A Sociology of CanLit

Readers, writers, and the future of our literature

 

I. THEN

When you look through a peephole into the past, you hope for a clear view, but more often than not what you get is a kaleidoscopic vision. Little pieces, multifaceted and multicolored, that fit together to make a knowable pattern…

—Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Six Encounters with Lincoln

 

We can find one such small kaleidoscopic bead when we consider the career of Alicia Cornbury. Her precocity in Cascadia University’s creative writing program generated the early appearance of her poetry chapbook Gatherings in 1948. A subsequent garnering of a Canada Council grant in 1950, then her first novel, Deadly Nightshade, a finalist in the City of Vancouver literary competition, and a contender for Amazon.ca’s First Novel Award marked her as a comer. She won the Vancouver competition two years later with her second novel, Murderers’ Row (whose publication was subsidized by federal and provincial arts councils), demonstrating her artistic maturity. The novel made the short list for the Giller Prize. She began a writer-in-residence tenure at Atlantis University, the first of many such stints. Her capture of the Governor General’s fiction award in 1955 saw her appointment as creative writing chair at Cascadia, and her acquisition of the Giller Prize for Fog and Filthy Air accompanied her initial appearance as moderator of the CBC’s Books Alive program, an association that continued for six years. The popularity of the Netflix adaptation of Fog cemented her international reputation. Awarded the Order of Canada in 1969, she continues to serve on the juries of many award programs, while her leading position in the Canadian Writers’ Union has established her as a spokesperson for the literary community.

You have already guessed that Alicia Cornbury is one of my imaginary friends, a total invention, with a (very) few facts sprinkled over it. More importantly for my argument, the individual and institutional support, awards and appointments that she gathered (with the exception of the GG) are anachronistic. That is, they did not exist during the time frame I adopted. The kaleidoscope got shaken, and those props to literary success exist now. Those changes, the appearance of that apparat, have greatly changed the fact of writing in this country.

The origins and effects of that institutionalizing of the act of imaginative writing make up the story that Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit has to tell, and an engrossing story he makes of it. (Disclosure: I taught in the same department—English at the University of Toronto—as Nick Mount, from 1964 to 1999, and our careers slightly overlapped.) As Mount states, he is an academic who has not written an academic book here; its accessibility and informality of the style will garner it a wide readership.

The writer’s approach to his subject matter seems Arrival’s greatest strength. Consider: he could have concentrated on an exposition and critique of the fiction, poetry, and drama of 1959 to 1976, in the manner of a standard critical survey. No one would have quarrelled with that sort of study; it would have filled a need. But it is Mount’s attention to the growth of an institutional infrastructure, to what we might call the sociology of literature, that gives this study its value and distinctiveness.

What we can now see as the institutionalization—largely with public funding—of a supportive cultural infrastructure has resulted in three momentous consequences for CanLit: a renewed public, a socio-political prominence, and an abiding presence in the nation’s cultural politics. This seems an important story.

Arrival’s method of treating these issues is deceptive, and therein lies its strength as a read. Rather than a theoretical approach, Mount adopts a narrative one. For example, consider what strikes me as a typical chapter, “The Double Hook” (naming the chapters after prominent works issued during the period adds a piquant touch to the study).

The chapter begins with some biographical/career anecdotage about the late Gwendolyn MacEwen, but soon segues gracefully though an account of the size of the audience at a 1972 reading of hers, into the difficulty of ascertaining quantifiable accounts of a writer’s audience. What seems almost an aside then tells us one of the major causes of the arrival that the book treats: the growth in boomer secondary and post-secondary school attendance that generated a new and thirsty audience for literary engagements with the world around that audience. The chapter then continues with its survey of serious bookstores and the economics of publishing, followed by some gossipy (by “gossip,” I mean lived experience that has not yet jelled into history) accounts of various book emporia, the role played by little (often mimeographed) magazines in the diffusion of Canadian poetry, and a concluding anecdote or two about the colourful career of Milton Acorn. Such is the format of the first 16 of 18 chapters, and through their accounts of individual events you learn of the arrival and impact of the institutional underpinnings of the present-day literary scene. (The final two deal with the careers of Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro, among others, and prove less interesting than the earlier, institutionally-oriented ones.) The reader learns about the way in which cultural agencies and their agendas impact writers’ careers and aspirations, but in the manner of the biographer and chronicler rather than the objectifying analyst.

