Like Elana Rabinovitch, I’m a fan of much of Mordecai Richler’s work. But Richler was wrong about Canadians. A more accurate revision of his credo would be that when you give Canadians an apple with a razor blade inside it, they take a big bite, slash their mouths open, then deny that blood is running down their faces. For this kind of bloodletting there is no miraculous cure. We suffer from the widespread illusion that NAFTA doesn’t threaten our natural resources, that Canada supports the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and that the transition, over the last twenty years, from a literary culture developed by the public sector and small business to a corporate-dominated literary scene has made no impact on how books are selected, marketed, promoted, sold, recognized and canonized.
This is the illusion Elana Rabinovitch wants to promote. She marshals a lot of emotive language—“ravings,” “bitterness,” “screed”—but she doesn’t even try to refute my analysis of the structure of the Canadian publishing and bookselling industry. As my presentation of these issues in When Words Deny the World and the forthcoming A Report on the Afterlife of Culture makes clear, the Giller is an enlightening test case, but, contrary to Rabinovitch’s claim, I certainly don’t see it as the main event.
If the books on the banquet tables at the Giller dinner weren’t intended as party favours, the Giller organizers should have said this to the guests. I interviewed two banquet guests for my article and spoke casually to two others. Three out of four described the books as either “party favours” or “door prizes.” The version of Rabinovitch’s letter sent to Geist cuts out the sentences that earned her derisive responses when she originally posted it online: “Chapters Indigo loaned us over 200 books purely in the service of supporting and promoting Canadian literature. Their efforts should be lauded, not criticized.” As her words make evident, Rabinovitch’s allegiance to a vision that sees the future of Canadian writing as large piles of Stephen King door stoppers is unflinching.
Like most people who have had charming conversations with Lisa Moore, I was under the impression that she was on my side. Her letter reveals her alliances to be both calculated and misplaced. Like countless provincials before her, Moore hopes to seduce the metropolis by telling it what it wants to hear: in this case, that Canada’s regions still believe in the Giller. But Moore is out of touch. Lots of people in Toronto, including a number of its best-known writers, reacted with scorn to Atwood’s presentation of Lam in a year when two of her closest intimates of the last four decades, Adrienne Clarkson and Alice Munro, were on the jury. If few Toronto writers dare to go public with their skepticism, none of them are willing to look as silly as Moore does with her breathless defence of an institution that many now regard with cynicism and frustration.
Contrary to what Deirdre Laidlaw asserts and Lisa Moore suggests through her reference to Austin Clarke, there is nothing innately offensive about assessing the significance of how race is used in our culture. Indeed, it’s often essential to figuring out what’s going on. Margaret Atwood, an icon who rose on the tide of WASPish Canadian nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, is alert enough to know that she needs protegés of varied racial backgrounds if she is to remain trendy today. At the same time, Bertelsmann (which owns both Lam’s publisher, Doubleday, and a substantial slice of Atwood’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart) is aware of Asian Canadians as a booming new market. This is not a “conspiracy,” but it is a confluence of interest, and that’s enough to prompt bloodletting.