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June 17, 2008

A False Inheritance

I was glad to read “Looking Backward: The 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize”, whose link-to lit-blogs had been spitting out wildly about two weeks ago. It’s an essay, I think, that is ill-represented by sensational snip-snippy pull-quotes which read as idle bitching. “I don’t see where’s there’s any room for debating the fact that M.G. Vassanji can’t write,” is one example, and in fact even when this quote isn’t standing alone, I’m not sure Good’s examples substantiate it. Whenever a critic tries to pinpoint badness by tossing out random paragraph, I am rarely convinced. I don’t know much about aesthetics (“quite obviously,” you might be saying), but they sometimes seem as arbitrary as taste.

Like everything in Canadian Notes and Queries, however, the article broadened my perspective. My perspective going into it being this: I don’t like books being slagged off, particularly for their popularity (as what exactly are we masses supposed to be reading? and if we were reading something different, you wouldn’t get to feel so smug). I also thought that Late Nights on Air was magical, the best book I read last year (and I read a lot of books last year). I didn’t read Effigy or The Assassin’s Song from the Giller list, because I knew I wouldn’t like either of them, and I don’t understand why readers who probably had the same instincts went ahead and read them anyway. Prize lists aren’t required reading. I couldn’t think of a more boring kind of martyrdom.

I am also bothered by the Can-Lit criticism that takes down books for being either exactly what they are, or what they aren’t. Particularly when this criticism takes such a limited view of Canadian Literature in order to prove itself, for example the complaint that Can-Lit doesn’t do urban, when 16 out of the 20 Canadian novels I’ve read this year take place in cities and towns. I realize I’m just a small sample, but perhaps it proves that Can-Lit isn’t just any one thing, which I think is sort of wonderful. I have also noticed that this brutal criticism is a kind of brutish criticism, and that aesthetic arguments are turned up to render artless stories women tell.

Finally, I was reading this article at the same time I was reading Sharon Butala’s story collection Fever, which is all the things Can-Lit is supposed to have outgrown– about farmers and farms, about the prairies, so backwards-looking that history is perpetually present or on the verge of such a thing. It’s an amazing collection, which was even more apparent as I read it a second time, and I didn’t see where there was any room for debating that fact. That Sharon Butala is an incredible writer, that she writes about the place where she lives, and where lots of people live, and that our “inherited tropes” are still our stories, because so much never changes and it’s never going to change, regardless of whether we’re deconstructing our fiction or not. That we write about our geography because it’s still important, and history isn’t irrelevant yet, and I don’t think it’s even finished.

I swallowed my petty defensiveness, however, enough to properly come to understood Alex Good’s point of view here– the writers who get praised without even trying, and I get it. I was baffled by Divisidero, and I gave it much more credit than I might have if it had been first time novel (I’ll be rereading it this summer, and look forward to finding out if I see it any clearer). That the dominance of the big presses doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor does it represent the quality Can-Lit that is available (and I see that now, particularly as I’ve read such great books by small presses this year). The limitations of the judges also– their backgrounds, their own connections. That perhaps the Gillers don’t reward the very best of Can-Lit, but I wonder if the complaint isn’t rather than choices are too mainstream. But I don’t know if the Gillers were ever supposed to be cutting edge. Also my favourite book from last year won, but then maybe that’s just me (though it’s not. An awful lot of people loved Late Nights on Air…)

Good’s most salient point, however– what he calls “the Giller’s most pernicious effect” is that that “the Giller presents an influential vision of what serious Canadian Literature should be.” And I see that now, that the problem isn’t this shortlist, but rather a lack of authenticity that is contagious. That we set out to write a Canadian fiction, and so we stick in the prairie, the combine harvester, crop failure and a dissatisfied wife. So that our fiction is put-on rather than organic, that we rely on the same tropes, those “inherited tropes” but the problem is writers who haven’t even inherited them. It would be different if they had inherited them– Sharon Butala has, and her fiction rings true and timeless, it does– but these writers are just trying them on for size. Which is different, and fake and false and boring. Writers not listening to their own voices, telling their own stories, but rather writing within such fixed parameters of what Good Literature is supposed to be. A problem perpetuated by the celebration of the same kinds of work time and time again.

It’s an important distinction, what is inherited and otherwise (though I realize it reads as arbitrary too), and upon it the argument swung round for me. I’m not sure Alex Good meant it to, or if he even meant the distinction at all, but the resulting synthesis seems infinitely sensible.

One thought on “A False Inheritance”

  1. Steven W. Beattie says:

    I love this post. When I read the CNQ article, I hoped it would get people talking, and it certainly seems to have had that effect, which is all to the good. (Sorry: couldn’t resist.)

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