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Why Canadian Novels Aren’t Selling Anymore

One of the smaller crises dogging the traumatized Canadian publishing industry is that sales of Canadian literary fiction have dropped off over the last two or three years in a depressingly precipitous and mysterious way. Sales of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, for instance, have been much weaker than expected after the success of The English Patient. Some sources report they’re a fraction of the pre-movie sales of TEP, although M&S head Doug Gibson says otherwise. Whatever the truth is, it is safe to say that the sales of other titles by the major publisher’s flock of bright young urbanite novelists are similarly dismal. The brightest recent lites they’ve had are Andrew Piper’s Lost Girls and the Oprah-induced recycling of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. With Mistry, the main impact has been in the U.S. market because most literate Canadians already have the hefty hardcover edition of that title jammed under a door to keep the drafty breezes of cultural capitalism from driving them from their pernicious habit of sitting in comfortable chairs trying to improve their minds—and out into the malls where they can have the sorts of thrilling but educationally empty retail experiences that’ll turn around the current, um, economic recession…

(He takes a deep breath, feels like Nino Ricci must after a similarly long sentence, pauses until his heart-rate returns to normal.)

A conversation I had recently with one of the country’s more unorthodox editors—who doesn’t wish to be named—offers a fascinating theory about why the sales fall-off has occurred, along with a possible solution. He 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 Michael’s Fugitive Pieces.

Ondaatje’s commercial success with The English Patient–long overdue for Ondaatje in my opinion—has been a cause for no-carp celebration in Canada, partly because Ondaatje is a uniquely-gifted writer and partly because he’s a genuinely decent and unpretentious man. The success of Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces is more open to debate. It can be argued that her novel was a case of an author cynically tapping a market for tertiary guilt and hitting the jackpot. But what is much more important than picking on Michaels is establishing that both her novel and Ondaatje’s are not exactly what we’d call smooth reads. They are, for lack of a more precise term, poetically framed works that render abstract aesthetic experiences more easily than the informational kind, which is to say, they’re more likely to convince readers of the beauty of the author’s philoprogenitive abilities than of the timeliness or precision of the intellectual propositions they make. It is also fair comment to say that neither novel generates much laughter. Ondaatje’s wit with dialogue occasionally provokes a smile, but Michaels’ portentously earnest prose and subject matter positively prohibit merriment of any sort.

I’m going to stop short of doing any serious hacking at the texts of these books, because I’m pretty sure what I’m about to suggest is already clear to most readers, even if it is uncomfortable to consider. So here it is: both novels are consciously “literary” in their conception, construction and intention. As a result, the power sources and attentional focus in both novels is the poetical pyrotechnics of the language used rather than the plot or the informational action. The English Patient manages to be a readable novel because Ondaatje is an extraordinary poet and a serviceable plot mechanic, even when he’s making the sorts of mistakes about hot weather medical transport over rough terrain that offshore critics of the movie had so much fun with. But Michaels, before this book, was nothing much: a skilled if overly conventional Canadian poet, and there are thousands of those. I’ve had trouble finding readers, even among those who defend her loyally, who got through the entire book, and none who didn’t mention the beauty of her language before they recalled that the subject field of the book was the Holocaust. At a certain point in its commercial trajectory, it became enough to spare the brain and simply have Fugitive Pieces on the coffee table.

What my disaffected editor told me that is of interest here is that the entire Canadian novel-publishing sub-sector bought into the Ondaatje/Michaels model a few years back, and that the reason for the drop in novel sales is because nearly all of the novels now being published are literary and plot opaque; plot-free and hard to read; excessively literary and self-reflexive; dull, boring, and incomprehensible (choose appropriate phrase now).

Such novels, regardless of how one chooses to characterize them, draw the attention of readers not to the subject matter but to the ideaof literature, or to the issue of the relative virtuosity of the author’s language. These may be issues of profound cultural interest in the abstract, but it is blowing serious volumes of smoke up our posteriors to think that any more than about 500 of the 900 or so people Rick Salutin once said make up Canadian culture give a damn about these things. It’s similarly foolish to imagine that any more than a few hundred of the several thousand tenured and wanting-to-be-tenured folks paid by the universities to process literature with arbitrary intellectual contraptions care either. (Both groups tend to wait for free desk copies, so from a sales point of view, what they think never matters anyway).

A much larger segment of Canada’s population—200,000 to 500,000 people on a sunny day, are interested in having a good, informative read that isn’t an insult to their cultural sensibilities or their native intelligence. They want, my editor/friend believes, to read novels that are about something, and they don’t want to be bullied and suffocated by an onslaught of lilac, purple or cinnamon-scented prose. It’s an exaggeration to suggest that this means they want novels that run closer to Alex Haley or James Michener—or to Scott Young—than to Anne Michaels, but if it’s true, so be it. They also, he believes, want the novels they sit down with to be a little more fun than they’re currently getting from the deadly-earnest, self-involved literary novels currently languishing on Canada’s bookstore shelves.

Makes sense to me.

945 w. Uploaded February 7, 2002

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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