Who killed CanLit?


Nationalist bureaucrats, argues Barbara Kay in an essay for the National Post.

CanLit, our sobriquet for Canadian literature, had not yet been coined when I was an undergrad studying English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s. To my cohort, “literature” meant the British and American canons, since identifiably Canadian writing (all of which had heretofore fitted onto a single shelf in the university bookstore) was then only on the cusp of its “golden era,” which ended in the late 1970s.

Burgeoning nationalists were buoyed by the emergence of excellent writers like Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant (even though Munro and Gallant were not “discovered” in Canada until the New Yorker magazine put its imprimatur on them). Unfortunately, writerly creativity was soon usurped by the bureaucracy: public funding and prizes were made contingent on writing that was self-consciously dedicated to shaping Canada’s national identity.

Canadian literature became an industry served by Orwellian-sounding “literary officers,” in which celebrity authors were but the most exotic fauna in a symbiotic literary ecosystem encompassing the Canada Council, publishers, agents, publicists, reviewers, academics and the media. This establishment understood that it was their job to nurture and ennoble our elite writers.

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