Recently, I was proofing a book of symposium essays on film and literature. One of the essays referenced a 2006 post in the New Yorker by Douglas Coupland, called “What is CanLit?” Curious—this is after all an important question—I looked up the article.
“CanLit” is a contraction for Canadian Literature, and I’m often asked by writers from other lands, “Doug, what, exactly, is CanLit?” Basically, but not always, CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience. If the book is written in French, urban life is permitted, but only from a nonbourgeois viewpoint.
Haha, I thought. But not really. The joke is a smile that doesn’t reach the eyes. Also not funny is the fact that this was written in 2006, not 1996, and that many people not only have believed this but still do.
One could say that CanLit is the literary equivalent of representational landscape painting, with small forays into waterfowl depiction and still lifes. It is not a modern art form, nor does it want to be. Scorecards are kept and points are assigned according to how realistically a writer has depicted, say, the odor of the kitchen the narrator inhabited as a child, the sense of disjuncture a character feels at living in a cold northern country with few traditions versus the country he or she has left behind, the quirks and small intimate moments of rural Ontario life or, metaphorically, how well one has painted the feathers on the wings of a duck. CanLit is not a place for writers to experiment, and doesn’t claim to be that kind of place. CanLit is about representing a certain kind of allowed world in a specific kind of way, and most writers in Canada are O.K. with that — or are at least relieved to know the rules of the game from the outset and not have to waste time fostering illusions.
Anyone else’s scruff standing on end? He was writing in 2006, I remind myself. Because of course I’m thinking of the present, when I’m acquainted with so many Canadian authors who are not like this, who don’t write about these things; when I’m drowning in so much CanLit that isn’t at all how he’s described, or afraid to push boundaries, that is particularly (but not only) written by that new generation I keep going on about, the fantastic group that’s making (or made) Coupland’s nods to pop culture and satire cliché, that’s experimenting with form and subject, ever more brave, writing more short stories than novels, which in itself is sticking it to the traditional way of things. Importantly, they are being recognized with major awards and featuring in prominent non-literary magazines and generating international attention. Heck, this new generation, yes, like others before them, is writing stories that don’t even take place in Canada, let alone in rural Canada.
But this is now I’m talking about, and to be fair, I should be talking about books that were emerging in 2006. And then, certain I can prove there were tons of CanLit books that came out around 2006, and earlier, that also don’t fit Coupland’s idea of the mold (think John Lavery, Anne Fleming, Stuart Ross, Zoe Whittall, and, duh, Douglas Coupland), I think: Oh. WAIT.
The real issue is that Coupland, like others, thinks that CanLit, which he earlier said was simply a contraction for Canadian Literature, is synonymous with the Canadian literary canon, which has typically contained the same handful of writers who consistently won our literary awards over the past years until recently, and which apparently hasn’t changed an iota.
Even still, Atwood isn’t rural or non-experimental, nor has she ever been; Ondaatje isn’t at all barred by those limitations Coupland points to. The more I think of what may be considered canonical writers in Canada, the more I think this inaccurate and exclusive definition of CanLit refers to a mere two or three writers, say, Alice Munro and David Adams Richards and Carol Shields. But others do not feel this way.
The problem is no longer that CanLit is the way it was but rather that there are people who believe it still is the way it was. Yet our literature, let alone our country and our people and our experiences, has changed over the years; it is not still defined by Moodie and Traill, for God’s sake. To say that it’s still how it was is ignorant of the richness and success of our more recent literature and new faces of fiction, and is, in essence, saying that all the other Canadian writers who aren’t in the canon are not CanLit. What we have in Coupland is an author, a Canadian author who is well-known and loved, a major contributor in the Canadian arts, feeling separated from CanLit—which by itself is tragic and I’m sure still experienced by other Canadian writers—but, significantly, by his own flawed definition of it. He perceives himself excluded from Canadian literature with what sounds somewhat like bitterness (but also loftiness): “To be a Canadian writer,” Coupland writes, “doesn’t necessarily make one CanLit, and sometimes CanLit will place its clasp on writers who are only tenuously, legalistically Canadian. Am I CanLit? No. I’m Canadian and write books — some even about Canada — but with fiction I’m way outside CanLit’s guidelines.”
Yes, yes: he mentioned these so-called guidelines earlier, in his definition, but you’ve heard them before elsewhere: that in order to make CanLit, you have to write about alcoholism out east or teen pregnancy on the Prairies. You have to make setting the table sacred. But again I ask: When did the canonical Atwood ever follow the rules? This CanLit sounds like the nun I didn’t have in Catholic school who’d rap our knuckles if we wrote our letters outside the lines. At this point, and even in 2006, it’s a nonsensical, erroneous perception that CanLit has guidelines one has to follow to make it big. Ask Vincent Lam, who in 2006 won the Giller as a young full-time medical doctor and debut writer. Not one of the old boys, not rural fiction, no metaphorical ducks that I remember, not even a novel—and no mention on the Giller list this year. Because CanLit is a wide, deep pool of talent from which we have so much to choose.
