Discussion: How Do You Classify Canadian Literature?

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A few weeks ago, I decided to make it my mission to read more Canadian literature — from the more serious, award-winning novels, to the fun genre novels, and to the pile of books by Canadian authors I pulled off of my shelf. I even started a new page on the blog to track my progress east coast to west coast, provinces to territories. Though, as I was making this list up and going through the books I had previously read, I hit a road block.

What exactly classifies as Canadian literature?

There were two authors in specific that sparked my curiousity. First, we have Jessica Martinez. She was born in Calgary, Alberta but currently lives in Florida. One of her books that I’ve read, The Space Between Us, takes place in Banff, Alberta. But I was still confused — since she lives in Florida, is she still considered a Canadian author?

Next, there was Sarah Mlynowski, from whom I’ve only read one book (and it didn’t take place in Canada). She was born in Montreal, but now resides in New York City. In fact, I didn’t even know that she had any Canada relation until looking her up online. Is she still considered a Canadian author?

Then we have the authors who were born or lives elsewhere, but now call Canada their home — Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, etc. Obviously, in this case, their citizenship comes into play because by now (at least, I’m assuming) they’re both Canadian citizens which would make them Canadian authors. But then does that mean if you’re born here and were a citizen and you move away, does that mean you aren’t a Canadian author anymore?

When I brought up the question on Twitter (a great place to bring up questions like this), the answers varied. Some people said it has to do with citizenship (which makes sense) and other people said that Canadian literature are works published by Canadian publishers.

This is where I get even more confused.

Canadian publishers publish a WIDE range of authors, from U.S. to international. If an author across the oceans publishes his or her work with a Canadian publisher, how does that make it Canadian literature?

THEN, there are the books by authors who aren’t Canadian but who WRITE about Canada. Books like Canada by Richard Ford or The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (thank you to Jason Lee Bateman for the examples). In a way, I could see these being classified as Canadian literature because they are about parts of this great nation, but they’re still not by Canadian authors.

The final question for me is, when it comes to reading more Canada, what exactly does that mean? Does that mean reading books by Canadian authors, books published by Canadian publishing houses, or books that take place in Canada? 

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29 thoughts on “Discussion: How Do You Classify Canadian Literature?

  1. In my opinion, it has nothing to do with the publisher. It’s all about the author. I think if you are born in Canada and live elsewhere or if you are currently living in Canada, it counts. I mean obviously if you moved away when you were a newborn I wouldn’t consider that person a Canadian author, but if they spent a good portion of their life living in Canada, then yet. But no matter what, it has nothing to do with the publisher. HarperCollins Canada publishes mostly American authors. So whoever said that is way wrong.

  2. Kirt and I had this discussion when we decided to make the Write Reads book club a “Canadian books only” book club. I think the way people live has changed so much these days; many people move and live in many different cities/countries/continents throughout their lives. So we agreed that anyone who has lived in Canada for more than a few years of their life could be considered Canadian, because they would have had a chance to develop a Canadian perspective of sorts. I’m a believer in being inclusive 🙂

  3. Over at Write Reads we try to choose a “Canadian” novel do for our book club podcast, and we have run into similar dilemmas. On occasion we’ve been a little slippery with this (The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey and the A Wrinkle in Time come to mind) but we’re usually able to find some Canadian connection. It sounds like you want to be a little stricter with your choices, so I would mostly go with what Kara has said. However, I think that we could make an argument that books published by small, independent, Canadian presses (House of Anansi, for example), even if the authors and subjects aren’t Canadian, can be considered Can Lit, but not the big publishers who just happen to have houses in Canada. I would also argue that any novel that deals with Canada as a subject, or just by setting, should fall into your scope as well (Richard Ford’s Canada is an excellent example of this). That’s sort of how we do it, if that helps. – Kirt

  4. I’m kind of shocked people would say they think it has ANYTHING to do with whether the book was published in Canada. As you said, there are plenty of books published here that were written by people all over the world. Tons of Canadian authors are published by American publishers – does that make it American literature?

    For me, it’s anyone born here, or anyone who lives here and considers Canada their home, whether they’re from here or not. I also count books that are set here but were written by non-Canadian authors. Basically anything that has anything to do with Canada counts in my opinion lol.

  5. I want to say it is based off citizenship. If you are born in Canada and move somewhere else, aren’t you still considered a Canadian citizen? You can get dual citizenship, but you’ll still be Canadian. The same with authors who move to Canada and get a Canadian citizenship, technically they are now a Canadian citizen. Once a Canadian, always a Canadian in my opinion.

    It has nothing to do with who publishes it though.. at least I feel that way. That’s just silly.

    • My one exception to it coming down to citizenship is Jessica Martinez. If you’ve read The Space Between Us, you’ll see that it takes place in Alberta. And it’s really captures the Canadian spirit in it! But Jessica lives in Florida now … was Calgary-born. I’d still consider her Canadian!

