Tim Bowling on Rapacious Greed and the (Relative) Triviality of the Curriculum


Tim Bowling responded to these questions by email in March, 2012.

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

The whole world is post-national, run entirely by corporations for some faceless horde of shareholders. This ought to free Canadians to write about what interests us; except we seem to want to write as if Canada as an entity is only part of some sexy global culture divorced from history and the earth. And perhaps that’s the reality everywhere now. If so, I find it depressing. But literature is an affirmative act, so I place my hope there, such as it is.

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

It shortens sentences and makes them less interesting. On a positive note, I hear that e-readers can be easier on the eyes as one ages. But seriously, the potential to free publishing from the old system, to give some freedom and power back to writers, does now exist. If nothing else, we’re living in a time of flux, a time in which many possibilities seem to be opening up. Perhaps it’s only my age that makes me skeptical, but I can’t feel entirely good about the future for writers, not with Google and its attack on copyright and the ability for anyone online who’s having a bad day to trash a book in a few careless minutes that you’ve worked on for years. Even so, I’m happy that I can send attachments of whole novels back and forth across the country as required!

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?

I agree, up to the final opinion. Artistic originality always overcomes the second-hand trends, although not commercially, of course. But you have to face the facts: most Canadians live exactly like Americans and share more or less the same values. This is especially true of anyone born after 1980. But I’d also add that Henighan seems to suggest that other countries are doing better, that other countries aren’t dreary and colonized. Right now, the entire planet is controlled by a rapacious greed which, to be optimistic, might be the final conflagration of centuries of such greed. To be followed by? Hopefully a more responsible approach to the complex variety of life. In any case, if you’ve ever taken a serious look at celebrated contemporary English and American writing, you won’t feel bad about Canadian literature. In fact, you might feel pretty good. But serious looks are rare these days, and probably always have been.

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. Howwould you apply this distinction to Canadian fiction? If not, how come?

Aw hell, there’s good writing and bad writing no matter what fancy terms academics come up with to explain these things. Am I entertained or moved, either by the writer’s tone or style? And is there any kind of vision behind the book? It’s as simple as that. But that simplicity seems particularly hard for our culture to grasp right now – not just our culture but our species. Anyway, I’ve been that dirty word, “humanist,” all my life, and I’ll go to the grave that way. As for fiction, you’re asking someone who’s now published four novels, all set in BC and Alberta, two of them historical! I guess this is a kind of honesty. I’m from BC and I live in Alberta and I find both places fascinating enough to write about them. What’s a guy to do? Interestingly enough, I received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2008 to write poems about the Fraser River, so perhaps people outside of western Canada don’t find the place dull. I really can’t say. My job is to put my head down and write. But I’m not deluded. I could write the greatest novel going, but if it’s based on the life of Mackenzie King, who at Penguin India is going to care?

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.

Frankly, I don’t understand this kind of question. The world? I don’t think in those terms. Definitive? Not even possible. But for the sake of argument, how about Hockey Stars of 1974? I read that one as a kid. Violence, conformity, anti-unionism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and the glamour of success in an American-run organization that pretends to be Canadian. Timeless, relevant. But not just to Canada, as I’ve said. It’s a rum world, to quote Robertson Davies.

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

No impact on the writing, just on the recognition. Writers learn from other writers, mostly dead ones, not from professional critics. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some insightful reviews over the years, but it’s true, reviews of any kind are scarce now. In 2010, I published a non-fiction book about book collecting, fatherhood, midlife crisis, suicide, art. It’s even partly set in New York and California! It’s one of my strongest works, a book of which I’m really proud, and it did not receive a single review. Not one. But I’ve had private responses about it of the sort that could keep most writers going for the rest of their lives. Again, I fall back on those responses, and try not to worry over things I can’t control. Look what happened to Irving Layton. Arguably Canada’s finest poet, and a man who allowed his rage at the Canadian cultural vacuum of bourgeois values to overwhelm him and affect his art. I prefer to believe that every nation contains enough intelligent, sensitive people to make writing well a rewarding endeavour. In The Suicide’s Library received no reviews, but I have just published a new novel and I live in hope. How else should a writer, or anyone else, live?

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 public school system? I have three kids, 9, 11, and 13, and they’ve never set foot in a school. Why not? It certainly isn’t because the schools aren’t teaching Canadian writing. It’s because our culture, which promotes sleazy sexuality, ironic detachment, fashionable cynicism, and consumerism as values, includes the public school system. When there’s a cop on staff at the local high school because everyone’s living in fear, what do I care if they’re teaching Margaret Laurence or William Golding? The problems with the school system go WAY BEYOND the curriculum. Besides, if I look back on my own school days, and the way literature was taught, it might be better for Canadian literature to be ignored. Let them turn the kids off Shakespeare. He can take it; he’s been dead long enough, whoever he was.

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Tim Bowling

Tim Bowling's twentieth book, a novel titled The Heavy Bear, was published this spring by Wolsak and Wynn. Born and raised near Vancouver, he has lived in Edmonton for the past twenty years.