Canadian Literature in English

By W. J. Keith

To make use of a pair of words W. J. Keith is suspicious of, Canadian Literature in English, which has just been released in a revised and expanded two-volume edition, is both canon and myth. Canon because it is a principled selection and discussion of key works Keith sees as establishing a national tradition, and myth because it provides a survey of the history and development of Canadian literature that has a particular shape.

The shape is the familiar one of rise and fall. As Keith puts it in his 1985 preface, “the pattern of Canadian literary development consists of a long slow growth followed by a sudden creative burgeoning.” We can immediately recognize the now well-established myth of a “greatest generation” of Canadian writers that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a Golden Age that produced such works as Beautiful Losers (1966), Civil Elegies and Other Poems (1972), The Studhorse Man (1969), Fifth Business (1970), The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), The Bush Garden (1971), Survival and Surfacing (1972), The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), and The Diviners (1974).

It was a time when, as David Helwig observes in his recent memoir The Names of Things, there was not only “a growing excitement about Canadian writing all over the country” but “a growing market for Canadian books.”

Cultural nationalism was on a centenary-inspired roll throughout these years: Canadian small presses were sprouting like mushrooms (Coach House, Oberon, Anansi, the Porcupine’s Quill, ECW), the League of Canadian Poets was founded, the Canada Council’s block grant program for publishers was established and McClelland and Stewart’s New Canadian Library started up.

Then, the decline. Already in the late 1970s, critics were speaking of “the rise and fall of serious CanLit” (the title of an article by Matt Cohen.) John Metcalf, in 1982, looked back on “the last twelve years of Canada’s literary renaissance, growth, decline, and fall.”

Skeptical of such prognoses in 1985, Keith has now joined the ranks of the dismal mythographers and accepts that the “remarkable flowering that began to manifest itself in the middle of the twentieth century had run its course by the beginning of the new millennium.”

Such a myth, like all myths, has been created for a purpose. Primarily it is a construct useful for both academics (a common curriculum to teach, a guide for research), and publishers (the New Canadian Library began as a brilliant marketing gimmick). And it also gives the aforementioned shape to Keith’s history.

The influence of the myth can be read in the expansion and revision of his original 1985 text. Given that things were heading downhill anyway by the end of the first edition, surprisingly little has been done to bring the work forward. What has been added to the substantive history is a chapter titled “Twenty Years After” that provides an overview of recent developments in poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction over the last two decades . . . all in a mere 30 pages! Given Keith’s focus in this chapter on the subsequent careers of authors already introduced in the earlier edition (that is to say, some of the least interesting books written in this period), this makes for a very limited vision indeed of the contemporary expression of the Canadian literary tradition.

The selection process seeks to find a middle ground between the merely popular and the avant-garde. Thus Keith acknowledges making no reference to Robert Service or Lucy Maud Montgomery, or, to take the high road, Anne Carson or Christian Bök.

Instead, his ideal canon, to borrow from his praise of Robertson Davies, is one “that appeals to a genuinely humane and discriminating literary elite (in the traditional, not the `postmodern’ sense).” The books he includes are those that are a pleasure, for the right reader, to read. But his main problem in constructing such a tradition is the fact that, moving forward from the greatest generation, he seems to have been only sporadically engaged with the literary culture of the last 20 years.

For example, if one is going to include such admittedly bad popular writers of the past as Ralph Connor and Mazo de la Roche, why not Douglas Coupland, or such graphic novelists as Chester Brown and Dave Sims?

And is there really nothing at all to be said of such established contemporary literary figures as Barbara Gowdy, Richard Wright, Guy Vanderhaeghe and Wayne Johnston? Yes, this is a “highly selective” history that after 20 years has become “more selective than ever.” But David Adams Richards (another unmentioned name) is so clearly a part of precisely the kind of independent Canadian literary tradition being championed that one has to wonder if Keith is even familiar with his work.

The tradition Keith himself writes within, especially in his “Polemical Conclusion,” is the contrarian school of criticism identified with the Porcupine’s Quill and its former editor John Metcalf. Books published by the Porcupine’s Quill by notable CanLit bomb throwers Philip Marchand, Stephen Henighan, David Solway and Carmine Starnino are frequently quoted.

Keith shares many of their preoccupations and favourite bugbears, like the bankruptcy of thematic criticism, the arcane and mostly sinister workings of the Canadian establishment and the decline of literary “standards.” The latter has been hastened, Keith remarks (in 2005!), by the pernicious effect of such “anti-literary distractions” in the popular culture as “discothèques.” One can only groan and look away from the page at moments like these.

But as much fun as this vital critical movement or group always is, even to disagree with, Keith’s “Conclusion” doesn’t add a lot to their well-furrowed ground beyond his passionate and concerned analysis of the “massive contemporary trahison des clercs,” wherein academic scholars and critics “have betrayed their trust by abandoning their hallowed roles as guardians of cultural continuity.”

It’s a shame, though, to leave it at that. In the spirit of Olympian broadsides, one might suggest the following thoughts on what has changed in Keith’s neglected past two decades:

In the first place, while rejecting the myth of a greatest generation generally, it is clear now that such an arc of rise and fall did occur in one area: non-fiction. Simply put, there haven’t been any writers in the last 20 years who have come close to the achievements of Harold Innis, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, George Grant and (I would include, though Keith leaves him out) Pierre Berton. These were all writers who had an enormous cultural presence and impact, and not only in this country. One could at least argue that any single one of them had a greater influence on our understanding and imagining of Canada than any of our poets or novelists, alive or dead.

Who has taken their place? What has become of the Canadian public intellectual? One supposes the name of John Ralston Saul might make the list today, but even he is more of an inheritor. Looking about the present arid landscape makes us only more aware of what a falling off there’s been.

Perhaps related to this intellectual collapse, which is no doubt partly the result of the kind of institutional failure Keith describes, has been the death of cultural nationalism. Most authors today are positively embarrassed by such associations. The Spirit of ’67 exists only as a promotional tool or slogan, of dubious utility, to be pulled out for such plainly derivative efforts as the “Canada Reads” radio campaign on CBC.

“And a good thing, too!” many critics are wont to say. Nationalism is a culturally backward force, provincial and insular. Still, can anyone deny that one of the things the Golden Age of the 1960s and ’70s had going for it was the energy and excitement of what Keith describes as the “national awakening”? And if the opposite of nationalism isn’t cosmopolitanism or internationalism but merely globalism, the kind of entertainment-industrial homogeneity that Stephen Henighan so frequently rails against, what has been gained by getting rid of it?

Finally there is the issue of the death of the reader. This doesn’t just affect new authors struggling for attention, though they tend to be the ones to feel it the most. It also eats away at the tradition, Keith’s sense of “cultural continuity.” One notices this especially in the detailed bibliography he provides at the end of his second volume.

Of the individual authors listed in the original bibliography, he tells us, “more than thirty have died since 1985.” Which attrition might have been expected. What is more to the point is the number of books listed that are now out of print or very hard to access.

Unless you happen to live close to a university library, and maybe not even then, the list of titles Keith suggests for further reading might as well be the rain-softened names carved on the stones in a graveyard.

The central premise behind the idea of a literary tradition is that books are written out of other books – out of works that people have actually read. Without that there is no such thing as literary history but, to paraphrase the famous quip, just one damn book after another.

And so, given the speed of our current cultural compost cycle, Canadian literature may simply have to adapt – no longer sending out branches from a living tree but surviving as motley new forms of life, experimental and randomly conceived, rising from the rotting trunks now lying on the forest floor.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 8, 2007.

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