Literary History in English 1980-2000 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literary History in English 1980-2000

The last two decades of the 20th century were marked by growing social and economic conservatism, a tendency towards fewer gambles in PUBLISHING ventures, and a greater reliance on computer TECHNOLOGY (e-mail, internet communications, electronic journals such as Frank DAVEY's Swift Current): A.K.

Literary History in English 1980-2000

The last two decades of the 20th century were marked by growing social and economic conservatism, a tendency towards fewer gambles in PUBLISHING ventures, and a greater reliance on computer TECHNOLOGY (e-mail, internet communications, electronic journals such as Frank DAVEY's Swift Current): A.K. Dewdney's novel The Planiverse (1984) provides an early example of computer mathematics at play in fiction. Demographic change meant that the "BABY BOOM" generation was taking control of social structures by the 1990s. The smaller generation after that (those born between 1958 and 1968) was already being heard; calling it "Generation X," Douglas COUPLAND became both its spokesman and critic, working across media to challenge conventional notions of ART. With the increased speed of transport and electronic COMMUNICATION, familiar borders constructed by distance and time zone could be collapsed. Literary exchanges and influences had at least the potential to come from anywhere, instantaneously. Canada's cultural mix was altering yet again and by the year 2000, in an age of globalization, some critics were beginning to spurn textual and historical commentary in favour of addressing such global or "post-national" issues as gender (SeeSTATUS OF WOMEN), RACE, POVERTY, CLASS, diaspora, trauma, and corporate ownership of CULTURE. In these configurations, the term "Canadian LITERATURE" was itself sometimes challenged as evidence of a reactionary politics (SeeCANADIAN IDENTITY, MULTICULTURALISM). For other writers and critics, the adjective "Canadian" continued to refer to GEOGRAPHY or CITIZENSHIP without any constraint on topic, technique, or political perspective. In all such usages, the term "literature" nevertheless still raised competing questions about strategy, function, and value.

It was a time of affirmation: "O CANADA" was officially proclaimed Canada's NATIONAL ANTHEM (1980), the Applebaum-Hébert Report on Culture was tabled (1982), the CONSTITUTION was repatriated and the CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS signed into law (1982), the GILLER (1994) and Taylor (2000) Prizes were established to honour fiction and "creative non-fiction," NUNAVUT came into existence (1999). Yet it was also a time of sequential crises: over the Montreal Massacre (SeePOLYTECHNIQUE TRAGEDY) in 1989 (addressed in works by Lisa Appignanesi and others), the first Gulf War in 1990, FIRST NATIONS' rights (the OKA standoff in 1991), NAFTA in 1993 (SeeFREE TRADE), the QUEBEC REFERENDUM (1995). Fiscal restraint resulted in the closure of several THEATRES, festivals, and publishing companies, among them Deneau, Williams-Wallace, and Lester & Orpen Dennys. Cutbacks in textbook publishing followed a series of corporate amalgamations. During the 1990s, international forces pressured government to rescind governmental legislation that protected Canadian cultural production and distribution. For economic or ideological reasons, successive federal governments also closed down several consulates abroad, together with the cultural programs these offices supported.

In this climate (and conscious of the contemporary echo of George Orwell's 1984), a number of writers probed the fragility of society: the specific consequences of poverty, disease, and social collapse, whether in the city (as in the writings of Evelyn LAU and Richard WRIGHT) or in more rural surroundings (as in the writings of Leslie Hall Pinder). Some, such as Paul QUARRINGTON, expressed their sense of upset wryly. Others voiced outspoken critiques of public policy: among them Margaret ATWOOD in THE HANDMAID'S TALE (1985), Timothy FINDLEY in Headhunter (1993), and such polemical essayists as Rick SALUTIN and John Ralston SAUL. Atwood's and Findley's novels are both dystopias, Atwood's conceptualizing a theocracy in which women have been reduced to sexual servants, Findley imagining a city of plague that produces a kind of medical fascism where disease is seen as aesthetically pleasing. Both books criticize existing social tendencies, exaggerating them to make the danger clear. The female characters in Handmaid, for example, are named for supermarket products, emphasizing the commodification of women.

