By Julie Rak
I consider the following to be a public service for all those who might consider reading Arrival: the Story of CanLit by “rockstar professor” Nick Mount. I analyse Mount’s book so that you don’t have to read it, unless you want to write a lengthy rant about it yourself. Arrival has had a soft landing in the mainstream press. Its author has been a guest on television and radio, and the book has enjoyed mainly positive reviews in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The National Post, to name a few. Quill and Quire is a little sceptical of Mount’s sweeping premise and The Walrus wonders about Mount’s cheerleading of CanLit paired with the omission of serious discussions about writers of colour, but that’s the most critical things have been.
I’m here to provide some spikes on the landing pad because readers, I assure you that Arrival: the Story of CanLit is one whopper of a bad book. It’s bad because every word of its title contains a dubious claim about what Canadian literature is, or when it “arrived,” or who wrote it, or what we should think about it. It’s not well researched. But more importantly–and the reason why I decided to write such a long essay–Arrival is bad because its cluster of sweeping generalizations manage to do something that in this dumpster-fire of a CanLit year should not be done. It reproduces assumptions about white, homophobic, sexist, settler Canada, and it celebrates them. So those of us who know better need to throw off the mantle of Canadian politeness and confront the premises of this book because the recent CanLit scandals are founded on ideas that also structure much of Arrival. Mount says that it took 10 years to write Arrival (9), and so I recognize that he could not have commented within it on the current problems with CanLit. But beyond admiring comments about Mount’s “wit and panache,” interviewers and reviewers have not been taking serious issue with Mount about how Arrival constructs its version of the CanLit boom in the wake of the scandals of 2016 and 2017. It’s time to do so now.
Arrival begins with a version of Terra Nullius, “no one’s land,” a formula used by some non-Native explorers and politicians to claim territory in the new world by presuming that Indigenous people did not own the land and had no claim upon it. Mount recasts no one’s land as no one’s time in the preface so that he can lay claim to “the whole story”:
“I wrote this book because it didn’t exist. We have many excellent biographies of the writers who emerged during what came to be called the CanLit boom. We also have some good histories of the publishing side of the story in both English and French Canada, and a great many books about the time itself. What we don’t have is a book that puts all those stories together. This is the first book to try to do that, to tell the whole story, for both those who know parts of it and those who know none of it.” [emphasis mine] (9)
There is a field called book history that has in fact pulled together much of the story of this period. But alas, it’s full of what Mount might think of as dreary technical research and complex social history. It’s much more fun to call this period a CanLit boom without a lot of hard evidence, and to detail the swinging 60s and the early 70s as a time of hedonism, when writers “lived larger and often riskier lives than their inheritors.” If Mount had said that this book was just about literary nationalism or the writing scene in some of Canada’s major cities, that would have been fine. But Arrival says that it is about much, much more, and that proves to be the book’s undoing.
Remember what Mount said in his preface: this isn’t just a story about Canadian writing. It’s the whole story. That’s why at the end of the preface, Mount has this to say: “This book is about the past, but like all such books, it’s for the present, a book that I hope helps explain how we got from there to here, from a country without a literature to a literature without a country [emphasis mine] (9).” It’s such a neat phrase, almost as neat as Northrop Frye’s oft-quoted observation about who we are being answered by where is here,* which characterizes Canada as empty land ready for the colonization of the imagination, another act of Terra Nullius. So what is the whole story? It seems that before the 1960s (before 1959 to be exact) there was no Canadian literature at all. Mount’s CanLit boom, at last, brought proper literature into being. By the end of the boom, which Mount says happened in 1974 “when Margaret Laurence ran out of novels” (14), Canadian literature itself no longer existed because it had gone global. “CanLit,” Mount opines in his conclusion, “ended when it arrived because that was its job—to arrive” (326). Ending the boom in 1974 makes for a convenient chronology because it excludes so many writers who belong to minority groups. No past and then no future. According to this version of events, Canadian literature is just part of global literature now. Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. Margaret Atwood belongs to the world, like Celine Dion or Alex Trebek.
There are of course enormous leaps of logic in Arrival that bolster such a premise. “Canadian literature” mostly means the following: Toronto writers, English-speaking Montreal poets, and the TISH poetry collective in Vancouver. The mentions of Hugh MacLennan and Alden Nowlan do little to balance this out. The restrictions Mount places on the idea of Canada mean that only certain kinds of writers “count” within the CanLit formation. The others exist on a periphery oriented towards the centre, if they count at all. Much of the literary history of Canada simply does not exist in Arrival: there is no L.M. Montgomery, E. Pauline Johnson, Mazo de la Roche, John Richardson or Ralph Connor. It is no accident that all of these authors were popular, whether they published bestselling novels, serialized their widely-read writing for newspapers and magazines or, in the case of Johnson, popularized a poetry book with thrilling live performances. But they cannot be part of Canadian literary history, it seems.
