Will the world get fired up about CanLit?
Mark Medley reports on why the timing seems right for Canadian writers to reassert themselves on the world stage
Granta, the British literary journal with roots winding back to the late 19th century, will publish its 141st issue in October. Despite a global readership a shade more than 36,000, the quarterly punches well above its weight; it is revered in publishing circles, and appearing in its pages can earn a previously unknown writer a book deal. From time to time, the magazine devotes an entire issue to the literature of a single country. Later this year, that honour falls to Canada for the first time.
"We're trying to celebrate this great literary culture which has defined so many people's understanding of the country," says deputy editor Rosalind Porter, a Canadian who has lived in Britain for the better part of two decades. "It really is an intriguing way of accessing a country: In your imagination, through a sample of their literature."
It's difficult to pinpoint just how many readers from around the world are accessing Canada through its literature.
There was a period of time, not too long ago, when Canadian literature was arguably the toast of the publishing industry, speaking to both Canada and the world. Awards are not necessarily the most accurate measure, but in the decade between 1992 and 2002, for instance, Canadian authors won the Man Booker Prize three times and were shortlisted an additional six times; won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction) twice and were shortlisted three more times; and won the International Dublin Literary Award once and were shortlisted five more times, just to name three of the most prestigious international English-language writing prizes open to Canadian authors.
Antoine Tanguay, publisher of Quebec City-based Éditions Alto, for instance, recalls conversations with his international colleagues in which they expressed incredulity at the amount of high-quality work being produced by Canadian writers: "When Life of Pi came out, a lot of foreign publishers looked at Canada saying, 'What is going on in Canada?' Then, the attention was driven away to different countries."
Bettina Schrewe, a literary scout, says that when she moved from Germany to New York in 1995, "there was a huge boom" for CanLit, pointing to the success of Ann-Marie MacDonald, Rohinton Mistry and Yann Martel, among others. "There was so much great literature coming out of Canada, and it feels like we haven't really seen that in the past years. Why is that?"
In the 15 years since Life of Pi became an international bestseller, the publishing industry has undergone a massive change, not just on the business side – with the consolidation of publishers, the rise of e-books and the continued pressure on the retail sector – but in the types of stories that transcend borders: the emergence of Scandinavian crime fiction; a rediscovered willingness by readers to consider works in translation (highlighted by such writers as Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard); and dynamic new voices from previously under-represented parts of the world, such as Africa, the Caribbean and the Asian subcontinent. Does Canadian literature still have a place on the map? Like much of the work the country's writers produce, the answer is more nuanced than the question.
In advance of Canada Day, the Globe surveyed more than 30 writers, editors, publishers, agents, booksellers, literary festival directors and others in the industry, both here and abroad, about the way in which Canadian literature is perceived – and received – in the world.
There's little doubt that the country is producing excellent books, but are they the right kind of books in a publishing climate where, according to London-based scout Catherine Eccles, "Everybody wants the next Girl on the Train"?
These days, CanLit is everything from YouTube star Lilly Singh's How to Be a Bawse to Rupi Kaur's poetry collection, Milk and Honey, to canonical texts such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which has jumped back onto bestseller lists. And, thanks to opportunities such as the coming issue of Granta, and the country's forthcoming role as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the timing seems right for Canadian writers to assert – or reassert – themselves on the world stage.
CanLit may not be lit, but the flame is getting close.
Over the past year, few writers have seen, first-hand, the way Canadian literature is embraced internationally more than Madeleine Thien. She has been travelling, seemingly non-stop, since her Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel both global in scope and profoundly Canadian, was published last year. What she's discovered, she says on the phone from Umbria, Italy, which she was visiting for a music festival organized by the Canadian classical pianist Angela Hewitt – this immediately on the heels of a two-week prepublication tour of Japan – is that Canadian literature is not viewed the same way, but changes from country to country, region to region.
"What Australia looks for, or recognizes, in Canadian literature, is very different from what Japan sees, or what Estonia or Germany or the U.K. are seeing," she says. "This is what has been so instructive and expansive, because you see that each country is looking for something to expand its own sense of itself and, in looking at Canadian literature, it finds these different ways of thinking."
Somehow, during this time, Thien has found time to co-edit an issue of Granta.
