Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A History of Canadian Fiction

David Staines

How did Canadian fiction, essentially a late-nineteenth-century/early-twentieth-century creation, come to be a major avenue of world fiction in little more than one hundred years?

     More than a century ago, a few fiction writers published highly regarded and incredibly popular books. Writers such as Ernest Thompson Seton and Marshall Saunders, Ralph Connor and Stephen Leacock, Nellie McClung and Mazo de la Roche had enormous sales inside as well as, more importantly, outside Canada. Some of these authors do not now have one book in print. 

     A century later, the fiction map includes such fiction writers as Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Thomas King, Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, and so many more. All their books are in print, and they are widely read inside Canada as well as, less importantly, outside Canada. How did this happen?

   In the years in-between, Canada was a country left to its own cultural designs. It had no defining interest to the outside world. It had never won a war. It had no problems to demand world attention. Canada and its fiction were growing without the steady and sometimes overpowering gaze of the outside world.

     As our recent fiction has been pointing out, Canada is now a multicultural, multinational, and multiracial country which resists any simple or simplified definition. Writers were building on their traditions and espousing their own understandings of the country and its inhabitants. With the emergence of Indigenous voices, then of naturalized Canadian authors, writers became an essential segment of a distinctive society. Canada now boasts of a multicultural group of writers who are not afraid of choosing their own settings, their own landscapes. They write as they want – on subjects they have the freedom to choose.

     Fiction writers are so multifaceted that the distinction between national and international no longer holds. And this situation is almost unique to Canada where the country’s writers, native-born as well as naturalized voices, coexist, operating independently with some degree of cross-over, a case of life lived at the crossroads. Now the many contemporary Canadian writers include Esi Edugyan writing about Alberta and Europe and Barbados and Madeleine Thien writing about Vancouver and Asian settings.

     Fiction writers stand now for multiculturalism, with the number of native-born Canadian writers increasingly augmented by naturalized Canadian voices, who are not frightened to tackle their new Canadian worlds as well as their chosen landscapes from their countries of origin. This is the new Canada, home to a diversity of ethnicities, birth countries, languages, and religious faiths unprecedented in the nation’s history and unprecedented in the nation’s fiction. This diversity is a societal experiment not replicated elsewhere in the world.

A History of Canadian Fiction by David Staines, University of Ottawa

About The Author

David Staines

David Staines is Professor of English at the University of Ottawa. A scholar of medieval culture and literature, as well as Canadian culture and literature, he has authored or edit...

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