The perfect storm: CanLit’s risk aversion, government grants, and Shteyngart-gate

January 10, 2014 by · 4 Comments 

If you were on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you might have noticed an odd occurrence. It was American writer Gary Shteyngart channelling Rob Ford.

The author of the novels Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, as well as the newly released memoir Little Failure, was in serial-apology mode. His infraction? Canadian media had picked up on an interview Shteyngart and author Chang-rae Lee did for the website That interview, a lengthy discussion that touches upon everything from dystopian literature to the immigrant experience in America to the authors’ affinity for fast food, caught the eye of the Toronto Star‘s Dianne Rinehart for one brief exchange in which Shteyngart addresses his experience as a juror for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize:

GS: Fiction is good. If it had a readership, it would be even better, but it’s good.

NY: What do you think, then – should it be subsidized?

GS: Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is. Now, I’m as leftist as can be –

NY: No, you’re not.

As any seasoned CanLit observer knows, the only thing more egregious than attacking the country’s granting system is equating that system with a resultant lack of excitement in the nation’s literary output. Indeed, there may be a false equivalence here: if there is a general lack of risk-taking among Canadian writers, grants from the government may not be the root cause.

In any event, the knives came out pretty quickly. Dorris Heffron, chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, was quoted in the Star as saying that Shteyngart’s comments were “ignorant,” and Lynn Coady, who won the 2013 Giller, called his remarks “a lazy fallacy.” (Coady went on to temper her comment, joking that “Mr. Shteyngart has no idea of the beer-sodden hours that have been whiled away here in Canada by writers bemoaning the inscrutable tastes of our funding bodies” and saying that she forgives him for “talking smack about Canadian writing.”)

The blowback led to the first apology from the American writer:

This was followed by several others, in quick succession:







What all of these have in common is an obvious humour, something also apparent (but typically missed by many) in the original Vulture interview.

The other thing many observers missed is that Shteyngart had a point. He may have mistaken the culprit, but it’s hard to argue against the notion that vast swathes of CanLit do play it safe, often more safe than is either necessary or desirable. Naturalism remains the dominant mode in Canadian fiction, and most readers gravitate to books that tell familiar stories in comfortable ways. As an establishment prize, the Giller has a vested interest in privileging this kind of writing, and a quick glance at its two-decade history will show that, with very few exceptions, these are the kinds of books that win. Even in the year Shteyngart was on the jury: whatever adjective one wants to apply to Will Ferguson’s thriller 419, “risky” is probably not the first that springs to mind.

The same is true of Terry Fallis’s gentle satire The Best Laid Plans, a book that Heffron singles out (along with the recent CBC Television adaptation) as an example to counter Shteyngart’s assertion. Praising Fallis’s novel for its riskiness seems passing strange, especially when there is authentically provocative work being produced in this country on a fairly regular basis. Last year alone saw the appearance of Douglas Glover’s Savage Love, Norm Sibum’s The Traymore Rooms, Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography, and Cynthia Flood’s Red Girl Rat Boy, all stylistically innovative, thematically challenging works. None of them was nominated for the Giller. Colin McAdam’s formally ambitious novel A Beautiful Truth, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award, was also shut out of Giller contention. As was Permission, S.D. Chrostowska’s startling nouveau roman, a novel so risky it had to be published outside the country, by the American press Dalkey Archive. As Adam Pottle pointed out on Twitter, “Some Canadian writers take risks. They just don’t get noticed.” Pottle should know: he’s the author of Mantis Dreams, a stylistically audacious debut novel from 2013 that I’ll bet you’ve never heard of.

So while it is not true that CanLit as a whole is risk averse, it is probably true that the vast majority of books that get noticed fall into this category. There are exceptions – Coady’s Giller champ, Hellgoing, for example, or anything by Alice Munro (whose work is far more subversive than most general readers seem to realize) – but the books that gain traction in this country, by and large, don’t push the envelope too far. As poet and critic Sina Queyras quipped on Twitter, “The only thing worse than someone taking a cheap shot at CanLit is when they get it right.”

Though, it might be possible to argue that the one worse thing is the hyperbolic, wounded response to this type of cultural criticism. As Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey put it, “Hey, guys, someone insinuated that we are overly self-conscious and parochial, let’s get really upset, that’ll show him.” Or as Coady wrote, “‘And with that, the Canadians never let themselves be troubled by the Big Bad Cultural Inferiority Complex again.’ *closes storybook*.” We might close the storybook, but it would be best not to place it back on the shelf just yet. As this most recent tempest in the CanLit teapot goes to show, this is one story we love to hear over and over again.


4 Responses to “The perfect storm: CanLit’s risk aversion, government grants, and Shteyngart-gate”
  1. JC Sutcliffe says:

    Very interesting post. Last year I pitched a UK newspaper on (and was then asked to write) a piece about experimental Cdn writers, but as soon as they saw it wasn’t about the usual safe suspects they backed away. Ditto with a US books publication.

    I can’t imagine people in the UK talking about BritLit. I mean, yes, it exists as a term, but not at all to be used in the way that CanLit is employed. Nonetheless, a great deal of writing there, especially of the upmarket mainstream variety, is safe and dull and insipid, as it probably is everywhere. What strikes me as different in Canada is not the quality of books but the notion of the country’s literature as a single entity that can be described en masse (and, if the descriptive adjective is bad, offence taken en masse). Perhaps stopping thinking of it as a homogenous block will be the real end of cultural inferiority–is refusing to use the term CanLit a way of starting this?

    I agree with your take on Permission and Savage Love. Two other great experimental books were translated from French: France Daigle’s For Sure and Daniel Canty’s Wigrum. Now I’m off to look up Mantis Dreams.

  2. Antanas Sileika says:

    I am alarmed by any analysis that uses “privilege” as a verb. I also wonder about “taking risks” in literature because the only risk is that of boring the reader and the danger to the writer of taking this sort of risk is negligible. What do we mean by taking risks? Do we mean stylistic innovation? Alice Munro’s stories are innovative, but they don’t feel that way because they seem naturalistic. I wouldn’t even worry about Shteyngart’s comments for a couple of reasons. First, some guy says something denigrating about Can Lit and we fly into a fury. Who cares? Second, if you follow Publishers’ Weekly and see what titles are big in other countries, you’ll find that sensibilities are different in different places. Canadian literary sensibility is different form American sensibility.

  3. I love the way Shteyngart mentions Richler to give him Canlit cred. Richler published his first four novels with Andre Deutsch in London (including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) because no Canadian publisher would take them.

  4. Jeff Bursey says:

    Agree wholeheartedly on the value and fun found in Eaton’s book, and on the general blandness of how the judging of our country’s literary work goes. We’re too polite in our criticism, and our writers are too well known to each other to let out what is really believed. Maybe a little less self-constraint and bit more ventilation might reduce the wounded feeling this country’s writers feel when someone from somewhere else makes a comment that has more truth than falsehood in it. (The grant aspect I leave to one side.)

    Thanks for your considered remarks. Your URL was used on the _Guardian_ (u.k.) blog comment section earlier today in connection to the same story.