The Myth That's Muffling Canada's Voice

The man who married his typewriter

LIONEL SHAPIRO October 29 1955

The Myth That's Muffling Canada's Voice

The man who married his typewriter

LIONEL SHAPIRO October 29 1955

ONE OF THE MOST VERSATILE AND widely recognized writers Canada has produced, Montreal's Lionel Shapiro took up the craft on second thought. He graduated with honors from McGill in 1929, intent on becoming a psychologist. A summer job as a sports writer on the Montreal Gazette changed his mind.  In the twenty-six years since, Shapiro has been a drama critic, a Broadway columnist, a White House correspondent; he's written a successful stage play which was produced by the Old Vic in Bristol, five television plays produced in New York and London, a batch of short stories, song lyrics, movie scripts and four books, three of them novels with a total circulation of more than two million copies.

The Sixth of June, his latest novel, is a Book-of-the Month selection and has been sold to Hollywood for a sum in six figures. Its reception by the critics, while mixed in part, has been heavily favorable. "Not since Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms has there been a war-love story as good," declared the Baltimore Sun. This might well become a minor classic of our times." The Chicago Tribune observed, "It has style, pace, story and glamour...Inevitably it will invite comparison with the novels of John P. Marquand and it carries off the comparison with elan." "It is magnificent journalism -in-depth," said the stately New York Times. Even Boston was enthusiastic; remarked the Christian Science Monitor, "Mr. Shapiro's report on England at war must be rated as superb."

Today Shapiro lives a commuter's life. His home is in Montreal, he works in New York, spends some time in Hollywood and each year tours Europe. At forty-six he's still a bachelor: "I can't stand noise," he explains.

ON THE ground that nobody knows me as intimately as I do, a scarcely debatable premise, I venture the opinion that only a virulent snobbishness has saved me from the fate that overtakes a preponderant majority of Canadian-born-and-bred novelists. Not social snobbishness. (How could I be guilty of that, with ancestors who fled over the face of the earth until they found what they were looking for in Canada?) I am snobbish in a very special, un-Canadian way.

A long time ago I decided that a writer born, bred and educated in Canada is not necessarily less skilful, less perceptive or less readable than a writer born in the United States, Britain, France, India or China. I decided that a Canadian has not only an equal chance but also an equal right to jump out into the world forum and make a reputation and a livelihood as a writer.

This required a simply terrible snobbishness on my part. More than snobbishness. Pure gall. For although Canadian bankers, soldiers, doctors, actors, engineers and explorers could be, and are, acknowledged world leaders in their fields, I was brought up to believe a Canadian has no writing tradition to build upon, that he is a mouse in the world of creative writing not only a mouse but a mouse in diapers that there is no distinctive Canadian literature in the English language, that someday, somehow, a great Canadian novel will be written and this will be the signal for Canadian literature to begin its growth. Until then, the legend went, the lad born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., has a chance of becoming a Hemingway but the lad born in Niagara Falls, Ont., had better walk in the dark of the moon until a Canadian Shakespeare materializes and hastens the dawn.

Thanks to my incurable snobbishness, I ignored these fables, foibles and unreasoning fears. I elbowed them out of the way. And, to my astonishment, it has worked.

Since 1947 I have written three novels. They have been published (and translated where applicable) in Canada, United States, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Mexico and the Argentine. The total circulation of these books in all editions is as yet incomplete but it certainly runs well in excess of two million copies. All five television plays I have written have been produced by NBC in New York and two of them by BBC in London. The one stage play I attempted was produced by the Old Vic Company in Bristol and was received with profound respect and even enthusiasm by critics from such newspapers as the Manchester Guardian and the august Times of London. The latest novel, The Sixth of June, recently published, is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, was bought by Twentieth Century-Fox, and is being translated for world-wide distribution.

The purpose of this listing is not to recount a success story; it is, rather, to sketch the outlines of a tragedy in the development of Canadian creative writing and to trace a formula of native Canadian provincialism which has deterred and deflected Canadians in all creative fields from the free pursuit of their ambitions. The best examples come to my mind in the field of writing. Having traveled extensively most of my adult life, my acquaintance with Canadian writers is much restricted; yet I can name a dozen Canadians who can outwrite me left, right and centre, whose intelligence is broader and deeper and quicker, who would be coddled and acclaimed in any other country of the world, and who have gained scant recognition, no popularity and piddling circulation in Canada or, for that matter, anywhere else. They are people who have been discouraged by the legends and the foibles and by the very formidable road blocks erected by Canadians themselves against the free passage and development of Canadian artistic creation.

