Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction
$19.95; paper, 262 pp.
by Jeff Bursey
There’s only so much media oxygen in this country. Or, to borrow an image that Terry Rigelhof uses…, there are only so many seats on the bus.
Here’s a piece of propaganda for Saint Mary’s University in Halifax:
Leaving aside the central image of the woman, what you notice is the placement of the types: diggers (science) at the front, athletes occupying the bulk of the seats in the middle and near the back, with readers (arts) relegated to the seats over the engine or near the toilet. A grassy sward (juxtaposed with ground disturbed by labour) serves notice that a humanities degree is dead last when it comes to ambition and getting ahead.
That photograph relates to Alex Good’s excoriation of Canada’s tiny national literary scene. Throughout Revolutions he describes how the novel first became a text and is now a commodity that possesses no greater value than Pez dispensers. This isn’t how we were taught to regard whatever preceded the literary Golden Age that featured the arrival of an assembly of saints named Margaret, Alice, Margaret again, Robertson, Michael, Leonard, Mordecai, and a few others whose reputations are routinely dusted and polished in the threadbare book review sections of newspapers, dissertations, and journals. What followed the Blessed Few are, in Good’s word, “epigones,” (50) lesser followers who begat further generations of epigones, and so on for the foreseeable future.
David Adams Richards further blackens the dreary picture by denigrating a person who reads—Good distills this view in his overview of the new Senator’s novel The Lost Highway—as a “smug, sanctimonious hypocrite [who] wastes his time reading… and scheming how to ruin other people’s lives in the name of various progressive, secular causes—feminism, Native rights, the environment, whatever—decked out in the dude-ish intellectual uniform of sandals and a corduroy jacket.” (115) Though he doesn’t share Richards’ view, Good is not optimistic about the present and future states of Canadian literature except in one particular and unvarying way: the energy he expends laying out his arguments signals that he may harbour more hope than he admits.
Revolutions comprises the following chapters: “Introduction”; “Shackled to a Corpse: The Long, Long Shadow of CanLit”; “New Solitudes I: Douglas Coupland”; “New Solitudes 2: David Adams Richards”; “Looking Backwards: The 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize”; “Killing the Beaver: Reading the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize”; “Fables of Identity”; “Filling the Lifeboats”; and “The Digital Apocalypse.” For several years Good edited Canadian Notes & Queries where some of these thoughts initially appeared –it’s frustrating that there’s no indication where the content first appeared, and that there’s no index—and that provided him a venue to speak on literary matters. (Disclosure #1: I’ve reviewed for CNQ under Good and his successor, Emily Donaldson, who copy-edited Revolutions.) For his willingness to take on authors, other critics, and academics, while allowing sufficient space for their own words—plentiful rope for hanging—Good deserves our attention and respect. I’m going to take some time to discuss his contribution to what, in the best of all words, would become a national literary debate, and while it’s doubtful that will occur, it will do no good not to push for such a dialogue.
The Introduction’s first sentence states: “The fundamental challenge facing literature in the twenty-first century is its need to find—somehow, somewhere—an audience.” (9) This is not promising for what may follow and is also inaccurate. Right now, as in the future and in the past, what must be found first is the right set of words, followed by another set, and so on through to the completion of the novel, short story, poem, play, and so on. When that’s done the most important work is over. Only then does the search start for an audience. Focusing on the consumer end is at odds with the support for aesthetics that runs throughout this book.
A little further in Good establishes a better groove while discussing the declining tendency on the part of the citizenry to read anything. “Instead, what I find of most concern and significance is the rise in aliteracy, the growth of a population that can read but simply doesn’t want to.” (11) This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it received pseudo-philosophical gravitas thanks to Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007). Like other professors, Bayard didn’t have the time or inclination to read every title he was expected to so he concentrated on a different aspect connected to writing. From there, Good moves on to academics generally who, “for no good reason whatsoever, are expected to publish a great deal of stuff that nobody—and I mean nobody—reads.” (13) To get tenure professors must publish, and once tenured they have to keep producing. They are often unable to read new material since they teach in rotation the same handful of courses, and if they’re in an English department they could easily have one or two that contain several novels each. Their time is spent largely re-reading Middlemarch or Dracula. A few don’t put in that much effort, as Good discovered thanks to Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: “‘Look, I don’t care if everybody stops reading literature,’ she blurted.’” (15) That’s from a “‘hypereducated, highly paid teacher, a steward of literary tradition entrusted to impart the value of literature to students…’” (15)
When it comes to reading new books, Canadian critics aren’t much better as a whole. Russell Smith “attacked the  shortlist for that year’s Scotiabank Giller prize on the grounds of its being characterized by ‘ecstatically lauded, good-for-you Canadian books… that you can’t bear to even begin.’” (17) True to his word, Smith didn’t read any of the books he essentially said were too earnest and message-driven. Good recounts a story from his past:
Sticking with Giller-nominees, in 2003 M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall made the shortlist and a review copy duly appeared at the office of the mid-size newspaper I was then writing for. When my editor attempted to pass it off on me I reacted as I think any sensible person would: there was no way they were paying me enough to read that. Nor was I the only one to have such a reaction. None of the hardcore readers who regularly contributed to the newspaper’s book section—and we had a full stable at the time—had the slightest interest in cracking those covers. (19-20)
When critics refuse to read a book even for money that says something. To his credit, Good doesn’t duck from showing himself in a dim light; when considered, the sharp-witted comment accentuates his dereliction of duty.
