Producing Canadian Literature


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Producing Canadian Literature: Authors Speak on the Literary Marketplace brings to light the relationship between writers in Canada and the marketplace within which their work circulates. Through a series of conversations with both established and younger writers from across the country, Kit Dobson and Smaro Kamboureli investigate how writers perceive their relationship to the cultural economy—and what that economy means for their creative processes.

The interviews in Producing Canadian Literature focus, in particular, on how writers interact with the cultural institutions and bodies that surround them. Conversations pursue the impacts of arts funding on writers; show how agents, editors, and publishers affect writers’ works; examine the process of actually selling a book, both in Canada and abroad; and contemplate what literary awards mean to writers. Dialogues with Christian Bök, George Elliott Clarke, Daniel Heath Justice, Larissa Lai, Stephen Henighan, Roy Miki, Erín Moure, Ashok Mathur, Lee Maracle, Jane Urquhart, and Aritha van Herk testify to the broad range of experience that writers in Canada have when it comes to the conditions in which their work is produced.

Original in its desire to directly explore the specific circumstances in which writers work—and how those conditions affect their writing itself—Producing Canadian Literature will be of interest to scholars, students, aspiring writers, and readers who have followed these authors and want to know more about how their books come into being.



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Date de parution 15 juin 2013
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EAN13 9781554586400
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<_svg3a_svg viewbox="0 0 1068 1600"> <_svg3a_image
_xlink3a_href="../images/9781554583553.jpg" transform="translate(0 0)"
width="1068" height="1600">Producing Canadian LiteratureTransCanada Series
The study of Canadian literature can no longer take place in isolation from larger
external forces. Pressures of multiculturalism put emphasis upon discourses of
citizenship and security, while market-driven factors increasingly shape the
publication, dissemination, and reception of Canadian writing. The persistent
questioning of the Humanities has invited a rethinking of the disciplinary and
curricular structures within which the literature is taught, while the development of
area and diaspora studies has raised important questions about the tradition. The
goal of the TransCanada series is to publish forward-thinking critical interventions
that investigate these paradigm shifts in interdisciplinary ways.
Series editor:
Smaro Kamboureli, Canada Research Chair in Critical Studies in Canadian
Literature, School of English and Theatre Studies and Director, TransCanada
Institute, University of Guelph
For more information, please contact:
Smaro Kamboureli
Professor, Canada Research Chair in Critical Studies in Canadian Literature
School of English and Theatre Studies
Director, TransCanada Institute
University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, ON N1G 2W1
Phone: 519-824-4120 ext. 53251
Lisa Quinn
Acquisitions Editor
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
75 University Avenue West
Waterloo, ON N2L 3C5
Phone: 519-884-0710 ext. 2843
Fax: 519-725-1399
Email: quinn@press.wlu.caProducing Canadian Literature
Authors Speak on the Literary Marketplace
Kit Dobson and Smaro KamboureliWilfrid Laurier University Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for
the Arts for our publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the
Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Dobson, Kit, 1979–
Producing Canadian literature : authors speak on the literary marketplace / Kit
and Smaro Kamboureli.
(TransCanada series)
Includes bibliographical references.
Issued also in electronic format.
ISBN 978-1-55458-355-3
1. Economics and literature. 2. Authors and publishers—Canada. 3. Canadian
literature—Publishing. 4. Booksellers and bookselling—Canada. 5. Government aid
literature—Canada. 6. Authorship. 7. Authors, Canadian—Interviews. I. Kamboureli,
II. Title. III. Series: TransCanada series
PN151.D63 2013 070.5’2 C2012-907186-2

Electronic monograph in multiple formats.
Issued also in print format.
