Sunday, November 20, 2011

Finnish your CanLit

Recently I and a bunch of other Canadian lit bloggers were contacted by a Finnish journalist writing about contemporary Canadian literature. I just visited Bella's Bookshelf where Steph posted her answers to the questions. I was quite impressed with her answers and felt, in hindsight, that I may have rushed mine. But I was even more impressed with the discussion that developed in the comments following her post. In the spirit of keeping that discussion alive, I've decided to follow her lead and post my responses as well. Feel free to disagree. In fact, looking it over again today, I think I even disagree with myself on a few points. In particular, when asked about a common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers, I reply that there are more female novelists than males. I have no idea if that's true and it was pretty irresponsible of me to suggest it. I'm sure that's just one of the points people may take exception to, but if something does bother you please let me know! As for the recommended book blogs and websites, I apologize in advance if I didn't include your blog. I just picked a few that came to mind and that would change at any given moment.

Enough with the disclaimers and apologies, here are my responses:

This year most of the nominees for important literary prizes were relatively fresh names. Do you think a generation shift is happening in Canadian literature? Or is it something that the media invented?

I do think there's a generational shift. Fairly or not, I think the younger generation considers the old club as stuffy: boring and way too serious. I don't think the media invented it at all. In fact, I think the media has held on to its hero-worship of some of old guard of writers longer than the general public. To be fair, the new generation of readers can also be somewhat fickle. There are, of course, some exceptions (Miriam Toews springs to mind), but fewer new authors will ever achieve the fan base of Margaret Atwood or Carol Shields. Not that the next great talent isn't out there, I just think newer readers are bigger risk takers. Instead of sticking with an author they know will be a safe bet, they want to try new names, new styles, and so on.

Could you name five of the most interesting writers that have published their first book after 2000?

1. Jeff Lemire 2. Scott Chantler (You'll note that my first 2 choices are actually graphic novelists. While still meeting some of the usual resistance, for the most part graphic novels are being accepted into Canada's literary scene with open arms. Definitely not the superhero variety - though Lemire does that, too-- I think Canada could lead the way with literary comics) 3. Joseph Boyden (Probably one of the more traditional novelists, in terms of style, on this list. But even with the shift in styles, it's good we aren't throwing out the baby with bath water.) 4. Stacey May Fowles (who does quirky right) 5. Ivan Coyote (technically, her first book came out in 98, but close enough. The master of self-reflection, Coyote's writing challenges social norms but with such humour people actually listen.)

Is there a common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers?

For starters there seem to be more female novelists than males. Other than that, I'd say quirkiness. The quirkiness is a mixed blessing. Certainly not as stuffy as before, but sometimes the quirkiness feels so forced it's hard to relate to any characters. And while urban literature is definitely on the rise, rural lit is still quite popular here despite most of our population living in larger centers.

What are the strengths of contemporary Canadian literature compared to literature coming from other countries?

We're actually getting a pulp fiction, or pop fiction, base now with genre writers like Alan Bradley, Robert J. Sawyer and Kelley Armstrong leading the way, but I think Canada is odd in that this is new. We've always been a literary sort of country. We've never had a Stephen King or Dan Brown equivalent. And while that might make us sound snooty, I do think the newer Canadian writers are "lightening up" so to speak, and the result is intelligent but entertaining writing.

Canadian indie music is quite well-known around the word – do you think Canadian literature could become an international brand, a guarantee of quality and a certain freshness? Or is it artificial to try to group young writers by labelling them ”Canadian literature”?

Hmmm, I'm not sure. On the one hand, I'd like to think that our novels speak of common human conditions, but on the other hand, Canada's identity issues (defined more by what we aren't than what we are) shape our writing. We're coming, I think, to terms with our personality being a disjointed personality. I hope that it, and the locales and references, would be of interest to outside readers, but I'm not in a position to judge that. While I love Canada's indie music scene and that it's gotten world recognition, I think a book is more personable than a 4 minute song.

Do you think there is a favorable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talents?