John Metcalf, one of Good’s few touchstones, is cited for his belief that few Canadian writers read their compatriots. Smith shows that can be the case, and to his example Good adds Geoff Dyer and Philip Roth. In a different vein, Chad Pelley attested in Atlantic Books Today that writers do watch what’s being said about them: “We readers are talking more than you think we are about your articles.”1 (Talking about and learning from are very different.) While known as a booster of Canadian literature primarily from the Atlantic region, Pelley exhibits a closed-circuit mind-set where the words of certain people matter: “Why do I care what some critic I dunno thought? And what’s exciting about reading a review for a book I haven’t read?”2
As the Introduction proceeds, the list of those ignoring the literary culture increases. Here’s Douglas Glover’s take on the state of literary culture: “‘I am fairly sure now that a lot of editors don’t read.’” (23) Prize jurors are no more dedicated than the previous classes. “Other jurors have publicly admitted to only reading the first couple of chapters” (24) of the hundred or more books they are asked to adjudicate. Then there is the CBC’s inadvertently hilarious Canada Reads. Their panels have included Stephen Lewis, Samantha Bee, and Donovan Bailey, who admit they don’t read, or read much, literature. You might ask how such people form “a national book club.” (24) My guess is that since they don’t represent the literati, then they come closer to being colourful and offbeat. (The 2018 team is made up of two musicians, a fashion commentator, an actor, a journalist, a short-story writer, and a storm chaser. The only thing that would make this lineup worse would be the inclusion of a librarian.) “Alas, these modern aliterates I’ve been talking about […] are the professionals! That is, eminent literate people who can’t even be paid to read! What, given this culture of cynicism and indifference, this great closing of the literate mind, is the point of trying to instill a passion for Canadian writing among the masses?” (26)
Good points out that there aren’t any critical books he can name “dedicated to contemporary Canadian fiction,” (27) whereas critical engagements with poetry are numerous, and he mentions the efforts of Zach Wells, Carmine Starnino, and others who have written “first-rate, non-academic collections of essays…” (Disclosure #2: Good reviewed my Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews that contains a section on Canadian writers, but is mostly about marginal figures from other countries.) He maintains that it’s “next to impossible to find people willing to be able to read enough contemporary Canadian fiction to be able to comment on it,” (27) that “[m]uch of the literary commentary and criticism in this country is cheerleading in an empty, run-down stadium long after the crowd have left to go home,” (35) and that he’s possibly embarrassed “when honoured guests of this nation who have been invited to serve on prize juries publicly mock the lack of humour in our fiction, our risk-averse, grant-greedy authors, or our predilection for [historical works]…” (36) Here he’s diagnosing our national malaise. To my mind, in addition to aliteracy and willful ignorance, there is in writers a combination of singular purpose (I have my own writing to do, I’m not going to waste energy commenting on what others do), a fear of pissing off people who will one day sit on those juries or grant-administering bodies judging your work, and the distaste caused by antagonizing writers we know and like. This can lead to criticism that’s inconsequential, boring, poorly written, and useless to reader and writer.
It’s likely Good has received letters of complaint from authors who have seen their years of artistry consigned, in 600 or 1,000 words, to a garbage bin and, in a fit of anger, choose to object. He must had some strained face-to-face conversations, at the very least. (Rebecca Rosenblum, in a July 2017 blog post titled “Reviews aren’t for authors; or, cry on your own time,” says: “if the best thing I have ever done, which I spent years of my life doing, did not impress you, I don’t think you’ll enjoy my restaurant recommendations or stories about my cat.”3) Not have been on the receiving end of a rory-eyed rant would indicate a truly serious numbness on the part of the subject of a review. Yet we need much more bracing criticism, and someone has to remind authors that the world doesn’t cater to them. Rosenblum’s post contains useful suggestions on the reception of criticism:
Anyone I have ever seen come aboard of a reviewer about a review of their own work has come off sounding pretty pathetic, even if the review was in fact poorly reasoned or poorly written or both. Basically, it doesn’t say much about our faith in our own work if we can’t let others speak freely about it, even if the wider group of “others” occasionally includes some morons. Trust that the truth will out. Or don’t. Find a cat. Write a very long blog post. Even better: write another book. Leave the reviewers alone—they’re working hard too.
Revolutions convincingly argues that most reviewers aren’t working hard enough—“Canadian literary criticism is in a rut, to be sure, but what makes it worse is the fact that we’re still digging” (223)—and that writers aren’t lining up to receive commentary on their works. In “Filling the Lifeboats” Good cites Michael Lista on the repercussions faced if you speak honestly: “And so after only a few months, I was face to face with the dilemma of the Canadian poet-critic: bullshit your way to the top, or real talk your way to the bottom… And you don’t get to fulminate in the white-shoe real estate for long before the insular, interbred village of Canadian poets pulls out the pitchforks, feathers and tar.” (232-233)
Good’s lively, contrarian spirit will be off-putting if you’re accustomed to back-slapping, obsequious appraisals that are plot summaries mixed with a few words about this or that character and an unsubstantiated line or two on sensitivity of the writing. That mixture is no substitute for an examination of language use and an interrogation into how an author works out ideas on the structural level. But that’s aesthetics, which is considered superannuated. Instead, we have cultural politics, and that brings us to Good’s second chapter.
