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Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada

By W.H. New

Review By Richard Lane

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 145 Spring 2005  | p. 108-12

THE TASK APPEARS straightforward – in this case, to read W.H. New’s monumental Encyclopedia ofLiterature in Canada for information on BC writing. There is, usefully, an entry on British Columbia (unsigned, meaning “written by New”): it gives pertinent historical, political, and social information, and then lists some significant writers. The list does not claim to be exhaustive, but there are seventy-one names in the entry, and that is a great deal more than some people might expect to see. Of course there are some names missing, but – here goes, into the labyrinth – that does not mean that the names do not appear elsewhere. 

A minor popular fiction writer with whom I am familiar, Bertrand William Sinclair, does not appear in the list, but he is in the encyclopedia: “Novelist; b Edinburgh 9 Jan 1881, d Pender Harbour, BC, 20 Oct 1972” the entry (written by James Doyle) tells me; further: “His 12 novels are tales of adventure featuring cowboys, prospectors, and fishermen, celebrating individualism while criticizing monopoly capitalism. His best work is Poor Man’s Rock (1920), an attack on the corporations controlling the Pacific salmon fishery, within a romantic plot of a war veteran who by his personal and commercial decency wins economic success and the heroine’s love” (1,048). “Enough already,” I can hear the reader of this review saying. By what criteria does Sinclair warrant so much space in the encyclopedia or in this review? But there’s the rub: by what criteria should he (or any other “minor” author) be either marginalized or left out? Sinclair appears, for example, in some recent critical work: Dagmar Novak’s Dubious Glory: The Two World Wars and the Canadian Novel (2000), Laurie Ricou’s The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest (2002), and in an important essay by Lindsey McMaster, “The Urban Working Girl in Turn-of-the- Century Canadian Fiction” (2002; see Lane 2002 and 2004). Another BC writer not on the list is the Kwantlen First Nation dramatist and poet Joseph A. Dandurand; however, he can be tracked down, via the supplementary index, to the entry on First Nations literature (written by Lally Grauer): “The poems of Joseph A. Dandurand (Kwantlen) in looking into the eyes of my forgotten dreams (1998) convey intense feeling in a spare, meditative form” (373). Should these two authors – one a popular fiction “genre” writer of the past, the other a vibrant, up-and-coming author of the present day – be on the periphery of the Encyclopedia^ I need another entry, on Region, Regionalism (written by Laurie Ricou) to answer that question: “Differing typologies of, and critical approaches to literary regionalism suggest some of the ways place and identity interrelate” (948). Four entries so far, to track down and perhaps makes sense of the placement of just two BC authors. 

Perhaps it is time to turn to that list of seventy-one authors : 

Caroline Adderson, Jeannette Armstrong, Irene Baird, Nick Bantock, Robin Blaser, George Bowering, Robert Bringhurst, Anne Cameron, Emily Carr, George Clutesi, Douglas Coupland, Jeff Derksen, Bill Deverell, Brian Fawcett, William Gibson, Allerdale Grainger, Stephen Guppy, Roderick Haig-Brown, Robert Harlow, Christie Harris, Robert Heidbreder, Jack Hodgins, Mark Anthony Jarman, John Jewitt, Pauline Johnson, Surjeet Kalsey, Lionel Kearns, Joy Kogawa, Betty Lambert, Sky Lee, Sing Lim, Dorothy Livesay, Malcolm Lowry, Pat Lowther, Lee Maracle, Daphne Marlatt, Bill McConnell, George McWhirter, Susan Musgrave, William New, Eric Nicol, Frederick Niven, Lucy Ng, Howard O’Hagan, P.K. Page, Morris Panych, Bill Reid, Harold Rheinisch, Harry Robinson, Carmen Rodriguez, Linda Rogers, Jane Rule, Robin Skelton, Paul St. Pierre, Ron Smith, Sharon Thesen, Audrey Thomas, Peter Trower, Michael Turner, Guillermo Verdecchia, David Watmough, Sheila Watson, Phyllis Webb, Howard White, Ethel Wilson, Carol Windley, Jim Wong-Chu, George Woodcock, L.R. Wright, J. Michael Yates, and Paul Yee (155) 

In the Encyclopedia all of the above surnames are capitalized, indicating a separate entry; one small oddity is that the entry for Vancouver poet Sharon Thesen appears to have gone astray. Thesen, who was born in 1946, moved to British Columbia in 1952; winner of the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for A Pair of Scissors (2000), Thesen has published books of poetry and anthologies, and edits the Capilano Review. Many of the authors in the list are discussed elsewhere in the Encyclopedia’, for example, Christie Harris is also mentioned in the lengthy Awards and Literary Prizes entry (written by R.G. Siemens), the Book Design and Illustration entry (written by Richard Cavell), the Children’s Literature in English entry (written by Adrienne Kertzer), her author entry (Christie Harris, unsigned), and finally the Ireland entry (written by John Moffatt). Not all of the BC authors get such extensive coverage, from so many different critics, but the many different contexts and perspectives work overall to form a rich palimpsest. 

