Tuesday, September 12, 2006

CanLit 101

I am just sitting here at Chapters after work, actually in the Starbucks section of the bookstore and I’ve just had a nice little walkabout at the New Releases display.
I preface my remarks today by reminding readers that I myself am thoroughly Canadian. As Canadian as the zipper! [Invented in St. Catherines, Ontario by Gideon Sundback in 1914.]
As such, I am impressed with the amount of great CANADIAN books that are either just recently released, or are about to be released, this fall.
It amounts to a lot of real good reading.
Canada ROCKS, in the literature department, I really believe this. So many of my favorite authors are Canucks.
It is particularly impressive when you consider Canada’s literary output on a per capita basis.
Like, how people are there in the entire country?
Four or five million?
We’re doing pretty good CanLit-wise, when you stop to think of it in those terms.
Anyhoo, in a recent New York Times piece, Canadian writer Douglas Coupland summarily disses his own nation, with the following words, and I must say up front, I see this as an unfair assessment:

"Basically, but not always, CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience. If the book is written in French, urban life is permitted, but only from a nonbourgeois viewpoint."
[I already think he is over-stating, but then he goes on to say worse things…]
"One could say that CanLit is the literary equivalent of representational landscape painting, with small forays into waterfowl depiction and still lifes. It is not a modern art form, nor does it want to be. CanLit is not a place for writers to experiment, and doesn't claim to be that kind of place. CanLit is about representing a certain kind of allowed world in a specific kind of way, and most writers in Canada are O.K. with that."

Hey, hey, hey! What planet is this guy from?
Shampoo Planet?
Is he saying that Canadian writers are too regional? Too closed to big ideas? Navel-gazers? Drab? Not artsy enough? Too artsy? Not cosmopolitan enough?
I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Like, there are so many great Canadian writers, [living and deceased], names like Richler, and Atwood, and Munro, and Davies, and Ondaatje…. these are writers that do not even need their first names attached, for us to know who they are.
I will admit that Canadian authors are big on landscape, yes.
My [American] reading partner comments on this from time to time, how it is very notable to her that when we read such great examples of Canuckitry as Jane Urquhart, the setting [the landscape] seems to be as important and as vibrant as any character in the novel!
But I don’t know. I am not sure how this can be a negative thing.
I mean, if we were to criticise Mordecai Richler for always writing about Montreal, would we also criticise someone like John Steinbeck for setting so many of his novels in and around Salinas, California?

But, [sadly], I think it is a very “Canadian” thing to be self-critical of our own beautiful country. And in many ways, we here in Canada have been culturally “americanized.” Made to subliminally think that the U.S. is better, or something. You can even see it in our attitude toward music.
We love the song “New York, New York.” But what Canadian would ever endure a song with the refrain “Edmonton, Edmonton” in it?
That’s The Night That The Lights Went Out In Georgia!
But who wants to sing about a power outage, in say, Saskatoon?
We’ll listen to songs about the “Wichita Lineman”… but who wants to sing about The Winnipeg Meter-Reader Guy?

At any rate, there are great books…. STUPENDOUS examples of great CanLit in your bookstore this fall:

Moral Disorder - Margaret Atwood
Custodian of Paradise - Wayne Johnston
The Communist's Daughter - Dennis Bock
Touchy Subjects - Emma Donoghue
The View from Castle Rock – Alice Munro
What It Takes to Be Human - Marilyn Bowering
Gargoyles - Bill Gaston
Consolation - Michael Redhill
Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? - Anita Rau Badami
The Friends of Meager Fortune - David Adams Richards

The naysayers and ne’er-do-wells are wrong.
I disagree with Coupland. I think that CanLit is an art form!


Stefanie said...

Some of my favorite authors and bloggers are Canadian :) Is it possible Coupland was refering to a certain kind of CanLit or was he lumping everything in together? and if he was lumping, does that mean his work is the kind he disparages? And if not, is he somehow exempt because he has a passport or something?

cipriano said...

I wondered the same thing Stefanie.
Where does Coupland place himself?
I've read only one of his books, called Hey, Nostradamus!"
It was OK.
It was nothing to get all gushy about, or anything.