Editing Modernism in Canada


April 6, 2011

EMiC Beyond Modernism

EMiC’s core mandate is to facilitate the production of critically edited texts by modernist Canadian authors.  One would anticipate that such a project would revolutionize our understanding of Canada’s modern period and provide teachers with an unprecedented selection of modernist texts for the classroom.  So far, this seems to be the case.  I have already used Colin Hill’s 2007 edition of Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage in my own course on Canada’s urban literature and, assuming I’m fortunate enough to secure another teaching position, I will continue to introduce EMiC editions to my students.  While my students were certainly interested in modernism, they began interpreting the novel in unexpected ways by comparing it to contemporary texts such as Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For.  In short, the new edition was not only changing how people thought about modernism, but also contemporary literature.  Needless to say, I found this exciting.

I recently contacted another EMiC Graduate Fellow who specializes in contemporary Canadian literature and asked her if she has had any similar experiences.  Hannah McGregor met me at TEMiC 2009, where we attended Dean Irvine’s crash-course on textual editing theory.  I confessed: I wanted to write a blog post about EMiC and contemporary literature.  I envisioned a post that would be different and chatty.  Did she have any thoughts on the subject?  Would she donate some of her time to chat about EMiC and her own work?  She graciously agreed.

My timing seemed fortunate.  Hannah has been working on paper that she will deliver at the upcoming “Editing as Cultural Practice: Institutional Formations, Collaboration, and Literatures in Canada”—a workshop organized by the TransCanada Institute (TCI) and Editing Modernism in Canada.  TCI, directed by Smaro Kamboureli, has been questioning Canadian literature as an institution.  TCI, and I apologize for the generalization, has tended to primarily focus on contemporary literature, especially its relationship to diaspora, transnationalism, multiculturalism, and colonialism.  Hannah has also been contributing to The Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC)—a massive digital humanities project seeking, amongst other things, to produce a digital database of criticism, texts, and archival material; and to create a toolkit for online, scholarly collaboration. Hannah: “It’s been very exciting to start finding connections between TCI, EMiC, and CWRC, because at times I feel like I have academic multiple personality syndrome.” All of a sudden, the three projects were becoming increasingly related.

Inspired by my students, I was hoping our conversation would address how our EMiC contributions were influencing the sections of our dissertations on contemporary literature.  I, for example, have a chapter about how some 1990s writers were renewing literary debates from the 1920s and 1930s.  They questioned the Canadian literary institution’s (alleged) preference for historical romances set in exotic locations and championed realistic urban writing.  Without knowing it, they resurrected urban realism and its raison d’être.  My concerns here were clearly aesthetic and literary historical.  Had Hannah found any similar forms of overlap?  Not really, she said.  But, she has noticed that her training at TEMiC 2009 has altered her approach to texts.  Hannah: “I have to say, the most exciting things EMiC has done for me so far is create a passion for book history / social text theory that has begun to inform everything I do, and introduce me to the incredibly sexy and exciting world of the digital humanities.”  I agreed.  EMiC’s methodological and theoretical concerns were certainly relevant beyond the confines of modernist studies.

This new found passion for book history and social textual theory has, however, proven somewhat frustrating.  Contemporary authors, generally speaking, do not have archives.  Thus all those social and textual goodies ordinarily housed in special collections are simply inaccessible.  Hannah, for example, has been craving to see the original manuscript for Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973) because her publishers demanded heavy edits, especially in the later section where Campbell discusses her stint as a high-end Vancouver prostitute.  As Jim Douglas wrote in a letter to Jack McClelland, the manuscript was “highly libelous” because Campbell “names names”, some of which happened to be prominent Canadian businessman.  As Hannah explained it to me, “when she brought it to her publishers they insisted that she cut out the majority of the disturbing, graphic, or too-angry sections of the book and balance what remained with a more hopeful story of her often happy childhood.  Ironically, it is this earlier part of the book that has garnered the majority of Halfbreed‘s critical attention.”  In other words, the editors’ interventions significantly influenced the text’s critical reception.  “I want to see that draft, I want to see those differences, I want to map out how much of the text as we know it now was a matter of the publishers’ intervention… and I think that it’s vital that students of the text also have access to that information, because that is key to how we’re going to understand and read Halfbreed.”

