Our world-class literature

It's not what we asked for, but it's nevertheless great

Welcome to the 120th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

These days we Canadians tend to take for granted our world-class literature. Alice Munro wins a Nobel, Margaret Atwood another Booker, and a stunning young talent like Esi Edugyan emerges out of nowhere with a pair of international hits. We all yawn.

It wasn't always this good. For most of our history, writers in Canada identified more with English and American literary traditions than anything from their own land, not least because many could only get published in London or New York. It took a strange amalgam of individual talent, collective will, commercial enterprise, and public support to make CanLit happen. That emergence in the subject of David Staines’s new book, A History of Canadian Fiction, the first one-volume effort of its kind.

As surveys go, the book is a masterpiece, an epic story of the long struggle and spectacular rise of what now ranks as one of the world's great literatures, and it is sure to be the definitive one for generations to come.

I read it in galley form some months ago and have been thinking about it on and off ever since. Staines (below) does a great job of tracing the leading international influences on our early development, especially the enormous footprint of Charles Dickens in Canada. As a publisher, I appreciate his attention to the business side of literature—all those early Ontario Presbyterian publishers—and the enormous influence of the state on Canadian writing. But it’s the accounts of the careers and works of individual writers that keep you flipping pages.

For instance, Frederick Philip Grove, born in Germany in 1879 and christened Felix Paul Greve. He struggled to make a living as a novelist and translator in his native land until, facing economic ruin, he faked his suicide and emigrated to Winnipeg in 1912, leaving a wife behind. Fabricating an aristocratic Anglo-Swedish background for himself, he started over under his new name, worked as a school teacher, and remarried. He wrote nature sketches, novels about the pioneer experience, a lot more fiction under the deadening influence of Thomas Hardy, and, finally, produced The Master of the Mill, which Staines describes as his last and only industrial novel. It captures important changes in Canadian life:

The disintegration of the mill heralds the destruction of that ideal society that had been fostered in the country. Now city life means the disruption and end of the prosperous world of the countryside. Leaving behind the prairies, Grove enters the world of the modern novel. Rejecting his chronological studies, he embraces discontinuous time shifts and intermingles reminiscences, associations, and historical sketches. It is the meaning of events and not their orderliness that matters in this evocation of his horror of modern industry.

Despite his thirty-six-year writing career in Canada, Grove (below) died broke and ignored.

It is surprising how much of early Canadian literature came out of the still sparsely-populated West. Yes, Ontario gave us Stephen Leacock and Morley Callaghan, but Manitoba furnished the Norwegian immigrant Martha Ostenso (Wild Geese) in addition to Grove, and Saskatchewan turned up W. O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen the Wind) and Sinclair Ross (As for Me and My House). Both Ostenso and Ross, given the sorry state of early publishing in Canada, had to go to the US to get published. Alberta produced Howard O’Hagan (Tay John), and British Columbia contributed one of the heroes of Staine’s history, the great Ethel Wilson (Hetty Dorval, and much more).

Born in South Africa and orphaned in England at the age of nine, Wilson was shipped to Vancouver to live with her maternal grandmother. She, too, had to begin her writing career outside Canada, selling short stories to the UK’s New Statesman and Nation in the 1930s before eventually breaking into the Canadian Forum and Chatelaine. “Wilson has a beautiful writing style,” says Staines, “a clear form of narration, and an ability to capture scenes and their people with eloquent understatement”:

Wilson’s fictional universe involves a faithful depiction of her beloved Vancouver and the interior of British Columbia. Her people consist of the working class and those from the more privileged social classes, and their presentation is a realistic celebration of their unique determination to become more than what they originally were. Her main characters are women who take themselves out of their familiar settings in order to discover their true selves. They soon learn that this world is not benign, but chaotic, shaped by chance. Yet each woman must establish by herself the connection with the larger human community of which she is a part…

The ultimate accolade for Wilson’s fiction comes again from [Alice] Munro. “I was enormously excited by her work because the style was such an enormous pleasure in itself,” she reflects. “It was important to me that a Canadian writer was using so elegant a style. You know I don’t mean style in the superficial sense, but that a point of view so complex and ironic was possible in Canadian literature.”

