Essays on the Millennium

Survival, Then and Now

Canada’s premier woman of letters takes a razor-sharp look at the state of Canadian literature

Margaret Atwood July 1 1999
Essays on the Millennium

Survival, Then and Now

Canada’s premier woman of letters takes a razor-sharp look at the state of Canadian literature

Margaret Atwood July 1 1999

Survival, Then and Now

Canada’s premier woman of letters takes a razor-sharp look at the state of Canadian literature

Essays on the Millennium

Margaret Atwood

As Canadas international writing superstar, Margaret Atwood has won more than 50 major awards, from the Governor General’s Awardfor her first book of poetry, The Circle Game, in 1966, to the Giller Prize for her latest novel, Alias Grace, in 1996. Surprisingly, only the Swedish Humour Association, which honoured her with its International Humorous Writer Award for The Robber Bride in 1995, has explicitly recognized one of her most attractive qualities. In this essay, the 59-year-old author turns her finely honed wit on a topic she effectively defined nearly three decades ago: Canadian literature.

In 1972, I wrote and published a book called Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which ignited a ferocious debate and became, as they say, a runaway best-seller. This was a shock to everyone, including me. Canadian writing, interesting? Among the bulk of readers at that time it was largely unknown and among the cognoscenti it was frequently treated as a dreary joke, an oxymoron, a big yawn, or the hole in a non-existent doughnut.

At the beginning of the ’60s, the usual sales of poetry books numbered in the hundreds, and a novel was doing well if it hit a thousand copies. But over that decade, things changed rapidly. After the wartime ’40s and the beige ’50s, Canada was showing a renewed interest in its own cultural doings. The Canada Council began supporting writers in earnest in 1965. In Quebec, the Quiet Revolution had generated an outburst

of literary activity; in the ROC (the Rest of Canada as we call it now but did not then), many poets had emerged through coffee houses and public readings, more novelists and shortstory writers were becoming known, and Expo 67, the Montreal world’s fair, had created a fresh national self-confidence. Audiences had been building steadily, and by 1972 there was a critical mass of readers who wanted to hear more; and thus, through a combination of good luck, good timing and good reviews, Survival became an “overnight publishing sensation,” and I myself became an instant sacred monster. “Now you’re a target,” Farley Mowat said to me, “and they will shoot at you.” How prescient he was. Who could have suspected that this modest cultural artifact would have got so thoroughly up the noses of my elders and betters? If the book had sold the 3,000 copies initially projected, nobody would have bothered their

heads much about it, but in the first year alone it sold 10 times that number, and suddenly CanLit was everybody’s business. The few dedicated academic souls who had cultivated this neglected pumpkin patch over the meagre years were affronted because a mere chit of a girl had appropriated a pumpkin they regarded as theirs, and the rest were affronted because I had obnoxiously pointed out that there was in fact a pumpkin to appropriate. Even now, after 27 years, some Jack or Jackess emerges with seasonal regularity to take one more crack at moi, the supposed Giant, in a never-ending game of Let Us Now Blame Famous Women. You get to feel like the mechanical duck at the fun-fair shooting gallery, though no one has won the oversized panda yet, because I still seem to be quacking.

Over the years, I’ve been accused of just about everything, from bourgeois superstition to communist rabble-rousing to

not being Marshall McLuhan. (I would have liked to have been Marshall McLuhan—it seemed a ton o’ fun—but he had the job pretty much cornered.) Yet when I was writing this book—or rather when I was putting it together, for it was more an act of synthesis than of authorship—I attached no particular importance to it. I was, after all, a poet and novelist, wasn’t I? I did not consider myself a real critic—just a kind of bake-sale muffin lady, doing a little cottage-industry fundraising in a worthy cause.

