When Words Deny the World

By Stephen Henighan

Several months ago there was a story that ran in the New York Times complaining about Canada’s “provincial” literature. In my response (see here) I noted how the Times was rejecting a rich literary tradition of regionalism that had been adopted with some success by Canadian (not to mention American) authors, including such prominent names as Alice Munro and David Adams Richards. But regionalism, the idea that the local and individual can represent the universal, was obviously considered by the arbiters of taste in New York and Toronto to be passé. In its place they advocated a more “cosmopolitan” and generic urban literature.

In defiance of this free-trade bred conformity, novelist and critic Stephen Henighan’s commitment to the regionalist creed is absolute. “Without a commitment to local detail,” he declares, “there can be no artistic innovation.” It is only novels that are “sufficiently committed to local detail” that may “achieve universal resonance.”

The essence of Henighan’s argument in the essays collected here is that Canadian literature has abandoned the contemporary local scene in favour of a new, “globalized” fiction. And since, as the neo-Philistine American commentator Thomas Friedman has it, “globalization is us,” this means an even greater cultural dependence on the empire to our south. Such dependence accentuates “tendencies already ingrained in Canadian culture: a propensity for self-abasement, an insufficiently creative and critical approach to foreign models, a craving for the approval of powerful friends, a latent desire to dispense with the awkwardness of being Canadian and meld into some larger, simpler entity.” In pursuit of assimilation our writing denies local detail (the “world”) in order to write no-name NAFTA novels that won’t offend American readers by being “too Canadian.” Meanwhile, lording it over our spineless publishing world is the capital of the Canadian culture industry: a “booming publishing centre devoid of literary energy or artistic innovation, a place that dominates the country not by virtue of its dynamism but because of its passive insertion into a transnational assembly line.”

Of course, Henighan is talking about Toronto.

There is something to this. A blandness unseen since the Age of Gentility does dominate our literary high ground. But anxiety over American cultural hegemony and the commercialization of the arts today is not confined to Canada. One has only to think of the recent controversy over the announcement that the Booker Prize will be opening to American authors. How, wondered one Booker judge, will provincial Commonwealth authors be able to compete with the broader American canvas? America is now the antithesis of the regional microcosm. As the critic James Wood pointed out, it is because America is an imperium that what goes on within it has universal significance: “It is a world in itself, and turns smaller worlds into mere moons.” In other words, the rest of the world has been turned into a cultural colony. Which brings us to the NAFTA-novel phenomenon.

There are few things I appreciate more than a good rant. But while Henighan certainly has a case to make, he sometimes seems to be more preoccupied with the surface than the substance of today’s literature. The success (even when that word has to be carefully defined, given the machinations Henighan describes going on “Behind the Best-Seller List”) of bad fiction, or of high advances and/or media attention given to unworthy authors, is just a sideshow. And when you get down to it, Henighan’s complaints about authors who worship Mammon are also a little broad. That what is “commercially correct is often at odds with what is artistically desirable” is hardly a radical conclusion, nor one specific to our home and native land. And to say that this disjunction is “the key impediment to the growth of a significant novelistic tradition in Canada today” is bosh. Again, the arts are everywhere in the same boat. To borrow from Freud, most writers, like most other artists, simply want to be rich, famous, and enjoy beautiful lovers. But this has never stopped them from creating sincere and meaningful art.

There is no point getting upset about the lottery that is the market. The John Grishams and Tom Clancys of this world will always be with us. What is disturbing, and what Henighan effectively relates, is the fact that so many of Canada’s supposedly “literary” authors have turned away from the task of describing the world in order to cultivate a high-brow Never-never land of historical romance and sentimental tales of Holocaust survivors.

When Words Deny the World is obviously a polemical tract, and should be enjoyed as such. I got a kick out of many of Henighan’s observations, and his close readings of works such as The English Patient, Fugitive Pieces, and The Stone Diaries. Even the deliberately goading hyperbole is challenging and provocative. “No one can remember the Canada of the 1990s” – because no one has expressed the reality of Canada in the 1990s in fiction – is a great line. But the fact is everything tells us something about how we live now, even our science fiction and fantasy novels. How could it not? Our escapist literary products are themselves testimony to the current degradation of intellect and taste, if nothing else.

Though a little given to patting himself on the back, Henighan is always an engaging writer. His slaughtering of CanLit sacred cows (a specialty of his publisher, the Porcupine’s Quill) proceeds with gusto. To be blunt, his crusade is fuelled by envy. “I cannot pretend to detachment in this matter,” he says at one point, in what may be taken as an understatement. Envy and resentment drip from the page as he describes “Larry,” an American writer of pure tripe who lives a jet-set lifestyle financed by his whopping advances, and the “Book Boys,” four “young, male, white, media-friendly Toronto writers” profiled by the Globe and Mail.

Well, who wouldn’t be envious of the Book Boys?

Anyone who cares deeply about literature should be disgusted by the vulgar circus of excess, vanity, corporate conformity and manufactured consent that BookWorld has become. But literature has been relegated to the margins of today’s popular culture. Unfortunately, there are few people left who are very concerned about the issues Henighan is talking about. In some of the notes appended to his previously published essays he complains about the lack of a response to the gauntlets he has been throwing down for the last several years. Where was the public debate following his salvoes on the “appropriation of voice” debate, or his revelation that the Giller Prize charges an entry fee? Where was the outrage?

Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Henighan is an eloquent and passionate spokesman for why we should care about these things.

Review first published online June 17, 2002. I have no idea who any of the “Book Boys” were.

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