The other day, when reorganizing my laptop, I discovered a review I wrote three years ago for Re:verse, the now-defunct online publication of the League of Canadian Poets (I say “now-defunct” because it appears to have disappeared from the Internet), of Billeh Nickerson’s Impact. It was 2012; I was sixteen; I’d just had my first experience of CanLit without even knowing it.
Flash forward to 2015, and my first day at TNQ as a literary spy. Did I know what this mission would involve? Not really; I was just hoping there would be reading. What I didn’t guess was that this reading would mostly mean “reading short stories created with 100% Canadian content.” Have I mentioned I didn’t really like short stories? And that I knew nothing about Canadian literature? (I read The Edible Woman a few times. That’s about it.)
Novels? Poetry? No problem. If a novel was a freshly baked cake, though, short stories always seemed to me like their undercooked equivalent; I would still eat them because I love cake, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have had it been cooked to golden perfection. (Moral of the story: bring me cake.)
However, since working at TNQ and obsessively reading back issues (as well as books by TNQ writers and issues of other literary magazines) I’m slowly but surely beginning to love short stories. Now, instead of seeming undercooked, they seem differently spiced: not incomplete but foreign. (Next up: learning to enjoy reading plays. Maybe I should find a job at the Stratford Festival.)
Even more importantly than learning to love short stories, I learnt that CanLit doesn’t fit into the neat little box that I pictured (namely, the box of boring). Have I read a lot about nature? Yes. But even more about cancer (I blame John Green) and love, and people living their lives. There is no one “CanLit topic” as I had previously imagined. If there is one way I would characterize it, it’s “dreamlike”; so much of the writing I’ve read during my time here has kept me guessing, trying to peek behind the surface of the words to reach their intent…as the best writing should.
It’s all this reading that has made me believe CanLit is not dead. Despite recent debate on its status (this article, and the essay “Shackled to a Corpse” in Issue 92 of CNQ, as well as the closure of Descant), I would like to argue that CanLit is actually flourishing, in part because of articles like these. If it’s being debated, it exists. (Plus, the first article uses the phrase “spies from nowhere” to describe Canadian writers…so how could I not agree?) Finally, I wouldn’t even be writing this post if there weren’t some demand for CanLit, because TNQ itself wouldn’t exist.
Has working at TNQ taught me to define CanLit? No, nor would I want it to. Just as the meaning of what it is to be Canadian is continually in flux, so too should our literature be. I’m certainly no expert, but as someone who is inching her way into the community of Canadian writing, I’ve already seen so many vibrant and diverse examples of writing both within TNQ and without that I can’t help but have faith in CanLit as a creature in its own right.
Want to have your faith restored? Pick up a Canadian poem. Go volunteer for a literary magazine. Write a short story yourself (for our contest, maybe?). Defy your prejudices against CanLit. You might just like it.