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SELLING CANADIAN NOVELS: WHO CARES?

Writing in this space recently (Feb. 7, 2002, "Why Canadian Novels Aren’t Selling Anymore"), Brian Fawcett notes that there’s been a recent drop-off in CanLit consumption. He mentions, as an example, the slower sales of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost compared to the same author’s previous Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, which apparently sold like hotcakes, even before it was turned into an Academy Award-winning movie.

Fawcett cites an unnamed editor friend of his who "believes the problem has to do with the kind of novel Canadian publishers have taken, en masse, to publishing in the wake of the two glamourous successes of the last decade, Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces." Although such novels might hit paydirt once, using them as a publishing model, Fawcett suggests, is a mistake. The problem with them is that they’re "literary" novels, more focused on the "pyrotechnics of language" than plot or "informative action."

Nowadays, Fawcett and his editor friend argue, nearly all of the Canadian novels being published "are literary and plot opaque; plot-free and hard to read; excessively literary and self-reflexive; dull, boring and incomprehensible." Fawcett invites his column readers to pick the preferred phrase of their choice. He reckons that the 200,000 to a half-million readers in Canada "who are interested in having a good, informative read that isn’t an insult" to their sensibilities or intelligence are being slighted by the current policy. Fawcett admits that it’s "an exaggeration to suggest that this means they want novels that run closer to Alex Haley or James Michener than to Anne Michaels, but if it’s true, so be it." By the way, I think Fawcett really means Tom Wolfe, of Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full renown, but let it go.

Although Fawcett is prompt to concede that this is only a "minor crisis" besetting the already traumatized Canadian publishing industry, I found myself wondering, as a (Canadian) writer, if I should much care about the selling of CanLit. Naturally, I’m aware that the literal answer to the question, Who cares about the selling of Canadian literary fiction? is a) Canadian publishers, b) Canadian booksellers, c) Canadian writers of literary fiction, and d) those two hundred thousand to half-a-million readers of CanLit. While I count myself occasionally only in the last category, I also recognize that the condition of what used to be called the "serious, middlebrow" novel does have something to do, in the broadest sense, with the "state of mind" of the Canadian public and, thus, is a reasonable political, social, and cultural issue.

When I’m in a citizenly mood, I’m prepared to find the issue of selling Canadian literary fiction a mildly interesting problem. But I’m not often in a citizenly, much less a bean-counting, mood when it comes to literature. My urge is to complicate the problem a little in order to make it more interesting. Here’s the way I see the literary landscape.

There are all kinds of writing, in and out of the marketplace–and the marketplace doesn’t, in the end, have much to do with literature. First, at least in the eyes of entertainment producers and consumers, there’s the superpop novel: that means Stephen King, John Grisham, and the dozen other names I saw on The New York Times bestseller list yesterday. Just the other day, while on a longish bus ride between Bangkok, Thailand and Angkor Wat, Cambodia, I had an interesting conversation with a couple of Londoners about the respective merits of King and Grisham. Though the guy had passed on one of Grisham’s recent efforts to his woman friend as something to read on the bus when not gazing at dust-covered farming villages in western Kampuchea, he wondered aloud at why Grisham was such a big success given that, in this fellow’s opinion, he wrote rather poorly compared to King. No quarrel there. I readily admitted that King both wrote grippingly and really knew his market. We didn’t say much about whether King, Grisham, et al had anything in particular to say, but clearly that isn’t a burning question for readers of such books including, occasionally, myself.

Then there’s the pop novel. That’s Tom Wolfe and, in a previous, more placid generation (i.e., one with less cocaine up its nose), James Michener. I suppose this category might include such popular crime writers as the currently best-selling Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, both wonderfully competent and entertaining writers of their kind. And I think it’s fair to say that all of these writers have something to say. Wolfe, in particular, imagines himself to be offering something of a Dickensian critique of contemporary life. Whether he’s right is arguable, but he certainly offers lots of informative, if creepy, action.

Third, in my hastily jerryrigged classificatory scheme, there’s serious, middlebrow, literary fiction. This year’s golden-haired storyteller is Jonathan Franzen, and his novel, The Corrections, whose sales were dented a bit when Franzen declined TV star Oprah Winfrey’s offer to put her imprimatur on his book, has remained on the NYT bestseller list for the past half-year. In Canada, such writing means, pre-eminently, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Tim Findley, Carol Shields, Ondaatje and a handful of others. I think that Munro is probably the best of this group of talented and competent scribes.

As it happens, I recently read Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, his novel about the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war, a work that gains in timeliness given the current peace negotiations there. I’d read a few pages of Ondaatje’s earlier English Patient, couldn’t get into it, and then made the mistake of trying to shortcut the book by seeing the movie. The movie had been script-doctored to give it the kind of plottedness that Fawcett or his editor friend recommend for middlebrow fiction, and the Hollywood people managed to turn it into Gone With the Wind, Part 56. I got into it, but I couldn’t wait to get out of it (I think I escaped the movie theatre before the yellow bi-plane crashed for the umptieth time).

Anil’s Ghost, which I read beginning to end, if a bit slowly, is probably not a great book, but it’s certainly about something of human and historical interest, and struck me as a decent-enough effort (and I don’t mean that in a condescending way). I doubt that its sales figures have much to do with anything other than the balance in Ondaatje’s bank account.

Finally, there’s literature. Literature–and I here offer an intentionally frustrating definition–is any writing that’s really interesting. If I wasn’t in short-winded column mode, I’d offer a brief disquisition here on the various functions of the novel and other writing in terms of history, since literature, though enduring, is not an idealistic eternality but an historical entity through and through. But to keep matters within bounds, we can say literature runs from Bernhard Schlink’s pop middlebrow novel, The Reader, to James Joyce’s great "folly," Finnegans Wake. Any book from any of the above categories might be literature, but so are a lot of books that aren’t fiction (or even serious, literary fiction). The possible listing is almost inexhaustible: I name John Berger’s Photocopies, Czeslaw Milosz’s Roadside Dog, Jorge Semprun’s Life or Literature, Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest, V.S. Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable, Fawcett’s Cambodia, and Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem just to give a rough idea of what I’m talking about. You can even turn it into a game: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is literature, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings isn’t.

When it comes to writing, I think "literature" is the only thing worth caring about. The state of a national literary fiction is a reasonable thing to worry about in a citizenly frame of mind, and entertainment is not at all to be sneered at, except insofar as it displaces art. Whether or not Canadian publishers get their writing stables to jack up the plot wattage of serious fiction seems to me a very minor matter. The unreadable, plot-opaque, excessively-punning Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, seems to me to be worth caring about a good deal. Merely a matter of taste? Or perhaps a matter of caring about the abyss more than the mere crowded emptiness of Chapters/Indigo.

Bangkok, Feb. 20, 2002 1328 w.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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