When Words Deny the World

by Steven Henighan
211 pages,
ISBN: 088984240X

Post Your Opinion
Global Pressures on Canlit
by Jason Brown

The gasping front page headlines the day after Thomas Mallon trashed Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin in the New York Times are a token of how habituated we've become to docility in the treatment of our major literary stars. According to Steven Henighan, the latest offerings of the most iconic Canadian authors are, more often than not, greeted with a gloves-on "cheerleading" approach in the major reviews. Readers of these reviews, long accustomed to this polite and careful-stepping criticism, may find When Words Deny the World a kind of salve for their numbness. Here Henighan articulately dismantles some of the most prominent Canadian novels of the last decade along with the institutions that support them. In one provocative argument after another he calls into question some of the high regard we have for novels like Fugitive Pieces ("poetic wanking in stagey, forced diction."), The Stone Diaries ("hasty, imprecise narrative tone, emotional evasions, glib generalizations and inability to do its characters justice within specific, carefully rendered cultural contexts"), Away ("recalls the prose pulp fiction of Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear rather than anything challenging."), and A Good House ("The book is a mushy, odious lie.").
All this serves to strengthen the central argument of Words, that what succeeds as Canadian literature has become increasingly dull and uniform as a direct result of globalization. According to Henighan, the development of a Canadian national literature, roaring along healthily with powerhouses like Mordecai Richler, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Laurence and others, until the mid eighties, was curtailed all at once by Free Trade and its attendant globalist ideology. Suddenly our novels were no longer judged, by our own critics, for their literary innovation or for the accuracy with which they portrayed the experience of the culture they professed to represent. Now, novels are instead judged and rewarded according to the perceived degree of their marketability elsewhere. Henighan, working obsessively with the effect of globalization on Canadian literature, proceeds from Anthony Burgess's dictum that, ultimately, a country is remembered for the literature it produces. He finds, "No one can remember the Canada of the 1990's."
To understand how this works, take what is perhaps his most interesting case study: Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces. The huge success that novel enjoyed, both in Canada and abroad, Henighan argues, is not owing to the quality of its narrative, which he finds "superficially profound," but rather to the fact that it, simultaneously, adopts an internationally recognizable "large" topic¨the Holocaust¨and also aids a Canadian upper-middle-class, newly fatted by free-trade, by helping them ignore the reality around them. "[U]pper-middle-class Toronto readers enthuse over metaphorical depictions of Toronto's geology to sustain their denial of the people sleeping in cardboard boxes at downtown bus stops." In Fugitive Pieces as in many of the other novels he discusses Henighan makes the case that Canada is sold to the world as something we believe the world will find palatable and then perversely sold back to Canadians as the same. In this sequence of production and exchange contemporary Canadian reality, ugly or otherwise, is erased from record.
Henighan is the author of two novels and two collections of short stories, none of which have achieved anything like the success of the novels that he addresses in When Words Deny the World. It is no surprise then that Words has already garnered at least one printed accusation of sour grapes¨by Russell Smith in the Globe & Mail. A charge it's hard to believe Henighan wouldn't have anticipated given that, in a number of small autobiographical pieces that punctuate this collection, he makes no effort to hide the fact that the problems he describes in Canadian publishing and criticism have directly impacted on his own success. These brief, sometimes humourous, vignettes do tend towards an occasional "I would have been famous by now" flavour. And on one or two occasions it's easy to imagine Henighan, hunched over his keyboard late at night, rubbing his hands together wrathfully as he attends to memories of perceived mistreatment. In any case, to dismiss Words for these reasons would be irresponsible. Whether or not you agree with Henighan's summations, they are too well thought out, too interesting, to simply shrug off as the product of "sour grapes," even if that is the fuel feeding this fire.
A more serious criticism could be aimed at his prescription for more Canadian novels that accurately represent our lived reality. From the idea that a nation is remembered for its literature it does not necessarily follow that that literature must be a realistic mirror of its time and place. We may, for instance, arrive at some understanding of Elizabethan England through a careful reading of Anthony and Cleopatra, or of The Roman Republic through the Aeneid, despite the fact that they are far from literal representations of the cultures in which they were produced. In the same way, who's to say that the White Bone or The English Patient aren't subtly permeated with a modern Canadian reality that will be just as apparent to future readers? It seems a very difficult and fraught road to attempt to tweak our literature with a mind to posterity.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the course of Canadian literature, Henighan's unusual mix of literary and political criticism is too eloquent and captivating to be ignored. At worst it's good, catty fun. At best, it's a kind of wake-up call, possibly a bright beginning of real literary debate in this country. ˛

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