When Words Deny The World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing
by Stephen Henighan
Porcupine's Quill, 2002
When Words Are An Anticlimax: Henigha(n)ation
by Shane Neilson
The sky is falling; the sky is falling!- Chicken Little
It’s a cliché that, over time, human beings declare themselves. They become known for what they are, based on the longitudinal record of their behaviours. People develop a reputation of selfishness or generosity, they are regarded as either cruel or kind, all on the basis of their own actions. The same is true of publishing houses and editors, though in their special case the public is left with a permanent repository of house enthusiasms, quirks, and derisions. The cultivated books are undeniable; they were created, fashioned, and sold; they exist on bookshelves. Based on the output of editor John Metcalf’s Porcupine’s Quill stewardship, a follower of the PQ oeuvre identifies a litcrit polemicism rare in this country, a negative stance toward Canadian literature in general and its most-feted practitioners in particular (while maintaining a convenient exemption for house
Since the 1970’s onward, via his numerous interviews and essays, especially in his burn-the-house-down title Kicking Against the Pricks (1982), Metcalf carried the anti-Canlit flag alone for years. Recently he has ushered into an existence a mini-industry of like-minded firebreathers. The first such salvo against Canlit complacency came in his 1998 recruitment of Philip Marchand, the long-serving Toronto Star books reporter. Produced under Metcalf’s tutelage, Marchand’s book of critical essays, titled Ripostes, assailed the Canadian canon in heretical ways. Marchand disemboweled Michael Ondaatje in a scathing and hilarious essay; he reevaluated Margaret Lawrence as a bovine writer of pathos. And he sent up Timothy Findley, practically immolating Tiff’s reputation. Although Marchand attacked without fear, he also possessed a humility derived from an immediate disclosure of his failed writer status.
Herein lies the chief difference between Marchand’s Ripostes and Steven Henighan’s When Words Deny The World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing (2002).
PQ’s latest arson attempt, the latter book has already elicited a very public epistolary meltdown between the author and one of his prominent
targets (Russell Smith), and it has also touched off a larger debate amongst Canadian readers in general: what is Canadian writing, and what is it worth?
Introduction to the Henigha(n)ation
In marked contrast to Marchand’s example, Henighan immediately enters the following words into the public record in his sixth book: "Every writer is first a reader." Unlike Marchand, Henighan has written a few novels and short story collections; he has spent a longer period in literary apprenticeship than Marchand (we are informed of Henighan’s time served in numerous "critical" essays, whereas Marchand got things out of the way in his book’s first and only autobiographical essay). The credentials are forced on us; Henighan wishes to establish himself as a writer, and as a writer, he’s by extension an authority on writing. From this point onward, the actual reader is treated to an ego manifesto: Henighan’s introduction is an eight-page treatise on his own development as a writer!
began to write as an adolescent in rural Eastern Ontario in the 1970s. My fiction writing was interrupted by my university education in the United States, where I wrote little more than the undergraduate quotient of strained poems…. The essays that follow chart my attempt to define my literary environment: to work out what it means to engage with literature as a Canadian fiction writer of my generation…" (Pronoun italics mine)
In Henighan’s world, there are writers, there are readers, and there’s himself. He takes great pains in his introduction and throughout his book to announce that he is an actual writer, documenting the struggle to write this or that novel, to get a short-story collection published, to suffer the slings and arrows of Canadian mendacity, all of which are hard for Henighan
to bear. Marchand may not have had the talent or luck to pass muster as an author, but he wrote a great defense of why he should be allowed to be a reviewer in an essay entitled, "Confessions of a Book columnist." His first words?
There are, I am sure, university undergraduates today, still fresh with the dew of youth, who are looking forward to careers as dentists or public relations officers. But are there any, blessed with the love of language, who yearn to become literary critics? I doubt it. You usually have to discover, as American critic Sven Bikerts confesses in his Gutenberg Elegies, that you can’t write a novel to save your life before you think of turning your hand to literary criticism…Agreeing to take the job is one thing- feeling truly qualified for it is another. It is never easy to say that one is qualified to review books for a living."
For Henighan, merely appearing in print is overqualification.
