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“High in antioxidants, low on caffeine”: Leah McLaren weighs in on CanLit

Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren is the latest public figure to opine on the state of Can Lit. Prompted by this year’s awards season, McLaren takes the discussion one step further (or, perhaps backward) by flat-out refusing to read any nominated titles.

Beyond wondering who does Annabel Lyon’s hair and if Margaret Atwood is “pissed” by her exclusion from several major shortlists, McLaren simply cannot deign to read jury-selected books, voracious reader though she claims to be. Which, of course, more than qualifies her to weigh in on the subject.

In Saturday’s column, she cautions against the dangers of reading what “the man” tells you to:

[…] despite all the good that literary prizes provide — and I say this as a member of the Authors’ Committee of the Writers’ Trust of Canada — there is also an inherent danger in their increasing cultural primacy.

As one Canadian writer who did not want his name used recently said to me in an e-mail, the problem with prize lists is that they take something intimate and eclectic and turn it into a socially sanctioned Cultural Event.

“Reading — unlike multiplex movie-going, say — is inherently idiosyncratic,” he wrote. “Its idiosyncrasy is in its strength, the breadth of library and bookstore choices offering a feast of discoveries for the curious and story-hungry. Prizes, on the other hand, ultimately work to shape a vast plurality of tastes into a single, institutionally endorsed selection. The Giller is a successful venture, no question about it. But successful at what? Bringing new readers to exciting, boundary-pushing, pleasure-filled books? Or calcifying CanLit into a predictable brand?”

She also likens prize lists to high-school English curricula and the content of prison libraries. Given this year’s sombre selections, it could be argued that McLaren has a point. Besides, who better to judge the state of CanLit than the author of the “giggly, airy” Continuity Girl?