Surviving Survival

On Thursday March 31, 2005, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Vancouver hosted a panel called After Survival: Where is Canadian Poetry? The five panelists — Barbara Nickel, Chris Patton, Ross Leckie, Stephanie Bolster, and Eric Miller — were asked whether Margaret Atwood’s seminal study, Survival, had enabled or constrained Canadian literature’s sense of itself. Each poet used Survival to consider recent developments in Canadian poetry in English. Is survival still our leitmotif? Is there a distinctly Canadian poetry? What does it mean that these questions still preoccupy us?

Starting in September, NPR will serialize their papers at a rate of one or two per month. Zach Wells has generously agreed to round out the feature with a trenchant response to the series.

Survival appeared in 1972 with House of Anansi, a small (and still thriving) press formed in 1966 by writers Dennis Lee and David Godfrey. Just thirty-two, and beginning to acquire some renown, Margaret Atwood wrote, over a few months, a book intended to be a moneymaker, a “user-friendly self-help guide” along the lines of the press’ books on law and VD. Atwood claims – and the speed of composition corroborates – that she did not so much write as assemble the book based on “the work of my predecessors and the thoughts of my contemporaries,” and that at the time she “attached no particular importance to it.” Yet Survival, expected to sell 3,000 copies, sold 30,000 in its first year, and created a legacy so enduring that it was reissued last year.

The book responded to and influenced a crucial period in Canadian writing and canon-formation, a period nourished by the creation of The Canada Council for the Arts in 1965 and by the growing recognition of “Canadian literature” as a discipline of study. Although not intended to be comprehensive, that Survival was the most accessible work of its kind – designed, according to the original introduction, primarily for the general public – led to its being taken as authoritative by many readers. Despite Atwood’s insistence that she wasn’t an academic (she completed an MA, but as a Victorianist), and despite the derision with which many critics responded, Survival would become a major reference point in most CanLit courses for the coming decades. It’s been described as “the most visible – albeit the most challenged – critical work” in English Canadian literary history.

Claiming to be a descriptive survey of CanLit by theme, the book explores what Canadians write about, not how they write. Explicit in this undertaking is Atwood’s treatment of the works under scrutiny “as though they were written by Canada.” She contends:

The central symbol for Canada … is undoubtedly Survival . . . , … a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of “hostile” elements and/or natives . . . . But the word can also suggest survival of a crisis or disaster, like a hurricane or a wreck . . . For French Canada after the English took over it became cultural survival, hanging on as a people, retaining a religion and a language under an alien government. And in English Canada now while the Americans are taking over it is acquiring a similar meaning…

A few catchy chapter titles suggest the “almost intolerable anxiety” which Atwood claims this theme generates: nature the monster, animal victims, failed sacrifices, and, of course, the paralysed artist. Lists and bold, often wry, generalizations, are the book’s trademark: “If in England the family is a mansion you life in, and if in America it’s a skin you shed,” she says, “then in Canada it’s a trap in which you’re caught.” Indifference is difficult; one is either briskly dismissive or readily convinced. In my education, a key element was the typology of “basic victim positions,” arising from Canada’s “colonial mentality”:

Position One: To deny the fact that you are a victim

Position Two: To acknowledge that you are a victim, but to explain this as an act of Fate, . . . the dictates of Biology . . . or any other large general powerful idea

Position Three: To acknowledge . . . that you are a victim but to refuse to accept the assumption that the role is inevitable

Position Four: To be a creative non-victim

Atwood refers to these types by number so often that one has to memorize them. For a neophyte, this can have an indoctrinating effect. For a nascent writer, this indoctrination can be, as the writer-critic John Metcalf suggests, “dangerous.”

