Lamenting Ignorance

Reviewed by Neta Gordon

In his foreword to Producing Canadian Literature, Jeff Derkson draws attention to the way the interviews with authors reveal “the astonishing set of forces that shape the literature even before it reaches a public.” Paul Martin’s study of how Canadian literary studies is variously situated within university programs contributes to the increased critical attention to such “forces” among scholars aiming, as Diana Brydon puts it in her paper “Metamorphoses of a Discipline” published in Trans.Can.Lit, to be “active in documenting and re-evaluating dimensions of [Canadian Literature as a] system.” Such activity includes everything from the publication of Robert Lecker’s Keepers of the Code, an analysis of English-Canadian literary anthologies, to the now annual CWILA count, which seeks to interrogate the gendered review culture in Canada. Thus, Martin’s project of compiling data associated with the teaching of Canadian literature across the nation’s universities is well-positioned within the rising tide of scholarly concern for how Canadian literary studies has been institutionalized. Martin’s book begins with a history of teaching literature in Canada, comparing scenarios at Anglophone and Francophone universities throughout the twentieth century. He suggests that, while Canadian literature in English tended to be positioned in curricula as a minor subfield of the British tradition—a state of affairs that Martin argues persists even into the twenty-first century—Québec universities have enjoyed greater scope to place littérature canadienne, especially Québécois literature, at the centre of university programs since at least the 1960s. After referring to the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Dubois, whose 1970s and 1980s theoretical work on the literary institution Martin uses to conceptually frame his research question about how national literatures are “(pre)determine[d],” the author proceeds to assess the field via an analysis of course outlines, calendar descriptions of program requirements, and interviews with professors, drawing on data he collected during the 1997-98 academic year. Martin also collected course outlines from 2007-08, and in chapter 5, offers a reading of how course offerings changed after a decade. His principal argument is that a survey of such data shows English-Canadian universities constructing a kind of “sanctioned ignorance” of Québécois literature, thus reproducing the timeworn idea that English-Canadian literature has more in common with British and/or world English literature than with Canadian literature written in French.

As worthwhile as Martin’s project is, it is difficult to consider his work as “timely”: in its best moments, Sanctioned Ignorance operates as a historical snapshot, offering baseline data as opposed to a survey of the current situation. Even the syllabi data from 2007-08, gathered for comparison with the older data, seems dated when one considers the huge shifts in the field since that time. Further, both Martin’s methodology—which he explains meticulously, and with wonderful candor about proceeding with work that, at the time, was unusual for the discipline—as well as the data analysis itself, produces a sense of temporal dislocation. Concerns about not being able to determine the contents of a “photocopied” course package, not to mention references to the “predictability” of a single-author-focused course on the likes of Margaret Laurence or Robertson Davies, jar against the present moment. While it is provocative to consider Martin’s whirlwind cross-Canada tour to interview practitioners—and the contrast, as he puts it, “between [his] state of perpetual motion” and “the comparatively static role of the university professor”—one is also confronted with the fact that such work might proceed more efficiently and with a higher rate of participation in today’s age of Skype, just as the incompleteness of Martin’s hard-won data set might be easily augmented in the digitized world of open access. Furthermore, in a work that begins by advocating strongly for the use of empirical data in such field surveys, Martin’s choice to exclude data about literature courses taught in French at francophone universities (apparently because there is too much of such data) is surprising and makes for uneven analysis.

Even more problematic than Martin’s somewhat outmoded description of a state of affairs, however, is the often contradictory and perhaps overly polemical positioning of the book, which leads the author to make any number of rhetorically charged laments about “simple, yet foundational questions that, conveniently, remain unasked” or about the way institutional agents might purposefully “hinder any attempts . . . to further our understanding of the literatures of Canada in any truly significant way.” On the one hand, Martin critiques the way English-language Canadian literary studies programs are “organized (and deeply compromised) by the premises of Romantic nationalism that were so fundamental to their founding,” while on the other hand extoling that “in Québec, the important role of literary production . . . in this process of [national] self-identification has been much more overt.” Such uncritical commendation of the way French-language universities undertake “the projet national” seems tone deaf to prevailing scholarly questions about the role of the nation as an institution, not to mention to the current political moment. The sense that Martin’s work is outmoded is also due to his scholarly framing; while the use of Bourdieu and Dubois is appropriate, the author draws attention to theoretical considerations that are hardly news to current scholars of literature (Canadian or otherwise). The statement, for example, that “many of the agents that make up the literary institution itself continue to envision the author as a solitary and autonomous genius whose work is entirely the product of his or her own mind,” shows a baffling lack of regard for the current state of the field, and an analysis of Martin’s Works Cited section bears out the study’s limitations in this respect. Of the one-hundred plus works referred to, only fifteen were published after 2000 and, of those, four are publisher websites and three are literary anthologies. Martin’s chief premises—that systemic practices related to the teaching of the literatures of Canada must be thoroughly interrogated, and that productive conversations between Francophone and Anglophone scholars must necessarily proceed if “the walls” between “the two solitudes” are to be broken down—are, however, important opening propositions.

This review “Lamenting Ignorance” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 175-77.

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