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Survival and Beyond: Canadian Literary Criticism

By 49thShelf
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Margaret Atwood's 1972 book on themes in CanLit is just one book that tries to articulate the Canadian literary landscape.
Survival

Survival

A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Paperback

When first published in 1972, Survival was considered the most startling book ever written about Canadian literature. Since then, it has continued to be read and taught, and it continues to shape the way Canadians look at themselves. Distinguished, provocative, and written in effervescent, compulsively readable prose, Survival is simultaneously a book of criticism, a manifesto, and a collection of personal and subversive remarks. Margaret Atwood begins by asking: "What have been the central preo …

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When Words Deny the World

When Words Deny the World

edition:Paperback

'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.'

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Layton and the Feminist
Stephen Henighan

A few years ago a friend of mine announced her intention of writing her master's thesis on the poems of Irving Layton. Her father, who had been taught by Layton in high school, recoiled. 'You're not going to interview him alone!' he said. 'Irving Layton was a dirty old man even when he was a young man.'

Layton owns up to this charge, in his irrepressible way, on the opening page of his collected love poems, Dance With Desire. In 'To the Girls of My Graduating Class,' first published in 1953, he confesses to feeling 'fierce and ridiculous' as he slavers over the 'saintly breasts' of his female students.

To readers better acquainted with Layton's bombastic public stance as Canada's leading lecher than with his verse, that 'ridiculous' may come as a surprise. As Layton has aged, he has displayed little sensitivity to the absurdity of an old man ogling women several decades his junior. The Layton of the 1950s and 1960s, as represented by the first third of this book, was a more subtle, perceptive man. He was also an exceptionally fine poet. This was the period when Layton was writing such enduring works as 'The Birth of Tragedy' and 'A Tall Man Executes a Jig.' His best love poems of the time are highly accomplished. By dressing up his romanticism in appropriately lavish language, replete with classical allusions and risky inverted syntax, Layton succeeded in wringing genuine feeling from his fleshly obsessions.

His downfall lay in his penchant for satire. A poem like 'The Day Aviva Came to Paris,' in which Layton imagines the French capital struck dumb by his wife's arrival, succeeds wonderfully both as a statement of devotion and a vehicle to lampoon Parisian-style stuffiness. Layton's satire, though, eventually fused with his titanic ego, creating the bloated self-parody all too familiar from his poems and interviews of the past twenty-five years. Dance With Desire is top-heavy with poems in which Layton's rambunctious public persona bludgeons any visible glimmer of insight or feeling.

'Am I mad to see soft breasts everywhere?' he writes in one poem. Mad, no; infantile, yes. Layton's women seem to consist of little more than pairs of surging breasts. They scarcely have arms or legs -- let alone hearts, heads or brains. Layton may love women, but like most philanderers, he doesn't seem to like them very much. Lines such as 'I plug the void with my phallus' suggest a fear of female sexuality; a poem detailing his inability to come to terms with his wife's menstruation reinforces this theme.

These days, Layton's posture as a sexual rebel seems merely foolish. Like any aging revolutionary, he has lost touch with forces he himself helped to unleash. His explicit praise of female body parts made him a literary outlaw in the 1950s and an icon of the hip in the late 1960s, but subsequent generations, for whom the pursuit of desire has become both highly politicized and potentially lethal, have regarded him as either boorish or outmoded.

Curiously, the love poems that made Layton notorious now appear to be a fragile part of his poetic legacy. Dance With Desire may prove to contain a portion of the Layton oeuvre destined to slip into obscurity.

'Half the men you've ever met/ will rape you/ if they think they can/ get away with it,' writes Montreal poet Sharon H. Nelson in the opening sequence of her collection, The Work Of Our Hands. Turning to Nelson's gritty analysis of sexual politics after being immersed in Layton's odes to seduction is a bracing experience. In Nelson's work, desire becomes merely one more tool of a controlling patriarchy.

Nelson's direct, unadorned phrasing works best in poems focusing on everyday tasks such as household labour. A tension arises, though, between her efforts to evoke the workaday world and her need to elaborate a theory of how language alienates us from this world. Her plain style becomes flat when propounding theoretical verities which, while sometimes persuasive, are not startlingly original. A happy exception crops up in the long, free-form poem 'Making Waves,' where Nelson develops a richer, more untrammelled language capable of embodying her search for a poetics rooted in physical experience.

