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Edited by Charles R. Steele.

Downsview (ON), ECW Press, c1982.
160pp, paper, $8.95.
ISBN 0-920802-29-X.

Reviewed by Boh Kinczyk.

Volume 10 Number 4.
1982 November.

The Conference on the Canadian Novel set out the following rather ambitious objectives:

         to provide a norm which can serve as a
         curriculum reference for teachers of Canadian
         literature at all levels; to suggest to publishers
         selection criteria and titles for future Canadian
         fiction series; to establish standards for future
         scholarly editions of Canadian novels; and to provide
         a guide for Canadians who are interested in the
         masterworks of their national literature. The final
         result will be the identification of those novels
         which have established themselves as Canadian classics.

If you remember the Calgary Conference on the Canadian Novel (February 1978), you'll probably remember it (much to the horror of conference organizers) as the conference that generated the controversial lists of Canadian novels: the most important one hundred works of fiction, the most important ten novels, and the most important ten works of various genres. Now lists-especially when coloured with controversy—are wonderful things, allowing us as they do to rank and rate, to fix boundaries around our reluctant quarry. But some of the conference speakers (Eli Mandel and Ronald Sutherland, for example) dissociated themselves entirely from the vote. Mordecai Richler found the process amusing, W.O. Mitchell doubted anyone would take the lists seriously, and even Margaret Laurence (whose Stone Angel topped the "ten best" nit parade) refused to vote.

Personally, the lists didn't rattle me a bit. In fact, I sought them out (they're now tucked away in an appendix) before I read any of the conference papers. Teachers and librarians will find the lists useful but already in need of up-dating. What does bother me is the four-year lapse between conference and publication of the conference papers. Surely the book would have had a more immediate and dynamic impact if it had been published in 1978.

But even now long after the dust has settled (?) the papers, the panelists' responses, and the open discussions are lively and thoughtful. No doubt they will find an important place in Canadian literary criticism.

Robert Kroetsch starts things off with "Contemporary Standards in the Canadian Novel." Next is Sutherland's "The Two Cultures in the Canadian Novel," which takes the prize for the wittiest presentation. But things really begin to hop with W.J. Keith's "The Thematic Approach to Canadian Fiction." Keith's presentation, which includes an excellent analysis of Ethel Wilson's Swamp Angel, argues that Canadian critics are obsessed with thematics (he's right) and, more important, that thematic criticism does not carry literary scholarship very far because it "underestimates the importance of language and style." Three of the panelists, Henry Kreisel, D.G. Jones, and Laurie Ricou, raise a number of important objections. Then the sparks really begin to fly. John Moss, whose Patterns of Isolation and Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel came under attack in Keith's presentation fairly bristles in his reply:

         I'm damned if I'm only a direction. Or defined
         by regionality. I deny the concept imposed upon
         me of thematic critic, but I do not deny theme;
         or word, or space, or language, or passion, or reason,
         or vision. I demand responsible reading of my
         criticism and I demand that criticism of it be
         specific. Critics of criticism should not be less
         responsible than the critics they criticize.

Editor Steele tells us the subsequent discussion was "lively." (I couldn't suppress a giggle at this point.) Eli Mandel's paper, with the provocative title "The Regional Novel: Borderline Art," is also most interesting. The final presentation, Malcolm Ross's "The Ballot" reads a bit like an apology, but without his and other critics' observations the notorious lists would be either very dangerous or very useless.

After reading Taking Stock, one begins to wonder whether Can lit and crit have grown out of their infancy into an unruly adolescence. The Calgary Conference (to misquote one of the speakers) was full of blood, loud noises, and pissing in each others boots. Wish I had been there.

Boh Kinczyk, Central Elgin C. I., St. Thomas, ON.
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