FOR ALL THOSE smart-alecks who like to refer to Books in Canada as "Books in Toronto," here's proof that we are
capable of getting outside Hogtown's city limits. Curious as to how the CanLit scene looks from other vantage points,
we asked the Calgary Herald's Kenneth McGoogan, the Montreal Gazette's Bryan Demchinsky, the Halifax Chronicle-Heraid/Mai-Star's Claudia Pinsent, and the Vancouver Sun's Marke Andrews - their newspapers' book-review editors - to comment on the view from their perspectives; we hope you'll find the results as interesting as we did.
WE KEPT IT secret as long as we could. But now the truth is out. Alberta has become the intellectual heartland of English-speaking Canada. And Calgary, having eclipsed Toronto in 1991, is the literary capital not just of the province, but the entire country. Obviously, I'm not talking about publishing. When it comes to the business of making and marketing books, to the nuts and bolts and number-crunching of connecting writers with readers - hey,
baseball caps off to Ontario and its provincial capital.
I'll go further. I'll frankly admit that, with the disappearance of Hurtig Publishers from Second City, Alberta - sometimes
known as "Edmonton" we desperately need a big-league trade publisher, especially here in Calgary. Inverse ratio, they
call it. We've got all the writers but no diversified, big-league trade house between the Rockies and, well, Blue jays country.
Did I mention writers? Look, in 1991, in both non-fiction and fiction, Albertans produced the most significant books of the year. In non-fiction, Mel Hurtig did the job with The Betrayal of Canada. Yes, Linda McQuaig's The Quick and the Dead was more stylishly written. And Take Back the Nation, by Maude Barlow and Bruce Campbell, was more prescriptive.
But here's the bottom line: Hurtig's book offered the grittiest documentation and the most damning analysis of Brian Mulroney's Big Business agenda. The success of that book, which sat for weeks at the top of Canadian best-seller lists, was the biggest under-reported story of 1991. Why biggest? Because it signaled, we can hope, a nation-wide awakening,
Okay, what about fiction? Calgary's W.O. Mitchell, the Grand Old Curmudgeon of Canadian fiction, wrote the most significant book of 1991: a new edition of Who Has Seen the Wind Hear me Out. It's not just that 7,000 words, cut solely for commercial reasons, were restored for the first time it) decades - though that's important.
No. It's rather that the new edition, illustrated by William Kurelek, and brought out 44 years after the first one, reminds
us all that Mitchell has done what every serious writer dreams of doing. Say what you will about his subsequent work,
Mitchell produced the one novel that will survive into the future -a classic Canadian novel that will last.
Back to my thesis. Two Calgarians wrote the gutsiest book of the year: Deconfederation: Canada Without Quebec. David Bercuson and Barry Cooper, a historian and a political philosopher, were the first to devote an entire book to informing Quebec nationalist intellectuals that they're living in a Technicolor dream world.
Deconfederation appeared in late summer A couple of months later, Ontarians began bringing forth hooks like Knowlton Nash's Visions of Canada: Searching for Our Future mid English Canada Speaks Out, by J. L. Granatstein and Kenneth McNaught. Safer productions all round. Worthy, however - and better late than never.
Now, because Alberta has only one quarter the population of Ontario, and serves as a cash cow for the rest of the country see Saturday Night magazine, October 1991 - the province has not yet built a literary infrastructure to rival that of central Canada. Fewer publishers, magazines, universities: fewer jobs.
As a result, Alberta has lost some exceptional people. Early in 1991, a Calgary native who now lives in Ontario - the artist/illustrator Paul Morin - won a Governor General's Award for his illustrations in The Orphan Boy. Another ex-Calgarian, L. R. "Bunny" Wright, produced the best Canadian mystery of the year in Fall from Grace - the fourth in her series set on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast.
A third ex-Calgarian, Katherine Govier, who was born in Edmonton but raised here in Stampede City, wrote the best Canadian novel of 1991: Hearts of Flame. It's a triumphant evocation of place, a masterly, nuanced, warts-and-all portrait of the author's adopted city: the dread Toronto.
But I hear cries of alarm and outrage. What about Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey? It not only won the 1991 Governor General's Award for Fiction, but was short-listed for the mighty Booker. And that's foreign!
Well, Govier's novel appeared too late in the year to be eligible for the 1991 GGs. But never mind that. My real answer is: Such a Long Journey is not a Canadian novel.
Uh, oh. Now he's poked a stick into that smelly can of worms marked "The Canon." Doesn't this uppity Calgarian know his place? Well, yes. That's precisely what he does know.
