August 9, 2012
On cracking the code of Canadian literary criticism
When I started paying attention to Canada’s literary conversations about five or six years ago, it was quickly evident that I had a whole lot to learn. Until that point, my reading tastes had been determined by prize lists, by what was front and centre at the bookstore, and what the Globe & Mail saw fit to review. I didn’t know that it wasn’t all right to love In the Skin of a Lion or that The Stone Diaries didn’t set every reader swooning. I had no idea of the vast richness of books being published by Canadian small presses like Goose Lane, Anvil and Biblioasis. I still connected House of Anansi to Yorkville hippies. In short, I didn’t have a clue.
So I started taking notes, trying to pin the whole thing down. There was a code, I was beginning to understand, and if only I could get it right. Books with rural settings were bad, and prairie fiction was a crime, I was starting to see. We wanted our books urban. We especially wanted them to be about young men in their twenties. But then it got confusing because it turned out that the prairies were okay as long as they were written by Robert Kroetsch, and even small town fiction about women’s lives were fine as long as it was written by Alice Munro. It got confusing too because it turned out that urban fiction was bad after all, particularly Toronto’s which wasn’t authentically Canadian.
Whether David Adams Richards was okay depended on your point of view, because while he was ticking all the right boxes, he wasn’t ticking them correctly. Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House was a shorthand for all that was wrong with the world. And it turned out that while small press books were really great, small press books were also terrible, and while it was really wonderful that Gaspereau book had won the Giller, did it have to be that Gaspereau book? And who fucking cares about the Giller anyway? You will disdain the Giller. Until your book ends up on its longlist (and not even by popular vote).
Eventually, it became clear that there was no code after all, and that instead we had a whole lot of critics shouting at each other, discussing work in theory, but with no one actually talking about books. That there are as many points of view regarding Canadian Literature and literature in general as there are books themselves, and that is okay. I disagree, however, that all this shouting/debate has made for a healthier literature, mainly because nobody ever listens in a debate, being too busy planning their rebuttal, and the arguments were rarely about reading after all.
It’s such a narrow way to approach literature, to think of it first in terms of themes and tropes. And it’s even narrower when you don’t bother to read the books in question, dismissing them outright based a sentence or two from a publisher’s catalogue. Or because they happen to be set in the past, or on a prairie, or in Toronto, or in a lighthouse, or because people like them, or because women like them (which is usually the worst crime of all for a book to commit).
It may always be 1955 in CanLit, as some say, but I can’t say our sorry excuse for criticism is much more progressive.