The post-war years comprise the core of Staines’s history. There is a lively discussion of Robertson Davies (below) who, unique among major Canadian writers, left no literary progeny (he hardly seems to have readers anymore). I learned a lot about Mavis Gallant, who enjoyed a long career in newspapers before moving to Europe and devoting herself to short stories. (It was Gallant who noticed in 1946 that Canadians fear the Americanization of their country, but not enough to read Canadian. There’s a great biography waiting to be written of her). I was happy to see Staines capture Mordecai Richler’s ambivalence toward his most famous creation, Duddy Kravitz, and note his virtues—audacity, daring, even savagery—as well as his more obvious failings.

The history makes a strong case for the centrality of Margaret Laurence to recent Canadian letters but not strong enough to tempt me to read her again. Staines’s discussion of Alice Munro's technique is outstanding (as one might expect from the author of The Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro). Margaret Atwood, intentionally or not, comes across as a child of Nellie McClung, the suffragette and author whose politics were central to her reception and reputation. Thomas King, who arrives later in the twentieth century, is presented as a major figure:

Frequently comic in his novels with their depiction of Indigenous peoples and their ways of life, King presents a tragic vision of these men and women trying to live their lives according to their own terms; he notes the indignities suffered by them, setting up a paradigm of equality which embraces all human beings. In so doing, he repositioned Indigenous fiction as an essential part of contemporary writing.”

The last section of A History of Canadian Fiction is a tour de force, and it almost had to be to make any sense of the explosion of talent and the almost ridiculous cosmopolitanism of our contemporary scene. The 1950s project of producing a distinctly national literature rooted in our own soil instead evolved into a literature in which “the here” is “indefinable.” How do you place authors like Montreal’s Rawi Hage, who writes of both his Lebanese homeland and the experience of immigrants in Quebec; David Chariandry, the son of Caribbean immigrants who teaches at Simon Fraser and writes of African-Caribbean culture in the suburb of Scarborough; Madeleine Thein, a Vancouver native, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who writes about contemporary Canada “in order to wonder about the familial, social, and increasingly political problems that have occurred in Borneo, Cambodia, and China respectively;” and Esi Edugyan (above), the Calgary-born daughter of Ghanaian immigrants whose first Booker finalist, Half-Blood Blues, was a story of a mixed-race jazz musician in Nazi Germany, and whose second Booker finalist, Washington Black, opens on an 1830’s Barbadian sugar plantation?

For today’s writers, says Staines, “here encompasses Canada and the world, an area with no centre and therefore no periphery, with neither the possibility nor even the need of definition.” Terms like “national and international” no longer apply, unless you’re talking about short-lists and awards these writers scoop up at an impressive rate.

This survey could not have come at a better time, on the heels of several years of vicious fighting in the increasingly crowded corridors of Canlit. It is a salutary reminder that behind these fleeting controversies stands a wealth of outstanding work that will be all that matters in the end. Generous, fair-minded, inclusive, comprehensive, and highly readable, A History Of Canadian Fiction is the culmination of a lifetime of reading and scholarship by Staines. There can’t be more than a handful of people who might plausibly have attempted such a project, and it’s doubtful anyone could match what he has achieved. Which leads me to a serious complaint.

Its publisher, Cambridge University Press, prices the book at $126.95 (the “discounted” digital version is $111.65 on Amazon). The objective would seem to be to soak libraries and the undergraduates who will see it on reading lists. I’m sure it works for the Cambridge business model but it is an indefensible price. This is a 318-page book, a feat of scholarship that nonetheless works for a general audience. Everyone interested in Canada and/or its literature should read it. Few will. Chapters-Indigo isn’t even trying to sell it in stores. That’s a major disservice to the author, the reading public, and Canadian Literature.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Jeet Heer’s The Time of Monsters: political culture and cultural politics

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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