Canada is the second largest country in the world, and as such it has a varied geography with great lakes, mountains, plains, and a variety of peoples. It has one of the richest and most diverse histories of any country in the New World. It is a huge canvas on which countless authors have painted their experiences and discovered their identities. And that is the main theme of Canadian literature – self-discovery and identity.
So many Canadian authors have taken their place in the world of literature, several, like those on this list, becoming world-renowned authors, some, like Saul Bellow and Alice Monroe, regarded as being at the very top of any international list.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1847 -1942
With 20 novels, more than 500 short stories, 500 poems and scores of essays published, Montgomery caps it all by also being the author of the most famous Canadian novel, Anne of Green Gables. The book gave her a fame which she was able to enjoy during her lifetime, and projected her into the sight of the international reading public. Like all of her novels Anne of Green Gables was set in Prince Edward Island. The novel’s setting, Green Gables Farm, became a literary landmark and a major Canadian tourist attraction and subsequently the core of what is now Prince Edward National Park. Most of the novels were set in Prince Edward Island, and those locations within Canada’s smallest province became a literary landmark and popular tourist site – namely Green Gables farm, the genesis of Prince Edward Island National Park.
Stephen Leacock, 1869-1944
Although he was born in England Stephen Leacock went to Canada as a young man and became a Canadian in every way. He was a teacher and a political scientist and eventually became the William Dow Professor of Political Economy and chair of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University. He wrote several academic books and papers but in addition to those he wrote more than forty fiction books. He is particularly known as a humorist, his material used in their routines by the likes of Groucho Marx and Jack Benny. His comic tone was something like that of Mark Twain’s and Charles Dickens’, with his My Discovery of England (1922) being as funny as anything they wrote. His novels and short stories are a mixture of parody, surrealism and nonsense – a style that satirizes city life, although in a gentle way.
A.E. van Vogt, 1912-2000
Alfred Elton van Vogt was not only the pre-eminent Canadian science fiction writer but one of the most famous science fiction writers anywhere. Later writers, notably Philip K Dick, were influenced by his somewhat unorthodox style, where the prose is fragmented, requiring readers to piece it together as they read. He led the development of science fiction during the mid-century “Golden Age” of science fiction. The first of his many novels, Slan, is still his most famous. It was published in serial form and captured the public imagination with the story of a nine year-old superman – a mutant human being – living in a world where his kind were murdered by normal humans. Van Vogt was named ”Grand Master” in 1995 by The Science Fiction Writers of America.
Saul Bellow, 1915-2005
Canadians claim Saul Bellow as one of theirs. He was born in Montreal and his family later emigrated to the united states, so he is claimed by both countries. His literary decorations included the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the National Medal of Arts. He also won the National Book Award for Fiction three times. His best-known novels include The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt’s Gift, and Ravelstein. His novels take on “the large-scale insanities of the 20th century.” In awarding him the Nobel Prize the Committee cited his writing as exhibiting “the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age.”
Alice Monroe, b 1931
Alice Munro is probably the most famous Canadian writer. She is primarily a writer of short stories and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013. Monroe writes about the lives of everyday people in a style that is compelling, lyrical, intense and economical, and yet uncomplicated. In that way, she penetrates the complexities in the lives of ordinary people. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize the Academy noted that she was “master of the contemporary short story.” Her most well-known collection of stories is Dance of the Happy Shades.
Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016
It may seem strange to see the singer/songwriter, Leonard Cohen, on this list. His genius and great fame as a performing song writer obscures his remarkable talent as a fiction writer. His novel, Beautiful Losers, is a contender for the title “great Canadian novel” in that it presents an alluring account of Canada during a tumultuous time – Quebec separatism and the Aboriginal issues – all through the personal and sensual experience of a narrator. Leonard Cohen’s fictions continue the themes of his music – politics, religion, depression, death, sexuality and, above all, romantic relationships. In addition to numerous awards for his music, he received The Prince of Asturias Award for Literature. He also became a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour
Margaret Atwood, b 1939
Margaret Atwood is the queen of Canadian fiction. She writes mainly about gender and power, and female identity. The rewriting of fairy tales and myths are prominent in her output. Her most recent work suggests that she is very interested in frightening visions of dystopias. Although Atwood has won many prizes she has not yet won the Nobel Prize . Her main prizes are the Booker prize, a Guggenheim fellowship and a Nebula Award. She has published 18 novels, 11 books of fiction, 9 collections of short fiction and several children’s books. She has experimented with graphic novels and, to top it all, she has produced 18 books of poetry.
Michael Ondaatje, b1943
Michael Ondaatje has won more literary prizes than any other Canadian author. He is also the author of The English patient, set at the end of the Second World War, in a hospital in Italy, and was one of the top international best-selling books and made into a blockbuster film. He has also published 13 books of poetry. In addition to that he is an editor and filmmaker. He has been an important force in fostering the movement “new Canadian writing.”
Shulamith Firestone, 1945 – 2012
Firestone was an extraordinary writer. Although she was more known for her activities and non-fiction writing, her last text was Airless Spaces, 1998, a collection of short stories exploring her own experience of mental illness. She was famous in Canada as a radical feminist writer and activist. Most of her activities took place in the United States where her participation in and leadership, with fervour and passion, of such movements as New York Radical Women, Redstockings and New York Radical Feminists earned her the name “The Firebrand” and “The Fireball.” Her feminist books became central in the development of feminism and women’s issues in Canada and America.
Yann Martel, b 1963
When Yann Martel sprang into the public consciousness as winner of the 2002 Booker prize with his novel Life of Pi things moved very fast for him, almost immediately making him one of the best-known novelists in the English-speaking world. The novel became an international best-seller, spending more than a year on the best-selling lists of both The Globe and Mail and the New York Times. It has sold more than 15 million copies. The film adaptation, directed by Ang Lee, won four Oscars. The novel is an exploration of spirituality experienced by a child lost on the Pacific Ocean, accompanied by a tiger. All Martel’s novels tell their stories using a first-person narration, which makes for closeness and a personal experience shared by narrator and reader.
And that’s our pick of Canada’s best writers. What’s your take – anyone missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.