Two Views of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature

The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, ed. by William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1983, 843 pp.

"Companion," as in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, means both comrade and friend (one who accompanies) but also (though now obsolete) rascal.  It derives from bread as in the sense of food.  This massive book, then, is either food for the mind, nourishment for the spirit, or a huge production machine churning out reams of information from every possible point of view or perspective on Canadian Literature.  Once, not so very long ago, it was possible for one person, the tireless, assiduous, dedicated Norah Story to put together not only a Companion to Canadian Literature but to Canadian History as well.  A companion, in truth. That was in 1967.  Ten years later, a whole team of writers, scholars, critics, had to be assembled to produce a Supplement, and now an army is needed.  There are, we are told, 192 contributors to this Companion.  From Maroussia Ahmed to Cynthia Zimmerman, from Jacques Allard to Francis Zichy.  Poet scholars have been called on (Miriam Waddington, Frank Davey, Stephen Scobie, Gary Geddes) to write on poet scholars; critics (George Woodcock, Dennis Duffy, Barbara Godard) to write on critics; distinguished biographers (Leon Edel), young academics (Dennis Cooley, Donna Bennett, Bruce Myer), the whole panoply of the academic, critical, scholarly world of Canadian writing.  Recently, our pre-eminent scholar-critic, Northrop Frye, noted wryly in his essays an Canadian Culture, Divisions on a Ground, about the vast MLA programme, "Surely nothing else in modern civilization can be quite like it."  Nothing, one is tempted to add, unless it is the new Oxford Companian to Canadian Literature.  Elsewhere Frye notes that "wherever there is a cult of productivity there is a good deal of hysteria" and while the only answer to the increasing strain on the scholarly economy seems to be the Detroit answer:  "next year's books will be still bigger, duller, fuller of superfluous detail, and more difficult to house", there are still two other positions possible:  "This is our business, and we can take care of it" and "The fact that the book is a catalogue is nothing against it, but is on the contrary essential to its usefulness."  The last was said of the revised Literary History of Canada, but surely applies with special force to the Companion.

     In fact, the assembly line methodology of the Companion appears to have come into being as a result of the extraordinary publication surge in Canadian writing over the past fifteen years, an explosion in poetry and fiction accounted for in part by cultural nationalism, contemporary technology in publication methods and distribution, and as William Toye notes, "growing interest in Canadian writing abroad", the development of Canadian Studies Programmes is such diverse areas as the Scandanavian Countries, Italy, Japan, India.  Canadian literary publication has become, in the language of the day, a "phenomenon" requiring a huge infrastructure of information, interpretation, commentary, bibliography, biography, scholarly apparatus to sustain and nourish it.  And to say this, is to say nothing against it.  To a certain extent, the Companion is the inevitable and necessary consequence.  As William Toye puts it, rightly, I think:  the present Companion reflects in "a useful and thoughtful and illuminating (though succint)" manner a necessary large scale intellectual endeavour that is part of the country's vital and developing culture.

     What could easily have broken apart into incoherent fragments has somehow been brought together in a virtually seamless whole, miracu ously of a piece.  How the many were forged or woven into the one is no doubt the secret of superb editorship.  William Toye is one of the few major editors who could have accomplished the task.  And one suspects the tone of the Companion as a whole, intelligent, reasonable, civilized, results from his steady hand controlling the immense machine he has launched.  Consider the variety of entries, the possibilities for heresies, for subversion, even of formlessness.  No doubt, the Companion had to rely on some editorial direction in at least guiding the form of critical and biographical entries of major Canadian writers in English and French.  And there must have been at least a minimal degree of consultation on the necessary topics of the major genres of Canadian writing, surveyed period by period and given extended contemporary treatment because of their flowering after the 1960's.

     The Companion too treats in its roughly formulaic way what it calls the strains of most if not all of other cultures of the Canadian mosaic, and foreign writers who settled in Canada in their maturity or who have strong Canadian ties.  There are as well 22 major entries which represent additions to the Story Companion — and other important departures including especially six entries on regional literature.  The whole is kept together, I think, in two ways: the general good manners of the contributors who, as educated Canadians, know how to conduct themselves, that is, write as anonymously as possible, as mandarins of the academic world.  I've long marvelled at the Literary History of Canada which I once compared to a Royal Commission Report on the State of the Literary Arts in Canada.  It is also given unity by its ingenious system of cross references and sufficiently detailed coverage to include constant reminders of subjects still needing coverage or further study and references to important available studies and series.  As a bibliographical aid, in fact, the Companion is respectable, if not always flawless.

