Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The House is Empty so I Wouldn’t Want to Live There

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The basis of this post is this response from Steven Galloway to this Barbara Kay article concerning the new book by Lisa Moore. I’d like to thank the National Post for hosting both opinions, thus proving again that no matter how many T-shirts say otherwise, they are becoming a welcoming home for plural discourse, especially on literary matters. I’ve previously written about the Kay article (or, more precisely, about the comments posted by readers following the Kay article) two posts ago. Okay. Caught up? Good. Let’s go…

Saying CanLit is boring and self-concerned is both incorrect and impossible to defend against with a counterargument. Once again, it’s the lack of a real national voice that leaves us unable to defend ourselves from being attached to a fake one. We can’t say our national literature isn’t *this*, because it’s *that*. There is neither a this, nor a that.

Take Moore’s publisher as an example. Surrounding February on Anansi’s list of recent releases are: an antic and angry story of an immigrant battling his way through contemporary Montreal, a love story set around a transsexual paramedic, a metaphysical bildungsroman in which a man-child edits romance novels in paradise, and a multigenerational Trinidadian-Canadian soap opera. The irony in all this is that Anansi is often described as the publisher at the very heart of Canadian literature. Looking at these and other examples, what is that heart, exactly? “Survival,” shouts a thirty-year old Margaret Atwood, as she bicycles by my window. “To what end?” I ask, though by this time she is laughing her way around the corner.

Of course, you and I and Margaret all know that this is a facetious argument in the end, that I don’t want there to be a heart because, what if I’m not in it? Nations with distinct national literary pre-occupations are cold and dismissive towards authors whose interests differ from the majority and it’s Canada’s great cultural gift to the world that in matters of art, there is no majority.

How do I know there’s no majority? Because absolutely everyone who writes in Canada thinks that A. There is and B. They’re not in it. In one group, we have people rallying against male, Caucasian, heteronormative monolith while in the other, a bunch of half-drunk white guys are complaining that if only they were gay, they could get themselves on of those big ol’ art grants. This polarity is most apparent in the poetry world, populated as it is by vengeful young people who’ve read a lot of books. Is Canadian poetry a frothing distraction of avant-garde cliques speaking in some shared language nobody else finds interesting? Not if you’re in the avant garde, then it’s the last home of weak-minded aestheticians who’d rather string together 100 pages of perfectly balanced verse than say anything of philosophical merit.

Maybe this is the shape of our literary culture, then: a glass house, circular in shape, and surrounded on all sides by cold, angry people peering through its walls. As they look through the walls they believe they see other people staring back at them from inside, but this is not the case. It is only the folks on the other side of the house, who are likewise under the false impression that this house is full of strange men and woman, who apparently have nothing better to do than to stare right back. Everybody thinks they are alone on the outside, the only one not invited to the party.

And it’s the house that is Barbara Kay’s target. And Stephen Harper’s target (the house, you see, is prone to hosting expensive galas). The house is also effete, anti-Canadian, completely obsessed with ancient history, and doesn’t pay any taxes. And, as such, the house is the target for every half-informed idiot who wants to take a big, blunt swipe at Canadian literature. It doesn’t matter that neither you nor I nor Lisa Moore nor Margaret (okay, possibly Margaret, sipping her coffee, warmed by the glow of her furniture bonfire) actually lives in the house, because we are still dependent on it for our self-appraisal. And I really do like this set-up we have. I don’t have any urge to move into the house, as angry and cold as I may be on the outside, because the real community is on the periphery anyway. Outsiderness is our shared obsession. Where would we be if we were all in the same place?

Though the lack of a national identity has done great things for Canadian writing, it does nothing to protect us from panicked journalists who have column inches to fill the night before their deadline and who goofed on reading the book they were supposed to write about. Part of the problem is that we live in a world where people are shown that ad-hominem attacks are a great rhetorical weapon, not the sign of lazy thinking other cultures always knew them to be (thank you, internet). The people who will most likely come to the defence on Canadian literature are Canadian literary defenders, and because those people are so often writers, we already know what they will say, and we discount it.

So what can be said in our own defence? Except: Go Team. There will always be inches to fill, but our books will have more to say.

Raising a flag of unknown colour,
-Jake

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page