Henighan’s egotism is much in evidence throughout WWDTW. His other major fault is
inconsistency. His introductory essay ingratiates us into a festival of self-deceptions and contradictions that are maintained with a manic intensity throughout his book. In
his introduction, Henighan makes much of his two-solitude nature- he was born an American, but moved to Canada very early in life only to return to the U.S. for undergraduate studies as an adult. Thus the statement "Having arrived in Canada at the age of five, I am an immigrant writer…" can be viewed with some suspicion. He ends my ellipse with "…yet no one thinks of me in that way." And why should they? Isn’t Canada best conceived as an immigrant nation? Dealing in absolutes, every non-aboriginal Canadian is in a historical sense an immigrant. Though he later says that he "thinks that history is important", Henighan also thinks that he’s somehow unique. And that thought just isn’t compatible with the history of our country, nor is it aware of the fact that good writing transcends racination.
His introduction kicks off a book-length sneer at Canadian literature’s heritage, a diatribe including the essays of the book’s first section, "A Language for the Americas" and "Linking Short Stories", and continued in the second section of the book with "Free-Trade Fiction." He feels that Canadians are constrained by postcolonialism, the little guy next to Britain during the early stages of our development, and even smaller next to the United States at the current evolutionary stage. One of his major theses, first appearing in this introduction, is that "The ‘problem’ of the Canadian novel, for me, was that Canada…was a nation marginal to the epicenters of global culture and global power, yet endowed by history, as if a joke, with the literary language of the world’s two most powerful empires, the nineteenth century United Kingdom and the twentieth-century United States. The language did not fit the experience."
Henighan goes on to argue that this language of imperialism is not our language, although this is untrue- Canadians imperialized the hell out of indigenous native populations, and furthermore any subjugated nation invariably adapts and modifies the dominant parlance to its own purpose. He then documents his own abortive use of this language: "… each attempt I made to express my vision of my surroundings was thwarted by the traitorous inheritance of the Anglo-American literary idiom, which converted any effort to dramatize ideas or portray the individual as an outcropping of his history into bad sociological fiction." In other words, it wasn’t Henighan’s fault that he couldn’t write well; it was Canada’s relatively minor role in world affairs. The ‘joke’ is actually on him; he’s already invoked his status as a U.S. citizen (his cited imperialist) as the reason why he’s a writer. Yet he blames Canada’s constipated, second-hand language as the reason why he cannot write! Of course, all of this is lost on him: "The art of empires snuffs out the possibility of dramatizing life from within peripheral societies; it kills the novel of ideas and the novel as the emanation of history." Let’s recap: Henighan’s US immigrancy somehow makes him special, and he’s unaware that that he cites the country of his origin as killing the novel. How can he have it both ways?
The fact is that marginalia depends upon where you draw the boundary. The U.S. isn’t homogenous; neither is Canada. Empires hatch some of the best writing because they have the power to annex cultures, thereby creating societal conflict. Just ask Stephen Scobie about the jackboot of the Canadian federal government! How can a culture be peripheral unless there is a dominant standard for comparison? He later writes: "The history of anyone on the edge of events is bound to force narratives into new shapes; fragmentation, circularity, wordplay and rebel mythologies undermine the rhetoric of linear progress…writers from marginal societies…have also been, in many cases, the most challenging from a purely literary standpoint." According to this particular strain of Henighan’s logic, Canada should be the prime breeding ground for reinventing fiction on the basis of its cultural subordination to the United States, although it is his opinion that Canada’s staid words quiver under, rather than rebel against, American influence.
These are but a few of the contradictions appearing in only the introduction to Henighan’s book, and this fact makes the later contradictions alluded to by the introduction’s ending sentence all the more inexcusable: "The positions I take in the essays at the end of this collection, inevitably, are somewhat different from those proposed at the outset. As a result, internal contradictions abound. Since the purpose of this book is to narrate one writer’s developing relationship with his tradition, I have let most of the contradictions stand." Considering that "the outset" is riddled with the aforementioned contradictory positions, one cannot excuse Henighan for not tidying up in the main body of his argument the inconsistency he is quick to identify in others. Instead, our writer demands that his narcissism be taken at an unedited face value, underscoring the difference between Marchand yet again, who extended and elaborated upon his old positions. Henighan wrote some of these essays over fifteen years ago, and he couldn’t even revise them in an effort to make them part of a cohesive whole. More egregiously, he couldn’t even pull things together in the introduction, the culmination of his maturation as a writer/critic. Immediate failures like this are ominous in book-length works of criticism.