     Toye draws attention to two matters in particular in his Introduction:  first, "there was a strange irony," he says, "in planning this reference book in 1980 to be confronted with a body of writing in two languages that was so immense and complex that space considerations produced real dilemmas about what to include."  And second, "The relative length of entries may prompt most immediate comment."

     The second is the easiest to deal with. It seems fairly obvious that the decision was to be as fair-handed as possible and to allow the length of entries to be determined by historical and documentary as well as literary considerations.  But that still leaves unanswered the question as to how to determine literary significance, in other words, evaluation.  We all know how Northrop Frye handled that one, by ignoring it — or pretending to do so.  "If no Canadian author pulls us away from the Canadian context toward the centre of literary experience itself (that is, by definition a classic) then at every point we remain aware of his historical and social setting."  That is in the first Conclusion.  Canadian literature then appeared as innocent of literary intention as a mating loon.  Ten years later Professor Frye was to call for a more subtle criticism.  And presumably that is what we should now ask for too.  I'm not at all sure how I would make decisions as between Birney,Clarke Blaise, Mowatt, and Munro and Berton but clearly the Companion decided on the fair hand and I wonder whether that is a decision at all.  There are some odder decisions that have been pointed out by other reviewers so Toye was right to feel uneasy about "relative length".

     But the critical problem to which I am drawing attention becomes acute, I think, with respect to the first matter raised by Toye, the means of evaluating and developing a critical theory adequate to the extraordinary development of writing in the modern period in Canada.  And in fact, a matter crucial to the Companion is nothing less than the adequacy of its account of contemporary critism as well as the adequacy of its own critical theory and approach.

     This is to call special attention to the survey articles on fiction, poetry, and criticism and regional literatures.  I refer here only to those concerning English writing since I have no special capacity to deal with the French.  Surely by now it is a commonplace that one of the significant developments of contemporary writing is the impact on both literature itself and criticism of European critical theory, particularly as it has moved through the United States.  This is one way in which to understand what is often spoken of as post modern or post structural criticism and writing, a development greeted either with delight or scorn (or worse) depending on academic status or its equivalent in literature.  The regional part of this development has been recognized by the Companion in its regional entries.  But there is a curious problem or difficulty about post structural writing worth taking note of.  The section in criticism I refer to is by Donna Bennett, in fiction by Sam Solecki, in poetry by Chaviva Hoseck.  All three seem to me distinguished entries — informed, perceptive, intelligent.  Each proceeds chronologically up through the 'eighties.  But as each entry approaches contemporary developments, its articulation collapses.

     Bennett's account of criticism shatters with the section on the 'fifties and after.  Hoseck provides an account of poetry from 1950 to 1982 in three sections, presumably chronological, but becomes increasingly uncertain toward the present; and Solecki's quite brilliant account of the novel to 1982 breaks apart in a series of fragmentary subsections from 1960 on.  Consider that rather than providing an historical account of the shift from thematic criticism to post structural thought, Bennett provides us with sections on:  critical monographs, more critical monographs, comparative criticism, thematic criticism, nationalist criticism, concerns with national identity, regional criticism, post structural criticism.  And Solecki is scarcely more coherent, writing of other talents, minority fiction, satire, the novel of childhood, women and fiction, regional fiction, urban Toronto.

     It may be that the fragmented subsections reflect the true picture of contemporary developments, that no coherent account of our present literary state is possible, that only an alphabetical catalogue can be given, that the true guide and companion today finally ends his discourse in stammering and stuttering and a few incoherent remarks, that no grand peroration is now possible, that the ending is either incoherence or silence.

     In 1976, Professor Frye commented on the quantative change that marked our literature and which the Companion now confronts in an even more acute form:

this change cannot, in so short a time, reveal much essentially new to the critical observer, but it does mean that the trends I studied in the previous conclusion have reached something of a crisis since then.  All I can do here is try to characterize that crisis:  there can be no question of attemping any rounded general survey of the period.

In the end, I believe, the contributors to this Companion find themselves in the same position as Professor Frye.  Of the contemporary situation, they can attempt no rounded general survey.  All they can do is characterize the crisis.

Eli Mandel