Fiction’s brightest season

The fall book season celebrates Canadian literature's triumphant coming of age

Barbara Amiel October 5 1981

Fiction’s brightest season

The fall book season celebrates Canadian literature's triumphant coming of age

Barbara Amiel October 5 1981

Fiction’s brightest season


The fall book season celebrates Canadian literature's triumphant coming of age

Barbara Amiel

The autographing session for Margaret Atwood’s first novel took place in the nylon-and-wool-blend ambience of the men’s socks department at The Bay in Edmonton. The year was 1969. “I sat next to a nice historian and we tried to figure out whether the socks were there to help our sales or we were supposed to help the socks,” she remembers. An embarrassed Atwood managed to sell two copies on that occasion. Last week, a publicity-savvy Atwood sat poised and smiling as the crowds lined up three deep around the block at Toronto’s Longhouse Book Shop to get an autographed copy of her 1981 novel, Bodily Harm. “Things have changed,” she says with laconic understatement.

Indeed. And nothing proves the change more than this fall’s book season. The English-Canadian fiction lists are alive with the sound of potential best sellers that have bookstore owners facing uncertain economic times with almost indecent cheer. “From our point of view it’s just a fabulous season—interesting, exciting,” says Bruce Surtees, president of Toronto’s Book Cellar shops. “Authors Canadians like to buy—and actually read.” Never has a fall season had quite so many stellar Canadian names in fiction. W.O. Mitchell offers his first novel in 10 years, How I Spent My Summer Holidays, an evocative tale of childhood on the Prairies, laced with the ambiguities of dreams and longings gone astray which lead to a tragic murder. Governor-General’s Award-winner Timothy Findley (The Wars), adds Famous Last Words, an ambitious epic novel delving into the psychological and political ambiguities of Ezra Pound and his milieu. Robertson Davies sets his extraordinary novel, The Rebel Angels,

in the groves of academe, demonstrating once again his ability to combine elegant prose with the eternal human preoccupations of sex, politics and violence. With The Barclay Family Theatre, B.C. author Jack Hodgins continues his tradition of creating improbable and irredeemable characters featuring wildly inventive grotesques—the

seven Barclay sisters and the men who encounter them. And Margaret Atwood’s new offering involves a Canadian journalist looking for tranquillity on a Caribbean holiday, who finds herself embroiled in emotional and political coups d’état.

While these are the brightest lights of the season, other familiar names add lustre to the list. Talented Constance Beresford-Howe completes her trilogy with the wry novel The Marriage Bed; Leacock Award-winner Sondra Gotlieb—in real life wife of one of Canada’s top mandarins—has produced a fictional novel of a beautiful, ambitious Ottawa wife pushing hubby to the top of the civil service bunglecomb. Highly touted up-and-comers on the list include: journalist Gary Ross with his Las Vegas-set novel Always Tip the Dealer; B.C.-based novelist Keith Maillard with The Knife In My Hand, a sensitive story

of a young boy growing up gender-confused in the less than androgynous world of 1950s high school hops; and George Jonas, coauthor (with myself) of By Persons Unknown, whose novel Final Decree tells the story of a simple man whose newly liberated wife falls into the hands of trendy divorce laws and lawyers. Rejoices McClelland & Stewart (M&S) publisher Jack McClelland: “It’s a season to cheer about.”

Equally cheering is the indisputable evidence catalogues and bookshelves provide that in English Canada today there is neither a shortage of fiction writers nor a shortage of good fiction writing. Other “cultural industries”—as the latest government buzz phrase has it—such as the Canadian film industry, may still require subsidy and in^ cubation merely to I breathe. Accomplish| ments in the fields of Ü music, sculpture and art may still be only disparate, occasional success stories. But the EnglishCanadian fiction writing community is at least a hard-working core of authors turning out books that by any international standard are very good. The 1981 fall book season is both an affirmation and celebration of this quiet triumph.

