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Writer's writers
by Alice Munro

Alice Munro sets the standard among her peers as Canadian literature progresses from regional yarn-spinning to internatlonal acclaim.

What are you reading this winter? And what are your thoughts on the current state of Canadian literature? Books in Canada put these questions to 25 notable literary personalities in the first stage of a two-part survey (for the second stage, see the accompanying box), and received some interesting replies. Almost everybody is reading The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro; Alice Munro is reading The Elizabeth Stories, by Isabel Huggan (Oberon, 1984). Our writers generally think that government support for their work has been and continues to be good, but that it now is seriously threatened by the decision to impose a tariff on imported books.
Many of those interviewed mentioned that they are delighted with the international recognition a few of them are receiving - Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, for example, whose latest books were included on the New York Tunes best of-the-year list, and Atwood and Robertson Davies, who were both on the short list for last year's Booker Prize in Britain though a trace of bitterness crept in with Davies's comment that Fifth Business sold more copies in Swedes than in Canada.
How do our writers view their prospects for 1987? Their choice of reading and capsule comments appear below:
Margaret Atwood: Periodic Table, by Primo Levi; The Progress of Loge, by Alice Munro; The Telling of Lies, by Timothy Findley; Telling Tales, by John Fraser; A Single Death, by Eric Wright. ("I always read Alice Munro and Timothy Findley.")
On the state of CanLit: The literature is flourishing, but the economic environment is in danger. If the ecosystem in which then little microbes are breeding is damaged, then you will see a great decline that will affect book stores, magazines, and publishers.
Comment: Are the government's recent intentions merely stupidity or some sort of scorched-earth policy? That is, wipe out Canadian culture first, and then there won't be anyone left to protest When sell-Canada-down-the-river free trade deals are announced. Don't they realize that if everything becomes homogeneous we will cease to see the necessity of paying for a government that has rendered itself superfluous?

Sandra Birdsell: The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro.
On CanLit: There are some very fine writers here, and that's proven by the increasing number of world-class writers. Writers are moving away from regional fiction, although I must admit it's still the kind of fiction I prefer to read.
Comment: The kinds of grants available are great, but we need more of them and larger ones. Writers can't afford to take a year off to write and expect to live on $14,000. I wish there was a way of distributing writers' work. It's really difficult for small publishers to get extensive distribution.

Nell Bissoondath: Tire Telling of Lies, by Timothy Findley. ("I find his fiction completely unpredictable. Nothing stops him - time, country - which is something I am aiming for in my own diction.")
On CanLit: There is a growing appreciation of Canadian fiction beyond the borders of this country. Canadian writers are just beginning to look beyond their borders, and are bringing new international influences into their work.
Comment: I wish the Canadian writing community had more political clout and had been more upset at the government's tariff on imported English-language books. While there has been some protest, there hasn't been enough. One has the impression that writers have almost accepted the tariff.

George Bowering: Timothy Findley, Robert Kroetsch, Brian Fawcett, by Nichol. ("I am mainly interested in writing as writing: writers who are trying to discover what you can do with fiction, who are examining language and the structures of fiction. I am interested in writers who are trying to figure out how fiction writing works in the '80s rather than those who figured out how it worked in the '60s and are still writing that way. I am not interested in Writing that is concerned with revealing the Canadian soul or that handles materials thematically.")
On CanLit: I used to despair of Canadian fiction, thinking that we were going to be the last country in the world to move into postmodern fiction. But it is looking much better now. There's a canon of writers coalescing that I call The Double Nook canon - writers who are evolving out of the concerns of Sheila Watson's novel, which I believe to be the most important book we've had in Canada. At an Edmonton reading, Sheila Watson said she was interested in writing a book that took place in a specific place but wasn't regional; a book that could be Canadian without trumpeting its Canadianism; a book that would teach the reader how to read a book. I'm a snob, an elitist. I would like to see a greater concentration on the celebration of the artists among our writers, rather than those who tell stories about how Canadians live.

