Thoughtful Canadian Literature Lovers Unite!
And YES! there will be footnotes!
That this, my first blog, is the beginning of something I have no doubt. Whether it’s the beginning of something big, small, sad, silly, useful, meaningful (less) or significant, time will tell. I can tell you it was born of a motivating mixture of obsession and frustration, catalyzed by middle-aged existential terror.
The obsession is with words and writing, and, since the translation of obsession into any kind of achievement requires focus, I have (somewhat reluctantly, since I hate to miss out on anything) decided to narrow (I hate that word) my field of vision (for the time being) to focus on Canadian literature.
WHY CAN LIT?
Several reasons. First, I’m most familiar with it. I have grown up with it. I also reviewed in the late 90’s and early 20’s, mostly as an associate editor with a tiny and then privately owned small town newspaper, The Echo, but also, occasionally, with The Globe and Mail or Books in Canada. Each year, in it’s special summer publication, The Echo rather anomalously lavished an entire page (with cover picture!) on a weekly book review, the focus of which was meant to be local. (I broadly interpreted this as Canadian.) As well as the gardening columnist, Senior’s publication editor, sometimes Arts reporter, and main contributor to a number of other special publications, I was the sole book reviewer. Those were fun times.
Secondly, as both a devoted reader and a high school English teacher who mandates independent study of a work of Canadian literature in her grade eleven courses, I share my student’s frustration over the difficulty finding thoughtful but accessible (in several senses of the word) commentary on the art and craft of Canadian writing. Student search queries produce the expected flood of “I bought the book so of course I love it” reader comments, mostly written at the level of a primary school book report and overly dependent on the qualifiers “awesome,” and “amazing,” masquerading as reviews on bookseller websites.
Less common, but equally troublesome, are obtuse academic essays, often locked away in inaccessible databases and/or straitjacketed and blinkered by the restraints of the particular “ism” they espouse. Coming from a solidly lower middle class ancestry, I share my predecessors disdain for any idea that can operate only in the protective presence of elaborate assumptions (often political) or that to survive, relies heavily on its listener’s fear of appearing insensitive.
Nino Ricci, on his web page, responding to a question about the state of Canadian literary criticism and its influence on his work, identifies some of these concerns too, and others:
In Canada there is no real class of literary critics per se, which is perhaps a shame, and hence many reviews tend to get written by other writers. This mightn’t be such a bad thing if most of the writers in this country didn’t know most of the other writers, and so could write truly objective reviews, or if writers were any more likely to be good judges of literature than anyone else. The fact is that book reviews tend to be superficial and unreliable by their very nature–they are written by people who are being poorly paid to give a day’s thought to a work that someone else has just spent three or four years thinking about. As for academic criticism, it tends to be unreliable for different reasons, usually because it is written out of whatever school of thought happens to be in fashion at the time and because it tends to stress things like symbolism and theme that have little to do with how books are written. (1)
I think we would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of literary criticism that has stood the test of time. On the other hand, we find a fair amount of literature that has done so, often the very stuff that was vilified or dismissed by literary critics when it was first published.
Consulted: July 17, 2010
I flinched at the bit about the superficial and unreliable reviews written by poorly paid reviewers, having been one of those myself, but I fear he is right. I was often frustrated by my inability (word limits, audience, yada yada yada) to give the book being reviewed the discussion it deserved, although, in self – defense, I will say I never presumed to review a book in a day. Of Anglo/Irish background, a nervous distrust of any dramatically displayed emotion is encoded in my DNA, and, although I am an imperfect practitioner myself, as this blog amply illustrates, “reserved subtlety” does not begin to do justice to the familial communication style. Yet, I once came near to tears over the tragic injustice of being required to sum up Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief “in 1,000 words or less.”
To return to the main point: there’s not much of a tradition of Canadian literary criticism or even thoughtful commentary. It was, in fact, this quote by Ricci, happened upon, not coincidentally, in an attempt to help a student find critical material, that was the final impetus for this blog. It provided the “OK, so it’s not just me” moment, and thus the confidence to name the problem: much of what is available to the thoughtful student (in the broadest sense) of Canadian literature is, discouragingly, either fluff or encrypted in academese.
How did this happen?
The current state of affairs, it seems to me, arises from two sources:
1. The pay for thoughtful Canadian literary criticism is not sufficient to sustain life — thus, while there are, no doubt, myriad readers of Canadian literature who have thoughtful thoughts about it, those willing to spend wage-earning time sharing these thoughts have all died off or evolved (or devolved, depending on how you view these things) to a more self-sustaining life form.
2. While one of these life forms may be the academic critic, in many cases the extreme adaptations required have, like those of the strange creatures that populate the boiling environs of deep sea vents, rendered their behaviour inscrutable for the rest of us.
What to do?