Post-introduction to the Henigha(n)ation
The first section of the book is comprised of book reviews and essays. Henighan presents the original versions largely as is, leaving yesteryear’s deadline efforts untouched. A more diligent critic would reformulate his opinions over time, but Henighan is ossified by unelapsed laziness.
His first victim is the venerable/vulnerable Josef Svorecky, an odd choice since Canadian Literature has many more celebrated talents. Couldn’t he have updated this essay, written circa 1985 and saddled with anachronistic Cold War terminology, our dated ideological edifice. Henighan included it perhaps because it has some substance in terms of word count, unlike many of the other essays in the first section, the shortest of which is an anemic two pages in length.
In a postscript to the essay (the first of many), he writes about a critic miffed by his original anti-Svorecky position: "[Responding to my criticisms] might have sparked a debate, and debate is anathema to Canada’s neo-colonial literary culture, where the imposition of fashionable opinion suffices to prove any point." Ad nauseam, Henighan shows us here for the first time that his criticism is actually all about him.
These post-review postscripts are the most self-serving -and therefore the most grating- portions of the book. Several of the eleven ostensible "essays" of WWDTW are followed by a commentary describing the article’s ‘controversial’ reception in the Canlit community; each casts Henighan as a truth-teller with career-risking courage, staring down mass opinion. The narcissism here is astonishing; who except the author himself and a few aggrieved parties care that Henighan’s browbeating of Irving Layton caused a teapot-tempest controversy, for example? Shouldn’t his essays advocate themselves, not have their drum personally beat by a post-essay debrief courtesy of the author? A few of these commentaries rival their parent essay’s length, signalling that Henighan has more to tell us about himself than about the books and issues he brings to our attention. The subject’s deficiencies/strengths are what is important, as are the corrective actions prescribed by the critic, not the PR pamphlets of an aggrieved Henighan whose dyspeptic wisdom is at a conflict-of-interest.
This is not to say that Henighan does not hit a few targets in the book’s first section. His description of the brief time spent compiling a Montreal-only bestseller list for the city’s Gazette in "Behind the Best-Seller List" is an instructive account of the market forces driving Canada’s book business. By citing a few egregious examples of American-published titles anointed by
The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s as ‘bestsellers’ despite not yet being available for purchase in Canada, he makes his point: something is wrong with our books industry, dominated by publicity and subjugated to American influence. He also lays bare the idiocy behind the now-moribund ‘appropriation of voice’ argument, which had some influence in the last decade, although he makes his point over the course an unabridged initial essay written about AOV, a post-reception commentary on this essay, and finally another, larger essay on AOV. Why not write a single essay with all points synthesized, instead of three disjointed pieces?
The essays of the first section are trivial in comparison to the three longer pieces contained in the book’s second section, suggesting that Henighan should have integrated them into a few larger pieces. If he had, then WWDTW would possess a couple more substantial essays instead of a surfeit of narrow-focus preliminaries.
A Discussion of ‘Free Trade Fiction: History as Metaphor’
The first of Henighan’s three major essays is representatively polemical. "Free Trade Fiction" reiterates the conception of Canada as a nation with a literary handicap, possessing an "ahistorical literature" and a second-hand vocabulary, the latter point reiterated over and over. He also argues something new, that Canadian fiction is further hamstrung by a relatively recent development: the trend of preciousness. Henighan states, "In the arts, and particularly in literature, crisis has bred conformity, suffusing our novels with a desire to transcend history into a commercially congenial strand of non-engaged high art: to ascend the best-seller list while retaining the ‘literary fiction’ label."
The ‘crisis’ in Canada that Henighan refers to is ambiguously stated, but boils down to a cliché: things aren’t as they once were. He writes, "… many of the common assumptions and ways of doing things that I had grown up with had vanished. The texture of life, life’s capacity to permeate experience with significance, had thinned. Life felt like television- American television." Thus Henighan suggests that writers in Canada must adapt to change. As the most basic of fictional motives, this is hardly a new idea.
