Who Killed CanLit?

By John Harris | March 26, 2012

 A Review of Canadian Notes and Queries 83 (Summer/Fall 2011). $7.95.


This issue of CNQ (as the magazine likes to be called) is useful for two reasons. First it airs a fairly wide range of writers’ concerns about the circumstances in which literature is presently written, reviewed, taught and marketed in Canada. Second, it shows a broad spectrum of responses to these concerns, from the panicked to the pointedly casual. 

It’s the same for writers all over the English-speaking world, it seems. In the 3 February 2012 Times Literary Supplement, Allan Massie, reviewing a book by Adam Kirsch about Lionel Trilling, lists the present concerns of American Writers: “Local bookstores are closing; book reviews are disappearing from newspapers, or the space allotted to them is shrinking. There is, according to Cynthia Ozick, ‘no undercurrent or . . . infrastructure of literary criticism.’ In university English departments, lectures on such topics as ‘the evolution of Batman’ are advertised ‘alongside posters for a Shakespeare conference.’ A survey by the National Endowment for the Arts says reading is ‘in dramatic decline.’ Even the book itself, the physical object, is an endangered species.”

These are among the problems CNQ deals with in the context of Canada. Massie also notes that writerly unease about such matters was registered by Trilling as long ago as 1952: “We are all a little sour on the idea of the literary life these days . . . . In America it has always been very difficult to believe that this life really exists at all, or that it is worth living. Hardly a year goes by without a novelist, poet, or critic coming forward to express this sense of sourness, which is actually a compound of despair and resentment. Despair, because every department of literature seems to be undergoing crisis, a multiple organ failure of the kind that leads inevitably to death; resentment because of the contemporary American writer’s sense that he has been like the final investor in a Ponzi scheme, having bought into the venerable enterprise of literature only to discover that it is on the verge of default.”

Kirsch’s book explains that Trilling was concerned about what he saw as a contemporary loss of faith in literature and about its retreat from the consumer marketplace as well as its disappearance from school and university curriculums. In fact, this sense of crisis goes back still further, among liberal-humanist critics and professors like Trilling, to the 1920’s, to Irving Babbitt and the Great Books movement, and was registered in Trilling’s time too by writer-teachers wondering Why Johnny Can’t Read (a 1955 classic by Rudolf Flesch), a concern augmented in the 1970’s by the release of university-entrance, literacy-test scores. The fear that Johnny’s failure in English would result in a shrinking of the audience for poetry and novels isn’t, in other words, a recent phenomenon.

It’s 2012, and Johnny still, apparently, can’t read. Never mind that he’s continuing to turn into first-rate physicists, brain surgeons, etc.. Word is now that the Internet, interactive video games, and social media as well as television have put paid to the chances that he will ever crack a Canadian novel, let alone write one.

In Canada through this time, three different but related concerns were being voiced. First, the influx of British and American professors hired to fill tenure-track positions in English and Creative Writing departments from the mid-1950s on was thought to bode ill for CanLit in particular, Canadian Culture in general. Second, an influx of shoddy American literature that was meant only, as Margaret Atwood put it at the Toronto “Writer and Human Rights” congress in October 1981, “to entertain and divert,” was being foisted on the country from increasingly dominant, foreign-owned corporations, and was thought to be pushing out “serious” Canadian literature. Third, the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994) threatened to bring what Atwood called “the Disneyland of the soul” even closer.

Behind the schools and universities, which are ostensibly responsible for educating citizens and creating a literate audience, is the government, which holds the ultimate responsibility for curriculum. In Canada, the federal government is also responsible for the promotion and protection of national culture. Canadian writers and critics (especially those who teach) have blamed the government for acceding to the demands of science, applied science and commerce faculties that the English Department wean itself from the shapely teat of literature and teach students how to write—using methods derived from the study of rhetoric, linguistics, philology and cognitive psychology.  In the recent past, Canada’s federal government has been praised for “cultural industries” legislation that protected and subsidized publishers, magazines, bookstores, distributors and writers almost as generously as it did resource-based and energy-focused industries. Presently, however, the government is perceived to be retreating from its duty to shelter cultural industries, and is being accused of complicity with the monetarist/Republican agenda. Behind all of these accumulating threats to the English Department’s view of human reality — from science, television, and social media —a single culprit is usually identified: corporate capitalism.

I’m conscious that in recommending this issue of CNQ as a broad and fair treatment of these important issues I could encounter skepticism. That CNQ would thoroughly cover the issues would surprise no one who reads it. “Fair” is a different matter. In its general responses to cultural issues, CNQ has always made easy resort to the panic button. The magazine in fact seems meant for readers who enjoy the vicarious pleasures of paranoia, panic, innuendo and verbal flagellation, and for writers who specialize in generating and applying same. Its General Editor, John Metcalf, when he took on the magazine in the late nineties, expressed the following ambition for it: “With our reviews, profiles, interviews, and essays we wish to intrude rudely on the bland mindlessness of Canadian literary life.” It might be expected, then, that CNQ would ask a leading question like “Who Killed CanLit?” with its silent assumption that the object of concern is dead and its implication that anyone unaware of this is either a moron or ipso facto complicit in its murder. The question sounds like an invitation to a lynching, and who needs that, especially when the suspects are said to be extremely powerful if not omniscient—and when you yourself could be named by some eloquent hothead as an accomplice?

It’s not easy, either, to assume that the point of Metcalf’s editorial policy would be the noble one of spewing insult, smashing icons and proclaiming the End as an incitement to meaningful action. Metcalf, though he is a notable writer of short stories and memoirs and an anthologist of short stories and polemical literary essays, has little credibility as a provocateur. He’s still best remembered for the “Tanks” campaign of the 1980’s when he served as UnterFuehrer to crazed Vancouver bookseller Bill Hoffer in the battle against what the two called “distortionist” state intervention in CanLit. The “Tanks Are Might Fine Things” attack focused on the Canada Council, but it suffered ignominious defeat in a 1987 Vancouver debate during which Andreas Schroeder and David Godfrey delivered the decisive blow simply by showing that Metcalf had been sleeping—and egregiously so—with the object of his hate. The campaign was so protracted and outrageous, so easily defeated, and so quickly abandoned by Metcalf after the debate that Metcalf was widely suspected of wasting everyone’s time, crying wolf in order to get personal attention.

