Oh, Canada!

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. 


26 thoughts on “Oh, Canada!

  1. Vicky

    With the NHL play-offs in full swing I’m surprised you found anyone willing to talk about the publishing business in Canada. We do tend to be a modest lot and find marketing ourselves a tad distasteful, except when it comes to sports. On your next visit, come on up to Ottawa, eh. The tulip festival is nearing its end, but Blues Fest is coming with music for every taste.
    In the meantime–Go Habs!

  2. Zoë Sharp

    My only Canadian experience so far was B’con in Toronto, but I thought it was a fabulous city. The Canadian accent is very distinctively different from American to my ears, too.

    Got to go back soon and do the railroad trip across the Rockies!

    And can I put in a word for Louise Penny among your list of Canadian crime writers?

  3. tess gerritsen

    Zoe, ohmigosh, thank you for mentioning Louise Penny, Agatha award-winning Canadian author. (She was the subject of a conversation I had with a publisher from Toronto.) Canadians are very proud to claim her as one of their own.

  4. Cornelia Read

    Dear Tess, thank you.

    And I think this is such an interesting post–I’m always intrigued by Canadians. They’re sort of like cousins, if most Americans are like siblings: so much in comman, but such intriguing differences.

  5. Louise Ure

    Fascinating post, Tess. I like the idea of subsidized publishing, for the same reason I like the idea of federal or state support of libraries. Food is not the only thing we need to consume in order to grow strong and wise.

  6. Dana King

    Another Canadian writer who deserves broader mention is John McFetridge. His novels of crime in Toronto are compelling, and not quite like anyone else.

  7. Chevy Stevens

    I’m Canadian, so thanks for the thoughtful post! I’m also a thriller writer ( first novel coming out this July with St. Martin’s Press), and you’re right. Canadian publishing is far more literary. I never really understood why, but I do now! Thanks!

  8. caite

    Personally, I think the idea of government subsidized publishing is dreadful.
    Interesting…and dreadful.
    Libraries are another matter, but even there, I would just as well leave that on a local, more grassroots level than a federal one. Ideally, I wish government support of liberties were not necessary. The less government involvement in the books we publish and read the better.

    I have read a fair bit of Canadian literature and I must say, I think it tends to be a bit depressing in it’s tone. In fact, a Canadian friend of mine told me her local bookclub decided to stop reading only Canadian books for awhile for that very reason.

  9. kathy bremner

    haha… about that genre fiction. Did you know that Harlequin is born and raised Canadian? That’s okay, most Canadians don’t know either. But, to be published by Harlequin I must send my submission to New York.

    and yes, most of us are happy to be called American Cousins. I live less than a mile from the border and it amazes me that even though the border is an invisible line, people on each side are definitely different.

  10. Jake Nantz

    "let’s give the public what we know is good for them."

    I don’t have as much of an issue with government subsidizing libraries, but I’ve just never been crazy about the government sticking itself into a little bit of everything the way the above quote indicates. It’s so condescending to presume to know what they think is good for us. It’s incredibly arrogant, and part of the reason so many people have had low opinions of governemtn in this country for the last decade…that "we know better than you, so you’re going to do it our way or else" arrogance.

    Plus, I’ve taught Orwell’s 1984 for far too long to ever be comfortable with the way goverment has grown exponentially for the last 5-10 years, and so I guess them getting into the publishing industry scares me a little.

    Other than that, every Canadian I’ve ever known or been friends with has been completely awesome (and a huge hockey nut…ALL of ’em).

  11. Larry Gasper

    Tess, thanks for the post. There is definitely a literary bias in the Canadian writing community, with genre fiction being seen as the poor cousin by many writers. As someone who has published a well received literary short story collection and who is currently working on a mystery novel I’ve seen both sides of the divide and sometimes I wonder if the chasm can be crossed. As for the support from the government, it goes far beyond the publishers, to postal subsidies for magazines, to the Public Lending Rights organization, which pays writers for their books being in libraries. I have to admit, the PLR cheque in February is a nice little bonus but I find myself torn on the whole issue of government grants to writers. Too many writers spend too much time working on their "grantsmanship" instead of worrying about their writing, and the sense of entitlement to other people’s money is huge.
    Anyway, just a few random thoughts on the state of writing in Canada today.

  12. Alafair Burke

    I’m wondering whether there’s a significant difference between the subsidization of certain forms of books and our government’s traditional subsidization of public radio and television. Isn’t the purpose of PBS and NPR to provide "good for us" programming that might not otherwise make it in the marketplace?

