Selfish, Whining Monkeys

SELFISH, WHINING MONKEYS: HOW WE ENDED UP GREEDY, NARCISSISTIC AND UNHAPPY
By Rod Liddle

When did narcissism become the definitive dysfunctional condition of our time? Some people would point to Tom Wolfe’s christening of the 1970s as the “Me Decade” or Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, but I think these were prophetic voices from the cultural antennae of the race, and I think Lasch anyway was onto something a little different than what we mean by narcissism, a diagnosis more classically grounded in then current models of psychology.

The ‘80s were a bad decade too, and when David Sirota wrote his critique of the pop culture of the time (Back to Our Future) he specifically called out its selfishness and “virulent egomania.” This was the Thatcher and Reagan ‘80s, when there no longer was any society but only the grasping individual. Things were clearly on a narcissistic trajectory, though I don’t recall the diagnosis being made quite as often back then.

A decade later, Bill Clinton would present himself as the love child of the counterculture and neoliberalism, the two self-centered ideologies that columnist Rod Liddle identifies as having given birth to the present age.
Of course this was all before the advent of Donald Trump, a figure viewed by many professionals as showing clear indications of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). But even before Trump’s election it seemed as though narcissism was popping up everywhere. In 2014 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell warned of The Narcissism Epidemic. Also in 2014 Aaron James proffered Assholes: A Theory, which defined the titular condition as sharing many features with NPD (with James even admitting at one point that “being an asshole is probably only one version of the disorder”).

That same year (2014, still pre-President Trump) saw the publication of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys: How We Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy.

Obviously all of these people were responding to something in the culture and the way we live now. Trump was more symptom than cause: the cherry on top of a cake that had already been baked.

A preliminary note before I get going. Liddle is, at least in Britain, a controversial figure. Indeed he courts controversy, and on more than one occasion has been taken to task for crossing over the line into open racism and misogyny. I don’t want to get into any of those arguments here, as I don’t think the essays in Selfish, Whining Monkeys do cross that line (though there’s probably enough here for readers so disposed to conclude that Liddle is a rotten person). Instead, I think it’s worth focusing on what is of value in Liddle’s analysis of the zeitgeist and how it is we got here.

We begin with the selfishness of the monkeys (us). Which is to say, our narcissism. Liddle sees this, as I’ve already mentioned, as the idiot child born of Frankfurt School Marxism and Chicago School economics. Both schools stressed the supremacy of the individual: the former as leading the struggle against capitalist consumerism and traditional authoritarian political structures, the latter as the engine driving us toward capitalism’s (and history’s) triumphant end.

But whatever its ideological origins – and they are likely more complex than Liddle has them – narcissism is firmly in the saddle today. In some ways this is benign, as in our fetishizing of working out at the gym. In other ways, however, it is a real problem, and one that admits of no easy solutions. This is because narcissists know that they are right, and much of our current culture supports them in this.

Liddle pillories the narcissistic certitude of ideologues of the left and right, who share “a grim insistence that everything they say is beyond possible contradiction and that those who dare to contradict them should be punished somehow.” One thinks right away of the bubble-blowing effect of the Internet that allows the narcissist to spin a cocoon about him or herself, a technologically-enhanced tunnel vision which encourages an intolerance toward the very existence of other opinions. Or even other people. Liddle caustically calls the Internet

a medium which accommodates itself perfectly to our almost infantile narcissism, our big-I-am willy-waving and relentless solipsism. Its apogee was back in 2006, when Time magazine chose its Person of the Year, and guess who won? Yes, it was You! Yes, You! Every one of You, everyone in the world sat behind their little screens tap tap tapping away. You’ve won! All the people people beavering away at their blogs, their take on the world (comments: 0), all the monomaniacal communities. Congratulations – You are the most important person in the world. Hell, shucks and so on – be honest with Yourself. You always were. As if it needed Time magazine to tell you that.

Liddle writes in this jokey manner throughout, but he wants to make a serious point. Of course selfish, whining monkeys, or narcissists, or assholes, are annoying, and not always in a humorous way. That’s a given. But they also represent something worse: a social disease that prevents us from taking collective action for the common good. Whether you locate the source of the malaise in the ‘60s counterculture or the ‘80s individualistic revolution, or some “poisonous cocktail” combining the two, “the appetite for collective solutions to national problems was almost eradicated from the public mind, and in its place we had a vaulting personal acquisitiveness and a diminished concept of what constitutes society.” Indeed, determining that society as such does not exist, “and that it is up to us as individuals to make our mark in the world, then necessarily the amount of respect we have for other people – now viewed merely as competitors – will diminish also.” Furthermore, since nothing that happens to anyone else, living or yet to be born, is of any consequence to the narcissist they are free to indulge in the shortest of short-term thinking. Only immediate personal benefits count. What this all adds up to is no laughing matter.