However, while four of the nine feature articles on the question “Who Killed CanLit?” are close to panic, that is not a bad ratio for Metcalf, and may actually (considering Massie’s list and Trilling’s comments) reflect the present mood among writers. Three of the articles are pessimistic and two are optimistic, all five providing ways out for CanLit. The two optimistic articles convey the Pollyannic but hard-to-resist idea that story and song will out, will circulate, will be heard and read, will be discussed, and cannot ultimately be affected for good or ill by governmental or corporate ideologies and practices.

It seems that Metcalf personally invited the contributors of this wide range of responses, so he may be changing. His latest crusade, conducted through CNQ and another periodical called New Quarterly, is aimed at a distortionist corporate offense to CanLit, namely the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories (2007), and is being conducted mainly in terms of critical appraisals of the contents of the book and the establishment of a salon des refusés, an “alternate” anthology (in special editions of the two magazines), that readers can compare to the “establishment” one, and then arrive, with appropriate coaching, at their own conclusions. And in this particular issue of CNQ Metcalf steps back from the question about CanLit’s demise.  Instead, Alex Good, the latest in a series of CNQ sub-editors chosen from Metcalf’s all-male stable of vigorous polemicists (Good, Stephen Henighan, Carmine Starnino, Zacharia Wells, David Solway, Steven Beattie) asks the question. And he chooses in his introduction to ask it through CNQ’s cartoon-mascots Hudson (notes) and Stanfield (queries).

Hudson is represented on the CNQ coat of arms as earthy and huggable, a short, rotund, bearded man wearing a toque and mackinaw shirt. Stanfield is tall, skinny, sartorial and stuck-up — he sports a tuxedo and top hat. The two have been around CNQ for a couple of years, and in their conversations and actions serve to express the magazine’s concerns, attitudes and insecurities. What could be considered an off-putting question coming from Metcalf or Good — a question likely to lead only to more baseless assumptions, useless conjecture, and endless diatribe — seems non-threatening coming from Hudson and Stanfield, more like an invitation to have some fun — an invitation to be entertained, rather than shocked, into awareness.

Here’s how the invitation is extended. Hudson and Stanfield are seen entering a dark, garbage-strewn alley, Hudson in the lead. He holds a magnifying glass and has discarded his toque for a Sherlock Holmes cap. Stanfield holds a lantern. Good’s narrative indicates that they have located the body of CanLit, clothed in rags, in the doorway of a long-defunct, downtown bookstore. They conclude that CanLit died of “natural causes,” not being able to “make ends meet.” Hudson points out a startling fact: “The average author makes considerably less than the living wage.” Now the two are checking the immediate area for clues. Though they don’t suspect murder, Hudson thinks that “some negligence” was a factor in the death. He intends to find out “who was most responsible.” He proposes a forensic investigation run by a CNQ Royal Commission. Note: no murder, no posses, no lynchings – assuming of course that Hudson can keep his team under control.

In summarizing the reports of the 9 members of Hudson’s Royal Commission, I’m going to rearrange them so I can group similarly inclined reports together. Seven of them deal with three prominent suspects in the death of CanLit: the school/university system, the globalist corporate agenda, and the Internet and interactive media. The government is fingered as an accessory in each case. I’ll deal with the three suspects in the order I’ve listed them. I’ll bracket them with two reports that hold that CanLit is alive and well, and faces a promising if (as ever) difficult future. I’ll make no comments until the end.

Mike Barnes, a regular contributor to CNQ and a multi-faceted, mid-to-bottom-list writer (the covers of his two books of poetry, two of stories, two novels and one memoir are displayed on the pages of his article) decides to take himself as a typical representative of CanLit and submit to a self-examination in order to find out if Hudson is correct about the impossibility of CanLit’s “making ends meet.” Barnes calculates his earnings over 32 years to be $99,255. These earnings include royalties, honoraria, library and photocopy payments, and grants – $62,000 in grants. It seems that Hudson is correct: Barnes should be dead. Obviously there aren’t enough readers out there, not enough grants, and not enough writers-in-residencies and other paid literary gigs to enable Barnes to keep writing.

But Barnes affirms that he has kept writing and, in his opinion, writing well. Or at least he can’t see how he’d write better if he didn’t have to hold down a job – which is tutoring English students in their homes – or if he had more respect or adulation. When he switches from demand-side (blame the reader) analysis of the literary marketplace to supply-side (blame the writer), he finds that he’s doing quite well, can’t see how he needs or deserves better: “When I think of what connection there might be between greater material success and greater artistic success, the signs seem to point both ways.” In fact, Barnes thinks that his rewards “seem remarkably generous.” This includes his rewards from the Canada Council, which he praises not just for buying him time when he needed it but also generally for having forestalled a future where “what appeared on the display tables of big box stores really was all the books published.”

So, according to Barnes, CanLit writes well while holding down a day job as the main way of making ends meet. Had Hudson and Stanfield looked closely at what they assumed was a corpse, they might have found that CanLit was alive and well and only in disguise and resting after a long day of gathering material for a grant-supported realistic novel about the lives of street people.

They might have noted, too, that under the rags CanLit might have been wearing an academic gown. The next three members of Hudson’s Royal Commission are writer-teachers: Darryl Whetter, W.J. Keith and Michael Carbert. Whetter and Keith are at the university, in Creative Writing and CanLit respectively, though Keith is now retired. We’ll deal with the profs first. While both believe that their subject matter is important to CanLit, both feel that the university failed to train readers and writers of sufficient quality in sufficient quantity.

Whetter summarizes Mark McGurl’s “compelling” argument that: “We’re long past the To-MFA-or-Not-To-MFA debate. In the past two decades, writing in North America has shifted from the untutored ethos of rock-and-roll to the formal accreditation of a classical music education.” In short, the “professionalization” (as Whetter calls it) of writing, through Creative Writing courses, is a reality whether it works or not, and anyway seems to work when taught properly. In support of the English Department, Keith presents the standard liberal-humanistic argument — the one put by Trilling in his book The Liberal Imagination (1950) — that literature is a sort of secular scripture, a “guide to life” — that it is, as Trilling’s hero Matthew Arnold said, a replacement for religion, which has been discredited by science. Teaching the great books produces thoughtful, ethical, loving people who are good citizens of democracy. They also buy and read serious books.

