The latest edition of The Winnipeg Review came out a week ago, but Pasha Malla’s “27 Thoughts About CanLit” is still on my mind.
The piece received plenty of buzz on twitter and has been hat-tipped by many major outlets in Canada, including Quill & Quire and BookThug. I imagine it will be referenced many times over the coming year, and it should be: Malla examines conversations around publishing and the “future of the book” in Canada, but he also asks important questions about what Canadian literature is, and why–and how–artists should be paid for their work. Crucially, he asks what makes books “good”–and whether books are “good” just because they are books, versus less wholesome consumable objects:
Is a book somehow innately good just because it’s not an app? How does reading a book that extols the virtues of, say, Pol Pot, or regurgitates the same old vacuous narrative and thematic clichés (“unlikely friendships,” “the power of the human spirit,” “World War Two,” etc.) in lazy, insipid sentences, or seems a deliberate ploy to win a prize, qualify as best practices over watching The Wire on your iPad? Is a book still good even if it’s a bad book?
“We must ask ourselves these questions,” writes Simon Brault in No Culture, No Future, “to avoid sinking into the deluded numbness of magical thinking or into the paralysis provoked by cynicism and dishonesty.”
Are books good just because they are books? I don’t think so. And the more seriously I study the art of reviewing, the more I believe rigorous literary criticism is a backbone for a robust Canadian literary culture, because it pushes us into ever-deeper conversations. Literature can be transformative, but it is not transformative if it uncritically regurgitates cultural norms. The role of the reviewer is to push a piece of literature to its limits, question its assumptions, expose its guts–as well as to celebrate truly excellent work.
I like Malla’s distrust for mainstream or lazy narratives when it comes to the future of the book in Canada. The best possible future of CanLit will arise from dissatisfaction with “magical thinking.”