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The Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century - La distinction canadienne au tournant du XXIe siecle

Chad Gaffield
Karen L. Gould

Locus in Quo

Survival Then and Now

Margaret Atwood

Note de l’auteur

Elements of this presentation appeared in an article published in 1 July 1999 issue of Maclean′s, entitled “Survival, Now and Then.”

Texte intégral

1 I was in England recently giving some lectures, and I was asked, “Do you identify as a woman or as a Canadian?” This is a new sort of question because it contains the phrase “identify as,” which not so long ago would have been incomprehensible.

2“Well, to tell the truth,” I replied, “I identify as a writer. That is what I am – a writer – and what I do is writing. The other things are features that can be used to modify the basic model – think of it as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, in which the basic potato is “writer” and the other things – female, Canadian, short, of a certain age – can be stuck onto it, like the plastic lips and ears and so forth in the Potato Family do-it-yourself kit.”

3My young questioner was not entirely satisfied – she wanted there to be something intrinsic to my gender or my nationality that had caused these reams of marked-up paper to issue from me – so I tried a syllogism. “All women writers are women,” I said, “but not all women are writers. And the same goes for Canadians.” She was still not mollified, so I resorted to a cheap trick. “Let′s face it,” I said. “If the poster announcing the lectures had claimed simply, ‘Woman to speak,’ or even ‘Canadian to speak’, would you have come to listen? I doubt it.” Everyone laughed, so I suspected I was right.

4I started thinking about writing quite a few years before I started thinking about gendering or nationalizing; and so it is with most writers. They are writers first, just as a person running a race is a racer first. And whatever I have had to say about the state of being a Canadian, a woman, a short person with curly hair, etc., has always been predicated on this primary fact – my membership in that country without borders or passport or government, the centre of which is every writer and every reader and the circumference of which is as far as you can imagine; a country which has its own history and its own aristocracy, but which is neither a monarchy where some reign by virtue of birth, nor a dystopia where all citizens must be exactly the same, but is instead the republic of letters, where desire is the key to the gateway, and where all who wish may enter.

5That having been said, we may now go on to consider what I may call the tectonics of Canadian writing – those places where the fault lines are situated and the friction occurs. More specifically, I would like to tell you how I came to write a rather controversial book called Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, back in the early 70s, when a conference like this would have been unthinkable. It was controversial partly because many people at the time of its publication denied that there was any such thing as Canadian literature, at all, period.

6The English writer Wyndam Lewis, sitting out World War 2 in Toronto, was asked by a wealthy matron where he was living. “Jarvis Street,” he told her. “Mr. Lewis,” she said, “That is not a very fashionable address!” “Madam,” he replied, “Toronto is not a very fashionable address.” Nor was it then.

7The poet Earle Birney, writing in 1939 – a piece entitled, “Canadians Can Read – But Do They?” – said that if you entered the average literate home in Canada at that time, you′d be likely to find only three books in it – the Bible, a collected Shakespeare, and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam. The novelist Morley Callaghan, writing in 1938, said that a young Canadian writer should cut his teeth in American magazines and then seek an American publisher, as the chances of making a living in Canada by writing were nil. They decreased to less than nil during the war, due to paper shortages, and right after the war things were much the same. In 1949, Gwethalyn Graham, who′d published what would now be called an international success – a novel entitled Earth and High Heaven – criticized the awful distribution and high prices of books in Canada, and said that was why most people read only magazines. And, with some very slight improvements, that′s the way things still were when I began to write, in the late fifties.

8I wrote and published Survival in 1972. It ignited a ferocious debate and became, as they say, a runaway bestseller. This was a shock to everyone, including me. Canadian writing, interesting? Among the bulk of Canadian readers at that time such writing was largely unknown, except for Stephen Leacock, 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.

9At the beginning of the 60s, sales of poetry books had numbered in the hundreds, and a novel was doing well if it hit a thousand copies. There were signs of change. Public readings were beginning, at first in coffee-houses, then at universities, but only for poetry. In 1961 there was a total of five Canadian novels published in the country, in English, for the entire year. Mordecai Richler′s first novel, published in England, sold two copies in Canada, or so the rumour goes. But over that decade, things changed rapidly. The Canada Council began its grants to individual writers in 1965. In Quebec, the Quiet Revolution had generated an outburst of literary activity; in the ROC (the Rest Of Canada), many poets had emerged, more novelists and short-story writers were becoming known, and Expo ′67, the World′s Fair, held in Montreal, 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.”

10How 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 ten 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 twenty-seven 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 funfair shooting gallery, though no one has won the oversized panda yet, because I still seem to be quacking.

11Over 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, but he seemed to have 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 one of authorship, and drew on the ideas of many besides myself – 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 fund-raising in a worthy cause.

12The worthy cause was The House of Anansi Press, a small literary publisher formed in 1966 by writers Dennis Lee and David Godfrey as a response to the dearth of publishing opportunities for new writing at that time. Anansi had already made quite a few waves by 1971, when Dennis, an old college friend, button-hooked 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 Number One is that it′s hard to keep small literary publishers afloat unless you have the equivalent of gardening books to support them.

13To pay the bills, Anansi had begun a line of user-friendly self-help guides, the precursors to those popular Dummies books, 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 explained about unwanted goo and warts and such, though AIDS was still a decade into the future.

14Thus 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 of Canadian literature was spectacular. The two questions I was asked most frequently about it by audience members were “Is there any?” 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.

15Through 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. Previous thinkers on the subject had been pithy enough, but few in number: there was not exactly a wealth of existing lore.

16Back to the Anansi board meeting. “Hey, I know,” I cried, in my Mickey Roonyish way. “Let′s 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 read more of this Canadian literature stuff but didn′t know where to start. Such a 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 most Canlit of the past was, at that time, 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.

