As disparate and fractured as Canada and the enterprise of Canadian literature has always been, one commonality bridges all of our divisions be they political, historical, racial, aesthetic, or geographic. Simply put, this characteristic is complacency. We care about literature; we express enthusiasm for Canadian books, writers, and publishers; but we do so little to foster or support the enterprise. This lack of action to protect and pass on our literature marks us as indifferent to the future, to the viability of what we do. It’s a situation akin to the Canadian attitude towards the environmental crisis. Over and over, surveys report that pollution and the protection of our natural environment stand high on the list of issues Canadians feel most concerned about. But what are we willing to do beyond filling up a blue box and periodically taking the bus? Not much, it seems. When former Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion proposed a financial incentive system (stupidly termed a “carbon tax”) to encourage conservation, Canadians wanted nothing to do with it.
It’s the same for the arts and literature, even among those of us involved in the enterprise. Do we pay attention to the threats to the artistic environment? Are we aware that vital habitats, the environments which make literature and reading possible, are eroding at an alarming rate? Are we willing to do anything about it?
For writers and publishers, there is only one thing that matters: an audience. And the truth is the audience for literary writing in Canada is so small it cannot enable CanLit to survive in its current state, let alone thrive. It never has. Those who write, edit and publish books know this. The reading public, insofar as it cares, has been insulated from this truth for decades, for generations, by the appearance of a viable literature: an appearance, a facade, largely bought and paid for by the various layers of arts funding in our federal and provincial governments. Without this funding, the vast majority of Canadian literary publishers would not exist, nor the books they publish. Government funds support our libraries, our universities, our magazines, our literary festivals, even our writers. These features of our literary environment do not exist because significant numbers of Canadians demand it. They exist because our governments believe arts funding is a good investment, financially and politically. And because if the government doesn’t pay for them, no one else will. And because not to have them would make us seem a rather puny and underdeveloped country.
So, casting aside the government-funded illusion, we are left with authors in need of readers and publishers in need of customers. And while the writers keep typing up manuscripts, and the publishers keep printing them, and the libraries dutifully put them on the shelves, we pay scant attention to the decline of what little habitat for readers still exists. The unexamined assumption underlying all this government-funded activity is the fanciful notion that so long as we keep churning out books, the audience, by sheer force of our efforts, will, like the surprising rebound of the sandhill crane, eventually emerge. But it has not. And it will not.
The simple fact is, after innumerable launches, readings, publicity campaigns, hundreds of author interviews with Peter Gzowski and Shelagh Rogers, the publication of thousands of books, and millions upon millions of dollars in government subsidy, the environment in this country for Canadian literature has not changed perceptibly since the onset of official CanLit and the proliferation of small, state-funded literary presses some forty years ago. The best which might be said is that CanLit, in the midst of the technological onslaught from the Internet and the digital revolution, is holding its own. Sort of like swift foxes in Alberta, or the five-lined skink in Ontario – the populations are not robust, but a steep decline has yet to be observed. Though this statement, I have no doubt, could be easily challenged; in certain respects, things are inarguably worse. Perused your newspaper’s book review section lately?
There are two basic forms of environmental degradation: pollution, putting garbage and toxins into the air, land and water, and habitat loss, razing forests or draining wetlands to “develop” the land or extract resources. Similarly, there are two basic “habitats” of crucial interest to Canadian writers and publishers: schools and bookstores. After all, where do readers come from? And where might they go to buy Canadian books?
Let’s consider education first. Our schools, it is safe to say, are not keenly interested in literature, let alone Canadian literature, which is troubling enough. What is worse, our schools no longer place an urgent emphasis on the written word. There no longer exists an unquestioned dictum that the early acquisition of the solitary skills of reading and writing are crucial for unlocking a child’s potential and ability to learn. Instead, the focus in our primary and junior classrooms is on group activities and shared experiences, what is called in teacher-speak “cooperative learning.” Precision of written expression is not valued. The necessary attention span and ability to concentrate for meaningful reading are not encouraged. Basic grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are not taught with any urgency or conviction. Composing sound, logical, error-free prose is no longer regarded as a crucial skill.
