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Writing on the Wall Illustration by Sébastien Thibault.

Writing on the Wall

André Forget reads Refuse: CanLit in Ruins.

Two years ago, close to a hundred of Canada’s leading writers signed an open letter decrying the lack of “due process” for Steven Galloway, a novelist and professor of creative writing at UBC who’d been suspended from his job, then fired, after former students made “serious allegations” about his behaviour. While many of the details remain murky, it has since become clear that the allegations involved sexual assault and abuse of power.

An investigator hired by UBC didn’t substantiate the assault complaints, and Galloway was ultimately awarded $167,000 in damages after an arbitrator found that UBC communications had breached his privacy rights and caused harm to his reputation. Still, anger around the episode grew, and soon, it felt familiar. The letter ended up merely the first of a series of controversies that have deeply shaken the Canadian literary world—investigations into Joseph Boyden’s claimed Indigenous ancestry, the “cultural appropriation prize” debacle, and the daylighting (or re-daylighting) of allegations of harassment and abuse in another English and Creative Writing department, at Concordia University.

Today, the divisions that letter created—or exposed—are both clearer and more obscure. While differences of opinion tend to fall along recognizable paths—old versus young, established versus emerging, male versus female and non-binary—the controversies transcend these divisions in puzzling ways. Part of what made the open letter so shocking was the fact that one of its most prominent signatories and defenders was Margaret Atwood, who, even as she compared UBC’s investigation into Galloway’s conduct to the Salem witch trials, was preparing to go on the publicity circuit for the television adaptation of her dystopian feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale. CanLit has long cherished the notion that it is broadly progressive, but the letter forced writers to think much harder about what “progressive” politics prioritize. For its signatories, due process is an essential liberal value; for their critics, this idea rests on a faith in the justice system that is, at the very best, naïve.

These complications are illuminated by a new collection of essays hitting shelves next month. Edited by Erin Wunker, Julie Rak and Hannah McGregor, and published by Book*hug, a small Toronto press, Refuse: CanLit In Ruins reads like a series of dispatches from the front lines of this literary civil war. Refuse contains a series of short essays and poems from emerging and established writers and academics, some new and some previously published, in full or in part, including as tweets, as the controversies unfolded. Rather than presenting a definitive manifesto, the editors describe it as being a “curation, an archive of the very public and very urgent activist work that has been done by so many writers, academics, and publishers in response to a tangle of events that are recent but have deep roots.”

While editors introduce each piece with a contextualizing note, the writers are generally allowed to speak for themselves. The effect is a book that feels frank but intimate, like an office dinner party (with no management present) where coworkers can tell stories, rant, and argue with each other about the shortcomings of their industry. The book has its weaknesses—there is a fair amount of repetition, and not all arguments are expressed with the same clarity—but the exercise is valuable precisely because it reflects the messiness and anger of the current discourse about CanLit.

It quickly becomes clear that this anger is about much more than the UBC situation, Boyden, and the cultural appropriation prize, which are simply the most visible signs of a deeper malaise. The contributors are angry at a literary culture they feel has respected neither their work nor their experiences.

Some of the essays attempt to address the crisis by providing a genealogy of how we ended up here. In “#CanLit at the Crossroads: Violence Is Nothing New, How We Deal With It Might Be,” academic Lucia Lorenzi argues that Canadian literature has been press-ganged into building Canadian national identity, and that there’s a disconnect between CanLit as marketed—a progressive movement reflective of Canada’s essential benevolence—and CanLit as an existing network of writers, teachers, editors and institutions. In Lorenzi’s analysis, abuses in the latter are swept under the rug to protect the integrity of the former.

But as Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott argues in one of the book’s best pieces, “CanLit Is a Raging Dumpster Fire” (originally published with Open Book last September), part of what’s driving contemporary anger is precisely the feeling that we’ve been here before and nothing has changed. She cites earlier examples of public outrage at racism in CanLit, such as Anishinaabe poet Lenore Keshig’s criticism of cultural appropriation in 1989 and University of Toronto professor Rinaldo Walcott’s criticisms of black erasure in CanLit in 1997. How, Elliott asks, can “the writers, editors, publishers and agents that make up CanLit live through those mistakes, hear them pointed out, do nothing to address them, then still somehow manage to tell themselves that CanLit is diverse and progressive?”

Elliott’s question is the most important posed in Refuse. Criticism of CanLit from marginalized writers is as old as CanLit itself, and as University of Toronto professor Nick Mount relates in Arrival, his tendentiously celebratory book on the CanLit boom of the 1960s and 1970s, this country also has a long history of male writers intimidating and silencing their female colleagues. In 1969, Gwendolyn MacEwan was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for poetry alongside her estranged ex-husband Milton Acorn. Afraid of having to be in the same room as him, MacEwan wrote the judges saying she would rather withdraw her book than risk sharing the award with Acorn. In the end, she split it with George Bowering, but the Canadian poetry establishment rallied around Acorn and inaugurated the Canadian Poets’ Award in his honour (it is perhaps noteworthy that one of Acorn’s supporters was Margaret Atwood). If episodes of outrage over sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation appear with such depressing regularity throughout the history of CanLit, how can we be sure that things the will change this time?

