Novel in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Novel in English

In its first phase, from the earliest fiction writing in Canada to WWI, the novel acquired a truly Canadian voice. But the pre-Confederation period was a time far more of development than of achievement.
Ernest Buckler, writer
Buckler's novels showed a remarkable sensitivity to the character of his native Annapolis Valley (courtesy Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library/University of Toronto).
Callaghan, Morley, Video
Writer Morley Callaghan speaks out in an episode of the CBC-TV debate program Fighting Words, broadcast on 9 December 1956 (courtesy CBC-TV).
Brooke, Francis
Playright and novelist Frances Brooke was well-known in London literary and theatre circles before coming to Quebec in 1763. During her stay she wrote her novel The History of Emily Montague (1769) (National Archives of Canada/C-117373).
Timothy Findley, writer
Timothy Findley's writing displays a broad range of subject matter, always treated with imagination (photo by Sussi).

Novel in English

In its first phase, from the earliest fiction writing in Canada to WWI, the novel acquired a truly Canadian voice. But the pre-Confederation period was a time far more of development than of achievement. Novels were written and published, but few had literary merit and few could be called distinctively Canadian in their subject matter or point of view. This was to be expected. The country itself was taking shape, and with it a society and a culture for the novelist to represent, analyse and judge. Colonial uncertainty is reflected in the derivativeness and poor quality of fiction in this period; yet some novels did contribute to the establishment of a tradition, and a few achieved lasting significance.

The First Canadian Novels
Frances BROOKE's History of Emily Montague (1769) is usually described, somewhat misleadingly, as the first Canadian novel. The author lived only briefly in the colony of Québec, and much of her novel is sentimental romance of the kind common in England. Brooke does, however, give some serious attention to French-English relations, the colony's future relations with Britain and the potential threat posed by the American colonies, issues that were to be prominent in later Canadian novels. Her interest in the landscape also anticipates the continuing use of Canada as an exotic setting for fiction by British novelists (eg, Frederick Marryat and R.M. Ballantyne) and by Canadians themselves.

Of more importance to the Canadian quality of Canadian fiction was the publication in newspapers and magazines of sketches (sometimes loosely linked as a series) and serialized novels (seeSHORT FICTION; LITERARY MAGAZINES); some of the early work of Susanna MOODIE and Rosanna LEPROHON appeared in these forms. Many writers continued merely to imitate British models, but there were 2 notable exceptions: Thomas MCCULLOCH and Thomas Chandler HALIBURTON.

McCulloch's "Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure" (in the Acadian Recorder, 1821-23), a satirically comic depiction of his Pictou, NS, neighbours, can still delight modern readers (seeHUMOROUS WRITING).

McCulloch's work undoubtedly influenced Haliburton, the first Canadian fiction writer to achieve an international reputation. Haliburton's "Clockmaker" sketches of 1835-36 appeared in book form as The Clockmaker; or The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville (1836), which was instantly popular in North America and Britain. Sam Slick remains one of the great creations of the comic imagination, and served Haliburton well as a vehicle for serious investigation of his own Nova Scotia and of the growing crudity and materialism of the US. The Old Judge (1849) is the best of Haliburton's many other works of fiction. Haliburton for a time rivalled Charles Dickens in popularity, and he was the one major writer of fiction to appear in the pre-Confederation period; he remains important in the Canadian literary tradition.

Two other novelists of this period retain an interest for later readers. Rosanna Leprohon's "The Manor House of De Villerai" (1859-60) and Antoinette de Mirecourt (1864) do not avoid sentimentality and melodrama, yet in their presentation of Québec society after the British conquest they reveal a skill and a sensitivity still not fully appreciated; and although John RICHARDSON tried his hand without success at the novel of manners when he made use of Canadian history in Wacousta (1832) and its sequel, The Canadian Brothers (1840), the results revealed a powerful (if undisciplined) imagination. Both novels are marred by sentiment and melodrama, and exhibit the pervasive influence of Sir Walter Scott on writers of historical novels (with some influence as well from the American writer James Fenimore Cooper). Despite these detractions, Richardson's ability to present violent action, and his attempt to define the developing Canadian character, ensure him at least a minor place in the history of the Canadian novel.

