If it is an article of national faith that Canadian literature is good because it tells Canadian stories to Canadians – a job unlikely to be undertaken by anyone else – the jurors of the three major award programs charged with naming the best Canadian fiction of 2011 are dangerous heretics.
Of the six books nominated for the influential Scotiabank Giller Prize, only two – Lynn Coady's The Antagonist and Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives – are set in Canada or have anything to do with the country or its citizens. They are also the two least publicized contenders, considered least likely to win by publishing insiders.
But the Giller jury, traditionally comprising two foreigners and a Canadian, is hardly alone. Only one of the five books an all-Canadian jury nominated this year for the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize – Michael Christie's The Beggar's Garden – contains any recognizable Canadian content. Even the jury for the Governor-General's Literary Award, traditional bastion of national literary taste, could only find two identifiably Canadian novels to recommend on a short list of five contenders.
Typifying the trend to a tee are the two novels named as finalists for every prize this season, including Britain's prestigious Man Booker: Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, a story of music and race in Nazi Germany; and Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a California-set Western. Joining them to make a majority on the Giller list is The Free World by David Bezmozgis, which is about a family of Soviet émigrés squabbling in Rome on their way to a somewhere else that may or may not be Canada. And having pioneered the new direction with his Booker-winning The English Patient almost 20 years ago, Michael Ondaatje is represented by The Cat's Table, another novel of transit set on the high seas, a world away from its author's adopted homeland.
Almost a decade after Yann Martel described Canada as “the greatest hotel on earth” in accepting the Booker Prize for The Life of Pi – a famous Canadian novel that begins in India and ends in Mexico – Canadian content has only become rarer in Canadian literature. While many U.S. and British writers turn inward – a trend exemplified by Julian Barnes's Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending – Canadian literature is more than ever characterized by free-floating cosmopolitanism.
“That's definitely one of the striking things about contemporary Canadian literature,” said Paul Martin of Edmonton's MacEwan University, former director of Canadian studies at the University of Vermont. “But it's not something we should be apologizing for. I think it's something we should be pretty excited about.”
Internationalism is a sign of confidence, many observers agree, and a faithful reflection of the ethnic diversity of modern Canada. “Going back to the middle of the 1990s, Canadian fiction became confident enough it no longer had to be set in southwestern Ontario or the Prairies,” said University of Toronto English professor Nick Mount. “I think it felt it could set wherever it wanted to be set.”
Others are less impressed. In his provocative When Words Deny the World, writer and University of Guelph professor Stephen Henighan complained almost a decade ago that Canadian writers and publishers were neglecting their own gardens in pursuit of the greener grass of global acceptance, producing “Hollywoodized” fiction to suit the domineering appetites of Giller Prize judges.
“I think we've got beyond that now,” he said. “But I would say that were are still very much lacking in novels that address contemporary Canadian reality. If you compare the way Canadians write fiction with the way the Americans or the British do, it's definitely evident that we do not portray our daily lived reality with the same kind of attention.”
Henighan identifies both deWitt's and Edugyan's novels as typical examples of denatured Canadiana, “dealing with very predigested images that people have from the movies.” On the other hand, he says, both Bezmozgis's and Ondaatje's fictions could be seen as “very traditional Canadian novels” in their focus on the voyages that bring new families to the country.
In any case, Martel's hotel metaphor remains both valid and “depressing,” according to Henighan. “It's not a metaphor that is going to create very vital or engaged fiction in the long run,” he said.
Others are more accepting. “Fiction, like everything else, is subject to fashion,” Mount said. “People don't like to admit that art follows the same cycles, but it does. And right now, for whatever reason, the fashion is elsewhere.”
Modern Canadian novelists have always been international in their outlook and concerns, said Linda Swendsen, who teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, citing Margaret Laurence's early work on Africa, Mavis Gallant's Paris and Ondaatje's meditations on the life of Billy the Kid. “I think what's remarkable about these writers in their thirties and early forties is that they're quite confidently writing about whatever is relentlessly stirring them,” she said in an e-mail. “These writers – they boldly go everywhere.”
Reviewing the award nominations this year, Canadian literature scholar Faye Hammill of Scotland's University of Strathclyde admits she was amused to see how organizers strained to identify “these quite internationalized authors” as Canadian. What united them, according to Hammill, is not their choice of settings, but point of view.
“If you can see that there are aspects of a Canadian upbringing or having lived in Canada for certain parts of their lives, which is actually coming through in the way they are writing about other countries, I would think that is more useful than actually measuring by places that the novels are set in,” she said.
Themes of travel, migration and cosmopolitanism are as Canadian as the sport of hockey, according to Hammill, who is in Toronto researching their origins in travel articles from 20th-century Canadian magazines that depicted life in the great European capitals.
“The fascination with those cities goes back a long way, I think,” she says, and it has helped create an internationalized literature with a distinctive “inside-outside” perspective on the world. “I really like that about Canadian literature – that it has this simultaneous sense of identity with these overseas places while also making them strange,” she said.
And sometimes nothing is stranger about this literature than the adjective most often used to describe it.