Though its precise origins are unclear, the term CanLit is now culturally enshrined as shorthand for all that is established and orthodox (or boring and stuffy) in Canadian fiction. The anthology Can’tLit sets itself in strong opposition to this orthodoxy. In his introduction, editor Richard Rosenbaum attacks all the “cold, dull, pastoral stuff … written by people named Margaret” and champions stories that are sharp, offensive, weird, visceral, punk rock, urban, and uncomfortable (all his adjectives). Unfair to the Margarets? Yes. But perhaps necessary if you want to grab some attention in the “mostly bland and soulless field of the Canadian literary scene.”
Strip away the rhetoric and you’re left with a slightly different, less revolutionary picture. In fact, the stories here have already reached an audience, having first been published in Broken Pencil – a well-known website and print magazine. And the claims to non-conformity and transgression (“stories that taste like blood, that hurt to write, and that hurt to read”) are scarcely borne out by what follows.
Which is not to say the anthology is a disappointment. Many of the stories are very good (particularly pieces by Grant Buday and Esme Keith, though there is enough variety on tap for readers of different tastes to pick other favourites). They just aren’t any more experimental, angry, or revealing than most fiction being written today. Nor are all of them Canadian. In addition to some American writers, the collection even includes two stories by an Israeli author that have been translated from the Hebrew. That these don’t constitute traditional CanLit is rather obvious.
Some general observations can be made. The stories tend to be quite short, which is perhaps a function of the Internet and of attendant shrinking attention spans. The majority are told in the first person, in the style of colloquial monologues. The characters are mostly young people – yes, living in large cities – with the action revolving around sexual relations and lousy jobs. Occasionally, magic realist or fantasy elements come into play.
The result is a book that is really more fun and free-spirited than angry and fearless. But regardless of whether your CanLit affiliation is catholic or orthodox, it’s still worth at least a browse.