Creative writing and literature, however, according to Whetter and Keith, have been taught incorrectly—which is to say, thematically, thus causing the death (Keith) or debility (Whetter) of CanLit. As Whetter has it, the blood has been sucked out of CanLit by “vampirish” English departments that offer “hybrid English/CW programs . . . run by English scholars, not other creative writers.” These are “still the national norm despite the new MFA programs” that are dominant in the US and that, in Whetter’s view, produce better writers. The hybrid Canadian programs reflect “our national preference for logic over emotion,” and our “national disrespect for creativity.” Whetter adds: “hybrid programs are like a military education that trades an enabling commodity for a fixed tour of duty (in literature seminars where candidates will write essays, not stories). Hybrid English/CW students spend (or squander) as much as two-thirds of their course work time, sweat and money in writerly hothouses like ‘Pathological Forgetting in Canadian Literature,’ ‘The Human and Its Others’ . . . or, no joke, ‘Further Peregrinations,’ a ‘course in ambulatory signmaking’.”

Instead, students should be studying “character, narrative arc and plot.” A transfusion of these, administered by the Faculty of Fine Arts, would, Whetter says, bring CanLit back to health. That is not likely to happen, though, because Creative Writing, as the only growing program in the English Department, is a good source of departmental revenue. So Whetter proposes an alternate solution. If the Department insists on continuing to offer its MA in Creative Writing, it should at least “play it through to the end” by offering the PhD as is done in Britain and America.

Whetter explains that, so far, the only Canadian doctoral program is in Calgary, because most English departments in Canada regard Creative Writing as lacking any serious disciplinary base. But if English profs could get over this and offer the program everywhere, American statistics show that this would increase enrolment in both MFA and MA programs everywhere — MFA enrolments at roughly six times the rate of MA enrolments. Many students want PhD’s, so they will have a better chance at university employment. Finally, Whetter argues, since the Social Science and Humanities Research Council generously funds graduate writing candidates, writers could make more through each year of their longer stay in grad school than they would make after graduation unless of course they do right away pick up full-time university jobs.

As Keith has it, the university long ago abandoned the humanities, its responsibility to help students “develop the capacity to respond to the great achievements of the western tradition (or, more widely, Matthew Arnold’s best that has been thought and said in the world).” Literary studies, including the study of CanLit, were downplayed in favor of science and technical courses. To prove this, Keith cites F.R. Leavis’s English Literature in Our Time and the University (1967), another liberal-humanistic tract — this one directed at British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s science-inclined university reforms. Downplaying literature, Keith affirms, has cost CanLit a dedicated and trained audience.

The English profs themselves, Keith says, hastened the departure of literature, including CanLit, from the curriculum. They made two errors. First, they taught literature thematically, in CanLit falling “back upon the all-too-conspicuous and well-advertised crutch of Margaret Atwood’s Survival (1972), a notorious example of thematic criticism. This approach, Keith affirms, confuses students and desensitizes them to the real (aesthetic) value of literature. It trivializes the study of literature and so of composition, since students are trained to find social issues in poems and novels rather that to appraise them as aesthetic objects. Keith says that profs use the thematic approach because “it’s much easier to identify and isolate a theme in a work of literature than to assess its artistic qualities.”

The second error, in Keith’s opinion, was that profs adopted what he calls the “allied” but “equally treacherous moral approach.” This also is too easy. Students are set to “search for politically incorrect racist elements.” Keith identifies this approach as “postmodernism” and adds the further complaint that “postmodernist theorists habitually employ a professional jargon not only impenetrable to the uninitiated but presented in so concentrated a fashion that the sentences are cacophonous and mind-closing. . . . To offer this kind of writing to students . . . sets a bad example to coming generations not confident enough to recognize gobbledegook when they encounter it.”

All these evils happened to CanLit in the course of Keith’s university training and his career, which covered “the last forty years or so of the twentieth century.” “I seed de beginning, en now I sees de endin,” says Keith about CanLit, quoting (with a nod to the double irony thereof) from The Sound and the Fury.

Keith’s apocalyptic version of the death of CanLit — it was killed by the government and by its supposed curators and promoters in the English Department — is shared by Michael Carbert, but Carbert sees the university (and the public school system where he once taught) as aided and abetted by two other big and powerful culprits. These are “the Internet and the digital revolution,” and “the Chapters/Indigo monolith.”

Carbert, actually, is ambiguous about the digital revolution. He lists it, and implies that it has a deleterious effect on the attention spans of young people, which makes it hard for teachers like him to make them literate, but then he argues that there’s nothing “innately deficient” in his students. About the school system he agrees with what Keith says about the universities: “Our schools are not keenly interested in literature [and] no longer place an urgent emphasis on the written word.”

Carbert says that, in the past, the government has countered this, ensuring that CanLit is “holding its own.” However he sees that government is pulling back from its cultural legislation, and funding, across the spectrum. In addition, he suggests, alluding to Metcalf’s “Tanks” argument about government intrusions into culture, that there is a “high price to be paid for this protection, namely the ‘façade’ I referred to earlier, the government-created illusion [of intense and comprehensive literary activity] and all its necessary critical distortions.” One such distortion is the difficulty of applying for government publishing grants, a process so complex that it is almost not worth it. Carbert knows about this because of his “brief tenure as the managing editor of a small literary press.” “It is comforting,” Carbert says, “to embrace the idea that the state will always play a role in encouraging and making viable the enterprise of Canadian literature. But in truth the government has little sympathy for what we do, and in many ways is our active enemy.”

For Carbert, whatever actions are taken now are too little/too late. Like Keith, he sees an apocalypse in the making. His analogy is environmental degradation and global warming. With the digital revolution and Chapters-Indigo working against CanLit, and the inability of the government and the school system to deal with these threats, CanLit, like the polar bear, the swift fox and the five-lined skunk, is about to go extinct.

Alex Good and Stephen Henighan agree with Carbert and Keith that CanLit is facing the End. Good sees it coming through a “digital apocalypse” or “great erasure,” and Henighen through a neo-con conspiracy that includes Chapter’s/Indigo, Bertelsmann (the German company that owns McLelland & Stewart, and the Random House bloc of publishers) and Jack Rabinovich (Vice-President of Trizac Corp) and Scotiabank who together use the Giller Prize to convince the public that a profit-generated-and-generating internationalist literature is superior to a publically funded nationalist one. The Giller is run by powerful representatives of “a social class that is hostile to national culture.”

