canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Letters

Subject: Teaching Canadian literature: IT SUCKS!

Read what's new as of January 29, 2003

Send your response to this piece to

January - February 2003

LETTER #1: I am appalled at the conclusions drawn by The Writers' Trust of Canada report on the state of Canadian literature in high schools, but I am not surprised. I teach several Creative Writing courses in the Continuing Education departments at Sheridan and Mohawk Colleges and as part of each curriculum insist on a review of a current Canadian novel or short-story collection. This is less an academic exercise than a device to get people reading Canadian writers. Every semester I am amazed by the numbers of people who have never heard of Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Carol Shields and Alice Munro, never mind the legions of emerging writers and those in mid-career with two or three critically well-received books to their credit. 

Every semester I win a convert or two. Sometimes more. I get no greater charge than hearing someone say that (fill in pulp fiction/blockbuster writer) just doesn't satisfy them anymore, that they're going to read more Canadian writers, and in general books with more tooth. Although I have to meet certain course objectives, I do have more freedom in the classroom than the high-school teachers and can feel their frustration. Also my students in general have money to buy books. As for the teachers who think Canadian literature is sub-standard, it's time to lose the 1970s mentality. The rest of the world has already realized the literature produced in this country is moving, timely and well worth reading.

Name withheld by request

LETTER #2: Does this mean Canadian schools teach English lit or American lit or World literature as opposed to Canadian literature courses? Or does this mean that no literature is taught in the schools?

In all deference to my dear friends in Canada and its unnecessarily neglected literature, I tend to think that the volume of literature involved is rather typical of the retreat of public high school education in North America, rather than any weakness of Canadian literary sovereignty. The parallel facts you mention --except for the idea of your literature being substandard--are true for American high schools about American literature and were certainly true when I went to high school back in the 1960s.

Very few American high schools teach American literature courses, and then only as advanced courses for honor and advanced placement students essentially as introductions to advanced literary studies in college. Usually there are only "English" courses which combine grammar, rhetoric, and some reading. What is read is a pastiche of English, American, and European literature. Because there has been a pressure in the direction of "multiculturalism" as a result of opposition to the dominant culture by oppressed nationalities, there might be a higher quotient of US literature than in the past, due to steps to include African American, Hispanic, Asian-American, or Native writers which is more analogous to reading Quebecois, Native, and Dene literature in Canada. However, there also seems to be a growing motion in US high schools to drop the literary aspects of English classes except for the supposedly college bound.

I graduated from high school in 1965 in Hartford, Connecticut, but I don't think we read six novels of any kind in the four years of high school. I read hundreds of novels when I was in high school, but most all of them were books I chose to read from libraries and from a Marynoll Books subscription my mother got for me (awful books about pure hearted Catholic missionaries in various Asian and Eastern European places being persecuted by evil Communists). I also bought a lot of novels and collections of short fiction at the corner drug store: back in the early 1960s the corner drug store even in our working class neighborhood had a rack filled with contemporary novels and classics as well as lots of genre fiction with trashy looking covers.

My deepest memories of fiction in high school were books I read on my own: the Russians--Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Gogol-- and Robert Graves' Claudius series. Neither was an American text, although I do remember discovering Dos Passos and Whitman because we had my father's old college American literature textbook lying around the house.

In actual high school classes, I can remember us doing one novel a year along with poetry and an annual assault on poor old Shakespeare.

The books I remember reading in high school were a rewritten-in-prose- for-dumb-students version of the Odyssey (when I entered high school, I was placed in the dumb English class because I was Black and my handwriting was miserable, but, luckily, my uncle was a guidance counselor at the high school and got me rescued to college and then honors English where I achieved B's and A's although I hated English which is why I am now an English professor), Willa Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop, Tale of Two Cities, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in my four successive years in high school. You will note that only one of these, the Cather, is an American text.

I also read Tacitus, Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil--not Americans-- in successive years in Latin class. Curiously enough, I don't remember us reading anything of any literary nature in my three years of French!

I tend to think Canadians have an unnecessary inferiority complex based on imagining that everything short of being as narrow minded as they imagine the USA to be is cultural imperialism. How much Belgian or Luxembourgeois literature do you think is taught in high schools in those countries as opposed to Dutch, French, and German literature?

