Steven Heighton on the Growing Confidence of Canucks


Steven Heighton 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 expression “post-national writing” implies the existence of a former “national writing,” and I’m not sure I understand the concept. When I think of my own favourite writers, Canadian and otherwise, there’s little about their work that marks it as belonging to a particular nation. Yes, those writers do have their staple settings, but those settings are almost always specifically regional, not national in the sense of a nation-state.  Faulkner’s work is rooted not in the United States but in a specific part of it: the south, and moreover a certain part of the south.  Alice Munro is best known for her stories set in southwest Ontario, an environment and cultural milieu highly distinct from, say, the Okanagan Valley, or the prairies around Brandon, or outport Newfoundland.  To put it another way, good fiction is often regionally rooted, but not—at least in the case of a nation as heterogeneous as Canada—“national.”

To get back to some favourite writers and their work: there’s nothing intrinsically American about Emily Dickinson, though you could argue that she’s inherently a Puritan New Englander. There’s nothing intrinsically Canadian about Mavis Gallant’s stories, or Austro-Hungarian (or Czech) about Kafka’s work.  As for Melville’s Moby Dick—alleged by many to be the Great American Novel—it’s set not in the USA but in the a-national, or trans-national, “watery part of the world”—and its true abode is the English language that Melville uses so richly.

To quote an anonymous German aphorism I keep trying to track to its source, Denn meine Heimat ist das, was ich schreibe: so my homeland is what I write.

To speak for myself, as a political citizen I consider myself Canadian, but as a poet, my homeland is the English language (especially but not exclusively in its Canadian inflections).  As a fiction writer, my homeland is, again, the language, along with the settings I choose (largely but not exclusively Canadian) and the narratives my characters inhabit (whatever stories I feel moved to write).

Mavis Gallant once reportedly said—presumably on being challenged about her “Canadianness” after years of living in Paris and often writing about Paris—“I would remain Canadian even if Canada ceased to exist.”  I feel exactly the same; I assume that when I’m writing, my Canadianness automatically, unconsciously declares itself in any number of ways.  Why should I patriotically program my work to speak of national concerns?  Leave that to the lesser Russians (for example), with their nonsense about “Mother Russia” and the “Russian Soul.”  I find those attitudes—attitudes deriving from a ferocious and paranoid ethnic nationalism—to be infantile.

To clarify: while I support the sort of federal nationalism that helps Canada maintain a nominal independence from the USA, I find ethnic nationalism terrifying, and I want to point out that self-consciously “national” books—books that set out to define a national “character” or explore the soul of a nation—tend to date badly.  Look at Hugh McLennan’s Two Solitudes.  Such books date because they’re essentially projects, essays in fictional form, the writer using set-piece scenes and allegorically flat characters to illustrate preconceived points.  The narrative in such programmatic texts is too tightly controlled for the story ever to wriggle free and leap to life, as in the best fiction.

A final thought: maybe “post-national”—or at least post-nationalist—writing is simply a sign of growing cultural confidence.  If Annabel Lyon opts to write about Alexander the Great, why should we see her book as somehow unCanadian?  She’s Canadian, so her writing is, just as Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey is an American novel, written in the twenties, about seventeenth century Peru.

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?

On the whole, I disagree with his generalization. But then, one has to disagree with generalizations—while serious essayists like Stephen are helpless to avoid them altogether if they mean to say anything significant about historical and cultural trends. I do accept his assessment (only hinted at in the passage above) of the last four decades’ political and economic changes.  But I can’t agree that English Canada’s “literary light” has been “extinguished by our economic assimilation into the United States.”

That assimilation, of course, is fundamentally linked to the Free Trade Agreement, signed back in 1988.  To caricature everything published in Canada over the last twenty or so years as having an extinguished, second-hand, unoriginal quality is unsupportable, as I think Stephen himself would agree. In many ways, yes, we’ve been recolonized economically, and in terms of popular culture we always have been thoroughly colonized. It’s also true—as Stephen argues in When Words Deny the World—that generally Canadian writers are less political and politically aware than they were in the sixties. But look—I’ve just used that louche term again, “generally.” In the end, it doesn’t matter what’s generally true about literature because in the end it’s the specific exceptions that count, and survive. And there are a good number of Canadian poets and fiction writers (like Stephen himself) who remain political and free-thinking and keep trying to do new things on the page.

