T.F. Rigelhof is the author of Hooked on Candian Books (Cormorant, 2010). Gordon Lockheed has called it "a new, better way to read Canada's novels" (at least that's the headline over at Dooney's Cafe).
I interviewed Rigelhof by email in June 2010. We discussed his book (over two decades in the making), what he calls "OurLit," and many other rich topics.
Some choice quotations:
- Why would I want to write a book that is easily classifiable when our literature isn’t?
- Despite the smug, hipper-than-thou, self-aggrandizing, socially irresponsible, intellectually vacuous posturings of such mischief-makers and petit-monsters of self-entitlement as Douglas Coupland, Russell Smith, and Stephen Marche, OurLit is more youth-oriented, urban-centric, racially and sexually diverse, socially complicated and outright comic than they seem to realize. And more deeply rooted in multiple strands of modernism.
- Ressentiment is not simply resentment. It’s what Sartre called it “bad faith.” There’s a stinking heap of it in the continuing argument about who is and who isn’t, what is and what isn’t Canadian, who gives and who gets prizes in OurLit.
- Literary culture—the processes by which books get written and read—is a dialogue, a co-operation between writers and readers who are working towards common purposes in good faith with mutual respect. Literary culture is, before all else, an exercise in civics.
- My book is enthusiastic but not particularly optimistic. Novels are the best painkillers mankind has created, as James says, and as long as we’re alive and sentient, they’ll continue to do their work.
- We’ll all need to elevate our pain thresholds enormously to find any kind of personal satisfaction in living through the wrenching changes of the next two decades as the world’s centers of population shift in more dramatic ways than the collapse of the Soviet Union has pre-figured. I’m convinced Canada will be in the foreground of the most crucial of those changes.
- Serafin’s Stardust: Losing the best Canadian writer no one knows about by Brian Fawcett
- Rick Rofihe ("the third Canadian – Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant – to have signed a “first right of refusal contract” with The New Yorker")
- On the NY Times list of top American novels, 2000-2005
- G&M review of Hooked on Canadian Books
- 3 links on Philip Roth's prediction of the end of the literary novel (1) (2) (3)
- Mordecai Richler
See also Rigelfhof responding to comments by Stan Persky.
Your new book is Hooked on Canadian Books and subtitled "the good, the better and the best Canadian novels since 1984." I wonder if you could give us a quick introduction to your project - and how it came about.
When W.J. Keith published Canadian Literature in English in 1985, I thought (and still think) that he was right-minded in most of his critical judgments but wrong-headed in the narrowness of his approach to novels – he simply tracked the trajectory of a few “major” careers.
If you want to know what’s still worth reading in the works of the dozen novelists he analyzed in detail then (and the updates he provides in his revised edition of 2006), read him. He’s a very good critic, probably the most life-affirming one we’ve ever had in our academic world. He hasn’t had much competition – none since the death of George Woodcock.
In 1984, when I started keeping notes for what has become Hooked on Canadian Books, I wanted to cast a wider, more inclusive net than Professor Keith. I’d started publishing fiction in 1981 and by the time my first novel, The Education of JJ Pass, appeared in ’83, some very good novels were beginning to get published by previously unknown writers and taken seriously on their individual merits (rather than on the posturings and careerist ambitions of their authors) by non-academics.
This had much to do with the arrival in Canada of the literary agent Lucinda Varley, the man-of-letters Alberto Manguel, the promotional success of Jack McClelland’s Seal Books First Novel Award, and the start-up of The International Fiction List by the publisher Louise Dennys when she joined the firm of Lester & Orpen.
My own method of notetaking was directly influenced by 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939: A Personal Choice by Anthony Burgess in 1984. This is the slow, dry introduction to Hooked.
The quick and dirty backstory is this: after several strokes and seizures at the end of 2007, I junked the book I’d been working toward for twenty-three years and started weeding my bookcases and notes in search of the novels I wanted to reread and write about while waiting for what ultimately became an eight-and-a-half hour craniotomy (to cauterize multiple vascular malformations) in November 2009.
Because the team assigned to me at the Montreal Neuro first attempted a less invasive procedure that failed and the actual operation took a lot longer to plan than originally anticipated (whatever becomes of my literary reputation, I’m guaranteed footnote status in neurosurgical history), I added to my program by reading novels published since an earlier stroke in 2002 that I hadn’t really noticed sufficiently.