Tony Thomas, Miami, Florida

LETTER #3: Dear Danforth Review,

I laud Tony Thomas’ eminently sensible comments on the supposed crisis of CanLit in our high schools. To me, this alarmist nationalistic ballyhoo is a trivialization of far more significant troubles our schools (and consequently our students and citizens) are suffering.

The question should not be "What are we reading?" but "Are we reading?" The answer, more and more, seems to be no. And, institutionally speaking, who is to blame for this state of affairs? The schools make an easy target, but as was the case with Mr. Thomas, I read voraciously as a youth, and most of that reading was extra-curricular. If I read a lot, it had far more to do with influences in my family than any inspirational teachers or texts I encountered in school. I had the ‘luxury’ few young people (including my contemporaries) today enjoy of growing up in a stable nuclear family in which one of my parents opted to stay at home. I was read to daily as a child, and took up reading myself well before my first day of school. How common is this scenario now? Not very, I’d say, in spite of Pottermania. The proliferation of such electronic babysitters (purchased by parents either out of guilt for lack of attention given to their children, combined with fatigue created by the attempt to balance career and domestic duties) as movies, videogames and the internet has made serious incursions into the time required for this sort of formative reading.

Which is not to say that the public school system, and the governments that underfund and thereby devalue it, are blameless. Because of the sorry state of that system (in my case in the province of PEI), which is more concerned with making sure that anyone, no matter how limited their capacities or interest, can graduate than with providing the kind of education that leads to intelligent, critically-minded citizenship, my parents and I decided that I would pursue my secondary studies at a private school in Ottawa. There, it is true, I read only a handful of Canadian books (The Stone Angel, A Bird in the House, and Mad Shadows are the only books I remember reading in English, though I read others in my French classes), but was also introduced to the classics of antiquity, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Conrad, Lawrence, Dostoevski, and Yukio Mishima. Before this exposure, I’d been mostly interested in science fiction and fantasy, but became, quite unconsciously at the time, a lover of ‘literature’ from the 11th grade on.

One must first be literate before one can love literature, whatever its country of origin. Both my spouse and I have worked as Teaching Assistants at a Canadian University, and the overwhelming impression we had is that people are barely literate (in the simplest sense of the world), and are allowed to graduate from university still barely literate. If the Writers’ Trust was motivated by anything other than self-interest, they would conduct studies from the perspective of writers rather than as Canadian writers. Many literate Canadians will read Canadian books. But so what if they don’t? What is more important, that we cheerlead for indigenous talent, or that we develop the sort of intellectual acuity and ethical sensibilities (or perhaps more realistically, the bare minimum of being able to read and write competently) required of democratic citizenship? Rather than establishing quotas for homegrown work in the classroom, teachers should be given MORE leeway to teach the books that they love, whether these be English, American, Scandinavian, African, Asian, or Canadian. There is no substitute for pedagogical enthusiasm when it comes to getting students turned on to books.

The fact is that very little CanLit (and I say this as a fan of, and contributor to, our literature) is at the level of the best the rest of the world has to offer. And that which is exceptional is often not taught. Two of the best Canadian novels I’ve read are Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook and Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game. These books are given short shrift in CanLit courses. Instead, we get mass doses of Atwood, Ondaatje, Laurence, Findley, Richler, Davies, MacLennan. To be diplomatic, each of these writers has his or her own particular talents, and some of them I quite enjoy reading, but none of them is world class, and some of them are downright bad (so much for diplomacy!). It’s this steady diet of middling prose that leads Canadians to make the altogether too-common sweeping statement: "I hate Canadian literature." If I read Canadian books today, it’s more in spite of those I read in school than because of them. Critics like Marchand and Henighan have touched on this, but their views remain at the fringe, since they’re of little interest to the CanLit apologists and Writer’s Trust/Canada Council jobbers. In spite of international praise for Canuck books, ours is a literature still in its infancy. If we persist in being so insecure and isolationist, we are doomed to remain infantile.

Zach Wells, Montreal

LETTER#4: Michael, does this sort of stuff really bother you? Do you think that forcing CanLit down teenagers throats will make them more knowledgeable and Canada a better place to live?

