If We Had A Can Lit That Worked
by Ken Norris


Temerity & Gall
by John Metcalf
Biblioasis, 2022

In his recent book, Temerity & Gall, John Metcalf declares that “Can Lit is dead.” I disagree. I see Can Lit as still being very much alive. However, often, in too many ways, I find it highly dysfunctional.

In talking with friends and peers about Canadian Literature, I often find myself starting an analysis of something by saying, “If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .” In the wake of reading Metcalf, I’ve decided to write a short article in which I address the various dysfunctions of Can Lit.

Like Metcalf, I have been in the Canadian literary trenches since the 1970s. Whereas Metcalf has worked to give us a valid Canadian fiction, I have tried to do much the same in relation to Canadian poetry. I’ve run little magazines and literary periodicals; I’ve edited books for various publishing houses; I’ve edited anthologies; I’ve written scholarly articles and books about Canadian poetry; and I’ve taught Canadian Literature at the University of Maine for thirty-three years. Now I am retired for the past four years and find myself at times surveying the literary landscape.

So, here are my nine points to be made about Canadian Literature.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

Canadian books would sell.

In Temerity & Gall, Metcalf bewails the dire fate of Can Lit in the marketplace. He comes up with the number 343, which is the average number of copies a Can Lit title sells in its first season of publication these days.

Can Lit titles have a very small share of the Canadian book market. These days the estimates are somewhere between eight and twelve percent. Most of the books bought in Canada are neither Canadian-authored nor Canadian-published. We are a wonderful market for books published in the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

One Canadian publisher struck it rich by having the Canadian rights for the Harry Potter books. But, more often than not, Canadian rights are folded into North American rights, and Canadian publishers don’t have the opportunity to buy Canadian rights.

“The marketplace” is a big part of the dysfunction of Canadian Literature. Many things need to change in order for Canadian publishers to have a chance at being truly profitable businesses.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

Canadian books would be reviewed.

As a young author, I really benefited from reviews. My first book, Vegetables, was reviewed everywhere, in newspapers and literary magazines, and even featured on the CBC. My book To Sleep, To Love was reviewed twenty times.

These days authors consider themselves fortunate if they receive between three and five reviews. Canadian newspapers have entirely abdicated responsibility when it comes to reviewing Canadian books. The number of Canadian books published in a year has mushroomed in the past decade, and there are simply too few venues for review in relation to the number of books that are being published. Often, books go unreviewed or are minimally reviewed (one review).

How this gets fixed is really hard to say. Should Canadian publishers publish fewer books? Should newspapers be subsidized for publishing reviews of Canadian-authored books? This lack of coverage and assessment is another one of the profound dysfunctions of Can Lit.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

Canadian literary reputations would be more accurate.

I have said for forty years that Canadian authors are either over-rated or under-rated. There is nothing fair about how literary reputation operates in Canada. A small grouping of authors gets featured time and time and time again. And the rest go undiscussed and undiscovered. Lack of assessment in both popular culture venues and scholarly venues tends to suspend literary reputation in amber.

In Temerity & Gall, Metcalf bewails the fact that all of these wonderful fiction writers that he has discovered in the past half-century have failed to find the Canadian spotlight. And he’s right. Canadian culture, as it is, picks winners and losers, often based on quite arbitrary reasons. I could pretty much make the same argument regarding the talented poets I have discovered and anthologized since 1975. Most of them go unrecognized. A few who found the spotlight in the 1980s still hold the spotlight.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

“The thinness of a cultural class” (John Meisel, quoted by Metcalf) would be replaced by a cultural class that functions and contributes.

In my essay, “Louis Dudek & The Five Missions” I discuss the education I received from Dudek about how to be a Canadian author and a cultural player. Much of what he taught me was based upon the fact that, when he was a young author, there was no cultural class in Canada—therefore, authors had to perform all functions. Not only did they have to write their own poems, stories and books, but they had to serve as magazine editors, book publishers, reviewers and teachers in order to see that Can Lit had some kind of an existence in Canada.

In my generation, some people came along who were magazine editors, book publishers, reviewers and Can Lit scholars who weren’t necessarily also Canadian authors. We started to get a bit of a cultural class going beyond Canadian authors.

As far as I am concerned, booksellers are a big part of the “cultural class.” Once upon a time, in Montreal, we had The Double Hook bookstore. No more. Adrian King-Edwards and The Word certainly come to mind. And Paragraphe is a delightful store. Generally, Chapters/Indigo is everywhere, and independent booksellers are hard to find. I am not satisfied with Heather’s Picks, which are like Loblaws telling the consumer what cheese to buy. Canada needs a lot of work in this area.