Okay, so you get by now that I think what Coupland said is no longer relevant, nor was it back in 2006. However, obviously there persists the stigma of CanLit. Where does this come from? When does one first hear of CanLit? Usually in university, if not in high school, where they’re still teaching the same old books our parents, if not grandparents, were taught. Books that are exemplary stories, containing history and hardship and a gazillion paper topic possibilities. Why, I ask the students who come in to the bookstore every September looking for The Handmaid’s Tale and The Stone Angel and Fifth Business, who say they really don’t want to buy it or read it because they’ve heard it’s boring, aren’t they moving past this roster of books? Yes, they’re wonderful, and they’re classic, and they’re worth reading and discussing. But they are also dated and not solely representative of CanLit and notably dreaded by this generation of new students, and unrelatable in many ways, and sadly perpetuating this horrid idea of CanLit that Coupland is talking about. If we keep forcing students to read the same books, and they keep rolling their eyes at them, why would they think any differently than Coupland? Why would they bother to look at other literature written by Canadian authors, just as relevant, if this is what they think CanLit is? While I’m sure some teachers and profs are shaking up the CanLit list, I’m witness to the current sales of high school and university students. Why, overall, aren’t we revising the CanLit curricula? For the record, Coupland would be on my CanLit list.
As a reader I’m just as important as the writer to that CanLit definition. Readers also perpetuate stereotype. It’s unforgivable that Coupland’s view is a real perception, that the perception has made authors feel frustrated and limited, that there are Canadian authors who feel they can’t find their place in Canadian literature, who think that to be a Canadian author doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a CanLit author. And it’s equally unforgivable that we’ve allowed others to shape our impressions and reading of Canadian literature. As righteous as this sounds, I’ve never seen CanLit the way Coupland defines it, perhaps because I was one of the lucky ones to like CanLit enough in school to seek out any Canadian authors and read them and see outside that canonical box. Thomas King, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Douglas Coupland, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Rohinton Mistry, those are just a few I was reading outside Coupland’s definition, back in the nineties. Back then, these authors were kind of fringe writers: daring, experimental, humorous, satirical, exotic. (Now they’re quintessentially Canadian, which should say something.)
Also, over the past few years, I’ve seen evidence of openness in publishers and what they choose to print and put their money behind, in awards juries, in winners, in the spread of literary festivals and their rosters, in the rise of independent publishers and their authors, in book reviews and literary magazines and what they cover. Canadian literature, and not just a handful of trusted authors, is being read all over the world, even recognized in international prizes like the Frank O’Connor award and the Booker, and our reach is still reaching. Having two international judges on our Giller panel is a good sign of that, and of the fact that we are no longer naval gazing.
I know that the struggle of Canadian authors to be noticed is real. Witness the panic as award season approaches, the disappointment when a book doesn’t make a list, the blog posts and articles about how so many good books go unnoticed, the author’s fear that their book will not draw attention, will likely be released to minimal fanfare because it’s with a small press or not going to be marketed the way a major Canadian author would be.
As I work on my own writing with the goal of being published, I’m sensitive to this, but I insist on writing what I want and that my short stories, if ever they are published, be considered Canadian literature. I am a Canadian writer, and as the latest Canada Reads contest says, even if I’m writing about India, I’m still eligible to be considered as such. That, simply, is to me what Canadian literature should be: not about Canada necessarily but written by a Canadian.
I have on what I consider my CanLit shelves seven Douglas Coupland novels, nestled between Joy Kogawa and Nicolas Dickner. There is no alphabetical order to my shelves, no cliquey grouping; I just place all my Canadian authors together. A mixed bag, just like the country. If it’s written by a Canadian author, it’s all Canadian literature to me, regardless of the topic and style. That’s what I appreciate about Canadian literature, what I call CanLit: the diversity of voice. While Coupland accuses CanLit of being small and stuffy, he too is making statements about our culture, using details we can relate to, like the atmosphere in a Staples store, the depression of a directionless middle-aged man, the monotonous daily life in a work pod. He’s just as much Canadian literature with his observations of our culture and modern living as Atwood with her political and environmental underpinnings and Choy with his immigrant experiences. Whether he likes it or not, Douglas Coupland is as much a CanLit author as the stingy mummies with the “insider pass.”
To be Canadian is to always be searching for meaning, place, purpose, in our own country, in the world. I think all humans do this. The details in our writing are not only what make us relate to each other, but what place us in time and sensibility. Ultimately, we write about the human experience, not just the Canadian one. But that Canadian experience, because of our origins and changing culture and constant questions of identity, and our observations of daily life (which Coupland details quite effectively in his own novels), as well as our ability to imagine outside our boundaries, defies being boxed by its very definition. So why must we insist on limiting it? Canadian writers are daily redefining CanLit. If we’re paying attention, there’s no way we could think like Coupland.
Coupland’s article goes on to talk about literary funding for young Canadians. Of course I support it, and every book I’ve read recently by a young Canadian has, wonderfully, grant acknowledgements in it. Other than that, I don’t know enough about the situation to comment, and it’s likely changed since 2006 (unlike the stigma of CanLit).