    And another shout-out for Linwood Barclay. Terrific books from a truly good person.

  13. Dana King

    "Ideally, I wish government support of [libraries] were not necessary."

    How else would you pay for public libraries? As we’re seeing with many other programs, charitable contributions are too dependent on a robust economy to be a reliable funding mechanism.

  14. Allison Davis

    My grandmother was raised in Vacouver, B.C. and I spent much of my childhood going back and forth across the border from Seattle to Vancouver as a kid so I always felt very close to my Canadian neighbors…I’ve driven the length of B.C. twice and fished it. I highly recommend the drive…take your breath away scenery around every turn.

    And don’t forget Margaret Atwood (Ontario)…

  15. pari noskin taichert

    I loved that Canada was so close when I went to the U of Michigan. I’d watch Canadian television, make beer runs (I still dream of Labatt’s Velvet Cream Porter) and just enjoy the exchange across borders.

    I’ve read Munro and Atwood for years. To know that publishing is subsidized in part by government is a positive to me. I think what it says is that the government respects that many voices need to be heard, that literature (be it genre or literary) has value. Larry’s point about "grantsmanship" is well taken, but the baseline remains that it looks to me, an outsider, like a good thing — a national policy of encouraging literature rather than merely bemoaning rising illiteracy rates.

  16. Karen in Ohio

    Isn’t the Fine Arts Fund partly funded by the US government? Or am I mistaken? At least some of our arts are subsidized by government, just not all of them.

    Publishing is subsidized, though, just not the way we ordinarily think of it. Most universities have press imprints, and they print a substantial number of books a year. Education is subsidized, so at least some of that money comes from our taxes. Most of it goes to textbooks and other non-fiction titles, but they represent well over 95% of books published each year in the US, anyway. (In numbers of titles, not numbers of actual books.)

  17. JT Ellison

    I adore Canada. And not just because of my publisher being Canadian, I took my first trip up the week before I met my husband, so I consider the country as a whole a good luck charm. Ottawa is my favorite place, though I really want to go to the West Coast too, and take the train through Banff. The Canadian Rockies – YUM! Fascinating to hear the rationale behind the literary system up there. Thanks, Tess!

  18. Tom

    "It’s sort of the National Public Television philosophy of "let’s give the public what we know is good for them." "

    Ma’am, despite my admiration for your work and achievements, that’s a snarky meme I must stake through the heart. I’ve worked many years in public radio. Government support is miniscule, and shrinking all the time. Why do you think there are so many pledge drives on public stations? Why do you think program underwriting has become so important on public radio and tv?

    Even more to the point, what do you think happens to programs that don’t demonstrate audience support during drives? To be fair, you may not have had cause to notice, but I promise you, programs that don’t earn their keep go away. Programs with member support stay on the schedule.

    Until we know better, it might be good to give Canadian support for small presses a chance to show itself for what it is, not what we imagine.

  19. tess gerritsen

    Tom, trust me — I’m a big supporter of (and donor toward) national public tv and radio. I’m sorry if my remark came across as snarky. As you’ll note, I also voiced my appreciation for the Canadian practice of supporting literary works that might not otherwise get notice.

    I feel, as a genre author, that I’m caught in the cultural wars between literary and popular fiction. Genre writers often feel denigrated by literary critics who often don’t even deign to review us — and then, when they do review us, seem to say that enjoying genre is the equivalent of slumming. But as a reader, I love reading literary fiction too, and I fully believe that art sometimes needs a helping hand from government to prosper.

  20. tess gerritsen

    p.s. — and "giving the public what we know is good for them" is what’s done in other areas of public funding. We provide nutritious lunches in schools (minus the soda pop), we offer wellness programs for adults (yes, anti-smoking programs are good for us) and we set standards for arsenic and lead in our air and water. In those cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that we give the public what we know is good for them. It certainly doesn’t mean we’re against those programs.

  21. Eve Kotyk

    I’m a Canadian living in a central province. I too am offended that genre fiction gets so little support in Canada. Our province has a literary guild. It would seem natural to join the guild in order to benefit from contact with other writers, writers groups, classes etc., but the guild is so heavily slanted toward poetry and literary fiction that find myself an outsider. I know a number of writers who have let their memberships lapse for this very reason. Come on Canada support writers literary and genre!

  22. caite

    "How else would you pay for public libraries? As we’re seeing with many other programs, charitable contributions are too dependent on a robust economy to be a reliable funding mechanism."

    It appears government support is also dependent on a robust economy, so I wish I knew the answer to that question. But I just think that government and books are a bad combination, fraught with problems.

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