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Posts Tagged ‘CanLit’

The new world of Canadian writing

March 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Not so long ago, Canadians who were feeling inundated by American culture were constantly being reminded of the importance of “telling our own stories.”

The message became a key tool in the kit of Canadian film and literary organizations. The media picked up on it, and the theme has since been showing up in newspaper columns and broadcast talks.

Typical was the campaign of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an outfit that is strong for the CBC and other public broadcasting. It launched an Internet campaign  more than ten years ago – TellCanadianStories.ca – to push the idea that Canadian stories were being neglected on our airwaves.

The message evolved as Canadian film and literature matured, but never really went away. A London Free Press columnist, Greg van Morsel, recently summed it up this way:

“It took tireless authors who knew they had the write stuff, from the late Robertson Davies to the legendary Margaret Atwood. It took trailblazing Canadian publishers, like the late Jack McCLelland, willing to take chances on homegrown talent. Academics, too, had to be willing to teach CanLit and governments willing to invest in telling our own stories.”

A half century ago, the number of successful Canadian novelists could be counted on one hand, such as Morley Callaghan and Mazo de la Roche. Both won international reputations. La Roche, in fact, won the Atlantic Monthly $10,000 novel of the year award for Jalna in 1928 — a huge sum for the time. A bit of a 1920s Downton Abbey, it tells the story of a Canadian family, the Whiteoaks, in plot and narrative that had universal appeal.

51SoJzJLuQL._AA160_After WWII, Canadians began to learn the real history of the country in books by writers such as Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat.

Since their time, television spawned a People’s History and today, shows such as Little House on the Prairie, Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle  and Saving Hope are regular fixtures on major networks and abroad. In France, I was told that “Inspect-air Murdoch” is a favourite even if he “never knows what to say to Julia.”

Today, despite cutbacks at the CBC and an uncertain book publishing industry trying to adjust to the switch from print to online reading, we’ve never been stronger at telling our own stories.

What’s changed is that Canadian writers are no longer constrained to write about only Canadian things. We’re free to cast our interests around the world.

A crop of immigrant novelists has blended experiences of their native countries with Canadian life, ranging from Yann Martel to Rawi Hage. We’re seeing the same trend in non-fiction.  Three of the five short-listed titles in this year’s RBC Taylor Prize built on content from outside Canada.

Thomas King won the Taylor Prize and the B..C.  Non-Fiction prize for his widely-acclaimed The Inconvenient Indian, which casts a North American context for his look at what has happened to the aboriginal population of this continent since the arrival of Europeans.

Graeme Smith won a major prize for The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, a searing examination of what’s gone right and wrong in Afghanistan. Margaret Macmillan, in The War That Ended Peace, has produced yet another page-turning account of the First World War, its causes and its outcomes. J.B. MacKinnon gives us a global picture of the stresses facing our environment in The Once and Future World.

Modris Ecksteins added further lustre to his reputation with Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. John Valiant used a Siberian setting for his suspenseful examination of man vs. nature in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

In recent new fiction , J.L. Witterick has written a compelling (and controversial) novel on the Holocaust, My Mother’s Secret, about a Catholic Polish woman who saved Jews from the concentration camps.

The appearance of more Canadian books on global subjects – reflecting the willingness of Canadian publishers to go to subjects beyond our borders – is one of the brighter signs of Canada’s newly found maturity. We’ve told our own stories to ourselves. Now we’re telling the world’s stories to both ourselves and the world.

A publishing industry on suicide watch

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

In 1920, the poet Ezra Pound moved from London to Paris to “save American letters from premature suicide and decomposition.” In 2012, is there someone who will move to Toronto to save Canadian letters from a similar fate?

The question arises in the wake of two developments that are disturbing to Canadian writers and independent book publishers: The slide toward bankruptcy of the leading independent Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and the merger of two of the world’s largest publishers, Penguin and Random House into a single entity owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann & Company.

