There’s not enough discussion of class in the popular Canadian political sphere. Something that does happen to have strong class discussion is contemporary Canadian fiction — though this element, too, remains under-discussed.There is a clear reason for this: the Canadian state wants to push a “middle-class” identity for its citizens — seen through the creation of things like the Ministry for Middle Class Prosperity … Continue reading
How can we scrutinize Canadian culture to both understand what is going on with class today, and also bring class into broader discussion?
I wrote my Master’s thesis, “CanLit” and Capitalism: Canada Reads and the Circulation of Class Politics Through Contemporary Canadian Fiction, to answer these questions. The thesis had three goals. The first was to close-read a few CanLit novels to see if they did indeed talk about class, and if so, if they aligned with Canadian state prerogatives on class. The second was to look at how the books were discussed on the CBC Radio program Canada Reads, to see if and how class was discussed in relation to the novels, and how these discussions might shape popular reception of the novels. The final goal was to examine alternative collective reading practices/institutions to Canada Reads to chart a possible future direction for being able to talk about class in these novels with others.
What I found was that discourses around class and class struggle are well and alive in Canadian culture. But in order to bring them to light, we cannot rely on literary programs like Canada Reads. We need meaningful alternatives that truly allow for a collective reading experience.
Close-reading for class
Both Small Game Hunting and Birdie strongly critique the Canadian state and its prerogative of settler-capitalism, instead pushing for the building and imagining of non-exploitative relations of care that don’t rely on getting recognition from the state. Fifteen Dogs, on the other hand, reinforces Canadian state narratives around class and care, particularly through the way that the character Benjy sees the world and his desire for a Utopian republicanism.
My close readings showed me that class is indeed a prominent element in popular Canadian fiction, and that contestation around class was occurring within it. The next step was to see if this sense of class discourse tracked to Canada Reads.
Canada Reads and the erasure of class
On Canada Reads, class was barely mentioned in relation to any of the competing texts — and when it was, it often lacked a rigorous formulation.
In fact, the books that won their respective competitions did so on the basis of appealing to the “human condition”. This frame invisibilizes systems like poverty, racism, sexism, and beyond. Such discussions pushed the question of power and structure out of the picture.
The more systemically-oriented Small Game Hunting and Birdie did not fare well in Canada Reads. The main critique levied against both books was that they were both “inaccessible”. Their use of language, style, and aesthetics, which were deeply linked to how the books communicated feelings of alienation and fragmentation under settler-capitalism, were considered “too much” for the “average Canadian” to read and enjoy.
Consequently, both books were voted off the competition. Fifteen Dogs, on the other hand, was praised for its “beautiful prose.”
In all, I found that Canada Reads is not a conducive avenue for sparking questions about class. If anything, it neutralizes such discussions through dismissing certain “non-normative” aesthetics as “inaccessible,” allowing the Canadian state to continue to regulate its own narratives around class and capitalism.
How else can we read together?
Without being able to talk about class, we run the risk of allowing conservatives like Erin O’Toole to co-opt class language in the service of white supremacy. That is something we cannot let happen.See for example this terrifying call to action on Twitter. Much of what Steven High predicted in terms of the Conservatives co-opting class rhetoric for the purposes of white supremacy did indeed … Continue reading
Some people might want to transform Canada Reads to make it more class and power-aware. I’m more interested in developing and supporting alternatives.
So what alternatives are there to Canada Reads? There are a few that I examined: Get Into Reading (GIR) in the UK (now known as Shared Reading) and People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos (P&S/GyC) in the US. Instead of promoting more ephemeral practices of spin-off book discussion groups or social media engagement, both GIR and P&S/GyC take the practice of reading into the community, facilitating reading groups for marginalized peoples outside of traditional “reading sites” such as book clubs and libraries.
GIR and P&S/GyC aim to increase literacy and access to literature, allowing people to connect meaningfully with it in order to have a transformative impact on their lives.Canada Reads, on the other hand, primarily exists to put forth a certain national ideal that allows for systemic violence to continue unabated, as well as help publishers and authors sell more books … Continue reading
I believe that organizations such as GIR and P&S/GyC, given their more material aims and focus on the democratization of literature, allow for freer discussion of all elements of texts, including that of class. It is such institutions that Canadians must work together to build if we wish to seize upon the messages of these books and use them as guides and sources for class-conscious political action.
|↑1||There is a clear reason for this: the Canadian state wants to push a “middle-class” identity for its citizens — seen through the creation of things like the Ministry for Middle Class Prosperity — in order to mask the class inequalities that the state is built on.|
|↑2||See for example this terrifying call to action on Twitter. Much of what Steven High predicted in terms of the Conservatives co-opting class rhetoric for the purposes of white supremacy did indeed come true in the 2021 federal election.|
|↑3||Canada Reads, on the other hand, primarily exists to put forth a certain national ideal that allows for systemic violence to continue unabated, as well as help publishers and authors sell more books (see the “Canada Reads effect.”)|