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A Report on the Afterlife of Culture

by Stephen Henighan

Literary criticism in Canada suffers from a plague of timidity. There are many reasons for this, but one of the primary ones is the misguided notion that a vibrant literary culture depends on blind boosterism from those who comment on the products of that culture. Our Canadian politesse, which finds any kind of negative or contrarian opinion to be in poor taste, encourages this kind of criticism. We prefer cheerleaders to critics.

Fortunately, Canadian criticism can boast Stephen Henighan, a persistent thorn in the side of the Canadian literary establishment, but also a fearless and perceptive observer of our literary culture. Henighan’s criticism is not of the Dale Peck school of unthinking snark. He prefers a careful reading of texts and authors, and a deliberate analysis of how cultural forces in our society shape the kind of literature we produce.

When Words Deny the World, Henighan’s 2002 essay collection, argued that a “free trade” mentality among publishers, writers, and agents has resulted in a flattening of our literary landscape and an ahistorical approach to the themes and subjects of our fiction. His new collection extends this thesis, arguing that the unchecked capitalist ethos in our country fosters bland middlebrow writing that, far from being in the first class of world literature, pales in comparison to the innovations of Spanish American and European literatures.

A Report on the Afterlife of Culture is larger than its predecessor in every way: it is longer, and its range of focus has broadened to include a section of essays devoted to the work of international writers such as Haruki Murakami, Gabriel García Márquez, and Roberto Bolaño. These essays are preceded by a section of travel writing that is presumably intended to put the various world literatures into context, but in practice fails to persuasively justify its own inclusion in the book. Similarly, some of the pieces in the book’s final section – such as the politically oriented “Totalitarian Democracy” and “In Praise of Borders,” which describes a train trip the author took from Amsterdam to Switzerland – are out of place, and could have been cut.

Henighan frequently lays himself open to charges of paranoia – as with his argument that the Giller Prize is controlled by a Toronto-area cabal headed by Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro – and is prone to sweeping generalizations, such as the patently absurd claim that “The saddest people in the world today are adults who read Harry Potter.”

However, for his willingness to say the unsayable, and his enthusiastic piercing of the balloons of Canadian literary pretension, Henighan’s new volume is a welcome addition to the annals of CanLit criticism. ­