Like a big book club

July 1, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

In honour of the 142nd anniversary of Canada’s national inferiority complex Canada Day, The New York Times‘ op-ed page today features a clutch of transplanted Canadians, such as Seán Cullen, Bruce McCall, and Kim Cattrall, lamenting the things they miss about their home and native land. (Yr. humble correspondent’s favourite: creative director Lisa Naftolin misses the “u” in colour.) Among those represented is Sarah McNally, the proprietor of the Manhattan branch of Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson Bookstores. McNally cops to missing Winnipeg’s winters (?!?), but she also misses something she refers to as “CanLit”:

I miss the pride and simplicity of a national literature, which probably wouldn’t exist without government support. We even have a name, CanLit, that people use without fearing they’ll sound like nerds. In America we tend toward novels published specifically for one narrowly interpreted demographic. CanLit is an unassuming place, very welcome to immigrant writers, and since it doesn’t dice up readership according to profile there is a national conversation about literature, like a big book club.

It’s true that much American writing is ghettoized – rightly or wrongly – into what McNally refers to as “narrowly interpreted demographic[s]”: think chick lit, think technothrillers, think whatever it is Jodi Picoult writes. In large part, this is a result of the size of America’s population. With 300 million people, there is an authentic mass market in the U.S., unlike here in Canada, with a population one-tenth the size. If we have a more monolithic literary culture, this is largely a matter of necessity, not choice.

But McNally elides the downside of CanLit’s stranglehold on our national literary output: the stultifying sameness of the majority of books that are pumped out of the CanLit mill. We use the term CanLit, not in a nerdy way, but rather as code for a particular kind of book: muted, historical, domestic, naturalistic. CanLit calls to mind sepia tones and boxes of faded photographs, woodsmoke from the back yard and the sound of music held at a distance. CanLit is pretty and precious, eschewing dirt and jagged edges. It is never profane, bawdy, or raunchy.

CanLit is welcoming to immigrant writers, but in a melting-pot fashion that seems more appropriate to an American mythos than that of our vaunted Canadian mosaic. Rohinton Mistry may set his sprawling sagas in Bombay; M.G. Vassanji may set his in Pirbaag. But in their adherence to an historical focus and a naturalistic approach, Mistry and Vassanji might as well have been born in Toronto or Halifax. The metafictional gamesmanship of Shahriar Mandanipour, author of the well-received novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, would not find a comfortable home in the echelons of CanLit. It’s no accident that Mandanipour, an Iranian, has taken up refuge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Montreal or Vancouver. (True, Montreal has Rawi Hage, but back off: I’m trying to make a point here.)

Similarly, America can boast a literary culture in which Jonathan Franzen, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy all sell in good numbers; that diversity of authors and approaches does not exist in our “big book club” north of the 49th parallel. Or rather, it does, but it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of what is usually understood by the term “CanLit.” When most people in this country talk about CanLit, they are referring to Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro, not Mark Anthony Jarman, Lisa Foad, and Matt Shaw. (“Who?” I hear you ask. “Exactly,” I respond.)

McNally is correct to isolate CanLit as a national, monolithic catch-all for our literature, the “big book club” that dominates our literary discourse, and more often than not ignores the diversity of output that goes on below the surface of our cultural consciousness. McNally and I differ only as to whether or not this is a good thing.

Happy Canada Day, y’all.

Comments

3 Responses to “Like a big book club”
  1. I would have to agree with you on this issue, as CanLit (to me, anyway) refers more to the dusty, old-fashioned, nature-lovin’ Canadian books, where pioneers like Susanna Moodie fit in, but more modern-day cult writers like Joey Comeau do not. Hell, if the CBC’s “Canada Reads” feature is any indication, even the much-beloved Leonard Cohen doesn’t fit into this view of CanLit; his Beautiful Losers (my #1 fave book of all time) was voted off the CR island in its first week, back in 2005, even though every single person on the panel said it was a great book that stood the test of time. The reason it was booted? It was “too difficult” to be considered worthy of all of Canada’s attention. !!!

  2. I agree whoeheartedly, except for your snide exclamation points on missing Winnipeg winters. As a former ‘pegger, I miss them mucho much, as they were true winters, and not these soggy and sorry excuses for the season out here on the east coast.

  3. August says:

    Don’t listen to Cory. I grew up just a stone’s throw from Winnipeg, and the only legitimate reason to miss those winters is because it’s far and away the friendliest city in Canada, and that has a way of compensating for the chill.

    Here’s a question: do you think Sarah McNally’s sense of CanLit would be different if she interacted with CanLit in a different way (ie. if she weren’t a bookseller)? There are a tonne of great booksellers, large and small, that will go out of their way to promote the less well known, more daring writers, but I have yet to see one talk any genuine trash about the CanLit establishment (either the writers that make it up, or the concept itself). It seems like it wouldn’t be in their best interest, even when living and working abroad.