National Post Barbara Kay: The bureaucrats killed CanLit

National Post - Wednesday July 8th, 2015

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press
Bookseller Taliah Lundstrom and co-worker David Bird stack copies of Alice Munro's latest book 'Dear Life,' at Munro's Books in Victoria, B.C., Thursday, October 10, 2013 following the news that Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel prize for literature.

CanLit, our sobriquet for Canadian literature, had not yet been coined when I was an undergrad studying English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s. To my cohort, “literature” meant the British and American canons, since identifiably Canadian writing (all of which had heretofore fitted onto a single shelf in the university bookstore) was then only on the cusp of its “golden era,” which ended in the late 1970s.

Burgeoning nationalists were buoyed by the emergence of excellent writers like Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant (even though Munro and Gallant were not “discovered” in Canada until the New Yorker magazine put its imprimatur on them). Unfortunately, writerly creativity was soon usurped by the bureaucracy: public funding and prizes were made contingent on writing that was self-consciously dedicated to shaping Canada’s national identity.

Canadian literature became an industry served by Orwellian-sounding “literary officers,” in which celebrity authors were but the most exotic fauna in a symbiotic literary ecosystem encompassing the Canada Council, publishers, agents, publicists, reviewers, academics and the media. This establishment understood that it was their job to nurture and ennoble our elite writers. (Margaret Atwood incorporated herself as an author in 1976, which gives you an idea of how seriously she took her “brand” even then, and how much of a business CanLit had become.)

Public funding and prizes were made contingent on writing that was self-consciously dedicated to shaping Canada’s national identity.

In Canada, literarily correct writing didn’t have to be aesthetically competitive with the best of English-language literature; it only had to make Canadian readers proud of being distinctively Canadian. As a result, only Mordecai Richler (rebarbative outsider, iconoclast, actually funny as opposed to decorously humorous) captured a wide lay audience in the anglosphere.

Whether the extreme self-consciousness of the golden era is the chicken or the egg of the matter, Canadians are not what you would call a reading nation — of our own literature, anyway. In a 2009 National Post survey, half of the Canadians surveyed could not name a single Canadian author, while 47 per cent did not recognize any name in a list that included Alice Munro, Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies, Michael Ondaatje, Mordecai Richler and Carol Shields. Amongst young people in the survey, who presumably study CanLit in high school at least, 62 per cent could not name a single Canadian author.

Generally, three names rang a bell: Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat, two of whom were non-fictionalists, and dead. Septuagenarian Margaret Atwood, it appears, is CanLit. The brilliant literary critic Alex Good has written a mordant feature article on this subject in the spring issue of Canadian Notes and Queries, entitled Shackled to a corpse: The long, long shadow of CanLit (highly recommended reading). Ruthlessly uncompromising, Good observes of both Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, the “alpha and omega of literary celebrity in Canada,” that “their best work is some three decades (or more) behind them … (t)heir ‘best before’ dates have long passed.”

Good sympathizes with young writers who can’t catch the eye of the establishment elites. He cites Richard Rosenbaum, editor of Broken Pencil magazine, who in 2009 published a collection of “fearless fiction” called “Can’tLit.” In its combative introduction, entitled, Why Can’t Canada Read?, Rosenbaum remarks: “the writing that we tend to prize most highly here in Our Home and Native Land — the novels that sell all of, like, twenty-seven copies to become bestsellers, the stories that win the big awards — is the cold, dull, pastoral stuff. Little girls growing up in small towns or old women dying in them. The stuff written by people named Margaret. You know what I’m talking about.” Ouch.

Who’d be a small, independent publisher in Canada today, with an all-but-impenetrable gerontic aristocracy and its chosen courtiers commanding the castle, and the material rewards so meagre? (The average new novel sells 400-700 copies; short-story collections 300-500; poetry 150-400.) Dan Wells, the publisher of Biblioasis Press would, for one. In fact, Dan, in collaboration with his literary mentor, the famously “curmudgeonly” writer, editor and critic John Metcalf, recently launched a new series, “Reset Books,” with Wells at the editorial helm.

Reset’s main objective is to reprint high-quality, but under-appreciated writing of the past that the Canada Council doesn’t fund, though Reset will publish some original works (and, as long as it is good writing, not necessarily by Canadians). The first list — very cleanly designed paperbacks with attractive, uniform graphics — includes Ray Smith, Terry Griggs, Ray Robertson, Kathy Page and Clark Blaise. All excellent writers on the wrong side of the moat.

Clark Blaise used to live in the castle, but he left Canada for the U.S. decades ago, crediting the move in a Saturday Night magazine article to the dispiriting constant casual racism his writer-wife Bharati Mukherjee endured. This publicly-stated inconvenient truth so mortified his peers, they threw him into the cultural oubliette. His Reset book, Lunar Attractions, is superb (and, by the way, contains the most aesthetically deft explicit sex scene I have ever read).

According to John Metcalf, Reset Books represents push-back to the superannuated goal of national-identity building. Reset, he writes me, will bring “sparkling” books to Canada and export the best of our own writing abroad. In short, “Reset is a refusal of everything that has ossified into CanLit over the last 50 years. It is The Great Escape from literary officers and bureaucracy.”

Younger writers, Dan Wells tells me, are not preoccupied with nationalism, as the golden-era writers were (and are). They take inspiration where they will, and they are good at their craft in original ways. But Wells is a realist. He knows Canada is not a reading country like England, where a whole town can be profitably devoted to books and book fairs (although, as one U.K. bookseller told him, “what really sells in Britain is pets with Tourettes”), or France, where book boutiques line the Seine.

Asked to characterize his task, Wells defined it as “the management of disappointment. My own and my authors’.” Spoken without resentment, calmly, even cheerfully. In a faux-literary culture like ours, only true love can explain it.

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