I know these things to be true because I happened to teach English in Ontario schools for several years. In my advanced level high school classes I had many perfectly capable, intelligent students who simply did not understand what a sentence was, did not recognize the logic underlying sentence construction, and thus did not understand how to utilize basic punctuation. They possessed no clear understanding of the function of a paragraph and thus possessed little skill in terms of the simplest methods of organizing ideas. Worse, most had yet to obtain an innate sense of the rhythms of written English (something only acquired through regular reading, which one might assume they had done to reach this level of their education), and therefore had difficulty reading grade level prose at merely a phonetic and denotative level. Having breezed through primary and junior grades, suddenly in high school students find themselves expected to apprehend the nuances of composition and the basic strategies of rhetoric, when in fact many have yet to master the building blocks of simple written English. And spare a thought for the harried teacher, struggling to inspire thematic interest and stylistic appreciation for serious fiction and poetry, while in truth, the majority of his or her students find it arduous to simply read the texts on the level of linguistic comprehension. And this is prior to attempting to teach these same students Shakespeare, because my discussion here refers only to the “advanced” or “academic” stream students. I lack the space or stomach to detail the shameful reality of how we “educate” those in the “general,” “applied,” or “essential” streams.
Simply put, our schools are not producing avid readers. We all know this. Young people keenly interested in reading, writing, books and literature, now emerge in spite of our educational system, not because of its efforts to inculcate literary appreciation, rigorous standards, or academic values. We know the vast majority of recent high-school graduates have not received anything close to a worthy introduction to fiction and poetry. We know even those lucky few who have – graduates from special arts schools or enriched programs for gifted students – likely have not been exposed to more than a few Canadian authors. Where I taught, Canadian writers did not exist. The novels assigned to my classes were To Kill a Mockingbird, Call of the Wild, Animal Farm, The Outsiders, Night, The Hobbit, and Lord of the Flies. The lone Canadian book I had an opportunity to teach was Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, this for an “essential” level class where every page of the book had to be read out loud, most of it by me, since several of the students, in fact, could not read. If I had not illegally photocopied short stories by Alice Munro and Guy Vanderhaeghe for my advanced classes, many of my students may never have encountered Canadian writing in the course of their secondary education. I am aware there are schools which teach Canadian books, but I also doubt my experience to be anything other than typical. The norm, after all these years, is still Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird; Sinclair Ross and Mordecai Richler, sadly, remain exotic.
All this should be cause for alarm. The fact it is not says something disheartening about the larger culture. But more to the point, despite the indifference of the larger culture, those of us invested in the field of CanLit should have been, for our own good, angrily sounding the alarm a long, long time ago.
“But wait,” you say. “What about all these bright young people enrolled in English programs at our universities? What about all those arts schools, and writing workshops, all these degrees and diplomas in creative writing? Are these not the writers and readers of the future?”
I am a graduate of such programs and I’ve attended more than my share of literary workshops; their existence shouldn’t convince anyone of a vibrant literary culture thriving in our halls of higher learning. Our academic standards are not so stringent that any university English faculty or MFA program is going to voluntarily cut enrolment due to a lack of qualified candidates. Whatever the secondary schools pump out is what the universities take in. And in turn, churn out, failure being a foreign concept within the halls of liberal arts academe. Students enrolled in the last graduate program I attended received grades for their course work within a strict range of B- to A+. When pressed, instructors admitted, privately, that it was almost impossible to fail one’s thesis defence.
But in regard to low levels of literary ability and understanding at the university level, don’t take my word for it. I’ve only taught public school and the odd undergrad composition or ESL class. A few years ago, in CNQ 74, Adrian Michael Kelly had this to say about the preparedness of his undergraduate English-Lit students:
Take a random sampling of Canadian students from a senior seminar in Romantic or Modern poetry: they may be able to parrot what they’ve been told about the male gaze in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” or about Pragmatism in the poems of Wallace Stevens, but few if any could explain the difference between an iamb and a trochee, never mind scan a phrase such as “rammed with life in every line.” Asked to read a poem aloud, many would pause at the end of an enjambed line, and pronounce each word like a disconnected unit. . . . I am not saying that teachers should loom over students as they sweat their way through memorized Virgil. I am saying, however, that few students can hold a poem – or the best prose – in their hearts. They cannot do so because they are deaf to its cadences and rhythms and euphonies.
Kelly does not assert that something is innately deficient with the younger generation; neither do I. Instead, his observations echo my argument, that our schools are failing – not only our children – but literature. His students, who, bear in mind, have chosen to study English literature, are oblivious to the “cadences and rhythms and euphonies” of the best poetry and prose, to the aesthetic power of charged language, because they were educated in schools which failed to instil an understanding of basic prosody or communicate veneration for the written word. Why then do these same schools not feel the sting of our collective scorn? Why instead, through their silence, have Canadian writers and publishers expressed only indifference?
