7.01.2006

essentials

What could be more Canadian than lists of what's Canadian?

For Canada Day, the Toronto Star has compiled lists and more lists of Canadian culture, under the banner "Essentially Canadian".

Panelists in their respective fields pick the best Canadian work in these categories: children's entertainment, movies, visual arts, books, design, music, architecture, theatre and television. Long lists were published throughout this past week; top 10 lists are out today.
Anyone who believes the Canadian identity is lacking needs to take a serious read of the following pages.

It took our 36 panelists months of often heated debate to whittle our long lists of nominees down to just 91 works that we hope represent the very best of Canadian arts and culture. The result is Essentially Canadian, our (almost) definitive guide to the works Canadians need to know in order to understand our cultural history.

The sheer breadth, originality and talent exhibited in these works should be a source of national pride alone.

The project was inspired by a government initiative in Denmark this year to establish a canon of Danish arts and culture. The stated goal of the year-long project was, in part, to "contribute to a lively cultural debate by acting as a yardstick for quality - a yardstick that will obviously be constantly challenged and discussed."

The nationwide reaction, for and against, was immediate and intense. Film director Lars von Trier, one of whose works was honoured, protested the canon's "nationalization of culture."

While our means are more modest, and our list has no government sanction, the goal is the same: to create a dialogue.

The primary guideline in selecting the nominees was that the works must still be accessible to Canadians - whether in books, on video or in person. There would be little point in creating a "must list" unless Canadians could judge the list for themselves. Each work must be strong enough on its own to justify being called a "classic." Narrowing each category down to just 10 works was a monumental task.
Naturally, the Star wants you to use their website to "continue the debate". I'll just save the list for my ongoing exploration of my new country.

15 comments:

M@ said...

I actually enjoyed the Star's A&E section today, though I'm only a weekend subscriber so I didn't see the longlists.

But here's my complaints:

1. Essential music, without BNL, the Rheostatics, or the Demics' uber-classic "New York City"? Sorry, Leonard Cohen just isn't that important that he deserves two entries. And "Hallelujah" only sounds good when it's performed by other artists.

2. Well, I knew Atwood would show up on the Lit list, and I've come to terms with everyone else in the world being blind to her many, many, egregious faults. But to consign The Hockey Sweater to kidlit... that is an insult.

3. I have no idea how Exotica showed up in the movies list. I liked the film a lot, don't get me wrong. But no Bruce McDonald films? Hard Core Logo? Highway 61? Anybody? Am I alone on this one?

For the record, the most Canadian film ever made was called Perfectly Normal. It's about a guy who worked at a brewery, played on the company hockey team, wanted a house in the country, and was persuaded by an American acquaintance to give up his "tiny, fizzy dreams" for a shot at the big time. I'm sorry, but I can't make up a more Canadian plot than that.

I can lend out the tape if anyone wants it. The DVD is, sadly, unavailable thus far.

L-girl said...

M@, I thought the long lists were available online, but now I can't find them... so maybe not.

I really like much of Margaret Atwood's work, and also clearly see her faults - as I think many of her readers do.

However, I'm insulted that being "consigned to kidlit" is an insult. Children's literature is not an also-ran, a substitute category for people who can't create the real thing. It's a valid art form in itself. The best children's literature also works for the adults that introduce kids to it. I can reel off dozens of examples of this. Perhaps The Hockey Sweater is one.

Bruce McDonald was on the long list. I think it was Highway 61, but I'm not certain.

L-girl said...

I also don't understand people's obsession with Leonard Cohen. Although I do think he's an important songwriter, I wouldn't give him more than one spot on a list of 10.

M@, you sound uncharacteristically angry today. Could it be you were cheering for Brazil or England?

M@ said...

Heh. No. These days, in the World Cup, I'm mostly wanting certain teams to lose. (Until Canada gets in. It could happen! Someday!)

But as for Atwood, I think I'd disagree with you that most of her readers are aware of her faults. People use her as the prime example of the literary star in Canada. It drives me nuts. She isn't that good. And you don't have to look too hard to find a far, far better Canadian writer.

The real problem is, I'm a sucker for lists, in that I let them inflame my passions, just as they're designed to do. At least I've stopped writing letters to editors about them.

L-girl said...

Well, I loathe Alice Munro. I find her absolutely unreadable.

And I genuinely love Atwood's work for many reasons. It's not a blind love, or because critics tell me to, or because she's an icon. I don't love all her work, but the novels of hers that I do love are among my favourite contemporary novels, period.

That includes Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace.

Many things are down to taste. I think it's a poor idea to characterize fans of any artist as misguided or blind.

The real problem is, I'm a sucker for lists, in that I let them inflame my passions, just as they're designed to do. At least I've stopped writing letters to editors about them.

That's good! Those letters always seem misguided and blind to me. ;-)

L-girl said...

Stop the presses, the long lists are available online.

Go here, then click on long list for each category.

L-girl said...

And it was "Hard Core Logo", not "Highway 61".

lucie said...

Thanks for the link, I've just bought Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion because it takes place in Toronto. We'll see if it's any good...

L-girl said...

