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Literature of Canada

(Redirected from Canadian literature)

How to describe the literature of a nation is often debatable, and is also in natural flux throughout the nation's history, so this beginner's guide to Canadian literature will offer links to as many actual Canadian authors as possible so the reader can weigh what is being said with first-hand research of his or her own.


The Problem of Canadian Literature

Canadian literature may be more difficult to discuss than most because of Canada's unique geographical and historical situation. It is a country larger and younger than most, is peopled with a widely diverse array of races, religions, and backgrounds, and is generally committed to multiculturalism. Therefore, just as one piece of the Canadian social puzzle has often been, "is there a Canadian identity?," one recurrently important piece of the Canadian literature puzzle has been the question, "Is there a Canadian literature at all?"

This has been an ongoing point of debate since the mid-1800s, and is still being discussed in literary circles today. For example, a quick Internet search for university syllabi on Canadian literature courses will offer an overwhelming majority of professors who still discuss whether or not "Canadian" literature exists. For instance, one postmodern Can. lit. course offered as recently as 2002 at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, includes this in the course syllabus:

"The course starts off with a brief consideration of the 'problem' of Canadian identity: Is there such a thing? If so, what is it? And does that identity manifest itself in a national literature that is distinctly different from, say, British or U.S. literature? These are the sort of questions that get raised in Kroetsch's essays and Atwood's Surfacing."

In fact, it has frequently been suggested that the question, "what is a Canadian?" is entangled very intricately with the question "what is Canadian literature?" in a way that does not happen to so great an extent with other literatures. Leon Surette writes, "a disproportionate amount of commentary on Canadian writing has been cultural history (or prophecy) rather than truly literary commentary."

At the end of the debates, the verdict almost always returned is that there is a literature and an "identity" distinctly Canadian. However, because of its size and breadth, Canadian literature is often broken into sub-categories.

There are at least three ways that, traditionally, critics and scholars have chosen to deal with the geographic size and cultural breadth of Canadian literature. The most common, by far, is to divide it by region or province. There are anthologies of "Eastern Canadian literature" or "Prairie literature," for example. Another way has been to divide it by categorising the authors. For instance, the literature of Canadian women, Acadians, aboriginal Canadians, and Irish-Canadians have been anthologised as bodies of work. A third way has been to divide it by literary period, such as "Canadian postmoderns" or "Canadian Poets Between the Wars."

Of course, as usual, Canadian literature is often studied in genre divisions as well, such as "poetry," "prose," "drama," and "criticism."

Traits of Canadian Literature

The findings of those who believe that there is a distinctly Canadian body of literature include a prevalence of the following traits, in no particular order.

  • Humour: Canadians do not shy away from serious subject matter, but they have often approached it using humour.
  • Satire and irony: If Canadian literature had to be distilled into a single word, for the sake of comparison with all other literatures, that word would be "satire". Satire has jokingly been called Canada's national sport. From its three famous contemporary television political satire shows, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Rick Mercer's Monday Report and Royal Canadian Air Farce back to Thomas Chandler Haliburton's The Clockmaker , Canadians have used satire not only to entertain, but also to promote societal reform.
  • The underdog hero: if a Canadian novel has a hero at all, it is likely to be of the "underdog" type. An ordinary, everyday person overcomes a large corporation, a bank, a rich tycoon, a government, a natural disaster, etc.
  • Urban vs. rural: The underdog hero ties in with an urban vs. rural theme which has often popped up in Canadian fiction and poetry, and usually portrays the rural as morally superior to the city, which is portrayed as shallow and seedy. Often, as in Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the simplicity of rural living is presented as something being lost as people move to cities.
  • Nature (and a "human vs. nature" tension): Reference to nature is prolific in Canada's literature. Nature, while often interpreted as the enemy in some Canadian works, can also be interpreted as divine and ideal in others.
  • Mild anti-Americanism: While not evident in every piece of work by a Canadian, there has unmistakably been an ongoing anti-American theme from time to time in Canada's literary history, often taking the form of gentle satire. It cannot be described as malicious (although at Canadian literature's beginning, re-invasion by the U.S. was a legitimate fear), but is better seen as mild sibling rivalry, and may tie in with Canada's loyalty to the underdog as opposed to the haughty hero, two roles played by Canada and the U.S. in Canadian mythology.
  • Self-deprecation: Canadian literature, while often implying an underlying love and concern for the nation, is not rah-rah patriotic propaganda. There is, on the contrary, often self-deprecation within its pages. Canadians have been known to be good at laughing at themselves, which ties in nicely with their ability for satire and humour.
  • Self-evaluation by the reader: "We might ... wonder how 'Canadian Literature' differs from 'English Literature' or 'American Literature.'... What has remained constant throughout this short history of Canadian Literature is that it offers readers a way of both imagining and questioning ourselves and the cultures around us." (-Dr. Glen Lowry, Coquitlam College)

French-Canadian Literature

French-Canadian literature followed a very different evolutionary path than English literature. French-Canadian literature was less an appendage to the literature of France than English Canada's was to Great Britain. Rather, the struggle of French Canada was to create a literature whole cloth. From the early settlements until the 1820s Quebec had virtually no literature to speak of. There were a few historians, journalists, and learned priests who published but overall, output was very low.

