Jonathan Ball: Canada is a Nightmare


Jonathan Ball responded to the questions by email in June, 2012. He slightly re-ordered them.

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

We still haven’t learned the lessons of Kafka. It would surprise me to find we have somehow leapfrogged into the present and produced a post-national literature. I await the day with excitement, because then Canadian literature will exist, and develop its qualities through an organic process of word following word. Rather than the current state of pushing, pulling, prodding, shaping and reshaping, that befits an anxious nation and its armchair critics.

Let’s say that there are books published and produced in Canada that one could class “post-national.” Let’s call such creatures “books.” Let’s call the rest “Canadian books.” I read more and more books, it seems. But as a nationalist in my secret heart, I amend the formula. I read more and more [Canadian] books and less and less “Canadian books.” My focus, though, needs to be on writing, not classification.

2)  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 hate the things Henighan hates, and hate the things Henighan loves. But I love hate, so enjoy Henighan.

Canadian writers: let us embrace the second-hand trends of other nations! We will call this “a start.”

Suzette Mayr and Tony Burgess have become more visible. This, if only this, buoys my hopes for Canadian fiction.

Poetry seems better than ever. I see less emotions in poetry books, and more poems.

3)  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 don’t see nationalist issues as a primary concern of contemporary poetry or fiction in Canada. Perhaps we should read this general absence of nationalist issues as a post-national statement. Perhaps we should read it as an after-effect of globalisation as such. On a related note, the rise of regionalism in poetry and fiction took the place of nationalism, although regionalism also wanes.

The most radical, and perhaps unwarranted, reading may be to correlate this lack of direct interest in such issues with the resurgence of international, avant-garde poetics and consider the latter as, to some degree, a backlash to the project of 1970s Canadian nationalism and its transmutation into disparate regionalisms. Even identity politics seems somewhat backgrounded by the development of literatures that incorporate but do not obsess over suchlike themes. Academia lags behind literature, as it does, so these still remain hot topics (to be fair, they still remain important topics, and academia divorced itself from literature some time ago, so I don’t mean this as an indictment).

To move into the realm of fiction, George Bowering’s sadly neglected 1977 experimental novel A Short Sad Book operates as a parody of nationalist literature. Bowering’s suggestion throughout the novel seems to be that adopting European forms for novels and poetry, and then territorializing their content (adding some beavers), constitutes a pathetic project, doomed to failure. Instead, Bowering’s novel suggests that the creation of new forms, devising a “Canadian” form for the novel (a postmodern form, like that of A Short Sad Book), would be a better project than cramming beavers everywhere. Bowering hedges his bets by doing both (presenting a postmodern novel that is chock-full of Canadian content, in a comical overload).

Although A Short Sad Book has been neglected and had little direct influence, compared to Bowering’s other work, I see this as precisely being the project of more formally invested, avant-garde and experimentally minded writers. When I wrote Ex Machina, for example, my explicit intention was to work in the experimentalist tradition of the prairie long poem but resist its regionalist aspects by aligning myself more with various international, avant-garde poetics. Clockfire likewise draws influences from European authors like Calvino and Artaud, horror authors like H. P. Lovecraft, and American Fluxus artists rather than Canadian figures.

The Politics of Knives, my forthcoming book, takes more cues from Canadian authors than this previous work (specifically, the prose-poetry of figures like Lisa Robertson, Kate Eichhorn, Sina Queyras, and others), reaches after European and American novelists (Kafka and DeLillo) and cinema (Hitchcock’s in particular), and also reaches back into ancient Greek mythology and history while keeping one foot in more current 20th- and 21st-century conflicts like American interventions into Cuba and the Middle East. Does that make my work post-national? This sort of eclecticism seems far from radical to me — more what I expect out of any author with diverse interests who does not feel hamstrung by some nationalist or regionalist project.

4)  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.

Bowering’s A Short Sad Book (1977) remains, for me, the most cogent, clear, and fall-down funny attempt to represent Canada to itself and the world, while being an extended critique of the way Canadian writers conventionally attempt the same.

Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (1959) argued that Canada is a nightmare. This remains the most progressive and radical statement about this country, and I read it as a positive development.

Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2001) dragged Canadian literature out of the 20th century. Now you can write 19th century literature or 21st— take your pick.

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

Technology makes it easier to ignore the fact that you live in a technological society, and look stupider than ever before.

6)  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 premise seems flawed, because all of my experience with the public school system suggests that kids read more books now than they used to read in school — more than I read in school, to be sure. However, kids don’t seem to care at all about books as things that come from individuals and locations. They don’t know who wrote their favourite books, never mind where these authors live and work. If that’s true, it bodes ill for Canadian publishing.

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

I don’t believe it has any impact on the writing itself. It certainly has a tremendous impact on the culture and on the industry. But does it change the way writers work, on a day-to-day basis? There’s less hope, and writing feels more futile. Is that change? Unless attempted by deranged celebrities, writing always seems hopeless and futile.


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Jonathan Ball

Jonathan Ball, Ph.D., is the author of Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives, which was recently shortlisted for a Manitoba book award. Visit him online at