He incorrectly asserts that Canadian authors have "responded to the annihilation of our intimate selves" with "averted eyes". Our creeping Americanism and the national debate about identity only increases as a topic of concern for our citizens and our writers as the American embrace grows more constricting. In a glaring example of Henighanian inconsistency, the author himself serves up an example: "Anxiety about U.S. cultural influence and how to respond to it racks [Guy Vanderhaeghe’s] The Englishman’s Boy."
Negative assertions are easily made- one doesn’t need to cite examples to prove the absence of something. Our writers respond to ‘annihilation’ with ‘averted eyes’, although there are no examples provided. Just as it’s easy for him to write later that "The Canadian bourgeoisie, it is true, has been an embarrassing spectacle over the last ten years, rarely missing an opportunity to conform to its own beaver-like self-image by biting off its testicles and offering them to its pursuers." Statements such as this aren’t merely polemical, they’re also difficult to attack. How ridiculous would one sound if one characterized the bourgeoisie, by nature a complacent bunch, as a pack of anarchists? Perhaps as ridiculous as the mental image of a middle-class Subway franchisee pulling down his pants over his lunch hour and, while reading one of the books on Henighan’s hate list, having his testicles devoured by a ‘pursuer’. Canadian bourgeoisie mimic other complacent middle classes over the world: well fed, safe, and inertial. Why single them out for testicular torture?
The titles that Henighan places at the top of his hate list aren’t difficult to guess- he picks the twin towers of the 1990’s, Fugitive Pieces and The English Patient. These two novels, the most financially successful books of the latter decade, are savaged by Henighan. Burning them in effigy, he writes, "But if literary novels are the country’s bestsellers, it becomes true, also, that a novel, in order to sell well, must appear literary: ideally, it should advertise its literariness through
'beautiful' imagery, exotic settings, exquisite production and other features calculated to flatter its purchaser with evidence of his own aesthetic refinement." That a novel is treated well by a publisher in terms of high production values isn’t a high crime- you can’t judge a book by its cover! Imagery can be beautiful or grotesque; aesthetics don’t qualify as legitimate criticism. What is more important is if the imagery is evocative or effective. Finally, that people seek out Ondaatje or Michaels titles to flatter themselves isn’t exclusive to these two authors; two names he later cites as being exemplary, Proust and Joyce, could be accused of attracting more intellectual dandies than any other authors in history. That he included "exotic setting" as a criticism is beyond belief! All novels must occur somewhere! In determining what the word "exotic" might entail, one risks again uncovering Henighan’s hypocritical self-image as an exotic immigrant Canadian writer. Yet he picks up the battle later with, "In their striving for high art, their settings remote in time and place from the Canadian present, they came to be seen as salient indicators of where the Canadian novel was going." Once again, beating up on a book because of setting isn’t evenhanded criticism. (So what if the action takes place on the moon; what does the book tell us?) And surely one can concede the point that a book can tell us much about our present by delving into our collective past, and in fact Henighan reiterates this point on several occasions.
In reading his many pronouncements upon the importance of ‘historical engagement’ in fiction, one begins to see a Henighanian trend: he is unable to conceive of literature outside of the realm of politics. He writes,
The great nineteenth century European novels were eminently engaged with national history, but so were the three great novelistic masterpieces of European modernism: Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. The form of Proust’s mythologization of language and memory is unimaginable outside the boundaries of the France of la belle époque; Joyce’s linguistic shenanigans dramatize a colonized country’s fractious relationship to European history and the English language; and in Musil the crumbling of the certainties of 19th century rationalism and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire become elaborate metaphors for one another. In more recent, neo-modernist or post-modernist times, it has been impossible to imagine the fiction of Gunter Grass or Christa Wolf without the partition of Germany, of Salman Rushdie without the multiple partitions of the Indian subcontinent and the Indian diaspora, the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez without Columbia’s civil wars, the fiction of Nadine Gordimer without South African apartheid and its aftermath, the fiction of Thomas Pynchon without U.S. intervention in the Vietnam war, the fiction of Milan Kundera without the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the fiction of Paul Melville without the destruction of Native American communities in Guyana, the fiction of Christina Peri Rossi without the crisis of gender definition provoked by the eruption of a macho military dictatorship in the peaceful backwater of Uruguay, the fiction of Haruki Murakami without the legacy of Japanese militarism lurking beneath the placid surface of modern
Thus "Free Trade Fiction" is the product of an author who demands that Canadian authors write political novels. That we don’t limit ourselves to this genre is a credit to us; perhaps Henighan should ratchet down his testicle-devouring polemic –incidentally, the language of politics- and see Canadian novels for what they are before decrying what they aren’t. Two books like the ones he castigates may indeed serve as a compass for popular ‘literary’ fiction, but the small presses continually gestate books that owe nothing to either Ondaatje or Michaels. Although he bemoans the erosion of the small presses, arguing that they and their authors are our salvation, he doesn’t bother to take their pulse.
