CanLit for Cynics: Q&A with Peter Unwin

petroniusWhen I wrote about CanLit cynicism for carte blanche, I started with Alex Good’s book of essays, Revolutions (full Q&A here). Then, a very strange novel fell into my hands (actually, it was placed there by Kelsey at Freehand Books) and I knew these books were meant to be together. Searching for Petronius Totem is a strange, hilarious book, and author Peter Unwin is a bit strange and hilarious himself. Read on for the full Q&A.

Many thanks to Mr. Unwin, and Ms. Attard at Freehand books!




Reading in Bed: Who are your influences, particularly, among Canadian writers? 

Peter Unwin: Leacock of course. First and foremost. Perhaps the greatest of them all. His observation that suicide sometimes involves serious consequences is the cornerstone of Canadian wit, that elevation of good down home Canadian stupidity into a type of redemptive art form. Petronius is steeped in it.

With regard to Leacock, people don’t like to confront the fact that he was a dreadful, gleeful racist. The French have this problem with Celine. It’s always a bit awkward when your best author is an unrepentant racist.

Another big influence on the comedic side is Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “Scenes From The Bath House. It was written in the Soviet Union in the 1920s when a good joke, even a bad one, could get you shot in hurry.

My Canadian influences are very foundational. I’ve read a lot of Grey Owl, and Pauline Johnson, two very racialized writers. I read a lot of poetry, Avison, Livesay, the women are strong. I try not to  remember the names of authors. It’s like Auden said, an author’s most important obligation is to remain anonymous. The literary world today demands that we turn ourselves into celebrities, and too many authors have fallen for this.

The biggest influence remains Lowry. I love that Under the Volcano was conceived in a squatter’s shack in Vancouver and finalized in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Mississauga. Married love under siege from addiction, political dysfunction and toxic capitalism, that’s what I took from Lowry and put into Petro.

RIB: Petronius Totem’s rise to literary super stardom and fall from grace put me in mind of several recent CanLit scandals, Galloway in particular. What was it like to see that scandal break just before your book came out? Are you usually this good at predicting the future, or, are disgraced creative writing teachers just that common?

PU: The Kanlit  industry continues to struggle with its core structures, historically grounded in sexism and racism.  It did not just begin with Irving Layton and continue on with Galloway and Boyden; it’s through and through. Look at how many so-called renowned Canadian authors jumped on board to support the white male author and dismiss the concerns of the women. It was shocking and a bit sickening.

I find it more and more difficult to separate sexism from racism, they seem somehow to emerge from the same substance. The disappearance of the Canadian Native from our literature was made official in Two Solitudes  which is still considered (by some) a legitimate and even foundational Canadian text.

When the Writer’s Union of Canada declared that they had the right to appropriate anyone’s culture that they wanted, I don’t think they had any idea of the huge colonialist legacy they were justifying. People can moan and gripe about Political Correctness all they want, but when a bunch of white folk cheerfully attempt to offer a “cultural appropriation award” it shows just how out of touch our so-called “renowned” writers have become. Very sad to watch, and very disappointing.

RIB: I hear you are working on a PhD project about “the death of the book”. Can you tell me a bit about your work in this area? 

PU: The “death of the book” is a fascinating phenomenon and allows a theoretical and operational approach to things like “fake news” and “alternate facts,” both products of the post-book age. As the book is pushed to the margins, we are struggling with what constitutes truth and reliability.  Our trust in the written word is nearly four thousand years old. In the last few decades the written word has become the digital word and it simply does not inspire any faith or trust in its veracity. Where once the written word was associated with “truth” the digitized text is now associated with something else: lies, perhaps, untruth, idiocy, irresponsibility, etc.

The “death of the book” is a neoliberal phenomenon, and indicates a power struggle over who owns culture; the corporate drive to digitize everything, to bring the book within the electronic grid and those who control it. We should never forget that the book is a very radical technology; it can’t be traced. It does not succumb to the methods of modern surveillance, and I think this is one reason that such serious efforts have been made to undermine it as a technology, and replace it with a digital stream that is controlled by Google or Amazon, and runs directly into state security agencies.

So for me, the “death of the book” does not necessarily mean that books will disappear. It means the death of a certain kind of faith, trust, community and even individuality. It means a collective and corporatized turn away from “truth” (which is always contestable and problematic) in favour of “information” which is always considered to be somehow objective, scientific and irrefutable. The death of the book is the starting point of what is increasingly called the “Post-Human.” And Petronius Totem and Jack Vesoovian are two fading skirt-chasing, pathetic white males who cling to their pre-digital ways and get their asses kicked for it.

RIB: Do you follow any new bookish media these days, like Booktube, or Bookstagram, or book blogs? Do you consider any of these media potential saviours of literary culture, or just more death knells? 

PU: That’s a good question. It seems to me that anything that gets us off our cyber-devices is probably a good thing.  On the other hand my daughters have published extensively in Wattpad and they feel sorry for me because my books don’t appear there. I’m not sure that “literary culture” on a computer screen is really “literary culture,” at all. I think, more accurately, it remains “computer culture.” The word “book” comes from the proto-Germanic “boek” meaning beech tree. If it ain’t got no tree in it, I’m sorry, it ain’t a book, it’s an electronic file, and our attempts to re-define a book as an “e-book,” or “e-reader” reveals how desperate corporations are to try and conceal the gap between one and the other.

The tree of life, the book of life, the tree of knowledge, the book of knowledge….this relationship lasted for four millennia. It’s now kaput. I don’t really lament that. I just brace for the consequences.

(Note: Peter Unwin sounds dubious about the bookish internet, but check out his hilarious book tour vlog from way back in 2009!)




  1. Naomi

    I hope to read this at some point… not because I’m a cynic (because I don’t think I am), but because I loved “Nine Bells For a Man”. (I do love your cynical essays and Q&As, though.)
    That video is awesome – especially the giggling from the camera crew!

  2. @Mark_Eleven

    Always pertinent & impertinent at the same time. And the “death of the book” is a great summary of the digital rabbit hole we’re headed for. Now you can’t say you weren’t warned. Great interview. Read the damn book!

  3. Pingback: The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet – #MBI2018 Review | Reading in Bed
  4. Deborah Clipperton

    Peter has a new magnus opus called Written in Stone (Cormorant Books 2020). Fantastic. A very serious novel and a love story for Canada.

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