And it must be said that a big part of the cultural class in Canada at this time is the arts bureaucracy—officers of the various arts councils. As Metcalf points out, these officers spend millions of dollars on Can Lit every year, not always in an even-handed way. They often tend to pick winners and losers to the extent that they are allowed to wield their bureaucratic power. Juries make decisions, but cultural officers pick juries. These days, at the Canada Council (according to Metcalf) the actual dollar value of a grant is decided by arts officers, not juries.

Scholars and teachers of Can Lit make up the balance of the cultural class in Canada. And so I now turn my attention to them.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

Canadian academics wouldn’t be so timid.

Canadian academics are very reluctant to offer opinions and assessments of contemporary work. They are very afraid of being wrong. These days, Canadian criticism is running about fifty years behind the times. We are still getting book-length studies about literary work from the twentieth century. According to our criticism, the twenty-first century hasn’t happened yet. Writers like Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, and Michael Ondaatje are still holding the critical spotlight, for fifty years now. This wouldn’t be bad if there were other critical projects about more recent work. The problem is that there is very little criticism about contemporary writing. Canadian newspapers are failing Can Lit, and so are our scholars.

Can Lit is a very small academic field. Its scholars need to step up to the plate in terms of generating criticism about Can Lit.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

Canadian Literature would be valued by Canadian society.

Canadian writers have a fairly bad contract with Canadian society. Canadian readers read a lot of foreign books and very few books written by their fellow citizens. There are probably many reasons for this. The United States swamps Canada culturally. Much of our media is American-derived. Much of our culture is American-derived. Canada is often defined as part of the North American market and included in “North American rights.”

Back around the time of Centennial “Canadian pride” generated a lot of interest in Canadian-authored books. But you can only ride that kind of nationalism for so long. Now that we are “global,” Canadian culture has gone back to being disadvantaged.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

More Canadian writers would make a decent living from writing.

After five years of study, I completed my Ph.D. in Canadian Literature at McGill University in 1980. For the next five years I attempted to live my life as a full-time Canadian writer. I applied for grants; I did freelance work; I taught classes in the CEGEPS; I was the writer-in-residence for a year at McGill University. After five years, I was exhausted, and started applying for teaching jobs.

When I was a full-time writer I spent 60% of my time looking for money or working for money or writing for money. I suppose that makes some kind of economic sense, but it made no kind of creative sense whatsoever. Eventually, I retreated to “the Ivory Tower” of the university. The pay was good, and the hours were short. I worked away at teaching for ten hours a week for thirty weeks a year. The rest of the time was my own. Teaching university was a pretty good gig.

I admire the writers of my acquaintance who have tried to live their lives as full-time writers and have suffered the economic consequences. It is hard to make a living as a writer in Canada. Some do (maybe 10%), but the rest scrape by. It wasn’t something that I wanted to put my family through. My kids grew up in middle-class circumstances, and have one less reason to resent me.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

Canadian publishers would be less reliant upon arts council subsidies.

I pretty much disagree with John Metcalf about subsidies and a subsidized literature. I don’t see subsidies as a corrupting influence. I don’t see the Canada Council, and the arts councils in general, as everything that is wrong with Can Lit.

BUT subsidies are a part of the dysfunction of Can Lit. When a publisher is working with any funding model, it cannot but conflict with the need to make the selling of books the top priority.

The top priority becomes the getting of grants.

And that changes how a publisher conducts business.

The priorities of the arts councils can easily become the priorities of publishers.

The rules of the arts councils can easily become the criteria by which publishers operate.

The politics of the arts councils can easily become the concerns under which publishers operate.

Metcalf complains about the “social engineering” he sees the Canada Council as having embarked upon in the past decade.

I would agree with Metcalf that the Canada Council (and its officers) have reinterpreted the mandate of the Canada Council in quite profound ways in the past decade. But I would disagree with him about what that means.

If we had a Can Lit that worked. . .

Canadian Literature, like American Literature, would have international standing.

There are a number of Canadian authors who are only Famous or famous in Canada. John Newlove and Al Purdy are highly regarded Canadian poets, in Canada. Readers in other countries don’t know them and do not encounter them.

Some English critic one said that “Canadian poetry is a short street.” Not in Canada it isn’t. But in terms of international recognition it is. There are only a handful of Canadian poets who have received any kind of international recognition. The UK betting shops think that Anne Carson has a good chance of winning the Nobel Prize, but they probably couldn’t name a second Canadian poet who wasn’t Margaret Atwood.

A few Canadian fiction writers have international standing. Yann Martel. Margaret Atwood. Alice Munro. Michael Ondaatje.

