It’s tough enough being creative in Canada — let alone a creative woman
Cutler's last stand
May Cutler, the president and founder of the publishing firm Tundra Books of Montreal has built a remarkable reputation over the years for producing highly original works. Mary Of Mile 18 by Ann Blades was voted Book of the Year in 1972 by the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians and William Kurelek’s A Prairie Boy’s Winter was chosen one of the 10 best illustrated children’s books of 1974 by the New York Review Of Books, the first time a Canadian book has ever made that list.
I started Tundra Books because I believe that people, especially women, don’t get anywhere unless they establish their own businesses. As a woman, I felt it was impossible for me to do what I always really wanted — to be a senior editor with a daily newspaper. I love newspapers. I was an excellent editor of the McGill Daily when I was an undergraduate and I think I could have put out a great daily. But as a woman, I could sit and rot forever waiting for someone to give me an editorial job.
To be an editor on any of the Canadian newspapers you could be a drunk, an advanced alcoholic, corrupt, or totally incompetent — the only thing you couldn’t be is a woman.
And so I realized quite quickly and very early that you can’t get anywhere in Canada unless you do it yourself.
This is not to say that women have to be involved in business. I feel strongly that women should be able to do whatever they want to do. Publishing is a liberating profession for me personally only because I am doing what 1 want to do. I may have liked to edit daily newspapers years ago, but it’s not something I could realistically think of doing now.
I didn’t have the kind of money it would take to start a daily, so I set up Tundra Books. It’s very exciting work. It’s almost like magic when you make suggestions to people and they come back with these marvelous things. You wonder, where do they come from?
I don’t feel it’s important that women look and act “feminine.” These are
It’s tough enough being creative in Canada — let alone a creative woman
My own choices were made for a number of reasons. After graduating in 1946 from the Columbia School of Journalism. I worked at the United Nations for a year. Then I was offered two women’s page editorships on newspapers in the United States. In those days women were only offered jobs on the women’s pages. That was what they assumed we knew how to do best.
I also had job offers from two Cana-
dian newspapers. One was the Calgary Herald and the other was the Montreal Herald. Although the Montreal Herald offered half the salary of the papers in the United States, I decided to take the job and return to Canada. This decision to return was based on two things. The first was this whole guilt complex — that I should go back to Canada, I shouldn’t desert it. There was a second factor as well. I felt that as an immigrant to the United States I could never really speak
Returning to Canada was my worst mistake
my mind because I would always have to be grateful. As an immigrant to a country you don’t feel that you can make speeches, convince people and change things. I thought that I was always going to feel on the outside, on the edge of things if I lived in the United States. So I came back to Canada and it was the biggest mistake of my life. Except for meeting my husband, I came back to nothing.
I was so depressed the first six weeks after my return from New York. It was very difficult to readjust to Canada. It wasn’t just the change of tempo. It was more the complete lack of awareness of the people around me. I had loved New York. I felt at the centre of things when I was there. There were millions of things to do and be part of all the time. So, coming back was very difficult. There was nothing here. There was no creative life.
One reason I think creativity hasn’t developed more in Canada is because the universities fail to establish high critical standards. I was very conscious of this when I was teaching at McGill in the early Fifties. Our universities are extremely mediocre. I talk of places like McGill so contemptuously because they’ve been around so long and accomplished so little.
When I was an undergraduate in English at McGill I was very interested in writing. There was a marvelous professor there whom everybody loved. He taught creative writing and everyone who wanted to write gravitated to him. He was sympathetic. He read your work, had private sessions with you and so on. But I think he felt that he had to protect everybody, to encourage them and therefore he couldn’t be too critical. He taught there for more than 25 years and not one important or even remotely successful writer ever came out of his classes. This seems indicative of something. I find it impossible to believe that in all that time somebody with some potential might not have gone through his course.
1 once knew a woman who really possessed the necessary critical sensibility this professor lacked. She was a great influence on me. She was an old Jewish woman by the name of Ida Massey, who was very well known by everyone from the Jewish East End of Montreal. That is, the East End of Layton, Richler and so on. She was completely selftaught. She read and wrote English, French, Russian and Yiddish.
I met her through her son while I was
Talent isn’t recognized here
an undergraduate at McGill. She was a marvelous woman who had not only taught herself foreign languages but also read them at the height of their quality. Her perceptions were incredible. She has always remained for me the ideal of what a literary critic should be. We have no literary critics like her in Canada. Everything she read had entered into her as a kind of summation of her being. She had an infallible instinct and response to everything.
She influenced me in more than just a literary sense. I also learned about independence of mind from her. While 1 was a student at McGill during the Second World War, a petition went around which I sponsored trying to get permission from the government to allow some .lews who had escaped into Spain to enter Canada. There weren’t very many, about 2.000 of them. It split the campus, with about 90% against allowing them to come to Canada. It’s fascinating today to read the McGill Daily of that time to see the various justifications some professors had for not allowing these people into the country. I felt very passionately about this because I had been meeting these immigrants in Ida Massey’s house. I didn’t care if the whole university felt I was wrong. I knew they were wrong and I was right. History more than proved it so. The naïveté I had about the niceness of Canadians ended at this point — at McGill.
I sometimes wonder why I continued at McGill. I suppose it was because Eve always been very naïve and in some ways I still am. I grew up on an East End street where most people didn’t even finish elementary school. They often dropped out in grade six at the age of 12 to go to work in a factory. I suppose because 1 grew up during the Depression I felt very privileged that there were scholarships and that I was able to go on to McGill.
