Undisciplining CanLit

Reviewed by Brendan McCormack

Smaro Kamboureli’s TransCanada Institute produces cultural interventions that actively conjugate Canadian literary study into the present progressive tense. Following publications aimed at “trans-ing,” “resituating,” and “retooling” CanLit, two recent collections—Shifting the Ground of Canadian Literary Study and Producing Canadian Literature—inflect the discipline again. Both follow TransCanada’s decree that “the study of Canadian literature can no longer take place in isolation from larger external forces,” the former through transdisciplinary essays charting the widespread contexts presently shaping Canadian literary study, the latter by exploring how Canadian writers interact with the cultural economy. Leaving the question of whether CanLit ever circulated in such discrete “isolation” aside, these books make important contributions to the groundswell of methodological shifts in contemporary criticism seeking to unsettle the “national” and “literary” assumptions evoked by the category of “Canadian literature,” from its production to its reception.

In eleven essays gathered from the second TransCanada conference (Guelph 2007), Shifting the Ground approaches literary study through its intersections with a Canadian nation-state reshaped within global-neoliberal currents. The editors crucially affirm the persisting influence of Canada and its colonial logics within discourses of globalization all-too-eager to disarticulate the nation-state as a category, though the essays work reflexively to unsettle the assumed homology between nation and national literature forged by CanLit’s institutionalization. Canadianists will find in Shifting the Ground a metacritical mirror reflecting the present state of heightened “disciplinary consciousness,” which Kamboureli’s introduction historicizes through a series of “emergent” events beginning in the 1980s that catalyzed expansions in CanLit’s previously narrow-minded purview. Thus Shifting the Ground does not declare a paradigm shift, but rather advances the nascent shiftings that have moved CanLit progressively toward the broader context of cultural study and away from the national(ist) context of Canada. Literary history is admittedly not Kamboureli’s project, so the prevailing orthodoxy that CanLit pre-1980 was singularly nationalizing goes largely untested.

“Nation-state, culture, and indigeneity” broadly triangulate the highly interdisciplinary essays, which are individually strong though widely divergent. Their shared ground is a reflexive concern with methodology, or the methodological questions arising when conceptions of “nation” and “literature” are suitably shifted. Several unravel the “literary” itself, eroding what Kamboureli calls “the division between inside and outside of literature and its study.” Janine Brody (the biopolitics of Throne Speeches), Monika Kin Gagnon and Yasmin Jiwani (media coverage of l’Affaire Hérouxville), and Robert Zacharias (the founding “myth” of Vimy Ridge) all explore wider cultural and political discourses wherein national imaginaries circulate. Other contributors “trans” both the discipline and the nation. Danielle Fuller reflects on a “collaborative interdisciplinarity” between social sciences and humanities methodologies in researching transatlantic book clubs, while Kathy Mezei and the late Yoko Fujimoto both explore print economies and literary translation as complex sites of national (Mezei) and transnational (Fujimoto) cultural exchange.

Reading across the collection, these disparate trajectories find coherence in the sustained indigenizing focus offered by the last three essays. Pauline Wakeham’s excellent contribution critiques Canada’s political investment in reconciliation as a sly twist on white civility and a reinvention of multiculturalism’s sedative management of national pasts. Sákéj Henderson’s sui generis Aboriginal jurisprudence provides Wakeham a transcultural methodology for re-theorizing legal relationships between Indigenous peoples and the nation-state, a notion Len Findlay’s essay—which primarily functions to familiarize Canadianists with Henderson’s work—articulates as “sui generis solidarity.” Peter Kulchyski’s critique of neoliberalism closes the volume with Indigenous inscription and “bush/writing” as a linguistic resistance to the state, which is only “a certain kind of writing.” These scholars theorize social justice with/in Indigenous epistemologies that resonate a politico-methodological challenge to Canada’s prevailing colonial paradigms. Yet, the absence of Indigenous voices themselves in a book that centers “indigeneity” within CanLit’s shifting conversations is curious. Need Len Findlay’s imperative work still pace the “long march” of indigenizing for Canadianists?

