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

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

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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