Literary History in English in the 21st century | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literary History in English in the 21st century

This troubled period began with the Y2K scare, when COMPUTER programs worldwide were expected to fail. 3000 people, 25 of them Canadian, died in the New York Trade Center bombings on "9-11" 2001.

Literary History in English in the 21st century

This troubled period began with the Y2K scare, when COMPUTER programs worldwide were expected to fail. 3000 people, 25 of them Canadian, died in the New York Trade Center bombings on "9-11" 2001. In 2002, Canada joined the NATO mission in AFGHANISTAN, the first official military engagement since the KOREAN WAR; 158 Canadians were killed there over the next ten years. In LITERATURE as well as on the street, anti-war protests were common. So were protests against POLLUTION, against economic disparity (exacerbated by the international financial collapse in 2008 (seeINCOME DISTRIBUTION), and for ENVIRONMENTAL protection. The "Occupy Movement," initiated by the editors of the journal Adbusters, spread internationally. Military and corporate rhetoric permeated public culture. In 2012, government cutbacks altered the function of the NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA, restricting inter- library loans, and cancelled support for overseas CANADIAN STUDIES programs. 2012 was also a year when rumours of the end of the world were rampant; apocalyptic literature thrived.

The most dominant Canadian literary figure in the early 21st century continued to be Margaret ATWOOD. Between 2000 and 2012, she published one book of POETRY, two of SHORT FICTION, three new children's books, four NOVELS, a playscript (The Penelopiad 2007), and six works of non-fiction, including reflections on debt, morality, and SCIENCE FICTION. Her speculative fictions won a particularly wide readership. ORYX AND CRAKE (2003) and THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD (2009) tell of an "America" where violence has replaced order as an arbiter of power, cross-species experimentation has resulted in unpredictable creatures, but where goodness still has a chance to prevail.

Numerous other writers whose careers had been established in previous decades also wrote into the new millennium: Clark BLAISE, George FETHERLING (Walt Whitman's Secret, 2010), Mavis GALLANT, Douglas GLOVER (Elle, 2003), Jack HODGINS, Greg Hollingshead, Wayne JOHNSTON, Ann-Marie MACDONALD, Alistair MACLEOD, Michael ONDAATJE, David Adams RICHARDS, Andreas Schroeder (Renovating Heaven, 2008), Carol SHIELDS (Unless, 2002), Jane URQUHART, Rudy WIEBE, and Richard B. WRIGHT in fiction; George BOWERING, Dionne BRAND (Inventory, 2006; Ossuaries, 2010), Robert BRINGHURST, Robert KROETSCH, Tim LILBURN, Daphne MARLATT, Don MCKAY, Erin MOURE, Sharon THESEN, Judith THOMPSON, and literally scores of others in poetry and DRAMA. With The Last Crossing (2002) and A Good Man (2011), Guy VANDERHAEGHEcompleted his massive, border-crossing Prairie trilogy, giving new life and form to the historical novel. Austin CLARKE, with The Polished Hoe (2002)--partly a "confession" in Bajan (i.e. Barbadian) speech--recounted the wrongs that colonization wreaked upon BLACK populations in the Caribbean and Canada. Alice MUNRO, winner of the Man Booker lifetime achievement award in 2009, published seven new collections of stories (including Runaway, 2004). Resisting denouement and judgment while drawing on the resonance of nuance and image, these stories by indirection reveal the complex motivations that shape behaviour.

Yet PUBLISHERS on the whole tended to seek new writers for the new millennium. Publication lists were amplified by numerous texts straight out of creative writing schools, frequently addressing topics of the day: lifestyle choices, the challenge of a particular ethnic heritage, economic powerlessness, urban trauma, and cultural ennui, represented in part by the artifice of "reality television." By 2012, the international language of contemporary advertising and electronic media had begun to shape the craft of writing (Sina QUEYRAS alludes to "reality" being a Qatari parking lot, a Malawi airstrip), and many young writers in particular were drawn to a "post-national" literary sensibility, one that dismissed the NATIONAL focus and free-verse conventions of the previous fifty years as pastoral, personal, and provincial. Some championed LANGUAGE as a "technology" to be deconstructed for intellectual effect; others sought meaning in a renewed formalism, affirming complex accessibility over abstract minimalism. Both positions declared that literature expressed ideas, and both allowed that literature happens within social contexts, some of which crossed borders.

