The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, July 28, 2008

A funny thing happened…

By Tamara Lee

Thinking about contemporary Canadian writers’ ‘story-generation’, it occurs to me that the stories we write carry echoes of the kinds of stories we grew up watching on Canadian television.

Contemporary Canadian writers, or rather, those now in their 30s and early 40s, likely grew up watching The Beachcombers, The King of Kensington, and sketch comedy, alongside some of the most well-respected documentary television in the world. Could this explain the new direction Canadian fiction seems to be taking?

The other day, I chatted with a new young Canadian writer of some note (I’ll call him ‘NYCW’), about how refreshing the contemporary CanLit scene has become of late. Funny, literate, and subtle. From Lee Henderson and Pasha Malla, to Lynn Coady and Miriam Toews. It’s a great era of CanLit, and I think an historical one as well.

Respectful of our CanLit history, indeed forced-fed it through mandated CanCon in schools, Canadian writers seem to have channeled all that is brilliant about the Davieses and Atwoods and Munros (hmm, that acronym would be DAM…) while being acutely aware of the other CanLit stream, the ‘kitchen sink stories’ as our Andrew Tibbetts has termed them, or as the aforementioned NYCW’s father calls them, ‘burnt toast stories’: those overwrought, angsty Canadian stories we struggled to understand in high school and our first year of college.

When I first studied Margaret Atwood, her dry sense of humour was rarely a topic for class discussion. She was ‘serious’ and ‘important.’ Somehow, ‘funny’ never entered into the equation. But the generation of writers who grew up on CanCon literature and television seems to have found a different groove. Serious needn’t be stoic; we seem to be more willing to laugh at ourselves, and are more comfortable letting our readers laugh, too.

It always seemed strange to me that as a people, Canadians often pride themselves on their distinct humour, but Canadian literature for a lot of years was often devoid of this trait. Sure, there were those flashes of it in amongst the aching truths being told (I was surprised by its subtle use in The Diviners, grateful for it in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, expected it from Duddy Kravitz), but even as a student studying CanLit in university, there seemed a dearth of humorous stories unless the course was specifically about humour. The Canadian stories we read were by authors brought up on British novels and American film, not TV and VCRs and CBC.

And now, as literature in general seems to be loosening up—a reflection of our time, a serious time of need for humour—it seems Canadian writers have a new opportunity. As Kids in the Hall did for television, perhaps Canadian writers may do for fiction. It’s maybe a bit hopeful or Pollyanna-ish. But then, I do come from the country that gave the world Anne of Green Gables and Road to Avonlea.


(Image courtesy of Canadian Illustrated News, vol.I, no. 3, 46. Reproduced from Library and Archives Canada's website Images in the News: Canadian Illustrated News:


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Well, of course I love this! I'm quoted. And besides that I love this direction you're celebrating so finely here! Thanks for this post, Tamara.

Tue Jul 29, 09:23:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Hey, any time, Andrew. So long as I can ride your gravy train, I'll keep supplying the Yorkshire puddin'. ;)

Tue Jul 29, 03:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I didn't grow up on CanLit so I've enjoyed discovering it since I moved to Canada. I'm not bored with it; it's been a great way for me to understand my adopted land. But I do enjoy the different voices of Canadian immigrants and those born here whose heritage isn't British, whether they be young or not so. I think there's a great acceptance of diverse literary voices here. Not sure why. Canada Council grants?

Interesting post, Tamara.

Tue Jul 29, 05:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thanks, Tricia.

The CC probably does contribute; plus, the mandated 'multiculturalism', a system not without its critics. Most notably, author Neil Bissoondath, is rather firm against Canada's system of multiculturalism.

(Btw, his novel A Casual Brutality is especially good.)

Wed Jul 30, 02:17:00 pm GMT-4  

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