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Literary Celebrity in Canada

by Lorraine York

In this slim book, Lorraine York, a professor of English at McMaster University, examines the condition of literary celebrity in Canada. She begins by looking at early celebrity authors in this country – Pauline Johnson, Stephen Leacock, Mazo de la Roche, and L.M. Montgomery – and concludes with separate chapters on contemporary literary stars Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Carol Shields.

York herself cannot write. What she offers as a substitute is a combination of academic boilerplate and evasive English. A thick weave of sources, many of them unnecessary, are introduced ritualistically: “as X argues,” “as Y notes,” “according to Z.” One suspects the pernicious effect of grading too many undergraduate term papers. Equally formulaic is her technical vocabulary. “Negotiating discourse” appears to be chief among the new shibboleths, with “porosity” (or the even less graceful, though perhaps more apt, “cultural leakage”) coming a close second. The meaning of these terms is vague, but no doubt “radically conflicted,” as York herself might put it.

Such indeterminate language operates as a kind of cloaking device for arguments that are so equivocal, ambiguous, and qualified as to be scarcely worth pursuing. L.M. Montgomery, we are told, “has resurfaced, to some extent, in academic Canadian literature circles, though her status there seems still marginal, in many ways.” The verbal floundering continues with the discussion of Michael Ondaatje coming out of his cocoon of privacy to plug the film version of The English Patient. York tells us that this “irony signals not hypocrisy but complexity.” In the process of celebrity construction, Ondaatje occupies a “sideways middle space,” his own celebrity a “contrary, hybrid affair.”

There is simply no way to critically engage with such intellectual Jell-O. York clearly has very little to say and is fiercely determined not to say it.