And so, Arrival itself is a breathtaking work of a mari usque ad mare, from sea to sea, a literary railroad of sorts built across Canada to ensure Upper Canadian dominance. It invites comparison (and reviewers are already doing the comparing) with another work made more than four decades earlier, Margaret Atwood’s Survival, also published by Anansi Press. This is a book that Atwood herself has called “Canadian literature for dummies,”** meant for high school teachers as a way to save the publisher from financial ruin. I interpret this comparison as disturbing, not flattering. Atwood herself affirms “no one’s time” as part of her own practice. She is quoted in Arrival saying that when she came on the scene, she “found the lack of literary ancestors liberating, like being handed a blank sheet of paper” (208). This vision of CanLit is urban, able-bodied (only the “strong” survive in Survival), centrist, mostly anglophone, and overwhelmingly white.
Even when Austin Clarke is mentioned in Arrival (he was the most prominent Caribbean-born writer in Canada in the 1960s) he is someone who publisher Jack McLelland says “needs a kick in the ass” (192). As Lucia Lorenzi has pointed out, that is exactly how Clarke is indexed in the book, an inscription of violence against a Black writer enshrined in the book’s apparatus, played for laughs. Mount’s description of Harold (Sonny) Ladoo, a Trinidadian-Canadian author who published one book before his untimely death in 1974, is the only other serious reference he makes to a Black writer in Arrival. This omission joins many others that work to marginalize writers who belong to minority groups: somehow, Jane Rule, Jean Little, Maxine Tynes, Dorothy Livesay, Adele Wiseman, the many Inuit authors published in the 1970s, Joy Kogawa, Ethel Wilson and Mi’kmaq writer Rita Joe either do not appear at all or do not merit serious discussion. Gabrielle Roy is only a French Canadian writer who goes to Winnipeg to escape her fame for writing the Tin Flute. Francophone writing in Quebec in the 1960s is represented by mainly by Hubert Aquin, Pierre Vallières, Michel Tremblay, and Marie-Claire Blais. Pierre Vallièrres’ White Niggers of America is discussed without much contextualization—and this is a book with a title and premise that must be accompanied by an anti-racist critique*** if it is to be mentioned today. Meanwhile, Nicole Brossard, the highest profile feminist and GLBTQ writer in Quebec at the time who published five books before 1974 and who won the Governor General’s award in that year, goes unmentioned.
Despite this last glaring omission, Mount does have a bit to say about feminism, and it’s this: “feminism did not create the writers of the CanLit boom, at least not feminism by name. But both feminism and the conditions that awoke it did give women writers a large and interested audience” (308). That’s what feminists are here, consumers. As is the case so often in Arrival, Mount takes a partial truth and makes it stand in for the whole. Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwan, who Mount cites for evidence, may not have been a feminists in the 1970s but Brossard was an active feminist during this period and founded feminist publications at the end of the decade. Dorothy Livesay was also involved in feminist political groups at the time and Margaret Laurence was part of the feminist peace movement. If Mount had extended his CanLit Boom chronology just a bit further to 1979, he could have written about the numerous feminist newsletters, literary journals and magazines**** in French and English that appeared from 1975 to 1979, and he could have addressed the work of Red Power activists and feminists of colour too. In a book dedicated to providing “the whole story,” it is remarkable that feminism is reduced to consumerism and the representation of women to commodification, as it is in this passage: “Khrushchev and Nixon debated communism versus capitalism in Moscow; a doll named Barbie spread her plastic legs in New York and settled the argument” (14).
In this version of the CanLit boom, the increase in titles published in the 1960s and 1970s is used as the rationale for why good writing emerged at the time. Literary quality is read here very narrowly: Harlequin Enterprises, probably Canada’s most profitable publisher for decades, doesn’t even figure in this analysis. All other cultural production in Arrival plays a supporting role to high literature. Theatre, for instance, is pictured as a void, with only the Factory Theatre deserving mention as the place where Canadian plays were produced. After the Painters 11 pack up their paints and go home, it seems that there’s no worthy national art. Music plays no role in Canada during the period, except for Leonard Cohen and briefly, because they make money, the Tysons. Literary programs on radio are given their due, but television and film (even animated shorts) are unworthy of mention. What is most important here is that “literature” does the work of exclusion for Nick Mount. Where “literature” cannot do the work, value judgements take over.
Here’s an example. Maria Campbell’s memoir Halfbreed of 1973 was a bestseller and it remains a landmark work. But Mount discusses Campbell’s impact like this: “the Prairies grew Margaret Laurence, Rudy Wiebe, and Maria Campbell, all three in their own way heralds of a coming Native renaissance” (19). Mount reinstates the reading of regionalism Northrop Frye made in the 1970 essay “Canadian Identity and Canadian Regionalism,” where he observes that on the prairies, riding a horse makes one feel that one is “at the highest point in the universe” (267),***** reducing the cultural production for the region to a geography. Prairie writers, it follows, are products of their environment, unlike writers in Toronto, who are products of cultural interaction. Laurence and Wiebe, who have been critiqued for their representation of Indigenous people in their fiction, somehow contribute to “a Native renaissance,” a phrase that simultaneously erases and mischaracterizes the contribution of Indigenous writers in the 1970s and their struggle to get their work into print.****** The politics of Halfbreed are blunted here. Campbell’s identity as a Métis activist and writer is erased by making her “regional” and making Laurence and Wiebe part of the history of Indigenous writing.