What is to be done? On this question, a common fault line runs through Refuse, between reformers and revolutionaries. Is CanLit a category worth salvaging, or is the very idea of a “Canadian literature” problematic? The reformers, such as A.H. Reaume and Laura Moss, argue that what is needed is a new CanLit that represents Canada’s diversity and is committed to decolonization and other anti-racist movements. Others, like Kai Cheng Thom, Chelsea Vowel and Jennifer Andrews, raise fundamental questions about whether a nationalist category can ever overcome the limitations of nationalism. In other words, while both groups share the same immediate concerns, their analysis of the underlying problems leads them to different conclusions. If it’s just a matter of drawing the circle wider, then something like Canada Reads, for example, is fine so long as it features a fair representation of Canadian diversity. But if investing in a national literature is fundamentally wrong-headed, then the very question Canada Reads sets out to answer—which book should all Canadians read this year?—is suspect.

To be fair, “CanLit” is an ambiguous term: as the editors of Refuse note, CanLit can refer to a scholarly discipline, a publishing industry, a canon, a style of literary writing, a cultural-political project to bolster a particular sense of identity, and a yardstick by which certain notions of national prestige can be measured. It’s perhaps telling that for the many times the term is employed throughout Refuse, it is only discussed in passing as a market. This is unsurprising: Refuse is a product of the academy, which, at least in the humanities, tends to be skeptical about the market’s capacity to be a force for good. But this skepticism also creates a blind spot in understanding how the small market for Canadian writing is intimately related to many of CanLit’s problems.

The economics of Canadian publishing have always played an important role in who and what gets published. In Arrival, Mount argues that the rise of CanLit was driven by higher levels of education and affluence: as more people had an interest in reading literary books and more people could afford them, more people, in turn, made a living writing them. There was also a question of timing: as cultural nationalism became a major feature of Canadian life in the 1960s, the editors, publishers, authors and professors who built the CanLit infrastructure of presses, prizes, bookstores and university syllabi had a stake in selling a particular kind of Canadian identity.

But even with the boost of post-war affluence and incipient nationalism, CanLit has always struggled to find a market, and the twenty-first century has not been kind to the book trade. According to BookNet, 2.9 million books published in English by Canadian presses were sold in 2017, at a value of $51.2 million. This figure, which includes everything from textbooks and cookbooks to novels and academic works, represents a fraction of the 51.5 million books Canadians purchased in that same year. For most Canadian writers, poetry and literary fiction provides no straight path to earning a living. And yet every year, Canada’s twenty university and college creative writing programs churn out a crop of newly professionalized writers eager to take their place at the table.

In these conditions, those who control the means of production have an immense amount of power. Writers still trying to build an audience are far more dependent on their publishers than their publishers are on them, writers and publishers are both heavily dependent on grants to maintain operating budgets, and everyone’s general goal is to aim for a big-name prize, because winning something like the Giller or the Governor General’s Award guarantees a major increase in sales. Data from BookNet Canada for 2016 showed a staggering 426 percent increase in sales for books that made the Giller shortlist, with the winning title, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, securing a further 359 percent increase in sales after it was announced as the winner. Winning a major prize can also be parlayed into positions in creative writing programs, juries, workshops and festivals, which allows writers to further entrench themselves in the mechanisms of CanLit. But there are only so many big-name prizes, and not everyone is going to make the shortlist. For those who are not independently wealthy, continuing to publish becomes increasingly difficult. CanLit is an economy in which the winners generally do take all.

Contributors to Refuse describe this carrot-and-stick culture in great detail: play by the rules, and you may well be able to build a modest career. Irritate the wrong people, and opportunities will dry up faster than you can say “libel chill.” Well-placed individuals have an outsized ability to reward or punish their peers with very little institutional oversight, which creates an environment ripe for abuse. Individuals accused of wrongdoing may, from time to time, face justice, but as long as the conditions that disempower the less established and protect the established persist, systemic change is unlikely.

Paradoxically, the market—the mechanisms that make it possible for a book to be sold to an audience that will pay for it—is also one of the most powerful tools writers have to challenge the CanLit status quo. Rupi Kaur, who was single-handedly responsible for making poetry one of the best-selling genres in Canada in 2017, became a household name by building a following through her Instagram account and marketing her work to audiences that might not show up at a poetry reading, enacting an end-run around the whole rotten edifice of CanLit. Critics may be divided as to the value of her work, but her success doesn’t rely on critical approval: unlike most Canadian poets, she has a direct connection with an audience that has proven itself willing to buy her books, which gives her a degree of independence that most poets can only dream of.

In some ways, CanLit itself is little more than a marketing campaign, a way of drumming up interest in writing that might otherwise struggle to find a readership. It is telling that one doesn’t see the same obsessive nation-building discourse in American and British literatures, where the domestic markets are large enough to support a publishing industry, and where books are instead marketed on content, novelty and artistic merit. With migration and the internet dissolving whatever differences may still exist between the many national literatures written in English, the idea that a writer’s citizenship is the most important taxonomic principle is increasingly ludicrous, and this begs the question of whether CanLit, as a descriptive term, is useful for anything but ensuring government funding.

After nearly sixty years of CanLit, writers in this part of the world are faced with a bracing opportunity: to give up on the project of nation-building altogether and explore other, perhaps more fruitful and interesting ways of thinking about their work. We should let CanLit die a natural death not because it is more essentially compromised now than it was a decade ago, but because it is not a term that can help us build a better literary culture. So long as writing in Canada is viewed and marketed through the parochial lens of nationalism, Canadian writers compete for the attention of a limited domestic audience. But if we expand the market for work produced in Canada, we make it possible for writers to be less reliant on the legacy structures of CanLit, and less at the mercy of the well-connected. If CanLit is in ruins, why not build something else entirely?

André Forget is the editor-in-chief of the Puritan, a Toronto-based literary magazine.