My being there was a great source of pride to my mother. I certainly never went to university to ask questions. McGill represented the epitome of learning to me. How could I question its relevance? Of course, over the years I became disillusioned.
There is a total lack of recognition for those who produce the creative energy of this country. There isn’t a national sense of caring or wanting to change things here. Because of this, openings don't exist for people to use their talents in an original way.
A couple of years ago, some people asked me to speak to them about Cana-
Each coimtiy has its own way of sinning. Canada’s is the sin of silence, of pretending creative people don’t exist
dian publishing. I tried to explain how and why it is so difficult to be creative in Canada. At the end of my speech, the woman who thanked me said, “Well, it is true that we may not be very creative, and we may not be very good at things, but Canada is still a very nice country.”
What does niceness have to do with anything? Each country has its own way of sinning. We all know how the United States sins. And we know how Russia sins. But Canada’s sin is a very peculiar one. It is a sin of silence, a sin of shutting out, a sin of ignoring, of pretending creative people don’t exist. Canada has treated anybody whom it doesn’t wish to pay attention to in this way. It does this with immigrants and women. Get rid of them, fire them, or forget that they exist.
That’s why I have been awfully vitriolic over the activities of the Canada Council and various attitudes of the government — it is simply because I am trying to smash into this wall of silence. To say, “How dare you!”
I am trying to point out that any country that does not respect excellence of performance is doomed to be second, third or fourth rate. If the people who really do things well and creatively are denigrated, then you are bound to have the kind of situation that exists in Canada. It shouldn’t matter whether the person is a woman, an Indian or a child. You should care about the quality of the object produced. There must be only one standard — that of excellence. Once protectionism comes in — once we start to protect the status quo — then we are finished. This goes on a great deal in Canadian literature.
We don’t have the sense that justice will triumph in this country because so
often it doesn’t. I really believe that if Ralph Nader lived in Canada, General Motors would have beaten him down. Chances are better in the United States that justice will prevail. Everything is whitewashed in this country. We’ve had scandals like Watergate starting with Sir John A. Macdonald, but we don’t even think about them. Would we throw out a Canadian Agnew or Nixon for taking graft? My God, we wouldn’t have a government left. Nobody would pay any attention anyway — you might as well go out and start screaming at the pine trees for not being birches.
Very few Canadians want to face this. They much prefer to think that we are nice people — so kind and so thoughtful. This kind of hypocrisy is awful.
I was teaching at McGill when I met and fell in love with my husband. He was a labor organizer at the time. I thought he was terribly romantic. We’ve been married 22 years and have four children. Having a family and a career at the same time is sometimes difficult, although I found it hardest when the children were very small. During the early years of my marriage, when I was pregnant most of the time, I was quite happy. I think peculiar things happen to your body chemistry during pregnancy.
I just wanted to sit and do idiotic things like knitting.
After I was married I would go along for a while being quite happy as a mother, and then I would decide that I couldn’t stand Canada any more and I would want to leave.
I don’t consider myself, in some ways, a liberated woman. I still have many of the feelings about things that I grew up with. Even though my childhood wasn’t very happy, I did have a stable family life. Perhaps this is why having a stable home life is very important to me now. It reinforces a special kind of security, and I don’t think I could do what I’m doing without it. I think it would be quite difficult for me if I didn’t have a continuing intimate relationship with one person. I’m not a feminist in the same sense as women who can bring up their children alone, or who live alone, expect to live alone all their lives and get satisfaction from their friends. I enjoy being with my family. I simply like being around them.
I think each woman has to work her lifestyle out in her own way. I don’t concern myself that much about feminist questions now. I remember writing tracts on job discrimination against women, equal pay and that sort of thing
for the high-school newspaper when 1 was growing up. Then I just felt the dis -crimination as a kind of injustice. Something that could be easily rectified. But there comes a time when you realize you can’t change things that easily.
I have done things in my own way but I don’t know if other people consider that I have succeeded in my career. I have been lucky to be able to do it, and it has been possible only because my husband supports me financially. Tundra Books doesn’t make much money. I don’t get a salary. He pays for a housekeeper and all the other things that are necessary for me to carry on with my work. I don’t feel guilty about that because we help each other. Lord knows, I have helped him. It is a giveand-take thing. However, Tundra would be a very different company if I had to support myself and a whole family out of its earnings. 1 would be doing more popular books rather than those that are original and different. I know the kind of books that make money. So does everybody. It’s no secret.
I almost gave up publishing two years ago because 1 was so discouraged by the lack of recognition here for anything original. I can tell you the exact moment. One of my books, Mary Of Mile 18, had just been awarded the gold medal from the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians. Ann Blades, the writer, had been invited to Regina to pick up her award. I was very poor. I had been forced to let my assistant go a couple of weeks earlier. So Ann Blades applied to the Canada Council for her air fare to Regina. They refused to give her the money — $124. I felt so outraged! I thought, “Is there no limit? Who am I doing all this for?”
I called up my husband that morning and asked if he would have lunch with me. We never have lunch together but I wanted to talk to him. We got a table and I said, “I’m going to give it up. Nobody cares. It’s useless. I’m just being an idiot.” My husband talked me out of it. He said, “You’ve involved us all, you’ve involved the whole family in this, and you have no right to do this to us. We all care about what is going on.”
Things have been getting better since then because we have sold an awful lot of publishing rights this past year. That was the only really bad time for me. But there is a loneliness which comes with the realization that no one else cares in the same way that you do. I mean cares about the same things the way you do. They think that Canada is great. What can you say?
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.