Monday, May 7, 2007

and so it begins

Well, rather abysmal day one progress, it must be said. Due to having to run the car in to the shop and running errands and so on I somehow only managed to read for about four very scattered hours, one of them sitting in a McDonald's and one in a Speedy Muffler. I've only made it about a third of the way in to my first text -- not good at all -- and as it is I keep falling asleep mid-page. It seems I have forgotten how to study in all these exam-free years. I can tell this is going to be a challenge.

I thought I ought to blog my work day before I become too tired to make sense.

Contexts of Canadian Criticism
edited by Eli Mandel

This country is something that must be chosen -- it is so easy to leave -- and if we do choose it we are still choosing a violent duality.

Okay, that quote is really from Margaret Atwood, but Mandel quotes it in his introduction and I think it's an apt summation of the beginning sections of this collection of foundational critical texts outlining the context of Canadian literature and literary criticism. Canadian literature tends to found itself upon rifts -- upon the things which divide us. English / French. East / West. Wilderness / Civilization. Canadians are paranoid schizophrenics, defining themselves constantly in terms of an other.

"Well now, I can't say what New Brunswickers are, but let me tell you all the ways we aren't like Central Canadians!" (Yeah, Central Canadians can drive! Ba-dum-ching!)

In terms of literature, this tends to manifest itself in an impossibility of knowing what we want to read as Canadians -- historically, the result has been that we read whatever America and Britain tell us is good. In the first essay in this collection, E. K. Brown points out that a pair of positive reviews from New York tend to mean more in the grand scheme of literary sales than the universal lauding of every literary journal from Vancouver to St. John's. So why is this? Brown points to three factors that stifle literary expression in Canada -- economic realities in Canada, the colonial mindset, and frontier mentality.

Economic problems have always stood in between Canadian novelists and a living wage. The problem has historically been a mere numbers game -- in the 1960s, the Canadian population sat at 12 million (incidentally, at that time this was the same as the population of New England). Add to this the fact that, in the 60s, 1/3 of the population spoke and read predominantly in French, and the total possible market for English-Canadian literature shrinks to 8 million people. If you're a bookseller in Vancouver and the only distributor of CanLit is in Toronto, and you have to pay to ship the books out to BC, do you take a risk on the new Marian Engels -- which you will have to work to promote -- or do you buy up the LA Times bestseller list and ride the publicity wave for those novels?

More importantly, Brown argues, is the reality that Canadians see Canada as a second-rate nation. Quoting Hugh McLennan ("everything in this country is second-rate" -- even you, Hughie?), he points to the literature of the pre-1960s as being painfully anti-Canadian. Callaghan's novels were set in a Toronto never called Toronto so it could be easily mistaken for Chicago, for example. Furthermore, Canadians at this time were stuck between a desire for independence finally from Britain and a certainty that if Britain would just re-adopt us everything would be okay. Canadians then (and, I would argue, now) were stymied: are we colonial or post-colonial? And which do we desire to be? Dependent people, Brown suggests, cannot create great art.

Finally, the mindset of the frontier -- a desire for practicality above all else -- devalues the role of art in society. Canadians were so used to perceiving ourselves in terms of the work of nation-building, and so used to interpreting the world through a Puritanical lens, that art becomes merely diversion. The value of art is only in terms of its ability to render an escape from a day's labour; literature is not a means of understanding or interpreting the world, then, but instead a place to hide from it. It's the Da Vinci Code-ization of national literature, essentially.

Reading this book has so far been extremely frustrating. It is so steeped in its reality as a text from 1971 that it is occasionally maddening to pursue. Everytime a writer says that there has never been a Canadian author of note in the US since the creator of Sam Slick, I just want to scream, "Wait 20 years! You're going to be SO WRONG! Even OPRAH wants us!" But some of the arguments -- especially the idea of validation for our art coming from the US ("Look! CNN's talkin' 'bout Little Mosque on the Prairie Again!") -- are so painfully eternal that I wonder if we'll ever break out from under them.

I also had this little brain wave/fart earlier this afternoon:

In the introduction to this text, Eli Mandel points out that both Marshall McLuhan and T.S. Eliot believed that every piece of art created changes the way in which art is created, but further that any new art wholly transforms the entire body of art, because the old art is potentially viewed through the filter of the new art.

This led me to a new realization.

Canonicity is irrelevant.

Be it resolved that comic books are, to all intents and purposes, non-canonical. But if all art alters the art that came before, comic books act upon the literature of the canon as much -- nay, more, because of a wider field of current readership -- than does good Billy S (William Shakespeare). The keepers of the canon may seek to push comic books out and away as much as they can, but insodoing they are defining themselves in the light of comic books -- they are defining themselves in terms of comic books by saying, "Everything that is, we are not."

Comic books are already canonical, because the canon (a) cannot exist without the lens of comic books in contemporary life, and (b) because the canon seeks to define itself on comic books' own terms.

Ergo, the canon is irrelevant.


Janna said...

Given that I'm leaving Canada to do my grad work, your comments (and Atwood's) on Canada hit home. One of the pieces of advice I was offered most consistently was that my credentials would mean more on the Canadian job market if they came from the USA - this idea that the strongest things in Canada are those that can survive in the US is certainly alive and well beyond cultural criticism. Having failed to choose Canada, I've got a different kind of duality - guilt for leaving and a kind of 'if I can make it there...' vision of my triumphal return.
In other words, I'm still in the 'what have I done' stage of university choice.

Brenna said...

Hey, Janna! I have been meaning to congratulate you on Rutgers. And I know you will feel even more Canadian after 4+ years in the US. ;-)

Janna said...

Thanks! And yeah - I was more Canadian when I visited, so six months in I'll likely start wearing a toque indoors and talk constantly aboot my old snowshoeing injuries.