Thursday, May 5, 2011

Canlit Pomo

Re: Reading the Postmodern: Canadian Literature and Criticism After Modernism
Edited by Robert David Stacey
University of Ottawa Press, 2010

On page 188 of this disparate collection of essays, is a footnote:

Ami McKay, for instance, describes how her agent picked up her highly popular debut novel The Birth House, about a midwife in rural Nova Scotia in the early twentieth century, on the condition that McKay excise a contemporary, parallel story.

The essayist, Herb Wyile, cites the source of the anecdote: McKay’s 2006 Quill & Quire profile, which also includes this:

Today, with the help of her husband, who now works as a freelance web designer, McKay maintains two extensive websites, a blog, and an online forum with more than 600 registered users. Her site for The Birth House includes an interactive virtual scrapbook, a reading guide, downloadable bookplates, and The Hysteria Quiz, which gives a mock diagnosis of the user’s need for “vibratory treatment.” She has created an online community for her readers, and in return, they shower her with letters praising her work and sharing their own stories.

Yes, Anne Shirley, we’re a long way from Green Gables – and a long way from 1988.

That was the year U of T professor Linda Hutcheon published The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction (Oxford UP), a work that is a touch stone for many of the essayists in this volume, which documents (some of) the Canadian Literature Symposium held at the University of Ottawa in May 2008.

Here’s a quote from Hutcheon’s website:

In the postmodern novel, we find … self-reflexivity, … parody, but always combined with an awareness of the particularities of the place and time in which the work is both written and read. The move from modernism to postmodernism came with the paradoxical use of that art-as-art focus to engage directly with the social, the political, and the historical—to comment critically on the worlds of both art and experience.

Which brings us back to the point Wyile made with his footnote, which he places following these three sentences:

The last couple of decades have witnessed increasing concentration in the [publishing] industry and an increasingly corporate, profit-oriented sensibility. With publishing houses increasingly contained within larger, diversified corporate structures, the emphasis is less on supporting innovation and fostering cultural diversity and more on moving product. One consequence is a reduced volume of literary titles and a greater emphasis on accessibility to a wider audience.

Arguably, the book McKay was writing before her agent intervened would have aligned with Hutcheon’s definition of the postmodern, extending a Canadian tradition: to engage directly with the social, the political, and the historical—to comment critically on the worlds of both art and experience. Equally, by losing the contemporary storyline, and shifting point of view, McKay’s book became a more accessible “product.” It became less a work of art and more a tool of “late-capitalism.” However, let’s also note that it is a product readers now interact with even after the reading experience, through McKay’s “extensive websites.” The work is, therefore, a post(post)modern experience, surely, that couldn’t have been imagined in 1988.

As usual, when contemplating the post(crazy)modern, my head is spinning.

And so I “begin” here by highly recommending Stacey’s editorial introduction, titled “Introduction: Post-, Marked Canada.” It is as clearheaded and ideologically neutral an overview of the (Canlit, post-1967) field as I’ve read anywhere. He outlines the positions of the Canlit granddaddies (Robert Kroetsch and Frank Davey), contextualizes Hutcheon’s canonical work, explains the contemporary counter-attack, arguably led by Christian Bök (who suggests Hutcheon was more defender of the status quo than radical), and generally squares the circle regarding the never-ending (?) interplay between modernism and its post/past/aftermath.

That is, Stacey explicates far better than I am going to do here the contentious nature of (capital ‘T’) Time. Is postmodernism a reference to a period after modernism? Or it is a condition within modernism, which hasn’t ended? The telling (and creating) of history is a recurring theme in these essays, and a topic of particular interest to Hutcheon, who summarized it as a notably Canadian concern. Thus, arguably, she helped to shut out other connotations of postmodernism within the critical discourse of contemporary “English-Canadian” fiction – and created distortions of “reality,” what people were really writing and publishing, if not reading.

