Miscellany with a Mission

A critic deeply devoted to CanLit sets out to woo the general reader.

My initial exposure to CanLit was not auspicious. It was 1975, and I was a grade nine student in a Jesuit high school in suburban Toronto. A charged young English teacher insisted we read a contemporary Canadian book together. Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood were all then recently published, and all being duly—and deservedly, for the most part—hyped. But anxious to connect with 30 teenage boys with short attention spans, he selected instead Johnny Crackle Sings, a diffuse, fragmentary 1971 novella about a rock singer named Johnny Crackle. Author Matt Cohen went on to a distinguished career as a novelist, but not on the foundation of this early effort.

Even so, the teacher’s enthusiasm impressed me. Curious to learn more, I began frequenting the Coles outlet in the mall near our house. Canadian books were not hard to find: they were so designated, a row of shelves situated well downwind of “Bestsellers” and “Recent Releases,” “History” and, if memory serves, “Titles for Children.” Amid hardcovers by Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat were rows of paperbacks bannered as the “New Canadian Library.” These were, I was informed by blurbs and scholarly afterwords by professors and fellow authors, canonical works of our national literature. They were also cheaply, grimly produced, with paper the hue of urine and pallid covers featuring Rorschach-test blots. Undaunted, I bought a half dozen of them and sat in my bedroom poring over Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth and Frederick Philip Grove’s Fruits of the Earth. Moderately more successful were Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved and Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House.

Still, not until I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars at the end of the 1970s could I declare my teenage self as shaken and stirred by a Canadian novel as I had already been by Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But that was okay: I was coming of age as a reader and, shortly, as a writer, and CanLit, by dint of two decades of relentless, even pushy cultural nationalism, had secured its tenuous place in the consciousness of the notoriously Americanized, colonized and unselfconfident Canadian soul. As a literary culture, we were off and walking.

I was off and walking as well, but mostly abroad. I was also mostly running into the arms of books and of literary cultures not my own. That was largely about taste and circumstance, and where I have lived and what I have read in my adulthood has had no effect on my designation of myself as a Canadian writer. As Mordecai Richler, who lived in England for the first 20 years of his career, told an interviewer: “All my attitudes are Canadian. I’m a Canadian; there’s nothing to be done about it.” That is pretty much how I feel as well.

As such, reading T.F. Rigelhof’s Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984 is a disconcerting, if also enlightening and cheering, experience. Rigelhof, a retired Montreal CEGEP teacher, fiction writer and memoirist, has been a keen and busy reviewer of Canadian novels for, as his subtitle suggests, at least the last quarter-century. He is also someone I have known casually for two decades, and who includes a summary of my career and work in his book. This is no boast—Hooked on Canadian Books must reference a hundred writers in this way—but rather a disclaimer. For the record, his account seems fair, even though I have a strong suspicion my novels only merit the rank of “good,” as opposed to better and best in his hierarchy. I will certainly try for better next time.

Three qualities to Rigelhof’s book disconcert this particular “good” Canadian writer, besides the awkward title, an allusion to the late Double Hook bookshop in Westmount, which he eulogizes with great affection. First, it is tricky to define. It is not a study of Canadian novels, being neither scholarly nor systematic. It is closer to a miscellany, although Rigelhof, citing Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, prefers to group his selections by association. This allows the titles, as per Manguel’s thinking, “to associate freely, to suggest links by their mere proximity, to call out to one another across the room.” Readers, Rigelhof says of his own organizational scheme, are invited to “dip and dive as they choose,” and some of the best reading is to be found in the short, mildly polemical essays wedged between those proximate novels.

Nor is Hooked (as I will henceforth call it, also affectionately) even particularly historical, doing little more than assigning publication dates to the titles under brief, glancing discussion. That said, his launching point of 1984 does feel about right, marking the wane of the cultural nationalism era, with its unity of purpose and swift enshrinement of a generation of authors—the distinguished Atwood, Davies, Findley, Munro crowd—as leading lights, de facto icons. Of those icons, only Atwood post-1984 appears to really hold Rigelhof’s attention, and even then not for very long. But that is also a quality to his miscellany that takes getting used to: two paragraphs about Novel A, two paragraphs about Novel B. Next author. Next book.

Finally, Hooked is not critical. The Canadian writers whom Rigelhof does not particularly like must be surmised, for the most part, by their absence from the index, or by almost reading between the lines of his occasional purse-lipped endorsements. The truth is, there are not many of these either; he finds good, better, best in a wide array of novels, including many neophyte works by younger authors, and reserves his most transparent ire for those who dare to criticize CanLit at all. (Stephen Marche’s invigorating—or “notorious,” in his view—2007 rip against various complacencies earns him the French epithet of pissenlit, or dandelion, and his first novel an unfavourable comparison with Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill’s impressive debut.)

Rigelhof is avowedly partisan. He opens his survey by lavishing praise on three former students at Dawson College in Montreal, two of whom he taught, including O’Neill, and by declaring the third, Zoe Whittall, to be the “cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-­affirming, elegant, scruffiest, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler.” (The pre-CanLit Richler is a touchstone for him.) He then waits just a couple more pages before purposefully citing the extravagant praise bestowed upon another Montreal novelist, Trevor Ferguson. All this in the very early going of Hooked, and all while ignoring the fictions of a former colleague at Dawson College, Ray Smith, and those of David Homel, whose books read to me like his description of Whittall.

