CanLit: What it Says About Canadian Creativity

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On May 29th, 2001, Susan Swan spoke at Toronto's Imperial Pub. The following is an excerpt of her presentation.

I'm here tonight because Key Porter Books is bringing out a reprint of theLester and Open Dennys (L&OD) edition of my novel, The Last of the GoldenGirls. It was first published in Canada in l989. But instead of giving you atraditional reading from the novel - you know, a few warm-up jokes,telling you a story I've told a hundred times about how the novel was saved from an obscenity charge by Detective Taylor of the Edmonton Morality Squad - I decided to do something that would refute the accusations about Canadians being uncreative in a recent study.

So Iwant to talk briefly about Canadian literature as one of our earliestmodels of fair and successful global trade. And it came about throughCanadian ingenuity and tenacity.

First of all, let me point out that when The Last of the Golden Girlscame out, Canadian literature was starting to move away fromthe "we're not good enough" sense of inferiority. (This passed for Canadianidentity in the mid-twentieth century.) The International Fiction List (IFL) helped push this change along. The IFL was started by Louise Dennys,with her partner Malcolm Lester, in the late l970s. Louise and Malcolm had the idea ofpublishing Canadian writers alongside well-known foreign writers in aCanadian list.

As Louise Dennys recently explained, a basic principleof trade is that if you buy the goods from the other person, they willbuy goods from you. So the IFL encouraged foreign publishers to buy therights to L&OD's Canadian writers in their own countries. Having grown upin France and England in an international literary family, Louisehad a perspective on Canadian literature most Canadians didn't have back then. Namely, that Canadian literature was as good and as exciting asliterature anywhere in the world.

I should remind you all that in those days, England claimed Canada aspart of its copyright territory. An English publisher wouldn't buya book by a Canadian writer unless it could be sold as anEnglish book. For the British, Canada was "that colony" For theUnited States, we were "that northern state".

Louise remembers theafternoon Jack Shoemaker - a publisher of the IFL who founded NewDirections - called to say the list was the only literary series inthe world whose every listed book was on his shelf. Hesaid he did this because the IFL books were of consistently highquality and introduced him to Canadian writing. She knew then that theseries was beginning to work.

The L&OD list changed perceptions of Canada's colonial status - not just abroad, but among our own readers and writers. We're now so accustomed to the notion of Canadian literaryexcellence that we can barely imagine a time when a writer, like me, waited nervously for someone like Louise to argue with a British publisher over my right to have the novel celebrated inEngland as a Canadian book and not a colonial property.

Louise did winthat argument. The novels I published with L&OD in the l980swenton to be published in the U.S. as well as England. Louise herselfmade a habit of going on trade missions with like-minded colleaguesto places like China and the UK to talk about Canadian books.

The rest, as they say, is history. This year, for instance, Canadianwriters won the three major international prizes: the Booker, theImpac Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Medici.

Canadian literature would become an international success in less than twenty years of lobbying - making many Canadian writers rich and changing the quality of life for most Canadian writers.

But the eventual success of Canadian literature in global tradedid not spring not from the current ideology of untrammelled free trade. This blind adherence to principle instead of human experience feelslike the rise of a new style of Soviet Marxism. The editorial writers in our largest newspapers are the new Marxists; they refuse to understand that global trade can combineeconomic success with human rights. They would have us wait for decades - perhaps centuries - for the dubious "trickle-down effect."

I sometimes think our Canadian film industry needs the same sort of changes - in other words, more distributors who aren't afraid to go to the barricades on behalf of its creative people.

The secret of international Canadian literary success issimple. It stems from a well-nurtured literary community, which is developed through three essential elements:

  • unabashed government subsidy
  • confident, zealous and well-educated publishers like Malcolm Lester, Louise Dennys and Anna Porter
  • groups such as the Writers' Union of Canada, to tell writers that literaturematters and their rights as writers needed to be recognized.

I believe that Canadian literature has proved that globalization can work forCanadians - if the push for economic success is backed by an enlightened infrastructure. Why shouldn't governments be allowed to invest in growth industries?

It's infuriating when American lumber magnatesaccuse Canadian lumber companies of being unfairly subsidized because we've had a tradition of preserving Crown lands. Trade tariffs may need examining, but a good shot of government subsidy helps to strengthen theunderlying co-operative structures that keep a society operating.

But I'm straying from my topic. What do Canadian letters need, now that we have won the literary trade wars? The dilemma facing current Canadian writers is the same dilemma that faces other Canadians and citizens around the world: How do we preserve the sense of our uniqueness - which we need to work and live - in a globalized culture whosechief value is profit? This dilemma is accentuated in the literary world not only because of globalization, but perhaps because of the absence of any consensus about aesthetic value. (In a post-modern world all literary styles are acceptable.) So it's no surprise thatthe materialistic idea of success as measured by sales, advances, prizes, and media celebrity has filled the vaccum.

Commercial success has replaced literary fashion, as one wise British writer put it. And every writer facing book publication knows, the success of their book will largely be determined by economic measurement, much the way bust-size used to determine the value of a woman when I was starting puberty in the late l950s. (Men, luckily, have never publicly experienced the ignominy of such measurements except perhaps in the world of porn.)

How can we keep writing freely from our imaginations without being trapped by commercial pressure to please, a young writer asked me recently. I told her I didn't have a satisfactory answer. Then I told her that writing is still a calling. So is publishing, by the way. Canadian writers and readers have a habit of coming up with brave and original and creative ways of transcending thorny dilemmas.

I'm sure this will be the case here too. We can't go back towhere we were - nor should we. But looking for inspiring models in the past is a creative alternative. And I think the success of Canadian literature around the world is a good place to start.

Susan Swan is an author and journalist. Her most recent novel, The Wives of Bath, was a finalist for the United Kingdom's Guardian Fiction Award and Ontario's Trillium Award. It was also acknowledged in the U.S. as one of the best novels of the 1990s. A film based on this novel - Lost and Delirious - opens in the U.S. on July 6th, in Montreal on July 20th and in Toronto on July 27th.

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