What literary study gains from this productive transdisciplinarity should be measured against what’s lost, which seems to be literature (conventionally understood) itself. Two of the strongest essays are by Jeff Derksen and Larissa Lai, the only two that perform close readings of literary texts. Derksen’s critique of the “global-local” spatiality in Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park becomes critical praxis, connecting his theoretical goal of resituating the “nation-scale” within multiscalar neoliberal space with his methodological concern over poststructuralism’s discursive alignment with the “de-territorialization of globalization.” Lai explores the master/slave dialectic of racialized subjectivities (re)produced through the genre of special issues on Asian-Canadian writing. Her meticulous close readings (the “u” in “colour” is unfastened with enough nuance to satisfy anyone’s inner Formalist) explicate a complex politics/poetics of representation both “hopeful and productively incomplete” for anti-racist work. These essays vitally demonstrate that disciplinary interests in resituating methodologies and humanist concerns with the Canadian polity can and do take shape in literary critical practice. In the long moment of ’crisis’ facing the discipline of literary study, my worry with the metacritical bearing of Shifting the Ground is that literature too often gets short-shifted or shifted away.

While CanLit’s critical foundations have become exposed under neoliberal globalization, Producing Canadian Literature makes visible how authors respond to what Jeff Derksen’s Foreword calls the “forces we now rather casually generalize as ’the market.’” Kamboureli and Kit Dobson interview Christian Bök, George Elliott Clarke, Daniel Justice, Larissa Lai, Stephen Henighan, Erín Moure, Ashok Mathur, Lee Maracle, Jane Urquhart, and Aritha van Herk, and append a useful timeline of key events in the evolution of Canada’s cultural bodies. Interviews explore “how books come to be” rather than “what books are about,” though inevitably these categories become mutually informing. These writers’ diversity in terms of form, genre, politics, age, gender, race, and success reverberates in their wide-ranging opinions, suggesting these positionalities significantly inform literature’s political economy. It’s perhaps no surprise, for example, that the formally unorthodox Christian Bök has a “vexed” relationship with the Canada Council, whereas Jane Urquhart—who eschews the “murky waters” of literary politics—has had positive experiences.

Reading these interviews through the methodological prism of Shifting the Ground yields two noteworthy observations. First, while the editors clearly sought diversity, the common tie between most of the writers is that they butter their bread elsewhere as academics. Only two of the ten do not hold (often well-paid) positions as (often prominent) scholars, and of these two, one is Jane Urquhart. This book more accurately explores how a certain class of author relates to the literary marketplace. Questions about arts funding and economic pressures often fall flat with these writer-critics, who are somewhat liberated from the market forces being investigated. What this clarifies is that Canada is not an easy place to make a living writing. “You know,” states Lee Maracle, “I don’t make enough money from art to stay alive.”

Second, because CRC and SSHRC funds supported the project, interview questions were preapproved for compliance with ethical standards of research on human subjects. The result is a formulaic pattern of inquiry tackling (in this order) arts funding; the publishing industry; national retailing and global circulation; literary awards and celebrity; and the future of Canadian writing. Interviews can read like responses to a standardized survey, and what’s often missing is a sense of organic conversation or cross-examination. There is a more generative corollary to the questionnaire style, however, which is the fascinating variability in responses to largely identical question sets. For example, while Erín Moure’s hilarious interview critiques creative-writing programs that produce students expecting immediate publication of what are “nice master’s theses, but not books,” in the following interview, Aritha van Herk reveals her MA thesis was published by McClelland & Stewart after packaging it with a covering letter saying, “This is my first book, I have never published before, thank you very much for reading this manuscript.”

Some important consensus does emerge, including collective support for continued arts funding and small presses, a more robust literary infrastructure, a wider circulation of reviews, and more translation outside Canada’s two official languages. Most notably, these writers all reveal a keen awareness of the expectations engendered by a cultural economy that tends to cater to the middle. Experiences of marginalization in terms of form (Bök, Lai, Moure) or racialization (Clarke, Justice, Lai, Mathur, Maracle) suggest that Canadian literature is never an apolitical production. In Slavoj Žižek’s terms, these authors relate to their economic regime not through “false consciousness” in the Marxist sense, but with a healthy dose of “ideological cynicism.” They are intensely cognizant of market-driven demands, and respond in different ways. Several resist, others defy and critique, and some, like George Elliott Clarke, play the market’s game in hopes of landing “that golden egg.”

“Our problem as artists,” says van Herk, “is that we often expect the audience to be what we want them to be.” My sense is that these writers weren’t always what the editors had in mind, but this takes nothing from their revealing insights. Producing Canadian Literature will be valuable for writers as well as scholars of Canadian literatures, particularly those interested in print culture and sites where the arts, markets, and public policy intersect. Together with Shifting the Ground, these TransCanada books should be read by Canadianists not for what they say about actual literary works—which is little, and not really their project—but for how they open the field itself by crossing it from exterior entry points. Absent of the literature, their contribution is more to the study of the study of CanLit—an increasingly undisciplined discipline.

This review “Undisciplining CanLit” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 131-34.

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