CanLit, buffering

Columns

By Ben Wood

In Elaine Dewar’s CanLit whodunit (or, more accurately, howdunit), The Handover, she describes the sale of McClelland & Stewart to Random House, which is owned by the German multinational Bertelsmann, as the “slow, secret murder of Canada’s nationalist publishing policy.”

What is Canada’s nationalist publishing policy? An amalgam of departmental mandates of various government offices, funding agreements, grants to artists, writers, publishers and laws governing behaviour of the industry.

And what is this better known as? CanLit, of course.

Though its name suggests an innocent descriptive, geo-literary meaning (literature written by, and maybe about, Canadians), and is often used as so, there should be no mistaking the CanLit policy package for all its prescriptive intent: as an effort to produce a nationalist culture in a country, as Dewar notes, whose “curious lack of identity was due to the absence of cultural mirrors.”

The history of how the current publishing policy came to be is an interesting one, and Dewar provides a succinct history in her book. She cites two interesting reasons for its generative force. First, a government project of cultural nationalism was seen to calm English-speaking Canadians’ anxiety about Quebec separatism. During the late sixties when the CanLit project was picking up steam, the sovereigntist movement was also gaining currency and challenging the federalist vision of Canada. Then, as always, government felt pressured to answer the question we’re still asking: What does it mean to be a Canadian? The second reason was that this project could counter the imperialist tendencies of American and British cultural exports, whose writers and ideas and histories we knew better than our own.

Between the late sixties and the present day, you can find many examples of CanLit’s success. But there were problems well before the sale of M&C and there would be problems after it, too. The death knell of CanLit is a sound familiar to Canadians. The free-market ideology of no walls and no society that surged throughout the ’80s set in its sights Canada’s project of cultural nationalism. A hangover from its socialist past, the CanLit project seemed in danger. But it didn’t die.

With the birth of Amazon in the next decade and the dotcom boom that followed, the CanLit community linked arms and locked knees as it braced for impact with the homogenizing force of the Internet that sought to obliterate the national boundaries CanLit was founded to reinforce. It suffered a few serious blows but still didn’t die.

Years after the M&C sale, with changing reading habits and plummeting sales of Canadian titles by Canadian publishers, Random House merged with Penguin, and the new Leviathan stood tall in a publishing landscape dotted with the stumps of former giants and bankruptcy papers of independent publishers across the country.

If still alive, is it accurate to say that during these moments the project of cultural nationalism was dying? Instead, we can view these interregnums, in which the future of the CanLit project was in doubt, as moments of buffering, testing our resolve to stay with the program as the next chapter of CanLit was loading.

Why then, for Dewar, does the M&C sale represent the death of Canada’s nationalist publishing policy and, quite possibly, the CanLit project of cultural nationalism?

According to Dewar, the sale of the Canadian-owned M&C to the German-owned Random House was devastating to this policy because it occurred despite all the rules in place to prevent such a thing from happening. The rule in this case? The Investment Canada Act, which forbids the sale of a Canadian-owned publishing company to a foreign entity without the approval of the government. In her book, Dewar recounts a divestment and sales scheme involving Avi Bennett, then owner of M&C, the University of Toronto and Random House, which circumvented the Investment Canada Act and sold a Canadian-owned publishing company to a foreign entity. The story she tells is fascinating, satisfying industry insiders and policy wonks alike, and one you should definitely read, but what’s also interesting is the state of cultural policy into which her book was published.

Because, we’re in another moment of buffering, in a post-M&C sale world in which the future of CanLit and cultural nationalism seems in doubt.

Much has already been made of Justin Trudeau’s claim in The New York Times Magazine that Canada is a post-national state. But I’ll make some more of it here, specifically in light of the proposed overhaul of Canada’s cultural policy under Trudeau’s Liberal government.

The Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, who is leading the overhaul, hasn’t revealed much, if anything, about what to expect. But she has said that “everything is on the table.”

So, what can Canada’s book publishers expect? Was the M&C sale a harbinger of the death of cultural nationalism?

