Our novels' fixation with foreign locations and the nineteenth century means that many denizens of the modern city get short shrift in our fiction
As Canada is one of the world’s most urbanized countries, a reader knowing nothing of contemporary Canadian writing might expect to find a surfeit of urban novels in our bookstores. Yet novels explicitly set in Canadian cities form a mere sliver of our novelistic production. Literary dynamics are always evolving, but there is little denying that among the Canadian novels that have received the most critical and commercial attention during the last fifteen years, most are set in other countries, in the Canadian past, or in parts of Atlantic Canada where the present can be made to feel like the past. A Fine Balance, The English Patient, Fugitive Pieces, The White Bone, Fall on Your Knees, Away, Alias Grace, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, No Great Mischief, The Englishman’s Boy, Anil’s Ghost, The Stone Carvers, Testament, Crow Lake, The Last Crossing, The Polished Hoe, Deafening, Mercy Among the Children: this roll call bypasses engagement with the cities where we live.
Not long ago, a young Toronto journalist interviewed me about my novel The Streets of Winter, which is set in Montreal. As our conversation proceeded, I detected a certain reductive dualism in the framing of her questions. For this interviewer, everything urban was good and everything rural was bad. This, I suggested to her, was the wrong reason to promote urban novels. We are only occasionally interested in urban fiction for its urbanity, let alone as a way of snubbing rural communities or asserting that our cities have finally become “world-class.” We read the urban novel because urban life is the dominant dimension of our present. The neglect of urban novels is part of the broader disparagement of the Canadian present. During the 1990s and arguably until Jean Chrétien made us feel good about ourselves again by remaining aloof from George W. Bush’s sordid colonization of Iraq, Canadian self-deprecation plunged to a deep nadir. Bludgeoned into sacrificing our public culture to the malevolent deity of competitiveness, many Canadians retreated into local, ethnic or commercialized cultures, sparking a rise in regionalism, identity politics and bland no-name art. This mood combined with structural changes in the publishing industry to promote the historical romance as the novelistic form best adapted to the international market. When large publishers ceased to maintain slush piles, relying instead on literary agents to pre-select the raw material for their lists, the urban novel was sidelined.
I observed this tendency first-hand when I sent the manuscript of The Streets of Winter to an agent. “All the scenes in this novel,” the agent said, “are about people talking to people! I want scenes that are big-big in every way . . . !” The message was clear: think film rights. A writer friend told me that after he submitted a section of his new novel to his agent, the first question was: “Who do you see playing the lead?” Jane Austen wouldn’t have stood a chance under this interdiction against scenes blemished by “people talking to people” (even though Austen’s clever conversationalists have morphed into pleasing screen characters); the aesthetic of the “big scene” would rule out of order the great urban novels of Charles Dickens, Honor? de Balzac, Henry James, James Joyce, Robert Musil. Would Mordecai Richler find a major publisher if he were starting to write about St. Urbain Street today? It is telling that some significant Canadian writers who used to practise the urban novel, such as Margaret Atwood and M. G. Vassanji, no longer do so. In the race to capture the attention of an increasingly visual world, the urban novel is at a disadvantage because, unlike the historical romance, it does not feature the epic battles, gory massacres, blizzards or ships trapped in ice that whet the appetites of film producers.
This bias is compounded by a fear that detailed references to the Canadian present will not travel. Zadie Smith, Monica Ali and Andrea Levy may write about multicultural neighbourhoods in London, but, we are told, if you try to do the same with Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver or, God forbid, Edmonton or Ottawa, no agent will take you on because you’ll never sell foreign rights. I don’t think this is necessarily true; but the belief among agents and publishers that it is so, contributes to making the Canadian urban novel predominantly a small-press form. In the spring 2004 publishing season, unusually, a handful of urban novels did appear; since none of them became bestsellers, the current dynamics are unlikely to change.
Our novels’ fixation with foreign locations and the nineteenth century means that many denizens of the modern city get short shrift in our fiction: immigrants, people of colour, gay men and lesbians, service employees, single adults, the homeless. By eliding the importance of city life, the novels promoted by our larger publishers propagate a Canada that is white, straight, settled, and a few generations behind the Canada most of us live in. In every country the largest cities are attended by myths, many of them elaborated by literature. The feebleness of the Canadian urban novel means that we rarely mythologize our cities as, for example, Dickens mythologized London. Thanks to the description of “Fog up the river . . . Fog down the river” that opens Bleak House, reinforced by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, fog became an enduring element of London mythology (even though it is no longer a salient feature of London’s weather). For those who tire of quaint Victorian images, a mythology of multicultural London is taking shape in the fiction of Smith, Ali, Levy, Hanif Kureishi, Hari Kunzru and others.
In Canada the mythologization of the multicultural experience is left to the media. This is not healthy. No Canadian city, with the difficult exception of Montreal, where the myths are disjointed by their expression in two linguistic traditions that pay scant attention to each other’s cultures, has been imagined deeply enough to radiate a convincing literary mythologization. By turning their backs on our cities, our best-known novelists have failed to offer us myths by which to reimagine ourselves.