One of my favourite young(ish) contemporary authors, Gary Shteyngart, recently caused a wave of consternation when he suggested that Canadian authors, for the most part, are loath to take risks because they want to qualify for grant funding. The customary hand-wringing ensued. Shteyngart has some legitimacy on this topic, having read more Canadian novels than many of us ever will as one of the judges of the Giller Prize in 2012, when Will Ferguson won for 419. (I still haven’t read it, but have some interest in reading it, which I can’t say about any of the other nominees that year — including Alex Ohlin’s Inside, which this excoriating review convinced me never to pick up.)
I’m sympathetic to Shteyngart. When I go into a bookstore and pick up a Canadian fiction title, I almost always put it back on the table because it sounds dreary and well-intentioned. I skim the book review sections in the Globe and the Star every weekend, and am only occasionally moved by a review to pick up any of the Canadian novels reviewed. My theory is that mainstream CanLit can best be understood as a genre. There are different streams of the genre: historical CanLit, immigrant memory CanLit, meaningful small-town insight CanLit, novels-by-poets (shudder) CanLit, where every word has been worked over far, far too long — but there is an underlying serious, diligent feeling to it all, which, as in all genre fiction, you either warm to, or you don’t.
(An aside: this morning on CBC radio I heard the description of the 5 new Canada Reads books. My favourite: one described as “a love letter to the Canadian wilderness, with gender issues”. Could there be anything more Canadian?)
I rarely read science fiction or fantasy, not because there aren’t good writers or good books, but because the underlying premise isn’t of great interest to me, and I use my reading time for other things. I really like well-written, but not ponderous, contemporary fiction about people who could (but don’t) exist, and there’s not a lot of that in the CanLit genre. Russell Smith, Lynn Coady, and others are able to publish that sort of book from time to time, and Alice Munro is one of the best. Adding foreign judges to the Giller jury sometime in the late 2000s has led to more contemporary and even humorous books making the cut.