Monthly Archives: April, 2013

Why I Love Canadian Literature

Someone asked me today why I blog about Canadian books. I figured I’d blog my response. Ahead you read a little bit about my love of CanLit, some history on the subject, and some thoughts on the current state of affairs.

As you may have guessed from the fact that I run this blog, Canadian literature is a passion of mine. It has been since I was 19, in 2001. My living room, with its four bookshelves, look like a professorial collection of CanLit; only 2 shelves of my 19 contain non-Canadian books, and one of those two are anthologies and textbooks from university (don’t be fooled though, I have almost 200,000 ebooks from outside our borders). I have every book that has been released by the New Canadian Library, I have the bulk of the M & S Emblem editions, I have every Governor-General Award winning novel back to 1956, every poetry and drama winner back to 1990, every Giller Prize winner and most of the nominees, and every Canada Reads contestant except for 2013 (funds have been tight with a baby on the way). I have 3 full, very large, shelves dedicated to Atlantic Canadian lit, with one shelf strictly PEI writing. In total, including Canadian ebooks, I have close to 7,500 Canadian literary works, having read about 20% to date (according to my Book Collectorz database report).

I have taken courses in Canadian prose, poetry, drama, Atlantic Canadian lit, Nova Scotian lit, PEI lit, and Quebec lit; I have studied under renowned CanLit scholars Renee Hulan and David Stains, and under award winning poets Richard Lemm, Brent MacLaine, John Smith, and George Elliott Clarke; I am somewhat of an amateur expert in Jewish Canadian literature; and I will be completing my Master’s thesis on the history and business of literary publishing on PEI and Newfoundland. Needless to say, when it comes to the niche study of Canadian literature, especially Canadian literary history, I know my stuff.

To earn my English degree, I had very specific requirements. Courses were required in Medieval, Renaissance, Shakespeare, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, research methods, and linguistics. Anything that was not either Canadian or American lit always seemed to pose great difficulty for me – in the Fall 2012 semester, I took two English courses, Medieval lit and PEI lit; I got 92 in PEI and 68 in Medieval. The primary reason why I have trouble connecting with non-Canadian, centuries old, writing is that, other than the historical interest, I could not connect with the literature. With North American in general and specifically Canadian writing, I could envision the place and time, I knew the history, and I could see connections with the evolving Canadian and American zeitgeist.

Canadian literature also fascinated me because, unlike American literature (I’m sure many will disagree with my assertion), CanLit cannot be bulked together into one big monolithic category. There are so many subsets within the study of Canadian literature that are so disconnected on so many levels they could be from different planets: You have the study of pre-Confederation pioneer narratives (Moodie, Traill, Jameson, Hearne), Atlantic literature (MacLeod, Acorn, Halliburton), Francophone literature (Roy, Beauchemin, Aquin), Native literature (Saukamappee, King, Tomson), Jewish literature (Richler, Klein, Layton), Southern Ontario Gothic (Findley, Urquhart, Munro), and even Prairie lit (Laurence, Grove). Every region of Canada has a distinct identity, and, unlike almost every other national literature, Canadian literature has been heavily influenced by immigrant writers; some of Canada’s most widely praised authors were not born in this country – Ondaatje, Vassanji, Austin Clarke, and Sheilds are all great examples.

Like British and American literature, Canadian writing can be broken up into very distinctive periods that can be used to chart the development of Canadian cultural history. Typically, CanLit is broken up into four periods: Pre-Confederation, Confederation, Modernist/Mid-Century/”Between the Wars,” and Contemporary literature. Pre-Confederation, going back to Saukamappee, is very heavy on pioneer and immigrant narratives and really sowed the seeds of our national identity. The Confederation Period, which is usually dated from 1867 to 1914, saw the genesis of Canadian poetry and fiction with writers like the Confederation Poets, LM Montgomery, and Stephen Leacock. That multi-named mid-Century period started with the outbreak of WWI and is usually dated to the mid-1960s (the 60s marked the high-point in the development of Canadian society with Expo 67, the Maple Leaf flag, the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, student loans, and increasing military independence); this period brought us some of the giants of CanLit like MacLennan, Raddall, Ross, and, my favorite, Leonard Cohen. And Contemporary is obviously from the 60s on (but, I have this theory, that in the entire literary world, a new period starting in 1993 – with the invention of the World Wide Web – will eventually be recognized); I consider Atwood’s 1964 book The Circle Game to be the first piece of contemporary Canadian writing.