ISBN 978-1-55458-639-4 (PDF).—ISBN 978-1-55458-640-0 (EPUB)
1. Economics and literature. 2. Authors and publishers—Canada. 3. Canadian
literature—Publishing. 4. Booksellers and bookselling—Canada. 5. Government aid
literature—Canada. 6. Authorship. 7. Authors, Canadian—Interviews. I. Kamboureli,
II. Title. III. Series: TransCanada series (Online)
PN151.D63 2013 070.5’2 C2012-907187-0
Cover design and text design by Blakeley Words+Pictures. Front cover image
courtesy of LEM (
© 2013 Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
This book is printed on FSC recycled paper and is certified Ecologo. It is made from
100% post-consumer fibre, processed chlorine free, and manufactured using biogas
energy.Printed in Canada
Every reasonable effort has been made to acquire permission for copyright material
used in this text, and to acknowledge all such indebtedness accurately. Any errors
and omissions called to the publisher’s attention will be corrected in future printings.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the
publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access
Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit or
call toll free to 1-800-893-5777.C o n t e n t s
Foreword: Producing a Globalized Canadian Literature and Its Communities
Jeff Derksen
Kit Dobson
1. Too Bloody-Minded to Give Up: Interview with Christian Bök
Kit Dobson
2. The Politics of Our Work: Interview with Ashok Mathur
Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson
3. Change the Way Canada Sees Us: Interview with Lee Maracle
Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson
4. A Very, Very Uncertain Way to Make a Living: Interview with Jane Urquhart
Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson
5. To Hear This Different Story: Interview with Daniel Heath Justice
Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson
6. Crossing Borders with Our Work: Interview with Erín Moure
Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson
7. No Reason to Fool Yourself: Interview with Aritha van Herk
Kit Dobson
8. Literature Survives through Its Variety: Interview with Stephen Henighan
Kit Dobson
9. Under Conditions of Restraint: Interview with Larissa Lai
Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson
10. A Book of Poetry in the Mix: Interview with George Elliott Clarke
Smaro Kamboureli and Kit Dobson
Appendix: Timeline of Canadian Cultural Bodies since the Massey Commission
Producing a Globalized Canadian Literature
and Its Communities
Jeff Derksen
The small modernist library in New Westminster, B.C., opened in the year that I was
born. Its architecture, a modest variation on the International Style, and its open
floorplan with a mezzanine, reflected the way in which culture was being brought
into the Canadian public sphere, and signalled the centrality of print culture within
the shaping of a national imagination. Around the centenary of 1967, all of the
books produced by Canadian authors, which had previously sat discreetly on the
shelves, suddenly grew a red maple leaf on their spine: as their number increased,
the library became autumnal with CanLit. I worked my way, from left to right, across
the shelves of the library, reading whatever red-leafed book lay in my route, an
education drawn from the combination of architectural space and the library’s
cataloguing system. Sometimes I’d be pulled in by a particular author, and my
brother and I would take out all of their books and swap them back and forth,
coordinating our reading tempo. Sometimes the very strangeness of the language
and of the world a book depicted kept me hooked. I still recall the cool prose and
the fascinating alienating effect of John Metcalfe’s prose, and Alice Munro’s short
stories—so tied down and domestic in comparison to our working-class lives! Even
the rock-hard lives of George Ryga’s northern Alberta farmers and desk clerks felt
more recognizable, even on the rainy coast. Occasionally, I would stumble on a
book that made the local unfamiliar as well, such as George Bowering’s Flycatcher
& Other Stories—this other world of Bowering’s Vancouver was a mere hour away.
Rather than being nostalgic, I now look back at that moment, concretized so
nicely in the architecture, not as a period when the contradictions of the state were
hidden within a welcoming cultural nationalism, but as a moment when one’s
relationship to Canadian literature was mediated more by public institutions than by
the forces we now rather casually generalize as “the market.” Decades of strong
literary criticism and cultural studies have done a good job of overturning the
exclusions and distortions of Canadian life and history that the ordered modernist
shelves of my public library contained. Were there any First Nations authors who
crossed my reading route? I certainly read about them, but was there anything by
them? Did I get a sense of the nearness of Hogan’s Alley, the black community’s
neighbourhood, even as it was being razed? Our collective criticism worked hard to
make what was hidden visible, and to challenge the categories that produced such
invisibility. So, while we can easily see the shifts in the way we consume literature
today—online sales and near-monopoly bookstores are the most obvious—what is
perhaps more difficult to perceive is the new set of mediations and possibilities
within which Canadian authors produce their work. The subtle or even glaring
structures that Canadian authors must negotiate in the conception and production of
their work are very different than they were at the apex of the cultural nationalism
project, and even very different than they were five years ago.
This collection of interviews with Canadian writers covers a vibrant range of
aesthetic approaches and gives us a sense of the literary terrain and thecomplexities of being a writer in Canada today, and it also brings to light the
astonishing set of forces that shape the literature even before it reaches a public.
