I heard an announcer on the local CBC radio station mention that it is "literary season" and try to explain what that means.
There were a lot of festivals going on, which means public talks and readings by authors, and also there were a lot of Canadian prize lists being announced. She said this prize business was a little confusing because there were so many prizes, but anyway, she said, she was kind of obliged to list some of them, and these names of writers that no one can be expected to have heard much about, especially in the middle of this exciting baseball season, but here goes. (She didn't say exactly that – I exaggerate slightly – but that was the general feel of it.)
We are all of course grateful for the coverage, and I am not surprised that she felt she needed to justify the announcement in this quasi-apologetic way. The sudden spate of literary interest in the media, due to prizes, is indeed something like baseball fever: Lots of people find themselves wondering if they should take an interest in baseball now, just as they might idly wonder if this Canadian literature thing is something they should pay any attention to.
I am hardly a cheerleader for it: It's hard to tell people to read locally when Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison have just put out new novels. There is hardly any cultural-nationalist reason to read locally any more, either (if there ever was: I cringe to think that we might be telling people to read books that will improve their understanding of their country and its history – I would run hard away from any storybooks that had that as their primary recommendation). Canadian books are not necessarily about Canada directly any more; they are as likely to be set in Malaysia or Sri Lanka or Ireland.
Indeed, an archetypal Canadian novel right now would be one set in Asia or the Middle East and written with a very liberal sprinkling of non-English words from the language of that place, such that a typical paragraph of Canadian literature is written in a kind of near-Creole, e.g. "Every morning I would wake up and look through the pitta window and see the al-azroush man pushing his tiki-to down the street with fresh manazas. 'Na, Goshti,' my imara would say to me, using the formal form…"
(I made that up, but I'm looking at you, Shyam Selvadurai, Madeleine Thien, Rawi Hage, Rohinton Mistry…Rawi Hage even has a glossary at the back of De Niro's Game, to help you with Arabic vocabulary.) This is to reflect a typically Canadian reality: A great chunk of our population actually speaks hybrid languages such as "Hinglish" (Hindi and English) with their families and friends.
Furthermore, the only technical criterion for being considered for Canadian literary prizes is the author having a Canadian birthplace, leading to deeply English or New Zealand books (Rachel Cusk, Eleanor Catton) becoming officially part of our canon, and indeed what could be more Canadian than that internationalism?
But the idea of any national literature these days is weak, everywhere. There are novels based on Japanese anime characters being written by Filipino and Icelandic writers: to which national canon do they belong? Everyone reads internationally anyway, and American literature in particular is followed by the entire English-speaking world.
I teach Canadian students who want to be Canadian writers: What are they reading now? They are reading Ben Lerner and Junot Diaz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård, like literature students and writers all over the world. (They are probably not reading Franzen, as he is so uncool; I will try to fix that.) They pay no attention whatsoever to Canadian prize lists; they are following the current international literary moment, and it is good for them. What use would they have for cultural nationalism at this point in their training?
And yet we of course have to promote our own authors and try to remind the intelligently outward-looking country to look inwardly from time to time – not because it's good for you but because there is fun stuff to be enjoyed here. (Read Patrick deWitt, for example, to see what I mean about fun, about sheer pleasure).
So we create this onslaught of awards and festivals to tug at the constantly distracted, wired contemporary Canadian brain, to clamour for attention. It is artificial, like all advertising: iI directs us not to a local culture or identity – there is none that can be defined – but to a local industry, and that is necessary for the industry. Think of it as playoff season. Go Jays!