At the same time, interest in ecological and ethnological issues grew, as is apparent in the writings of Robert BRINGHURST and in the POETRY of Don MCKAY. Already known as an editor (with THE FIDDLEHEAD) and mentor of numerous other writers by the time his poetry was widely recognized, McKay was celebrated for Birding, or Desire (1983), Night Field (1991), Another Gravity (2000), and his ESSAYS on birding (SeeBIRD WATCHING) and writing, where he spells out an ethics of living: in nature, in language, and in time. The popular nature writing of David SUZUKI, Wade Davis, Marq de Villiers, Charles LILLARD, Wayne Grady, and Stephen Hume adds further context to the growth of eco-centred literary criticism. Bringhurst's work brought him wide respect in several fields: as a poet (The Beauty of the Weapons, 1982), as a commentator on visual design (The Elements of Typographic Style, 1992) and as a commentator on HAIDA myth (The Raven Steals the Light, 1996, with Bill REID). In A Story as Sharp as a Knife (1999), Bringhurst argued the importance and relevance of traditional Haida storytelling classics to contemporary life; this book was followed by his translations from two major Haida cycles by the poets Ghandl and Skaay.

First Nations writers were among several "minority" voices who won a wide audience during these years. Characteristically, they argued strongly for changes to the status quo. In the stories of Traplines (1996), Eden ROBINSON (Haisla-HEILTSUK) probes the consequences of teenage violence. In Slash (1985), Jeannette Armstrong (Okanagan, INTERIOR SALISH)--grand-niece of the 1920s writer Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket, whose Cogewea, the Half-Blood appeared in 1924)-- critiques the SCHOOL SYSTEM, exposing racism as a cause of violence. An educator, Armstrong founded Theytus Books, an adjunct to the En'owkin School of International Writing, to encourage First Nations authors to thrive. Some writers, as expressed in the work of Beatrice Culleton Mosioner (MÉTIS), argued that living positively in the modern world is impossible without reconnecting with the values of tradition. Tomson HIGHWAY (CREE) emerged as a major dramatist, adapting the Nanabush tales to the contemporary reserve and the bingo hall in The Rez Sisters (1986). In 1998 his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen, impelled by the death of his brother, tells of the tragic consequences of sexual abuse in a RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL. In Green Grass, Running Water (1993) and One Good Story, That One (1993), Thomas KING (Cherokee) builds First Nations allusions into comic contemporary stories of domestic and historical misunderstanding, satirizing the facile acceptance of literary and other conventions as representations of "real" truth. Noteworthy poets include Wayne Keon (OJIBWAY), Rita JOE (MI'KMAQ), Daniel David MOSES (Delaware), Marilyn Dumont (Métis), and Alootook Ipellie (INUIT).

Significant numbers of books during the 1980s and 1990s were written as literary products, using conventional strategies to reach a mass market (SeePOPULAR LITERATURE IN ENGLISH). Even in economically difficult times, the romance publisher HARLEQUIN ENTERPRISES (founded in Winnipeg in 1948) continued to thrive. Some of these mass market books were written with inventive skill, blurring conventional lines between high and low culture. Mystery writers such as Peter ROBINSON, Gail BOWEN, L.R. WRIGHT, C.C. Benison, and William Deverell achieved popularity and international notice. SCIENCE FICTION--or "sf," speculative fiction--also attracted serious practitioners and critical attention. Judith Merril's first Tesseracts anthology in 1985 attracted a wide following. Within 15 years, Tesseracts had attracted contributions from over 200 sf writers, including Atwood, William GIBSON, Spider ROBINSON, Robert J. SAWYER, and Nalo Hopkinson. Gibson coined the term cyberpunk in 1982, and with Neuromancer (1984) and subsequent novels and screenplays he became one of the most widely read and analyzed figures of the day. At the edge of speculative inquiry stood the genre-bending sociopolitical and psychological fictions of Steve Weiner, Douglas Cooper, Eric McCormack, Brian Fawcett, Graeme GIBSON, Robert MAJZELS (Hellman's Scrapbook 1992; City of Forgetting, 1997), and Susan SWAN.

