In Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Nick Mount describes how Canadian literature came of age. In this excerpt he writes about the decade-long CanLit boom that transformed Canadian authors from virtual unknowns to international must-reads.
In 1959, Sgt. Pepper had not yet taught the band to play. Instead, from the top of the charts, smoke got in your eyes. Frank Sinatra had high hopes, but Miles Davis was kind of blue. Roman chariots crashed on the big screen, American stagecoaches on TV. Buddy Holly fell from the sky and Maurice Duplessis died on the job. Canada opened a seaway while Vietnam opened a trail. Khrushchev and Nixon debated communism versus capitalism in Moscow; a doll named Barbie spread her plastic legs in New York and settled the argument. Western Electric launched its Princess telephone in five colours (“It’s little, it’s lovely, it lights”), Buick rolled out the Electra, and Xerox became a verb.
It was, in retrospect, a big year for Canadian literature, the start of something not yet visible. In the west, the University of British Columbia began publishing the scholarly journal Canadian Literature, the first in the field. The Toronto Daily Star created the country’s first daily book column. Le Devoir called the language of French schoolchildren joual, launching an argument and a literature. Al Purdy gave his first public reading, at Av Isaacs’ gallery on Bay Street in Toronto. A short walk away, Peter and Carol Martin established the Readers’ Club of Canada; their first selection was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, published earlier that year. Mavis Gallant, Marie-Claire Blais, and Sheila Watson published their first novels; Margaret Atwood had her first professional publication, a poem in Canadian Forum under the byline M. E. Atwood. The recently created Canada Council for the Arts took over the Governor General’s Literary Awards, awarding its first prizes to Irving Layton’s A Red Carpet for the Sun and Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night, a bestseller all that summer.
The boom that followed lasted into the seventies, ending around 1974 — after Margaret Laurence ran out of novels, after Victor Coleman quit Coach House, after Hubert Aquin wrote his last book. Its culmination is most visible in its achievements. When the Writers’ Union of Canada formed in 1973, it limited membership to writers who had published a real book with a real publisher, because — unlike its predecessor, the Canadian Authors’ Association — it could. When John Metcalf took over editing New Canadian Stories in 1975, he retitled it Best Canadian Stories, because he could. All-Canadian bookstores opened, because they could. The Harbourfront reading series began in Toronto, its authors and audiences made possible by the dozens of small reading series that came before it at campuses and coffee shops across the country. In Ottawa, after years of debate and commissions, the federal government finally moved to protect Canadian publishers by prohibiting foreign takeovers.
In the fall of 1973, the Times Literary Supplement of London gave over its cover and much of one issue to "Canadian Writing Today." Michael Snow’s walking women grace a cover concealing a half-dozen generally grim poems: Margaret Atwood hides a rifle under her shawl, Gwendolyn MacEwen tracks God’s sperm, Patrick Lane looks for a dead man in the snow, Michael Ondaatje watches stars from a graveyard, and Tom Wayman wonders (as I do now), “Why is there so much here about death?” Inside are essays on Canadian books and advertisements for Canadian publishers, including a full-page ad for something called Books Canada at 19 Cockspur Street, London, a store that promised three thousand Canadian titles for sale. The lead essay, by University of Sherbrooke professor Ronald Sutherland, told England that “in terms of dynamic activity, excitement, experimentation, even spirit of discovery and chauvinistic pride, Canadian writing is now going through what might best be described as its ‘Elizabethan’ period.” Another essay by “Miss Margaret Atwood” called it “a literary expansion of Malthusian proportions.” “One fact is indisputable,” she said. “Things are very different now than they were fifteen years ago.”
This excerpt is taken from Arrival, text copyright © 2017 by Nick Mount. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com
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