What Canadian Literature Means To Me

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After about five minutes on this blog, you’ll figure out I’m Canadian. And then maybe about five minutes after that, you’ll get the sense that I’m in love with Canadian literature. There’s something so special about literature that’s written by people that live in the nation you call home and plots and story lines that take place in cities you’ve visited or live in. Many times you’ll hear people say Canadian literature and your mind will automatically take you back to your high school English class where they made you read books set in the prairies and they made you read books by the notable Canadian figures that we’ve all come to associate with the term CanLit. It use to happen to me too. Okay Mrs. Gannon, I’ll read Mordecai Richler, but only because you’re making me.

Then I left school and I had the opportunity to read anything I wanted to read and something really funny happened… I continued to gravitate towards Canadian Literature. And it wasn’t because I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing (I do) and it wasn’t because I wanted to look patriotic by reading Alice Munro (I do), the books I was picking up were historical fiction that took place in Nova Scotia and stories of the uncertainty of immigrating, set in Toronto. There was such a variety of looking at Canada in the form of different genres that I just couldn’t stop experiencing our country in the form of literature.

When researching and starting to write this post, I looked up the definition of Canadian Literature and Wikipedia stated the obvious definition, which was, ” Canadian literature is literature originating from Canada”. But as you scrolled down through the page, there were lots of layers to its definition, my favourite being the list of traits that are commonly found in Canadian Literature.

  • Failure as a theme: Failure and futility feature heavily as themes in many notable works; for instance, Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley or Kamouraska by Anne Hebert.
  • Humour: Serious subject matter is often laced with humour. See also: Canadian humour.
  • Mild anti-Americanism: There is marked sentiment of anti-American often in the form of gentle satire. While it is sometimes perceived as malicious, it often presents a friendly rivalry between the two nations
  • Multiculturalism: Since World War Two, multiculturalism has been an important theme. Writers using this theme include Mordecai Richler(author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), Margaret Laurence (author of The Stone Angel), Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje(author of The English Patient) and Chinese Canadian writer Wayson Choy.
  • Nature (and a “human vs. nature” tension): Reference to nature is common in Canada’s literature. Nature is sometimes portrayed like an enemy, and sometimes like a divine force.
  • Satire and irony: Satire is probably one of the main elements of Canadian literature.
  • Self-deprecation: Another common theme in Canadian literature.
  • Self-evaluation by the reader
  • Canadian writer Robertson Davies, author of The Deptford Trilogy which included the famous book, Fifth Business.
  • Search for Self-Identity: Some Canadian novels revolve around the theme of the search for one’s identity and the need to justify one’s existence. A good example is Robertson Davies‘s Fifth Business, in which the main character Dunstan Ramsay searches for a new identity by leaving his old town of Deptford.
  • Southern Ontario Gothic: A subgenre which critiques the stereotypical Protestant mentality of Southern Ontario; many of Canada’s most internationally famous authors write in this style.
  • The underdog hero: The most common hero of Canadian literature, an ordinary person who must overcome challenges from a large corporation, a bank, a rich tycoon, a government, a natural disaster, and so on.
  • Urban vs. rural: A variant of the underdog theme which involves a conflict between urban culture and rural culture, usually portraying the rural characters as morally superior. Often, as in Stephen Leacock‘s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town or Alistair MacLeod‘s No Great Mischief, the simplicity of rural living is lost in the city.

These traits are all accurate and I couldn’t try to define them better if I tried. What Wikipedia won’t be able to convey is that Canadian Literature is celebrated and appreciated in a way that not only makes me proud to be a Canadian, but makes me feel honoured to work for a publisher that publishes such great Canadian talent. Forget searching for definitions of CanLit on google, head over to Facebook and Twitter to see what Canadians are saying about #CanLit.

