Every publisher should be forced to write a book. The horror of the experience, facing a hostile blank page or screen, day after day – distracted by the urgent need to rake leaves or check the fridge – has made me a better, humbler man. The experience has even produced a notably rueful essay, Harder Than I Thought: A Publisher Tries To Write A Book.
My personal experience left me keen to learn more about writing, and writers, and how to make their lives easier. So when I was invited to deliver this year's Flemming Lecture at King's College in Halifax, I decided to pursue this question: How can a country like Canada go about encouraging the production of truly first-class writers and truly great books?
I took a mischievous approach. In the Olympic world, our government has decided that the Own the Podium approach – aiming public money at likely athletic prospects – will increase the number of Canadian world-beaters. In theory, this targeted support will lead to world-beating results, as proved by heaps of medals. And the sports world seems to believe fervently in the process.
Is it possible, I wondered, to come up with an Own the Podium program to produce world-class authors? Obviously, this can only work with a hugely talented writer, so I produced the title: With A Pinch of Genius: A Recipe to Produce Great Authors.
I began by checking the books offered in the first-year course at King's studying traditional Great Books. What lessons could be learned by looking at the authors of these books down through the ages? I was struck by how often I found the significant words "court" (as with Virgil and Dante) or "wealthy family" (as with Plato, Montaigne or Thomas Mann) or "patron" (as with Bacon, Hobbes or Rousseau). Clearly, making a living, in some fashion, has always been important for writers. But no obvious author-producing system appeared to my eyes.
So I went to the roots of the situation in Canada. How many readers are there for books brought out by our writers? The news is terrible. A TD Bank study in 2008 revealed that 50 per cent of adult Canadians have trouble reading. Half the adult population! In this situation, governments that truly cared about a national program for writers would be pouring money into reading programs in schools. We would be taking very seriously the need for more school librarians instead of cutting them back, and we'd be investing more in our adult libraries.
What authors need, of course, is not just readers (the more the merrier) but reliable ways of reaching them. In an ideal world, our Own the Podium plan would involve ensuring a good supply of healthy, successful Canadian publishers. Not to mention a fine spread of profitable and competitive bookstores across the land. Hmm. Constant sunshine would be nice, too.
One basic need is for laws to ensure that authors are paid whenever their work is used. Sadly, the new Copyright Act is a step in precisely the wrong direction, opposed by every writers group in the country.
The good news – yes! – is that through programs such as the Canada Council grants, according to Roy MacSkimming (author of The Perilous Trade), "we have all the elements of a concerted development strategy." And, of course, that includes "literary awards that stimulate reading and book buying."
Here's a provocative thought. A Canada Council spokesman noted that the main problem for our young writers now is "discoverability." He suggested that our programs have done a fairly good job of supporting – for want of a better term "supply" – but we have left undone "demand."
Names such as Atwood, Ondaatje, MacLeod, Martel, Munro and others suggest that, in the wider literary world, we already "own" many podiums. But, at home, let's work on "demand." We should demand nothing less.
Douglas Gibson, the former publisher of McClelland & Stewart, is the author of Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others.