The worthy cause was The ffouse of Anansi Press, a small literary publisher formed in 1967 by writers Dennis Lee and David Godfrey as a response to the dearth of publishing opportunities for new writing at that time. Anansi was diverse in scope—Austin Clarke, Harold Sonny Ladoo, Roch Carrier and Jacques Ferron were some of its authors—and had already

made quite a few waves by 1971, when Dennis, an old college friend, buttonhooked me onto its board. So there we were one grey November day, a tiny, intrepid, overworked, underpaid band, glumly contemplating the balance sheet, which showed an alarming amount of red ink. Publishing Rule No. 1 is that it’s hard to keep small literary publishers solvent unless you have the equivalent of knitting books to support them.

To pay the bills, Anansi had begun a line of user-friendly self-help guides, which had done moderately well: Law Law Law, by Clayton Ruby and Paul Copeland, which set forth how to disinherit your relatives, avoid being bled dry by your estranged spouse, and so forth; and VD, one of the first venereal disease books, which explicated unwanted goo and warts and such, though AIDS was still a decade into the future.

Thus was born Survival. As I’d travelled the country’s byways, giving poetry readings and toting cardboard boxes of my own books to sell afterwards because often enough there was no bookstore, the absence of views on the subject was spectacular. The two questions I was asked most frequendy by audience members were, “Is there any Canadian literature?”

Survival became an ‘overnight publishing sensatio

and, “Supposing there is, isn’t it just a second-rate copy of real literature, which comes from England and the United States?” In Australia they called this attitude the Cultural Cringe; in Canada it was the Colonial Mentality. In both—and in many smaller countries around the world, as it turned out —it was part of a tendency to believe that the Great Good Place was, culturally speaking, elsewhere.

Through no fault of my own, I happened to be doing a one-year teaching stint at York University. Canadian literature formed part of the course load, so I’d had to come up with some easily grasped approaches to it—easily grasped by me as well as by my students, because I was, by training, a Victorianist, and had never formally studied Canadian literature. (Not surprising: it wasn’t taught.) I discovered that previous thinkers on the subject, although pithy enough, had been few in number: there was not exacdy a wealth of existing lore.

Back to the Anansi meeting. “Hey, I know,” I cried, in my Mickey Rooneyish way. “Lets do a VD of Canadian literature!” What I meant, I explained, was a sort of handbook for the average reader—for all those people I’d met on my tours who’d wanted to know more, but didn’t know where to start. This book would not be for academics. It would have no footnotes, and would not employ the phrase “on the other hand,” or at least not much. It would also contain lists of other books that people could actually go into a bookstore and buy. This was a fairly revolutionary concept, because the CanLit of the past was mosdy out of print, and that of the present was kept well hidden at the back of the store, in among the Beautiful Canadiana fall foliage calendars.

We now take it for granted that Canadian literature exists

as a category, but this proposition was not always selfevident. To have any excuse for being, the kind of book I had in mind would have to prove several points. First, that, yes, there was a Canadian literature—such a thing did indeed exist. (This turned out to be a radical proposition at the time, and was disputed by many when the book appeared.) Second, that this body of work was not just a second-rate version of English or American, or, in the case of francophone books, of French literature, but that it had different preoccupations which were specific to its own history and geopolitics. This too was a radical proposition, although common sense ought to have indicated that it was just common sense: if you were a rocky, watery northern country, cool in climate, large in geographical expanse, small but diverse in population, and with a huge aggressive neighbour to the south, why wouldn’t you have concerns that varied from those of the huge aggressive neighbour? Or indeed from those of the crowded, history-packed, tight little island, recently but no longer an imperial power, that had once ruled the waves? Well, you’d think they’d be different, wouldn’t you? To justify

the teaching of Canadian literature as such, you d still have to start from the same axioms: i) it exists, and ii) it’s distinct.

