No pioneers roughing it between these pages

The Journal takes aim at the stereotypes surrounding this country’s literature

Susanna Moodie, top, has been replaced as the queen of CanLit by Margaret Atwood, bottom, and the attendant stereotypes should also be lifted.
Susanna Moodie, top, has been replaced as the queen of CanLit by Margaret Atwood, bottom, and the attendant stereotypes should also be lifted.
Credit: 
Photos courtesy of data2.collectionscanada.ca / wordfest.com

A plucky, orphaned Price Edward Islander whose red hair and freckles are her lifelong sorrow. A pioneer woman’s experiences roughing it in the Canadian backwoods.

Wilderness. Tales of struggle. Presbyterianism.

If that sounds like the perfect recipe for the great Canadian novel, think again.

Not quite, according to Tracy Ware, a Canadian literature professor at Queen’s. He says there’s more to Canadian literature than these stodgy stereotypes.

“People are entitled to their opinions, but ... all too often this particular opinion is not based on a knowledge of the writers in question,” he said.

In a conversation with the Journal on the myths and misconceptions about Canadian literature, Ware said the most prevalent of these myths is that Canadian literature is boring.

Ware is quick to dismiss this claim.

He said he thinks this idea may be perpetuated by bad experiences people have as students with Canadian literature courses, and regrettably, is largely based on ignorance.

To prove Ware’s point, readers can look to Christian Bok’s Eunoia. Published in 2001, the book is an example of a Canadian work that strays far from traditional techniques.

Each of the words in the five chapters of Bok’s book is written using only one vowel, creating phrases such as “Ubu fluffs Lulu’s tutu. Ubu cups Lulu’s dugs; Ubu rubs Lulu’s buns; thus Lulu must pull Ubu’s pud.” Even the title is a clever play on words: “Eunoia” literally means “beautiful thought,” and is the shortest word in the English language to contain all five vowels. Eunoia is only one of the many Canadian works that are on the cutting edge of literary innovation.

One of the other major myths surrounding Canadian literature is that Canadian writers have only recently received international recognition. According to Ware, many people—including the Canadian press—often tout each new star novel as the first Canadian novel to achieve international fame.

However, Canadian writers have been enjoying international success since the beginning of the twentieth century.

“Most of the early Canadian writers had to publish internationally, since there were almost no Canadian journals, no grants of the kinds that later writers enjoy, and no writer-in-residence positions,” Ware said.

“Thomas Chandler Haliburton was one of the best-selling authors in the English language in the middle of the nineteenth century, [Lucy Maud] Montgomery and [Stephen] Leacock held similar positions in the early twentieth century, and all of the Confederation poets published in the prominent American and British journals of the day.”

Even the nineteenth century settler and writer Susanna Moodie—the source of many of the wilderness stereotypes surrounding Canadian literature—enjoyed international success. Before she left England in 1832, Moodie published more than 10 short stories and volumes of poetry in nine years, and continued to publish novels such as Roughing It in the Bush and Life in the Clearings after her arrival in Canada.

As the current canon demonstrates, Canadian literature is much more than a boring mass of pioneer literature and descriptions of loon calls. However, if the most common ideas about Canadian literature are untrue, why do the stereotypes prevail?

While this question isn’t easily answered, Ware said he thinks it can be explained in large part by the concept of “presentism.” “It seems that Canadians want their generation of writers to be the only generation of good writers,” he said. “They often extend their sympathies only to writers of their own time, and the problem occurs when earlier writers are judged by the values of a later day.” According to Ware, this process started in the 1920s, when Modernist writers such as A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott and Morley Callaghan implied that their ancestors in Canadian literature weren’t worth reading.

“It was not fair to fault [their predecessors] for not being Modernists, when they were good writers according to the standards of their own time,” Ware said.

Presentism may also be the source of the two major myths surrounding Canadian literature. If each generation of writers criticized their predecessors for being uninteresting, while heralding themselves as the first successful Canadian writers, it is little wonder that these ideas become perpetuated.

“Any writer is self-serving,” Ware said with a laugh.

Unfortunately, Ware doesn’t see an end to the presentist problem.

“If anything, the process is speeding up,” he said. “I think of Timothy Findley, who only came to prominence around 1980. Not much more than a decade later, the attacks were beginning, and now he is slipping, even if he has not been fully displaced. So it goes.”

How can we finally put these stereotypes to rest?

“We need to get over the idea that literature happens elsewhere,” Ware said. “There’s no shame in Canada.”

—With files from collectionscanada.ca

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