If this article, which is bitter in the writing and probably in the reading, encourages one or two Canadians to ignore the local handicaps, it will have been handsomely worth while. A Canadian literary tradition must necessarily be born inside Canada, but I venture to predict it will become a tradition in the outside world first and belatedly in Canada.

The handicaps that, beset a Canadian intent on a writing career are formidable. They embrace both shadow and substance, and the shadow is probably a more powerful deterrent than the substance.

Prof. F. M. Salter of the University of Alberta, speaking last May in Toronto to the Humanities Association of Canada, deplored Canadian literature as “academic and rootless.” He went on to urge all interested in literature to dig out the traditions of folk poetry and folklore “on which any healthy literature must depend.” He said, “The best in the arts springs direct from the people. If we are ever to create a distinctive Canadian literature we must anchor ourselves to the Canadian way of life.”

At the risk of being unfair to Salter (the above is merely an excerpt from a newspaper report of his speech), I must confess that his thesis infuriates me, if only because this is a prime example of the psychological handicap writers of my generation have been weaned on. Well-meaning sincere people like Salter have been echoing and re-echoing their discouraging plaint across all the days of my years: rootless . . . no distinctive Canadian literature . . . rootless . . . rootless. The wail is in tremulous harmony with the strange noises made by some politicians who claim we can’t be a nation until we carve the Union Jack out of the flag.

Canadian literature rootless? What language do we speak—Esperanto? And what are we—goat-herding Kikuyu? I for one am gratefully happy with the roots of our literature which, among others, are Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Donne. Furthermore, I do not fully comprehend what is meant by "a distinctive Canadian literature.” If enough Canadians apply their Canadian minds to the world around them, and the seats of their Canadian pants to the seats of their Canadian chairs, we can have a burgeoning Canadian literature.

Indeed, we have a pretty good flowering of Canadian literature right now. Try to bemoan the state of Canadian writing in any literary gathering in New York or London or Paris and you will be challenged with a flood of names: Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan, Hugh MacLennan, Thomas Costain (who lives in the U. S. but is widely regarded as vigorously Canadian), Mazo de la Roche, Lawrence Earl, Gwethalyn Graham, Roger Lemelin and half a dozen other Canadians writing in the French language. These are writers of various types and schools, and readers will differ violently on their merit or lack of merit, but bundle them up and they are a formidable lot. My point is that only in Canada is Canadian writing derided, decried and indeed dismissed as nonexistent.

Perhaps the principal area of dispute lies in the question: what is a Canadian novel? That is a blood brother to the question: what is a distinctive Canadian literature?

There is a group of people, based mostly in Toronto with tentacles reaching deep into radio, television, publishing and the book pages of principal newspapers, that I like to call the Inner Coterie of Canadian Authors. Many of these self-appointed arbiters of Canadian culture are connected with the Canadian Authors Association, whatever that is.

This group would seem to believe that a Canadian novel must restrict itself to Canadian characters, locales, situations and problems. My own definition of a Canadian novel is one written by a Canadian, or more exactly, one written by a product of Canadian education and upbringing.

I have scant sympathy with the provincialism that holds that a novel must be about a hut in northern Saskatchewan or incest in the Maritimes or the clash of our two great cultures to qualify as Canadian literature. This is the essence of timidity, the root of a terrible inferiority complex. One might as well dismiss Julius Caesar and Romeo And Juliet as Italian plays, and For Whom The Bell Tolls as a Spanish novel. Are our newspapers less Canadian because they print a preponderance of world news on their front pages and deal with world problems on their editorial pages? Is Mike Pearson less Canadian because he doesn’t restrict his speeches to wheat, the St. Lawrence Seaway and Canada’s air space? Is a writer less Canadian because he refuses to believe that British and American novelists have a monopoly on universal problems and big canvases? And best sellers? And, Heaven forfend, enough popularity to attract offers from Hollywood?

Just as there is a distinctive Canadian policy on the world stage of foreign affairs and a distinctive Canadian position in the world of finance and commerce, there can be, I believe, a distinctive Canadian niche in English-language literature. The three novels I have written, though they deal mostly with non-Canadians, could not easily have been written by anyone except a Canadian. All three books deal with the impact upon Britain and Europe of a great and historic development: the uneasy accession of the United States to world leadership and responsibility. Who can look at all sides of this momentous event better, more compassionately than a Canadian? Who else in the world has a more immediate comprehension of, and intimacy with, both sides of the Atlantic? This, in my view, is a clear and unchallenged Canadian literary function, even though the characters in the three books are mostly Americans, British and west Europeans.

