09 July 2014

Why You Shouldn't Feel Bad about the 100 Novels That Make You Proud to Be Canadian List (and why the CBC should)

"Depressing how few of these I've read," writes a friend. Minutes later, others begin chiming in with similar sentiment… and the list is shared. Such is the power of Facebook. The grey gloom generator is CBC Books' "100 NOVELS THAT MAKE YOU PROUD TO BE A CANADIAN".

Novels that make me proud to be Canadian? Do I really need help? After eight years of Harper Government™ rule, perhaps I do. But this isn't going to do it:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
(cliquez pour agrandir)
A remarkably democratic list, is it not?  No author is represented more than once except Margaret Atwood because… oh, I don't know… because she's Margaret Atwood? That fifty titles are by women and fifty are by men is, I am certain, no happy accident. Modest effort has been made toward regional balance, and the Canadian mosaic appears well in evidence – that is, until one realizes that there are only six French-language titles.

Six? And not one is The Tin Flute. What gives? The list's all too brief introduction may provide an explanation:

I see. Canada has a wealth of writers, and they're telling today's tales, and they're revisiting our past.

So, it's contemporary writers only then. Got it.

But wait, what's Hugh MacLennan doing on the list? And Robertson Davies? And Mordecai Richler? And Carol Shields? They're not "telling today's tales." Hell, Stephen Leacock is so long dead that his books have been in the public domain for nearly two decades.

(About the "novels are all in print" bit: Was that a criteria? Could this explain Margaret Millar's absence?)

Eaton's, Montreal, 1947
For anyone considering "everything from cultural impact and critical reception to reader response", The Tin Flute is an inescapable add. Such was the acclaim that the Toronto Eaton's – the Toronto Eaton's –advertised and sold the book in French. It won a Governor General's Award and the Prix Femina. It has been published in fourteen languages, adapted to film, is taught across the country and has never gone out of print. Go ahead, name another novel that has had greater cultural impact, name one that had greater reader response.

How about Anne of Green Gables?

Anne of Green Gables isn't on the list.

The muddled became muddied when guest host Suhana Meharchand opened discussion about the list on Cross Country Checkup. Forget all that stuff about  novels to make you feel proud, this was now "100 must-read Canadian novels", a list of "great Canadian novels" through which one would "become an expert in Canadian fiction [emphasis mine]". Ms Meharchand was then joined by CBC Books producer Erin Balser who revealed it to be nothing more than a list of 100 Canadian novels some CBC producers think everyone should read. She went on to say that the goal was to present "a balance of classic and contemporary books because we wanted to represent the whole history of Canadian literature."

If we're to consider novels written by those who "call or once called Canada home", the first up is Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague. It was published in 1769, one hundred and forty-three years before Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the oldest book on the list. A further thirty-three years pass before we encounter another.

Ms Balser's words to the contrary, there is no "balance of classic and contemporary". Over half the books on the list were published between 2000 and 2013 (there are no titles from 2014). Seventy-nine of the books were published in the last twenty years. Eight of the books were published in 2009 alone, more than the 'sixties and 'seventies combined.

"We all know that readers love lists," enthused Suhana Meharchand. True enough. Here's mine:

Saul Bellow
Mavis Gallant
Malcolm Lowry
Antonine Maillet
Brian Moore 
Gabrielle Roy
It was hoped that "100 NOVELS THAT MAKE YOU PROUD TO BE A CANADIAN" would "start a dialogue in this country", but this list is another opportunity wasted. Messy and poorly presented, it is nothing more than a grab bag of recent novels peppered with a few CanLit course mainstays. Predictably, for this is today's CBC, most of the Giller and Canada Reads winners are included.

For the record, I've read nineteen of the hundred.

That number doesn't depress me in the least.

An explanation (of sorts):
There's actually two Margaret Atwood novels. The second one is Handmaid's Tale [sic]. So there are only two because we felt there should only be two – even though we all love Margaret Atwood deeply.
– Erin Balser, Cross Country Checkup, 29 June 2014
Errata: A sharp-eyed reader points out that Joseph Boyden also has two titles on the list. Thank you, Edith!

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1 comment:

  1. I think I've read more than 19 of these, but hey, I have a PhD in English now. The list is obviously biased towards very recent books so if you merge it with the list of authors we have to read for a CanLit comprehensive PhD exam you'd get a better picture of English CanLit. But then you should merge it again with the list you'd read in CanLit in the French department to improve the balance of French Canadian authors. Where is Gérard Bessette's Le libraire (1960) for example? The CBC's list is best described as a compilation of titles read or on the "to read" list of the individuals who pulled together the list, but this, like all such lists, is more random than representative.

    Ruth Bradley St Cyr