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I was lucky enough to receive an early review copy of The Retreat by David Bergen, and the first drafts of my review attempted to address that very issue. I ended up abandoning that angle for fear that no one would know what I was talking about...but now feel completely vindicated!
Clarity of thought and word seems to be spot-on, Booksloth. Would anyone else care to try and pinpoint those elusive qualities that hallmark Canadian literature as distinctly Canadian?
I also find that geography is more than "setting" in our writing. It's attachment to place; it's (to paraphrase Thomas C. Foster) shape and space that gives us a sense of the history and feelings of the characters, and ourselves.
P.S. Lynn, your posts here and elsewhere have turned me on to a couple of new books (e.g., How to Read Literature Like a Professor and its sequel; In the New Capital). Thank you!
It is also worth mentioning our biculturism, native influences and influx of "new" Canadians - I think it's made us more open to different voices. I'm always pleasantly surprised with the diversity of our literature.
Survival is worth reading, but you should read it with a grain of salt. See it in context: it was published as part of a nationalist effort to define "Canadian literature" and, like many such efforts, it tends to define Canlit in terms of the author's wishes rather than the existing reality. A guide to Canadian literature it is not, and Atwood admits as much in the early going, confessing that it reflects her reading and her ideas more than it attempts to describe Canadian literature as it stood.
A better title might have been Survival: A thematic guide to early Margaret Atwood, by Margaret Atwood, by Margaret Atwood.
Attempts to describe Canadian literature run into problems quickly. What is "Canadian literature?" When is a book "Canadian?" When we exclude books for not being "Canadian" -- because the author was not born here, or is not a citizen, or is living outside Canada, or has published his work outside Canada, are we gerrymandering our review? And, given the ten zillion books published in Canada each year, does anyone read widely enough to make judgments re what defines "Canadian literature?"
In What is a Canadian Literature?, John Metcalf reacted against academic attempts to create a Canadian literary tradition (which included the proposal that the "Canadian short story" had evolved from letters to the editors of Canadian newspapers) by arguing that Canadian writers have rarely been responding to Canadian writing or to a Canadian tradition, but instead (primarily) to American and British writers. Morley Callaghan was reading Hemingway, for example. And he makes a compelling case.
(And in turn is criticized because he was not born in Canada, and therefore has no right to comment on Canadian literature, and no knowledge of what it means to be Canadian, etc.)
It is only in the past 40 - 50 years -- since the nationalist era that produced Survival -- that Canadian writers have been reading Canadian writers to any degree.
1. I studied very little literature at university, Canadian or otherwise and, therefore, have no background in criticism so I have no idea whether Survival was good, bad, or indifferent. Therefore, I have no doubt your criticism is valid. However, I still think it was a good read if nothing else but, perhaps, I will read it again to see how I react to it now. I also believe that everything including criticism (and, here you can correct me) should be seen in its historical context. Certainly, there are many more Canadian writers to choose from now than there were when I read Atwood's book, even including popular fantasy writers like Erikson, Bakker, and Gavriel, none of whom would be seen as exclusively Canadian or, judging from every thing I have seen about Canadian authors, even seen as relevant to Canadian writing. So, perhaps you can tell me, are they Canadian writers by any definition or just writers who are Canadian? Trust me, I am not being facetious, just curious, because I see other genre writers mentioned but never fantasy or science fiction.
2. Here, I will admit I just wrote the post because this thread had been so long dormant, thought it interesting, and figured I'd try to revive it.
Anyway, mea culpa, eh!