6 February 2014

on rereading Gloria, part three

I am now about two-thirds of the way through Gloria, but I'm not going to write about the plot right now. I want to talk about where Gloria sits in CanLit.

In a previous entry, I linked to Keith Maillard's own page on Gloria. In it, he wrote, "Gloria was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in 1999. It is out of print." I couldn't quite believe that it was out of print, so I asked him via twitter, and he responded, "Yes, alas, Gloria is out of print. I am going to publish it as an eBooks eventually. A major project."

How can that be? How can a book nominated for one of the most important literary prizes in our nation, a book this good, is out of print? I've been thinking about this a lot and have a few theories.

Keith Maillard is an American born and raised and largely writes about America, most of his novels are set in fictional Raysburg, West Virginia. (I had always thought he was a draft-dodger, but reading his short autobiography, he clarifies that he was deemed unfit for service and left for Canada as a political statement.) He now (and by now, I mean for a good thirty years) lives in Vancouver, BC.

Those brief biographical details are a one-two punch. Would he be a more celebrated writer if he lived in Toronto? I honestly think so. Would he be a more celebrated writer if he was writing about Canada, or somewhere more "exotic" like India or Germany? I also think so.

Canadians have an uneasy relationship with the United States, especially when it comes to literary culture. A Canadian choosing to write about the United States doesn't seem very, well, Canadian. And, as much as things have shifted a little, Toronto is the publishing centre of the country.

Keith Maillard is a brilliant writer. His name should be mentioned when we talk about our greats: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondatjee. And Gloria Cotter deserves a place in our collective consciousness, beside Duddy Kravitz and Anne Shirley.

But she won't. She's privileged, she's beautiful, she's smart. Her story is of the female experience in the 1950s--a young woman coming of age, discovering sex, poetry, and herself. She's the Prom Queen, the May Queen, a sorority girl, a country club brat. Class makes Canadians uncomfortable as does facing our privilege. We fancy ourselves underdogs, and Gloria is on the wrong side of what we like to experience, who we root for. (Though, if you've read it, you know that Gloria herself does feel like an outsider, a fraud. This is partially why I would consider this a Canadian book for a Canadian audience. We do see ourselves in this unlikely extraordinary young woman.)

It's a pity, as Gloria's story, while may not be universal, is vital. It's a woman's story told from a point of view we rarely experience. But above all that, it's beautifully written and a pleasurable read. Canadian literary culture is poorer for turning its back on Miss Gloria Cotter.

(There are about 80 copies of Gloria listed for sale on Abe Books. Pick one up, or even better, go to your local used bookshop to see if they have a copy.)

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