'It's the liveliest, most cogently argued, most provocative and most infuriatingly self-satisfied work of literary criticism to be published in this country in at least the last decade.'
Yes, Toronto, I do own a black turtleneck
'In his column of March 16, Russell Smith attacked an excerpt from my recent book When Words Deny the World that had appeared in the magazine Quill & Quire. Though I had been expecting disagreement with my ideas, I was surprised by the emotional tone of Smith's response. It's not every day one is called a ''smarmy prig'' in The Globe and Mail.
'Smith's anger suggested that I had struck a raw nerve. In my book, I argue that the increasing centralization of the media in Toronto has coincided with Toronto's integration into the global book market. A Toronto media culture of personality and image holds sway over literary Canada. This has instilled a parochialism in Toronto writers, who acknowledge as writers people whom they know, or whose photographs they recognize. Finding out about other writers by reading, I mischievously insinuated, was un-Torontonian.
'The interpretation of my argument presented in The Globe was probably best summed up by the column's headline, ''The myth of the black turtleneck conspiracy.'' In fact, I was deriding neither black turtlenecks (I own one myself) nor conspirators. I was trying to describe some of the ways in which, in my view, globalization has fragmented the idea of a national Canadian culture. I was pointing out evidence of the widening cultural and financial chasm between writers who live in Toronto and those who live elsewhere in the country, particularly as reflected in the increasing disparity between the amounts of media coverage received by these two groups.
'The mere fact of my article's having provoked a strong response seemed to confirm this geographical bias. Excerpts from my book have been published in the past. But when I published them as a resident of Montreal, the Ottawa Valley or London, England, no one in Toronto considered me worth refuting. By virtue of having moved to southern Ontario, I have become significant enough to be condemned.'
'One does not need to agree with everything that Stephen Henighan asserts about Canadian literature and politics in the 1990s -- and I, for one, do not -- to welcome this brilliant and decidedly prickly book as the most admirable, informative, and above all provocative analysis of the plight of Canadian culture since John Metcalf's Kicking Against the Pricks (1982). As an intellectual with a professional expertise in Spanish rather than English, he is mercifully independent of the pull of ideology that makes most of the literary criticism emanating from the academic CanLit specialists such depressing reading. As a thoughtful and passionately committed writer of novels and short stories, he has experienced the publishing jungle at first hand, knows what he is talking about, and -- most important of all -- has the courage to speak out. Henighan is a master of expos?. He documents the financially motivated corruption behind journalistic bestseller lists, condemns the totalitarian menace of appropriation of voice charges, reveals the dubious pretensions of the Giller Prize, complains with justice of the political constraints too often placed upon newspaper reviewers, and demonstrates the commercial processes that have produced what he calls homogenized book-sellers. Moreover, in some cruel but convincing cultural and critical analyses, he succeeds in putting The English Patient, Fugitive Pieces, The Stone Diaries, and Away into suitably reduced perspective. One may or may not agree, but one cannot help but applaud the fact that a highly intelligent and perceptive observer of the trends and fashions in contemporary writing is engaging in serious and appropriately pungent criticism. This is an angry book by someone who has not only read everything by his contemporaries but has absorbed it and come to shrewd judgments about its implications. Unfortunately, as Henighan well knows, it will be ignored or shrugged off by those who are most in need of its challenge. Above all, congratulations to Porcupine's Quill for publishing it, and thus making a courageous effort to keep us honest.'
From CanLit to TorLit: There's a problem at the centre of the universe.
'A rift has opened between the upper and lower tiers of our literary culture, with Toronto-based commercial publishers now enjoying a clout, in terms of distribution, publicity budget, media attention and, consequently, sales, many times that of their small-press rivals. The advantage of being published by, say, McClelland and Stewart rather than Talon Books, has become many times greater than it was in the 1980s. This is especially true in the realm of access to the media, where promotion has become gruellingly difficult for smaller publishers.
'In 1990, as an unknown author promoting a first novel published by a minor press, I embarked on an extensive promotional tour including nearly a dozen radio and print interviews; by 1999, when, as a moderately well-known literary author promoting a well-reviewed fourth book published by a small press whose publicity was centralized in its large-press parent company, my tour was much shorter: several of the radio stations where I had been interviewed in 1990 were no longer accessible to me, having become the exclusive province of 'name-brand' authors.
