Are there any world-class CanLit writers?

June 12, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

There’s a bit of a contretemps going on over at Quillblog (which seems these days to be where I’m getting all my material) about an interview that Nigel Beale did with John Metcalf, in which Metcalf defends the utility of negative reviews, even those that resort to invective and insult to make their points. I’ll let that debate simmer away over at Quill; what most interests me in the Beale/Metcalf interview comes later on, when Metcalf turns his attention to the Canadian canon and asks whether Canada can be said to have produced a world-class writer. In Metcalf’s view, this country has produced only one work worthy of being set alongside the best writing from England and the United States: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Beyond that single novel, Metcalf claims, anyone looking for important literary writing must look outside our home and native land:

Anybody with any literary sense whatsoever knows that a really important book of literary fiction comes maybe once every ten years, out of England or the United States and not here, because we don’t have an audience hard enough to exact one.

[ … ]

The Canadian critic’s duty is to be vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States and to compare Canadian output with the best from those two countries. Of course, when you do that, the result is painful. I mean, we’re not even on the same planet.

Metcalf’s detractors will put this down to simply more colonial bitterness from an inveterate curmudgeon and complainer, but this knee-jerk response gives his argument short shrift. One presumes that Metcalf is confining his attention to literature written in English, which is why he singles out Britain and the United States (and not, say, Latin America) as the twin hubs of significant literary output. Were Metcalf to look past Canadian literature written in English, he might be surprised at the wealth of talent coming out of Quebec, even that small percentage that has appeared in translation. (It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to make a case for Marie-Claire Blais’s stature as a world-class author.) And there is a sense that Metcalf is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point: even he admits that Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are important Canadian writers.

Still, his basic contention is worth considering: if one were to build a literary canon of significant books from the past 50 years or so, how many works of Canadian literature would fit comfortably on it? I would suggest, for example, that Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride – arguably Margaret Atwood’s two best novels – are important works in the annals of Canadian writing, but would their lustre not be the least bit diminished were they to be placed alongside the best of Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral)? Or Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)? Or Jeanette Winterson (The Passion, Written on the Body)? In such august company, would Atwood’s novels not come off looking just the slightest bit parochial and twee?

It’s been pointed out that in the chronology of world literatures, Canada’s is a relatively young one. We may indeed now be entering the period of literary development that the States found itself in at the mid-20th century. Still, by that point American literature had produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, not to mention Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Carson McCullers. Where are the Canadian writers to compare with these canonical names? Where in Canada are we to find such technically audacious, philosophically inquisitive, or cosmopolitan writers as José Saramago, Julio Cortàzar, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Alasdair Gray?

In his essay “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” Philip Marchand wrote, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Perhaps this partially explains the experience of a colleague of mine on a trip to France. Speaking about her work in the field of CanLit, she was questioned about important Canadian writers. Atwood’s name drew blank stares. The people she was speaking to had some vague notion of who Michael Ondaatje is, but that was about it. If being world class means being recognized abroad, this anecdotal experience suggests that we’re not doing terribly well.

Metcalf thinks this is because we don’t have a culture of tough criticism, and I for one would be hard pressed to disagree. The culture of boosterism and cheerleading to which we have consigned ourselves precludes us developing “an audience hard enough to exact” a literature that is able to compete with the best of what’s being produced internationally. Even Canadian writers feel this: ask anyone working in the trenches of CanLit about what’s exciting them in literature these days, and they’re more likely to name Joseph O’Neill than Anne Michaels. This is a shame. Where are Canada’s answers to Bolaño and Saramago, to Ali Smith and Haruki Murakami? They don’t exist – yet. But it is only by holding ourselves to the highest literary standards that we may hope to rectify this situation. We need to develop the “hard” audience that Metcalf advocates. We should not hesitate to judge Canadian writing against the best of what is being produced internationally, nor should we hesitate to point out those instances in which our writing comes up wanting.


