What Was Canadian Literature?

Stephen Marche on the Decline and Fall of a National Experiment

   "Historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the Revolution,” wrote Northrop Frye. 

   "Historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the Revolution,” wrote Northrop Frye. 

2014 WAS A year of deaths and victories for Canadian literature. Alice Munro accepted the Nobel Prize for literature and promptly retired. Mavis Gallant left her Canadian body in Montparnasse cemetery, triumphantly empty of stories. A seventy-fifth birthday party for Margaret Atwood at the Four Seasons came complete with a guard of forty authors to toast her. In 2014 as well, the Canada Council hosted a National Forum on the Literary Arts, intended to address the future of literature in Canada, which broke down into “a 250-person choir in simultaneous competition to be the lone soloist” and “nothing short of a total goddamn clusterfuck,” in the memorable phrasing of Pasha Malla. It was a year with a sense of an ending, at least for Canadian literature.

Writing in Canada meanwhile continued its blessed existence. Anyone who whines about being a writer in Canada today needs a history lesson and a long vacation. It’s not just the peace and prosperity which we take so utterly for granted. Before the 1960s, Northrop Frye could describe the entire literary production of the country in a few pages in annual reports for the University of Toronto magazine, and sometimes his conclusions were as terse as “this is clearly not a banner year for Canadian poetry.” Today, every season produces its bevy of new Canadian voices, their talents nourished by granting agencies and publishers and agents, supported by multiple book reviews, reading series, festivals and prizes with significant money attached to them. The Canadian writer today has a hell of a lot of ways to get lucky. (I should acknowledge, for the sake of disclosure, that I have received the aid of several of these agencies at key career moments; I have eaten the state’s bread and salt.)

There is no question that we are living in a great time to be a Canadian writer, perhaps the best ever. But at the same time the sense of writing as a national project is stuttering to its final end. There is one major Canadian-owned publisher still standing, Anansi; even McClelland and Stewart belongs to the Germans. The CBC, the handmaiden to Canadian literature, is being dissolved in front of our eyes. And the academic study of Canadian literature, like all the humanities, continues its steady decline into underfunded gerontocracy. The question of “national identity” is an antique one; literary nationalism is something your grandparents did, like macramé. American Psycho or American Pastoral brandish their connection to their home country; here, any such connection is best avoided—and not just because you limit your market. Canadian writers are happy to say they’re from Canada; they just don’t want to write about what it might mean. Canadian literature, in the sense of a literature shaped by the Canadian nation and shaping the nation, is over.


New distance permits new questions. What was Canadian literature? How did it work? What did it mean? And what does it continue to mean for those of us who are Canadian and who write?

The literary nationalism in whose shadow Canadian writing currently lives began in the late nineteen sixties. There were Canadian writers before 1965, of course, a few of them great, but their connection to the life of the country was not nearly as substantial as it would become in the sixties. Before 1965, virtually no Canadian writers were professionals; as Woodcock and others noted, almost everybody in the Canadian literary scene was a professor. Hugh MacLennan won the Governor General’s Award five times—he was a writer alone in a tradition of his own fabrication. A.M. Klein, a brilliant poet and novelist who remains almost entirely unknown outside of a small circle of specialists, quit writing after a nervous breakdown caused by reckoning with his own cultural marginality; he was mortally wounded by his irrelevance.

The earlier predecessors, Archibald Lampman and Susanna Moodie and E. Pauline Johnson and the rest, were even more intensely marginal, both to the country of their birth and to literature in general. They were also, if we’re being honest, not particularly good. These are the writers you are forced to read in the first half of your “Introduction to Canadian literature” class. No doubt there were flashes of intense light—The Two Solitudes, The Second Scroll, the poetry of Louis Dudek—but they were flashes.

And then Survival, basically a doctoral dissertation, sold 80,000 copies. Margaret Atwood, in the 1980s, recalled the sudden glare of national attention, as mystifying to the writers as to everyone else:

It was at Harvard then that I first began to think seriously about Canada. Even the idea of thinking seriously about Canada had something shocking about it: seriousness and Canada just didn’t seem to go together … Because the few established publishers were reluctant to publish work that was too experimental or too nationalist—the two were, strangely enough, sometimes equated—writers became involved in setting up their own publishing companies. Nobody expected the results. The growth of both audience and industry between 1965 and 1970 was phenomenal. To our surprise, people, even Canadian people, wanted to read what we wanted to write.