“Shackled to a Corpse: The Long, Long Shadow of CanLit” starts with Alice Munro withdrawing, in 2009, her story collection Too Much Happiness from Giller contention, with Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood later doing the same. A theme announces itself, that “Munro’s act of noblesse oblige was simply accepted for what it was: a recognition of the foregone conclusion that, with her in the race, no younger Canadian writer (and, given that Munro was seventy-eight years old, the field of ‘younger writers’ was rather large), would have had much of a chance.” (46) It goes in-depth on Good’s conviction that “we are now living at the end of the long twilight of our most enduring literary myth: that of a Canadian Literary Establishment, product of a Golden Age of Canadian writing that began in the 1960s and ’70s.” (47) Via pertinent quotations from Steven Henighan, David Helwig, W.J. Keith, Coupland, and others, Good shows that the myth props up the “elite” (50) who flourished in the wonder years and are keen to retain their reputations and seats at the best table. “It’s when an establishment member’s reputation is openly manufactured and managed by sources presumed to be independent—in particular, voices in the media and the academy—that the rot sets in. For example, the once-essential matter of whether a book is any good or not […]” (51) is abandoned, and that leads to “what today passes for literary criticism.” (51)
From the author, and his/her death, we move to “the Atwood Machine” (55) in Lorraine York’s Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity where the “notion that individual authors are creative geniuses is dismissed” (55) and replaced by “corporate art.” (55) Arguing against remarks by Keith, Good says: “The idea that in Canada the gerontocracy of the Golden Generation were producing their best work into the twenty-first century is, I think, patently ridiculous.” (61) Keith is an example of a critic-academic who seems blind to writers born after 1980, but in fairness, publishers and book review editors are little better. “Better to hunker down with the classics than try to innovate or renew,” (62) sighs Good, before embarking on giving “Canada’s two best-established brands a second chance […],” (62) specifically Atwood’s The Blind Assassin— “one of the dullest books I have ever read” (63)—and Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. After glossing several passages from that novel, Good concludes this way: “You have to have been dead for a long time, or at least not have read any fiction published in the last thirty years, to not realize just how far removed this [Ondaatje’s prose] is from anything that could pass for contemporary prose.” Then comes the true sting: “It would probably have seemed precious in the 1950s.” (69) By 2000, when these books were published, Atwood and Ondaatje were “semi-divine” (69) figures that were “too big to fail.” (69) It’s not that Good dislikes everything these two have written; rather, he believes they’ve been around too long, sustained by their earlier successes and propped up by the slackness of current criticism.
An irritating and vexing question, as bothersome now as it was in the early 1980s when the Atwood et al crowded curricula and bookstands, is broached by Good, albeit in slightly different words: What can younger generations of writers do to escape the shadow of the Titans? The “old guard” (76) won’t be removed by academic and popular criticism thanks, in part, to the “cult of critical gentility that reacts with savagery against tall-poppy loppers, denying space on principle to any ‘negative’ voices challenging the status quo […].” (76) All that’s left is satire. The examples given—among others, Nathan Whitlock’s A Week of This and André Alexis’ A—come across as insufficiently irreverent and disruptive. When Good asks of the literary treatment given the Atwood and Ondaatje in those disgruntled satires “Are these caricatures fair?,” (81), then goes on to say that that “doesn’t matter” (81) because if “you feel like you’re living under a tyranny then you’ll write like you’re living under a tyranny, and the tyranny is thus made real,” (81) he pushes, perhaps unwittingly, into a sanitized hypothetical universe the desire on the part of a few to poke even the mildest fun at the Establishment.
“What in another age would have been described as truth would today be called caricature, or satire,” Wyndham Lewis wrote in Rude Assignment4, and in Revolutions Good is speaking about how certain people have an iron grip on their decades-long elevated positions. While it’s one of a number of respectable position, as he says, to not be “in complete agreement with the window-breakers and bomb-throwers of the Occupy CanLit movement” (81)—does such a movement actually exist?—his retreat from a number of assertive (or aggressive) statements is baffling. On an important level, “feel like” is as legitimate a plane to exist on as any other. Good appears to deny to others a felt reality by saying that, to him, they live, write, read, and compete in only an apparently real world. We may be disagreeing on a nuance, but his caricature question is thoroughly Canadian in its gentility—caricatures are designed to be abrasive, disrespectful, and even hurtful—and it does a disservice to the conclusion of this chapter: “The gerontocracy of the Golden Generation has made a wasteland and called it a legacy […]. Those in positions of power are cultural climate-change deniers, people with no interest in renewal or innovation.” (88) It reads like a good way to end the chapter, but since he backed away from, so to speak, revolutionary talk a few pages earlier these sentiments ring a bit hollow, as if Good had frightened himself. In my opinion we need more rudeness, more literary vandalism, if it’s in concert with innovation and originality.