Back to the Anansi meeting. The desperate will try anything, so the board agreed that this idea should be given a whirl. Over the next four or five months, I wrote away at it, and as I finished each section Dennis Lee edited it, and under Dennis’s blue pencil the book grew from the proposed hundred-page handbook to a length of 246 pages. It also took on a more coherent shape and direction. The book’s subtitle—A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature —meant that we were aiming, not at an all-inclusive cross-indexed survey such as was provided in 1997 by the 1,199-page The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, nor at a series of studies of this author or that, nor at a collection of Newcritical close readings or explications du texte. We were doing the sort of thing that art historian Nikolaus Pevsner had done in The Englishness of English Art, or that the American literary critics Perry Miller and Leslie Fiedler were doing in their examinations of American literature: the identification of a series of characteristics and leitmotifs, and a comparison of the varying treatments of them in different national and cultural environments.

For example: money as a sign of divine grace or providence is present in the American tradition from the Puritans through Benjamin Franklin through Moby-Dick through Henry James through The Great Gatsby. The theme is treated now seriously, now cynically, now tragically, now ironically, just as a leitmotif in a symphony may be played in different keys and in different tempos. It varies as time unrolls and circumstances change, of course: the 18th century is not the

¡10 I bcCéüïie an instant sacred monster. ‘Now you’re a tarnet. Farley Mowat said to me. How prescient he was.

20th. Yet the leitmotif persists as a dominating concern—a persistent cultural obsession, if you like.

The persistent cultural obsession of Canadian literature, said Survival, was, well, survival. In actual life, and in both the anglophone and the francophone sectors, this concern is often enough a factor of the weather, as when the ice storm cuts off the electrical power. La survivance has long been an overt theme in Quebec political life, currendy manifesting itself as anxiety about the survival of French. In the ROC, its more like a nervous tic: whaf cher gonner do when free trade trashes your ability to control your water supply, or when the Mounties sell themselves to Disney, or when your government says that the magazines from the huge aggressive neighbour to the south are the same as yours really, or when there’s a chance that after the next Quebec referendum, that part of the country will no longer be that part of the country? And so on and so forth.

Survival, therefore, began with this dominant note. It then postulated a number of other motifs in Canadian literature—motifs that either did not exist at all in one of the literatures chosen for comparison (for instance, there are almost no “Indians” in English novels), or which did exist, but were not handled in the same way. The Canadian “immigrant story,” from fleeing Loyalists, to Scots kicked off their land, to starving Irish, to Latvians emigrating after the Second World War, to the economic refugees of the ’70s and ’80s, tends to be very different from the one told by Americans: none of their stories is likely to say that the immigrants were really trying to get into Canada but ended up in the United States faute de mieux. Canada has rarely been the promised land. About the closest we’ve come is the title of Wayne

Johnston’s 1998 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

The tradition identified in Survival was not a bundle of uplifting Pollyanna cheer: quite the reverse. CanLit, at least up until 1970, was on balance a somewhat dour concoction. Some critics who couldn’t read very well—a widespread occupational hazard, it seems—thought I was somehow advocating this state of affairs. Au contraire: if the book has attitude, it’s more like you are here, you really do exist and this is where, so pull up your socks and quit whining. As Alice Munro says, “Do what you want and live with the consequences.” Or as Survival itself says in its last chapter, “Having bleak ground under your feet is better than having no ground at all... a tradition doesn’t necessarily exist to bury you: it can also be used as material for new departures.”

Many things have happened in the 27 years since Survival was published. In politics, the Quebec cliflhanger and loss of national control and increased U.S. domination brought about by free trade have become, not the tentative warning notes they were in Survival, but everyday realities. Canada’s well-known failure to embrace a single “identity” of the yodelling or Beefeater variety has come to seem less like a failure than a deliberate and rather brave refusal. In literary criticism, Regionalism, Feminism, Deconstructionism, Political Correctness, Appropriation of Voice, and Identity Politics have all swept across the scene, leaving their traces. The former Canadian-identity question, “Where is here?” has been replaced by “Who are we?” “Discourse” and “text” are the new words for “debate” and “book.” “Problematize” has became a verb, “postmodern”—once a cutting-edge adjective—is used to describe kicky little handbags, and obfuscation, in some

academic quarters, has become a mode of being.