      I agree that it’s just silly to say it comes down to the publisher.

      • Yes, but wouldn’t she have a dual citizenship? I have no idea how citizenships work..lol I think if you’re born in Canada you are always considered a citizen, no matter where you live. So yes, she would be considered a Canadian author to me!

  6. For me, I would consider a Canadian author to be someone who is a) Canadian by birth, or b) currently residing in Canada. The publisher doesn’t come into play because, as you said, so many publishers publish overseas.

  7. This is an interesting question! I hadn’t really thought of the complexities in answering it until I read your post.

    I would be mostly likely to say Canadian literature is literature by someone who lived in Canada for a reasonable amount of time (a few years, as someone suggested above, though that’s still an ambiguous time frame). The author should have been in Canada long enough that they in some way identify as Canadian, or having been Canadian. (Although, clearly, it could be hard to verify that unless the author makes public statements on the topic.)

    For the purposes of a personal reading project, however, I think including works set in Canada is perfectly fine!

    I just hesitate to count setting in a strict definition of “Canadian literature” because the approach wouldn’t work for other genres. For example, I wouldn’t call a sci-fi set on Mars “Martian literature” because obviously the author has never been to Mars and is inventing a lot of things about it for the sake of the story. The same for historical fiction. Many historical fiction novels about the Middle Ages, for example, do not give a accurate portrayals of medieval culture, people, philosophies, etc.

    • Ha ha … Mars literature. 🙂 I do think that books that take place in Canada that are true to where the setting is can be considered Canadian. I’ve read some books and I can picture in my head where the characters are — it’s really neat!

      You’re right, though, for people who haven’t been in Canada their entire life, it’s hard to say if they’re Canadian if they don’t actually talk about it.

  8. I think of Canadian literature as literature that captures the unique spirit of Canada. Annabel by Kathleen Winter, Touch by Alexi Zentner, and No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod come to mind. The authors come from different places and the publishers are Canadian, but what makes them Canadian literature to me is that they manage to touch on the atmosphere, spirit, and culture of Canada in a subtle, meaningful way.

  9. Pingback: Book Bloggery Week-in-Review (30)

  10. I would classify Canadian literature as books written by Canadian-born or Canadian-raised authors and/or books with a Canadian setting. I don’t think a Canadian publisher would make me think of a book as being Canadian.

    I remember, years ago, coming across a book written by an American who was now living in Canada. She’d gotten Canadian government monetary support to write her book, and yet she was still American enough that she was able to be nominated for a Newbery. I was really annoyed when I found that out; talk about working the system to your benefit! Take money from the Canadian taxpayers and then get considered for an award that actual Canadians aren’t eligible for. But that instance does underscore the difficulty of determining what makes a book Canadian (or American, British, Australian, etc.)…

    • That does seem really weird … especially when an award is supposed to be for citizens of a certain country. I’d say that’s taking advantage of a few things …

      But yes, I do definitely think of Canadian books as those written by those who identify with Canada or books in a Canadian setting!

  11. I tried to make a list of Aussie authors (because they are some of my favorite YA writers) and ran into the same problem. I guess I agree with the majority above — if an author identifies as Canadian, that’s good enough for me!
    Would love to see your list once you figure it out!

  12. If the author is Canadian (born or raised) then I would consider it to be Canadian literature, but I see how it can be hard to differentiate. I keep on telling myself I will read more Canadian literature, but I never do, and it’s not because I don’t want to. I normally pick books up based on the synopsis or recommendations, not based on where the author is from.

    • That’s how I usually did it, but there are times when I really want to go by where the author is from! It’s funny how I’ve never realized how many wonderful Canadian authors there are out there …

  13. Ooh. Interesting topic! It bugs me all the time actually. Whenever I review a book, I’m bent on adding tags like “australian author” or “canadian author” but it gets murky with authors living abroad. In the end, I mostly base it off citizenship, so long as an author spent a considerable amount of time in their home country.

    Publishers really don’t matter all that much to me unless a publisher is primarily dedicated to promoting local literature.

    It didn’t occur to me though that an author that is, say, not Canadian but living in Canada could be considered a Canadian author. Or in the very least, that that author could be considered as contributing to Canadian literature. Now I’ll be scouring author profiles even more for their views on which country they feel closer attachment to. Yeah, maybe what matters are citizenship and author attachment?

    • It’s a tricky thing! Citizenship can be hard, too, I find, especially if I’m looking on Goodreads … if an author is BORN in a certain country, do they still live there? It’s not like authors are just out there talking about the country they live in all the time … they’re too busy talking about their books!

      It’s kind of nice that social media has made it easier to talk to authors … if I had to ask one, I’m sure they’re offer up help!

My home is where my books are. - Ellen Thompson

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