North of Sixty: Surviving CanLit

Canadian Literature celebrates its sixtieth anniversary in 2019—at a time when the broader world of Canadian literature has been in nothing resembling a festive mood. When the journal’s first issue was published in 1959, it would have been difficult to envision that, sixty years later, the critical conversation would be epitomized by phrases such as Resisting Canada (see Matuk) and CanLit in Ruins (see McGregor, Rak, and Wunker). Yet here we are.

At the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at UBC in June, the journal hosted a panel discussion with ACCUTE—“CanLit and Canadian Literature”—intended to explore the place of institutions in a field that has been profoundly affected in recent years by acrimonious and polarizing public controversies; engaged in uneasy reckonings with its own limitations, oversights, and injustices; and riven by doubt and conflict. Panellists were asked to consider Canadian literature and literary studies by taking up such questions as: What are the necessary scholarly and public conversations today? What discourses of critique will lead to productive inquiry? How do journals and other institutions shape the field? And how can a more expansive and inclusive Canadian literature be imagined? The essays in this special forum emerge from the panel at Congress. They emphasize the importance of accountability and self-awareness for scholars and teachers of Canadian literature, and are evidence of the complexity of relationships between those individual practitioners and the institutions that influence and even sustain them.

When Canadian Literature turned fifty in 2009, a group of critics was invited to reflect on significant issues; their statements, as Laura Moss wrote in her Introduction to the “Interventions” section of issue no. 204, “mark[ed] the past fifty years while thinking forward to challenges in the field in the future” (103). The following essays suggest that the future of Canadian literary studies is now less certain, or at least less clear, than a decade ago. Lily Cho and Carrie Dawson look back at the fiftieth anniversary to show how much has changed in ten years, while Gillian Roberts writes about the difficulty and ambivalence inherent in teaching Canadian literature today—in her particular case, in the United Kingdom in the era of Brexit. At fifty, a future was presumed, and could be multiply conceived. At sixty, that very future is an open question. Karina Vernon proposes that one way forward is “to remember the genealogies of struggle developed within Canadian literature as critical discourse”—to rethink, in other words, the history of the field itself.

The anniversary of Canadian Literature is a time of reflection, but the sober conversations taking place here, as in other venues, hold the promise of genuine transformation of the ways in which we teach and write about literature in Canada—and of renewed engagement with the reasons for doing so. Journals, presses, courses, and even disciplinary formations come and go, but the impulses that underlie literary studies exceed any single institution, no matter how venerable. Together, we are in the business of reading and writing, of listening and responding, with care, precision, and creativity. In a time of social and political disharmony—and, I would add, environmental calamity—language and imagination, and the uses to which they are put, demand our attention and commitment. Whoever we are, our survival depends on it.

Works Cited

“Interventions.” 50th Anniversary Interventions, special issue of Canadian Literature, no. 204, 2010, pp. 103-62.

Matuk, Nyla, editor. Resisting Canada: An Anthology of Poetry. Signal, 2019.

McGregor, Hannah, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, editors. Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. Book*hug, 2018.

Moss, Laura. “Introduction: Generous and Grounded Connections.” 50th Anniversary Interventions, special issue of Canadian Literature, no. 204, 2010, pp. 103-08.

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