Dear Prime Minister Harper, I hear you are writing a book. On the history of hockey, no less. So I thought as someone who has been writing books for more than 20 years, I would offer a few tips to you, an emerging writer.
First of all, you are starting your writing career at a good time. Canadian literature is known around the world for its excellence. At least six of our prominent Canadian authors have recently won major international awards such as the Booker (now the Man Booker), the IMPAC Prize and the Orange Prize. And only earlier this month, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro were nominated by an international jury for the Man Booker International Prize for a body of work.
Many, many Canadian writers, both English- and French-speaking, have found readers in foreign countries. Why, just the other day a friend told me that on a sailing holiday in the Caribbean, she and her partner discovered they could trade one Canadian book for two American books with other sailors. These sailors were both American and Canadian and they all thought Canadian books were terrific, hence their exchange rate.
However, I admit that my first reaction to the news that you were writing a book wasn’t so charitable. I asked myself: Is it right for Mr. Harper to be indulging his literary ambitions on our time? Then I realized that you are no different from many authors who hold down a job in order to buy time to write. So why should I begrudge you the few hours of scribbling many of us struggle to fit in?
You mentioned that the research for your book has slowed down since you became our 22nd prime minister. Naturally, I wasn’t surprised, and I thought of suggesting that you try for Ontario’s $1,500 emerging writers’ grant and hire your own researcher. Like all emerging writers in Ontario, you are entitled to apply, although this modest start-up will barely cover a researcher’s fee for any more than a month. Nor will it help much to offset some of your moving costs, Mr. Prime Minister, if, God forbid, you lose your day job in another election.
Anyway, it will all be clear sailing once you’ve found a Canadian publisher. Then you will be a candidate for the perks that are available to veterans like myself — the Canadian writer-in-residence posts (whose payments don’t come close to politicians’ salaries, although these positions amount to a second, full-time job done to finance your writing.) Or maybe you will be able to scrounge up the odd grant, although I should warn you that competition is tough since our literary success has encouraged novices such as yourself.
But don’t let that discourage you: If your book manages to reach a few readers at the library, you will be eligible to receive the underfunded and now fast-shrinking fee for Public Lending Right paid annually to Canadian writers.
One thing, though. If your hockey book is bought by a foreign publisher, it will be tricky for your foreign publisher to dig up money to publicize your book. Publishers, even in a sports-positive country like the United States, mean well but frankly, with an unknown foreign writer such as you, (yes, even a writer who heads up the country where the cold air comes from) — these U.S. publishers will still need encouragement to promote your work.
Alas, the funding that once helped Canadian writers reach their world audiences has vanished. Thanks to your slashing $11.8-million from our cultural programs abroad, 30 years of support has gone overnight. Alas again, our cultural diplomats who were once employed to promote our culture abroad now have no way to publicize anything, let alone our writing. And knowing the stock you place in short-term results, these hard-working folks may soon be out of a job altogether.
In short, I’m afraid our diplomats won’t be able to help you the way they once helped Ms. Atwood, for instance, or myself. It is precisely an emerging writer like you, one who doesn’t yet have any foreign readers, who will be muzzled.
But we all start in a small way, Mr. Prime Minister, when we write our first book. Even Yann Martel, whose world bestseller The Life of Pi has been translated into 35 languages, didn’t begin with the global readership he has now. It takes time and money for an author’s work to reach an audience.
And now, I’m coming to my biggest tip. What countries like Ireland know (and Canada too, before you became Prime Minister) is that you have to grow literature, like other businesses. Just the way the Ministry of Natural Resources (both federal and provincial) benefits the oil and gas industry by researching oil fields, and just as the flow-through tax credit encourages the Canadian mining world to develop risky mines, so has cultural funding helped us Canadian artists contribute to our economy through our valuable exports. Did you know that for every dollar you invest in the arts, you get eight back, Mr. Prime Minister? Today, as a small country, we have been boxing above our weight.
My Spanish publisher, Pilar Alvarez-Sierra, mused about your dilemma with a possible (or not so possible) foreign publication: “The power of a country, its capacity to have a real impact in the world around, is also measured in its cultural representatives, I am positive about that.”
And a country should invest in opening its frontiers to the rest of the world by promoting its writers, painters, filmmakers and so on. For example, could the Spanish government say that Almodovar shouldn’t receive money from the country’s cultural institutions for promoting his films abroad? He deserves it, and he gets it, and thanks to the first time he got the money to travel to America and promote his films there, he is now one of the best known Spanish artists in the world — and a huge publicist for Spain everywhere.
So get those stars out of your eyes, Mr. Prime Minister. Sure, elbow grease and accounting procedures help, but writing a book, like the drilling of a mine or an oil well, does not happen in a vacuum. Artistic talent, like business enterprises, thrives in a society with good infrastructure.
However, far be it from me to stop a writer like yourself from harbouring your dreams. Your book could still appear on a prize list whose financial rewards — however rosy the amounts sound in the newspapers — don’t come close to covering the costs of living for the three to five years it takes to write another book.
Of course, your publisher may decide to enter your book in the $25,000 Charles Taylor Award for Literary Nonfiction. And if your book is a gem, you may get nominated. Or even win it.
Not that I want to trick you into unrealistic expectations, Mr. Prime Minister. The reception to a first book is hard to predict. Actually, the reception to any book is unpredictable and I haven’t met a single publisher — Canadian, American or European — who can tell me six months before their new books come out, which one will hit either the prizes or bestseller lists.
It’s gambler’s market, and you will just have to take your chances with the rest of us.