THIS IS MY COUNTRY, WHAT’S YOURS?: A LITERARY ATLAS OF CANADA
By Noah Richler
Several decades ago a group of CanLit critics began appealing for an evaluative criticism of our national literature. What they meant by this was a stricter examination of how certain texts worked, an emphasis on the craft of writing and “the words on the page.” What they were reacting against was the tradition of thematic criticism typified by works like Northrop Frye’s The Bush Garden and Margaret Atwood’s Survival, books that stood back to look at larger patterns of symbol and myth in our literary landscape. For the thematic critics, evaluation was typically thought of as a second-rate form of critical activity best left for reviewers.
I had thought this debate long over, a tale of far-off things and battles long ago. But with the publication of Noah Richler’s This is My Country, What’s Yours? it’s clear that non-evaluative, thematic/mythic criticism is back in this country, and back in a very big way. You can tell how big from all of the capital letters Richler uses: the three stages in the development of Canada as Nowhere (Nowhere as Off the Map, Nowhere in Particular, and Nowhere as an Address with Virtues), overlapping with the three stages in the development of Canadian storytelling (the Age of Invention, the Age of Mapping, and the Age of Argument), supplemented with discussions of the Myth of the Company Town and the Myths of Disappointment.
This is system building with a vengeance, and it undercuts Richler’s method. As a thematic critic Richler isn’t bad – the Myths of Disappointment are particularly well presented – but such an approach sits awkwardly with the kind of book this is. This is My Country, What’s Yours? is essentially a field study, a collection of conversations Richler has had with contemporary Canadian authors (primarily novelists) over the last few years. But his literary travelogue is not a voyage of discovery since “the author” (as he designates himself) already has a fixed idea of how everything is supposed to fit together. Occasionally the talent suspects an agenda: “Well, this is where you are going, right?” Lee Henderson interrupts during one interview. And in the case of Wayne Johnston there is even a moment of open rebellion. “I have no interest at all in where my books fit into a way of interpreting Canada,” is Johnston’s response to our author’s attempt at including him in his “greater literary endeavour.” But for the most part everyone plays along.
And why not? Most of the conversations have an air-brushed feel to them, and the stage directions are positively gooey. Robert Bringhurst speaks “in a low, steady baritone, his voice rumbling and full of untried strength.” Guy Vanderhaeghe addresses us “quietly, in that soft-spoken but resolute, mesmerizing prairie manner that dictates its own pace and attention from those who listen.” Michael Turner “handles conversation with deft syncopation, keeping you on edge as he lures you on in the beckoning off beat.”
Richler’s mission is to draw forth from these voices, in interviews that are both rigidly programmatic and embarrassingly obsequious, the most bloated, oracular statements possible on the writer’s art. And in this he largely succeeds, often with hilarious results. But, as befits thematic criticism, there is absolutely no attempt made to discuss any formal aspect of the various authors’ work. Long quotations are simply dropped into the text without comment, their mere presence a substitute for analysis. One detects a certain indifference to the evaluative critic’s “words on the page.” What’s really important is the myth each text represents, or the way it fits into one of Richler’s historical schemes.
Northrop Frye could be accused of doing the same thing, but at least he did it in fewer words. There is nothing about Richler’s conclusion – that writers may gain an advantage out of being grounded in a particular location – that is not contained in Frye’s statement that there is “something vegetable about the creative imagination, something that needs roots and a limited environment.” Of course Frye is quickly dismissed in the early going here as someone for whom Canada was “most definitely” off the map. An ungrateful judgment from someone who could have learned from earlier critical cartography.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2006.