“Looking Backward: The 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize” and “Killing the Beaver: Reading the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize” are valuable for their evaluations of the many titles that were in competition each year from Ondaatje, Elizabeth Hay, Joseph Orenda, Lisa Moore, Lynn Coady, Craig Davidson, and others. There is talk of the “Giller People” and the “Giller Books,” (155) and both look to be real things. We see the serious problem that exists with jury selection in 2007: “Such a narrow consistency in the jury, aside from giving rise to obvious conflicts of interest (among the most glaring being jurist Alistair MacLeod awarding the prize to David Adams Richards after Richards had dedicated his previous book to MacLeod, and Michael Winter giving the award to a book whose author thanked him in its acknowledgements), has led to a consistency of results that has not gone unobserved by critics.” (126)
In addition to that rich vein which Good exposes for examination, there is a wealth of insights, many circling back to Ondaatje’s stylistic failures once again on display in Divisadero—“writing sodden with clichéd figures, settings, and positions […]. They don’t call them nurse novels for nothing” (135)—Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song—“whole pages of dull, expository wallpaper relating information of no significance whatsoever, telling us everything and nothing” (139)—and what comprises the “‘Giller-bait’ novel (143): “Giller-bait novels are very serious books emphasizing history and geography, generally without any sense of humour, and written in a vague, pseudo-poetically lush and highbrow style.” (139)
The theme of how much history is present in the 2013 entries in the Giller prize serves as a springboard for Good on how Canadian writers define themselves, as discussed in “Fables of Identity.” Writing about An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English (Oxford University Press), edited by Donna Bennett and Russell Brown, Good interprets how the editors chose who got in. “What makes an author worth studying, what marks them as having something to say, is their handling of identity.” (219) Example after example follows of how the “multi-culti credentials” (219) of each author are ostentatiously laid out. For example, Rudy Wiebe’s “‘religious background’” (223) is emphasized, and this “allows one to concentrate on what he has to say about Mennonite identity without worrying over difficult aesthetic judgements. Thinking of literature in such terms makes it easier for lazy students (and teachers) to deal with.” (223) We know that Good prefers the best writing over anything else, so it’s refreshing to read: “And so time and again the Oxford authors are pimped out as representing marginalized, ‘authentic’ groups endangered by a homogenous, hegemonic, factitious ‘establishment’ culture. The result of forcing everything into this mould is to booby trap any literary discussion.” (221) How can you criticize X without coming off as a racist, or something equally offensive? At the least you’ll appear insensitive. That’s no concern of Good’s, nor should it be. Writing is a racket like any other, but we could try to recognize the most aesthetically pleasing work we come across. Excluded from this anthology are Eric Ormsby, Douglas Glover, and Mark Anthony Jarman, as well as liveliness and humour. “The end result is a book grimly representative of its time and place—and I don’t mean Canada in 2011[…]. Who actually reads these settler narratives anyway?” (222)
“Filling the Lifeboats” looks into Anthologizing Canadian Literature, edited by Robert Lecker, and the previously broached topic of popular criticism versus specialized commentary; literary critics more often write the first, literary theorists the second, and they speak different languages. For Good, such anthologies are “manifestations of power” (228) as they capture what certain people state is important for others to read. He finds the articles on anthologizing in Lecker’s book lacking basic material: considerations of (or even references to) recently published and in-the-news science, fantasy, poetry, and fiction anthologies. The purpose of this anthology is not to speak to the Canadian public, then, but, according to Lecker, “‘to serve curricular communities rather than a broader reading audience.’” (231) Good calls out academics as “enablers of privilege and the status quo,” (231) and sees their pernicious influence as propping up the Establishment. That they don’t like or respect anthologies, let alone read them unless forced—we’re back to Bayard—shows their almost complete separation from public readers. “The bottom line is that today’s academics aren’t involved in contemporary Canadian literary culture, while those who are doing the vital work of criticism are essentially volunteers.” (235) It’s well known that many academics regard book reviewing as unimportant compared to getting articles or monographs published, for that’s where scholarship exists, and that’s what the department head notices. Reviews are meant for MA and PhD students to tackle, and their quality will be variable. But thank goodness for them.
As with the Bennett and Brown anthology, Lecker’s values “quantitative research, the notion of cultural capital, and violence” (239) above “textual analysis and value judgments (I mean judgments of literary value […]).” (239) It’s not only that it’s risky to discriminate between good, bad, and in between writing—you might be wrong and that will go down in posterity—but also that, in the minds of some, such discrimination is passé. Consider the words of Christl Verduyn from the Foreword to New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East,5 a collection of articles by like-minded academics. She writes that their book “illustrates a contemporary shift in Canadian literary studies toward broader, multidisciplinary—in this context, non-literary—critical approaches” (vii-viii). This group is “rethinking Canadian literary studies” (viii-ix) in the slowly swelling Canadian context:
Canadian literary criticism was animated anew by postcolonial theory and its concepts of the subaltern, the uncanny, the unhomely, the haunted, the liminal, the spectral, ambivalence, and hybridity […]. As the new millennium advanced, the impact of globalization, transnationalism, or transculturalism on Canadian literary studies emerged as another critical focus—and another instance of opening the field of literature to different critical approaches. (xiii)
Good writes that “literary merit” (239) is old-fashioned, but he also chimes in with Verduyn and Lecker when he writes that “how well a piece of writing illustrates questions of identity politics” (240) is more vital for it to be considered than its literary quality. There is grim satisfaction in Good’s tone when he states that anthologies are “destined for the rendering plant of history” (242) thanks to the Internet and Google. The lifeboat of his title is then brought into play, as the occupants—all academics—are pictured fighting over scarcer and scarcer resources in the terminology of this and that new theory, oblivious to the imminent tidal wave coming to swamp them.
