The Stigma of CanLit and How We Can Change Our Outlook

Posted by in reading

This morning my friends Jen Knoch, associate editor at ECW Press and proprietress of the blog Keepin’ It Real Book Club that’s doing Civilians Read, and Mark Leslie Lefebvre, president of the Canadian Booksellers Association, bookseller at McMaster University bookstore, published writer of horror, and my first manager ever at Chapters in Ancaster, from whom I learned so much and who paid me a surprise visit at the bookstore last week(!!), discuss with CBC’s Mary Ito CanLit and the Canada Reads lineup for this year.

Phew! Mouthful. You can listen here.

I think it’s a very good discussion, the questions well thought out and the answers quite articulate, and I was thinking about what I would answer had I been on the program myself. Mary’s first question was a perfect introduction: What do you think distinguishes CanLit from literature of other countries?

It’s an interesting question because it seems prerequisite, a query that won’t go away, just like our ongoing, ad nauseum issue of Canadian identity. Ever since I was first exposed to the issue, which has been long suffering an agonizing treatment by all sorts of academics and the like, I have been puzzled. I wonder what renders a person unable to detect what I see as a very distinct Canadian identity. I think the academics are thinking too hard. Sometimes, just like a writer, all you need do is observe, take note of what’s in and around you. Or read.

Ask your average anyone, and they’ll tell you what they think defines Canada. In fact, immigrants, who are constantly assailed by contrasts to their native land, will likely be able to pinpoint it even better, which is wonderfully ironic.

You’ll get answers like moose and Canada geese and hockey and Tim Hortons and camping and barbecues with beer and the maple leaf and the rodeo and Native culture and conflict and French culture and conflict and immigrant culture and conflict and politeness and our quite distinct politics and our work ethic and our special weather and CBC and TVO, and they might name quintessential Canadian artists and singers and actors and directors and TV shows, because as everyone knows, these things are definable on sight. How many of us have said about a movie or TV show, “Oh, that looks really…Canadian” (and then changed the channel)?

Certainly, these things help define Canada. But how many would include CanLit? Literature defines a country and culture by the very fact that, like art, as art, it reflects a way of life and thinking. What do I think makes CanLit different, then? The same thing that makes any literature from one country different from another: the essence. Our “ness.”

Unfortunately, for many people CanLit means pretty much whatever they were forced to read and dissect in school and what they mostly disliked because it was “depressing.” I myself harbour no special love for The Stone Angel, as I admitted to a student who came in the other day needing to purchase a copy (and I’m frankly perturbed that the elementary and high school curricula doesn’t seem to have changed for what seems a hundred years, to include newer authors). As a student, bookseller, copyeditor, library worker, and CanLit enthusiast, I don’t think I’ve heard any word more commonly associated with CanLit than “depressing.” I find it both frustrating and unfortunate, because there is so much more to CanLit than depressing. If you look for it, if you open yourself up to it, you can find a diversity as rich as our own people. Of course you can. As I said, our literature reflects who we are. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say Canadians as a people are depressing.

It’s true that you can easily divide our literature into regions, because they themselves are so distinct from one another, and yes, I tend to shy away from East Coast and Prairie lit, probably because I do find much of it rather dark or not as interesting, but mostly because I’m still feeling quite full from my overindulgence in university. And that was over ten years ago now.

But there is more to CanLit than flatulent old women, depressed alcoholics, homeless girls, and wilderness stories. Okay, so many people are sick of the poetic lit that seems to take itself so seriously. I hear you. But if you look solely at the œuvre of Margaret Atwood, even (stop rolling your eyes, there’s a point to choosing her!), you’ll see diversity right there: you’ll get wilderness, sure, but you’ll also find history, humour and wit, experimentation, art, speculative fiction, politics, environmental concern, YA, animal life, children’s book playfullness, murder, philosophy, and satire. Atwood’s body of work, like our own country, runs the gamut: you’ll find essays and lectures and illustrations and short stories and novels and poetry, and I think even at least one script. (Also singing. And blogging. And Facebooking. And tweeting.)

And that’s just one author. As a writer, a politician of sorts, an environmentalist, a traveller, a Canadian Opera Company goer, a drinker of coffee, an artist, an inventor, and an activist in general for many Canadian and other causes, Atwood is a fine example of someone who can well tell you what it means to be Canadian, as well as what CanLit is. It’s because she immerses herself as much as she can in what we as a country have to offer. It’s because she not only observes but participates. It’s how she’s able to reflect so much of us back to ourselves.

Over the years I’ve heard people complain that Canada Reads only deals with the literary canon, and that’s what’s cultivated their idea of what CanLit is. But that canon does not, I argue, define CanLit. That canon is a select group’s idea of CanLit. Canada happens to be a quite fertile ground for humour and genre fiction as well. Unfortunately, genre fiction is as often frowned upon as is “depressing” literature—and that’s just because we have various sides with differing views of what literature is, let alone CanLit. Yet, a huge amount of Canadians devour Canadian mystery and sci-fi, for example.

And this is why I liked how Canada Reads went about conducting itself this year. What better way to define CanLit than by asking the country what it thinks is an essential Canadian read? This year we have multiple regions, and canonic CanLit in Unless, Canadian historical fiction in The Birth House, Canadian humour and politics in The Best Laid Plans, Canadian sports in The Bone Cage, and Canadian art, sports, and geography in Essex County (which I can’t really call a graphic novel, since it’s really a collection of three books). The panelists are just as much a diverse group: a home decorator, a musician, a CNN anchor, an actor, and a hockey player. Regardless of your taste, it’s a good mix, a fine sampling of Canadian cultural contribution. Just like Canada: a smorgasbord.

But as Mark suggested in the discussion this morning, it’s not just about the five books we have here. Canadians interested in Canada Reads and CanLit are reading more than the book deemed most worthy of being read. They’re reading more than all five books, in fact. More important are the Top 40 that came to light, and if you can take a look at the impassioned suggestions on the CBC blog even before the Top 40 were chosen, that diversity there will give you an excellent idea of CanLit.

So how do we change our stereotypical and, I argue, misguided view of CanLit? We expand our horizons as readers. We slough off the idea that all Prairie writers are boring, all East Coasters are dark and depressing. That stereotype may exist for a reason but it’s unfair to the many authors, especially new, whose books don’t fit in those categories (I can think of many examples!). That said, we take off our “classics” blinders, we read outside of the literary awards, and foray into unknown territory, both geographically and in terms of new authors.

We read more by Native writers, who are often wonderfully humorous, like Drew Hayden Taylor. We read more Quebec writers, like Nicolas Dickner and Jon Paul Fiorentino and Louise Penny. We read more by immigrant writers, whose outlooks reflect perhaps more back to us of us than we can or do of ourselves. We have debates like Canada Reads. We challenge ourselves, say, to read at least one book from every province to find examples that flesh out our “ness.”

Like the many immigrants who now populate this country and enrich it, we step out of our comfort zone. We are not rootless, as people have said we are, nor is our literature. We are simply rooted in many things. And somewhat reluctant, it seems, to embrace all of our cultural heritage. Reading CanLit is an adventure. It is as Bilbo once said: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

But it is there we’ll find the answer to what is CanLit and who we are as Canadians. It is there we’ll understand what Canadianness truly is.