Most literary critics agree: Gary Shteyngart is a pretty funny guy. His debut novel, published after 9/11, made people laugh at a grim time. His second novel parodied his first. He’s built a successful career as a satirist, but there’s one comic feat he can’t seem to pull off: Making Canadians laugh at themselves.
Mr. Shteyngart triggered a minor international literary incident last week when a reporter asked him if writers should be subsidised. “Let me say this,” Mr. Shteyngart answered. “I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidised, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”
He meant to be hyperbolic, tongue-in-cheek, and even funny. At least that’s what he subsequently tweeted: “Canadians, I was kidding about your literary non-edginess.” Borrowing a line from our leading stand-up comedian, he added, “I was in a drunken stupor.”
At a time when we should be smugly basking in the glow of Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, you’d think we’d be a little less sensitive. Instead, reactions ranged from hand wringing to high dudgeon, with occasional stopovers at self-pity and self-righteousness.
Lighten up, people! Perhaps what we really need is a royal commission on humour. Or a federal-provincial-territorial National Humour Promotion Strategy. (With grants.)
In the meantime, let’s take our cues from Mr. Shteyngart, who, after professing his deep love for this country on Twitter (He got married in Nunavut! He’s working on a coming-of age novel set in Mississauga!) spent a “Canadian day of contrition” listening to Glenn Gould while eating poutine. Then he did the most Canadian thing of all: He apologized.