Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Toronto Noir: World Class, My Ass (Maybe)

OK, true confessions here. I haven’t read Toronto Noir yet, the latest in Akashic Books’ acclaimed “noir” series, which is due out in May. But I’ve been hearing about it for a while. Quite a while.

You want a Canadian city that justifies a noir anthology? Think Montreal. Seriously.

Or Vancouver. Halifax. Hull. St. John’s. Yellowknife. Moncton. Sudbury. Even fucking Moose Jaw.

But Toronto? The Queen City may be a lot of things (just ask any Maple Leafs-blue Torontonian), but “noir” is not the term that immediately springs to mind. Smug, superior, self-conscious, nice, bright, clean, self-involved, anal, touristy, squeaky, brassy, well-scrubbed, tight-assed horn-tooters, T.G.I.M., world-class-obsessed, faux-American ... sure. The city the rest of Canada loves to hate ... you bet. But noir?

Still, like I said, I haven’t read it. And lord knows, the heart of darkness knows no municipal limits. After all, there’s even been a Twin Cities Noir in this series. And a city whose most distinctive landmark is a giant dork certainly ought to be able to get it up. But now that the list of contributors has been released, I’m not feeling very reassured here.

Instead of the usual reliable, if rather predictable, suspects (Ken Bruen, Michael Connelly, Gary Phillips, Lawrence Block, S.J. Rozan, Joyce Carol Oates, Loren D. Estleman, P.J. Parrish, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Reed Farrel Coleman, etc.) who have made this series so consistently entertaining, the editors, Janine Armin and Nathaniel G. Moore, have opted for a slew of mostly unknown (even by Canadian standards) writers. I assume they were looking for Canadian writers, which is fine, but still ... R.M. Vaughan, Nathan Sellyn, Ibi Kaslik, Heather Birrell, Sean Dixon, Raywat Deonandad, Christine Murray, Emily Schultz, Kim Moritsugu, Mark Sinnet, George Elliott Clarke, Pasha Malla, Michael Redhill?

Who are these guys? Was there some PC checklist? (“OK, we’ve got a Jew, we need an Arab. And where’s our Sikh?”)

Sure, they editors have reeled in Peter Robinson, Gail Bowen, and Andrew Pyper to reel in the curious, but the CanCrime scene is a hell of a lot stronger than that. Maybe old-school champs like Howard Engel and Eric Wright declined, but where are writers like John McFetridge? Michael Blair? J.D. Carpenter? Mary Jane Maffini? Rosemary Aubert? John Swan? Marc Strange? Giles Blunt? All of them have written tough, often dark and certainly impressive stabs of crime fiction over the last few years, and yet not one of them shows up in these pages. Were they even asked to participate? Or weren’t they “Toronto” enough?

(And, of course, even while they’re all loudly touting Toronto’s much vaunted multiculturalism in all the pre-release publicity, it’s quite telling to note that there’s not one single French-Canadian contributor. Sad, but typical. The more that Toronto changes ...)

Talk about world-class disappointing.

Then again, I haven’t heard of either of the editors, either. I fear they may be Toronto literary types--or would-be Toronto literary types--out to “transcend the genre.” Certainly nothing in the short bios of Janine Armin and Nathaniel G. Moore on Akashic’s pages suggests any previous connection whatsoever with any sort of crime fiction, much less noir.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, “transcend.”

I hope I’m all wrong, and Janine and Nathaniel know exactly what they’re doing, and we’ll have a solid collection of noir tales that will introduce a whole slew of new and exciting voices to crime-fiction readers around the world, giving the CanCrime gang a much-needed and well-deserved shot in the arm and the damn thing will sell a zillion copies.

We’ll see ...


Declan Burke said...

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, “transcend.”

Genius ...

Anonymous said...

"...sixteen of the city's best literary and crime fiction writers lay bare the scars of a city that loves to hate itself.��"

That might answer you question about the literary types out to transcend the genre. One of the editors contributes to The Village Voice too. This is all from the publishers website you linked to.

The Wall Street Noir book has John Burdett and Megan Abbott, so the series doesn't just have unknowns. I'm betting the publisher is being liberal with the use of "noir".

Anonymous said...

If you look carefully at the Noir series of books they usually prefer NOT to use mystery writers. In fact, I know two would be editors who were TOLD not to use mystery writers, but to find "ecclectic" writers from their cities. The would-bes then turned the job down.

I'm not a big fan of the Noir series of Akashic. I thin more mystery writers shoud have been used. Yes, I realize thag a writer from Brooklyn Nir won the Shamus for best short story, but EVEN though she's NOT a mystery writer I think that's fine. There are exceptions to every rule, but ONE THE WHOLE the series does not provide work or exposure for mystery writers.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, my passion tends to lead to typos.


Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hey, Bob!

Among those who have contributed to the Akashic series over the years are Ken Bruen, Michael Connelly, Robert Ferrigno, Gary Phillips, Lawrence Block, S.J. Rozan, Steven Torres, Joyce Carol Oates, Loren D. Estleman, P.J. Parrish, Craig Holden, Megan Abbott, James W. Hall, Jim Pascoe, Scott Phillips, Laura Lippman, Peter Robinson, and Reed Farrell Coleman.

They aren't mystery and crime writers?

John McFetridge said...

Well, Kevin, if they do a Montreal noir, you better be the editor - or else it'll be Mavis Gallant.

Juri said...

How does one apply for an editing gig at Akashic? I could edit HELSINKI NOIR. (One should really put a smiley here...)

Anonymous said...

Great point burton. I wonder if they'll do an anthology on PLBW? Talk about noir.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"...sixteen of the city's best literary and crime fiction writers lay bare the scars of a city that loves to hate itself.��"

Correction. The rest of the country loves to hate Toronto. Torontonians... Don't get me started. Sorry John, you know I was born there, and I've apologized for it ever since.

John McFetridge said...

The thing about Toronto is that it's so much a different city than it was even ten years ago. No other city I've ever lived in - Montreal, Calgary, the maritimes - has changed so much in so short a time.

Toronto is now North America's 4th most populous metro area, over four million people and more than half of them were born in another country. You know you can get bus directions in 140 languages in Toronto. I didn't know there WERE 140 languages...

In some ways that's the biggest problem I have with the "literary" writers on the list, they pretty much represent the old Toronto, which is such a small part of the city now.

But I looked at the book's table of contents and they've tried to cover the whole city. We'll see...

Anonymous said...

To be fair, I'm French Canadian. And a Jew.

So I guess I hit two of those checklist boxes.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Nathan! Glad you made the list!

How'd they approach you? How'd you get invited to submit when so many others were cold shouldered?

(It's nice someone involved in the book has actually surfaced)

(Gee, a French-Canadian Jew. The Pequistes must love that...)

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin,

I was approached via my agent, so I can't add any insight around the selection process, or tell you why I was invited. My first collection was definitely dark, so I imagine that had something to do with it.

I did know the identities of some of the other authors, but their lack of a heavy noir background didn't bother me - I was just excited to find myself among them, and figured their talent (Clarke, Schultz, and Redhill especially) ensured the quality of their submissions, even if they were somewhat foreign to the genre.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

"Somewhat foreign"? How about "extraterrestrial"?

And how about the editors themselves? What planet are they from?

I'm not questioning the writing chops of any of the contributors (and I'm definitely looking forward to your story Nathan. Anyone compared to Mordecai Richler can't be all bad. Richler may have scored beaucoup "literary" cred over his long career, but first and foremost, he knew how to write, and how to tell a solid story -- which is why he not just scored all that acclaim, but also sold tons of books).

But the fact the editors seem to have completely and deliberately bypassed all crime writers (except for the USA-approved ringers) in favour of "literary" writers is worth discussion.

It's the sort of discrimination that genre readers and writers have to face constantly. But genre fiction can be every bit as well-written and intelligent and challenging as what passes for "literary" fiction. And it's generally far more readable and entertaining. And arguably more important. Like a tree falling in the forest, all the "brilliance" of a piece of airy fairy literary fiction is pointless wankery if nobody ever reads it.

Would the editors have asked mystery or, say, romance, writers to contribute to a collection of "literary" fiction? Or for that matter asked only Gentiles to contribute to a book of Jewish fiction?

Because that's the level of bullshit this amounts to. The book seems to openly sneer at genre fiction and the people who write it, suggesting that anyone can write it. And probably better than those who make a living writing it.

I wonder who the editors are trying to impress with TORONTO NOIR? Or if they're simply taking perverse delight in biting that hands that could potentially feed them. Crime fiction readers -- who are the most likely group to buy this book -- or the tweed jacket brigade -- who in general will turn their noses up at it unless they're assured the writing will "transcend the genre"?

Will the book be shuffled off to the dusty sequestered ghetto of the "Canadian Literature" anthology section of the local Indigo/Chapters to be oohed and ahhed over and then ignored, or will it play with the big kids in the Mystery and Suspense section where it might actually sell a few copies?

Me? I can hardly wait to get my mitts on a copy.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

Tell me: Do French-Canadian Jews go into the pur laine schmattah business?


Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Sean Dixon - said...

Yeah, that's me all over. A tree falling in the forest. Guess I'm just stuck on that whooshing sound.

Anonymous said...

kevin smith did you like the book TN