Post-Confederation Novel

The nationalistic and optimistic spirit following CONFEDERATION is reflected in the increasing variety and quality of Canadian novels. Several writers achieved international popularity, if not lasting literary merit; among them were May Agnes Fleming, Basil King and Margaret Marshall Saunders, whose Beautiful Joe (1894), a sentimental story of a dog, is reported to have sold more than one million copies in 14 languages. James DE MILLE was also a popular writer; in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888) he produced an unusual, disturbing and still-fascinating novel. Popular novelists of this sort may seldom have written good novels; nevertheless, they demonstrate that Canadian writers were gaining an increasing confidence that they could write for audiences outside Canada.

Historical novels were also popular and often skilfully written. Charles G.D. ROBERTS produced several, as did Gilbert PARKER, but these and other novelists were seldom able to present more than the surface of the historical periods they dealt with. William KIRBY's The Golden Dog (1877) does penetrate the surface in its attempt to recreate and analyse the society of NEW FRANCE before its fall. Kirby may be guilty of transforming this society to produce a unifying national myth of French-English harmony, yet his knowledge and sympathy make his novel, despite its length and frequent clumsiness, live in a way that others do not.

An increased interest in representing the regions of Canada is also characteristic of the post-Confederation novel; for example, Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its successors by L.M. MONTGOMERY are set in Prince Edward Island; Duncan Polite (1905) and others by Marian Keith (Mary Esther MacGregor) in Scottish communities in southern Ontario; The Way of the Sea (1903) and Doctor Luke of the Labrador (1904) by Norman DUNCAN and The Harbour Master (1913) by Theodore Goodridge Roberts are set in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The opening up of Canada's West and North was also a frequent subject. Sometimes the treatments were mainly superficial and popular, as in novels by Gilbert Parker, Agnes Laut and Robert SERVICE. More valuable work was done by Ralph Connor (C.W. GORDON) in The Sky Pilot (1899) and The Foreigner (1909), and by Nellie MCCLUNG in Sowing Seeds in Danny (1908). While their portraits of the developing West are not free of sentimentality and obtrusive didacticism, they do show some movement towards the realistic presentation of a sense of place, a movement even more pronounced in Martin Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West (1908), a good novel set in BC.

Didacticism and a moralizing tone were prominent in many novels. Two writers who made serious and important attempts to combine entertainment with intellectual substance, Agnes Maule MACHAR (social justice, Christianity) and Lily Dougall (religious themes), had limited artistic success for this reason. The major novels of the post-Confederation period largely overcame this difficulty, achieving moral seriousness without preaching to the reader. To various degrees and in various ways, these novels also integrated historical, regional, social, intellectual and international concerns.

Francis William Grey's one novel, The Curé of St. Philippe (1899), is both a subtly comic novel and a shrewd analysis of education, religion, politics and French-English relations in a small Québec town of the period. Robert Barr wrote many works, including an important collection of detective fiction, The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont (1906), but his most successful Canadian novel, The Measure of the Rule (1907), is a satiric criticism of teacher training and educational theorizing, with some attention paid to the shortcomings of Toronto society at the turn of the century.

Early 20th Century

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Canadian novel had moved beyond its formative period, as is evident in the best works of that period's major novelists, Sara Jeannette DUNCAN and Stephen LEACOCK. Duncan's novels, written after her successful career as a journalist, are the product of an informed and sensitive intelligence with a wide range of serious interests. A Daughter of Today (1894) is, until its awkward conclusion, a compelling study of the "new Woman" and the artistic temperament. An American Girl in London (1891), one of her "international" novels, is a comedy dealing with the differences between American and British social customs. Cousin Cinderella (1908), a less lively comedy, returns to this theme and adds to it by introducing the question of where Canadians stand in this relationship. THE IMPERIALIST (1904) is set in southern Ontario, yet international themes are again prominent, presented as they impinge upon the consciousness of a Canadian town, whose society Duncan depicts and analyses with wit and skill. Duncan resided in India for almost 30 years after 1890, and her novels set there become increasingly dark in tone, from The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (1893) to later works such as His Honour, and a Lady (1896) and Set in Authority (1906), which are critical of the British establishment in India and increasingly sympathetic towards the native population and its aspirations. Duncan continued to write until the 1920s, but the quality of her work after 1910 is uneven.