Through these extended conversations Kit Dobson and Smaro Kamboureli not only
provide us with a map of the current state of publishing and distribution in Canada,
but they also reveal to us how the globalized geography of Canadian literature cuts
across some of our steadfastly held notions of a national literature, as well as the
ways in which this mediation of the cultural and the economic, globalization and the
nation, affects the production of literature at the level of literary form, literary
communities, and even authors’ lives. In fact, these interviews are remarkable in
that they give readers and students of Canadian literature a glimpse at the way in
which an evolving set of conditions and considerations shapes Canadian literature
at the moment of its creation as well as through every aspect of its circulation and
The history of making culture in Canada is also the history of making and
troubling the cultural imaginations of the nation itself, and, as these interviews step
up to show us, at the present moment we stand at a nexus where our previous
narratives about national cultures, multiculturalism, the role of the state, and the
possibilities of culture have been simultaneously expanded and fragmented. The
distance that a national, state-shaped notion of culture has travelled in Canada—
from the 1949–1951 Royal Commission on Arts, Letters, and Sciences, through the
euphoria of 1967 (and Expo 67 marking Canada in the world system), to the North
American Free Trade Agreement, to our present neoliberal moment that sees the
state turn against the idea of the nation and culture and in favour of “creativity” as a
brand—has indeed been great. That library in New Westminster has been spared
“redevelopment,” but the cultural landscape around it is fundamentally different.
The most obvious shift is that today Canadian literature is pulled up into the
global market through an imperative that previously was not as intense or
pervasive. This pull of globalization does not alter the fact that literature is still
funded by nationally based agencies, is still read by audiences who may strongly
identify themselves through their national affiliations and diasporic communities,
and is still very place-based, drawing on the particularities of a region, a city, or
even a neighbourhood. Novels that bring forward the history of places and
communities and even the most experimental of the literature produced in Canada
can be understood to varying degrees as place-based and tied into an aesthetic
history that is deeply entwined with the unfolding of artistic possibilities within cities
and particular constellations and communities of writers.
It is tempting to understand this tension of place, nation, community, and market
as part of the globalization of culture in which the global and the local take shape in
relation to the national. But within Canadian literature we also have to consider the
history of urban-rural divides, as well as our colonial history and the colonizing
tendencies of the nation in general, lest we relegate this tendency to the past.
Literary sociologist Sarah Corse observed more than a decade ago that “[T]he
historical conditions of Canada’s founding have continued to subvert both the
development of a national canon and the nationalist project more generally,” and for
Corse these conditions were the challenges embedded in the bi-national framework
(37). If Canadian literary history tried to smooth out the complications of the cultural
geography of Canada—seeing space and identities as processes that called for
assimilation—today the geography of any cultural project that began at the national
level, as Canada’s did, has now become entangled across many scales and places.The significant challenges that the critique of official multiculturalism brought to a
nationalist project have made the terrain for a literary imagination (both official
imaginations and more unruly ones) today more complex. As Roy Miki describes it
for our Canadian context, “the demise of identity politics in the wake of globalization
brought with it a silence that was not filled by a return to the good old days of the
nation. The narrative of the nation has already moved elsewhere, i.e., had
unravelled and as a consequence the links between place (as territory) and identity
(as stable Canadianness) were also disarticulated in the process” (91). Why it is not
the good old days of a Canadian nationalism, as Miki ironically calls it, is because
there has been another disarticulation, another unravelling—the relationship of state
to the nation. So used are we to the joining of the nation-state that it is easy to miss
the antagonism that sometimes exists as the state seemingly takes apart the project
of the nation—both in the name of the nation and for the market. It was much easier
to imagine previously that the state, with all of its commissions, councils, and
programs, was building a particular type of nation, but today we more often see
cultural and economic decisions made for the good of the market. The fate of the
CBC may very well lie in this dynamic, in which the nation must be “saved” from a
deficit by having its national cultural infrastructure pulled away, which would
inevitably shift the CBC to a market model. So, if the nation has moved elsewhere, it
has done so through some strong pushes from the state; and culture has followed.
What we used to think of—and critique—as the role of the state in culture, and the
construction of a public sphere where culture was to shape a national imagination,
has now been refigured around a public–private partnership that is unmoored from
many of our modernist assumptions of a particular multicultural and yet national
culture, with culture having been aligned more closely with economic rationales.