Vancouver-based D&M, facing a debt load of $6 million, has taken the first step to file for bankruptcy protection. The prospects of finding an independent buyer to pick up this debt, or of working out a settlement of a few cents on the dollar with creditors, are slim, in my opinion. Sadly, the company’s creditors include many writers, one of whom is owed more than $50,000 in unpaid royalties.

Penguin and Random House have operated competitively in Canada for many years. They’ve been prestigious outlets for many Canadian writers, while also distributing in Canada the lists of their parent companies. Together, they own 40 per cent of the Canadian book market.

The worry is that the merger, even if it leaves the imprints standing, is likely to result in the publication of fewer books by Canadian authors.

The merger also raises serious questions about Canada’s existing policy on foreign investment in the book publishing industry. The Harper government is known to favor a more open approach to foreign investment generally. Its a fundamental of conservative thinking that such investment creates jobs and stimulates the economy. That’s why the test for a foreign buyer — in every other industry — is to show that the transaction will bring a “net benefit” to Canada.

That’s not the case of the cultural industries. They were intentionally left out of the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement, and its follow=-up, NAFTA. Too important to allow the sector to be swallowed up by foreign buyers, the thinking went. But now, there’s growing pressure to allow foreign publishers — like U.S.-based Simon & Schuster — to buy out or set up their own Canadian publishing companies.

Then came the Internet, and behemoths like Amazon, offering instant access to book buyers all over the globe, including Canada. A turning point may have come when Ottawa allowed Amazon to set up its own distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont., to better serve Canadian buyers.

While more book  buying shifted to the Internet, the advent of the e-reader further undercut traditional book stores, especially the dwindling number of independent book dealers. The Chapters-Indigo chain fought back with its own online presence, and by launching its own e-reader, Kobo, since sold off to a major buyer.

As a consequence of all of this, you’ve got observers like The Globe and Mail’s John Barber declaring that the “phoenix (of Canadian publishing) is now officially extinct.”

Consolidation at both the publishing and the retail levels is nothing new — every other industry has gone through it in the past few decades. The economics that drive monopoly practices — low profitability and stagnant sales — are even more obvious in book publishing than in, say yoga making or hardware retailing.

For authors and publishers, three realities are clear:

  1. People seem to be reading less, distracted as they are by social media and web surfing.
  2. The shift to e-reading shouldn’t hurt that much – authors are still needed to create the content.
  3. The printed book is still the basis of literary life – the indispensable building block for public recognition , author success, and publisher survival.

So how do we avoid suicide and decomposition in Canadian letters?

Writers will write and readers will read. How to connect the two is the question. The Awards programs — Giller, Writers’ Trust , BC Non-Fiction, Taylor — are fantastic because in additional to their cash value, they draw attention to the winners and boost sales. It’s great to see the Giller go to an unconventional choice, Will Ferguson’s thriller 419. But the key, I think, is more effective promotion and marketing by publishers. Too many books are published unheralded, shipped off to the stores unaccompanied, and little or nothing is done by the publisher to make the public aware of their existence. Publishers are leaning too much on authors to do this job. This has to change. Readers have to be made aware of a book before they’ll buy it.

No book should be published unless the publisher (and the author) have a clear, effective, and unique marketing plan to support it. It’s not just a matter of dollars. Example: My recent book, Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, has joined the hundreds of other biographies on the book shelves, without any extraordinary effort being made by the publisher, Dundurn, to sell it.  Memorial University in St. John’s might have been talked into putting on a seminar on the Smallwood legacy – a reappraisal of his life, 21 years after his death. Every book has something unique about it, and that uniqueness needs to be better exploited.

An online voice, Andrew Losowsky of the Huffington Post, recently asked why  is it that we like to take books on vacation? Because “we read to be transported away from ourselves.” Adds Losowsky: “A great book is the very definition of a de-stress tool. It says, ‘Let me take you away from this for a while,’ and then, like a mystical masseuse for the mind, it does so.”

And don’t people need this now, more than ever?