“New Solitudes 1: Douglas Coupland” and “New Solitudes 2: David Adams Richards” are about more than their titles suggest. Near the end of the second piece Good writes:
[…] the anger found in both Coupland and Richards is a testament to their sense of exclusion, the abiding grudge they’ve held against the Establishment, and their call for an aesthetic revolt against the powers-that-be. That they are also two of Canada’s most successful contemporary novelists, commercially and (at least in the case of Richards) critically, says a lot about how the dead hand of CanLit’s founding generation […] has continued to shape and, I would argue, deform the current landscape […]. What really unites the two is the way they cast themselves in the role of leader of the opposition to the cultural hegemony of the “Greatest Generation,” and their determined revolt against elites. (123)
For a second time Good reflects on what his book’s title refers to when he maintains that Coupland mounted an “urban and modern” attack against the hierarchy while Richards “look[ed] in the opposite direction […]” (124) How what is, essentially, angry hectoring can qualify as a revolution is insufficiently explained, for a revolution by definition is all-or-nothing. When Good designates their efforts as “a revolt” (124) he retreats from his first position. But I can’t imagine that even reduced expectations matter much since there’s been no “synthesis or even gradual assimilation of the models” (124) devised by these two polar opposites in the world of CanLit, no rallies or shock troops fomenting discord under either banner. “Still, one can’t give in to despair,” (44) he says in his introduction, airing a quintessential Canadian attitude that will never be a rallying cry.
It doesn’t help the revolutionary impulse that Coupland’s works aren’t literary dynamite. While his writing has never attracted me on the level of style, there’s no denying his inventiveness at coining catchphrases. Not being in favour of going back to childhood for any reason, the juvenile/sophomoric entities (are they attempts at characters or deep analysis of a very narrow sort of person?) in his work leave me uninterested. But that stagnation could be what made him successful “both domestically and as an international brand, […] his denial not only of an adult past but an adult present.” (94) What Good calls “the failure to fully come into being” (95) will have its fans and detractors. Dwelling on the musings of a typical irritating half-adult/half-child character, he asks: “Where, for example, does Coupland draw the line between wonder and imbecility?” (97-98) That very same set of contrasts has enamored some readers: “A penchant for infantile epiphanies underscores Coupland’s profound limitations as a writer but also goes a long way to explaining his mass appeal. For high-school students and kidults of all ages his books offer a warm sense of protection from the world of adult experience.” (99) From there it’s not such a large step to the kind of reader who could helped create a marketplace where J.K. Rowling’s wizards and “Chick Lit” (95) dominated publishers’ lists. The radical Coupland never managed to transform from an orator in a town square, amusing the not-quite-adult audience as they munched on oversized chocolate chip cookies downed with miniature marshmallow-laced hot chocolate into a vital subversive leading other writers burning with zeal to purposeful, sustained, and successful guerilla attacks against the Establishment. In this piece, Good uses one writer’s focus on writing about characters that hardly ever evolve to examine revolutionary failure.
David Adams Richards is Coupland’s polar opposite, in Good’s mind, and he approaches him by first citing fiction writer, academic, and translator Stephen Henighan on “the no-name NAFTA novel” (106) that avoids being trapped in Canada whereas, in Henighan’s mind, novels with “‘local detail’” will yield “‘artistic innovation’” and be sources of “‘universal resonance.’” (106) Good then provides a rather off-putting set of comparisons: Vancouver wants to be Los Angeles, Toronto craves to be New York City, while the “foreign nation of Quebec” has no U.S. counterpart. As for points east: “Newfoundland and the Maritimes have, in this new geography, become the Canadian equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha: a mythic, economically backward yet stubbornly proud region where people talk funny and live by a set of timeless moral codes.” (107) Good links Henighan with Richards through the latter’s proud assertion that “‘…most Maritimers worth their salt sympathize with the south.’” (107)
Richards, as may be gleaned from a quotation at the opening of this review, is a conservative man who has local history always before him (possibly occluding his vision). Persistent nostalgia—a kind of historical fiction, in keeping with Giller books—is a resinous trap. “Richards is Canada’s greatest nineteenth-century novelist,” (108) Good proclaims, a thinker and a stylist who avoids or condemns the use of contemporary speech and the urbane in favour of regionalism and rurality. Embodying Henighan’s fantasy, “Richards follows the regional mandate to find universal resonance in local detail.” (108) That mandate would be tilted against the so-called NAFTA novel (and probably novels influenced by cosmopolitan U.S. and European writers), so, for Good, Richards’s revolution is one “of place: the backwoods vs. the urban center, East vs. West, physical labour vs. the service sector, rednecks vs. city slickers who go to tanning salons, the people (locals) vs. those people (the type who don’t, and never will, belong).” (108) Since there’s no avoiding the Other or the ways of the Other, that might be why he is, in Good’s phrase, the “Angriest Man in Canada” (109) and the author of “didactic melodramas [that] allow for no moral ambiguity.” (109) When he enters the Senate, Richards will experience a steady diet of non-regional and Other thinking and encounter many shades of gray. If he makes speeches, they may be worth mining by literary and other critics.