It’s not often that I find myself advocating a return to Victorian modes of thinking, but there is one Victorian phenomenon that I think might just come to our rescue: the amateur enthusiast. The sciences certainly owe them an immeasurable debt! You know, the largely self-taught country gentleman/woman who quietly made him/herself an expert on the sedimentary strata of the English landscape, or the mating habits of the spiny cicada, or the subspecies of the bladderwort — just because they wanted to.
Some echo of this ideal probably helps explain my own background, which is eclectic, bordering on the oxymoronic (please honour the prefix). I have, at various times in my life, made my living in both the sciences and the arts, always with a foot in each world. I grew up in a working class family which, nevertheless, held learning, and the life of the mind in the highest regard. In my family, it was all very well to be professionally successful, vastly rich or world-famous, but the real heroes were those who “used their brains and knew their stuff” – be they a particle physicist, a small engine mechanic, a barber or an opera singer. Most were self-taught, and broadly so. Learning was never confined by the demands of a particular occupation. My father, who managed to scrape together a grade nine education in the backwoods of Ontario, in the 1930’s, made his living in the heating and air conditioning industry. Nevertheless, allowed a little time with the textbook, he provided reliable help with my university Calculus courses, once neatly deflated my lengthy rant of complaint directed against the obscurity of a specimen in my final veterinary pathology exam by correctly (and infuriatingly) guessing the particular bit of rabbit lung disease involved, and, later in life, welcomed a willing ear when discoursing on the physics behind the construction of an acoustic guitar which he was considering building. He was representative of the significant adults in my world. Our summers were spent at the cottage which had no hydro – hence no television. Instead, childhood evenings were often spent in the company of my parents and their friends, listening to and participating in, free-flowing, boundary-less conversations about everything and anything – family legends, religion, politics, philosophy, science, books, movies, community news, music, art, the latest novel — a truly social forum for the exchange, development, and acquisition of knowledge.
Intellectual honesty and modesty were prerequisite. Artificial divisions by genre, or discipline were rejected – the popular and the esoteric were equally valued as long as the idea was intriguing. Everyone got excited about ideas. Everyone was a critic, and only the strongest ideas (and critiques) survived. Any self-serving posturing or attempts to establish intellectual supremacy were quickly swatted down. One was admired in my circles for possessing a broad knowledge, original ideas, many stories and the ability to present (and when necessary, defend) these ideas/stories in an artful, entertaining way, regardless of gender, age, race, social class or formal education.
I go on at length about this because these early life cottage round table experiences and the idea of the Victorian amateur inform my own hopes about this blog.
The key point in both these examples is that interest preceded expertise, and there was no impeding sense that one must have an academic degree in something or other before one was allowed to think about it, as long as one thought about it clearly and honestly. The knowledge grew from the interest and not the other way around, yet in the end, solid and significant collections of knowledge were often compiled.
So, as a result of these formative influences, and in response to the current sad state of affairs regarding Canadian literary commentary, I propose to create a lively forum for original ideas, artfully and entertainingly presented, where the strength of the idea, regardless of the age, sex, formal education, or social class of its creator, is the only thing that counts. Is this not what literary criticism in Canada needs?
Apologia (and etc.)
At this point, dogged reader, you are no doubt wondering: who the hell does she think she is? I am wondering myself. All I can do in my defense is to re-direct your attention to the opening paragraph, where I candidly admit I don’t know what the results of this effort will be, but I do feel I have to start. Like most actions taken in my life, it is guided by the (broadly paraphrased) Coehlo idea that if you take persistent small steps in the direction you want to go, the universe will conspire to help you, and my own war cry, “How hard can it be?” (While the answer to the latter has occasionally been “harder than you can ever imagine” and therein lies a conversational red herring the size of a tuna, mostly, this rhetorical question has enriched my life with experiences which would otherwise never have been undertaken. )
The next small step will be to post my backlist of Can Lit reviews. Then, on to some current reviews, and the development of some “meta” ideas about Canadian writing. Author interviews and commentary will be pursued. Academic exegesis is welcomed as long as it is translated. Sources deemed excellent will be compiled (see footnote 2). A student resource will be developed. Progress will speed up in the summer and slow down during the school year. A word of caution — it has taken me three days to write this, and three days to summon up the courage to push the publish button.
Not to worry, I have a ten-year-plan!
1. I would take issue with the implication that criticism should be primarily concerned with how things are written, and should avoid examination of, for example, theme and symbol. To my mind, criticism should deal with anything that will help a reader understand and therefore appreciate the work further (both its triumphs and its failures) and an examination of theme and symbol, undertaken honestly and with respect for the author’s own ideas on the matter, could, depending on the work, very well be a good thing — but that is fodder for another day.
2. There are, of course, some wonderful, smart, brave and beautiful sources for the serious student of Canadian literature, but they are isolated and disconnected and often hard to find. One of my aims for this site is to compile a comprehensive list, and perhaps, eventually, to earn a place on it.