It’s been a decade, but Gregory Betts’ latest book is a winner.
The professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Brock University has won the 2022 Basil Stuart-Stubbs Book Prize for an Outstanding Scholarly Book on British Columbia for his work on the Canadian avant-garde movement in Vancouver from 1959 to 1975.
Finding Nothing: The VanGardes, 1959-1975 examines how Vancouver was a key site for the cultural transformations that spread across English-speaking Canada.
The book recently received the Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize, awarded annually by the University of British Columbia (UBC) Library for the best scholarly book published by a Canadian author on a British Columbia subject.
“What this book shows, I hope, is that there is always more to the story. Art production in communities is more complex than we tend to assume,” says Betts. “Canada’s culture isn’t just Tim Hortons and hockey.
In the decade he spent digging through archives, basements, attics and personal records in British Columbia and Ontario, Betts uncovered an overwhelming amount of information about cultural groups in Vancouver. , including Indigenous peoples, the modernist writers of the 1930s and 1940s who established the UBC school of writing, and the later modernist group, followed by waves of experimentalists, surrealists, feminists, and neo-Dadaists, alongside many interdisciplinary artists and writers. Unraveling the transnational connections and flows between these groups has taken time.
“There were gaps between the groups – and even a bit of competition between them,” says Betts. “There were battle lines and some people didn’t like each other, creating an even more ingrained solidarity within these groups.”
His book explores how these writers and artists gradually began to turn away from colonial erasure to accept a more humble place in the world, he says.
“Finding nothing becomes another way of thinking and imagining that the 1960s turn around when all of a sudden they started thinking about space and how to occupy space and reflect on that space without erasing This is really a significant shift in post-colonialism in Canada,” Betts says.
The book focuses on the avant-garde writing of the time, which Betts describes as “consciously interdisciplinary, pushing new boundaries and creating new spaces for the intersections of art and life”.
The volume incorporates over 130 sample images as well as original texts and interviews.
“The story told in this book, which is both cohesive and multi-dimensional, represents an enormous volume of research material that has been painstakingly reviewed and analyzed,” says Susan Parker, University Librarian at UBC. “The book demonstrates what the skillful handling of complex subjects and materials should be like. We are pleased to recognize Dr. Betts’ book with the Basil Stuart-Stubbs Award.
For Betts, the award is a positive reminder that academic research is part of a larger conversation.
“You’ll look up after collecting so much material and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and forget you’re working towards something,” he says. “You can also forget that you are part of a conversation with a larger community of people who are deeply invested in the region. After all that, it’s really nice to know that it’s getting a positive reaction in the world.