Leacock began his literary career by parodying, with exuberance and an underlying note of surrealistic violence, the various forms, styles and aberrations of conventional fiction. Literary Lapses (1910), Nonsense Novels (1911) and later Frenzied Fiction (1918) give Leacock a well-deserved international reputation as one of the great humorists in the English language. He was to write much more in this vein, often successfully, but never again did he reach the consistently high quality of this early work. Leacock's major achievements are SUNSHINE SKETCHES OF A LITTLE TOWN (1912) and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914). In the first we find a humorous presentation of the foibles and follies of the residents of a small Ontario community, with understated satire and criticism directed at social pretension, materialism, urbanization and politics. The second book is overtly satiric, as its title suggests, but much less filled with sunshine. The idle rich and their hangers-on have no redeeming qualities, and Leacock offers no consolation to his readers poised on the brink of a world war that was to have far-reaching consequences for Canada.


The Novel in English, WWI-1959

At the end of WWI, the self-confidence engendered by Canada's role in the war brought an upsurge of NATIONALISM which included a renewed interest in a national literature. Between 1920 and 1940, 700 works of fiction were published by Canadians. While the popular genres of mystery, adventure and romance continued to flourish, Canadian writers showed themselves to be aware of the progress made in fiction by such writers as Dreiser, Joyce and Woolf. The first important development in Canada after the war was the advent of realism, heralded in Prairie fiction. Novels recorded the life of the homesteader with increasing fidelity to experience; writers tended less and less to romanticize or idealize either landscape or life. The prolific Arthur STRINGER bridges the earlier and later periods of the Prairie novel, stylistically as well as chronologically, with his Alberta trilogy, The Prairie Wife (1915), The Prairie Mother (1920) and The Prairie Child (1922). Robert Stead's Neighbours (1922) and The Smoking Flax (1924) most obviously demonstrate the move toward realism, although plot lines and occasional melodramatic incidents continue the romantic trend.

With Stead's Grain (1926), and with the publication in 1925 of the first novels of Martha OSTENSO and Frederick Philip GROVE, realism in Prairie fiction was firmly established. Ostenso's Wild Geese vividly depicts the harshness of life in a homesteading community, but its central figure is the romantic villain Caleb Gare, whose lust to possess the land causes him to enslave his family and eventually destroys him. Grove followed his first novel, Settlers of the Marsh, with 3 more Prairie novels: Our Daily Bread (1928), The Yoke of Life (1930) and FRUITS OF THE EARTH (1933). Although his patriarchal heroes often succeed in their struggle against nature, they are inevitably brought to see that their success is ephemeral.

Realism and the Popular Romatic Tradition

The strong regional consciousness of these authors characterized much Canadian fiction, as writers portrayed the impact of environment on character and on human relationships (seeREGIONALISM IN LITERATURE). While realism was developing, the popular romantic tradition continued in Prairie fiction, presenting a more optimistic view of pioneer life, as in Laura Goodman SALVERSON's The Viking Heart (1923), a novel about Icelandic settlers. Frederick NIVEN, after writing several successful novels about his native Scotland, traced the historical development of the Prairies in an accurate and entertaining trilogy: The Flying Years (1935), Mine Inheritance (1940) and The Transplanted (1944). The romantic tradition continued with W.O. MITCHELL'sWHO HAS SEEN THE WIND (1947), the story of a child growing up on the Prairies. The wind provides the central unifying symbol of the boy's attempt to comprehend the spiritual world.

Thomas RADDALL's historical novels of Nova Scotia are among the best popular fiction. His Majesty's Yankees (1942) and The Nymph and the Lamp (1950) are lively, exciting and historically accurate. But the outstanding popular success of the period was Mazo DE LA ROCHE'sJALNA series (1927-60). Set in rural Ontario, the series continued through 16 sentimental novels characterized by lively dialogue, dramatic incidents and memorable characters. The Jalna books continue to be read throughout the world.

Meanwhile, other Ontario writers were, like their Prairie contemporaries, producing realistic fiction. Raymond KNISTER, author of some of the best and most experimental short stories of the 1920s and some of Canada's earliest modernist poetry, wrote what is possibly the first realistic novel of rural Ontario, White Narcissus (1929). Knister used elements of the landscape as symbols reflecting the emotions of his protagonist, whose journey from city back to farm becomes a journey of self-discovery.

With the novels of Morley CALLAGHAN, urban realism became firmly established. Callaghan's early novels, Strange Fugitive (1928), It's Never Over (1930) and A Broken Journey (1932), incorporate deterministic elements: characters often appear to be victims of forces beyond their control. Callaghan wrote in a deceptively simple, economical style which changed very little when he turned to a more Christian outlook in his next 3 novels: SUCH IS MY BELOVED (1934), portraying a priest's loving attempt to save 2 prostitutes; They Shall Inherit the Earth (1935), a father-son conflict set against the backdrop of the Great Depression; and More Joy in Heaven (1937), the story of a reformed bank robber misunderstood by society. In these novels the saint figure stands in opposition to society, as it does in the later The Loved and the Lost (1951), in which Callaghan's style softens and he effectively uses myth and symbol.