No doubt there are studies and statistics to refute all of these observations and assertions and their disturbing implications. I would be surprised if there were not. Ministries of Education, school boards, teachers’ unions and universities all have interests to protect and the money to produce evidence to support their claims. (This, for example, is what standardized testing is all about.) But the point I’m trying to highlight is that literary writers and publishers also have interests to protect, also have reasons to speak out on what is happening in our classrooms, and also have ample evidence at hand to support their concerns. As the saying goes, the silence is deafening. Not to mention, lethal.
If the educational environment is compromised such that it no longer encourages serious reading, the bookstore habitat is equally threatened. In fact, it may be beyond saving. But the damage has not happened overnight. The bulldozers and cement mixers of Chapters/ Indigo have been paving over northern spotted owl habitat in broad daylight for fifteen years or more. The warning signs from south of the border go back further, to at least 1991 when the Borders chain was bought out by Kmart, or even to the 1980s when Barnes & Noble became the first bookseller to aggressively discount new books.
In terms of recruiting readers and making available Canadian books, independent booksellers were second only to libraries in their importance because they actually cared about books. The people who opened now-vanished establishments such as The Double Hook or Duthie Books got into the business not because it was so profitable, but because they had a passion for the printed page. They chose titles for their shelves not just on the basis of fast turnaround, but because they valued certain authors and had regard for certain publishers. Their employees were readers and knew something about books, could actually recommend titles or converse about a given writer’s strengths and weaknesses. Small, independent bookstores which promote Canadian books still exist of course, much like Bengal tigers or right whales still exist, but for the most part they have been replaced by the corporate outlets whose employees remind one of order-takers at McDonald’s, outlets which in recent years stock fewer books and more toys, candles and jars of Lovefresh Pomegranate Body Scrub.
This is old news and no one can be surprised. And yet, many of us were. In 1996, just after the huge, oversized Chapters outlets began opening their doors across the country, author and critic Philip Marchand speculated in an interview on the upside of their emergence:
A couple of days ago I went to the new Chapters superstore on Bloor Street here in Toronto and I went up to the mystery section and there was my novel Deadly Spirits, displayed quite prominently . . . I had assumed it was out of print and of no interest to any bookseller but there it was, prominently displayed. And naturally this very kindly disposed me to that store and this is not an isolated thing. A lot of writers [will] be very pleased that their books are going to be on the shelves longer and get more exposure . . . these superstores are a tremendous marketing force for books and they’ve been by no means harmful . . . to the interests of writers.
Marchand was not alone in feeling “kindly disposed” towards Chapters in the late 90s. During the first years, few of us were not. There was something exhilarating about the sight of those vast floors devoted to nothing but new books – all those long, uninterrupted aisles; the silent escalators transporting one to even more aisles; the sheer quantity of volumes; the sense that virtually any book in print was there, within reach. Everyone loved the fat, comfy chairs and their silent invitation to relax and read as long as one liked (an invitation homeless people soon found irresistible), not to mention the tolerant attitude towards snacks and refreshments. Chapters appeared to be doing all it could to make everyone, including that small percentage of people serious about literature, feel welcome and accommodated. They were even stocking small press backlist titles as if it were the normal thing to do, and hosting readings and book launches with nary a votive candle, cheeseboard, or bar of beauty soap in sight.
If it took a few years, a few bankrupt publishers, and the disappearance of scores of independent bookstores for us to acknowledge the awful truth, maybe it shouldn’t have. As early as 1997 the true motives of the corporate enterprise, not to mention its total disregard for anything resembling literary interests, were spelled out for everyone at a high-profile symposium on the publishing industry in New York City. At one point in the evening, Cynthia Ozick spoke of the need for bookstores to actually care about books as something other than units of sale, to maintain their traditional role of helping to uphold such virtues as sophistication, taste, intellect, excellence. As John Seabrook later reported in his book Nobrow, her “eloquent argument for the value of good books . . . drew applause from the sympathetic audience.” What followed revealed in no uncertain terms the true interests of the corporate bookseller:
After Ozick had finished talking, another panelist, Leonard Riggio, head of the Barnes & Noble chain of megastores, said, “Well, Cynthia, I happen to have your sales figures right here,” and, reading from a computer printout, proceeded to inform the audience that the recently published Cynthia Ozick Reader, a collection of the author’s favourite writings, had sold only a few hundred copies. He then asked, “So why should the publishing industry support a midlist book that readers clearly don’t want?”
