Monday, January 17, 2011

Overcoming the Sentimentality of My Country

The last two weeks have been quite heavily packed with activity, most of it having to do with work. I’ve been so busy with teaching, writing philosophy essays and thesis chapters, and taking part in the hiring process for our department’s new position that I haven’t had time to blog, and hardly had time to drink. I even missed the New Years Day edition of the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show, and when I miss Craig Charles, you know I’m working seriously hard.

But I came across an article that has gotten me rightfully upset, or at least a tad cross. The Sentimentalists is the novel that won the Giller Prize last year, and its publication history seemed at first to be an uplifting tale of the surprising success of a nearly defeated underdog. Johanna Skibsrud wrote a novel, and couldn’t get it published by any of the big houses, so she eventually went with the small Gaspereau Press, who printed a limited run. The book was sent to a few influential critics who liked it enough to include on the Giller longlist, and it found itself on the shortlist, then took the top prize. There’s a softcover run on a major publishing label, and triumph was had.

This article sums up all the underhanded dealing that has resulted in this remarkably corrupt Giller win. I think I have something to add to this debate, however, which has less to do with the corruption of the Giller judges and the idiocy of Skibsrud’s publishers, and more to do with my ideas about Canadian literature generally. I didn’t know much about The Sentimentalists when it initially won the Giller, but having this accolade made me at least slightly interested in reading it. The books that I picked up on the gift card Mother sent me for Xmas (Bolaño’s Antwerp is done, Berlin Alexanderplatz is in progress, and Finnegans Wake looms before me, and I might blog my thoughts on it, like I did with Proust last year) are still not read yet. But once I read that article, The Sentimentalists stopped being interesting for me. Here’s why.

It’s rural, it’s cold, and its central character is a Canadian stereotype, the cruel buffoon. In other words, The Sentimentalists embodies everything that I’ve come to hate about Canadian literature, and that everyone else in the world who knows anything about Canadian literature hates about it too. I think this image of Canadian literature as being about rural, isolated existence is popular, but I think it’s exactly what keeps people from being more attracted to Canadian literature. The article I linked is right when it says that the rural Canadian novel doesn’t even represent the country anymore, now that Canada is more urban and suburban. Canada is also far less white, less Christian, and far more technologically savvy than the traditionally defined ‘Canadian novel’ makes it out to be.

The most interesting point of view for me is trying to work out how a fiction with a Canadian identity can reflect that urbanity without sounding like an American big city novel; or how we can reflect our multiethnic population without becoming a typical immigrant novel. I don’t really have a program, and I don’t want one, because I no longer believe that programs and manifestos really inspire creativity. They’re just easy to follow in a superficial history course.

Creative experimentation is probably the best route, but I do have ideas about basic ground rules of what not to do, and an inkling of what the most productive paths of development might be. Very clearly, what not to do is rely on the old stereotypes of the Canadian novel, the kind of survival themes that Margaret Atwood talked about in her thematically eponymous book, or the rural settings that aren’t as important to the lives of Canadians anymore. And it’s best not to fall too much in line with the major American fiction archetypes like the urban decay novel or the Western. Books about the underbelly of downtown Vancouver or the exploration of the Rockies or the North could definitely be interesting, but maybe not the most progressive.

Science fiction elements might end up being interesting, because sci-fi life is the kind of direction human civilization is moving in right now. We may not have underwater bubble cities, but we do have Wikileaks and hacker culture.

There’s a political attitude in Canada that I think is best called necessary humility. We’ve always been politically independent, but we live in the shadow of the United States. So while we’re part of the former dominating class of Earth’s powers, Canada has never really dominated anyone. I think that gives us a perspective on the shifting alignment of the world that’s more of a detatched observer than an angsty falling empire, like the USA. A Canadian can take a more ironic perspective on the shift of global power to China, India, and Brazil than any of the former world powers like America, Europe, or Russia could. They’re all losing something, but we’re not.

And there’s enough people of Asian and African descent in Canada for several generations that immigrant narratives don’t apply to them, but they’ve diversified Canada to the point where they can’t be known as the traditional culture of the majority. A third-generation Indian or African living in Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver is part of a very different kind of settler community than the white folks were. So I don’t really know what’s going to turn up out of Canada in the future. But as long as it’s not more rural pablum like The Sentimentalists, I’ll probably be happy.

I heard Imelda May’s music on the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show for the first time this weekend, and I was suitably impressed by a fiery smart beautiful Irish woman who sings ridiculously frenetic rockabilly. She also does a cover of “Tainted Love” that blows Marilyn Manson AND Soft Cell away, along with the versions by Inspiral Carpets, and definitely better (and better looking) than the Pussycat Dolls version.

1 comment:

Gillian said...

Interesting that you mention SF as a possible means of expanding Canadian literature beyond the limiting tropes and themes you've discussed.

French Canadians have actually been doing this for decades, and it can be argued that their relative minority status allows them a more recognizable position from which they can project and speculate.

I'm wondering whether English-speaking Canadians might ever get to the point where they might perceive themselves as a sort of minority in a US-dominated North American culture, which could result in the same sort of speculation the French already engage in.

/writing my thesis on French-Canadian SF.