Perhaps instead you are looking for a paradigmatic academic account, something more analytical, even theoretical, of the matters covered here. My guess is that a general reader will likely avoid an academic output featuring such treatments as “ ‘Am I not OK?’: Negotiating and Re-Defining Traumatic Experience in Emma Donoghue’s Room,” or “ ‘Liv[ing] Poetically upon the Earth’ 1: The Bioregional Child and Conservation in Monique Proulx’s Wildlives.” In fact, that same reader probably picked up Arrival because increasingly academic critical discourse about literature seems jammed with passages that, to paraphrase Huck Finn, are interesting, but tough. A reader charmed by Margaret Atwood’s recently published lecture “The Burgess Shale: The Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s,” and how clearly it illuminates the early career of so prominent a writer, may also want to find out more about the scene Atwood captures. Arrival is a book for that reader.

The story Arrival has to tell provides a blend of institutional and career histories offering a vivid sense of the times. Arrival gathers material not merely from Toronto, but from the other centres of Canadian writing at the time, Vancouver and Montreal. I was around then, as a book reviewer (that is to say, I appeared in the triumphal march from Aida, behind the elephants, and carrying a shovel and can). It was a time not merely of change (what time isn’t?) but of a twitchy self-awareness of change. Heady, even.

Thus a reader acquires a basic appreciation of the onset of cultural change and innovation, not so much driven by starving artists, but by public institutions responding to artistic production through creating agencies fostering that production. The strength of that public response in turn generated further artistic efforts which in turn…And so the synergy goes.

The Massey Report, the rise of the Canada Council, the establishment of provincial arts bodies and the funding of regional theatres and companies, the role of the CBC/Radio-Canada, the subsidization of publishing, the appearance of literary journals and anthologies and collections, and much else are recounted here in passing. Yes, versions of these bodies and forces existed earlier, but sheer quantity of endeavour during this period changed the conditions of production, in the same way that a sufficient quantity of cold molecules turns water into ice.

Let me try to fill in those earlier abstractions of mine: a renewed public for Canadian literature, a social prominence for it, and an abiding presence in the nation’s cultural politics. By “renewed public” I mean not just the appearance of CanLit in school and post-secondary curricula, but CanLit’s acquisition of a new audience activated by advertisements, reviews, and publicity about writers. Book ads—subsidized by public finding—appear on the subway I ride daily. Sure, I recognize that some version of all this existed long before 1959, the earliest date in Arrival’s story. People did read Canadian books, textbooks and school readers included Canadian material, anthologies fostered a self-consciousness bordering on self-righteousness, nationalist manifestoes appeared, but they did so within a vacuum. The writer longing to join the choir invisible of national writers had to have as her final goal success in the Anglo-American literary market. It was virtually the only way of earning a living from writing. A few, a very few did so: Sir Gilbert Parker, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Mazo de la Roche among them. Poets on the order of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman could scratch out a living as men of letters, but the odd successful work followed by a blankness was too often the arc of a career.

Broadcasting, creative writing posts, public readings and appearances, writer-in-residencies, prizes: none of these activities today sustain living large, but they do provide a sense that one’s work is supported and thrust in some way upon an audience that in the past would have encountered such notices only fitfully.

“Social prominence”: by this I don’t mean an appearance in a “society” photo op (though that happens, too), but by the fact that a writer’s doings get noticed. An appearance in a neighbourhood public library seems no big deal. People show up, they ask questions, and they pass along to their friends an account of that encounter. Does this ensure everlasting fame? Make one a household word? No. But a relevant public persona where the writer doesn’t seem an animated reconstruction from Jurassic Park? Yes!

