Robert Lecker’s Anthologizing Canadian Literature: Theoretical and Cultural Perspectives
by Alex Good

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Anthologizing CanLit cover_crop

Anothologizing Canadian Literature, Robert Lecker, ed.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015
328 pages

For several decades now, McGill professor Robert Lecker has been one of the best academic commentators on the CanLit profession. That he is also one of the only academic commentators on any matter related to Canadian literature who’s still worth reading is directly related to an issue that he has often addressed: the large and growing gap between public and professional criticism.

This gap was something Lecker experienced firsthand during his tenure as co-publisher of ECW Press, and which he documented in his memoir, Dr. Delicious. ECW began life as Essays on Canadian Writing, an academic journal, and stayed true to its roots for as long as that was economically viable. Over time, however, it was forced to evolve into a broader-based, more commercial venture, branching out into celebrity bios, books about professional wrestling, and other quickie guides to pop culture (the “ECW” becoming, in the process, “Entertainment, Culture, Writing”). Meanwhile, the study of Canadian literature moved, in Lecker’s words, “further and further indoors.” Literary criticism separated into two solitudes: one popular, or at least one addressed to a general audience (the “common reader” of legend), the other institutional and specialized. And as the two grew apart, a wall was erected between them.

There is no immediately obvious explanation for what Lecker describes as this “separation of professional and public consciousness.” Why shouldn’t literary criticism – whose fundamental principles, Northrop Frye thought, should be explicable “to any intelligent nineteen-year-old” – be just as accessible as any other form of cultural commentary? Literature is, after all, a form of entertainment, a leisure-time activity with its feet planted in popular culture. We should also keep in mind that its academic study is publicly funded. So in whose interest was such a dissociation? Why did literary criticism become what Frye called “a mystery-religion without a gospel,” its initiates left to “communicate, or quarrel, only with one another”?

This is an old complaint – I’ve been quoting from Frye’s “polemical introduction” to the Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957 – and there is now a more-or-less standard or official response arguing that the specialization and complexity of postmodern literary criticism has made such a divorce inevitable. Today’s literary theorists, the apology goes, are working so far in advance of conventional thought that they have had to adopt a highly technical language and manner of writing incomprehensible to the general public. And so monographs and journals on literary matters continue to be published, but only as part of a weird alternative economy: a good for which there is no demand, priced out of the reach of any buyer, their only purpose to fulfill an odious professional duty.

Despite this turning indoors, there has been some attempt by literary critics, or theorists, to claim that their work is more relevant than ever before. This has mainly been achieved by turning the study of literature against itself, ideological self-struggle sessions being the quickest way to gain media attention (the media still being the only objective measure of any wider public interest). The result was a colourful and, to some degree, ongoing “culture war” that focused, to the exclusion of all else, on the politics of culture. What this meant was identity politics, with identity referring primarily to gender and race (class would be a refuge, often of dubious validity, for white males unable to lay claim to any other underprivileged, victim status). Arguments over the presence of racism and sexism among faculty or in the canon were, for good or ill, where the action was. Post-structuralist thought left the public at best confused and indifferent, but name-calling could always be counted on to prick up a few ears.

The University of Toronto, for example, has Canada’s largest department of English literature and enjoys, I believe, a good reputation. But the only time in recent memory that it has drawn any notice from anyone not actually enrolled there is when sessional instructor and award-winning novelist David Gilmour admitted in an online interview that he didn’t teach any female authors, touching off a tiny tempest of spin and outrage. (That Gilmour also admitted to not teaching any Canadian authors was totally ignored, nationality not being authentic enough grounds for identity for anyone to care about.) Aside from this single incident I can’t think of another time in the past couple of decades that there has been any public awareness of, or interest in what’s being said or done in U of T’s English department. It may as well be a colony on Mars.

All of this is by way of background or context for Anthologizing Canadian Literature, a collection of essays edited by Robert Lecker that provides some insight into where the academic study of Canadian literature is, and where it may be heading in the twenty-first century.

