Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Piggy Logan's Dolls

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On Wednesday night, I attended the IFOA reading of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Finalists. In welcoming ambiance, the Brigantine room at Harbourfront was transformed by café tables and candles. As at Monday’s GG Awards, I was again struck by the sheer range of the works, but also got an answer to a new question, “At an awards reading, what should we hope for besides literary excellence?”

Consider the the diversity of life and language, of time and place, of character and style, in this list of finalists:

The Meager Tarmac, by Clark Blaise
The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
The Quiet Twin, by Dan Vyleta

In fact, the scope and range was so expansive, I was struggling to come up with something I could write about that united them, when host Robin Maharaj did it for me: “All these writers are nominated for more than one award, so any way you slice it, this group of writers is the best of the best. And if they have one thing in common it’s that they are accessible. Their literary books are still interesting and compelling to average people.”

Now the word "accessible" has specific extra meaning for me. One of the things I respect about the IFOA at Harbourfront, which sets it apart from the venues of so many other literary launches and events, is that I can physically attend it with little risk of injury or fear. It's accessible thanks to the ramp into York Quay and the ramp down to the Brigantine Room. I was equally moved by the volunteer taking tickets at the door who took one look at me after struggling to get that far and instantly offered me her seat.

But let me digress a moment and tell you what very odd thing flashed through my mind at the moment of Robin Maharaj's comment: Piggy Logan’s dolls. I’ll admit that a part of my brain is always thinking about Thomas Wolfe. Based on a true flavor-of-the-month performance artist who became the darling vogue of the rich in the '20's, Wolfe used Piggy Logan's dolls to write scathingly about inaccessible art, about sham art, and the poseur mentality of those who invent and ape a vocabulary in order to make themselves appear as if they are the one true intelligentsia. In The Party at Jack’s Wolfe describes the consummate pretentiousness of those “in the know” as party goers fall all over themselves to elucidate all the ways that sticking pins in a bunch of wire dolls is symbolic and profound. In an effort to out-do each other, no one will say the obvious: the doll emperor has no clothes, Piggy is a fraud, and these puppet dolls are just plain juvenile, boring and silly.

Unfortunately, art that prides itself on being inaccessible is still with us. The self-aggrandizing blind worship of Piggy Logan’s dolls is still with us, accompanied by the purposefully inaccessible language that it requires. In the art of theatre, I've seen Piggy on too many experimental stages. I’ve heard snatches of the artistic elite in ultra-trendy art galleries speaking a language that is either Piggy or Polish. I hear Piggy in the poseur bravado of gangster rap “music” and whenever some besotted fool tries to explain to atheist me the spiritual value of golf.

But Robin Maharaj was exactly and entirely right about Wednesday night: in form and content, in presentation by the organizers and in reception by the audience, everything about the evening was both of the highest literary standard and entirely accessible. Each of the readers introduced their work in a context of clear plain speaking. Each of the readings was immediately engaging and each author sustained that quality of performance engagement. It was a rare blend—both the erudite and the accessible. It warms the pages of my heart to be able to say that on a Canadian night of the “best of the best,” Piggy Logan was neither seen or heard.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page