- The Good and the Read:Literary Value and Readership in Canadian Literature
The matter of literary value remains one of the most problematic issues in literary studies. This is especially true when dealing with national literatures. Not all contemporary scholars are as blunt as the celebrated Danish critic Georg Brandes who, in 1899, declared that it is pointless “closing one’s eyes to the fact that most of humanity is dull, ignorant, of limited judgment. The best is inaccessible to them, the finest is incomprehensible” (65). Still, many of today’s scholars make no effort to camouflage their disappointment that, say, formally conservative realist novels continue to be published whereas experimental ones are often out of print, without addressing whether the latter ever attain much of a readership. Others, in contrast, are captivated by the sociopolitical and economic conditions of literary production and show little interest in aesthetic matters, be they achievements or failures. The two books under review—Colin Hill’s Modern Realism in English-Canadian Fiction (2012) and Smaro Kamboureli and Robert Zacharias, eds., Shifting the Ground of Canadian Literary Studies (2012)—exemplify these two trends in contemporary literary scholarship.
Colin Hill’s Modern Realism in English-Canadian Fiction is an impressive study of the fortunes—and misfortunes—of modern fiction in Canada. Hill investigates the labours of “a group of writers who deliberately and against much resistance modernized Canadian fiction in the early twentieth century” (6). He defines Canadian modern realism as a movement that arose in opposition to sentimental romanticism and “sought to represent the ‘new’ and unexpressed Canadian experience” (216), and [End Page 174] which “demonstrated a sustained and experimental interest in psychological writing and the epistemological representation of human consciousness” (7). Hill contends that the realist aesthetic continues to prevail in Canadian literature, since by 1950 realism was “established as the dominant and default mode of serious fiction” in the country (218). That said, for him, the heyday of the realist movement in Canada was between 1919 and 1950, the period on which he focuses. After opening his monograph with a discussion of the contexts, aesthetics, and origins of the movement, Hill devotes chapters to Raymond Knister as a revolutionary modern realist; a reevaluation of prairie realism; Frederick Philip Grove’s eclectic realism; urban and social realism; Morley Callaghan as a cosmopolitan modern realist; and, finally, an overview of modern realism and Canadian literature. The most compelling chapter in the book, though, is the second one, a comparative analysis of the modern realism manifestos published in the literary magazines Canadian Bookman and The Canadian Forum in the 1920s.
Hill remarks that whereas “The Canadian Forum is usually praised for its intellectual and cosmopolitan contributions to Canadian literature, Canadian Bookman is almost always dismissed as uncritical and backward-looking” (24). Part of the reason for the antipathy toward the second journal, he notes, is its close links to the Canadian Authors Association, which was so inclusive in its membership that it accepted nearly anyone who called himself or herself a writer and was frequently accused of literary boosterism. The CAA also had a significant female representation, which the male literary establishment at the time did not always appreciate. This is perhaps most notoriously echoed in “The Canadian Authors Meet,” in which F.R. Scott not only satirizes those poets who endlessly “paint the native maple” but is particularly dismissive of the “poetess” Miss Crotchet, who greets “the other unknowns with a cheer— / Virgins of sixty who still write of passion” (Scott 115). Hill, however, makes a compelling case that the Canadian Bookman played a much more pivotal role in the development of modern realist fiction in Canada than did The Canadian Forum. While “the essential creative works of modern realism would not be published in the Bookman (which published very little creative work),” he writes, in the 1920s the magazine published a series of manifestos on modern realism that “established a sense of urgency about Canada’s need for modern writing and offered initial definitions of the new modern realism and its characteristics” (29). In other words, contrary to what is usually suggested in Canadian literary history, the supposedly traditional Canadian Bookman had...