A country without a literature is not a country

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“A country without a literature is not a country.” – Elaine Dewar

It seemed apt after musing yesterday on writing in Canada, that this morning I would hear an interview with Elaine Dewar, author of The Handover, which is published by Biblioasis. Her book is about the sale of McClelland & Stewart (aka The Canadian Publisher) to a German rival, years ago, when I was working at the National Post (so I have a dim memory of how it rocked the industry at the time). This subject may sound arcane, but it’s important to everyone who has an interest in Canadian culture, as distinct from other national cultures.

You can listen to the interview, here, on CBC’s The Current.

The Canadian book industry is contracting very rapidly, warns Elaine Dewar toward the end of her interview. This caught my attention. It sounded like news of the icebergs melting.

Of course, this is bad news for anyone who hopes to earn a living as a writer in Canada. [Side note: does anyone hope to earn a living as a writer in Canada anymore? Or do we all recognize that if we want to make a living as writers, we must sell into the exponentially larger American market?]

The discussion on publishing in Canada continued between the show’s host, and John Degen, executive director of the The Writers Union of Canada and someone with the Association of Canadian Publishers (could not find accurate info online to identify him, but his name is Glen). They dug into the issues raised by Elaine Dewar, and I’ve paraphrased the main points of their conversation, below.

Q: What is it like for writers in Canada, today, to get published?

A: This is really a global issue. There have been major changes in the industry. It’s a blockbuster culture that sees it being increasingly risky for a young writer to break into the industry—if you break into the industry and don’t make it right away, you have a greater chance of never making it at all.

What we really need is diversity. Canadian publishing wants to be playing on a level playing field. When we allow cultural policy to erode, at the federal level, it damages the playing field. We have 115 companies publishing in Canada [wow, is that true?], but very few of these are large enough to compete with international publishers [both in terms of purchasing rights to books, and in terms of purchasing assets that go up for sale]. For example, due to the sale of a major distribution company, decisions about book purchases for Canadian libraries are now made in the US. [think about that…]

There is government policy in place to keep Canadian cultural assets under Canadian control, but a long litany of decisions honours the policy in reverse, in secret. Canadians should have access to purchase the assets of these companies when they’re up for sale [a recent example is Harlequin, which sold to HarperCollins in the US]. If these assets are not purchased by Canadians, then the government should exercise its mandate to keep them in Canada.

Q: But shouldn’t publishers adapt to the market?

A: We’re just through on era where books were declared dead, and they’re now declared back to life again. Canadian publishers are prestigious. We punch above our weight. We’ve shown resilience in developing Canadian culture. We’re up against the border of the largest exporter of culture in the world. We publish in English. Without direct subsidies it’s very tough to compete with that.

It’s part of the Canadian project to decide whether we will be active in this medium in the years to come.

And there the interview ends.

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So what do you think? If government is going to subsidize the creation, publication, and distribution of Canadian culture, including literature, how should it best direct its support to build a healthier, more resilient, more diverse system? Personally, I’ve found that the public grant system for artists offers spotty support that could never replace, even short-term, a steady income. Additionally, many of the opportunities for residencies, etc., are impractical for anyone raising kids, or working another job.

It’s precarious for all of us, publishers and writers alike.

The only reason I’ve had the luxury to develop as a writer is because my husband was able support us financially for the years (many years!) when I earned next to nothing; and he continues to provide the steady income that allows me to teach part-time and write part-time now. It takes a long time to develop, as a writer, and you need permission to experiment and fail, too. (In other words, it can be an unprofitable undertaking for long stretches of time, even after you’ve had some success.) Is it worth it? Depends on whether you’re measuring in terms of money, or in terms of something else—what’s a thriving culture worth?

I’m absolutely certain that important voices, necessary voices, are missing from the conversation because of financial limitations or lack of connections. If we can’t solve this, Canadian literature will represent only a small, mostly elite segment of this country’s voices. I want so much more from our literature. If you’ve read all the way to the end of this post, so do you.

xo, Carrie

The world is waiting to be read
The summer day

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for raising this Carrie!

    I actually wrote to The Current after listening to that story (something I don’t think I’ve ever done before) because I was so frustrated by the so many of us who are writing in Canada, and publishing, and making money, who are never discussed or acknowledged, or represented, by the CBC, by The Writers’ Union, and so on.

    I don’t even know where to start, without hijacking your post (which I don’t want to do) but suffice it to say, Canadian writers can write and make money, we don’t need Canadian publishers, or the government, or The Writers’ Union to help us (and, in fact, in many cases those entities conspire against us).