While dissatisfaction and unease marked the tone of the first decade of the century, many people nevertheless found conventionality appealing, for it enabled escape from both uncertainty and the speed of social change. For publishers, conventional narrative was also a straightforward marketing strategy at a time when the role of editors was being minimized, when Amazon and other agencies were taking over a larger proportion of sales, when street-front bookstores were closing, electronic media were encouraging downloads, and the rules of COPYRIGHT were changing again. PRIZE juries of new fiction frequently gave precedence to the accessible and popular over the challenging, the innovative, and the stylistically accomplished.

Several oppositional works did attract attention, notably Jane JACOBS' Dark Age Ahead (2004) and two books by Naomi Klein, No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine (2007), which attack the power of international corporate capitalism, its political agenda (which can overrun national or local social preferences), and the increasing divide between rich and poor. The urban short stories of Michael Christie (The Beggar's Garden, 2011) and the satiric anecdotes of Zsuzsi GARTNER examine this divide. Critical literary works, and informed commentary on contemporary issues, tended to appear less in university quarterly or newspaper format than in smaller journals (SeeLITERARY MAGAZINES IN ENGLISH) such as Geist and subTerrain, or in electronic format, whether online MAGAZINE (Tyee, Influencysalon), website (CWILA [Canadian Women in the Literary Arts], George MURRAY's Bookninja, Sina Queyras' lemonhound), or individual blog. Websites that publish narrative include Wattpad and Emily Schultz's Joyland.

Much CHILDREN'S LITERATURE of the time was also problem-centred, focusing on POVERTY, child abuse, disease, war and bullying. In contrast, much active storytelling (for example, the work of Robert Munsch) and poetry for children (as in books by JonArno Lawson, Robert Heidbreder, and William NEW), while sometimes embodying social concerns such as ecology, friendship and family, also delights in language play and wonder. Patsy Aldana's Groundwood Books remained a major children's publisher.

Ecology became a prominent issue in literature generally, as in the philosophical poetry and essays of McKay (Another Gravity, 2000; Vis à Vis: field notes on poetry and wilderness, 2002), Lilburn (Thinking and Singing, 2002) and Rita WONG (whose forage, 2007, links ecological crisis with forms of social imperialism). Other works include John Vaillant's narratives of other species; Christopher Patton's Jack Pine (2007), the basis for a children's opera; and the reflective commentaries of Laurie Ricou, notably The Arbutus/Madrone Files (2002) and Salal (2007). Related books of "creative non-fiction" include first-person engagements with gardens and darkness: Patrick LANE's There is a Season (2004), Christopher DEWDNEY's Acquainted with the Night (2004); and autobiographical adventures in search of family and self, such as Charles Montgomery's The Last Heathen (2004) and J.B. MacKinnon's Dead Man in Paradise (2006).

Several serious new novelists appeared, among them Michael CRUMMEY in St. John's, Heather O'Neill in Montreal, Helen Humphreys in Kingston, Camilla GIBB in Toronto, Miriam TOEWS in Winnipeg, Todd Babiak in Edmonton, and Anosh Irani in Vancouver. Some critical attention focused also on Peter BEHRENS, David BERGEN, David Chariandy, Patrick DEWITT, Marina ENDICOTT, Rawi HAGE, Elizabeth HAY, Larissa LAI, Yann MARTEL (Life of Pi, 2001), Linden MCINTYRE, Nancy RICHLER, Eden ROBINSON (Blood Sports, 2006), Johanna SKIBSRUD, Russell Wangersky, Michael WINTER, and Alissa YORK. Will FERGUSON's Happiness (2002) established his career as a satiric HUMORIST. Some writers examined society quietly, revealing indirectly the violence underlying appearances--Matthew Hooton in a Bildungsroman (Deloume Road, 2010), Dianne WARREN using measured, loping cadences to portray a country town (Cool Water, 2010), Devin Krukoff in the interlocking, multiple-character narratives of Flyways (2011), and Warren Cariou, in his family biography, Lake of the Prairies (2002). A related portrait of a prairie town, Kevin Kerr's 2002 play unity (1918), addresses the impact of the Spanish flu PANDEMIC in Saskatchewan.

