CanLit the Precious

On Monday, Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch announced the jury for the 2012 award, Canada’s most prominent literary prize. Gary Shteyngart, Roddy Doyle, and Anna Porter comprise this year’s holy triumvirate who will bestow a Canadian author $50 000, and inevitably a window display at Chapters/Indigo and a bestseller. It should have been a moment to celebrate Mr. Rabinovitch’s continued support of the literary arts, and yet for the second time in less than a month cultural protectionists, insulating elitists of Canadian literature raised their ill-mannered voices in defiance in the pages of The Globe and Mail. For to them, CanLit is a precious entity, one that should never be left to the masses, and should be devoid of the trappings of humour or success.

John Barber of The Globe and Mail took the opportunity to issue a snide commentary on the state of Canadian literature. To Barber, it’s important that when discussing CanLit literature that we employ methods of rash generalization by speaking of “populist authors” and juries that “in the past have tended to represent the higher end of the literary spectrum.” The gist of this condescending bit was that smart people favour “Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro,” while the dimmer bulbs who are still able to slobber their way through a text enjoy books that are funny, intelligent, and rarely discussed at grad student colloquia.

Barber further suggests that the jury’s choices will differ from years past, that the “inclusion of two popular, largely comic novelists is bound to change the established character of the program,” referring to the celebration of Canadian literature rich in nature motifs, the plight of first generation Canadians, and revisiting war in a discussion of family while tapping maples for syrup. God forbid a literary prize celebrate a piece of writing that may occasionally illicit laughter or sales. Furthermore, it’s insulting to Doyle and Shteyngart, suggesting that neither writer has the literary fortitude of an Atwood to see through their guffaws to champion writing unlike their own. Shteyngart quickly responded on Twitter noting that he will be “also giving out Canada Council grants to Jewish writers living within 5 kilometers of The Main.”

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Truth & Pettiness on Canada Reads

I tuned in all week to the CBC’s Canada Reads series, as four Canadian pseudo-celebrities and Alan Thicke debated the merits of five books of non-fiction in a Survivor-like competition. I believe the winner, Carmen Aguirre for Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, received a dinner with Margaret Atwood, or a window display at Chapters or something. I’m not sure. I don’t think it was important. The week’s broadcasts, acutely moderated by Jian Ghomeshi, were at once entertaining, informative, combative, and funny. So, you know, everything that Canadian Literature tends not to be. For the most part, I’d rather stab myself in the eye with Margaret Atwood’s Long Pen than listen to a debate about CanLit. As you can imagine, my MA in English Literature was torturous, which is why I developed a dependency on bourbon and NeoCitran. It’s not that I don’t love Canadian writing, because I do. It’s not that I don’t like the Canadian writing community, because I have found it warm and accepting. It’s mostly because these debates tend to illuminate Canadian literature’s tendency to be insulated, precious, and protectionist. Also, there’s too many poems about wheat.

The highlight of the week on Canada Reads was Anne-France Goldwater, a Quebec judge who garnered attention on day one for accusing eventual winner Aguirre (who, incidentally, Goldwater ultimately voted for) of being a “bloody terrorist” to which panelist Shad replied: “If you consider her a terrorist, you have to consider Nelson Mandela a terrorist.” Goldwater agreed with the hip hop artist: “Damn straight. Blood on his hands,” to which the rest of us replied: who’s Shad? Goldwater also accused the author of another one of the Canada Reads books, Marina Nemat, of lying in her memoir Prisoner of Tehran about her time in an Iranian jail: “Marina Nemat – and it’s known to other prisoners; other prisoners who shared her experience – tells a story that’s not true and you can tell it’s not true when you read it.” Did Goldwater believe in what she was arguing? Probably. Is there truth to her claims? Maybe, but to me that’s not important. Good debate relies on half-truths, strong opinions, and passionate advocates and that’s what Goldwater provided.

Predictably, the CanLit mob were outraged. This is what happens in Canada. Any discussion that travels outside the norm, that dares to engage and challenge an informed and intelligent readership, is viciously attacked. They want to wrap CanLit in a Hudson’s Bay blanket and tell it everything’s going to be alright. It’s insulting to both writers and readers, and it’s all too common. Nemat herself went on the offensive, demanding an apology from Goldwater, and claiming on Facebook that Goldwater’s comments were “bullying and it’s a crime.” I don’t doubt for a moment that Nemat was hurt, and I don’t doubt the veracity of her writings but bullying isn’t a crime, rather possibly an actionable offense, and she certainly has the right to engage Goldwater in a civil suit. Though Goldwater is a successful lawyer and I imagine she knows the line between actionable and argumentative.

Nemat took her argument to the pages of The Globe and Mail, perpetuating the notion that no press is bad press. What Nemat went through in prison is an abomination, acts that reflect the worst of humanity, and her strength in writing of her experiences is both admirable and inspirational. But she chose to do so, and that opened up her experience to public discourse. In her closing paragraph of the Globe piece, she appeals directly to Goldwater: “Dear Ms. Goldwater: The witness is the cornerstone of the justice system. If we throw stones at her, we have taken a step toward burying freedom and democracy. Canada and Canadians deserve better than this.” Arguably, truth is the cornerstone of the justice system, and witness requires corroboration. But any witness must face confrontation, and in writing the book, Nemat has opened herself up to cross examination.

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