Perhaps I've lived through too much CanLit nationalism and am cynical about its agendas, both apparent and hidden. You cannot build a literature like a museum, brick by brick. The literature assembles mysteriously, all by itself, without any help. Two of the best modern Canadian books were well nigh hidden by their publisher M&S and they still made it to classic status, just by word of mouth really. I mean Levine's Canada Made Me and Cohen's Beautiful Losers. In '68 thru '73, when I was Coming of age here, everyone I knew was reading Vonnegut, Brautigan and Hesse: they'd get passed hand to hand and seemed to touch us where it mattered most. Was that because of dope? Maybe. And maybe because they were easily available in Vintage paperbacks or Penguin Modern Classics. Oh, and I suppose Kerouac too. They certainly weren't on highschool reading lists.

Maybe I'm just too bloody minded, but I still agree with Frank Zappa after all these years: you go to college to get laid, for an education you go to the library. The public library. That place where the books are free and no-one tells you how or what to think, except maybe the authors.

cheers for now: gord

MICHAEL BRYSON RESPONDS: Does it bother me? Yes, but for a complicated host of reasons, which cannot be boiled down to "nationalism". Might more easily be boiled down to "self-interest" (i.e., wouldn't it be great if one of my books landed on the curriculum?!).

No one said a word about forcing anything down anyone's throat.

You mention 1968-1973. How many literary titles were published in Canada in those years? Far fewer than will be published between the years 1998-2003. That is to say, the Canadian literary world has gone through a massive transformation in the past thirty years and the CC report says, nothing has changed in Canadian high schools. Something is amiss here.

Far from forcing teenagers to read more Margaret Lawrence, I think it's clear that these kids -- as well as the rest of the country, surely -- should be told that there are lots of interesting books being written and published. Again, self-interest comes into play here. We all need readers, and wouldn't it be better if kids knew where to search out cool stuff and plop down some coin to get some of it...


LETTER #5: Great to get a response from you on this Michael: it's a touchy issue, and as I far as I can recall, always has been. I remember it came up during my stint at Paragraph; I recall writing a response to a letter saying that reviews "were not meant to connect readers to writers" (close quote maybe not exact), and I feel the same when you say that kids should be told about good Canadian books. I just don't buy it. My feeling has been, for years really, that kids get educated despite what we do for them, not because of it. High schoolers will seek out what they want in the community, be it alternative rock (as opposed to the radio fare), or literature that touches them more than the officially sanctioned stuff. Part of their trip, though, is to discover this stuff for themselves. They want/need the adventure of that because it fits in with their need to rebel and establish their sense of identity and individuality. It's much more fun to go downtown on their own and seek out, say, Bukowski or Nick Cave, to pick names they won't find in the local library (probably) than to have some well meaning soul tell them it's good (or hip) for them.

Lack of library funding touches on another issue, and that is, artistic young people (just like gays and really anyone that doesn't fit the mold) always have to leave the provinces and come to the city. Small town libraries are underfunded, but the two systems I'm most familiar with, Mississauga and Toronto, most definitely are not, they're bulging with books/videos etc. The Jan/Feb Books In Canada has my review of Curtis Gillespie's golfing book (can't recall title right now). The Toronto system had both his earlier books (one a standard CanLit short story collection and one a bunch of profiles of the developmentally handicapped), and in one Saturday morning I was able to visit the two branches and read sizable chunks of both books. You can't get much more low profile than Curtis Gillespie. Have you even heard of him?

I agree, of course, that since my formative period, the number of CanLit titles has shot way up, and that we are on the world stage now for good, it's not just some flash in the pan, but with that achievement comes a responsibility to quit our low down ways, established in the nationalistic seventies, of shamelessly promoting second rate product just because it's Canadian and the writer got some degree in creative wanking in the Kooteneys. And by second rate I mean "sufficient craft to articulate a cliche". (this also goes on with CanFilm: how many times have I read a respectful review in the Globe and shucked out ten or so big ones for some artfully shot evocation of downtown blackleather existential angst circa Paris 1953, updated with aids and heroin chic, and with a script penned by two poodles on Prozac?)

