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The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature

by Coral Ann Howells and Eva-Marie Kröller, eds.

A single-volume history of Canadian literature “from the beginnings” – which here means the first European contact with Native peoples – presents a formidable challenge. The “two women scholars” (their self-description) who have edited this volume have not made things any easier for themselves by taking as inclusive an approach as possible, aiming to represent the “ethnic, cultural and regional diversities that were sometimes submerged in previous paradigms.” This means chapters on topics such as Aboriginal literature and “transcultural life-writing.”

It is, in other words, an academic work very much of its time, emphasizing (even retrospectively) postmodernism’s “discourse of hybridity,” its “unrestrained pluralities,” and all the multiplicities of multiculturalism. There is no point looking for a master narrative – or much coherence of any kind – among these 31 essays (all by academics): the desire to be all-inclusive tends to turn history into chronicle, and the text sometimes becomes a mere list of titles and names with a minimum of context or critical discussion attached to them. The result is that the book is simultaneously too much and not enough – something more than a companion or annotated index, but something less than an in-depth examination of any particular subject.

The best essays are the ones that focus more closely on a narrower field: Michael Peterman on the best-selling authors of the late 19th century (all of them now forgotten) or Robert Thacker on the quartet of Atwood, Gallant, Munro, and Shields. In general, however, the results are disappointing, not just because of the dearth of analysis and the lack of any unifying big picture, but because of the depressing nature of academic writing, which arises out of what Clive James called “the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results.”

The deadliness in this case comes not so much from the overuse of buzzwords and jargon as from the endless qualifications and general mushiness, the lack of bite and opinion (evaluative criticism is avoided and, as a result, there is virtually no negative commentary), and the tendency to require a quote to back up every point, no matter how banal or obvious. On more than one occasion, quotations are taken from dustjackets just for a brief description of what a book is about! However, without evidentiary authority the authors sometimes find themselves on shaky ground. For instance, the reader’s jaw unhinges when Neil Ten Kortenaar calls Rohinton Mistry “probably the most read Canadian writer.” How was this (bizarre) apprisal arrived at?

A book like this necessarily occupies an uncomfortable middle ground, somewhere between a reference volume and something anyone might actually read. But by this point, we should be able to take it for granted that Canadian literature is “an important scholarly field.” That scholarship now needs to up its game.