The mass appetite for the new Canadian literature, emerged, at least in part, from the political background in which the material was being written. During the period between 1965 and 1970, national identity was the dominant political question facing the Canadian people, and it produced questions that are highly suitable to literary investigation. Are we a country? Who are we as a people? What does Canada mean? These questions were simply unignorable, not just to writers, but to wide swaths of the population.

Not that Canadian politics, explicitly, was ever a grand subject for Canadian literature. There has never been a great Canadian novel on the subject of Trudeaumania or the referenda or the quiet revolution or the Constitutional battles. Even Richler’s satires were mostly of institutions other than the political ones—the Canada Council, the publishing industry, the art scene, and so on. When the Tarragon Theatre shelved Proud, Michael Healey’s play about Prime Minister Stephen Harper, partly it was cowardice and the failure to understand what literature is for. But it was also a category error. Writers here aren’t supposed to look politics in the face. It’s rude. And Canadian literature is uniquely deferential to institutions. “How do you get ten Canadians out of a swimming pool?” “Say, ‘hey guys, can you get out of the pool?’”

In every other form of literary nationalism—Irish, Nigerian, Indian, Algerian, and so on—the main political struggle is against the rulers. Not here. Canadians don’t mind their overlords; it’s their neighbors who drive them crazy. Almost the entire weight of the moral fury of English-Canadian self-righteousness fell on rejecting nefarious American influence rather than explicit British Dominion. This fundamental instinct—it does not rise to the level of argument—underlies Canadian literature and Canadian life both. Atwood traced its origin, in her own consciousness, to a childhood lived in Northern Quebec:

Alas, the Americans we encountered were usually pictures of ineptitude. We once met two of them dragging a heavy metal boat, plus the motor, across the portage from one lake to another because they did not want to paddle. Typically American, we thought, as they ricocheted off yet another tree. Americans hooked other people when they tried to cast, got lost in the woods and didn’t burn their garbage.

Northrop Frye understood that this instinct is not just literary; it has run under the history of English Canadian existence from its instantiation: “Historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the Revolution,” he wrote in his “Preface to an Uncollected Anthology.” Frye was scrupulous in his grammar. In the principal clause, “a Canadian is an American.” The distinction follows—“who rejects the Revolution.” Canadian identity, at least in its literary expression, is a subordinate clause.

In hindsight, the central contradiction of Canadian literature is obvious. Canadian literature is anti-American literature which is also an offshoot of American literature. The pattern follows the well-established formula of the Situationists: to piss on the altar is to pay homage to it.

No one embodies this contradiction more fully than Atwood herself. Despite the fact that Munro won the Nobel Prize, Atwood will always be the iconic Canadian writer, like the Mounties or Anne of Green Gables. She is Our Mother of the Written Word, sometimes the smothering mother who covers the landscape like snow, sometimes the lecturing mother who can be a bit annoying. But she is our mother. She possesses the kind of power that writers have forgotten in other countries. The last poet in the United States with her iconic status was Walt Whitman. 

And yet she is also the most American of Canadian writers; that is her secret. She provides the best Canadian example of every American literary trend of the second half of the twentieth century. It is no accident that her most successful novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is set entirely in the United States. Mother Canada is, in the nightmare we must suppress, the American Woman. This contradiction, as Frye pointed out, represents the country itself.

She served the nascent academic field of Canadian literature perfectly; her works are utterly representative of the dominant literary modes of America—but Canadian. When the confessional poets were in fashion, she was a confessionalist—but Canadian. When Philip Roth and John Updike and Norman Mailer were writing their grand ambitious novels she was a grand ambitious novelist—but Canadian. When genre appropriations grew popular, she wrote high-low fusions—but Canadian. Every ism that rose to prominence she followed. She cheerfully joined in the tech revolution, mastering Twitter, gamely trying out a bizarre innovation for signing books, giving material to Wattpad. The ease of her technophilia startled some observers; it shouldn’t have. She had cheerfully joined in every other revolution of her lifetime.

Margaret Atwood is the literary equivalent of lichen. Where the air is good, there she can be found. Her writing is like the Canadian landscape itself: restrained and indifferent and proud and uncharitable and, above all, determined to survive no matter what. The beauty of her prose is its ferocity.