As Henighan narrates it, to carry out their plan the neo-cons had to conscript literary icons (like Atwood, Richler, Munro and Gallant) and manipulate them to sit on juries by offering them an interest in the outcomes. They had to manipulate both the rules and juries over and over to guarantee their preferred outcomes.  For instance, critics began to object to the shortlists that, for four years running, included only books from the four large presses owned by Bertlesmann. A few smaller-press books turned up in the next couple of years, and a decade or so later small presses have become well represented and, in the past few years, have sometimes won the prize.

To further legitimize the Giller, Henighan’s neo-cons made it into a big media event and publicized that event in ways meant to prove that privately funded cultural institutions like the Giller are superior to publicly funded ones like the Governor-General’s Awards. As part of the publicity, Henighan says, Rabinovitch milked his wife’s death to create “piece of sentimental myth-making” that would work as advertising. He staged, even, at the 2010 banquet, “the sepulchral resuscitation of the far-right journalist Barbara Amiel, who had not appeared in public in Canada in years, and, by extension, of her felon-financier husband Conrad Black.” In Henighan’s opinion, the Giller is becoming a spectacle, the symbolism of which is obvious to the audience: “internationalist” trumps “nationalist” culture most times.

At the root of Good’s argument for the death of CanLit due to the “digital apocalypse” is the assumption (mentioned by Carbert) that the human brain (especially the softer, youthful one) has been swamped by a series of digital tsunamis and has washed up face-down into a tidal pool of narcissism: “Digital forms of entertainment train our brains to respond to ever faster forms of stimulation, reducing our attention spans and making it harder and harder for us to re-enter, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, the exacting silence of a book . . . .  The Internet has become a seamless web of self, a standing pool of Narcissus that we are now drowning in.”

Good’s argument has been made, in a milder way, by Stan Persky in his recent Reading the 21st Century (2011), a book cited by Good in his article. Good’s argument—although not entirely Persky’s—is that the interactive media that now pervade society cause short attention spans and render sustained reading impossible. Good cites sources on this that are also discussed in Persky’s book: The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brain (2010) and You Are Not a Gadget (2010). These titles seem to indicate that tests have been done to find out what is happening to the brain, the organ of thought, due to digital technology.

But Good and Persky are interested in other ways of proving that social media pose a threat to CanLit. Persky proposes the examination and evaluation of the content and use of the new media, as opposed to the content and use of books, as a way of finding out what is happening. Persky puts it this way: “I’m formally (and personally) indifferent to the form of books . . . . My concern is [their] content . . . and use . . . . I’m particularly interested in texts that can provide a sufficiently sustained reading experience that makes possible informed engagement with the political, cultural, and moral issues of our time.”

Persky cautions that our extrapolations on the effects of social media must consider the fact that, even though book reading is, as statistics show, in decline, “there’s plenty to read . . . and there will continue to be worthwhile books being written for the foreseeable future.” These worthwhile books can appear as e-books or, as some of the chapters of Persky’s book did, in e-mags like The Tyee. Persky also supports and curates dooneyscafe.com on which he posts reviews, literary articles, and commentary. In other words, so far as Persky is concerned CanLit and world lit, as well as the analytical criticism that accompanies them, are alive and well in print and on the web, but only for an unspecified “time being.”

While Good too is interested in comparisons of content and use, he doesn’t heed Persky’s call for caution. He has already decided that the form of books and other media determines their content, and that “content, on the Internet, is crap. Everybody freely produces it; nobody thinks it’s worth very much.” Good cites a London Review of Books article by Colin Robinson. Robinson points to the drop in readers in America and the huge increase in titles published, many as e-books, and says: “If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?” Robinson concludes, “In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and being read rather than reading.” Good concurs, and adds that this tendency is illustrated too by the growing popularity of Creative Writing courses.

When Good cites Persky as to “the paradoxical dilemma in which writing flourishes, which is just cause for celebration, but book reading is in decline,” he interprets “flourishes” to mean “proliferates,” whereas Persky obviously means that as well as “reaches high standards.” Persky says he is “heartened by the abundance of good work” available to him. But he might affirm that Good is mistaken only for the near term. The cornucopia of brilliant books that Persky analyzes might just be the afterglow, an Indian summer, of book culture. Persky himself says that his book could be seen as proof of this – but admits that it is not really representative as he prefers books by persons of “pensionable vintage.”

A. J. Somerset and Steven Beattie both accept as fact the public’s shrinking attention span, due to social media and the Internet, by way of explaining the disappearance of book reviewing – Somerset dealing with CBC and Beattie with print. Somerset explains that CBC’s Canada Reads’ facebook and twitter literary poll was seen as a way to break into (interconnect with) the expanding online community. The poll came up with The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis, as “the essential Canadian novel of the past decade.” The novel is crap, Somerset says, showing the intellectual level of those who twitter, and the panel-of-experts discussion of the results as they came in was no substitute for the reading on air of poems, stories and analytical literary commentary. But these older formats had lost their audience and the contest was popular, so what can be done? Somerset concludes, “We have twitter to keep us occupied . . . we can’t blame the CBC for the decline of the national attention span – but we can fault the CBC, as a public broadcaster, for its happy embrace of that decline. ”

Beattie in his essay about magazine and newspaper book reviewing argues that it’s “largely though not entirely” the case that “book coverage is migrating online” to “uncurated environments” like blogs and Facebook. In these environments, as Ronan McDonald puts it, ‘we’re all critics now’.” As a result, “personal effusion stands in for reasoned thought and ahistorical amateur voices have replaced experts with a deep knowledge of literary history.” This is similar to Good’s argument about the proliferation of amateur writing on the web and social media. The “democratization of culture brought about by the Internet” is, further, as Beattie has it, part of a long-term and pervasive “strain of anti-intellectualism that, in the words of American critic Maggie Nelson, ‘characterizes thinking itself as an elitist activity’.”