As a novelist, “Richards leaves nothing to interpretation, or work for the reader to do at all.” (109) This explains part of his popularity. Many readers look for an escape from the complexities of the real world. If everything is explained, you experience the benefit of having your positions confirmed without danger of new thoughts disturbing your ways. Characters who remind you of yourself, or your parents or grand-parents (i.e., ‘people’ you can identify with) help the reading zip along. Rightly, Good finds this unacceptable. In a lovely analysis of The Bay of Love and Sorrows (note that the second outnumber the former; after all, this is Atlantic Canada) Good enumerates, with a fair amount of good humour, the literary crimes Richards commits. “What more of a sign do you want,” he asks at one point, “than a swallow sent by God and a golden splash of light? Well, how about Tommie feeling ‘a kind of light throbbing from the heavens’ when he speaks to Karrie.” (113) If you’re feeling blue about your job or a former lover, then read the four pages Good devotes to Richards’ bankrupt thinking and atrocious writing. I will demur, however, on one point. When Good writes that “[o]ur Hardy has turned into our Solzhenitsyn,” (115) he is making a common mistake shared by critics of the Russian writer who choose not to see that his works display courage, ability, experimentalism (of the Modernist kind, though he was temperamentally opposed to Modernism’s effects on his country), tonal modification, range of thought, and ease in a variety of urban, rural, political, social, military, and medical backgrounds.
“And so, rejecting all notions of progress, Richards’s dominant tone is elegiac, his novels full of brooding over ruined tombstones in county churchyards.” (116) As he develops his criticism, Good revises his declaration that Richards is a 19th century novelist and now classifies him as a “medieval-minded” (119) author who despises mortal planning but glorifies the designs of God. “Perhaps if he had only written a couple of novels with the restraint of his early domestic drama Nights Below Station Street, Richards would be easier to think of as an important writer. But he has kept going, beating his antique drum and proclaiming from the hilltops his outraged righteousness.” (120) Good connects Richards’ war against progressives and city dwellers, and his defence of “eternal, conservative values,” (122) with similar works from the hands of Coady, Alistair MacLeod, and Ken Harvey. The revolution Richards wanted never occurred—Good alternates, as he did with Coupland, between that word and the possibly more accurate, if of limited application, “revolt” (124)—and the Maritimes (but not its cities) stand as “the last preserve of traditional virtues and moral order.” (124) It’s a hopeless, bleak, and impoverished stance.
Unsurprisingly, Revolutions has received few reviews. Many factors determine if a book will be talked about in newspapers and journals: apathy, a book’s noteworthiness, the prestige of the author and his or her connections to the literary world, the timeliness of the subject, when the book came out (if it’s a year or more since its publication its chances are poor), if a venue’s audience expects the book to be reviewed, if the book will be popular, if the book is too popular, the taste and gender of the author and editor, the enthusiasm of the reviewer, and if the publisher will send out review copies. A book can be smothered by mediocre responses and, perhaps in Good’s case, a desire to ignore the overwhelming stench of the dead corpse of “the Monsters of CanLit […].” (88) Biting comments and idol wrecking can be interpreted as assaults on a system that benefits the few and as harmful to national self-esteem, let alone to the critics who, on the evidence, aren’t doing their duty to literature and to readers.
In Revolutions, Good faults Robert Wiersema for being one of many “enablers” (203) of the positive reception to the bad writing found in Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio, and for being a “typical” (204) critic who too easily compares Winter with Hemingway and Carver. The Toronto Star offered Wiersema the chance to review Good’s book, with predictable, and revealing, results. Instead of focusing on the ideas that fill the 263 pages, Wiersema, displaying pricked pride, spends an inordinate portion of his limited space arguing with Good’s characterization of him. An aspect of the review accidentally underlines what’s missing in Canadian literary criticism: toughness. Wiersema in one breath states that Revolutions is “a tremendously powerful, if occasionally overwhelming reading experience,”6 and in the next admits that it is a book “of significant value for anyone with even the slightest interest in Canadian writing.” Here’s how he sees Good (and how he wants readers to see Good): “one of Canada’s foremost literary iconoclasts”; “Like all great revolutionary polemicists, Good is given to hyperbole and a refusal to see any middle ground…”; “There is also, it has to be said, considerable pleasure in these essays, in watching a cantankerous Quixote at full throttle.”
Wiersema appears unaware of how authors and their works are regularly treated in London Review of Books and, on occasion, the Times Literary Supplement. The giveaway words are iconoclast, hyperbole, and cantankerous Quixote. Calling Revolutions “overwhelming” actually shores up Good’s contribution to the literary conversation. Wiersema has become so used to the pablum that passes for criticism in our country that he needs smelling salts. He can’t both praise Good for the importance of “…this sort of spirited opposition… [that’s] been lacking in Canadian letters” and at the same time depict him as a deranged, Romantic old coot who lards his forlorn case with extravagances without raising questions about his own critical approach—the very points Good made in the passages he quoted that perturbed Wiersema so much. The use of the word hyperbole functions as an internal checking mechanism; its presence means that bridge party sensibilities have been mocked, and that’s just not tolerable. We desperately need hyperbole when the alternative is often useless praise. It sends a signal a good few authors won’t receive otherwise.