13 Responses to “Are there any world-class CanLit writers?”
  1. Gauthaman Ravindran says:

    You are right. Canada does not have an answer to Bolaño, to Saramago, to Murakami… but I suspect that any writer who attempted to be “technically audacious” or “philosophically inquisitive” would be accused of being illiterate and “unable to handle the English language” by critics like John Metcalf. I know Metcalf likes to imagine that he is speaking truth to power, but he does not really fight the establishment. He is the establishment.

  2. August says:

    I think they exist, but they don’t get published here. In Canada, unlike in the US or Britain, it seems harder to get to a publisher without first having run the gauntlet of literary journals. And while there are several journals that I love, for a variety of reasons, there’s no Canadian journals, with the possible exception of Carousel (which is not much read, from what I gather, even amongst the literary journal set), that I would call aggressive in promoting, or even particularly supportive of work that takes genuine risks.

    I think Metcalf is wrong in his assessment of some of our writers, or the dead ones, anyway. Davies had much of Byatt’s philosophical bent, but wanted to wrap it in melodramatic trash, Findley did strong work, but his oeuvre is all over the place in terms of quality, and Shield had the deft touch with sentences and paragraphs, but no real intellectual heft behind it–as for the living, Sheila Heti’s Ticknor is refreshingly ne0-modernist, and Schoemperlen’s Forms of Devotion is one of the best and most daring books Canada has ever produced, with André Alexis’ Despair coming up not too far behind. I think the parts are all there, we’ve just never pushed anyone hard enough, or provided a space for them, when it was needed.

    Which is not to say that we have nobody worth pushing. There’s plenty of writers that have done promising work and could be pushed to further heights. Rebecca Rosenblum shows great potential and put out and wonderful first book. Stacey May Fowles’ first novel was also a great first book, but she’s a bit sloppy, and no doubt like Atwood (have you read The Edible Woman or Lady Oracle? What editor let those out the door with those sort of inconsistencies?) she’ll improve with time. Or at least she will if some critic says “this is really good, *but* there’s some weaknesses here that need to be addressed”. (I’m not a proper critic, but I tried that once with a book that I more or less enjoyed, and got a series of nasty emails from the author–not from Ms. Fowles, some other author–my point being that we’re not working in a climate that fosters the graceful giving and receiving of criticism.)

  3. August says:

    In all seriousness, though, when’s the last time you heard a Canadian writer speaking seriously about the theory behind her craft? Jeanette Winterson, AS Byatt, nearly all those writers you mentioned, have intelligent things to say about how to construct meaning or the role of mimesis or the legitimacy of trying to represent human consciousness at all, or any of that fun stuff. Our writers talk about that interesting bit of historical lint they found up in the cellar that made them feel a great sympathy for an era or a plight or God knows what else, and how they were sure there was a story in there worth telling. Or even worse, we get claptrap about how inspiring it was out in the garden last spring, or how we all need to pay more attention to this modern day social concern. Our fiction writers, at any rate, don’t seem to take their art, or themselves as artists, all that seriously as an intellectual endeavour. It’s more like a job than a calling. Just try and imagine Borges or Winterson with an attitude like that.

  4. Finn Harvor says:

    “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form”

    Excellent post. However, I can’t suppress how exasperated I feel when I read comments like this (and yes, I realize it is Marchand speaking, but there is an implicit agreement with the sentiment; one might almost say it is one of the Seven Pillars of Canadian Literary Discourse (give me a moment to think of the other six — I know they’re there)).

    I’ve, ah, ahem, done something fundamentally new with the novel form. It’s not *wholly* new (see my Screenplay Novel FAQs for a brief run-down of similar approaches), but it’s new enough: I have yet to see anything remotely like it in a bookstore, and I have by now enough rejection letters to my screenplay-novel manuscript dismissing/decrying/distrusting its newness to know that, yes, what I’m doing artistically sets off not only alarm bells, but knees.

    Canadian literary culture is going to have to get a little more serious about inviting newness if, you know, newness is what we, collectively, want. Furthermore, I can think of several other Canadian artists/writers who are experimental in ways deserving of attention that my comment hopefully won’t be dismissed as simply the griping of someone eager for attention (and wait a minute! that’s another Pillar!).

  5. Are there any world-class CanLit critics?

    If we don’t have any world-class critics, how can we know if we have any world-class writers?

