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Me the CanLit Wannabe
When I first read Nick Mount’s Arrival, I recognized a history of the various forms of academic, institutional and cultural gatekeeping that emerged from the 1970s CanLit boom his book maps out, and also imitates and re-contextualizes, roughly fifty years forward into a Canadian present. My recognition is thoroughly personal, and signals my immersion in and interpellation by an ingrained set of historical filters and blinders. I have to acknowledge my own privilege, even as an undergraduate at Western in the early 1980s, and the mobility that such privilege impalpably enabled, but it was a privilege that worked more as deficit than enabler: in a scenario somewhat akin to Kafka’s parable, I was shown the magical door into the creative and academic domain of Anglo-CanLit, but was never invited to cross the threshold.
I have remained relatively adjacent ever since, though I have never mistaken my own tenured position in an English Department for something to complain about; but, for me, that position remains asymptotic to the still inaccessible domain of what I now understand as a fiction of success in the intersecting parochial circles of the Canadian literary world. Professor Mount frames, as apologist, as enthusiast and critic, as a historically and aesthetically proximate participant-observer, the key players in a nascent cultural nationalism that shaped and informed how I was taught Anglo-Canadian literature and literary history thirty-odd years past: Atwood, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Watson, Purdy, Munro, Layton. (Within this inherited framework, Francophone literature becomes one of many cultural sets subsumed within or adjunct to a larger English-speaking national mythos – despite Mount’s fairly robust descriptions of Marie-Claire Blais, for example, or Anne Hébert or Hubert Aquin.) When I opened Mount’s book a few months ago, I recognized a slice of that past where I know I came from (as Northrop Frye might have put things), and of the recalcitrant critical context into which I was not so much invited as trained, and then passed over.
What follows isn’t really a late-to-the-game review of Arrival so much as a brief set of personal and critical riffs, set off by a few resonant moments in the book as I’d read it through. Mount has already been both lauded and excoriated, often for what amount to pretty much the same reasons. In Arrival, he accurately and attentively revisits the cultural nationalism of (roughly) post-centennial English Canada around the creation and promulgation, until the mid-1980s, of what was then called CanLit. His perspective is self-consciously sesquicentennial, though it only lightly confronts what feels to me like a contemporary recidivist nationalism that continues to be caught in and to resist the unsettling roils of decolonization, reconciliation, and gender trouble. Instead, Mount re-embraces what feels like the narrowly bracketed recovery of Anglo-Eurological prestige that drove polemics like Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), after which Mount’s book is named. Collectively around 1968 or so, CanLit very obviously wanted to legitimate itself as a capital-L Literature. “I wrote this book,” Mount claims at the outset of his 2017 preface, “because it didn’t exist,” re-imagining a kind of literary-historical terra nulliusonto which CanLit, now alongside his populist history of the CanLit boom, once sought to inscribe itself (Arrival 1). Mount has been criticized for mostly omitting the complex intersections of race, region, gender, class, orientation and ideology that wove themselves through and articulated themselves against CanLit in the early 1970s, and for re-asserting a literary emptiness that is clearly mistaken: even before confederation, the nascent literary domain of the Canadian was embroiled in its own aesthetic and cultural controversies.
Earle Birney’s oft-quoted lines—from the brief squib of a poem he titled with the first use of the clipped portmanteau “Can. Lit.,” and which he tellingly split-dated both 1947 and 1966—assert that “it’s only by our lack of ghosts / we’re haunted.” But Birney’s absolutism (“only”? really, Earle?) is tendentious and misguided: there was plenty going on, and none of it lacked for ghosts. What it did lack was any artifice of coherence, though not for lack of trying. (“No Whitman wanted,” is how Birney puts it, a claim about absent mythopoeia I once heard, when I was a graduate student, repeated back to me by the one and only Helen Vendler, on a train in Ireland from Sligo to Dublin, to meet Seamus Heaney. But that’s another story.) If you think about it, charging Mount with the same sins of omission and the same typological longing as his subjects and predecessors, with their attendant exclusions and implicit structural racisms, isn’t really much of a critique. What might be better to ask is why he or we might want to return to such formations CanLit now, at 150+, at a remove of at least half a century.
The origin story that Mount offers is one that I was taught, too, although his rather Toronto-centric balancing act between two founding (father) figures for CanLit, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, is both distorted and out of keeping with my own experience. What I received at lectures and in seminars was mostly Frye and more Frye; one of my professors at Western joked that many of his colleagues were “small Frye”—a terrible pun, but not far off the mark. Mount’s argument for the formation of CanLit centres on the intersection of granting bodies like the Canada Council with secondary and post-secondary schools and with the publishing industry, particularly the dissemination of the New Canadian Library. But, in terms of an aesthetic of cultural nationalism, the often conflicted counterpoint of the work of U of T professors Frye and McLuhan remains for Mount at the core of the CanLit’s conceptual apparatus:
Mostly, what Frye—and McLuhan—did for Canadian writers of all kinds and loyalties was to provide examples of international success, proof that you could be not just Canadian and a writer but Canadian and written about, argued over, read. (75)
It’s notable that McLuhan is second banana in Mount’s phrasing here, but the idea is still not far from what I experienced: that Frye and McLuhan offer forms of imitatio scriptor, modeling literary greatness on a cosmopolitan stage. It’s no accident that Atwood’s Survival begins with epigraphs from Margaret Avison and from Frye, her professor, that gesture at the collision of the parochial and the worldly. Birney’s poem doesn’t, in fact, lack for ghosts, and the spectres of Frye and Roy Daniells, it’s possible to remark now, loom posthumously through his lines; those spectres, it turns out, are the ones who lament a literary lack, and did so well in advance of what Mount presents as CanLit.