She also represents most fully the Canadian obsession with the landscape. It’s the great cliché of Canadian culture, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. There has never been a great portraitist in the history of Canadian art. Landscapes are everywhere. Literature has never been well suited to landscape, except in Canada. A.M. Klein’s masterpiece is “The Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” after all. Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” from Wilderness Tips may be the greatest expression of their intertwinement of the twin fears in Canadian literature—the fear of the city, the fear of the wild—but Frye, again, predicted the historical and geographical context of that expression:

A country with almost no Atlantic seaboard, which for most of its history has existed in practically one dimension; a country divided by two languages and great stretches of wilderness, so that its frontier is a circumference rather than a boundary; a country with huge rivers and islands that most of its natives have never seen; a country that has made a nation out of the stops on two of the world’s longest railway lines: this is the environment that Canadian poets have to grapple with, and many of the imaginative problems it presents have no counterpart in the United States, or anywhere else.

The “imaginative problem” of Canadian literature is always the setting. We are afflicted with the portraits of small towns, the portraits of farm life, the portraits of Maritime rivers, the portraits of the prairie. Landscape intrudes into even the most domestic of narratives. Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House ends with a description of the family place, encroached upon by the forces of nature which are identical with those of oblivion and death:

I parked the car beside the Brick House. The caragana hedge was unruly. No one had trimmed it properly that summer. The house had been lived in by strangers for a long time. I had not thought it would hurt me to see it in other hands, but it did. I wanted to tell them to trim the hedges, to repaint the windowframes, to pay heed to repairs.

The stories of Alice Munro, which are some of the most directly intimate portraits of characters ever drawn, are overrun with oppressive landscapes. The definitive Alice Munro moment is from “The Lives of Girls and Women” when a girl watches, with rapt fascination, a character named Mr. Chamberlain furiously masturbating beside her in a car. After the act, and after the man’s commentary on his act, her first thought is this: “The landscape was postcoital, distant and meaningless. Mr. Chamberlain may have felt some gloom too, or apprehension, for he made me get down on the floor of the car as we re-entered town, and then he drove around and let me out in a lonely place, where the road dipped down near the CNR station.”

Sex tends to make Munro think of landscapes, and the proximity of sexuality and terrorizing countryside runs throughout her work. In “Five Points”, a story from the 1990 collection A Friend of My Youth, the risk of an assignation is described, with Gothic precision, through vegetation:

There are always a few bad moments after Brenda turns off the highway—where she has some excuse to be driving, should anyone see her—and onto the side road. The van is noticeable, unmistakable. But once she has taken the plunge, driving where she shouldn’t be, she feels stronger. When she turns onto the dead-end swamp road, there’s no excuse possible. Spotted here, she’s finished. She has about half a mile to drive out in the open before she gets to the trees. She’d hoped that they would plant corn, which would grow tall and shelter her, but they hadn’t, they’d planted beans. At least the roadsides here hadn’t been sprayed; the grass and weeds and berry bushes had grown tall, though not tall enough to hide a van. There was goldenrod and milkweed, with the pods burst open, and dangling bunches of bright, poisonous fruit, and wild grapevine flung over everything, even creeping on the road. And finally she was in, she was into the tunnel of trees. Cedar, hemlock, farther back in the wetter ground the wispy-looking tamarack, lots of soft maples with leaves spotty yellow and brown. No stand water, no black pools, even far back in the trees.

The oppressions of the landscape are not merely persiflage in Munro; they are also in the current of her characters. People tend to forget that Munro’s stories have drug abuse, extreme sex, fanatical religion—all horrifically twisted on the extremes of the landscape. Munro is interested, almost exclusively, in the collapse of meaning in the face of nothingness. How do people fail to make sense of their lives? What do they do with those failures? The collapse of meaning is her subject, and the encounter with the wilderness on the fringes is an encounter with that collapse; which is why there is nothing quite like her elsewhere.

Though Munro hardly lacks for praise, I always feel that when critics in America or in the UK praise her that they don’t really understand what they’re praising. I don’t think a non-Canadian audience can properly understand Munro, not fully anyway (this is not true of Atwood). Munro’s collection “Who Do You Think You Are?” was retitled “The Beggar Maid” for the American audience, which cannot detect so instantly the self-doubting contempt that surrounds us. The Canadian ear hears that question everywhere: It’s the question the land asks as much as your family.