    Does CanLit receive more critical/academic consideration abroad? If so, why?

    I’m uncertain of the answers to these questions, but they seem pertinent to the discussion above.

    There are many CanLit writers, but terribly few CanLit critics. Lots of new fiction and poetry titles, but hardly any books published annually to a general audience that include critical reviews/essays on the output of all our writers. And those that are published don’t generate much attention.

    I’m interested in what others make of this. Is there CanLit criticism that’s going widely unnoticed? What? Where?

  6. Finn Harvor says:

    p.s. For what it’s worth and just for the record, neither Gauthaman nor August’s comments were visible when I wrote my own. Both have very important things to say. I also tend to agree with August’s point about consciousness of theory of craft.

    Theory tends to be one of the sharpest of double-edged swords. But in the culturally blithering early days of the 21st Century, it not only has its place but is probably something of a survival mechanism. Like it or not, we now (and I speak again collectively) find ourselves stranded in an ocean of narratives, and *literary* narratives need to create a life-raft of thought if they are to survive.

  7. Alex says:

    I don’t think we look that bad in comparison. Yes, Canadian literature developed later than other English-speaking countries. So we didn’t have a great generation of Moderns. But since WW2 a lot of the world’s best fiction hasn’t been written in English anyway. Writers like Marquez, Grass, Kundera, Bolano, early Murakami have all been eclipsing Britain and the U.S. Who are Britain’s “world-class” authors? Personally, I think the generation of M. Amis, McEwan, Rushdie and Barnes were overrated (I use the past tense because all of these guys are well past their best-before date now). Of the new voices I don’t know enough to say, though I have tried to read a couple of Zadie Smith books and gave up.

    As for the U.S., their big names (Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy) are all in their seventies I think. Updike just left us. Who are their “world-class” authors coming up to take their place? David Eggers? J. S. Foer? J. Franzen? B. E. Ellis? I’m not saying there aren’t some good young American writers out there, but with a population ten times Canada’s I don’t think they’ve produced all that much to be excited about.

    “Are there any world-class CanLit critics?” Modesty forbids me making a full answer to your question Michael. But again, turning things around: Where are the world’s world-class literary critics? I guess James Wood is the one who gets the most ink these days, and some of his reviews are OK, but his book How Fiction Works was a huge disappointment.

    Seems to come back to the audience issue Metcalf raises. We’ll have better books and better critics when the public demands them.

  8. Finn Harvor says:

    “Does CanLit receive more critical/academic consideration abroad? If so, why?”

    Simple answer: No.

    Complex answer: It may be that the proportion of critical/academic consideration statistically outweighs what is happening in Canada. But this is so unlikely (from a statistical perspective) as to be a near certainty. (That last sentence came out awkwardly; what I mean is, it’s safe to assume that criticism of Canadian culture is even more invisible than it is in our own country.)

    What’s to be done? (Because I agree with what you’re saying, Michael.) One suggestion: more Canadian literary discourse online. Almost none of our literary magazines are truly online — one reason I was sad to read about the passing of TDR. Online magazines are cheaper to produce and allow for “more” — more fiction, more critical essays, etc.

    Online culture is also where literary innovation is likely to manifest itself. But I digress.

  9. Nigel Beale says:

    Further to Alex’s comment: It should be pointed out that great works of literature are a rarity. Canonical novels are written once or twice a decade if we’re lucky. A poet can produce a lifetime’s worth of poetry, and write perhaps only one or two that out-live her.

    Great critics are rare too.

    Perhaps there’s a correlation.

  10. Nigel Beale says:

    “Are there any world-class CanLit critics?”

    Canada can lay claim to two of the greatest critics of the 20th century. Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan; one who wrote with more metaphorical power than almost any novelist of the same period, the other with more creativity.

  11. Sina Queyras says:

    “Our writers talk about that interesting bit of historical lint they found up in the cellar that made them feel a great sympathy for an era or a plight or God knows what else, and how they were sure there was a story in there worth telling.”

    Well, you get what you publish and promote. If one wants to have a literature that is safe and promotes good gardening, that’s what they’ll get.

