Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Which I Rant About the Fiction of an Entire Country

I apologize in advance to all Canadian readers and writers. But I don't often feel inspired to produce a big literary rant, and so I thought I'd better get this one down before I forget.

The Renaissance Woman and I have been interviewing for lots of library jobs. Sometimes, during these interviews, we're asked to talk about something we've read lately. Sometimes, since we're in Canada, our interlocutors want to know about a Canadian book we know well enough to talk up.

Here's my problem: I find much mainstream critically acclaimed Canadian grownup literature to be...depressing.

I know, I know, it's not fair to generalize about a whole country's literature. But, here, here are some prominent, bestselling and/or award-bedecked Canadian authors/books, and quick summaries therof. Draw your own conclusions:

Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness: Depressed and miserable Mennonite family, struggling to communicate with each other and in constant fear being shunned by their stultifying community. And RW says her new book is even sadder.

Douglas Coupland, Generation X and other works: Alienated professionals in their twenties and thirties, living in anomie and isolation, working in cubicles.

Heather O'Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals: Alienated and miserable young girl whose parents are heroin addicts.

Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries. I'll just give you the Wikipedia summary: "The fictional autobiography about the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, a seemingly ordinary woman whose life is marked by death and loss from the beginning, when her mother dies during childbirth. Through marriage and motherhood, Daisy struggles to find contentment, never truly understanding her life's true purpose."

Alice Munro, virtually the entire oevre of: Short stories about miserable women, often unhappy in their marriages and/or living in isolation in the countryside or in stultifying small towns. Sometimes, for variety, their children run away and the protagonists never see or hear from them again.

Margaret Laurence, virtually the entire oevre of: Novels, similarly depressing to the above.

Ann-Marie Macdonald, Fall on Your Knees. God, I loved this book. But it's incredibly bleak. Spoiler alert: early on, a woman dies while giving birth to premature twins. As the family reels in grief, the twins' older sister takes one of the babies out to the river, believing it must be baptized to be saved. Of course, the baby dies of exposure. The rest pretty much follows from there as everyone is overwhelmed with grief and guilt for hundreds of pages.

Anita Rau Badami, Tamrind Mem: Actually, not quite as depressing as the others. But still: nobody knows how to talk to each other, nobody understands each other, the whole family is basically mired in mutual recriminations and incomprehension. Our heroine eventually decamps from India to Canada, where she continues to feel baffled by and isolated from her mother and sister.

Okay, I will give you Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies. They are not depressing, or not as much. Yes, terrible things happen in their books: people die, people betray each other; in one recent Atwood the entire human race basically goes extinct and comes close to taking all the other species with it. But still, there is a certain spark and irony which lively things up a bit.

It's true that bad things happen in ALL literature, all over the world. Or we would not have plot. And I do understand that without the mandatory happy endings and/or hopeful coming-of-age themes of children's and YA fiction, things can get kind of bummed out in general, and that this is not specific to Canadian literature.

Truth is, I can't claim anything like a comprehensive knowledge of CanLit, so maybe it's rash to draw conclusions. I have not yet read the new Karen X. Tulchinsky book, for example, the one all of Vancouver is reading this winter. And I hear Ivan Coyote's stories are good, and funny. And from the little I've read of Nalo Hopkinson, she's terrific and not at all depressing.

But I don't think it's a coincidence that the three authors I just mentioned are each non-mainstream in at least one big way: lesbian, transgender, African-Canadian, genre ghetto (science fiction).

Nor is it coincidence that I kept wanting to use the same words when describing the books above: Anomie, isolation, bleak, hopeless. Over and over, Canadian literary heroes and heroines live their lives in despair of ever truly connecting with the people they are supposedly closest to. Over and over, they face lives of isolation and loneliness, often in inhospitable environments.

I mean, even the Brits aren't as depressed as this in their literature, and they've had it way worse, what with the Blitz and the lack of central heating and the brutalizing boarding schools and all.

