William I. Atkinson
Am I Not a Man?
“Am I not a man?” says Zorba the Greek to his ingénu friend. “And is not a man stupid?” I am a man, thus subject to the thousand natural shocks of male stupidity. I take a drink, knowing that my drink will take a drink and then take me. I poke my tongue into a sore tooth, knowing that no good can result. And I keep opening the latest Canadian novels, knowing that in so doing I will bash my head against the cast-iron horrors of CanLit.
Ah, CanLit: Canadian Literature. Book after book ground out by the same thirty people, who all review one another’s books in the same ecstatic way. Each book published only through state support, and selling, oh, in the absolute dozens. Praised on CBC Radio, and written to the same incomprehensible model: Losers of East Nowhere. Recommended for book clubs, pushed onto award escalators from the Giller on down, and sleepwalking through the same dreary paradigm – marginal, uninteresting people doing marginal, uninteresting things in marginal, uninteresting places. Self-trapped in endless do-loops, alienating those who unaccountably love them. Unimaginative and uncreative even in the way they flush away their lives.
Who benefits from this stuff, other than its parasitic intelligentsia in the arts media? As Mordecai Richler observed, the aim of fiction is to illuminate readers’ experience; yet today’s typical CanLit novel illuminates nothing but futility. Is this today’s Canada – characters endlessly committing what can only be described as ‘slowicide’? Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living; but conversely, none of the endless unlived lives in CanLit seems worth examining. A wife-beating, child-abusing, unemployed drunk trapped in Whales’ Tails NL does not illuminate my experience; he wastes my time. So do the chattering classes who swoon about how exquisitely his unlived life is described. My God! It’s not as if Canada lacks successful personalities to explore, both lived and imaginable. Gordon Lightfoot nailed it in Canadian Railway Trilogy:
On the mountaintops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up the soil
With our teardrops and our toil
That is the Canada that’s worth exploring, understanding, describing, reading, and discussing: not the blunderings of the perpetually self-marginalized. There’s a vast swath of Canadians, past, present, and future, that have made this country, are sustaining it, and are even now taking it to the heights. Great scientists, among them Nobel laureates; politicians who defy the worst traits of their own electorate to do what’s right; businesspeople who run their companies for the good of all, not just their shareholders; EMS workers who hourly endure appalling trauma because they know they’re needed; teachers who work for more than sick days, pensions, and two months off a year, because they know they affect eternity. The list is endless. But none of these heroes, known or unknown, is good enough (or rather bad enough) for CanLit. They’ve disqualified themselves because they all bear the stink of success – moral, ethical, financial.
Perhaps some element in the Canadian psyche loves the trope of failure. There’s a joke about Canadian lobsters: once you’ve caught them you needn’t cover the pail they’re in, because any lobster trying to escape is hauled back by the others. Who do they think they are, trying to better themselves? It’s positively unCanadian. Losers, that’s who we are. Full stop.
It may go deeper. Perhaps CanLit’s unending obsession with screw-ups reflects the conditions of its creation. It’s been said that in France, all writers are important; in Britain, some writers are important; in the USA, rich writers are important; in Canada, you have to explain what a writer is. With vanishingly few exceptions – Richler, Davies, Atwood, all of whom (oh, ick!) may be successful because, gosh, they examine the successful – Canadian writers, even award-winners, are as marginal, as mired in poverty and (at least outside the CanLit industry) as utterly unknown, as their equally forgettable characters. In this country, writing makes all other remunerative activity, e.g. stocking shelves or stealing bottles from recycling bins, seem wildly rewarding: the average published author in Canada earns nine dollars a day. Given these circumstances, writing in this country is not a profession but a self-indulgence: one needs some additional source of income, some open quotes real job close quotes, to go on grinding out that endlessly depressing prose.
Not surprisingly, most of the supportive jobs occupy the fringes of the CanLit industry – radio announcer, journalist, columnist, arts reporter. Or professor, either of English or of Creative Writing. Write what you know, goes the conventional wisdom. Which being interpreted is, Fence in your imagination; never dare to depict a world you haven’t lived. This dreary rule, which if followed would have throttled most of the world’s great literature in utero, keeps grinding out novels about horny middle-aged English profs. Aimless, useless, unproductive lives, frittered away in small dead-end communities whose occupants communicate only with one another: Sound familiar? The source of the CanLit paradigm, perhaps? With writers’ own dead-end lives their core literary metaphor?
And not only of its essence but also of its perpetuation, since these same chroniclers of dismal lives pass on their dismal world-view to their dismal students. Hopkins was right: Generations have trod, have trod, have trod. We now see, God help us, a new generation of CanLit writers eager to document, and live, uncounted lives of hopeless material and emotional poverty. This way, please, to Mr Smith’s car. (Russell Smith, no mean novelist himself, was recently driving himself and some fellow authors to an Ontario writers’ festival when he realized that a single crash would erase half the CanLit establishment at a stroke. Presumably they were riding in his car because none of them could afford a car of their own.)
To recapitulate: The conditions under which CanLit is made may explain the infernal constancy of its content. Marginal characters, perpetual losers, trapped within marginal communities (if one could call them actual communities, rather than holding tanks for underclass deplorables); forever cut off from the ideas, excitement, prosperity, and creativity of the centrum that not merely disregards them, but hardly knows that they exist. Metaphorically, CanLit’s characters are its authors, CanLit’s plots its authors’ living conditions. Who needs all that? I don’t, you don’t. It illuminates nothing. But then you and I don’t dwell, literally or metaphorically, in Nuits-d’Ivresse, QC; you and I have lives.
This is not to say that the socially marginal should be ignored in literature: only that as characters, they must manifest humanity. They must be struggling; they must stand up and demand to be seen. Les Misérables and The Book of Negroes are immortal because of this. The CanLit losers are not: never have been, never will be. Nobody waves goodbye because they aren’t worth waving at. They have given up; they are dead men and women walking.
Of course, there exists a place in literature for the downtrodden, those who have been stuffed into the garbage bin because they were briefly useful to the powerful, or just because they got in the way. Their story also should be told. But CanLit protagonists, at least most of them, are not these tragic heroes and heroines; their days are spent (in Walt Kelly’s phrase) in noisy desperation. They have advantages, yet piss them away. They can escape from insignificance into significance, yet never do. They choose not to matter.
So here’s a suggestion. CanLit authors – and many are staggeringly talented, just wasting their talents in a doomed cause – might address the issues and conditions that truly, justly concern the bulk of their fellow Canadians. CanLit might explore characters who do things, beyond waiting for the beer store to open. Who study, strive, and achieve; who have grounds for hope; who contribute to the country rather than being a truckload of anvils weighing down its social network. They needn’t be captains of industry, though those would make good characters too. They need only be the undefeated, the striving, the courageous, the resilient, the bold, the undefeated: the winners. If Canada’s authors can rise to that challenge and turn their unquestioned talent to creating such stories, stories to which the mass of their fellow citizens can actually relate, they may find that fiction isn’t simply a ticket to the poorhouse. Better yet, they may give us narratives worth reading. Forget the lobsters, CanLit. There’s more to Canada than loss.