Book Review: Revolutions, Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction, by Alex Good

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There are two premises to this book of essays: first, crudely put, no-one gives a shit about Canadian novels, and second, they’re no good anyway.

Now that I think about it, there’s a third, and it’s the most problematic: the reason Canadian fiction is no good is that a range of spent old volcanoes has had undue influence over subsequent generations of Canadian writers, almost all of whom expend their energies copying a tired, boring style in an effort to win the Giller Prize.

Pretty grim sounding isn’t it. With essay titles such as ‘Shackled to a Corpse,’ ‘Killing the Beaver’ and ‘Filling the Lifeboats,’ you might think you’re in for an unhappy ride. In fact the opposite is true. Alex Good’s passionate anger fills this book’s pages with an energy and zest that makes reading them a real pleasure. The book is funny, exhilarating at times, and refreshingly opinionated.

Agreeing with his arguments, however is another story. That Canadians don’t, in large numbers, pay much attention to print fiction is well established. Here,for example is critic John Metcalf’s colourful estimation, from 1987: “If you choose someone at random on the street they’d be just as likely to have AIDS as to have bought a Canadian novel this year.” Paul Marchand posited 10 years later that there were only four thousand people in this country “who are highly committed to [reading] serious Canadian fiction.”

That was then says Good. Today ” My understanding is that a well-received Canadian novel published by a mid-sized or small press…will have trouble selling more than five hundred copies.” Established authors, Good suggests, are lucky to sell 1000, and only then with the help of a prize sticker or other promotion. No one really knows precise numbers, except the publishing houses, who keep this information to themselves.

We live in a post-literate age says Good, “one in which [GG English Fiction Award winner] Douglas Glover concludes, books have become irrelevant.” On this note, what’s of most concern to Good is “…the rise in ‘aliteracy,’ the growth of a population that can read but simply doesn’t want to.”

It gets worse.

It’s unusual to find Canadian writers who even read other Canadian writers, says Good quoting Metcalf again. And if they don’t care, then why should any one else? (This doesn’t quite add up. How can younger authors groom their work to look like the establishment’s if they aren’t reading it?) On top of this, academics don’t even seem to want to teach the stuff, according to Good.

As I say, quite a depressing mess. And why are we here in this state of stagnation and decline? Good postulates that a shrinking middle class, competition from other forms of leisure activity, lack of time, the fundamentally conservative, anti-revolutionary Canadian character – especially in universities and the media – removal of value judgements from criticism, ‘poptimism’ which measures aesthetic value based only on commercial success, and an establishment – The Greatest Generation – fostering the myth of a national literature that has dominated the scene for the past half century…all are to blame.

Good concludes his introductory essay with the claim that art is inherently revolutionary, and that artists have a need to respond to the culture in which they are embedded, and must define themselves in opposition to tradition. Canadian artists however seem to have a problem revolting. As a result, Canadian fiction is “stuck in a set of worn out moulds.”

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I don’t have difficulty believing that Canadians are largely apathetic about their literature. And I do believe that a big percentage of written work is mediocre. Tolstoys, Coetzees and Mavis Gallants don’t come around all that often, so it does take a lot to convince me to spend time with contemporary fiction. That said, there is a lot of decent work coming out of Canada today, and this is where Good goes wrong. In fact, despite venting much of his spleen condemning the poor state of our literary nation throughout most of his book, he admits as much on page 26 of the introduction:

“Make no mistake: there is some great writing being published in this country; and an argument could be made that it is (miraculously, under the circumstances) getting even better. This is a point worth underlining, as there’s a commonly held misconception thqt if only our writers wrote better books then things would have never come to such a pass and aliteracy wouldn’t be such a problem. Nonsense. Today’s best writers are as good as, or better than the writers of any previous period in Canadian literature – superior even, I would argue, to the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 70s. It’s the culture that has changed. The audience has left the building.”

Unless Good is suggesting that none of this great writing is making its way onto Giller short lists, this pretty well undermines the whole premise of his book. Plus the facts, particularly over the past decade, just don’t seem to bare his argument out. Here it is again, at the end of his introduction:

“Our fiction has suffered from too great a deference to an orthodox Establishment – a tired phrase now, but one that has stuck around long enough to become a cliché only because it’s grounded in truth. There has been no successful revolution against our own literary Greatest Generation, with Canadian fiction becoming stuck in a set of worn-out moulds as a result. Meanwhile, what attempts have been made at shaking things up have been forced to run to extremes, making many of our most promising alternative voices just as formulaic in their own way as those found in the Establishment.”

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While his judgement of books and authors is, throughout these essays, uniformly negative, the takedowns are entertaining, and supported by plenty of quotes. Alright, there is the occasional ” God this is awful stuff,” but this is what evaluative criticism is all about; it’s put out there for you to agree or disagree with; to force you to think about your own taste, to argue in favour of your opinions.

Much of Good’s polemic focuses on taking down four authors: two establishment icons, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, two ‘unsuccessful’ challengers Douglas Coupland and David Adams Richards; plus the undue influence wielded by the Giller Prize and its ‘brand.’ Describing The Blind Assassin and Anil’s Ghost, Good says “Both are utterly humourless. Both try to jazz up their leaden narratives with conventional structural gimmicks (a heavy use of flashbacks, primarily). But the main thing they share is a sensibility. They aren’t just tedious, but tired books…both [authors] are exhausted and repetitive, going over the same themes, the same ground, in the same worn-out language that just can’t be made to perform any more.”

“A penchant for infantile epiphanies underscores Coupland’s profound limitations as a writer,” says Good, “but also goes a long way to explaining his mass appeal…The imbecility of kidult is one thing, but baby-talk unleavened by irony – and as a general rule the more mature and grown-up Coupland tries to be the further he regresses – is very, very hard to take.”

For Richards “…nothing goes without saying; he will have nothing to do with subtlety. He will always tell you exactly what to think, use life’s whopping ironies or that old stand-by, the pathetic fallacy, to drive every point home four or five times over.”

This stuff is sure to antagonize ardent fans.

As for the Giller, Good argues that a narrow consistency in the jury has led to a consistency of results. This in turn has led to the creation of the “Giller bait” novel. “Very serious books emphasizing history and geography; generally without any sense of humour, and written in a vague, pseudo-poetically lush and highbrow style.” Plus he makes a strong case for expecting to find zero degrees of separation between jurors and “half the names on the long list(s).”

Olga Stein, a professor of Canadian literature at York University, thinks otherwise. She has studied the Giller closely over the past decade and argues that content has diversified during this period. As she puts it

“Since 2006 (and the publication of the long-list), the Giller has recognized a very diverse body of works. The number of ‘big name’ authors winning the prize decreased dramatically, while recognition of new and emerging authors increased dramatically. The only generalization one should make about the last 13 years of the Giller is that generalizations about the books being valorized should be avoided. The prize contributes significantly to literary culture in Canada. Among many positive things one can say about it is that it champions short story collections, and the works of a fair number of small Canadian presses…Since 2008 there has always been at least one foreign judge–precisely to insure some diversity. The panel has recently been expanded to five judges — a very good thing. Finally…there have been almost as many women as men on the judging panels. Not so with the Booker.”

If you buy into Stein’s ‘facts,’ then Good’s argument appears out-dated. Anachronistic.

I’m not about to debate either Stein or Good because I’m part of the problem. They’ve done the reading. I haven’t. In order to tell who’s right we’ll just have to read the books for ourselves, which, fittingly enough, is exactly what Jack Rabinovitch told me some years ago that he wanted. This was the reason he set up the prize in the first place; not to influence content, but to sell books and get more people reading.

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