These interviews focus on what we could call the political economy of producing
Canadian literature because they extend the narrative of making culture into a
moment when the relationship among the nation, its funding agencies, and the
marketing of culture is both particularly fraught and curiously undetermined. But
these interviews show us exactly how these sometimes mysterious and often
immaterial forces and inflections shape every aspect of literary production in
Canada—and how they shape the communities that writers build and the way in
which writers make their livings. However, out of these new conditions, it is striking
how many authors point to new potent possibilities. Erín Moure, in her engaging and
often hilarious interview, identifies a vital flow of global thought by pointing out that
“Canadian translators bring us the world” at the same time as she rightly points out
that the structuring of the funding for and publishing of translations blocks a wide
range of languages—for example, Galician—from making it into our literature and
expanding it in that manner. But Moure also brings alternative modes of production
and emergent networks of circulation to the foreground. She hopefully speculates
that these networks and modes of production could loop back to inform and alter our
publishing and granting policies. Daniel Heath Justice argues that “there are specific
stories expected of [Native] writers” that “tell a particular tragic story of about Native
people,” yet he also points out that smaller presses are publishing work that actively
challenges “a lot of expectations about what is Native.” And Ashok Mathur finds that
smaller presses can eschew a market-driven notion of “quality” yet still use
circulation within the market to make certain types of work visible in the crowded
literary landscape. Internally multiple, and spatially expanded, Canadian literature
enters into the twenty-first century dynamically because of this relationship ofproduction, critique, and circulation that these authors outline. What is truly
optimistic—truly productive—in these interviews is the way in which the lived
practice of writing, of producing a literature, outstrips its own determinants, first by
recognizing them and second by writing beyond them. Producing Canadian
Literature gives us a very dynamic sense both of what production is and of the way
in which culture remains a site of contestation, antagonism, community, and
possibility.A c k n o w l e d g e m e n t s
This book has taken quite a while to come to fruition, and during this time we have
accrued a lot of debts that we are happy to acknowledge here.
Our warmest thanks, first and foremost, go to all the authors who agreed to be
interviewed, and who were so generous with their time and thoughts on the issues
we wanted to explore in this project; these authors include not only those featured
here but also Warren Cariou, Karen Connelly, Hiromi Goto, and Roy Miki, whose
interviews we were not able to include in the book for reasons of length. We plan for
their interviews, along with the unabridged versions of those included in this book,
to eventually appear on the TransCanada Institute’s website
Conducting interviews, transcribing them, editing them, and re-editing them—all
of this involves huge amounts of time and different kinds of intensive labour. This
project would not have materialized without the support we received by the able
hands and ears of our transcribers and research assistants: Mark Andrade, Jorgen
Baker, Chantelle Burgess, Elias Fahssi, Sarah Henzi, Asha Jeffers, Claudia
Kambourelis, Nathan Kelly, Marcelle Kosman, Phoebe Lusk, Mollie McDuffe,
Hannah McGregor, Lillian Nolan, Kristina Ottosen, Jamie Witham, and Rob
We also gratefully acknowledge the agencies that have made it possible for us to
pursue this joint research project and the various stages of production that led to
this book: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral
Fellowship that Kit held at TransCanada Institute, University of Guelph; the Killam
Trusts Postdoctoral Fellowship that he held at Dalhousie University; an Internal
Research Grant that he received from Mount Royal University; the Canada Council
that brought some of the authors interviewed to the TransCanada Institute; and the
Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Canada Research Chairs Program that
have allowed Smaro to create the TransCanada Institute at the University of Guelph
to pursue this, among other, projects.
Kit Dobson and Smaro Kamboureli
Calgary – Toronto, 2012I n t r o d u c t i o n
Kit Dobson
What does it take to produce literature in Canada? The interviews collected in
Producing Canadian Literature are designed to increase the depth and visibility of
the ongoing conversations about what it means to write in Canada, and, specifically,
how writers go about doing so. These dialogues will be of interest to readers of
Canadian literature, to aspiring, emerging, or established writers, as well as to
students and researchers of literature. It is not a “typical” book of interviews, in that
it does not concern itself particularly with the books that writers read, or with the
places from which they take their inspiration, or with the contents of their writing.
Instead, it is concerned with the material world in which writers find themselves.
Book publishing, in all of its facets, is a business; in fact, it is a series of interlinked
businesses. Book writing, on the other hand, is generally conceived of as an art
form. Business and art frequently make for uncomfortable bedfellows. Writers, who
may have begun writing from a desire to communicate with an audience or to
express themselves, have to negotiate a very complex marketplace in order to see
their works get into the hands of readers. The interface between writers and the
market, the site where those concerns of art and business intersect and negotiate
with one another, was what Smaro Kamboureli and I set out to explore by
conducting this series of interviews. We decided to take our questions directly to the
authors. Their answers are varied, surprising, and, above all else, demonstrative of
a great deal of savvy in how they deal with the materiality of the culture industries.
This book arrives at this moment for a few reasons. It is important to understand
how and why authors choose to write the works that they do. Why, for instance, do
so many poets in Canada write novels? Both Jane Urquhart and George Elliott
Clarke, in the interviews that follow, acknowledge that market forces prompt writers
to make particular creative decisions. Or why do Canadians write, publish, and read
so much poetry about nature when 80 per cent of Canadians now live in cities?
