CanLit crusaders

Forty years young, Canadian Literature is still going strong

by Bruce Mason staff writer


One of the best stories to come out of Canada in the latter half of the 20th century was the remarkable quality and international success of the country's literature. It is writ large in the pages of the nation's pre-eminent literary journal Canadian Literature, which celebrated a 40th birthday last year. Through 160 seasons the quarterly has explored and celebrated the best of the nation's writers and writing and published new poems and extensive reviews. Its Web site -- -- is a national treasure, which spans the decades and makes incoming reviews instantly accessible.

"We now receive several hundred submissions of major articles from around the world each year," reports its editor, English and Germanic Studies Prof. Eva-Marie Kröller, from one of the three small cramped offices on the UBC campus which house Canadian Literature. "Less than 20 per cent make it through our peer-review process."

The publication is lauded for high scholarly standards. Kröller, who has been editor since 1995, says it also continues to honour its original mandate and broad editorial policy. "The journal will not adopt a narrow academic approach, nor will it try to restrict its pages to any school or writer," promised the inaugural editorial four decades ago.

Many readers turn to its pages to discover authors, opinions and insights. Special issues have pioneered topics ranging from native to gay and lesbian writing, the 1960s, and the country's Caribbean, Italian, East European and Hispanic ethnicities.

Guest editors are one of many new initiatives. The current issue, number 163, was edited by Glenn Deer, an assistant professor of English at UBC and a leader in the study of Asian writing from across the continent. It celebrates the remarkable diversity of Asian-Canadian writers in 220 pages packed with articles, reviews and original poetry.

"We are extremely proud of this fine journal, which has promoted the work of the young or unknown, as well as the more famous, while helping to foster respect at home and abroad," says UBC President Martha Piper. "Canadian Literature has become an essential historical record, an extended critique and an indispensable tool in fashioning and re-fashioning our best writing and literary scholarship."

"It has educated generations of readers to appreciate their own literary heritage," she adds.

Canadian Literature was launched in 1959, a year when the St. Lawrence Seaway was opened and the Avro Arrow scrapped. The hula-hoop was in. So were the new US states Alaska and Hawaii. Black and white TVs broadcast the first images from the dark side of the moon, of Castro arriving in Havana and the Dalai Lama leaving Tibet.

When the small group of UBC scholars announced the first publication exclusively devoted to the discussion of Canadian writing, CanLit courses were brand new in the English Dept. Very few scholars would have predicted that in just over a generation, Canadian authors would become mandatory reading in classes at British and French universities, or consistently short-listed for the world's top literary prizes. Atwood, Davies, Ondaatje and Shields weren't household names. "Back then, `Is there a Canadian literature?' was regarded as a comic question," recalls English Prof. William H. New, who preceded Kröller as editor. "Many people doubted that the journal would survive the first issue, let alone the first year. `What will you do for the next issue?' was their ironic and somewhat insulting initial reaction."

Along with English Prof. Emeritus Donald Stephens, New had been asked to serve as assistant editor by George Woodcock, poet, critic, travel writer, historian, essayist, philosopher, biographer, political activist, lecturer, librettist, humanitarian, avid gardener and first editor of Canadian Literature. Woodcock, a literary champion, announced his intention to "throw a concentrated light on a field that has never been illuminated systematically by any previous periodical." He remained editor until 1977.

New remembers pre-computer paste-ups at Woodcock's dining-room table -- "academics armed with scissors and Scotch tape, ankle-deep in trimmed galley pages, and smudged with printer's ink, exchanging enthusiasms for the latest insights the journal would be printing. "Our West Coast perspective provided important and lively alternatives to existing convention and most importantly, academic study would be published side by side with creative writing, to the support of both," says New, who took over from Woodcock, with Kröller, and English professors Herbert Rosengarten and Laurie Ricou as associate editors.

By the time Woodcock had passed the torch, a literary infrastructure was developing on campuses, in the media, in publishing and a network of small presses, magazines and readings.

"It is by now quite evident that Canadian writing has become not merely a distinctive form of literature in English, but also the verbal manifestation of a culture attaining maturity," he wrote at the time.

"An engaging discovery of artistic accomplishment and an ongoing evolution of critical analysis," is how New sums up the journal's first 40 years. "The process helped create a lens through which to view Canada's culture. "Canadian Literature ought to and does provide an important critical forum," he adds. "It has evolved exponentially with national and international recognition of writers and scholars of great strength."

"Pivotal," is how one of Canada's best poets describes her summer job in 1991, feeling the nation's pulse as she filed volumes of correspondence.

"As a student I knew Canadian Literature as the definitive resource, the most interesting, relevant and unstuffy," says Creative Writing alumna Stephanie Bolster, who earned the 1998 Governor General's Award for poetry for White Stone: The Alice Poems. "Working there made writers and writing come alive for me and on my travels I'm still excited and reassured to see it in libraries."

The journal will continue to build on its traditions in unimagined ways. The current editorial team includes associate editors English Asst. Prof. Iain Higgins (poetry), Prof. Margery Fee (general), Asst. Prof. Kevin McNeilly (reviews), and French Asst. Prof. Alain-Michel Rocheleau (francophone literature). Donna Chin is managing editor.

"As always, we face daunting challenges, including those posed by the ongoing changes in `Canadian' and `literature,' by the electronic revolution in publishing and growing budgetary constraints," Kröller concludes.