A man writes what he knows best and feels deepest. I happen to have been a foreign correspondent most of my adult life. Does this make me or my books less Canadian? John P. Marquand remarks in his review of The Sixth of June, my most recent novel, "For once the English and the Americans in a wartime novel are equally convincing.” This is a Canadian literary function.

Of course I would like to see great powerful novels written by Canadians about our own country, her problems and her folklore, displayed in bookstalls all over the world. I am sure this generation will see Canadian Joyce Carys and Canadian Robert Penn Warrens emerge. But let’s not insist on putting the cart before the horse. First we must expand our cadre of crack professionals. We must encourage Canadian novelists to get out on the world stage. We must convince them that they are not condemned to garrets and to the whims of the Inner Coterie of Canadian Authors, that they have both roots and opportunity, that the psychological handicaps can be blown asunder with a single deep breath of courage.

At this point I must become even more personal than I have been heretofore, simply because my most expert witnesses on the subject are pages out of my own experience.

In early 1944 I was in England, awaiting the assignment to D-day. I decided to spend the time writing a book, my first. The title chosen was They Left The Back Door Open, because it was a report on the conquest of Sicily and the storming of the Bay of Salerno by the U. S. - British Fifth Army. The manuscript was completed in March of that year and I mailed it to a major Canadian publishing house in Toronto.

No one except a writer can know the excitement bound up in sending his or her first book to a publisher. It is heaven and hell, dreams and feverish torture. Especially torture, and especially the waiting, waiting, waiting. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait too long. One fine spring day the millennium arrived in the form of a cable from the editor-in-chief of the publishing house: ". . . Splendid . . . accepted . . . publishing quickly as possible.” Glory be!

One deliriously happy month later a letter arrived from the same publishing house. It was a most sympathetic letter. They were deeply sorry to disappoint me but, it turned out, they had decided to publish a major American author’s report on the Mediterranean campaign and, as the subject matter was more or less similar, well . . . crash!

Only a writer can measure the disappointment, and only I can know how valuable a lesson I learned from it. My London bureau manager, a grand Englishman who was never caught without an umbrella, bundled up a carbon copy of my manuscript, sent it to a major British publishing house. One week later, the publisher took me to lunch, told me it was the finest hook he had read on the Mediterranean campaign and handed me a cheque for the British equivalent of four hundred dollars as an advance royalty. The fact that another Canadian publishing house subsequently accepted the manuscript couldn’t erase that first disappointment nor could it obscure that first lesson: if you think you’re as good a writer as the next man, get out into the world, lad, out into the world. Canada will eventually come charging up from the rear.

The Inner Coterie Sniffed

Small wonder then that when I returned from the war in 1946 with a burning ambition to write a first novel, I offered my first two chapters and a story outline to LeBaron Barker, Doubleday’s executive editor in New York. He was blissfully ignorant of the fiction that Canadian writing is rootless and he promptly produced a contract and a substantial advance royalty cheque. The novel turned out to be The Sealed Verdict. It sold about twenty-five thousand hard-cover copies in the United States, Canada and Britain, over one hundred and fifty thousand book-club copies, some six hundred thousand paperbacks, was translated for publication in France, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Norway, was made into a movie by Paramount, serialized by Cosmopolitan magazine and attracted a wealth of superlative reviews all over the world. The Saturday Review of Literature listed my name at the top of their gallery of the best first novelists of 1947.

Had I made the grade in my own country? Not by a long shot. The Inner Coterie of Canadian Authors, based mostly in Toronto, sniffed like a constipated owl. Wrote the critic of the Toronto Globe and Mail:

"This is a sideline view of Allied Military Government in action in which the author theatrically stacks the cards with all the ornateness of a soap opera and melodramatically telegraphs the outcome. The six chapters of Sealed Verdict are labeled in the prescribed Monday through Saturday formula of radio’s washboard weepers. However, Sealed Verdict has already been purchased by Paramount Pictures, serialized in Cosmopolitan and will undoubtedly be a lending library success . . .”

