I was listening to the radio yesterday, to a documentary about this fellow who’d had the privilege of reading most of the letters of John Updike, at Harvard University. By the time Updike had a firm plan for what he wanted to do with his own writing career (in his late teens!), there were several well-established authors of American Literature: from Emerson to Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.. It didn’t take long for John Updike to add his name to that list. The point here is not about Updike, though. The point is that during the course of the interview, they talked, of course, about American Literature. About what American Literature is, about how it fits in to the body of world literature.
And that got me thinking.
What is the shape of Canadian literature? I know there are people far more edumacated than I am who’ve written their doctoral theses on this very topic. I know there are people who take long, expensive courses about Canadian Literature. I know there are people in the book industry who know much more about this, and that means there are articles and books and treatises and manifestos and bibliographies and entire collections of works devoted to Canadian Literature. So I know there are proposed answers out there. But I don’t want to read about the answers. I want to think about the answers.
Canadian Literature is quite often about place. About our relationship with a certain location, whether that’s a room, a home, a town, a city, a province, a country, or a solar system. This isn’t to say that other nations’ literature is *not* about place, but the centre of the root of what grounds Canadian literature as distinctly Canadian is that sense of how and where we fit in to that which surrounds us. And I don’t mean setting. I mean “place”. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in Canadian lit, “place” is as much a character or the plot as it is the ‘setting’.
Which is curious, really, because Canada itself is still defining its own identity. Canada defines itself primarily by what it is not. We’re not American. We’re not British. We’re not French. We’re not Immigrants. We’re not the original inhabitants of this land. We’re not intolerant. We’re not going to apologise. We’re not altogether concerned about our own arctic waters. Defining yourself by what you are not is a reductive method…you’re stripping away, paring down, making yourself smaller and smaller. The …but the danger in reductive design is that sometimes, you cut away too much. In the end, you’re left with one question, and that is: But what *are* you? Reductive reasoning may not leave you with an answer.
So this then is a problem. To give shape to Canadian Literature, we need an understanding of what is Canadian. Or do we? Is it enough to say that Canadian Literature is shaped by a sense of place, of belonging? Is it enough to say that what makes Canadian Literature particularly Canadian is that notion of a shaky self-image, a body of literary work in its adolescence, questioning what it is and, above all, in which ways it will mesh with the greater body of literature that is evident internationally? Is that okay?
I think it is. I think what makes or defines or shapes Canadian Literature is a sense of growth, of motion, of exploration…there is a giddiness in our works of fiction, non-fiction, genre fiction, poetry, and even scholarly works…there is a certain energy in the work as a body…we’re in a growth spurt, and there is an excitement about it. We compare ourselves (as always) to our Yankee neighbours, and we must realise that American Literature went through this adolescence 100 years ago…by the time Updike was writing in the States, it was the tail end of the teen years of American Literature. They had already set and accepted the shape of their literature.
Canadian writing is, even when edgy and bold…somewhat shy. Not quite sure of itself. It really wants to be asked to the world stage, but it doesn’t want to let anyone know that it wants to be asked. When it *does* appear on the world stage, it shines brightly, and leaves others in its wake. But it’s not proud, either. It is, like Canadians themselves, humble and grateful for the attention. It is only now that Canadian literature (like Canadians themselves) is beginning to develop a self-assuredness (I don’t want to say ‘pride’, because usually pride is damaging). It’s only now that it has begun to feel comfortable in its own skin.
Another thing that’s really cool about Canadian Literature is that it tends to be more…accepting of differences. More open-minded, I guess. Science Fiction, poetry, non-fiction, memoir, academic works…they are all accepted as part of the body of Canadian works. It’s not all about the novel. It’s about the book of poetry that uses only one vowel each section. It’s about science fiction accepted as literature (by everyone but the author, in some cases). It’s about non-fiction works receiving as much acclaim (if not moreso, sometimes) than novelists. It’s a bit schizophrenic, and it works. It really, really works.
I’ve been thinking about Canadian Literature. How do you define it? Does it need to be defined? Is it a moot point?