The role of Canada’s publishers in the development of our literary identity cannot be understated. Publisher McClelland and Stewart especially should be seen as the Godfather of CanLit. Publishers, with the support of the Canada Council of the Arts, played the most pivotal role in the dissemination of our writing. Unfortunately, in our current environment, I have great fears about the future of our national literature. McClelland and Stewart are now part of Random House, which is itself part of German media behemoth Bertelsmann – so there is no longer a large, national, Canadian publisher. Fortunately, there are numerous small independent publishers like Brick Books, Acorn Press, Goose Lane, Wolsak and Wynn, Coach House, and Gaspereau Press. But, these small publishers may be in jeopardy as well. What is most worrying to me as a lover of CanLit and an academic student of publishing is the dwindling financial support for these small regional publishers.

Federal and provincial governments are cutting arts funding in the name of fiscal restraint (even though the amounts are miniscule); these tiny amounts are incredibly valuable to small presses. The arts are an easy target for governments; we live in an age of cultural illiteracy. The latest Mark Wahlberg movie will likely make more money in one night than Canada’s entire independent publishing industry make this year. The general public no longer sees any value or need to fund publishers or writers; there is a common belief that we, as taxpayers, are subsidizing artists. No. We are subsidizing the arts. We as taxpayers are also subsidizing the oil industry, the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, the banking sector, defense contractors, and transportation companies. Why are these more important than the arts? Publishing employs hundreds of people across the country. Book stores employ hundreds, if not thousands, of people. These men and women, as well as the artists themselves, spend money and stimulate the economy just as much as that VIA rail train engineer you are also subsidizing. Literature is one of the cornerstones of a nation’s culture. Could you imagine living in a country without its own literature, music, art, film, etc? This terrifies me. It is not completely out-to-lunch to imagine a day when there is no government funding available to the arts. As an interesting concluding thought on this topic, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is releasing a book this fall on the history of hockey – his publisher is Simon & Schuster, one of the US’s largest presses.

Canadian literature, from Samuel Hearne and Frances Brooke to Will Ferguson and Joseph Boyden, from Vancouver and Whitehorse to Halifax and St. John’s, is a national treasure. Our literature can transport you across space and time and show the commonalities we as Canadians share. Our literature needs to be more widely read, more widely taught in schools (every level of public school English should include Canadian literature and it should be a required course for all Arts students at Canadian universities), more film and television adaptations need to be made of our writing, and, most importantly, our literary community needs to be well funded.

My final summation: All of this history, cultural richness, and national diversity are why I love reading Canadian literature. I can get first hand insight into the Quiet Revolution by reading Next Episode; I can see the early stirrings of feminism in Canada by reading Laurence’s Manawaka series; I can experience the collapse of the traditional Cape Breton way of life by digging into the stories of Alistair MacLeod; and, I can see the birth of Canadian culture by reading Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. I am a very proud Canadian and our literature charts every single important moment in our existence.

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The Taste of Water by Frank Ledwell

The Ledwell Family is an artistic juggernaut on Prince Edward Island. Jane Ledwell wrote an excellent collection of poems, Last Tomato, and is known as one of the Island’s finest poetry editors. Patrick Ledwell is a very talented comedian, a playwright (Come All Ye), and now a respected writer (I Am an Islander). Danny Ledwell is a painter whose work is gaining popularity (the cover of this book is one of his paintings). The patriarch of this brood is Frank Ledwell, PEI’s second Poet Laureate, beloved story teller, and legendary English and creative writing professor at UPEI. The bulk of Frank Ledwell’s collection of writing is very PEI centric; Crowbush, The North Shore of Home, and Island Sketchbook all explore life on the Island, especially rural PEI, while Dip & Veer is a lyrical collection that reflects on Alex Colville’s art. The Taste of Water is a diverse mix of poems that is completely steeped in “islandness.”