Other related entries are of use to the BC researcher, for example the entry on Archives, Manuscripts, and Special Collections (written by Joann McCaig), which mentions the poetry collection at the National Library of Canada (George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, and Phyllis Webb), as well as holdings on Jack Hodgins and Audrey Thomas; the entry also mentions BC materials held at many Canadian universities as well as the extensive collections at the University of British Columbia (Roderick Haig-Brown, Malcolm Lowry, Eric Nicol, Spider Robinson, Jane Rule, Bertrand Sinclair, Ethel Wilson). Another key entry for scholars of BC writing is the short-but-to-the-point Ecocriticism (written by Laurie Ricou), which defines this particular methodology as the attempt “to integrate the examination of text and language with the science of ecology” (324). Ricou argues that “Canadian literary studies, with their long-standing interest in nature, wilderness, and landscape, might be said to have always been ecocritical. But studies that labelled themselves in that way began to emerge only in the 1990s” (324). The cross-reference to the Nature entry leads one to more cross-referencing: entries on the Animal Story; back to Ecocriticism; over to Landscape, Region, and Science; and then on to Nature Writing, the latter a fascinating entry written by Iain Higgins. Finally, the First Nations literature entry (mentioned above) is essential reading for anyone grappling for the first time with the indigenous writers (and speakers) of British Columbia and Canada. 

Inevitably, the question of which BC authors got “left out” entirely becomes an issue; for some reviewers, this is where the critical fun starts (i.e., the critic can get nasty). For this reviewer, considering that the Encyclopedia as a whole is a landmark achievement in the criticism of Canadian literature, listing some of these omitted authors is simply a way of encouraging their future inclusion in a second or updated edition. An entry on Joseph A. Dandurand listing all of his books of poetry and plays would be an improvement on his current brief mention (see, for example, his latest poetry collection called Shake). An entry on Black BC literature “and orature” (as Wayde Compton puts it) would be wonderful. Admittedly some of the authors in the latter category are hard to track down, but their writings play a significant role in BC literature, for example, Truman Green’s A Credit to Your Race (1973)? which is British Columbia’s first black novel (see Compton, 27). The novel, one of a small print-run of 300 copies, is available at the University of British Columbia’s Special Collections Division; it has a cover illustration by BC artist and photographer Phyllis Greenwood, whose written and visual work is also available at Special Collections). 

Some BC writers are simply omitted due to the cut-off dates involved in the preparation and production of the Encyclopedia’, as New indicates in the preface, the materials cover the period up to the year 2000. Work in need of future coverage includes Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (2001) and the multimedia production by Stan Douglas and Michael Turner entitled Journey into Fear (2002), although the latter could simply be added to the current entry on Turner (written by Brett Josef Grubisic). Tracking down omitted authors – and contributors to write decent entries on them – is an endless task, and publishers’ production schedules, regardless of whether they are for hard-copy or electronic publications, are necessarily a limiting factor. The editor’s life becomes far easier once an author has died; living authors have a nasty habit of writing more books. 

How useful is the Encyclopedia for readers in search of BC-related material, especially those who might want to follow up their browsing in more formal ways, such as constructing courses in BC writing? The author entries appear well researched, cover key texts, and provide summary and critical commentary. Examining three entries at random – Jack Hodgins (written by Chris Gittings), Bill Reid (written by Robert Bringhurst), and Sheila Watson (written by George Bowering) – I am struck by the exceptionally high quality of the writing and their informative nature. All three entries inspire the reader to turn to the primary authors/texts being covered, and all three contributors write with an obvious affinity for their subject-matter. For example, Bowering writes with critical distance and a clear sense of enjoyment: “Sheila Watson had unusual knowledge and sophisticated opinions about the entire course of international writings, arts, and philosophy in the 20th century. In a conference address, she could deliver an elaborate extemporized argument that illuminated the connectives in 20th-century thought and art. Thus the puzzlement and disappointment over the most obvious feature of her career – the long silence after The Double Hook. (Her devotees reason that as that novel is the high point of Canadian literature, its 116 pages are the equal to any other writer’s two dozen volumes)” (1,198). 

