“CanLit” is a contraction for Canadian Literature, and I’m often asked by writers from other lands, “Doug, what, exactly, is CanLit?” Basically, but not always, CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience. If the book is written in French, urban life is permitted, but only from a nonbourgeois viewpoint.

CanLit was invented in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s — the time when Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister and Canada was busy trying to decolonize itself from mother England and establish a stronger identity of its own. That same era also spawned Montreal’s Expo 1967, plus a wide variety of 16-millimeter films extolling the nation’s natural resources, courtesy of Canada’s National Film Board.

One could say that CanLit is the literary equivalent of representational landscape painting, with small forays into waterfowl depiction and still lifes. It is not a modern art form, nor does it want to be. Scorecards are kept and points are assigned according to how realistically a writer has depicted, say, the odor of the kitchen the narrator inhabited as a child, the sense of disjuncture a character feels at living in a cold northern country with few traditions versus the country he or she has left behind, the quirks and small intimate moments of rural Ontario life or, metaphorically, how well one has painted the feathers on the wings of a duck. CanLit is not a place for writers to experiment, and doesn’t claim to be that kind of place. CanLit is about representing a certain kind of allowed world in a specific kind of way, and most writers in Canada are O.K. with that — or are at least relieved to know the rules of the game from the outset and not have to waste time fostering illusions.

It must also be remembered here that Finland probably has FinLit, and Turkey probably has TurkLit, and that Canada isn’t at all unique in having CanLit. It’s just newer to the game.

To be a Canadian writer doesn’t necessarily make one CanLit, and sometimes CanLit will place its clasp on writers who are only tenuously, legalistically Canadian. Am I CanLit? No. I’m Canadian and write books — some even about Canada — but with fiction I’m way outside CanLit’s guidelines.

The cascade of money that initially fueled CanLit largely ran out in the 1980’s, and with it vanished the impetus and will to nurture writers younger than those established between 1965 and 1985. Every few years a new face emerges and sometimes manages to stick for a bit, but now that there is too little cash to fund the wheels of subsidization, many younger writers are left in the embarrassing position of having to kowtow to a CanLit orthodoxy with the knowledge that that orthodoxy is, literally, near bankruptcy, and is no longer able to fund or generate the prominence, self-sufficiency and posterity it pretends it can provide for young writers. This is cruel.

There is also a grimness around CanLit — the same sort of grimness that occurs when beautiful young adults are forbidden to leave home and are forced to tend to aging and dying family members, when they are forbidden to lead their own lives. And there is a specific brand of despair young Canadian writers feel at never being able to break the CanLit cycle. The grimness and despair are enhanced when these young writers must, for the sake of their careers, simulate a sense of rejoicing at the success of CanLit gatekeepers. In what has become a hollow ritual, every 18 months a certain number of magazines and newspapers within Canada tout an “explosion of CanLit stars shining abroad” or similar sentiments similarly phrased. By the next month the trend has rather joylessly vanished — but there is some shallow comfort to be had knowing the same trend will reappear 17 months down the road.

I’m a big fan of subsidization of the arts. Without subsidization, CanLit couldn’t exist for 10 minutes. Canada is an extravagantly huge and underpopulated country with no economy of scale. Maintaining an identity is expensive, period — thus the need for money in the arts. And I think the Canadian government ought to be hurling 10 times as much cash at literary arts in general, CanLit as much as anything else.

I also think CanLit is actually at a very dangerous moment right now, and I’m not sure if its boosters are quite aware of it. Last year I was flipping TV channels and, on channel 821, watched a live broadcast of CanLit’s annual award ceremony, the Gillers, piped in from a Toronto ballroom. It was as if I’d tuned into the Monster Mash — not a soul under 60, and I could practically smell the mummy dust in the room. This accidental peephole into that world really pinpointed just how lost in time and space CanLit has become, how its scope has narrowed, and how stingy it has been with the grooming of successors. CanLit needs money; it needs new blood; it needs to open its mind to ways of writing about the world outside its sacred doctrine. And this had all better happen quickly. It’s a cliché but it’s true: CanLit is about surviving inside a country’s unique landscape at a certain point in history. I hope CanLit’s instincts kick in.