Social Protest

The optimism following WWI disappeared with the onset of the Great Depression. Fewer novels were published and fewer read. Some novelists attempted to record the disillusionment of the time and the best fictional record of social protest is West Coast journalist Irene Baird's Waste Heritage (1939), a documentary novel of Vancouver and Victoria in 1938. The desperation of the time in the urban areas of eastern Canada is reflected in Callaghan's early novels and stories. Hugh GARNER's Cabbagetown (1950) is a later account of growing up in a Depression slum in Toronto. Sinclair ROSS's first novel, AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE (1941), and some of his earlier short stories give the best fictional record of the Prairies of the Depression years.

With As For Me and My House, the atmosphere of a particular time and place and its influence on the human spirit received a newly sophisticated and imaginative treatment. In this novel of a minister and his wife trapped in a puritanical Prairie town, Ross exploits the setting and its impact on the psyche to voice such modern concerns as alienation, the failure of communication, the problem of the imagination and the search for meaning in an incomprehensible universe. The outer world mirrors the inner state. In the next decade, Ernest BUCKLER wrote The Mountain and the Valley (1952), set in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. Buckler's complex symbolism and sensuous, richly textured language create a pastoral world through which he voices his themes of isolation and the problem of the imagination.

Hugh MACLENNAN, the best-known Canadian novelist of the 1940s and 1950s, began writing as a post-Depression surge of nationalism swept Canada. In 1941, with the publication of Barometer Rising, MacLennan began chronicling the Canadian psyche. Set in 1917, with its focal point the HALIFAX EXPLOSION, this novel explores Canada's developing national spirit. MacLennan's second novel, TWO SOLITUDES (1945), deals with the English-French relations in Canada through 2 generations, from WWI to the beginning of WWII. When The Precipice (1948), less overtly Canadian, was less successful, MacLennan returned to his role as spokesman for the national spirit. Each Man's Son (1951), set in a Nova Scotia mining town, dramatizes the Calvinistic puritanism which is seen to pervade much of Canadian life. The Watch that Ends the Night (1959), which has received the most critical acclaim, is more expansive. The age-old love triangle is acted out in a Canadian milieu, involving an introspective man, a spiritually strong artistic woman and a larger-than-life man of action. In this work, as in his earlier novels, MacLennan excels in both description and narration, while his weaknesses are lengthy explanations and stilted dialogue.

WWII became the subject for a number of novels. Among the best are Hugh Garner's Storm Below (1949), a story of 6 days on a Canadian corvette; Earle BIRNEY's Turvey (1949), a humorous look at army life; Colin McDougall's Execution (1958), an appallingly realistic account of Canadian combatants on the Italian front; and David WALKER's The Pillar (1952), based on his experiences as a prisoner of war. Walker, who immigrated to Canada after the war, produced a variety of successful novels, many of which, including the broadly humorous Geordie (1950), are set in his native Scotland. His first novel with a Canadian setting, Where the High Winds Blow (1960), is a well-written romance and adventure story of the opening up of the North, with an entrepreneurial hero who is equally at home in northern wilderness and southern civilization.

The Immigrant Experience

The immigrant experience continued to be a major theme. Joining Walker, Grove, Salverson and Niven was Henry KREISEL, the Jewish-Austrian author of The Rich Man (1948), the story of an immigrant to Toronto who pretends to be wealthy when he visits his family in Vienna; and the more complex Betrayal (1964). John Marlyn's Under the Ribs of Death (1957) describes the struggle for material success of a Hungarian immigrant's son. Brian MOORE, who spent 14 years in Canada before moving to the US, wrote a moving, intense novel of a Belfast spinster, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), and a perceptive and entertaining novel of an Irish immigrant in Montréal, The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960). Malcolm LOWRY, the most celebrated of our temporary residents, completed Under the Volcano (1947) and wrote October Ferry to Gabriola (1970) in Canada. Under the Volcano is brilliant, a complex novel which uses cinematic techniques, cabalistic and theosophical symbolism, myth and unusual metaphors to tell of the last 12 hours in the life of an alcoholic.

