The Dickipedia Prize for Literature

If you’ve ever been to Dickipedia, a Wiki of Dicks, you’ll see a list of dicks in business, media, sports, and entertainment (hint: people do not make it here by virtue of being named Richard). I expect there may be one for literature quite soon. On the BBC World Service today there was an exchange between English biographer Victoria Glendinning, and Noah Richler, who has compiled a literary atlas of Canada.

Why? Well, two weeks ago, Glendinning wrote an unbelievably condescending piece in the Financial Times about her experience serving as a judge for the Giller Prize, which is like the Man Booker prize for Canadian novels.

Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for “gutter” is “eavestrough”, which is picturesque . Everyone is wearing a “tuque”, or “toque”, which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)

there is a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.

Apart from brilliant Giller contestants, there are … “unbelievably dreadful” ones. It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council, who are also thanked…. If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.

Not surprisingly, Richler (a Canadian) took umbrage at Glendinning’s sniffy dismissal of quaint Canadiansms, then got out of his Muskoka chair to fire a salvo back across the pond:

The bulk of English novels, even the good ones (Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes come to mind), are written by authors parcelling out their ideas frugally, a couple for the book at hand and others reserved for the next. This is the same sad way the English make fish pie: one piece of cod mixed in with many, many potatoes.

You want fireworks? You want literature that is invested with energy because every page is written as if it was the writer’s last chance? Well, don’t turn to English novels but to the political and cultural margins of a collapsed empire that started becoming parochial more than half a century ago – and is today to the point that the word “tuque” provides Ms. Glendinning such supercilious amusement. Canadian writers, along with Indian and Australian and Irish and African and Asian ones, have been writing the most exciting and original novels in, umm – oh, whatever kind of English it is, give the woman a lexicon – for decades. In these literatures, you will find a fervour and a generosity of spirit that is sorely lacking in the English, the dearth of which explains why most do not get North Americans even when they like us.

I have to side with Richler on this one.

There’s a nice bit in Bill Bryson’s book “The Mother Tongue” (about the English language) where he describes how 300 years ago, the English repeatedly bemoaned the American’s barbarian handling of the language … and how typically the words they took umbrage to were proper English terms that had merely fallen out of use, only to be revived in the States. Nonetheless, the English had self-appointed themselves as arbiters of the language, no matter what the colonies had to say.

Fast-forward to 2009, and what do you get? Victoria Glendinning defending the empire, haughtily trying to claim supremacy for “English-English.”

The BBC World Service had both of them on today, together, and it was great fun to hear a very prim English toff get shredded by a civil pit bull from the colonies (Alas, it’s not available on the BBC site.) She lasted maybe two minutes trying to explain and clarify (“But we envy you for getting grants!” etc.), then started backpedaling, and even called him “love.”

Speaking of self-appointing, I hereby nominate Glendinning for the Dickipedia short-list.