Canadian Commentary: Media and Culture

Lit. Critic Goes Postal

October 1997

After over a decade as the Toronto Star's book editor, Philip Marchand has finally snapped. In what must be the literary equivalent of a postal worker gunning down his long-time co-workers in a fit of angst, he has written articles in a series of publications (the Star, Saturday Night, and an obscure literary journal no-one has heard of) attacking the Canadian literature he has spent the last decade reading, and the Canadian literary public who have been his readers during all that time. He claims that Canadian literature is mediocre and cannot be called a national literature, and that we, the reading public, are few in number and in any case have poor taste. All of these various articles say much the same thing, and apparently they are a prelude to a book, which no doubt will same the same thing again at greater length.

Perhaps some sympathy is required for anyone who has spent most of the last ten years reading Canadian novels. But such sympathy evaporates when confronted with the poorly reasoned content and whining tone of his rant. It quickly becomes apparent that what Marchand is really complaining about is that no-one else in Canada likes the same kind of books that he likes.

His first complaint is that there are no more than a few thousand readers of serious literature in Canada. He gets this figure by the average sales of serious novels, citing the example of a friend who wrote what he considers a good book, but only sold 3,500 copies. However, Marchand also notes the sheer number of authors now writing in Canada. It does not seem to have occured to him that perhaps not every serious novel is purchased by the same group of people. Maybe - here's a wild hypothesis - different people buy different books! Furthermore, this obviously doesn't take into account people borrowing books from each other or the library - I've only bought about one Canadian novel a year, but I have read far more than that. Given the price of books these days, borrowing must be widespread. In fact, as John Irving pointed out in a review in the Globe earlier this year, Canada has an unusually literary reading public - about half the books on the bestseller list at any given time are works of serious literature, compared to perhaps one or two on the American bestseller lists.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Marchand is not really complaining that Canada's serious novelists don't sell well, but rather, that he personally doesn't like the style of those Canadian novelist who do sell. He considers the prose of Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart and Anne Michaels - all of whom received considerable critical acclaim at home and abroad, and sold more than 60,000 books - too lush and poetic. He prefers "sinewy prose that is rife with wit". First of all, one might point out that there are plenty of successful Canadian authors who write taut, witty prose - Margaret Atwood and Mordechai Richler, to name two. Secondly, one might point out that, if he does not like adjectives (a primary argument in the Saturday Night piece) and prefers a strong narrative, he should probably be the mystery/crime novel critic rather than the literary critic of his newspaper. Third, one might point out that, whatever his personal opinion, the poetic prose and structure of Ondaatje or Michaels is much harder to read than the simple narrative prose that he prefers, which suggests that Canada's readers are actually very sophisticated readers indeed. Finally, "tough, sinewy" prose is the hallmark of a certain style of AMERICAN writing. Canada is quite obviously developing a literary style of its own, greatly influenced by poetry (note that Atwood, Ondaatje and Michaels all started out as poets). It is a shame that Marchand is alienated from the national literature of his own country, and yearns for the macho posturing of another nation's literary tradition - but this is his problem, not the problem of Canada's national literature.

In fact, Canada has a thriving national literature. Not only are there well-established writers who continue to do well (Atwood, Richler, Ondaatje), but we continue to produce new authors who are both acclaimed and widely read (Urquhart, Michaels), not only in Canada but also in other English-speaking nations. Our literature is even developing national characteristics, such as the poetic prose which Marchand so dislikes. But this is, precisely, the sign of a truly successful national literature - there are enough good novelists active that there are some you don't like. When you feel obliged to read and enjoy any novel that comes out of your country - which was perhaps true in Canada 30 years ago - it is patriotism rather than literature that motivates you. But these days, every Canadian reader is likely to find Canadian novelists they enjoy, and others they dislike. This is not only normal, it is healthy.

Finally, Marchand gripes that there are no "great" Canadian novelists. First of all, one should point out that one of the prime conditions for the creation of a "great" novelist is the presence of a lot of good novelists - which Marchand grudgingly admits we already have. Second, one might point out that, even in the most successful cultures, there are normally only a few great novelists a century, each of whom produces only a few great novels - and Canadian literature has only been going strong for about thirty years. Finally, one might point out that no-one is really sure what novels will stand the test of time until the test of time has happened - you need a good fifty years of perspective to see if a novel wears well. There's no way Marchand or anyone else can judge which, if any, Canadian novelists will still be read in fifty years. [See my choice for a great Canadian novelist]. A better way to judge Canada's literature would be to compare it to America or Britain in the present day. Such a comparison would show that, in fact, we are producing and buying more than our share of serious novels, and that Canadian novels are at least as good as those being produced in other English-speaking countries.

Philip Marchand obviously needs a break from reading Canadian literature. But he can rest assured that, while he is away, Canadian novelists will continue to write good novels, and a large number of Canadians will continue to read them.

Oct. 6, 1997

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