I offer myself as a case study. As an undergraduate in creative writing, I took three courses in CanLit, believing that, if I hoped to enter this country’s literary landscape, I’d better know my way around. As Roy Miki remarked, thematic criticism remained “alive and well in many Canadian classrooms” in the early 90s. In my courses here in Vancouver at around that time, Survival wasn’t assigned, but referred to so often that eventually my oh-so-Canadian guilt forced me to read it. By that point, its themes had been fed to me so often that I took them as given; implicitly, my course reading lists, which included a healthy dose of Atwood’s own fiction and poetry – the cerebral lyricism of which chimed with my developing voice, making her a too-seductive model – supported Survival’s thesis. Previously, I hadn’t cared much whether an author was Canadian. I’d identified – without using the term – as Cascadian; home was a landscape, climate, and vegetation zone that crossed the U.S. border and didn’t extend past the Rockies into the Canada that Atwood meant by the word. Now, I began to write as though I were Canada. My poetry became – for someone raised in the suburb of a growing city – exceedingly concerned with wilderness. Though I’d generally felt nature as a benign or benevolent presence, I became fixated on the terror of nature. When I wrote a poem sequence in which female fairy tale protagonists freed themselves from social and narrative constraints, I wasn’t thinking of Atwood’s remark that, “in Canada, Rapunzel and the tower are the same,” but I gloried in having written some “type four victims.”

Atwood would no doubt be appalled to hear of my apprenticeship, though also, I suspect, a little smug, as my willingness to accept her authority suggests a colonial inferiority complex. There was, I like to think, some irony in my manifestation of these themes, but the fact remains that reading one writer’s encapsulation of what others had written affected my writing; description had become, insidiously, prescription.

Untroubled by a gap between analysis and practice, Atwood was writing out of her own thesis even before she’d formed it; her book-length sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, took its protagonist from type two to type four victim two years before Survival’s publication. One reason why the book’s themes still feel relevant at all is that Atwood’s still writing out of them. In a sense, she was writing from and for herself all along; she simply called that self “Canada.” Survival was highly insightful about many of the works set forth as examples, but its narrow focus – a lack of regional and urban examples, to name two – made it incomplete, by Atwood’s own admission.

Among most academics, Survival is seen as a key historical document, a defining example of 1970s thematic criticism. As Russell Brown indicates, what we call in Canada “thematic criticism” is really more “cultural thematics,” a way of reading that – despite having been in vogue for only the first half of that decade, and attacked with such growing vehemence that Heather Murray declared in 1985, “Thematic criticism is of course now universally despised” – remains a persistent spectre. Practised in works of the era by D.G. Jones and John Moss, such criticism still has weight because it is, arguably, “the only clearly defined critical school to emerge in Canadian criticism” and because its practice was inseparable from the task of convincing the world – and Canadians – that there was indeed such a thing as Canadian literature.

Conversations with poets of my generation who spent time in English departments confirm that I’m not alone in having been formed by Survival, and not alone in finding it less engaging upon recent rereading. The discrepancy reveals both our maturity – a broader reading background, a propensity to read for technique, heightened critical faculties – and recent developments in this country’s writing.

Though I’m not sure I’d have needed confirmation, Survival’s confidence that Canadian literature existed ultimately freed me to write it without distracting myself with the question. In the writing programme in which I teach, CanLit is the only prescribed literature course, yet students don’t evince a sense of themselves as Canadian writers; thanks to the recent international success of such poet-novelists as Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels, they aren’t interested in fitting in to a national tradition, but in winning prizes on the world stage. Might their blithe disregard confirm that Canadian literature has arrived?

Yet constraints remain. Though CanLit is more diverse than it once was, that I find still greater range among my students’ work than I do in most journals suggests that Canadian poetry is in fact much more vast than any editorial board – or, thus, any reader – would have it. When I jokingly characterize the quintessential Canadian poem, to my students, as a first person domestic lyric – perhaps involving the washing of dishes by a window outside of which weather occurs – am I describing not what is written but what certain editors prefer? When I consider my own poems of this kind – of course I write them – throwaways, what possibilities am I curtailing? We all know that trying to be original rarely results in true innovation. Perhaps the best way to truly reflect the culture out of which one writes is not to think about that culture. But to do that, one has to trust that the culture lies firmly under one’s feet.

Survival’s reissue stems from its authorship and the debate it sparked, not from its applicability. In her new introduction, Atwood declares: “I wouldn’t write Survival today, because I wouldn’t need to.” One function of this re-engagement with the project of defining a national literature is to show us how far we’ve come – and how far we can still go – and then to let us move on, creative non-victims all.

Stephanie Bolster was born in Vancouver and raised in Burnaby, B.C., she now teaches in the creative writing program at Concordia University. She is the award-winning author of three collections of poetry: White Stone: The Alice Poems, Two Bowls of Milk, and Pavilion.