Friday, October 11, 2013

Alice Munro, the Toronto Star, and the bookshop ghettos of Canadiana

We were moving in the same direction. Today's lead editorial in the Toronto Star noted that "as Thomas Hardy did with Dorset, and William Faulkner did with Yoknapatawpha County, [Alice] Munro chronicled and mythologized her corner of southwestern Ontario." In 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, coming next week, I put it this way:"When readers contemplate Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, or William Faulkner, they think of the fictional countries those writers created -- Jane Austen Country, Thomas Hardy Country, Yoknapatawpha County -- and how sojourning in these various worlds has changed the way we experience our own lives. To suggest that Alice Munro has done the same by creating a distinct and recognizable 'Munro Country' is not just plausible, but irrefutable."
But then the Star took what I view as a wrong turn: "When [Munro] began publishing in the late 1960s 'Canadian literature' barely existed, or was hived off in the bookshop ghettos of 'Canadiana.' Now the Atwoods, Ondaatjes, Martels and so many others win international prizes and take Canadian writing around the world."
I would suggest that the 'hiving off' and the global recognition are unrelated. No, I would go further.  I would argue that Canadian writers have achieved international acclaim DESPITE their disappearance as an identifiable collectivity from the shelves of Canadian bookstores.
Not long ago, I visited the main Waterstone's bookstore in Edinburgh. One entire wall -- one long wall, floor to ceiling -- is devoted to Scottish books: fiction, biography, history, travel, children's, crime, you name it. Yes, it sells books. And it serves additionally as an assertion of national identity: we are here!
A short while later, in Dublin, I visited the Eason bookstore in O'Connell Street. This time, I found one long wall, floor to ceiling, offering Irish books: fiction, biography, history, travel, children's, crime . . . . it's glorious.
Here in Canada, we went wrong when we moved away from devoting sections and walls to Canadian books. Yes, Canadian writers were complicit in this. Apparently, we needed to prove that we could stand with the best in the world. Well, now, surely, we have done that, and we can stop acting out this national inferiority complex. Let's admit that we made a mistake and bring back the bookshop ghetto. Bring back Canadiana.

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