Barry Callaghan: The selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai; Evening Games: Chronicles of Parents and Children, edited by Alberto Alanguel; Alchemy: Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art, by Johannes Fabricius; The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, edited by Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver; Sur le motif, by Robert Marteau; The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Life Is Elsewhere, by Milan Kundera.
On CanLit: One of the books I'm reading is the Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English - that is, stories from English Canada only. It's an interesting book, but I find it incredible that this is still going on... this pretence, particularly by writers of strong national commitment, that there are two literatures in Canada, independent of each other. The Oxford book, like all such anthologies, is a half-truth, and there are - what with Mulroney and his ilk - too many half-truths in the country. As a matter of fact, reading the book-review pages in the newspapers - an exercise in tedium itself - you'd swear Quebec writers had fallen off the edge of our flat earth.

Robertson Davies: Much, Depends On Dinner, by Margaret Visser. ("It's brilliant, and deserves a wide public.")
On CanLit: There has been a fascinating and extraordinary growth in the quantity and quality of books published in Canada over the last 25 years. The literature has taken an extraordinary leap in the past live years.
Comment: I'm surprised by the places where Canadian literature is of interest, such as South America and the North of Europe, where my own books are particularly well received. Fifth Business has sold twice as many copies in Sweden as it has in Canada.

Louis Dudeir: The Motor Boys in Ottawa, by Hugh Hood ("important, very important and significant");

Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies, by Mark Abley ("it's so well written"); The Bumper Book, edited by John Metcalf ("could well be, if it isn't already, a turning point in our literature").
On CanLit: Our poets are talking prose rather than singing poetry. For example, Full Moon, edited by Janice LaDuke and Steve Luxton, an anthology of women poets across the country. It's really comprehensive, but it's not good poetry. It's got a kind of soap-opera mentality, it's too personal. This is only an example. I'm not saying only women suffer from this syndrome. The men do, too. Oh, the men do, too.

Timothy Findley: the Progress of Love, by Alice Munro. ("I read everything she writes. Her stories turn on events that not many other writers could deal with.")
On CanLit: From my reading of the present situation, we're in a healthy state. The strength lies in the mere fact of how much is being written and how much of that is good. We have become willing, over time, to become ourselves - free of other models - and do not stand fearfully in the shadow of what is being written beyond this country. I admire the integrity of writers here. In comparison, look at America, where the writers are in great danger of becoming the playthings of the public, rather than proceeding wholeheartedly in the body of their work. Think of Capote, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, and you see the loss of three stunning talents who got drawn off in the wrong direction.
Comment: With the idiotic ideas of our present government to everything creative in education and the arts, everything is imperiled. You never know where they will come at you next. They are literally opposed, in terms of policy, to culture. Ali their policies are based on sacrificing our integrity in order to maintain a safe relationship with the United States.

David Helwig: Collected Poems 1956-1986, by Al Purdy. ("I admire what Dennis Lee, in the afterword, calls Purdy's 'visionary excitement' and the poems' classic shapeliness.")
On CanLit: There has been a stable and steady growth in Canadian literature since the '50s. It's really noticeable when you look at the numbers of writers with fully developed careers - writers like Findley, Purdy, Munro, Atwood. I'm not quite sure of the state of the Canadian reading public, whether Canadian writers are finding as big an audience as one would like them to have. I'd like to see an increased public awareness of the excitement of what's going on in Canadian literature.

Jack Hodgins: The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro ("one of the world's beast short-story writers"); Dvorak in Love, by Josef Skvorecky; Nadine, by Matt Cohen.
Comment: If the government's 12-per-cent business transfer tax raises the price of a hardcover book from $20 to $30, it is a serious threat to the book trade. And this is happening at the same time that Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood have appeared on the New York Times list of best books of 1986 and Robertson Davies and Atwood both were on the short list for the Booker Prize. Just when the rest of the world discovers us, we're threatened on the home front.

Hugh Hood: Adult Entertainment, by John Metcalf, Century, by Ray Smith. ('Both are very polished, sophisticated, intelligent writers with a wide knowledge of the world, and both stretch the fiction form ingeniously.")
Comment: We need to know who the readers are. There has never been an exhaustive study of who buys books. We have not done enough to tap potential book buyers.

Janette Turner Hospital: Paris Notebooks, by Mavis Gallant. ("She is my favourite writer, because she has such an incisive intelligence and biting wit.")
On CanLit: I appreciate being part of a community of writers that is so cordial, so lively. Canadian writing is going in as many directions as there are writers, and I think that is a very good sign.
Constance Beresford Howe: Adult Entertainment, by John Metcalf. ("An enormously entertaining and inventive book. There are so many hilarious truths in it.")

