Canadian Representations

  • Veronica Thompson (Editor) and Manijeh Mannani (Editor)
    Selves and Subjectivities: Reflections on Canadian Arts and Culture. Athabasca University Press (purchase at
  • Lorraine York
    Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity. University of Toronto Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Nathalie Cooke

Both these texts concern themselves with identity construction. On the one hand, Lorraine York’s Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity underscores the labour involved in sustaining a certain kind of identity—the literary celebrity. On other multiple hands, Selves and Subjectivities offers eight reflections on the way identity is reflected, represented, and negotiated across a wide range of Canadian art forms.

Working from the Atwood Papers in University of Toronto’s library and drawing on some of her foundational thinking about and analysis of celebrity for her 2007 book, Literary Celebrity in Canada, York was quite right to suggest that much of the labour and the labourers of literary celebrity often go unnoticed. Shifting the spotlight of attention is one contribution this book makes to the field of Canadian literary scholarship. With specific reference to Atwood as a case study, her book includes chapters on the work of literary agents, literary editors, and those who wear multiple hats in a celebrity writer’s business office. York also offers astute observations about the recent evolution of Atwood Inc. in the digital age, especially of Atwood’s Twitter presence.

However, York’s most interesting insights emerge in the opening and closing discussions. Her introduction summarizes watershed insights in celebrity theory—such as those of Richard Dyer, David Marshall, and Joshua Gamson—to highlight tensions between economic and cultural capital, gift and purchase exchange, as well as the strategic imperatives of visibility and invisibility for both celebrity and labour. York’s conclusion revisits the range of works and variety of mediums her book addresses. After all, Atwood does move between multiple communication mediums, including some not mentioned by York possibly because they were just beyond the scope of this study (e.g. libretto or screenplay). York suggests that Atwood, since the 1980s, has seen a link between medium change and cultural loss. How then does Atwood reconcile this concern with her embrace of new media and technology? York’s answer in this book seems to be that Atwood proceeds with caution and good counsel.

In Selves and Subjectivities, Manijeh Mannani and Veronica Thompson situate this book within Canadians’ concern about identify formation. They point to Diane Brydon’s recent call to rethink Canadian literature out of the box of nation and into more nuanced notions of place, and to other commentary extending the scope of analysis beyond literature to Canadian art and culture. So what doesSelves and Subjectivities contribute to the conversation? Mannani and Thompson argue that all contributions in this volume look to “emerging concepts of identity formation,” focusing on Canadian examples but extending the scope of analysis well beyond it. They also note that while all contributors to the collection signal something “equivocal and ambivalent” in their reflections of Self and Other, they all are much more specific about “the complex political and social debates that are attempting to achieve a definitive understanding of Canadian identity.” Unfortunately, while the editors signal such points of commonality between the papers, they neither justify the sequence of the chapters nor develop a storyline to offer transitions between the particular papers. This is particularly unfortunate for two strong papers analyzing classic texts (Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and Daphne Marlatt’sAna Historic), which seem a bit out of place in this collection of “recent manifestations and delineations of Canadian identity.”

I offer different answers to the question—what does Selves and Subjectivities contribute? One contribution certainly involves the range of texts analyzed here. Anne Nothof, for example, mentions a wide variety of theatrical productions and initiatives. Janne Cleveland offers original analysis of Ronnie Burkett’s play Happy, a work of puppet theatre. Gilbert McCinnis offers a strong analysis of Colleen Wagner’s play The Monument against the backdrop of atrocities in Yugoslavia and Canada and works that have attempted to grapple with them.

Valuable contributions to knowledge also reside in particular papers, perhaps rather than in the collection as a whole. In terms of interesting analyses of “emerging identities,” for example, I would look to Thor Polukosko who tackles the thorny issue of appropriation and authenticity in relation to an Aboriginal band playing Hip Hop (itself emerging from an Afro-American tradition). Or I would look to Mark McCutcheon who introduces the term “dubject” to describe a subject who is mediated in multiple ways through representation and technology, and who offers a range of illustrative examples. Or I would look to strong articles by Anne Nothof and Dana Patrascu-Kingsley, both of which probe ways of thinking about ethnicity in the works they scrutinize in chapters complementing one another nicely.

This review “Canadian Representations” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 190-91.

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