Well, the years roll on. I write a second novel, Torch For a Dark Journey, which has a fine critical reception in the U. S. and Europe but is largely ignored in Canada. And now a third novel, The Sixth of June, pops out of the typewriter. It seems sure of success with the public and critics alike. It is the August selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, an immediate best seller from Gander to California. The movies have bought it (how low!) and foreign publishers are outbidding one another crazily. And all the time I kept wondering: did I make the grade in Canada?

It seems I not only made the grade but am suddenly too bloody good. A curious strain ran through the principal reviews: "If there be fault here,” writes the Globe and Mail, "it may be resentment in a few minds that the novel is too slick, too well plotted, too credible, too ably and smoothly controlled . . .” The Montreal Star wrote: "It is not Shapiro’s fault that his novels have such surface gloss and appear to be written with so shrewd an eye on the market that one tends to dismiss them as all surface. They are better than that: the craftsmanship is sure . . .”

In 1952 I wrote a drama for the stage; again I had an experience that may prove of some value to Canadian dramatists who feel they must make good locally before moving out on the world stage. The play, The Bridge, was selected for production by the famed Old Vic Company of Bristol, England. Its critical reception by England’s first-string critics was widely reported in Canada. The Manchester Guardian wrote the morning after a wonderful first night: "Henry Sherek has found a new dramatist and the Bristol Old Vic Company presented his first play tonight at the Theatre Royal—The Bridge by Lionel Shapiro. There has not been as good a theatrical examination since Sartre’s Les Mains Sales of the conflict between personal and political loyalties in a world divided by beliefs hardened into hatreds . . . Mr. Shapiro is a fortunate beginner. He seems to have no trouble with construction, every scene ending with a theatrical crackle. He not only deserved success tonight but had it thrust upon him by the excellence of the Bristol Old Vic players.”

A few weeks later I flew into London and consulted my agent. The news was good. Amsterdam and Copenhagen had purchased the play for production. Offers were flowing in from England’s famed repertory companies. "Anything from Canada?” I asked. The answer was no, not even an inquiry.

Let’s turn to television which is both a wonderful market and experience for the developing writer. In early 1952 I did my first TV script, an hour-long drama called The Twenty-Third Mission. It was immediately accepted by NBC’s Television Playhouse and scored so well that the CBC was finally cajoled into buying a year’s option for Canadian production. The following year I had the pleasure of seeing it done in London by BBC’s superb television company and the critical reaction was far beyond my rosiest expectations. The Daily Express critic called it "one of the neatest and most touching short plays of the season.” The Sunday Times was extravagant indeed. Its critic, Maurice Wiggin, wrote: "It may seem farfetched to call a television producer a poet, but the best of them do a poet’s work. To be simply a technician is manifestly not enough. There are about half a dozen men who deploy both technical skill and creative imagination: when they collaborate with good writers, they make possible a stay against confusion. Most of them work in the drama department. Lionel Shapiro is a good writer, and a writer who believes in goodness which is much less common and much more important . . . The Twenty-Third Mission was written especially for Armistice Day, a rash and even reckless venture, which succeeded, so far as I was concerned, perfectly . . .”

The point of this story is that, a year later, when I arrived back in Canada, a CBC executive explained to me in a plaintive voice that the play had not been televised because no CBC producer cared for it sufficiently. There apparently is a grand panjandrum of drama in the CBC who was enjoying a purple mood that season and specialized in the bizarre, the supernatural, and lecherous Orientals. I concede him the right to like whatever he pleases but he must concede me the point that when one man controls TV playwriting in Canada it accentuates a terrible weakness in the system of government-owned TV.

This bleak and angry chronicle rises not out of a spirit of recrimination but in pursuit of high purpose. I have no need for mumbling over past disappointments for I am not blind to the fact that I am probably the luckiest three-novel writer alive—lucky in the terrible game of jackpot lottery which every writer must play in this day of high pressure and mass media, lucky in the tangle of circumstances that sent me abroad at a time when I was young enough to shake off the sense of timidity which paralyzes the creative arts in Canada.

The purpose of this article is to emphasize that the most important thing in the life of a writer is what happens in those quiet contemplative hours when he or she is alone with a typewriter and a blank sheet of paper. It doesn’t matter whether the writer is sitting in New York or Tunbridge Wells or Regina; what does matter is the magic of creation and this flows from the trifling of God that is in all of us.

In all of my journeyings into the far corners of the earth I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t think it is a grand thing to have been born and brought up a Canadian. There is no reason why this shouldn’t apply to Canadians who work in the creative fields. Sometimes pride can be a form of courage and too much modesty only a form of cowardice.