Ultimately, I stopped counting. I’m probably three or four short of one hundred and fifty novels. Anyone who feels left out can say, “Oh, my masterpiece just slipped through one of the larger holes in his memory” except for a couple of writers who made it perfectly clear to me that they wished to be excluded: even though I admire their works, I’m not enough of a sycophant for their tastes. Fair enough.
A television interviewer told me she counted 88 individual novelists. I like that number since it’s the same as the number of keys on a piano. (I actually think I included about a dozen more than she’d counted: some authors are noted only en passant.)
If I were to classify your book, I'm not sure what I would call it. It contains pieces I'd call book reviews, others I'd call essays, also bits of memoir, as well as lists and lesson plans. The G&M review noted that yours isn't a "map-making" book, as if there were something lacking it taking an encylopediacal approach.
Meanwhile, the book's dust jacket flap calls it a "conversational survey of all that is good about our nation's literature," but one doesn't need to venture too far into the book before understanding that you also intend to throw some barbs. A lot has changed Canada and the publishing industry since 1984.
What I want to ask you about here is the your sense of how the terms of the conversation about Canlit has changed in that time. The G&M review notes that "there are those who doubt" that a systematic reading of Canlit is possible. I know that's not what you've attempted in your book, but I wonder about your sense of the Canlit conversation. For example, is consensus about what is "good, better, best" more difficult now than ever?
In musical terms, Hooked offers readers tonal variations on six modal sketches. If you listen to the Miles Davis Sextet’s Kind of Blue in any post-1997 re-issue with the bonus track included, you’ll get a fuller sense of how I’m improvising. I don’t mean to obscure my meaning or portentiously whack readers on the ear. It’s simply a fact of my life that I acquired Kind of Blue a couple of weeks before its official the day of its release, August 17, 1959, when I was fifteen and it became the aural wallpaper in my bedroom throughout the rest of my high school years.
If there wasn’t anything else I wanted to listen to, I had it playing in the background as I tried to write stand-up comedy of the kind then current in jazz clubs that I heard on hard to find records – Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer. I don’t mention Kind of Blue in the book but I do make the same point about the improvisatory nature of my writing with explicit references to Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008) and another musical double six -- the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).
In my earlier essay collection, This is Our Writing, I talk about indebtedness to Ornette Coleman: he taught me to value spontaneity, following a line freely to find where it goes not where its been. There’s nothing in Hooked that I didn’t urgently want to write. If it seems weirdly constructed, it is weirdly constructed: it eschews chronology, the categories I employ are Levitin’s (but contain counter-intuitions or “ironies”) and it takes some working-out since who and what is not included is simply dissed as “careerist, nihilist, and merdiste.”
Why would I want to write a book that is easily classifiable when our literature isn’t? Or write anything at all about petulant Peter Pans and bumptious Bad Boys. Or, worse, self-inflated highly metaphysical guys who think they’re being really inventive while they solemnly reinvent André Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs or, in English, The Counterfeiters (1926) in which Edouard, the narrator, thinks about writing a novel called Les Faux-Monnayeurs that draws heavily from a diary in which he writes about thinking about writing a novel called Les Faux-Monnayeurs.
One last point about Kind of Blue: Jimmy Cobb is a good drummer and Wynton Kelly is a good pianist; Paul Chambers is a better than average bassist and Cannonball Adderley a better than average alto player; Bill Evans is one of the best jazz improvisers of all time. Playing with them brought out the best in Davis and Coltrane. And playing with Davis and Coltrane brought out the better in them.
I go to some lengths to talk about gradations of achievement in the novels discussed. There’s deliberate downplaying and sitting out in what I put together. And a lot of tonguing and more cheekiness than some people expect to find. I don’t know how brilliant or fast I am but some of my readers have been pretty dull and slow in response to what I’m doing. OurLit is robustly comic: it needs to be approached in that spirit more often than it is.
When Leonard Cohen introduces “Ain’t No Cure For Love” on his current world tour, he lists the half dozen mood altering medications he habitually took before he discovered that whatever he was thinking or doing, “Cheerfulness kept breaking through.” Canadians have much to be cheerful about even in the midst of misery and Lynn Coady’s cheekiness as a writer of OurLit isn’t exceptional in this regard – just funnier than the rest.
Canada has always been a strange, unusual place – more so than anyone other than a handful of naturalists noticed through much of its history. Have you read Christoph Irmscher’s essay “Nature Writing” in The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature (2004)?