Christian Bök suggests here that this focus derives, in part, from a bias in how our
funding structures operate, a bias that devalues experimental poetry. There may be
a problem of logic in such a claim, since experimental writing can also be about
nature—but the challenge to how and where poetry in Canada is situated still
stands. Whether or not you agree with the assertions that individual writers make in
this book, what emerges is the extent to which the Canadian culture industries
influence the creative practice of writers. It does not seem like an overstatement to
claim that one cannot understand how and why authors write in this country without
attempting to understand how they interact with market forces and the culture
Other reasons follow from these general concerns. In universities, students taking
degrees in the field of English (and other cognate fields) can pursue their studies
simply by analysing the contents of the works they read. Interpreting the poetry of
Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Plath—or Earle Birney, Margaret Atwood, and P.K.
Page—can be an end in itself. Yet such analyses can rest on assumptions that
writers interact directly with readers through the words that they set down on the
page. More materially focused sub-disciplines like book history or print culture are
bucking this trend, and creative-writing programs may be more pragmatic.Nevertheless, many students complete degrees in the study of books without
having the opportunity to study how those books arrive in their hands. As a result,
they miss out on understanding a complex part of how authors live their lives:
interacting with a market that often changes the very substance of the works
themselves. What we read and how a book may come into being can, indeed, be in
These market forces are not stable; they are constantly changing. In response to
technological and other developments in the market, the writers who currently earn
the most in the world—James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, J.K.
Rowling, and others—are learning to diversify their modes of delivery. In 2011 the
bookseller Amazon announced that, for the first time, sales of electronic books for
their Kindle device began to outpace the sale of print books. New devices, like the
Kindle, the iPad, and various e-readers, are changing the ways in which readers
consume books. Blooks—that is, books derived from blogs—and vooks—the
combination of videos and books—are entering our vocabularies. The market is
becoming more complicated at a time when it is already difficult to navigate. The
implications of these trends are yet to be fully understood. Will readers, accustomed
to the shorter formats used on websites and social media networks, continue to
invest their time in lengthier books or complex poetic forms? Will pressures from the
market influence writers in new ways? How should we evaluate these changes?
Should we embrace them? Question them? Reject them? A great deal of change
lies ahead.
Sales trends, moreover, continue to shift. The literary tradition does not exist in a
vacuum, and how or what a writer writes is not simply a reflection of her or his
penchant for one form or another. Stephen Henighan notes in his interview here that
collections of short stories in Canada, which were once popular, then devalued,
have come back into some vogue. Poetry sales continue to be small at best,
pushing authors to look, as Erín Moure does here, toward transforming our
understanding of a book and the possibilities that it contains. The idea of the
“literary bestseller”—a weirdly Canadian category if ever there was one—continues
to permeate the industry as everyone involved, from creators to producers, seeks to
find a way to combine artistic worth and mass consumption. In the terms offered by
sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, books exist at a point at which economic capital and
cultural capital can intersect: books are valuable in a monetary sense, but also in a
cultural sense. When a single book can prove culturally valuable as well as
saleable, everyone profits. Such books are, it seems, the most sought after in the
Canadian context. Sales may not be the only marker of the importance of a book,
but, where business and art collide, sales are, however uncomfortably, a central
part of the conversation.
Readers, notably, vote with their spending dollars. Many writers report that, from
their perspective, the market is becoming ever more stratified, with a few choice
authors—Lee Maracle cites Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, and
sometimes Joseph Boyden as Canadian examples that parallel the more
international ones—garnering the bulk of the attention. Other writers, meanwhile,
may languish. Larissa Lai and Ashok Mathur both suggest in their interviews that
these divides can and should be linked to issues of race, class, sex, and gender.
Canada’s uneasy relationship with its Indigenous population emerges in this milieu
—Maracle argues that Canada tends to notice only one or two top Indigenous
writers at a time—while attempts to foster literary diversity through government-sponsored programs create tension in the minds of writers. Programs attempt to
anticipate and respond to readers’ and writers’ desires, but these are difficult to
forecast. Readerships are fickle. Readers also vote in terms of medium (do they
bother to read books? Studies suggest that they do, but film, television, and the
Web all compete), genres (non-fiction sells very well in Canada, for instance), and in
terms of platform (print, Web, e-reader). While these choices influence how authors
create their works, they come at the end of a lengthy process that attempts to guess
what they want to purchase, triangulating the reader, marketplace, and author in a
web of entangled networks. This process also anticipates what funding agencies
value, what agents and publishers are willing to invest in, what award committees
find worthy, and what retailers want. Some writers will disavow that they attempt to
anticipate the expectations of any of these bodies. Rudy Wiebe, interviewed by
Herb Wyile, gives a version of the usual response: “I’ve learned in a long life of
trying to write fiction that you always go with the things that interest you; whether
they’re odd or popular doesn’t matter; go with it” (67). Nevertheless, the writers
interviewed here, such as Aritha van Herk and Daniel Heath Justice, acknowledge
that the writing and publishing processes place many demands, either implicitly or
explicitly, upon writers. Writers, in turn, acknowledge and work with these demands.