Rupi Kaur’s poetry has been translated into 42 different languages, but that is a whole other conversation.

These are some of the dysfunctions of Can Lit that appear on my radar screen. As I said at the beginning of this piece: I do not agree with John Metcalf that “Can Lit is dead.” Perhaps some antiquated, monolithic Can Lit has ceased to be, having been replaced by multiple versions of what Canadian Literature might possibly be or become. In my view, that is nothing to be troubled about. If we can address some of the more egregious dysfunctions that handicap our literature, the future, truly, is not bleak but bright.



Fairly early in Temerity & Gall John Metcalf offers this assertion and challenge:

But any judgements we attempt about Can Lit, however, must be made against comparison with contemporaneous books in the States and in England. To not do so is to stamp pig-headedly towards the sandbox and the plastic toys. Surely there’s no one left who’d still want to debate this point. Except, of course, Professor Robin Matthews, who holds that our native genius is being deliberately suppressed by what he calls “the imperial centres.” How the idea of “oppression” explains and comforts!

So here’s the hard question. What important works of literature did the Great Canadian Wave cast up in the years 1967-75? If not “important.” then “significant?” If not “significant,” then “interesting?” To avoid any squabbling, the reader must now endure the rigour of hard detail.

I feel a need to respond to this—as a Canadian author, but even more so as a career Canadianist. I taught Canadian Literature for thirty-three years, and much of it hailed from mid-20th century Canada. Metcalf’s blanket dismissal of Can Lit of this period just seems blinkered and inaccurate. Here is my list of Canadian works drawn from a slightly larger time period: 1955-1975. I am citing close to a hundred literary works written by thirty-six Canadian authors that I consider to be important, significant and interesting. I recommend them to the interested reader.

Milton Acorn
I’ve Tasted My Blood
More Poems for People

Hubert Aquin
Prochain Episode
The Antiphonary
Hamlet’s Twin

Margaret Atwood
The Circle Game
The Animals in That Country
The Journals of Susanna Moodie
Power Politics
You Are Happy
Lady Oracle

Margaret Avison
Winter Sun
The Dumbfounding

Victor-Levy Beaulieu
Jack Kerouac: a chicken essay
Monsieur Melville (1978, but it’s fabulous)

bill bissett
Nobody owns th earth
living with th vishyun

Clark Blaise
A North American Education
Tribal Justice

Robin Blaser
Image Nations 1-12 & The Stadium In The Mirror

George Bowering
The Gangs of Kosmos
Rocky Mountain Foot

Nicole Brossard
A Book
Day-Dream Mechanics
French Kiss

Leonard Cohen
Let Us Compare Mythologies
The Spice-box of Earth
Flowers For Hitler
The Favourite Game
Beautiful Losers

Victor Coleman

Louis Dudek
The Transparent Sea
En Mexico
Collected Poems

Timothy Findley
The Wars (1977)

Mavis Gallant
My Heart is Broken
From the Fifteenth District

Artie Gold

D.G. Jones
Frost On The Sun
The Sun is Axeman
Phrases From Orpheus

Robert Kroetsch
The Studhorse Man
The Stone Hammer Poems
The Ledger

Margaret Laurence
The Stone Angel
A Jest of God
A Bird in the House
The Diviners

Irving Layton
The Blue Propeller
The Cold Green Element
The Bull Calf and Other Poems
The Improved Binoculars
A Red Carpet for the Sun

Dennis Lee
Civil Elegies

Gwendolyn MacEwen
The Rising Fire
The Shadow-Maker

Daphne Marlatt
Vancouver Poems

Alice Munro
Dance of the Happy Shades
Lives of Girls and Women
Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You

John Newlove
Moving In Alone
Black Night Window
The Cave

Journeying & the returns
The Captain Poetry Poems
The Martyrology, books 1 and 2

Michael Ondaatje
The Dainty Monsters
The Collected Works of Billy The Kid
Rat Jelly
Coming Through Slaughter (1976)

P.K. Page
The Metal and the Flower (1954)
Cry Ararat!

Al Purdy
Poems for All the Annettes
The Cariboo Horses
North of Summer

Mordecai Richler
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
St. Urbain’s Horseman

Joe Rosenblatt
The LSD Leacock
Bumblebee Dithyramb

Raymond Souster
The Selected Poems (1956)
A Local Pride
The Colour of the Times

Peter Van Toorn
Leeway Grass
In Guildenstern County

Fred Wah
Pictograms of the Interior of B.C.

Sheila Watson
The Double Hook

Phyllis Webb
Even Your Right Eye
The Sea Is Also A Garden
Naked Poems

—A CNQ Web Exclusive, October 2022

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