Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Canadian literature lives

Proving yet again that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, I am now prepared to proclaim the strength and health of Canadian literature using the same report that made me so pessimistic only a week ago.

The full report is online (pdf) -- and nearly 400 pages long.

On pages 181-192, the results of question #20 of the survey appear. Question #20 was "Please name some Canadian authors you have heard of, to a maximum of ten."

As the National Post reported, just 53% of respondents were able to answer this question, providing the name of at least one Canadian author.

However, the statistics reveal some trends that I found more hopeful. For example, the results show that the 1,502 interviewed for the survey were able to name 452 authors.

Margaret Atwood took top place, being named 22% of the time, but a category called "other" actually came out on top, taking 25% of the names. (Who's in other? Survey doesn't say.) [Ed. See comment below. Oops. Must be non-Canadians.]

The fact that there is such a diversity of names known in a sample of this size strikes me as a sign of a healthy literary culture -- at least within the small circles of readers who cluster around different clusters of local/regional authors. [Perhaps more a sign that people don't know who's Canadian and who's not. Does it really matter? An interesting topic for discusion!]

A couple of other trends can be seen in the deep reaches of the statistics. Along readers 15-19, for example, Eric Walters (7%) does nearly as well as Atwood (10%), though other (12%) beats them both.

Quebec, of course, provides a whole separate reading list. Michel Tremblay takes 18% in the province, but only 5% nationally. There are a number of authors that only show up in Quebec. Mordecai Richler, interestingly, does better in Ontario (6%) than in Quebec (1%), and Pierre Trudeau was named twice in Ontario and once in Manitoba/Saskatchewan; not at all in Quebec.

The 50+ demographic made up 603 of the 1,502 respondents, though Farley Mowat, now 87, did better in the 35-49 demographic (11%) than in the older crowd (8%).

Alice Munro didn't do well anywhere, appearing in only 2% of the lists, only slightly more frequently among women (3%) than among men (2%).

What does it all mean? God only knows.

It would seem that the literary culture, like so much else these days, has fragmented into a thousand points of light. That link is a joke, but the point isn't.

Mass media models are breaking down all over the place. I guess it's no surprise that national literary cultures are, too. Does that mean Canadian literature is dead? I think it's going to increasingly be hard for a broad popular knowledge to take hold around a new canon. On the other hand, the survey suggests there is knowledge about lots of different authors. That seems like a good thing, and it may even be an improvement; more people are getting read, even if the average number of readers each can expect is likely getting smaller.

I hope to take a look at the rest of the 400 page survey later. So much to read!


Calgary Herald takes a stand (January 8, 2009)

Comments on Bookninja

"Who forgot Canlit?" by Philip Marchand (NP, January 9, 2009)

"What can we do about it?" by Mark Medley (NP, January 10, 2009)

Writing on his blog following the study's release, Michael Bryson, a Toronto writer and founder of popular literary website The Danforth Review, said the news isn't that people couldn't name Canadian authors, it was that "Canada's literary culture clearly hasn't renewed itself." He has a point. Among the 20 authors most often mentioned, none is younger than 50 (Douglas Coupland, 47, checks in at 21st place). Of the top 13, six are dead.

"The nation's literary culture will not be renewed if the younger generation of writers isn't absorbed into popular awareness," Bryson said in an e-mail. "It is more astonishing to me that the general population seems not to have an awareness of the generation after the Sixties Generation (or that the Sixties Generation is so persistent even now)."

1 comment:

Michael Bryson said...

Suddenly on the subway this morning it hit me. "Other" probably means "non-Canadian." Because if they're Canadian, then the percentages add to more than 100%. Silly me.