CanLit = Crap

I am scornful of this notion of “Can Lit”, a national literature that embodies Canada by reflecting its many cultures and locales, its history and unique character. I recall the comments of a visiting Irish film-maker who opined that Canada was the only country he could think of that puts a “points system” on its arts. You can bet that didn’t go over well with the gate-keepers and poobahs of Canadian culture.

That dingbat editor (now senior editor, God help us) who told me “it’s too bad you’re not an East Indian writer” also said, in relation to the same manuscript, “it seemed awfully American to me”, without ever clearly articulating what she meant. I suppose she took issue with the fact that I didn’t use Canadian place names or employ characters with obvious ethnic backgrounds (academia and the arts are the last stubborn bastions of the discredited ideologies of affirmative action and political correctness). My manuscript was too encumbered by, y’know, an actual story, a plot that moved along at a good clip. It went against the tradition of Canadian writing where nothing ever happens, whole forests denuded for narratives where passive verbs and even more passive characters are the norm, people moving about in a fuddled daze, not doing anything or saying anything of interest, two hundred and fifty pages of navel-gazing. Sounds like great beach reading, eh?

I recently finished Julian Symonds’ The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life & Works of Edgar Allan Poe and was delighted to learn that Poe thought the notion of a national literature to be complete humbug too. Keep in mind these words were written 150 years ago (and feel free to substitute “Canadian” for “American” in the last line):

“We get up a hue and cry about the necessity of encouraging native writers of merit–we blindly fancy we can accomplish this by indiscriminate puffing of good, bad and indifferent, without taking the trouble to consider that what we choose to denominate encouragement is thus, by its general application, rendered precisely the reverse. In a word, so far from being ashamed of the many disgraceful literary failures to which our own inordinate vanities and misapplied patriotism have lately given birth, and so far from deeply lamenting that these daily puerilities are of home manufacture, we adhere pertinaciously to our original blindly conceived idea, and thus often find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.”

Amen, Edgar….


  1. (S)wine

    it’s all bool-shite. agreed. speaking of Poe; I am looking to organize a small raiding party in order to snag that bottle of cognac anonymously left on his grave every year on his birthday. want to join? i figure…he can no longer make use of it.

  2. Emily

    Honestly, I think the idea of borders does make sense in literature, even though the movement in the academy is away from it. Yet, there needs to be a fluidity to the borders — we need to understand that strict country lines and strict genre lines make no sense in a world with so few other boundaries.

  3. jamesviscosi

    I actually had decent luck peddling stories to Canadian magazines (although I never cracked the Northern Lights anthology, which is what I was aiming for). Maybe they had to meet their quota of Americans.

    On the Poe cognac raid … why do I suddenly have an idea for a horror story?

  4. (S)wine

    James, if that ever makes it out of your head and into some shee-shee froo-froo journal of lit, I respectfully request a teeny little mention. You know, something along the lines of: “…and thanks to my very close, boyhood friend (S)wine for providing the venerable inspiration for this story; without his stylistic influence and literary advice, I’d now be packing lighting fixtures into very narrow, cardboard boxes in some assembly line in Malaysia.”

    That’s all I request. Oh yea, and include my link.

  5. pandemonic

    Pretty humorous take on it. Since I live on the border, I’m always amused by Canadians. Perhaps that’s not the intent, but I am. For example, most people here don’t realize that Canadian radio has to have a certain percentage of Canadian artists. This even goes for the rock stations. I wasn’t aware that this keeping of the pristine borders extended to literature as well. I’ve heard of certain states wanting to keep their authors corralled, but not an entire country, especially one that is just as vast and different as the US.

  6. saintchristopher

    It upsets me that Canada apparently has such an indignant sense of nationalism. Shouldn’t art stand for art’s sake? I mean, is it a serious issue among the public at large whether their literature, et al. is “Canadian” enough? It kills me to think how many great stories are going unpublished because of this insecure policy.

  7. rojse

    Doesn’t the encouragement of “Canadian-relevant literature” (or literature directed at any one country or ethnicity, for that matter) help encourage stereotypes for that country or ethnicity?

    Instead of books showing that, for example, Canadians are intelligent, open-minded, well-read and open to new concepts and ideas, we would instead be shown that Canadians are all poor immigrants with emotional problems and cannot integrate with the wider community, are closed-minded, intolerant, and so forth. Is this the image that Canada really wants to show?

    Quite apart from all of this, doesn’t this also prove that the Canadian government will go to great efforts to show that Canadians cannot write books that neither entertaining nor relevant to anyone else except their own country?

    Just my two cents.

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