The Bosom of CanLit

Canadian literature is thriving, but CanLit—by which I mean the network of people who write, teach, research, and disseminate Canadian literature—is hurting. In the last three years a number of controversies to do with sexual misconduct and appropriation of voice have left the people who produce and support Canadian literature divided along generational, racialized, and gendered lines. Due in part to the representation of these controversies in the popular media, the fault lines between writers and academics have also become more entrenched. For example, in “Canlit versus its scholars,” an essay published in The Globe and Mail in September 2018, Russell Smith presented CanLit as a synecdoche for a collective of precious pedants who are loath to stray from “the bosom of academe” into “the crass world of popular success,” and who are given to “ludicrous hyperbole” around considerations of sexual violence. Smith went on to contrast the fast-paced and “satisfying” work of genre writers—whom he likens to pro athletes—with the prevarications of CanLit scholars, whom he describes as “terribly troubled” by “the epidemic of sexual violence that apparently plagues the institutions that created [CanLit].” While I object to the tenor and much of the substance of Smith’s very gendered argument, I think it merits attention for two reasons: firstly, he is right to say that those of us who teach and study Canadian literature do well to attend to “the world of popular success,” including the mainstream media, even when it is “crass”; and secondly, he is also right to suggest that recent events have left many CanLit scholars “terribly troubled” by the systemic inequities and the sexual violence that continue to “plagu[e] the institutions that created [CanLit].” So, rather than grappling with the question posed to me and my fellow panellists—namely, can Canadian literary criticism be “disentangled” from “the problematic nature of CanLit?”—I have opted to briefly tangle with Smith’s representation of CanLit and the depressing realities that beset the field. If my comments contribute to the unfortunate misperception that “the scholars of Canadian literature are not very interested in books” (Smith), I hope that they might also help clarify what it means to be accountable for and in CanLit.

The allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence in Creative Writing programs at UBC and Concordia are scandalous, but more scandalous still are the results of the 2018 Ontario provincial government survey of some 110,000 university students, wherein 63% of respondents reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment at university (“63% Report”). Being accountable to those students means actively resisting the structures discouraging victims from coming forward and advocating for programming that educates faculty, staff, and administrators about how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence; it means demanding frank conversations about the preponderance and under-reporting of sexual violence on campus; it means being willing to tangle with those who caricature such efforts as “ludicrous hyperbole.”

More generally, being accountable for the “problematic nature of CanLit” means reckoning with inequitable structures of power and failures of mentorship therein. For example, I’m thinking of the recent national survey conducted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which revealed that the number of university teachers working part-time in Canada increased by 79% between 2005 and 2015, while the number of tenure-stream positions increased by only 14% in the same period (CAUT). Recognizing that younger colleagues, women, and people of colour are overrepresented amongst contract academic staff, we need to be clear about the ways in which the casualization of academic work has fuelled the gendered and generational divides that were made so plain under the banner UBC Accountable. So, for those of us who have tenure-stream positions in Canadian literature, being accountable for CanLit must mean mentorship: it must mean building alliances with precariously employed colleagues (co-publishing, co-authoring grants, and co-organizing conferences), but also ensuring a more equitable distribution of labour by raising our hands for the laborious service jobs and large introductory courses that contract academic staff do not have the luxury of refusing.

Writing in Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, Kristen Darch and Fazeela Jiwa argue that unless those of us who occupy positions of power and privilege within the field become accountable to those who are most vulnerable, “CanLit stands to lose the voices and the contributions of all those . . . who find its institutions hostile” (179). To wit, Oji-Cree poet and novelist Joshua Whitehead recently followed in Rinaldo Walcott’s footsteps by publishing a “breakup note” with CanLit, which he memorably likens to a hall of mirrors that includes Indigenous stories only where they can be reanimated, reoriented, or redacted so as to reflect narratives of national progressiveness (191, 194). “Maybe I’ll come back to you CanLit, if you can tell me who you’re accountable to, but until then, I ain’t got time to heal you, too[,]” he writes (197). With an eye to Whitehead’s “breakup” note, I wonder how many of the 69,300 Ontario students who recently reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment on campus would make a similar argument about the ways in which narratives of institutional progressiveness shield violent realities and hamper the timely, transparent adjudication of harassment complaints? How many of those students abandoned their studies? How many were “broken up” by the experience of harassment? Whether or not such breakups are deemed newsworthy, those of us working in English and Creative Writing programs on Canadian campuses know them to be part of the sorry legacy of recent CanLit controversies. And we remain “terribly troubled.”

Ten years ago, I was part of a similar panel on the future of Canadian literature. One of the most prescient contributions came from Herb Wyile, who asked that we pay close attention to the particular material conditions in which CanLit is produced, disseminated, and studied, in order that we can be clear about the ways in which neo-liberal ideologies structure our work in the field. Asked where CanLit was going, Wyile, one of the discipline’s most thoughtful and principled stewards, argued that the question “implies a degree of agency that we may not have,” and so reframed it as, “what is going to happen to Canadian literature?” (108). Because being accountable in and for CanLit also means being accountable to those who have shaped the discipline, I want to conclude by positing Herb’s question as a challenge. And so, I suggest that we look back to the thinkers who have guided us, that we look closely at the inequities that have always divided us, and that we look beyond the narratives of “progressiveness” that have sometimes blinded us, as we face the problem of “what is going to happen” and what has happened “to Canadian literature.” Only then can those of us who enjoy some agency within the sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe “bosom of academe” really tangle with the forces that render it hostile for some.

Works Cited
“63% Report Experiencing Sexual Harassment on Campus, Ontario Survey Shows.” CBC News, 19 Mar. 2019, Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.
Canadian Association of University Teachers [CAUT]. “CAUT Releases Results of First National Survey of Contract Academic Staff.” CAUT, 4 Sept. 2018, Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.
Darch, Kristen, and Fazeela Jiwa. “Whose CanLit: Solidarity and Accountability in Literary Communities.” Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, Book*hug, 2018, pp. 177-83.
Smith, Russell. “Canlit versus its scholars.” The Globe and Mail, 18 Sept. 2018, Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.
Whitehead, Joshua. “Writing as a Rupture: A Breakup Note to CanLit.” Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, Book*hug, 2018, pp. 191-98.
Wyile, Herb. “Neoliberalism and the Future of Canadian Literature.” 50th Anniversary Interventions, special issue of Canadian Literature, no. 204, 2010, pp. 108-10.

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