Can-Lit: Our National Snobbery Disorder.
This is a piece I wrote some time ago at the invitation of the National Post. More relevant than ever, I believe.
The late Marian Engle once confessed to me that she occasionally enjoyed the “guilty pleasure” of reading a mystery. That sums up a common notion: a properly brought up Canadian is expected to feel guilty about reading a book that claims no pretension but to entertain. (I didn’t feel guilty about reading Bear.)
This priggish attitude toward popular fiction is deeply imbedded within our cultural establishment. By establishment, I mean the literature departments of our universities, the book pages of our journals, institutions such as the Canada Council and provincial arts bodies, the CBC, and the big publishing houses.
The infection may have begun in our libraries, and it found a host in our historic inferiority complex, a belief that our culture was little, provincial, unknown. To cover up our shame, that condition has morphed into a national snobbery disorder.
An interesting take on the Victorian airs that infested our libraries early in the last century comes from David Skene-Melvin, a librarian himself, in the preface to his bibliography, Canadian Crime Fiction (1996). “Popular fiction was considered déclassé by libraries and crime fiction beyond the pale. Up through the 1940s, at least in Canada, the public library systems did not purchase popular fiction (although they acquired ‘literature.’ If you wanted to read that sort of thing, you frequented your neighbourhood private enterprise lending library, where you paid your five cents a day to take home the latest thriller or mystery or romance or western with which to entertain yourself… It was not until social pressure in the 1950s forced public libraries to realize that if they were to survive on tax support from the masses they had to cater to mass taste [and] they began to offer ‘fiction’ collections, shelved well away from the ‘literature’ sections so as not to contaminate the latter.”
That attitude carried on to seduce academic libraries and graduate English courses, where students were made to believe that Hugo and Dostoevsky, Maugham and Conrad had not written crime and spy novels. The virus still flourishes in our schools and cultural institutions; our self-appointed guardians of culture still leave genre writers off the literary tea guest lists. She writes mysteries, my dear, she’ll show up reeking of gin. Or you get: He writes thrillers? How crass. It’s so American.
“Popular fiction” has become a term of vulgar connotation, but it reeks of ironic paradox: obviously we sobersided Canadians ought to be reading unpopular fiction. (As an aside, reflecting an antithetical American attitude, I once got a rejection from a publisher down there who complained a manuscript was “too literary for the genre.”)
Several years ago, I gave a workshop in popular fiction at one of B.C.’s annual Festival of the Arts (a program since abandoned, lamentably, by the provincial government) during which I was instructed by a Canada Council spokeswoman, in severe tones, that it does not support writers of crime fiction. I doubt that is a written policy, but it is certainly maintained by its system of elitist peer review.
Recently, Robert Sawyer, an internationally respected sci-fi’er and Hugo winner, was rejected by the Council’s peer assessors for residency at Yukon’s Berton House, a decision that was publicly and hurtfully leaked. Similar juries have turned down libraries seeking to host genre writers for readings.
In an email to me, Sawyer wrote that the best investment Canada Council could make “is in funding writers who actually might go on someday to pay taxes on their writing income.”
It is to Canada’s utter shame that William Gibson, with his vast trophy case of awards, has not been honoured in this country with a Giller or a G.-G. Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood is acclaimed for her speculative fiction and, like the late and lamented Carol Shields, has won a crime fiction award. Both are undoubted literary icons –– and indeed Atwood remains an unapologetic reader of crime fiction — but what’s wrong with this picture? I think it’s this:
Of the six Booker Prize finalists in 2002, three were Canadian - Mistry, Shields and the winner, Yann Martel. But who would disagree that our cluster of internationally known writers has since shrunk drastically? Canadians don’t even know their own authors. A recent Harris/Decima poll found that nearly half of those surveyed, and 62 per cent of young Canadians, didn’t know the name of a single domestic author. A minuscule percentage knew only four.
Ipsos Reid, in another poll, discovered that nearly a third of Canadian adults hadn’t read a book for pleasure in all of 2007. Yet, according to a federally funded study from 2008, the supply of books in the Canadian market is accelerating more rapidly than consumer demand.
The study found that title output grew 40 percent from 1998 to 2004 — to 16,776 — while publishers’ sales grew by only 11 percent. More recent figures from the Public Lending Right Commission show a parallel pattern for fiction categories. Setting aide Kidlit, an average of 850 new fiction writers, in English and French, registered with the PLR in each of the last seven years.
So as the lists of books and writers swell, sales flatline. I blame that on a push to reward insipid stuff that will never sell –– and on the failure of the Can-Lit establishment to support young writers of readable, if commercial, works. Thus new authors find themselves engaged in a cruel and unworthy competition for a declining share of readers. This in an era of disappearing book pages in our journals, publishers’ ever-thinner promotion budgets, illusory best-seller lists, and a ballooning of amateur blog-trash, while Canadians rush to the stores to buy lavishly promoted foreign blockbusters.
I’m emboldened in my views by allies unafraid to take on the hungry cyclopes guarding the lair of the literary status quo.
The New York Times recently ran Douglas Coupland’s scathing critique of Canadian literary pretentiousness: “There is a grimness about CanLit,” he wrote, in which typically authors are supported by the government “to write about small towns and/or the immigrant experience.”
Toronto novelist Stephen Marche bemoaned in a recent interview that Canada represents “the oatmeal of world literature.” It is at “the cutting edge of blandness,” he said, our fictional characters indistinguishable, innovation a dirty word.
Andrew Pyper (Lost Girls, The Trade Mission), inveighs against the tendentious insistence by Canada’s cultural mavens that those who write about crime can never be considered seriously, must face exile into a genre ghetto.
“I bristle at prejudice,” he told me. “It’s a problem in Canada – a constipation about what we call literature, a teetotalling Presbyterian reflex, guard the gates against the barbarians. Someone told a lie about literature in Canada early on, someone who prefers books that are morally obvious, quiet, settled. It’s a lie that became institutionalized.”
His recent work, The Killing Circle, does a sardonic take on what may be one of the causes of the glut of literary oatmeal: the plethora of writers’ workshops—“the true growth industry in the ink-based sector.”
Overcapacity is generally acknowledged above and below the border. Ann Beattie, once a best-selling novelist, has complained that too many wannabes are keener in being a writer than in writing. “There are too many of us,” she wrote in the New York Times, “and M.F.A. programs graduate more every year, causing publishers to suffer snow-blindness.”
Meanwhile, The Brits knight their genre writers, the Yanks lionize them, the Canucks (or at least our persons of letters) continue to treat them like unwashed in-laws tracking mud into the parlour. So sad.