The Jewish immigrant experience was told by a number of voices. Mordecai RICHLER's Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) and THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1959) portray the third generation of a family of Jewish immigrants in Montréal. Kravitz is a picaresque hero whose story is told in an exuberantly written social satire employing broadly humorous dialogue. Adele WISEMAN's The Sacrifice (1956) is the tragic story of a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant's attempt to cope with a new world and yet to live according to his own tradition. His own tragedy is mitigated by the hope of a good future for his grandson.

While realism and regionalism became increasingly sophisticated, several fine experimental writers moved further from the traditional use of the elements of the novel to produce symbolic, lyrical, fragmented narrative. Howard O'HAGAN's Tay John (1939) is based on an Indigenous legend of a golden-haired child who emerges from the grave of a pregnant woman and is last seen disappearing into the earth. The novel begins with the legend and blends mythical with realistic narrative in an episodic structure. In the 1940s F.P. GROVE turned from realism to more innovative techniques. THE MASTER OF THE MILL (1944) is a futuristic novel dealing with the complexities of industrial society and the problems of automation. The narrative method is complex, involving flashbacks of the protagonist, a manuscript written by another character and the recollections of others. In Consider Her Ways (1947), Grove based his story of the ant world on scientific fact and used his ant characters to satirize humanity.

Elizabeth SMART's remarkable lyrical novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), was first published in England and received scant attention in Canada until a North American edition appeared in 1975. The novel explores the dualities of experience, especially the pain and pleasure of love, through paradoxical structures. The plot is minimal; the setting takes on the texture of imagery and becomes an adjunct to emotional expression. Sheila WATSON'sTHE DOUBLE HOOK (1959) also explores the dualities of experience. Watson describes her characters as "figures in a ground from which they could not be separated." The novel is a mythical and allegorical exploration of the interconnections between good and evil, and of the redemption of a community to love. Poet A.M. KLEIN turned to fiction to tell the story of the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. In The Second Scroll (1951), he presents a pattern of Jewish exile and return parallel to that in the First Scroll (the Torah) to recount the Jews' return to Israel after WWII. Like the Torah, The Second Scroll includes glosses, which take the form of poetry, drama, a prayer and an excerpt from a letter. The novel's central religious theme demonstrates man losing and finding God, and grapples with the problem of the existence of evil.

Ethel Wilson's 4 novels and 2 novelettes, published in less than 10 years, are among the best crafted and most subtly expressed of Canadian fictional works. Wilson's strong sense of place links her to realistic writers. Her style is marked by clarity, economy, deceptive simplicity, unobtrusive imagery and the acute observation of people. Her complex world view includes an awareness of life's ironies, of the interplay of chance and Providence. John Donne's "No man is an Island," the epigraph to her first novel, Hetty Dorval (1947), is central to Wilson's view of life. SWAMP ANGEL (1954), possibly Wilson's best novel, presents in Maggie Lloyd a convincing character who leaves an impossible marriage to forge a new life for herself.

Among the novelists of note whose careers in fiction began in the 1950s and continued through the 1980s is Robertson DAVIES, who first made his mark as a dramatist and journalist. The satire central to his Samuel Marchbanks essays characterizes his Salteron trilogy, Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954) and A Mixture of Frailties (1958), in which snobbishness, materialism and hypocrisy are satirized.

The Hero

The hero took on various guises through the 40 years of fiction writing following WWI. In accord with the shift in action from the external to the internal world, the strong, confident, at times patriarchal or even epic hero of some early novels of the period (eg, Abe Spalding of Grove's Fruits of the Earth) soon gave way to the more introspective, less confident protagonist (eg, Philip Bentley, the uncertain, guilt-ridden minister of Ross's As For Me and My House; David Canaan, the frustrated artist of Buckler's The Mountain and the Valley; and the intellectual George Stewart of MacLennan's The Watch that Ends the Night). The antihero who ruthlessly manipulates others makes an occasional appearance, as in Richler's Duddy Kravitz. Yet a further shift in the concept of the hero can be noted in Wilson's Maggie Lloyd. Self-reliant and courageous, but sensitive and loving, Maggie is the forerunner of the strong female characters created by the outstanding women writers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Some of the literary trends and techniques which began in the 1940s and 1950s came to fruition only in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of the writers continue to write some of the best-known and most highly regarded novels. Canadian novelists who began their careers in the 1960s and 1970s looked back to such writers as Ross, Grove and Wilson for examples of the possibilities for artistic response to their own particular place and time. Post-modernists have their forerunners in Watson, Smart and Lowry.


