Canadian Content in CanLit


The issue of “Canadianness” in Canadian writing has come up yet again. John Barber in today’s Globe and Mail has discussed whether or not there is enough of Canada in this country’s literary output. More and more it seems that fiction, in particular, is being set in places other than the motherland, creating a new kind of trend for novelists, but there are people who support this pattern and those who do not. In some ways this can be viewed as Canadian authors gaining confidence in their own abilities and where our national literature is headed, but it’s certainly possible that we are losing an important part of our literary and national identity. Fewer and fewer books are set in Canada and fewer are concerned with characters or events associated with the country, making it a tempting assumption to say that this is a terribly threatening development in our literature.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, since Canada’s vast size and the differences between spaces within our borders have always made subjects of our literature somewhat isolated to a particular regional demographic (for example, stories that are thought to be distinctly “Newfoundland” in nature may not have a great amount in common with those of Montreal, or Winnipeg). To my mind, this may represent why Canadian writers feel less pressure to set their novels in Canada or use Canada-specific content; this historical division by region meant that, essentially, all literature in this country could be viewed as foreign to those in other provinces. The current trend, then, may be less a straying from the roots of a Canadian literary heritage and more an extension of the one that has been present for decades. With the nation’s large migrant population, there’s no wonder a focus on other cultures and origins would be tempting for authors to explore. On the other hand, we have to consider what is more important to great literature: quality writing, or content that is specific to a certain social group. In reality, it is probably some combination of the two.

Here’s an excerpt from the article, but I’d recommend you read the whole thing.

Almost a decade after Yann Martel described Canada as “the greatest hotel on earth” in accepting the Booker Prize for The Life of Pi – a famous Canadian novel that begins in India and ends in Mexico – Canadian content has only become rarer in Canadian literature. While many U.S. and British writers turn inward – a trend exemplified by Julian Barnes’s Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending – Canadian literature is more than ever characterized by free-floating cosmopolitanism.

“That’s definitely one of the striking things about contemporary Canadian literature,” said Paul Martin of Edmonton’s MacEwan University, former director of Canadian studies at the University of Vermont. “But it’s not something we should be apologizing for. I think it’s something we should be pretty excited about.”

Internationalism is a sign of confidence, many observers agree, and a faithful reflection of the ethnic diversity of modern Canada. “Going back to the middle of the 1990s, Canadian fiction became confident enough it no longer had to be set in southwestern Ontario or the Prairies,” said University of Toronto English professor Nick Mount. “I think it felt it could set wherever it wanted to be set.”


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