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On being Canadian enough

Canada’s national winter sport, as we all well know, is hockey; and Canada’s other national sport is arguing over the definition of “Canadian literature,” a pursuit that is often just as bloody but doesn’t require that one keep track of a small piece of hard rubber.*

Now, I like hockey, but other team sports bore me, so I pay little attention to that other national sport. I’m satisified that “Canadian literature” is simply literature published in, you know, Canada, for a readership of, you know, Canadians, and I feel it’s best to just leave it at that.

I have, however, often felt compelled to observe, from the sidelines, that arguments of this sort are not uniquely Canadian, and are not (as so many people like to think) evidence of the Canadian identity crisis. Americans argue about this kind of thing all the time, except that instead of arguing about whether a book is “American literature,” they argue about whether it’s regional fiction.

There are ongoing dustups in the corners between those who insist on defining work in regional terms, rendering all work published by natives of Mississippi as “southern fiction” to be compared to Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and those who insist they are not interested in regional labels but are part of a larger, international tradition of writing in English.

(See Metcalf, John: What is a Canadian Literature? If these questions are unique to Canada’s supposed identity crisis, why did Richard Ford, in early interviews, invest so much energy in rejecting the “southern writer” label?)

I stumbled on examples of this reading backwards through Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes,** where I found examples of wonderful confusion over just what makes Midwestern fiction so Midwestern. Apparently, regional fiction is in decline, and the question is, why?

I stumbled over to A Commonplace Blog, where D.G. Myers argues that MFA programs have created “a nationalized bureaucracy of writers who … are more loyal to the organizational culture of creative writing, which stretches from coast to coast—and to their own career advancement—than to the locales in which they accidentally find themselves.”

Myers doesn’t explain what makes writing “regional.” It appears that, as he defines it, regional fiction exists when a given writer sets a series of novels (or stories) in a given locale. That is, it appears to be purely a matter of setting. Regionalism is in decline because writers keep changing from one setting to the next (damn their greedy little souls).

This complaint seems academic, not in the sense of having no practical application, but in the sense of “Holy shit, if people won’t settle down and set a bunch of novels in a single location, how the hell are we going to find thesis topics?”

This, I suppose, is how we identify regional concerns. I am reminded of some recent nonsense in The Globe & Mail (also academic in origin) proposing that Canadian literature can be identified by its “Canadian” concerns—a suggestion that inevitably implies we could reject books written by Canadians, for Canadians, as “not Canadian enough.”

Which is clearly silly.

Of course, the problem in Canada has been that “Canlit,” as we know it, arose in the 1960s as part of a broad nationalist movement, a movement that also gave us a new flag, national sports, and Hinterland Who’s Who. (It’s telling that lacrosse was chosen as our national sport, in place of hockey, because the Dutch lay some claim to inventing hockey; never mind that so few Canadians actually play or give a shit about lacrosse. Consider that in terms of parallels to Canlit.) But nowadays, those nationalist concerns have disappeared; Andre Alexis’s protests aside, Margaret Atwood’s Survival seems both irrelevant and goofy. Canada has grown beyond defining itself purely in terms of opposition to what is American. That stuff doesn’t matter anymore.

And from that perspective, I’m left to wonder if the (reported) decline in regionalism in American literature isn’t also more the product of changing times than it is yet another evil side effect of the MFA racket. And furthermore, I’m left to wonder if it’s really a bad thing.


* That sentence contains a semicolon for no other reason than to defy the incorrect prescriptivist nonsense published at The Oatmeal. Persons wishing to argue the point are invited to make fools of themselves in the comments, but are advised first to familiarize themselves with actual English usage by reading (for example) Charles Dickens.

** Readers of copyeditorial bent who insist that, since Athitakis is not plural, the correct form should be Mark Athitakis’s American Fiction Notes should probably take it up with Mr. Athitakis.

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