It is a bizarre fact of English Canadian letters that it has produced so few social novels of the sort one finds in British or American literature. Whether this is a result of the prejudices of publishers, the superseding interests of writers themselves, a post-colonial culture lacking the self-confidence to produce work that would stand in direct competition with what is canonically most revered in other nations, or something else, is difficult to say for certain. But the fact remains: Canadian writing has produced very few lengthy novels about contemporary life as experienced on several social levels.
We have certainly produced lengthy novels – all national literatures have. But the stereotypical long Canadian novel is either a historical work or a multi-generational family saga. Some books fall into an intermediary zone, not quite being about “history” but not quite set in the present-day. And some aren’t long . . . they just feel that way. But the work that gets produced in this country – or at least, sees the light of day – tends to have other goals than to capture contrasts in human experience based on age and social class while also presenting a coherent narrative with a strong plot.
Personally, this doesn’t bother me as a reader. I live overseas, and find myself doing a lot of reading without a Canadian connection. When I do have the opportunity to read a Canadian novel, I am rarely eager to extend a great deal of time on it. Long novels demand a lot of commitment. But there is a problem with this relative lack of long Canadian novels about contemporary life, and that problem has significance for the national culture, whether English, French or First Nations.
Living away from Canada teaches a person many things. One is the extraordinary hegemony of American culture. American culture is world culture in its English form. The Brits may put up a valiant fight in order to keep their finger in the virtual imperial pie, but they come in a distant second. One hears this on the radio and sees it in the movie theatres and the bookstores.
Ah, the bookstores. They are massive. There is a place on Edward Street in downtown Toronto called The World’s Biggest Bookstore. It is – in keeping with the tenor of the times – closing. But maybe that’s just as well from a legal perspective; in recent years, the way it advertised itself – the very name of the store – became questionable. It is impossible to believe it had anything near the quantity of books one finds in the downtown branches of Youngpoong or Kyobo Books in Seoul. In the Gwangwhamun branch of Kyobo, for example, one finds an English-language section that compares favourably with one of the best independent bookstores in Toronto, Book City. And there is an impressive German, Spanish and French section, too. There is even, in a hat-tip to Indigo’s current apparent direction, a large art supply, doohicky, and accessories section. But the books – the masses and masses of Korean books – are what dominate. And holding its own in a big corner of the bookstore are the titles in English . . . with over 90% of these being American.
From the point of view of an American writer, I suppose, the question is not how to compete with “world” culture so much as it is how to compete with one’s own culture. And so it is that in among the biographies of Steve Jobs, the thought pieces on China by “statesman” Henry Kissinger, the Stephanie Meyer progeny, the socio-spanky erotica, the CIA-critiquing/ CIA-venerating thrillers, are big fat literary novels by Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Pat Conroy, Russell Banks, Robert Stone, and so forth. By Canadians, one finds mid-sized works by Yann Martel, Gabrielle Roy, Michael Ondaatje, and Alice Munro. Internationally, our most successful writer in terms of scale and availability is Margaret Atwood.
Franzen is particularly well-liked by the well-read Americans I meet here. It is taken for granted that he is a major living writer. This is not a simple accident of the critical zeitgeist meeting with authorial good fortune; he intended to produce major work, if by length only. The Corrections is approximately 180,000 words. Freedom is not much shorter.
Canadians, too, have produced lengthy, deliberately “major” works. In recent years the most conspicuous of these has been Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. But Mistry’s oeuvre – while not historical in the strict sense – is certainly not about contemporary Canada. His writing is fine and engaging, and it is thematically significant. However, it has almost nothing to do with Canada. This might explain in part why Mistry is described in promotional material as one of “Canada’s most beloved writers” but there is little gut-level enthusiasm in this country for his work. It is not that he is being ignored; it is, rather, that he is ignoring.
The American impulse, on the other hand, is to engage with American culture. Franzen is interested in the now; a well-read American friend recently commented to me that he first came across Franzen in an article in Harper’s (later published in his collection How to Be Alone under the title “Why Bother?”). In this essay, Franzen decried the lack of socially engaged fiction – novels that tried (in Stephen Henighan’s phrase) to gobble up all of society and spit it out. In effect, Franzen was issuing a challenge to his own culture.
“And then, well,” my friend added, “he did it.”
Canadian authors have yet to do it. There is not yet one single-volume novel in the English CanLit canon that is about contemporary life and that has a word count approaching that of Franzen’s work. Yet this lack is recognized, and has been for some time: Hugh Hood recognized it – he wrote a multi-volume series about Canada entitled The New Age. It has largely been forgotten; my own sense is that it was the novel-as-series that watered down the impact of this work. Marie-Claire Blais has been working on a series of linked novels that range between social classes and sensibilities. Her most recent is Le Jeune Homme Sans Avenir (The Young Man Without a Future). However, here, too, I think that linking novels instead of writing one big one is, in some respects, a disadvantage. And then, there is the language barrier; an ongoing source of division in what we term CanLit. In English Canada, Michael Helm and Pasha Malla have published titles that move in the direction of lengthy social novels. The tendency of the reviews so far has been to criticize these novels for being too long. (They are not as long as Franzens’.) I say: go the other way. Outdo Franzen.