Back, finally, to the optimistic side. Paul McNally, long-time owner of the McNally-Robinson chain of bookstores on the prairies, observes that the “corpse” of CanLit, though it may appear dead, is actually breathing and even, really, as Barnes suggests, quite lively. McNally, working from the demand side just like Hudson, contradicts everything Hudson says. “CanLit . . . is a robust young plant,” he affirms, perhaps making an allusion to the Canada Council icon. He attributes CanLit’s health to decades of state intervention in the old print-book supply chain – intervention in the form of writing and publishing grants, postal subsidies, and publishing/distribution-company ownership rules.

Some of these shelters have lately been withdrawn, while others are threatened by, well, governmental lack of enthusiasm. NAFTA protects cultural industries but allows the government to review these protections on a case-by-case basis. McNally suggests that allowing Chapters/Indigo to monopolize the retail book business, and Bertelsmann to monopolize publishing, may have been a mistake: “I am not an ideological supporter of government regulating industry and restricting access, but to see what cultural imperialism can do in a small nation . . . is to understand that there is a place for intervention when fostering cultural industries.”

However, because of its state-nourished but now inherent strength, McNally says, CanLit will meet the challenges ahead even though the “subsidy shelter” is subsiding. A major challenge is “blockbuster imbalance,” caused by the tendency of conglomerate publishers and booksellers to commission/purchase books from a small stable of “proven” writers and to promote the hell out of them. Large advances are paid, expensive advertising purchased and lavish promotional events set up. McNally argues that this sort of editorial and marketing policy makes it hard for new and mid-list writers to squeeze in. “These are tough times for up-and-comers,” he admits.

But McNally goes on to say that the new technologies will foster micro-publishing and international sales, righting the balance. Also, “creative writing courses may well take the place of first editors, Internet exposure may well substitute for bookstore placement, and . . . literary festivals provide audience exposure, networking opportunities and income supplement.” Independent bookstores (like his) have re-created themselves, offering local books produced by writers themselves or local micro-presses, and staging a variety of reader-meet-writer events.

McNally’s independent store in fact is one of those described in Quill & Quire, January/February 2012, as “tech-savvy” and energetic enough to be at the forefront of the selling of e-books, one of the few brick-and-mortar stores to arrange with Google to participate in its Canadian e-bookstore, which opened in November 2011. McNally recommends that same entrepreneurial spirit to writers. “Writing,” he concludes, “is a deeply entrepreneurial career choice – writers tend to do what they have to do, grumbling eloquently as they go.”

So what are we to make of Hudson’s “forensic investigation,” his “Royal Commission?” “Forensic” implies the use of scientific analysis in law and public discussion. A Royal Commission accumulates and studies testimony and arrives at recommendations to government. I’ll deal with the recommendations first, then the quality of the scientific analysis.

Carbert, Keith, Beattie, Somerset and Good assume CanLit’s life to have no value whatsoever now that its audience has disappeared. Once Canadians became infected with attention-deficit disorder through contact with digital technology, once they passed through school without learning to read, CanLit was dead. For obvious reasons, no recommendations were made by these testifiers, and they would regard the recommendations of other members of the Royal Commission to be irrelevant.

There is a minor exception – Beattie, as we’ve seen, recommends that the CBC resist making appeals to people who use Facebook and twitter. Presumably there is still a small audience of real readers out there who would appreciate this. And there are also some implied recommendations from the others. Good specifies an ideal period for literature, when readers could access its power “to educate, elevate, delight and even change life.” That time was the nineteenth century. Presumably if he thought it worthwhile to make recommendations, it would be to recreate the circumstances of that period. Keith, judging by his affection for Arnold, would probably agree.

For Whetter and McNally, CanLit is a money-making industry, and their recommendations are meant to increase its profitability. Whetter concerns himself only with the manufacturing end of it: literature gets read and makes money when it is manufactured by writers in MFA programs. His recommendation, consequently, is that the English Department get out of the Creative Writing business or, failing that, offer the doctorate in Creative Writing, which will boost enrolment in both MA and MFA programs. Statistics from the US show this. His reasoning seems to be that, while there will be more MA writers failing to write well, there will also be many more MFA writers succeeding, a net benefit to CanLit.

McNally deals with the supply chain. He seems unaware of the fact that MFA writers produce a more marketable product, and assumes there’s plenty of good product available. But there are problems in the subsequent steps of the supply chain.  He believes, though he doesn’t like government regulation, that manufacturing and distribution may have to be subsidized and distribution may have to be regulated. The present situation of one dominant publisher and one dominant store should, he thinks, have been prevented. But he makes no specific recommendations to that effect, because he believes that the digital revolution will subvert monopoly control so long as writers, small publishers and small bookstores become tech-savvy and occupy the Web. His specific or implied recommendations all pertain to taking advantage of digital technology.

For Barnes and Henighan there’s a problem with seeking merely to improve the profitability of CanLit. They see CanLit as Atwood saw it back in 1981, as an alternative to Disney. CanLit is of a higher quality, it seems. Henighan refers to its special quality as an expression of national character. If the monopolies of Bertelsmann and Chapters are not broken up, if the anti-CanLit promotional events like the Giller are allowed, readers will not get to experience the special quality of CanLit. Whetter and McNally would wonder how CanLit could be threatened by a flood of foreign print-on-paper or e-books, especially if they are mostly garbage. Presumably consumers would go for the product that appealed to them most. But Barnes and Henighan would probably explain that readers, while they may not be looking for CanLit when they buy books, are attracted to it when they find it. They will realize that it speaks for and of them. Clearing away the American garbage will make it easier for them to stumble onto the real thing.

While making no direct recommendations pertaining to this, Barnes delivers a spirited defense of the Canada Council. Henighan makes no specific recommendations either, but looks back with nostalgia at the Canada Council and the older version of the Governor General’s Award. They represent, for him, a golden time when “hard-earned cultural institutions” fostered “an active national culture.” Presumably he would recommend rebuilding those institutions, but considering the neo-con threat as he describes it this would require class warfare, which he stops short of recommending.

In the cases of those who regard CanLit as dead (Keith, Carbert, Beattie, Somerset and Good), or those who feel it’s under extreme threat (Whetter and Henighan), vested interests or cherished faiths appear to erode the scientific nature of their analysis. Obvious facts are ignored.