CanLit fans are loud, proud and always helping to spread the word beyond the confinements of the literature we’re taught in school. They’ll help you stretch your imagination beyond what you might think CanLit is or was. If you haven’t already, I urge you to give it a chance, whether your Canadian or not, the themes, traits and ideas will continuously surprise you. I’d also suggest really challenging yourself to take the Random House of Canada’s Reading Bingo Challenge!

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I’d also love it if you took the time to let me know what Canadian Literature means to you in the comments below. Share with me the moment you knew CanLit was so much more the term “books about Canada”. 

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13 thoughts on “What Canadian Literature Means To Me

  1. ReadingMaria says:

    Thanks for the post! I’m currently taking a class at York U, Glendon campus, called “Introduction to Canadian Literature.” Right now, we’re talking about Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke. We’ve already read so much poems and short stories by Canadians, and this semester we are getting into plays and novels.

    As a Canadian, I am ashamed to say that I wasn’t really keen on reading books by Canadian authors. It just wasn’t marketed to me as a child, and I didn’t really know when I was reading a book by a Canadian (I didn’t always pay attention to the author biographies before). But now I am falling in love with our literature, and I will definitely start the Reading Bingo. Thank you 🙂

  2. The Paperback Princess says:

    It’s like you wrote this piece just for me! You know that I’ve struggled with the CanLit thing and I think you just identified it for me – there were loads of Canadian books that I HAD to read in high school and then again in university and they just always fell flat for me. Like they were trying to be something that they weren’t. Reading through that list of attributes of CanLit, I started to understand it better. I grew up in Canada but I’ve always been “other” – I wasn’t born here and my mom didn’t identify with the culture here. Being married to a Super Canadian, I’m learning a lot more. Maybe that change has allowed me to read CanLit with fresh eyes. I’m enjoying the education.

    Thanks for writing this great piece!

  3. Cathy746books says:

    I love this post. I’m Irish and I love Irish literature and it’s funny to see how many of the themes associated with Canadian Literature could also relate to Irish literature! I’ve noticed quite a few Canadian book bloggers around and it’s good to read about less well known Canadian writers. I’m a big fan of Atwood and Munro but my chldhood favourite Canadian would have to be Robert Service!

  4. Naomi says:

    It’s funny, but I don’t remember reading much CanLit in school, which I have always been sad about. I have always felt that I might have gotten into CanLit sooner had I been introduced to it sooner. But, after reading your post, I’m thinking maybe it was a good thing that I had to find it on my own. My earliest CanLit would, of course, be all of L.M. Montgomery’s books, but at the time I didn’t think of them as Canadian- I thought of them as Prince Edward Islandian (I think I just made that up). So, once I did get on the CanLit bandwagon (with the help of M. Atwood), I felt way behind. But, I was hooked and with the help of my blog, I am catching up. If only the new ones would stop coming, I could catch up a lot faster. 🙂

  5. Angélique says:

    I guess I’m lucky in a sense: I grew up in France so I wasn’t *forced* to read any CanLit (BUT I don’t think I can take another Molière in my whole life!). I have been discovering CanLit since I arrived here almost five years ago and I love it.
    What stroke me right away was the diversity in CanLit. Many Canadians were born in a foreign country and bring a bit of their (native) culture in their book. First Nation literature (and movies) fascinated me right away too (I love Richard Wagamese). I particularly enjoy also all the book taking place in remote places of Canada, a bit like If I Fall, if I die by Michael Christie, or the (horror/fantastic) French-Canadian series Les Villages Assoupis by Ariane Gélinas.
    I’m trying to catch up with CanLit classics but there is so much to read! I started to read the CBC 100 books at the end of next year and so far, I loved The Book of Negroes, Room and The Antagonist!

  6. Alex says:

    Thanks for sharing! I totally agree that there’s something about reading about the places that you’ve lived or visited. But it’s more than that too – those themes that you mentioned are really accurate and so many of them resonate with me (and apparently with other Canadians as well). I also really love that there’s so much pride around CanLit (like Canada Reads and the Giller Prize and the #CrazyforCanLit hashtag). It definitely seems like CanLit fans really are a loud and proud group, like you said, and I think it’s great!

