What is CanLit?

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.

It begins:

“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.

Coupland continues:

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).

9 Responses

  1. Dee @ EditorialEyes 11 October, 2012 / 3:09 pm

    Outstanding analysis, Steph. This openness to experimental form, new voices, new kinds of stories, short stories, etc., is also reflected in the role of independent bookstores. We need stores like TYPE Books and McNally Robinson to provide the shelf space (and the enthusiastic handselling staff) so that books like these can flourish. I was disheartened when I was last in the big flagship Indigo store at John & Richmond in Toronto to see that they had about three and a half shelves within one bookcase “dedicated” to “showcasing” independent presses….and I thought, “What on earth else is in your three-storey shop?” I wouldn’t know authors like Stuart Ross, Joan Thomas, and Suzette Mayr without indie bookshops.

    I think a huge part of the problem stems from how slow high school curricula is to change. Even if teachers want to teach these classic immigrant/prairie/wide-open-country themes, books like Kathleen Winters’ Anabel, Shandi Mitchell’s Under This Unbroken Sky, and Gurjinder Basran’s Everything was Good-bye, and even heavyweights like Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes would enliven courses with great writing and fresh stories and ideas.

    It’s funny, and I wonder if it’s a quirk of Canadianness, because I also hear this argument made about Canadian television programming and movies. Not all CanTV is Corner Gas (no disrespect meant to Dog River, of course), and I’m sure it drives TV people nuts when you hear people say “It’s Canadian, but it’s actually really good”…

    • Steph 11 October, 2012 / 3:57 pm

      Yes, yes! It’s true, about CanTV and Canadian movies. I never even considered that, but you’re right. If I think about it, it’s kind of like Canada is one giant indie in the midst of mainstream America.

      Your point about bookstores is right on. Another thing I didn’t think of, probably because I haven’t stepped foot in a non-indie store in ages. I still do a few shifts at the indie where I used to work full-time, and usually we’re the opposite: we sell more indie selections than bestsellers and major authors, usually because the library is a block away, and Chapters is about five to ten minutes’ drive. When I did an awards table for the store, after the major success of the short stories table, I found we had more ReLit Awards titles than Giller longlist! :)

      Of course, too, I agree with you on changing the curricula in school, and your point on being able to still stick to the same themes if they wanted but also able to choose from many more contemporary examples. There are so, so many that you could have several CanLit courses from different eras let alone regions and themes. In university, I remember only one class on offer.

  2. Kerry Riley 11 October, 2012 / 10:27 pm

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for saying this. It so needed to be said! I too have come across this Coupland comment (and countless others of its ilk) and have always found it irritatingly glib and (uncharacteristically?) thoughtless.

    You have made a critical distinction between Canadian writing and the canon. I wholeheartedly agree with you that the canon is deserving of respect both as literature in and of itself, and writing that was relevant to its time, but, also, that it is perhaps not the best place to start when introducing someone to Canadian writing, and in particular, younger readers.

    The question of why the canon continues to be taught in high schools , often to the exclusion of newer writers, is a more complex problem but I believe, based on my own experiences as a secondary school English teacher, that it has a lot to do with teacher confidence and familiarity with the topic. The canon is often the default position because it is the work with which teachers are most familiar, based on their own post secondary study and for which some guidance about teaching it is available. (Departmental budgets for new books no doubt also play a role.) Things will have to change at the post secondary level before they do at a high school level. When I teach Can Lit (grade 11 academic English courses) we do focus on modern writers and the canon doesn’t not come up much except as an historical reference or if a student chooses themselves to study a canonical author. But, I had ten years of reading/reviewing Canadian writing prior to my teaching, and my comfort level was higher than most. That being said, finding acceptible resources for student research on newer authors was often a problem. Accessible academic criticism has not kept up to the developments in Canadian writing.

