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.
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.”