Stan Persky’s blog post, “Desperately Seeking Readers,” addresses some of the main points of Revolutions. Here’s his opening line: “Literary critic Alex Good’s acerbic collection of essays on contemporary Canadian fiction—which he doesn’t appear to like very much—nonetheless starts in the right place: namely, with readers, the state of book reading in general, and the much-remarked-upon decline of interest in ‘serious fiction.’”7 The word nonetheless alerts us that Persky will be defending en masse those writers Good finds indefensible, as he does with mostly general remarks. But he has trouble accepting the aliteracy Good proves with example after example:
Some of this account of professional non-reading may be a bit of an exaggeration—a kind of Evelyn Waugh-type spoof in the manner of Scoop—to underscore Good’s main thesis, but enough of it rings sufficiently true to draw nods of agreement.
Like Wiersema, Persky is shocked by potential hyperbole in the people Good quotes, especially when he knows what’s really going on. Not that he’ll go to the trouble of finding proof. Why? Because “I made pretty much the same argument about 5 or 6 years ago in a book called Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen’s, 2011), and little since then has provided any grounds for altering my views.” If this is so, then a few key words he uses that look little—hyperbole and sufficiently true—speak volumes. Something is true or is not; sufficiently is there to diminish Good’s case, even though Persky has argued the same thing. Has territory been stepped on? Is there an ego involved? Yes, and yes.
In writing my own book, Reading the 21st Century, while taking impending cultural catastrophe as an underlying context, I was able to do a couple of things to soften the blow. Adopting the slogan, “There’s lots of great writing, but reading is in big trouble,” I was able to encourage the still large “saving remnant” of readers by writing extensively about several great books published from around the world in the first decade of the new century […].
My other strategic move was to stop worrying about “literature” and to treat all books, fiction and non-fiction, as “writing” — as “interesting” or not — simply tracking and assessing “the important intellectual currents and the books that gave expression to them in the first decade” of the new millennium.
To the first rich quotation, it’s reassuring to know that if everyone reads Persky then the loss of culture will be less sharply felt. Encouraging people to read books “from around the world” is always laudable, but what stands out is the saviour complex. When Persky shifts the terrain in the second quotation to “literature”—everything written is literature, including religious tracts, mutual fund brochures, wills—he lands on preferred ground and steps away from Good’s argument. He now looks more ecumenical in his approach and taste—self-proclaimed saviours often say they see the larger picture—but this is not what Good wrote about; he very explicitly tackles fiction—not poetry, not non-fiction, not essays, not plays.
The problems continue in the next paragraphs of Persky’s review: “Alex Good’s Revolutions begins with a contextual proposition about reading similar to my own, but is a much more problematic project in several ways. For one thing, while I was enthusing over a batch of what I considered to be wonderful books, Good, in writing about contemporary Canadian fiction, gives the impression he doesn’t very much like it.” That’s inaccurate. Good mentions books he likes, and his tastes are allowed to be different from that of others. When talking about the Canadian Establishment and the Giller he is unequivocal on what he thinks of the contenders: “While reasonable people may argue over matters of aesthetic taste, I don’t see where there’s any room for debating the fact that M.G. Vassanji can’t write.” (137) That kind of remark is a bruise-leaving blow, not the more delicate “impression.”
Perhaps attentive reading was rendered impossible for Persky by the opening line he objected to, for he says a strange thing: “Not only is the critical apparatus something of a fraud, but so are the works that the apparatus has been bedecking with prizes. We’re forewarned but, still, any text that opens with an essay titled ‘Shackled to a Corpse: The Long, Long Shadow of CanLit’ isn’t exactly a confidence booster.” First, Revolutions opens with the 30-plus page “Introduction.” So there’s that. More importantly, when critics—and Persky is an educated explicator—become demoralized by a chapter title, then we may question both their sensitivities—do they need trigger warnings?—and how attuned they are to current conversations about CanLit. Persky criticizes Good for an “approach [that] is more likely to send tired-eyed readers to the medicine cabinet for prescription anti-depressants,” and manages to work in a reference to his own book by contrasting their views: “Faced with a similar audience issue, I wanted to simultaneously warn my readers of an impending cultural crisis and to encourage them to continue to seek out great writing to read as a possible means of averting that crisis.” It’s expected literary critics will have different viewpoints, but I don’t see why Persky imagines his is more correct than Good’s.
What really sets their two books apart—and “Desperately Seeking Readers” is definitely a battle of the books—is stark: “my book was written as a book, with as coherent a throughline as I could muster, rather than a patched-together collection of essays,” maintains Persky.
What I’m more worried about with respect to Alex Good’s book at hand is its sketchiness and lack of comprehensive coherence. Part of the problem is that Revolutions isn’t written as a book, it’s a compilation of essays Good has written about related topics over a number of years […]. I gather, from hints in the text, that just about everything excepting the introduction was written at least 4 or 5 years ago and, in fact, some of the text has a musty feeling about it.
(He remembers and then forgets that the book begins with the Introduction.) There are indeed omissions and gaps, as Persky says, and I agree that Revolutions as a title does not bring together the contents well enough. I don’t think a book of essays—and here I speak as someone who has such a book out—automatically suffers because of looseness. What matters most is what the writer is saying. The same figures populate the landscape today as when the essays came out, and that’s what irritates Good.
