CanCon in CanLit

Much attention has been paid recently to the topic of Canadian content and national pride in literature. It seems we’re writing about everywhere except Canada.

Granted, 2011 marked the first time crime fiction was considered by Scotiabank Giller Prize jurors, which may have contributed to the phenomenon. But, as local writer Tina Brobby says, “It makes sense that Canadians write about everywhere because, after all, Canadians are from all over.”

Still, CBC’s The National commented on the lack of Canadian setting. And at the 2011 Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) conference, not one, but three, panels focused on the “Made in Canada” challenge.

Currently, crime’s toughest competition comes from the Swedes – Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Liza Marklund, and the Americans – David Baldacci, Sue Henry and Tess Gerritsen.

Gerritsen happened to be in the audience of the CWC CanCon panel and suggested the struggle to make Canada unique from the United States stems from the fact that Americans don’t see us as different.

“Books coming from the Yukon or Quebec are considered unique by American readers. Places like Peterborough, though, seem too much like Buffalo or Erie to be considered exotic.”

By extension, the best way to make a book set in Blandsville unique is with strength of character. It becomes crucial to develop such an interesting persona that every reader wishes your hero lived in their home town.

Then there’s “the mouse beside the elephant” phenomenon, convincing us that we will never be heard. Discussion reveals this is a Canadian fiction.

Canadians Peter Robinson, Louise Penny and Kathy Reichs, to name only a few, enjoy huge international readership, whether their stories are set in Leeds with Robinson’s Inspector Banks, in the Gaspé with Penny’s Inspector Gamache or between Montreal and North Carolina with Reich’s forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

And, looking overseas at German crime TV, most of the time when a character goes abroad they go to Kanada.

However, “We can do a lot more to assert ourselves,” says CanLit professor and crime writer John Moss. “It’s important to impart our ideologies in our writing to set us apart.”

His examples include that our Supreme Court is not above the government as in the US, that we live in a less fearful society, and that our landscape and weather play a huge role in shaping who we are.

“It’s our cultural values that make Canadians unique,” he adds. For example, what makes a Yukon crime story unique is our made-in-Yukon responses to crime: culture camps, circle sentencing, healing circles.

Roy Innes, whose crimes play out in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, suggests another way to raise our national profile is to get in front of the online reviewers.

“Find out who they are and make sure they have your material.” It raises recognition of our ability as a nation of writers, and builds a taste for northern writing.

In addition, writers can partner with regional departments of tourism to promote events that put our books in the hands of visitors.

Jayne Barnard writes and blogs from Alberta on Mystery Writers Ink. She believes “Canadian markets don’t have to be our limit.”

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