Anthologies offer a particularly fruitful field for critics, connoisseurs, and culture warriors to argue over. They embody, in public form, a personal, political, and institutional distillation of what’s in and what’s out at a particular time and place. In the language of political criticism, they are manifestations of power. More particularly, they can be highly individual expressions of taste, aesthetic manifestoes, or monuments to orthodoxy and tradition. They can take the form of slender gardens of verse or obscenely expensive textbooks, re-issued every couple of years, as a new edition to a hostage audience.

I enjoy anthologies, and appreciate the expertise and imagination their editors bring to the difficult process of their creation. Among recent Canadian anthologies featuring classic and contemporary work I have many favourites. As the author of a newspaper column on science fiction, I was thrilled by Darwin’s Bastards, Zsuzsi Gartner’s collection of “astounding tales from tomorrow.” And the annual Imaginarium volume published by ChiZine Press, a selection of the year’s best Canadian speculative writing, is always a must-read. In the field of Canadian poetry, Carmine Starnino’s The New Canon stands out as a landmark work, while Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, selected and annotated by Zach Wells, is a well-curated and elegant tribute to the form.

The sorts of claims that an anthology makes – about literary value, national identity, etc. – can also produce fierce debate. The publication, in 2007, of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart, is perhaps the most prominent recent example, having set off a lively discussion about Urquhart’s editorial decisions in the pages of various newspapers and literary magazines. Whatever side you ultimately took on the matter, it seemed to me to be the kind of informed, passionate, public conversation about literature that we should be having more of in this country.

These are not, however, the sorts of anthologies that Anthologizing Canadian Literature is interested in. Indeed, none of the books I’ve just mentioned receives a single reference in any of the essays included here (though Lecker, at least, has discussed some of them elsewhere). This may not be too surprising, but it is worth noting that the poetry anthologies by Starnino and Wells have been used as textbooks in Canadian universities, and the kerfuffle over The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories was a uniquely high-profile, media-friendly debate over literary values, involving many prominent names. You’d have thought it would arouse enough of an interest in the academy to merit a mention in a book of essays on the subject of Canadian literary anthologies. It is, however, passed by without notice. Was the debate, in some way, unseemly? Unprofessional? Unacademic?

It’s not as though the authors are unaware of the divorce between public and professional criticism. In her essay on “quirky” Canadian anthologies, Lorraine York is mindful of the gap, and argues “that a study of anthologies that does not pay attention to the quirky/niche/popular anthology risks not recognizing a significant part of the literary activity of this country.” Her essay begins by noting how completely “topical anthologies” (of which her “quirky” examples are a subset) stand outside the academic mainstream. In

recent critical works devoted to anthologies, such topical collections are no longer even much worth deriding; they do not even seem to be visible. In recognized texts like Jeffrey R. Di Leo’s collection On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy, the anthology is assumed to be synonymous with the academic anthology, and every contributor assumes that the relevant field of cultural production is the academy and the academy alone.

This seems to be an assumption made by the contributors to Anthologizing Canadian Literature as well. Indeed, this exclusivity goes beyond just writing about anthologies. Here, for example, is what Lecker experienced while planning his own first foray into the field of anthology editor:

It was only after I became involved in editing and publishing Canadian literature that I was approached to edit my own anthology. So, for the first time, I had to think about what I wanted to achieve. I had no desire to create a volume that would be of interest to the general reading public, and I never even thought about that possibility, a fact that indicates the extent to which I understood implicitly, even at an early stage in my career, that anthologies of national literatures were fundamentally designed to serve curricular communities rather than a broader reading audience. I also understood, early on, that a canon of Canadian literature existed, that professors relied upon it, and that to challenge it in any kind of detail would probably result in poor uptake by the academic community I was trying to serve. I see now that my attempt to “serve” that community underlined the way in which editors of national literature anthologies are the footmen of academia. Step out of line, or refuse to toe the line, and you stand a good chance of being figuratively fired.