There is some seriously aberrant thought to be reckoned with when Henighan writes abusively that "[This] quest for ‘lasting verities’, for a ‘profound vision of life’, is integral to the novel’s flight from history. The English Patient transforms the Second World War from history into metaphor." Is this in itself a bad thing? Isn’t the Second World War a historical sum of events that has metaphorical meaning for every educated person? Ondaatje would have been a fool not to tap into WWII’s metaphorical power. For god’s sake, the novel took place during the war! "Events with human consequences dissolve into predigested images: an Italian villa, the desert, a burned man, a valiant nurse." Wait a minute- anyone can play that game. Every novel can be boiled down to its essential components of setting and character. What would be more constructive is if Henighan actually described these metaphors, instead of merely naming objects or places and having us accept that they are symptomatic of rhetorical excess.
Things become ridiculous when he writes, "The novel’s tactics are identical to those of television commercials and rock videos, which destroy the past by recycling familiar tunes or images severed from the historical context that lent them meaning." Yes, Ondaatje’s Almasy was a sanitized version of the actual historical figure, but this in no way equates Ondaatje with the likes of a videographer. History is used to suit the novel’s purpose, not the other way around, a straightaway to pedantry, a point made by Henighan himself while describing the difference between the ‘historical novel’ vs. the ‘historically engaged’ novel.
This faulty reasoning becomes a springboard for further polemical folly. The Canadian middle class is yet again characterized as complacent and stupid when Henighan writes, "Middle class readers have acclaimed The English Patient as art because it employs an art they recognize: the neutering of the past into harmless, ecstatic visions. The contemporary assumption, in Canada at least, is that the word ‘beautiful’ is the highest praise that can be accorded a work of literature betrays the corrupt guilty conscience of a class that has collaborated in the destruction of its values" –what values? How did the middle class destroy them?- "and culture in exchange for a tax cut" –Politics again!- "and the promise of easy profits from global markets." As garbled as his thinking is, as mean-spirited as his take on the average Canadian reader is, and as unsupported with evidence as this entire paragraph is, let’s merely consider the idiocy of the last part. What Canadian reader actually equates ‘tax cuts’ and ‘easy profits’ with a good read?
However, Henighan does get a few things correct. Michael Ondaatje’s dialogue is unskilled, he does execute his novels in a highly visual (though it’s vile to cast his lot in with Spike Jonze) manner, and his novel possesses narrative anachronisms and plot implausibilites that don’t reconcile with history as it actually occurred. Henighan cites relevant examples of these deficiencies. Yet none of Henighan’s identified problems constitute a ‘flight into metaphor’, they merely show that Ondaatje goofed a little on his history. That Ondaatje sometimes imposes a
1990's sensibility during the war years doesn’t mean he’s overindulging in metaphor. How do Henighan’s historical gotchas, like "When Kip tells her about his upbringing in the Punjab, she replies, I’m from Upper America…", -Hana would never have said this in the 1940’s, of course- link up to his main idea that Ondaatje ‘trades’ too much in metaphor? In fact, when Henighan criticizes Ondaatje for not mentioning the Holocaust in his book, that doing so would have "risked converting Almasy from metaphor into historical figure", he proves my earlier point: the fact that the novel occurred during the Second World War, and the fact that the Second World War has such powerful intimations of the Holocaust when broached as a subject, shows that Ondaatje didn’t need to document the gas ovens. When Almasy traded with the Nazis in order to save his lover, Katherine Clifton, the reader was indirectly informed of concentration camps by the conscious baggage of the Second World War borne by the Canadian populace. (Not that the death camps needed to be mentioned in the book anyway, being out of place in this gothic romance.) Metaphor is thus a powerful –and subtle- force, and it need not be ‘ahistorical.’ Furthermore, to accuse a novel SET DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR of being ‘ahistorical’ is asinine.