The writers whom Smaro and I have interviewed for this book demonstrate a
keen awareness of these and other trends. We approached this project as a book of
interviews for a couple of reasons. The first is that books of interviews in Canada
rarely engage writers in conversations about what it means for them to create
artistic works in a market that is necessarily concerned with its economic bottom
line. There are many books of interviews with writers published in Canada, and
writers are also frequently interviewed in Canadian and international periodical and
news publications. As Peter O’Brien states in his 1987 book of interviews, So to
Speak, “interviews have become more important as a source of literary
documentation” as letter writing and similar practices decline (7). Indeed, many
interviews offer an important record of the making of literature. They let us know,
among other things, how and why writers write, demonstrate the length and depth of
aesthetic conversations taking place in this country, show how literary trends have
changed over time, and demystify the bounded text, opening it up so that readers
might better interact with it. But while such interviews may occasionally touch on
issues of the material production of books, they are primarily concerned with the
intellectual process and experiences that go into creating a writing life. Alan Twigg,
for instance, in his book of interviews, Strong Voices, published in 1988, notes that
his book started out as “discussions about literature and writing,” but ultimately
became “discussions about examining and enriching life” (n.p.). While these are
very valuable contributions, our project has been designed to supplement these
concerns with more material ones, to take stock of the day-to-day conditions that
shape a writer’s life and writing. So, while most readers are interested in what books
are about, the emphasis in our project, from the start, has been how books come to
be. And this is precisely what in our view makes this book different. While we did not
disavow all interest in what the books of the authors we interviewed were about, our
interviewing process focused on the material conditions that shape the making and
circulation of a book. From how they might sustain themselves while writing their
books to promoting a new title, from having their books edited to seeing them
become objects whose lives they can no longer control when they become part of
the cultural marketplace, to the broad concerns that are addressed in this book, wewish to understand how writers perceive the material worlds with which they engage
so as to better witness ongoing shifts in the realm of literature in Canada.
The second reason for approaching this project as a series of interviews is that it
is difficult to get a comprehensive look at the market for literature in Canada,
making it more useful to consider the effects of the market on a range of individual
authors rather than its totality. It is too complex to understand in its entirety,
especially given that how it operates and what its trends are change constantly.
There are a number of books that attempt to deal with the market and its various
facets, but in them the literary author is not given a voice. We opted for the interview
mode because our project was generated by our desire to find out how literary
authors navigate the cultural marketplace, that is, how the publishing and marketing
conditions influence—positively or adversely—their writing, but also to confirm or
belie some of our own perceptions and assumptions about what for most readers
seems to remain an invisible or mystifying process, perhaps even a process that
they don’t appear to be concerned with: what happens between the time a writer
finishes a manuscript and the time that novel, short story, or poem finds itself in
their hands at a public reading or on a bookstore’s shelf? Hence the importance of
having these authors speak in the first person: keeping our own interventions to a
minimum, we invited them to speak at some length.
Coming from different locations, but all intimately familiar with the various
mechanisms that underlie the cultural marketplace, the authors we interviewed
reveal their complex understanding of the material conditions influencing as much
how they write as how their books are received and where they circulate. This
understanding absolutely informs the work that they are able to do. Poet Sharon
Thesen, in an interview with Helen Humphries, describes the challenge of the
marketplace as follows:
literary culture now seems to be mired in the machinery of marketing, promotion,
prizes, awards and brand recognition. And not only is poetry the product, so is the
poet. You can’t be published even in an anthology anymore without a photograph
being attached…. It’s not even the publisher’s fault: to survive, they have to compete
in a marketplace. (79)
The small-scale, particular, and precise facts that the writers in this book bring up in
our interviews demonstrate that writing is not just a solitary activity but one that is
intricately engaged with, and in some respects produced by, the marketplace. The
facts that they talk about, however, do not tell the whole story. Instead, they invite
us to have more thorough conversations about what it means to write in this
One of the most important things about the culture industries in Canada is that
they are supported by the state to a considerable extent, a fact that these interviews
explore at length. The Canada Council for the Arts, founded in 1957 (see the
timeline in the appendix at the end of this book), disburses millions of dollars to
different facets of the culture industries. Beyond funding individual artists in a
variety of disciplines, it also funds festivals, literary readings, writer residencies, arts
organizations, and publishers. The arts in Canada would look very, very different if
the Canada Council did not exist. All writers we interviewed spoke in depth, and
often passionately, about the Canada Council, above and beyond local or provincial
arts bodies that may also have funded them. While some of these writers may voice
on occasion critical views about the Council—interestingly, these critiques are wide-ranging and generally different from one writer to the next—what emerges from this
series of interviews is a strong and collective support for arts funding in Canada.
