Last week, we lamented the confused state of our national literary identity, noting the general sense of frustration with the status quo, and the paucity of consensus on what might constitute a positive move forward. How can we decide what is good new Canadian writing if we aren’t sure what, exactly, “Canadian” writing might be, or, for that matter, how “good” might be measured. It’s not that I expect that there will ever be one right answer to these questions, but it distresses me, as someone who would like to bridge the academic/public divide, that there is so little guidance provided by those who are in the best position to provide it, thus leaving room for so much from those who are not.
There is a pervading sense that one era in Canadian writing may well have run its course. What we really need, now, is a new Survival — a Canadian Literature for Dummies — a new attempt to survey what we’ve got, analyze the results, and begin a conversation about what it might mean, in language that anyone can understand, for the benefit of a public that is asking for guidance and showing interest.
On the bright side, compliments must be paid to Margery Fee, editor of the erstwhile Canadian Literature. In her editorial “Beyond Boomer Nationalism,” in the latest edition (#206) she takes an honest look at the state of her publication’s user relations. While the fact that the Canadian Literature website, which has provided free access to backlist articles since 2009, recorded 24,000 hits over a period of a month last summer can’t be anything but encouraging, she notes, as well, complaints about the lack of compelling articles, and the overall snore factor that plagues Canadian literature and discussion of same. She points out that it is not just Canadian Literature that is being criticized in this way. Canadian literature as a whole has been on the receiving end of some fairly withering criticism from writers within its own ranks, including Douglas Coupland, who accuse it, among other things, of being bland, idealized, stagnant, and self-congratulatory. With an even-handedness that reminds us once again of why we need an academic class secure enough to be unconcerned with sensationalism or “coolness” of any sort, Fee points out the somewhat self-servingly Oedipal quality of many of these arguments. It makes more than critical sense that a young(ish) edgy, experimental writer such as Coupland, noted perhaps more for his literary avant-garde boldness at this point, than any outright masterpieces, might find the hegemony of the Canlit establishment infuriating and boring. The fact that Coupland (and others) are infuriated and bored, does not, in itself, cast any critical light on the value of the offending writing. On the other hand, as Fee so reasonably points out, our definition of Canadian literature may need to be re-worked and expanded. As she puts it,
…the name of this journal [Canadian Literature] was a manifesto in 1959; that it now names boredom for some requires us to scrutinize both words. Once “Canadian” was a void needing in-fill. Then it often became a set of pieties. Now, it requires rethinking, which might mean — among other things — that we write about it from broader perspectives…
There is much more of interest in Fee’s editorial, but it’s the content of this edition of the journal itself which is providing a glimmer of hope for change. It’s one thing to opine about the need for evolution, it’s quite another to actually evolve. But, in what seems a clear response to criticism, this volume contains several articles that have interesting things to say about current authors (Wayne Johnston, Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood, and Madeleine Thien) which can, for the most part, be read and understood by an interested (and moderately determined) general public. No grand unifying theory of modern literary Canadian-ness, but still, a step forward!
PS: for a concise and interesting summary of some of our literary past, see: Rae, Ian. Literary Scenes in Canada. canlit.ca: Letters and Reflections. Canadian Literature.
also: for a good start thinking about Canadian-ness, peruse Rudy Wiebe’s contribution here: Wiebe, Rudy. On Being Canadian. canlit.ca: Letters & Reflections. Canadian Literature.