Irmscher (who is the editor of Audubon’s writings and drawings) marks out the only logical starting point for any discussion of our literature: Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages from Montreal, on the River Saint Lawrence, through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans; in the years 1789 and 1792, with an Account of the Rise and State of the Fur Trade (1801). If you start with Mackenzie and follow Irmscher’s reading guide, you’ll find no supporting evidence for Northrop Frye’s claim that humans have felt “silently swallowed by an alien continent.” What you will find is a “patiently repeated, genuinely amazed ‘What is here?’” and not “Frye’s puzzled ‘Where is here?’”
The ways in which our best novelists respond to their amazement with the whatness of Canadian experience has grown more interesting decade by decade through the second half of the twentieth century and through the first decade of the twenty-first as Canada is becoming increasingly sui generis among the nations of the world. I state this as fact – not as propaganda. I have immense gratitude for being born in Canada but it also deeply shames me that this country is so ungrateful to the contributions of so many of its citizens.
Starting out, I did try to write more conventionally: I did try to write An Atlas of Canadian Literature but I ended up feeling like an under-muscled Atlas trying to hold a world in place that was undergoing seismic shocks and volcanic eruptions and generally weird weather. What I opted for in the end is a book modeled on The Double Hook Bookstore in the sense that Judy Mappin’s shop occupied several rooms of a Montreal townhouse and different kinds of conversations took place in different areas.
The book is dedicated to Judy and her partners and staff. And also to the memory of Norah Bryant who was Chief Librarian at my local public library in the days when it too was an odd assemblage of spaces and Norah’s office was a wonderful place to discuss Commonwealth literature – her passion. But those were parts of a preliminary model: I added to it my personal eccentricities in shelving my own books according to what I understand from neuroscience about the ways our emotional intelligence is formed/deformed/reformed by the stories we’re told and the stories we tell.
I like the fact that when most people come up to me to talk casually about Hooked while I’m sitting at a neighbourhood cafe, they want to tell me about their favorite novels before they ask about mine. The same thing happens with e-mails. I also enjoy it when readers of my generation want to talk about what I’m doing in my book in relation to Daniel Fader’s famous polemic Hooked on Books and Tom Wolfe’s reprise and enlargement on some of its themes in Hooking Up.
I don’t write about the kind of intellectual impoverishment among the young that they do. We deprive our children of robust futures in different ways in this country than they do in the USA – mostly by giving ours piss poor sense of the country they actually inhabit by rarely assigning any books that speak to their actual condition. Students are regularly expected to read Catcher in the Rye for gods’s sakes and To Kill a Mockingbird. Why aren’t they reading Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts or George Elliott Clarke’s George & Rue or any of a dozen other novels I suggest one place or another in Hooked?
What’s changed in the way we talk about books in the past twenty-five years? Locally, in Montreal it’s now possible to achieve national and international recognition without moving to Toronto. For a very long time, Mordecai Richler was the only English language writer anybody at the CBC had on their Rolodexes – the non-automated Palm Pilots of yesteryear. Writing about Montreal was a very bad career move even if you did it brilliantly. Ask Trevor Ferguson about what happened to Onyx John (1985)! The only newspaper job Carole Corbeil was offered in Montreal was as a telephonist in Classified Ads at the Gazette. It drove her to Toronto – no bad thing in retrospect – because she created Voice-over (1992) out of the tension between the two cities and made great art and some money doing it.
It wasn’t easier for new voices coming from elsewhere in the country – David Adams Richards was consistently misread, Wayne Johnston was barely readl, and Joan Barfoot was read for the wrong reasons when she was read at all. For too many readers, the novelists who counted could be seated comfortably in a Greyhound bus parked at Dundas at Bay with plenty of room left over for the leading poets and dramatists. Now you can barely shoehorn the novelists and short story writers who matter into a Boeing 737. We have more conversations about books and they’re wider-ranging.
Okay, those are the positives. When I say that Canada is increasingly sui generis among the nations of the world, I’m not ignoring the darker side of Canadian experience. We’re not the nice, polite, apologetic aw shucks white folks of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café and never have been: and we’re not the flip side of that image either – the narrow-minded, solipsistic, simplistic, one-dimensional, monosyllabic, beer-soaked, lowest-common-denominator nutcases that Don Cherry represents.
Before pushing forward in the direction of what we are, let me clarify what I’m not. Bruce Meyer, the G&M reviewer who describes himself as a professor of English at Georgian College, describes me as a “retired professor of literature from Montreal’s Dawson College.” Doesn’t that sound nice! Another reviewer referred to me as a professor emeritus and don’t that sound just tres grande! What I am is a longtime CEGEP teacher with cognitive disabilities who can no longer control a classroom, has exhausted his disability insurance, and was forced to retire four years earlier than expected to a smaller pension than I was anticipating.