It would seem that the government understands (and rightfully so) that the financial support of the cultural industries is sine qua non. The near-$2 billion investment is the largest culture has seen in some time. So, the money is there. But where is it going?

An advisory committee of cultural policy experts was announced last year and met with Joly over the following months to advise on the topic of “Canadian content creation, discovery and export in a digital world.” As noted in Quill & Quire, the committee did not include anyone from the book publishing industry. While book publishing is a minnow compared to the film and television industries, it’s a pillar of the CanLit project.

Perhaps the exclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise when the mandate of the committee was to discuss culture in a digital world. eBooks never really monopolized the market the way it was predicted. The book-publishing industry is a guest in the digital world, only there to advertise and facilitate sales. But not to house their work. Digital favours video, images, graphics. I’ll read an essay online, but books are to be enjoyed, and I don’t enjoy staring at a screen for 400 pages. (It’s also worth remembering that video is far more advertiser-friendly than it is viewer-friendly or reader-friendly — remember readers? An ad can delay your viewing of a video in a way that banner or sidebar ads can’t interrupt your reading of an article.)

Still, Joly hasn’t given the industry many other clues. But the focus on export is interesting and certainly aligns with the Liberal’s efforts to bolster Canada’s reputation abroad. Maybe, after this period of buffering, the CanLit project will be forced to look out instead of always looking in?

If CanLit 1.0 was a nationalist project during post-war internationalism, then can we assume that CanLit 2.0 (or is it 3.0, 4.0 or 5.0 by this point?) will be an internationalist project at a time when populist nationalism has come back in vogue? If so, this shift in focus from insularity to a recognition of wider cultural communities could remedy the outmoded nationalist language we use to talk about Canadian literature.

To be sure, the financial commitment to Canadian culture industries is crucial. The nationalist policies associated with the CanLit project are responsible for the survival of most of the cultural print industry—books, magazines, publishers. Beyond providing a platform for Canadian writers, many people’s livelihoods, including my own, come from this industry. So, if we bailout the aerocraft industry to protect jobs in companies that struggle to turn a profit then we should do the same for Canada’s cultural industries.

But the naval-gazing of CanLit, the forced recognition of our peers, the blinders we put on when discussing Canadian literature—all of this suggests that Canadian writers—sorry, content creators—work in a vacuum, as if we’re ineligible to participate in wider cultural exchanges of ideas. We ask writers, who are your influences, only to abruptly clarify, Canadian influences. And when we do look out, it’s only to ensure that we have a version of what others have produced. Raymond Carver? Oh, Canada has a Prairies version of him.

It’s like Toronto wanting to be Canada’s New York. Or, worse, Winnipeg’s claim to being the Chicago of the North.

Books are hashtagged #CanLit to distinguish them, to set them apart, not in a laudatory sense, mind you, but to impinge a moral obligation on the rest of us to read them, because they’re Canadian and if you don’t, then who will?

Here at The Winnipeg Review, we’ve discussed whether or not reviewers should be obligated to situate books within comparable works of Canadian literature. On the one hand, we should encourage people to read works produced here and do our part to trace literary lineages. But we also need to acknowledge that writers are widely influenced and that not all books are written in response to the work of Canadians coming before them. Sometimes we need to break the nationalist fourth wall and discuss a Canadian writer as in conversation with the work of her international peers.

Like all nationalist projects, the goal of CanLit was to construct and enforce an identity—the correspondence of which is never commensurate to the experiences of the people who are expected to perform such an identity. As we saw after Niedzviecki’s cultural-appropriation comments, writers are speaking out to clarify: that friendly, polite, humble, peaceful Canada? That collegial CanLit community? Yeah, that’s not my experience.

So, in this period of buffering, as we await the latest changes to the CanLit project, we can only guess whether the government’s new cultural policy will reflect their wider internationalist aims and put to bed the worst parts of cultural nationalism. Of course, to buffer is to load preexisting content, so maybe, watching the colour wheel spin, we wait and we wish for what we know won’t come to pass.

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From the Editor's Desk

Ben Wood


Ben Wood is a writer from Winnipeg and is an associate editor for The Winnipeg Review.