It is not just quality that confirms the coming-of-age of Canadian fiction. Canadian novels are grabbing a significant share of the market. They are no longer the cinder-and-ashes stepchildren of the big American and British books. “I used to buy Canadian books because it seemed like the right thing to do,” says Toronto housewife Susan Perren. “Now I can’t wait. I had an advance order in for the Atwood novel and I got it the day it came into the stores.” Numbers signal the change.Twenty years ago an entire publishing season of Canadian books comprised roughly 30 works. Last year, the number of published Canadian books reached 2,725 with 102 fiction ti-

tles. Print runs have increased dramatically. “In the 1960s, a fiction print run was probably a 2,500 copies, tops,” says McClelland. This year his company has an initial print run of 30,000 copies of Atwood’s book, while Macmillan of Canada has orders for 11,000 copies of W.O. Mitchell’s new novel and 12,000 copies of Davies’.

Constance Beresford-Howe calls the aggressive new marketing by Canadian publishers “a stunning turnabout.” Explains Beresford-Howe: “Back in 1946, when I wrote The Unreasoning Heart, Canadian publication simply meant an American publisher had accepted your book and a Canadian publisher would then feel it worthwhile to distribute some copies inside Canada. But you had to get published in the United States first. The big McClelland & Stewart publicity campaign for their distribution of my book in 1946 included a large picture of me with the caption ‘Canada’s Own’—rather like a brand of meat.”

At the same time that Canadian publishers were discovering a growing pool of talented writers, funding for the arts was increasing dramatically. The 1951 Massey commission on the state of culture in Canada finally gave birth to the Canada Council in 1957, and the money began to flow to writers, publishers and professional associations. In 1971-72 total funding from the Canada Council for Canadian literature came to $819,000. By 1979-80, the figure was more than $7 million. With council funding came a flowering of professional associations (the Writers’ Union of Canada in 1972, the Canadian Periodical Publishers’ Association in 1976 and the Canadian Book Information Centre in 1975) devoted to strengthening both the market for books and the cultural ambience into which they were launched. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, under such producers as Robert Weaver and Andrew Allan, began dramatizing short stories and novels. Groups such as the Writers’ Union initiated effective campaigns to put Canadian books in high schools and financed cross-country tours of writers. As book critic and editor of Saturday Night magazine Robert Fulford summed it up: “There has been a long-term concentrated campaign in this country to create a literary commu-

nity. And it has worked.”

Success has meant not just more books, more funding and more writers working their way through the literary wine-and-cheese circuit. It has also brought about a palpable change in attitude to the writers themselves. “To be a writer,” says Robertson Davies, carefully enunciating each syllable in the book-lined rooms of his apartment in Toronto’s Massey College, “was considered strange and a little as though you were devoting too much time to a hob-

by.” In the ’60s the attitude changed, at first giving way to a kind of bohemian glamor with no party complete without a leather-jacketed Leonard Cohen hinting at pleasures and exotic experiences inaccessible to ordinary folk. Later a broader awareness of writers and their works developed.

“Frankly I find it astonishing,” says author Jack Hodgins ( The Invention of the World, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne). “People come up to you at parties and they’ve actually read your books. I came along at exactly the right time in the ’70s to benefit from this new awareness of Canadian literature.” Now the celebrity-writer circuit has

emerged with such authors as Morley Callaghan and W.O. Mitchell on CBC’s Front Page Challenge and Morningside, or a frizzy-haired Margaret Atwood speaking to a hushed old-boy-tie Empire Club. Writers have become personalities even though not all of them are as flamboyant as Farley Mowat, who flashes his kilt-and-dirk for the newspapers, cameras and TV lenses.

The attention has translated itself into money. In 1977 M&S and New York’s Bantam Books established Seal Books, which offers a prize of $50,000 for a first novel. Advances against royalties began to improve. Author Keith Maillard, for instance, who managed to get $150 for his first novel, Two Strand River, in 1976, got $3,500 for this year’s novel. And as Canadian fiction took off into the subsidiaryrights fields of film and television sales, the real money began to flow. “I’d say Timothy Findley will see about $250,000 all told for The Wars," says Findley’s agent, Nancy Colbert.