Irving Layton: Milton Acorn, John Newlove, Alden Nowlan, Leonard Cohen, Al Purdy, Ralph Gustafson, Bruce Hunter. Antonio D'Alfonso, Bernice Lever ("who wrote a wonderful volume of poetry and really deserves recognition for it")' Sex Magic by Ian Young (a book of gay poetry that is "wonderful, accomplished, and sensitive").
On CanLit: in Canada we've got a lot of poets, and this is a good sign. But it seems there is no vitality to match the spirit of the 1930s and '40s. The writers today are too self-centered. They lack social conscience. They should get out of themselves, get beyond their navels. The fiction is more impressive, more solid. The novelist has to set out of himself, can't be narcissistic. Objectivism is inherent in the form, perhaps because the writer has to delineate characters, and Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood are two of its best practitioners.

Norman Levin: The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, edited by Margaret Atwood and Robert Weaver; The Uncollected Stories of Thomas Raddall. ("I like writers who write economically, clarify things, and whose work contains an element of surprise.")
On CanLit: I left Canada in 1949, and it's a hell of a lot better now than it was then. But in a worldly sense there are only a dozen writers here - the rest are just filling the lower echelons. A lot of the people writing here are local writers, who just serve a purpose in Nova Scotia or B.C. We need them, but they really just take the place of the local weekly paper. A writer is someone who takes something from life and gives something back to life, not just to Canada but to the world.
Comment: CBC Radio is not doing what it once did for writers. We need mom than just publicity about new books coming out we also need a platform. In Britain, in the course of a day the BBC will broadcast three or four short stories. It would also be nice if Maclean's devoted more space to fiction and Saturday Night published more short stories.

Dorothy Livesay: Too many good poets aren't distributed properly and are not reviewed cross-country. Every city seems to have its own clique, but that's as far as it goes. In general, the prose is better than the poetry - the novelists are more interesting than the poets. Our women short-story writers are awfully interesting, as are the women poets from the Prairies, who are way ahead of everyone else.

John Metcalf: The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro ("she just keeps getting better"); Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Kola. by Paulette Jiles; Days and Nights in Calcutta, by Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee; Foreign Affairs, by Keath Fraser; Swamp Angel, by Ethel Wilson ("one of the most important Canadian writers in history").
On CanLit: Our story writers are getting better and better and more sophisticated, but our novelists are staying where they were, are. We haven't produced a major novelist, certainly no one to compare with Ford Madox Ford.

Alice Munro: The Elizabeth Stories, by Isabel Huggan. ("I just happened to pick it up, and like it very much.")
On CanLit: I never think about things like that, and consider it a waste of time for a writer to do so.

Michael Ondaatje: Candy from Strangers, by Diana Hartog. ("One of the best books of poetry that I have read in a long time.")
On CanLit: There is a great danger of creeping conservatism among writers and in their preoccupation with joining the ranks of superstar writers. The real writing energy is still with the small presses, with those writers outside the main traditions of popularity.

Heather Robertson: Camp X, by David Stafford. ("I really enjoy books on 20th-century Canadian history, in particular biographies and autobiographies, because they stress the personal aspect of history.")
On CanLit: If I compare it to when I started writing 20 years ago, it is as different as day to night. Then, there were only a few publishers, and the documentary form of book, which is standard now, was almost unknown. There are tremendous opportunities open now to writers. The book scene is certainly healthier than the magazine scene. Journalists are turning to books because they are able to publish things that there is no market for in magazines --- which have become intensely commercialized and profit-oriented. Books really offer journalists the last freedom. It's possible to publish books that are not going to be best-severs, or even make money, yet they have important things to say.
Comment: I would like to see more effort put into developing the commercial market for Canadian books. We need the support of libraries, booksellers. We need more advertising to make the Canadian public aware that Canadian books are there, and that they are good.