I've just bought Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion because it takes place in Toronto. We'll see if it's any good...

It's very good. It doesn't just take place in Toronto - Toronto is the main character in a way.

Lone Primate said...

Sorry, Leonard Cohen just isn't that important that he deserves two entries. And "Hallelujah" only sounds good when it's performed by other artists.

Leonard Cohen... ah, my. He should be Canada's Bernie Tuppin. He can write; he should leave the singing to someone else. His version of "Suzanne" is a grind. Neil Diamond attached the electrodes and brought it to life. When I was in high school, I spotlighted Leonard Cohen as my poet in English class. Someone in the class suggested listening to Leonard Cohen was like listening to "a singing corpse". His voice does seem to have that creaky lid feel to it. But he's definitely an icon. :)

Lone Primate said...
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Lone Primate said...

But to consign The Hockey Sweater to kidlit... that is an insult.

Oh, amen. On the surface it looks like a piece poking fun at French Canadians, but I think if you really listen to it with your heart, you get a sense of what it's like to be French Canadian. It always surprises me how often English Canadians I've spoken with pass it off as Roch Carrier lampooning the insularity and xenophobia of French Canada. But those attitudes came from somewhere. My feeling has always been that, in part, Roch Carrier was also letting us know what it's like to be on the fringe, looking in. Why English Canadians are so resistant to seeing this eludes me... it's pretty much the same relationship we've had with the United States for over two centuries!

I think the reason it's been consigned to "kidslit" is the fact that it's been animated by the National Film Board. In North America, as almost nowhere else, there's a perception that if it's animated, it's pabulum for children. It's a terrible condemnation of an entire art form, and has negative connotations for any other art associated with it. Roch Carrier's stories aren't particularly aimed at children. They're wry, ironic pieces about life in rural Quebec that require a certain subtlety to be fully enjoyed. To say that his work is miscategorized isn't an insult to children's literature. Children's literature serves a vital purpose. But Carrier's work -- at least what I've read of it -- requires its readers to approach it with an appreciation of history and some life lessons about ethnicity that are generally beyond the scope of childhood. I think this is more about a bias against animation.

L-girl said...

To say that his work is miscategorized isn't an insult to children's literature.

Perhaps, but to say "consigned to kidlit is an insult" is an insult. "Consigned" is not neutral, it is negative. "Insult", well, that means insult. If it's insulting to be classified as children's literature, then children's literature must somehow be less than "real" literature.

Because I write for children and teenagers, I am very aware of the bias against children's entertainment. I've heard it all my life. I've been mocked many times for writing for kids, as if it's somehow easier to do, or less competitive to get published, or just not as important as writing for you and I.

I even find the term "kidlit" demeaning, akin to "chicklit," another belittling term.

But Carrier's work -- at least what I've read of it -- requires its readers to approach it with an appreciation of history and some life lessons about ethnicity that are generally beyond the scope of childhood.

I don't know this work, but good children's literature works on many levels simultaneously. Have you read Huckleberry Finn? Robinson Crusoe? Those works, and many others, work for children with a child's understanding of the world, and they work for adults with a deeper and broader understanding of the world. Because of this, they can be read and re-read, and appreciated throughout our lives. But they are children's literature.

Chances are if a panel of people who read and study children's lit pick The Hockey Sweater as classic children's entertainment, it functions much the same way.
It's probably not necessary to have that understanding of history and ethnicity to understand the work, but if you do, you get more out of it and appreciate it on many levels.

M@ said...

Can I step in and apoligise at this point for dismissing children's literature the way I did? I would have described my objection the way LP did if I were that eloquent.

On the Atwood question, I don't mind anyone liking anything. I dislike having Atwood talked about as though she's obviously the best Canadian writer, and that we all agree on that. Maybe it's the circles I run in, but I run into this all the time.

Also, she spoke at one of my convocations, and I came away detesting her as a person. It's beside the point of the literature of course, but it slammed the door shut on me ever wanting to give her another chance.

Also, I don't even mind Cohen's early stuff. His voice is certainly different, and there's a mournful simplicity to songs like "Suzanne" that I sometimes enjoy. But he's a horrible, horrible arranger. His "Hallelujah" masks a beautiful song in all kinds of overproduced garbage.

I'm going to go check out the longlists now (thx for the link!). But also, I wanted to mention a brush with greatness: Gilles Vigneault, on the best music list, gave me permission to use the lyrics from one of his songs in my novel. Thanks Gilles! So I'm going to support that choice, at least, for reasons that are completely beside the point.

Beside the point: that's where I live.

L-girl said...

Can I step in and apoligise at this point for dismissing children's literature the way I did?

Yes. :-) Thank you, and I realize it was not your intentions. It's a sore point with me. (Obviously!)

I dislike having Atwood talked about as though she's obviously the best Canadian writer, and that we all agree on that.

Yes, I see. In the US she's one of the few Canadian writers that gets discussed, so I can imagine that could be annoying!

Also, she spoke at one of my convocations, and I came away detesting her as a person.

Ah ha. And I had the opposite experience - I've heard her read and speak many, many times, and came away loving her - which has given me a soft spot for her work. Also beside the point, but it has its effect.