Partisanship comes with the critical territory, of course, and things often get personal. (By way of corroborating evidence: I lived in Montreal for years; David Homel is a friend; Ray Smith’s Century, published in 1985, is a book I have long held in high regard.) And Rigelhof is upfront about why Hooked is so unabashed. As he explains it, his original plan to write a literary atlas of Canada or a study whose title might have been “The Shape of Fiction to Come” was overthrown by illness: two strokes in a space of five years. These afflictions cost him time and even memory, and he resolved to instead reread “all my favourite post-1983 but pre-2003 Canadian novels,” with the later date reflecting his initial bout of illness. His ambition, in turn, became to celebrate how books, specifically Canadian ones, can help “expand the narratives of your own lives—yielding diversion, solace, perspective, comfort, counsel, and insight along your meanders from first paragraphs to last.”

In a section titled “A Letter to a Québécoise Friend in Search of the Canada She Knows She Doesn’t Know,” he puts his patriotic literary ardour into a larger context: “The world of books is a republic, the strongest democracy we’ve created, and our best defence against humankind’s greatest enemies—oligarchs not barbarians.” There is no arguing with the wisdom here, just as there is no arguing—from me, at least—with the passion Rigelhof brings to his engagements with the novels he clearly loves.

Neither would I think to contest the superiority of Rigelhof’s fluency in contemporary Canadian writing. A pleasure I have taken from Hooked has been making a list of writers that I now know, thanks to his advocacy on their behalf, I need to read more of. Barbara Gowdy, Joan Barfoot and Brad Smith are just three names.

So much so, I hesitate to point out the large, unmistakable elephant standing off in the corner of this quirky but charming literary salon. No fiercer an anti-nationalist bestrode our land than the very same Mordecai Richler whom T.F. Rigelhof deeply admires. I wince at the thought of what Richler, who died in 2001, would have made of the boosterish Hooked. At a guess, he would have mocked it, called it a relic of the same era that birthed Atwood’s Survival and dozens of lesser works extolling the exciting, read-all-about-it phenomenon known as Canadian Literature. He might have suggested that it was pleasant, in a book club sort of way, but wondered if as a culture we still needed to cheer on “our” side all these decades later.

Had he expressed any of these views—objections that, obviously, I also struggled with while reading Hooked—Richler might have been missing something essential about Rigelhof’s project. As he states in several spots, and as Joan Barfoot notes in her front-jacket blurb, his miscellany is aimed squarely at the general reader. Not at fellow authors, not at critics and certainly not at academics. What may seem a bland, self-evident point about the book’s perspective actually contains its most radical insight, along with a sort of modest proposal for happily, healthily viewing our literary culture deeper into the 21st century.

Namely: general readers, if not many teachers, critics or even writers, still exist. Write your novels for them.

Recently I sat across a dinner table from a Canadian writer whom I will not name. Nor do I wish to identify his work, except to remark that it is self-consciously of the “ism” variety, and he is a forceful exponent for his particular cause. These kinds of authors abound in Canada as never before, identifying their fiction by its advocacy on behalf of what they view, usually with sound reason, as an oppressed ethnicity/subculture/sexual identity/region. Over the course of the meal the writer spoke with excitement about projects he had underway, all on his literary beat, and grants he was receiving, or agitating to receive, to carry on this good work. What this dinner companion seemed far less interested in was either the books of other authors at the table, or writers and literature in general. He had his thing, and it was consuming; it was, in that regard, “his” CanLit, and it kept him busy.

His attitude reminded me of the absorption in the particular, and the incuriosity about the general, of many literary academics. They, too, have their CanLit, an area of specialty so precise it often defies easy identification, and likewise needing to be nurtured with an all-consuming intensity, leaving them no time, or perhaps motivation, to simply be versant—or is the better word literate?—in what everybody else at the table is writing and reading. Canadian universities, after all, are where undergraduates may now take courses that, in lieu of foundational figures like Mordecai Richler and Robertson Davies, teach instead about “otherness” and the “post-colonial gaze.” They emerge from these experiences more sensitive and progressive, but depressingly unread, and often with gaping holes in their own literacy.

Nor is Canadian literature the only writing being recast in this way. At one Ontario university I am familiar with, undergraduates who want to study Irish literature cannot sign up for any course where Samuel Beckett and James Joyce are taught. They may, however, take a class in socialist writing from the North, post-1969. And so on.

Such is our age, increasingly diffuse and specialized, and now a full generation beyond the assault and destruction of The Curriculum, that hegemonic, Eurocentric, male-dominated fortress, already a moss-covered ruin. We are well into its replacement by a thousand smaller curricula, each with, presumably, their own hegemonies and centres, not to mention their dominators.

In this milieu, the most radical statement a critic might make is what T.F. Rigelhof does in Hooked. His anglo-Montreal bias aside (right down to including a first novel published by Liam Durcan, a neurologist who observed him in hospital after his stroke), he is a general critic, without any grievance to air or ism to promote. He does not even have a career to advance by asserting affiliations or puffing egos.

Such a throwback stance—the critic simply as astute and well-read reader—allows him to extol with equal or near-equal fervency and seriousness books by Shani Mootoo and Wayne Johnston, Eden Robinson and David Adams Richards, Lawrence Hill and Steven Heighton. It also allows him to insist that they belong to the same conversation. That conversation would be about novels by Canadians—and yes, Rigelhof does address the inevitable question of who “qualifies” these days, siding with Mavis Gallant’s wise observation that a “Canadian is someone who has a logical reason to think he is one”—novels that he thinks are excellent, and would be enjoyed by large numbers of readers. Nothing more and, most importantly, nothing less.

Excellent books enjoyed by readers! What a sweet, nearly naïf criterion for writing about the fiction published by anyone who has a logical reason to think he or she is Canadian. If Hooked blushes a little too much maple leaf red in its enthusiasms, it is also big-hearted and unpretentious, almost youthful in its excitement for fresh discoveries. CanLit, now too often a series of private conversations between like-minded dining partners, each with their own corner to protect and promote, needs people who still dare to talk to the entire table.