Canadian literature has, until now, had the reputation of being insular and nationalistic. The 1973 governmental decision to subsidize publishers and authors who provided strong "Canadian content" in their work incited controversy. The idea was to nurture a sense of artistic identity, but most writers argued that such a thing could not be institutionalized, and in fact doing so would only lead to crass regionalism. Novelist Morley Callaghan was quoted in The New York Times as having written, "Canada is a part of the North American cultural pattern. We in the North should have a different literature than, say, Southern writers... we have our own idiosyncrasies, you know, our own peculiar variation of the cultural pattern. But it is still definitely American." Margaret Atwood, quoted in the same article, wrote that the central symbol of Canada was "survival," while that of America is risk. "Canada never had a Wild West, for the simple reason that the Mounties got there first." (Daniel Francis, in his book National Dreams: Myth, Memory, and Canadian History, calls Canada "The Mild West.")
The law/outlaw dichotomy is now officially dead. It does not appear that Canadian writers have created a different literature, but that they have merely surpassed the American genre. Michael Ondaatje's novels and Anne Carson's poetry are confederates in the high fields of shimmery literate hypnosis, works of incredible beauty that carry heavy loads of intellectualism with grace. Closer to home, in British Columbia, Eden Robinson's debut novel, Monkey Beach, was just nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award. Vancouverite Lisa Robertson's books of poetry have been hailed as new classics of our post-millennial moment; they seem to carry on Gertrude Stein's obsession with an exploded biographical narrative.
So why is Canadian literature suddenly so successful? Perhaps it's because Canada is poised to take advantage of the creative imperative of being an outsider, while remaining "Western" enough to appeal to the mainstream. Robertson likes to think that there is some kind of natural vertical flow, up and down the coast.
But things do not always pass so easily along this route. For 15 years, Vancouver bookstore Little Sister's fought with customs over the seizure and censorship of books by such authors as Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Allison, Pat Califia, and Jane Rule--writers who were ruled "obscene." The case went all the way to Canada's Supreme Court before being decided in Little Sister's favor last December. Let this supplement serve as a reopening of the pathway.
Research credit: Megan Purn