- Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction by Alex Good
Alex Good's Revolutions is a book that packs a punch. No, it packs multiple punches. The target is Canadian literature and how it is written, how it is taught, and how it is received by reviewers and critics. One of Good's complaints is that there is a lot of boredom and shirking going on in the business of assessing Canadian literature. Reviewers do not read the books they are reviewing. Literary prizes are essentially a sham perpetuated by golden agers [End Page 117] with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. That status quo is conservative, complicit, preoccupied with the safety of history, and resistant to contemporary forms of discourse. In fact, Canadian literature is itself a sham, mainly because so few people read it. As Good says in his very first sentence, "[t]he fundamental challenge facing literature in the twenty-first century is its need to find – somehow, somewhere – an audience." Good's book appears to demonstrate that despite this desire for an authentic readership, the search will inevitably hit a dead end. Why? Good offers several explanations. Readers today are fundamentally "aliterate" – a term used to describe those who can read, but choose not to, mainly because they have been sidetracked and seduced by the digital tsunami that engulfs them.
A few quotes will serve to highlight Good's perspective. "We live in a post-literate age," he explains, in which "books have become irrelevant." Academic professionalism is stultifying. Professors are forced to publish material no one cares about. Meanwhile, their students bow down to the cell phone gods called Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, rather than worshipping at the altar of even the most canonized authors. Good argues that literary boredom is so ubiquitous that book reviewers seldom even read the titles they are reviewing, or they rip off quotable material from marketing flyers and brochures that are prepared by publishers who are also ignorant about the very books they have published. It is a good thing that I did not fall into this trap because, if I had, I would be quoting from the book's back cover blurbs, one of which describes this cantankerous collection of essays as "sensitive but fierce," a neutering phrase if there ever was one.
What the back cover should say is that Good is a warrior who carries bombs and fire. He is not afraid to torch the edifice of CanLit. His book is a battering ram, an assault, a full on smash in the face, a no-holds-barred takedown of some of our most revered literary celebrities: Margaret Atwood – boring, cannot write; Michael Ondaatje – a failed novelist who should have stayed where he belonged, writing poetry; Douglas Coupland – a pretender who should never try to write about sex; David Adams Richards – a washout who is lost in the echoes of time and history. Am I complaining about all of these insults? Do I think that Good is being too "sensitive"? No. He is a killer, and that is why I love this book.
This brief space really cannot do justice to what makes Revolutions so special. A staccato summary is in order: eight brilliant essays on the state of Canadian literature, with devastating readings of key passages from works by several well-known writers, all of which demonstrate the extent to which mediocrity and lackadaisical standards have become the norm. Reading the book is like watching a few hours of ultimate fighting. Everyone gets bloodied. Except a few, including me. Only when I got to the end of Revolutions did I discover that Good had written about me, his dear reviewer, as well! (Full disclosure: I did not know this when I agreed to review the book.) I came away largely spared, which is somewhat of an achievement, given the critical wasteland that Good associates with most of CanLit's tenured inmates. As I approached the [End Page 118] book's final pages, I wondered whether Good might offer some solutions to the problems he describes. He does not. The last...