    I dislike the talk about “fostering” and “nurturing” as though we cannot become strong writers, and continue to improve our writing without some higher entity helping us along. My writing is immensely better since I published my first book and that has mostly come about by the learning I have sought out, the large number of books I have self-published (which I wouldn’t have been able to do had I stayed within the confines of traditional publishing) and by my close relationship to my readers.

    In the interests of not repeating what can be read elsewhere, Russell Smith captured some of what I’m talking about in a piece he wrote in the Globe last year (https://tgam.ca/2vpg16M). To be honest, it was a miracle that the Globe acknowledged the existence of self-published authors enough to publish that piece.

    So am I worried about Canadian writers and the state of Canadian literature? Well, let’s just say, anyone in Canada today – from any background, race, religion, gender, etc, – can publish with very manageable upfront costs (starting from almost nothing depending on choices made) and the first time they sell a book they will make money on that sale.

    Do I promise they’ll make a living? No. But in the time most people spend watching Netflix, they can – if they wish – put their story into words and publish it, and chances are they’ll make some money.

    I realize that isn’t what many people have in mind when they talk about the “literature of a country” but maybe we need to rethink what constitutes the literature of our country.

    Reply
    • This is very interesting to me, Tudor. Thank you for responding. I have no experience with self-publishing and never know how to address it when the subject comes up with my students. Of course, I’ve heard about the success stories, like 50 Shades of Grey, but beyond that, I don’t know how to compare self-publishing to the traditional model. I realize this is a personal question, so don’t feel obligated to answer on this public forum, but do you make enough money self-publishing to replace the need for another job? How much time/expense do you spend on promotion compared to on the writing itself (in the traditional model, writers do a lot of free publicity work, which is not often discussed). And do you pay someone to edit your work? I can’t imagine publishing without working closely with an editor. Thanks for answering any of these questions. I would love to know more. -Carrie

      Reply
      • I have sent you the world’s longest email answering all your questions … Feel free to share those parts of it which might help others.

        Reply
  2. I’m absolutely certain that important voices, necessary voices, are missing from the conversation because of financial limitations or lack of connections. If we can’t solve this, Canadian literature will represent only a small, mostly elite segment of this country’s voices. I want so much more from our literature. If you’ve read all the way to the end of this post, so do you.

    I love this and I read to the end so I could read it.

    I do not have financial advantages or connections. I did just submit a short story to the Writing Diversity contest for Toronto’s Word on the Street in September. Diversity is what we need, but those pesky financial and connections pieces of the puzzle make it hard.

    A lot of it, the sales and distribution part of the publishing world, I know very little about. It is hard to break into Canada’s literary scene. I don’t have a lot of other options as far as making a living goes. I’m not holding my breath with the writing stuff, but I am not giving up either.

    I always appreciate your experiences and knowledge on these matters Carrie.

    Reply
    • Thank you for reading to the end, Kerry. Good for you for submitting a story! Being a writer isn’t just about making a living, and I’m glad you’re not giving up. -Carrie

      Reply
  3. i prefer to write from imagination and place is a secondary thing. for this reason, i don’t like the classification of CanLit. i know, i’m a failure as a Canadian. but it’s how i feel. this whole place focus feels restrictive to me.

    i support individual approaches to writing and CanLit feels collective in nature. does that make me a literary capitalist?

    i don’t expect to make money as a writer and have the fortunate experience of a partner with a job, and money too. that support is essential as i learn my craft/make mistakes. as such, i don’t often apply for grant monies because i fear i am perceived as greedy. but, as you know, applying for grants is a vetting process and successful application adds to your professional CV.

    i’m an outsider.

    Reply
    • Hi there. I don’t love the insular nature of CanLit. I guess that’s what I was arguing against in yesterday’s post, and in today’s post, I was trying to think about how Canadian literature could thrive, whether funding is necessary, what role government should play, etc. You’re not a failure as a Canadian if you don’t like the classification of CanLit! I’ve considered changing my blog title, but I also accept that I’m from here, this is my country, this is the place I’m writing from, and therefore, what I write is Canadian — more than it is anything else. (I’m a dual citizen, also American, but haven’t lived there since I was a child.)

      Writers are writers, and we can learn from each other. -Carrie

      Reply
  4. Writing to say that I read to the bottom of the article. I, too, believe in the importance of Canadian literature.

    Reply
    • Thank you for reading to the bottom, Jennifer. And thank you for your comment. -Carrie

      Reply

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