CanCon for Crooks
Talk given as part of the TrashCan: An Anti-Canon Manifesto roundtable at ACQL on 28 May 2017. Thanks to the organizers, Marcelle Kosman and Hannah McGregor, and the other participants: Rob Jackson, Shannon Maguire, Laura Moss, and Dani Spinosa.
The presumptive canon of CanLit is a body of work produced by acts of policing: the institutional policing of teachers, scholars, editors, and publishers; the cultural policing of reviewers, readers, and good taste; and the statist policing of borders and guards, citizens and subjects, cops and lawyers. The TrashCan is unbounded and excessive: it spills out into the street and mingles with the filth and the refuse there. One such item typifies the ethos of the TrashCan: You’re A Crook!, a “Canadian Law Encyclopedia” published in 1945 by the Toronto pulp outfit Golden Books of America, is a piece of smut dressed up in barrister’s robes. It's the trashiest thing I've ever seen. The author, J.M. Wainberg, claims his publication is intended to “familiarize the layman with the protection our government affords his person, his property and his rights” (Preface, n.p.), though the rights covered therein seem limited to those that might interest a prurient and resourceful reader, or a writer of painstakingly researched pulp fiction plots. This text rejects the architecture of Canadian jurisprudence as it has been constructed around federal-provincial powers, language laws, and due process. Instead, Wainberg goes straight to the good stuff, distilling such everyday subjects as prizefighting, secret commissions, arson, obscenity, and indecent acts into plain language for the general public. You’re a Crook! drags the law not just into the realm of the popular, but deep into its seedy alleys. By taking up this object, I wish to introduce a series of collisions for discussion by the roundtable: the law and criminality, the sale of publications above and below the counter, publishing networks both high and low, and permissible and impermissible vice. When the law that restricts can also be the text that excites, we gleefully muddy the distinction between canon and TrashCan?
I operate as a print historian, which means my first question is: what are the networks in which this object is situated? I would like to acknowledge the work of Michelle Smith, Will Straw, Tina Loo and Carolyn Strange, among others, who have done so much of the work of marking the field of Canadian pulp literature. Here, our author/compiler, J.M. Wainberg (with credentials B.A. and L.L.B.,) is largely undistinguished. He appears in AMICUS as Jacob Morris Wainberg (1906-)., with other publications limited extraordinarily dry sounding business law texts published much later (c. 1969-1984). Our publisher is not exactly a renowned source of legal knowledge. I have uncovered a few other titles from the Golden Books catalogue [indicating list], and I think it's fair to say that jurisprudence is not the primary aim of this publisher. And - going out on a limb here - I don't think prudent legal advice is the aim of the reader, either. What we have here is an object of titillation, albeit one that emerges as a refuse product of the same networks that reify what we have come to consider as proper Canadian literature. We have a Canadian author, a Canadian publisher. Given the publication date, we likely have a Canadian manufacturer, operating under the War Exchange Conservation Act, which drastically limited the import of American periodicals. The subject is indisputably Canadian, drawn directly from the Criminal Code. So - why isn't the output of Golden Books considered to be canon?
I would like to suggest that You're a Crook!, and Golden Books more broadly, exemplifies the anxieties about what needs to be policed within the range of intersecting networks in order to carve out the Canadian canon as something exceptional from the mass of print that has circulated between and across our borders for well over 150 years. First among these is the state. And, when we speak of the state, we should always see whiteness, class, patriarchy, colonialism looming behind it. This is a text purporting to make the fundamentals of Canadian law legible to the common reader. Setting aside the fundamentals of constitutional law (which have a lot to say about Catholic school and dairy farms), the text limits itself to a very narrow range of offences; even the title places the addressed reader outside of the law. The publisher also appears within public debate in a less than authoritative manner. As part of the debates around the Fulton Bill, which in 1949 criminalized depictions of crime in popular print, including comics and pulp magazines, an MP specifically cited the corrupting influence of another Golden Books title. The illustrious Mr. Ernest Hansell, a dedicated Social Credit MP, rather breathlessly relates his acquisition of Girls on City Streets for the better knowledge of Parliament. Waving aside his scandalized interjections, this account is most notable to me for its anecdotal evidence of the wide-ranging circulation of a small pulp publisher - reaching from downtown Toronto to a small BC town, five years after the text's original publication date! We have contemporary publishers and writers who would kill for that kind of reach. Even more significantly, this debate happened in the same session of Parliament that enacted the Massey Commission, to which the establishment of the postwar formation of Canadian literature is largely attributed. I refuse to see the debates as at all separable, and I refuse to see the quest for a clear, clean body of Canadian literature as something apart from the drive to excise the disruptive, the popular, and the otherwise trashy from public discourse.
By bringing this text to the table for discussion, I want to put us all in the position of the crook. Crook appears in North American slang at the end of the 19th century, meaning criminal. But, the OED tracks a much earlier usage, wherein “crook” or “crooked” in the sense of bent, is used to mean dishonest as early as the 13th century. Crooked is used inopposition also to the colloquial “straight and narrow,” which appears in the mid-19th century as a misinterpretation of Matthew 7:14, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth vnto life, and few there be that finde it.” So, let's get bent. If the Canadian canon represents what is broadly acceptable to a body of middlebrow readers, tracked through the classroom, the university, the CBC, where are the divergent paths? In privileging one text over another for inclusion, what happens to its flip side, or its warped branches? Can we take the TrashCan to represent the dark twin of CanCon, present at its birth and eternally threatening to replace it?