The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature

Ed. by Coral Ann Howells and Eva-Marie Kröller

A single-volume history of Canadian literature “from the beginnings” – here meaning the first European contact with Native peoples – presents a formidable challenge. The “two women scholars” (their self-description) who have edited this new volume put out under the auspices of the Cambridge University Press have not made things any easier for themselves by taking as inclusive an approach as possible, aiming to represent the “ethnic, cultural and regional diversities that were sometimes submerged in previous paradigms.” This means chapters on topics relating to Aboriginal literature, women’s genres, and “transcultural life-writing.” While all the CanLit staples are still included, so are comic books.

This is, in other words, an academic work very much of its time, emphasizing (even retrospectively) postmodernism’s “discourse of hybridity,” “unrestrained pluralities,” and all the other multiplicities of multiculturalism. As a result there is no point looking for a master narrative, or much coherence of any kind, among these 31 essays (all by academics). Indeed, the desire to be all-inclusive tends to turn history into chronicle anyway, the text sometimes only providing a mere listing of titles and names with a bare minimum of context or critical discussion. The effect, which is typical of this specialist genre, is of too much and not enough – something more than a companion or annotated index, but something less than an in-depth examination of any particular subject. One is drawn to skimming the index and opening chronology of literary and cultural events to see who’s in and who’s out. One would think the latter category would be small indeed, but it does include perennial CanLit outsider Douglas Coupland, whose only mention in the text comes not in relation to any of his novels but to a short-lived comic strip he collaborated on in the 1980s!

The best essays are the ones that take more time to work up a narrower field: Michael Peterman on the bestselling authors of the late nineteenth century (all of them now forgotten), Irene Gammel on the staged personalities of Canada’s Moderns, Robert Thacker on the “Quartet” of Atwood, Gallant, Munro, and Shields. In general, however, the results are disappointing. Not just because of the brevity of the analysis and the lack of any big picture, but for the depressing state of academic writing, the result of what Clive James has called “the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results.” The deadliness in this case is due not as much to the overuse of buzzwords and jargon as to the endless qualifications and general mushiness, the lack of bite and opinion (there is virtually no negative commentary, evaluative criticism being eschewed), and the tendency to quote what passes as authority on every point, no matter how banal and obvious. Indeed this has become so much of an addiction that on more than one occasion anonymous quotations are taken from dustjackets just for a brief description of what a book is about! On the other hand, without authority the authors sometimes find themselves on shaky ground. One feels one’s jaw unhinge when Neil Ten Kortenaar calls Rohinton Mistry “probably the most read Canadian writer.” How was this (bizarre) appraisal arrived at?

A book like this necessarily occupies an uncomfortable middle ground, somewhere between being a reference volume and something anyone might actually want to read. But in any event we should be able to take it for granted now that Canadian literature is “an important scholarly field.” That scholarship, however, now needs to up its game.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2010.