Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Death of the (Canadian) Novel

[First published in The Danforth Review, 2001]

The year would have been 1990. The Wall had just fallen. The Cold War was over. I was an undergraduate studying English at the University of Waterloo, and one of my professors told me the novel was dead. "It can’t be," I said. "I’m going to write one." I went to meet with him in his office. He called me a "reactionary." (Really!) Flustered, I went home and looked up that label in a dictionary: "one who supports movement in the direction of political conservatism or extreme rightism." Not me, I thought. I was just a confused kid trying to figure out how to write.

Later, I figured out that my professor proclaimed the novel dead he did not mean all novels, just the traditional, realist novel: the form usually associated with the Victorian Era of the mid- and late-19th century; the novels of Dickens, Thackery, and the Bront√ęs. I learned this when I found his argument in a slim volume of essays on Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (subsequently lost), which referred to Ronald Sukenick’s influential 1969 title, THE DEATH OF THE NOVEL. There, Sukenick argued that a new generation of American writers (including Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Gary Geddis) emerged in the post-WWII era. This new generation of writers was suspicious of contemporary politics and the ability of language to represent reality.

Sukenick argued, in other words, that the novel was dead because reality was dead. Reality was unknowable. There was no connection between writing and reality, and the realist novel – and its attendant assumptions – was a sham. The novel’s claim to be a form of reportage was bunk. Journalism was a black art. All narratives were subjective. Every utterance was infused with rhetorical ambiguities, assumptions about the speaker and the audience, and unavoidable political implications. Marx had uncovered hidden forces in the economy. Freud had uncovered hidden forces in the mind. McLuhan had revealed the hidden structure of communications media. Novelists responded to these changes by telling different kinds of stories. American novelist John Hawkes, for example, famously claimed he tried to write without concern for plot, character or setting.

This was a new, and fascinating, argument to me, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard about it before. As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, the strongest literary arguments I encountered had to do with the definition of Canadian literature. What was it? No one seemed to know, but whatever it was it was doing better than ever. It had produced a couple of millionaires. After "coming of age" in the 1960s, it had finally "matured."

In the month or so after my professor called me a reactionary, he confronted his class with the question: "What is writing?" Is it an imitation of dialogue, and therefore a lesser art (which was Plato’s opinion)? Or was it some other thing? A mirror to the world, for example. Or perhaps a kind of lamp, illuminating a transcendent reality, as the Romantics believed. On the other hand, perhaps writing was just a string of arbitrary symbols with no relation to anything but itself, which was the post-modernist position.

Again, the arguments intrigued me. They also undermined my confidence in Canadian literature’s "grown up" status. Northrop Frye had accused Canada’s writers of suffering from a "Garrison Mentality", of taking a defensive stance against the world’s larger artistic influences. But by 1990 it was out of fashion to call Canada a literary backwater. The 1960s had changed all that. The 1960s: when wave after wave of nationalist emotion was sweeping the land, and George Grant was lamenting the nation. For the first time, Canada had its own flag. Trudeau was about to burst on the scene. Then in 1967 (Pierre Burton’s "last good year"), Montreal’s Expo kicked the party into high gear. In the years that followed, the rising nationalist project attracted many literary stars of the era. Margaret Atwood’s SURVIVAL: A THEMATIC GUIDE TO CANADIAN LITERATURE dates from this period. So do the numerous university and college Canlit survey courses. The question "What is Canadian about Canadian literature?" dominated many people’s minds. To find their answers, most followed the thematic approach proposed by Atwood, herself a student of Frye. Canadian literature was born; the Garrision Mentality was defeated. Or so the story went.

The resulting irony, of course, is that at the same time as many Amerian novelists were giving up on realism – or at least challenging its outer boundaries – the strongest movement in Canadian letters was the push to define a nation. Post-modern approaches to literature could not aid in this effort; if fact, they tended to push in the opposite direction, questioning the very existence of reality itself. Thus the significance of post-modernism in Canadian letters has been significantly underplayed. What is Canadian about it? Nothing. Then how can it be of value to Canadian literature? The roots of this conflict continue today, and it has taken on a generational tone, as the younger generation of writers has abandoned the self-imposed duty of the older generation of writers to define and defend the nation. Writers as diverse as Michael Turner, Lynn Crosbie, Hal Niedzviecki, Natalie Caple, and Tony Burgess have brought a renewed sense of urgency to literary writing in Canada, and yet none have won any significant awards.