Georgian College offers university-accredited courses; Dawson doesn’t. Meyer may or may not have the right to call himself a professor of English: Dawson College has teachers and that’s all I was in a wide range of courses and programs. And that, as Emmy Lou Harris not so nicely but ever so melodiously sings, is “all I ever wanted to be” as a wage earner – a guy in inner city classrooms teaching immigrants, children of immigrants, grandchildren of immigrants how to read with greater comprehension, write with greater accuracy, and converse in public with greater confidence despite the civil wars, genocides, and neo-imperialisms that have disconnected them from the greater parts of their families.
I did teach university for four years as an Instructor at the beginning of my professional work life and that was more than enough. As were the seven years of university that left me a set of comprehensives and a thesis short of a Ph.D.
The best lessons I learned both about teaching and about writing came out of George Grant’s seminars at McMaster. It’s only in Lament for a Nation that Dr. Grant succeeded (and succeeded brilliantly) in writing the kind of book he urged me to attempt – he realized long before I did that my métier – if and when I ever got my act together – would be to speak colloquially to Canadians of aspects of our national life without importing terms foreign to our political conditions and educational needs.
My academic training is as an historian of ideas (first in Western philosophy, then in Roman Catholic theology and Biblical studies, then in European humanism, then in the dominant post-Vedic cultural values of the Indian sub-continent that reached their apogee with Sidhartha Gautama, the Buddha. I am an accidental authority not an academic one when it comes to the Canadian novel. I do tell the story of how that happened at the beginning of Hooked and the role Judith Mappin’s Double Hook Bookstore played in that process.
Enough about me, more about why I say this country is sui generis. Despite the smug, hipper-than-thou, self-aggrandizing, socially irresponsible, intellectually vacuous posturings of such mischief-makers and petit-monsters of self-entitlement as Douglas Coupland, Russell Smith, and Stephen Marche, OurLit is more youth-oriented, urban-centric, racially and sexually diverse, socially complicated and outright comic than they seem to realize. And more deeply rooted in multiple strands of modernism.
Here, let me quote myself on Marche who drew considerable attention with “Raging against the tyranny of CanLit” in The Toronto Star on October 20, 2007. My comment on him what irks him is this:
“While it’s the duty of every novelist who believes that novels “that do not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence” are worse than useless (Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, revised edition, 2000), to weigh up existing talent and create a readership for himself (yes, it’s alpha males who rush to these judgments), what’s insulting in Marche’s self-serving are his off-hand colour-blindness and anglophilia (among the old men of the first generation, Austin Clarke is alive and well and flourishing as is Josef Škvorecký), and lack of rudimentary historical perspective. Hasn’t he read at least enough of Coupland (whose views on CanLit 14 months earlier in the New York Times blog—cited above—are paraphrased closely enough to imply some causal relationship) to know that Atwood (and Leon Rooke, Clarke Blaise, Keath Fraser) as well as the other writers he does name are pre-Boomers who have largely given way to an established generation of actual Baby Boom writers (born between 1946 and 1957) that is doing some of its best work under pressure from Coupland’s own excellent-at-innovation Generation X (born between 1958 and 1968) as well as Marche’s Generation Y (born between 1969 and 1980)? And has he read enough Atwood of the early, middle, and later periods to judge her as he does? Her talent remains robust; Michael Ondaatje is the only established author whose career has entered the day-out-of-night of Planet Hollywood where every new book reduces his legacy. Marche takes the cheap shot, the one he knows he can fire off without burning up his own career: Atwood has better things to do than piss on his natterings but Ondaatje’s friends at Brick and elsewhere might just help his career along in some way that’s sweller in his imagination than in reality.