Writers’ visible presence in our national cultural discourse seems obvious these days. A controversy over the matter of “appropriation,” a writer’s imaginative adoption of another ethnicity’s experience, occupies space in national dailies. So has, in the past year, the scandal of the firing of a creative writing professor. Forces involving celebrity and institutional dysfunction inflate those subjects beyond their purely literary boundaries, but the creation of a literary infrastructure gives those matters a heft beyond their origins. The very notion of writing in this country now exerts a presence, a framework in which cultural apparatchiks (a by-product of such institutionalization) make their presence felt. Thus, the tensions roiling such intentional communities and their discourse (augmented by the steroids of social media) create another subject competing for media attention. Wherever you stand on these issues, an audience has been created for them and an outside public engaged (to the point of editorial cartoons on the subject) on matters that in an earlier time would have occupied only a few immediate participants. Cultural politics, especially literary ones, now make themselves felt in the news, and not always to the comfort of all the participants.

Hats off to Arrival for its engaging coverage of a pivotal period in Canadian letters. Still, one prominent aspect of it bothers me: the 106 “sidebars” that dot its pages. Each sidebar offers an encapsulated 100-word or so comment on a single text, preceded by a five-star rating system. Do we really need a check-it-or-wreck-it, yea-it-or-nay-it set of ratings, as if the author were some kind of literary deejay?

Sometimes I agree with Mount’s ratings, sometimes not. No matter. It is the practice itself that mars the book. According to Mount’s preface, “several people” to whom he spoke asked that his book include evaluations of the writing of the time. So he took this step “no doubt foolishly,” and in the hope that his audience would register its disagreements “in the margin” of the book. That is scarcely an author’s ringing endorsement of his methodology. It sounds like the classic “this hurts me more than it does you” kind of justification. Whoever called the shots on this feature of the book called them wrong. In a book bound to appear—legitimately or in a plagiarized form—in many a student essay, the ratings need to include the notice, “Do not try this in class.”

II. NOW

Let’s imagine a reader interested in the political downfall of John Diefenbaker, our PM from 1957–63. She reads two books on the subject. The first, Peter C. Newman’s Renegade in Power (1963), leaves her impressed by its engaging style, its dramatically unfolding narrative and its evocation of an era. The second, George Grant’s Lament for a Nation (1965) leaves her gasping. Like or dislike, who cares? You have to engage with Grant’s argument that outlines a perspective on events that no other book is providing.

Alex Good’s Revolutions. Essays on the Contemporary Canadian Novel is bookended by two essays setting the whole business of writing within the framework of the digital revolution, a perspective that now engages any Canadian reader, writer, or publisher. What if the revolution which Good’s essays treat forces us to shift our placement of Arrival away from its sense of a beginning, and to read it instead in twilight rather than at dawn?

The fundamental challenge facing literature in the twenty-first century is its need to find—somehow, somewhere—an audience.

How’s that for an opening? Good’s introduction to his collection cites a number of authorities claiming that the audience for what we might call serious, literary fiction has shrunk and will continue to do so with no end in sight. His final essay considers the negative fallout from the Internet, noting how the decreasing price (and quality) of fiction generated especially for that online medium threatens to sideline serious fiction’s continued production. I am not prepared to dispute this, nor can I offer any antidote to this image of literary devaluation. As a consumer of printed fictional narrative running from Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand (1938) to Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (2017), I can say that I understand what it was like in Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe when you wheeled a barrowful of near-worthless currency to the bakery in the afternoon for a loaf that cost you a shovelful that morning. The situation is moving faster than we can grasp, and Good is trying to make us see that.