Whetter’s claim — that there is no longer any serious debate that “the professionalization of art and creativity” through Creative Writing courses is a good thing — is false. By way of showing why the English Department won’t turn its much less effective hybrid English/CW programs over to the Fine Arts faculty, Whetter quotes a “memorable” Harper’s article by “American author and semi-reluctant writing professor Lynn Freed” on the fact that creative writing programs are now the “cash cow of the humanities.” He doesn’t however quote her on why she is a reluctant professor of the subject. Here’s what she says in Harper’s (July 2005): “When the classroom is so present in my life, everything I write begins to sound like a teacher writing — intended, crafted, lifeless, and too clever by half  . . . ‘There are many forms of stupidity,’ said Thomas Mann, ‘and cleverness is the worst.’ This cleverness, this stupidity — is the creative equivalent of an autoimmune disease. And it is ongoing. It lasts right until I emerge from the classroom . . . and sometimes longer than that.”

In short, Freed doesn’t think that Creative Writing courses are good for either students or faculty. She refers to creative writing as a “Gulag.” Of course Creative Writing is a popular extension course for beginners and hobbyists, an attractive elective to students going on to be engineers etc, a fairly common majors and honors subject for teachers who will be teaching “language arts” in the public schools (though school districts still prefer the BA and MA to the BFA and MFA), and a discipline for those who wish to be profs. But does it do what it claims to do: teach students to be writers? Or does it actually do harm?

Freed is not the first to have doubts. Writers have been having them since the first program was set up in Iowa seventy-five years ago. When Earle Birney started the first Canadian program in the UBC English Department in the early 1960’s, he sent advertising for the program to Robert Bly, editor of the magazine The Sixties. Bly, who had taken Creative Writing at Iowa and Harvard, refused to publish the ad, saying, “I still think there is something revolting about poets teaching creative writing, and no amount of reasoning can do away with it. There is some degradation of the poet involved. I was at the Iowa Workshop, directed by Paul Engle, which was a grotesque farce, but I also took courses at Harvard under MacLeish, for one. They were directed by serious men, but they were absurd. The whole atmosphere of a university is the exact opposite of the delicacy of poetry . . . Most creative writing courses do much more harm than good . . . .” Many writers still agree with Bly. Metcalf himself has detailed in his memoirs the futility of teaching Creative Writing courses, and compares them to “Fondue Cooking, Macramé for Beginners and Creative Flower Arranging.” Future writers, he thinks, should stick to studying the classic works of literature.

In his book Poetry and Ambition (1988), mid-ranked American poet Donald Hall, one of those bloodsucking members of the English Department who taught creative writing, argues against the MFA approach, speaking of “the disastrous separation, in many universities, of creative writing and literature.” You don’t know what literature is, he says, unless you study it. This attitude among English profs is why the doctoral programs that Whetter recommends to the Department, as an alternative to turning creative writing over to Fine Arts, are all hybrids. The other reason is that students doing doctorates are, as Whetter acknowledges, looking to become professors of graduate-level Creative Writing — professors of future professors. The Department would argue that these candidates need to know more than how to write. They need to know how to teach future teachers, which involves explaining what literature and language are. They need theory, in other words.

The advertising of the one program in Canada, at Calgary, specifies: “At all levels degree students will be expected to carry a comprehensive program of literature courses as well as writing workshops.” All of the American PhD programs specify that, at the doctoral level, theory will be the main subject of study, with literature. Some even prohibit the teaching of writing lore at that level, and some are researching the phenomenon that Lynn Freed describes. They call it “workshop writing” (Hall calls it “McPoetry”), and they expect to prove that it is generated by the teaching of personal “lore” by published writers in workshops. “Voice” is lost to technique or in imitations of the professor’s writing.

It’s very likely that in professionalizing the PhD through the disciplines of linguistics and cognitive psychology, the English Department will move to declare the MFA inadequate as preparation for the doctorate. Whetter’s plan, in other words, could backfire, and students could start avoiding the MFA, just as they tend to do if heading into school teaching. It seems that Whetter is fighting for the overall expansion of Creative Writing courses even if it might mean giving the English Department a whole new set of victims. It seems that he might be willing to sacrifice his academic principles for job security and those small, convivial classes of doctoral students that are the dream of all profs. It seems that he might be conflating his own interests and those of CanLit.

Henighan’s testimony suffers not from vested interest but from commitment to a left-of-center ideology. It also could be that he just likes stirring things up. However, his Giller scenario, while one of the most enjoyable essays in the issue, featuring as it does gossip and insults about Atwood, Richler, Barbara Amiel etc, seems unlikely to incite action against the rich. First of all, the neo-cons conducting the Giller as a plot against CanLit most often act like the Keystone Cops; they can’t, if they are as Henighan describes them, be a threat. Second, everyone knows, as Henighan says, that prizes mean little when it comes to identifying great literature. So the neo-cons seem to be fighting for a prize that has little symbolic value to the public. Those who do, say, buy The Polished Hoe because it won the Giller, and then try to read it, will quickly realize they have been ripped off, and anyone who knows anything about Amiel would know that she long ago shelved thinking for preaching the gospel according to her husband and thus never amounted to much as a writer. Finally, Atwood, Richler, Munro et al are not stupid people; obviously they don’t see themselves as lending credence to a serious right-wing conspiracy. And, as Henighan admits, they have worked to open the prize up to small presses and unknown writers — for better or worse.

Good’s absolute certainty that the digital universe rots minds suggests Ludditism. If it can be considered an ideology, Carbert, Beattie and Somerset also share it, though not as obviously.  At any rate, it makes their testimony relatively useless. They don’t have their facts right. First, the idea that content on the Internet is “crap,” as Good puts it, is not exclusively true. Persky has a much clearer sense of this, and McNally has a point in suggesting that the Internet promises much to readers. Masses of e-books by classic authors are available free on the web. New e-books are being produced for computer, tablet, and smartphone platforms by digital-publishing ventures like Byliner, Atavist, and Amazon—notwithstanding the spotty economic model involved. Many blogs and e-mags welcome what’s now called long-form non-fiction and criticism – most contemporary poets live on gigantic blog sites like Silliman’s and Poetry-Quebec, finding the criticism, biography, history and book-and-reading announcements that have been disappearing from print-on-paper periodicals and newspapers. It’s likely that poetry especially will do far better on the web than it has been doing in the print-on-paper book market.

