Nick Mount, Arrival: The Story of CanLit (Anansi 2017), 448 pages.
Reviewed by Mark Sampson
It’s perhaps no accident that the title of Nick Mount’s survey of the so-called “boom years” in Canadian publishing rhymes with the title of another overview of our country’s literature. Margaret Atwood’s Survival (House of Anansi, 1972) made a brave and occasionally overreaching attempt to say something all-encompassing about Canada’s writing, to set parameters around how we might view and interpret the books produced by our young nation. Mount has a far less grandiose and prescriptive agenda for Arrival, and his book is all the better for it. In sharp, breezy, journalistic tones, he provides us with an excellent view of the period in question: from roughly 1957, with the formation of the Canada Council, to roughly 1974, a year when, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, CanLit achieved perfection. Mount covers off the major writers, the major publishers, and the major movements that emerged during this time. He also includes the unexpected but welcome addition of his own mini reviews – complete with star ratings – of many of the prominent works from this period.
For readers with a particular interest in how expatriate writers contributed to these “boom years,” Arrival will not disappoint. As Mount puts it: “The moment that Canadians began imagining themselves as writers, they began to leave.” (p. 182) This was certainly true of some of the period’s better scribblers, including Mavis Gallant, Margaret Laurence and Mordecai Richler – all of whom found their way abroad at the beginning of their careers. Mount also reminds us that the Canada Council’s early individual grants for writers came with the tacit stipulation that they be used to travel abroad – that is, that “culture” existed elsewhere, and it was a Canadian writer’s job to trek to those places, get some of it, and bring it home.
But as Mount points out, one of the best things that came out of the boom years was a break in this mentality. Our authors soon learned that Canada itself had plenty to offer:
Gallant’s generation grew up believing that real careers and real lives happened elsewhere. One of the biggest changes for the next generation – both a cause and a consequence of the CanLit boom – was that ambitious Canadians began staying home … Canada looked better than it had to any generation before them – more exciting, more possible. For every young Canadian who wandered around Europe in the fifties, a hundred hitchhiked across Canada in the late sixties and early seventies. (p. 193-194)
Arrival is not without its flaws. Mount seems, for example, to have skipped over the Canadian prairies’ literary scene almost entirely, perhaps because its best publisher, Turnstone Press, wasn’t founded until 1976. His pointed dislike of Margaret Laurence and her work (two stars for The Diviners? Really?) also seems conspicuous and ill-argued. The larger issue, though, is one that Mount himself owes up to: is this book really necessary? Much of the story it tells has been published elsewhere: in most of the nonfiction of John Metcalf, including his invaluable Kicking against the Pricks, in James King’s excellent biographies of Jack McClelland and Margaret Laurence, and in Charles Foran’s exhaustive biography of Mordecai Richler.
Still, Mount brings it all together in a fresh and compelling way. His journalistic style and honest capsule reviews save Arrival from being a mere hagiography of the period. He also closes by acknowledging the accomplishments of the new generation of great Canadian authors, some of whom weren’t born until after the boom. In the end, Mount’s work outlines not only the arrival of this seminal period in CanLit, but also how it helped us all arrive at where we are today.
Mark Sampson was born in 1975 and thus missed the “boom years” entirely. He has nonetheless published five books, the latest being a novel called The Slip (Dundurn Press 2017). Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto. CWA interviewed Sampson in 2014 about his novel Sad Peninsula. Visit him at his blog, Free Range Reading.