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When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing

by Stephen Henighan

Cultural commentators have been trumpeting a Canadian literary renaissance for the past decade or so, citing lucrative foreign sales, international prizes, and worldwide media attention for our literary fiction. Canadian is hot, the headlines read. Author and academic Stephen Henighan not-so-politely begs to differ.

A short précis cannot sum up the ideas contained in When Words Deny the World. Henighan admits in his introduction that he resisted the urge when collecting these essays to corral his ideas into a more cohesive or linear series of arguments. Together the essays trace the permutations of a wide-ranging intellect engaged with Canadian literary fiction in the post-free trade 1980s and ’90s.

None of Henighan’s conclusions are positive. He argues that Canadian fiction has been in decline since the mid-1980s, when Canada signed its first free-trade pact with the U.S. Henighan views free-trade agreements as the political and economic manifestation of a larger trend toward cultural globalization, a trend that shows itself on a literary level as generic, bland prose that increasingly panders to international markets.

Where writers of Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood’s successive generations boldly explored Canada’s role as a politically marginalized country sandwiched between its status as a former British colony and the cultural behemoth to the south, the post-Baby Boom generations have, for the most part, created a homogenized, bland literature that tries to disguise its Canadian roots and historical distinctiveness. Henighan also argues that many of Canada’s older writers have succumbed to the same temptation in order to secure lucrative foreign rights deals.

It’s a compelling argument. Henighan is at his best when taking on individual works or writers. His analysis of such classics of “free trade fiction” as The English Patient, Fugitive Pieces, and The Stone Diaires are some of the most blistering and erudite pieces of Canadian literary criticism ever published, displaying his knowledge of post-colonial literary theory and the dynamics of the written word. Though unnecessarily bilious at times, Henighan puts the average book reviewer to shame in these pieces.

Less compelling are some of his broader swipes at the current literary and publishing scene in Canada. While it’s hard to argue with his assertion that younger writers need to look beyond trendy globalized culture to engage with uniquely Canadian social and historical forces, Henighan grossly underestimates how much global culture is the culture of many Canadians. If a young Canadian writer grew up experiencing a stronger cultural affiliation with American sitcoms than, say, the settling of Upper Canada, then surely that is the perspective from which they must write.

Henighan’s rabid anti-Toronto bias – the city is portrayed as a modern Whore of Babylon – smacks of a particular strain of small-minded Canadiana. Some of his arguments about Toronto’s dominance of the country’s literature are simply not borne out by the recent spate of successful East and West Coast writers.

Perhaps these criticisms are actually a sign of how engaging the book is, though: like all good criticism, When Words Deny the World compels a response.