Underrated & Overrated in CanLit

K.D. Miller's Brown Dwarf: Read this book!

Over at the National Post, Alex Good and Steven Beattie give their list of overrated and underrated Canadian writers. Among those who are have been too widely praised: Anne Michaels, Douglas Coupland, Michael Ondaatje, and Yann Martel. Those deserving of more attention include Clark Blaise, Caroline Adderson, Russell Smith, Douglas Glover and Lynn Coady.

These are very strong lists. I happen to agree with almost all the judgments, at least with the writers I’m familiar with. I’m especially happy to see the shout-out to Clark Blaise, who is one of my favorite living writers. In an ideal world, Blaise would be as feted and popular as Alice Munro.

Having said that, I’m not sure that Russell Smith and Douglas Glover are, as advertised, underrated, although both are excellent writers. It is true that Smith is a very controversial writer and often gets panned (unfairly so, in my opinion), but the same could be said of Martin Amis and Philip Roth. The fact is, Smith gets a lot of attention for his fiction, which is all a writer can ask for these days. The same is true of Glover, who is rare in his generation: a Canadian writer who has actually been honoured by a substantial collection of critical essays.

I think the accolade “underrated” should more properly be given to writers who have composed excellent stories and novels but whose names are unknown even to most readers of quality literature. I’m thinking here of K.D. Miller, Mike Barnes, Mary Borsky, Cynthia Flood, Ann Copeland, and Terry Griggs. They’ve all written first rate fiction, yet their names barely register in literary discussions. Any list of underrated Canadian writers should include them. If I were doing the list, I would have taken out writers like Smith and Glover, who are superb but get widely reviewed and discussed, to make room for K.D. Miller and company.

But perhaps the literary situation is so bleak that any good writer is now, almost by definition, underrated and under-read?

3 thoughts on “Underrated & Overrated in CanLit

  1. I’d agree with the inclusion of most of the names on both lists as well, and really think you nailed the problem with calling Russell Smith “underrated” perfectly. I don’t think its fair to include Douglas Coupland on the overrated list however, as I think part of the reason for his inclusion on that list is a bit of a backlash over the “Gen X” thing. I can remember liking Generation X when I was an undergraduate, rolling my eyeballs after paging through Shampoo Planet and Life After God, and writing off Coupland for about 10 years after that. After reading an approving blurb from Tom Wolfe on the jacket of Miss Wyoming, I rediscovered Coupland’s ouevre, and have enjoyed reading quite a few novels by him since then – including Shampoo Planet and Life After God.

  2. Coupland is an interesting writer because he’s good and bad. He’s really fantastic at describing things: no other writer describes the look and feel of contemporary things with quite the accuracy of Coupland. And he’s also very strong at plots. But he can rarely create belieavable people. So his books always leave me with a mixed feeling.

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