ARRIVAL: THE STORY OF CANLIT
By Nick Mount
What was CanLit anyway?
University of Toronto English professor Nick Mount traces the origin of the portmanteau back to the early 1960s and the beginning of the CanLit “boom,” but today it sounds more like a course code than a shorthand label for Canadian writing. In hindsight we might see CanLit as (1) a canon of works to be studied, (2) a historical phenomenon, and (3) a myth.
Mount’s valuable and refreshingly lively account of the subject looks at CanLit from all three angles.
He is briefest on the books themselves, choosing not to get involved in critical evaluation beyond providing margin notes that rank the core texts on a scale going from one to five stars. Blame the Internet. For what it’s worth, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook takes top prize for the Great Canadian Novel, with Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women being the only other five-star contender in that category. Which is at least using an expansive definition of what constitutes a novel.
Instead of digging deeply into the books, Arrival is more concerned with their context: biographical, cultural, political, and economic. Such an approach may sound dry and scholarly, but it’s presented in a breezy, humorous, non-academic manner that makes for a quick and genuinely informative read, even for those who think they know the story well. Indeed, the main drawback is that in covering so much ground the discussion gets spread pretty thin in places. One wishes Mount would slow down!
It’s also the case that such an argument pushes the actual CanLit canon, whether intentionally or not, even further to the margin. By emphasizing the many different forces coming together at the same time and place that gave birth to and shaped Canadian writing during these years, CanLit comes to seem less about the writing and more about a kind of product (of the kind sometimes derided as “Canned Lit”).
This isn’t unfair though, and in some ways it makes for a welcome corrective to the default position of ancestor worship that continues to dominate so much of our discussion of CanLit. Mount doesn’t say that these writers lucked out simply by happening to be in the right place at the right time – though he gives plenty of examples of how they won the lottery in that regard. For example, you have to smile at George Jonas recalling getting a job at the CBC in 1960: “you could just walk into an office unintroduced and say, ‘I want to work here.’” Things are rather different around the Ceeb these days.
The CanLit authors were made by their time and place, and in particular it was readers that made them. This is a principle Mount insists on throughout. In his discussion of feminism and CanLit, for example, he talks of how “books become what their readers want,” and that “Canadian women writers wouldn’t have succeeded without the women who were their largest audience.”
By success Mount means something other than artistic achievement, as he later suggests that literary quality is not what makes an author great but rather the quality of their audience: “Writers don’t make classics; readers do.” You can tell from this just how much cultural displacement has taken place in the field of literary criticism, and how far the critical pendulum has swung away from those now marginal texts toward a more market-based form of analysis.
Finally, CanLit is a myth. A self-made and unabashedly self-serving myth, as many of Mount’s biographical sketches reveal. In turn, this myth was CanLit’s greatest achievement. If the cultural construction of CanLit was the product, the myth was the advertising, and nobody played the media as skilfully as this generation of writers, whatever their feet of clay.
But what of CanLit today? This is an important question and one that Mount doesn’t shy away from addressing, though we may debate his conclusions.
In the first place, given that CanLit was a product of its time and place we can confidently declare it over, aside from the few surviving legacy brands. What’s more, we won’t be seeing the cultural and economic conditions that gave rise to it occurring again.
This leaves us with the matter of its legacy.
As a national project CanLit is irrelevant now, and much of the infrastructure built to sustain it is eroding. Nevertheless, Mount, correctly I believe, sees the average quality of the literature produced in Canada to be higher today than it was during the golden age. Readers have never had it so good. What is the link then from past to present?
Is the CanLit canon, as Mount conculdes, a “now recognizable body of writing for critics to describe, students to read, the public to celebrate, and writers to steal from or define themselves against”?
That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but it’s not easy to make the case. Frankly, one has to look hard to find the influence of CanLit, at least in terms of books being written out of other books. Rather, if CanLit was defined by its context, it was in turn that context – the network of media and money primarily – that subsequent generations have had to adapt to or try to resist. This makes the story Mount tells all the more relevant, even as CanLit slowly fades from view.
Review first published in the Toronto Star September 2, 2017.