Alex Good is the former editor of Canadian Notes & Queries. He frequently reviews books for a number newspapers and journals,and at goodreports.net. His recent book Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction (Biblioasis) critiques many of the central figures, tenets, and institutions of the Can-Lit establishment. Brad and Alex talked about critical traditions, literary prizes, artistic revolutions, and digital inequality.
BdR: In the introduction to your book you suggest that art is “inherently revolutionary”. You elaborate by claiming that
“artists have a need to respond to the culture they find themselves embedded in, and must define themselves in relation to a tradition. And since mere repetition is pointless, that response and definition usually takes the form of some kind of opposition.”
Are there particular contemporary Canadian authors you see as revolutionary? Is there anything like a revolutionary movement forming?
AG: The two examples I use in the book are Douglas Coupland and David Adams Richards, both of whom were, at one time, angry young men attacking the reigning CanLit orthodoxy (that’s Coupland’s phrase). Coupland’s was more of a generational revolution while Richards’ was cast mainly in terms of class and geography. I think both saw themselves (and perhaps still do) as outsiders, writing against a privileged establishment. And they both could be seen as leading figures of their respective movements.
Another movement might be associated with what John Metcalf refers to as “an aesthetic underground.” This is a phrase borrowed from Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon that Metcalf took as the title for the first volume of his memoirs, and it comes from Bloom’s sense that literary matters have been absorbed into the field of cultural studies, which has abandoned the “romance of reading.” Instead of being generational or geographic (I’m being schematic here) Metcalf’s ground of attack is aesthetic, which is how he has always framed his critical approach (as opposed, for example, to historical or thematic criticism). What Metcalf is interested in is style, seeing it as being the real substance of writing and what gives it its value as literature.
I’m not sure if any of these really count as coherent movements so much as trends that can be identified, but in each case you have authors who explicitly present themselves as opposed to a mainstream or establishment literary culture. In addition, there will always be writers who identify themselves as experimental or avant garde who are by definition outside the political or cultural mainstream, but I don’t think they constitute what could be called a movement yet. It will be interesting to see what happens if enough of the current general feeling of disgust turns to anger though.
BdR: You characterize “the Canadian character” as “anti-revolutionary”. If revolutionary dispositions are needed to reinvigorate our culture, what means would be best to promote or instill them?
AG: The problem is that we’re living in a moment of cultural contraction and I don’t think there’s much we can do about that. That might seem like a strange thing to say given the billions of words and images published on the Internet every day, but my sense is that the Internet isn’t helping but is actually making things worse. That, however, is another, much longer story.
In a time of contraction, not to mention increasing inequality, anti-revolutionary tendencies tend to become more pronounced. I think Bernie Sanders had a line about elites not caring if the Titanic goes down as long as they have first-class accommodations. John Kenneth Galbraith put it well: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.” So elite culture is not going to change, and the industry that serves it won’t either.
All of this makes cultural renewal difficult. In Revolutions I called for a vigorous critical reappraisal of the myth of CanLit as a place to start, but I see no indication whatsoever of that happening. Indeed, quite the opposite.
BdR: The digital revolution was once vaunted as a means of democratizing art and culture. Your essay “The Digital Apocalypse” argues that the opposite has occurred. Why has the digital revolution failed to help writers? Do you see any ways in which the technology could be meaningfully reformed to work with artistic livelihoods in mind?
AG: The Internet has, and I think this is beyond any dispute now, had a devastating effect on the cultural economy. There are a lot of reasons for this. Perhaps foremost is the way it reduces all forms of creative work to the mere production of “content” – also known as crap that is meant to be consumed immediately and that no one wants to pay for. Meanwhile, on the critical side what’s happened is that millions of individual voices just get aggregated on sites like Amazon and GoodReads, reducing complex argument and analysis to a score of so many stars out of five. As you’d expect, these scores tend to all settle in a mushy middle.
There are people out there who are making suggestions for improving things. Cory Doctorow is one. Jaron Lanier in his book Who Owns the Future? talks about setting things up so that creatives make money through a system of micropayments. But this is all just theory. The Internet thus far has only amplified the larger trend toward having a few big winners in every sector while everyone else gets wiped out. It’s an aggressive driver of oligopoly and inequality.
I know I seem like a Luddite to a lot of people in this regard, but I keep wondering what evidence the cybertopians are looking at that makes them think all of this constitutes progress. What signs are there that things are getting better? I can’t see any.
BdR: What do you make of a crowd-sourced literary prize like the “Emerging Indigenous Voices Literary Award”? Do you think this award, and awards of its sort, could counter some of the nepotistic and sanitizing limitations you attribute to a Can-Lit Establishment prize like the Giller (in your essays “Looking Backward” and “Killing the Beaver”)?
AG: In short, no. I have nothing against them, but at the end of the day literary prizes exist mainly to attract media attention and increase sales. And even with these limited aims they’re becoming less relevant all the time, even at the top of the money pyramid.
As I say in Revolutions, the Gillers have been, as they were designed to be, a category killer when it comes to publicity. In my experience it’s very rare to find anyone who can tell you who won the GG or the Writers’ Trust prizes even a week after they’re awarded, and those are usually considered to be the other big two lit prizes. Meanwhile, the “bounce” in sales for a Giller winner is, from what I’ve heard, actually quite modest, and in some cases totally negligible. Winning Canada Reads probably helps you more in that regard.