  7. Jennifer says:

    I love this post as it conveyed many of my sentiments about CanLit! It was my high school Canadian Lit. class that inspired be to study literature in university! And now I can’t get enough of it; reading the entire Giller Prize Short List every year, the Rogers Writers’ Trust nominees and the annual contenders for CBC’s Canada Reads, whilst reading many others in between.
    Keep reading friends.

  8. writereads says:

    It’s funny, like Naomi, I didn’t really think of Anne of Green Gables as Canadian as a kid. I think what started my love of CanLit were the books of Roberston Davies when I was in my teens. And then, I took a CanLit course at the University of Alberta many, many moons ago and was introduced to Thomas King and Margaret Laurence, and from then on I was truly hooked. Clearly Kirtles and I both have the big love for the novels of our homeland as we decided to do a CanLit podcast.
    I think for me it’s the love of two themes: the deep relationship to place/nature that many Canadian novels have, and the satirical humour. That wiki was a great find, btw!
    Thank you so much for your post and for getting everyone talking about their CanLit love. I’ll have to see if Kirtles wants to start the book bingo going for our podcast! -Tania

  9. Natalie @ Browsing Bookshelves says:

    Great post! I love CanLit too, but I’ve never really stopped to think why. I think my love of CanLit is definitely tied up in the setting. I feel a connection to the places in the book, even if I’ve never been there before. And I love reading tidbits about Canadian history. Now I have a craving to read some Joseph Boyden or Alice Munro!

  10. Court says:

    I tell myself that I hate CanLit – I find it very difficult to read and rarely really enjoy the books… but when I do find ones that I enjoy, I love them more than any other books that I’ve read (like LM Montgomery’s works, Robertson Davies, Will Ferguson…). This actually may be why I continue to gravitate towards them – because the ones that I love with an undying passion out-weight the ones I dislike.

  11. Erin says:

    I laughed out loud when you mentioned Mordecai Richler, because I was forced to read “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.” I have to admit that the story didn’t resonate with me. If anyone asked me now what it was about I would have to look it up on Wikipedia. Then, I took multiple Canadian literature courses at York University (by choice!) and it turned out they weren’t so bad after all. Except for a select few that bored me to death (but I won’t mention them here). Truthfully, I’m a Can-Lit slacker, not even having read “Life of Pi.” The funny thing is, I was just thinking about reading more Can-Lit when I stopped by your page (and this was the first time too).

  12. Don Royster says:

    I am not a Canadian. I am an American who grew up in the Southern United States and now live in Florida. But I get where you’re coming from. I grew up with Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, William Styron and Harper Lee. Amazing writers. I grew up in a society that cultivated storyteller. Along with the writers there was the music. Since then, I have grown to love and claim some Canadians as my own. Robertson Davies and Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje and Alistair MacLeod, Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson and Anne Murray and the Guess Who. I can still remember the day I pulled Lightfoot’s “Sunday Concert” out of the record bin. I had never heard of this guy before and I didn’t recognize any of the songs. But that record spoke to me and said, “I want to be yours.” I can’t tell you how much those early Lightfoot songs meant to me. There was nothing quite like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” for me. It took me away into the wonder of another world. Through the years, Lightfoot became a constant. And when Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the world finally got a chance to see what wonderful artists you produce up there in the Great White North. Something I had known for a long time. Years ago, the Guess Who recorded a song that said it so well about that amazing Canadian. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCJje8qNvXU

  13. Craig Shreve says:

    I grew up in southern Ontario, about 40 minutes from the US border. I lived in a small town with no cable. We watched and listened to whatever we could get on antenna, which was mostly stations out of Detroit. I watched US television shows and listened to US radio stations and for the longest time I believed that everything American was better. Reading CanLit was the first time that I believed that there was something Canadian that was superior, and I have never stopped believing it since. Canadian literature gave me an appreciation of my own country’s culture that I was not getting through any other means.

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