Many of the writers who were most celebrated at the time had acquired established reputations before 1980, and by 2000 had published some of their most critically successful books; they include Margaret Atwood, George BOWERING, Clark BLAISE, Timothy Findley, Northrop FRYE, Mavis GALLANT, Jack HODGINS, Hugh HOOD, Robert KROETSCH, Eli MANDEL, Alice MUNRO, Michael ONDAATJE, Al PURDY, Mordecai RICHLER, Carol SHIELDS, Audrey THOMAS, Guy VANDERHAEGHE, and Phyllis WEBB. Frye's The Great Code (1982) elucidated the narrative paradigms in the Bible that have influenced Western culture. Editions of SHORT FICTION by Morley CALLAGHAN, Elizabeth Spencer, and A.M. KLEIN also appeared, as did numerous anthologies, surveys, reassessments and selections from earlier writers' works. In Water and Light (1984) Webb wrote a series of ghazals, based on the Persian form. Purdy's 30 collections of poetry revealed his fascination with movement (observation as action rather than fixity), crafted in the loping laconic cadences of speech. Munro, Blaise, and Hood continued to shape remarkable short stories, as did Vanderhaeghe (Man Descending, 1982) and Gallant (Home Truths, 1981, which gathered her "Linnet Muir" stories, set in Quebec). Munro's Open Secrets (1994) and The Love of a Good Woman (1998), 2 of 6 increasingly complex collections, probed how families collide, why love matters, and where to locate the impossible edges of loneliness. Vanderhaeghe's NOVELThe Englishman's Boy (1996), the first in a trilogy that re-examined cross-border prairie history, underscores a recurrent motif in late-century writing: the desire to re-imagine and recast history, to hypothesize an alternative version of a routinely accepted narrative, perhaps to understand existing power, perhaps to undermine it. Richler's long late fictions appeared (Barney's Version, 1997), and Richler himself delivered several widely- read scathing critiques of provincial politics. Atwood's fiction--Cat's Eye (1988), ALIAS GRACE (1996)--won continued international praise, as did Shields' Pulitzer Prize- winning THE STONE DIARIES (1993) and Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and The English Patient (1992; successfully adapted to the screen in 1996). Thomas's Isobel Gunn (1999) re-imagines the life of a woman in the fur trade, Hodgins's Broken Ground (1999) reveals how a soldiers' community finds ways to sublimate the horrors of the FIRST WORLD WAR, Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) inventively tells how fascism gains power by suppressing dissent and killing off the art of imagination. The Sorrow and the Terror (1987), by Clark Blaise and Bharati MUKHERJEE, compellingly analyzes the sources and consequences of the terrorist downing of an Air India flight that killed 329 people, mostly Canadians, over the Atlantic in 1985. Bowering and Kroetsch achieved success in both prose and poetry, Bowering with his postmodernist history Burning Water (1980), Western satire Caprice (1987), and lyric recuperation of place Kerrisdale Elegies (1984); Kroetsch with The Man from the Creeks (1998) but primarily with his remarkable collected long poems Completed Field Notes (1989).

Across the genres, emergent and established voices alike grappled with issues in the world around them. Artful short story writers of the time, many composing variants of the book-length story sequence, include Caroline ADDERSON, Edna Alford, Ven Begamudré, Ann Fleming, Raymond Fraser, Bill GASTON, Douglas GLOVER (Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon, 1985), Ray Guy, Stephen Heighton (Flight Paths of the Emperor, 1992), Mark Anthony JARMAN (New Orleans is Sinking, 1998), Michael Kenyon, Susan Kerslake, and Linda Svendsen. Successful playwrights (SeeDRAMA IN ENGLISH), their topics ranging from Gothic heroes and First Nations residential schools to the borderlines of identity and the politics of love, include Anne Chislett, Brad FRASER (Poor Super Man, 1994), John GRAY, John Krizanc (Prague, 1988), John Lazarus, Wendy LILL (The Occupation of Heather Rose, 1987), Ann-Marie MACDONALD (Good Night Desdemona [Good Morning Juliet], 1988), Morris PANYCH, Sharon POLLOCK (Doc, 1984), Djanet SEARS (Harlem Duet, 1998), Joan MACLEOD (Amigo's Blue Guitar, 1990), Judith THOMPSON (The Crackwalker, 1980), Guillermo VERDECCHIA, George WALKER, and Ian Weir. Lyric poetry, sometimes assembled serially into long poems, attracted such poets as Ken BABSTOCK (Mean, 1999), Stephanie BOLSTER, Marilyn BOWERING, Robert Bringhurst, Rob Budde, Aaron Bushkowsky, Wayde Compton (49th Parallel Psalm, 1999), Lorna CROZIER, Christopher DEWDNEY, Mary DI MICHELE, David DONNELL, Patrick FRIESEN, Gary GEDDES (The Terracotta Army, 1984), Claire HARRIS, Smaro Kamboureli, Pat LANE (Winter, 1990), Douglas LOCHHEAD, Tom MARSHALL, Seymour Mayne, Don McKay, George McWhirter, M. NourbeSe PHILIP, Harold Rhenisch, Ron Smith, Linda ROGERS, David Solway (Selected Poems, 1982), Mildred Tremblay, Peter Trower, Fred WAH (Diamond Grill, 1996), Bronwen WALLACE, Dale ZIEROTH, and Jan ZWICKY. Lists can scarcely convey the distinctive styles of each of these writers; they only hint at Geddes's glimpse of power in medieval China, Wah's poetic memoir of a prairie café childhood, Crozier's wit, Lane's harmonies, Bolster's imagery, Philip's politics, Tremblay's comments on age, Trower's engagement with work, Dewdney's dance through geology, Compton's singing meditations on being BLACK, or Zwicky's intellectual wrestling match with Wittgenstein.

