THIS YEAR SHOULD HAVE been an auspicious one for CanLit. As Canada celebrates the sesquicentennial, it seems every newspaper, blog, and bookshop has a “top 150 Canadian books” list to push. Canada’s 150th also evokes fond memories of the 1967 centennial, when CanLit was just coming into its own. But for many, those 150 lists, chock full of CanLit luminaries like Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood, are hard to stomach right now.
CanLit hasn’t felt the same since the UBC Accountable scandal broke in late 2016. The CanLit establishment circled the wagons around accused professor and lauded author Steven Galloway. Open letters, and columns in The Walrus by Margaret Atwood, ensued.
The “Galloway affair” prompted a backlash against lead-open-letter-writer Joseph Boyden, and his identity crisis, which had been simmering for years, suddenly became very public. Just a few months later, the “appropriation prize” was taken from a poorly executed satirical column in a literary journal to a social media sensation. This one went worldwide; they’re even talking about it the States (usually a cause for CanLit celebration.)
Where does a CanLit lover go from here? Who can you trust, if you can’t trust Margaret Atwood?
A good starting place might be to pick up a Canadian book by an author who neither wrote a UBC Accountable open letter, nor weighed in on Joseph Boyden’s ethnicity, nor pledged money to the #appropriationprize. Many such books were published by small presses this year, two of which are notable for offering new ways to think about how and why those scandals happened. They also offer a healthy dose of cynicism to help all those “Hooray Canada” lists go down.
Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction (Biblioasis, 2017) is a book of essays by Alex Good, the prolific literary critic and former editor of Canadian Notes and Queries. The introduction, a lament about aliteracy, or the increasing trendiness of not reading, was excerpted in The Walrus in March. Good is not as concerned about the much-exaggerated death of the book as he is about the death of the reader, and he believes that the death grip CanLit’s establishment has on literary culture is a major contributing factor. He also takes on a couple venerated Canadian authors (Douglas Coupland and David Adams Richards), literary prizes, and ebooks.
Good’s essays are a welcome alternative to the PR-friendly positive reviews found in the mainstream media. It’s refreshing to see our heroes taken down a notch in an actual essay, rather than in another tweet storm. Good is meticulous in his research, reading entire Giller longlists (really reading them!) just to make a point, and he has a wicked sense of humour, even as he laments the state of, well, everything. The last couple of chapters don’t quite fit the theme set out in the introduction, though. Good takes literary anthologies to task – two separate ones, in two separate essays. These anthologies are textbooks. Who would read them, apart from first year English students? Are textbooks supposed to be good? His criticism of the identity politics therein also seems a bit alarmist.
Aliteracy and taking literary heroes down a notch are also at the heart of Searching for Petronius Totem (Freehand Books, 2017), a satirical novel by poet, novelist, and PhD candidate Peter Unwin. Unwin’s academic research is about the death of the book, and that certainly plays into this raucous tale of two “literary artists” who get into all sorts of trouble–sex scandals, poorly-attended readings, ill-fated voyages across Lake Superior, and some sort of shady goings-on with a “digital fried chicken” company–all while trying to reconcile what it means to be a writer in Canada. It reads like a mash-up of Atwood at her most speculative, Coupland at his most curmudgeonly, and David McGimpsey’s Twitter feed.
While some of the satire is very broad–Petronius’s debunked memoir is titled “Ten Thousand Busted Chunks”–some of Unwin’s targets are pretty obscure. In an aliterate world, how much readership could there possibly be for jokes about Derrida and French critical theory? That said, this could be the right moment for a topical, immersive satire. Paul Beatty, the American novelist and poet, won The Man Booker Prize in 2016 for his satirical novel The Sellout, which is similarly dense, madcap, and hilarious.
Good and Unwin have much to say about the state of CanLit in 2017. After taking on the global trend of aliteracy in the introduction, Good goes in for the CanLit kill. In the essay “Shackled to a Corpse: The Long, Long Shadow of CanLit,” Good shows how CanLit is still dominated by the “Monsters of CanLit,” most of whom predate the Boomer generation. Whether they’re still with us (Atwood, Ondaatje, Munro) or not (Findley, Richler, Davies), these are the authors CanLit holds up, not just as the canon, but as today’s gold standard, to be idolized by all and imitated by writers fifty years their junior. On those “monsters” who are still writing, Atwood and Ondaatje in particular, Good says:
“The idea that in Canada the gerontocracy of the Golden Generation were producing their best work into the twenty-first century is, I think, patently ridiculous”
But the idea persists because:
“Establishments, in short, make things easy. The media always know what books and authors are worthy of coverage well in advance, and they can usually be expected to do their duty and say the right things.”