Survival, the book, seemed quainter and more out-of-date as these various years went by, and—incidentally—as its wishes were granted and its predictions realized. Yet its central concerns remain with us, and must still be confronted. Are we really that different from anybody else? If so, how? And is that how something worth preserving? In 1972, Survival concluded with two questions: Have we survived? If so, what happens after Survival? Were still asking the same questions.

People often ask me what I would change about Survival if I were writing it today. The obvious answer is that I wouldn’t write it today, because I wouldn’t need to. The thing I set out to prove has been proven beyond a doubt: few would seriously argue, anymore, that there is no Canadian literature. The other answer is that I wouldn’t be able to write it, not only because of my own hardening brain, but because the quantity, range and diversity of books now published would defeat any such effort.

Mordecai Fichiers well-known jest, “world-

In Canadian culture, there is always a negative side. We have cuts to grants, threats to magazines, publishers in peril.

famous in Canada,” ceased to be such a laugh—many Canadian writers are now world-famous, period. The erstwhile molehill of CanLit has grown to a mountain. The year-old, fully bilingual Institute for Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa lists some 279 Canadian studies centres located in other countries, including 20 in France, 65 in the United States, 16 in Germany and 22 in India. Canadian writers regularly achieve foreign publication, win major prizes, sign movie deals. In fact, so voguish is Canadian writing—or writing in English, at least—that it’s become almost embarrassing.

All the more curious that Lucien Bouchard, visiting Paris in March, would quip that he had never seen Canadian culture walking along the street, “but apparently it exists in Ottawa.” Of course you don’t see much walking along the street if what you’re looking at is not the bookstore window, but your own reflection in it. Though even M. Bouchard’s reflection is “Canadian culture,” considering his status as that archetypical folkloric bogey, the vengeful Scissors Man, used from time immemorial to frighten the fractious: If y ou don’t sit down and shut up, M. Bouchard will climb in through your window at night and SEPARATE you!

In Canadian culture, however, there’s always a negative side. At present we have cuts to grants, threats to magazines, publishers in peril through withdrawal of funding, writers struggling with the effects upon their royalties of book-chain deep

discounting, and so forth—not to mention the homogenizing effect of the global economy. Have we survived?

But this is Canada, land of contrasts. Indeed it is Canada, land of rugs: no sooner has a rug been placed beneath the nation’s artistic feet than it is pulled out, but no sooner has it been pulled out in one place than it is inserted in another. Now, in an astonishing but gratifying development, Quebec has announced that the first $15,000 of income from copyrights—from songs to books to computer software— will be tax exempt. (By no great coincidence, $ 15,000 is the average income from writing in this country.) Will there be unforeseen consequences? Will Quebec become the Ireland of Canada, haven for writers, and the Prague of Europe, the latest chic destination? Will every young, mean and lean creator from all over the country stampede to Montreal, where the rent is cheap and the edible food ditto, so that they can actually have a hope of earning a living from their work? Why stay in Toronto, where the prices are high, the smog is toxic, your vote is worth only a tenth of a vote in North Bay, the public health system is going to rat excrement, and you get sneered at by your own provincial government and the National Post for being not-rich? Indeed, why stay in Ontario, where culture and the arts are funded at the rate of $39 a head, as opposed to $79 a head in Quebec?

Experience has shown that where bohemia goes, real estate development is sure to follow. First the artists, then the cafés, then the designers, then the lawyers. M. Bouchard must know this: he’s been called many things, but rarely stupid. Could it be that this crafiy tax move will revitalize downtown Montreal, which for some years has been bleeding at every pore? And revitalize it by means of—choc, horreur!—anglophone Canadian writers—incongruous tax exiles from the ROC?

All M. Bouchard has to do is extend the same kind of tax largesse to the publishing industry, and Montreal may once again become the vital centre of anglophone Canadian literary activity, as it was in the ’40s and ’50s. The street along which Bouchard can see Canadian culture walking may soon be his own. In that case, the 21st century answer to the second-last question posed in Survival may be—at least as regards writers—both bizarre and deeply ironic:

Have we survived?

Yes. But only in Quebec. ESI