Literary Celebrity in Canada

By Lorraine York

In this slim book Lorraine York, a professor of English at McMaster University, dives into the rapidly developing field of celebrity studies, and in particular the more sophisticated, academic theories within that field, to examine the condition of literary celebrity in Canada. She begins by looking at early exemplars of celebrity authors in this country – Pauline Johnson, Stephen Leacock, Mazo de la Roche, and L. M. Montgomery – and concludes with separate chapters on contemporary literary stars Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Carol Shields.

York herself cannot write. What she offers as a substitute is a combination of academic boilerplate and evasion English. A thick weave of sources, many of them unnecessary, are introduced ritualistically: “As X argues,” “As Y notes,” “According to Z.” Into the same bin we might toss such wishful thinking as “I contend,” “I argue,” and “I conclude.” One suspects the pernicious effect of grading too many undergraduate term papers, although this is no excuse.

Equally formulaic is the technical vocabulary. “Negotiating discourse” appears to be chief among the new shibboleths, with “porosity” (or the even less graceful, though perhaps more apt, “cultural leakage”) coming a close second. The meaning of these terms is vague, but no doubt “radically conflicted.”

Such indeterminate language operates as a kind of cloaking device for arguments that are so equivocal, ambiguous and qualified as to be scarcely worth pursuing. L. M. Montgomery, we are told, “has resurfaced, to some extent, in academic Canadian literature circles, though her status there seems still marginal, in many ways.” Or try this on Mazo de la Roche: “She seems, on the surface, to have been minimally conflicted about her fame and success, but, in reality, she seems to have basked in it.” What?

Things don’t improve. The verbal floundering continues into the discussion of Michael Ondaatje coming out of his cocoon of privacy to plug the film of The English Patient. York tells us that this “irony signals not hypocrisy but complexity.” Uh-huh. In the process of celebrity construction Ondaatje occupies a “sideways middle space.” His own celebrity is a “contrary, hybrid affair.” His involvement in film “may signal some of his attraction to the world of celebrity, but does so in only a complicated, sideways – or backstage – manner.”

There is simply no way to critically engage with such intellectual Jell-O. York clearly has very little to say, and is fiercely determined not to say it. One can’t help but be impressed at her success.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2007.

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