Canadian Literary Prose: A Preliminary Stylistic Atlas


180 pages
ISBN 1-55022-098-5
DDC C813'.5409





Reviewed by C. Stephen Gray

C.S. Gray is director of Information Services at the Institute of
Chartered Accountants of Ontario.


For decades, too many intelligent students have endured the study of
literature in high schools and undergraduate university courses as
something like the academic equivalent of castor oil. Many people who
manage very well in their mother tongue every day—whether in the
cafeteria, the hardware store, or at homes—are struck dumb at the
prospect of analyzing a line of poetry or a piece of “fine writing.”
Teachers often encourage their students to believe that literary
language is inherently different from the language they all speak from
day to day, and the result is off-putting to virtually every student.
The fact is that almost no one emerges from Canada’s secondary or
postsecondary educational institutions today having learned how to read
literature, let alone with a desire to do so.

Is literature really that complex? Are the “Great Works” that keep
turning up as required reading for English 101 courses accessible to
almost anyone? The answer is: Up to a point. In fact, most people can
generally expect to get out of literature more or less what they bring
to it. Perhaps the best test of whether or not a work should be
considered literature is whether people get what they bring to it—plus
a little bit extra for their trouble.

This book takes the formal analysis of literary language further than
most people would be prepared to go, but the methodology is unique, and
the results are undeniably interesting. In place of the usual highly
subjective literary terminology (such as “Hemingway’s masculine
style”) Cluett offers something quite different: a detailed look at
literary language with the help of a computer.

Have you ever wondered what attributes of language and style give
Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, and Morley
Callaghan such distinctive voices on the written page? Is there anything
distinctively Canadian about the way they write? To get answers to
questions like these, the author and his York University graduate
students have spent 20 years parsing thousands of literary sentences,
assigning each word a numeric code, and running the text through
computer programs that can help them qualify and describe a writer’s

The author admits in his conclusion that he cannot yet define what is
uniquely distinctive about Canadian literary prose. At the same time,
the book says some very interesting things about how literary writers
encode meanings on the page. For those who love and are fascinated by
language and literature, the considerable effort needed to come to grips
with this book’s complex terminology will be well repaid.


Cluett, Robert., “Canadian Literary Prose: A Preliminary Stylistic Atlas,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 16, 2024,