Last year, the magazine invited Thien, whose profile was high in Britain after being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and young Québécoise writer Catherine Leroux, who was a finalist for the Giller alongside Thien, to serve as guest editors. (It helps that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta's books division in Britain.) Thien took a month before accepting the offer: "It just seemed like such a daunting task."
Her instincts proved right, as the two editors received more than 1,000 submissions in less than four weeks.
While the contents of the issue are not yet finalized, the goal, Porter says, is "to throw a spotlight onto the most interesting writers writing in Canada today." Contributors will include established names such as Atwood and Lisa Moore, as well as younger, unexpected names such as the novelist Alain Farah, poet Souvankham Thammavongsa and playwright Falen Johnson.
A Canada-themed issue is an idea the staff at Granta have been considering "for as long as I can remember," Porter says. "I think the idea was that Canada was this slightly enigmatic nation that was producing an unbelievable amount of really high-quality work."
Eliza Robertson, a Canadian writer who has lived abroad for several years, and will publish her debut novel Demi-Gods later this year, was at a luncheon during the most recent London Book Fair during which a literary agent, sitting a few seats over, "just sort of blurted out that Canada is cool. I gave her a sideways glance, and she said, 'Sorry, but you weren't before.' I think she'd had a couple of glasses of wine at this point."
Curiously, expatriate Canadians interviewed for this story repeatedly mentioned the popularity of Justin Trudeau, especially in light of the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, as something that might prove beneficial to Canadian writers. In the United States, for instance, Trump's election "has had a profound impact on the way that American readers view Canada, and concomitantly, CanLit," Alix Ohlin, the newly hired chair of the University of British Columbia's school of creative writing, and who has lived in the United States for much of her adult life, says in an e-mail. "Canada is seen as a place that is willing to nurture the arts and support its writers in a way that is deeply contested in the U.S. at the moment."
Before Trudeau's election, Gillian Roberts, an associate professor in North American cultural studies at the University of Nottingham, in the English Midlands, says the only stories she saw in The Guardian related to Canada were about the seal hunt, the oil sands and Rob Ford. Now, there's tons of coverage.
Still, she's circumspect about what effect the increased visibility of Canada may have on its writers. "Whether that translates into more interest in Canadian literature, I'm not sure."
Those interested in Canadian literature can enroll in her third-year class, Contemporary Canadian Literature, which she describes as "a whirlwind, whistle-stop tour" of CanLit, and will study a shelf's worth of books that wouldn't be out of place at a Chapters in Saskatchewan, although much of the reading material isn't available in British chains such as Waterstones, which offers "a fractured view of what Canadian literature looks like," she says. "There's still a frustration about what filters through across the Atlantic."
The class syllabus includes, among other works, Douglas Glover's Governor-General's Literary Award-winning Elle; Lawrence Hill's bestselling The Book of Negroes; Thomas King's A Short History of Indians in Canada; Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach; Rita Wong's poetry collection Forage; Wayde Compton's volume of stories, The Outer Harbour; Dionne Brand's What We All Long For and Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down, two novels about Toronto; and Life of Pi.
In addition to exposing students to great books, her course underscores the difficulty with actually defining CanLit, which has become both a catch-all term for anything produced by a Canadian author, and a pejorative shorthand for anything wintry, rural and/or historical, a descriptor that's become wildly inaccurate for a literature that's cosmopolitan, global and rootless.
Not that readers of the titles that make it through customs necessarily make the connection between the books on their nightstand and their country of origin.
"I'm not sure readers outside of Canada necessarily identify Canadian writers as Canadian," says Alexi Zentner, a Canadian writer and professor living in the United States, and who publishes both literary fiction (his debut novel, Touch, was nominated for the Governor-General's Literary Award) and bestselling thrillers (under the pseudonym Ezekiel Boone). "Big names like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro seem to be thought of as either American or stateless. I suppose if I pressed my students and friends, they might identify them as writers who are Canadian, but they aren't thought of as Canadian writers – and some of the Canadian writers who are revered at home – dare I say famous? – aren't really thought of in [America] at all."
"What's interesting is that when literature gets really big, internationally, often the Canadian side of it is effaced," says Tom Rachman, a British-Canadian novelist (his 2010 debut, The Imperfectionists, was longlisted for the Giller Prize) who lives in London. "There are a whole range of Canadian authors that people really like, but they don't necessarily know are Canadian."