As an aside, this strikes me as one of the most damning passages relating to Canadian literature that I have ever read. Anyone sceptical of the existence of what’s been branded the Canadian Literary Establishment should consider such a confession as Lecker makes here carefully. When one wonders, as I often have over the years, how Canadian writing has taken a wrong turn, it’s easy, but only fair and just, to look first to a system that operates in such a way. If we don’t want to blame the players but the game, we need to first call the referees to account. Chief among those referees are the universities and the media: ostensibly objective, independent critical voices who, instead, act as enablers of privilege and the status quo. At the university it seems that the only duty is “to toe the line” or be fired. As for the media, here we may listen to Michael Lista as he introduces his collection of newspaper and magazine essays and reviews, Strike Anywhere:

in my first few columns, I dutifully toed the party line, and wrote shallow book reviews in which the fathoms of my mixed feelings were left utterly unsounded. I got good at spinning candied empty calories, like when I gushed that Canada was in a golden age of poetry, which was just the sort of saccharine, confected falsehood that nearly everyone who read me had a sweet tooth for. Those early columns didn’t deserve their first lives, never mind a belated second one here.

But after rushing down the street to the newsstand on the Saturday mornings when my column would run, and admiring myself in the empty Presse Internationale—which was soon to close for good—I couldn’t help but notice the discrepancy between the sort of work I was filing, and the criticism of the writers I most admired—George Orwell, Gore Vidal, Helen Vendler, Philip Larkin, Christopher Hitchens, Janet Malcolm, Carmine Starnino, Mary Kinzie, Jason Guriel, Clive James, Renata Adler, Christian Wiman and others. Wiman wrote that if you’re a book reviewer who loves most of the poetry that comes across your desk, you’re either really lucky, or really stupid.

And so after only a few months, I was face to face with the dilemma of the Canadian poet-critic: bullshit your way to the top, or real talk your way to the bottom. I knew lots of people in the scene who had parlayed their column inches and entry-level editorial jobs into some pretty cushy gigs, and the temptation to accept the keys to the kingdom, which were on offer for the low price of my conscience, was very real indeed. And you don’t get to fulminate in the white-shoe real estate for long before the insular, interbred village of Canadian poets pulls out the pitchforks, feathers and tar.

In a political context we’d call this manufacturing consent, but it’s a force visibly at work in the cultural economy of criticism as well. This is the way reputations are made in the literary world: by networking, groupthink, and toeing the bottom line.

Lecker describes how cynical this process made him feel, and indeed it’s hard to see how it could fail to have such an effect. Meanwhile, the divorce, which he deplores, between the public and the professional, is an admission of what has to be viewed as a profound failure on some level (“I had no desire to create a volume that would be of interest to the general reading public, and I never even thought about that possibility”). And it gets worse. An expression of even deeper cynicism is found in York’s essay, where she talks about the critical response to Desperately Seeking Susans, a quirky poetry anthology by Canadian poets named Susan. York quotes from an interview with George Bowering where Bowering explains that such anthologies “operate in another sphere entirely” from that of academic texts. As Bowering says, “Academics won’t even read it [that is, a non-academic anthology]. They don’t go to poetry readings and they don’t buy poetry magazines.”

In my experience, that’s not an overly harsh judgment. As further evidence of academic cynicism, here is the opening sentence of Frank Davey’s essay, misleadingly titled “Reading Anthologies”: “Like many university English Department faculty, I own a lot of anthologies, most of which I didn’t buy. Most of these I also haven’t opened unless they’ve seemed relevant to an article I was planning to write about anthologies.” What are we to think of such a dismissive attitude? Like all too many literary critics today, Davey seems to feel he is scoring some kind of point by making it clear that, when it comes to reading, he really can’t be arsed. For Davey, an anthology’s purpose isn’t to be read – and It should certainly never be paid for! – but instead to be received as a form of tribute, to give him something to write about, or teach. He goes on to say that “Except for a copy of Raymond Knister’s Canadian Short Stories that I found at a church bazaar, I don’t believe I have ever voluntarily purchased a short fiction anthology, although I own many that have come to me as review copies or possible desk copies.” Why, one wonders, would Davey even want to teach, or write an essay about, a book he would never voluntarily buy or read? Professional duty, I suppose.