There are two chief delinquencies with this essay. First, the subtitle: it’s a fact that, to an extent, all history is metaphorical, and cannot be otherwise. Things don’t just happen, they have meaning, and those meanings get overwrought or understated in fiction. To essentially purport that history and metaphor are mutually exclusive is misguided at best.
Second, the argument for the Free Trade Agreement’s deleterious effect on Canadian novels is never convincingly made. Vague comments that attack Ondaatje are insufficient justification:
[The] brandishing of pigmentation as a banner of identity, in isolation from the cross-currents of history, was one of the most salient traits of the trauma that gripped Canadian cultural circles in the aftermath of the passage of the Free Trade Agreement. As the ship of Canadian identity sank, ethnic belonging bobbed to the surface for many as the most convenient spar to cling to.
Let’s proceed to consider this quotation. Some would argue that the ship of Canadian identity never set sail. More would object to Henighan’s historical revisionism; long before 1995, ethnic Canadians identified themselves according to their racial heritage. How could they not? Henighan denigrates Toronto ‘identity politics’ often in this essay (interesting enough since politics is usually a topic that fascinates him) but is oblivious to the long-standing existence of ethnic clumps within the city he derides so much and so often. Who lives in Chinatown? Chinese. Little Italy? Italians. Etcetera, etcetera.
Where is the supporting evidence that the Free Trade Agreement has had the cataclysmal, racinating, stultifying effect that Henighan maintains that it has had? Although NAFTA is generally blamed for what Henighan feels is our woeful state of the literary arts, he doesn’t provide a whit of evidence in his argument. Only opinion is on display, a classic tactic of polemicism.
Similarly insufficient are NAFTA comments attributed to Michaels:
became a banner for the nationalism of the young, liberal Canadian bourgeoisie of the 1970s; the popularity of Fugitive Pieces… coincides with and confirms the same generation’s middle-aged slide away from nationalism into a yearning for cosmopolitanism, its renunciation of Canadian historical particularity while still paying lip service to Canadianism –or Torontonianism, at least- as a basic value. Fugitive Pieces is for former nationalists growing rich on NAFTA.
One is flabbergasted by the leaps in logic made above. Pigeonholing one book as representative of an entire generation is a tall order, but Henighan does it twice! The greater problem of the Michaels quotation is its unfinished business; one logically asks the question, "How?" throughout the paragraph, especially in the last sentence, and Henighan never offers an answer to this nuts-and-bolts-of-an-argument question. And the vagueness of the phrase "historical particularity" doesn’t help, either.
Anne Michaels’ role in "Free Trade Fiction" has been excluded from this discussion largely because of duplication: the same problems occurring in the Ondaatje section recur in the Michaels section. But let one more inconsistency found in the latter section be mentioned: when Henighan writes that Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces resembles Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing because of, among other things, the author’s "remote public persona… whose head is armoured with curls", he commits a crime upon which he heaps scorn in the next essay, "Vulgarity on Bloor: Literary Institutions from Canlit to Torlit": "Toronto writers, unlike those in the rest of the country, define ‘national’ literature in terms of who they know rather than who they read…[a]ppearance, not prose style, becomes the currency of the writer’s identity."
This second essay, surely the most controversial of them all, has been much debated by academics and writers alike, and so it will not be examined here –everyone has already opined. My own partial response can be found on this site
(The Two Solitudes Illusion).
A Discussion of "They Can’t Be About Things Here: The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel."
