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The Globe and Mail

The secret pleasures of bad Canadian books

Author Mordecai Richler: The Incomparable Atuk is a bad Canadian book that shows how Richler became a great Canadian writer.

Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

This summer, expat Craig Taylor is rediscovering his homeland through the Canadiana collection of the Abbey Bookshop in Paris's Latin Quarter. This is his seventh instalment.

I've been playing a game recently. The rules of Good Canada/Bad Canada are simple: Take anything Canadian and assign it to one of two piles. Nickelback is Bad Canada, but the beaver on the nickel is Good Canada. Celine Dion is Bad Canada, but Carl Wilson's book about Celine Dion is Good Canada. In a country of respect and consensus, GC/BC is essential. There are no limitations on its application: Stephen Harper's hair is Bad Canada; the feel of crisp arbutus bark crumbling in your hand as you stand on the beach of a Gulf Island? Good Canada.

GC/BC is also helpful when discussing books, especially since book conversations have become exceedingly polite: "I read X the other day," someone will say and receive back a few looks that imply "good on you for finishing the whole thing." When the conversation then turns to television box sets, passions finally emerge. "How," someone will demand, "can you dislike Breaking Bad, Season 3, Episode 4, Scene 5, Line 12, Beat 9, you know, just before they cut to exterior? How dare demean that moment."

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Does someone such as Robertson Davies go into the GC or BC pile? It's not so simple, as the game encourages readers to judge each work when possible. I'm going to put Fifth Business in GC and The Cunning Man in BC and you can argue with me if you must. Even a single book such as Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush can be sliced up like pioneer bacon. Moodie's descriptions of the deep forests of Ontario are GC; her endless slagging of Irish immigrants and her tiresome snobbery is BC, and the chapters contributed by her husband, some of the most boring stretches of writing to ever be housed within the covers of a Penguin Classic, have got to be VBC – Very Bad Canada. Diane Schoemperlen's stories are GC. Derek McCormack's – definitely GC.

There is a deeper point to this sifting: It's evidence of a writing culture that over the past 30 years has gained a resilience nearly as strong as Kevlar. I remember on a visit to Tel Aviv speaking to an Israeli satirist who mentioned his was a very fragile art. Satire in the United States and Britain, he said, was so enjoyable because the targets had solidity. He couldn't push so hard.

Look how hard we can push against Canadian literature. Back in 1972, when Margaret Atwood published Survival, the whole enterprise was still coated in eggshells. Now: hard to crack.

Case in point is the London Review of Books recent demolition of Alice Munro's collection Dear Life, in which the reviewer gorged himself on 10 of her collections in a row and then complained that he might be "deaf to the charms of simple sentences." I'd argue he binged on collections so potent readers must circle the block in the evening air to process one or two stories. (I did this after reading a couple from Runaway, whispering to myself the whole while: I must live better, I must live better.) If you take too many at once, the opposite of drowsiness will occur: an unbearable surplus of Munrovian clarity.

The LRB attack was like listening to a man complain about a bottle of the world's best scotch because he couldn't glug it all at once and would prefer a case of beer – Pabst Blue Ribbon. I can't verify the accuracy of the following image, but I see Munro on a porch, somewhere in Ontario, crickets chirping, as she finishes reading the review. She sets it aside and says quietly into the summer air: "Who gives a rat's ass anyway? I'm Alice Munro."

Speaking of scotch, now might be the time to mention one of the worst books I've read during my summer of Canlit: The Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler falls into the Bad Canada pile with a thunk, but there's pleasure in its badness. Atuk is an aberration from 1963: It's Richler without sting, without artistry. It's a bunch of "guess you had to be there" jokes placed amidst uneasy racial stereotyping. It's the first time I've strayed from the big Richler novels and the essays and, strangely, it's pleasurable to revel in the shoddiness and wonder how he got from there to Solomon Gursky Was Here. Atuk is a must for aspiring fiction writers, if only to demonstrate the power of tenacity. From one angle, Richler seemed to suggest that to be a writer you only had to drink scotch in Montreal bars with colourful names. Atuk demonstrates how much persistence came as he moved into his later phase, how Richler progressed, book by book, listening for the clang of empty jokes, discarding weak sentences, easy laughs, working toward the artistry of Horseman, Joshua, Barney.

So here's an idea when next thinking of Richler: Instead of celebrating a Canadian "character," read Atuk, read The Acrobats, move from early to later work. Watch a great writer pull himself, hand over fist, from BC to GC. Heck – I'd say VGC.

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