The Survival of CanLit

How’s our writing doing, forty years after the publication of Margaret Atwood’s seminal book, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature?

That was the question put to a Saturday-morning panel made up of Atwood, her partner Graeme Gibson and a clutch of other opinionated, high-level writers and publishers from out of town. The Granville Island Stage was packed.

Without a doubt, a blossoming of major proportions has occurred over the last forty years. Gibson recalled that when he started writing his novel Five Legs in 1958, he didn’t know a single published writer. In a sense, he had carte blanche because “you don’t believe you’re going to be published outside your own country,” he said, “and you don’t expect you’ll make any money.”

Five Legs appeared in 1969 and, as panelist Aritha Van Herk – a Calgary novelist and academic – pointed out, it has stayed in print ever since.

Atwood said House of Anansi Press (which just published a fortieth-anniversary edition of Survival) was started forty-five years ago because, before that, our writers had to take their manuscripts to British and American publishers, which promptly informed them that their books were “too Canadian.”

Louise Dennys, who became a Canadian publisher at the age of twenty-three, spoke of having gone with delegations to the U.K., urging that nation’s houses to publish Canadian writers and promising, in return, to print British authors’ books here.

Atwood said the climate out of which Survival came was one in which “people would know about Stephen Leacock and would say, ‘Is there any other Canadian literature?’ There was, but much of it was out of print.”

In the book’s twelve chapters, she placed writers such as Susanna Moodie, E.J. Pratt, Hugh MacLennan and Marie-Claire Blais into a coherent and witty critical framework. (Thirty-two at the time, she had published eight books of poetry and the first two of her thirteen novels.)

She believes 1972 was practically the last year when it was possible to wrangle all of Canadian literature into a single critical volume, for that’s about when Canadian creativity bubbled up and publishing houses were founded to disseminate the work.

However, Ontario writer Merilyn Simonds, the moderator, noted that even in the 1980s, “you could count on one hand the writers who were actually making a living from their writing.” Most had day jobs.

Where Van Herk was writing novels such as Judith (1978) and The Tent Peg (1981) to bring young women’s voices into Canadian fiction, fellow panelist Dionne Brand, whose roots are in Trinidad, was injecting the black experience. Toronto’s poet laureate and a winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, Brand compared that time with this by saying, “Then, it was a moment of survival. Now it’s a moment of heterogeneity.”

Although we still see commentators taking potshots at our literature for being parochial, dull, too rural, and so on, the panelists agreed that the reality is one of variety, depth and richness. Simonds said this became clear in the 1990s, when Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize (for The English Patient) and Anne Michaels took the Orange Prize (for Fugitive Pieces).

“One thing that has changed,” put in Gibson, “is that instead of everybody writing deadly serious ‘literary’ work, it opened up.” All the writing that’s been done for teenagers is just one example.

Emily Schultz – the youngest panel member, in her late thirties – said she doesn’t think her small-town Ontario upbringing was much different to those of the older writers. (Her literary leanings made her different from her peers.) But in today’s climate she can give her creativity free rein. “I like sex and violence,” she said, “and I like the poetic, too.”

The author of several novels – most recently, The Blondes – she’s totally comfortable in the Internet age, having co-founded a short-fiction site, Joylandmagazine.com.

The conversation also touched on literary prizes (they’re great, Brand said, but with fewer and fewer books being reviewed, they’ve come to function like reviews, with books that don’t make short lists getting no attention at all) and big-box bookstores (they may have put some independents out of business, but according to Atwood and Dennys, they too are struggling, giving more and more space to giftware and the like to pay for their bricks and mortar).

It was a substantive session with a buoyant, hopeful tone. Audience members seemed to feel they’d got their money’s worth.

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