Canadian literature. Yawn.
Why are we like this? Probably because Canadian art, like that of other British Commonwealth nations, is a) recent: comparatively speaking to other literary traditions; b) slow to develop: why make your own art when your “mother” nation has a pre-established canon?; and c) difficult to maintain: why patronize upstarts when, again, your “mother” nation has more immediate merit and acceptance? and why waste energy making art when no one supports it? Fortunately, as its development and independence grew, Canada also began to develop its literature independently of Britain and has since produced selections with influences as eclectic as the members of its small population, including those indigenous to the land.
To be honest, this realisation is fairly new to me. In my first year of university, my English professor brought up the state of Canadian literature in class, asking if any of us knew of a Canadian author who was widely known, outside of Canada, before 1960. Interrupting the responding chorus of crickets, I suggested L.M. Montgomery. The professor gently qualified that, as a writer of children’s stories, Montgomery did not count as influential in “literature.” I was silenced and, after class, went on our class discussion site–to my surprise, the topic had been entered as a discussion question over the weekend, and the professor had forseen the mention of Montgomery, adding that she was looking for suggestions other than the author of beloved Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables. Somewhat abashed, but none the less convinced of Montgomery’s worth, I replied:
Well, way to speak up in class before reading the week’s discussion topics. That was me, suggesting L.M. Montgomery as a famous Canadian author. Yet, while I understand the distinction in classes of literature, I don’t think a good writer is any less significant because of the genre they write in. However, it is entirely possible that I, as a Canadian, think Anne of Green Gables and its author more widely known than they truly are. Beyond that, I don’t know of a Canadian author who made a significant impact before the 1960s–I barely know any who made an impact after the 60s.
As for the why, I haven’t a clue. I could speculate on Canada’s social and literary landscape in those times, the market for literature, or the necessity of doing something lucrative because making a living writing was doubtful, but in order to actually come up with solid reasons, more research would be required. It’s something I will wonder about. As I continue taking classes, maybe I will find myself in one on Canadian literature and be enlightened.15 March 2017
So far, I haven’t been in a specifically Canadian literature course, but I have encountered more Canadian authors, both in university and in my casual reading: Alan Bradley, Margaret Atwood, Greg Hollingshead, Mary Lawson, and Eden Robinson. There are more, including those mainly in the young adult/children’s genres, but all of them have come after 60s. Margaret Atwood is the closest to the qualification, having emerged in print just after 1960, and she is also the most recent Canadian author I have read.
I’d long been intending to pick up some of Atwood’s books, and had constant reminders of my neglect to do so, whether by the seeming ubiquity of her books or advertisemens of The Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation. When I was given a couple of her books this spring, I finally started by reading The Blind Assassin. It is an epic family drama with several timelines recording their history unfolding congruently with the in-world “fictional” narrative of “The Blind Assassin”: a semi-autobiographical novella written by one of the sisters.
While I’m not going to give a full review here, I will share my first impression of Atwood’s writing and The Blind Assassin itself. I now know why Atwood is one of the best known Canadian novelists: her style is grippingly mysterious, with metaphors unique and contributory to the atmosphere (although too frequent for my liking). Her execution of plot revelation is proportionally flawless. Proportionally flawless: flawless in timing with regards to the rest of the story beats, but not in actual time taken. I thought the 521 page bulk of this hardcover could have been meaningfully condensed into less than half its count and had a less diluted effect.
But that opinion could be partially due to my being influenced by my last short story writing course, wherein I encountered more Canadian writers. Writing short stories is all about potency of the words to affect a particular, usually limited, meaning or emotion. That means anything superfluous, i.e. not contributing to the goal, is cut: which works well, because they’re meant to be short stories. Between the two texts for the short story course, Thing Feigned or Imagined and Writers Talking, and a book of short stories about and/or inspired by the city of Winnipeg that I read on vacation last year, The Shadow Over Portage and Main, I have probably read more short story literature by Canadian authors than anything else.
I had encountered one of the authors included in the text Thing Feigned or Imagined before in novel form: Greg Hollingshead. I enjoyed reading his historical fiction work Bedlam several years ago and was looking forward to reading the selection in Fred Stenson’s book on short story crafting. Unfortunately, the short story, “The Dog in the Van” didn’t live up to my expectations of Hollingshead’s writing, not being long enough to effectively showcase the slow build-up of evidence and revelation that I had appreciated in Bedlam.
Instead, through this book I was introduced to other Canadian writers I would like to read more of: Diane Schoemperlen, author of a whimsical, self-aware diatribe on writing, fittingly, if obviously, titled “Stranger than Fiction,” and Stenson himself, author of an amusing, matter-of-fact account of a retiring hockey player, “Positive Images.” In the other book we used, Writers Talking, I hadn’t known any of the writers prior, but enjoyed three of the eight stories (“Archibald the Arctic,” “Five Paintings of the New Japan,” and “A Litany in a Time of Plague”) so much that I would be interested in reading more by their respective authors: Michael Winter, Steven Heighton, and K.D. Miller. I guess it’s time to hit the Canadian section at the library.
Needless to say, my discovery of Canadian literature is ongoing. Last year, I encountered the weird electricity of The Shadow Over Portage and Main and the bizarre hilarity of Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster: this year, it has been more Canadian short stories and the polished lines of drama in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, with intent to read Alias Grace. Next year, who knows?