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Court Jester

Stephen Henighan

Recent Canadian novels, for all their no-name pandering to the international market, retain their dominance in Canadian bookstores

One of the indispensable figures of contemporary journalism is the cutting-edge cultural commentator. The columnist who offers sardonic insights into trends, fashions, television shows and publishing personalities has become an institution. Like most readers, I have scanned the irony-drenched ruminations of these pundits in newspapers and magazines, but until recently, I gave little thought to the contradictions inherent in their position. This changed when a book I published landed me on panels with outspoken cultural observers.

Accustomed to book promotion as an exercise in slipping into university radio studios to attempt the impossible by talking about short stories or a novel in a way that might persuade a listener to hunt down a small-press book and buy it, I discovered that the pleasure of promoting a non-fiction book was the directness with which one could speak to an audience about the book’s subject matter. The pain—though it was enlightening pain—came from the fact that participating in the discussion were anointed cultural critics.

On a Toronto television show I faced Jester, a commentator of particularly rampant contradictions. Jester had been described to me as a pop-culture "scenester," a figure who brought a whiff of the underground to mainstream broadcasts and publications. He wrote for a magazine that had once been a bastion of the political left; he and I shared the distinction of having attacked the Giller Prize. Yet contrary to what you might expect from a critic with these credentials, Jester was no anti-globalization campaigner. When issues of corporate control came up, he leapt into line with the CEOs. Unnerved by this contradiction, I began to wonder whose side the pop-culture commentator is on.

At the host’s prodding, the conversation had turned to the disappearance of place from the Canadian novel: the outpouring of novels set in undefined locales, the peculiar state of Canadian commercial publishing, which allows explicitly Canadian cities and details to grace our historical novels but rarely those set in the present. We turned a jaundiced eye on Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. We underlined the paradox that in spite of being one of the world’s most urbanized countries (more than 8 percent of our population lives in cities of over 1, people), Canada produces few urban novels. Jester made no objection to this point; indeed he claimed to have pioneered it himself. But when I invoked the homogenizing forces of globalization and commercialization as being at the root of the problem, I made a surprising discovery: Jester loved homogenization. "Place is irrelevant to a novel. A few years from now you’ll go to Sri Lanka and say, ‘I drank coffee at the Sri Lanka Starbucks, I ate at the Sri Lanka McDonald’s.’ It won’t matter where you are because everywhere will be the same."

As the gods of editing were merciful to Jester, consigning this section of the show to the cutting-room floor, I can’t verify that these were his precise words. But the thrust of the diatribe was unmistakable. Like the multinational marketing executive flattening regional cultures in order to sell the same burger to everyone, Jester had fixed his sights on diversity as the enemy. In a fever, he began to speak of his upbringing in a faceless U.S. suburb. "There’s nothing there—nothing!" Today U.S. and Canadian shopping malls were indistinguishable. Soon, he said with breathless anticipation, everywhere would be the same!

Was this an example of fashionable irony? Was Jester kidding us? Alas, he was not.

A friend who plays tennis informs me that the sporting goods chains in U.S. and Canadian shopping malls offer surprisingly different mixes of equipment for sale. One peculiarity of globalization is that all societies are inundated with similar products but not all products get equally good receptions everywhere. Even within the ersatz world of transnational consumerism, differing product mixes offer a stubborn, if diminished, index of local specificity. Recent Canadian novels, for all their no-name pandering to the international market, retain their dominance in Canadian bookstores because Canadian readers accept them as products of a particular local literary environment. But what struck me most forcefully was not the inaccuracy of some of Jester’s claims. It was his eagerness, when challenged by a call for diversity, attention to history, a sense of place, to enlist in the corporate campaign to enforce sameness in order to feed interchangeable products to identical imaginations everywhere, his insistence that art would be better once cultural difference had been erased.

The pop-culture commentator is the court jester of the corporate fiefdom. His job is to use irony to keep consumers talking about a dumbed-down, commercialized simulacrum of cultural engagement. But, as I learned from Jester, the whisper of an alternate vision causes him to leap to the king’s defence. As with court jesters everywhere, his humour stops short at the point where it questions the sovereign’s right to rule.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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