The other point Liddle makes that deserves attention comes in his critique of the “faux left.” By the faux left he means bourgeois metropolitan liberals, “people who consider themselves of the left, or leftish, but whose views are often wholly irrelevant to the poorest indigenous sections of our society, or actively hostile towards them.” That word “indigenous” is one that gets him in trouble, because what Liddle is talking about here is the white working class. It’s important to note however that he’s not making the case that this is a class that is particularly hard done by but rather that it’s one that the faux left doesn’t care about. They can go on virtue signalling, meaning taking noble public stands on issues that cost them nothing, or which even provide them with benefits. A chief example here being immigration, where the liberal elite signal the importance of diversity and open borders while taking advantage of cheap gardeners and nannies.

Yes, things are a lot more complicated than this. Still, what Liddle represents is a point of view that resonates with a lot of people, and his analysis isn’t that far removed from that of Thomas Frank in Listen, Liberal. Only replace the faux left with Frank’s Democratic elite, the Brexit voter with the Trump voter, and you have a pretty good correspondence. In both cases you have the left behind looking for help in right-wing ideologies after the (faux) left has abandoned them. Narcissism in effect becomes a defence mechanism. In the end Liddle comes full circle, to “narcissism, once again”: “We demand to be heard because we know that underneath we count for less than we once did.” This is a downward spiral indeed, and we haven’t come close to reaching its bottom yet.

Notes:
Review first published online May 22, 2018.

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The Darkening Age

THE DARKENING AGE
By Catherine Nixey

What was it that made the Dark Ages so dark? Assuming that they were dark, a point not all historians allow. And by asking who, or what, made them dark I mean who switched off the lights of learning?

Christianity, or the Church, has long come in for much of the blame. Edward Gibbon saw in the fall of the Roman Empire the triumph of barbarism and religion, and the revolution in modern thought largely defined itself as being a liberation from the yoke of scholastic (church) learning.

This isn’t totally fair. What seems to have happened is more of a general economic collapse leading to a significant downgrade in various forms of higher culture that were, at the time, elite luxuries. In his excellent history of philosophy from ancient times to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb looks at the fall of philosophy and concludes that “Nobody had killed the Greek inheritance; it had simply been allowed to waste away.”

I don’t think Catherine Nixey would entirely disagree with this, but The Darkening Age nevertheless sets itself the task of describing, as the subtitle puts it, “the Christian destruction of the Classical world.” This was mainly accomplished by a narrowing of the Classical mind. With the triumph of Christianity came an intolerance for other forms of faith, philosophy, art, and culture. Theatres closed, poetry stopped being written, statues and temples were torn down, and philosophical inquiry was made illegal, all in the name of God and saving souls.

Nixey says little to direct our attention to parallels with our own time. For example, there’s only a quick link drawn between the desecration of a statue of Athena at Palmyra with the further destruction of the same ancient city in recent years by the Islamic State. It is an embarassing but meaningful connection. If you think tolerance is a virtue, monotheism should make you a little nervous.

Notes:
Review first published online May 14, 2018. For a more scholarly take on the same subject I’d recommend Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind and A.D. 381.

On Tyranny

ON TYRANNY: TWENTY LESSONS FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By Timothy Snyder

“History can familiarize, and it can warn.” So begins Timothy Snyder’s little book full of timely lessons, cautionary tales, and general guidelines drawn from the darkest days of the twentieth century (think, primarily, Hitler and Stalin) “adapted to the circumstances of today.”

It’s much the same warning that has been sounding since antiquity. Polybius may have been the first to come up with a formal theory of the descent from democracy into tyranny, but it’s a subject that has since gone on to become a staple for statesmen and historians to return to. How do we prevent a state collapsing into barbarity?

Snyder’s primer is obviously targeted at the threat to democracy he sees being advanced in the Trump administration and recent political developments in Europe like the Brexit vote. Such red flags should put us on our guard. But given the nature of such a book, with only a few pages given to each historical lesson and the moral to be drawn from it, one wants to immediately jump in and register some caveats.

The first lesson, for example, is “Do not obey in advance.” What this refers to is “anticipatory obedience,” which means that when people give in to government encroachments on their liberty the government is emboldened to go even further. Meanwhile, whatever freedoms have been given up cannot easily be regained. In other words, there’s a ratchet effect: when tyranny meets with little initial resistance “the first heedless acts of conformity [can] not then be reversed.”

