Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Wither (sic) the CanLit?

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As you may have noticed, this year’s literary award shortlists have been accompanied by a certain amount of debate. In the UK, the Booker list was slammed for being too “readable,” while here in Canada our nominees are under scrutiny for not being “Canadian” enough.

Such debates are nothing new. Half the point of making lists is to dispute them; they are a starter of conversations. What does feel new, however, is the shape of this year’s shortlists.

Back in fall 2007, Stephen Marche, newly returned to Toronto from Brooklyn, published a rant in the Toronto Star about a crop of award-nominated books that were low on excitement but high on CanCon. Unlike the States, Canada was failing to recognize its potential Jonathan Safran Foers and Nicole Krauses, he suggested: “Setting is everything in Canadian literature. Plots don’t matter much.” And though the piece — coming as it did in a year in which Marche had a new novel that had been ignored by all the prize juries — carried the faint whiff of sour grapes, he raised an excellent point. As if to hammer it home, the Giller Prize that year went to Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, a novel set in Yellowknife that involves the CBC and rather a lot of canoeing. Nuff said.

What was missing from Marche’s argument was this: the old guard of Canadian literature, whatever its flaws, is the custodian of a fairly young institution. American literature is established enough to have witnessed several generations of “great” writers, each with its fashions and trends and social observations to make. The buffer between Foer and F. Scott Fitzgerald is far greater than that between, say, Patrick deWitt and Robertson Davies.  

When the GG shortlists were announced this year, a major part of the story was that Michael Ondaatje had not submitted his book for consideration. Such was the gravity afforded this Ondaatje-less shortlist, I felt a little bad for the actual nominees.  In 2009, Alice Munro made headlines by withdrawing her book from consideration for the Giller. People immediately started wondering aloud whether Margaret Atwood would follow suit and withdraw her new novel too. The question on my mind, however, was why either one of them should feel they had to. Does it become impossible to see the best book when the biggest name is also in contention? Or do we really think that no one can yet beat our big names without a bye?

Over the course of a single weekend, I head the question of the “Canadianness” of this year’s fiction nominees addressed three times: in the Globe on October 29, by Martin Levin at an IFOA panel with Booker nominees that same afternoon, and in the National Post on October 31. Presented as part of the Post’s annual online chat with award nominees, the question of how Canadian a book needs to be elicited the following responses: “I don't know what the heck Canadian is supposed to mean, anyway. Our local writing happens in our own body,” said Marina Endicott. “Must all of our national literature be set only in Canada? That seems strangely limiting...” said Esi Edugyan. “Think of recent big names in US lit: Tea Obreht, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, Aleksandr Hemon....” said Canadian “border crosser” Clark Blaise (he lives in the States), echoing Marche’s point of view. Alexi Zentner put the icing on the cake: “You have an obligation to write about whatever you want to write about. There is not a single school of Canadian writing. To quote Nabokov, ‘there is only one school of literature — that of talent.’”

So what of this year’s nominees? Are they evidence that Canadian Literature is withering? Or does this progression away from the garrison mentality herald the blossoming of something new? To my personal taste, this year’s Giller Prize shortlist is by far the most exciting I have seen in my half decade of being in Canada. Maybe I feel this way because I’m British and my sensibilities were formed elsewhere. Maybe I feel this way because I’m in my thirties and am starting to see my peers among the nominees. Maybe I feel this way just because change, in art, is necessary and good.

To say that these books are not Canadian enough is absurd. Fashions and trends come and go, in literature as in everything else, and who knows what the lists will look like next year. Half of this year’s fiction nominees (across the three major Canadian shortlists) might comfortably be termed “Canadian” in subject, among them those by Marina Endicott and Alexi Zentner — but note what they felt about writing “Canadian” fiction above.

If Ondaatje scoops the Giller this year I won’t feel the younger writers have been cheated by the system: The Cat’s Table is a damn fine book. But my money’s going on Bezmozgis to take the 50 grand. A New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer before his debut novel was even published, he’s already flying the flag for Canadian literature far beyond our borders. His novel, The Free World, is not set in Canada. It is set essentially in limbo (though for the purposes of the story it is Rome) as a family of Soviet Jews leaves behind one life to start again in a new country where the challenges will be new and life will be better. And really, what could be more Canadian than that?

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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