Saturday, January 28, 2006

Type Cast 2

A literary agent of my acquaintance (ok, ok, my literary agent) told me a revealing story about how Canadian literary culture is perceived outside of Canada. While at a European book fair, he was approached by a Finnish publisher who, like any good Finn, was already loaded by 4pm.

“A Canadian!”, the publisher bellowed. “Tell me please why all your books are about middle class ladies who don’t have any problems?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, drunk or sober. If one more press release passes my desk promoting yet another earnest Canadian novel about the sad lives of three generations of bookish, overly sensitive women looking for love in the suburbs of Saskatoon, or, worse yet, in 19th century Newfoundland, I’m going to swear off Canadian fiction altogether and only read bathroom books with funny pictures of cats.

I just can’t take it anymore – enough with the naturalism, the kitchen sink kitsch. Why are so many Canadian books afraid of story, of plot, of action?

Of course, I have a theory (Nietzsche used to console himself with thoughts of suicide, I have my beloved theories) – Canadian fiction is stuck in its own past. When the CanLit Renaissance took place, forty or fifty years back, almost everyone who wrote also taught at a university. At the time, pop culture was considered unworthy of the halls of academe. Literary naturalism and realist fictions were privileged over speculative or fantastic fictions, because, it was thought, only children and half-wits liked to read about monsters and space ships.

Now you can get a doctorate for studying books about space ships and monsters, but the literary scene in Canada is still married to the idea that realistic narratives are more important and more literary (and therefore of a higher grade of writing) than speculative narratives. Add to this elitist ideology the marketing mantra, prevalent in Canadian publishing circles, that women read fiction and men read non-fiction (a foolish and sexist notion), and you get an annual flood in the Canadian fiction lists of so-called “women’s books” – interchangeable novels set in the domestic arena that deal with realistically-portrayed family crises.

If these marketing schemes are true, it must also be true that women don’t want to be entertained and prefer instead to be empathetic, to have a little cry underneath their reading lights. Whoever thought that up has never met my fun loving lady pals.

An interesting case in point is the recent reception in our presses of George R. R. Martin’s delightful and wildly entertaining A Feast For Crows. Martin is the dominant name in fantasy fiction today, with around 3 million books sold to date. His books are sprawling epics depicting battles between knights and witches and thieves and priests, set in landscapes dotted with menacing mountains, treacherous swamps, and mysterious forests full of hungry wildlife. Every page of A Feast For Crows is full of life, action, sex and head chopping, and Martin’s extensive cast of lurid characters rivals that of any of the Russian pot boilers you were forced to read in school.

Yet, when A Feast For Crows came out this fall and instantly climbed to our national bestseller lists, the Canadian book press almost wholly ignored its arrival. After some searching of major newspaper archives, I found two articles about Martin himself, but no proper reviews of the novel. In terms of sales, public profile, and popularity, Martin rivals even our top purveyors of tea and torment fiction. Why the cold shoulder?

Chris Szego, manager of the Bakka-Phoenix bookstore, a shop specializing in speculative fiction, has an interesting theory.

“The modernist movement is still dominant in literary culture, especially the post-WW2 idea that a fiction is worthless unless everything ends badly. But a lot of science fiction and fantasy literature doesn’t end this way, because the books are based on the conflict of good vs. evil, and end with the triumph of good.”

“In Canada, we have the added problem that there is an established preoccupation with landscape in our writing. So, if you’re making up a landscape, creating a fantasy space, it’s supposed that the writing can’t really be worth anything. Furthermore, the powerhouse publishers of genre fiction are not located in Canada, and that means that when it comes to treating genre fiction with the same respect as realist fiction, there’s another layer of distance, a perception in our media that speculative fiction is an American thing.”

Szego has a few choice words for us newspaper types too.

“No offence, but the truth is most papers do a poor job with books in general, and are constantly cutting the space for book reviews. So, when its decided what gets review space, the modernist view of what’s worthy is applied – i.e. realist fiction. Newspapers don’t review what people buy, but what they think people should buy.”


“Well, look at it this way,” Szego offers as a consolation, “genre writers don’t really have to care about reviews– they’re too busy selling books.”