I'm sure a writer could answer this better than I, but I suspect so. I've heard some people knock the number of awards and writers festivals that we have, but I think promotion and recognition could only be a blessing. A couple of years ago Alice Munro withdrew her name from the Giller Prize shortlist as she stated she'd won twice before. That's support at its finest.

Does the wider public read contemporary writers?

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants and Emma Donogue's Room have had amazing success, for instance.

If somebody abroad wants to follow what happens in the Canadian literary world, what sources (blogs/websites) should they follow?

The Book Mine Set, of course. Chris at Bookarama. The Keepin' It Real Bookclub. And the Globe & Mail online book page is quite good.


gypsysmom said...

I think it was last week's Globe and Mail Book section that looked at the question as to what is Canadian about CanLit. Certainly many of the books nominated for this year's fiction prizes are only Canadian because they are written by a Canadian citizen. They don't take place in Canada and they sometimes don't even have Canadian characters. So for me I think that might be the defining factor for the newer generation of writers. It's not the case for everyone. You mentioned Joseph Boyden and you can't get much more Canadian than his books set along James Bay. And one of my favourite Canadian books from last year is Cool Water by Dianne Warren which takes place in rural Saskatchewan. What do you think John? and other readers?

Steph said...

Thanks, John, for your link to my blog, and for adding to the discussion over there.

I especially like your point about Canadians seeming to be risk takers nowadays, willing to delve outside the literary canon and into "fresher" fiction. I also like your answer to question number three, where you mention quirkiness being definitive of contemporary Canadian literature. How true! But I admit I haven't read any forced quirkiness, or else I haven't actually noticed that it's forced, but if it is, that speaks to the fact that it's recognized as a typical characteristic of new CanLit.

You're very right, I think, about urban lit being on the rise, and seeing as you live way up north, I feel validated in noticing. I thought perhaps I was making that observation based on the fact that I tend to personally know more TO or Vancouver writers than from anywhere else.

You mentioned Alice Munro withdrawing from the Giller. This year, Ondaatje did that as well, with the GGs, though he remained on the shortlist for the Giller. I agree that it's showing even the canon writers as very supportive of allowing CanLit to be expanded.

And great points about Room and Water for Elephants! Two books, particularly Room, that have taken the world by storm. I do think Canadians are starting to make a heavier impact not only nationally but internationally, and it's through writing what has been (oddly) labelled more readable fiction. Or, to use your word, less stuffy. :)

Steph said...

Amendment! I wrote: "I haven't actually noticed that it's forced, but if it is, that speaks to the fact that it's recognized as a typical characteristic of new CanLit."

I should have said, "as a typical—and desirable—characteristic of CanLit." Seeing as they're trying to imitate it, I mean.

John Mutford said...

Gypsysmom: It's certainly not a new topic, that's for sure. I think the issue is that people are looking for stuff in CanLit, without first defining what that stuff is. How can we look for Canadian culture or values in Canadian writing when we can't really identify what Canadian culture or values are in the first place! We'd at least be a little more successful if we were looking at regions or groups within Canada rather than as a whole. We're too and diverse to pin down otherwise.

Steph: Well, if I have to name names, I personally think the quirkiness of Jessica Grant's Come Thou Tortoise felt forced-- though I'm sure many would disagree with me. And by forced, I don't necessarily think that authors are infusing their characters with idiosyncrasies. It might be the case that publishers are more interested in that kind of writing. Similar to the music industry which suddenly signed everyone who sounded remotely grunge, hoping to find the next Nirvana, I suspect the Canadian publishing industry is grabbing onto anyone who writes remotely like Miriam Toews.

Chrisbookarama said...

Thanks for the shout out, though lately I feel like a bad Canadian. I need to read more CanLit.

I, for one, am glad we're 'lightening up' with writers and publishers more willing to try out genres. I like seeing more mysteries and cozies written by Canadians. While I do enjoy stories of characters staring sadly into the sea and contemplating the universe, sometimes I just want something funny or light.

Allison said...

These questions were on Q with Jian a few weeks ago. The episode is available for streaming, they had authors discussing/debating the questions. Interesting discussion.