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?

My instinct would be to say that while post-nationalist poets have become, at least in their poetry, more focused on aesthetic as opposed to patriotically ideological concerns, among fiction writers the reorientation has been a bit different, involving a shift in a commercial as opposed to an aesthetic direction, in just the way Stephen Henighan describes above.

But hang on. Isn’t Stephen really talking about a certain brand of unchallenging, middlebrow CanLit—the sort that garners robust advances from big publishing firms and then gets touted for prize shortlists and special-ordered en masse by book groups? We should bear in mind that such books constitute a modest ratio of the fiction published in Canada today; after all, most of our fiction is still published by smaller presses and plenty of it takes aesthetic chances, tries new things, and in the end is no more commercially viable than, well, poetry.

So I renege on my instinctive assertion above.

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.

Though I’m not much of a Robertson Davies fan, I’d argue that Fifth Business is not only a very good book but also one that’s deeply Canadian. To clarify: there’s something peculiarly Canadian, or at least Upper Canadian, about the  vision and flavour of that novel—the grimly repressed, gothically costive provincialism that’s still a small part of the Central Canadian character, even in the big cities, even among boosters of Canadian po-mo cosmopolitanism. (This is a way of saying that I dimly, grudgingly recognize some of those traits in myself and my bohemian friends.) And I’d argue that Alice Munro, in her stories set in Souwesto, explores related settings and temperaments, although of course in very different ways.  So I’d add to this shortlist almost any of her   story collections.

Then there’s Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and Douglas Glover’s Elle, two brilliant postmodern collages that resurrect obscure Canadian historical figures and flesh them out by dint of sheer stylistic vitality and virtuosity. As for making “a definitive statement about this country,” I’d argue that they do it through a very healthy Canadian tendency to debunk, de-poeticize, to unseat authority, to self-arraign (in regards to racism, sexism, colonialism, etc).  This of course is the perspective of someone writing not from the heart of the imperium—New York, London, Paris, and so on—but from the post-colonial cultural margins. Both Cohen and Glover show how this marginalization can be a perspectival and aesthetic advantage, if approached in the right way (i.e., with verve, humour, passion).

OK, that was four books, not three….

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

I could talk about why the loss of critics and critical venues is a creative/aesthetic debacle.  Instead I want to focus my brief lament on a specific poignancy: the fact that many books these days receive no critical reaction at all.

Of course one doesn’t and shouldn’t spend three years writing (say) an experimental novel merely in hopes of being talked and written about.  Still, to see one’s work thoughtfully reviewed, as part of a creative-critical dialogue, has always been one of the rewards a publishing writer could reasonably look forward to.

My own first book, a poetry collection called Stalin’s Carnival that came out in 1989, received around a dozen print reviews, which was by no means unusual then.  A few new writers I’ve recently talked to find that figure hard to believe, and no wonder: these days many books, some of them highly regarded and passed around among colleagues, get no reviews at all, or maybe one in print and a couple more on blogs. (Blogs and websites were supposed to take up the slack as print publications died off, but while there are a number of valuable blogs and websites out there, they haven’t kept pace in terms of reviewing.) In fact, a whole new generation of poets—let me stick with poets here—may see this response-gap as more or less natural, and I suppose in some ways that might be a healthy perspective, since it does oblige poets to write purely for the love of the art—and perhaps the long shot of a Griffin nomination, but that’s another story, another rant.  Still, I can’t help brooding on behalf of superb new writers whose lonely efforts are answered by nothing more than silence.

Qualifying postscript: a friend of mine whose second book came out in 2011 and who has received just a single, online review has, I’ve noticed, been getting lots of invitations to do readings, workshops, online interviews, etc.  Clearly, readers are hearing about her book and word is spreading—which makes me wonder if the diminution of reviews might have a silver lining: maybe it’s making “word of mouth,” the old-fashioned grapevine, more essential and thus more effective.


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Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton’s most recent books are The Waking Comes Late (poetry, April 2016), and the Trillium Award finalist The Dead Are More Visible (stories). His novel Afterlands was cited on best of year lists in ten publications in Canada, the USA, and the UK, and is in pre-production for film. His stories and poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, Tin House, Zoetrope, Poetry, Best American Poetry, TLR, and five editions of Best Canadian Stories. He is also a fiction reviewer for the New York Times Book Review.