The most hilarious mistake—one originated, I believe, by Cynthia Ozick but continued in regular intervals by New Yorker writers—is comparing Munro to Chekhov. As if Munro were anything like that warm-hearted humanist, with his compassion in full flight over the whole of humanity, and the taste of champagne on his dying lips. It’s a testament to the residual sexism of the idea of the goodness of women. Munro takes her characters and reduces them to their encounter with the futility, denudes them. She is will to power, the will to power of Wingham, Ontario, in which everyone can be taken down a notch. The purer the will to power, the better the story.


Canadian literature has always known this about itself: It is on the edge, either on the edge of America or on the edge of the wilderness. Survival, Frye’s essays, The Double Hook, Bear, A Bird in the House, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz—they are the most Canadian works exactly because they are so concentrated on the relationship between the city, with all its metropolitan pressures, and the wild, with its infinite vastness. And this Canadian in-betweenness, inevitably, almost organically, produces a willful marginality. Canadiana is inherently twee. The most epic of countries has failed to produce any literary epics.

Politically, Canada’s willful marginality takes the form of panvictimology—the conflation of historical suffering with righteousness and the development of those hierarchies of suffering into hierarchies of value. It is a direct inheritance of the Christian ideal of suffering as virtue, imbued with postcolonial identity politics and just enough Marxism not to be violent about it. F., the French-Canadian homosexual from Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, summed it up succinctly: “The English did to us what we did to the Indians, and the Americans did to the English what the English did to us. I demanded revenge for everyone.” Panvictimology is the most enduring legacy of Canadian literature. A recent example: Canada Reads, in their latest contest, has acknowledged that they’re looking for “books that can change perspectives, challenge stereotypes and illuminate issues.” They are not looking for good books but virtuous books, “books to break barriers.” Philip Roth famously said that literature isn’t a moral beauty pageant. In Canada, it often is.

The second wave of Canadian literature—the hyphenated literatures and the regional literatures, which are properly the subject for another essay—was, at least in its initial impulse, a flight to the margins. The panvictimology is a widening gyre: Whose voice has not spoken? Who has suffered most? Despite drawing from a multicultural and multiregional reality of dizzying complexity, that second wave retained the core principles of the earlier, whiter, English Canadian literary tropes. The immigrant stories, which are told as epics everywhere else, are intimate delicate domestic miniatures here.

The native writers are the foremost exception to the standard tropes of Canadian literature which have subsumed every ethnicity as it arrives—fully the exceptions that prove the rule. Joseph Boyden is an epic writer. He possesses a vision of Canadian life as a maelstrom rather than a victimology. Comic subversion of the traditional Canadian narrative is another form of resistance. In the title story from Thomas King’s brilliant collection A Short History of Indians in Canada, concerned citizens go through Toronto collecting the bodies of Indians who have flown into skyscrapers at night. Instead of a metropolis huddled against the wilderness, as in every other Canadian story, there is the wilderness shattered by the metropolis, with a frisson of the deepest nostalgia: “In the old days, when they came through, they would black out the entire sky.”


And then there is Michael Ondaatje, who was perhaps the first post-nationalist Canadian writer. Ondaatje is Canadian in his preoccupations and in his instincts—He too looks for the victim to cherish and obsesses over settings. (The English Patient is a collection of wounded people in a series of glamorous settings: an Italian villa, the desert, etc.) Ondaatje traded the lake for ocean though, a writer of Empire rather than nation. His aesthetic shows the potential of the multicultural imagination—Western movies, Singhalese poetry, avant-garde theories fused into magnificent syntheses of history and symbol.

Canada can only be tangential to Ondaatje’s writing, exactly because he requires an historical wealth of meaning for his symbolic fusions to breathe. His most original and his bravest work have nothing to do with Canada; they run into the heart of America. In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter he dives, respectively, into the American West and the origins of jazz. His Canadianness can best be understood as a frame for viewing the rest of the world. In “Bessie Smith at Roy Thomson Hall,” a kind of postscript to Coming Through Slaughter, or at least it is to me, the singer is surprised, and brutally disappointed, by her location: “She had applied for one concert – that she was allowed each sabbatical – to take place in Havana. Palms! Oh Pink Walls! Cuba! she would hum to herself, dazzling within the clouds. But here she was.” Later Charlie Green is allowed to join her “to apologize for Toronto.”

Ondaatje understands his position: Toronto is a good city to comfort other people’s ghosts; it is an amazing place from which to see. This is the lesson those of us who live in the aftermath of Canadian literature must learn.