    On a positive note I can say, absolutely, that students do not find Canadian literature boring. It is sometimes necessary to push past a certain learned apathy, but once this is done, familiarity breeds not contempt, but enthusiasm, interest and pride. Thomas King, Miriam Toews, Susan Hay, Rawi Hage, Joseph Boyden, Timothy Taylor, Andre Alexis, (and many, many others) have all found keen admirers amongst the students. Since we’re busy killing memes here, I would also add, happily, that the perceived wisdom that young people do not like to read is utter poppycock.

    Thanks again for this spirited defense of our writing and our writers.

    Kerry

    • Steph 11 October, 2012 / 10:47 pm

      Kerry,

      Wow, thank you for your comment, and particularly for your insight into teaching and the school curriculum. You raise good points.

      I’m so happy to hear that it’s not your experience that the students find CanLit boring!! They sound very much like me, though I had to do my own pushing. And I always take pleasure especially in selling books to young people.

      I would like to say I should have said the old canon, as I feel we’re redefining it all the time so that over time it includes more authors–but people are refusing to acknowledge that.

  3. Paula E 18 October, 2012 / 12:17 pm

    Hi!

    Thanks for your stimulating blog. I have just been visiting you lately.

    I wonder if sometimes people are being so clever they’re too clever and they just say stupid things. I’ve done that. Hard to admit to though. On the other hand, maybe there are two camps, those that hated CanLit when they were introduced to it in high school and found it stodgy and old, and those who couldn’t believe its incredibleness! Perhpaps Coupland is of the former and his feeling that way pushed him on to innovate.

    Personally I am of the latter. What an unexpected discovery CanLit was for me. Really? We can find ourselves in our literature? We can write about ourselves? And then in university a professor loaned me David McFadden’s Trips around Lake Erie and Huron. I loved these. Here it was again (for me) exactly, McFadden writing precisely to our time and place, and further more, hilariously. He was writing to me. I was inside of it.

    Paula

    • Steph 18 October, 2012 / 12:39 pm

      Hi Paula,

      Thanks for reading! Your last paragraph in your comment is particularly interesting to me. You expressed that well. YES is all I can think of to say!

      As for Coupland, I’m not sure. At this point (well, in 2006), he seemed to think it was still stodgy (he made a reference to mummy dust…), and now I feel as though while there seems to be slight bitterness at being excluded (his impression), there’s also a sort of pride he has in thinking he’s not CanLit, that he’s superior in some way. He’s certainly not the only one to innovate or be modern (and of course I consider his peers also CanLit). I see CanLit in the context of time. We have a history of it, is all; it reflects our time and place, as you say. Some of us fail to see that progression in terms of defining CanLit, while others see it and feel the mummy dust ought to be left behind (in classrooms, I do think some of it ought to be switched out for more contemporary fare). But it’s all CanLit.

  4. Paula E 19 October, 2012 / 10:23 am

    Thanks for your reply! I see what you mean. And I think what you’re describing about how Coupland feels about CanLit explains something I feel critical of in his writing. I find a flatness in Coupland’s writing, a plasticness, like his answer to a felt estrangement is to embrace his alienation (and amp it up by calling it a generation). Compare Coupland’s approach to alienation to how I remember Atwood doing it in Surfacing, way back when I read it in high school. It seemed like Atwood could find a way to name that (flattened) alienation, what become invitingly sticky and particular was her innovating strategies of finding a personal way back into the landscape.

    I would have said prior to this exchange that, in a sense, CanLit just is, as a Canadian writer, you can’t help it, you’re it, CanLit. But I suppose the gesture Coupland makes, is, I (he) reject(s) the category. And, I (I) suppose, why shouldn’t he?

  5. Steph 19 October, 2012 / 10:33 am

    Very interesting question at the end! Yes, I suppose he could reject being in the category, if he doesn’t want to be classified as CanLit. But I think he rejects it based on what he assumes it is, and I disagree with his assertion that one must have certain things in one’s book in order to be CanLit, or that one must follow certain rules, which he obviously rejects as limiting and old-fashioned. I think most Canadian authors would reject being stuffed in that category!

    But if we open up the definition of CanLit to just mean anything a Canadian author wishes to produce and is published, then there’s no reason, that I can see, why a Canadian author wouldn’t want to be included.

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