Just say yes to naked books!

In the Globe and Mail Book Section, I rebut a rebuttal: can we stop obsessing, please, about what makes a Canadian author Canadian and focus our attention on individual books?

By Ken McGoogan

Last updated on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009 04:09AM EDT

If we look at literature from a national perspective, as distinct from taking a generic, thematic or period approach, we have to clarify what belongs and why. Here in Canada, we have drifted into defining Canadian Literature according to authorial nationality. We say it is literature written by Canadians.

But then we face a question: How do we define Canadian? Looking at Ed O’Loughlin, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, we discover that he was born in Toronto and lived in Canada for his first six years. And some of us end up claiming that a novel written by an Irishman, and set in Ireland and Africa, is Canadian.

Instead of falling repeatedly into this trap, I say we forget the author and his or her nationality. Instead, let’s look at the naked book and ask: Does this work belong to Canadian literature? No biography, no authorial opinions. Is this book of special interest to Canadians? Is it set in Canada? Does it feature Canadian characters? Does it explore Canadian themes? Does it manifest a sensibility that is distinctly Canadian? Is it relevant in some unexpected way?

I am suggesting that we follow those countless scholars who have long since identified The History of Emily Montague as the first Canadian novel. Author Frances Brooke (1724-1789) was English. Yet she wrote a novel that belongs to this place – and so to Canadian literature. Why can’t other foreign nationals do the same?

Certainly, I can make a case for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Mavis Gallant’s Stories From the Fifteenth District, which could only have been written by Canadians; and also for a memoir set partly in this country. Conversely, I see no way to claim Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano – not without going outside the book. Nor do I see anything Canadian about Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne.

On the other hand, I can make a case for his The Luck of Ginger Coffey, set in Montreal – and likewise for Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For. In these last, all written by authors born outside Canada, we see on-page proof of “civic identification.”

Will posterity accept less? I doubt it. One hundred years from now, if people are still studying Canadian literature, those who prepare reading lists won’t be contemplating an author’s persona or promotional strategies. They will make choices based on the books in front of them.

Ken McGoogan is the author most recently of Race to the Polar Sea.


  1. Ted Betts on February 1, 2022 at 5:20 pm

    I've been following your debate about what is Canadian literature and what is not with some interest. I agree we should be looking at the book, but if I may ask you, would you consider your Lady Franklin's Revenge, one I thoroughly thoroughly enjoyed BTW, to be a part of Canadian literature?

    While it is history and not fiction, wouldn't your same tests single the book out as non-Canadian?

    I think there would be something wrong with any Canadian categorization that left out Ken McGoogan and all of his works!

    I think a Canadian voice or perspective – which does come from the author and his or her background – can make a book Canadian, at least partially so, even if it is about a non-Canadian subject.

    I have no problem with quite loose rules about what is Canadian and what is not. In fact, I think we spend too much time navel gazing and asking that question in all realms, not just literature and not just in the arts (the same debate rages in science and sports and corporate ownership), and I think it shows a great deal of national insecurity that we agonize over this.

    Worse, by agonizing and obsessing over what is Canadian enough and who is Canadian enough, we are taking our focus off where it should be: the book. Which is a big part of your point.

    I'd much rather us spend all that time and angst talking about what is a good book instead of who is a good Canadian.

    Very much looking forward to sitting down with your latest! Too little has been written about Elisha Kent Kane.

    Cheers and thanks,

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