Chain bookstores, by their nature, train servile intermittent readers
In 2002, when my essay collection When Words Deny the World was published, people started behaving strangely. Ambitious young writers scurried out of sight when I entered a room, as though afraid that irate authors might banish them from Toronto for having spoken to me. By contrast, many general readers, journalists, students and writers not resident in Toronto, and some (though definitely not all) academics expressed their support.
Strangest of all, literary agents suggested that we meet for coffee. These cups of coffee were not productive, as I had little interest in being groomed as the next imitator of Michael Ignatieff or Mark Kingwell (invariably the agent’s plan for me) and intended to continue writing novels and short stories, as I had been doing before my essays were published. But I did learn a few things. One agent asked me where I wanted to be in twenty years’ time. When I faltered in my reply, the agent said: “Of course, twenty years from now there won’t be any Canadian publishers. But there will be Canadians who write for American publishers. And I shall be representing them.”
If the agent is right, we are currently living through the dismantlement of Canadian publishing. Evidence supporting this view is not in short supply. Publishers, to survive, need bookstores. The 2004 statement of Heather Reisman, whose Chapters?Indigo chain controls 70 percent of the Canadian bookselling market, that “our goal has always been to get as close to the Wal-Mart level of excellence as we could,” suffices to tell us where our bookstores are going. The dominance of Chapters?Indigo forces independents and smaller chains to reproduce the “Wal-Mart level of excellence” in order to compete. During three quick trips to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in 2004 and 2005, I observed that the selection of books for sale in the once well-stocked and engaging stores of the McNally Robinson group was growing thinner and thinner, just like the selection in Chapters. The depleted shelves of our larger bookstores pose obvious problems, such as the omission or under-representation of literary press books, which leads to the suffocation of these presses. As the aesthetic challenge provided by the smaller presses dwindles, the big publishers’ literary standards drop: middlebrow entertainment predominates, often dressed up in pretentious pseudo-literary trappings. But the more insidious consequences of the Reisman model leave far deeper scars on our culture. In the past, a young reader who discovered a writer whose work spoke to him or her could find a thorough selection of the writer’s books on the shelf of a good bookstore. The bookstore trained new readers by presenting the full arc of writers’ careers and the evolution of the reading experience. In this way, bookstores recruited diehard readers committed to exploring life through literature. Today, a young reader who identifies with a novel by V.S. Naipaul or Nadine Gordimer (two writers I discovered in my teens) will find only their most recent book, and perhaps one other well-known title, on the shelves at Chapters. The sense of chronology, of literature itself as a narrative with its own historical trajectory, has been erased. Chapters shrinks literature to one more flashy distraction that is destined to lose the battle for the reader’s attention to television or computer games. The message, underscored by the relegation of fiction to the back of big-box stores, where candles, mugs and calendars have pride of place, is that books are of secondary importance to the primary forms of merchandising and the media. By extension, only books promoted by the media—for example, books validated by having the Oprah Winfrey stamp of approval on their covers—need command the reader’s attention. The chain bookstores, by their nature, train servile intermittent readers rather than self-directed addicts. Their dominance sets in motion a downward spiral in which every year fewer young people are inducted into the reading obsession, leading inexorably to lower and lower sales.
Plummeting sales, already a reality, will bring us eventually to the future anticipated by that literary agent. One vision of how writing might look without Canadian publishers is available via a backward glance at the 1940s, when Sinclair Ross suppressed Canadian references from As For Me and My House in order to find a publisher in the United States, and Morley Callaghan’s short stories drained Toronto of its street names and history to satisfy U.S. magazine editors with a faceless Anytown. In a nation without publishers, writers create work that does not reach its full potential by abandoning the telling detail for the convention that the metropolis expects.
In the summer of 2005 I glimpsed another version of the future when I visited Angola. From the time of its independence from Portugal in 1975 until 1990, Angola’s state-supported publishing industry was admired throughout Africa. In spite of poverty, illiteracy and civil war, books were abundant and cheap. Angolan writers became well known in Portugal and Brazil—two countries with which they shared a language—and widely translated in Europe. In 1990 the government withdrew funding; overnight the publishing industry disappeared. For almost a decade no books were published in Angola. Established writers continued to publish in Portugal, but in the absence of an indigenous industry, no new writers emerged. Only in the late 1990s, when the state publisher was revived, along with two private companies, did new literary voices begin to be heard. The fiction of the young Angolan writer Ondjaki is becoming known in both southern Africa and southern Europe, but without the resuscitation of the Angolan publishing industry he would not have a career. A nation without publishers cannot foster its own literary talent, record its distinctive experience of literary language, host aesthetic debates, thrash out its personal and collective demons, express its regional identities, teach its children their history or project its myths into the global ether. A nation without publishers loses the ability to define itself, and is destined to be defined by strangers and, ultimately, ruled by them. That is the sort of nation Canada may become.