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The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, 2nd Edition

by Eugene Benson and William Toye,eds.

Where are we in our literary history? It’s a question that comes up. People want to know. They see Canadian novels sprouting like never before, they notice Canadian writers finding foreign readerships, winning international prizes. They wonder: is Canadian writing the healthiest it’s ever been? Soon to produce a Nobel laureate? Headed for a crash?

What’s called for is an accurate means by which to measure all this, something like the tidy scale by which geologists chart the eons of the Earth, gathering in the years for classification. Then again, the economical thing might just be to retrofit that very scale to service CanLit.

So, then, that would put us…? Let’s see. We’re obviously well on from Merioneth times, epochally notable for volcanic activity and long periods of marine sedimentation but wholly lacking anything in the way of land life. And I’d say we’d navigated the enormous swamps and early coal-formation that distinguish the Pennsylvanian years.

Which would bring us to the Cenozoic. More specifically? Well, if we’re agreed that the glaciers have receded and the climate is equable, then we’re talking Holocene. Which, of course, means either that the ice caps have long since formed or… absolutely nothing. Come to think of it, G.K. Chesterton was on to something in 1910, when in a book with the marvellous title of What’s Wrong With the World, he objected to the way people speak of nations as if they are human.

“Thus people will say that Spain has entered a final senility; they might as well say that Spain is losing her teeth. Or people will say that Canada should soon produce a literature; which is like saying that Canada must soon grow a moustache.”

Chesterton’s point: when we try to reduce matters as multiform as nationhood or literature to unity and simplicity, we begin to think recklessly. Which is why I’m wary of using the second edition of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature as an occasion to refine anything like a definitive statement about the state of said literature. Yes, I suppose you could conclude, as several reviews did in 1983 when the first edition appeared, that the very existence of such a volume is testament to the maturity of our literature. But what would that tell you? That literary dotage is next?

Much better, I think, to decide what kind of companion we’re getting from editors William Toye and Eugene Benson. It’s worth examining, that word companion. It’s a noun that doesn’t exactly shirk responsibility, but it does accept a secondary role. An accompanist rather than a soloist. A Boswell rather than a Johnson. A companion is a sidekick, support staff. As Sir Paul Harvey wrote when he introduced the first Oxford Companion to English Literature in 1932, a literary companion does its duty if it proves helpful “to ordinary everyday readers of English literature,” satisfying an immediate curiosity on a given subject, perhaps pointing them the way of further inquiry.

In their introduction, Toye and Benson more or less echo Harvey: the Companion, they say, seeks to be “useful and interesting” to “readers of the literature.” Useful it certainly is, first for reasons – bulk, breadth, solid thoroughness – that make it sound like some ploddingly reliable draught-horse. Be that as it may, the new bigger book is definitely a new better book. The original edition contained 770 entries by 193 writers over 843 pages. This time out, there are 342 new entries, 132 new contributors, 325 more pages. Newly aboard are novelists and poets and dramatists (including William Gibson, Anne Carson, and Brad Fraser), academics (Ramsey Cook and Charles Taylor), individual books (The Diviners), and publishers (The Porcupine’s Quill). Original entries have been updated across the board, and there are many more essay entries amplifying such significant themes as Caribbean-Canadian literature, censorship, gay literature, and lesbian literature.

Interesting this Companion also is: for anyone at all bookish, it’s a browsing dream. Many of the entries are as brisk and businesslike as you please, but many make room for the tint of telling anecdote. Here’s the end of Robert Fulford’s sketch of the journalist and critic Hector Charlesworth for instance: “He died a critic’s death in Toronto on 30 December, 1945: a heart attack killed him after he received a telephone call from Duke Ellington angrily objecting to Charlesworth’s Globe and Mail review (‘jungle music à la Harlem’) of an Ellington concert.”

For a while I dutifully went through the Companion trying to trick it into betraying its oversights, omissions, loopholes. I found enough nits to pick to congratulate myself for knowing an obscure thing or two about Canadian letters – the Giller Prize gets short shrift, the Gelber Prize none at all; the entries don’t reflect the wider literary culture of publishers as well as they might – but there’s nothing glaring.

If I was going to complain – well, here it is: Toye and Benson are unaccountably taciturn in providing their terms of reference, their rules of engagement. Their introduction is given over largely to acknowledgments: what’s needed is some strong statement of aim, of governing philosophy, an account of what parameters the editors drew for themselves, of the problems they considered, conquered, and/or to which they capitulated.

The closest they come to anything in that order is the unadorned warning that “it is well to remember that” this volume is “not in any way canonical in its approach.” Not intentionally, maybe. But a book like this can’t help but be a canon-maker. What’s in – those books and writers chosen by the editors – is the essential stuff of Canadian literature. What’s out – is out. That much, editors and readers alike tacitly agree on. But at times, where Toye and Benson seem to be suspending critical considerations in the interest of delivering primary information, there’s no knowing why.

Without any kind of explicit editorial explanation, this can be confusing. Take the latter part of “Novels in English,” which earnestly discusses some decidedly middling novels of recent vintage. Is this in the interest of detached trendspotting, a faithful reporting of the stumblings of the literary young?

The most extreme example – and the only baffling inclusion – I came across was that of Richard Rohmer. “The undisputed Canadian king of the pot-boiler,” contributor David Skene-Melvin calls him in dismissing all but one of his novels as lacking “redeeming social importance” and “literary values.” Rohmer has sold some books in his time, no doubt, but if that’s how he qualified for his eight inches, then why isn’t there room for a Joy Fielding or a Jack Whyte?

Otherwise, in the spirit of the blind presumption of books with names like What’s Wrong With the World, I’d suggest that next time out, the editors expand the Companion by another 500 pages. That would allow them to add another layer of entries, entries that are less orderly and predictable. In his original Oxford Companion to English Literature, Sir Paul Harvey included “allusions commonly met with” in the literature. Think of what an even more useful and interesting companion you’d have in a book that made room for those and other oddments – an entry on the literary legacy of Sir John Franklin, on literary rumour, on Hagar Shipley, on Daisy Goodwill.

The last thing I’d ask of Toye and Benson is that they not wait another 14 years to produce that third edition. We need them to stay on top of things. The way I see it, the next few years are going to be critical ones in the growth of Canadian literature. Forget the moustache: I’m talking a full beard by the millennium.


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: Oxford University Press


Price: $75

Page Count: 956 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-195411-67-6

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1997-12

Categories: Anthologies