Canada and cross-border culture
I recently completed a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. The program has excellent faculty, including Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Tom French, Suzannah Lessard, author of a New York Times bestseller and former New Yorker writer, and Richard Todd, former executive editor of Atlantic Monthly.
Before attending and meeting the faculty, I feared that they might have huge egos and tell pompous, insufferable stories. Boy, was I wrong. The humility and down-to-earth nature of the professors/mentors in this program, not to mention their humor and good will, were an endearing delight. It was a joy to learn with them. As a whole, the faculty all seemed genuinely caring about each student’s project, wanting to nurture it to its best possible form.
I truly valued the camaraderie and support among the students. The program attracts highly capable and much-published writers, yet no one lorded it over anyone else. We all strived to give our best to our own and each other’s works. I never felt that someone was vying against me; it felt more like having a close-knit group of friends to provide succor and ideas when needed.
Although we had excellent assigned reading material for the two-year degree program, it was sometimes challenging as a Canadian to read so much U.S.-based writing and hear solely American perspectives. I would have preferred a more multicultural choice of content, with creative nonfiction voices from different countries and continents.
At times, it seemed as if few people knew or cared what writers say or do above the 49th parallel. Sure, I know that all great literature surpasses national boundaries but doesn’t knowing about your neighboring nation help to enrich your views and knowledge of your own country? (Sadly, Canada offers no master’s degree programs devoted solely to creative nonfiction.)
Too often, Canada emerges in American culture as “a country not considered,” to borrow a term from Ken Kesey. Even in U.S. movies, we rarely appear, usually only as an oblique reference. In the celluloid world, we’re that vast, unformed space, the Great White North, where guys on the lam escape to, like a chillier version of Mexico. The impression on screen always seems to be that once any U.S. fugitive crosses into Canada, he or she is as good as gone. No one will ever find ‘em up here. It’s all just igloos and melting ice floes, right?
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The death of literature?
I recently read a book by Canadian writer Don Bailey, which included his experiences as a new writer in Toronto’s literary scene and media world in the 1970s. I was amazed at the easy access he had to major writers and editors, who seemed to have welcoming, open-door policies for neophytes and lots of time to nurture and network with beginner scribes. That certainly does not appear to be the case now. I wonder if part of the difference now lies in the exponentially higher numbers of “writers” around. When I shared my thoughts on this topic with a friend, a Canadian author and English professor, he offered these comments:
“[T]he country was smaller then [in the 1970s], so people around writing were more in touch. Plus there was a spirit that we were all engaged in the same enterprise–the articulation of a country, Canada, and what it might mean (however we defined its people and its issues). Once the bubble of Canadian nationalism popped, a much more mean-spirited attitude took control which extends to this day: people think about their writing ‘careers,’ which I NEVER heard mentioned when we set out.
“Academia is only interested in a very narrow band of the spectrum of contemporary literature–besotted with the essentially whacko ideas of the French ‘theorists’ and their disciples, literary academics (or, as some now prefer to regard themselves, “cultural” theorists) are interested in holding forth on only a few non-narrative, non-representational writers. A basic tenet of these critics and their disciples is that most writers are stupid and venal, and only the critics can point out just HOW stupid and venal a writer’s ideas really are. So an atmosphere of fear and hate settled over the academic study of literature. You’d have to be stupid or venal yourself to love literature, in the prevailing view–the point is not to love it but to point out and denounce its flaws, sins, crimes. Ditto language itself.
”So that dead end has taken literary studies out of the equation, except to speak to each other. Its nasty-minded grads find in the outer world that nobody much is interested in their take on literature, so they either drop these concepts or retreat back to the warm womb of some English Department to teach. Thus the beat goes on. I have some faith that this bizarre cycle is coming to an end, but it make take another entire generation to work its way back to a concept of enjoying literature, of seeing language and literature as meaningful rather than misguided. Your (or Bailey’s) remembrances of the past underscore just how much has been lost.”
A bleak outlook, dontcha think? I’m an idealist and believe that enthusiastic educators can pass on their love of language and literature to students regardless of prevailing cultural attitudes. Any children who had a parent read aloud to them while growing up already have a foundation in the play of words and joys of story-telling. Nowadays, I wonder: Are blogs killing language and literature?
Want to read more of my writing? Check out the Writing link on my main website.