    But what does world class mean? Ack. And taking a handful of very engaging and intelligent writers as you do above only shows that no one country has much more than a few really interesting writers at any given moment.

    It seems to me that one thing Canada seems to lack is the ability to recognize who those interesting writers are, and to engage with them, or to have spaces that allow for really engaging conversations, beyond the obvious.

  12. Finn Harvor says:

    Credulity-free Questioning of Canadian Crap

    Came across an interesting post recently in an interview with ageless bad-boy of Canadian letters, J. Metcalf. Metcalf argues that Canadian literature is lacking and we do not produce enough world-class writers. Metcalf further states one primary reason for this is the (also) lacking quality of Canadian audiences; we are not “hard” enough.

    Whether one is in full agreement with Metcalf’s analysis or not, it is clear there needs to be a serious, sustained debate about the state of the literary art in this country. Why so few internationally-known names? Why so much blandness?

    Posted by Corey Campbell, June 17, 2009

    COMMENTS (11)

    I simply wish to voice that I concur in a qualified manner with Metcalf’s general thrust. After all, if we are to mature as a culture, we must harden as a communal critical sensibility. We are, as you you yourself say, Corey, too bland. It leads to wet-noodle-ism. Forward, Mr Metcalf! Keep kicking against those limp pricks!

    A. C. Riddick, 5:14 pm., June 17, 2009.

    A. C.: Metcalf also is of the opinion that Canadian critics need to be “vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States”. Err, wha–? English Canadians somehow unaware of what is culturally taking place in the two gargantuan hegemons that colonized/neo-colonized us?! Give me a break! We’re so vitally aware of what happens outside our borders that it gets shoved down our throats! Maybe the problem isn’t so much our lack of “vital awareness” but our lack of “vital inwardness”: Horace Engdahl had it almost right! You NEED a certain insularity if your culture is to survive! Maybe English Canadians should drag their eyes away from the latest poetically ornate Louis L’Amour – er, I mean Cormac McSomebody, and episodes of Gossip Girl, and start paying attention to what is produced by our own!

    Thor Au, 6:20 pm. June 17, 2009

    You’re being somewhat touchy about what Metcalf (and, for that matter, I) is saying. The argument isn’t that “Canadians” need to be more aware of the best of the American and British output, but that Canadian CRITICS do. And that is where I fulsomely and almost without reservation agree with him.

    A. C. Riddick, 8:25 pm. June 17, 2009

    Fine, A.C., fine. And let’s all just fall back asleep then, shall we? Where’s the remote?

    Thor Au, 9:11 pm. June 17, 2009

    No need to be churlish, Thor. Or childish.

    A. C. Riddick, 9:50 pm., June 17, 2009

    You forgot “petulant”. But maybe you were going for the kind of world-class alliterativeness one finds in south of the border and a mere hop across the pond.

    Thor Au, 10:22 pm., June 17, 2009

    May I just say how fascinating I find all this? What strong opinions! I should also add that in my day job in the publicity department of Randomized Books (a wholly owned subsidiary of Bergelsdorf) I’ve had the opportunity to meet Mr. Metcalf. Do you realize he enunciates so clearly he sounds a little English himself? It’s utterly charming!

    Annabelle Daphne Vert, 11:00 pm. June 17, 2009

    Annabelle, Metcalf IS English. He was born in Norfolk.

    Thor Au, 11:12 pm., June 17, 2009

    Oh. Oh, well. He’s just very distinguished, is what I’m trying to say! Anyway, eye-strain is catching up with me. Night, all!

    Annabelle Daphne Vert, 11:45 pm. June 17, 2009

    And despair is catching up with me. Maybe I should pack it in and move south of the border….

    Thor Au, 11:52 pm. June 17, 2009


    A. C. Riddick, 12:03 am, June 18, 2009

  13. I’m not wholely clear on why we’re searching for nationalist examples of writers. Is Metcalf making a case for some deficiency in our education system? Our cultural policies? Our cultural agencies?

    I don’t see a case for any country producing systematically world-class writers in such quantities that I’d declare it a national phenomenon or a product of their environments. Lightning strikes where it strikes.