IowaLit 3: Using Stereotypes to Overthrow Stereotypes, Composing, 18/02/2014

Continued from previous. Canadiana is one of those words that every Canadian understands when they hear it, and can actually give a pretty reasonable definition if you ask them. St. Augustine would encounter no problems here. Such literature would be a paradigm for how Eric Bennett describes the University of Iowa model, as Canadiana short stories and books would be composed almost entirely of vivid evocations of a time and place, usually an isolated, rural place, and a time before the intense connectivity of modern technology. I’m reminded of Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, in part about the difficult task the protagonist has of tracking down a former childhood friend. Set today, this sequence would usually last no more than a moment of searching on the internet for a Facebook page. 

Part of what I actually enjoy about Atwood's
fiction is how much, in her later work, she fought
those awful stereotypes of Canadian literature
that she catalogued so well.
The point is that Canadiana has virtually no positive connotations, at least to a contemporary audience. It’s dull, boring, and about a country that doesn’t really exist anymore, the all-white anglo-British wasteland carved out of wilderness where nothing changes and nothing even really thrives.* Atwood didn’t call her book of literary theory encyclopedically describing and defining Canadiana Survival for nothing.

* So not only is Canadiana boring, but it’s implicitly racist too, often overwriting and invalidating the presence of francophone Canadians, as well as the existence of indigenous peoples and non-British immigrants. The Canadiana model whitewashes this land.

But the form of Canadiana is the linguistic evocation of the place with such vividness that each individual description becomes a singularity, each story and novel a unique point on this continuum of desolation. The literature of Canadiana is the apex of what the Iowan approach demands of creative expression. And the exhausted emptiness of Canadiana today demonstrates the emptiness of the Iowan approach to literature.

Yet we don’t live in a world that has seen new literature completely robbed of philosophical and political ambition. For one thing, even the typical Iowan model produces political relevance: the ability to craft a literary singularity that defies all reduction to an ideological position politicizes the apolitical itself. Paul Engle the cultural Cold Warrior achieved all he wanted in this regard. The question is whether there is a way forward from the model, and Bennett’s central critique (aside from the usual questions of whether any politically radical notion or action can survive CIA sponsorship) is that the Iowa style has stagnated. Institutionalizing creative writing within a university degree system that requires a continual influx of majors tailors an education in writing to the less-talented participants. The techniques that are most often taught are the easiest to master, and the more talented who could handle ambitious approaches are left to fend for themselves. 

It would have been strange enough
for a Lovecraft story to have a female
protagonist at all, let alone one as
strange and powerful as Jo.
I crafted my own approach to overcoming a stagnating field of fiction in my own novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, which has been called a twisted revitalization of Canadiana, ironically enough. The story is, in part, an engagement with one symptom of literary stagnation, the reliance on genre tropes. Current alternative literature is seeing a boom in works dealing with the ideas and iconography of H. P. Lovecraft. I’m not an innovator in using iconography plainly inspired by Lovecraft for my own original work. The comic series Fatale is probably the best example of this trend that I can think of because it uses Lovecraft’s imagery in relation to a style of character that would never have fit in Lovecraft’s world, a femme fatale with psychic powers of the sort found in more futuristic science-fiction genres. 

The first extension of Lovecraft’s genre after his death was by August Derleth. Although popular at the time, Derleth’s stories are recognized as rather retrograde. While Lovecraft created the legendary iconography of Cthulhu, Derleth synthesized all these elements into a unified, internally consistent mythology. Essentially, Derleth completed the Lovecraftian mythos, turning it from a set of related images into a canon. Most people now understand this to be a terrible thing to do, because it means there could only be one style of Lovecraftian stories, those which were consistent with the details of the mythology. Thankfully, writers have since learned how to overcome this terrible act of creative limitation. We ignore it.

So Under the Trees, Eaten introduced a realistic contemporary female character (with just a hint of implicit genre-awareness √† la Buffy) into a Lovecraftian horror story featuring a smattering of Canadiana tropes and my own gleefully pessimistic approach to human drama. It’s the simple story of a woman coming to grips with her parents’ deaths in the context of a Lovecraftian contract with otherworldly aliens, through scenes describing imagery and events with the meticulous and evocative detail of the Iowa style according to Bennett's account. Pulp meets feminism meets literary singularity. To be continued . . . 

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