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Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada

by Ed. W. H. New
1347 pages,
ISBN: 0802007619


Post Your Opinion
The New (Revisionist) CanLit Encyclopedia
by W. J. Keith

How can one review, both promptly and adequately, a double-columned book of well over 1300 pages? Obviously, one can't. All I can do under the circumstances is to institute a series of spot-checks concentrating for the most part on my own special interests and/or obsessions and then report on my findings. (This explains why, though the book is equally comprehensive on francophone writing, I have generally confined my attention to literature in English.)
What are the main requirements of a good encyclopedia? Personally, I would plump first for accuracy, then for absence of any bias except in the interests of literary achievement and quality. Given these criteria, how does this book measure up?
In terms of accuracy, it got off to a bad start so far as I was concerned. After some preliminary dipping, I was egocentric enough to check my own entry, and discovered that Echoes in Silence, my first volume of verse, "includes a series on other Canadian writers." This isn't true, though there are three poems about poet-friends in my second collection, In the Beginning, which is not mentioned. I read on, with suspicions aroused.
In a book of this size and scope, a number of slips are, I suppose, inevitable, but the errors and inaccuracies here are too numerous for comfort. A few examples: the section on "Mounties" describes Rudy Wiebe's 415-page novel The Temptations of Big Bear as a "short story"; the plot-summary of Robertson Davies's World of Wonders confuses the French magician Robert-Houdin with the American Houdini; Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush was not "adapted to dramatic form" by Davies (the reference is presumably to At My Heart's Core where Moodie appears as a leading character¨a very different matter); to gloss John Metcalf's Girl in Gingham as "retitled Private Parts" suggests that these are identical texts when in fact they are separate novella-length narratives; to describe Fred Bodsworth's The Strange One as "about a barnacle goose" is grotesquely inadequate; Louis St Laurent is named in the Chronology as prime minister through most of the Second World War. This list could readily be extended. When one is seeking information rather than checking it, awareness of such errors is, to say the least, disturbing.
Since this is an encyclopedia of literature, I expect a concentration on literary values. Writers included should have produced significant bodies of work distinguished by appropriate linguistic skills, and the entries on them should provide an adequate account of the nature and scope of their oeuvres together with some indication of predominant style and tone. Here again this encyclopedia too often falls short. For example, despite three whole pages assigned to Davies, the Deptford trilogy is the only segment of his fiction treated in any detail; the Salterton and Cornish trilogies are virtually ignored, and his last two novels are never even mentioned. And this is no isolated instance. W. O. Mitchell is discussed without any reference to either The Kite or The Vanishing Point. The entry on Austin Clarke refers to "his Toronto trilogy" but never discusses it or even names the books that compose it. Yet this is precisely the kind of information for which one turns to encyclopedias.
Here writers tend to be praised (or censured) not so much for their literary ability as for their politically correct (or incorrect) attitudes to such matters as race, gender, and imperialism. A reader unacquainted with Canadian literature would get the impression that most of our writers have been racist, sexist, and reactionary, and that the chief function of literary criticism is to expose malpractice. To take one of the more absurd examples. F. R. Scott's witty and humorous poem "The Canadian Authors Meet" is solemnly described as attacking "social vices" (vices?), whereupon a humourless critic is quoted as condemning it for alleged sexism. (Comedy, it should be noted, can hardly exist in such a chilling atmosphere.)
Success is also measured by the capacity of writers to win prizes¨as if the lists in the "Awards and Literary Prizes" section don't cast serious doubt on the reliability of such decisions. In general, one looks in vain for any informed and sensitive discussions of literary quality. Too often, indeed, annotation is confined to subject and theme. Thus Margaret Laurence's African short-story collection The Tomorrow-Tamer is characterized along with her first novel This Side Jordan as exploring "the tensions visited upon traditional cultures by the dynamics of imperialism and colonialism"; no mention is made of the delicacy and inventiveness of her literary art. Moreover, when her Manawaka series is discussed in detail, its most compelling feature, Laurence's remarkable capacity to catch the voices of different characters from different generations, is wholly ignored. All that is offered on Isobel Huggins's best-known collection is: "The Elizabeth Stories (1984) deals with women growing up and being influenced by, but not relating to, their parents." Hardly an invitation to further exploration if you're not a social worker. Similarly, no one who has read Alice Munro's "Meneseteung" will find the description offered here¨"Munro comments on the forgotten women poets within the Canadian literary tradition"¨either accurate or enlightening; and, more seriously, no one unfamiliar with the story will receive a clue to its effective originality.