Even when she overstates her points, Nelson's voice, alternately genial and caustic, remains engaging. Irving Layton should read this book.

1992

No work I have written -- full-length books included -- has elicited as much response as this article.

Letters of protest streamed into the Montreal Gazette for weeks after the publication of this piece. Middle-aged and elderly readers recalled Layton as a beacon of light in the constipated darkness of the Canada of the 1950s. The Layton media persona, I learned, was sustained by a core of devoted readers to whom he had given an elegant vocabulary for longings they had scarcely dared to voice.

The best letter was from Irving Layton himself. Demonstrating that his ego had not smothered his sense of humour, Layton wrote: 'Young fogeys afflicted by mediocrity and the itch to write ... have never hesitated to reveal their animus against high spirits, wit, irrepressible creativity and my fame both here and abroad. I sympathize with them, for their suffering and deeply felt humiliation must be intolerable.... Clearly, Stephen Henighan lacks both common sense and common decency.'

Layton's riposte was a natural response to a sour review. Sharon H. Nelson, who turned out to be the founder of the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets, confounded expectations by rushing to Layton's defence. In a three-page single-spaced letter that she faxed to more than thirty prominent cultural figures, Nelson denounced my dastardly attack on a sexual liberator. She went on to threaten various libel actions. The Gazette's managing editor issued a formal rebuttal to Nelson's threats. Maclean's magazine got wind of the tempest and ran a short article on Layton's 'new alliances' and my lack of repentance for my cultural sins.

Yet the Layton-Nelson axis was no new alliance. Why did the founder of the Feminist Caucus side with the self-proclaimed slaverer? I later learned that, early in her writing career, Sharon H. Nelson had been a Layton proteg?e. The incident underlines the prime law of Canadian literary debate: differences of opinion, aesthetic creed or ideology are overruled by personal allegiances. Unlike the United Kingdom or the United States, where friends and acquaintances may cordially and vigorously disagree in print, Canada remains a colonial society; here friends must think alike and unanimity among the Family Compact of the chattering classes is still the hallowed aim of public utterances. In Canadian literary circles, the opinions you express continue to be a function of who you know rather than what you think.

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This Is My Country, What's Yours?

This Is My Country, What's Yours?

A Literary Atlas of Canada
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian, literary

Winner of the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-fiction
A Globe and Mail Best 100 Book (2006)
National Post Best Books (2006)
A bold cultural portrait of contemporary Canada through the work of its most celebrated novelists, short story writers, and storytellers.

Stories are the surest way to know a place, and at a time when the fabric of the country seems daily more uncertain, Noah Richler looks to our authors for evidence of the true nature of Canada. He argues why fiction matters and seeks to d …

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Excerpt

Knowing too much about writers and their lives, about who they are and who their friends are, can get in the way of a story that is fiction, after all, if only because the events in it have been edited and selectively arranged. Even doing only that takes skill. Do it well enough and fiction can seem like fact again, with the result that readers and friends sometimes confuse characters with people whom they know. Even writers and their families are not immune to making such mistakes themselves, but it was a surprise to learn that this category of error had been made by the luminaries of Burning Rock.

At a Larry Mathews class that I attended at Memorial, Lisa Moore had been the invited guest.

"In my first collection of stories," Moore told the table of graduate students, "there’s a story of a woman who is pregnant, and while she’s pregnant, her husband has an affair. Michael Winter is a very good friend of mine and because he lived here at that time I would speak to him every day on the telephone. Often we exchanged pages, sent them back and forth — not by email, because he lived just up the street. I would send him four or five pages, and he would send four or five pages down. So we were in very close contact, but somehow Michael hadn’t read this one story of mine that won an award. I had moved to Toronto, and Michael had to phone me and tell me that I’d won. Now I don’t know why he was the person that was phoning me, but he sounded completely depressed and I thought, 'What’s wrong? I won an award. Come on.' Finally he said to me in a grave voice, 'Lisa, I’m sorry, I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t know that Steve had an affair when you were giving birth' — and I was completely stunned because my husband hadn’t had an affair — at least not that I know of."

There was a collective groan from the students.

