Morley Walker on Being Pan-National


Morley Walker answered our questions by email in February 2012.

1) Is Canadian writing post-national, and what does that mean for the kind of fiction and poetry we produce?

The literary world may not be so much post-national as pan-national. Canada has attracted an enormous number of immigrants from all around the world, many of them highly educated. As well, travelling is cheaper and more accessible to more people. This can’t help but affect our literature because writers are having different and, in some ways, broader experiences. The idea of producing a novel about, say, a boy growing up on a Saskatchewan farm, does, I fear, seem more quaint than it might have 50 years ago.

The growth of Indo-Canadian writing, for example, certainly reflects this reality. Some people have questioned the “Canadianness” of a Rohinton Mistry, but if he self-identifies as a Canadian, then what he writes is Canadian literature, regardless of its subject matter or where it is set. Indeed, its pan-nationality may in fact come to define what Canadian literature is in the future.

 2) What difference does technology make, in all its forms, for literary culture in this country?

My favourite definition of technology is this: anything that was invented after you were born. So there has always been technology and improvements in technology have always made a big difference. First, it continues to lower the bar for entry to the discipline of writing. Anyone can produce a book, as long as they are willing to subsidize it with their own labour. Middle-class Canadians have long had this ability, but until recently they couldn’t get their books published. Now they can do this, too. Mind you, this does not guarantee them an audience. Canadians already produce vastly more books than the market demands. On the other hand, technology is making distribution less costly too, so maybe there is room to increase the audience.

But back to the first hand. Other entertainment and cultural technologies compete with books for people’s time. Film and television long ago overtook novels (and theatre too) as the culture’s most popular forms of narrative drama. It’s very hard to imagine this situation being reversed by technology. Though you never know. The ability to embed hyperlinks into digital text is already leading to innovative forms, so anything is possible.

3) Stephen Henighan, in a 2002 essay titled “‘They Can’t Be About Things Here:’ The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel,” says that

“Canada… was a dreary colonial country until the 1960s, when it finally began to find its way out from under a stifling second-hand Englishness. Literary light flickered, at varying degrees of intensity, for three decades before being extinguished by our economic assimilation into the United States, which has made us once again a dreary, colonized country whose culture of second-hand trends stymies artistic originality.” –p. 210, When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing (Porcupine’s Quill)

Do you agree? Why or why not?

OK, we used to be colonized by the British. Now we are colonized by the Americans. This is true,  but it’s also boring. That is what Canada is. Excluding Quebec for a moment, we’re a small group of English speakers huddled up against the US elephant. How could we be any different? Does it stifle our “creativity”? I don’t think so at all. We have produced significant artists in every discipline, not just literature. Does our relative position in the English-speaking world make it more difficult to find an audience, both here and abroad? Yes, it does. I think it was the Toronto journalist (and Hungarian born) George Jonas who quipped that if a country wants a significant literature, it should first increase the size of its navy. There is a lot of truth to that.

4) Some younger critics have drawn a sharp line between the nationalist writers of the 1970s and 80s and the more formalist, perhaps post-national writers of the 90s and oughts, especially in poetry where there is no commercial interest and hence people are occasionally honest in public. How would you apply this distinction to Canadian fiction? If not, how come?

I’m not familiar with this argument and have not thought about it. I suppose it might apply to fiction as well as to poetry. However, fiction still does have some commercial possibilities. It has been said many times that the best strategy to achieve commercial success as a novelist in Canada is to “de-Canadianize” your work. Certainly the more inventive or “post-modern” or difficult you work becomes, the less chance you have for commercial success.

 5)  What do you think are three books of Canadian fiction or poetry that make a definitive statement about this country to the world? Please defend your choice.

This question is too much like something from an English exam, something I haven’t written in thirty-five years. I’m afraid it’s beyond me now. It also strikes me as terribly parochial. Maybe that makes me post-national!

6) What is the impact of the death of the book review and the professional critic having on Canadian writing?

None than I can see. The writer’s relationship should be with his audience, surely not with reviewers and critics. From the writer’s perspective, reviews are about publicity and maybe ego-stroking, if he’s lucky. The book review is being replaced by other forms of publicity. I certainly don’t see a correlation between the decline of book reviewing and the number of books being produced or in the quality of those books. Which isn’t to say I dismiss the value of book reviews. Of course, I think they are important. But their value is in helping to shape public taste and awareness for what’s out there, not for engaging with the writers themselves.

 7) How does the large-scale disappearance of reading and writing in the public school system affect Canadian literature? Feel free to disagree with the premise here, but please deal with the fact that in the 80s the kids were reading a few Canadian novels.

The idea that there was some mythical time when school children were enthralled by literature has always struck me as dubious. Today, as before, there is a minority of kids who are primarily oriented toward the written word, but the majority are not. Are fewer Canadian books being read in junior high schools today? This surprises me to hear. I surveyed a few teacher friends and came up with no consensus. But it strikes me as a false premise, especially when there is such a booming marketing in Canadian young-adult fiction. If this stuff is not being produced for the classroom, why is it being produced?

One Comment

  1. Posted April 5, 2012 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    So how big is the Irish Navy?

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Morley Walker

Morley Walker has edited the Winnipeg Free Press books section since 1995. It is one of the last standalone book sections published by a daily newspaper in Canada. Originally from Alberta, Walker joined the Free Press in 1987 after stints at the Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Sun, and spent many years covering the city’s cultural scene in a variety of positions, including entertainment editor and arts columnist.