Skip to main content

At university, 30 years ago, my friends and I would use the term CanLit as shorthand for Canadian literature, and even then it was faintly derogatory. When we said CanLit, we meant a certain aesthetic in writing. We meant Margaret Laurence, mainly, and her sad small towns, and W.O. Mitchell and his heartwarming ones. We meant a white-bread literature that was mostly about the past. The word CanLit represented the big publishing houses of Toronto – in particular McClelland & Stewart, with its sepia-toned covers, all with the back of a woman’s neck on them.

Even though we were writing our own stories, and many of us went on to be published, we did not feel that we were part of CanLit. We were Canadian, sure, but we wanted to write about the contemporary, wired world and we were just as interested in Berlin and New York as we were in the Riel Rebellion, and that made us anti-CanLit. We did not enter creative-writing programs as there were not many being offered, so we did not have much resentment about syllabuses or the power of teachers. I have never taken a creative-writing course in my life.

You may have heard this term being used again, a lot, in the media. But its meaning has changed. It has had a resurgence due to some recent scandals involving universities. You may have recently read essays and blog posts and open letters with CanLit in the title – almost always referring to an unsafe place. Perhaps the most widely read of these was Alicia Elliott’s essay “CanLit Is A Raging Dumpster Fire,” which accused the undefined entity of both racism and violence toward women. The title of this essay was so often repeated that it became a kind of meme. CanLit is once again being used as a derogatory term – as a reference to a corrupt, defensive, settler/colonialist classroom. It no longer means a corpus, a selection of actual novels and poems and plays, but an academic and critical network set up to comment on books. CanLit now means the study of CanLit, with all its fraught panel discussions. In short, it means university departments.

It is the university departments, not the publishing industry per se, that have suffered the most painful controversies. At the University of British Columbia, the head of the popular creative writing department was fired for unnamed crimes, and those calling for a more open process were accused of silencing victims of sexual harassment everywhere. This led to a widely covered schism that involved writers and bureaucrats and activists alike, all seen to be part of the same endeavour – not necessarily an artistic one – with equal voices. This is worth stressing: Participants in the battle were not all artists. Many were academics whose job is to study the corpus. There was also a large number of participants who were not writers of any kind but rather minor functionaries in the organizations that serve to administer a largely government-funded industry (the Writers' Union of Canada, arts-funding bodies, festivals, etc.) or merely social critics from other fields such as law or sociology.

Read any of the lesser-known jeremiads about how CanLit excludes trans people or the disabled and you quickly find that almost everyone is referring to events at some university conference, some panel discussion jointly hosted by the gender-studies department in Room 29304. There some professors furiously disagreed with some other professors about who was invited, and a decision was made to strike a committee to study classroom space and accessibility.

As a novelist, I do not belong to this world. These disputes don’t concern me even indirectly. It is impossible to be accused of excluding anyone when one is sitting alone at one’s kitchen table, writing.

The most eyebrow-raising example of the strangely localized use of this term, for me, was a widely distributed blog confession about sexual harassment in the department of creative writing at Concordia University, written by a guy called Mike Spry. This j’accuse was so influential that it led to the university suspending some teachers and initiating a review of the department. I have been a part of the publishing industry and the literary media in this country for 25 years and I had never heard of Mike Spry. Indeed, I knew little about the creative-writing department at Concordia, but I thought it was cool that they had one. Creative-writing departments are great, but the goal is to get out of them and publish some day.

Anyway, this guy had lots to say about what he called CanLit. It was entirely corrupt, he said, dominated by a cabal of vile men (including himself) who kept power to themselves and slept with their students. “CanLit is a monster,” he wrote. He started by talking about his coterie of friends in the micro-publishing community of English Montreal. The goings-on at his school that he described did indeed seem horrendous. I read it to the end, waiting for when the attack on CanLit was going to start. But it turned out that what he meant by CanLit was the creative-writing department of Concordia University. That was his horizon.

Significantly, he did not include Toronto, the centre of Canadian publishing, in CanLit. He did not attack the large publishing houses that dominate the industry – Penguin Random House, which now owns McClelland & Stewart; HarperCollins; Simon & Schuster – or the small group of powerful literary agents who wheel and deal out of offices down the hall from the publishers and sell Canadian work abroad.

In fact, in my experience, nobody in this particular genre of polemic does mention them – because they don’t have much contact with those houses or with the agents. The debates about this CanLit are not, as they used to be, about the latest Michael Ondaatje novel. Ondaatje does not teach full-time at a university and so is removed from the storm. Actual fiction is not really part of the debate.

The production of literature and the teaching of it used to be largely separate. It was common for writers to proclaim that they did not have to answer to critics, tenured or otherwise. One could ignore them.

Recently, I read every short story published in every Canadian literary journal in the past year. I noticed that almost 90 per cent of the authors' biographies mention a university creative-writing program, usually an MFA. This is new. When I started out, it was considered impressive to boast in your bio that you had worked on an oil rig.

Now, a course of specialized study, often starting at the undergraduate level, is considered a necessary professional qualification for writing. It is also a necessary qualification for the teaching of other creative-writing teachers so that they may be qualified to teach other creative-writing teachers, and this is a job that all writers must do. Since the audience for books has shrunk, writers must earn a living by teaching. (I do so myself.) You can now get a PhD in creative writing and teach in the English department proper. Writers must now be productive faculty members and participate in committee meetings. The mandate of an educator is different than that of a solitary artist. Furthermore, humanities departments see themselves increasingly as having a revolutionary social-justice role that is just as important as – even inseparable from –their educational mandate. This discourages the old-fashioned role of writer as gimlet-eyed observer.

Because of this occupational proximity, the influence academics now have over the creation of poems and stories is greater than it has ever been. Writers are constantly held to account by their academic colleagues for ideological misgivings. There is a sense that the objections of a graduate student in sociology or geography must be addressed. Academics are not so much our critics as our policemen. And they are in the office next door.

This is how we have come to the point at which CanLit no longer means a national literature but rather a kind of administration. No wonder everyone is against it. Funny, as a Canadian writer I didn’t feel a part of CanLit when I started publishing. Now I suppose I am a part only by virtue of being a teacher.