True enough, though I think Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority don’t fit with this particular historical lesson all that well. They weren’t about anticipatory obedience. A more troubling question, however, has to do with the nature of the authority being exercised and where the biggest threats to our freedom may be coming from. For example, we freely give up far more of our personal information and privacy to companies like Google and Facebook than we do to the government – companies that, according to recent reports, are far from innocent when it comes to playing the game of political influence and power. Personally, I’m more concerned about where our first heedless acts of conformity have led us in this regard than I am by any power we have granted to public bodies. The police can only get a sample of your DNA in most countries with a court order (it’s a form of search warrant), but people apparently will now pay corporations to take it from them. This strikes me as a carelessly and dangerously misplaced trust, and an act of anticipatory obedience that will be hard if not impossible to reverse in the future.

I don’t want to suggest here that Snyder is blind to the threat of the Internet. Indeed, this is a major theme that runs throughout the book. In later chapters he emphasizes the importance of print over digital news, of maintaining a private sphere of life and drawing a line between when we are seen and when we are not seen, and of “practicing corporeal politics” (that is, organizing and interacting with real people). What I’m getting at instead is the way tyranny isn’t limited to our political institutions.

Speaking of those, the second lesson is to “Defend institutions.” Again, this is fine as a general principle but it still raises questions. Defend all institutions? Even those that are corrupt, dysfunctional, or antiquated? I’ve been all for abolishing Canada’s senate for years. What if institutions have become so sclerotic they are no longer capable of addressing current crises, and our constitutions are only guarantors of an unresponsive status quo? Are we stuck with a first-past-the-post election system forever? Is there nothing the U.S. can do about its gun laws because of the Second Amendment? Not all political institutions are worth keeping, at least in their present form.

Third up: “Beware the one-party state.” This strikes me as wanting to shut the barn door after the horses are out. If you live in a one-party state the game is already over, and (as Snyder notes) few people know in advance if they are voting for the dismantling of democracy in a last free election. As anti-democratic in spirit as Trump clearly is, I don’t think anyone thought that 2016 was the end of the line. Of course, those more cynical (or realistic) might say that most Western democracies are already one-party states, as only a certain social and economic elite is represented by the political system. This is especially the case in first-past-the-post systems where the ineluctable tendency is toward a two-party system where both sides are in broad agreement on policy with only some minor differences in tone. I don’t think Snyder is advocating for proportional representation though.

I won’t go through the whole list in order. Instead, I’ll register a broader reservation.

Snyder is swimming against the tide of the times. I think he realizes this, but I’m not sure he understands just how strong the countervailing forces are. I’ve mentioned his distrust of the Internet and his call to return to print: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.” I heartily agree with him, but at this stage of the game I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t going to happen. I don’t mean to subscribe to what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability” here (meaning there is no alternative to the way things are) but I think we have to limit our plans for change to the possible and the not-so-heroic.

As I say, I think Snyder realizes how hard resistance is going to be. We can see another example of this in his emphasis on the need for personal effort. Lesson 8 calls for the individual to “Stand out,” while the final lesson is to “Be as courageous as you can” (the only explanation of which is that “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”). Standing out and being courageous, however, are not easy. Few of us, by definition, are heroes, and in any event heroes don’t always have much of a political impact. Those who stand out don’t always draw others to their cause and have rarely been much of a threat to tyrannous governments. The Nazis were not overthrown by conscientious objectors and protests against their regime but by losing a war. Communism collapsed on its own, and those who opposed finally won by pushing at an open door.

Another example of swimming against the tide of the times comes in the call for more political activism among groups. I think this is a little more likely, or at least possible, than people separating themselves from the Internet and reading books again, but it’s still mostly wishful thinking. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone pretty much wrote the epitaph for civic involvement, and it only summarized trends in place before the Internet came along. Unlike some, perhaps many, I do not see the Internet as truly connecting people, as it seems to me to mainly promote more social isolation and apathy.

Does this mean we are doomed to fall into tyranny again? Nothing is inevitable, but I think we’re in trouble. I say this not because of any of the bad habits Snyder adumbrates but because of looming crises that will undercut, and indeed are already undercutting, our democratic systems. When tyranny comes it will be in the guise of an answer to these threats: economic and environmental train wrecks that will put severe pressures on governments around the world. In coping with these crises the lessons of the twentieth century will, I think, be of limited utility except to make the road to ruin better lit and more familiar.

Notes:
Review first published online April 22, 2018.