Persky generally doesn’t rebut the harsh criticisms levelled at Atwood, Ondaatje, Winter, and others. (“Oddly, I’m not much inclined to directly engage with Good’s criticism of Canadian fiction, arguing it out book by book.” Examination of that oddness might be fruitful.) He states that his book, Reading the 21st Century, offered international authors as well as Canadian ones whereas Good’s “attention is directed to how the rotting structures of the prize process have embalmed a particularly unadventurous model of Canadian fiction.” Good makes clear that his book is focused on Canadian writers and prizes, so this is another instance of Persky not liking a book Good didn’t write.
Philip Marchand in The National Post declared, “Alex Good has two rare qualities—rare these days—that make him a valuable literary critic. He knows how to read, and he never pulls his punches.”8 That sentiment is in contrasts to those who think literary criticism should be like an autumn afternoon of whist, chamomile tea, and asparagus tip sandwiches. The most interesting part of Marchand’s review is its title: “Are Atwood and Ondaatje, ‘the alpha and omega of literary celebrity in Canada,’ still worth reading?” By using those names, the headline writer is throwing chum in the waters to draw readers.
Finally, a positive and inventive response to Good’s work comes from W.D. Clarke, author of the novel White Mythology (2016), who devised this amusing chart9:
What’s missing in Revolutions are examinations of other people who assist in keeping the CanLit Establishment standing: literary agents and the publishers they make deals with involving so-so authors of mediocre books that resemble past contest winners. Surely Good has thoughts on those areas of CanLit. I question the necessity of “The Digital Apocalypse” as the book’s final chapter since it more often than not reheats familiar stories about the perils of the Internet and its threatening multiplicity of opportunities for everyone to publish their material. Good doesn’t supply enough insight on this matter. In any case, gate-keepers or guardians of the culture have lost their positions thanks to the freedom everyone has to post a literary blog, contribute to a fan fiction site, or self-publish a novel or collection of poems on a number of platforms. (Considering the bulk of Revolutions, I doubt Good thinks that the CanLit Establishment deserves even more protection, but that art does.) That can be viewed as a dangerous state of cultural affairs. “Perhaps this is our revenge on art, tearing it down from its pedestal and making it finally as disposable and ephemeral, as mortal, as the rest of mere humanity.” (259) We could go further and say that climate change may render us all moot, that Sol will flare out and die, etc.
What’s disappointing, in an otherwise well written, much needed, and spirited look at our literature, is the diminished energy at the end when Good could have closed with another substantial cat-among-the-pigeons piece examining, for instance, why publishers in Canada generally resist writing that’s outside the abutting fields of realist and historical fiction, why so-called experimental presses still hanker after a character they can warm to, why literary agents are so conservative, and why more professors of English don’t teach a greater number of outré works.
As well, it seems to me that the Establishment Good quite rightly antagonizes and crosses, a body that exists in a state between abstract and concrete, might have served as a better unifying theme than revolutions that didn’t happen, as indicated above. As he put it in an interview with Carte Blanche:
So elite culture is not going to change, and the industry that serves it won’t either.
All of this makes cultural renewal difficult. In Revolutions I called for a vigorous critical reappraisal of the myth of CanLit as a place to start, but I see no indication whatsoever of that happening. Indeed, quite the opposite.10
The thematic strain shown in uniting these essays under the term revolution weakens but does not damage this overview of contemporary Canadian fiction. The rarity of non-fiction works that go after the literary status quo with frank speech and humour is not the only thing that sets Good’s book apart, but it is an important feature. Aided by more than 20 years reviewing, he is well positioned to speak to insiders and newcomers to the literary culture. For those who wonder if there are writers he enjoys, and for those who hope for a successor volume, there is a possibility that in the undetermined future Alex Good will “offer more close readings of what I think are the really great works of Canadian fiction in the twenty-first century. Not the usual suspects. But books of critical essays are a hard sell, and I’ll have to see if it would be economically feasible.”11 That will present an aesthetic study that I hope will be as spirited and provocative as Revolutions.
In a November 2017 essay on CNQ’s website, “It’s An Honour Just To Be Nominated, Probably,”12 Jared Young reveals the squishy insides of a keener convinced he could and should win the Giller, and the quid pro quo which Good provides numerous examples of:
I had reason to be interested in that photo: I knew my novel had been submitted for consideration (multiple wheedling emails to my publisher confirmed this), and I knew that Jeet Heer was on the jury—I’d seen photos of him sequestered with other judges in their lavish woodland lodge—and it just so happened that: (a) I’d once written a laudatory essay about Heer’s literary criticism, which I knew he’d read (he’d liked my tweet about it, at least), and (b) about a month before the announcement, just to remind him of who I was and how much I loved him (and also to remind him that he might, theoretically, owe me a solid) I asked a friend with a significant Twitter following to retweet a link to the essay and, of course, to tag Heer in it—because an avalanche starts with a pebble, right?—and, besides, I’d already done the good work of blowing my expectations wholly out of proportion by marking the date of the longlist announcement on my calendar, and, as a result, had immunized myself against whatever shame such acts of self-promotional depravity might stoke in me.
Whatever shame, indeed.
1 “Critiquing the Critics.” http://www.youblisher.com/p/699958-Atlantic-Books-Today-Fall-2013/
4 Lewis, Wyndham. Rude Assignment: An Intellectual Autobiography. Ed. Toby Foshay. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1984, p. 54
5 New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017.
Jeff Bursey is a fiction writer, playwright, and literary critic. His most recent book, an exploratory satire set in Prince Edward Island, is Unidentified man at left of photo (2020, corona\samizdat).