Even first novels, the traditional lepers of the book business, began to make their mark. Gary Ross’s psychological thriller starts off this fall with a print run of 5,000 (usually the watermark sales figure for a fiction best seller) and cash advances of $12,500 for Canadian rights alone. George Jonas’ Final Decree has already earned close to $20,000 for Canadian rights including $15,000 from Seal, among the largest paperm back advance paid so far for t first novel Canadian rights. ^Publisher Anna Porter of 2 Seal Books, which shelled out the money, makes no bones about her expectations of high sales for the Jonas novel. “I read a lot of books,” says Porter, “and I’m not easily moved to tears. But I read this book in one sitting and I found myself crying. This is the debut of a major novelist.”

The publishing industry itself has grown right alongside the payments to writers. The blooming of the Canadian cottage publishing industry in the ’60s allowed dozens of authors to see their books in print and begin the laborious business of learning how to improve their craft so that readers would respond. “The number of small publishers soon declined,” explains Dennis Lee, cofounder with David Godfrey of the House of Anansi Press. “It wasn’t alto-

gether a bad thing, and many of the writers who began with the small presses graduated to the major houses leaving small publishers the important work of publishing experimental novels and new authors.”

At the same time, an industry sprang up devoted to studying, analysing and reviewing Canadian literature. Magazines such as Books in Canada developed glossy formats for author profiles and literary puzzles that intrigued general readers as well as the literati. The trade publication Quill &

Quire, started in 1935, has seen its circulation grow to around 8,000 issues a month. Important quarterlies such as George Woodcock’s Canadian Literature became the gospel for academics on developments in the world of Canadian writing. All this attention-fuelled by a Canadian nationalism that went public with the 1967 centenary celebrations—would have been in vain had the books themselves been of poor quality and of little interest to readers. But the self-indulgent literary experiments of the ’60s that produced nationalistic tracts and inaccessible prose gave way to the mature works of such authors as Alice Munro and Richard Wright. By the ’80s the verdict was in: Canadian fiction was here to stay.

The success story is not without a darker side. Although writing may have achieved a certain status, an author still doesn’t have the income to match the clout of a dentist, or indeed of a plumber. Income surveys paint a bleak picture. The average income for a Canadian writer is estimated at $7,000, even less for fiction than nonfiction, although that figure bundles together both the occasional writer and the successful TV and motion picture star. Grumbles novelist Marian Engel (winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Bear): “Sure I’ve got recognition, but I can’t live on recognition with two kids to raise and an income that can be as low as $9,000 a year.” Even veterans like W.O. Mitchell admit: “I couldn’t live on my writing income

alone and all my books are in print. Back in 1948 Atlantic-Little, Brown coughed up a $1,000 advance against royalties for Who Has Seen the Wind, and this year Macmillan gave me $10,000 for Canadian rights only of How I Spent My Summer Holidays. But I live on my free-lancing, stage productions, television and $3,000 for a speech. I never thought to ask that much, thought it would discourage them, but they still buzzed around. I believe

Pierre Berton gets $4,500.”

Some authors, like Timothy Findley who now lives in eclectic splendor in his Ontario farmhouse together with 17 cats, two dogs and William Whitehead, his companion of 20 years, never forget the difficult early days. With an annual income of close to six figures, Findley can afford a swimming pool, fireplaces,

large ventriloquist’s dolls, elegant clutter and “the only stone wall on the concession side road.” But he still lives with the perennial tic of income-anxiety and relies on his agent to sort out offers of work. “I’d say ‘yes’ to everything gratefully,” he explains. “We went so long with so little guarantee of employment that it’s like being Depression children. I can’t get away from the feeling that I’m standing in the rain with a nickel— and doughnuts cost a dime.” In Findley’s case, the escape out of that depression led through the terrifying world of alcoholism and the DTs, with a nadir reached in New York in 1970, where “I woke up in a succession of dreadful hotel rooms not knowing where I was or whom I’d been with, missing only my sanity and wallet.” The way out ¿came through discipline, ¿work and a little financial stability, i For union activists 0like Marian Engel (past ^chairman of the Writers’ iUnion of Canada), the only way out of what she sees as the financial despair of writers is a group of solutions that would include payment to authors for library usage of their books as well as increased government patronage. “Unless government policy changes,” she says, “I don’t think Canadian fiction will survive.” But not all writers agree. Like Engel, more and more writers are making the attempt to live entirely off writing or writing-related activities, and succeeding. One of the best sources of income is the coveted writer-in-residence appointment worth at least $25,000 a year (a threetime appointment for Engel.) “It’s been three years since I had to do peculiar jobs like typing letters or working at a store,” says writer Keith Maillard. “But I scale my living needs down to match my income—which hovers at $10,000 a year.” Still, those chunks of money that come in from writing allow Maillard occasional splurges: the last one a set of Uillean (Irish) bagpipes that cost $1,200.

