What makes a national literature national? Or, Yonge and Bloor and damn the consequences!

The question of the importance of place in defining, maintaining and protecting a national literature (more specifically Canadian literature) has recently been revisited in the blogosphere. This has made my heart glad because,  however murky the issue becomes upon close examination, it remains  as clear as a Yukon Sunday morning that lively conversation about Canadian literature is absolutely necessary for its survival (allusion fully intended).

I speak, more specifically, of A. J. Somerset’s recent post “On pop, soda, and rabies,” which is itself a reconsideration of an article by Russell Smith, “The local in international literature,” published in The Globe and Mail last spring.  In the original article, Mr. Smith notes that for a modern Canadian writer,  “naming of a real intersection [e.g. Yonge and Bloor] is a daring act and one that is controversial in Canadian publishing.” He goes on to explain that there are two predominant reasons.  First, the writer may, in the process, be flirting with the dangerously lazy habit of relying too much on his readers’ (we’ll assume there’s more than one) “extratextual knowledge,” to establish atmosphere and relay social context.  Why bother with all the nitpicky details when one can simply write St. Laurent and Mont Royal, or Queen and Jarvis, or (for the literary equivalents of trapeze artists) Eudora, and one’s reader instantly knows exactly what the situation is? Why indeed!  As wise writers know, any number of unexpected and potentially unnerving mental constructs may pop into the reader’s mind upon mention of a particular location, none of which may support the narrative in quite the way one had hoped.  Supply your own details, and you wrest back some control over this matter.

The second, more pressingly practical danger is that by defiantly situating action in a demonstrably Canadian place, the writer  reduces potential international (read American) sales. This situation has, it seems, caused publishers to pressure writers to, in Somerset’s words “de-canuckify” their work, replacing identifiable Canadianisms with American idioms and setting their narratives in a vaguely American eternal anywhere.

Russell’s final word is that although many of our Canadian locations are not as internationally iconic as, say, Hollywood and Vine or the Latin Quarter in Paris, if we continue to name and skillfully render the atmospheric detail of our own places in our own literature, someday they may be as familiar a part of the world’s mental landscape.  The French and Americans have, after all, had quite a bit more time to write as Frenchmen or Americans than we have, as Canadians. Somerset, as well, lands (somewhat more colourfully) on the side of stubborn Canadian particularity, and invoking Richler as a spirit guide, suggests that Canadian writers are ” ‘obligated to be… honest witness[es] to [their] time and place.'”

I would mostly agree, but let’s push the conversation further. One comment which followed Smith’s article questioned the perceived wisdom which insists that international readers (i.e. Americans) shun fiction whose setting is not either specifically identified as, or safely be assumed to be, American. The writer notes that Ian Rankin, who enjoys significant sales in America, sets his stories very identifiably in Edinburgh, Scotland. Another noted that this assumption on the part of publishers is a worrisome indication of the condescension with which they view the reading public.  Both make important points. I am willing to bet that if the writing is strong, the “average American” will have no trouble wrapping his or her mind around the idea that things happen in Toronto, Ottawa, Kapuskasing or the Miramichi…possibly even Eudora (although the phonic alchemy of the name itself, somehow, fights against it). Both these comments identify a chronic misreading of the public by the corporate classes. Since they so seldom walk amongst us it’s understandable that their notion of us may be somewhat skewed.  This would not be of particular moment if they were not such influential gatekeepers (as the publishers, producers, distributors, etc.)  for culture.  Heaven help us if we begin to accept corporate America’s vision of the average consumer unit as a true reflection of ourselves, or to believe that we really do want what they think we want!

Another question, however, screams for attention.  If our Canadian literary writers deliberately erase the Canadian landscape from their writing in order to appeal to American sensibilities (or publishers’ interpretation of these sensibilities) can their work still be considered Canadian literature?  Surely Margaret Atwood (1) has adequately warned us of the dangers of mirroring some other culture in our literature?  Surely we wish to avoid having our already fragile and controversial Canadian identity warped into something gnarled and gnomish in an attempt to conform to an Americanized reality?  Surely to “decanuckify” our stories means they are no longer ours?

My initial reflex response was: yes, obviously! To eradicate our Canadian landmarks from our stories could only be a chicken-hearted, lucre-loving sell-out and while the question of whether the result was literature would have to be answered on a case-by-case basis, there is no doubt that whatever it might be, it would not be Canadian literature.  This felt good until I started thinking again — such an inconvenient habit.  Consider the corollary to this declaration.  Does a story have to be set in Canada, or contain recognizable Canadianisms to be a Canadian story? What about (gasp) Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Oryx and Crake, set somewhat vaguely in New England?  What about our newly and proudly minted tradition of the immigrant writer a la Clarke, Hage, Mistry, whose fiction is often set outside of Canada?  Must these stories be excluded from Canlit considerations, or, should the authors try to plant some Canadianisms in their writing to qualify?  This hardly seems reasonable, especially since the  fact that these stories are possible is considered a very Canadian thing.  What about stories with fantastical settings? Once again, a prohibition that seemed obvious when raised against a specific irritation, becomes unwieldy when applied more generally.

So, where does this leave us?  I suspect that one can bear honest witness to one’s time and place in a variety of complex ways which might include, but is not limited to, the evocation of specific locations.  Canadian literature will be written by Canadians — meaning that its spirit will be informed by a unique set of circumstances only possible in the Canadian context, filtered through the sensibility of a gifted writer.  If, in the process, Canadian landmarks become richly figurative as well as literal places, all the better.  It would be foolish, of course, to discount the threat that commercial pressures pose to the survival of Canadian literature. However, rather than championing the inclusion of Canadian locations in Canadian literature, the best defense might prove to be a radical re-education of the gatekeepers of North American culture regarding the tastes and abilities of their reading public.

1.  Atwood, Margaret. Survival. A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.  McClelland & Stewart, 1972.


More on these matters… and related post

One Response to What makes a national literature national? Or, Yonge and Bloor and damn the consequences!

  1. Pingback: Canadian Words in Canadian Places | writereads

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