"Many of the images in the story of how the birth happened were true," she said. "Those physical details were so vivid and so dramatic and so fresh that they worked perfectly. But then when I was writing it, I thought that there needed to be more tension there. Something bad had to happen. As a writer, what you need to do is to take characters and put them in moral situations that the reader can sympathize with and understand — and then you have to make the worst possible thing happen. So it wasn’t enough that this woman nearly died in childbirth. 'What could be worse?' I asked. 'Could it be worse?' And yes, I decided it could have been. Her husband could have had an affair — and Michael, who actually writes fiction and who is completely aware of how a writer takes details that are absolutely true and then changes them, believed the story so much that he was hardly able to speak to me about it. My husband was actually the one who answered the phone in Toronto and he looked baffled and said that Michael had been rude to him and that he hadn’t said hello or goodbye or anything. So Steve said to me, 'What’s going on?' And then when I told him, Steve said that he would definitely be having an affair if I ever got pregnant again because many people were asking him about it and wanted to know if the story was true."

"And how did you feel about your story after that?" a student had asked.

"I think all the fuss indicated that it was damn successful — for me," said Moore, laughing. "But it wasn’t so good for Steve."

* * *

"I never thought that for a second," said Winter.

"Michael!" said Moore, "what are you saying?"

"No," said Winter. " This was somebody else who said that to you, and you’ve applied it to me — just like the time when I made you a Bruce Springsteen cassette tape, and there was room to spare, so I put some Otis Redding on the end of it. About five years later I was in the back of your car with you and Steve, and the cassette was playing and at the end of it Otis Redding came on. You turned around and you said, 'Isn’t it great?' And I said, 'Yeah, it’s good, it’s really good,' and you said, 'This is the guy that Springsteen discovered in New Jersey. He had room on the end of his lp, and so he put this unknown guy on the end. Isn’t it amazing he did this?' My jaw was dropping! I couldn’t believe it! I’d made the cassette for you!"

The bartender looked up as everybody at the table roared — except for Moore, who looked positively demure.

"That’s an interesting story, Michael," she said, "but it has nothing to do with what really happ —"

"It just goes to show how you fabricate," said Winter. "How you make interesting stories out of completely bogus details —"

"Or how Michael does," said Moore. "Why believe Michael over me? Guys?"

From the Hardcover edition.

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You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence

You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence

Crafts Discourse and the Common Reader in Canadian Poetry Book Reviews
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian

While Canadian poetic practices have steadily pluralised since the early 1960s, the poetry review has remained stubbornly constant. You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence is a critical, and at times hilarious survey of reviews of innovative Canadian poetry in English since 1961. What is at stake in the reviewing of poetry? What fantasies are inherent to the practice? How is poetry itself produced in the reviewing of poetry? Why has the reviewing of poetry remained largely invisible t …

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Unleashed

Unleashed

edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian

05/09/04 Now she is blogging. Now she is sitting on the black couch listening to the sirens wail and the rain fall. Now she is thinking of oysters. Now she is wondering why this is worth sharing. Now she is thinking, how decipher what is worth reading? Who is to say? Sifters. She thinks we have become a nation of sifters. So began a three-year experiment in blogging. An experiment begun for many reasonsÑa way for an expat to keep in touch with fellow Canadian writers and artists, a way to come …

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How Stories Mean

How Stories Mean

edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian

How Stories Mean gathers together criticism and theory written by short story writers themselves. Several of the essays were newly written for this book. The essays document the establishment and growth of the story form in Canada over the last twenty-five years but the collection is far more than archival. It offers endless insights into how writers write and how they wish to be read.

In discussing the nuts and bolts of their craft, the writers are inviting us into their workshops so that we can …

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The Canadian Postmodern

The Canadian Postmodern

A Study of Contemporary Canadian Fiction, Reissue
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian

The postmodern novel was a surprisingly and often poorly understood phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s, in which many artists explored issues of how art represents the world. These works are characterized by a certain self-reflexivity, a determination to foreground the process of artistic creation, and the previously often backgrounded role played by the artist. Linda Hutcheon's groundbreaking exploration of postmodernism in Canadian fiction, first published in 1988, provides a clear and fascinat …

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Lazy Bastardism

Lazy Bastardism

Essays & Reviews on Contemporary Poetry
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian

‘If grown-ups don’t read poetry’, writes poet and critic Carmine Starnino, ‘it’s not because they have a bone to pick with poets. The truth is even more intolerable: they prefer not to. . . They’re just not that into us.’ In his latest collection of critical essays, Starnino reports on the state of poetry with his usual sleeves-rolled-up approach to literary criticism which synthesizes broad observation with close reading. Engaging both icons (Atwood, Birney, McKay, Moritz, bpNicho …

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