The inadequacy of ‘Free Trade Fiction" spills over into Henighan’s final essay, the culmination of Henighan’s book. It begins as an attack on Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, in the process characterizing the book as "the flagship of Free Trade Fiction", thus carrying over unfinished business. Perhaps Henighan is acknowledging that his earlier argument has not yet been articulated. The essay’s gun-sights –like a tick-box reader survey in Soldier of Fortune- switch to Douglas Coupland, Jane Urqhuart, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Carole Corbeil, Jack Hodgins, Rudy Weibe, and even Atwood. (It had to happen sometime. Svorecky at the beginning, but Atwood at the end!). All the bullets fired at these authors hit a ‘Free Trade Fiction’ target. A few excerpts that attempt to prove this point follow:
Emphasizing the commercial entertainment and high tech cultures that unite Canada and the U.S. (along with much of the rest of the planet), rather than the discrepancies in history, culture, outlook, landscape, climate, language, and institutions that differentiate them, Douglas Coupland has turned himself into a sort of poet of the ephemera of movies, coffee bars and e-mail conversations.
One struggles to find analogies to [Urqhuart’s] writing. The U.S. novelist Anita Shreve, author of The Pilot’s Wife and Fortune’s Rocks, writes infinitely more fluidly than Urqhuart and creates more intellectually complex situations. Yet in the United States Anita Shreve is a middle-brow popular novelist, while in Canada Jane Urqhuart is regarded as high literature…[l]ike The Stone Diaries, Away was published in 1993, on the eve of NAFTA.
Like the middle-class voters who supported Jean Chretien in 1993 in the hope that he would bring back the pre-Free Trade, pre-globalization Canada of the 1970’s, enthusiastic readers of Away are indulging in antiquated delusions.
Every author mentioned earlier gets a postage-stamp screed like the ones included above. When Henighan punctures the middle-class (again) with "[Away] taps into the Zeitgeist of an essentially passive middle class that yearns to get its country back, though it is unwilling- unlike nation-building middle classes elsewhere in the world- to make any sustained effort or sacrifices to achieve this goal" he reprises another mainstay from ‘Free Trade Fiction’: a lack of supporting evidence. He doesn’t name in his essay any middle-class groups that have enacted change within their literary societies. By this point, Henighan’s strident demonization of Canada’s middle class becomes offensive. Why are they so deserving of his scorn? V.S. Naipaul is on record as believing that there may be something to the best-sellers, that they may possess a knowledge or value because so many people purchased their individual messages. It may be that the bourgeoisie understand Henighan’s hate-list better than he understands their best-seller list.
There are many more examples of Canlit NAFTAism to be found in this essay, begging the question: why weren’t they inserted into the essay where they actually belong? There are also a few more inconsistencies to be found. The most embarrassing of these occurs when Henighan contrasts Anne-Marie Macdonald with William Faulkner. The first page of Fall On Your Knees that "provides the implicitly foreign reader with a helpful guide to locating Cape Breton Island on the map. After describing the family home where most of the action will transpire, MacDonald writes, ‘So that’s the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada…’" Henighan later writes of Faulkner: "William Faulkner never felt he had to explain where Mississippi was." Why then, after moving on to praise a book by John Steffler, does he feel the need to point out that Steffler "divided his time during the 1990s between Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Montreal" (italics mine.) Note that Henighan does not mention that Montreal is part of the province of Quebec.
This essay is only slightly more cohesive than offhand opinion, the riffing result of Henighan’s mind when applied to X author. Henighan finally changes gear with the example of Wayne Johnston. "If English-speaking Canada has failed to match the novelistic achievements of some other peripheral or formerly colonial societies over the last sixty years…then The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is at least a respectable delegate to the global literary feast." Why? The essayist nicely dovetails a compliment with a well-reasoned corroboration of his argument: "Part of the book’s appeal to Canadians of other regions- and arguably also to readers elsewhere- derives from the resemblances between the cultural particularity that Newfoundland yielded by joining Canada in 1949, and the cultural distinctness that all Canadians (along with people from other countries) lost by joining the globalized world forty to fifty years later."