The Novel in English, 1959-1980s

The years following 1959 marked the flowering of the novel in Canada, for in these years, as writers began to explore more fully the formal possibilities of the genre, they at last won public recognition both inside and outside Canada. Canadian novels became Book of the Month Club selections in the US; major American and British magazines published Canadian fiction; the size of press runs often increased 10-fold; and translations abounded of novels by Leonard COHEN, Margaret ATWOOD, Robertson Davies and many others. At home, Canada also managed to generate commercially viable popular fiction. Much of this intensified activity was the result of the long campaign to create a literary community in Canada, a campaign that grew out of the economic and cultural nationalism of the period. Government support of the arts (seeCANADA COUNCIL) played major roles in the financial and psychological development of a cultural climate that made Canadian literature blossom. New SMALL PRESSES proliferated, often established to champion experimental or noncommercial novels that would otherwise perhaps be unpublishable.

Changes in Fiction

Since the novel form is usually closely tied to the social background of its time and place of production, the changes occurring during the 25 years after 1960 in Canada played their part in the changes appearing in the fiction of the period. The 1960s were years of relative plenty that seemed to free young people from worry about immediate need and allowed them to turn their attention to broader social concerns. These were the years of confrontational politics and of the challenging of accepted norms. The retrenchment in later years of conservative middle-class values in the face of economic recession was likely a predictable response to the antiestablishment, iconoclastic counterculture of the 1960s.

Oppression by Bourgeois Values

Many of the writers of the 1970s and the 1980s, however, were "formed," intellectually and ideologically, by those earlier years. Many, such as Atwood, Timothy FINDLEY and Rudy WIEBE, saw their role as that of a conscience or even a voice for the oppressed. In 1981 Canadian writers actively participated in Amnesty International's "Writer and Human Rights" Congress in Toronto. But the oppressed to whom novelists gave a voice were not necessarily victims of external political tyranny; they often suffered more local oppression, by what could be called bourgeois values. For many Canadian novelists, such as John METCALF (General Ludd, 1980) and Michael Charters, metaphors of madness acted as the focus for attacks on the social and psychological labels which serve to control misfits who transgress the often unacknowledged norms of middle-class behaviour.

These themes were not, of course, unique to Canadian writers. Novels from Canada shared with those of other Western nations a concern for those staples of the novelistic tradition, social analysis and psychological investigation, along with a new emphasis on the role and status of women. Bildungsroman (stories of growing up) continued to be written, by novelists such as Clark BLAISE (Lunar Attractions, 1979), Keith Maillard, Alice MUNRO (Lives of Girls and Women, 1971) and Alden NOWLAN (Various Persons Named Kevin O'Brien, 1973) among others. Canadian fiction increasingly showed signs of breaking away from the conventions of realism. Reflexivity (the concern within a work to speak of the creative process itself) became prominent. This may have been a result of the increasing desire of writers - many of them academics - to deal openly with the technical aspects of their art; or it may have arisen from an increasing engagement with structuralism in linguistics, anthropology and theories of communication, including those of Harold INNIS and Marshall MCLUHAN.

While taking part in the international literary trends, the Canadian novel also revealed a continuity with its own past, with its regional roots and its tradition of treating minority groups as more than just local colour - obvious reflections of the geographic and ethnic diversity of the country. Writers who had established their reputations earlier continued to publish (eg, Hugh MacLennan, Voices in Time, 1980; Morley Callaghan, A Time for Judas, 1983). However, most important during these years was the emergence of a number of significant new voices. This phenomenon was remarkable in both its quantity and quality.

Regional Writing in Canada

Regional writing in Canada had never been provincial, although it had tended to balance the natural novelistic attraction toward the exotic. After 1959 many Canadian writers - among them Margaret LAURENCE, David Knight, Audrey THOMAS and David GODFREY - used as settings Africa and Europe, but they did so either as analogues that enabled them to comment implicitly upon their own culture, or as the source of new perspectives that allowed them to see Canada more clearly. Writers who anchored their works in a specifically Canadian geography followed the tradition, established and continued by Prairie writers, of making the landscape both real and symbolic, both local and universal. Canadian fiction in general was spatially oriented around 2 opposing topoi: the city and the country. Urban novels by Juan Butler (Cabbagetown Diary, 1970), John Buell (The Pyx, 1959), Hugh Garner and others were frequently both realistic accounts of the corroding violence and alienation of the modern city and symbolic representations of the infernal "Unreal City" of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." At the other extreme were the idyllic or nostalgic descriptions of small towns and their rural environs. More often, however, these small communities became symbolic microcosms, this time of a limited and limiting society: Alice Munro's Jubilee, Robertson DAVIES's Deptford, Matt COHEN's Salem, Margaret Laurence's Manawaka, David Adams Richard's Miramichi Valley. The land - often in the form of the family farm - continued to be regarded ambivalently, as both man's essential roots and his major burden. Frequently the land was connected more to a temporal than to a spatial dimension: it was here that characters either searched for their collective or individual past or rejected its haunting authority. The Canadian wilderness also became the subject, as well as the setting, of fiction in modes ranging from the metaphoric to the ecological.

