Literary Scenes in Canada

Posted May 25, 2009 by Ian Rae

What is a literary scene? Some critics, such as Northrop Frye in his landmark Anatomy of Criticism(1957), esteem a work of art solely on the basis of its manipulation of aesthetic codes. However, many postmodern critics take a sociological approach to literature that investigates the social milieu in which literary codes are deployed and combined with other forms of authority. According to Pierre Bourdieu in The Field of Cultural Production (1993), authors occupy positions in a literary milieu that is partially determined by economic criteria such as class, means to fund the writing process, interest in financial reward, access to publishers, and the availability of an educated readership with leisure time. However, Bourdieu emphasizes the agency of artists to contest institutional pressures through the production of social capital, which artists generate by challenging readerly expectations, tailoring works toward cliques instead of the mass market, and even scorning the need for publication (art for art’s sake). The term literary “scene” thus distinguishes itself from “tradition,” “genre,” and “industry” by the way in which it privileges artisanal productions that emphasize cultural over economic capital. The identity of a literary scene arises from its manner of creating a unique field of cultural production in a well-defined geographic, economic, political, and social territory.

This paper offers a brief history of literary scenes in Canada and explains what Bourdieu calls the “position-takings” of groups such as TISH and the Montreal moderns in relation to broader social issues. It also links the literary scenes of these pioneering authors to contemporary groups of writers who invoke their legacy to situate their own productions.

Searching for a cohesive literary scene in nineteenth century Canada yields scanty results, but the attempt nonetheless illuminates the problems that beset early Canadian literary culture. As Mary Lu MacDonald demonstrates in “Some Notes on the Montreal Literary Scene in the Mid-1820s,” anglophones in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada “had produced little in the way of a native literature before 1824” (Canadian Poetry 5, p.29). By 1824, anglophones born in Canada had published a few volumes of poetry and one novel, St. Ursula’s Convent. The Canadian Review and the Canadian Magazine, two rival literary magazines, emerged in 1824 to provide outlets for serious literature and a burst of literary activity occurred as writers who previously lacked a publishing venue found one. However, the dispersed state of the small anglophone population challenged the development of a literary scene. Canada’s leading writers in the nineteenth century were either farmers remote from social centres, such as Susanna Moodie of Roughing It in the Bush (1852); military officers who were frequently re-stationed, such as George Longmore, author of The Charivari; or Canadian Poetics (1824); products of the equally mobile clerical class, such as the Confederation Poet Archibald Lampman; or ambitious talents who used Canada as a stepping stone to launch their careers in the bigger markets of London, Boston, and New York, such as the Confederation Poets Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman.

Canada witnesses its first cohesive literary scene in the Montreal moderns. This scene emerges out of the desire of A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott to break with the romanticism of the Confederation poets and forge a bold modern voice for Canadian literature. Scott and Smith founded the McGill Fortnightly Review (1925-7) and each wrote a preface for different editions of the landmark modernist anthology, New Provinces (1936, reprinted 1976). Scott co-founded the journal Preview(1942-5), which drew other modernists into their orbit, including Patrick Anderson, P.K. Page, and A.M. Klein. A rival journal emerged under the banner First Statement (1942-5), which featured authors who favoured a more vernacular modernism, such as Louis Dudek and Irving Layton. The journals were amalgamated as the Northern Review in 1945. This Montreal scene, which nurtured the young Leonard Cohen, waned in the late 1950s. However, an increasingly powerful group of contemporary poets in Montreal, including David Solway, Carmine Starnino, and Robyn Sarah, connect their work directly to the values of the Montreal moderns. These poets have editorial sway over presses such as Signal Editions and magazines such as Books in Canada andMaisonneuve. Their work can be surveyed in Starnino’s The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry(2005), which favours formal modes of poetry over post-structuralist experiments. Ironically, the most acclaimed Montreal poet of the last decade, Anne Carson, operates outside of their orbit and has incurred their wrath.