Ten years later, after the worst of the destruction levelled by the Chapters/Indigo monolith (the market not being large enough in Canada to support two mega-bookstore chains) and long after the chain stopped stocking small press backlist titles or hosting literary readings, its mercenary book display and shelving policies were exposed by author and editor John Metcalf in his sui generis volume, Shut Up He Explained:
To have a book displayed face-out at the end of an aisle in Chapters [or Indigo] costs $5000 a month. To have a book displayed on a “power table” . . . costs a publisher $10,000 a month. It is even rumoured that “Heather’s Picks” are not favours freely bestowed. . . . books displayed spine-out are granted an existence of 90 days and are then automatically returned. Chapters does not stock “backlist,” a writer’s earlier titles; Chapters places “product.”
The above passage was published in 2007. Not a word in response, let alone a public cry of protest, escaped the lips of any author, critic or publisher I know of.
Less temperate and level-headed people than myself might attach certain words to this type of business practice, though “payola” and “extortion” are not the ones you will hear uttered by any Indigo sales rep or see printed in Quill & Quire. “Co-op advertising” is the preferred term, as cheerful a euphemism as you could find to describe a monopoly’s tactics to squeeze even more profit out of publishers who, with few exceptions, can barely survive.
But the terms Metcalf outlined are now defunct. It seems the number-crunchers at Indigo have come up with a better scheme. Why level specific costs for specific titles which actually have to be put on display, when you can simply charge a base percentage on every book that finds its way past an Indigo loading dock? Starting this past January, Chapters/Indigo mandated an extra 4 per cent fee for all books they stock, regardless of where they are displayed. The change makes sense if in fact less shelf space is going to be given in future to books, and more to things like lamps, gourmet coffee, and baby toys. Besides, states Stuart Woods, editor of Quill & Quire in the July/August 2011 issue, “there’s a strong argument that the new terms are a reasonable cost of doing business.” He concludes: “My guess is having a national bookstore chain to gripe about is preferable to the alternatives.”
Really? Well, one alternative could be hundreds more independent book stores promoting books not just because they happen to sell in large numbers, but because they happen to be good books, and thus making it potentially possible for more literary presses and Canadian authors to reach an audience. But Woods, like pretty much everyone directly involved in the publishing industry, has his hands tied when it comes to publicly telling it like it is. In many respects, Indigo is the only game in town and casts a long and dark shadow over the entire publishing industry. But don’t worry; it isn’t a huge corporate monopoly causing untold damage and making the business of writing and publishing in this country more difficult than it already was. As Woods says, Chapters/Indigo is our very own Canadian bookstore chain, a national treasure. With 30% off the latest by Stephanie Meyer and Danielle Steele.
When one takes a good hard look at the reality of our current book-selling business, one understands better why the government had to step in to encourage the enterprise of Canadian literature. How else were Canadian publishers and writers ever going to get a piece of the action? Under the protective wing of state funding via the Canada Council and sundry government programs, Canadian literature has been able to function safe from the consequences of that most basic of economic laws: supply and demand. There is a correspondingly high price to be paid for this protection of course, namely the “facade” I referred to earlier, the government-created illusion and all its necessary critical distortions. (Distortions, because when you attempt to manufacture a literature, you have to manufacture the myths and reputations that go with it.)
Not to mention all the time and effort devoted to the tasks of completing grant application forms, as well as working to stay in the good graces of those looming, powerful figures – people, mind you, of exquisite literary taste and judgement – the arts council bureaucrats. During my brief tenure as a managing editor at a small literary press, no assignment was more pressure-laden or time consuming than the completion of our applications to the federal and provincial arts councils for grant moneys. Naturally the procedure is slightly less arduous for the individual writer and I know of authors who, far from finding the application process hazardous to their integrity, actually appear to enjoy it. If successful, there is satisfaction to be taken from being approved of by a jury of one’s peers. And it is comforting to embrace the idea that the state will always play a role in encouraging and making viable the enterprise of Canadian literature. But in truth, the government has little sympathy for what we do, and in many ways is our active enemy.
