Arrival: The Story of Canlit
By Nick Mount. Anansi, 373 pp, hardcover
On RateMyProfessors.com, the website where disgruntled students post anonymous attacks on their teachers, no one speaks ill of Nick Mount. He lectures on Canadian literature at the University of Toronto, and his new book Arrival is a fascinating overview of that subject from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Its publication coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of House of Anansi Press, not coincidentally the publisher of the book in question. Mount was only nine years old when Anansi brought out Margaret Atwood’s Survival, her own survey of the field, back in 1972. So when he writes about how Canadian writing was coming to an explosive boil half a century ago, he is working from genuine historical research rather than his own memory. He gets most of the story right and a few bits wrong, and does both things in a serious but highly entertaining manner that seems to flirt with comic sarcasm at times.
The central idea of Arrival is that Canadian writing blossomed as a result of rising incomes and added leisure in the aftermath of the Second World War. He has statistics to back this up. For example, between 1963 and 1972 the number of new Canadian literary works published domestically increased by 320 percent. Similarly, there was a new vigour in the visual arts, broadcasting, and so on. Bookselling was growing, libraries were expanding, new universities were starting, reputations were born. So in a sense he is writing popular social history.
He tells tales of significant publishers, editors, and critics, but most of all relates the stories of authors. The approach isn’t textual, it’s binary. Some writers he likes because they’re good, while others he dislikes because they’re bad. For example, he barely tolerates Irving Layton, Marshall McLuhan, Leonard Cohen, Dave Godfrey, and numerous foreigners. But he goes a bundle on Al Purdy, Northrop Frye, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant—and Anansi. It’s all rather too subjective. But in fairness it’s intended to be quality literary journalism, not criticism.
An unusual feature is the inclusion of more than a hundred short sidebars about individual books. They are scattered throughout, each one with a reproduction of the cover and Mount’s personal opinion of the contents. Each title is awarded from one to five stars, like capsule movie reviews in some Postmedia newspaper. A single star shows only that the book somehow managed to get published; five stars indicates a “world classic”. Margaret Atwood has the largest number of books in the race and the highest number of stars.
Mount does an excellent job in showing the roles of the different regions in so much of the country’s writing. Newfoundland, the Maritimes, Quebec, and the Prairies all get their due. He seems especially understanding of the West Coast and Vancouver in particular. He recaps what all of us here know—Sheila Watson, bill bissett, George Bowering, Tish, UBC, the 1963 poetry conference, and so forth. But as a syllabus, especially one for non–British Columbians, not bad.
Parts of the book read as though they have been repurposed from Mount’s previous writings or lectures. This leads to variations in people’s names and occasional repetitions. On page 218 he states needlessly that the poet Daphne Marlatt was born Daphne Buckle. Then he tells us again on 221. That kind of thing.