17We now take it for granted that Canadian literature exists as a category – we seem to spend our time squabbling about its sub-categories, and its sub-sub-categories and its sub-sub-sub categories, and about some mythical weapon or religious leader called The Canon – but this proposition was not always self-evident. To have any excuse for being, the kind of book I had in mind in 1972 would have to prove several points. First, that, yes, there was a Canadian literature-that 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 shoddy version of English or American, or, in the case of Francophone books, of French literature, but that it had different preoccupations that were specific to its own history and geography and geopolitics. This too was a radical proposition at the time, although common sense ought to have indicated that t it was, well, just common sense: if you were a rocky, watery northern country, cool in climate, large in expanse, small but diverse in population, multilingual from the very beginning, 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.

18Back, again, to the Anansi board meeting. The desperate will try anything, so the board agreed that this idea of mine should be given a whirl. Over the next four or five months, after I′d finished my day job, I wrote away at the proposed book, and as I finished each section Dennis Lee edited it, and under Dennis′s pencil the book grew from the proposed hundred-page handbook to a length – for the main text – 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 the 1,199-page Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature – which of course did not exist then – nor at a series of studies of this author or that, nor at a collection of New-critical close readings or explications du texte, or even at some deconstructionist presto-chango. (Not that this latter had yet been invented.) Instead we were doing the sort of thing that art historian Nicholas 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.

19For 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 eighteenth century is not the twentieth. Yet the leitmotif persists as a dominating concern – a persistent cultural obsession, if you like.

20The persistent cultural obsession of Canadian literature, said Survival, was 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, currently manifesting itself as anxiety about the survival of French. In the ROC, it′s more like a nervous tic: what′cher gonner do when Free Trade trashes your ability to control your water supply, or when your government says that the magazines from the huge, aggressive neighbour to the south are the same as yours really, or whether, in the next Quebec referendum, that part of the country will no longer be that part of the country? And so on and so forth.

21 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 with which they were being compared (for instance, there are almost no so-called “Red Indians” in English novels), or 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 potato-famine Irish, to Jews fleeing pogroms in the early twentieth Century, to Latvians emigrating after WW2, to Austin Clarke′s Barbadians, to the economic refugees of the 70s and 80s, tends to be very different when told in the United States: 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 faut de mieux. Canada has rarely been the Promised Land, except for those fleeing slavery via the Underground Railway. About the closest we′ve come to that idea is the title of Wayne Johnson′s 1998 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

22The 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 – a widespread occupational hazard, it seems – thought I was somehow advocating this state of affairs. Au contraire: if my 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.”

23Many things have happened in the twenty-eight years since Survival was published. In politics, the Quebec cliff-hanger and the U.S. domination and the environmental degeneration and the loss of national control brought about by Free Trade have become, not the tentative warning notes they were in Survival, but everyday realities. In literary criticism, Regionalism, Feminism, Deconstructionism, Political Correctness, Appropriation of Voice, and Identity Politics have all swept across the scene, leaving their traces. Mordecai Richler′s well-known jest, “world-famous in Canada,” has ceased to be such a laugh – many Canadian writers are now world-famous, period, insofar as writers can be considered famous. “Postmodern” – in the 70s a cutting-edge literary adjective – is now used if at all to describe kicky little handbags. Survival, the book, seemed quainter and more out-of-date as these various years went by, and as – incidentally – some of its wishes were granted and some of its predictions were realized. Yet its central concerns remain with us, and must still be confronted. Are Canadians really all that different from anybody else? If so, how? And is that how something worth exploring and – possibly – preserving? In 1972, Survival concluded with two questions: Have we survived? And if so, what happens after Survival? We′re still posing the same questions.

24People 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: no one would seriously argue, any more, that there is no Canadian literature. The other answer is that I wouldn′t be able to, not only because of my own hardening brain but because the quantity, range and diversity of books now published would defeat any such effort.

25In Canadian culture, however, there′s always a negative. 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. Have we survived?

26But 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. Last year, in an astonishing but gratifying development, Quebec announced that the first $15,000 of income from copyrights – from songs to books to computer software – will now be tax exempt. (By no great coincidence, $15,000 is roughly the average income from writing in this country.) Will there be unforeseen consequences? Will Quebec become the Ireland of Canada, tax 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?

27Experience 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 crafty 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! – who will stream there in their thousands, incongruous exiles from the Rest Of Canada? Meanwhile, there are serious plans afoot to have Toronto separate, not from Canada, but from Ontario, and seek status as the eleventh province. Why not? Toronto has to do something. Those of us who live in that reviled city are treated as cash cows, pariahs and serfs, while being denied the power of our own votes. Why is that? Could it be because Toronto is now – it′s official – the most multicultural city in the world?

28All M. Bouchard has to do is extend his tax largesse to the publishing industry, and Montreal may once again become the vital centre of Anglophone Canadian literary activity – insofar as such existed – that it was from the twenties to the fifties. Not perhaps what M. Bouchard had in mind – more like his worst nightmare, really. But in that case, the twenty-first century answer to the question posed in Survival may be both bizarre and deeply ironic:

Have we survived?
Yes. But only in Quebec.


The author of more than twenty-five volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid′s Tale, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace (Giller Prize 1996), The Blind Assassin (Booker Prize 2000), and her latest, Oryx and Crake (2003). She is the recipient of numerous awards and several honorary degrees, including those conferred by Cambridge, Oxford, Toronto, Queen′s, Montréal, and McMaster, and has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada since 1987. She was named Companion of the Order of Canada in 1981 and Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France in 1994. In 2001, Margaret Atwood was inducted into Canada′s Walk of Fame

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2003

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