What should Canadian literature be?

If you follow the CanLit chatter (such as it is) at all, you can’t help but be aware of the growing discontent with the process by which we anoint our stars.  Charges of hegemoniacal and aged cronyism, political machinations and stodgy self-satisfaction abound.  There is a sense that Margaret Atwood simply cannot win any more prizes because that would be boring. The Giller shortlist, containing as it did, several less-than-established writers from indie publishers, was hailed as revolutionary, the herald of a self-justifying grand new era of, well, newness.

In a parallel development, it has also become fashionable to decry the stagnation of our literary imagination.  Comments of this  ilk abound in the blogosphere. Paraphrasing broadly, the line goes something like this:

If I have to read one more lyrical expression of minutely
observed small  town angst masquerading as great
Canadian   literature, I shall role over and weep or expire, or have an epileptic seizure, or vomit — (insert ironic over-reaction of choice).

These apercu are generally delivered with an air of long-suffering, eye-rolling exasperation immediately recognizable to any parent of a teenager and, apparently, with an equally limited world view.  Myopic teenagers can be forgiven their myopia; it comes quite naturally and innocently from limited experience but anyone past twenty should know better.

Closely related to both of these lines of thought is the skirmish over whether or not graphic novels (glorified comic books) should be considered a legitimate literary genre.  Those opposed argue (and I think, perhaps, correctly) that far from being a new literary genre, graphic novels are an entirely separate art form probably more properly placed somewhere in the fringes of the visual arts. Those leading the charge to have graphic novels considered literature tend to  offer two  arguments in favour of this:

a) that graphic novels can tell stories that are gripping/ engaging/that can make you cry (to which I answer, so can a good painting, but nobody would try to call it literature)


b)  they are new, they irritate the old fogey, literary establishment and are therefore, ipso facto, cool, and who can argue with cool?

A particularly egregious example of this latter sort of  hipster peer pressure was exhibited by Sara Quin, defender of the graphic novel Essex County on this year’s Canada Reads, who insisted,  rather ungraciously, that the defeat of Essex County was a direct result of the other defender’s  inability to recognize extreme coolness when confronted with it.   Apparently her world vision encompasses no more damning accusation.

All of these examples are, I think, facets of the same problem — there is a widespread confusion over what makes literature good and a related blurring of the idea of literary value and novelty.  This was glaringly obvious in the Canada Reads debates, indeed, in the very selection of the long and short list of “essential  Canadian books.”  Disgusted comments decried the inclusion of older books by established authors, or books that had been debated before, on that basis that this was boring.  There tends to be a tone of unimpeachable, self-righteous confidence about these comments. But is it not ludicrous to exclude our greatest writers from a competition to select our “essential” stories?  (Of course, this whole process is awash in the ludicrous, but one issue at a time.) Debates between defenders of the shortlist often bogged down in confusion over what “best” might mean.  Some seemed to believe it meant the most entertaining, a concept which, at times, blurred condescendingly into the most “accessible”  book.  Rather alarmingly, there was general agreement that Carol Shields’ book Unless was in a class of its own as far as the quality of writing was concerned although this argument was a little short on specifics — “It’s Carol Shields, after all,” was the most common justification.  Lest one thinks me biased, I will admit here to being only a moderate Shields fan, but, if the above assertion is true, should this not have been the end of the argument?  Why, then, did another book win the competition?

On second thought, why were Canadian celebrities left to assess  the “essentialness” of works of Canadian fiction when they brought no obvious expertise to the task? This is meant with no disrespect — there is no reason they should be expected to be experts.  The answer is, of course, that there is, currently, a critical vacuum in this country.  Learned literary academics have long since deserted their public, erecting  unbreachable barriers of abstruse jargon in pursuit of baffling esoterica and no sane programmer would dream of broadcasting the type of discussion that fills academic literary journals these days.  Reviews by this country’s working literati have been denounced as incestuous. In their wake, myriad amateur blogging “reviewers” many of whom have either forgotten the difference between supported analysis and personal reaction, or never knew it in the first place, have set up camp — slamming or extolling a book on the basis of highly questionable, and highly personal criteria. I’m certainly not the first to broach this issue.  Nino Ricci has  complained about the sorry state of Canadian literary criticism, and Andre Alexis as well.

There are certain authors (Shields, Munro, Gallant, Richler, Atwood, to name a few) who, depending on which side of the “new is the new good” divide you sit, are either anathema (old establishment) or can be safely admired (canonical) but nobody seems to know why, exactly.  It’s clearly ridiculous to dismiss a piece of writing because the writer has already won lots of prizes, because many others have attempted something similar, because it fails to meet some ephemeral criteria of “coolness,” the form is not new enough, or it has failed to be accessible to all.  But what should we expect from our LITERATURE?  What should we value in it and why?  There may, of course, be no definitive answer, but it is definitely a the discussion we need to be having — and, I think, a debate the reading Canadian public would like to participate in,  if only there was some structure within which to frame it. Canadian literary academics and professional critics — are you listening?  Talk to us!

More on these matters…

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