The Whale as Albatross

Yesterday Linden MacIntyre‘s novel The Bishop’s Man won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is given annually to the best work of Canadian fiction. The folks responsible for the award caught a little flak earlier this year for placing two Americans on its judging committee, including novelist Russell Banks. If Banks himself was criticized for his role, he doesn’t bring it up in an interview with Torontoist, but he does have a few interesting things to say about what connects American and Canadian fiction, and where they diverge. For one thing, he says, Canadian authors don’t have the burden of a Moby-Dick to live up to:

I think you could say that American fiction tends to look back at certain classic American models and figures…. The novel particularly runs back to the 19th century and it’s a very powerful river, you can sense and feel it. Canadian fiction is more international in a way, it looks to British models, to American models, to Irish models. You see all the different international models showing up in interesting ways. Americans are still trying to write the Great American Novel, the White Whale Novel. I don’t think Canadians are trying to write the Great Canadian Novel in the same way. It probably liberates them and allows for a greater variety of fiction.

Perhaps, though I suppose that ambitious Canadian authors think as much about Margaret Atwood and Mordechai Richler as Americans might about Philip Roth and John Updike; and both countries could argue that Saul Bellow is a standard-bearer for their nation’s literature. And the obsession with nation-defining fiction may be similar in both countries: Though it’s hardly a scientific survey, it’s interesting that “Great Canadian Novel” and “Great American Novel” get pretty much the same number of hits in Google.

One response to “The Whale as Albatross

  1. Interesting, I never thought of the Great Canadian Novel. I don’t think any of the writers mentioned have quite the stature of Melville if for no other reason than their work hasn’t stood the test of time, yet.

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