The most successful book of Canadian fiction this fall has, so far, been Iain Reid’s suspenseful sci-fi novel, Foe. It concerns a woman on a remote farm in the near future whose husband, on a mission to a space station, is replaced by the organization that has sent him. The reviews for the book are uniformly dazzled; the sales are massive; the attention worldwide is ever-expanding. The book was reviewed on Radio-Canada’s flagship book show even before it was translated into French. The film rights have been sold to Anonymous Content in Los Angeles. This book is going to be read by thousands of non-Canadians, and as such is a powerful Canadian cultural export.
It is literature by a Canadian and so it is unquestionably Canadian literature. Is it, though, Canlit? Canlit is something that is being debated, studied and widely denounced by academics and activists at the moment. A recent call for papers for a coming conference on Canlit at the University of Ottawa, to be held in May, calls Canlit a terribly troubled and oppressive space. It stresses that it will be studying not literature but “the institutions that frame it.” These institutions, the organizers admit, include the universities, the media and the publishing houses, but I will bet an ear that the focus will mostly be on universities, on their courses, conferences and papers.
The conference is organized by professors of literature and proposes to investigate "entrenched cultures of sexual violence in Canada’s schools of creative writing and the forms of racism that continue to shape the institutions of Canlit." (Let’s leave aside for now the ludicrous hyperbole of “an entrenched culture of sexual violence in schools of creative writing”; that is not the subject of this article.) The organizers begin with the premise that "colonialism and neoliberalism underpin our locations and methods of study" and so propose to take a sociological approach to those locations and methods of study. The call for papers stresses that institutions shape the literary, and so asks, "If social oppression is linked to structural inequalities, how have the local, regional, national and global institutions that have mediated the literary in Canada entrenched or resisted those inequalities?"
Is Reid’s novel – to take one example – the literary in Canada? If it is, then is it part or product of the monstrously oppressive institution that is being criticized here? If this novel is part of Canadian literature, then is it not a product of the racism and the epidemic of sexual violence that apparently plagues the institutions that created it?
This would be a difficult thing to argue. Reid is not a graduate of a university creative-writing program. He does not teach creative writing. He is a professional writer. He comes from what you might call a different stream, the genre stream, as opposed to the literary stream. Genre is the loose term we use for fiction that falls into a category that is defined by structural conventions: romance, thriller, detective, sci-fi. The definition is vague and contested, but one simple thing that all these genres have in common is that they depend for their excitement on their plots, which resolve in satisfying ways. (Literary fiction does not demand plot, nor surprising twists, nor conclusive endings. You may not be surprised to hear it is less popular than genre. You also may not be surprised to know it does not feature prominently in academic conferences such as this.)
Because Reid comes from genre, and I am in the other clique, I haven’t met him, either, and was unaware of his writing until he merged with the massive success of his first novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2016) (also currently being adapted as a film for Netflix). He didn’t come out of the university-forged community of reading series and small presses and urban social groups and tweeted denunciations and long blog posts about trauma and healing and feeling unsafe, and so he was off my radar. I’m sure his literary horizons are quite different, too, from those of the academics attacking “Canlit.”
The complete separation of these two worlds is similar to the schism much debated in the United States over the past few years, a schism that has become known as NYC versus MFA. This is the idea that there are two ways of making a living as a writer in the USA: by publishing commercially viable fiction with the publishing houses of New York or by publishing in order to please a hiring committee and land a teaching job. In the first case, your audience is large and non-academic; in the second, it is tiny and academic. Both audiences can create a livelihood. The former option is much harder. It is like being a pro athlete: Of all the extremely talented athletes in the world, even of those who have made elite local teams, there are still very few who can turn pro. The second option is far safer and more stable.
So, since in Canada, there are far more people who write in the bosom of academe and because there is a general lack of academic interest in the crass world of popular success, it is natural that the attitude has developed that our literature is nothing more than the output and province of a few linked institutions, and that the primary job of a literary scholar then is to ensure equity, diversity and social justice within those institutions. The idea that literature can come from outside educational institutions is not one that is considered in conferences such as the one above. Personally, I do not believe all literature derives from such institutions and I believe that all the people around the world currently enjoying Foe would be puzzled by the idea as well – but my views are irrelevant here: My work is not to be discussed at such conferences, nor is the work of Reid. In fact, books themselves are not the subject of these inquiries. The scholars of Canadian literature are not very interested in books.
Editor’s note: Editor's note (Sept. 18, 2018): A recent call for papers for a coming conference on Canlit will be held in May, 2019, not June, at the University of Ottawa, not Carleton University.