Green Books Campaign: Can’tLit

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

Can’tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine by Richard Rosenbaum, ed.

ECW Press, 2009

Printed on FSC-certified paper, Ancient Forest Friendly Paper

I was an admirer of Canadian Literature (CanLit) long before I came to Canada, counting Clara Callan, Unless, A Fine Balance, and about a hundred other Canadian books amongst my favorites. Back then, I didn’t think of these novels as particularly Canadian; if asked what they had in common, I’d have said: their desire to probe delicately at the stuff of our daily lives, to reveal small truths with wry humor, and to write measured, gentlemanly prose that never sought to dazzle, but worked hard at staying in the background.

Since moving to Canada (from England), my access to CanLit has broadened, but my initial perception of Canadian writing hasn’t altered materially. Inevitably, when I’ve looked for edgy work, I’ve always looked outside the country. Canadian writing is notable for many things, but not for unconventional writing eager to take risks.  The very qualities that appeal sometimes seem to limit it–CanLit can seem to willfully circumscribe itself by an unwonted insistence on gravitas and sedateness. Of course there are exceptions (the wonderful and woefully under-appreciated Elyse Friedman comes to mind), but in general, avant-garde writing appears to have few champions in this country.

All this leads to the book I’m writing about: Can’tLit, an anthology showcasing some of the best fiction published in Broken Pencil, a journal devoted to independent arts. The title is an unequivocal statement that the literary climate of Canada does not encourage edgy experimental writing. Hal Niedzviecki, fiction editor of Broken Pencil, writes in his foreword that the magazine publishes “only the most desperate writing, only the stuff that got kicked out of the house before limping over to our office with no place else to go. […] These stories are outcasts. They don’t fit into traditional CanLit…” And assistant fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum says, “You may have noticed that the writing we tend to prize most highly here [in Canada…] is the cold, dull, pastoral, stuff. Little girls growing up in small towns or old women dying in them. The stuff written by people named Margaret.” He adds that “there is a need for [] sharp, offensive urban fiction, for all that all-around weird shit, in the otherwise mostly bland and soulless field of the Canadian literary scene.”

Despite the hyperbole (OTT!), despite Rosenbaum’s low regard for the Margarets  (I wept over The Stone Angel, not being forced to read it in high school and all), I’m sympathetic to his cause. The raison d’etre for this book in essence is CanLit’s insiderism, its refusal to acknowledge or legitimize writing and writers who aren’t easy to label.  Let me stick my neck out and say it: I agree that it is pretty tough for an outsider to break into the Canadian publishing scene, for the gate-keepers of CanLit sometimes appear to welcome new blood only if it matches their type. The notable exception is small presses and progressive magazines, most of  which genuinely encourage new writers and new writing. And with this campaign, I now know of another such venue–the very cool ECW Press, which published this book.

The obvious issue with reviewing a book like Can’tLit is that an excess of edge can be fatal to one’s reading pleasure, like a repast consisting solely of amuse bouches. I got around that problem by reading no more than three stories a day. The pieces vary in widely in length–some two hundred words, and some ten times that. And even as they vary in length, they vary in quality. Neidzviecki warns in his foreword that a few of the stories “might even be badly written”, and he is spot-on. Inasmuch as this assessment depends more heavily than usual on the reviewer’s personal taste, some of the pieces simply try too hard, like a teenager who swears because he thinks it’s shocking. Dude, an overuse of Caps Lock and references to sex don’t make a piece edgy.

But there are some stunners here; the editors of Canada’s finest lit. mags. were apparently  afflicted with collective myopia. There’s “Gynecomastia”, a story about a flat-chested girl acquiring a boyfriend with man-boobs. “Sickness” is memorable as much for its compassion as its perfect execution. There’s  “Natural Selection”, about a relationship featuring eccentric but uneasily familiar characters. There’s angst in these stories, but there’s playfulness too, and the writers are obviously beckoning to the readers to join in the game. Can’tLit makes it clear that there is no dearth of Canadian writers willing to push the boundaries of what words can do. Broken Pencil and ECW Press: for championing the weird, the uncomfortable, the unknown, and the obscure, and all on green paper, I want to buy you a large alcoholic beverage each. Tell me when and where.


16 thoughts on “Green Books Campaign: Can’tLit

  1. Haven’t read Can’t Lit so can’t comment on it. The movement to print green is laudable ( I like to think that by borrowing from the library and thrifting books, I’m doing my bit to stay green. the truth is also that I’m cheap. :D).

    Interesting that you mentioned unless–has to be my fav piece by carol shields ( I later picked up stone diaries, but didn’t find it as gripping as unless…it was fascinating in the minutiae but after a time, I glazed over. It was like they were written by two different people). My favorite piece by mistry is his collection of short stories–firozshah baagh, but I’ll happily re-read any of his books. 🙂

  2. I’m a great fan of Margaret Attwood as a poet but have always felt slightly underwhelmed by her novels. She also edited the one anthology of CanLit that I’ve read, so the book you’re reviewing here would make an interesting comparison to that!

  3. @ GB: I like everything Shields and Mistry have written, so I don’t think I could pick a favourite!
    And yes, I’m a eco-frugalista too–so much better than calling oneself cheap 🙂

    @ Amy: ah, glad to hear you weren’t indoctrinated in high school. All those who hate Margaret L. seem to have been forced to read her work by evil teachers…

    @ Crafty Green Poet: I haven’t read the CanLit anthology edited by Atwood, but you’re so right, it’d make a great comparison. Pillar versus cutting-edge deathmatch 🙂

  4. As an Aussie, I’ve read very little CanLit, but used to work with a Candian girl who had studied a lot of Canadian poetry and was in awe of it. Perhaps Candian poets are a bit edgier? (Or perhaps she likes mainstream poetry–who knows).

    Thanks for this thoughtful review. It’s given me a nice little intro into the Canadian literary field.

  5. good looks. i haven’t read enough CanLit to know of such a pattern. but, thank you for the synopsis of it’s insiderism. and readign about this in the nick of time. i stumbled upon this review thru the 11/10/10 GreenReview … and will come back to your blog, as well as the other book reviews for more.

    i’ma add this to my late2010 or 2011 reading lists.

  6. Hi, first of all congratulations for having such a wonderful blog!I have added to my blog, so that I get all the updates regularly.

    I am not too sure about books on recycled paper. Although I have limited knowledge about this, but I think recycling of paper, though better than using fresh / virgin paper, requires processing in chemicals in order to be made usable. Though I am feeling terrible writing this, because I cannot imagine a world without physical books, but the truth is going paperless would be a far better sustainable solution. Imagine the quantity of books getting printed every year and the realms of paper getting used!

  7. Haven’t read much CanLit myself, but seems like a great review. I’m usually too busy at home pasted to my office chair reading blogs and news articles!

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