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Noah Richler, author of This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada.
Noah Richler, author of This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada.

Noah Richler

I'll take my Canadian tuque, Victoria - you keep your English fish pie Add to ...

Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, cannot be pleased.

Back in March, he appointed English biographer Victoria Glendinning to his 2009 jury alongside American novelist Russell Banks and our very own Alistair MacLeod, declaring that Canadians "are in the major leagues of writing, and we can be judged internationally by major-league people."

Now international judgment has been passed - by none other than Ms. Glendinning, who, in the Financial Times, wrote of Canada's superfluity of "dreadful" novels and their "flashbacks to Granny's youth in the Ukraine or wherever."

"The Canadian for 'gutter' is 'eavestrough,' which is picturesque," wrote Ms. Glendinning. "Everyone is wearing a 'tuque,' or 'toque,' which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario's northern lakes and forests - evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil - they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)"

Let me rise from my Muskoka chair and dip into the eavestrough of my own cliché-ridden mind.

You see, I'd thought, for a moment, of sending Ms. Glendinning a copy of my portrait of Canada, This is My Country, What's Yours?, a book that may or may not be any good but that certainly displays our literary diversity. But I decided against it because I'd have set myself back 20 bucks and after living in England for half my adult life I've become fed up with just how tight are the English upper middle classes, reaching into their pockets to pay for the 50-cent cup of tea you put before them only because they are worried about having to pay for some more expensive round later.

None of this would be germane, of course, except that thriftiness characterizes English literature, too.

To the extent that there is any truth in generalizations, after 15 years of making programs with writers at the BBC, I can say this with some authority: The bulk of English novels, even the good ones (Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes come to mind), are written by authors parcelling out their ideas frugally, a couple for the book at hand and others reserved for the next. This is the same sad way the English make fish pie: one piece of cod mixed in with many, many potatoes.

You want fireworks? You want literature that is invested with energy because every page is written as if it was the writer's last chance? Well, don't turn to English novels but to the political and cultural margins of a collapsed empire that started becoming parochial more than half a century ago - and is today to the point that the word "tuque" provides Ms. Glendinning such supercilious amusement. Canadian writers, along with Indian and Australian and Irish and African and Asian ones, have been writing the most exciting and original novels in, umm - oh, whatever kind of English it is, give the woman a lexicon - for decades. In these literatures, you will find a fervour and a generosity of spirit that is sorely lacking in the English, the dearth of which explains why most do not get North Americans even when they like us.

But in truth, what really concerns me is just how bad Victoria Glendinning's manners are - she's Jack Rabinovitch's guest, after all - and, no surprise, how mortified she is as a writer at the prospect of having to say thank you for that unsolicited cup of tea. Ridiculously, she argues that Canadian writers' largesse, their habit of fulsome acknowledgments "starting with the book's editor - unfailingly sensitive, creative and patient - plus family, friends and first readers," attests to too much help, interference in the book, explaining the apparent homogeneity of our fiction.

"Has any major work of art ever been produced by committee?" asks Ms. Glendinning. "Readers may wonder whether a writer's vision and voice may not get ironed out by such proactive input."

Poor Jack. Now he has learned that international jurors, and not just Canadian ones, can be minor league. (That would be "second division," Victoria.)

Noah Richler is author of This is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada.

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