Let me start this by saying that while I am from Canada and have returned here some two years ago, that the whole CanLit scene is something rather alien to me. True, I’m learning it as any newcomer to a place should have to gain a literacy for the places they come to inhabit. It’s also true that I still know a lot more about the American writing scene, in large because I did my formal training as a writer in that wonderful beast of a country. I will always, without a doubt, hold many American writers as my personal lineage as an artist. Why not, I live less than mile from the US border. But what I’ve come to ferret out about the Canadian writing scene isn’t exactly what I’d been hoping to find thus far.
I believe that Alex Cooke’s essay in CNQ issue 92, “Shackled to a Corpse: The Long, Long Shadow of CanLit” speaks to my current understanding of state of CanLit. (By the way if you’re not reading CNQ and have any interest in CanLit and writing in Canada you should be. Check it out here: CNQ Issue 92) Above anything else, Cooke points out the general sense that I’ve gotten since I started trying to understand my homeland’s literature. Everything from the publishing houses to university lit courses appears to have enshrined the works of Atwood, Munro, and Ondajte as the only CanLit worth reading. They will often call it the golden era of CanLit, but in all reality what they are really saying is “the only era of CanLit.” Truthfully, there was a time when that work was great and vitally important to state of literature in Canada. But if anything the last series of works by these writers have been so hacked together and absolutely without literary merit (Cooke does excellent textual work with Atwood’s Blind Assassin as illustration) that you have to know that few people are bothering to read it before nominating it for awards or praising it. It’s the literary equiviliant of saying Shaq as Boston Celtic was just as great as Shaq as LA Laker. Although, I might argue that at least Shaq was trying as a Celtic even if the product was far from greatness.
In truth though, the late works by these author’s are financial trophies for their publishers. There is little doubt that Atwood’s or Ondajte’s book sale figures are excellent in the least. This is because past that sort of 10-year prime of the career in writing, most of these books are at a stage where the art doesn’t matter only the sales do. As a small publisher of literary works, I would be lying to tell you that sales don’t matter. They do. But I will say that the entire reason to start a small press is because the work matters most. As they major publishing houses in Canada along with the behemoth book sellers like Indigo have built their operation standards on making wads and wads of cash, they have left little room for growth of the art itself or producing work of merit.
This is not to say that there are not talented and important writers in this country. Just off the top of my head I think of Robert Earl Stewart and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco as excellent poets deserving of your attention. It’s simply to say that those writers, outside of the various small presses and government artist support networks, receive little attention via big prizes or media praise for their work. I have done jury work with the Ontario Arts Council as well as read some great submissions from Canadian writers for UFP that beautifully illustrate the excellent work that many Canadians are turning out that has been largely ignored by the sort of upper echelons of Canadian publishers and media.
Perhaps that is the most telling aspect of all this. This sort of upper crust of Canadian publishers and media has become so vastly out of touch with anything but their own bottom lines and bank accounts that they are actually holding back the development of our literary arts. Pushing 40 year old writing and the hack past its prime work line Atwood’s Blind Assassin illustrates the seminal importance of small press like Kegedonce, Brick Books, Biblioasis, and Guernica here in Canada. Maybe its time we as a country stopped supporting the money machine of big publishing houses in this country and give a good look to the work that is being supported by our small presses. There is excellent CanLit work out there. Our various Arts Councils, such as the Ontario Arts Council, continue to do a great thin in providing critical funding to these undervalued artists and organizations. But’s our turn as writers and readers in Canada. Let’s not focus our attention on the corpses of CanLit. Let’s reward these other great artists with our recognition and our dollars. And for academics out there, let’s build courses and syllabi that better reflect what we as a country are producing as writers.