Extratextual Knowledge

That naming of a real intersection is a daring act and one that is controversial in Canadian publishing. Here is the issue: When situating fiction in your hometown, you risk relying on street names as a kind of shorthand, a code for those in the know who will immediately situate the characters and action in terms of social class and ambience. But that relies on what’s called extratextual knowledge on the part of the reader. I know Queen and Broadview as rather seedy, for example. I have done this rather lazily in my own fiction: I have mentioned Yorkville, a shopping district in Toronto, as shorthand for rich, which is a message lost to anyone who doesn’t know Toronto. I have had editors suggest I take out street names to make the city a less specific one: If you replace College Street with “a street of cafés near the large university” you sum up the atmosphere of the place in a way that’s accessible for a foreigner.

But then you also lose a certain amount of pride. Let’s be honest: We all know the primary reason for such erasures. It’s to make the book more saleable to Americans. We all want our books and films and TV shows to be published in the United States, and we know a large proportion of their entertainment-consuming population is not interested in looking beyond their borders.

Russell Smith

Ok, here’s the thing, Russell. “Queen and Broadview,” “Yorkville,” and “College Street” don’t mean anything to me, either. So, you know, when you do that sort of thing, you’re not just alienating Americans who are “not interested in looking beyond their borders,” you’re alienating everyone who lives outside the COTU*, including about 85% of Canadians. It’s pretty obnoxious to be aware that it’s a  “message lost to anyone who doesn’t know Toronto” but to then to label all people-who-don’t-know-Toronto as foreigners (and subsequently all foreigners as Americans).

Unless you’re writing for a TO-centric publication, don’t do this. Especially don’t do this in fiction. Go ahead, name the street. But don’t rely on the name. Give it context.

(This is a good illustration of why BC and Ontario often feel like two different countries!)

*Center of the Universe

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