The soundness of this cultural anxiety emerges when we consider what Good calls the habit of aliteracy. It’s widespread, and cannot be dismissed. People I know, people I love, bright and engaged people, no longer derive their imaginative nourishment from printed fiction. I have to admit that some of my endless appetite for imaginary narrative is now partially sated by episodic TV series. For better or worse, my imaginary BFFs now include Walt White (Breaking Bad) and Officer Bunk Moreland (The Wire), even though they have to share their space with Enobarbus, Quentin Compson, Holden Caulfield and Del Jordan. I doubt that many folks much younger than I, even confirmed readers, import their dream pals from books any longer.

The fact of aliteracy and the realization of its effects goes beyond the cultural despair invoked in Alexander Pope’s mock epic Dunciad (1743). That lengthy, savage screech that I never tire of hearing, merely reflects the downfall of a certain way of producing literature (aristocratic patronage) and the rise of another mode, that of a mercantile marketplace with a far larger (and less cultivated, perhaps) supportive audience. Aliteracy compels the recognition that imaginative narrative is increasingly divorced from print itself. No, serious fiction won’t just vanish off the shelves one day. We’ve set our cultural oven’s thermostat well below Fahrenheit 451. Yet over time, things change, and certain pre-revolutionary possibilities shrink and disappear. “No, but I saw the movie,” morphs into “You mean there was a book about this?”

Now, I recognize that my readers know this, and are probably replying with a “Well…duh.” Editorial and publication happenstance colluded when Arrival and Revolutions came at me. When I took my seat, the houselights were dimming for Mozart. When they came on again, I was listening to Wagner, and Valhalla was all lit up in a fiery fall. Does this mean that the process covered in Arrival seems like converting a raft into the Titanic just in time for it to meet the iceberg?

This ironic perspective is reinforced by the essays lying between the first and the final ones in Revolutions. For these deal largely with the strains of the institutional culture as we now know it: the inconsistencies of jury verdicts, the hyping of prizes rather than the books themselves, the lapses in judgement of the jurors, all concluding in the familiar spectacle of yesterday’s prize-winning sensation thumping down in stacks upon the remainder table. Reputations Good considers overrated (Douglas Coupland, David Adams Richards) and writers past their sell-by date (Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje) attract the author’s attention. He is lethal in his accounts of literary garlandings and gatherings like the Giller bash and the fiction it canonizes. The fact remains, however, that his critical judgement in those pieces seems often to be controlled by a search-and-destroy guidance system, which is why I prefer to remain with those opening and closing sections. Their strategic placement suggests that the author and publisher likely concurred in this judgement, and those beginning and end pieces give the collection its flair.

III. THEN AND NOW

I assume that poets will continue at their trade for the foreseeable future. Poets are used to scratching a living from elsewhere than their art. They meet in conclaves and talk about their craft and sullen art. They manifest, they read aloud, they publish mostly in (very) little magazines and keep in close touch with each other and each other’s work. The fate of fiction and its producers is another matter.

If fewer readers are reading fewer works of serious fiction, does that foretell a speedy end to the whole enterprise? Think: for how many decades now have we been hearing that the symphony is dead, that opera is dead, that the frantic searching and drooling over that fabled demographic just isn’t paying off. Yet there they are, symphony and opera. The same as they were five decades ago, but there they still are. So Stratford puts more bums in seats for resurrected classic musical comedies than for Shakespeare: has Shakespeare vanished? Were you in a public park last summer?

The implications of audience shrinkage and competitive media platforms understandably bother Alex Good. He seems especially irked that our fiction writers continue to make use of historical subjects and settings, and that this limits the appeal of their work. Really? Historical fiction has always been about the present-as-reflected-in-the-past, about the search for origins as a way of predicting the future. The past that Faulkner understood was never even past offers merely another kaleidoscopic shift in the fictional gaze, and that gaze continues to interest audiences.

Good casts a cold eye on the revellers at CanLit’s prize-giving ceremonies. Perhaps they are rollicking like the presumed dancers in Ravel’s La Valse, and closing their ears to the increasing dissonance of the tune. Time will tell whether that period celebrated by Arrival was a reveille or a last post. Juxtaposing that study with Revolutions makes for a more disturbing and for me interesting read than keeping the two at a distance.