It’s a great honor, but you shouldn’t have done it (really wish you hadn’t!)

Mordecai Richler March 20 1978

It’s a great honor, but you shouldn’t have done it (really wish you hadn’t!)

Mordecai Richler March 20 1978

It’s a great honor, but you shouldn’t have done it (really wish you hadn’t!)

Mordecai Richler

I’m assured that some years ago when black-humorist Lennie Bruce was up on an obscenity charge, facing a possible three-year sentence, a number of New York intellectuals offered to testify on his behalf. Bruce heard out their convoluted, lofty arguments and when they were done, he held his head in his hands, glared at his advocates, and charged, “You nutty bastards will get me hanged.”

Canadian novelists, a notoriously ungrateful bunch, could possibly say the same of all those well-intentioned literary groupies, CanLit diagnosticians from across the country, who gathered at the University of Calgary, from February 15 to 18, to declare (unembarrassed to be last with the news) that the Canadian novel had come of age and, furthermore, reveal their list of the country’s 100 most important novels, singling out the Top 10 for special praise. Academe’s hit parade. The poll of more than 500 academics had been conducted by Malcolm Ross, who is a professor of English at Dalhousie University, Halifax, and editor of the New Canadian Library. The conference, declared publisher Jack McClelland, who just happens to hold the reprint rights to most of these novels, was the most important on the subject in more than 20 years.

Alberta agreed. “Literary Capital Of Canada Said To Be Calgary,” ran a Friday headline in The Albertan and, if only to

prove the point, in another story on the same page Horst Schmid, Alberta’s minister of culture, announced that his government would spend eight million dollars publishing works by Canadian authors for the province’s diamond jubilee. A mere drop in the oil bucket, cynics might say, but nice, very nice all the same. Mind you, on the evidence, it might be argued that the minister could do more for Alberta culture by creaming off at least one of those millions and using it to send indigenous chefs to a proper cooking school. Which is to say the meal we were served at the banquet in the Pinebrook Golf and Winter Club was the far side of memorable. The beef, which I would have taken to be a provincial specialty, was served grey to the core and all that could be said for the potatoes was they were lukewarm at least. Literary men and women do not live by books alone.

Ah, the banquet. In the absence of Polonius, we were addressed by the Canada Council’s Gertrude Laing, a lady of undoubted goodness, who managed to string together in one long speech every received truth about biculturalism. At our table, which included such literary biggies as Gabrielle Roy, Roger Lemelin and Brian Moore, distinguished heads began to droop. Those of us who had toiled for

newspapers long, long ago felt we were locked into some kind of time wa*p, back covering the Rotary lunches of yesteryear.

Enough. Novelists had not forsaken their typewriters to come to the literary capital of Canada in search of four-star restaurants or illuminating after-dinner speakers. We had come like cattle to the big pen to be graded by CanLit Packers Inc. In the future, working novelists would not only have a name and titles to their credit, but also a rank, possibly to be branded on their buttocks in the coming Stampede.

The morning after the banquet we trooped into MacEwen Hall hung over and bristling to hear the academic court pronounce. Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel was adjudged numero uno, a popular choice, and others with works in the Top 10 were Gabrielle Roy, Sinclair Ross, Robertson Davies, Ernest Buckler, Sheila Watson, Hugh MacLennan, W. O. Mitchell and me. The list, if it survives this year’s spring thaw, may be most remembered for its exclusion of both Catholics and The Feast Of Lupercal, by Brian Moore, from its Top 10. My God, my God, professors who set out to prove the Canadian novel had come of age also established that such are its splendors it could afford to eschew Moore from among its best. The problem was, though a Canadian citizen for more than two decades, Moore had had the bad taste to be born in Ireland and is now rooted in California. Shame on him.

The conference in Calgary, a joyless affair, was a quintessential^ Canadian event, if only because once having announced their list, the professors stumbled over each other apologizing for it. These are not really the 100 most important novels, they said. Don’t take our list too seriously. We don’t mean what we say.

Well I, for one, take the list very seriously indeed. One of my novels, The Incomparable Atuk, is number 100. It attracted the least votes. From now on, I can not only claim to have come of age but I can also brag that I am the author of Canada’s one-hundredth most important novel. Obviously, next time out I’m going to try harder.

One final observation. Only 48 hours after publication of the list of most important novels, the Canadian dollar sank below 89.10 U.S., the lowest rate in 45 years. Do not underestimate the muscle of CanLit Packers Inc.

This is the first in a series of monthly columns by Mordecai Richler.