(Oh and then there's Stuart Maclean, who is funny and un-depressing (mostly). But his stories are really humorous radio pieces, written for the ear, not the page. It's a different kind of writing.)

But be that as it may...what gives, Canada? Why so blue?


Blogger vivacemusica said...

Hmmm, I've never thought about it like that before, but you're pretty much right on that point: Canadian literature is depressing in general. However, I LOVE A Complicated Kindness, W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind, and Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage. And I keep meaning to check out the Tulchinsky book too. A good friend of mine who used to teach up north with me is part of Karen's circle of writer-friends. You might be interested in checking out my friend's first book of short stories, about street kids in Vancouver struggling with their histories, sexual identity, etc.... It is undoubtedly depressing and jolting, but the voices are so real. The book is called "Skids," and my friend's name is Cathleen With.

11:54 PM  
Blogger vivacemusica said...

Sorry, it's me again.... I just thought of one: Thomas King -- funny, funny, funny, and touching, and maybe bittersweet, but NOT depressing!

11:59 PM  
Blogger Kathleen Molloy said...

I agree, in a depressed helpless / hopeless CanLit kinda way. Prairie lit ties me up in knots because there is always a thread of someone being unkind. I'd like to see more joy, more giggles, hope in CanLit. I'd like to read fewer best sellers / GG award winners featuring tormented families, hurt children, and a the general Canadian malaise.

I want to snort more, laugh until I almost pee on the subway, and book cross feel good CanLit to my mom.

Kathleen Molloy, author - Dining with Death

10:08 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Kathleen, thanks! Your book sounds swell and funny and, amazingly considering that it's about death, not at all depressing! Must find!

And Vivacemusica, thanks for the Thomas King recommendation. I bet I'd like your friend's book of stories, too--I LOVE books about kids in bleak situations; I was the only teenager who actually liked reading problem novels.

Also, I forgot that a friend just recommended W.E. Kinsella to me. I have the sense that he's not depressing, either. Ah, well; there goes my theory.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous MonkeyPants said...

Yes, YES! Until I was 18 or so, I thought CanLit was all about freezing to death in the snow/waiting for the crops to fail/never saying what you were thinking. I even find Atwood depressing. When my mother-out-law gave me a copy of an Alice Munro book, I almost cried.

Then I read 'Dance Me Outside' and felt a little better. Of course, now that I love Stuart McLean, my "I hate CanLit" hate-on has gone way downhill.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Arwen said...

Yes, I always said it's not CanLit without something frozen and a touch of incest...

Although I heart the Tim Findley, and love Margaret Laurence. I don't find her stuff bleak, oddly; I find Atwood's early stuff more bleak, except for her dystopias. Amusing, right? But dystopias aren't meant as literally, and so are somewhat less pressing; they're a call to action rather than a description without relief.

Seconding Thomas King. He's fabulous.

Also, Bill Gibson! Which, yeah, there's some future dystopia there, but always hope, too. The lack of personal connection is there but surmounted.

And Copeland gets increasingly silly. He never struck me as part of the standard Canadian pantheon - maybe because Gen X was morose in a New Wave and not Canadian way? It's supposed to be amused at it's own cynicism, sort of smirking at the whole thing, rather than bleeding on to the ice.

What I'm interested in is John Irving, who is a half time Torontonian and half time resident of Maine (or so goes my understanding.)

I always found him so funny, and it was an American who described him to me as "bleak". Bleak? Really? I was shocked.

But here's an idea - let me throw out a hypothesis. What if some of the Canadian literary public embrace of that which is dark in our lives influences why we invest more in social programs and less in just raise your eyes up solutions. A lot of people have a hard time in living, we say, so we should do what we can for the practical aspects when all else fails.

10:27 AM  
Blogger rahelab said...

Landing, by Emma Donoghue ( or Jade Peony by Wayson Choy ( or Gail Anderson Dargatz (

9:51 PM  

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