“Hooked” on Canadian Women’s Writing

Reviewed by Alicia Fahey

These two books present a variety of approaches to Canadian women’s writing. The first concentrates on the life and work of Sheila Watson and the other on the connections and trajectories of women’s writing and feminist criticism in Canada from the nineteenth century to the present.

Pivato’s collection of essays contains literary criticism about all of Watson’s works—including her seminal novel The Double Hook, for which she is most commonly known—as well biographical contexts such as information about Watson’s roles as editor and mentor. Drawing on both previously published material and material published in this collection, Pivato claims that his is the first book to bring these various facets of Sheila Watson’s contributions to Canadian literature together in a single collection.

The book begins with an overview of scholarship on Watson, noting from the outset that Watson herself would have disapproved of the many essays that interpret her writing through a biographical lens. Indeed, just under half of the essays draw on Watson’s personal history as a means of engaging with her creative and academic endeavours. Caterina Edwards offers an engaging portrait of Watson in the role of mentor and George Melnyk’s informal essay includes several entertaining anecdotes of his personal relationship with the Watsons. Although these essays are valuable contributions, readers may not be fully satisfied due to their lack of attention paid to Watson’s contemporary relevance. Some of the widely successful Canadian writers who have credited Watson as their “literary touchstone” are briefly mentioned in Hamilton’s biographical article; however, this aspect of her legacy merits further attention.

Other essays demonstrate the range and reach of Watson’s writing by considering an array of topics including religion, language, modernism, feminism, regionalism, media and technology, and environmentalism. Sergiy Yakovenko’s reading of Watson’s “Rough Answer” is especially notable among the previously unpublished essays; Yakovenko performs an eco-critical reading of Watson’s short story by examining the “social and ecological aspects of silence” that form a “special intimacy between nature and woman.” Yakovenko’s compelling reading exemplifies the possibilities of connecting Watson’s work to contemporary literary contexts.

Another especially useful component of the book is Hamilton’s bibliography of all of Watson’s works (fiction, translations, nonfiction, interviews) and works about her (biographies, profiles, obituaries and tributes, critical articles and books, selected reviews and review articles, theses, selected websites). This comprehensive tool is especially useful for newcomers to Watson and can also be used to generate much-deserved future research from those who are already “hooked” on her work. In some ways, the ambitious scope of this book limits any coherent focus or straightforward organizational structure. Nonetheless, Sheila Watson: Essays on Her Works offers rich glimpses into the many facets of Sheila Watson’s life and career.

An essay on Sheila Watson could definitely have been included in Carriére and Demers’s book Regenerations. The bilingual collection of essays was compiled from revised papers from the Canadian Women Writers Conference/Colloque écritures des femmes au Canada held at the University of Alberta in 2010. The central focus of the collection is to provide essays that examine “Canadian women’s writing in relation to literary history and digital scholarship, and with a multicultural and bilingual scope.”

The collection is divided into four sections: (1) Au fil de la narration. . . (2) Back to the future. . . (3) Des contexts minoritaires. . . (4) Women in movement. . . . The use of ellipses indicates that the topics under consideration are fluid, evolving, and incomplete. They also represent the editors’ intention that the chapters are designed to intersect and speak to one another. These connections are certainly apparent. In his essay, “A Modernist Commons in Canada,” Dean Irvine, founder of the Editing Modernism in Canada project, defines the digital commons as “collectively produced by and distributed among the many different workers who contribute their labour to its creation.” Irvine’s description aptly summarizes the collaborative potential of the digital environment that is at the heart of Regenerations.

Echoes of Irvine’s collaborative focus reverberate in Rosemary Sullivan’s discussion of creative writing workshops and her work as a biographer of women writers. Sullivan argues that writing needs to be conceptualized through the paradigm of gift-giving (as opposed to commodification) and that social and financial support afforded by networks and communities are essential to a writer’s success. Sullivan also reflects on the ways in which the socio-cultural and political contexts of the writers whose lives she chronicles—Elizabeth Smart, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Margaret Atwood—affected their literary careers. Lucie Hotte shares this latter consideration in her essay on Franco-Ontarian women writers working between 1970 and 1985. Drawing on data analysis, tables, and statistics, Hotte explores the prejudices that affect the publication, dissemination, and reception of women writers. She calls for a redefinition of “minority literatures” in order to restore a more accurate picture and literary corpus of the place of women writers on the literary stage. The key to achieving this revaluation, according to Hotte, is accessibility and the development of scientific tools.

As can be seen by these three examples, Regenerations considers an extremely diverse range of media (other forms discussed in the book include blogs, e-books, social media, diaries, radio broadcasts, manuscripts, archives, poetry, and performance art) in order to interrogate the exclusivity of our understanding of authorship and readership. This innovative and inspiring collection provides sensitive readings of current issues facing women writers in the digital age, as well as an impetus: À les constituer dans leurs spécificités multiples et leurs trames pluridimensionnelles. Regenerations considers the digital environment not only as a mode of communication, but also as a regenerative tool for drawing attention to past works that have been excluded or marginalized from literary histories. Original and insightful, this book demonstrates the exciting future of humanities scholarship and artistic production.

This review ““Hooked” on Canadian Women’s Writing” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 141-43.

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