Combined with the selected “Further reading” (which will obviously also need updating and/or expanding with later editions of the Encyclopedia) these author entries are an excellent place to start exploring BC writing. Not all of the entries, however, give such coverage. Disappointingly short entries include the one on Eden Robinson (written by K.G. Stewart) and the slightly longer entry on William Gibson (written by Peter Roman Babiak). Stewart writes a brief summary, but no more, about two very moving and powerful books: Robinson’s Traplines (1996) and Monkey Beach (1997). The books deal with physical and sexual abuse within First Nations communities and within the context of the residential school system; both books rework the traditional Western Bildungsroman, and Monkey Beach reworks the Canadian gothic (see Andrews 2001; Lane 2003). Robinson also contrasts modern Canadian consumer culture with First Nations ritual and spirituality; she explores premodern and postmodern conceptions of indigenous culture and attempts a mode of writing that does not blandly synthesize the two. The William Gibson entry covers all of the essentials, but it fails, in my opinion, to convey the sheer excitement that his work has generated, especially in the world of new media technologies and postmodernism (see, for example, Ivison’s entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 251). However, having said this, the Encyclopedia does construct a large, complex “virtual entry,” or simulacrum, of Gibson, with the inevitable cross-referencing: entries are Awards and Literary Prizes; British Columbia; Cyberpunk (unsigned); Machines (unsigned); Novel (unsigned); Science Fiction and Fantasy (written by Robert Runté); Technology, Communications, and Canadian Literature (written by Christopher Keep); and Utopia (written byKlayDyer). 

Finally, it is important to bear in mind that the BC authors covered in the Encyclopedia are, of course, just one strand in a complex interweaving of writers, subjects, critical concepts, and themes from across the whole of Canada and beyond. New has successfully incorporated the traditional and the canonical with the contemporary and the cutting edge; since BC authors are necessarily placed, and read, within the contexts of their production, the wide scope of the Encyclopedia adds to its value as a research tool for studying BC literature. The labyrinthine encyclopedia structure is perfectly suited to the contemporary view of literary texts as intertextual, heterogeneous assemblages. 


Andrews, Jennifer. 2001. “Native Canadian Gothic Refigured: Reading Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach” Essays on Canadian Writing 73: 1-24. 

Compton, Wayde, ed. 2001. Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press. 

Dandurand, Joseph A. 2003. Shake. Fort Langley, BC: Skyuks Press. 

Douglas, Stan, with screenplay by Douglas and Michael Turner. 2002. Journey into Fear. London/Kôhn: Serpentine Gallery/Verlag der Buch-handlung Walther Kônig. 

Green, Truman. 1973. A Credit to Your Race: A Novel. Tsawwassen, BC: Simple Thoughts Press. 

Ivison, Douglas. 2002. “William Gibson (17 March 1948-).” Pp. 96-107 in Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 251: Canadian Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers, ed. Douglas Ivison. Farmington Mills, MI: Gale Group. 

Lane, Richard J. 2002. “Canada.” In The Year’s Work in English Studies,vol. 81, ed. William Baker and Kenneth Womack, 1037-52. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Review of Novak and other relevant B.W. Sinclair materials.) 

———. 2003. “Reclaiming Maps and Metaphors: Canadian First Nations and Narratives of Place.” In Beyond the Borders: American Literature and Post-Colonial Theory, ed. Deborah Madsen, 184-94. London: Pluto. 

———.2004. “Canada.” In The Years 

Work in English Studies, vol. 83, ed. William Baker and Kenneth Womack, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Review of Ricou and McMaster; information concerning Christie Harris Papers /archival holdings.) 

McMaster, Lindsey. 2002. “The Urban Working Girl in Turn-of-the-Century Canadian Fiction.” Essays on Canadian Writing jy: 1-25. 

Novak, Dagmar. 2000. Dubious Glory: The Two World Wars and the Canadian Novel. New York: Peter Lang. 

Ricou, Laurie. 2002. The Arbutus/ Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest. Edmonton: NeWest. 

Taylor, Timothy. 2001. Stanley Park: A Novel. Toronto: Alfred A Knopf.