Whether Franzen occasionally overwrites or captures contemporary society as well as some of his peers are valid critical questions. Nevertheless, his body of work stands not only as an accomplishment but also as a challenge. This challenge has been articulated by Canadian writers – for example, Russell Smith has called for fiction that deals with the what might be termed the “Hyper of the Contemporary”: an age of sexual and technological overdrive. This impulse seems to be reflected in an ongoing campaign – among female writers more than male ones, with the exceptions, perhaps, of Smith and Matthew Firth – to push the explicit envelope and focus on the sexual: Tamara Faith Berger, Stacey May Fowles, Myrna Wallin and Anne Archet are all writing about sex with directness and lack of shame.
What is germane here is the interest in contemporary experience. Not that this is such a novelty in Canadian letters: Canada has always been rather less uptight than its self-lacerating rhetoric would have one believe, and decades previously there was transgressive work by Marian Engel, John Glassco, Michel Trembley, Evelyn Lau, Dany Laferriére, Ook Chung, Scott Symons and even (people tend to forget this) Margaret Laurence. If the complaint was that certain kinds of transgressive works on the topic of sexuality had been squelched by the conservatism (more accurately, the hybridized politically-correct-conservatism) of Canadian culture, that would be an interesting discussion. But to imply that Canadian letters has been too conservative in the past and now a hip generation of tell-all authors is revolutionizing this dowdy state of affairs does a disservice to Canadian literary history.
At the same time, work that is primarily sexual in its themes carries with it certain dangers: of emotional shallowness, of the narcissism of the unleashed id. Therefore, it is the social novel which can capture on the one hand the “hyper” of the sensuality-experiencing modern soul while at the same time placing that soul within a societal matrix in which it also suffers pain, loneliness, and the trials of making a living. In an article that Patricia Robertson wrote for CNQ, she criticized what she termed “literary realism” for failing to pay sufficient attention to working life. It’s a valid criticism, though I must say that I do not agree with Robertson that this is so much a failing of “realism” as it is the increasing careerism of some young writers who enter (to alter another phrase championed by Robertson) the slipstream of internationalized book deal-making, with its translation deals and movie options, and end up with both overnight fortunes and a stultified desire to keep improving themselves. As well, I have serious doubts that the genres she ends up calling for – those of fantasy and speculative fiction – will do much in the way of depicting the world of regular work: fantasy, above all, is a genre of battle; its primary protagonist-type is that of the warrior who will save the world. That’s labour, certainly, and of an impressively Herculean sort. But it’s not “work” the way we normally understand the term.
Still, a general challenge is made by Robertson, that we engage with the world as it is in its overwhelming entirety and increasingly apocalyptic complexity. Where writing the contemporary is concerned, in addition to Smith and Firth, there is a large number of writers who place their work in fully contemporary settings: Sean Dixon and Peter Darbyshire are two writers whose work I’m come across recently who do this, and there are many more. And cross-over writers like Ian Brown and Donna Lypchuk write vivid contemporary work with real vitality; they deserve attention, too, even though they do not fall within the category of literary fiction. Of course, the premiere chronicler of the present in Anglo CanLit is Douglas Coupland. But as Alex Good has written in these pages, Coupland is a writer of both strengths and limitations: he writes of the present but he has little range of sensibility. His characters tend to be young, upwardly mobile, witty, and rather childlike. Social fiction isn’t, it turns out, just about the Now. It’s also about the Various.
The above is not a call for social novels only; if Canadian writers end up producing more successful genre work (and this has been the case since Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Sawyer, at least), more power to them. And if this country produces work that is sex-focused and maintains emotional authenticity and resists the received ideas of sex-as-ultimate-pleasure, then more power to this too. Finally, one type of novel that I happen to be particularly fond of – the graphic novel – is one that Canada is already at the forefront of: some of the best comics art of the past thirty years has been produced in English and French in this country.
All the same, the lack of lengthy one-volume social novels about contemporary life is a conspicuous one. It remains to be seen if that hole can be filled by a publishing business that has borrowed some of the worst practices of our neighbors to the south while simultaneously insisting it maintains its ideals and favours work based on its literary value, not just its (and its hip author’s) marketability. Not many writers will want to make the effort of producing a truly ambitious manuscript if they have the feeling it will just be rejected in a closed-minded, knee-jerk fashion by the publishing professionals who act as the filters of what gets into print. So, maybe this, then, should be the goal: Canada needs more work that will stand out internationally. If that work sometimes is genre work, well, that’s to the good. But above all, if it is to compete with the best of what is being published elsewhere, it will have to have many of the characteristics of a long social novel.