So a new literary prize is fine for getting a book mentioned in a newspaper column somewhere, or online. Plus maybe it gets some much-needed money in the hands of a struggling author. That’s all good. But as any kind of a counter to the establishment? I remember when the ReLit Awards were started as an alternative-indie literary prize back in 2001. I applaud them for what they’re doing (especially recognizing small press work), but the fact is I had to ask someone last year if they were still going. You never hear about them. Meanwhile, the Gillers are funded by a major bank and even though the whole thing’s kind of pointless they’re never going to run out of money and there’s always going to be a big dinner and show at the Four Seasons or wherever. So no, I don’t think crowdfunding or a new niche award is really going to change anything.
BdR: Some of your critical stances recall the American critic Harold Bloom — albeit with a greater focus on class. Do you feel any kinship with him? Do you define yourself in relation to a particular critical tradition? If so, what form does your opposition take?
AG: I was thinking of Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence a bit when I wrote my introduction, but as I see it his model doesn’t apply to the current Canadian landscape. Bloom’s approach, which has always struck me as a psycho-mythographical reading of a book by W. Jackson Bate called The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, is all about how writers have engaged with canonical figures like Shakespeare and (especially) Milton. The thing is, I don’t think Canadian authors today are engaging with the Monsters of CanLit at all. They don’t creatively reinterpret their work in any of the ways Bloom identifies (and that he gives such crazy labels to). I think Ondaatje has had some (bad) influence on Canadian fiction, but that’s only because of the surprising commercial success he’s had with his brand of pseudo-poetic historical romance. He’s had imitators, but none of them have been writers of any importance, and imitation isn’t the kind of thing Bloom is talking about.
Or, to take another example, I think we can all agree that Atwood is Canada’s most famous author, but I don’t think she’s a writer of any literary importance at all. She’s had no influence I’ve been able to detect, and most of the reaction you see against her is directed more at her celebrity or brand, I think both because she’s so generic and because there aren’t many serious authors who actually read her. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how she could play such a role as imagined in Bloom’s system, especially when she’s so obviously just chasing after the market herself (for example with her children’s books and graphic novels). Alice Munro is perhaps the only canonical figure who I can imagine in Bloom’s sense of the word, as she really has influenced a couple of generations of short-story writers. But really, I just don’t think we can speak of a “tradition” of Canadian writing, at least using Eliot’s or Bloom’s idea of a matrix that new writers feel they have to fit into or respond to or engage with in some way. Indeed, it’s been my experience that in so far as there exists an establishment canon in this country I think it is almost entirely ignored by today’s best writers. It’s a label that’s useful to academics, but for writers it’s irrelevant. Which means we can’t think about CanLit in Bloom’s terms at all.
I do see myself as being part of a Canadian critical tradition, one that’s probably most associated with books of literary criticism that have been published by Porcupine’s Quill over the last few decades. I’ve always looked up to Philip Marchand as being one of the best of our critical commentators, and his book of essays Ripostes is a model of what I like to call literary journalism. That is, critical writing addressed to the general reader, without all the scaffolding of footnotes and other references you get in academic writing, and none of the obscure technical jargon. The Porcupine’s Quill has published a number of great collections of critical essays more recently in this same vein, including some excellent work from Stephen Henighan (also published by Biblioasis), but most of it is poetry criticism (for example: David Solway’s Director’s Cut, Carmine Starnino’s A Lover’s Quarrel, Jason Guriel’s The Pigheaded Soul, Michael Lista’s Strike Anywhere). In Revolutions I wonder why Canadian poetry criticism is so quick at the moment while fiction criticism is so dead. I have no good answer to that question aside from the sad thought that we just don’t have enough people reading contemporary Canadian fiction who care.
As far as the form my opposition takes, I’d begin by saying that what disappoints me the most about the current state of affairs isn’t Canadian fiction itself – we have a lot of great novelists and short-story writers – but just how awful a state Canadian literary criticism is in. The work the Porcupine’s Quill and CNQ has been doing is great, but it remains marginal. I think the finger of blame for the larger failure has to be pointed at the universities and the media. They’re the ones with the resources and the responsibility.
Academics, however, don’t seem to have any interest in publishing on contemporary authors, preferring to stick with the established names of CanLit. There are various reasons for this. I tried to get some projects started that were designed to get them involved in bringing the critical conversation up to date when I was editing CNQ, but nothing worked. Nobody was interested, and of course there was no money in it. This has left the field, as John Metcalf likes to say, “wide open.” You’d think more people would be interested in filling such a huge gap, but the way things are structured there’s just no incentive.
Meanwhile, we all know about the shrinking space for reviews and literary essays in newspapers and magazines. Just as deadly are the strictures against going “negative,” which has led to a situation where the public pretty much ignores what little reviewing there is.
Now to be sure, universities and newspapers are under a lot of pressure. They’re both feeling the squeeze of the cultural contraction I mentioned earlier. Tenured jobs in the Humanities have, I am told, all but disappeared, while sessional instructors are stuck making what is sometimes less than a minimum wage teaching courses they hate. Newspapers are in so much trouble we’re publicly debating whether the government has to step in to save them. If you’ve been in a newsroom anytime in the last twenty years (and I imagine it’s much the same in some faculty lounges) you won’t have been able to miss the death rattles. It’s been utterly demoralizing.
That said, I still think academics, at least those working in the field, need to become more engaged with new writing. And I think the media should stop playing it safe by servicing CanLit’s legacy brands, however deeply invested they are in that project. We need to move on. I understand this won’t be in the interest of the “people who matter,” but let’s think about the future. If this is to be our final act let’s try to do some good before we leave the stage.