By way of illustration, consider the plight of the National Library of Canada. The one institution charged with the task of archiving the substance of our intellectual heritage – the letters, documents, rare books and collections which provide the literary links to our history – has also been the one government building left to contend, for decades, with ongoing water problems, problems so pervasive that by the government’s own admission, entire collections of Canadiana have been severely damaged. A 2001 report admitted that just since 1993 (the building was opened in 1967) over 25,000 items in National Library collections had been damaged by water. This is of course prior to the flood in 2008 when a burst pipe resulted in water leaking onto three separate floors of the library. While the construction in 1997 of the LAC Preservation Centre went a long way to improve this absurd situation, the original, leak-ridden building remains in service.
But in the last few years, something more insidious than rusted-out pipes, crumbling plaster or even subterranean mould growths has recently invaded the safe house of our collective history, this being the mandate of Library and Archives Canada to “modernize” the institution. As a result of this new directive, starting in 2009, the National Library no longer acquires books and rare documents from Canadian dealers, a practise fundamental to the library’s relevance and the maintenance of its holdings. According to Liam McGahern, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, the library has, for more than two years, “effectively stopped acquiring and preserving Canada’s historic print materials.” In a statement released last fall, McGahern went on to say that “important artifacts of Canada’s history and heritage . . . have likely been lost, many leaving Canada never to return.”
As part of its ongoing “modernization initiative,” Library and Archives Canada and the National Library are questioning the very nature of what they do. According to LAC’s own website, the “face of information has substantially changed” due to the onset of “overwhelming digital production.” Further, “considerations of sufficiency can introduce pragmatism to collecting efforts.” In government terms, LAC is “working to draft proposed orientation instruments and practices that will encompass a manageable and results-driven approach.” In real terms, this likely means the National Library will suffer diminished influence and an ever decreasing budget. By way of comparison, can anyone imagine the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian being undermined and abused in similar fashion?
Ultimately, our governments, while useful in the short term for grants of much-needed cash, are not the reliable allies of writers and publishers. The arts council funding which keeps things going is always uncertain from year to year, and increasingly under threat as Canadians elect right-wing governments which have about as much commitment to literary values as they do for preserving the habitat of the endangered northern cricket frog. Probably less. Witness the unfolding debacle in Toronto, Canada’s Mecca of literary publishing, where Mayor Rob Ford and his retinue of deep thinkers have taken over. No doubt Ford’s promised “gravy train” assault will hit funding for public libraries, the Toronto Arts Council, and the International Festival of Authors. If it hasn’t already.
According to a diverse panel of scientists who gathered at Oxford University this past April, humanity has roughly twenty years to take decisive action in order to avoid a wholesale collapse of the world’s oceans. A diverse range of threats, including rampant overfishing, rising sea temperatures, increasing ocean acidification due to air pollution (most carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans), and reduced oxygen content in the seas, are combining to make it increasingly likely the oceans will soon be incapable of supporting the diverse range of life which has thrived there and formed the basis of the food chain for millions of years.
The comparison is absurd of course, but we might also take a guess as to how long CanLit has to reverse the anti-literary trend in our schools and bookstores and protect other elements of our literary habitat before it finally loses all relevance to Canadian life. My bet would be something less than twenty years. In both situations, swift and bold action is required. And yet when talking to other writers, teachers, and editors, I rarely encounter a sense of urgency about the current situation. I find it difficult to think of another industry where the people involved display such indifference towards its sustainability. If the schools are not going to foster reading, and the bookstores are not going to encourage literary taste, and the state is not going to protect vital cultural institutions, just how do literary publishers and writers expect their enterprise to survive?
I have used the metaphor of environmental degradation and endangered species less to mirror the decline in the numbers of literary readers in Canada, and more to highlight the steep price to be paid for inaction, for doing nothing to address what, despite appearances and the general indifference of most, is a crisis of monumental proportions unfolding before us. Serious readers may soon be an endangered species, but unlike the black rhino or the blue whale, those of us with a passion for literature in this country, can, if we choose, take action to protect ourselves and our enterprise. At the very least, there is nothing preventing literary publishers from organizing campaigns to lobby governments, raise awareness, pressure our schools and universities, and, dare I say it, organize boycotts of our corporate enemies. There is nothing preventing us from finally getting angry and choosing to fight for our future.
Insofar as we don’t, insofar as our complacency allows us to tolerate anti-literary education, the takeover of the book trade by corporate hucksters, and the continuing erosion of the fundamental pillars of literary culture, how can anyone say we do not – unlike the disappearing aurora trout or the poor Vancouver Island marmot – deserve our fate?