- Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture by Gillian Roberts
In Prizing Literature, Gillian Roberts argues that awards for prose fiction are partly intended to naturalize immigrant writers and their works. She also demonstrates how these writers resist their adopted national culture in Canada. Interpreting their fiction, Roberts discovers that they are concerned with the same questions of hospitality and citizenship that the prizes themselves raise. She has written an instructive book for academics in literary and cultural studies.
Prizing Literature has six chapters, beginning with an overview of three Canadian literary awards and three extranational awards: the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, the Giller Prize, the CBC’s Canada Reads, and then the Booker, the Pulitzer, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes. Her overview shows that these prizes are significant to aesthetics, culture, and the economy, often simultaneously, as when promoters of the lucrative Giller Prize are shown to be “disingenuous” (29) in presuming to judge, without political bias, the “excellence” of the writing. The following four chapters each focus on a different author: Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, Rohinton Mistry, and Yann Martel, each chapter a sequence of literary and cultural analyses integrated with basic biographical information. The conclusion turns for several pages to the issue of how native writers such as Lee Maracle and Thomas King respond to the claims of national belonging asserted in Canadian literary culture. This latter subject deserves a book-length study of its own, and Roberts is well-equipped to do it, or has led the way for others.
The main point of the book is not surprising, but it is timely, nuanced, and well-supported by a variety of critical methods. Roberts argues that the prose fiction of [End Page 163] Ondaatje, Shields, Mistry, and Martel examines “the distinction between citizenship and nationality, exposing the degrees of belonging and unbelonging, and the complication of national claims as perpetuated by host cultures” (10). Although all these writers have accepted literary awards that promote Canadian nationalism to some extent, their stories also describe the inconsistencies and more serious flaws, such as xenophobia and racism, in the hospitality in this country. The extensive analysis of book reviews in Prizing Literature demonstrates that the degree of hospitality around Canadian literature is encouraging but not without territoriality. Despite these issues, and partly because of the prizes they have won, Ondaatje, Shields, Mistry, and Martel all seem to appreciate Canada as a country in which to write; Mistry has been especially critical of Canadian inhospitality in his book, Family Matters, and yet he also says that he is “at ease” (qtd. in 180) here.
On this topic and in general, Roberts quotes Jacques Derrida more than any other secondary source. To Canadian culture and literature she applies Derrida’s theory of the co-existence of hospitality and hostility, which he synthesizes as hostipitality. This is perfectly apt, and Roberts uses hostipitality where relevant, most provocatively when she explains how Martel inverts the roles of guest and host by inviting the prime minister into a satirical dialogue with his book of unanswered letters, What Is Stephen Harper Reading? In a slightly different context, one of her conclusions about hostipitality is that
prizes located outside Canada’s borders, especially the Man Booker and Pulitzer Prizes, have also been appropriated in the negotiation of Canadian hospitality, in different but more effective ways than the Canadian prizes. The lack of prestige associated with the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize indicates that Canadians prefer their guest authorities to be firmly attached to national cultures that have long dominated our own (52).
If this is true, then Canadian culture is somewhat hostile even to itself (not only when the prime minister ignores the literary arts), despite its conditional hospitality to immigrant writers. Obviously, however, Canadian culture is also self-promotional and seemingly hospitable in the governmental and corporate contexts that include literary awards.
My own research suggests that self-promotional star poets in Canada tend to be ironically critical of celebrity, a topic...