"Free Trade Fiction" is free at last: released from all of the spite, the malice, and the internecine pseudocritical (read: "cultural particularity" above) warfare, Henighan writes about a book that he truly likes. It’s ‘beautiful’ to see: in a volume that upholds extraCanadian examples as better than homegrown examples, the untainted praise offered to Johnston is more than a surprise, it’s a shock. After surviving his critical scorched-earth policy, a reader rests in the oasis of unalloyed praise allotted Johnston. The irony is that Henighan’s example of a respectable Canadian book is peculiarly representative of his thesis- that Canadians are handicapped from writing well by the erosion of a selfhood only half-formed in the first place. In other words, when we write well, we do so because of our weaknesses!
The essay’s focus then switches to the prescriptive. The book is ending, and Henighan needs to advocate for what he believes can change Canadian Literature for the better. Unfortunately, what he does say is rambling and garbled.
There may be ways out. A country that no longer exists in spirit may still exist in literature: this is one of the lessons of the German-language literatures.
This statement is inapplicable to the nation of Canada as Henighan conceives it. The ‘German-language literatures’ were created by authors who collectively possessed a sense of their nationhood, and WWDTW repeatedly maintains that Canadian fiction, reflecting Canadian identity, has no sense of self. If this is so, then how can Canadian literature just create a mythology capable of sustaining itself? Isn’t the lack of this mythology Henighan’s formulation of our problem? He then cites a few examples of writers who aren’t relevant to Canada in terms of the point that a lost country can exist in literature, but not in spirit.
Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig were Austro-Hungarian novelists long after Austria-Hungary disintegrated; today Christa Wolf and Monik Maron remain East German novelists, though there is no longer any East Germany.
Monika Maron and Christa Wolf were East Germans. They have an East German sensibility. Yes, East Germany is no more. But the historical memory of the place captivates Maron and Wolf; the ‘spirit’ of the place. Canada still exists as a nation; the problem with Canada, as earlier argued by Henighan, is in the ‘spirit’. Thus Henighan provides bogus examples of possible salvation. Don’t the words ‘spirit’ and ‘literature’ have some overlap? Besides, a writer is approaches amorphousness when blargling about subjects like ‘spirit’ anyway.
Meanwhile, the English-language tradition is in upheaval, with Anglo-Indian and African writers shaking up many of the strictures that continue to swaddle most Canadian fiction.
This sentence might be relevant if it were supported with examples of the exciting fictional methods alluded to by Henighan. To skip forward a few sentences:
Or we can cast our eyes back to the 1960’s, when Latin American novels blended the social and historical sweep of the nineteenth century with the avant-garde ambitions of the twentieth through a ferocious, mythologizing commitment to local history- a process which is continuing, or being recapitulated, today in the work of novelists as varied as the Martinician Patrick Chamoiseau, the Mozambican Mia Couto, the Angolan Pepetela, the Turk Orhan Pamuk.
Here the reader finally gets actual instruction as to what must be done- albeit superficially, by skimming along a few famous names. And that’s all of the anticlimactic lesson plan, excepting the out-of-nowhere, mystical concluding line: "Always we must honour the world with our attention and listen to the sounds of the words." There is no more advice to be had in a 211-page book that dissects Canadian Literature in order to find its terminal affliction. This is a book that fails as cure; it is much better as a book that finds a possible cancer (apologies for the belabored metaphor, Stephen), weighs it, and puts it under the microscope. Or to invoke another metaphor: Henighan makes a mediocre Chicken Little but a poor explicator of how to repair the sky.
WWDTW’s chief problem is that of the obscure author, bitterly neglected by arbiters of taste and propagators of publicity. Past the age of forty, far exceeding the accelerated, contemporary average of success, Henighan’s frustration is sadly in evidence. The cranky dissatisfactions on display only achieve a semblance of coherence in the second half. More often, Henighan’s muddled thought process, capable of kaleidoscopically advocating both sides of an argument, collapses into heaps of contradiction. Desperate to tear down the idolatry of Canadian Literature, yet blind to recognize Canlit as greater than any one writer, Henighan’s positions are far from the final word on the subject. Words cannot deny the world, try as they might: it’s always there, willing to pick a fight, willing to let writers and critics try and describe it. That’s why Metcalf and the Porcupine’s Quill gang are so much fun: in the process of stirring up trouble, they ask for trouble, or at least a ‘riposte’.
Shane Neilson is one of The
Danforth Review's poetry editors.
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