Allow me a digression. The novelist Rudy Wiebe, a second city Albertan, spoke the pithiest sentence of 1991: "Place and history are more important than race and gender." That from an interview published in Prairie Bookworld.
And here, also, in the "pithy observation" category, an Ontarian was runner-Lip. Robertson Davies, in an interview
with yours truly, agreed that Canada is becoming increasingly diverse as a result of immigration. "But I think the climate will tell the story," he said. "Give anybody three generations here and they'll be Canadian - because of the cold."
Where was I? Such a Long Journey may well be the best novel written by a Canadian in 1991. That doesn't make it a Canadian novel. Because in no way does that novel reflect this place, Canada. Ontario-think to the contrary, the author's nationality is irrelevant. Brian Moore's Luck of Ginger Coffey is a Canadian novel. Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano is not; and his October Ferry to Gabriola has dual nationality. I'm not arguing that a Canadian novel must be set in Canada. Only that it must somehow reflect this place.
Take J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It's set in Middle Earth, not England - yet it's as jolly-old-English as a pint of bitter. In short, I reject the notion that this word "Canadian" means nothing. We've got one more election.
But space is tight.
Despite its profligacy, its bad habit of exporting talent, Calgary has the most vital literary scene in Canada. It's home to the best science fiction writer: Dave Duncan. To the best romance writer: Judith Duncan (no relation). To the best Oil-Patch-thriller writer: John Ballem. In Samuel Selvon, Calgary has the most distinguished immigrant writer (17 books). In Karen Connelly, the 1991 winner of the Pat Lowther Award, the most accomplished young poet.
Four Calgary fiction writers have served notice of intention to pull a Mitchell: Aritha van Herk (Judith, No Fixed Address), Darlene Quaife (Bone Bird), Fred Stenson (Lonesome Hero, Working Without a Laugh Track), and Sarah Murphy (Comic Book Heroine). Three others recently published notable first books: Norman Ravvin (Cafe des Westens), J. Jill Robinson (Saltwater Trees), and Rosemary Nixon (Mostly Country).
In poetry, besides Connelly, Calgary is home to Fred Wah, Christopher Wiseman, Robert Hilles, Andrew Wreggitt, Murdoch Burnett and, until recently, Claire Harris and Nancy Holmes. A short drive away, there's Jon Whyte (Banff), Monty Reid (Drumheller), and Richard Stevenson (Lethbridge).
Children's book writers? Alberta is number one by any measure, starting with Monica Hughes and Martyn Godfrey. In and around Calgary, there's William Pasnak, Myra Paperny, Elona Malterre (who also writes historical romances), Shirlee Matheson, Hazel Hutchins, Jan Truss, and Marilyn Halvorson.
At the grass-roots level, the scene is alive with magazines (Dandelion, Blue Buffalo, Absinthe), publishing collectives (Second Wednesday), and readings (Creative Reading Series, Splits the Heard). Two bookstores sponsor public events on an almost weekly basis: Sandpiper Books (a three-store mini-chain) and Canterbury's Bookshop.
No, Calgarians are not reconciled to the closing (courtesy of the provinces second city) of the locally based Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts, much less to the savage slashing of this city's CBC-TV station (so, Toronto, how are the fancy new digs?).
Still, Calgary boasts the most active public library in the country. Year after year, it outperforms Toronto and North York and Edmonton, as 60 per cent of Calgarians borrow over nine million items annually. Trade publishers are scarce, but we do have Detselig Enterprises (16 titles a year, half of them educational) and, just up the highway, the best literary publisher in the country: Red Deer College Press.
Newspapers? Yes, the recession is hurting. But the Herald is still running its annual short-story contest (top prize, $ 1,000). And if quality's a consideration, well, in 1991 a habitual Herald book reviewer, Ross Klatte, won first prize in the personal essay category of the CBC Radio Literary Competition. He's turning that essay, "Leaving the Farm," into a book.
Look, even when it comes to book-related scandals, Alberta, if not Calgary itself, is a national contender. I'm thinking of book-banning in Manning, a town situated 470 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. Two parents returned home last year from a religious convention in California and engineered the holy-rolling removal from a local elementary school of Impressions, a reading series that uses excerpts from literary works. Bad, very bad.
Still, in the outrage-and-scandal category, I have to admit Ontario takes top honours. I mean, imagine a hubris-swollen, purportedly national newspaper that's gone so Big Business that it can no longer afford to keep a full-time book reviewer on staff. Now that's a world-class scandal.