The fourth question urged the panelists to make connections between their novels and the larger world; in other words, they had to show how their book transcends its origins. While a few panelists summarize the universal appeal of the characters and stories, some compare their novels to other great works, and one makes the argument that their selection is so diverse it might have changed the way publishers view CanLit.
The question: In the 2009 Canada Reads debate, panelist Anne-Marie Withenshaw said that we celebrate authors, filmmakers, and songwriters because their work “resonates beyond our cultural borders.” Sarah Slean said it’s the universal appeal that makes a book great. How does your selection resonate beyond the cultural borders of Newfoundland and Labrador to appeal to a wider audience be it national or international?
DARCY FITZPATRICK on This All Happened
At first blush, This All Happens appears to be an insiders-only book. A love letter to a tiny, out-of-the-way city that few have visited or even heard of (OK, before Doyle, anyway). But the way in which Winter captures our beloved St. John’s transcends the need to know the place. To wit, it is his depiction of the city that invites you in and makes you feel as though it’s where you belong.
Then you’ve got the romantic entanglement, the struggle to make it as an artist, and the philosophical nuggets that reveal themselves with such ease. Winter’s story could have been set anywhere else, and the universality of it would remain intensely apparent. His coup de grace is the way in which he weaves that universality into a place foreign to most, though which by the last turn of the page will feel more like home than wherever you may happen to be while reading it.
JAMIE FITZPATRICK on The Wreckage
A story that can’t transcend its immediate time and place has failed a fundamental test. But The Wreckage passes that test brilliantly.
At the heart of most great novels you’ll find great characters. No matter how fascinating the era or setting, how compelling the plot, or how dazzling the writer’s style, if I don’t care about the people, I’m not going to care about the book.
That’s the true basis for my defence of The Wreckage. From troubled Wish to reckless Sadie, from the American officer Johnny to the Japanese soldier Nishino, the story teems with people who come alive in your imagination, people you struggle with and puzzle over, who stay with you for the duration of the book and beyond.
I’ve already mentioned some of the novel’s overriding themes: the tumultuous advance of the 20th Century, the casualties left in its wake, people uprooted and seeking grounding in the new, urban, modern world. It’s the characters who bring those themes to life, making The Wreckage a rich and complex story, a real page-turner that can draw in any reader, regardless of that reader’s familiarity with Newfoundland and Labrador.
JOEL THOMAS HYNES on Hold Fast
The Grapes of Wrath, How Late is Was, How Late?, Money, Ask the Dust, House of Hate, The Catcher in the Rye, The Wars, The Dharma Bums — what do all of these books have in common? Well, for one, neither of them are narrated by a dirty fuckin turtle. But they all weave a tale of a character’s immensely emotional, spiritual and physical journey from one point of being to another. Setting is just that, setting. Setting should be plausible, but ultimately redundant. If a book or an author gets slotted as “regional”, then more likely someone got a little heavy-handed with their geography or locale, someone got a little too attached to Mom’s homemade buns and lost sight of what makes a book a great one — a kick ass story told with an honest voice. Newfoundland has nothing to do with Hold Fast’s lasting presence on bookshelves all across North America, but rather it’s that readers connect with the honest emotional journey of a young man’s struggle for truth, his warranted outrage towards the cruelty of fate and the deceptive workings of society, and his willingness to change in the name of personal growth. Where on the planet do people not, however privately, want for personal truth and growth? Where do people not, however covertly, not wish to overthrow that which binds them to a certain lot in life? Don’t get me wrong, Hold Fast does possess a certain undeniable NL flavour, but much moreso its strength lies in its authentic, unfeigned portrayal of the human condition, and it’s this quality that enables any good story to resonate with readers far and wide and usually allows for a long and enduring shelf life.
RUTH LAWRENCE on February
If I can use an example from the theatre: whether you are experiencing the story of the moral faults of Hedda Gabler as written by Ibsen in Norway in the late 19th Century or the extraordinary life of the ordinary outport nurse Myra Bennett as written by Chafe in the 21st Century, it will be the way the story is told that will determine its appeal to an international audience. February is about a solitary woman reconciling herself with an immense tragedy. The intimate story of Helen’s mourning is well told and engaging. Because it is set in Newfoundland doesn’t matter. Perhaps that it’s written by one of many great storytellers born of the place does matter.
CHAD PELLEY on Come, Thou Tortoise
North America is old, and other international literary hotspots – England, Ireland, France – are even older. That means every story has been told. We’ve heard it all now. But we haven’t heard it the way Jessica serves it up. Her language, and the imagination of her characters, is unprecedented. It’s keeping literature fresh. She’s won over the country and the novel’s been published in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, etc, too, so there’s clearly a universal appeal.
On a grander scale, books like this one are helping modern literature diversify. She put many things previously kept separate – “literary fiction” and not-so-serious narration, serious situations and wacky characters, humour and mystery – in the same blender. Readers are drinking it up. That’s a game-changer, and hopefully, an eye opener for publishers. We don’t all yearn for another novel set against the backdrop of a war, or dense metaphoric passages to feign admiration for. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of books, but I’d like CanLit to be known for its diversity, and boundary-pushing books like this help that cause. I know there are more writers as different as Jessica Grant out they’re going unpublished, because a lot of publishers have a flawed idea of what their readers want (it’s a danger of basing decisions on past book sales: just because a book sold doesn’t mean the reader loved it). Thanks to the wild success of books like Come, Thou Tortoise, I’d like to think publishers will feel comfortable diversifying their lists now.