By the end of the 2000s, novels by several other writers, whether praised or neglected at the time of publication, began to emerge as significant achievements of the decade. These include Steven GALLOWAY's The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008), which reconstructs the competing passions of the Balkan wars (violence and art, both compulsive); Thomas WHARTON's revisionist Icefields (1995) and self-reflexive The Logogryph (2004); Wayson CHOY's All that Matters (2004; a sequel to his 1995 The Jade Peony), which tells of a cross-cultural understanding that develops over time in early Vancouver Chinatown; Arley McNeney's The Time We All Went Marching (2011), about women's lives while men joined the On-to-Ottawa protest march during the DEPRESSION; Lawrence HILL's THE BOOK OF NEGROES (2007), about an African woman trying to escape from the USA to Canada in 1783; Esi EDUGYAN's Half-Blood Blues (2011), which in dialect rhythms, jazz cadences, and standard prose tells of personal rivalries and racism against Blacks in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s; and Joseph BOYDEN's Three Day Road (2005), about two CREE snipers in the FIRST WORLD WAR, and the long route back to mental health for the sole survivor (the title of this book, the first in a trilogy, refers to the survivor's halting recollections and to the traditional stories that a healing woman teaches him on the way home).

In these, as in several other major fictions of the time, the narratives acknowledge and address contemporary violence but refuse to accept the inevitability of defeat. Annabel LYON's novel The Golden Mean (2009), while ostensibly about Aristotle tutoring Alexander, was written as a response to the 9-11 tragedy and its aftermath. Revealing how the two central characters compulsively abandon moderation--one in pursuit of logic, the other of action--Lyon nevertheless continues to champion an ideal. Hope also survives in Steven HEIGHTON's Every Lost Country (2010), which tracks the obsessions of a climber, a doctor, and a filmmaker as they pursue their contrary and potentially destructive paths. Timothy TAYLOR's stories and novels, especially Stanley Park (2001) and The Blue Light Project (2011), construct a borderland between straight realism and imaginative flight, where aspiration can lead to amazing achievement or the dark mazes of torture and recrimination. The first of these novels tells of a young would-be restaurateur who accepts the help of a Mephistopheles figure, and of the young man's father, caught up in a preoccupation of his own. The later novel, set in a deliberately anonymous place so as to embody the "corporate," monolithic character of contemporary cities, follows several characters through their dilemmas; for each, celebrity appeals and threatens to destroy: characters lie, abduct children, torture for the sake of notoriety--yet even in this context, a stubborn intellect refuses to let affirmation die.

In poetry, too, numerous voices were heard, some praised for imagery, philosophy, or arresting technique (for example, Anne CARSON, Christian BÖK, Margaret AVISON, Anne SIMPSON, Don McKay, Robin BLASER, A.F. MORITZ, Karen SOLIE, Dionne Brand, Ken BABSTOCK: all winners of the GRIFFIN POETRY PRIZE (est. 2001). Some (mainly lyricists) were acknowledged by the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD (McKay, George Elliott CLARKE, Roy MIKI, Tim Lilburn, Roo BORSON, Anne COMPTON, John PASS, Don Domanski, Jacob Scheier, David ZIEROTH, Richard GREENE, Phil HALL). Some were absorbed and admired only by aficionados of the genre--or of a particular school of the genre, of which there were many. A few people--for example, Susan McMaster, Sheri-D Wilson, Gordon Downie, Shane KOYCZAN--made their reputation as performance poets, favouring such forms as song, rap verse, or poetry slam. Writers such as Miki, Bök, Clint Burnham, and Darren Wershler-Henry broke with conventional discourse for political reasons or to fasten, as does Bök's Eunoia (2001, the title borrowed from Aristotle, meaning "beautiful thinking"), and as in other ways bill BISSETT's and Steve MCCAFFERY's work did before him, on the aural effect of the syllable and its intellectual determination of meaning. Hall worked with the verse paragraph, Carson (The Beauty of the Husband, 2001) with sequential "tangos," and Blaser (The Holy Forest, revised 2007) with a multi-volume serial poem. Experiments with other strategies multiplied: Sina Queyras's and rob mclennan's "field" poems (where rhythm and repetition construct linguistic fields), Kate Braid's work poems, Kevin McNeilly's jazz poems, Angela Rawlings' blend of visual art with science and gender study (Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, 2006), Barbara Klar's reflections on the mother and the body, Ray Hsu's meditations on the grammars of perception (Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon, 2010), Gregory SCOFIELD's "conversations" with his Cree/Jewish heritage, Karen Solie's mordant play of irony, David MCGIMPSEY's wry soliloquies and laconic characters.

