Barbara Kay: Lack of humour is a funny thing about Canadian writing
National Post - Friday January 10th, 2014
U.S. writer Gary Shteyngart’s latest book is a memoir called “Little Failure.” But the title speaks to what the writer felt as an immigrant child, not to the roaring success he has become as one of America’s most popular authors.
Nevertheless, Shteyngart endured a “little failure” in popularity amongst Canada’s literary elites when he candidly revealed his opinion about the blandness of Canadian fiction, linking its lack of punch to authors’ fears of losing their government grants.
U.S. comic writer Gary Shteyngart’s claim that Canadian fiction is bland because the authors are fearful of losing government grants was met Thursday with predictable repudiation — and some unexpected agreement — among Canadian literary circles.
He made the comments in an interview, published Tuesday, with New York’s Vulture.com. Over dinner at a New York Italian restaurant, Mr. Shteyngart — a former judge for the Scotiabank Giller Prize — was asked if fiction writers should be subsidized.
“Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants,” he replied. “Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks.”
In an interview on Tuesday with a representative from New York’s Vulture.com, Shteyngart was asked his opinion on whether fiction writers should be subsidized. Shteyngart opined, “Let me say this. I was the judge of [the Scotiabank Giller Prize], and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks.” He added, Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”
Not taking risks produces a literary canon that isn’t very funny. In 2012, the year he was referring to, Shteyngart said, “There’s a lack of funny in this country, it seems like, when it comes to literature. One of the reasons I did this entire award is my love of Mordecai Richler. I loved all five books, but funny is also good,” he said at the time.
“142 books, and this country can’t come up with a funny book. Honestly, what the hell!”
Reaction to his latest comments — positive and negative — was swift on Shteyngart’s social media feeds. Toronto-based Esquire columnist Stephen Marche wrote (sarcastically) on Twitter, “Canlit doesn’t take risks. My God, what an amazingly controversial idea.” Cultural observer Jeet Heer also agreed Canlit “doesn’t take risks,” although he did not feel the characteristic was necessarily linked to grants.
On the negative side, Dorris Heffron, chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, told the Toronto Star that Shteyngart’s remark was “an odd, I will say ignorant, thing to say about Canadian Literature, especially at this time,” (referring to Alice Munro’s recent Nobel Prize, even though Munro’s work could hardly be deemed “risky”).
Ms. Heffron then adduced as an example of literary risk-taking (and presumably to rebut Shteyngart’s accusation of lack of humour) Terry Fallis’ recent book, Best-Laid Plans, “a terrific satire on Canadian politics set unabashedly in our nation’s capital.”
(Ms. Heffron did not intend her remark to be satirical itself, but it certainly evoked a guffaw from me, something that doesn’t often happen when I am reading Canlit. A “satire on Canadian politics” and it’s “unabashedly” set in the nation’s capital where politics takes place? This is risk-taking?)
Now I happen to have read Best-Laid Plans and enjoyed it very much. It is gently satiric, let us say. No character, even the meanest, does anything to shock. Everyone is nicely Canadian. Gritty it is not. Sex is discreet, violence is nowhere in sight. One smiles at the political machinations; one does not laugh out loud. To be clear, we are not talking Tom Wolfe here, folks. Fallis’ novel is a sweet read, and I would recommend it to anyone with a five-hour flight on their horizon. But part of the Great Humour Canon it ain’t.
Shteyngart hastily retreated from his comments in the glare of the hostile responses – “I was in a drunken stupor when I said that,” he Tweeted on Thursday – but he shouldn’t have. He was absolutely right. When one thinks of true risk-taking (not aesthetically, aiming for the approval of one’s writing peers, but story-telling and character-framing risk), there isn’t a lot in Canlit. There’s a good reason people keep circling back to Richler. He took risks and was funny, but he was an outsider to Canadian society until well into adulthood and self-exiled for much of his adulthood precisely because of his sense of cultural anomie.
By coincidence, when I read Shteyngart’s remarks, I had just finished reading the latest edition of Canadian Notes & Queries, which is almost in its entirety a homage to John Metcalf, Canada’s premier literary editor, teacher and critic devoted solely to Canlit. Several of the pieces are written by former or current beneficiaries of Metcalf’s mentorship.
One such reminiscence, by children’s literature author Mike Barnes, recalls a conversation over a breakfast about comic writing, in which they “made each other laugh till the tears came,” with Metcalf “recit[ing] whole swathes of Waugh, Amis (Kingsley), Wodehouse…Who in Canada, I asked, when we had wiped our eyes and returned our attention to our plates, made him laugh? ‘No one,’ he said, continuing to process his breakfast.”