The poems in this collection are a mix of the narrative, pastoral, and lyrical. Reading Frank Ledwell properly requires an understanding of his style of writing. Many of his PEI contemporaries, like John Smith and Brent MacLaine are masters of technical subtlety and eclectic metaphors; Ledwell is not. His poetry is like Bon Jovi, whereas John Smith is like Rush. Rush’s music is esoteric, difficult, and almost distant in its complexity. Bon Jovi, while not the most “artistic,” is still fun to listen to and highly entertaining. If you are looking for a demonstration of technical prowess, Frank Ledwell is not going to deliver. If you want to read poems that are written in “down-home” language that are accessible, fun, and convey clear and unambiguous stories and feelings, then The Taste of Water is your book.

The poems in this book are largely selections from poems Ledwell publicly read during his time as Poet Laureate. Poems like “The Sweater,” “Jean Finding Things,” and “Lasagna, April ‘06” tell tales of what life is like on this little island. Family ties, communal dinners, and the comfort of Condon’s Woollen Mills’ sweaters are among the topics of Ledwell’s writing. These poems, as well as the rest of the 71 page collection, wrap themselves in the red soil of PEI. And, whether some think of this as a positive or a negative, the poems are written in a straight-forward way that anyone can enjoy.

This small, beautifully designed collection is a must have. It is the kind of book that every Islander should proudly display on their coffee table. This was Ledwell’s last book before his 2008 death. Acorn Press did a fantastic job designing this book – with the exception of a weird font that does something strange with lower-case t’s. The Taste of Water, combined with Jane Ledwell’s Last Tomato, and Patrick Ledwell’s I Am an Islander would make an excellent gift to anyone that wanted a taste of Island literature.

Island: The Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod

As promised, my first book review of 2013! Alistair MacLeod. Just his name evokes images of the Cape Breton landscape. I really think that there are no Canadian writers whose worldwide reputation is built on such little writing; that is a testament to just how good his books are. MacLeod has five books published, three of which are completely original works: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, and his only novel, No Great Mischief. He also has two books where existing writing was essentially repackaged: the story “To Every Thing There is a Season,” from his second collection, was reworked into an illustrated Christmas book and, the book I am reviewing here, Island, is all of the stories from his two previously published collections plus two unpublished stories. On the back cover of Island, Michael Ondaatje compares MacLeod to Faulkner and Chekhov in his use of regionalism to tell universal stories. This is the essence of Alistair MacLeod’s short stories. In his writing, Cape Breton Island acts as living laboratory to examine the larger changing world.

If you were to sit through an Island Studies class, you would learn the four primary characteristics of island life: totality, intimacy, monopoly, and exile. MacLeod’s stories embody all of these elements. They show the insularity of island life and some of the common challenges of isolation in the North Atlantic. But, more universally, they take on the ramifications of monumental social change on small traditional communities. MacLeod’s stories are set in a time when choosing to attend university instead of work the fishing boats is an insult to the family; where reading is considered a waste of time; where tourists are seen as threatening; and where living off the land is simply a way of life. The magic of MacLeod’s writing though is its exploration on what happens when these traditional beliefs get turned upside down.

Most of the stories in Island are framed. By that, for those of you who haven’t toiled away in English classes for years and years, I mean they are told through a series of flashbacks. This provides an interesting contrast and juxtaposition to the “then” and “now.” Typically, the “present” in the narrative centers on a middle-aged man looking back on important events that took place anywhere from childhood to young adulthood. The range of events is as diverse as the population of Cape Breton: abandoning the traditional family trade (fishing, mining, etc), leaving the island, or even finding out Santa is not real (sorry folks). While the immediate conflict is “local” to Cape Breton, the sense of place that emerges from the themes is universal. With a few modifications, these stories could take place anywhere.

