What makes Canadian literature Canadian?

November 11th, 2009

Linden MacIntyre’s novel The Bishop’s Man just won the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which honours excellence in Canadian fiction.  But what makes his novel “Canadian?”  We asked Professor Nick Mount of U of T’s Department of English to comment.  A specialist in Canadian literature and cultural history, Professor Mount is the author of When Canadian Literature Moved to New York, which won the 2005 Gabrielle Roy Prize. In 2007, he was a finalist in TV Ontario’s Best Lecturer competition.

What makes a national literature?  I took a Canadian lit course once and I never could figure out what was so “Canadian” about the books, aside from the nationality of the authors.

The first and best answer is nothing at all: there isn’t any such thing as a national literature.

Literature belongs to the world.  Art by definition aspires to reach an audience that is as wide as possible even when it’s tremendously local.  The reason you couldn’t recognize anything particularly Canadian in the books you read in your course is because good authors think of themselves as belonging to a community that is much larger than a nation.  They’re responding to authors from all over the place.

But the other answer is that terms like “Canadian literature” or “South Asian literature” are useful.  They don’t designate anything real or stable, they’re just useful conveniences.  At a university, these terms help us divide up our literature courses and tell students what they need to read.  At another level, these terms are useful to the countries themselves.  Nations like to believe they can see themselves reflected in their art.  But the terms are really just useful fictions.

But don’t works in a national literature actually have some kind of bond in terms of themes particular to a country?

Over the years there have been a lot of attempts to answer the question you’re asking.  What makes Canadian literature Canadian?  Probably the most well-known one is Margaret Atwood’s argument in Survival – that ours is a literature of victims, that America’s is a literature of heroes and ours is a literature of victims.  Other people have proposed the influence of the north, that you can feel the influence of the geography working on the literature.  More recently, people have wondered about why Canada appears to have so many famous female novelists, which is different from many countries.  Others say our literature is more multicultural, as a reflection of our society.  We like our literature to reflect who we want to be.

One of the most recent arguments is in a very good book by Noah Richler called This is My Country.  He does a slightly different take on Margaret Atwood’s victim argument.  He says our literature is populated by what he calls ‘myths of disappointment.’ He starts with Sir John Franklin and the failed expedition to the north and includes others like Louis Riel, the deportation of the Acadians, and a lot of examples from our literature.  We appear to be fascinated with people who have lost something.

All those arguments are true, to some degree.  There are a lot of books that fit all those arguments.  But the problem is that there are a lot of other Canadian books that don’t fit those arguments.  Unfortunately, people turn what was really just meant as descriptions into prescriptions.   So someone might say, “Well that book doesn’t have a loser in it, so it’s not Canadian” and that’s when the argument gets ridiculous.

The only real test is citizenship.  And even that doesn’t always work.  Because you could have a writer visiting here from another country who writes a book that becomes embraced by Canadian culture.  But that person wouldn’t officially be a Canadian citizen.  Or there are a lot more cases the other way — for example, Mordecai Richler wrote many of his books when he was living outside the country.  So, even that doesn’t work.

Ultimately, to me it’s like asking the question “What is a poem?”  And the answer is, “Well, if it says it’s a poem, then it’s a poem.”  And Can Lit is basically whatever its books say it is.