BOOK REVIEW #3
by JEANETTE LYNES
Celebrity Cultures in Canada
by Katja Lee and Lorraine York
[Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016.]
Several years ago I was dropping off clothes at a dry cleaning place in Kingston, Ontario. This guy was picking up cleaning at the same time. He looked familiar. No. It couldn’t be a member of the Tragically Hip – could it? Rock stars don’t do ordinary tasks like pick up dry cleaning. But when he gave his name to the attendant, my suspicion was confirmed. It was – him. And me too dumbstruck, shy, to utter a greeting from a fan. What does this say about my relation, as a Canadian, to celebrity? Was mine a ‘typically Canadian’ response? Is there such a thing? What do we talk about when we talk about celebrity in Canada?
Katia Lee and Lorraine York theorize Canada as possessing “a viable and vexed celebrity” (2). The eleven scholars contributing to Celebrity Cultures in Canada offer wide-ranging, illuminating perspectives on this foundational insight. Building on Lorraine York’s landmark study, Literary Celebrity in Canada (2007), Celebrity Cultures in Canada places interdisciplinary lenses on celebrity within both national and transnational contexts.
In their lucid introduction, Lee and York overview the key issues, including celebrity’s relation to nationalism, transnationalism – often, the US. Undoubtedly, American culture casts a huge shadow on notions of celebrity north of the forty-ninth parallel; however, as Lee and York assert, “while the discourses and structures of celebrity in Canada today are often shaped by our proximity to the US, the degree to which this dominates our discourses often obscures the many ways in which celebrity cultures in Canada have developed and operated independent of that shared border” (16). Quebec is a case in point, Lee and York contend arguing that “the Quebec star system” (17) has played an instrumental role in “disrupting the assumed primacy of the US” (17). At its heart, the project in Celebrity Cultures in Canada stakes out an agency for Canadian culture, not in a static, sentimental sense, but rather, as a dynamic process that, as the scholarly chapters included in this volume reveal, interrogates notions of cultural heritage that take into account our own subjectivities and at times, complicit positions.
Celebrity Cultures in Canada is admirably diverse, ranging across the fields of politics, sports, media, cinema, and literature. A single review can only offer a sampling of what readers will discover in its pages. Julie Rak’s chapter on Don Cherry’s affective performance of authenticity and “melancholic nationalism” (130) that occludes the reality of hockey as “a multinational corporate business” (130), typifies the engaging read awaiting readers of Celebrity Cultures in Canada. Lorraine York provides a lively, brilliant look at Indigenous negotiations with celebrity. Valerie J. Millar studies the intersection of disability and celebrity, and the assumptions that ground it, using the iconic example of Terry Fox. Danielle J. Deveau probes the exigencies of Canadian comedy; for example, is it mobilized from an “ambivalent narrative” (175), that of an outsider looking in? Why is the legitimation of an American audience such an important career-builder for a Canadian comic? If you can ‘make it in L.A.’ your “celebrity capital” (176) will intensify in Canada. America becomes a testing ground for the Canadian stand-up comic, and often “mid-career performers…all have one foot in each market” (183).
How does celebrity arise? Where does it come from? Ira Wagman and Owen Percy, in separate chapters, examine the role of government – specifically, granting agencies – and prize culture. Unromantic though it may seem, Wagman makes a valuable intervention when he reminds us that “In Canada, one of the primary media for the communication of celebrity is government paperwork: grant applications, annual reports, White Papers, and other official documents” (202). Wagman’s discussion of legitimation through this sort of recognition or – lack thereof – resulting in “grant envy” (209) brings to light a ‘white elephant in the room’ that many Canadians in the Arts and academia relay anecdotally to one another through private conversations, but is rarely acknowledged within a scholarly context. Wagman also points out that, oddly enough, “in Canada the development of telecommunications only served to improve the exposure of celebrities from other places. A stable of domestic paparazzi, gossip columnists, or ‘gawker stalkers’ tracking the shopping habits, dieting fads, and nocturnal affairs of Sarah Polley or the members of the Tragically Hip would be a refreshing departure for a media culture that largely ignores prominent figures except for those who are usually seen wearing hockey equipment or who advocate for social issues like the environment” (203). It would be fascinating to re-visit this observation with respect to the Tragically Hip, in the wake of national buzz around the band’s ‘final tour’ and the release of Downie’s activist book project.
Owen Percy’s chapter, “Re: Focusing (on) Celebrity: Canada’s Major Poetry Prizes,” is a topic close to the hearts of poets, and Percy’s work strikes a resonant chord with other chapters, especially Deveau’s, by recognizing the legitimating power and cultural capital literary awards hold. And a little scandal, Percy suggests, doesn’t hamper a poet’s exposure within our prize culture. Percy’s notion of the Griffin Prize as having “establish[ed] a system of evaluation that has drawn comparatively little criticism from poets, critics, and readers who seem quite happy to accept the authority of literary celebrity upon which the Griffin rests” (193) might be interestingly re-calibrated given attempts to taint even the Griffin with scandal – specifically, the shock-absorber scandal –an event that transpired after the completion of Percy’s chapter.
More than once, while reading Celebrity Cultures in Canada, did I experience a cathartic wave of relief when intuitions many of us experience and have had ‘in the vault’ discussions about with professional colleagues and friends, were articulated in the pages of a book. This affective work is an important aspect of Celebrity Cultures in Canada: its editors’ and contributors’ ability to give voice, in a scholarly, yet accessible, conversational style, to elements of our culture that mean a great deal to us – and no one can convince me that popular culture isn’t important – and lives of people we feel we know, but don’t, our celebrities. The conversations sparked in Celebrity Cultures in Canada extend beyond academia; they’re relevant to us all. I’d urge book clubs across Canada to adopt this book; their members won’t be disappointed and may even be prompted to select their next ‘celebrity book’ with a new breadth of knowledge and curiosity.
This piece was originally published in HA&L issue 9.2
Jeanette Lynes directs the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Her most recent poetry collection, Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems (Wolsak and Wynn, 2015), received the Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Award. Her first novel, The Factory Voice (Coteau, 2009) was long-listed for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize and a ReLit Award. She recently contributed to How Thought Feels: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane, Ed. Shane Neilson (Frog Hollow Press). [Photograph of Jeanette Lynes by Heather Fritz.]