I shared a slightly less glamorous anecdote about the mythic query letter Russell Smith sent John Metcalf to pitch How Insensitive.  According to Metcalf, said letter began with a long, elaborate rant about how the Porcupine’s Quill would have zero interest in the manuscript because it was not about small towns, it was not set in the past, and it was not narrated by a lonely, elderly lady.  Apparently, the letter offered a litany of complaints about the state of Canadian literature and how there is a desperate need for more books about young, urban Canadians (in other words, the major theses Smith has been outlining in his Globe and Mail column for about the last fifteen years).  Smith, however, denies that he ever wrote the letter and when he first began writing about the state of Canadian literature he routinely attributed such ideas to Metcalf.  And other Metcalf-edited-writers in the 1990s also tended to market their urban writing using similar rhetoric.  Was the letter ever written?  Did Metcalf encourage writers like Smith to attack Canlit’s alleged preference for small towns and historical settings?  How heavily did Metcalf edit Smith’s first two novels?  Did he insert the anti-establishment scenes?  Yes, these questions are somewhat gossipy, but they nevertheless are of fundamental importance for understanding the resurrection of urban realism.  I wanna see their correspondences.  I wanna see the edited manuscripts.  I wanna know who Smith was hanging out with when he wrote his novels (Noise was, the myth has it, written almost entirely in Bar Italia).  But, of course, there isn’t a Russell Smith archive (although he claims he has saved digital copies of every draft).

Our contributions to EMiC have fundamentally changed how we think and write about literature.  But it has also left us envious of the textual and archival material available for older texts.  Of course, EMiC hasn’t diminished our obsession with meta-narratives and suspicion of institutions.  Hannah: “And I worry about tending towards the opposite extreme, that is, of fetishizing the document to the point of obscuring the interest in how that document signifies regardless of its ‘real’ nature.”  I do believe she said something about EMiC creating a multiple personality disorder…

2 Responses to “EMiC Beyond Modernism”

  1. mfortin says:

    There is no existing archival material, nor scholarship of any kind, for any of the novels I am working on for my dissertation. Part of the fun of working on Barbeau has been to do deep archival research on the side, which makes me feel like I am actually doing “real” work. However, while thinking about the history of science in Canada, or the lack of a literary response to the concept, I started to notice a connection between the texts in my dissertation and Barbeau’s novel, so I have decided to include a chapter that deals with the connections between them in looking at the history of science and postmodernism in Canada. At some point the lines between literary periods do blur, and perhaps this is where the interesting aspects of the digital humanities will arise – the ability to map connections that aren’t obvious. Your post also made me think of Bart Vautour’s idea of event specific editing, and the fuzzy boundaries that surround events. I think Bart’s idea is great, but in my research for Barbeau’s novel, which surrounds one “event” I have had to reconsider the causes and effects without making sharp dividing lines between a supposed beginning and ending.

  2. pwebb says:

    You might be interested in a book I read some years ago called The Future of the Past by Alexander Stille. Stille pinpoints the way in which transitions to all-digital communication and creative formats are affecting the archival process, with major implications for literary scholarship.

    He notes how the U.S. Library of Congress, for example, is charged with archiving a galaxy’s worth of government email correspondence under Access to Information protocols, which steals precious time and budgetary resources from the more culturally crucial forms of archiving.

    Then there’s the question of obsolescene in digital formats. Literary manuscripts an author might have conscientiously preserved on floppy discs just a decade or two ago are no longer readable by most modern computers. Archives often maintain an arsenal of old equipment to read older formats, but inevitably these machines will reach a point where they can no longer be maintained. To follow your Russell Smith example, Smith may have carefully preserved all his manuscripts on a contemporary laptop, hard disc, CDR/DVD, etc, but who’s to say a hundred years after Smith’s death these formats will still be accessible?

    One thing about paper is that it tends to last centuries, can be easily copied or scanned for safety’s sake, and requires no special equipment to access.

    While I’m a big fan of everything digital, and the convenience it brings to research, I also wonder how today’s contemporary authors will stand up to posterity once the stash of typewriter ribbons in their fridge runs out.

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