'Here, as in other domains of our society, a certain rough equality has vanished. Writers published by the 'national' publishers -- most of which are not national at all, but are U.S. branch plants (whose ultimate ownership may be in Germany, England or elsewhere) such as HarperCollins, Knopf, Random House and Doubleday -- occupy a different universe, financially as well as socially, from other writers. A national sense of literary community, with its accompanying possibility of creative exchange, has been split by a literary class division. In cultural terms, the relationship between Toronto and the rest of the country has come to resemble the relationship between Americans and Canadians: they know nothing about our country, but we are obliged to know everything about theirs.'
The Myth of the black turtleneck conspiracy
'Hatred of Toronto, and all the people who live there, is not a rational thing; it's just a national tradition, like sugar shacks and Carnaval; it binds the country. And it usually is a humorous inclination: We construct a myth of a city of callous bankers and yuppie lawyers who are terrified of a little snow on their shoes. It's lighthearted, and it makes other cities feel not so bad that they don't have three universities, an art college, all the media and all the publishing industry in their downtowns.
'But in the arts and publishing, the mockery takes on a much darker tone. Toronto is not just ridiculous, it's oppressive: It's part of a cabal of ''superficial and commercial'' publishers and writers, and secretly collaborative media, who conspire to ruin Canadian literature and keep all its hoarded riches to itself. ...
'The latest one of these jealous sallies appeared in this month's issue of Quill & Quire, the Canadian publishing-industry journal. It's written by a writer called Stephen Henighan, who is very angry that no one's ever heard of him, and blames it on Toronto.'
'[Henighan] demonstrates an agile control over his subject matter, moving comfortably all over the globe, inhabiting his diverse characters with convincing psychological detail.'
'Henighan's book will prove to be a good read for those with a keen interest in Canadian studies in our region because of the above-mentioned parallels that we can discover in it between Canadian culture and our own. In addition, we gain more intimate knowledge of contentious issues, books and authors in contemporary Canada than dictionary entries can ever provide. Henighan's often idiosyncratic views, reminiscent in their style of the controversial essays of John Metcalf, who actually prepared this book for the press, are sure to produce an inspiring effect. We can feel literary life pulsating in Stephen Henighan's work and we emerge from it with more information about, and definitely more concern for, Canadian culture and literature.'
'Henighan is a writer who respects his material, and offers us close and convincing observation.'
'Henighan is at his best when taking on individual works or writers. His analysis of such classics of ''free trade fiction'' as The English Patient, Fugitive Pieces, and The Stone Diaries are some of the most blistering and erudite pieces of Canadian literary criticism ever published, displaying his knowledge of post-colonial literary theory and the dynamics of the written word. Though unnecessarily bilious at times, Henighan puts the average book reviewer to shame in these pieces.'
'Henighan repeats all the standard myths, and combines bitter mockery of writers with simple nonsense.'
'Stephen Henighan calls it as he sees it in his new book, When Words Deny the World, a collection of essays about Canadian literature and literary institutions. And what he sees, contrary to most commentators, is that free trade and globalization are having a significant influence on Canadian writing and publishing. ''We talk about the impact of free trade and globalization on every other aspect of society,'' he says, ''but literature is seen as something that just emerges from the creative ether above the heads of writers. The Canadian publishing industry has been restructured just as much as anything else, and that's reflected in the stories told.'' '
'Our books were once condemned for being too Canadian. Being perpetually hammered over the head by this foreign perception, we subsequently internalized ''our inexorable transferral from a postcolonial realm to a globalized sphere'' and commenced writing what Stephen Henighan, in When Words Deny the World, labels ''Free Trade Fiction.'' Citing the success of Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, Rohinton Mistry and others, Henighan details his ''flight from history'' theory in this brilliantly insurgent book of 14 essays.'
'This is criticism that is non-academic, readable, respectful of genuine literary accomplishment and merciless towards pretence and muddle. How badly we need it.'
'Most of the pieces were previously published in one form or another since 1988. However, the sum of the collection is far greater than its parts. First, it's the first substantial book of Canadian literary criticism to appear post North American Free Trade Agreement. Henighan is the first Canadian literary journalist to take a penetrating look at the impact of globalization on Canadian literature -- and what he sees isn't pretty. Second, it's the liveliest, most cogently argued, most provocative and most infuriatingly self-satisfied work of literary criticism to be published in this country in at least the last decade. Consequently, it's a must-read for anyone with even the slightest interest in either the literature or the culture of Canada -- professional and general reader alike. ...
'How compelling is When Words Deny the World? I received a review copy, consisting of loose leaf pages in a binder, and I read it like a mystery novel. I couldn't put the damn thing down, even when my wrists got sore from holding it. I received a copy of the book late last week and it is a volume I will return to often. I have already recommended it to friends.'