Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Perilous Trade

Let's confess: Writers are odd. We have this strange view of literature, that is it something significant unto itself.

Literature qua literature, as the graduate students might say. It makes nothing happen.

This dysfunctional view has been stoked by the academy, though the englightened among us (read economists) know truly what's what.

Which is that, it's the economy, stupid.

Which means literature is subservient to the publishing industry, otherwise known as The Perilous Trade (M&S, 2003, 2007).

This rich and rewarding reference work by Roy MacSkimming is subtitled "Book Publishing in Canada 1946-2006." Reading it, one is likely to be amazed that there is any such thing as Canadian literature at all.

Perilous trade? More risky than rum running, readers are led to believe.

The ups-and-downs of the industry are all here, and surely this book is required reading in all Canadian publishing programs. The high level advice will surprise no one: Non-fiction makes money, trade publishing (i.e., literature) doesn't.

The publishing industry in Canada has weathered massive storms in the past six decades. A few people got rich, most didn't. It's all here: the Chapters debacle, the Stoddart debacle, the multinationals debacle, the rise of the internet, the rise and fall and rise (and fall?) of government supports, the post Expo 67 boom.

What isn't here (it's not what this book is about) is an analysis of how the forces of the industry picked winners and losers among Canadian writers. The book makes clear that there were many strong winds blowing. Surely this chaotic market influenced "Canadian literature" (I throw this category out there at the risk that it actually exists).

MacSkimming quotes the always striking John Metcalf on the recent state of publishing in Canada: "the manufacturing of celebrity by ignorant media and the manipulation of the audience by publicity budgets" (371).

He also quotes Karl Siegler, who "prophesied ... the great flowering of Canadian owned publishing since the 1960s will eventually prove to have been a one-generation phenomenon" (372).

One tries to remain optimistic. Is it about who owns the means of production or about the ability of Canadians to tell their own unique stories? Or just about the best writers being able to get their work in front of readers?

One just hopes the age old questions go on and on.

Is it good enough that Canadians maintain an ability to write best sellers and sell them internationally?

I say no. What kind of culture is that?

A boring one. But I'm just a literary snob.

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