Guerillas or Folklorists?

Two very different takes on Atlantic-Canadian writers

One of the paradoxes of Canadian culture since the intensification of globalization in the early 1990s is that the visibility of Atlantic-Canadian literature has increased as the region that produces it has become more marginalized. Economically peripheral, except as a reservoir of just-in-time labour for Alberta and Ontario, overlooked in national political campaigns and omitted from contemporary debates about multiculturalism because it does not attract immigrants, Atlantic Canada captures the attention of Central and Western Canadians primarily as a holding tank for a folkloric rural past. The popularity of the work of Wayne Johnston, David Adams Richards, Alistair MacLeod, George Elliott Clarke, Lynn Coady, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter and Michael Crummey is inseparable from this definition. In a book I published in 2002, entitled When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing, I attempted to summarize this apparent contradiction, arguing that by the late 1990s, in contrast to the deluge of Canadian fiction with foreign settings, “writers from Atlantic Canada—Wayne Johnston, Alistair MacLeod, David Adams Richards—still wrote Canadian novels; this may help explain the surge in these writers’ popularity.” As the rest of us floated off into ersatz internationalism, Atlantic-Canadian writers, the country fiddlers of our literary scene, satisfied our nostalgic longing for authenticity and tradition.

Herb Wyile, a professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, who is known in CanLit academic circles as a theorist of regionalism, also puts the word “reshaping” in the subtitle of his book, Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature. He views present-day Atlantic Canada as a desolate landscape, gutted by neoliberal policies. His mission is to assess the consequences of the noxious stereotype of what, following Ian McKay’s The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, he refers to as “the Folk”: the image of Atlantic Canadians as white, Celtic-descended, rubber-booted fishermen and feisty gals with quaint accents. Wyile maintains that many writers from the region are not “catering to the desire for a homogenous, exotic Folk culture” (which is roughly what I suggested), but rather creating a literature that “actively counters and subverts Folk archetypes.” If Anne of Green Gables has given way to “Anne of Tim Hortons” as neoliberal sameness engulfs Atlantic Canada (as it has everywhere else on the planet other than Burma and North Korea), Wyile sees Atlantic-Canadian writers engaged in guerilla warfare, unacknowledged by Central Canadian readers and critics, against the reductive images that are being imposed on them. One of the factors complicating this, or any other analysis of Atlantic-Canadian literature, which Wyile alludes to in passing but never completely confronts, is that, like many other Atlantic Canadians in search of brighter prospects, the majority of the writers who have been most successful no longer live in their home provinces. Of the eight writers listed in the previous paragraph, only Moore and Crummey still live in Atlantic Canada, with Winter being a part-time resident; the others reside in southern Ontario or Alberta. Atlantic Canada belongs to their past, just as rural or regional life is an experience that many of us regard as belonging to a past existence, either that of our childhoods, or those of the lives of our parents or grandparents; it is not surprising, therefore, that the writing is often elegiac, or even nostalgic.

Wyile, who wants Atlantic-Canadian writing to be the opposite of this, addresses the exodus of manual labourers from the region, but not that of intellectuals; he chooses his texts cannily to support his argument that Atlantic-Canadian literature is the antagonist of globalization. His touchstones are Lynn Coady’s Strange Heaven, Leo McKay Jr.’s Twenty-Six, Lisa Moore’s February, Kenneth J. Harvey’s The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, George Elliott Clarke’s Execution Poems and Whylah Falls, and Alistair MacLeod’s short story “The Closing Down of Summer.” He has a particular fondness for books about disasters in the resource-extraction sector. Wyile’s analysis raises serious questions not only about his choice of a canon, but also about precisely what it is that academic literary criticism is trying to do these days. As is the convention in such studies, Wyile supports his analysis with a battery of literary and social theory. Ian McKay’s paradigm of the Folk becomes the straw man that each book must puncture to prove its worth; the puncturing is abetted by a covey of anti-globalization theorists.