Contemporary lyricists, many of them dealing with ecological or environmental matters, include Elizabeth Bachinsky, Stephanie BOLSTER, Suzanne Buffam, Adam Dickinson, Patrick FRIESEN, Susan Glickman, Susan Goyette, Brian Henderson, Aislinn Hunter, Evelyn LAU, David Manicom, Elise Partridge, Steven Price, Jay Ruzesky, Sandy Shreve, Sue Sinclair, Shannon Stewart, Rhea Tregebov, Yi-Mei Tsiang, and Patricia Young. The strength in these poets' works derives from inventive image and musical control over cadence, qualities that draw out a relation between the external world and the inner life. Steven Heighton, too--poet and essayist as well as novelist, short story writer, and composer of epigrammatic "memos" about the craft of writing (Work Book, 2011)--translates the lyric into a cogent dismissal of affectation and a tonally acute model of sensitive thinking. Several writers linked lyrics into book-length forms, as in William New's serial long poems (Underwood Log, 2004; YVR, 2011), which track the environmental and psychological implications of border country. The eloquent volumes of Philip Kevin Paul, Taking the Names Down from the Hill (2004) and Little Hunger (2009), draw on the orature of the Wsá,nec (Saanich) nation. Ken Babstock might in many ways be said to embody the tenor of the decade; criticized by some for being arbitrary or obscure, but called "playful, fierce, intelligent" by the Griffin Poetry Prize jury for all four of his books--Mean (1999), Days into Flatspin (2001), Airstream Land Yacht (2006), Methodist Hatchet (2011). Babstock, through juxtapositions and double meanings, probes the ambiguity of understanding in a fast and chaotic world.

Key to contemporary discussions of "Canadian" poetics is the intellectual divergence between Christian Bök and Carmine STARNINO, articulated in a 90-minute debate held in Alberta in 2009. Bök's position affirmed the intellectual validity--even necessity--of "experimental" language, designed for a post-national machine world, dismissive of pastoral imagery. Equally post-national, Starnino (editor of a contentious 2005 anthology, The New Canon, and dismissive of the vernacular free verse cadences of a poet such as Al PURDY) argued for a return to accessible but not simplistic formalism, which sees "experiment" as simply another formal variation, too often held up as an exclusive preserve of ideas. A group of poets that emerged in Montreal, loosely associated with Starnino, admired the latest manifestations of Modernism (as, for example, in the work of Eric Ormsby, Norm Sibum--or Daryl Hine in Chicago) or the plain speech of David O'Meara. In Toronto, the publisher Kevin CONNOLLY (Drift, 2005; Revolver, 2008) responded to pop culture, surrealism, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and encouraged fellow writers Gil ADAMSON, Lynn CROSBIE, and Stuart Ross. In Vancouver, the Kootenay School of Writing, a writers' collective including Jeff Derksen, Lisa Robertson, Colin Browne (Ground Water, 2002; The Shovel, 2007), Suzanne Buffam, Tom WAYMAN, Fred WAH (is a door, 2009), Meredith Quartermain and others at different times, argued for a more openly political break with standard ("neo-liberal") language.

