Why does Canada have many great writers? Is geography a clue?

I've been told that Canadians are excellent writers. Well, if there ever was an overstatement, this certainly is one of the best. Yet Canada has produced some world renowned authors. Think Margaret Atwood, Alice Munroe, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Yann Martel, Leonard Cohen, Northrop Frye, Malcolm Gladwell. I could go on and on. So, what is it about Canada that produces good writers?

Canadian long winters?

Could it be something about Canada’s long winters? Yet, lots of Canadians spend cold winter days - and nights - doing anything but writing. They are outdoors enjoying the frigid weather or skating on an ice rink shooting hockey pucks into frozen nets. They aren’t curled up in an armchair or sitting at a desk writing the next great novel. So we can’t entirely blame the weather.

Canadian schools, perhaps?

For one, Canada’s educational system is world class outperforming most countries. Well, that is a start, but it takes years to become a great writer, and don’t forget talent.

Currently, Canada ranks 3rd best country in the world for education See this BBC story.

Canada is well known to have a good balance between the arts and sciences. But I have seen lots of really crappy essays over the years, and some of them just happened to be mine. We can’t entirely blame the Canadian school system either.

So how is it that Canadians excel in writing? Practice and repetition is important. Repeatedly drilling good grammar into our brains is important. This repetition is behind the famous 10,000 hour rule by the well-known Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. But excelling in writing goes beyond mechanically repeating grammar. We can’t blame practice either.

Passion and observation

We could cite many examples of writers who have a passion for words and the sounds of words. But words themselves are useless unless they say something meaningful. They need to convey ideas, concepts, images, and emotion. And for that, wordsmithing is not enough. The Beatles would have still been a mediocre band after returning from Hamburg after playing for 10,000 hours if their music didn’t convey anything worthwhile. They would have just been great guitar players but not artists.

Here is another example. Lots of kids (and adults, myself included) are passionate about sports. In Germany the passion is for Football (Soccer). In Canada it is a mixture of Ice Hockey, Basketball and Baseball, depending on the season. Passion in sports is taking more than a casual interest in the game. It is knowing all there is to know about the players, the standings, recent trade deals and so on. And this is true for writing.

Excellent writing conveys more than just good understanding of grammar, although this is important. It also has to include astute observations about human behaviour and expressing those insights in the best possible way.

The Life of Pi - geography and place

A book that demonstrates this relationship between writing and Canada most clearly is The Life of Pi written by the French-Canadian writer Yann Martel. This novel is a book about geography and about place. It is full of exploding colours, interweaving textures, fearful dynamics, and extraordinary wonder. It is the kind of book that draws you into its world and releases you only on the last page.

The writing of Yann Martel is typically Canadian. The vastness of Canada gives a person space to explore ideas to their fullest extent. The story has three characters. A young man named Pi is set adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat which he shares with a frightened and trapped Bengal Tiger. The third character is the vast open ocean itself on which both are drifting endlessly to an unknown and uncertain destination. This book typifies all that there is to know about Canada. What is Canada but wide open geography. It is space writ large and has a profound effect on the people of Canada.

Canadians are a small group of people sharing this vast nature that is at times frightening, dangerous and unpredictable. The Life of Pi can be seen as a metaphor about the geography of Canada and the peoples and dangers that are intrinsic to being a Canadian.

Northrop Frye - nature as both inspiration and fear

Northrop Frye, one of the most famous Canadian literary giants, had this to say about the Canadian Literary Identity:

Based on his observations of Canadian literature, Frye concluded that, by extension, Canadian identity was defined by a fear of nature, by the history of settlement and by unquestioned adherence to the community. However, Frye perceived the ability and advisability of Canadian (literary) identity to move beyond these characteristics. Frye proposed the possibility of movement beyond the literary constraints of the garrison mentality: growing urbanization, interpreted as greater control over the environment, would produce a society with sufficient confidence for its writers to compose more formally advanced detached literature.

Canadians, not surprisingly, have a profound fear of nature. It is a constant in the life of a Canadian. It is something that is conquered at one’s peril. It is part of the founding myth of the country. Nature’s wrath and power was something that could not be easily conquered as the European settlers found out rather quickly when they arrived on these forbidding shores. Yet, it was also something to be respected. The early settlers learned how to survive in the harsh Canadian geography by adopting to this new land and learning the habits and skills of the First Nations people.

Those who could not adopt either returned to Europe or left for the warmer climate of American colonies. Those who stayed gained much more than they could have imagined.

A nation of communities as the foundation of Canadian literature

The endurance and fortitude of those who stayed and persevered brought enormous benefits. It created communities that shared a sense of belonging and care for one another. They helped one another. They struggled together. They innovated together. They faced nature’s power together. Neighbours were not just the people next door all fenced up and locked up in their little boxes they called home. They saw themselves as part of the fabric of community - they were surviving and thriving in this country together. And this mindset formed the basis of Canadian habits, including that of writing.

Frye suggested that Canadians are now ready to move beyond the “garrison mentality” of the country’s early years. And indeed they have. Pi, who at first had a justifiable fear of his environment in the form of the Tiger and the ocean achieved a greater control over his environment and ultimately conquered it - but just barely.

Pi survived in spite of these challenges, and lived to tell the tale.

A piece of paper, a pen and a topic

And what does this have to do with excellent writing? Canadians have a passion for learning about human behaviour. This is a generalization, to be sure, but the facts speak for themselves.

Pi thrived on the open ocean with the Bengal Tiger by first observing and understanding the behaviour of the Tiger. He learned to master the open ocean by observing and understanding its unpredictability, its dangers and its wonders.

Like the open ocean, the geography of Canada leaves a permanent impression on the minds of Canadians, especially its writers. Like Canada, knowledge is vast, but with observation and understanding, it becomes manageable and understandable. It is possible to create order and structure out of what appears to be disorder. Nature is never tamed, but it can be understood.

In fact, the challenge of writing is not the mechanics of writing. Good grammar and spelling is mere repetition (and today that is taken care of by software anyway). Excellent writing is like drifting across a vast open ocean with a Bengal Tiger, both of which are menacing, and surmounting these challenges by observation. Canada’s gift to its writers is its vastness and its natural dangers which are only surmounted with a manageable fear.

A piece of paper, a pen and a topic. These things presents a formidable challenge, vast in scope, but using them with skill and care and understanding produces astute observations on the human condition that both entertain and enlighten us. This is Canada’s gift to the world.

For more about the Life of Pi, see here.