And this leads to a stagnancy, and a sameness, in the literary culture in this country:
“Forty years of this — tyranny? hegemony? enveloping dull sameness? slow march towards the grave? — has produced a desolate literary landscape. In some cases an exaggerated and damaging backlash has been the response, and in others an inferiority complex and state of psychological dependency.”
The recent CanLit scandals also prove Good’s point: the “Monsters of CanLit” are too big to fail. Atwood made astoundingly tone-deaf comments in the height of the Galloway scandal, yet less than a year later, she’s lauded as the saviour of feminism, thanks to a new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. No one’s even bothered to call out Ondaatje on his UBC Accountable open letter endorsement, and he’s remained awfully quiet throughout (his usual M.O.) Even Joseph Boyden, not quite a “monster” (yet), continues to book speaking engagements post-scandal, and his blockbuster The Orenda was included in Chapter’s “The World Needs More Canada” boxset in honour of Canada 150.
In later essays examining the Giller Prize longlists of 2006 and 2013, Good shows how small of a pond CanLit draws from. The same “Giller People” write, blurb, and award prizes to the same “Giller Books” year after year. The lens of “Giller People” is a useful one when thinking about scandals like UBC Accountable, in which Joseph Boyden (Giller Prize winner, 2008) writes an open letter defending his friend Steven Galloway (Giller Prize longlister, 2008), and convinces other Giller Prize winners (Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Hay, Vincent Lam) to sign. And that’s just the winners. Of the near-one hundred signatories, there are too many lower-status Giller People (longlisters, judges, reviewers and blurb-writers) to list.
When asked about the CanLit outrage cycle, Good says it’s “kind of depressing” that the scandals draw the spotlight of media attention away from the actual writing: “The only time the media seems to pay any attention to Canadian writing is when they get to run these juicy, clickbait headlines that draw lots of eyeballs. Such stories encourage snap moral judgments, and get people worked up a lot more than a review of a new novel will.”
Meanwhile, in the fictional CanLit landscape of Searching for Petronius Totem, we meet our “heroes,” Jack and Petronius, just a couple of wild and crazy authors, without hope, without a clue, and notably, without readers. They embody Good’s theory about aliteracy, and in fact, you get the feeling they’d be insulted if people did start reading their work:
“‘I love this country, Jack, you know that. But it’s no place for artists. Believe me. You know that too.
‘It’s not supposed to be,’ I said. ‘I thought that was what we liked about it? No giant shadows to work under, no fame, no audience, no nothing. Pure art. Isn’t that what we said?’
Petronius shook his head and finished assembling a complex twelve-paper joint. ‘Yeah well. At least we can finally grow good weed.’”
If Good is calling for a revolution in CanLit, then Jack and Petro answer the call. Or rather, answered it, and found it all futile:
“‘Reality is over, Jack. Like the revolution.’
The room was spinning. The revolution, I thought. ‘What revolution?’
‘The revolution that we wrought. Me and you, Jack. The revolution that we forged with our own unstoppable artistic and sexual appetites. We waved the raised middle finger of our mighty members into the face of the world, remember?’
I stared at him. I remembered being drunk and doing several things I wish I hadn’t, but nothing like that.”
Some of Unwin’s satire is so spot on, it’s easy to forget that he wrote it pre-UBC Accountable. We meet Petronius while he’s teaching English to teenage girls at “Kamp Kan Lit” and it all, predictably, goes awry:
“Petronius Totem and Kamp Kan Lit were pillories on radio phone-ins, condemned from the newsroom, from the pulpit, from the lecture hall of Tim Hortons and Coffee Time, from behind the cash registers at Value Village, and from both floors of the provincial and federal legislatures…an apoplectic lady columnist with unfortunate hair accused Petro of conducting “a literary sex-slave colony” and demanded that he be “kneecapped, chemically castrated, and forced to do community service.”
When asked to comment on the recent CanLit scandals, Unwin echoes Good’s evocation of CanLit as a decaying corpse, or at least, something with a rotten core. On Galloway, he called out the “many so-called renowned Canadian authors [who] jumped on board to support the white male author and dismiss the concerns of the women.” On the appropriation prize scandal, Unwin described Hal Niedzviecki’s editorial in the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, which kicked it all off, as “the Writer’s Union of Canada declar[ing] that they had the right to appropriate anyone’s culture that they wanted” and says that “it shows just how out of touch our so-called “renowned” writers have become.”