I think we just have to accept from all of this that the separation between public and professional consciousness is now nearly absolute. When it comes to literary matters the public has no interest in what academics are reading, writing, or saying, and the feeling is clearly mutual. Indeed, with academics, and even some reviewers, there seems to be little interest in reading much of anything.

This is such an important and surprising point that it’s worth expanding on a bit. In my nearly twenty years writing on books for various Canadian newspapers I’ve reviewed many titles by Canadian historians that were written for a general audience. Some even became bestsellers. And books by philosophy professors sometimes crossed my desk as well, including work by University of Toronto faculty like Mark Kingwell and Joseph Heath. But in all that time I rarely reviewed a book of literary criticism or essays on Canadian writing by a Canadian English professor.

Not that there haven’t been any. Critics like T. F. Rigelhof and Stephen Henighan (a retired teacher of Humanities in Quebec’s CEGEP system and a professor of Latin American literature, respectively) may be counted among the rare outliers. But over the years I have read and reviewed many books of literary criticism by people like Philip Marchand, Ray Robertson, Carmine Starnino, Zachariah Wells, Jason Guriel, and Michael Lista. Not one of these authors is an academic, and this is only to mention those who have written books of Canadian literary criticism. Among current book reviewers and literary essayists in Canadian newspapers and magazines I can name another couple of dozen prominent and distinguished names, none of whom teaches at a university. Indeed, I don’t know of any professors of Canadian literature who regularly write for the popular press.

The bottom line is that today’s academics aren’t involved in contemporary Canadian literary culture, while those who are doing the vital work of criticism are essentially volunteers. There is a chasm, especially wide in Canada, not just between public and professional consciousness but between the study of literature and literature as part of a larger, living culture. I want to stress that this is something that academics themselves are well aware of and that I think most of them genuinely regret. There is, however, little to be done about it given the institutional, professional, and general economic pressures involved. Academic criticism and canon-making have become deeply conservative activities, dedicated, as I have said, to the preservation of privilege and the status quo. Recall the passages I quoted earlier by Lista and Lecker about the need to “toe the line,” to never deviate from professional boundaries or upset canonical norms (Lecker: “There was an unstated agreement between academics and publishers that neither side would rock the boat”). To repeat something I’ve said before, this is how any Establishment works: by maintaining the system, and manufacturing consent to its authority, those who service it are essentially operating out of self-interest. Or, as Lecker puts it in Making It Real: The Canonization of English-Canadian Literature:

Those who are responsible for creating canons are simultaneously involved in solidifying their position as canon-makers. By canonizing texts, they canonize themselves and their institutional milieu . . . In its present form, canonical activity in Canada encourages critics to live inside their institutional walls, secure within a specialized, private, professional guild.

Perhaps the most frequently criticised, and even mocked, shibboleth of this specialized guild is its use of an arcane and obscurantist academic language. That so many academic writers can’t make themselves understood even when they want to be (which is far from always) is evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. And though the worst days of critical cant and jargon may now be behind us, it still has to be acknowledged that the vast majority of today’s English professors are incapable of writing a sentence that anyone would want to read. Insulated from the necessity of ever having to reach an audience, they have become infected by what Clive James describes as “the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results except a faculty supervisor who owed his post to the same exemption.” The divorce between public and private criticism has given birth to an isolated species of writing; one that’s now incapable of interbreeding with the general population.

I was relieved, then, to find most of the essays in Anthologizing Canadian Literature less painful than the usual academic fare. Some, like Lecker’s introduction and Anne Compton’s essay, are even well written. To be sure, there are the usual buzzwords about “negotiating texts and discourse,” but by now these just seem like stale raisins in the pudding. And of course there are plenty of ordinary words placed in ironic quotes to show that they don’t mean what you think they mean, even if the author isn’t clear what they mean either. I admit I laughed out loud when I came to a sentence in Richard Cavell’s essay that talks about “postmodernism and postcolonialism and all the other ‘posts’ that have their ‘origin’ in the ‘discovery’ of a ‘new’ world.” Was Cavell trying to be funny? Or “funny”? To me, it was comic gold.