The Canada Council, as reflected in these interviews, has many concerns that need
to be addressed by artists, yet it has changed itself many times since it was first
created by Parliament in 1957. Some of these concerns in recent years may be
comparable to those expressed by Fred Wah in an interview with Susan Rudy. Wah
suggests that government funding for the arts—and in this case targeted funding
towards multicultural programs—is “very enabling for us to a degree, in that it throws
money, funds, publishing, recognition; but then those voices [of funded authors]
become controlled by a cultural machine that is very much manipulated by a sense
of nationalism” (164). The negotiation between writers and funding bodies is, then,
sometimes uneasy. Yet it is probably not an overstatement to suggest that many
publishers in Canada could not operate without their annual grants from the Canada
Council. What’s more, many writers would likely be forced to abandon their craft
without support from granting agencies—or else be forced to charge consumers
radically more for their works. At the same time as this support is crucial, it is also
imperfect, bureaucratized as an organ of the state with which not all writers feel
comfortable. Yet it is constantly evolving as the arts evolve, striving to meet the
needs of its constituents, alongside provincial and local bodies that support similar
The publishing industry, on the other hand, is made up of many more players
than state-run funding bodies. In the conversations in this book, the importance of
the interpersonal dimension between authors and publishing houses becomes
apparent. Many writers—novelists in particular—work with agents whose job is to
place manuscripts with publishers, negotiate contracts and advances, as well as
secure film or foreign rights. Agents also sometimes work directly with authors to
hone their work, set out schedules to meet market demands, and even determine
the content of the work itself. Yet every agent is different, has different industry
contacts, and expects different things from her or his writers—and every author
interacts with her or his agent differently. Authors work, in turn, with publishers, who
acquire, print, and promote their works. In the process, authors work, with varying
degrees of closeness, with editors, who, yet again, shape works into their final form.
Authors’ interactions with all of these individuals affect what they produce, how they
produce it, when they produce it, and how successful the product ends up being.
These interactions are often fruitful, sometimes frustrating, and, above all else, very
important to consider when we take a look at what influences the shape and
directions of Canadian literature.
Once a book is published, what will happen with it is, at best, a guess. Publishers
decide in advance which titles they will promote ahead of others, and will often
adjust their marketing strategies when a particular book takes off—or fails to do so.
In Canada, a large proportion of books is currently sold at Chapters Indigo. With this
degree of market concentration, how books are retailed becomes important. A
publisher’s decision to invest in the promotion budget for a book so that it can be
displayed on a bookstore’s feature table, or even placed face versus spine out on a
shelf, can make a tremendous difference (although how this marketing is done is in
flux as this book is being written). Smaller presses’ decisions to work with Chapters
Indigo—or not—can determine whether a book prints in hundreds of copies or
thousands. The success or demise of a small, local bookstore can deeply affect
how books are sold in a given community and, replicated across the country, canchange the literary field. Writers are deeply aware of these things and have strong
feelings about the retailers who sell their books, as emerges in the conversations
Readers decide to buy a book, though, for many different reasons: it may be an
attractive-looking book; it may be on a particular subject or theme of interest; it may
have been well reviewed; or it may have won or been shortlisted for an award.