Yes, there are bad Canadian novels. There have always been bad novels everywhere they’re written. And yes, some of them have too much setting and too little plot but this isn’t peculiarly Canadian any more than the limiting of plots to “recovering from historical or familial trauma through the healing power of whatever (most common)” which, for example, might define Twain and Tolstoy; “uncovering historical or family secrets and thereby achieving redemption (close second)” which, for example, might define Dickens and Dostoevsky; “coming of age (distant third place)” which, for example, might define Conrad and Goethe. More than a century ago in “The Future of the Novel,” Henry James complained about the gross quantity of bad American and British novels—stories and characters that lacked both variety and vividness—but blamed the mediocrity of writers, the laxness of readers and the timidity of editors for their proliferation. James bemoaned the aversion to risk-taking on all sides and, specifically, the failure of both Anglo-American writers and readers to embrace adult life and examine sexual relations in straightforward ways. He placed the greatest blame on the timidity of editors who invariably seem to fasten on female adolescents as their “ideal” reader. Female adolescents or the adolescent that remains firmly botoxed in women uncertain of maturity remain the favourite targets of Manhattan’s editors. Such readers are no longer sanctimonious—those who find their way past the Young Adult vampire fantasy sections of Big Boxes of Books and don’t stop at the shopaholic pyramids—devour the less-than-adult sexual relations that Heather O’Neill delivers in Lullabies and Marche attempts to service in his own debut, Raymond and Hannah (2005).
As a critic of our literature, Marche is a pissenlit (dandelion): as a novelist, does he have anything to offer? Raymond and Hannah has a plotless sex scene in an empty apartment that moves a hook-up to a somewhat committed relationship over a cottage weekend setting that are both worth reading: they are fine, compact, lucid short stories shoehorned between a novella about Hannah’s attempt at discover Jewishness by moving to Israel and studying at a yeshiva with a Rabbi who once was a fisherman in Maine that involves a lot of typing of the kind Nino Ricci (see below) does (whenever he forgets he’s a mature married man and not a morose grad student). While Raymond works at a doctoral dissertation in Toronto on—quelle surprise!—Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Hannah comes of age as Raymond doesn’t."
I guess that’s what you mean by one of my barbs! Reading Marche, I fall into some kind of time warp – it’s 1955 and he’s attempting to bestride Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself as a bull-rider without any grip on the other ballbusters in the room. If you want to know what’s happening in our country that makes it (and it's literature) utterly distinctive, you must sit down and read Adderson, Alexis, Bissoondath, Bush, Choy, Austin Clarke, George Elliott Clarke, Coady, Cole, Corbeil, Coupland, Durcan, Endicott, Gowdy, Greer, Hage, Heighton, Highway, Hill, Lai, , Bruce MacDonald, Robin Maharaj, Mootoo, Morrissey, Kevin Patterson, Rau Badami, , Robertson, Eden Robinson, Elizabeth Ruth, Brad Smith, Timothy Taylor, Priscilla Uppal, Vassanji, Whittal, Michael Winter. And that’s only a partial list! Until people do read them and read them as a matter of course, conversations about OurLit won’t shift to the realities upon which reliable critical judgments can be formed. God help us, we'll be stuck in Robertson Daviesville.
In 2006, the NY Times ran a feature about "the best" American novel since 1980. They asked 125 prominent literary figures to pick a single title. I'm going to ask you an unfair question now. If you were to pick a single Canadian novel since 1984 as "the best," what would you pick and why? (I have a guess about what you will choose.)
That’s easy – my own Hooked On Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels since 1984! Why? Because it contains “engrams” of all other candidates! I mean “engrams” as Aby Warburg used the term. (I discuss his library and his intellectual ambitions at some length.)
But to take my tongue out of my cheek and propose this seriously, I’d have to be delusional and consider myself as author of Hooked to be entirely imaginary and all the books I discuss to be works of my imagination. I’m not delusional. These books do exist and are as robustly independent-minded, distinctive and distinguished as I say they are. I’m not a one book or even one author sort of reader.
What’s your guess?
I thought the book you would pick was Solomon Gursky Was Here. Ah, well.
That’s a pretty good guess. Today, in fact, I can’t think of a better one unless we’re playing the desert island game. If I could only take one Canadian novel with me to a desert island, which one would it be? There are any number I wouldn’t have to take because I know their particular worlds so well I can think myself back inside them whenever I want even though details elude me.
Solomon Gursky is such a book. Barbara Gowdy’s Helpless is another and what a shame many readers avoided it because of what they thought it might be rather than what it actually is. Maybe now that people are becoming aware of the abductions of children in Haiti after the earthquake by well-intentioned emotional dimwits, it will find a more responsive readership.
The book I can’t carry in my head, the one I’d have to carry into exile with me is Don Akenson’s An Irish History of Civilization. Brian Fawcett says it’s “a global classic, even if no one figures it out for a decade or so” and he’s absolutely right. And if Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy are novels, it’s a novel – all 1524 pages of it.
