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Douglas Fetherling - Edging out on a limb
by Douglas Fetherling

Being too close to the subject, we don't often look at how the reputation of Canadian literature is growing in other countries, or at how individual Canadian authors and academics are turning up with increased regularity in American and British publishers' lists. Is there free trade in Canadian literature? I don't know. If so, what are the effects? Instinct tells me they are bad but this is probably prejudice. Similarly, I find it hard to decide to what extent this trend is related to a new cosmopolitanism on the part of Canadian writing and to what extent to a lowering of other countries' cultural tariffs, so to speak. I'm just a note-taker. So here are some of the notes I've been keeping on the specifics of this subject as books, catalogues, and reviews have whizzed by.

One easy conclusion to arrive at is that the rush of Margaret Atwood criticism continues without pause on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as on both sides of the Canadian-U.S. border. One of the most recent studies by a Canadian is Margaret Atwood's Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry by Shannon Hengen, published (at $14.95 in paper) by Second Story Press, the lively, ambitious, and too little noticed feminist imprint that began as a splinter group from Women's Press. Then from Anansi, after some delay, came Various Atwoods: Essays on the Later Poems, Short Fiction, and Novels ($24.95 paper), edited by Lorraine M. York, who has surely become one of the most important names in Canadian critical theory.

But it's in the United States (where, after all, there is a newsletter devoted to the subject) that the Atwood industry (she has even started her own home page on the Net) has been busiest. One more evidence of this has been Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood by J. Brooks Bouson (University of Massachusetts Press, US$27.50 cloth). Yet another is Margaret Atwood's Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics by Sharon Rose Wilson. The book originates at the University of Mississippi Press but ECW has produced a separate Canadian edition ($45 cloth). This title actually bids fair to be the most interesting of the lot, taking off as it does partly from Atwood's watercolours. Her adventures in the visual arts, it has always seemed to me, reduce and restate in the baldest possible terms the themes of her fiction, just as the fiction does with those of her poetry.

Also, McClelland & Stewart have produced an edition ($22.99 paper) of a British MacMillan title, Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity, edited by Colin Nicholson, the Canadianist (this always sounds to me like a medical specialty) at the University of Edinburgh who edits the British Journal of Canadian Studies. But sometimes new information can occur in the most unlikely places. For example, The Long-Distance Runner: A Memoir, by the late British film director Tony Richardson (MacMillan Canada, $34.95 cloth) tells at some length of his efforts-ultimately unsuccessful, of course-to make a feature film of The Edible Woman.

Similarly, people interested in Elizabeth Smart might miss Jaywalking by Jay Landesman (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $29.95 cloth), the American Beat who exiled himself in London and ended up becoming a successful publisher of the Lyle Stuart stripe. Landesman was responsible for Smart's late renaissance by bringing out the 1977 edition of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and he writes of her in this, his second volume of autobiography, at some length and with considerable affection. He also reproduces some of their correspondence.

What does all this mean from the point of view of someone in Canada? Is polite notation the proper response? Again, I must fail you. One can only applaud the University of Chicago Press for its sudden and serious commitment to publishing the works of Margaret Laurence for the current American audience, while noting that the example is not unique except perhaps in its breadth and depth. In fact, one observes how wide a variety of Canadian authors have recently found homes with U.S. university presses.

Take the field of cultural studies, for example. Wayne Grady's translation of Bernard Arcand's 1991 book Le jaguar et le tamanoir has been published by Verso in London and New York as The Jaguar and the Anteater: Pornography Degree Zero (US$29.95 paper). Its existence in this new form is not only a statement on Canadian writing's ability to travel well, but also on the overloaded condition of our own university presses. After all, there's only so much that UBC Press, McGill-Queen's University Press, or even the mighty University of Toronto Press can be expected to do. In this last connection, though, it's interesting to see a huge and formidable undertaking such as the UTP's Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory ($150 cloth, $39.95 paper), under the general editorship of Irena R. Makaryk, compete head to head with an American-produced rival, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (US$65 paper). Similarly, the sponsoring publisher of Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony, by the redoubtable and prolific Linda Hutcheon, is the British house Routledge (US$22.95 paper).

Only one contributor with a Canadian academic address-Hédi Bouraoui of York University-is to be found among the 137 specialists writing in The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, edited by Peter France (Oxford University Press Canada, $73.95 cloth). While considerable attention here is paid to the francophone diaspora-note that this is not, like the old volume it replaces, called The Oxford Companion to French Literature-there is a spirit of laissez-faire that must be related to collapsing notions of nationalism and the contemporary idea of intertextuality. The long and, as far as I can tell, perfectly adequate entry on Quebec writing is the work of Cedric May, formerly of the University of Birmingham, and Ian Lockerbie, of the University of Stirling. May also does "Acadia".

Looking at similar reference books, and at that more recent phenomenon, the sampler in reference book's clothing, one can note with an appreciative nod that Robin Skelton is the only Canadian included by D. J. Enright in The Oxford Book of the Supernatural (Oxford University Press Canada, $36.95 cloth), for surely Skelton is our own most serious student of the occult and the only one whose books permeate overseas. By contrast, though, it seems lazy of John Simpson to have stopped with Michael Ignatieff, in editing The Oxford Book of Exile(Oxford University Press Canada, $37 cloth). True, Simpson chose a particularly apt selection from Ignatieff's wonderful memoir The Russian Album. Yet exile is one of the richest seams running through the geology of the Canadian imagination, and an editor with more sympathy to Canada generally would have found much that would have interested readers in Britain, America, and elsewhere. There is no Canadian presence at all in Oxford's Children's Literature: An Illustrated History, edited by Peter Hunt ($59.50 cloth)-rather surprisingly, given the otherwise universal acknowledgement of Canada's contribution to this field and the presence, in Toronto, of one of the planet's major research collections.

The new paperback reprint of last year's collection Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literature of North America, edited by Brian Swann (Random House Canada, $23.50), reveals a mixture of white and First Nations contributors, just like Daniel David Moses and Terry Goldie's Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English (Oxford, 1992). The difference is that, looking only at what seems to me Swann's fair representation of Canadian material, the new book relies in almost equal proportions on authentic Native sources (the late Henry Linklater as well as Dora Austin and her late sister Angela Sidney) and on Canadian academics (Julie Cruickshank and Robin Ridington of UBC, Robert M. Leavitt of the University of New Brunswick). There is even a curator (Michael K. Foster, now retired from the Museum of Civilization). And as in the Oxford book (which included translations by John Robert Colombo), there is one non-aligned literary person, Robert Bringhurst. (Has anyone else noticed how many Canadian academics over the past few years have taken to using middle initials, in the American manner? Hmmm.)

Resisting this trend is David Spencer of the University of Western Ontario, the author of quite the most interesting essay I have yet encountered on the history of radical journalism in Canada, a subject that's coming under more and perhaps increasingly affectionate scrutiny just as radical journalism itself seems to disappear from the newsstands. This article, "Alternative Visions: The Intellectual Heritage of Nonconformist Journalists in Canada", is found in Newsworkers: Toward a History of the Rank and File (University of Minnesota Press, US$19.95 paper), edited by Hanno Hardt and Bonnie Brennen.

What do such observations as these mean? Probably that Canadian academics are being more continentalist in a deteriorating job market but also that this change coincides with the fact that the U.S. in particular is becoming rather less ethnocentric and exclusionary (though, curiously, perhaps no less inward-looking) than in the past. This is as far out on the limb as I'm prepared to go at present.


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