The Immigrant

There was a similar double interpretive pull (toward the symbolic and toward the documentary) in the portrayal of minority groups in Canadian fiction. During these years, there was a greater interest in Indigenous literature, particularly in memoirs and collections of myths and folktales. Middle-class white Canadian novelists such as W.O. Mitchell, Rudy Wiebe, Wayland Drew and James HOUSTON evinced an increased respect for native culture and a desire to learn from it.

Many immigrant groups became the foci of attention of Canadian novelists: Jewish (Adele Wiseman, Jack Ludwig, Mordecai Richler), Japanese (Joy KOGAWA), Mennonite (Rudy Wiebe), West Indian (Austin CLARKE, Harold Sonny Ladoo), and so on. These novels often consisted of commentaries on social problems experienced by immigrants to Canada, frequently mixed with suggestions that the newcomers could also be seen as symbolic of the alien and the separate in each individual.

Ideology of Feminism

Both of these interpretations were also to be found in the gay literature of Jane RULE (The Young in One Another's Arms, 1977) and Scott Symons. Leonard Cohen's BEAUTIFUL LOSERS (1966) was perhaps the archetype of the challenge to sexual mores (and literary forms) of the 1960s, and with that challenge came the questioning of sexual roles in general. Although men such as Ian McLachlan and David HELWIG also wrote of these issues, feminism as an ideology tended to be the domain of female writers. Canadian writing by women about women partook of the general radicalization of the time, of the desire to right the balance, as feminist literature everywhere was attempting to do. In English Canada there was little of the more abstract Québecois interest in defining a new female discourse. Instead, an awareness of feminist issues became part of the overt themes of fiction whose aim ranged from objective documentation of the condition of women to virulent attack on the causes of repression. While remaining engaged or committed, the feminist novels of writers like Constance BERESFORD-HOWE (The Book of Eve, 1973), Marian ENGEL (Bear, 1976), Carol SHIELDS (Small Ceremonies, 1976), Aritha VAN HERK (Judith, 1978) and Doris ANDERSON (Two Women, 1975) allowed for a variety of tones and styles, from the thoughtful and worried through to the angry and strident.

Given the didactic stance behind many of these novels, it is not surprising to find certain formal as well as thematic constants. In an attempt to redress the balance of characterization in a traditionally male literary form, feminist novelists tended either to idealize women characters or to present them as pure victims of masculine domination. Male characters, as a result, were often caricatured or else had their roles reduced to the skeletal ones usually reserved for women in novels that have men as heroes. The major themes of these novels centered on the experience of women, especially in relation to power structures (on all levels). There was an intense awareness of the relationship between bonding and bondage; ie, between a woman's need for connection with others and her equally strong need for freedom and independence, a theme that made feminist novels political in the broadest sense.

Power and Victimization

However, the concern with power and victimization was not restricted to this one context. Following the lead of Québec writers of the 1960s, English Canadian novelists too became more politicized. Some focused on specific events (the OCTOBER CRISIS of 1970) or situations (federalism versus separatism). Others - David Lewis Stein, Margaret Atwood and many more - investigated the tension between social or political structures and the individual psyche. Again the stylistic and tonal range was great - from the irony of Richard Wright to the bitter satire of Leo Simpson to the sometimes ponderous earnestness of Peter Such - as homo canadensis confronted the forces of corporate, consumer, industrial and technological society. Ian McLachlan and Timothy Findley included in this kind of investigation a study of the role of art in such a society and the ideological implications of its involvement or its alienation.


Many novels in Canada - those by Robert Harlow, Graeme GIBSON, Helen Weinzweig, Robert KROETSCH and Ray Smith - could be seen as part of the general literary movement that has been labelled "postmodernism," for they too exhibited an increased self-consciousness about the creative processes. This immanent concern for their reception and interpretation prevented them from being merely introverted and precious. Their self-representation in form became a means of investigating the politics of how and why we read, as well as a way of focusing on the literary materials themselves: language and narrative.