At the end of my book, in an open letter to a former student, I place Atwood’s Year of the Flood alongside Akenson’s History as large and difficult books. Atwood’s is less than a third the length of Akenson so I obviously mean large in a larger sense. It has had very little impact to date, especially with the Giller jury. Once people read Akenson, maybe they’ll figure Atwood out.
Admirers of Year of the Flood might attribute its spurning by a Giller jury that selected Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man to what Atwood calls the Tall Poppy Syndrome—the levelling social attitude that cuts down the meritorious as presumptuous, attention seeking, or without genuine achievement. But her metaphor is too botanical, too bloodless even if it was first used by Aristotle (who chose sweet corn to the flowering source of opium).
Benjamin Franklin Fairless, president of United States Steel Corporation, was more Grimm-ish, closer and odder in fellowship to Atwood’s old friend Matt Cohen who liked to quote Fairless: “You cannot add to the stature of a dwarf by cutting off the leg of a giant.”
I think it goes deeper than that, as did Matt. We both read Nietzsche and Kierkegaard under the guiding hand of George Grant in our McMaster days. I quote both on the subject of ressentiment. Ressentiment is not simply resentment. It’s what Sartre called it “bad faith.” There’s a stinking heap of it in the continuing argument about who is and who isn’t, what is and what isn’t Canadian, who gives and who gets prizes in OurLit.
Values always shift, even the ones someone or other is always wanting to designate “essential” to “national identity.” Fifty years ago, Tommy Douglas—Father of Medicare—was “unCanadian” and the virulently anti-democratic RCMP was ever so Canadian (as long as we weren’t socialists or Native or Métis). Literary culture when it is pursued in good faith is about the processes through which the implicit is made explicit—ugliness is exposed to beauty, falsity is undermined by truth, bad is thwarted by the good.
Literary culture—the processes by which books get written and read—is a dialogue, a co-operation between writers and readers who are working towards common purposes in good faith with mutual respect. Literary culture is, before all else, an exercise in civics.
Okay, I’ve got that out of my system. I’ll put aside the soap box I haul out in a dozen or so mini-essays called “Annals of OurLit” in the book. My own tastes are clearly defined but there’s little that’s definitive about this book. It’s an argument or the start of one. In asserting “this is so about such and such novels and their makers, isn’t it?”, I’m asking for a reaction.
For me, the greatest strength of our literature is that our leading novelists – with very few exceptions – aren’t part of any established hierarchy. They’re outsiders – just think of the amazing array of writers with real world training and occupations (such as medicine) outside the literary world and the academic one – and that outsider status cloisters and protects their work in the way that jazz musicians are cloistered. And that opens up possibilities for them to be various and vital in ways Yanks and Brits no longer are.
Our storytellers can be as spiritual, cerebral, motivating, moving, idealistic, improvisational as they want. Especially, when it comes to detailing what Pico Iyer called “imaginative multiculturalism” in his famous essay “On the Promise of the New Canadian Fiction.”
Iyer defines this as a multiculturalism that can be “known only at the individual level, where people understand that it is only in the imagination that we can begin to penetrate the Other (or to allow the Other to penetrate us)”— it’s multiculturalism based on shared beliefs not shared roots, it’s a defence of the natural order and human nature against ideology and the politics of identity.
Why does this matter? When we read our storytellers like this, it keeps us from blaming “global warming” or “bad politics” for what is happening. We are destroying ourselves by depending on an an expand-or-expire agro-industrial empire—a crackpot machine—that the specialists cannot comprehend and the managers cannot manage.
Our writers – at their best – do not submit to this system but to standards raised, though not necessarily made, by themselves. In this, they’re much closer to Cervantes and Shakespeare, the Bible and Homer, Conrad and James – as I repeatedly point out in Hooked and in every review I write these days. I’m not in the habit “of turning up a new Conrad, Faulkner, Thomas Mann, or Henry James around every corner” as some say I am.
What I am doing is showing (whenever possible and wherever it’s apposite) that our best novelists are working out their own resolutions to older problems in new ways but in continuity with the greats of the past.
Steve Heighton, for instance, has figured out in his new novel how the eighteenth century device of multiple points of view (that Conrad re-popularized) serves specific moral purposes and isn’t merely a Creative Writing MFA impress-the-panel thesis project.
At the beginning of The Dyer's Hand, W.H. Auden remarks that he's "never written a line of criticism except in response to a demand;" meanwhile, "all the poems I have written were written for love." As you've already hinted, in Canlit criticism is written more for love than profit. Yet, where are the critics? As you've noted, the past quarter-century has been a rich and lively period in Canadian letters, but decent, engaged critics are few. First, do you have a comment about that? Second, am I missing something? Are there some Canlit critics and titles you'd recommend?
