Commentary | CanLit: A great read

Correction appended

As this issue celebrates McGill’s own store of English literary talent, it seems appropriate to take some time to discuss the current state of EnglishCanadian literature.

Since the end of World War II, Canada has been taking measures to promote its national literature at home. In a famous inquiry into the status of the Canadian arts conducted from 1949-1951, then Governor General Vincent Massey lamented the overpowering influence of American literature on Canadian culture, and its devastating effects on Canadian writers’ incomes and careers. Insisting that it was a detriment to Canada not to have a strong literary tradition that reflected its own values, Massey recommended the creation of a state funding body to help invigorate Canadian writing. This call led to the formation of the Canada Council for the Arts, which has served as the main financial aid to Canadian writers and publishers since it was founded in 1957.

Since its creation, the Canada Council has provided invaluable support for Canadian writers, and the contemporary Canadian literary scene is as innovative and valuable as any other. Though it has a small and devoted following, various factors continue to prevent Anglo-Canadian literature from being fully embraced as part of our national culture. First, competition between Canada’s small publishing presses and corporate American ones forces small Canadian publishers to remain almost entirely dependent on grants for their survival. Simultaneously, drastic cuts to federal arts funding by the Harper government – $45 million in 2008 alone – have further limited the resources available to Canadian writers and publishers to produce their work.

These financial restrictions have been worsened by the general ambivalence English-Canadian audiences have displayed toward their own writers. In a nationwide study on English-language Canadian literature in high schools performed by the Canada Council in 2002, less than 31 per cent of teacher respondents reported that their high schools taught a Canadian literature course. The Canadian writers widely known in their own country, for the most part, are those who have been endorsed by American audiences – Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Anne Carson provide a few notable examples. Ignored by their readerships and with their funding institutions unable to meaningfully support them, English-Canadian writers are still being forced to build their own careers in restricted financial conditions – or else migrate south.

Here in Quebec, English Canada can find a strong model for how to build and sustain a national literature. Though francophone Quebeckers long fretted about the quality of their writing compared to work made in France, since the 1960s Quebec literature has become a cherished part of Quebec culture, independent of its evaluation elsewhere. Our province’s literature is not only widely read and studied here, but has a solid reputation internationally and is studied at universities from Montreal to Pondicherry. And the publishing industry remains strong – thanks in large part to generous government support, necessary to sustain such a small market. An active literary culture inside and out of academia, a healthy industry with state investment – this is the path English Canada should follow.

More than fifty years after the creation of the Canada Council, widespread cultural shame still exists in Canada about our own literature. Here at McGill, American literature survey courses boast more than twice the enrollment of their Canadian counterparts. We need to understand that Canadian literature doesn’t need government support because it sucks, but because American culture dominates ours. Canadian institutions like the Canada Council should be a matter of national pride, and our current government’s cynical treatment of them is grounds for outrage. Most importantly, though, we need to start really delving into the wonderful and neglected literary tradition we already have.

Editors’ picks:
Kenn Babstoc, Airstream Land Yacht
Christian Bök, Eunoia
Leonard Cohen, Spice Box of the Earth
Douglas Coupland, Hey Nostradamus!
Robertson Davies, Fifth Business
Patrice Desbiens, L’homme invisible/The Invisible Man
A. M. Klein, The Rocking Chair and Other Poems
Robert Kroetsch, Seed Catalogue
Anne-Marie MacDonald, The Way the Crow Flies
Robert Majzels, Hellman’s Scrapbook
Yann Martel, Self
Erin Moure, Expeditions of a Chimæra
Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozsha Baag
Alice Munro, Lives of Girls and Women
Alden Nowlan, Bread, Wine and Salt
Michael Ondaatje, The Cinnamon Peeler
Steven Price, Anatomy of Keys
Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
Gail Scott, Heroine
Carol Shield, Stone Diaries
M. G. Vassanji, No New Land

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, we misspelt Christian Bök.