A History of Canadian Fiction. Cambridge University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
David Staines’ A History of Canadian Fiction fills a long-standing gap in our scholarly understanding of Canadian fiction, for, as he puts it in his introduction, his is the “first detailed history” (1). I think it indeed a detailed and thorough history, albeit one with gaps of its own; it’s also a book that may blunt its own reception in academic circles because of its variance with contemporary political mores (it largely refuses to think capital-T Theory).
Many histories of Canadian literature have been written—see, e.g., W. J. Keith’s Canadian Literature in English, in two volumes, Nick Mount’s When Canadian Literature Moved to New York and Arrival: The Story of CanLit, and the venerable two-volume Literary History of Canada—but none has such a focus on fiction. If, like me, you think it a bit incredible to recognize just how late it is for a literary history of Canadian fiction in English to arrive, you might also feel like many of the moves made in the introduction are strangely dated.
For example, Staines ritually invokes the Canadian identity question. The naïveté of his initial formulation will please few contemporary scholars: “Canada . . . had no defining interest to the outside world—it had never won a war, it had no major problems to demand world attention, yet Canadian fiction was growing without the steady and sometimes overpowering gaze of the outside world” (1). Yet he doesn’t deliver on the academic ritual by delivering a definition that somehow brings to bear all the things cohering within (and also ill-fitting within) the category of “Canadian.” Indeed, he veers perilously close to fashion’s shoals when he writes the following in his first chapter:
Where does Canadian fiction find its beginnings? Not so far back as about 11500 BC when Indigenous people, the first inhabitants of the land that would become Canada, moved across the Bering Plain to settle in the new land. Not so far back as about 1000 AD when the Vikings set up a small settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in what would become Newfoundland. Not so far back as the late fifteenth century when Jean Cabot sailed to Newfoundland, or the sixteenth century when Jean Cabot Jacques Cartier sailed to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534, or even . . .” (4)
Staines goes on at length, but one has to ask the question: Why not? This “why” is never addressed, making the organizing force of the book an ironically nebulous definition of Canada; in a double irony, it is a negative definition. Perhaps it is the lack of definition that is the book’s definition, for it largely exists in a zone of whiteness. Though as the book proceeds, the author’s own view becomes glimpsed in what feels like a Boomer anti-Americanism:
[Arthur] Stringer had a large and faithful following for his many novels, yet his novels are finally not about Canada nor are they written from a Canadian perspective. An expatriate who became an American citizen in 1937, he chose to become an American writer and thereby lost his Canadian vision. When he returned to a Canadian setting, he could not capture the land he had once known so well. In 1946, the University of Western Ontario awarded him an honorary degree in recognition of his literary contributions to Canadian letters!” (28)
Why the outraged exclamation mark? In the next paragraph, Norman Duncan is mentioned. Born Canadian like Stringer, he left for the US but “never became an American citizen . . . Duncan found his natural vehicle in the earthy idiosyncrasies of his character’s speech . . . [h]ere was a writer trying to capture the reality of his people. . . [h]e never abandoned his Canadian perspective, that of an outsider who sought out people to investigate, to map, to record” (28-30). So a Canadian perspective is to investigate, map, and record . . . to be colonial?
Adding to the strangeness of direction for a contemporary volume of CanLit scholarship is a triumphalist (and presentist) narrative about literary quality: “The history of Canadian fiction is not so old—not so old as that of European countries, not so old as that of American fiction. It begins in the nineteenth century, it blossomed in the mid-twentieth century, and it accepted its position on the world stage in the later twentieth century” (3). Only later in the introduction does Staines connect with the current academic obsession by porting in the colonial vector: “For the earliest writers, Canada was a colony, where there must be the centre for the colonial mind . . . Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century attempts to probe the meaning of here were grounded in the colonial understanding of Canada’s place as a settler colony in relation to its mother country” (3). And so on and so forth. Yet the intro creates more dissonance between contemporary scholarship by concluding on a note of multiculturalism: “Then, as the twentieth century moved to its close, there was now a multicultural and multiracial world in Canada where Canadian-born writers were increasingly augmented by naturalized voices unafraid to write about their own chosen landscapes far from the supposedly safe world that is Canada” (3). None of this is objectionable per se, and it certainly isn’t factually incorrect; but it is at profound variance with the self-lacerating tendencies of contemporary scholarship (there’s nary a word about anti-Black racism, for example.) For an introduction to conclude on a positive characterization of multiculturalism is to really poke the academic bear. And for the first chapter to claim, after a discussion of The History of Emily Montague, that in terms of literary representation “Canada was still a country to be plundered” (5) makes one fear for the author at conferences.
Continuing in the vein of “can’t-please-everyone” is the relative lack of severity when it comes to aesthetic judgment. Staines simply isn’t terribly interested in condemning our literary ancestors as “good spellers,” as Mordecai Richler famously put the matter. So academics won’t be pleased while aesthetic critics, following in the tradition of John Metcalf, will be irritated by the lack of hair shirt cilice assignments. (Perhaps a zero-sum game of self-cringe is the ultimate colonial habit, and one that should be disdained.)