A whole generation of readers and writers has been betrayed by the waxing of Cultural Studies and its practitioners. If you don’t know what I mean by that, read the British critic Terry Eagleton’s later writings, especially After Theory (2003), his indictment of the rejection of any and all “absolutes” in literary studies.
Eagleton asserts – sanely – that each of us lives in a body that cannot be “owned” because nothing was ever done to acquire it and nothing short of suicide can be done to be rid of it. Our bodies and their deaths provide the focus for literary activities or they perish. (His argument for Christianity is delicious – “one of the best reasons for being a Christian, as well as a socialist, is that you don't like having to work, and reject the fearful idolatry of it so rife in countries like the United States.
True civilizations do not hold predawn power breakfasts.”) I don’t and won’t read anyone who denies death in order to earn their daily bread – and there’s no greater denial of death than the advocacy of ideological and/or aesthetic purity, is there?
Bruce Serafin, the founding editor of The Vancouver Review and a full time postal worker, grappled with death his entire life and produced two books of literary essays – Colin’s Big Thing (2003) and the posthumous Stardust (2007). Stardust contains a critique of Canada’s literary magazines that’s sharp, funny, devastating, and should be mandatory reading by the magazines section of the Canada Council but evidently isn’t.
Serafin’s work is wildly uneven – at his best, he wrote “passages of the best prose ever written on Canada’s west coast” according to Brian Fawcett who knows west coast writing better than anyone I’ve ever encountered. But Serafin’s gift was not only to write well but to write provocatively and he elicited a piece of criticism by Fawcett “Serafin’s Stardust: Losing the best Canadian writer no one knows about” (posted on Dooneyscafe.com) that’s better than anything written about any Canadian writer than most of us have ever likely read.
I’ve been reading Fawcett more assiduously and arguing more with him (mostly inside my own head) than I have with anybody else since 1984. Unusual Circumstances, Interesting Times and Other Impolite Interventions (1991) is still very much worth reading for its insights into Douglas Coupland’s first literary efforts and Margaret Atwood at mid-career. It’s a good starting point for reading your way through his many postings at Dooneyscafe.com.
Most of what I read by way of critiques of Canadian writers I pick up here and there on the internet and you’re right that decent, engaged critics are few and far between. The universities produce such people only by accident, it seems. And our national media give them no room to flourish. For much of my writing life, The Toronto Star was the only newspaper to have a full time book columnist – Philip Marchand. His Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature (1998) is essential reading. As is his book on Marshall McLuhan.
I’d also recommend John Metcalf’s two volumes of literary memoirs – An Aesthetic Underground (2003) and Shut Up He Explained (2007). The latter contains “The Century List” – Metcalf’s selection of The Best Forty Canadian Short Story Collections of the Twentieth Century. I love arguing with it. As Brian Bethune of Maclean’s has said of my own Hooked, “there’s something that makes you want to throw it at a wall.” I shake my head at his exclusion of Rick Rofihe’s Father Must (1991).
Rofihe is the third Canadian – Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant – to have signed a “first right of refusal contract” with The New Yorker. Unfortunately, he fell into a deep pothole on the road to success. (He now publishes exclusively on the internet) but the 16 pieces in Father Must have all the qualities Metcalf teaches us to admire in lesser known, lesser talented writers.
Another book I like a lot because of my own passion for Cervantes is Douglas Glover’s The Enamoured Knight, a book-length meditation on Don Quixote and the formation of the novel.
The future. I know your book is more a reflection on the recent past, but one thing that surprised me is you didn't comment on some of the dramatic technological/market changes that have played havoc and been a powerful shaping tool of Canlit and publishing globally during that time. I thinking of things like the rise of online book selling, the internet generally, the rise of the big box booksellers and the rise of international media megacompanies and the drive to push blockbuster books (almost exclusively some would say).
More recently, the swift dominance of hand-held digital devices and the i-Pad, as a singular and powerful example, may literally push books right off the shelves. Others, like Philip Roth, are saying the end of the literary novel is nigh. Your book, on the other hand, is optimistic. Presumably not just about the Canadian novel but about literature generally. I don't mean to be a death eater, but what are your thoughts? Are we in an End of Culture perfect storm?
