Canada Day CanLit: some thoughts on reading lists, and a list

July 1, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Today marks Canada’s 147th birthday, and if a quick glance at my social media feeds is any indication, the appropriate way to celebrate is by making lists of great Canadian books. Though I am typically averse to list-making, I will grant that this seems like a fittingly patriotic way to display a genuine love of both the country and its literature.

What I find interesting about the vast majority of the lists I’ve stumbled across (not all, mind you, but most) is their homogeneity, which is ironic in a nation as large and as culturally diverse as Canada. Not just homogeneity in terms of the titles that keep appearing (though that does occur), but homogeneity of tone: the Canada Day book lists I’ve seen tend to be earnest, inoffensive, and almost defiantly middle-of-the-road. (It could, of course, be argued that this makes them absolutely reflective of the country that spawned them.)

One reason for this is that the lists usually confine themselves to the novel genre, though even there the same few titles keep cropping up, most of them already more than familiar to the vast majority of the reading public. Very few roundups include any collections of short fiction, despite the fact that this accounts for the best of what we produce in this country’s literature. And there’s virtually no poetry, although I’ve long since ceased marvelling at this phenomenon.

Though generic blinders may account for part of the narrowness I’ve seen, another contributing factor, it seems to me, is a resolute focus on big books from multinational publishers. Few of the lists kicking around, in my experience, pay much (if any) attention to small or regional presses, which is where the vast majority of the most interesting and exciting publishing is happening in this country. This is not to suggest that there is nothing of interest coming out of the bigger houses (see below), but iconoclastic, experimental, boundary-pushing work is confined, predominantly, to publishers not often acknowledged for the books they produce or the chances they take. Coach House Books, Anvil Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Véhicule Press, Thistledown, BookThug, Biblioasis, Nightwood Editions, Invisible Publishing, The Porcupine’s Quill: these are the houses taking risks, pushing the envelope, and – not incidentally – discovering the authors who will go on to sign six-figure deals with HarperCollins or Random House. (ECW Press could be added to that list: in terms of volume, it’s not really a small publisher, though it acts like one.)

Most (not all) of the impressive CanLit I’ve read over the past few years has come from smaller houses; most of it flies below the radar of what gets recirculated in the major media and online; and most of it is nowhere to be found on prize shortlists, year-end best-of lists, or any other traditionally accepted metric of what constitutes “essential” writing in this country.

On Canada Day, then, here is a list of the five best Canadian-authored books I’ve read so far this year.

All_Saints_KD_MillerAll Saints by K.D. Miller (Biblioasis)

A perennial critical favourite, Miller is not nearly as well known as she should be outside a small and devoted coterie of readers. (The critic Jeet Heer called her “Canada’s greatest unknown writer.”) Miller’s new linked story collection focuses on the titular Anglican church, which, in an age of galloping secularism, has fallen on hard times. All Saints is infused with humour, a surprising degree of eroticism, and an uncompromising eye for human fallibility and frailty.

Fire in the Unnameable Country by Ghalib Islam (Hamish Hamilton Canada)

Imagine Jorge Luis Borges and William Burroughs collaborating on a screenplay adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four for director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and you might have some idea of what reading Bangladeshi-born Ghalib Islam’s first novel feels like. Violent, hallucinatory, and written in a style that mimics high modernism with liberal dollops of magic realism, Islam’s debut is a stark rebuke to the dominant Canadian literary tradition. But the novel, which incorporates reality television, state surveillance, and American militarism abroad, is also frighteningly relevant to our current historical moment.

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis)

Like Miller, Kathy Page is an author who is not terribly well known outside a certain circle of readers, despite the fact that her novel Alphabet was nominated for a 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award. Her new collection is cast in the fabulist mode of Angela Carter, with stories about a society that has outlawed kissing due to an orally transmitted virus, a sea creature who takes the place of a lighthouse-keeper’s missing wife, and a journalism student who takes the notion of communing with nature to a bizarre and unsettling extreme.

The_Stonehenge_LettersThe Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky (Coach House Books)

Karlinsky’s second novel takes the form of an academic investigation. It begins by inquiring as to why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize, but veers off into the story of a codicil in Alfred Nobel’s will that offered a cash reward to any Nobel laureate who could solve the mystery of Stonehenge. Appropriating the apparatus of an academic treatise – including footnotes, bibliography, and appendices – allows Karlinsky to engage in a whole array of postmodern metafictional playfulness, and to ask some pressing questions about the meaning and uses of history.

The Troop by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster Canada)

A clutch of Boy Scouts accompany their troop leader to a deserted island off the coast of PEI, where they fall prey to the depredations of a horrifying and ravenous “disease.” A furious, fast-paced combination of Lord of the Flies and The Ruins, Cutter’s novel is one of the best straight-ahead literary horror outings in years. Be warned: the gore is plentiful, but so is the gleeful energy and manic inventiveness.


One Response to “Canada Day CanLit: some thoughts on reading lists, and a list”
  1. theresa says:

    This is very thoughtful and measured post. “This is not to suggest that there is nothing of interest coming out of the bigger houses (see below), but iconoclastic, experimental, boundary-pushing work is confined, predominantly, to publishers not often acknowledged for the books they produce or the chances they take. ” Yet so much of the hype suggests that small is somehow less. I have a stack of books by my desk which prove the contrary. So thanks for the titles you highlight.