Second, the whole theory that the Internet and social media have mind-altering effects is based, thus far, on anecdotal evidence. Good’s comparing of CanLit’s fate to environmental collapse fails here. A lot of scientific evidence has been produced, and a broad consensus established regarding the environment. No such basis of fact or consensus exists regarding social media. Writers like Good, Beattie and Somerset need to avoid despair and collect evidence by real content comparisons – literary criticism in effect – directing readers as they do to the real thing. It’s essentially unhelpful to simply affirm that Internet content is crap. Meanwhile the scientists and product researchers at Sony, Apple etc can do their CAT and MRI-scans and find out about brain activity when subjects are on computers or cell-phones or playing video games for long periods of time, as compared to when they are sitting near the fire reading Crime and Punishment.

As part of their content comparisons, Good, Somerset and Beattie need to consider the question of how bad writing drives out good.  This is the third assumption of Good’s argument, and it is part of the arguments of Barnes and Henighan. There’s never been a case presented for Atwood’s “Disneyland of the soul” –the idea that writing that successfully entertains and diverts will drive out writing that is “a mirror held up to life.” This would suggest that Arnold Bennett was a threat to Joseph Conrad, J.K. Rowling to Atwood herself. It is just as easy to argue that the popular writer creates an audience for the serious one.

The premise behind the testimonies of Keith and Carbert, that the teaching of a literature is essential to CanLit’s health because it generates a literate, sympathetic and informed audience, is flawed. First of all, for every member of the “Dead Poets’ Society” who was brought into literature by a beloved public school teacher or professor, there are ten people who claim that studying literature in school ruined it for them. Tom Wayman, a prominent Canadian poet and an English/Creative Writing prof at Calgary, makes this point. T.S. Eliot dedicated a famous essay, “The Frontiers of Criticism,” to the question of what happens to literary appreciation in “a situation in which many critics are teachers, and many teachers are critics.” Eliot generally liked the work of the teacher-critics, but noted that it was written for a small, specialized audience and was based on some fallacious premises – that there was always one best interpretation and that that interpretation was what the writer intended. The teacher-critics believed you could separate understanding and enjoying, when really “to understand a poem comes to the same thing as to enjoy it for the right reasons.”

Second, the idea that literacy is best taught through literature, by using poetry and fiction as a model and subject matter for composition, has pretty much been given up in the schools and universities, especially the universities. Those mandatory Freshman English courses that pay the Department’s bills are more and more focused on writing research essays on public-issue topics researched in magazines, government documents, and books of history, political science etc. Sophomore technical and business-writing courses, also a source of money, use discipline-specific samples and exercises. Nobody studies literature anymore unless they choose to do it, and that means that the “English Studies” segment of the Department, which used to be the largest and most powerful, is now much smaller. It will certainly continue to exist for those who intend to be critics and curators of the canon, but it will not be in the business of teaching masses of young people how to write and think.

Carbert and Keith don’t seem to understand this, which is curious because both men taught through the period when the decline of literature in the curriculum began to accelerate. The decline started as early as the 1920’s, when other faculties, Engineering and Commerce at first, forced on the Department a series of what came to be called “service” courses that, more and more, shed literature as their subject matter. The process of shedding literature was painful but it was endured almost entirely by graduate teaching assistants and new faculty appointees. George Woodcock’s experiences at UBC in 1956 (his first year) are instructive and (for anyone who has taught) comical. They show the final stages in the Department’s attempts to stand by literature in the service courses: “I was involved in a quixotic experiment of bringing the humanities to engineering students . . . . The project was a course in utopian literature; a parallel, it was thought, might be drawn between political and mechanical constructions . . . . I taught two seminars — one to a group of mechanical engineers who were entirely impenetrable, and the other to a group of metal engineers with whom I did establish a kind of jesting rapport, though even they regarded the whole exercise as a waste of their time — as I did of mine — and showed at most a polite interest in the austerities of Plato’s Republic or the aesthetic felicities of News from Nowhere.

Woodcock’s anecdote about attempting to inflict his scholarly specialty on the Engineers makes the impatience of other faculties easier to understand. By the 1980’s, these courses, entirely by that time discipline-specific, plus non-literary Freshman courses with ancillary remedial courses usually connected to literacy-competence tests, made up seventy percent of the Department’s workload. A sub-department took shape over these years, at first made up of teaching assistants and younger profs, then of regular faculty as the TA’s became young profs and the young profs got tenure. By the late 1960’s the English Department, at those universities with large Applied Science, Science and Commerce faculties, was providing courses for graduate students who, seeing the demand in that area (whereas specialists in Tennyson were not needed), had decided to become what is now called “compositionists.” They published papers and wrote theses on the use of the passive voice, on sexist language, on rhetorical structures. Having taken the Department away from English Studies, the compositionists are now making a move on Creative Writing, which they regard as a natural part of Composition. Thus Whetter’s problems.

Keith blames the death of CanLit in the Department on the prevalence of thematic criticism and writing and on the postmodernists. In reality, these did create  problems for literature, but minor ones compared to the demands of other faculty regarding service courses, and of the public and school administration regarding literacy scores. Thematic criticism became prominent because it was easier, as Keith says. What he doesn’t say is that critical analysis had to be simplified for the masses of school and undergraduate students who had to write tests and essays about poems and novels. It became a habit that extended itself into university teaching.

The theme of a high-school, freshman, or sophomore literary essay is seldom that this poem or novel is good or bad (it is always assumed that it is good), and seldom about technique (rhyme, meter, metaphor, paradox etc), but mostly that the poem or novel is about something: politics, sex, the role of women, abortion, drugs etc. In the BC school public school curriculum guides, materials (Joy Kogawa’s Naomi’s Road and Obasan, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, Suzanne Gilles The Hunger Games) are recommended to generate “appreciation of the enlightenment values of a common humanity, democracy, and scientific progress” as well as a more modern appreciation of “environmental, ethnic and women’s issues.” UBC’s multidisciplinary Department of Language and Literacy Education (an amalgamation of English, Education, Creative Writing and Library Studies) produces materials for what it calls “today’s multicultural classroom.” Materials listed include historical fiction, children’s books and popular novels describing children’s experience of immigration, prejudice and war.