I do actually comment on the rise of big box stores, their obliteration of independent booksellers, and Indigo’s reinvention of itself as a Martha Stewart cerebral accessorizing consumer outlet, a Walmart of mental furnishings and the transformation of public libraries into infocenters. My comments are brief, obviously easy to overlook but pointed. I pay considerable attention to Henry James’s thinking about the future of the novel which I think is more accurate than Philip Roth’s in its final prognosis.
Roth is correct in forecasting the end of literary novels as bestsellers and their authors as celebrities but both those phenomena owed a great deal more to Henry Luce’s suborning of American literature to the political aims of his Time-Life empire than Roth, one of the last knights in its end games, considers.
My book is enthusiastic but not particularly optimistic. Novels are the best painkillers mankind has created, as James says, and as long as we’re alive and sentient, they’ll continue to do their work. We’ll all need to elevate our pain thresholds enormously to find any kind of personal satisfaction in living through the wrenching changes of the next two decades as the world’s centers of population shift in more dramatic ways than the collapse of the Soviet Union has pre-figured.
Since I’m convinced Canada will be in the foreground of the most crucial of those changes, I’m enthusiastically promoting those writers who seem to me to be the surest guides to Iyer’s “imaginative multiculturalism” – multiculturalism based on shared beliefs not shared roots, the defence of the natural order and human nature against ideology and the politics of identity, a fully human engagement with the Other.
As far as hand-held digital devices go, I’ve seen enormous changes in delivery systems for every form of communication in my lifetime. The latest system neither thrills nor offends me.
Final question. It was going to be: What do you think of HARRY POTTER? But I decided on something more personal. If I was gonig to pick a single best title from the past twenty-five years, my choice might be Douglas Glover's THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CAPTAIN N. I was really struck by that book, and Glover's work generally, as material that wrestled with familiar Canadian tropes in wholly unexpected ways. Particularly ways that didn't defend a Canadian nationalism, but complicated it, wrestled with it, forced it to confront international pressures, literary theory, philosophical concepts, the whole shebang. So if I had to pinpoint a disappointment with your book, it's that I would have been interested in hearing your take on that book and Glover's work in general. So, in the spirit of conversation, I'm asking: What do you think of Glover's ouevre?
Ooops! I owe Douglas Glover an apology. And you. And other readers. Glover has published three novels in addition to his critique of Cervantes, his essays, his five story collections and even though his first novel, Precious (1981), was on the short list for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and his third, Elle (2005), won the Governor General’s Award, I always think of him as a short story writer and one of the really good ones. And I admire him as a critic as noted above.
In his short stories, he’s at his best, his saddest and funniest when he is most Beckett-like. I should have made it plain in Hooked that Glover like David Carpenter and Audrey Thomas and Alistair MacLeod and Leon Rooke and …. who else am I missing out ? – are all writers whose novels cause problems (generally structural ones) for readers that their stories don’t.
If you reread what I quote Burgess saying about the necessity of a parabola in a novel (at the beginning of Hooked) you might see what I mean even if you disagree. The other, and more critical problem, is that all of theses writers lack restraint and gratify self-indulgence when they write at length and editors let them get away with it, time and again.
But Glover is owed a larger apology than the others because The Life and Times of Captain N. dropped below my radar. Blame fans like you! I’ve bought at least three copies over the years and let students borrow them and they’ve never been returned. I didn’t have a copy at hand and got sidetracked trying to figure out why Elle attracted the attention it did. Obviously, I couldn’t respond to Elle and quite forgot about the virtues of Captain N. You should have the last word. Tell me what do you think of Elle?
I’m tempted to give the last word to my wife (a not uncommon occurrence). I suggested Elle to her and she loved it. Thought it was hilarious. I liked it, but I didn’t admire it as much as The Life and Times of Captain N., which is one of the very few Canadian novels I consider a tour de force. I’d put Solomon Gurksy in that category, too.
But what did I think of Elle? It was an exercise in voice and an elaborately told joke. Elsewhere I’ve called Glover a Canadian dissident. I like the critical undermining of our nationalism – maybe the particular southern Ontario Protestant nationalism (Red Tory, United Empire Loyalism) that is both Glover’s heritage and mine.
I like the playfulness of the language and the historicism of Elle. The reader isn’t locked into history. One passage I remember notes how hundreds of years after the action a highway will pass across the same spot of land. I find that fun to read, and also a good reminder that the reverse it true, too. Where there are now highways, there were once hunting parties and canoes. Taken from a literary point of view, our writing can’t be based on imported tropes; it needs to be indigenous and wild.
I like your OurLit. It is, whatever it is.