All Canadian writers are working in the aftermath of the 1965-1970 period. And yet despite its vast power, Canadian literature, as a national project, has failed. Canada still lacks myths. Ordinary Canadians still know almost nothing of their history, and what they do know they know less as identifying narratives than as curiosities. The bizarre idea that Canadian history is boring still has wide purchase, despite its contradiction by the facts. Canadian military history alone is full of battles against great odds—The Dieppe Raid, the entirety of the War of 1812. Any country in the world ought to be proud of that history. Nobody cares. Outside of a miniscule circle, nobody cares about Riel either.

This lack of self-defining narratives has real-life consequences. I remember the strange spectacle of the Toronto version of Occupy Wall Street. Wandering through their encampment in Allen Gardens, which was a near perfect replica of the New York version down to the drum circles, the slogans, the human microphone, I wondered, stupidly, what they thought they were going to achieve. Our bankers had behaved responsibly. Our bankers had acted, and our government had forced them to act, in the way the protestors in New York were begging their American counterparts to follow. The Canadian Occupiers made all the same gestures as Americans, divorced from the specificity of their existence.

Years later, there were protests for Travyon Martin in Toronto, while nobody protested the twelve hundred Indian women who had disappeared in the previous decade. If we knew our history, our extensive history of the deliberate starvation of the native populations, maybe we would. But that would require actual knowledge about ourselves and our criminal history. Before we can critique ourselves we must celebrate ourselves. But Canadians would rather dress themselves in the righteousness of non-Americanness. We are more aware of the problems of our neighbours than our own.

There are also economic consequences to the residual effects of colonization. In the Garrison mentality, the masters of the institutions are gatekeepers. They do not build; they exclude. This is as true for tech companies as it is for publishers. Canadians use the word innovation only because they’ve heard it elsewhere and feel that they should follow suit. “The Americans are innovating; we should get some innovation up here.”  

Fifty years of struggle have not solved the problem of the colonial mentality. Our current government, to take only the most obvious example, has pegged us as hewers of wood and drawers of water. And yet the crisis of Canadian identity has largely, though unsatisfyingly, been solved: The Charter is a clear and affirmative statement of national values; the threat of Quebec separatism has retreated. Our current political debates are almost strictly economic—how much tax should be raised and what it should be spent on. Who needs a literature under those circumstances?


Where does that leave those of us who remain? Those who write in Canada but are not necessarily Canadian writers?

In many ways we are returning to the preoccupations that predated the arrival of Canadian literature as a national force. There are again a bunch of kids looking for access, congregated on websites this time rather around printing presses. At least we can no longer claim that we are haunted by a lack of ghosts. We have our ghosts and soon-to-be ghosts now. Canadian literature has given us the burden and the gift of ancestors. Indeed, Canadian writers are roughly in the position that Canadian artists found themselves in at the end of the period defined by the Group of Seven and Emily Carr. It’s a tough act to follow.

But the end of Canadian literature may also be a reprieve. For as this admittedly cursory look over its mechanisms show, Canadian literature was primarily a response to twin oppressions; the oppression from the American metropolises and the oppression of the wilderness. Losing those anxieties can only be a release.

Canadian writing, after Canadian literature, will be more American or more global, depending on what you want to call it—they amount to the same thing. The cosmopolitan urge is not a luxury for Canadian writers as it is for Americans or the English; it’s a requirement. The writers who find themselves in Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal and Halifax must look elsewhere; they are already elsewhere in spirit. But this doesn’t necessarily mean those writers will be less Canadian. New York is crammed with Canadian writers whom nobody there even realizes are Canadian but who remain very Canadian to themselves. The career of Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, has progressed through taking a Canadian perspective on American society and business without mentioning the Canadianness of the perspective. Our place is on the margins but not of the margins. It is a privileged place to be from. We are the spies from nowhere.

Another potential opportunity is a new inwardness. A Canadian literature which is American in a Continental sense, which possesses an understanding of Canada not as a reaction to forces outside of its control but as a being in and of itself, would be both a liberation from and a fulfillment of the promises of the Canadian literature of the 1960s. Instinctive anti-Americanism and the terror of the land have kept us from looking at ourselves as ourselves. Canada is beautiful and terrible and new. And the terrible beauty of this new country we inhabit has barely been spoken.

“Until it has been praised, that part has not been.” Is it possible that Canadian literature has not yet begun?


STEPHEN MARCHE is the author, most recently, of The Hunger of the Wolf and is a columnist at Esquire.