In Survival, Atwood echoes and re-purposes a “great man” ideology of literary value, transposing its key so that it might, in a gesture of gender-neutrality, include women’s writing too: “In Canada there are many authors and many books, but few obvious classics” (11). What constitutes a “classic,” for Atwood in 1972, remains relatively unchallenged, and still resolutely patriarchal, as she suggests when she quotes another U of T professor, E. K. Brown, with measured irony around an aesthetic of greatness that’s hardly at any remove from Thomas Carlyle: “A great art is fostered by artists and audience possessing in common a passionate and peculiar interest in the kind of life that exists in the country where they live” (qtd. on 181). Roy Daniells, who was chair of my own Department of English at UBC through the 1950s, is deeply and thoroughly influenced by Brown, who had in turn emerged from the tutelage of Pelham Edgar, when he reproduces this yearning for Anglo-Celtic greatness and for reconstructed autochthony in a 1955 chapter on Canada’s “Literature: Poetry and the Novel” (qtd. in Djwa 313). Noting that no great writer has yet emerged who might be “capable of producing a large number of stories which are united by a sensibility, a style, a locale, and a selection of material,” Daniells nonetheless asks for a literature keyed to geography and cultural amalgam, expressing a unifying sense of “first the land itself, the great terrain, and second the juxtapositions of race, nationality, and creed within the country and upon the continent.” Daniells, Djwa argues,
was particularly interested in the larger geographical features that had conditioned the history of the country – especially the experience of entering the country through the St Lawrence (a concept later developed metaphorically by Frye in his Conclusion to the Literary History of Canada) – and the importance of landscape on all forms of new writing. (309)
Greatness comes in response to addressing the pressing existential and fundamentally Anglo-Canadian, settler-culture question of where here is. CanLit, in Mount’s reading, aspires—and occasionally achieves—recognizable greatness. But it does so by stringent gatekeeping, by carefully policing its nascent boundaries.
Mount suggests—and I think he’s wrong about this, given my own epigone encounters with some of these writers—that the universities (such as my own campus, where Daniells was a key player in the founding of the academic/public intellectual journal Canadian Literature, a juggernaut of canon formation in 1958) played a minor role in the making of CanLit, which he understands as more populist and distributed:
Universities did little to encourage Canadian literature, but they did create a record number of new spaces in which others could – all those new campuses and new classrooms and the theatres, galleries, bookstores, pubs, and cafes that followed them. More by accident than by design (which is pretty much how a university develops, because pretty much how knowledge develops), they greatly increased the opportunities for the kind of chance encounters that turn young people toward artistic lives. (75)
I’d like to pause here to tell one of two stories, this one involving me—who positioned himself, albeit about a decade late, as one of those “young people”—being turned not toward but away from CanLit.
As an undergraduate at Western, I was in close proximity to a number of first- and second-generation CanLiterati; I took courses from James Reaney and Don McKay, for example, and—because Toronto was only a two-hour drive up the 401—there was a robust slate of live readings and a strong writer-in-residence programme. In my fourth year, I took what I understood to be one of the English Department’s first versions of a creative writing seminar, led by a professor whose own output inclined toward creative non-fiction, his nearly sui generis mix of the critical and the confessional. (I won’t name him, but if you are so inclined you can find him out.) He, too, seemed to me at the time to be CanLit adjacent, an adherent more than a recognized member of the clique—award-winning writers were his friends and colleagues. I thought, like others in the class, that we were being offered slight but tangible access to the post-Survival literary establishment, that a university, as a key site of the management of what constituted a nascent contemporary canon of Canadian writing, was opening the gate a crack.
