This is a book of interviews that most serious North American writers would benefit from reading parts of, though not necessarily each part. A couple of the interviewees don’t entirely understand or share the assumptions of the book they are helping to create – a problem that may have stemmed from the requirements the editors were obliged to meet in their project design. Some of these requirements are, rather ironically, among the matters that the editors have set out to investigate: the silent co-authorship of many contemporary books by the practices of chain bookstores, the financial needs of publishers, the temptation of awards, and the hope of pleasing granting agencies. As co-editor Kamboureli tells Erin Moure, “one of the things we are trying to determine is whether there is a certain kind of cultural grammar, as it were, a grammar of economics, that determines the work that gets done” (97). Various of this book’s institutional co-authors are listed on its acknowledgements page and in Kit Dobson’s introduction – among them the Canada Council, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs Program, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, whose “ethics” policies required preapproval and standardization of the questionnaire the editors used to structure each of the interviews.
There was a time in Canadian Literature when a book of interviews like this would have featured on its cover, or within, fetching photos of the authors interviewed – a quizzical Margaret Atwood, a sultry Michael Ondaatje. There are no photos offered here of its interviewees, although Christian Bok, Larissa Lai and others do often appear on Twitter or Facebook as similarly photogenic. The visual fetishization of authors is one of the practices of the literary marketplace that the editors have reservations about and have hoped to investigate. Instead on the cover are images of the cutting parts of a late nineteenth-century meatgrinder – presumably offered as a metaphor for the standard
The subtitle of Producing Canadian Literature – “authors speak out on the literary marketplace – is also slyly clever, considering that this is a book about grants, prizes and small presses as well as one about literary agents, book reviewing and multinational publishing. Grants and prizes are here being matter-of-factly assumed – at least by the editors – to be aspects of literary marketing.
Interesting too is how the editors have tried to duplicate in their selection of interviewees one of the practices of The Canada Council that the book examines. They tried to make the book, much like the Council tries with its juries, representative of Canada’s writing communities; to have it include authors from “different regional locations, different aesthetics, different stages of writing career, different cultural constituencies (particularly in terms of race, class, sex, and gender), and different degrees of popular and commercial success” (8). They were unsuccessful – amusingly unsuccessful in the sense that this failure appears to have supported one of their hypotheses – that the “material conditions” (4 ) within which writers work can determine what they write and the things they do. Only three of the ten authors willing to be interviewed here do not have university positions. Dobson comments during the Aritha Van Herk interview:
KD: It’s been a really interesting trend with this project: by and large, Smaro and I get more
agreement to participate in these interviews from folks with academic backing, although we
are striving for a balance. I think there is less anxiety about ...
AvH: “If I say this, I won’t get a grant.”
KD: I think a lot of people believe that there is an unarticulated politics around the
There are some spirited and useful interviews here that come about when the perspectives (and “material conditions”) of interviewer and author connect. Poet Christian Bök is spurred to launch not only various caustic analyses but numerous bon-mots, most cynical, about the situation of writers determined to create new forms of poetry: “the job of such funding agencies [the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council] is simply to homogenize public taste and to homogenize artistic practice” (12); funding bodies encourage writers “to provide a kind of propaganda for Canadian culture”; there’s “a xenophobic attitude toward the avant-garde on the assumption that it is not a home-grown aesthetic” (13); “the people whom we celebrate today are very likely to fall into insignificance” (16); “subsidies in Canadian literature ... tend to normalize taste so that the kinds of books being published are often indistinguishable from each other” (21); “increasingly, poetry seems happy to be an artisanal activity – like knitting doilies for candy dishes” (26); “I look at the juries for these awards, and I’m always dismayed that they ... aren’t the people who, I think, have any business evaluating the merits of my work; I can’t understand why they’re even qualified to sit upon these juries (13).
Bök, along with writers Ashok Mathur, Erin Moure, Aritha Van Herk, Larissa Lai, and George Elliott Clarke – all of whom have university affiliations – shares the editors’ assumption that unconsciously held or otherwise unexamined ideologies – with their centuries-old assumptions that writers “express themselves,” that novels should be chronological narratives and “represent” plausible “realities,” and that poetry should express feelings, that a good book is one that sells well – still inform the decisions of most current grant or award juries, most literary agents, and most publishing houses. “If you move a lot of units,” Mathur laments, “you’re a good writer.” Jane Urquhart is aware of a growing bias against short fiction, and of how the celebritization of best-selling authors can make achieving celebrity become a young writer’s main goal, and believes that perhaps only poets can feel little pressure to change their poetics in order to win grants (65).
In contrast Lee Maracle – who declares that “writing is for self-expression” (56) and endorses writing that presents “the real truth about what happened to you” (51) – can misconstrue the editors’ materialist questions. When Dobson asks whether, when a writer receives a grant, “there’s an impact on the work they produce,” apparently hoping to discover whether writers that Maracle knows may unconsciously or consciously shape their work to please or defy the grant-giver, she replies with the not overly useful “Oh yeah, Greg Scofield ... received a grant, and he turned out his first book of poems, and he’s been writing poems ever since” (52). A more flexible interview format, or a much differently phrased question, might have helped. It also could have been helpful if the interviewers had been able to somehow mark the fact that an aboriginal author's literary perspectives and assumptions will not necessarily be those Bourdieu's The Rules of Art. Homogenization, indeed.
Stephen Henighan’s interview is similarly limited, at least in relation to the book's developing themes, not necessarily because he doesn’t understand the editors’ questions but because he tends to see all writers as possessing free will and able to choose to write independently of cultural determinations. The decisions of Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels to write a “kind of novel that repackages history in ways that make it rather inoffensive and turn it into beautiful images” (135) seem to be seen by him more as consciously commercial than as partly determined by a cultural and commercial zeitgeist. Such a zeitgeist can be resisted. Other writers “will always persist, just doggedly doing their thing”(145). When Dobson asks him “what has the rise of awards done to writing in Canada” (144) he answers not in terms of changes in writers’ practices but in terms of the kinds of manuscripts sought by publishers. He speaks of being asked by agents to write potentially lucrative non-fiction books but of not being tempted. Nevertheless the interview makes valuable additions to the book’s accumulating observations about “celebrity culture” (144) and the decline of both independent publishers and independent booksellers.