Saturday, December 15, 2007


Steven Beattie at That Shakespeherian Rag is doing a year-end roundup of people's favourite books during 2007. My contribution is here.

In it, I bang the drum of Canadian cultural nationalism as loud as I think I politely can. But of course, being ironic about one's passions is in itself a veddy Canadian thing to do (as is throwing in a piece of outdated slang that is, in its etymology, less than fully of the Home Country (I won't even touch the more complicated question of the associations this latter phrase triggers within the Canadian mindset)).

I'm in the process of writing some more on the issue of Canada's view of its own culture. This is a topic that often arouses the following, snickering response: "What culture?" When voiced by a Canadian, the wisecrack is further proof of how deep neurosis runs in the national character, and when voiced by someone outside the country (usually an American or Brit), it shows how large the "Kick me" sign is written on our pasty, frozen butts.

But the truth is, Canada not only has a culture, it needs one ... it needs more of one. And it's been my time in South Korea that has really reinforced this conclusion, because Korea provides an example both of what a fairly small country's culture can be to its own people, and how it can retain its sense of self while also finding a place within global culture. Believe it or not, any country can achieve this, and while this might seem like a given to those from dominant cultures, it is something Canadians will have to sort out through not only a painful process of debate, but trial-and-error in the machinery of its cultural production, and an increased willingness to take risks.

[Update: to see an example of the kind of debate that can happen -- and is needed -- on this issue, see this post at Zachariah Wells' site Career Limiting Moves. Personally, I haven't been won over by Wells' central argument that literature is a kind of completely open marketplace in which the "best" titles win attention from teachers and readers. But the key thing is, Wells is willing to forcefully speak his mind. And he is right on the money when he says there is confusion in Canada (and maybe the States, too) about what constitutes fair debate. ]


  1. Hi Finn,

    I think you've misread what you call my central argument. My argument isn't about literature at all really, it's about education. I'm insisting that teachers will teach better if they're using books that they really like. Which is a very different matter from them teaching the best books. And I'm saying that mandating the content of curricula in literature (or English Language Arts, as they seem to be called) classes is not a good thing for anyone.

    The people advocating this kind of legislation seem, to me, to care more about "culture" than about education. But the thing is, you can't have a vital culture without a good education system. It's not something you can build through legislative policies.

    A mandatory education policy would be of most benefit to large presses and brand name authors, teachers being the same as anyone else (some very talented, most mediocre). It's hard not to see the legislate-it crowd as an unintentional lobby for the largely foreign-owned big presses. The arguments keep coming back to how beneficial this policy would be to Canadian writers and publishers. But this is irrelevant, or should be, when you're setting educational policy. Is it of benefit to students, parents and teachers? To the province of BC? To the country as a whole? Can't see it. Moreover, I don't think the lobbyists care.

  2. Hi Zach,
    Thanks for the response.

    Re: whether I paraphrased you correctly. You wrote: “One thing's for sure, if they're forced to teach Canadian books, they'll have less freedom to form their own curricula.”

    I don’t see Baird and Oliver “forcing” teachers to teach books, any more than any ministerial authority “forces” teachers by setting curricular guidelines; and setting guidelines is what ministries of education do around the entire world. And it’s a simple fact that Canadian schools teach less domestic fiction/poetry than schools in more self-confident cultures such as Britain and the U.S. (Feel free to prove me wrong if you’ve got the stats, but a lifetime of experience has shown me with agonizing clarity the degree to which we are a nation that over-consumes foreign culture. We think it’s normal because we’re “small”. Well, we aren’t that small. And, living in another “small” country with a much more vital domestic culture, I can tell you it’s not that normal, either.)

    It’s also worth noting that what I emphasized in my post is teachers are intended to be a target audience for the Baird/Oliver proposals you disagree with, so I think I understood well enough that you were talking about education. And I think we would both agree that Baird and Oliver see a connection between what is taught in schools and the larger culture; whether you (or I) agree that that connection exists is another issue.

    p.s. In my opinion, you make an extremely good point when you state “A mandatory education policy would be of most benefit to large presses and brand name authors”and talk about how this lobbying might ironically most benefit the multinationals of publishing. I also like several of the suggestions you make in your original post about different tactics that might be used to create more genuine excitement and passion about CanLit. I hope you’ll post more on the topic of how to generate this kind of excitement because I think it’s key to convincing people – whether within Canada or without -- that our culture is worth paying attention to.

  3. From what I know of public high school classes, not very many books of any sort get taught. So to mandate that one of those few books *must* be Canadian is a significant incursion on the enshrined autonomy of the teacher to choose her own curriculum from a list of possible choices. Guidelines and mandates are not the same critter.

    South Korea's a very different small country from Canada. For one thing, Korea has its own language. Canadian literature written in English (and in French too, for that matter) is automatically in a bigger pool. When you consider that the UK and the US were the biggest English-speaking powers of the last century, that makes our minority position even more minor.

    Just because we're a minor power, however, it doesn't follow suit that we've produced more top-notch literature than the US or England/Scotland/Wales/Ireland. We have produced some literature of very high quality, but less than these other countries combined and arguably less than each individually. I say arguably only because it's impossible to prove. I believe it to be true. And I'm a fan of Canadian writing, I really am. (Now quick, how many Australian or New Zealand writers can you think of off the top of your head?)

    Another factor is that all teachers of high school English, presumably, have English degrees, mostly from Canadian post-secondary institutions. Some of them probably took a Canadian literature course. This isn't mandatory in most universities, I don't think. It wasn't in mine, at any rate. But I took one nonetheless. In that course, if memory serves, we studied the following novels:

    -The Double Hook by Sheila Watson
    -The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
    -Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
    -The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
    -The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh McLennan

    There was another one, I think, but I can't even remember what it was. The same year, I took a modern American course, which included these works of fiction:

    -Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
    -The Great Gatsby by FS Fitzgerald
    -Jazz by Toni Morrison
    -In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
    -The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
    -A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

    Of the Canadian books, I would classify only one (The Double Hook) as brilliant and another (The Diviners) as very good. The Handmaid's Tale I will grudgingly call good, but I didn't like it much. The other two are dead dull.

    All of the books on the American list range from very good to brilliant. I'm sure there are better canlit courses on offer at some universities, but I have the feeling that this is par for the course, so it's no damn wonder if high school English teachers are down on Canadian literature. And if they are down on it, forcing--yes, forcing--them to teach it isn't going to make them love it better. It's just going to make them teach it worse than they would something else. And probably select uninspiring books that confirm their bad opinions. And they will pass those bad opinions on to their students, who will be equally unimpressed with the lame books they're being made to read. So yeah, there's a connection between what's taught in school and the broader culture, but it isn't necessarily the connection that Baird and Oliver envision.

    So: a)We haven't produced as much good literature as other English-language countries and b)We often fail to correctly identify what good work we have produced. Part of the reason why is our oh-so-proud history of thematic criticism. We've also allowed poor judges to make taste (e.g. Gary Geddes' poetry anthologies) and some of our most remarkable individual talents have been overlooked in favour of prolific and politically well-connected hacks. I have a hunch that our thorough bureaucratization of culture has much to do with this. But, as always, I could be wrong...