I am scornful of this notion of “Can Lit”, a national literature that embodies Canada by reflecting its many cultures and locales, its history and unique character. I recall the comments of a visiting Irish film-maker who opined that Canada was the only country he could think of that puts a “points system” on its arts. You can bet that didn’t go over well with the gate-keepers and poobahs of Canadian culture.
That dingbat editor (now senior editor, God help us) who told me “it’s too bad you’re not an East Indian writer” also said, in relation to the same manuscript, “it seemed awfully American to me”, without ever clearly articulating what she meant. I suppose she took issue with the fact that I didn’t use Canadian place names or employ characters with obvious ethnic backgrounds (academia and the arts are the last stubborn bastions of the discredited ideologies of affirmative action and political correctness). My manuscript was too encumbered by, y’know, an actual story, a plot that moved along at a good clip. It went against the tradition of Canadian writing where nothing ever happens, whole forests denuded for narratives where passive verbs and even more passive characters are the norm, people moving about in a fuddled daze, not doing anything or saying anything of interest, two hundred and fifty pages of navel-gazing. Sounds like great beach reading, eh?
I recently finished Julian Symonds’ The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life & Works of Edgar Allan Poe and was delighted to learn that Poe thought the notion of a national literature to be complete humbug too. Keep in mind these words were written 150 years ago (and feel free to substitute “Canadian” for “American” in the last line):
“We get up a hue and cry about the necessity of encouraging native writers of merit–we blindly fancy we can accomplish this by indiscriminate puffing of good, bad and indifferent, without taking the trouble to consider that what we choose to denominate encouragement is thus, by its general application, rendered precisely the reverse. In a word, so far from being ashamed of the many disgraceful literary failures to which our own inordinate vanities and misapplied patriotism have lately given birth, and so far from deeply lamenting that these daily puerilities are of home manufacture, we adhere pertinaciously to our original blindly conceived idea, and thus often find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.”
Okay, here’s the situation:
You know I don’t like publishers, I’ve pulled no punches on that front. You’ve read the blog, maybe zipped over to my Redroom author site, seen what I have to say there. A lot of it isn’t nice but all of it is true.
Some people don’t like that. One publisher has gone so far as to have their legal beagles contact the Redroom administrators and threaten them into removing one of my posts. They didn’t like it when I quoted one of their editors; they thought the quote made her look bad.
What did she say exactly?
About eight years ago, I was shopping around a novel of mine called Lost. I sent out copies of the manuscript to a couple of dozen publishers and got nowhere. After holding on to Lost for more than a year, this editor finally took it upon herself to call (guilty conscience?) and give me the bad news. I held the phone out so my wife could listen in on the conversation and we both heard this editor quip, right after saying thanks but no thanks:
“It’s too bad you’re not an East Indian writer, they’re really hot right now.” Those exact words. Sherron said I turned pale when I heard that.
“You mean that would make a difference if you were considering my novel?” I inquired, trying to stay calm and measured, despite the fact I was seething.
She quickly realized what a ridiculous statement she had uttered and tried to backtrack. “Um, actually forget I said that.”
She hung up soon afterward.
I reported this conversation in a short blog entry on Redroom a couple of days ago, naming the editor and the publisher.
That’s when the shit hit the fan.
The publisher’s lawyer contacted Redroom, who immediately yanked the post. Redroom’s legal representative then e-mailed me, informing me what they’d done.
My response was: where’s the actionable offense? I related what she said, literally word for word and even if worst came to worst and the publisher did sue, it would be the editor’s word against me (and my wife). But clearly the Redroom folks were nervous.
I’m not blaming them; we live in litigious times. And sometimes the threat of litigation is used to stymie free expression and intimidate people from telling the truth. This is a perfect example. And because the publisher has far deeper pockets than either Redroom or I, they can get away with shitting on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to protect an editor who made a dumb and telling statement that, let’s face it, reveals attitudes that are endemic in Canadian publishing.
Let me ask you something: if those sentiments had been uttered toward a writer who happened to be a visible minority, what do you think would have been the result?
“It’s too bad you’re not a Caucasian writer, they’re really hot right now.”
Can you imagine the explosion of outrage, the howls of “Racism!” that would have bounced from coast to coast to coast?
But it’s okay to say such things to someone like me, Mister white, middle-aged male.
So if you pop by Redroom, looking for the original post, good luck–you won’t find it.
The publisher and their lawyers have closed ranks and they know neither Redroom nor I has the resources to fight them. The rich and powerful win again and anyone who steps out of line, anyone who calls them on their stupidity and dishonesty will pay the price.
It’s an object lesson in power.
One I won’t soon forget.
A tip of the hat to Mediabistro for printing excerpts of my most inflammatory statements re: publishers (you think there was a connection between that and the arrival of the Men in Black?).
Their staff writer opined that thanks to such statements I was burning my bridges–unaware that those bridges had been burned long ago, thanks to conversations like the one I quoted above and nearly a quarter century of dealing with publishers, editors and agents on all levels.
One thing I do take issue with–I’ve had hundreds of downloads of my novel So Dark the Night and when I said that in Canada hundreds of downloads in a month represented a bestseller, she scoffed. Not the same thing as a book sold.
Why not? In order to read So Dark the Night someone has to go to the effort of finding my site, clicking on the novel and either saving it to their hard drive or printing almost 470 pages. That shows real interest and commitment on the part of those readers, just as much interest as if they’d walked into a physical store and bought the book.
She’s selling my novel short and casting aspersions on the credibility of e-books in general. Dead tree editions aren’t the sole criteria here. Hundreds of people around the world are reading So Dark the Night. Does it matter if it only exists in virtual form? Not to my readers.
And, in the end, they’re the ones who really count.