Sadly, one wonders if academics are even aware of the joke. Members of the Establishment – those inside the walls, who toe the line – can easily start believing their own nonsense. Gary Geddes, for example, begins his essay “Confessions of an Unrepentant Anthologist” with a strange biographical note in which he mentions coming across a comment by Randall Jarrell about how the typical anthologist is “a Gallup Poll with connections.” “I laughed at this,” Geddes writes, because “it seemed so far removed from the facts in my case.” Geddes was, you see, totally “unconnected” as a young graduate student at the University of Toronto, a reflection which leads him further back to his even more ‘umble beginnings doing

…a patchwork BA [even his BA wore patches!] from UBC with a major in both English and Philosophy, consisting mainly of courses available during those days I was not working at a variety of part-time jobs, in particular stocking shelves on the food floor at Woodward’s department store in downtown Vancouver, where the fumes from the detergents and other soap products would make me sneeze. If there was ever an unconnected and unprepared anthologist-in-the-making, it was me.

This is one of those passages, and there are many in today’s academic writing, that I had to read several times to make sure I wasn’t missing something. What, I wondered, did Geddes see as the connection between having to stock shelves part-time while working on his BA and not knowing enough of the right people in his later professional life to be an anthologist? After all, and as he immediately goes on to say, he later did get to know the right people. His first anthology came out because he happened to mention the need for a new teaching anthology to a colleague. She told him he should edit one. He couldn’t imagine such a thing (more humility, and note the assumption of privilege: “who would allow an unknown schmuck like me to edit an anthology of poetry?”), but it turns out that this colleague he happened to be talking to was married to the guy who happened to be in charge of Oxford University Press in Canada. Who knew? The wheels were greased (“she would tell him I was interested in submitting a proposal”) and the rest is history. Geddes’ trip down Memory Lane concludes with another anecdote, this one about spending some time with fellow anthologist Margaret Atwood (referred to as “Peggy”) in her London digs back in ’71.

This is all interesting stuff, but the only reason it’s introduced is to show why Geddes found the idea that – as an anthologist – he could be referred to as someone with connections laughably absurd. Can he really be this oblivious?

So much for the general intellectual (or “intellectual”) background. An anthology itself (or something “much like an anthology,” in Lecker’s estimation), Anthologizing Canadian Literature gives us some idea of what’s in and what’s out in today’s literary criticism. What’s out is textual analysis and value judgments (I mean judgments of literary value; moral value judgments can always be made). What’s in is quantitative research, the notion of cultural capital, and violence.

Aside from the question of whether critics still possess the requisite tools to engage in evaluative criticism, this approach has, by common agreement, been pretty efficiently disposed of. There’s simply no longer any point in asking whether or not a particular author, poem, or short story should have been included or excluded from an anthology on the grounds of literary merit. As we’ve seen, that’s not a consideration. Instead, Lecker enumerates the various crass “non-literary” and material factors that go into filling the pages of the commercially produced national literary anthology designed for college and university courses. To his list, which includes items like length and permission fees, I would also add the need for the material to lend itself to the current dominant academic paradigm for the study of literature. This means, inevitably, how well a piece of writing illustrates questions of identity politics. I’ve written of this before, in my review of Bennett and Brown’s dismal textbook An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English, and there’s no need to say anything more here except to point out how this is all part of toeing the line and providing grist for a mill that produces ever more essays on the same “political” subjects.

Quantitative analysis, of the type undertaken here by Peggy Lynn Kelly in a historical survey of English-Canadian poetry anthologies between 1920 and 1950, that finds (to no one’s surprise, I hope) a “practice of systemic discrimination on the bases of class, race, sex, and ethnicity,” feeds the same machine. Kelly concludes that her numbers provide statistical material for the “questioning of greatness and universals” as represented in the anthologies she looks at, but that is where her essay ends. Because how could she go any further? “Greatness” is a value judgment, and has nothing to do with statistical analysis. Nor, for that matter, does it owe anything to those “non-literary” factors that determine the contents of a modern anthology. No doubt the quantitative approach, which has become fashionable as “distant reading” among some academics and the obsession with penis counting in the media, has some role to play in the study of literature, but it’s one that I think we can safely leave to our software. Meanwhile, the question of which men have been included in an anthology/canon who should not have been, or which women have been unfairly excluded, and why they have been so privileged or discriminated against, is much harder to answer, though happily irrelevant since merit, as we’ve seen, isn’t up for debate. All such judgments are relative anyway. It’s the numbers that don’t lie.