“You can manage,” adds author Jack Hodgins, who gave up his teaching ca-

reer three years ago. “There are workshops, readings, commissions, the Canada Council and the dear old CBC. In a decent year I can match my $26,000 teaching salary and in an off year my wife and I make do.” Says Robert Fulford: “Canadian writers are the envy of their U.S. counterparts. Of course their salaries aren’t terrific compared to certain professions. But they have a fabulous home market for sales and extraordinary interest in their work.”

If anything rankles Canadian writers more than their difficulty in catching the good life, it is the isolation of their works in the “Canadiana” section of bookstores. There, separate from the literature of the United States and England, culled from the sections marked “Poetry,” “History,” “Gardening” or “Science,” are the volumes of books written and published by Canadians, all jammed together by virtue of their national identity. “There you are,” says Robertson Davies, “your novel next to a book of 25 interesting things to do with maple sugar and a collection of cartoons from Maritime newspapers. I don’t know another country in the world, including Australia, that would dream of putting its own authors in a little sec-

tion away from their international peers.”

Though the Canadian ghetto is generally associated with the commercialism of larger chain stores like Coles or Classics, some of the smaller bookstores maintain Canadiana sections as well. In Ottawa, Shirley Leishman Books, which opened in 1961 with a mandate to specialize in Canadian books, integrated most of them—poetry, history and nonfiction—into the regular shelves, but left Canadian fiction in a special spot by itself. “I found that when Canadian fiction was on the shelves with international fiction,” explains store owner Bill Roberts, “sales were lower. There is so much more media promotion of Cana-

dian books now and such a surge of national awareness, particularly at Christmas sales, that it helps Canadian authors to be easily identified.”

International recognition remains the last stumbling block for Canadian writers, but it is proving to be neither insurmountable nor so dreadfully important after all. Though few Canadian fiction books have made it to the Tariffed heights of selections of the American Book-of-the-Month Club (James Houston’s White Dawn and Mordecai Richler’s Joshua Then and Now are two that have), Margaret Atwood’s last novel, Life Before Man, received a front page review in the New York Times Book Review. Says Review assistant editor Le Anne Schreiber: “Most people in the U.S. read Margaret Atwood in the context of women writers rather than as a Canadian author. They would mention Margaret Drabble and Atwood in the same breath. There’s a renaissance of Canadian writers—Richler, Brian Moore and so on—and American readers are responding to them not because they are Canadian but because they are good.”

Other Canadian writers such as Findley and Mitchell have already been

translated into a dozen or so languages, testifying once again to the broad appeal of some Canadian writing. But more significantly, the importance of making it in the United States in order to be read in Canada no longer exists. Canadian writers are stars at home with all that implies. Shelf life for books is steadily increasing. This season’s book is not only here tomorrow, it may be here 10 years from now. Books such as Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel or Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Buddy Kravitz are classics. “I’d be surprised,” says Ottawa’s Bill Roberts, “if such books were ever off the shelves.” As a result, this season the hoopla of the promotion circuit is sophisticated

and in high gear. “I remember the days when promotion was a genteel business of going to a luncheon to which the better critics had been invited,” muses Constance Beresford-Howe. “Now you sit down with your face painted orange and confront those dreadful creatures on television shows.” Dreadful they may be. But television makeup, klieg lights, profiles in the lifestyles section of the newspapers—who would have believed it only 20 years ago? “Then we all pretended to be something else, anything else, except writers,” says Atwood. “Now buying bread in the supermarket is an occasion for autographing.” Canadian fiction has come a long way from the socks department. And it is only the beginning of that finally coming-to-life dream of an indigenous culture, all Canadian in genesis and all the world’s to enjoy.

With files from Jackie Carlos and Nicholas Jennings.