Over the next few weeks, I’ll be making posts about my favourite Newfoundland novels, explaining why I think they are so wonderful, but also why I think they are important as Newfoundland novels specifically. This is intended as an imperfect and partial primer to the Newfoundland novel.
It all started a few months ago when Alison Kinney, a writer friend who lives in New York City, posted the following question on my facebook wall:
Was talking with a friend about Newfoundland writers, was wondering if you had a top 10 list of recommendations? I thought I saw some on the Books That Influenced You list; should I just start there?
This, of course, opened wide a floodgate. I’d create a primer in Newfoundland literature for Alison, a must-read list, and I’d write a paragraph or so about each book I put on it. But I’ve always been leery of canons. Can a text – can any art at all – have an objective quality of goodness or worth by which it can be compared to others of its kind? I reject that idea out of hand – any assessment will be subjective, will value certain things over other things. One judge will be blind to something that would shine like a beacon to a different judge.
I guess, though, you can do an (imperfect, biased) assessment of how well a text represents a culture and a place, at least in general terms. You can also get a general sense of cultural impact, if a text is at least a few years old – a sense of what literary life it has (if any) beyond its own covers. But if I was to guide my ship by those stars, I’d have to call at ports like Death on the Ice, House of Hate, and, yes, The Shipping News, and I have never enjoyed or loved those books (this is not to denigrate their importance, or, in the case of Death on the Ice, the vital work of cultural mourning and memorialization that they do).
But context and canonicity (such as it is) can’t be ignored completely, especially since the person who asked for a list of recommendations is someone who has never been to Newfoundland, someone who is not familiar with the place, its history, its context, the way it is today. The list of recommendations would need to have an element of didacticism to it, resist it as I may.
But the person who asked is also someone I know a little, someone whose literary tastes I have some sense of. So my response to Alison’s request would also have an element of a friend making a reading list for a friend.
But should anyone ever go ahead making a reading list – or a canon, for that matter – without friendly intent, without imagining the reader’s position and the reader’s taste?
Next: Newfoundland novel primer: Alligator, by Lisa Moore