In “The Beginnings,” the first chapter, Staines draws together several strands to weave a narrative out of what is otherwise an inchoate start to Canadian literature: what he defines as “immigrant writing” and “animal stories.” The chapter would benefit from stricter definition of terms insofar as there is no Frygian taxonomy of “fiction,” “tale,” and “fable,” for example, nor “romance” or “realism”; sometimes these terms appear in the same sentence when texts are described. Nor are enough genealogies developed between the early texts and those that come later, in Chapter Two (“From Romance towards Realism”) and beyond. Yet the sheer efficacy of the contextual material that Staines does provide is to be commended. Books are summarized and dispatched with aplomb, though the hyper-paraphrase experience suggests that this book is both an expansion and reorganization of books such as William Toye’s Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, in which books and authors are listed alphabetically. Either way, we get postage-stamp views of the individual titles of canonical authors. These become increasingly concentrated as the chapters progress, for as the canon broadens, the treatments flatten; indeed, even what theoretical structuring is there in the early going seems to evaporate as the book gains speed—much as will happen in the next paragraph.
Chapter Three (“Emerging into Realism”) focuses on Raymond Knister, Morley Callaghan, Sinclair Ross, Hugh MacLennan, Howard O’Hagan, W. O. Mitchell, Ernest Buckler, Ethel Wilson, and Norman Levine. Chapter Four (“The Foundational Fifties”), covering a more restricted time frame, focuses on Richler, Robertson Davies, Mavis Gallant, A. M. Klein, and Sheila Watson. Chapter Five (“The Second Feminist Wave”) considers Adele Wiseman, Margaret Laurence, Audrey Thomas, Marian Engel, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. Chapter Six (“The Flourishing of the Wests”) covers the sausage party of Robert Kroetsch, Rudy Wiebe, George Bowering, Jack Hodgins, and Guy Vanderhaeghe. Chapter Seven (“Canada’s Second Century”) takes on the big books post-1967-2000-ish, including those by Michael Winter, Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Elizabeth Hay, Frances Itani, Alan Cumyn, Steven Heighton, Helen Humphreys, Timothy Findley, Graeme Gibson, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Richard B. Wright, Susan Swan, Matt Cohen, Dennis Bock, Jane Urquhart, Anne Michaels, Lawrence Hill, Douglas Glover, Nino Ricci, Bonnie Burnard, Sandra Birdsell, David Bergen, Miriam Toews, Yann Martel, Katherine Govier, Joy Kogawa, SKY Lee, Wayson Choy, Caroline Adderson, and Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Chapter Eight (“Indigenous Voices”) discusses George Copway, E. Pauline Johnson, Maria Campbell, Lee Maracle, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, Jeannette Armstrong, Tomson Highway, Thomas King, Richard Wagamese, Robert Alexie, Eden Robinson, Drew Hayden Taylor, Patsauq Markoosie, and Alooktook Ipellie while also (in a perilous moment) mentioning Joseph Boyden. Chapter Nine (“Naturalized Canadian Writers”) brings forth white and racialized immigrant writers both straight and queer, including Henry Kreisel, Austin Clarke, Jane Rule, Carol Shields, Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai, Dionne Brand, Neil Bisoondath, Andre Alexis, Rohinton Mistry, and M. G. Vassanji. Finally, Chapter Ten (“Canadian Fiction in the Twenty-First Century”) continues the undefined-Canada-get-all-writers-in-there-minus-Indigenous-authors strategy of the chapters other than Eight, involving Rawi Hage, Heather O’Neill, Darren Greer, Colin McAdam, David Chariandy, David Bezmogis, Sheila Heti, Emma Donoghue, Katherena Vermette, Steven Galloway, Anosh Irani, Madeleine Thien, Kathy Page, Patrick DeWitt, Esi Edugyan, and Steven Price.
I wish to conclude on the most positive—and also most important—note. To read this book politically is to miss the point in favour of easy pickings, for A History of Canadian Fiction is primarily for students who want to learn more about the texts that form much of the body of Canadian literature. Though the book largely abandons theory, the resultant focus on texts and dates and descriptions with a chronological focus has finally freed students of literature from the Literary History of Canada as a text-suggestor for theses. (As long as students understand that Staines has written a text that could be titled A History of English Canadian Literary Fiction Preferentially Focused on Cis White People, then they’ll be fine. But I think students today are savvy to this implicit preference and will be awaiting the focussed fiction histories to come.)
For example, I’m currently writing a scholarly book on medicine in CanLit and have struggled mightily for want of a concise record of important texts over the years, having to range between introductory anthologies, the aforementioned Literary History, Toye’s big brick, and partial histories. At long last Staines has given readers a credible and stolid text that takes them through Canadian fiction from a rather arbitrary (and quite contestable) start with Montague and that moves through eras with efficiency. I suspect the utility of this book when taken as a whole will far surpass that of the Literary History and its ultimate reduction to its admittedly great “Conclusion.” I’m indebted to Staines and I think a great many other students and scholars of—dare I say “our”?—literature will be, too. Hopefully, this book will be a blueprint for a more inclusive book to come. As a McMaster scholar who succumbed to COVID-19 two years ago once said to me after expounding on Poe so beautifully that I felt Poe was in the room listening, so graced was the dead poet’s memory by the rendition, “This is the humbling part of scholarship, to be outdated and soon surpassed on publication.”
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