Recently, Finnish journalist Verna Kuutti contacted me to ask a few questions for a story she’s doing on “contemporary Canadian literature and the generational shift that seemed to take place this fall.” Her story will appear in Finland’s largest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. Verna wrote, “Canadian literature, and especially the more recent writers & works are still quite unknown in Scandinavia, so it would be great if you could help me spreading the word by answering a couple of questions.”
Because some of these questions have arisen here in Canada, too, I thought I’d post my answers for you here, and maybe they could open up discussion. While I touch on it in my answers to Verna’s questions, I’d also like to further address that ridiculous question going around, which especially came to light after the Giller Prize, about whether or not Canadian literature is Canadian enough.
1. This year most of the nominees for important literary prizes were relatively fresh names. Do you think a generation shift is happening in Canadian literature? Or is it something that the media invented?
This is a hard question to answer because I myself have made a shift to reading mostly younger contemporary writers. But I think too that yes, there is an influx of them making the spotlight lately, not only in Canada (think of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife win of the 2011 Orange Prize) and not just this year. Last year, for example, Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky both made the Giller shortlist, and Johanna Skibsrud took the prize. While the authors were certainly deserving, their placement could (but perhaps not) be due partly to the fact that our canon writers, our older writers, aren’t producing very often anymore. For example, Alice Munro’s last, Too Much Happiness, was two years ago, Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood was also two years ago. Michael Ondaatje’s last novel before The Cat’s Table was in 2007 and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man this year was his first novel in eight years. (Three of those books just now were published by McClelland & Stewart, incidentally, and I want to point out that not only are lesser-known, young authors getting the spotlight now, but often smaller presses, too, like Gaspereau Press and Biblioasis, etc.)
I think in general we’re seeing more young authors being published in Canada but also in the States, and while the media is certainly making waves in this respect (Random House’s treatment of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a fine example), I’d say many of these young authors are great at promoting themselves, especially through social media, and are very deserving of the attention they’re getting. I also think the attention is important in revitalizing or even abolishing the perceived stigma or stereotype of what CanLit is—serious, gloomy, self-conscious, and limited.
2. Do you think the right book won the Giller prize?
Absolutely. They were all deserving, but I feel Esi Edugyan’s writing was undoubtedly strongest. Half-Blood Blues was my favourite of the five, and Esi’s ability to so convincingly create wartime Paris and Berlin as well as her way of writing music and her style in general deserves high praise. If you’d like, you can read my review.
3. Could you name five of the most interesting writers that have published their first book after 2000?
Only five?? Assuming you mean Canadian authors, for me, Sarah Selecky, Jessica Grant, Alexander MacLeod, Carolyn Black, and Katrina Best. Incidentally, these are all short story writers, except for Jessica, who also produced the excellent Come, Thou Tortoise, and there’s also Alison Pick, whose Far to Go has been internationally published and was longlisted for the Booker. That’s six now, and I could go on.
4. Is there a common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers? What are the strengths of contemporary Canadian literature compared to literature coming from other countries?
I think the common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers is that they write what they want. There’s a current argument going on right now that Canadian fiction isn’t Canadian enough. I disagree, and have many questions for that statement, but I’d say what seems to define the newest generation of Canadian authors right now is their ability to let go of convention, whether in form or subject or style, and simply write. What results are stories that are first and foremost honest, piercing glimpses into the intricacies of everyday life. And then, as with Esi Edugyan, Alison Pick, and David Bezmozgis, say, we get historical novels that approach common themes of WWII and immigration from completely fresh perspectives, and with impressive skill that seems beyond their years. Or, as with Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, recently winner of both the Writers’ Trust Award and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, we get cool spins on genre fiction. Canada is huge for genre fiction, and yet it doesn’t really receive any attention. Patrick is blurring those lines between genre and literary fiction and, like his counterparts, is helping change how we define CanLit.
I’m not certain of the strengths of CanLit over literature coming from other countries. A good writer is a good writer, regardless of where they’re from. In my view, what defines CanLit is not landscape or topic necessarily, since these things can feature internationally, but rather our sensibilities in our approach to storytelling. That is, we come from a place that’s a mixture of all countries, a small world in a large nation. Instead of focusing on national subjects or places, though those do feature in our books, what’s being treated is what it means to be human in this world, what our everyday experiences are, how we feel, remember, think. Esi’s Half-Blood Blues, for example, was not about WWII or Berlin or Paris, it was a confessional, about one man’s relationship with music, but mainly other people he was close to, particularly a friend he considered a brother.
CanLit has always examined these things, the minutiae, the ordinary—the extraordinary being not exemplified by plot as much as character. Carol Shields was a great example of this. I don’t believe CanLit needs to mention our cities or government or particular Canadian issues to be Canadian. It needs only to be written by Canadians who understand and experience Canada. That will all just automatically come out in their writing. And it’s this writing that is more genuine than the writing that has purposely been injected with Canadianisms or -ness in order to come across as “more Canadian.”
5. Canadian indie music is quite well-known around the world—do you think Canadian literature could become an international brand, a guarantee of quality and a certain freshness? Or is it artificial to try to group young writers by labeling them “Canadian literature”?
I think CanLit can become as popular as our indie music providing we look outside the canon, providing we’re willing to expand our definition of literature, and Canadian literature in particular, to include short stories with novels, small and indie presses among the Big 5, and younger authors among the tried and true. I think this is what the Giller is trying to do, what Canada Reads is trying to do, with their inviting the public to submit their favourite Canadian books. In this way we become more exposed to more writers, we begin to read outside the literary greats who’ve ruled the roost for so long. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but we do need to make so much more room for the incredible new talent we too often overlook.
6. Do you think there is a favorable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talents? Does the wider public read contemporary writers?
Good question. Yes, I think there is a favourable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talent. In fact, in typically labelling CanLit as depressing or overly serious, many Canadians have expressed a readiness for exciting new talent. The hard part is in getting that new talent known, and this is where bloggers and reviewers and enthusiastic readers and booksellers come in. The publishers help this greatly by sending out advance reading copies. The difficulty for small and indie presses is that their budgets are also small. It’s up to the authors, often, in that case, to spread the word about their book so that advocates will pick it up and spread it further. Again, Canada Reads in particular comes in handy here, since the voting process involves suggesting a title and explaining why you want it to be onsidered. The Top 40 is a great list for anyone who wants to expand their CanLit reading.
7. If somebody abroad wants to follow what happens in the Canadian literary world, what sources (blogs/websites) should they follow?
There are so many great Canadian blogs and sites out there! To know what’s going on around me in the lit scene I follow many Canadian publishers (their staff of publicits, too), big and small, as well as publications like the Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail Book section, the Literary Review of Canada, the National Post‘s Afterword section, CBC Books section, and a ton of authors. I also follow literary organizations, like the Giller and Canadian Bookshelf, for example, and bookstores on Twitter, and other book bloggers. You can also take a look at my blogroll.
So, a lot covered here. Any thoughts? These topics are really interesting to me, and your comments are always welcome! Thank you to all who read all the way through!
UPDATE: For more answers to these particular questions, visit John Mutford’s blog, The Book Mine Set, where he’s been blogging about Canadian literature since 2005.