This increased interest in form may be due to the number of poets who turned to writing fiction during these years: Cohen, Atwood, George Bowering, bp Nichol, Gwendolyn MACEWEN and Michael ONDAATJE among others. Another possibility suggests itself in the role of the university in Canadian letters during these years: many of the novelists were either professors (eg, Graham Petrie, Anthony Brennan, Tom Marshall, Robert Kroetsch, etc) or writers-in-residence. Besides increasing formal awareness and experimentation, this institutionalization also produced many academic novels, ranging from satiric cuts at the intellectual community to rather boring romans à clef.

Postmodernist, reflexive fiction in Canada appeared to organize itself around 2 new formal traditions: the written chronicle and the oral tale. On the one hand, there was almost an obsession with the written product of history as something fixed and fixing. Munro, Ondaatje, Kroetsch, Findley and others frequently used photographic images to signal this thematic pole. On the other hand, they looked to metaphors of music, film and tape recording to express the opposite pole, that of the storytelling process. Often other oral traditions were called upon: African (David Godfrey, in The New Ancestors, 1970), Indigenous (Rudy Wiebe, in The Temptations of Big Bear, 1973), and Irish (Jack HODGINS, in The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, 1979). Perhaps these 2 poles reflected the legacy of Marshall McLuhan, for whom oral cultures were collective, simultaneous, auditory and oriented toward the present, while written cultures were individual, signed, linear, visual and under the control of the past. Yet even those novels positively stressing an oral tradition themselves only existed as written, individual, signed works. It was this consciousness of the oral-written tension that marked the peculiarly Canadian brand of literary postmodernism, which had as a byproduct a reawakening of interest in myth and fantasy.

Popular Fiction

Contemporaneous with these self-conscious experimental novels was a more generally accessible body of popular fiction. Publishers such as MCCLELLAND & STEWART retained their commitment to "serious" fiction, but the economic situation demanded as well that local mass-market sales (traditionally American) be somehow diverted to Canada. Just as Canadians came to realize that good comic novels and fine children's books were being produced right at home, they became aware too of the local popular fiction.

POPULAR LITERATURE is generally regarded as light entertainment and therefore as literature which confirms rather than challenges the reader's beliefs, usually by relying on more or less preformulated verbal and narrative structures. Often, following (or hoping to entice) television and movie scripts, popular novels provided information about a sector of contemporary society (such as drug dealing in William Deverell's novels). Frequently, this format was combined with the conventions of the thriller. Canadian novelists, however, also produced other forms of popular literature, from the detective story to historical fiction to soft-core pornographic melodrama, and the quality of the writing varied considerably. Forms of popular fiction were also incorporated into more serious postmodernist novels. This could be seen either as a cultural democratization of the high/low art split, or just as a source of parodic satire. Some novels used the gothic romance (Atwood's Lady Oracle, 1976) or the western (Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man, 1969), while others turned to comic books or Hollywood movies (Beautiful Losers).

Since 1959 Canada has been able not only to enjoy the consolidation of the renown of successful writers of earlier decades, but to continue with ease the process of forming an ever-growing literary canon. In the 1960s were firmly established the reputations of Margaret Laurence, Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler; in the 1970s those of Alice Munro, Rudy Wiebe, Robert Kroetsch, Jack Hodgins, Timothy Findley and Margaret Atwood. The fact that such a short list as this is embarrassingly insufficient is ample testimony to the variety, richness and high quality of recent Canadian fiction.

The 1990s saw growing recognition of established Canadian writers and the emergence of many new voices. Margaret ATWOOD's The Robber Bride (1993) received the Commonwealth Prize for the Canadian and Carribean Region, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient won both the Governor General's Award for fiction in 1992 and the prestigious Booker Prize, the first ever awarded to a Canadian, and Carol SHIELDS's The Stone Diaries won both a Governor General's Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Canada has a number of new voices which reflect the ethnic diversity of the country and which articulate the particularity of cultures struggling to maintain and understand their identity in Canada. Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here, Rohinton MISTRY's A Fine Balance, Daniel David Moses's The White Line (1990) and Neil Devindra BISSOONDATH's The Innocence of Age (1992) are 4 of many examples of this fruitful movement in Canadian literature. As Canadian literature enters the new millennium, it is becoming increasingly multifaceted and increasingly representative of the Canadian experience.


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