There are now many competing awards in Canada, such as the Giller Prize for
fiction, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the Governor General’s Awards, to name only a
few. Some of the authors we interviewed have been shortlisted or won some of
these or other awards; they discuss not only the hoopla and fanfare surrounding the
awards, but also the pressures that they create. Winning an award not only helps
increase an author’s sales; it can also create resentment among other writers,
disagreements about judges’ decisions, and disappointment for those who do not
win—or even get nominated, should their publisher be unable to afford the entry fee
that accompanies some of the awards (for instance, the publishers of titles
shortlisted for the Giller Prize currently must pay a fee of $1,500). The culture of
literary awards in Canada that has emerged in particular since the 1990s, though,
demonstrates that Canadians are interested in such things, and awards have
become a fixture in the literary world. They are, indeed, being studied increasingly
by academics, perhaps most notably in the full-length studies by Lorraine York,
Literary Celebrity in Canada, and Gillian Roberts, Prizing Literature, as well as in an
increasing number of essays. This scholarship notes that prizes do a great deal to
influence book buyers—some prizes more than others—and that the author
continues to be as much a signifier in cultural circulation as the texts that she or he
To state the obvious, the culture industries in Canada are very complex. Any
book that you might pick up off your shelf comes to you mediated by a variety of
forces. An author conceives of and writes a book according to her or his ideas or
fancies (though sometimes the ideas or fancies of someone else). The author then
completes the work to the best of her or his ability. At this point, an agent may or
may not sell the book to a publisher, or the author may pitch the book her or himself
to publishers’ acquisition editors (or the equivalent). Then come editors, publicists,
and the marketing machinery that many presses have. Books end up in bookstores
—or not. They are celebrated in the press—or not (diminishing review pages in
Canadian newspapers and magazines are a concern to many in the industry and to
writers). They win awards—or not. Only at the end of this lengthy chain does a book
reach its readers, who will ultimately determine a book’s fate of being reprinted—or
being remaindered—based on its sales. The connection between the author and the
reader is in fact very distant. This distance is important to recover, given how the
culture industries frequently promote an affective vision of the book as the
unmediated vision of an artist, one that the reader, in turn, can access. This book,
Producing Canadian Literature, which has gone through a variation of the same
processes that I have just outlined, makes these interactions its primary focus. In its
attempt to connect readers—you—with the writers who inaugurate this process, it
tries to make the confluence of these forces a little bit more understandable so as to
denaturalize that connection. Seeing the steps along the way may actually help to
recover the links, rather than simply to allow for us to witness the distances between
the various actors in the cultural field.
We have selected the writers we interviewed in ways that represent a range ofpositions: different regional locations, different aesthetics, different stages of the
writing career, different cultural constituencies (particularly in terms of race, class,
sex, and gender), and different degrees of popular and commercial success. Aware
that no such project can be fully inclusive, we chose to work with authors who
publish primarily as poets and/or novelists. The market is very different when we
consider, for instance, non-fiction works (magazine publishing takes on a different
importance there) or drama (where stage production is key). The worlds of poetry
and fiction, on the other hand, are similar and frequently overlap. To extend beyond
them would constitute a different project. Although some of the writers whom we
have interviewed have published in other modes, the focus remains on poetry and
fiction. As such, what these interviews reveal is meant to serve as a starting point
for further study and discussion. We have chosen to publish them in this form
because we feel that they may be useful for the reader in a variety of ways,
including further analysis and critique of the culture industries or, indeed, of the
opinions voiced in this book.
All of the interviews were conducted orally and face to face. We met the authors
on their travels through the places where we lived or worked, or we travelled
ourselves to meet the writers. As a result, these interviews were conducted over a
lengthy period of time. While the marketplace and some of its conditions may have
changed in the interim, these interviews offer a take on literary aspects of the
culture industries in Canada into the second decade of the new millennium.
Because this project was undertaken with the support of funds by the Canada
Research Chairs program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada, we had to comply with the ethical standards required for
research with human subjects in Canadian universities, a process that involves
preapproval of the questionnaire employed in interviews. This is one of the reasons
why we approached each interviewee with the same set of questions; although this
list did not restrict us from pursuing other topics as they arose, it had the
consequence of producing interviews that follow a similar structure. This structure
may create some predictability, but it also makes it possible—productively so, we
think—to develop an incremental and concentrated understanding of the same
range of concerns about the various flows of the culture industries in Canada: from
the state organs that support artists, through the agents, publishers, and editors
who work with artists to get their work to the public, to the retailers, readers, and
awards that unpredictably affect how well a book does once it is published. These
aspects of the writing world need to be thoroughly discussed in order to understand
how writers create their art.
Although Smaro and I made every attempt to conduct the interviews together,
doing so was not always possible, so some were conducted by one or the other of
us (as noted in the table of contents). Nevertheless, we were equally involved in
editing all the interviews. Indeed, the interviews have gone through substantial
editing for two reasons: first, because some of them were too long for publication,
we edited them for length; second, because a faithful transcription of oral dialogue
doesn’t necessarily result in a readable script, we edited them for style and
clarification to eliminate the kind of repetition, false starts, and non sequiturs that
often punctuate conversation. None of the material eliminated or corrected,
however, affects the overall tenor of what the authors said. What is more, all of the
authors interviewed were given the opportunity to do their own editing, as well as to
approve the changes we had already made ourselves.We hope that this book will launch further conversations about what it means for
a writer to create a work of poetry or fiction in Canada. As the culture industries
continue to change in Canada—for instance with cuts in funding like the recent
termination of the Understanding Canada program, run through the Department of
Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and the threats to the Literary Press Group
—it will be important to track the autonomy and viability of art now and in the future.
As you read this book, we hope that you may become part of these conversations
and recognize their urgency.