A highly professional literary critic, Wyile uses meticulous documentation; his arguments are developed and supported with care. Yet, as in much contemporary academic criticism, an underlying assumption persists that the books studied are works of value because they confirm the critic’s political predisposition. A discussion of Lisa Moore’s February, which fictionalizes the 1982 collapse of the offshore drilling rig Ocean Ranger, concludes with these words: “What Moore effectively highlights here is a crucial aspect of neoliberalism: its strategic concealment of the redistribution of risk.” In a similar vein, Leo McKay’s Twenty-Six, which dramatizes the Westray mining disaster of 1992, is applauded for illuminating “the more insidious accomplishments of neo-liberal ideology.”

One consequence of this approach is that the books selected are rarely those of the greatest artistic distinction. In purely literary terms, it is impossible to justify Moore’s lacklustre novel as an object of study; the short stories in her collection Open are notably stronger. Similarly, Twenty-Six, however much its heart may be in the right place in denouncing the murderous outcome of corporate greed, is a piece of naturalism so crude that it contains two different scenes in which women hit their husbands over the head with frying pans. The suspicion that academic criticism praises books on the basis of their social relevance, rather than their literary achievement, is accentuated by the photographs scattered through this book. Most of these black and white stills illustrate key moments in the tightening of the neoliberal vice on Atlantic Canada: John Crosbie leaves a press conference in 1992 after announcing the cod moratorium; debris covers the yard of the Westray Mine after the explosion; there is a photograph of the Ocean Ranger, and another of two Halifax city officials strolling through the black neighbourhood of Africville prior to having it bulldozed. Anne of Tim Hortons is an illustrated history of the onset of the neoliberal order in Atlantic Canada, supported by convenient literary texts. Often this approach feels unfair to individual authors. Lynn Coady’s evocative Strange Heaven is examined in such detail that by the end the reader has the impression that every page of the novel has been quoted. Yet the Coady of Saints of Big Harbour or Mean Boy, who is a more mature writer, is not mentioned, much less cited. Is it because Coady’s later work is more complex that she ceases to be of interest to Wyile?

This is not an argument for ivory-tower seclusion in art-for-art’s-sake. But literature that engages successfully with moments of historical change absorbs the history into the marrow of the fiction, breeding artistic innovation. Wyile, in most cases, prefers books that transmit history with the literal-mindedness of a photograph. In this context, the most pleasant surprise in Anne of Tim Hortons is the exclusion of any extended discussion of the work of David Adams Richards, who paved the road to Toronto publication (and, in many cases, Toronto residence) for the Atlantic-Canadian writers who followed him. Wyile regards Richards as the éminence grise presiding over the writers whose work he discusses. He makes an angry, and fundamentally mistaken, case that Richards gets bad reviews because his novels refuse to conform to Central-Canadian stereotypes of “heart–rending nostalgia for the old world”; what Toronto reviewers cannot swallow, in Wyile’s view, is that Richards implicates his characters in “the structures of continental and even global capitalism.” This is nonsense. In fact, one of the weaknesses that reviewers point out consistently is that Richards’s work of the last 30 years lacks the rage of his early fiction; in addition to being stylistically and technically clumsy, the later fiction traffics in precisely the saccharine vision of the Folk that Wyile claims to abhor.

The greatest missed opportunity in this book is Wyile’s failure to address the impact of globalization on aesthetics. If globalization is the all–consuming gorgon that it appears to be, should we not be seeking its traces in the artistic forms adopted by writers? Isn’t it simply another version of the Folk myth to assert, as Wyile does, that plucky Atlantic scribes are holding the beast at bay? It is extremely telling that the words “Burning Rock” do not appear in Wyile’s book. The Burning Rock group, which unites younger Newfoundland writers, such as Moore, Winter, Crummey, Ramona Dearing and Jessica Grant, has become a successful label for marketing Newfoundland fiction in Central Canada, helping Grant, for example, to ride in on the coattails of Moore and Winter. But, typical of the dynamics of globalization, Burning Rock is no Bloomsbury; it does not seem to reflect a shared aesthetic code. Rather, Burning Rock is a commercial simulacrum of avant-garde movements of the past, which were united by an aesthetic quest. By replacing a preoccupation with aesthetics with a public relations gambit, the Burning Rock group incarnates the texture of a literary culture penetrated by globalization.

