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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.