The genre that some criticism regarded as the most captivating form of the new century was short fiction (SeeSHORT FICTION IN ENGLISH 1985-2012). Anthologies abounded; single stories (for example by Carol Matthews, Olive Senior, Craig Boyko) were praised; but more characteristically readers turned to the complex coherence of individual collections and to the attractions of a flexible style. A few highly prized collections, such as Bill GASTON's Mount Appetite (2002) and Michael REDHILL's Fidelity (2003), displayed a remarkable range of techniques. More uniform in method, works by Kevin Armstrong, Kevin Patterson, Michael Trussler, Lee Henderson, Deborah Willis, Shaleema Nawaz, Miranda Hill, Jessica Westhead, Rebecca Rosenblum (Once, 2001), and Sarah SELECKY also attracted attention. Displaying control over a single form, John Gould (Kilter, 2003) wrote variations of the "short-short" story form; Warren Cariou wrote novellas; Pasha Malla and Diane SCHOEMPERLEN used the fragment so as to shatter a sense of wholeness, to catch only a glimpse of wholeness, or to interrupt expectations of easy continuity. Michael Turner, in 8 x 10 (2009), openly broke with linear logic.

Some critics also singled out such writers as Madeleine THIEN, David Bezmozgis, Vincent LAM and Anthony DE SA, largely to examine how they dealt with ethnic heritage, race, and rebellion. In each of these instances, a familiar tale of growing up and/or discovering artistic talent or professional skill informs a story sequence. The four sections of Joseph Boyden's Born with a Tooth (2001) tell Cree stories of brutality, loss, and, finally, reaffirmation. Other writers were also acknowledged for dealing with "real" subjects, which generally involved bars, drugs, poverty, sex, death, abuse, aimlessness and separation. Craig Davidson (Rust and Bone, 2005) focused on classic "tough guys," exposing their varying degrees of strength when faced with fights, fetishes, and fatherhood. Rough homes and rough friendships also characterize D.W. Wilson's Once You Break a Knuckle (2011) and Nathan Sellyn's Indigenous Beasts (2006), while mother-daughter relationships inform Dede Crane's The Cult of Quick Repair (2008).

Other collections attracted critical notice for their technical flair as well as their sophistication of thought. Neil Smith (Bang Crunch, 2007), Annabel Lyon (Oxygen, 2000), Lisa MOORE (Open, 2002), and Nancy Lee (Dead Girls, 2003) were praised for their elegant restraint and precise control over image; Genni Gunn and Charlotte Gill for rendering narrative with sardonic humour; Ivan E. Coyote for demonstrating the sprightly vernacular art of neighbourhood storytelling. George Bowering (as in The Box, 2009) shaped anecdote with multi-layered puns; Heather Birrell's jarring stories (Mad Hope, 2012) adapt fresh phrasing to conventional circumstances (one story is cast as an exchange of blog entries); and Timothy Taylor's Silent Cruise (2002) draws on a contemporary language of trademarks and technology to tell stories with fantastic edges to them. Four more writers in particular emerged as masters of their craft. The eleven stories in Steven Heighton's The Dead Are More Visible (2012) range from a meditation by a foreigner in post-atomic Japan to a tale about an outdoor zamboni driver in Ontario; in every case, the language resonates like a musical score. Some of the stories in Tamas Dobozy's Last Notes (2005) and Siege 13 (2012) deal with immigrants and war survivors, but--an undertow stretches these thoughtful narratives--they refuse to take sides, exposing instead the ambiguity of claims on morality. The stories in Siege 13, for example, all of which touch on the Siege of Budapest in 1944, relive the horrors of suffering (and survival) and at the same time allow a strain of fierce comedy to vex any easy assumptions about narrative authority. Alexander MacLeod, in Light Lifting (2010), captured moments in the lives of runners, dancers, bikers, young parents, all unprepared for the next moment in their lives, but hoping. With Mark Anthony JARMAN's 19 Knives (2000) and My White Planet (2008), narratives of modern life ask to be lived through--here language functions as both medium and essence, wide-ranging allusion and precise original image exploding in energy, humour, and cautionary tale. Possibility hovers at the edge of such narratives, but often it's presumed to exist more in the fictive imagination than in experience. Repeatedly, in the stories of this period, youth proves a battleground, where the language is rough, the environment stark, and the characters stymied, trying for laughter, sometimes even laughing, but unable to escape physical conflict or economic despair.


Further Reading