Audrey Thomas: The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro; Second Nature, by Libby Scheier.
On CanLit: I think Canadians can relax about their literature. They really don't need to be so tense. I've just spent a year in Europe Scotland and Scandinavia - talking about Canadian literature, and during that I realized how enthusiastic I actually am. We still have this thing about the Europeans being better, but it's time we gave up thinking that way. This is such a diverse country, and it has held on to its regionalism with very good results. There's a lot of energy in Canadian writing, some of it from people who have come as immigrants, like myself and Josef Skvorecky and Michael Ondaatje, who is possibly our best writer. There's space for a writer here. Canadian writers aren't competitive in a bad way.
Comment: Just this week I heard Alice Munro's book being discussed on CDC Radio's Morningside. I was quite upset to hear Aritha vats Herk and Alberto Manguel and Constance Rooke going on about how Alice Munro wasn't doing anything new, how we don't learn anything about Alice Munro that we didn't already know, that of course her stories were brilliant, but . . . . I thought that was typically Canadian: if it's a success there's got to be something wrong with it. In fact, Munro is playing with time and perception in those stories in ways she's never done before.

Miriam Waddington. The Regenerators by Ramsay Cook; Studies in Literature and the Humanities, by George Whalley ("There are several landmark essays in there.")
On CanLit: The state of our literature is good; the state of our criticism is dreadful. There isn't enough real criticism. It's hard to pick up on really good writers because you can't rely on the people writing reviews. Academic criticism is still dominated by Northrop Rye's students and their mythopoeic approach, which I believe limits the development of Canadian criticism. Every writer should be judged according to universal standards first, and if they are good they will naturally have something Canadian to say to us.
Comment: CBC Radio could do a much better job promoting Canadian writers. They are always showing us the same old gang. State of the Arts has really been an unrepresentative program in its presentation of the arts.

Fred Wah: The Marlyrology, by bp Nicol; Lovhers, by Nicole Brossard: The Abbotsford Guide to India, by Frank Davey; Excerpts from the Real World, by Robert Kroctsch; Sitting In the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Kola, by Paulette Jiles; Instar and Doctrine of Signatures, by Anne Szumigalski ("they're important"); A Linen Crow, a Cajun Magpie, by Partick Lane ("not his usual modern Canadian lyric"); anything by Phyllis Webb.
On CanLit: The poetry scene has picked up in the last few years. There has been more formal exploration. The long poem, as a form, has reached its peak, and now poets such as Kroetsch and Webb seem to be working within the idea of a book-length poem.

George Woodcock: Sara Jeannette Duncan ("with predictable delight"), Goldwin Smith. ("with unanticipated pleasure"), Matt Cohen, Timothy Findley, Al Purdy, Dale Zieroth, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco.
On CanLit: I think after three decades of amazing activity in Canadian writing we've hit something of a plateau. We have, which we didn't have 20 years ago, an extraordinary variety of writing, and many writers who are concerned with literary aesthetics rather than literary nationalism - with form rather than theme - which is all to the good. But lately - for the past seven or eight years - I've seen fewer young writers coming along who show real originality. It looks as if the national muse is taking a rest.
Comment: The main problems of writers are still earning enough money to keep them writing and getting their books properly distributed. A few of us, usually after many years of work, earn enough to live moderately well. The rest have to fall back on their talents for frugality. What is especially needed is not money for big fellowships and bursaries but a fund that would provide smaller sums to help writers who have proved themselves but who are nowhere near best-sellers over tight spots. Of course, the best thing for writers, as for other artists, would be the guaranteed minimum income. They could make better use of it than anyone. It would especially help the kind of serious writer who does not aim to be popular.
Distribution is a great problem, as booksellers become more and more locked in to the small group of leading commercial publishers. There are plenty of good small presses, but some way has to be found to sell their books more widely so that the authors they publish can earn a little more. The Canada Council could do worse than to subsidize bookshops in every town that undertake to carry a complete range of Canadian books.

Erie Wright: Mordecai Richler. ("He has always been my favourite Canadian writer He has such a deep sense of outrage.")
On CanLit: What surprises me is that there are so few young writers here that are demanding to be read. My students are not telling me, "You ought to read this" the way I told people, "You must read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" when it came out. Overall, Canada is a great country for what publishers call the mid-list writer, and fundamentally a very hospitable place for writers.
Comment: Canada is one of the easiest countries in the world in which to be a young writer. It's hard to open a book without seeing that it was written with the assistance of a Canada Council grant. We must be the envy of the world.

With research by Marc Cote, Doris Cowan, and Sherle Posesorski.

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