To add more fuel to this dumpster fire of an argument, Mount “reviews” a variety of Canadian books published between 1959 and 1974. He uses a 5 star rating system running from “Got Published” to “World Classic” (spoiler alert: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Al Purdy, Sheila Watson, Mavis Gallant, Dennis Lee and bp nichol are the ones who get five stars). Reviewers have objected to these puff pieces because they are so partisan, but I like to think of them as the true heart of the book, where Mount really flies the flag for the kind of literature he enjoys. What we find out is that Mount likes high literary fiction and poetry well enough, but no other kinds of writing really pass muster. And we find out that the author hasn’t done all that much work to make most of his reviews accurate or respectful.
At one painful point, Mount reviews Halfbreed. It gets three stars, a “very good.” Mount goes on to mention what he calls a true fact: Campbell’s book and Cher’s song “Half-Breed” were released in the same year, and then he adds that Campbell is “of mostly Scottish, French and Cree descent” (301). This is not how to talk about Campbell’s identity. She is Métis, and that is the nation to which she belongs. To add to the problems here, the song “Half-Breed” has been shown to be highly problematic. In the past, Cher has claimed Cherokee ancestry , especially when she has performed the song, without providing any evidence to substantiate her claim. Placing that song next to Halfbreed without that context and not stating that Campbell is in fact Métis look to me like neocolonial assumptions bolstered by sloppy research. It’s not the only instance: Mount repeats Milton Acorn’s claim (debunked for decades)******* that he is of Mi’kmaq origin, writing about “the Mi’kmaq in his blood” (314). The Japanese Canadian internment becomes “The Japanese internment” (250), erasing decades of explanation by activists and historians that the internment refused to treat Japanese Canadians as Canadian citizens.********
2016 and 2017 have seen a parade of scandals in CanLit as an industry: the spectacle of famous authors rushing headlong to the defense of author Steven Galloway when UBC fired him for breach of trust; the revelation that Joseph Boyden, Galloway’s staunch defender, was not in fact an Indigenous writer; the Writer’s Union of Canada appropriation “award” controversy. In the wake of these scandals that revealed much of the foundation of the CanLit star-system to be racist, neocolonialist, sexist and just plain arrogant, it might seem unthinkable that a book such as Arrival could be received without much hard-hitting discussion of its assumptions about history, regionalism, race, settler colonialism, and what constitutes sound research. But this is what has happened, so far.
The dumpster fire that is Canadian literary nationalism continues to burn. Arrival fans the flames.
*Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination, House of Anansi, 1971, 220.
** She said this in a talk I saw in Edmonton, Alberta for the Canadian Literature Centre, 2016.
***Josée Makropoulas, “Promoting Frenchness Within the Realm of Whiteness,” in Racism, eh? A Critical Anthology of Race and Racism in Canada, Captus Press, 2004.
****See Cecily Devereux, “Canadian Feminist Literary Criticism and Theory in the ‘Second Wave,’” Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, Ed. Cynthia Sugars, Oxford University Press, 2015. 845-851.
*****This was an unpublished report to the CBC on regional programming. Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye on Canada vol. 12. U. of Toronto Press, 2003.
******See chapters by Emma LaRocque in Writing the Circle, Armand Ruffo in (Ad)ressing Our Words, Greg Young-Ing in Looking at the Words of Our People and Cheryl Suzack in History of the Book in Canada, vol. 3.
*******Richard Lemm, Milton Acorn in Love and Anger. McGill-Queens UP, 1999. 13-17.
********Roy Miki & Cassandra Kobayashi, Justice in Our Time: the Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement. Talonbooks, 1991. Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice. Raincoast Books, 2004.
Julie Rak is a Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, and she lives and works on Treaty 6 and Metis territory. Julie holds an Eccles Fellowship at the British Library for 2017-2018 and is also a Killam Professor at the University of Alberta for 2017-18. She is the author of Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (2013) and Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse(2004). She is the editor of Autobiography in Canada (2005), has co-edited with Anna Poletti Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (2014) and with Keavy Martin she edited the reissue of Mini Aodla Freeman’s prize-winning Inuit memoir, Life Among the Qallunaat (2014). With Jeremy Popkin, she edited a collection of Philippe Lejeune’s essays translated into English, On Diary (2009) and with Andrew Gow, she edited Mountain Masculinity: the Writings of Nello “Tex” Vernon-Wood, 1911-1938 (2008). Julie sponsored and co-wrote with Hannah MacGregor the 2016-2017 Counter-Letter petition about the UBCAccountable controversy, and she maintains a website of resources for those who want to learn more about the issues.
2 thoughts on “Guest post Another Dumpster Fire: an opinionated review of Arrival: the Story of CanLit by Nick Mount”
Reblogged this on The Vandellous.
Comments are closed.