stories to himself, even indirectly, except at the last dinner a few months ago, where the subject became, inevitably, his wrangle with the Harbourfront board. Even then, what stuck out was his anger at the funding cuts, which he felt diminished his ability to treat visiting writers properly. As Philip Marchand has pointed out, Gatenby was genuinely interested in writers, and if he thought the festival was all about him, he wasn’t conscious of it. What’s been described as his egomania was always on behalf of the festival, and only rarely strayed toward self-aggrandizement. That said, it was a large and obtrusive ego, and a little bloated by success. I guess what I’m saying is that I think Gatenby is an interesting and decent human being, and I’ll miss his always-intense presence, even if his absence turns out to be temporary.
I’m sticking my 2 cents worth in not to defend or attack Gatenby, but because among the sometimes gleeful obituaries and eulogies, several important things have been missed. First, Gatenby’s festivals were misnamed. They should have been called The Harbourfront Festival of Novelists and Other Fiction Writers because his programming had an absolute prejudice toward fiction writers. Neither documentarians (the kind of writers marketers misname “non-fiction writers”) nor poets and dramatists got the time of day at the festivals, even though Gatenby was reasonably generous toward them in the non-festival programming. He also had no interest in genre-crossing writers. This constellation of prejudices saddled the festivals with a quaintness, and a dearth of ideas about culture and politics. By focusing on literary fiction, Gatenby restricted the festivals interest in an increasingly damaging way, because fiction writers have niched themselves into a progressively more irrelevant zone in which quilts, doilies, inner psychic wounds and intricacies of neurotic incapacity get far more play than the tractor-trailers of capitalism that occupy most people’s lives. He gave Toronto, in other words, a festival of fiction when he could have given us a festival of ideas that would have made Harbourfront a unique international forum, and might have helped to reintegrate book writers into the cultural mainstream, not merely preserve them under a pile of tattered furniture. For that alone, I’m glad to see him go, and I hope his successor, Geoffrey Taylor, won’t perpetuate this error.
The second thing no one has pointed out is that Gatenby’s festival was a festival of authors, not one for readers. Vancouver’s Alma Lee has not made this error, having carefully programmed her festival from the outset to make it accessible to those who buy and read books. There are indications that Taylor is going to correct the Harbourfront programs in similar ways. Both the Harbourfront Festival and its reading series did a consistently woeful job of readerly outreach, and it wasn’t simply an issue of Gatenby’s increasingly lengthy and contemptuous-toward-readers introductions that were the problem. I suspect his solicitude toward his authors led him to give writers far too much protection from readers than is either healthy or deserved. It’s possible that he did it because many fiction writers turn into simpering morons when faced by non-technical questions. The questions are out there, and they need to be addressed all the way up the scale. Respect for readers is a necessity, particularly if writers want there to be any in the incoming generations of literary readers.
Gatenby has now retreated to Berlin, where he has 18 months to write a memoir of his life as a literary auteur. He was a more-than-decent poet before he became an auteur, and his Toronto: A Literary Guide, along with the two delicious volumes of writer’s comments about visiting Canada indicate he can process an anecdote. Let’s hope the memoir is a useful book, and not a revenge-taking self-exoneration. And let’s hope he learns from his mistakes, and comes back—here or somewhere else—with a reinvention that has less blind ego, and a full deployment of his unique skills.