This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

October 29, 2002 — In case you are planning to go to Canada any time soon, be advised that they are dancing in the streets up there. Frenzy broke out last week when Yann Martel won the Booker Prize, the U.K.'s most prestigious literary award, for his novel, "Life of Pi."

He not only won the prize, he won it twice — the Booker's website announced him the winner a full week before the official announcement ceremony was scheduled to take place, a ceremony not only to be held beneath the venerated vaulted of the British Library's reading room, but before a live national television audience to boot. Officials came out of the woodwork to say that the web posting was a mistake, a minor mishap, that the winner hadn't really been chosen yet, and that even as they spoke an underling who had formerly held the title of HMS Webmaster 2nd Class was being flayed mercilessly in the Tower. They'd actually prepped a mock announcement for each finalist, the officials insisted, but none were supposed to go "live."

But one did, and London bookies (yes, it's legal to bet on literary contests in Britain — is the U.K. an enlightened nation or what?) immediately closed off the betting. This is no small thing in a nation whose denizens are known for their appreciation of wagering's subtle mix of the high and the low. Or, as one observer put it in the appropriately named The Observer, "The British would walk naked over a field of broken glass to bet on a horse race." But the bookies may have been somewhat influenced in their decision to stop accepting bets by the fact that, after the website's boo–boo, everyone in the nation had promptly taken the day off from work to go to the bank, get a second mortgage and put it all on Martel. The Brits, it must be conceded, know a sure thing when they hear it officially announced.

So anyway, Martel won and then he won again, and it must have felt good in Canada, where they had spent the previous month plotzing, as French Canadians say (for example, in the sentence "Hand me a Molson's or I'll plotz"), over perceived slights to their nationhood. Yes, while Canadians had at first been elated that three of their countrymen — Martel, Carol Shields and Rohinton Mistry — had made the Booker's list of six finalists, they had quickly thereafter commenced kvetching (more French Canadian, as in "Stop kvetching and hand me the damn Molson's, eh?") when some foreign journalists, writing about the unprecedented showing by Canadians, had taken to pointing out that, well, none of the three had actually been born in Canada.

Bruce Wallace huffed in the Calgary Herald that "Though they have spent most of their adult lives in that big block of often snow–covered geography north of the United States, as Canada tends to be viewed from Europe, some churlish British critics have questioned the validity of their literary passports, as in the BBC's description of them as 'three Canadian–based writers.'"

It's like this, harrumphed Charles Foran in the Toronto Globe & Mail: "Choose Canada, and you are Canadian."

They were still going at it like that when Martel finally won. For the second time.

Well, maybe all the huffing and celebrating was earned. Truth be told, before the Booker finalists were announced, it wasn't a great year for those in the book biz who had chosen Canada. The country's biggest publisher, General Publishing, which also happened to be its biggest distributor, went belly up and took a number of small publishers with it, as well as lots of authors' royalties.

Booksellers, meanwhile, decried the government's decision to allow to start up a Canadian operation, despite laws about foreign competition they thought should protect them.

And yet here they are: Martel's victory now gives us all pause to realize something, something that leaves this resident of what some Europeans call "that strangely snow–barren wasteland south of Canada" decidedly envious. That is, they've got a hell of a healthy book culture in Canada, a lively literary landscape that's a mix of male and female, young and old, and various ethnic backgrounds and that's much more diverse than the current homogenized scene of the reputed melting pot. (Martel, at the post–Booker press conference, called Canada "The greatest hotel on Earth.") Why, one of Canada's most revered authors, Alice Munro, is not only a woman, she is exclusively a writer of short stories to boot.

Women, in fact, have a status of recognition in literary Canada that they simply don't in the land of the free. For example, it seems pretty clear to this observer that the grand old man of Canadian novelists is Margaret Atwood. The leading poet? Got to be Ann Carson.

Canadians are also refreshingly anti–ageist, too. They actually continue to follow and buy books by the likes of Atwood and Munro even though they're over 40 and not even blonde. In fact, there isn't really anyone in Canadian lit to compare to the whole Dave Eggers–Zadie Smith–Donna Tart phenomenon that's got British and American lit by the throat.

Perhaps most impressive is that Canada seems possessed of a decidedly less–hostile culture when it comes to its support of the literary arts — the recent Amazon incursion aside, both federal and provincial governments are protective of booksellers, and give substantial aid to individual writers.

Take one example recently cited by a rather envious reporter from Scotland — another nation whose culture wrestles with a behemoth to the south: "Laws requiring majority Canadian ownership of culturally sensitive enterprises, including bookshops, mean that multinational conglomerates cannot take over book chains and ignore indigenous publishers and writers in favour of globalised mass–market fodder — a benign protectionism that has yielded powerful and positive results."

The Scotsman's Catherine Lockerbie went on to say that accordingly, "Canada may be the very model of how a nation can actively create and encourage an outstandingly strong book industry, with all the socio–economic benefits which flow from that, never mind the benefits to the heart, soul and grateful mind."

All right, so maybe Canadians are crowing a bit much about Yann Martel. You've got to admit: They've got something to celebrate.

Last Week’s Column: BACKLASH BACKLASH Rumors of a "backlash" against hipsters such as Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen lead to a surprising consideration: Who started this backlash anyway?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.