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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.

8 thoughts on “On cracking the code of Canadian literary criticism”

  1. m says:

    I’m sure the following sentiment has no place in Canadian literary criticism but it needs to be said: I love you.

  2. Jeannette says:

    Thank you! I wasn’t ever quite sure what I should read, or if I was supposed to read what I had read. After a while, I didn’t give a damn.

    I recently opened a (small) art gallery & book shop featuring emerging artists & authors, much to the confusion of people around me. Now I get to determine what “Canadian” is to me (tricky one, that) AND what “emerging” means.

    Critics will continue to have (I hope) a critical eye. Or eyes. Meanwhile, I select books I want to read – regardless of what it won/can win. Because I think there are other people who might want to read them, too.

    (I don’t get nearly as many questions about how I choose artists as I do book selection.)

    And I have a ridiculous amount to learn. Between the minor headaches, it’s quite fun.

    ~ Jeannette

  3. Rona Maynard says:

    Sharp, droll and clarifying. One correction: It’s Bonnie Burnard, not Burrard. I liked A Good House, by the way.

  4. Kerry says:

    Thank you, Rona. Fixed.

  5. Carroll Klein says:

    When I was 26 I went to university, having already taught school in the boonies for a number of years. What I did in those teaching years was read, and I yearned for a literary life, far away from those rough northern towns. That first year of university, I was taken to a party of graduate students. I was dazzled and intimidated by these smart young things, but enthralled by what I saw as interesting conversation. A young Englishwoman who was teaching (teaching!) in the English department asked me what I was reading. My heart stopped. I was going to be exposed as a reader of trashy novels. But even then there was a small and emerging part of me that trusted my taste. I replied that I was reading Margaret Drabble’s second novel (she was to become a major figure in late 20th century English letters but was young and relatively unknown at the time). “Fantastic!” replied the young English scholar, as we settled down for a satisfying book conversation.

    Now I am retired and I continue to read with gusto, and more widely than ever. Of course my taste is honed by experience and education, but I hope I will never turn my nose up at others’ choices, and I hope I have the generosity to say Fantastic! and ask them what they think about their books.

  6. Paul says:

    C’mon Kerry. You just don’t like Bob Kroetsch because of all the penises.

    1. Kerry says:

      SO MANY PENISES. It’s true.

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