The poststructuralist tradition rejected by the Signal poets begins with the TISH poets in Vancouver in the early 1960s. TISH (an anagram of “shit”) is the name of a monthly newsletter published by Frank Davey, George Bowering, Fred Wah, James Reid, and David Dawson between September 1961 and March 1963. These students at the University of British Columbia distributed the newsletter for free and promoted the Vancouver Poetry Festival with the aim of generating a distinctively Western literary scene that would later include Canada’s leading lesbian writer, Daphne Marlatt, as well as the mixed media artist Roy Kiyooka and the poet-critic Roy Miki. Inspired by the experiments in open form writing by avant-garde American writers, the Vancouver poets challenged what they perceived as the Eurocentrism and bourgeois values of the Montreal moderns. Their works are characterized by a pronounced interest in the organic rhythms of the Coast, the urban history of Vancouver, and a zeal for deconstructing established literary and national codes. However, like A.M. Klein in The Second Scroll (1951) and Leonard Cohen in Beautiful Losers(1966), these poets also shifted to prose in mid-career and garnered a larger audience for their lyricism. The novels Ana Historic (1988) by Marlatt and Burning Water (1980) by Bowering are the best-received examples.

The leftist political spirit of the TISH group is carried on by the Kootenay School of Writing, who hold regular meetings and readings in downtown Vancouver, often attended by TISH stalwarts. The KSW group explores connections between Language Poetry, deconstruction, and various forms of political critique. The best-known writers of this group are Lisa Robertson and Jeff Derksen, who launch post-structuralist attacks on patriarchy and capitalism. The influence of the TISH and KSW groups is also strong in the English Department of the University of Calgary, which underscores the strong ties of these writers to Prairie postmodernists such as Robert Kroetsch and Aritha van Herk, as well as publishing houses such as NeWest in Edmonton.

When the TISH poets attacked the literary establishment in “Central,” their barbs were aimed at Montreal and presses such as Contact, as much as Toronto and its self-appointed national publishing house, McClelland and Stewart. From the late 1960s onwards, however, Toronto became the epicenter of literary power in Canada. The critical mass created by the presence of Canada’s national newspaper (Globe and Mail), national broadcasters (CBC and CTV), academic luminaries (Frye, Marshall McLuhan), and the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, created the rudiments of a star system that endures today. While bars and cafes such as the Bohemian Embassy served as meeting points for artists, the Toronto scene is much more the product of a dynamism arising out of the interface between economic and cultural capital. Yet this scene also clustered around small presses, with Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, and other nationalist writers at Anansi, and Michael Ondaatje, bp Nichol, and authors of a more experimental bent at Coach House Press. Over time, McClelland and Stewart became a medium for translating the artisanal productions and reputations of the small press authors into international distribution networks.

The weight of Toronto’s publishing and media influence is illustrated by the fate of talented Newfoundland writers such as Wayne Johnston, author of The Navigator of New York (2002) and a classic, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), about Newfoundland’s entry into confederation. Johnston documents the distinctive wit, speech rhythms, and storytelling traditions of Newfoundland while dividing his time between Toronto and his home province. His fate is shared by author-editors such as Michael Winters of The Big Why? (2004). However, Winters is part of a new generation of Newfoundland writers known as the Burning Rock Collective who are stemming this exodus. Burning Rock emerged in St. John’s when students at Memorial University began meeting at the house of English professor Larry Mathews to compare their writing. The foremost members of the collective are the Giller Prize nominees Michael Crummey, author of the novel River Thieves(2001), and Lisa Moore, author of the short story collection Open (2002). By all accounts, the members of the collective eat, drink, and write with equal parts intensity and hilarity, and this activity seems to have anchored writers such as Crummey, who spent years in Ontario, to their home province. The collective have released two samplings of their work, Extremities: Fiction from the Burning Rock (1994) and Hearts Larry Broke (2000). Key presses for the collective are Newfoundland’s Killick and Ontario’s Anansi and Porcupine’s Quill.

This paper touches on only a few of Canada’s vibrant literary scenes. However, it demonstrates that, from coast to coast, the provincial capitals have become hives of literary activity that are local in their modes of production and international in the reach of their audience.