I ended up with a B+ in the course, a grade designed to signal, as the professor later explained to me, that I had lots of knowledge but no real talent. For him I didn’t write—especially poetry—the right way, or well. I had already had some inkling of this trouble when I had visited the current writer-in-residence, a Toronto-based poet in print through McClelland and Stewart, earlier in the term; “Hmm,” she had said as she flipped through the handful of pages I had submitted, “do you really want to publish these?” The poems were, she said, “kind of precious,” and she didn’t know what to tell me. “Do you want these published?” she repeated, at a loss for suggestions. “No,” I said. “No.” Which was a lie. What I had wanted from her was some recognition even of my writing’s modest value, some affirmation, some key to set me on the road to any sort of publication. But it wasn’t forthcoming, and I left her temporary office temporarily defeated. (Footnote: one of the texts she read, which I had been drafting and developing for the creative writing seminar, would eventually find publication as a long-form prose poem called “Pining” in West Coast Line.) What would have helped me, I think, was even a pittance of generosity. The creative writing professor, in a semblance of deference, invited me out after the term was done for a beer at a local pub, Chaucer’s. I came prepared with two books in my satchel: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler and George Bowering’s George, Vancouver. I admired both poets, and one of my favourite texts had been Ondaatje’s chapbook Tin Roof, a copy of which I had bought from Ondaatje himself at a reading at the Forest City Gallery. Look, I said to my prof as I set them on the table: “This is the kind of writing I don’t want to do.” I was, even then, more of a formalist, reacting against the looseness of TISH and the confessional and landscape regionalism. It’s that as-yet-unsettled formalism, I think, that had been read as “precious.” “Well,” he said over his beer, adopting the condescension of the trained academic, “these are two very different writers, you know.” They were both his friends. Yes, I knew. “I’ve never met anyone,” he told me, “who seemed to know so much about recent poetry but wasn’t able to do it.” His version of the CanLit gate was closing for me. He seemed to think he was trying to be gentle, but there was meanness there, a stiff inability even to want to foster my desire, as a tyro, to be a part of that small cultural world, a world he himself wasn’t quite in with.
So here is my other undergraduate story triggered by Nick Mount’s book. In my first year at Western, Austin Clarke was the writer-in-residence. Among other things, he took it upon himself to hold weekly informal seminars for any students who wanted to talk about writing or to get a bit of feedback on their work: a workshop, but without the constraints of formal study. He modeled a kind of generosity and personal attentiveness, a practice of care, that was rigorous but also, I came to realize later, atypically open-hearted for the Canadian scene. He had a way of making space for others, not by deference, but by interested engagement. He is one of the very few non-white writers cited in Atwood’s Survival, and not so much as colleague but more an figural example, as stand-in. Her chapter seven describes “The Reluctant Immigrant” by summarizing two stories from Clarke’s When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks; they centre, for Atwood, on economic and social disenfranchisement, “failure masquerading as achievement,” devolving to debasing resentments about money (151-2)—they’re not about craft or voice, but reductively allegorize social marginalization through realist depictions of urban racism. Mount repurposes Atwood’s distancing tactics when he re-narrates an anecdote about one of publisher Jack McClelland’s notorious encounters with Clarke:
Austin Clarke was so abusive to M&S staff that Jack [McClelland] suggested he look for another publisher. “What you need more than anything else, “ writes Jack, “is a good swift kick in the ass.” (173).
Mount seems charmed by McClelland’s blustery machismo, but what I hear in this story is recalcitrant structural racism, an inability to empathize with Clarke, to address what it is he might have been angry about. The threat was that a version of that cultural gate, suffused with a version of white universalism, might snap shut.
In the first of our writing workshops with Clarke, he brought along two LPs and a portable record player. One was a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies, I think the von Karajan complete on Deutsche Grammophon. To get the ten or so of us present to reflect on the relationship between style and meaning, he wanted to play one of the pieces, one movement, but couldn’t get the records out of the cardboard sleeves. He pulled out a jackknife and, cursing under his breath, tried to cut the box open along the edge. “My daughter,” he said, “has scotch taped it for a joke.” He gave up, and tossed the set onto the table in front of him. The other record was Milestonesby Miles Davis. It hadn’t been taped up. He played us the title track, a famously galloping modal tune that begins side two. “What do you hear?” he asked us. Part of his point was no doubt to invite us to consider the challenges of blackness in Canada. Most people registered the up-tempo groove as ebullient, liquid, sanguine, joyful. No, said Austin Clarke, “what I hear is anger. Miles is angry. Think of the blade-like sound of his Harmon mute on other songs.” And then he laughed. And he didn’t tell us exactly what he knew Miles Davis was angry about.
When I turned in some of my nascent fiction to him later in the term, he didn’t put me off. I had what I thought was a concept—something like second-rate Lydia Davis, I’d later figure out—that I wouldn’t write more than a page per story, a story per page. The idea was to be clipped and suggestive. His unlit pipe clamped in his teeth, Clarke read it through silently, in front of me, looked up over the top of the page, and said, “Great. Now where’s the rest of it?” Two lessons, at least, emerge for me from that moment: first, don’t have so little humility as to believe your own aesthetic malarkey, and second, more importantly, try to ask for more, be kind, be generous, be open. Austin Clarke’s sense of anger came, I think, from having that generosity thwarted and unreturned. That negation, that thwarting, I think, is a large part of what still constitutes CanLit at all. Such gatekeeping needs not so much to be reanimated as to have its worn out scotch tape cut.
Books and Such I Quoted From
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.
Birney, Earle. Ghost in the Wheels: The Selected Poems of Earle Birney.
McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
Djwa, Sandra. Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniells. U of
Toronto P, 2002.
Mount, Nick. Arrival: The Story of CanLit. Anansi, 2017.