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Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984

by T.F. Rigelhof

T.F. Rigelhof has been a critic and enthusiast of Canadian literature for decades, long enough to pine for the days when Montreal’s The Double Hook bookstore (which closed in 2005) was a hub for a nascent literary nationalism.

Rigelhof’s reflections on those bygone, pre-digital, pre-book-chain days and his own experiences mingling with CanLit’s stars and backroom movers and shakers comprise the best sections of Hooked on Canadian Books. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to essays, some less than half a page, on the novels Rigelhof deems worthy of inclusion on his “good, better, best” list. Unfortunately, most of these pieces fail to rise to the standards Rigelhof sets in the introductory essay and longer pieces that begin each chapter.

Rigelhof states that his book is not a critical analysis of the English Canadian novel of the last 35 years so much as a “celebration of novels written in English by Canadian writers that made a difference in this reader’s life and have the power to do the same for you.” He is being slightly disingenuous here. You can’t read hundreds of novels and then winnow the stacks to less than a hundred titles without making inherent critical judgments. As a long-time critic for The Globe and Mail, Rigelhof knows that some novels are better than others – he even admits that plenty of bad Canadian novels are published every year.

Had Rigelhof established a set of aesthetic and thematic criteria for judging the works discussed, his list, no matter how idiosyncratic, would have proven useful to both experienced and novice readers of English Canadian fiction. Instead, his key indicator of success is … well … success. Put another way, a good Canadian novel, according to the bulk of the essays, is defined by some combination of the following: inclusion on at least one award shortlist, positive reviews by other critics and authors, a large advance, preferably from a foreign-owned publisher, and high sales figures.

Time and again Rigelhof begins his essays with lists of a novel’s commercial and critical accomplishments, as if this ephemeral recognition were proof of genius.

He is far more revealing on those rare occasions when he lashes out at authors who break ranks with the “if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all” ethos that has defined critical discourse in Canada since Margaret Laurence memorably defined our authors as a single “tribe.” The only three authors whose critical opinions are singled out for sharp censure are urban novelists – Russell Smith, Douglas Coupland, and Stephen Marche – who have publicly criticized Rigelhof’s beloved Canadian literary establishment (and have never been shortlisted for that Holiest of Holies, the Giller Prize).

He is especially hard on Smith, who apparently “tries too hard to capture an audience that no longer exists (most of Kingsley Amis is out of print).” Since Smith writes more in the tradition of such arid, witty modernists as Henry Green, Aldous Huxley, and Evelyn Waugh, it’s hard to make much of this statement.

Rigelhof might want to look beyond the awards shortlists and a limited sampling of publishers’ catalogues for a true portrait of the contemporary Canadian novel.