In the short time I’ve been a member of the Murderati gang, I’ve watched my fellow bloggers’ lives overturned by the vicissitudes of life, and I cannot post today without thinking of Cornelia and the recent tragedy in her family, and of Louise and the terrible loss she so recently suffered. And then there is Rob, who has known the recent joy of watching his book turned into a TV pilot. Life is unpredictable and sad and painful and triumphant, and there is no way to predict what will happen around the corner.
Which has made me decide to write about something that’s utterly lacking in sturm und drang. So I’m going to blog about Canada.
Canada is fresh in my mind, as I’ve just returned from the Canterbury Tales Literary Festival in St. John, New Brunswick. Living in the state of Maine, right on the border, I’m privileged to meet many Canadians during the summer months, and I’ve made the crossing to visit our northern neighbor a number of times. Every time I visit, my impression of Canadians as basically nice, well-behaved, polite people is invariably reinforced. It’s the land where people actually wait for the Walk signal to flash before they’ll cross the street. Even when there’s no traffic coming in any direction. And because they seem to follow the rules, it made me follow the rules as well (even though my rush-rush personality had me ready to dash across the street no matter what that darn traffic signal said.)
This recent visit also gave me the chance to check in on the Canadian publishing scene, and discover how different it is from the U.S. One thing that had always impressed me was how the Canadian bestseller list is sometimes so different from ours. I’d noticed that theirs is heavily weighted toward literary novels. I assumed that Canadians were simply more literate readers, not as prone as Americans are to lunge for the latest crass entertainment. I pictured Canada as a nation of intellectuals who turned up their noses at genre, and instead reached for the difficult read, the books that would stretch their minds and enrich their souls.
Ha. It’s not so simple as all that.
Based on several conversations I had with people familiar with the Canadian publishing world, I discovered something that stunned me, coming from ultra-capitalist, money-is-everything America. And that is: many Canadian publishers are subsidized by their government. They have a myriad number of small presses which could otherwise never survive without those subsidies, and their government has chosen to subsidize literary fiction which would otherwise not have a chance of making it on the market. Popular fiction is left to sink or swim on its own because it is, after all, popular and therefore more likely to turn a profit without any help. Subsidized literary fiction also gets more of a subsidized marketing push, and since marketing dollars result in better public awareness of a title, those literary novels have a sales advantage.
Hence the more literary slant of the Canadian bestseller lists.
In some ways, this is a good thing. It directs the public toward books they would normally not read. It brings otherwise unknown authors into the public eye. And since I love discovering new literary fiction, I think it’s about time that not all the titles on bookstore front tables featured vampires, zombies, and serial killers. It’s sort of the National Public Television philosophy of “let’s give the public what we know is good for them.”
On the other hand, it rubs my populist nature the wrong way because I also love genre fiction. I love romance and horror and SF, and I’d feel more than a little miffed that my taste in fiction is considered unworthy.
Another characteristic that sets Canada apart from the U.S. is the difference in scale. In Canada (with a population of 33 million), if a hardcover title sells 5,000 copies, it’s considered a bestseller. If it sells 750 copies, it’s considered a successful publication. Needless to say, it’s almost impossible for a Canadian writer to make a living at his craft, if he only sells in his home country. With the exception of a few rare authors such as Margaret Atwood, whose Canadian sales alone might support her, most Canadian authors need to be able to sell to markets outside Canada to earn a living. Linwood Barclay, one of Canada’s most successful genre writers, no doubt earns most of his income outside his home country.
Another thing I learned is how under-appreciated Canadians feel, despite their many contributions to the literary world. I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know that Joy Fielding, Vincent Lam, William Gibson, and Alice Munro were Canadians. In my typical American arrogance, I just assumed they were Americans. (Which is something that irritates Canadians no end.)
One of the best parts about attending literary festivals is the chance to meet other authors, and in St. John, I was very happy indeed to hear readings by some truly gifted authors, including Kathy-Diane Leveille (LET THE SHADOWS FALL BEHIND YOU) and Robert Rayner, whose searing YA novel SCAB had the audience on the edges of their seats. These authors deserve a far wider audience. In Canada, where there seems to be far deeper support for such authors, they at least have the chance of being heard.