I started this essay with a story from my undergraduate days as a youngster trying to learn how to write. Let’s go back there for just a moment.

Like many young people, I thought of myself as a writer because I felt a compulsion to mark up blank pages. The decision to write was a recognition of an impulse inside: a recognition of an inner drive, like the drive for food, or sex. I pursued my compulsion the only way I knew how, writing confessional poetry at first, then made-up narratives, blissfully unaware of the aesthetic and political controversies I would soon confront. Such as being called a reactionary because I had named J.D. Salinger as someone whose writing I wanted to emulate. Like Holden Caulfield, the hero of Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, I wanted to attach myself to what was real in the world. I had no place for "phonies." I saw art as a means of transcending the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I had no sense of post-modernism or the writers I would soon come to admire: Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, and Terry Southern. I had just read Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD, and I was filled with Kerouac’s Whitmanesque desire to burn, burn, burn. The novel was dead? Impossible! But I soon learned that in the bi-polar culture war world of the early-1990s sharp lines were being drawn. To many – like my professor – if you questioned the skepticism of the post-modernist position, you stood opposed to the progressive evolution of the 20th century.

And the fact is, I’m sympathetic to this position, as outrageous it sounds (and as ineptly presented as it was by my professor). On the other hand, I believe literature’s greatest gift to the world is the diversity of its riches. The novel is not dead (not even the realistic novel; which will never die). In fact – surprise! – there is little new about post-modernism, except its new schools of jargon and ever finer intellectual abstractions. Everyone from Cervantes, to Spenser, to Laurence Sterne qualify for the pomo All-Star team. The narrative strategies often hailed as the invention of the late-20th century crop of innovative writers have been around for centuries. Milan Kundera makes this explicitly clear in his excellent book-length essay, THE ART OF THE NOVEL.

The history of the novel has more than one line.

Even in Canada.

Kundera connects himself and other pomo writers like Rushdie back through time to the Spanish great Cervantes. The other line connects from Jane Austen, through Charles Dickens and the other Victorians, to today’s realist apologists, perhaps most strongly exemplified by Tom Wolfe and the other New Journalists. Each line is legitimate, strong, vital, interesting, challenging, rich with narrative potential, and a solid breeding ground for rewarding reading experiences.

Why don’t we usually see the history of the novel in Canada this way? The interference of nationalism in the literary process is one reason. Another reason is that there are partisans on both sides who refuse to include the other (my professor is a perfect example). The extent to which we allow this to continue undermines our ability to both understand our literary heritage and forcefully encourage the most innovative of our up-and-comers.

3 comments:

Finn Harvor said...

Michael,
Two points: One, do you mean Gary Geddis or John Gaddis?

Two, re: the Salinger 'n' Kerouac passionate-populist/post-modernist divide -- I think part of the problem with the point of view of critics like the professor you mention and their proclivity for denouncing those who proclaim their allegiance to the passionate-populist school is that the divide forces us into a false dichotomy.

Right now, the problem facing many writers is building careers: the simple acts of getting published/selling enough copies to get published again, and so forth. And these problems are being made more acute by the fall in book sales. In other words, the audience is now an artistic problem.

Winning back an audience is one way that writers -- whatever their artistic allegiance -- can build the sort of foundation any literature needs. And that act of winning an audience means making intelligent concessions to the reality many readers find themselves in; not a hell of a lot of free time, for one thing. (This, incidentally, is one reason why the screenplay-novel idea is a worthwhile one, I think. But, ah, I'm veering off-track into self-promotion land, and in Canada, that's a no-no.)

Michael Bryson said...

Good catch. John Gaddis.
But Geddis would sort of work?

Finn Harvor said...

Yeah, I think you might be right (though note that I'm going on knowledge of Geddis's reputation, not his work which I've only read very little of).

Incidentally, it interests me how much these questions of canon-formation get determined by Americans and Brits whose knowledge is very, very primarily of Brit/Am fiction. That's natural, I suppose, but it helps reinforce the conservatism of CanLit which, it needs underlining, exists at the selection level, not the creative one. What I mean here is, writers write as they write. Whether they are paid attention to (or even get in print) is another question.

How many Canadians have experimented with fictional forms? We might never know, because some of them who nevertheless could have existed were consigned utterly to obscurity. And that's a pity, no?