That said, it's not as if people aren't paying attention to what's happening in Canada's literary community, especially lately.
Kate Pullinger, a Governor-General's Literary Award-winning novelist who's lived in Britain for the past 30-odd years, says she's regularly asked to explain "the various implosions" going on in CanLit, from the dismissal of Steven Galloway as chair of UBC's department of creative writing to the more recent controversy surrounding the issue of cultural appropriation. She attended the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction ceremony in early June – Thien was a finalist – and, Pullinger says, "I did have a few conversations where people said to me, 'What's going on over there?'"
The offices of the Association of Canadian Publishers, an industry trade group that represents the country's independent presses, are situated on the third-floor of a nondescript building just south of Toronto's Chinatown neighbourhood.
There, a single desk has been turned over to Gillian Fizet, a publishing-industry veteran tasked with spearheading what could be the most important event for Canadian writers and publishers in a generation: Frankfurt 2020.
"It's an opportunity like none other," says Fizet, who should know: Her former job was as rights manager at House of Anansi, where her job was to sell Canadian books to publishers around the world.
And it's an opportunity that almost didn't happen. Canada was invited to be guest of honour several years ago, with an eye toward the sesquicentennial, but the offer was declined after the Conservative government signalled it would not support the initiative. After the Liberals were elected in 2015, organizers of the fair offered again, an invitation that was (eventually) accepted.
Planning is still in its infancy, but "our No. 1 objective is, basically, to raise the profile of Canadian publishing in Germany and internationally," says Fizet, who became executive director of Canada FBM2020 in February. "As guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, you are under the spotlight."
The fair is the largest of its kind, attracting 250,000 people, mostly from the publishing industry, as well as 10,000 journalists. Goals include translating 200 Canadian-authored titles into German prior to the fair; bringing 100 publishers to Frankfurt; and organizing 400 events, spotlighting Canadian music, theatre, dancer, visual arts and other cultural sectors, during the year of the fair.
The cost is estimated to be $6.5-million, with a report, commissioned by the Canada FBM2020 committee, stating this will be covered by "a mix of federal, provincial, cultural, publishers and private partners" and that there is a "multimillion-dollar potential return to be expected from Canada's presence."
"This is about creating a new revenue stream," Fizet says.
But will foreign publishers be interested in buying what Canadian authors are selling?
"We're reading the Canadian books, but a lot of them don't quite have what it takes," says Eccles, the literary scout, whose clients include leading publishers such as Random House Germany and Italy's Arnoldo Mondadori Editore. "Canadian literature, because a lot of it is coming out of the small presses, and it's the [Canada] Council who are supporting it, inevitably it's very Canadian, if that makes any sense. And that's tough. And I hate saying that. I don't enjoy saying it at all, but it's just the way it is. A lot of what we read we really admire, but it's just a bit too quiet for the noisy international stage.
CanLit is seen as what one observer calls "prestige literature" – Schrewe says that "the average Canadian writer is described as literary upmarket" – and in a marketplace looking for the next blockbuster, this kind of a reputation might do more harm than good; Canada's writers are too literary for their own good, perhaps.
Still, it's a reputation that, even if it was once accurate, needs updating.
"When you're talking to a U.S. publisher, or a German publisher, I think that they are expecting literary fiction, and they are expecting Margaret Atwood or Madeleine Thien," says Suzanne Brandreth, of Cooke International, which sells foreign rights of Canadian titles for a number of clients. "What is surprising, sometimes, to them, is Linwood Barclay or Kelley Armstrong."
Or there's A.S.A. Harrison's posthumous domestic thriller, The Silent Wife; Iain Reid's cerebral I'm Thinking of Ending Things; Emily St. John Mandel's postapocalyptic Station Eleven; Shari Lapena's chilling The Couple Next Door. Things are changing, slowly, even if Atwood is still topping bestseller lists with a book that was published before many of its readers were born.
"There are long-standing greats, like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood. But where is the next generation?" Eccles asks.
I mention a handful of authors who've achieved international success, ending with Louise Penny.
There's a pause on the other end of the line.
"I'd forgotten she's Canadian, actually. It says a lot, doesn't it?"