It was the rise of Quebec patriotism and the 1837 Patriotes Rebellion, combined with a modern system of primary school education that led to the first surge of French-Canadian fiction. The first genres to become popular were the rural novel and the historical novel. Influences from France began to be felt, especially such authors as Balzac.

In 1866, Father Henri-Raymond Casgrain became one of Quebec's first literary theorists. He argued that literature's goal should be to project an image of proper Catholic morality. This view was accepted by most Québécois authors and much of what was written is generally considered bland and tedious. A few authors such as Louis-Honoré Fréchette and Arthur Buies did break accepted conventions and write engaging works.

This pattern continued until the 1930s when a new group of authors educated at the Université de Laval and the Université de Montréal. Novels with psychological and sociological foundations began to become the norm. Authors such as Gabrielle Roy and Anne Hébert for the first time began to earn international acclaim. During this period, Quebec theatre, which had previously been melodramas and comedies, became far more involved.

French-Canadian literature began to greatly expand with the turmoil of the Second World War, the beginnings of industrialization in the 1950s, and most especially the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. French-Canadian literature also began to attract a great deal of attention globally, with Acadian novelist Antonine Maillet winning the Prix Goncourt. An experimental branch of Quebecois literature also developed, such as formalist poet Nicole Brossard.

See also: List of French-Canadian writers

Notable Figures

Canada only officially became a country on July 1, 1867, so some have argued that what was written there before that time was really the literature of British citizens living away from Britain, French citizens away from France, etc. For example, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, English sisters who adopted the country as their own, moved to Canada in 1832. They recorded their experiences as pioneers in Parr Traill's The Backwoods of Canada (1836) and Canadian Crusoes (1852), and Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings (1853). However, both women wrote until their deaths, placing them in the country for more than 50 years and certainly well past Confederation. Moreover, their books often dealt with survival and the rugged Canadian environment -- these themes re-appear in other Canadian works, including Margaret Atwood's Survival. Moodie and Parr Traill's sister, Agnes Strickland , remained in England and wrote elegant royal biographies, creating a stark contrast between Canadian and English literatures.

However, one of the earliest "Canadian" writers virtually always included in Canadian literary anthologies is Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865), who died just two years before Canada's official birth. He is remembered for his comic character, Sam Slick, who appeared in The Clockmaker and other humourous works throughout the Haliburton's life.

Arguably, the best-internationally-known living Canadian writer (especially after the recent passing of Canadian greats, Robertson Davies and Timothy Findley) is Margaret Atwood, a prolific novelist, poet, and literary critic. This group, along with Alice Munro were the first to elevate Canadian Literature to the world stage. During the post-war decades only a handful of books of any literary merit would be published each year in Canada and Canadian literature was viewed as an appendage to British and American writing. Much of what was produced dealt with extremely typical Canadiana such as the outdoors and animals, or events in Canadian history. Most of what Canadians read was written in the United States or Great Britain. Most of what was studied in Canadian schools and universities was also foreign.

In the 1980s Canadian literature began to be noticed around the world. By the 1990s Canadian literature was viewed as some of the world's best and Canadian authors began to accumulate international awards. In 1992 Michael Ondaatje became the first Canadian to win the Booker Prize for The English Patient. Atwood would also win it in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, while Yann Martel would win in 2002 for The Life of Pi. Alistair Macleod won the 2001 IMPAC Award for No Great Mischief. Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and in 1998 her novel Larry's Party won the Orange Prize.

Today Canadians still read much by foreign authors, but many Canadian books have been runaway best sellers.


There are a number of notable Canadian awards for literature:

Awards For Children and Young Adult Literature

  • R.Ross Annett Award for Children's Literature
  • Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction
  • Ann Connor Brimer Award
  • Governor-General's Awards for Children's Literature
  • Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for Children
  • CLA Young Adult Canadian Book Award
  • Sheila A. Egoff Children's Literature Prize
  • Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award
  • Floyd S. Chalmers Award for Theatre for Young Adults
  • Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award
  • Information Book of the Year
  • I0DE Book Award
  • Manitoba Young Reader's Choice Award
  • Max and Greta Ebel Memorial Award for Children's Writing
  • Norma Fleck Award for children's non-fiction
  • Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award
  • Vicky Metcalf Award

See also

Canadian children's literature
Canadian literary criticism
Canadian novels
Canadian poetry
List of Canadian writers

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45