Canadian literature: The sky is not falling.
It is terribly sad when a large business, almost any large business, fails. The demise of a publisher like Douglas & McIntyre, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection, is going to create temporary hardship for a lot of people, including the writers whose books are now in limbo.
I expect most of those writers will find, after a painful and stressful waiting period, new publishers for their contracted works. The company will likely be bought by a larger one and will continue as an imprint with a specific mandate. And the fact that the remaining large Canadian book publishers are foreign-owned makes no difference at all to writers, no difference at all to publishing standards and tastes, and no difference at all to readers.
The editors, managers, designers and publicists at all the large, multinational-owned houses are Canadian, and so are the books they publish. Any enterprise the size of Doubleday Canada or HarperCollins Canada will of necessity behave both like a nurturer of artistic talent and like a profit-seeking corporation, regardless of who the investors are. Canadian media-giant owners would demand just as great a return as German ones would.
Canadian ownership obsesses the left-leaning mainstream of novelists and poets in this country. There is a feeling – an intuition, really – that foreign ownership will somehow dilute our content, as if the Germans and the Americans will start asking our editors to remove references to canoes and Queen Street. I see no evidence that this is happening. Corporations just want to make a buck – and if they can do this with hockey memoirs, they will do this as sedulously as any skookum hoser would. Foreign ownership of companies means some profits leave the country, but this is an economic problem – one that affects a number of industries – not a literary one.
There is even a literary award in existence, the ReLit Award, which nominates and crowns only books published by “independent” (i.e. Canadian-owned) presses. It’s a well-meaning project, created by Newfoundland writer Kenneth J. Harvey, aiming to nurture the local and alternative works that might have been shut out of the media glare given to the major prizes. When it first came into being, I was thrilled, as I thought it might be an award that rewarded the experimental or unconventional. But it turns out the small and regional presses have no fundamentally different aesthetic criteria from the big ones. They are also just as capable of producing mainstream prizewinners and bestsellers as recent prize longlists – peopled by writers from Gaspereau and Coach House – demonstrate.
We have a lot of literary prizes in Canada – and soon, it seems, we will have at least one more, aimed at women – and many are available only to a certain group. There are prizes for science fiction and romance, for gay writers and Jewish writers. I will not be surprised if new ones come along for redheaded writers or for those born on Thursdays. And that’s all great – more niche prizes mean more alternatives and that’s good for everyone.
But this specific criterion – the national registration of a publisher’s parent corporation – seems like a particularly meaningless one. It’s like saying that only books with green covers or books of more than 437 pages will be eligible. Whatever – it doesn’t hurt anybody.
What about amalgamation, though, the merging of giant publishers into megapublishers, until there is only one Ubercorp that controls the entire cultural life of a country like the Eye of Sauron? That too is an overstated emergency. The reduction of competition in the major leagues is a drag, for sure, for a writer with a new book to sell who is dead set on being picked up by one of the huge firms: It means that there are fewer affluent editors whom one might possibly impress.
But the whittling down of major publishing houses doesn’t mean bad news for the small, government-supported presses. The small presses will benefit from the dearth of opportunities for mid-list writers. Cool but non-lucrative authors will turn to the small presses, and there is no longer any lack of prestige in being there. They won’t have the marketing budgets of the multinationals, but that playing field has been seriously levelled by new, free, social-media marketing strategies.
None of this means we are writing less, or less well, or that there is less fascinating literature to choose from.