In addition to author entries, the encyclopedia includes numerous more general articles on supposedly relevant issues. These account, on the level of factual information, for some of the most valuable sections in the book. They include the already mentioned "Awards and Literary Prizes" but also "Archives, Manuscripts, and Special Collections", "Book Design and Illustration", "Libraries", "Reference Guides to Canadian Writing", and even "Technology, Communications, and Canadian Literature". Well organized, clearly presented, and so far as I can judge comprehensive, these compilations achieve their purpose admirably. Others, however, are oppressively ideological: "Gender and Gender Relations", "Class and Canadian Literature", "Women's Studies", "Race and Racism in Canadian Literature" (four-and-a-half pages of it). Emerging from a reading of these, I felt uncomfortably as if I had been interrogated by the Red Guard. Others, again, are downright bizarre: "Cookbooks and Culture", "Cowboy Poetry", "Finland" (beginning "Finland figures rarely in Canadian writing," though there is no entry for Iceland, despite the existence of Daisy L. Neijmann's full-length critical study, The Icelandic Voice in Canadian Literature, published in 1997). And who would think of looking for an entry on "Voting Rights" in a literary encyclopedia?
Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of this encyclopedia, however, is its determination to counter "Eurocentric" traditions by emphasizing minorities and the allegedly marginalized¨whether women, writers "of colour," working-class writers, homosexuals, etc. That many of these groups were under-represented in past compilations is beyond question, and one welcomes such innovations as the series of articles on the language and oral literature not only of native people but of individual native tribes. Nevertheless, righting a balance should not become over-compensating, and the plain fact is that here, so far as living (and especially younger) writers are concerned, one seems far more likely to gain admission if one belongs to what is considered a minority group. I note, for example, the entries on Greg Young-Ing, apparently included on the basis of a single collection of poems, and Nancy Ng, who is credited with two poems and a prose-piece (presumably in magazines, but no details are given so they cannot be looked up) and is "working on a book of linked short stories." These may be writers of distinction, but in view of their modest output and the lack of evidence of quality, it is difficult to muffle the suspicion that they would not have earned their places if they possessed less favoured ancestries.
Inclusions and exclusions, of course, always tend to be controversial¨especially when writers still developing their mature powers are involved. I applaud the encouraging entries on such young but promising figures as Caroline Adderson, Stephanie Bolster, and Norman Ravvin, yet cannot help noting the omission of Jeffery Donaldson and¨inexplicably, given the quality of their work¨the older John Terpstra, Norm Sibum, and Eric Ormsby. Can their traditional Old-World affiliations (whether of subject-matter or allusion) be a liability? Have decisions been made on other grounds than demonstrated literary achievement?
A section on "Gay and Lesbian Writing" appears to be obligatory these days, yet it raises similar though more complex issues. Homosexual writers of eminence, such as Timothy Findley and Michel Tremblay, here enjoy double exposure, as it were, while others whose achievements do not earn them individual entries in their own right are included apparently on the basis of their sexual orientation¨a highly dubious procedure. Besides, this separate treatment has the unfortunate though clearly unintentional effect of ghettoizing such writing. Surely the proper and unbiased course, fair to all concerned, would be to treat these writers like all the rest, recognizing those who write with distinction under their own entries and omitting the others?
The chief rival to this encyclopedia is, of course, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1983, enlarged second edition 1997, further revised concise edition 2001), and it may be helpful, in conclusion, to offer some comparisons. The Encyclopedia has the advantage of being more up-to-date, but the Companion, by virtue of being earlier in the field, contains a notably higher percentage of acknowledged experts among its contributors (e.g., D. O. Spettigue on Frederick Philip Grove, Zailig Pollock on A. M. Klein, Joyce Marshall on Gabrielle Roy, and Judith Skelton Grant on Robertson Davies.). The Encyclopedia gives shorter shrift to lesser writers from early Canada, but includes a larger representation from the up-and-coming literary generation. By the same token, the Companion, because it requires more substantial achievements to justify inclusion, can generally offer greater space and detail when covering major figures. Again, the Companion offers separate accounts of a considerable number of major works (Sunshine Sketches, Who Has Seen the Wind, The Stone Angel, Kamouraska, etc.), while the Encyclopedia confines itself to spotlighting three cultural icons: Anne of Green Gables, "In Flanders Fields", and Roughing It in the Bush. Hardly the texts on which one would want Canadian literature to be judged.
Ultimately, however, the basic difference between the two lies in their varying attitudes to literature. The Encyclopedia, to be sure, prepares students for the approaches (and biases) of the current academic establishment; it fits more readily into the world of "information science" than into the old-fashioned concept of a library. But the Companion, I am convinced, is more welcoming to those who genuinely love books and read them for both instruction and pleasure.
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