The highlights of the collection are “The Boat” (a highly anthologized classic around the world), “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” “As Birds Bring forth the Sun,” “To Every Thing There is a Season,” “Clearances” and “Island.” If you just want to pick away at a few of the stories, these are definitely the ones to tackle.

Island and MacLeod’s only novel, No Great Mischief, are absolute masterpieces of not just Atlantic or Canadian fiction, but of English literature. The quality of writing is flawless. The characters are incredibly well developed. And MacLeod tells a story in only a few pages that would take lesser writers entire books. Thematically, Island feels like over 20 small novels and should be read by everyone.

School is done! Time to make my own reading list.

Now that the semester is over, I hope to return to discussing books very shortly – starting with a review of Island by Alistair MacLeod in the next week. In September, my academic focus is going to be shifting full-time to the study of islands (with the end goal of earning my MA); my concentration is going to be on the arts industry of PEI, Newfoundland, and Iceland, with a focus on publishing and its interaction with commercial, political and economic forces. So, over the summer, I will be reading lots of island related books, concentrating on PEI literature (a new passion of mine). Here are some upcoming books I plan on reading and reviewing over the next couple months (some are not Canadian – don’t panic):

I am an Islander by Patrick Ledwell
Growing Up with Julie by Gerry Steele
Afternoon Horses by Deirdre Kessler
Her Teeth Were Stones by Judy Gaudet
Causeway by Linden MacIntyre
History of Prince Edward Island by Duncan Campbell (a late 19th century history)
Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
Pulling Strings by Godfrey Baldacchino
A Geography of Islands by Stephen Royle
• … and many more, hopefully.

I have become very fascinated in the last year with the idea of literary “canons,” particularly national and regional canons within Canadian literature (potential PhD topic maybe?). As of late, in my book collecting, research for school, and both required and pleasure reading, I find myself constantly coming back to the questions “Why was this worth reading?”, “Why was this worth publishing?”, “Will this be read 50 years from now?”, “What constitutes enduring literature versus Tom Clancy-esque garbage?” (for the record, I enjoy Clancy), and finally, “Should this be part of a provincial, national, or language-wide literary canon and who gets to decide that?” My view on what makes up an English, Canadian, Atlantic or even a PEI canon has evolved.

In my years of both formally studying literature and reading for fun, I developed a way of approaching literature – which many of my undergraduate classmates disagree with when I bring it up. I see a piece of writing, be it a novel, poem, collection, play, or whatever, as the recorded intersection of a number of variables, but primarily and invariably geography, history, and psychology. Could Mordecai Richler have written Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, or Barney’s Version if he hadn’t grown up in the ghettos of Montreal in the post-holocaust world? No. Would Matthew Lewis have written The Monk without the backdrop of the French Revolution and the seedy underbelly of England’s Hellfire Clubs? I would argue no. Many English professors of mine over the years have told me that “an author and their writing must be separated!” I disagree with this with every fiber of my being. Who else could have written The Diviners other than Margaret Laurence? Who else could have written Adventures of Huckleberry Finn other than Sam Clements? One of my favorite English professors, after I told her my geography-history-psychology approach, nodded approvingly and added “true, and each time we read something, we re-evaluate those things on multiple levels.” (This comment gave her extra “awesome points”).

Why have I rambled on about canons and approaches to literary analysis? I’m getting to that. In Island Studies, there are three fundamental attributes to island life: totality, intimacy, and monopoly. Small islands – small enough to produce a culture of insularity (i.e. “islandness”) – produce sociological conditions like no other geographical location on our blue rock; in turn, this produces a unique body of literature and literary culture. Islands act as a living-lab, allowing someone (me) to closely examine the interplay of geography, history, and psychology in literature. Social science methodological approaches can be applied to literature without sucking the fun out of reading. That is why I love islands and, especially, island literature.

On a closing note, consider this. A coworker recently asked me, “What do you considered good writing? [in terms of books I read]” I pondered for a moment and said, “I can’t define ‘good’ writing, but I would define ‘bad’ writing, as a book that could have been written by anyone, at any time, in any place. That kind of writing lacks a soul, and ‘soul’ is the key ingredient to good writing.”

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