Another important example of a globalizing phenomenon bypassed by Wyile’s rigid thematic approach is the extent to which, in an environment regulated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, Newfoundland literature owes its popularity to attention from the United States in ways that also influence aesthetics. An international market for Newfoundland fiction exists because an American bestseller, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, brought the Rock to the attention of a global reading public. A blurb from Proulx was instrumental to the international marketing of Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. This debt to American attention insinuates itself into subsequent Newfoundland fiction, in which many of the most prominent novels include an anxious nod in the direction of the United States of America. Michael Winter replicates Proulx’s American-in-Newfoundland formula in The Big Why. For a certain type of ambitious Newfoundland novel, a sidetrip to the U.S. has become an almost statutory plot device, appearing in books such as Johnston’s The Navigator of New York and Moore’s Alligator. This infiltration of neoliberalism into the structures and aesthetics of Atlantic-Canadian fiction is more furtive than the Westrays and Ocean Rangers that Wyile’s chosen texts take on as thematic fodder, but it also represents an even more deep-seated globalizing influence on the region’s art.

Wyile is meticulous in building into his definition of Atlantic Canada respect for the different historical trajectories of Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces. Yet, he contends, similarities of demographics, geography and economics allow the four provinces to be treated as a region. He even finds similarities amid the discrepancy between the early adherence of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to Canada, and the much later entry of Newfoundland, characterizing the four provinces as sharing “a wary, divided entry into Confederation.” Unfortunately, Wyile does not define clearly who gets to be an Atlantic-Canadian writer. This leaves his personal canon subject to claims of arbitrariness or ideological expediency. Lynn Coady, who has lived in Western and Central Canada for more than a decade, is in; Jean McNeil, a Nova Scotian of the same generation as Coady, who has lived in London and Latin America during those years, is out. Alistair MacLeod, who was born and spent his childhood in Saskatchewan and has lived in Windsor, Ontario, for more than 45 years, is in; Elisabeth Harvor, a New Brunswick–born writer of the same generation who lived in the region for longer than MacLeod before leaving for Quebec and Ontario, is out. Wyile includes a chapter on the Newfoundland historical novel, yet, since he avoids the issue of the emigration of intellectuals from the region, he does not stop to consider whether this greater immersion in history might stem from the fact that, while most of the Maritime writers at the centre of his study live in Central Canada, nearly all of the Newfoundlanders still inhabit the Rock. “It is curious,” he writes, “that there has not been a profusion of historical fiction in the Maritimes equivalent to that in Newfoundland and Labrador over the last few decades.”

A number of commentators, myself included, have complained that contemporary Canadian fiction contains too many historical novels, to the point where the present is ignored. In this study, the chapter on historical fiction comes as a relief. Freed from anti-globalization activism, Wyile can return to the practice of literary criticism. His protracted analysis of Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is the best piece of writing in the book. Wyile is good on the historical background, and adept at pinpointing telling passages, particularly those pertaining to the relationship between Joey Smallwood and the fictitious Sheila Fielding. Following an essay by Alexander MacLeod, he charts the rift between Johnston’s postmodern approach to history and his naturalistic approach to geography. His discussion of Michael Crummey’s River Thieves is equally stimulating. In his conclusion, Wyile comes close to apologizing for this chapter. Yet, while the rest of the book makes one wonder whether he sees any value in literature apart from its potential for denouncing globalization’s erosion of local dignity, Wyile’s analysis of these Newfoundland historical novels is a reminder that, without relinquishing its engagement with the world, criticism works best when it illuminates the experiences of reading and writing.