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.”