Refuse: CanLit in Ruins edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker

Writing this review was as difficult and exhausting as trying to follow the numerous CanLit controversies over the past couple of years, with which this book is concerned.

Okay, not quite as exhausting.

Reviewing any anthology is tough, though. I have a hard enough time with story and essay collections – when some entries are strong and some are weak, how to evaluate the whole, other than to deem it “uneven”? With an anthology, add the difficulty of evaluating multiple voices. Here, there are twenty four contributors and three editors, and we hear from the editors a lot.

Add another difficulty: the fact that I’m almost certainly not the intended audience. This is a book of writers and academics thinking about writing and the academy.

Indeed, I can’t help but agree with Russell Smith, who I normally find to be a bit of a crank (though a great short story writer) when he said that “CanLit now means the study of CanLit, with all its fraught panel discussions. In short, it means university departments.

In other words, readers don’t come into it. Back to that in a sec, though.

There are a couple of stand out pieces. “Rape Culture, CanLit, and You” by Zoe Todd collects a Twitter thread she wrote in the very beginning of the UBCAccountable scandal. It’s still the most thorough and easiest to understand summary I’ve found anywhere of what exactly Steven Galloway did (allegedly… he’s a bit litigious lately), why all those CanLit superstars jumped to his defense, and how it’s all connected to rape culture.

Then there’s Alicia Elliot’s “CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire,” which lays out how “a national literature’s job is to both define and uphold the nation”, and explains that if your nation’s existence happens to be based on colonialism, racism, and a dismissive at-least-we’re-not-as-bad-as-the-States mentality, well… you end up here. In a dumpster. On fire.

The anthology as a whole actually does what it sets out to do, as stated in the introduction: “archiving and preserving important activist contributions that were part of the response to the controversies that have affected CanLit since 2016: notably UBCAccountable, the sexual harrassment revelations at Concordia University, the “Appropriation Prize,” and debates about Joseph Boyden’s identity claims.” Todd and Elliot’s pieces in particular provide a good entry point while wading into the deeper issues.

The best piece of true preservation is probably Kim Goldberg’s poem “small birds,” which incorporates a list of UBCAccountable signatories who either removed or added their names after the original letter went up. The data analyst in me wants an even deeper analysis: who signed and when, how long did people stay on the list, who made a statement, who’s been on the list and silent the whole time (cough Michael Ondaatje cough)?

Several other poems worked really well. Gwen Benaway’s “But I Still Like” in particular cuts to the chase:

but the merciful white cis folks
will save us all with their feminist manifestos
retweet the protest anthem
“buy diverse literature”
because consumption is something
Canadians respect.

Many of the remaining prose pieces, however, serve to remind me that as a humble reader, I have no place in this debate. Take this example, from the introduction:

And, as is the case throughout this book, the contributions in this section think these questions through from multiple institutional and personal perspectives: as professors and editors and writers and activists and mentors and students.”

Whither the reader? Also consider an essay called “CanLit Hierarchy vs the Rhizome” by Natalee Caple and Nikki Reimer, where people who consume “mainstream and popular” books are referred to as “the non-writing public.” or the otherwise very good essay “Stars Upon Thars” by Tanis MacDonald, about literary celebrity, which made me laugh out loud when readers were categorized as follows, in parentheses: “(…be they profs, students, or yes, other writers).”

Writers who only imagine their audience as other writers and academics is part of the bigger CanLit problem. Who’s reading? Who cares? (Side note: If you’re interested in that angle, I wrote about it in a book review a few years ago, which, side note to a side note, gave me a taste of the insular world of CanLit when the literary journal I was writing for asked me to remove a reference to Madeleine Thien and UBCAccountable because she’s a friend of the journal.)

I should point out that I attended the launch event for this book, and the editors who were there that evening, Julie Rak and Hannah McGregor, were very welcoming and open and not at all interested in categorizing or leaving anyone out. This is a feeling I got from (some of) the pieces, intended or not.

While this book is successful in its stated purpose, as a humble reader, I didn’t gain the clarity I was hoping to. I’m still in a murky place where I am not specifically boycotting anyone, not even Galloway or Atwood, but I won’t exactly be racing out to watch an advertisement for The Testaments in a movie theatre (!) either. But perhaps that’s the point. In the introduction, the editors make reference to the theoretical concepts of “living in the ruins” of CanLit, and “staying with the trouble” of accepting that CanLit (and Canada) are kind of messed up, and we’re all a little complicit. So with that in mind, maybe I’ve ended up exactly where I should be.

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8 comments

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  2. BookerTalk

    I had no idea there was so much controversy with Canadian literature that it warranted a whole book. Clearly not a book for the non professionally academic reader which makes you wonder why there was a need for the book. Couldnt they just have published the pieces in an academic journal?

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  4. annelogan17

    Hmmm I haven’t read this one myself, but I’ve read many other intelligent reviews of it (such as yours) which leads me to think I don’t really care enough either way to read the book myself. Like you, I don’t really fall on either side of the controversy, especially because the majority of canadian book buyers don’t know or care about these controversies either. These issues are very heavily ensconced in the few people who were directly and personally involved, who to be quite honest, don’t ring a bell for the average indigo customer because a lot of this took place in an elitist environment in itself (i.e. universities, literary magazines, etc.)

  5. Naomi

    I had to think for a bit before commenting. And I still can’t think of anything I want to say, except that I think your review of this book is well-done. I don’t think I’ll be reading the book, but a couple of the essays in it sound interesting. Like you say, it’s exhausting, so I usually prefer not to think about it most of the time. Haha!

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