You know, the idea that some teenager in New Zealand might read Yann Martel because he won the Booker is exciting, but how many teenagers (or adults) that you know read Keri Hulme's The Bone People when she won some years back? Or say, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda? My guess for most popular Canadian author with high school age kids would be Doug Coupland. He's hip, ironic, vacuous, and his books are everywhere. Just a guess though. When I'm in Chapters out here I always look to see what the teenagers, who are usually waiting to go into a movie or have just left one, are looking at. It's a fair mix of Rock music bios, newage/witchcraft/wiccan stuff and a few scouting the fiction section for certain titles they've been told are good. And you know sometimes it's still Kerouac...

Me, I'm obsessed with non-fiction these days and read a ton of it. Simon Schama's History of Britain is one of the best books I've read in years. I wanted to use this in a reply to the essay on reviewing in TDR, and I'm still contemplating that, but I just haven't had the time. Life just keeps getting in the way: not to mention jobs.

cheers for now: gordon

LETTER #6: I wanted to make a quick comment [on Gordon Phinn's comments] with respect to teaching can lit. especially the ideas that a) teaching involves forcing things down teenagers' throats and b) that unlike museums, literature is mysterious etc (which students need to rebel against).

The first proposition is accurate about a lot of teaching, of almost any subject - and yet perhaps sometimes it's effective - after all, engineers do build bridges, lawyers go to court & win/lose cases - but surely it's possible to teach interesting/current/small press etc books w/out shoving them down teenagers throats. I see the benefits of radical art being taught all the time at the art school where I work - emily carr - students have a grounding in contemporary conceptualism in the contexts of (post)modernity that stands them in good stead for doing artistic work today. Teaching stuart ross or maggie helwig - as i've also done - just raises the bar for the students - here's something wild - read it, reject it, whatever, but see what's been done here. I think that anyone who professes to care about how books are written & read & who has the kind of decision making you have as an academic or teacher should use the work they're excited about.

Secondly, I don't see how literature, unlike museums, are some mysterious entity, except to realize that this is the kind of romantic hogwash that - ironically - the old school academy & contemporary lit publicity business both propogate(d). Reading innovative work, whether recent or not, and talking about it, would hardly "eliminate" mystery anyway - when students encounter writing that seems relevant that's what counts. Perhaps "young people" keep turning to the beats etc just because it seems like some artless "alternative" (kerouac wore khaki etc) to "straight society" ....

Clint Burnham, Vancouver

LETTER #7: For what it is worth I work as an English Teacher at a French School in Mississauga. I teach that expressions like 'dummer than a sack full of hammers', 'tighter-than-a-mouse's-hole-stretched-over-a-barrel' and 'baseball bat and a field of ripe pumpkins' are literary devices such as imagery, colloquialism and metaphor which belong to the rural region of my upbringing: the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. 

Recently a fellow English teacher bought 25 copies of In the Skin of the Lion by Michael Ondaatje and I noticed that it was taught last year alongside: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and/or The Handmaids Tale. On Valentines Day I passed out Love Poems by Irving Layton, a recent gift to the school and the kids in my grade 11 class were interested to hear the story of how Patrick Woodcock and I went to visit the old man in his Nursing Home in Montreal to bring him a bottle of wine and he looked up at the nurse and said: 'Hey Beautiful.' 

Also, I have brought in a copy of Madeline Sonik's Arms and read from it to teach alliteration and puns. It is a hysterical book, funny, original and sad as well, though I had to carefully select chapters that were appropriate. What I am trying to say is that Canadian literature doesn't suck. Panels and committees don't do anything, as they have lost touch, in my opinion, with what is happening closer to the ground. Actually there is a lot of great literature happening in Canada right now. Paul Vermeersch, Sheila Heti, Michael Winter are all good writers in my estimation. Get them into the classrooms and make it a publicly funded mandate to have good writers visit schools. But keep the knitting circles and self-congratulatory panel sitting fuddy duddies out of it. 

You want to get kids interested in literature, then get the writers out into the classroom and let them talk about literature. To use a hockey analogy: no one wants to listen to what Ron Maclean thinks. They want to listen to Don Cherry. He fought in rinks. He actually played the game. 

John Stiles









TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.