David Staines: A Good Book Has to Be an ‘Event’
Canadian literary scene is very diverse and prolific. There are very few people who are more knowledgeable about it than Professor David Staines from the University of Ottawa. PERSPECTIVES talked to him on the occasion of his visit to our department in mid-October.
Perspectives (PP): What is the current situation in Canadian literature? How would you characterize it?
David Staines (DS): I think, and this is not a modest statement or a bragging statement, that the best fiction being written now in English is written out of Canada. Great writers like Robertson Davies, Carol Shields or Timothy Findley, who’ve died, had great works themselves. Current writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro or somewhat younger Rohinton Mistry are creating works which have almost no equal in the English-speaking world. But if I say this in Canada, people question it. If I say it abroad, many people understand. On my Canadian shelves, I try to get new interesting books that are coming out this fall. There are so many books to buy. Not just one or two, but five or ten or fifteen, by writers from all over Canada. Then there’s the whole native school of writing. There are writers who have come to Canada but have not left their own countries behind, and I think this is very exciting. One of the most outspoken nationalists is Rohinton Mistry. He is astonishing. I gave a lecture about ten years ago at the University of Toronto and I mentioned him. One man (he was a man in his sixties or seventies) said to me at the end, “Well, I don’t really consider him one of us. You shouldn’t be talking about him because he doesn’t write about Canada.” I said, “But that’s what’s so exciting, that he can write about India with vividness and power, which he couldn’t do if he was there, and being here gives him a perspective on there.” He said, “Ah, yes, but it doesn’t count.” That’s the old mentality. The new mentality I think realizes that this plethora of voices is the modern Canada.
PP: You also taught at Harvard University in the United States. How would you compare the literary scene in the U.S. and Canada?
DS: I think it’s poorer in the States, although there are a lot of interesting writers. The population of the USA is ten times the population of Canada, but there are no outstanding writers. When Alice Munro brings a book out, it’s the front page cover of the New York Times Book Review. When Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje brings a book out, it’s often the cover. All these people have such an influence even outside their country. I think fiction especially is quite intriguing. I don’t think there’s the same excitement right now in poetry that there is in fiction. Why? I don’t really know, for a lot of reasons, but you can’t tell when you’re in the midst of something. In order to see clearly, you have to be outside. Maybe twenty years from now we’ll think, “Wow, the nineties were a great period in Canadian literature.” I don’t know.
PP: You were made a Member of the Order of Canada for your contribution as a champion of Canadian literature and a mentor to young writers.
DS: Yeah, that’s what they said. (laughs)
PP: How would you describe the current situation of young Canadian writers? What are the great hurdles they face?
DS: I don’t think there are any real hurdles. There are a lot of publishers that publish strong books, there are a lot of smaller publishers that publish strong books, and younger writers like Timothy Taylor in Vancouver are getting their books published. Margaret Laurence said once in the 1970s that it’s easier to get a first book published in Canada than anywhere else in the world. I think that’s still true. Books can be published and they’re read. I think it is a good thing. In the first year of the Giller Prize I was on the jury and we had to read 105 books.
PP: That’s a lot.
DS: Alice Munro was on the jury with me—and Mordecai Richler. After we read about 80 novels, Alice and I were talking, and she said, “You know, when someone says to me, ‘I can’t get my book published’, I’m going to say, ‘Why not?’ Because I’ve read so much that’s poor, and it’s all published. Maybe by small presses, but it’s all there.” So I think it’s astonishing what is available. This year 150 books were nominated for the Giller Prize. There are new people on the Giller shortlist, whom we didn’t even know about, and they’re young. It’s very interesting.
PP: Speaking of prizes, what are the criteria according to which literary works are awarded?
DS: Well, that’s a question that you really can’t answer. Munro said in the first year of the Giller in 1994 that she wanted books that read well, that speak to her and are events, and I think that’s what we look for on prizes. Books that tell a story, or some kind of story, and they’re very well-written, and they last in your imagination.
PP: So there has to be something special about the book.
DS: Yeah, I mean I remember the first year. There was a collection of short stories by Bonnie Bernard named Casino and Other Stories. I was reading all of these books and then I read this. The first story was so striking and so painful and so profound, and the second was the same way. A couple of stories weren’t up to that level. But the first one was so powerful that you just froze when you read it, and you knew, “Wow, that’s a writer.”
PP: Now, one more personal question. What does literature mean to you and what was it that made it your profession?
DS: I don’t know. I think literature to me means a realm of fiction or poetry of imagination, which is outside the self. When we read a novel by Dickens or a short story by Munro, we’re transported into a world that is outside of ourselves, and we become a part of that world. We get immersed in that world. When the story or the novel ends, we come back to our own world, but we’re different because we’ve experienced that world. I think that perspective is very important for all of us. Much of our society now is very wrapped up in the self and very narcissistic. People can’t get outside the self. They don’t want to, in many cases. But if they could, it could be through the artistic form of seeing something that isn’t a manifestation of the self here but is a manifestation of something outside the self.
PP: We’ve heard that you’re also an expert on Arthurian legends. King Arthur is a disputed figure in the history of the British Isles.
DS: He never existed.
DS: I first taught an Arthurian literature course in Harvard many years ago. I did a historical analysis of where Arthur was and who existed around this time. The first reference to an Arthur figure comes about 600 years later. Well, 600 years is a long time. Guinevere, his wife, is invented by one person. Lancelot is invented by another person a hundred years later. So it’s a salute, I think, to the human imagination, that we can conceive of this great mythical figure outside of the self. I said this, and a girl came up to me at the end of the class, and she was almost crying. She said to me, “You know this is the most painful day I have ever experienced, since I found out that Santa Claus did not exist.” And she was serious. I thought, “Yes, Santa Claus, King Arthur… but we need these!” The realm of imagination is so significant that you can build on the Arthurian legend and build and build—we’ve been building for almost a thousand years now. I think that’s so reassuring—what people can imagine beyond the self. So, I don’t think Arthur ever existed, but I think the need for an Arthur figure is very, very significant.
Kristína Kallová, Tomáš Buš
Prof. David Staines, writer, critic, professor, Member of the Order of Ontario, and editor, who helped establish the Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award for English fiction, and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, teaches English and Canadian literature at the University of Ottawa. He has also taught at Harvard, the University of Prince Edward Island, Mount Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). David Staines has served as general editor of McClelland and Stewart’s New Canadian Library series since 1988 and edited books on Canadian literature. On October 20, he gave a lecture on “The First Feminist Wave in Canadian Fiction” at our department.
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