Despite its seemingly endless spiral into controversy and scandal, both authors hold out hope for CanLit. In Revolutions, Good praises certain Giller People, like Claire Messud and Lynn Coady. When asked for examples of quality contemporary CanLit, Good favours the margins: experimental writers Anakana Schofield (a Giller Person herself), C.P. Boyko and Chris Eaton, and genre fiction. He thinks “Canadian horror writing should be getting more attention,” and goes on to mention Tony Burgess (“Fifty years from now he may be the Canadian writer from this period with the greatest following, enjoying a sort of afterlife akin to Lovecraft’s”) and Craig Davidson (“The Troop is a horror classic, though it’s another one that requires a strong stomach”), as well as horror writers David Nickle, Brent Hayward, Robert Boyczuk. He’s most optimistic, and even a little envious, when speaking about the state of Canadian poetry: “Canadian poetry right now might be in even stronger shape [than fiction], though I’m no authority on that subject. I’ve just been blown away by some of the poetry I’ve read in the last decade or so. I wonder if there’s any connection there with the fact that we have so many great poetry critics currently active.”
Unwin sees the good in CanLit too, or at least, admits to being influenced by it, particularly by Stephen Leacock. He delights in Leacock’s observation, in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, that suicide “often involves serious consequences,” holding that up as “the cornerstone of Canadian wit, that elevation of good down home Canadian stupidity into a type of redemptive art form.”
Unwin also mentions Grey Owl and Pauline Johnson as “foundational,” and praises poets Dorothy Livesay and Margaret Avison, but claims he tries not to remember authors’ names. “The literary world today demands that we turn ourselves into celebrities, and too many authors have fallen for this.”
But the optimistic tone disappears when Good and Unwin grapple with a literary boogey-man that transcends CanLit: the “digital apocalypse” (the title of Good’s final essay,) or as Unwin presents it towards the end of his novel, the end of reality itself via a digital fried chicken conglomerate:
“‘Reality, Jack. It’s a mess. It’s done like dinner. It’s proprietary now. Everyone’s going to have to pay for it. It’s all in the hands of the patent lawyers. Monthly rate on a bundled package…We’ve been mediated, commodified, signified, digitized, deconstructed, neo-liberalized, and now we’re getting chickenized.’”
In his final essay, Good takes shots at familiar online targets (Amazon.com, attention spans), but focuses his dread on two unavoidable outcomes of the rise of the internet: the commodification of books and the resulting race-to-the-bottom in ebook pricing, and, the narcissism that leads to more people writing than reading. Taken together, these conditions (no one wants to pay for books, let alone read them) could mean the death of the publishing industry, not to mention the death of the book as a sacred object:
“Perhaps this is our revenge on art, tearing it down from its pedestal and making it finally as disposable and ephemeral, as mortal, as the rest of mere humanity… No writer today can seriously believe that their words will long outlive them, even if they do manage to attract contemporary notice. So why bother?”
In Revolutions and Searching For Petronius Totem, criticism, humour, and satire subvert the usual feel-good public face of CanLit, and it couldn’t come at a better time. As our “monsters of CanLit” lurch towards more prizes, more bestsellers, and more acclaim, the rest of us–the new authors, the writers who are writing something other than “Giller Books,” the critics who are actually critical, the readers– might well ask, like Good, “why bother?”
A more productive question than “why bother” might be “why CanLit?” or, as carte blanche put it recently, “Who Needs CanLit?” Does reading and writing while Canadian mean one must engage in the CanLit machine, especially when, as Gwen Benaway put it in her “Who Needs CanLit” contribution: “the disconnect between the people who live in Canada and the writing which CanLit champions is wider and more ice laden than Hudson’s Bay”? Independent Canadian publisher Metatron doesn’t think so, tweeting this statement just after releasing their 2017 Fall catalogue: “Metatron is not CanLit. Metatron is something new that does not wish to be named.”
The urgent message in Good’s and Unwin’s books is that we must not let cynicism devolve into aliteracy. There is still value in reading critically, and in writing outside the usual CanLit confines. And they’re not the only ones. Writers like Benaway and publishers like Metatron believe there’s still value in having a literary culture in Canada, and you don’t have to drink the CanLit Kool-Aid (or eat the fibre optic fried chicken) to be a part of it.
Laura Frey is a book blogger at reading-in-bed.com. She has written book reviews for The Rusty Toque and Vue Weekly. She lives in Edmonton with her husband and two children. She is on Twitter at @LauraTFrey.