Postmodernism, as Keith says, simply reversed the nature of thematic approaches, switching them from the humanistic to the politically correct. Every poem or story shows in its style, characterization, plot etc., the sexism, racism, colonialism and logical reductionism of western, liberal-democratic civilization. This is also an easy concept to grasp, though more likely to freak out students and their parents. It may have contributed to the decline in humanities enrollments in universities and colleges after the early 1980’s. However, postmodernism diligently imposed its own canon even as it queried existing canons. Its influence is seen in the BC-school-curriculum-list of themes connected to feminism, the environment and ethnicity, and in compositionist concerns about politically correct language.

Thematic criticism, the discovery of liberal themes, was justified by the ideology Keith refers to when he quotes Arnold and refers to Leavis as an ignored prophet at whose side he is proud to stand. It is the ideology of liberal humanism, and it was used too to justify, to the general public, literature’s centrality in the curriculum. The BC curriculum guides show this. The defenders of liberal-humanism were famous English profs like Babbitt, Trilling, Leavis, Allan Bloom, and others, each one stepping up to the plate anytime there was a major threat to literature.

Mostly, that threat, as I’ve noted, came from other university faculty. Secondarily it came from the modernist writers (ironically the ones generally taught in Freshman English). Keith’s argument about how studies of the “best that has been thought and said” help to create “literate, articulate, well-rounded persons,” collapsed in the face of twentieth-century literature where major writers like Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Lawrence attacked liberal democracy and promoted fascism. Trilling, who loved modern literature, refused to teach it, not wanting to become “a corrupter of youth.”

Thirdly, “rhetorical” theories of criticism resulted in the decline of the liberal-humanistic argument for the prominence of literature in the curriculum. Keith puts his finger on postmodernism. While he was mastering, teaching and writing his books about CanLit, his colleague Robert Lecker at McGill was saying this: “Once upon a time we thought that Canadian literature represented [our cultural] heritage and that Canadian criticism could allow us to find it, but today, who knows? Maybe a book about wrestling . . . tells us a lot about the culture that produced . . . . Why should a poem have more status than a restaurant review? Why is a novel a higher form of writing than a well-written travel guide?” But even the New Criticism, to which Keith evidently adhered, denied Arnold. Its famous adherents, John Crow Ransom, Allan Tate, and Cleanth Brooks, all from a southern conservative background, distrusted “liberal” messages and emphasized paradox and ambiguity, favoring close textual analysis capped with open-ended psychological interpretations, after their hero Coleridge.

Finally, the general public was never very impressed with the liberal-humanistic argument, recognizing that it was in essence elitist and thus anti-democratic. A response from Tim Nau in the Times Literary Supplement, to an extract from Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities(2010), indicates this opposition to the liberal-humanistic argument, stating that there’s little data to support the idea that a humanities education is especially salubrious morally: “Her reaction is based on the idea that people with a liberal arts education are better at self-government than others . . . . This proposition is terrifically insulting to university graduates in mathematics, engineering, medicine and the natural sciences. Their disciplines require them to be logical, to weigh evidence carefully and to build detailed arguments in a rational way – all vital skills for citizens in a democracy. As far as I am aware there are no empirical data showing that scientists make poor citizens.”

In my opinion Keith’s testimonial comes closest to answering Hudson’s question, Who Killed CanLit? But Keith doesn’t really have a clue what actually happened because he seems not to have examined his liberal-humanism in the light of new thinking. It seems to me that the insecurity felt by writers since Trilling’s time has been generated in writers not by the changes in information technologies and politics — writers have always, as McNally implies, in their scrounging for customers and patrons, had to keep up with evolving tastes and technologies — but by the failure, registered but not explained by Keith, of the English Department to maintain literature in the curriculum. That failure resonated with writers because, through the twentieth century, the Department became their major employer; in Canada about 80% of poets in the major anthologies, and 50% of fiction writers, are profs. The Department was in effect a massive experiment in teaching literacy (and, in line with liberal-humanistic ideology, virtue and good citizenship) through literature — an experiment that, on the evidence, failed. Of course literature can be used as subject matter in literacy training, but it seems that it can’t be used exclusively or even predominantly, as the Department once argued, without torturing students and teachers and debasing both literature and literacy training. And of course it’s useless as a model in teaching professionals how to write expository reports in standard English — an English that uncategorically eschews metaphor, ambiguity and paradox.

Fortunately for writers, it’s as natural to teach rhetoric and grammar as it is to teach literature – maybe even more natural. But a shift has to be made back to these ancient disciplines, and that is unsettling. Unsettling too is the failure of the liberal-humanist English profs to argue effectively for the high status of writers in society. Many writers came to accept this status as a matter of course, especially if they were in the Department and engaged in justifying professional development projects and educational leaves and arguing their way out of Freshman and Technical English into Creative Writing classes and graduate seminars. Now respect has to be fought for in the consumer marketplace and, as in times before the book became the first mass-produced product and main platform for art, among the patrons of literature. These are, nowadays, voters and their governments. They are looking for entertainment (of which enlightenment is an incidental part) and a sense of national pride that their writers, like their hockey players, musicians and artists, can go the distance. When they read criticism, they want to know if a book is worth buying and what it’s about. Interesting gossip about the writer is good too, but not essential.

Trilling’s simile about writers feeling like they’ve been ripped off in a Ponzi scheme actually reveals the literal truth. The Bernie Madoff, in the case of literature, was the English Department. It upped, quite unintentionally and with the best of intentions, but with an eye to its addiction to reading poetry and fiction, writers’ expectations. Literature would be at the center of the school and university curriculum. It would be the secular scripture of western civilization, curated and preached by a massive clerisy of teachers and profs, among whom you as a writer could be welcomed should you need a regular or part-time job. The congregation would be, mainly, the masses of young people in schools and universities, who would be forced to purchase and read poems and stories (some of them yours maybe), many of them appearing in Department-published literary magazines and professor-edited anthologies. The public — many of them having studied the national literature in public school and Freshman and sophomore English courses  — would hear the sermons too, picking up these periodicals and anthologies in book and magazine stores, reading the critic-profs in book review columns of newspapers and listening to them on radio, rushing out to buy books.

Who wouldn’t buy into a scheme like that?





10,163 words, March 26, 2012



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