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.”

The Globe and Mail published a similar argument following CBC’s Canada Reads, a competition which unfortunately led to intelligent lively discourse from non-writers, as well as book sales. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer wrote that she wasn’t confident that the general public was smart enough to discuss literature: “Readers need to be trained to read properly. I know that sounds snotty. I don’t mean it to.” It does sound snotty, and Kuitenbrouwer did mean it to. Kuitenbrouwer continued to lecture, arguing the writer should also sacrifice financial ambition in the name of maintaining the virtue of CanLit: “And in this endeavour, the CBC is bottom-feeding on culture, a type of consumption that is extremely damaging to the future success of writing and reading in this country,” which is a frustratingly shortsighted precious sentiment born of the institutionalization of the arts and a lack of cultural self-esteem. I find it difficult to compute what is dangerous about reading and discussing literature under the umbrella of competition. All writing is competition, if only against itself, and success, though quantified in many ways, is often measured by sales, and, well, awards.

There is a vocal and exhausting sect of CanLit elitists, represented the past few weeks by Barber and Kuitenbrouwer but their sentiment is not unique, who believe that Canadian literature needs to be defended against the onslaught of popularity, international writers, readers without MAs, and punch lines. It’s endemic of a national lack of confidence, and on an international stage weakens the community. Shteyngart had been a juror for just a few hours before having to publicly defend himself, unfortunate for a writer named one of The New Yorker’s Top 20 Writers Under 40, and who has a well-documented affection for all things Canadian.

But that’s not enough for the cultural protectionists. They want all Canadian literature to aspire to an insulated realm of like-minded writing about immigrants during the Second World War living on the prairies, and crafting wheat metaphors, that is only discussed in small rooms by smaller minds. They want all readers to be grad students who have read too much Northrop Frye, who see humour as the language of the undereducated and ignorant.

If this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize is awarded to a book with a sense of humour, or if Canada Reads introduces a work to a new audience, then it should be celebrated not as a departure from the “character of the program” or “bottom-feeding on culture” but rather a tribute to both, a championing of a literary community and readership that doesn’t “need to be trained to read properly”, but simply wants to read without being told how to.