Trumpocracy and Fire and Fury

TRUMPOCRACY: THE CORRUPTION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC
By David Frum

FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE
By Michael Wolff

During the 2016 presidential elections CBS CEO Les Moonves made waves when he boasted of the boost Donald Trump’s candidacy had given to his network’s ratings. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Despite not being a reader himself, Trump has been damn good for publishers too. After a slew of post mortems published last year trying to explain the election and how we got here, readers can now look forward to what is sure to be a flood of books offering insider and expert analysis of the Trump presidency. For journalists, historians, psychologists, political scientists, and even novelists and literary critics, Donald J. Trump is going to be the gift that keeps on giving.

The only problem will be keeping pace. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear complaints about how cable news had accelerated political reporting to the rhythms of a 24-hour news cycle. With the advent of social media this has been reduced even further, leaving a technology as resolutely old-fashioned as the book at a clear disadvantage when faced with daily Twitterstorms.

The prominent Canadian-American political pundit David Frum recognizes the problem of writing from within the whirlwind of current events. But, seeing as this is a moment of crisis, he also feels that “if it’s embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long.” And so we have Trumpocracy: an angry assessment by a die-hard “Never Trumper” of what Trump’s use and abuse of power is doing to America’s political culture.

There is much to pick over in the analysis, with many valuable insights and observations. Foremost among these is the role played by “those who enable, support, and collaborate with Donald Trump.” Why have so many people in positions of responsibility and authority caved in so quickly and completely to Trumpism? Frum’s answer is institutional: they didn’t want to alienate the angry and resentful Republican base and they needed Trump to rubber-stamp their agenda. Since Trump has almost no interest in policy, all that was required was that he “have enough working digits to sign their bills into law.” In exchange, a cynical and opportunist Congress would protect him. We’ve yet to see how far they will go in this.

If Frum’s book is more concerned with the big picture, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury goes in the other direction. Here are all the juicy scoops and gossipy revelations that have been feeding the media mills for the past week, propelling Fire and Fury to the top of the bestseller lists. Trump wanted his presidency to be a reality TV program, judged not by its accomplishments but by its ratings. He has succeeded beyond all imagining.

Though hard to put down, Wolff’s breathless tell-all in fact tells us little we didn’t already know about the character of Trump himself. Nearly everyone around him considers him to be a moron. He is needy, paranoid, and narcissistic. He doesn’t “process information” well, has no attention span, and tends to ramble repetitively, boring listeners to tears. Universally described as child-like, he struts upon the stage like a spoiled, petulant bully. None of this is news.

Then there is the presidential court, headlined by the dark whisperer Steve Bannon (who even likens the White House to the court of the Tudors), prevaricating establishment Republicans and generals, and a glossy brood of spoiled but dim children, inheritors of the Trump brand.

In the mutual contempt of warring power bases, and with a near total leadership vacuum at the top, dysfunction has followed: what one outgoing high-ranking staffer characterizes as “bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission” and another more succinctly as “an idiot surrounded by clowns.” The resulting chaos is criticized by both authors. Frum calls the White House “a mess of careless slobs” while for Wolff it becomes the “scene of a daily Trump clusterfuck.”

In the face of all this late-night stand-up material, the frequently heard warnings of a slide toward fascism may be overdrawn. However, after reading Frum and Wolff my own mind kept turning back to the epilogue to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account of The Last Days of Hitler. In his summary of the Nazi regime as a “monkey house” of “flatterers and toadies” Trevor-Roper saw not totalitarianism, indeed not a government at all, “but a court – a court as negligible in its power of ruling, as incalculable in its capacity for intrigue, as any oriental sultanate.”

The tragedy is that the Trump Show, or Trumpocracy, is only one symptom of a deeper rot. In Trevor-Roper’s analysis, what led to Hitler’s court was “the despair of politics.” The same despair has brought forth the strange fruit surveyed in these two books, and it’s only going to deepen.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 12, 2018.

Freud: The Making of an Illusion

FREUD: THE MAKING OF AN ILLUSION
By Frederick Crews

I think a lot of us have a complicated relationship with Freud. On the one hand he’s a wonderful writer who created an entire mythology of the mind that has endured for over a century, helping to shape and inform a great deal of modern culture.

It’s terrific stuff, but of course (and we’re moving to the other hand now) it’s all nonsense. That much was obvious to me after just the first few pages of The Interpretation of Dreams (and things tended to go downhill from there). Where, I had to ask myself, was Freud getting all this?

Well, according to Frederick Crews in this thorough examination of Freud’s discovery/invention of psychoanalysis (basically covering the years from 1880 to 1900), the short answer is that he just made it up.

