Robert Fulford's column about the international success of Canadian literature

(The National Post, June 6, 2001)

A decade ago, George Will remarked in Newsweek magazine that of all the countries in the world, Canada contained the highest number of great writers per capita, one great writer for 27 million people. This was his way of paying tribute to Robertson Davies (1913-1995), who at the time was thought by many readers, including Mr. Will, to be not only Canada's greatest living writer but one of the finest novelists anywhere. It was George Will's point that the United States, in order to draw even with Canada, would have had to produce 10 or so Davies-level writers, which the U.S. clearly could not do.

Mr. Will may have been the first journalist anywhere to remark on the fact that English-speaking Canada was producing rather more first-class writers than might be expected from a country of this size. Today, of course, it's a commonplace to make this point in literary circles. When the word came in from London yesterday that Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin had not won the $66,000 Orange Prize for fiction by women (it went to The Idea of Perfection, by the Australian novelist Kate Grenville), it no longer mattered to the country's reputation. Canadian writers have won so many prizes in recent years, and received so much praise on the book pages of the world, that one more award, while pleasant for Ms. Atwood, wouldn't have changed anything.

After all, in this season alone Ms. Atwood has already won the Booker Prize in London and Alistair MacLeod has won the $172,000 International IMPAC Dublin Award for No Great Mischief (Salman Rushdie, David Lodge, Michael Frayn, Gnter Grass and Vikram Seth were among the other 98 novelists considered). As for the Orange Prize, two of the previous five winners have been Canadians -- Anne Michaels in 1997 and Carol Shields in 1998.

This is part of a pattern that emerged early in the 1990s when Michael Ondaatje was co-winner of the 1992 Booker. Anne Michaels' novel, Fugitive Pieces, won not only the Orange but also two other British fiction awards, the Guardian Prize and the H.H. Wingate Award, as well as a U.S. prize, the Lannan Foundation Award for Fiction. (It was also translated into 19 languages.) Ms. Shields, an Amero-Canadian in Winnipeg, has also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States.

Among the creative arts, English-language literature has made a larger impression on the world than anything else Canadians have produced in recent times. Filmmakers, playwrights, musicians and visual artists have had some successes, but nothing to compare with the acclaim that has been given to our most ambitious, imaginative fiction.

It would be hard to identify all the factors that have led us to this happy place, and probably impossible to put them in order. But what seems clear is that since the 1950s a generation of writers, editors and bureaucrats have been involved in a kind of open conspiracy to create a literary community that can support serious writing. Public institutions, notably the Canada Council and the CBC, have been deeply involved in it, alongside a regiment of book publishers, most significantly McClelland & Stewart. These forces have combined with booksellers, teachers of literature and journalists to create a home market for Canadian writing -- and a home market, it now appears, plays as great a role in literature as it does in electronics or lumber.

Success abroad also reflects Canada's great good luck in attracting to its shores many talented writers from elsewhere, perhaps most famously Mr. Ondaatje from Sri Lanka and Rohinton Mistry from India (a Booker finalist for Such a Long Journey in 1991). Among writers who have grown up in Canada, another factor has been in play, a different strategy adopted by novelists of the last two generations or so. In the middle of the 20th century it was assumed that people elsewhere didn't want to read about Canada. Many authors, anxious for international audiences, felt called upon to minimize whatever was Canadian in their work.

Hugh MacLennan (1907-90), who added a phrase to the Canadian language when he called a book Two Solitudes, was particularly bitter on this issue. He was usually published in the U.S. and he made some appearances on New York best-seller lists, but he often complained that American publishers greeted Canadian characters and settings with apathy. He summed up the American attitude as "Boy meets Girl in Winnipeg -- and Who Cares?"

Morley Callaghan (1903-90) circumvented that problem. He saw himself as a kind of universalist writer, and he made the settings for his work anonymous. He used Toronto as the background in most of his novels and stories while eliminating place names: An innocent reader couldn't tell whether his characters were walking around Cleveland or Seattle. Callaghan argued that it didn't matter.

But novelists whose reputations were made a little later have instead imposed an explicitly Canadian fiction on the world. Unlike filmmakers, they don't disguise Canadian cities and towns as Noplace, U.S.A. Robertson Davies made a large international reputation with books that were dense with the details of Southern Ontario life and could have been written nowhere else. The last book he wrote, The Cunning Man, was the most Toronto-centric of all his works, full of references to local heroes, local institutions and local pretensions. Even his admirers worried about how it would fare elsewhere, but in the U.S. it received good reviews and sold as well as any of his books. Mordecai Richler (a surprise hit in Italy for his most recent and perhaps most brilliant novel, Barney's Version) has rooted his work in the Jewish ghetto of Montreal, and won a superb reputation on precisely his own terms.

As for Ms. Atwood, she has usually grounded her books in a specifically Canadian landscape and cityscape, totally departing from it only in her dystopian fable, The Handmaid's Tale (which takes place in a slightly disguised Cambridge, Mass.). But if her works were rooted in Canadian reality from the beginning, they have become much more obviously so in the last decade. In The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, she makes a point of exploring Toronto, past and present -- and the more closely she ties her work to her own environment, the more enthusiasm she arouses elsewhere. That fact, almost unimaginable just 25 years ago, now seems merely obvious, one more result of Canada's startling performance on the stage of international literature.

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