When I began this essay I talked a bit about how the professional study of literature has tried to compensate for its increasing marginalization in our literary culture through a rhetoric that demands we take notice of academic politics made nasty because the stakes are so small. This was the point of the culture war: a way of pimping out the humanities to be more media sexy and seemingly vital. Devoid of any significant cultural power, academics obsess over the power of the system, its bestowing of punishment and reward. This rhetoric is smeared all over discussions of canons and canon-making here: what we’re talking about when we talk about anthologies is “cultural capital” and the exercise of influence. And so we hear of anthologies as great repositories of cultural capital, “tropes of violence,” symbols and instruments of power. Anne Compton writes that “An anthologist has power or, at least, assumes it. Wars erupt.” Indeed “The history of anthology-making is riddled with these wars.” As such they are visualized as battlefields (of race, gender, class, etc.) or, in Richard Cavell’s imagining, blood-soaked bouquets:

Here [with the image, rooted in the word’s etymology, of the anthology as a collection of picked flowers] we approach the dynamics of inclusions and exclusion that characterize both the gendered and the raced aspects of the anthology, and that point toward the violence that subtends such collections. The paradox of a bouquet of flowers is that it is born of violence, a violence that remains a venerable trope of literature from Eve plucking the apple to Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, and its power fully conveyed by Leonard Cohen’s Flowers for Hitler, the romanticism of the flower balanced by the brutality of its plucking, which, in this case, implies a political allegory. The flower must be plucked, uprooted, deracinated in order to be collected.

Fair enough. Any anthology is likely to be made up of bleeding chunks torn from the corpus of some author’s work. The real source of that violence, however, is less racism, sexism, or any other political bugbear, but rather what lies at the root of most political violence in society: the competition for scarce resources.

The problem with academic politics isn’t that the stakes are so small, it’s that the stakes are shrinking. This has led to an obsession over who’s making it in, or being left out of, the lifeboat. Of all metaphors and images for anthologies canvassed here, I don’t recall any mention of lifeboats. This is too bad, as it fits both the genre and much of the Canadian literary scene generally. It’s certainly more honest and accurate than the usual canard about lobsters in a pail.

Anthologies are a dying form. Being a sort of reference book full of shorter works – many of which can now be easily accessed online – they seem destined for the rendering plant of history. The internet is our universal library and Google our ultimate editor-compiler-anthologist. The writing is on the screen, and several contributors read it there. When Anne Compton says that the “contemporary verse anthology is a search engine” she is composing an epitaph. “Perhaps it’s best,” she writes, “to think of such anthologies as research tools rather than literary works. Like dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and Google, they have pragmatic value.” The only problem with this being that dictionaries and encyclopaedias have already disappeared from our shelves, leaving Google as the only research tool with pragmatic value. As for anthologies . . .

As the study of literature continues to contract – declining readership, falling enrollment in English programs, disappearing newspaper book-review sections – the game of who’s in and who’s out of the lifeboat will become angrier. Not, however, in any revolutionary or progressive sense. When things are winding down nobody is interested in progressive values. Instead, a time of contraction reinforces the need to play it safe, to hold on to what you’ve got, to stick with the classics and established patterns of preference. You can try to make the notion of canon-formation sexy with talk of violence and the power of cultural capital, conjuring images of pirates on a beach fighting over a chest of stolen gold, but what it comes down to, less comically, is the professoriate serving capital, meaning serving the system that provides for them. The only thing this leads to is a culture of courtiers and mediocracy. Cynicism, which is at least a form of honesty, is its only virtue. But nobody’s listening anyway.

A CNQ Web Exclusive, July 2016

 

 

 

 

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