Freud’s theories weren’t grounded in any clinical case work or statistical analysis. He had no success with the former and seems to have been totally uninterested in the latter. He wasn’t much of a doctor or a scientist, and indeed in later life Crews describes a man who had “become an outright antiscientist.” In modern parlance, he was a quack.

His basic assumption, which he maintained in the absence of any evidence, was that what was true for him – and by that I mean what he felt or even dreamed to be true – must also be true for everyone else. His only real test subject was himself. He liked using cocaine and so prescribed it to others, claiming tremendous results despite tragic outcomes. Various foundations of psychoanalysis (the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety) were outgrowths of his own mental morbidity, discovered through sheer introspection, which he then generalized “under the misapprehension that all men were similarly warped.” He then created a library of case fictions that projected his fears onto others, giving them a spurious validity.

That Freud made things up is the easy part. Why he made things up is where the story gets not complicated but ugly. Again there is a short answer: Freud wanted to be rich and famous. He couldn’t become rich and famous as a doctor because he wasn’t a good doctor. So instead he became a writer of popular entertainments. As he explained to a friend:

I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador – an adventurer if you want it translated – with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.

Crews calls this a damning and “definitive self-assessment,” but doesn’t draw attention to the cruelty of the historical conquistadors, or their overweening lust for gold. One wonders if this was an unconscious slip on Freud’s part.

But then, one is left to wonder quite a bit about the extent of Freud’s belief in the new faith he had created. Crews chooses an odd second epigraph for his book in a line from Seinfeld’s George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Is this meant to imply some basic level of bona fides on Freud’s part? Given the thoroughness of Crews’s indictment I don’t think I’d want to give him that large a benefit of doubt.

But we are left with an even larger question, one that Laura Miller flagged in her review of Freud:

These narratives have endured for so long because so many people prefer them to the truth. Why? That’s a question Crews touches on in Freud, but only lightly. If the book fails, it is not in pressing its cause so fiercely but in mistaking who deserves the lion’s share of his scorn. The best hatchet jobs don’t just assail an author or thinker for shoddy or disingenuous work. They also indict the rest of us for buying in.

Just keeping with Freud’s immediate posterity, why did so many others “buy in” or go along with the charade of psychoanalysis? The cult of personality must have played some role, and the institutional strength of the Freud circle, which was remarkably strict and disciplined and remained so even after his death (Freud was a bully, and like all bullies he passed it down). Also the very real benefits that accrue to any member of a court, the operations of which always appears disgusting to outsiders. And, finally, let’s grant that there was something in the Freudian mythology that has had a general resonance with much of modern life. That doesn’t excuse his enablers, but it does provide some defence for the rest of us.

Notes:
Review first published online January 20, 2018.

Swearing Is Good For You

SWEARING IS GOOD FOR YOU: THE AMAZING SCIENCE OF BAD LANGUAGE
By Emma Byrne

You might expect a book on the science of swearing to take a lot of the fun out of the subject. Talking about taboo language is sort of like explaining a joke; subjecting the f-bomb to critical analysis defuses its impact.

Nevertheless, given how significant a role swearing plays in our lives it deserves a closer, clinical look. And Dr. Emma Byrne, a scientist and a journalist who has done research in the field, is well qualified to be our guide.

For Byrne, swearing isn’t just vulgar invective and angry ejaculations but a use of language that is “intelligent and powerful” as well as socially and psychologically essential. A “complex social signal that is laden with emotional and cultural significance,” swearing has meaning and utility in many surprising ways that go beyond the merely communicative.

For example, studies have shown that swearing can have an analgesic effect, so that we experience less pain when indulging in some expletives. And in the workplace swearing can become something like a tribal language, leading to increased social bonding.

In informal and off-colour prose Byrne looks at the science of swearing from the different angles research has taken. There’s a chapter on the structure of the brain and swearing, one on swearing and pain, on why a discussion of Tourette’s syndrome doesn’t really belong in such a book (though this is one of the longest chapters), on gender and swearing, workplace swearing, primate swearing, and swearing in different culture and languages.

Along the way we learn many interesting factoids. For example, by consulting a language database that’s charmingly known as the Lancaster Corpus of Abuse we can see that women’s use of the f-bomb has increased greatly in the last few decades while men’s use of the same has actually gone down, at least in Britain. Byrne views this as progress: “If women and men want to communicate as equals, we need to be equals in the ways in which we are allowed to express ourselves.”

It’s in ways like this that swearing continues to evolve. But despite its ever-changing vocabulary and levels of acceptance it’s safe to say that in one form or another it will always be with us just because it’s so useful. And, yes, good for us too.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star November 24, 2017.

Arrival

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, then or now. 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 brief 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.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star September 2, 2017.