Not long after 1988 (if not before), of course, any consensus about the “postmodern” collapsed. As Stacey explains it:

In part because of the immense popularity of Hutcheon’s work, an academic interest in the postmodern in Canada and the Canadian postmodern (which, though related, are far from synonymous) was by the mid-1990s already nearing its high-water mark. It was not long before the concept, having been so suddenly and thoroughly incorporated into academic discourse, lost much of its value as a contestatory term. In addition, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, postmodernism increasingly became the target of a number of identity-based critical schools, such as feminism and postcolonial studies, for whom the “reign of the signifier,” as Carolyn Bayard characterizes the linguistic and textual emphasis of postmodernism, posed a double threat: first, by seeming to devalue the experimental basis of their various critiques, and second, by putting in doubt the very language of reference on which those critiques relied.

And if you can get through that quotation without reaching for a cigarette, congratulations.

Another way of saying it is, the historical uncertainties released by postmodernism provided opportunities for new emphasis on previously “marginal” narratives (women, minorities), and these new narratives then created their own centres of power or new/renewed certainty that disabled the very notion of historical uncertainty itself.

Again, another way of saying it is, readers wanted a different kind of realism. One that focused on stories like McKay’s The Birth House. Readers didn’t want historical uncertainties; no parallel narrative that links the present to the past and offers a chance to compare/contrast. Readers simply wanted a different kind of reassurance.

Whatever post(post)modernism is in Canadian literature, it doesn’t look like it emerged from 1988. In fact, the dominant impression left by this collection of essays is that Canlit has an awful lot it hasn’t digested. The perspective of the baby boom generation hasn’t been significantly displaced (though it needs to be), and there are some devastating critiques included here that deserve wider notice.

One is Alexander MacLeod’s “Reconciling Regionalism: Spatial Epistemology, Robert Kroetsch, and the Roots of Canadian Postmodern Fiction.” Essentially, MacLeod suggests that Kroetsch’s postmodernism is really a regional (Albertan) critique of the Canadian consensus. Kroetsch’s uncertainty, he suggests, isn’t an uncertainty at all:

In the end, Kroetsch’s trickster blend of regionalism and postmodernism seems to venture out into the abstractions of theory only to double back again and sneak home through the side door. Though his regional loyalties and his pure affection for nature may ultimately undermine the elevated postmodern pedigree so many scholars have tried to graft onto his work, Kroetsch, perhaps more than any other figure in Canadian literature, is experienced enough to know that it is never the writer’s fault when critics do what they do, and that in the end “a local pride,” misplaced or not, can always promise more comfort than the postmodern condition could ever provide (146).


On the other hand, I think it would surprise John “Metcalfe” to be described as a “rabid anti-American writer-critic” and included in a list along with Robin Mathews and Keith Richardson (320). It wouldn’t surprise him, though, to find his name spelled incorrectly with the extra ‘e’.

One of the “corrections” offered in the essays collected here is a special focus on poetry. From the 1970s expanding outwards, the TRG and others have been pressing forward a Canadian engagement with experimental poetry. As the title of Hutcheon’s book makes clear, she didn’t address this genre in 1988 and the editors of the new essay collection have made sure that gap was filled here.

It is, therefore, surprising that there isn’t a single essay on the short story in Canada, which has had as lively a past quarter century as its versifying cousin.

In sum, this is an essential work. And more essential work remains.

Final comment: I confess that it surprised me to find not a single reference to George W. Bush and the eight years of his Presidency, which featured a renewed emphasis on ideological certainty not seen since the 1950s, which was the kind of certainty against which the Big Wave of American Postmodernists initially defined itself. Perhaps Canadian literature has always tended to define itself as skeptical of American exceptionalism and American certainty, so this silence about the post 9/11 era is unremarkable, but it did seem notable to me. Odd, even.

C’est la vie.



A couple of other items of note:
  • Frank Davey notes the lack of interest in the rest of the world regarding "Canadian Postmodernism." As he writes: "I can only find one book on Canadian postmodernist writing edited and published outside of Canada" (9).
  • If Canada is the world's most postmodern country, it is strange that literary scholars have ignored this nations writers who have been most engaged in this arena.
  • The 2011 federal election, however, shows that the Canadian electorate remains full of surprises; and is ready, willing and able to re-align centres and margins in directions our media and political elite were previously unable to anticipate or articulate.  Canada has a majority government, but a polarized electorate, and the party of the centre has been sent to the woodshed. Hmm. Interesting times.

1 comment:

Finn Harvor said...

"the emphasis is less on supporting innovation"

This is an understatement.