Writers of this period frequently found ways to re-imagine a personal or public history, as did George Elliott CLARKE with a Black Nova Scotian "Africadian" narrative, Beatrice Chancy (1999), Matt COHEN with Medieval Jewish history (The Spanish Doctor, 1984), Thomas WHARTON with Rocky Mountain rediscovery in Icefields (1995), Andreas Schroeder with Mennonite history, Anne MICHAELS with Holocaust survival and "survival guilt," in Fugitive Pieces (1996), W.P. KINSELLA with the romantic comedy Shoeless Joe (1982), Margaret Sweatman with Fox (1991), and David Gurr, Robert HARLOW, Philip Kreiner, and Julie Lawson. Mary Meigs and Edith Iglauer wrote literary and personal memoirs. In Newfoundland, which in 1949 had become the 10th province of Canada, many young writers were emerging, once again locating their place in literature by retelling early history (John STEFFLER's The Afterlife of George Cartwright, 1992) or revisiting childhood and the tensions attending the vote for (and against) Confederation (Wayne JOHNSTON's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, 1998; Baltimore's Mansion, 1999). Bronwen Wallace's poetry, letters, and essays address violence against women and the limitations of language reform. Daphne MARLATT's novel Ana Historic (1988) combines the techniques of memory with those of documentary to disturb the edges of historical "category" and, here, to rewrite how women's stories might be told.

Challenging "category"--i.e., questioning the validity and reliability of coding reality (or "identity") by means of any arbitrary system--constitutes a recurrent motif in late 20th century Canadian writing. All such categories--place, race, gender, sexuality--were viewed as social or intellectual "constructs" rather than as intrinsic or absolute truths. All biases, including racism and sexism, were shown to depend on the rhetorical and attitudinal categories "Other" and "Abnormal." Anne CARSON, for instance, in her verse novel Autobiography of Red (1998), adapted the Greek classics into an absorbing and fragmented metaphoric tale about myth and the idea of the monstrous. Barbara GOWDY's work characteristically focuses on the "abnormal," pushing the category to absurd extremes. George Bowering's self-reflexive Burning Water challenges "history" by emphasizing the artifice of the text it's written in. The poetry of Lynn CROSBIE interrogates "standard" literary topics and language. Michael Turner's The Pornographer's Poem (1999) is structured as a formal interrogation (perhaps judicial, perhaps ethical) in order to question the easy application of social labels. Dionne BRAND's No Language is Neutral (1990) deconstructs colonial oppression. Lillian ALLEN writes in dub, undercutting "standard" language. Mary Meigs, Daphne Marlatt, Shyam SELVADURAI, John Barton, Andy Quan, Ian Iqbal Rashid all question "heteronormativity" by reclaiming the ordinariness of being gay (LGBT equal rights were affirmed in Canadian law following test cases in 1985 - See HOMOSEXUALITY).

Writers who re-engaged with sexual identity, or with race, nature, urban life, or ethnic history were not limited by single topics; their poems, plays, and fictions generally crossed categories of subject, and of form. Often autobiography and fiction overlap. Hence Selvadurai deals with sexual identity within the context of an ethnic minority; Denise CHONG, SKY LEE and Hiromi GOTO all probe the suppressed (matrilineal) side of their (respective) Chinese and Japanese heritage, retrieving the past but also exploring female identity; Nino RICCI, Moyez G. VASSANJI, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton MISTRY, and Wayson CHOY all address the political interests, commitments, and aspirations of immigrant societies, but also dispute the validity of racial and cultural stereotypes. Mistry's interconnected story sequence, Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), captures scenes of varied life in a Bombay housing complex, then layers a Toronto apartment building overtop it. Neil BISSOONDATH's stories (as in Digging Up the Mountains, 1987) recurrently draw on his familiarity with Trinidad, while his non-fiction Selling Illusions (1994) openly criticizes what he calls the "cult of multiculturalism." Writing that turned to historical and AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL forms and settings to explore the present, in short, tended in practice to isolate the origins of uncertainty. Such inquiries lead to the conclusion that, despite the conservatism of the decade, "solutions" proved to most people to be illusory. The "natural condition," in other words, seemed more to be one involving uncertainty, rather than fixed truth; multiplicity and change rather than uniformity.


Further Reading